December 1, 2007


Icky and the Philadelphia Philly

by Rob Biller

More than a score of years ago, when I was a struggling graduate student in Philadelphia existing mainly on pot pies and chicken gizzards, I spent the latter part of a St. Valentine’s Day in paradise.

The day began inauspiciously: Because I didn’t have a toaster in my two-room apartment, I always placed several slices of bread under the glowing broiler in my dilapidated oven for eventual consumption. Shortly after I closed the creaking door, a pattering sound began inside that rapidly increased in intensity and volume. With curious trepidation, I opened the door and a minimally broiled mouse flew out. Startled but still famished, I finished browning the nibbled bread and wolfed it down with a few swigs of flat beer.

Later that morning, I was paged to the Radiology Department. Anxiously waiting to intercept me at the department entrance was Dr. Lawler who quickly explained that his niece, Ruth, needed an escort for a St. Valentine’s Day dance that night. I diplomatically declined his request, explaining that I didn’t own a suit or even a decent shirt.

“You’ll need a tuxedo for this dance,” said Doc Lawler. Great, I thought, I’m off the hook. “That’s why I’m asking you to take her. Her brother owns a tux he’d be happy to lend you, and he’s about your height and build,” said Lawler. Sensing that any further maneuvering would be fruitless, I agreed.

I was going on a blind date with a girl whose brother was built like a mountain gorilla with a beer belly. I could only hope she was adopted.

At 5 p.m., Doc Lawler picked me up (I didn’t own a car) and, during the trip from Allegheny Avenue to Chestnut Hill, brought me up to speed on Ruth and her dating dilemma.

Ruth was a senior at Penn—an English major. She and some of her classmates decided to host a lavish St. Valentine’s Day party because in a few months they would graduate and go their separate ways. Ruth’s original date called the night before and cancelled. Since it was a “couples only” event and some of her friends had beaten the usual bushes flat for escorts, she asked her uncle to supply an appropriate candidate from the single men he knew at Temple. Apparently, last minute pickings at Penn were slim.

Ruth’s house was a palatial Tudor that resembled the homes cat burglars rob in movies.

Her father, a judge and Clifton Webb clone, graciously extended his hand and then directed me to a bedroom where I changed into the slightly snug tuxedo.

When I returned to the entrance foyer, one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen, dressed in an exquisite pink gown, awaited me—she was way, way, way out of my league! Her father handed me the keys to a black Cadillac and said, “You’ll have to drive, Ruth can’t, she’s wearing a gown.”

We chatted amicably during the short trip up Germantown Pike to Whitemarsh Valley Country Club. She seemed to like me. Maybe Mom was right when she claimed I was handsome, charming, and quite a catch.

The party room was both comfortable and commodious, with a large sculptured ice heart in its center. Ruth and I were seated at a table with three other couples.

My uncle, who had attended Julliard, once told me that if a person wanted to appear intelligent and articulate he should smile sincerely, speak infrequently, and appear mesmerized by all conversations. I followed his advice.

Because I was a gourmand surround by gourmets and butchered French pronunciations, immediately after Ruth made her selections I would say, “That sounds delicious, I’ll have the same.” That evening was the first time I tasted Crème Brulee—it was a revelation.

Most of that night is now a blur, but I still remember getting a laugh when a surly fellow at our table, who was a teacher at Wharton Business School, said, “I understand that hunting is the main pastime of most Western Pennsylvanians. Did you shoot and eat your Thanksgiving turkey?”

“ Heck no,” I responded. “We’s afraid if we goes too far into the woods we might fall off the edge of the earth.” I remember thinking that if this pedant and I were left in the middle of a jungle I would kill him, eat him, walk out of the jungle and write a bestseller about the ordeal—sans murder and cannibalism.

After the Lucullan feasting and slow dancing ended, I drove Ruth home and we changed into our street clothes. Ruth took me back to Allegheny Avenue in her red Volvo. We gabbed continuously, and I swear it seemed it only took her a few seconds to cover the 15 or so miles to my hovel.

Just before I exited the vehicle, I leaned toward Ruth to say thanks and shake her hand, but before I could execute this pleasantry, she extracted a hairbrush from her purse, wrestled some strands of hair away from it, twisted them into a tiny cord and started to floss her teeth while mumbling, “ I’ve got a piece of food stuck between my molars and if I don’t get it out I’m going to go insane.” She quickly added, “Good-bye.”

Dumbfounded, I got out of her car and waved as she sped away.


Years later, at a seminar, I ran into Dr. Lawler; eventually I asked about Ruth. Doc never mentioned the date while I was a student and neither did I, except to say I had a good time. Doc broke into a big grin, and after some prodding, gave me insight into the incident.

Ruth, at most family gatherings, loves to tell how she saved herself from being smooched by an “icky” Temple student after her St. Valentine’s Day dance. Apparently, she was terrified I might try to reach first base and thwarted the masher through quick thinking.

Initially, I was shattered by this revelation, but after my damaged ego recovered, I realized she had indeed used a ploy that was brilliant and effective; I must grudgingly admit the incident is great fodder for a raconteur.

My only solace comes from the famous F. Scott Fitzgerald quote: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.”

Rob Biller is a laconic everyman – in the medieval sense.