First Friday in Old City, 2006

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The first essay I ever published was on Philadelphia’s first First Friday, a monthly arts event that celebrates its 30th anniversary this week.

In many ways, it was a new start for the city, and for myself. First Fridays in Old City helped spawn a sense of community and growth in the city’s arts and culture scene, which are now much more widely dispersed.

The winter of 1994 was icy. I was a senior English major at Temple University, and had recently ventured out of my parents’ house to share a trinity in South Philadelphia. I had a job at Temple’s Institute on Disabilities, but continued to shuttle back and forth to Northeast Philly to pick up weekend shifts at a popular corner store named Joe’s Deli, where I had worked in high school.

During that cold winter, and that hectic time in my life, the experience of an evening hopping through galleries and meeting other creative people was striking.

I decided I had to write about it, specifically for The Inquirer’s Sunday magazine, which was an all-color, full-blown print product. The magazine’s “Upfront” section featured occasional first-person essays, which I always looked forward to reading. I had made a study of my favorites, sketching diagrams and taking notes with an eye toward submitting my own one day.

I don’t remember any of those articles now, but I do remember being struck by the voices in them. I could hear flinty, funny, sad, strange, sweet — sometimes all in one essay!

I remember writing my First Friday piece and mailing it into The Inquirer with a self-addressed stamped envelope. Very soon, a few weeks later, I got a response.

The acceptance letter was bare bones: “Thank you for submitting your essay, we would like to publish it.”

One sentence — that was it.

I almost didn’t believe it. I told my mom and dad, and a few people I worked with at Temple. They were all excited for me. “Congratulations, you got published blindly over the transom,” my friend Larry Pace said. (I found out later that’s a phrase used when an unsolicited article gets published.)

On the day the piece came out, I was working my shift at Joe’s. Five stacked bundles of the Sunday paper sat in the deli, but I didn’t tell anyone about it.

It hit hardest when Joe himself stopped by the store that day. It was a Sunday, his day off, but I remember that we talked, because when it came time to tell him about my article, my mind and body were just spinning.

To paint the picture, Joe’s default setting was to yell. For example, if you were making an Italian hoagie too slowly or too carefully, he’d slap you on the back of the head and shout: “C’mon Picasso! What the hell are you doing? You’re not painting the Sistine Chapel; you’re making a sandwich.” Everybody loved Joe and he loved us, but he could blow his top for any or no reason at all.

One part of me wanted to tell everyone that day, but I felt that I would be laughed at or ridiculed. I chickened out. It’s a familiar story. Now that I had gone to college, Did I think I was better than everyone else? Of course I didn’t. I just felt strongly it was a good idea to not talk about it.

In two more years, I would leave Philadelphia to start a creative writing program at Brooklyn College. It would take me years before I could process and grapple with such feelings.

Now I see that writing the piece and going out to First Fridays were both the start of lines out to another life.

The author and friend Ted Casterline at a First Friday art opening in Old City, circa 1994 Credit: Courtesy Thomas Devaney

It’s a story echoed by some others who were making the rounds in Old City. The events not only made the city more vibrant, they brought people together. I made one new friend Ted Casterline, who went to Tyler School of Art. He was part of the Vox Populi collective gallery, where I would end up spending a lot of time. And we have been friends ever since.

I never loved the title the paper gave my essay: “I Like to Watch.” My own title for the piece was “Gallery Going.”

Rereading it now (which you can do here), I still don’t fully believe it, but I also cherish it. I am grateful that a part of my own new beginnings overlapped with a part of the city discovering itself, a part that continues to thrive.

Thomas Devaney is the author of Getting to Philadelphia and writer/co-director of the film Bicentennial City. He teaches creative writing at Haverford College and also works at Drexel’s Lindy Institute...