Sally Field’s iconic Oscar moment came after striding to the stage to accept her Best Actress Oscar when she ended her speech by practically shouting, “You like me!” My moment came not in the form of a golden statuette, but as a cake in the shape of a woman’s breasts. Two sweet, spongy mounds of yellow cake covered in fondant flesh with two pink chocolate nipples and a candy heart denoting a tattoo. “Breast Wishes” ran across the bottom in loopy script. It was my last day as an intern at alt-weekly Philadelphia City Paper.
Starting my junior year of college in 1996 in the Philadelphia area with a young woman’s idealistic interest in journalism, I decided I needed practical experience. I contacted several publications in the city and was lucky that the City Paper was the first to answer. On my first day, decked out in jeans, Doc Martens, and a shiny brown shirt (Don’t judge!), I took the train into Center City and walked several blocks down 13th Street to the office. I was a pretty sheltered kid from an outlying working class Philly neighborhood, and though I wasn’t officially allowed to go into Center City as a teen, I often snuck down there with my best friend under the cover of sleepovers at her house.
It was a gigantic rush to see my name in print and to (very occasionally) be recognized from my byline. That’s a pretty big deal when you’re only 20.
But now I was alone, and my trip to the city was official. The 13th Street of 1996 was a far cry from the same street today. Nestled in Philly’s Gayborhood, the street is a bright, gentrified row of trendy shops and restaurants. But back then, it was dank and dark; a check cashing place, sex toy shop and gay porn theater called it home. Directly across the street from the City Paper’s office was a coffee/leather gear/piercing shop where my morning bagel was cheerfully made by a gender fluid barista. Walking down those gray blocks, I felt like something big was about to happen.
I wasn’t wrong. As a nerdy teen who liked to read and write, I felt a bit constrained by my conventional upbringing in a family where Chinese takeout was adventurous. I wanted to experience the city and its culture. I wanted to be cool. As I walked up the stairs to the City Paper’s office, I knew this is where I would find my tribe. Jen, the Listings Editor, was my supervisor. A tiny blonde with a pixie cut, she had a pair of jeans stapled to her office wall. She was the fun older sister I had always desperately wanted.
A couple of days a week, I toiled entering event listings into a computer. Each week, they were printed in the back of the paper for the city’s denizens to plan their weekends of concerts, gallery openings, plays or readings. I built friendships with Pat, Sue, Nate and Mike, the other interns similarly tasked with making sure people knew where to go and what to do. In the cramped rooms around us, the paper’s full-time and freelance writers worked. Howard dug though a city official’s trash to find poorly-shredded documents for a story. Frank wrote award-winning in-depth cover stories. Margit and Brian interviewed bands, and Sam reviewed movies. David, the editor-in-chief, kept it all happening on deadline. Meanwhile, I sorted through faxes, mailed tear sheets and organized the photo archive. There was no place else I wanted to be.
There were other perks, too. Free CDs from the review bin. Getting on the list for a show once in awhile. Office parties at trendy spots I otherwise wouldn’t go to because I was a poor college student. And eventually I got to write. Small previews for an annual flower show or charity event turned into music reviews, concert previews for well-known bands and, in my biggest coup, an interview with the city’s Commissioner of Recreation. It was a gigantic rush to see my name in print and to (very occasionally) be recognized from my byline. That’s a pretty big deal when you’re only 20.
I lasted as an intern for two years. At the time, it was a record (and maybe still is). I went on to be a freelance contributor for five more years. But the best part was the staff; people who went from rock stars (at least as my wide-eyed teen eyes saw them) to mentors who encouraged my writing to friends who I still keep in touch with today. (My fellow intern Sue was my maid of honor some 16 years after we first met in that cramped office.) And on my last day, these people who taught me and befriended me celebrated my transition to my first post-college job by crowding into the conference room and ambushing me with a hilarious cake that had become the office tradition for marking any big occasion. They liked me.
(Graphic: Nancy Gonzalez/TueNight)