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If You've Gotta be a Shoalin, It's Good to Be Philadelphian

As a Philadelphian, I can relate to the New York envy I felt growing up. After a tumultuous journey with my mother, I discovered a newfound appreciation for the Jeep Wrangler, a vehicle that has become a symbol of survival and passion. Through my travels, I've learned to be comfortable with who I am, no matter where I go.

Discovering My Love of Jeeps and the Strength to Stand Up for Myself in the City of Brotherly Love.

By Michael Levin

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Sometimes you hate where you are: the physical space you’ve been cast into, the body you’ve been cast into, the lot in life you’ve been cast into. It’s not all under your control. You can’t control your DNA or the circumstances of your birth. If you have any feeling of responsibility towards others in your life such as children, you can’t always even help where you live.

And it can be hateful, awful stuff. The vibe of impatience, arrogance and over-compensation for being a New Yorker without without being able to feel any of the cool that’s supposed to go with it, like that Manhattanites or Brooklynites feel, might be flung at you like a sudden cut-off in traffic. If you dare make eye-contact, you see some self-satisfied person looking at you as if in a great personal triumph, like they scored a point in a sport.

Where I live is not my vibe, no-sirree! Were I not a Philadelphian, I might even find it intimidating. As a Philadelphian, I can at least relate. I mean hey, good ‘ol city of brotherly love has at least one world-class everything. One world-class restaurant, one world-class museum, one world-class university, I mean hey, we’ve got it all. That place that has 20 of each of those things is a whole 2-hour drive away. And that’s if you encounter traffic.

No, it was never any big deal to come to New York. I started doing it when I was 16, taking 30th Street Station to Penn Station, after riding my bike to the Norristown R6 across the street from Spring Mill Elementary School. I’d lock my bike up and take that into the city, then switch to Amtrak which took me to New York. My parent’s didn’t much know and I instinctively didn’t much tell them. I think they knew I made it to Philly, but not New York, and it might have been one of those “so long as you do it with a friend and stay safe” things.

Those friends were Robbie Nelson and Frank Sessa, the former I’m still in touch with, and the later has sadly already passed on. And just to be clear, this was the 1980’s, when the city was a lot more dangerous and cell phones didn’t exist. And we didn’t really do much in New York except pat ourselves on the back for making it, then turning around after realizing what a shitshow it was.

The New York envy I felt was a sort of Stan Lee-induced comic book thing, for I am not cultured, no sirree! Not in the least. I’m abrasive and candid and tell you what I feel. I’m not a South Philly tough guy, or even an Eagles fan. But something about that city gets under your skin, like the immense pride I felt upon learning Edgar Allen Poe was a Philadelphian, at least for 6 years. But not Rocky because if you try to lay claim to that, a New Yorker is going to take insane glee in knocking you down with the fact that Stallone is a New Yorker. No, not just any New Yorker will take glee in that. A native New Yorker of the kinds I share the road with.

I drive a big red jeep. It’s an Jeep Wrangler, which is not quite the coolest of old school that kicked the Nazi’s asses and liberated Poland, but rather the newer “unlimited” 4-door model that’s a bit more family-friendly. There’s substories here about how I discovered and feel in love with big red jeeps after my first 10-years with “the wrong” big red truck, a Nissan Pathfinder. Nissan started out as Datsun, which was pretty cool, but then starting with the Altima, the brand became for douche bags. I unfortunately may have been one of those douche bags until I got my ass out of the terrible situation thrust upon my by my father’s death and my mom’s descent into madness.

One protects ones self with the color red. It projects passion, and perchance blood. It’s natures indication that the thing is both ripe and ready to have its seeds spread through consumption and poo-distribution, and that it could possibly be poisonous and kill you. Passion and danger are often intertwined, and I felt that when I got my first new vehicle after my dad’s passing, the big red Pathfinder.

When my mother disappeared for the first time, back in 1996 when I was working in Virginia for Scala, and I put my life on hold and went to “rescue” her and finally found her in Mexico and coerced her back to the United States, she promptly ditched me, hit her bank accounts, bought an even cooler old-school little red Wrangler, and drove off into the sunset, me thinking I’d never see her again. I didn’t think I’d ever want to see a red wrangler again.

Now you might say, Mike if she was an adult and was travelling and wanted it that bad, why didn’t you just let her? It’s because Mexican the emigration official told me that if he saw my mother again San Felipe, she was going to Mexican prison and would not survive. I was told to get her out of the country or she would be dead.

I used the Mexico’s emigration department’s desire for me to take her out of the country to recruit their help, which they did right up to the Tijuana border, where I made him explain to the border guard why we had this crazy old lady with us who was trying to jump out of a moving vehicle and make a break for it in the desert. I think most people would have just let her go, and maybe I should have. But I didn’t because I felt I was responsible for her, and perhaps even saving her life. My sister told me she wouldn’t even have helped her this first time.

I learned many of life’s lessons during this time, such as how Reagan dumped the crazies onto the streets, and if you’re not actively attacking a cop and under the 3-day evaluation period, you’re effed. Up shit’s creek without a paddle if you don’t have family-members looking out for you, and my mother had nobody but me. Her brothers made noise like they were going to help, but were basically useless lumps, one playing Lex Luther to the other one’s Hugh Hefner. Neither any help, and no surprise after my mom’s story of being their tennis-ball target through her whole childhood. People get effed up, they aren’t born that way, and sibling cruelty is some of the worst.

Fast-forward many years. After my mother’s second disappearance and reappearance and a barrage of mystery-calls and whereabouts-clues clearly being broadcast at me, I cut my ties. I’d been derailed in life enough by dying dads throwing life-threatening situations on me (another story) and nutty moms in some sort of “rescue-me-again” game. I drew lines in the sand and cried every time I thought about the red-armor I was throwing up to protect myself emotionally.

Then she got cancer. It was diagnose late-stage and she was a goner. I had a child and a life by this time, so I figured we’d go for a visit. The car rental place asked me if I wanted to upgrade to a Wrangler. I was like “sure”, trying to make the experience as pleasant as possible for my then-wife and my baby who I dragged along for support. And we went out to the car lot. And it was red. I didn’t even remember what a Wrangler was before that instant. The experience of my mother driving off into the sunset in one of those, the last time I had seen her, came flooding back.

And I owned it. I made the experience as pleasant for my family as I could, and I quietly registered I liked jeeps after all. This was much better than my old Pathfinder, and it was American (or American enough), and it had this rich history of being a war hero. By the time I was ready to buy a car again, because Manhattanites don’t need cars, Jeep had passed through the hands of the Germans, raising its quality even higher, and then into the hands of the Italians, making it better still. As a Jew, there is a message of diaspora and survival in that. I bought a big bright red Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, and I love it.

There could be nothing better than driving around a suburban town full of impractical jokers trying to cut you off in traffic who think they’re New Yorkers, but are really New Jerseyans paying taxes to the wrong city. I make no eye contact and I do breathing exercises. I thank the Lord for podcasts and audiobooks. I let them cut me off and enjoy their deep, deep satisfaction the way I entertained my big, fat Sammy-cat who constantly overcompensated for his tinnier body-frame than his brother Billy by bossing everyone around. I mean hey, if that’s what makes a fat cat feel good, who am I to deny them their little pleasures in life? It’s no loss to me. My pride comes from a very different place than who’s one or two cars ahead of who at the next stoplight.

Now I’m not saying everyone from this island is terrible. I’ve met some of the most wonderful people I know on, and who are from here. I met someone the other day with my same last name as myself who was from here originally and works for the same company as me. And I hit it off great with many people I meet. But my long-hair hippie appearance doesn’t play well here. I’m a pushover softie hipster on the wrong side of the Verrazzano Bridge in their eyes. I get the feeling if I weren’t in a big red jeep and subconsciously projecting “Philly” at them with my driving style, I’d have been run off the road by now.

Projection much, Mike? Okay, yeah I’ve got New York envy. But I’m 15 years in the city now, with the exception of the jaunt into the Poconos when ground-zero became potentially, and perhaps highly likely ground-zero again. A wise move if you ask me, leaving when I did and coming back when I did. I love New York and I want to be here if I can be. Just maybe not on this island, because I feel the same disgust for the people who live here as I did for the people in the burbs around me growing up, the big pretentious houses and the obvious competition between all the Joneses, showing off how much bigger their Roman columns were than the next guy’s. I can’t stand that I am that.

Maybe someday I’ll end up in Portland. Still too pretentious but in a different way you say? Never been there, so I can’t say. I’ll go visit. Then there’s that lovely little town of Nederlands in Colorado where I drive the Red Wrangler with my baby and wife for a final goodbye to my dying mother. Or maybe San Felipe, Mexico that town who threatened to kill my mother if s ever came back. But most likely, I’ll get myself a fuel-free Aptera vehicle and drive the US, Canada and Mexico never having to stop for gas, and never even having to plug it into recharge.

No matter where you go, you never get away from yourself so the most important thing is to be comfortable with who you are. Ultimately then, you can be comfortable wherever you are. All you have to do is sound-proof your windows against the people leaning on their horns, the straight-pipe mufflers and the sirens and everyone shouting at each other, and it’s like you’re anywhere else in the world.