After thousands of bylines, a final column

Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Karen Heller says goodbye.

The empty nest is vastly overrated. Turns out, teenagers, especially when they are yours, are rather fun to have around, and far better conversationalists than toddlers. They make a joyful racket.

I was dreading the moment when our daughter, our younger child, left for college. I made a list of choices.

Travel more. Upend life. Acquire dog.

The dog, it appears, will have to wait.

After quite a few years and a couple of thousand bylines, this is my final column for The Inquirer.

I moved to Philadelphia for this paper, which I loved from afar the way other people long for Italy. The city made an immediate, smack-in-the-face impression. For one, there was a trash strike. Also, I knew virtually no one, two issues that were swiftly, and blessedly, rectified.

It was easy to make friends here, to be enveloped in community. The city, unlike my home of Washington, is generously cast with characters. No one inquires where you did your undergraduate work. It can take months before anyone asks what you do for a living. Neighborhoods mean everything. The food is superior, the prices saner (well, except car insurance), the subway louder.

Frankly, everything in Philadelphia is louder, sharper. Waitresses call you hon.

I love a hon. I waited my whole life to be honned.

The city became home. It has always amused me how Philadelphians, rightly proud of this region, are constantly shocked when someone opts to move here. I was born and raised in the city no one is from only to move to the place no one leaves.

The paper put me on the campaign trail, sent me to the Iowa State Fair, South America with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and twice to the Miss America pageant, which is perhaps one time too many.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, I took what will surely remain the expensive plane ride of my life, a trip from Iowa to New Hampshire on a chartered jet with Bill Bradley - plus a few beers. There was that bitter-cold night on the World's Fair grounds in Flushing, waiting with the faithful for the Virgin Mary to appear. She did not.

A few years ago, the editors asked me to try on the metro column. It was great to take a risk, to be a bit scared. Often twice a week. This was no job for the weak of stomach. There's nothing like taking a call, then being placed on hold so a governor can yell at you.

The column became a passkey to the region. The greatest privilege this paper offered was to tell the stories of those people whose lives might never have been reported, to sit on steps and courtroom benches, in hospitals and kitchens, in the visiting room at Graterford Prison with a man incarcerated for more than half a century to listen, observe, and attempt to shed light.

The Inquirer has been roiled by turbulence. This was no place for the weak. Every spring or two brought a new owner, a new plan, and, often, chaos. This fabled paper kept churning, this amazing newsroom pushing against the tide.

If life is a series of indelible moments, this job offered so many. Jose Garces shared a late, long, bilious dinner before being toqued Iron Chef. I watched Comcast founder Ralph Roberts lie on the floor of his Chester County estate struggling with his VCR. Only weeks ago, on a summer evening, the sky indigo with plumes of fuchsia, I watched Taney Little League at South Philly's Anderson rec center thwack ball after ball, the only adult present other than parents, before the team took off to become a national phenom and the summer's feel-great story.

Folks, I was paid to do this.

It is time for the next adventure, a new challenge. I leave The Inquirer to join the Washington Post, my first paper, and will roam the country as a features writer for the Style section. I will continue to spend much of my free time here, the home I happily chose.

Thank you for reading, for being there.

It has been a pleasure, a joy, a gift.

215-854-2586 @kheller