A few weeks ago, I asked some friends what really made someone a Philadelphian. Was it being born in the 215 area code (which I immediately rejected because then, I wouldn’t qualify having spent my first month in Baltimore). Was it living your entire life within a brief commute of Center City? Was it loving the city, even if you’re a transplant?
I got a lot of good answers, but the one that really made sense to me was this: If you were a child in Philadelphia, and got your Easter outfit at Wanamaker’s, ate “wooder ice” and dangled your feet from a boardwalk bench in Sea Isle City, you were a Philadelphian.
If you remembered the shape and scent of Connie Mack, or the shape and scent (God help you, poor thing) of the Vet, or the shape and ear-piercing sounds from the Spectrum, you were a Philadelphian.
If your first words were strained through a sifter of mangled dipthongs and massacred consonants, you were a Phulluffian.
If you hated Frank Rizzo, or loved Frank Rizzo, but just so long as you knew who Frank Rizzo was, you were a Philadelphian.
And most importantly, if you grew up watching television in the mornings before school, or rushed home and, before you even slipped off that uniform and tackled your homework, turned the TV back on for a few surreptitious moments and saw Gene London, Chief Halftown, Sally Starr, Captain Noah or if you had a macabre streak, Dark Shadows, you were a Philadelphian.
By that metric then, I am fully and eternally a Philadelphian, and I am in mourning, because Pixanne passed away on Saturday. I had to look up her real name, the one her parents gave her: Jane Norman. I always knew her as the beautiful, ethereal, airborne spirit of the Magic Forest, so the name came as a bit of a shock, even though it was sweet and lovely and solid. That’s because ethereal wood sprites don’t have sweet, solid names like Jane. Who knew?
When I was a child, I would watch her dance through the forest, not knowing it was a television studio on City Line Avenue, miles from my Logan home. If you’d asked me how to get there, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that it was somewhere off the Schuylkill Expressway or down the Roosevelt Boulevard. I would have said you needed to close your eyes, sing a song, wave your arms and the magic of my friend Pixanne would transport you there, to that elusive zip code where children were masters and miracles happened with the frequency of rainfall.
When you grow up in a city like Philadelphia, where so many of the residents grow up, grow old and die within a small, tight radius, the memories are visceral. They do not fade into the mists of vagueness for lack of telling and a scarcity of people to tell them to. If you are a Philadelphian, and have remained in Philadelphia or have remained in touch with Philadelphians, you share those memories over and over again, and gain strength from the retelling. We are who we are, because of who we were.
That may sound like a lot of tautologies and syllogisms, a lot of new age gobbledygook. But I can tell you that it really is the truth. Someone like Pixanne, someone who I never met but came so close to seeing with my own four, failing eyes, was as much a part of me as if she were an aunt I’d see at family baptisms and birthdays. She made her mark on me as surely as if she’d drawn her “P” on my upper arm like the round circle of the vaccination we all got in the 1960s. he was my angel, my guide to a place where butterflies answered to “Flippy,” owls were named “Oggy” and there were approachable witches named “Windy.” She also accounted for my first concussion.
One day, I decided to emulate Pixanne, who would dance among the trees with her tiny white pennant. I rummaged through our Logan home for a white hankie, attached it to a Ticonderoga pencil fished from my schoolbag, and started running through our living room with my own pennant. I was so entranced, and so certain that I could fly like Pixanne that I ran smack dab into the banister at the foot of the stairs.
The stars I saw were not the ones that twinkled over the Magic Forest.
The thing about being a child in Philadelphia in the 1960s is that the people you encountered on the other side of a television screen, were real. It sounds corny, and of course it is, but in the days before social media and reality shows, we exercised our imagination muscles. And so, we were able to imagine that these magnificent creatures in their Quigley Mansions, on their Arks, at their corrals, on their reservations and in their enchanted grove of trees were family.
For Philadelphian children, they were. And so I mourn, we mourn, the passing of family. Sleep peacefully, sweet Pixanne.