It’s fun to watch Austin, Texas, and Portland, Oregon, debate who’s weirder. Both cities—bastions of progressive ideas in (mostly) conservative states—have “Keep Austin Weird” and “Keep Portland Weird” stickers to drive the point home. But no matter how much they try, they can’t out-weird a city that hardly notices its quirks.
That’s Philadelphia, the original American weird. A different type of weird.
“That’s only the second time I’ve heard that,” says Robert Hicks, host of the No Bones About It video series at Philadelphia’s superb Mütter Museum, home to a famously eccentric collection of medical oddities and a gift shop that sells conjoined twin cookie cutters. “And the first was from David Lynch.”
I’m not sure how to feel about that.
In the 1967, the writer/director of films like Blue Velvet studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which opens a first-ever retro of Lynch’s artwork this September. When I press, Hicks recounts how Lynch told him, over cocktails, that “Philadelphia informed all the weirdness of his films.”
That doesn’t surprise me. After all, only Philadelphia has a sinking “Bermuda Triangle” neighborhood of cleared-out blocks and closed-off roads, a pre-colonial cult cave preserved by its park system, and a dead saint resting in a glass case at an active cathedral pulpit. It hosts Mischief Night, where tossing eggs at homes is relatively acceptable, and celebrates New Year’s with ale and cake during a Bourbon Street–worthy Mummers Parade. The first of the Toynbee tiles, enigmatic street art about resurrections on Jupiter, originated in Philadelphia asphalt. And the most famous Philadelphian is actually a Bostonian and one of the greatest oddballs in American history: Ben Franklin.
Weird is relative, of course. For some, it’s a zany nude bike ride. For others, it’s keeping things. Like, oh, a big bucket of old teeth saved by a dentist in a top hat.
The Kornberg School of Dentistry, on the Temple University campus ten or so metro stops north of downtown, has a dental museum that covers 200 years of American dental history within earshot of real live root canal drills. Peeking at 19th-century tools like Chevalier drills, horn-swaging mallets, and barbed nerve extractors is more interesting than I expected. Plus, who knew that Paul Revere was a dentist?
The museum’s claim to fame, however, centers on “Painless Parker,” or Edgar Parker, a “flamboyant huckster” dentist who studied here and died in 1952. If he had tweeted, it would have been as @NomadicDentist, as he traveled with a circus troupe and staged open-air, public-view extractions for half a buck. And he kept what he plucked. (His 357-tooth necklace hangs above far more teeth in a bucket, the spoils from his career.)
“He was quite a marketer,” Sarah Gray, an associate dean who arranges free visits, says dryly.
Back toward downtown, the Free Library of Philadelphia keeps Charles Dickens’ favorite bird, a raven named Grip, in its rare books section. It’s here because Grip inspired Edgar Allan Poe, who met Dickens while living briefly in Philadelphia, to write “The Raven.” On 11 a.m. daily tours, anyone can see it, sitting across from a tiny framed tombstone for Dick, Dickens’ canary.
“Dickens really, really liked birds,” explains librarian Caitlin Goodman, who tweets as @GripTheRaven for the department “because I’m the youngest person here.”
Apparently tweeting for a bird requires extra attitude.
“Look at that arrogant little beak,” Goodman says at the case. “That chin lifted that way. Grip was a jerk, you know. He bit Dickens’ children.”
Her open office is shared with three librarians, with old card catalog decks and stacks of old books piled on their tables. Another librarian, Joseph Shemtov, is in charge of Poe-related artifacts.
“I’m not going to allow you to see the manuscript of ‘The Raven,’” he announces suddenly.
I nod and change the subject to Poe’s likeness to John Wilkes Booth. Shemtov says, “People say I look like Poe.” Goodman does a quick search, to compare likenesses, and notes how hot Booth was. “Sorry Joseph, but you’re no Booth.”
Shemtov turns to me and reverses course. “OK, I’m going to let you see it.”
In a couple of minutes, wearing gloves, he brings out the original of Poe’s “Raven,” and a copy in Poe’s clean cursive handwriting, which I read under the watchful gaze of Grip the jerk. During a tour of the site, I overhear Shemtov cheerfully showing a parchment made because “they killed a cute calf.”
“Philadelphia is definitely an odd place. I wish it were odder,” says Sean Kelley, who plans events for a neo-Gothic prison that spookily fills 14 acres in the nearby neighborhood of Fairmount. “Traveling around the states, you start to feel cities are blending together.”
The Quaker-inspired Eastern State Penitentiary, which uniquely housed inmates in isolation from its opening in 1829 to 1971, opened as a tourist site a couple of decades ago. Al Capone’s old cell is here, while many others—purposely—remain in ruins. “We had to wear hard hats here until 2003,” Kelley says.
Arriving here, a groundhog passes by me on the sidewalk outside—near a boutique, bar, café, bike rental place. I’m not surprised by anything anymore. I’m here to catch Karl Jenkins of the Roots perform songs from his new album The New Jim Crow, as part of the Searchlight Series to discuss crime and justice in America. We sit in the sun in the baseball field, as Jenkins raps in front of the site’s new Big Graph, a powerful 3-D chart that physically shows the sharp rise in the number of prisons in America. Wonderful.
Could this be anywhere but Philadelphia, I’m starting to wonder. A mix of unique history held on to, but positioned into relevancy today.
Across town, in Northern Liberties, I hear loud chatter behind a block-long modern condo, and walk through an alley to find “the piazza,” a (slightly) Italian-style public place surrounded by restaurants and bars. A baseball game plays on a big screen on the wall of a former brewery.
“Maybe it’s Philadelphia’s middle sibling attitude,” says Tommy “Up” Updegrova, who runs PYT burgers here. “We’re between D.C. and New York, arguably the two most important cities in the country.” He adds, “It’s very liberating, really.”
The Doh! Nut burger features chocolate-covered bacon served on two glazed-donut buns. This week’s special, the “hot pocket,” is made of “an outpouring of emotion, geared toward rage.” As Updegrova puts it, there’s “no burger police” saying they can’t.
I mention how odd I find it that many Philadelphians don’t seem to find anything odd about how odd their city is. For one, Philadelphia’s a serious pack rat, keeping old things like plucked teeth or tons of old shoes. Or allowing a real “mob softball league” to play in South Philly. Or naming a street after pigeon droppings. (Seriously, it’s endless.)
“If you live here, it’s not weird. It’s normal,” says Updegrova, who matter of factly mentioned seeing a raccoon eating a dead possum by a red light last New Year’s Eve.
“That’s just Philadelphia.”