Philly: Thoughts and Recollections
May 29, 2003
The movers have come and gone, taking with them virtually all of our material belongs. Our cozy home, once cluttered with furniture, books, household appliances, computers, photographs, and all manner of bric-a-brac, is now an empty ghost-like shell of a house, mostly devoid of personality and of life. The cats walk, eyes wide with confusion, across the empty floors that are now devoid of shape and form. Voices echo throughout the open rooms like amplified speech through a megaphone. In a half-day the house will belong to someone else.
Thousands of miles away our new home awaits, though we don’t know exactly what it looks like or what street it is on or who our neighbors are or how close it is to the Pacific Ocean. These puzzle pieces will be completed in mid-June when we reach the west coast—a journey that begins at 09:00 EST June 1, 2003.
There is a peculiar irony that accompanies the selling of a home. One must first “fix it up” to make the property as enticing as possible to potential buyers. Thus, countless hours are spent polishing the wooden staircase, repainting dingy or scratched walls, cleaning every windowsill and ceiling fan blade, and in general ensuring that the house looks “pretty as a picture” (while making sure to cover over with spackle the nail hole that once held the nail that from which the picture once hung). And therein lay the irony. Every effort is spent making the property look good—for someone else. Which is why despite the pancake-sized bruises on my arms and legs, the cuts and abrasions on my fingers, palms, and forearms, the blisters on my fingers, and the ache in my lower back, the house at 4344 Freeland looks damn fine. And in twelve hours it we’ll hand over the keys to the new owners and hit the open road shortly thereafter.
And of course there is a major comic book convention in town this weekend—but more on that later.
As Di and I complete the many hundreds (no exaggeration) of final tasks necessary before beginning the tour de LA, I cannot help but feel that this departure marks the end of a chapter of my life that has encompassed the last 16 years, a chapter I’m ready to close.
My arrival in Philly in 1987 was quite unceremonious. I lived in a one-bedroom apartment in a three-story brownstone in the city’s Italian Market. The apartment had more cockroaches than San Francisco's Chinatown has noodle houses, and like most city cockroaches, the ones that shared the flat on League Street with me had developed an immunity to the chemicals used by the Terminex-terminator who visited every month. Each weekday afternoon I walked into Center City to begin work—I worked as a proofreader at the now defunct Composing Room at 841 Chestnut Street. I acquired the job through a placement agency by lying and indicating on the application form that I had previous proofreading experience (I, of course, considered it a white lie since I did proofread my college termpapers). My hours were 4:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. It was an interesting company staffed mostly by older men who’d been employed in the business of typesetting as far back as World War II. One of the nicest guys I ever had the pleasure of working with was a fellow by the name of Romeo Braccia. He was an elderly gentleman who specked type for ads. If you are unfamiliar with this rather unique skill, I’ll do my best to explain it.
Composing Room was a full-service ad house. Its clientele included the Philadelphia ABC affiliate, WPVI-TV, the DuPont Corporation, and other clients too numerous to mention. Typically, the client would be in need of camera-ready pages for an advertisement. The client would indicate a specific typeface, or font, for the ad, and it was Romeo’s job to sort through a catalog of literally thousands of typefaces and match the font. And this was in 1987—the huge volumes of fonts readily available to the Mac- and PC-using public were still impractically expensive for all but the largest of companies. So Romeo, and a few others, spent their days matching typefaces and marking-up a sheet of tracing paper that served as the dummy for the customer’s ad. The dummy was then given to a keyboard operator who would type the copy into a machine that would output the type on glossy sheets of velox paper. These sheets were then forwarded to the proofreading department where the proofreader would check the type against the customer’s original copy. Once approved, the velox sheets were forwarded to a stripper who would cut and paste the ad together.
Today, of course, this entire process can be accomplished by a lone nut with a laptop. But I seem to be digressing into an essay on the downsizing of America through technological advances which, I assure you, is not the point of this essay.
My time at Composing Room was short—about nine months. During this time, I spent many hours walking around the city—getting to know its history and architecture. I also worked a part-time job at a card and gift shop at 1700 Market Street. Nothing much to say about this job except that the shop carried the full line of Calvin and Hobbes collections (which, at that time consisted of two books) as well as a variety of Far Side compilations.
I later left the card shop and found part-time employment with Souvenir and Novelty Magazine, the offices of which were located at 69th and Market Street. The manager of the office was a bizarre little man who used to sit in his tiny office and listen out the door where the staff of four busily worked completing each issue of S&N. The office was extremely quiet. How quiet you ask? Too quiet. Eerily quiet. S&N Magazine was a specialty trade magazine that was distributed exclusively to those in the S&N business—this would include independent retailers as well as amusement park operators. It was a pathetic little tabloid, and one of my first assignments was to write articles that would appeal to the readership. While I tried to formulate story ideas, the funny little manager would periodically call each of the staff into his office at differing times throughout the day to berate them. After a week I quit the job, realizing that an extended employment with the firm would no doubt lead to liver cancer due to excessive drinking (which I’d need to do in order to work at within the confines of that facist-run sweat shop).
During this time my interest in comics became refueled—it had waned since college. But with a half-dozen comic book shops in walking distance I soon found myself sucked back into the Marvel madness—though admittedly by this time I found the offerings at DC and Eclipse much more to my liking (though I would be short-sighted to dismiss many of the great, early offerings by Marvel’s imprint, Epic Comics, such as Moonshadow and Blood: A Tale. At that time my entire collection could fit on a single bookshelf, or in a few shoe boxes. How times have changed.
After Composing Room I found work as a production manager with the medical publisher W. B. Saunders Company. My employment was largely due to my association and friendship with Chuck Gandy, who I met at Composing Room and who was a manager in the typesetting department at W. B. Saunders. Chuck is a great guy with an amazing sense of humor. He’s also an avid stamp collector with a breathtaking collection of US stamps. I met a lot of great people at Saunders, and some not so great. But those like Matt Andrews (a remarkably talented cartoonist) Dot Pollack (the quick-witted department administrator), and Megan Guendhardt made the nine-to-five grind much more tolerable.
While at Saunders I began concentrating extensively on drawing. I enrolled in several life drawing classes at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts and at the Fleisher Art Memorial. My instructors were amazing and their critiques were extremely helpful, as was drawing models from life. I began creating various pages of sequential art for strips such as Fantastic Four and Animal Man. The submission letters went out. The rejection letters rolled in. Before long, I'd decided to self-publish--the end results of which are 14 comics and graphic novels with at least one more to come this year, and a passion for writing heroic fiction (though not necessarily illustrating it).
Anyway, after a few years at Saunders I jumped ship and found employment across the street with the competition—J. B. Lippincott Company. I worked initially as a production coordinator and later as an editor. Much of the personal turmoil in my life occurred during my tenure with Lippincott, and despite the company’s motif of “no status quo” I always felt treated nicely by my managers and fellow employees—there are way too many to mention.
I feel a bit disappointed in myself at having written such a “typical” overview of my time in Philly. I’m not sure what I’d intended to write about, but having just reread the above, I don’t think I really found the mark.
Perhaps I wanted to recall unusual situations and circumstances such as the time I was walking home from Composing Room one morning around 3:00 a.m. and was assaulted by a woman with a shoe.
OR the time when a long-time employee and coworker at Saunders died suddenly of pneumonia. The company chartered a bus and about 20 of us rode to the Gray's Ferry part of town to attend the funeral services.
OR the time I locked myself out of my apartment and then had to break into the first floor of the building to look for spare keys—and consequently set off the burglar alarm. When the cops arrived I played dumb, and when the building owner arrived I got him to let me back into my place by saying that when the alarm sounded I ran out of my apartment in a panic and locked myself out.
OR the time while writing and doing layouts for ALTERCATIONS at the Strike Two bar in south Philly I was approached by two Philadelphia fireman who'd been sitting across from me at the bar for about an hour. They confiscated my layouts and explained that they'd been discussing highly confidential business and needed to be sure I hadn't been taking notes of their conversation. The older of the two, a scruffy looking Irishman explained to me that "if there is anything in here [i.e., the sketchbook] that shouldn't be, you're not walking out of here." Seeing that there was nothing incriminating, the city workers offered to buy me a beer--as if I could refuse.
OR the time when new neighbors moved into the floor below me at 2:30 a.m. and I, assuming it was a robbery in progress, phoned the police.
OR the time I ran a yellow light and was chased by cops in an unmarked car and, believing they were not police but were a pair of Malthusians intent on doing me harm, proceeded to run an additional six or seven stoplights until, yards distant, I noticed a black and white squad car. I hailed the car by flashing my vehicle’s lights off and on. When the black and white halted, I stopped my car and ran up to the officer explaining frantically that I was being “chased by crazy men!” A moment later the unmarked car—along with several other black and whites—arrived. This was followed by, “Freeze. Hands on the car, now!” How I was able to talk my way out of going to prison I’m not sure. Perhaps it was the look of frightened hysteria. Perhaps they just felt sorry for me.
OR the day of the LA riots, when walking home felt eerily frightening.
OR the day I learned about the Philadelphia architect who was stabbed in the back and killed while stepping into a cab.
OR the night I drank so much at McGlinchey’s I stepped out into the street and simply folded my knees and blacked out.
OR the night at Dirty Frank’s when I drank so much I fell to the floor while walking to the men’s room and thought to myself, “I’ve become that guy—that guy who you see at bars who is so stinking drunk he can’t stand up.”
OR the day at Penn’s Landing when, after jogging for ninety-five minutes, I lost my footing on the concrete steps and went ‘a tumbling.
OR the first date I had with Di when we stood atop the parking lot overlooking the Delaware River and kissed under a starry night.
OR the night I rode a bus back from Atlantic City and (because I’d twisted my ankle) took a cab ride home only to realize moments later that I’d lost my keys. I took another cab back to the bus station and searched the bus but did not find the keys. Then, by a stroke of luck, I found the same cab driver who’d driven me to my apartment—and sure enough the keys were in his cab. He drove me to my apartment a second time—and I paid him a second time. In 30 minutes I’d taken three cab rides and gone through all my cash.
OR the time I adopted my cat, Austin, during a snowy winter January and he followed me around my tiny studio apartment for an entire week before realizing he had a new home.
OR the day I toured City Hall and took the elevator to the observatory and photographed the city skyline from above.
OR on that same day when I phoned a company on the top floor at 1500 Market Street and told them I was a photographer with Philadelphia City Paper and could I please photo the skyline from their windows for an upcoming news story on the best office views in town.
OR the time I was interviewed for WPVI’s news magazine Prime Time Weekend (my 8.5 minutes of fame—6.5 minutes still pending).
OR the day I met Ed Rendell toward the end of his tenure as mayor and begged him to run for governor of Pennsylvania. Was it my plea that convinced him to run? Probably.
OR the day I met Robin Zander of Cheap Trick as he and bassist Tom Peterson were having lunch at Bridget Foy's on South Street and I ran home to give him a copy of an early THRESHOLD comic in which I'd attired one of main villains in a Cheap Trick cardigan. Robin also graciously autographed the Cheap Trick box set which I'd also brought along--though by this time Tom had finished lunch and vamoosed.
OR the time my car was stolen over the weekend and by the time I realized it was gone the following Monday the police had already recovered it.
OR the various times I attempted to jog across the Ben Franklin Bridge from Philly to Jersey and was struck with near-parallelizing vertigo on each occasion.
OR on September 11, 2001, as I tried to get home and sat on a crowded bus full of confused, frightened people. Sitting in gridlock traffic, I wrote Di a letter that day not knowing what was going on in the world. I never gave her the letter, and hopefully I’ll never have to.
I’ve done a lot of living in Philly. I also made a lot of mistakes and wronged a few people. But for every few mistakes, for every wrongdoing, I’m hopeful I did something right. I will likely never achieve the goals I set for myself with regard to comic book publishing, but those goals were never entirely realistic. Today my goals—and my very lifestyle—are radically different than they were 16 years ago, and that’s okay. I prefer Dave Brubeck to Dave Gahan or Dave Matthews; I’ll eat beef, pork, or chicken, provided they’re made only from soy, wheat-gluten, mushroom, or tofu; I like ‘60s and ‘70s comics better than any others; I no longer drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes; and the world does not revolve around me.
People change, often for the better—it’s one of the qualities of being human. Hopefully the changes Di and I are about to embark upon are for the better.
One last thought then off to bed: WizardWorld Philadelphia is happening this weekend. I’m hoping to stop by and say hello (and goodbye) to a few friends. I’ll be the one looking bruised and battered but nonetheless enthusiastic. Hope to see you there.