Aughts Philly : The Missing Year


I watched President Obama’s victory speech from Dirty Frank’s at 13th and Pine with a few friends. It was quiet in the bar; you could’ve heard a pin drop; and I was anticipating something, and someone, extraordinary. We all were; and when all we got was a bunch of tired, crass, generalized clichés, we made (I noticed then) a silent collective decision not to notice it. Broad Street was crazy that night— everyone was out celebrating. Aughts Philly had its levels of oddity and irony, one of which was that, for all our joie de vivre, the Republican regime in control of Washington and its attendant media juggernaut was a continual, joy-inhibiting bummer for us. Obama was supposed to deliver us into a new, politically liberated era; yet, that November night in ’08, I feared the worst— that we were looking at a different version of the same corruption and complacency, and that the change which had come to America was none at all. Obama, indeed, was perfunctory that night; and Dirty Frank’s and Broad Street were perfunctory for me, too. It was the culminating moment of my, and our, strangest Aughts year (2008); one which passed without a sense of distinction, and with a sense of Aughts Philly in general drifting out of focus and towards the sense of stalemate which ushered in the Teens. If I linger on 2008 now, it’s because I’m fascinated by my own inability to pin it down, define it, give it a determinate shape the way I can all the other Aughts years, including the 2009 which followed from it.

Among other things, it is the year I came closest to actual alcoholism (thus catching up, finally, to Mike, Nick, and Jeremy); my life at Temple was so full of drudgery and thankless compromises that just to get through the nights which followed the days, I’d have to knock back several Jack and Cokes. Some of the pictures taken of me at the time show me looking uncharacteristically soggy and fish-faced.When I moved, that summer, from 21st and Race to 23rd and Arch, it was a down-sized and down-sizing move; the new flat had low ceilings, a rancid view of parking lots, and I felt claustrophobic in it. Mary and I had broken up again in late ’07; yet we couldn’t get out of each other’s pockets, and when she showed her Eden portrait of us at PAFA that spring, I was very proud. I was also amused that the portrait seemed to suggest me on solid, balanced ground and Mary falling all over herself— that’s not how I felt. Abs was still showing on First Fridays and elsewhere, but she was off my radar at the time— I hadn’t yet noticed that she’d transformed herself into a first-rate artistic genius. She was also, I later discovered, flailing on other levels. Jeremy had disowned me completely— and when he began a reading series in ’08 called “Toiling in Obscurity” with some U of Arts foundlings, and affixed the tag-line “even our minor accomplishments are overshadowed by our utter anonymity,” I could sense there was a strange and ghastly crescendo issuing from all Philly Free School sides. Jenny Kanzler consolidated all these snafus in my conversations with her then.

When I think of my own 2008 as a complete gestalt entity, including risky affairs I had going at the time, I think of Aughts Philly starting to go cock-eyed— yet, everyone was still in the bars and in the streets, and a sense of isolation didn’t seem to be a problem yet. 2008 was my first adult “bridge year,” with, in it, a sense of the liminal and of blinkered confusion. I wrote "Chimes" as I was moving that summer, in a great deal of emotional pain from the necessity of reliving my childhood, and with a sense of foreboding about what awaited me at Temple that fall; by which time, Otoliths was putting out "When You Bit..." and, as usual for that era, the reaction online was intense, while the crooked, vituperative Philly poetry scene continued to cold-shoulder me. That Philadelphia poetry world— of clowns, impostors, and henchmen— was not intriguing to me on any level. I was, as of '08, still having better luck with Chicago, both online and in the flesh. The stint I did at Loyola that summer is a case in point. One night, on returning to Logan Square from a reading in South Philly, I was mugged at gunpoint, and had my wallet stolen. My assailant actually stuck the pistol into my ribcage— yet, I had an intuition he wouldn’t shoot me. The whole year was jagged— I even (if you can believe this) saw an identifiably angelic being on 21st Street one July afternoon. If ’08 needs to be remembered distinctly for how non-distinct it was in the run of major Aughts Philly years, its because the weird evanescent character it has will remain frozen forever in what we created and disseminated that year. The most important facet of ’08 for me personally is that it is the last of my Mary years— one in which we were together, at least in spirit. After ’08, we kept in touch, but things could never be the same again between us. To see that cycle of death and rebirth turning, with some hindsight, is as terrible and beautiful as it was to live the agonies, ecstasies, and convulsions of the first time through.