Philadelphia is a funny place. It’s a huge international city, a major communication and transportation hub, home to first-rate colleges and universities, major league sports teams, and magnificent buildings – high-rise corporate headquarters, stadiums and arenas, fabulous entertainment venues, and museums.
It’s also Mayberry, small town America. Many Philadelphians live and die in their neighborhood, never leaving town – except for weekends “down the shore,” and maybe a stint in the military. Some old-school Philadelphia Catholics still refer to parts of the city by church parish. Cops identify the neighborhood by police district; firemen by the engine company local.
We’re unique. We’ve got food that you can’t get anywhere else: Tastykakes, cheesesteaks, hoagies (other guys imitate us, but the original’s still the greatest!); The Mummers Parade (don’t ask. It would take too long to explain, and you wouldn’t believe it, anyway); and a local accent that must be heard to be fully appreciated (unlike our neighbors farther up the Northeast Corridor, Philadelphians can handle the letter “R”).
The city informs my writing. I’ve lived here for most of my life, and worked for the city as a firefighter for thirty years. I’ve worked every neighborhood, ridden the streets, run the alleys.
Firemen see people on the worst day of their lives. Crucial to my fiction, I have seen the results of bad intentions. I’m often struck by the pathetic nature of real crime. Arson is the leading cause of fire deaths, but neither cold-blooded professionals nor depraved lunatics are responsible for most arson fires. Most are set by someone angry with a neighbor, or jealous of their boyfriend, or they turn out to be set by people that want a little insurance money to remodel their kitchens with. Theft is much the same. Most burglars steal from people they know. Most stick-up men rob convenience stores.
Like politics, all crime is small town crime, no matter how spectacular it may sound. We have in Philadelphia a twenty-year Congressman who is currently under indictment. The man is alleged to have stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars from his own campaign funds. This is one of the most powerful men in the country, and he will probably go to prison. He stole the money to buy a car, and to go on vacation, and other things like that.
These crimes might sound funny if they weren’t so sad. Philadelphia’s most notorious murder is of a policeman, Officer Daniel Faulkner, in 1981. More than thirty years later, his murder continues to make international news. It started with a traffic stop. Danny was twenty-five years old.
Life in Philadelphia inspires the theme that I most like to explore in my stories: how one small action – a fistfight, a losing bet, or a stolen overcoat – can touch so many lives.
Tony Knighton, 8/13/15