Philly has always been a place where things got started. In civics, we were taught that a cabal of liberty-minded insurgents came up with the Declaration of Independence on the lower end of Chestnut Street during a summer when the horseflies could draw blood with a single bite.
Decades before the country was officially born, the first library in North America sprung up along one of the city's leafy boulevards.
Ben Franklin, the patron saint of my hometown, established it in his spare time along with a million other institutions including America's first hospital and volunteer fire department.
Though you wouldn't know it from the way Philadelphians casually massacre the language today, the first grammar school on American soil was established there.
The first bank, the first mint and the first stock exchange were founded in what would become America's first capital city in the waning days of the 18th century.
America's first Yellow Fever epidemic turned Philly into a festering morgue in 1793, but the city bounced back and built the nation's first municipal water system in 1799.
In 1946, Philly gave birth to the modern information age when scientists at the University of Pennsylvania unveiled ENIAC, the world's first computer.
To this list of auspicious firsts, Philly can now add Geno's Steaks, the only greasy food joint in America to institute an "English-only" ordering policy.
Walk into Geno's these days and the first thing you'll notice, after the overwhelming smell of fried onions has exploded your nasal passages, are strategically placed signs that say: "This Is AMERICA: WHEN ORDERING 'SPEAK ENGLISH.' "
Joey Vento, 66, the owner of Geno's and the grandson of Italian immigrants who spoke broken English, is sending a none-too-subtle message.
"They should be glad that I put the sign up," Mr. Vento told Reuters. "I'm trying to help them to speak English. Without the English language, they are going to have a lot of problems in this country."
Yeah, starting with folks like Mr. Vento. Such a spiky-armed welcome reminds me of the opening scene from Franz Kafka's "Amerika," where a boat full of immigrants on the way to Ellis Island passes the Statue of Liberty, but she's holding a sword above her head instead of the torch of liberty.
The neighborhood around Ninth and Passyunk where Geno's has been happily ensconced for decades has become a little "too Mexican" for many South Philly natives in recent years.
Hispanics are moving in, bringing their culture and languages with them and changing the complexion and ethnic balance of the neighborhood.
Would Mr. Vento hang the same signs in his establishment if it were non-English speaking Italians like his grandparents moving in?
Still, you know we're living in dark times when the owner of a Philly landmark is compelled by the ugly politics of this age to do a "Lou Dobbs" on folks who only want a soggy, greasy sandwich to go, smothered with Cheez Whiz, hot peppers and ketchup.
After marveling at the sheer stupidity of such profit-draining nativism, reasonable people are forced to respond by breaking out their best Philly dialect and snorting: "Yo, can I git a side of xenophobia widdat?"
When pressed, Mr. Vento assures his critics that he's not Philly's version of "Seinfeld's" Soup Nazi. He's not standing behind the counter screaming "No cheesesteak for you!" If you can't order in South Philly-ese, he'll find a translator rather than give up the sale. He may be an opportunist, but he's not crazy.
As a native Philadelphian, the few times I heard English spoken correctly when I was growing up were among the most surreal experiences of my life.
To this day, I have to catch myself before saying: "Gimme a glass of wooder" or "Grandma says she's got a touch of Arthur-itis" or "I don't mind drivin' the School-Kill to git downashore during wush hour."
Believe me, the bastardized English spoken within a 50-mile radius of the Rocky Balboa statue doesn't count. Even the sorry folks in Jersey speak the King's English better than most Philly natives.
As it is, the Philly cheesesteak is already the greasy dividing line in the city's body politic. Too bad Geno's has injected another layer of fat into the clogged arteries bedeviling the City of Brotherly Love.
© 2006 The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette