'I'm Puerto-freaking-Rican.' Email me. Call me. Let's talk

Posted: December 13, 2012

SO, I'M NOT going to lie, Philly. You got me feeling a little like Michael Corleone over here. Just when I thought I was done with journalism, you dragged me back in.

OK, I dragged myself back. But you gave me no choice.

When I moved from Connecticut to Philadelphia a year ago because of my husband's job, I left a nearly two-decade career at the Hartford Courant, more than half of that as a columnist.

It was - on most days - the best job in the world.

But a new city calls for a new adventure, right? So, I went on what I dubbed the Recreating Helen Tour 2012.

I tried public relations. I lasted a week.

I worked for a few nonprofits. I'm not as charitable as I thought. Also, I can't write a news release to save my life.

I did a short stint in radio. They said I sounded "too New York."

I networked like a Wharton School grad student, except I almost always picked up the check and there was never a job offer.

And then I had lunch with Michael Days, the editor of the Daily News.

Even as I was absentmindedly moving my salad around my plate and telling him that I really thought I was done - for real! - with newspapers, I could feel the pull.

The man was offering me an opportunity to tell the compelling and irresistibly complicated stories all around me, about everyday people who were surviving as best they could.

He was offering me a job as a columnist in Philadelphia, the fifth-largest city in the country. A place that was bewitching and bewildering.

Seriously. What is with all the bizarre crimes? Caught on tape, no less.

What's with the quirky, ubiquitous street-corner economy - popup car washes, florists, water salesmen. Not to mention the pop-up pools, including one I nearly plowed into this summer on Cambria Street. It was one creative mom's response to cops' turning off the fire hydrants. Neighborhood entrepreneurship just doesn't get the attention or the respect it deserves.

What's with the subculture of, oh, I dunno, everything, in the bowels of the Market Street Gallery? It's like a mini-United Nations down there, if the U.N. suddenly started peddling oils and jewelry and airbrushed T-shirt portraits.

What's with 9th Street's not-so Italian "Italian Market"? Hello, that's Spanish music and conversation spilling into the street. And many of the stores not owned by Latinos are run by immigrants from Southeast Asia.

And what's with the Philly shrug - what are you gonna do? - when I ask questions like this?

Because, not for nothing, for such a diverse city, people sure do stumble around issues of race.

I'm used to people playing the guessing game when they hear my last name - they usually guess Lithuanian. But only in Philadelphia have people - yes, more than one - actually referred to my "tint."

Yeah, I don't know what that means either. I consulted a few color wheels; the best I can come up with is that I'm warm-hued.

And then there was the Election Day poll worker in Chestnut Hill who spotted me taking pictures with my phone and asked if it was my first time voting since becoming a citizen.

Here's what I should have said: I'm Puerto-freaking-Rican, you dolt. But the question caught me totally off guard and the clueless old guy didn't mean any harm. He - oof! - even offered to take my picture on my big day.

And yet, for all the so-called rough edges, the people in this city have been open and welcoming and, even better, really interesting.

So yeah, I see that chip on your shoulder, Philly, and I raise you mine. And I should warn you, I'm the middle child of Nuyorican parents so I can almost guarantee you mine is bigger than yours.

Email me. Call me. Find me on Twitter and Facebook. I want to hear your stories. I'm ready to call B.S. on your behalf if need be. Let's talk about all the things that matter - inequity, poverty, race, injustice. What do you want to make noise about? How do you want to make a difference? Let's do this.


Email: ubinas@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5943

On Twitter: @NotesFromHel

On Facebook: Helen.Ubinas

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