Apologia: Race and Vine ('13)

Not all places and times deserve to be memorialized. If Philadelphia in the Aughts is a place and time which does deserve to be memorialized, it is because a unique spirit and ethos proliferated there. It had something to do with arts and culture, something to do with sex, and something to do with an essential looseness just settling in Philly, in the streets and bars. It was a loose enough place and time to almost seem disjointed, for those of us attuned to this zeitgeist. It’s not like Philly in the Aughts got any hype as a “Swinging London” level hotspot; all the ferment and sultriness was a secret (and the down-bound, jealous Philly press corps was eager to keep it that way). But the Philly bohemians of the Aughts were more unconstrained in our endeavors for our secret status. No one seemed to mind being a secret, either. Many of the best narratives from Philly in the Aughts were secret. Many of us led double and triple lives; some of us were forced by circumstances to do so. The four narratives included here, all based in Philadelphia in the Aughts and early teens, focus on secrets being unearthed.

“Feel: An Elegy for Our Times” is a cri de couer meant to speak (however quixotically) for all of us. The template, Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” is dusted off and given a fatalistic, rather than an anodyne, ending. “Letters to Dead Masters” is an epistolary novel written from a fictional café called the Grind; the focus is on minute incidents and daily life, rather than incantatory passion and epic scope. The letters which comprise the novel, addressed to English Romantics Byron, Shelley, and Keats, explore the gulf between creative imagination and practical imperatives. They also delve into social mores and the structuring of social contexts in Philly. “A Poet in Center City” is more transcendental; it concerns the developments of social and artistic life around a protagonist based more than loosely on myself. The crux and highlight of the book is its portrayal of the Philly Free School; specifically, the relationship between the four founding fathers of the Free School, and the daily congeries of circumstances which created this relationship. It’s a narrative of troubled brotherhood. “Trish” is a story of unbridled sexuality and romance; it speaks to the core of what made Philadelphia in the Aughts unique. Convention doesn’t ascribe any particular romance to Philadelphia; but it was a city of romance for us. The romance was unselfconscious, and uncalculated; it wasn’t generated by images, but by flesh. That essential triumph, of flesh and blood over images, was one we savored, without ever quite knowing what or why we were celebrating. The celebratory streak Philadelphia had in the Aughts was sometimes subtle, sometimes overt. The biggest Philly Free School shows made it difficult to deny that something unusual was happening in Philadelphia. But the spirit of the times, the zeitgeist, was personal, as well as public. We all, for a few years, allowed each other to have a heart and a soul. We didn’t realize how rare it was for this mutual permission to be granted. If I am allowed any sway, no one in the arts will be able to forget this development any time soon.