Philadelphia: Where the One-Eyed Man is King

by Jamison Koehler on January 30, 2010

My wife does not read this blog.  I understand.  She’s busy.  Friends or family will tell her they enjoyed something they read on the blog and she will smile and thank them, but she really has no clue what they are talking about.

I showed her my website when it first went up last fall.  Yes, dear, it looks very nice.  But, to the best of my knowledge, she has never been on this blog.   Not once.  This means that I can talk about her behind her back.  It means I can post her photo without her knowing about it.

My wife used to be a mini-celebrity when we were in Philadelphia.  It wasn’t because she was lead counsel for some high-profile human rights cases:  torture of the Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the shooting of innocent Iraqi citizens by Blackwater.  No, her claim to fame in Philadelphia was that she had been Mayor Michael Nutter’s campaign counsel.  Because in Philadelphia, people only think about things in Philadelphia terms.  As far as I can tell, the outside world has absolutely no relevance to the people of Philadelphia.

Even when the Philadelphia papers covered her – and they were way behind national papers – there was always a local slant to the article.  This is where her office is.  These are her associates and these are the Philadelphia law schools her associates went to.  And, oh, by the way, she is suing the contractors who tortured Iraqis in Abu Ghraib.  Other papers covered the cases.  Philadelphia papers covered her.  Philadelphia-lawyer does this. Philadelphia-lawyer does that.

This is because people in Philadelphia tend to think of everything in life in purely local terms.  You can be standing on Market Street and ask somebody if they are from here, meaning Philadelphia the city.  Oh no, the person would say.  I’m from South Philly.  Or from West Philly.

That said, I miss the city.  We were there for 7 years before moving back to D.C.

A couple of years ago, a national survey came out that named Philadelphia as the number one city for ugly people.  Most people were offended.  I was pleased.  After all, as the cliché goes, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

Another study suggested that only 15% of the people in Philadelphia have a college degree.  Again, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

People in Philadelphia also have a national reputation for surliness and rudeness.   While I was not present at Veterans’ Stadium for the famous booing of Santa Claus many Christmas’ ago, something I read about all the time, I have been present at many booings – former Philly athletes in town with another team, the person singing the national anthem, the mascot, the cheerleaders.  The first time I went to a Phillies game, the guy sitting next to me had to serve as my guide.  And why are we booing now?

Our Former House on The Oak Road

You are also far more likely to get into a verbal altercation with another pedestrian or motorist on a Philadelphia street than in any other city in which I have lived.  At the same time, as I came to learn, there was usually very little animosity in the exchange and it was just as likely to devolve into good-natured ribbing as a fist fight.  People tell it like it is, but they don’t get too emotionally caught up in it.

I also miss the hustle-and-bustle of the Criminal Justice Center on Filbert Street:  the pushing to get into an elevator and the shouting in the hallways.

It was in that very building that I decided I wanted to do criminal law at the state level. I was spending the summer after my first year in law school as an intern at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.  For hours and hours, I sat in on the formal, staid federal courtrooms as the procedures moved along at a snail’s pace.

One day they took all of the interns on a one-day field trip to the Criminal Justice Center.  We were getting out of the elevator when a police office and a family member of a defendant got into a shoving match.  We went into one of the courtrooms and the judge was excoriating the assistant district attorney for incompetence because, well, the assistant district attorney didn’t seem to have any idea what he was doing.  Even I could tell that, and I was just an intern.

Ahh, I thought.  In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.  This is where I need to practice criminal law.

3 Comments on “Philadelphia: Where the One-Eyed Man is King

  1. As you know, Jamie, provincial attitudes are not restricted to Philly. I was at a party in our east side suburb of Detroit, speaking with a “transplant” from Rochester. “I heard that it’s pretty snowy there,” I remarked. She looked at me strangely. “It’s pretty much the same as here,” she said. Later, I realized she was talking about the suburb north of Detroit, not the city in NY.

  2. “As far as I can tell, the outside world has absolutely no relevance to the people of Philadelphia.”

    This is so harsh and unfair. Not every city is the nation’s capital. People pay more attention to local news in DC too, only their heads swell up with importance because their local news happens to be national and international news. National politics have a more direct impact on your life if you live in Washington DC, and it is infinitely easier to care about things that effect you. You guys feel superior because you pay more attention to the “outside world” than all those uneducated people in Philadelphia, but really you are just paying attention to your own city.

    The world of Philadelphia might be a little bit smaller than the world of DC, but that is no reason to mock Philadelphians for taking their own world seriously. Philadelphia is not the land of the blind.

  3. Laura: My apologies to you and to anyone else who may have been offended by the condescending tone I take in this blog entry toward Philadelphia. I was just trying to write something interesting and amusing. To right the wrong, how about if I offer you space on this site to write something with your own impressions of the city? Or, for that matter, anything else that might interest you?

    P.S. You sound a lot like my daughter.

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