A city is nothing more than the composite of its characters. It's a simple statement, a cliche really, but it's also true. Philadelphia has been blessed with its own pungent panoply. But behind the big and familiar names lie smaller ones, publicized to some degree because of their public service, but not really understood in terms of what they were like and what they meant.
The obituary yesterday for Alan Davis certainly did him justice. He got the front-page play and space he deserved. But it did not give the full measure of Alan, or what I felt to be his full measure, a true character of the city who broke rank from the bucket-and-a-lunch-pail image that Philadelphia so wearily bathes itself in.
Because who was Alan Davis? To me at least, he was the city in all the glow that is too often missed - brilliant, of course, because he was brilliant, but also intellectually voracious, wise without a hint of pedantry and perhaps most special of all, kind and gentle away from the litigiousness that was his life.
I am not presumptuous enough to say I knew Alan intimately, but over the years we built up a friendship with one another. Among the many things I miss about him is his voice, quiet because I don't think I have ever met a man more accomplished and more unwilling to parade those accomplishments, but always laced with a wry bemusement at this beautifully spectacular mess that was forever his city.
He had a credo that he used as guide throughout much of his life: Disillusionment is reality. It stemmed from the painful transition of Philadelphia from its underpinnings as the Workshop of the World, the city that made everything, to a city largely depending on the audience economy of restaurants and the Avenue of the Arts and the Convention Center. As a lifelong resident of Philadelphia who had been born in Strawberry Mansion, he found the change hollow, and given the city's current homicide and poverty rates he was right to find it hollow, a colorful Band-Aid of Fun City to conceal the despair that he always knew was there. Alan also had been around politics enough to know that the only prevailing wind was out of the ego of self-interest.
His credo could be construed as the ultimate cynical statement. But the thing about Alan is that he was honest and clear-eyed about what was possible and what was not, knew that too many politicians in the city, much like cows, emit enormous amounts of gas that create stink and then go nowhere. But he still believed, being part of a generation that saw public service as exactly that: public service.
He was fiercely dedicated, both as city solicitor and as the lead negotiator for the city in what was perhaps its most pivotal moment over the past half century, the do-or-die contract fight with the municipal unions given Philadelphia's financial and spiritual bankruptcy. He was also a superb lawyer in private practice at the law firm of Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll. But he also had such an insatiable intellectual appetite that he hadn't seemed much like a lawyer at all.
My contact with Alan began during those union negotiations in 1992, when I had first started work on the book A Prayer for the City, an account of the Rendell administration during its first term. I watched Alan and other members of the inner circle for months as they refused to do what so many other past administrations had done: fall to their knees and cave in to the unions' demands. I knew of him by reputation, tough and unyielding, and at first I was intimidated. I had access to the most intimate secrets of those negotiations, and I figured it would only be a matter of time before Alan would tell Mayor Rendell to get me the hell out of all those meetings. But I was wrong, and watching Alan in action is one of the highlights of my reporting life.
He spoke with unbridled candor, and he had an intuitive feel for situations and people, their strengths and their frailties, that I adored. But let's not get too carried away. He also reveled in the games of subterfuge and camouflage that are the essence of union negotiations, the campaigns of information and disinformation disseminated through the media. Alan was small in stature, gnome-like. He wore the lawyer costume of suit and tie and button-down shirt, but, as I wrote in my book, I began to wonder if underneath it all was a little tattoo in the shape of a smiling devil that said, "to hell with collective bargaining." He liked winning and he knew the tactics could not possibly be pretty, particularly when it came to dealing with city unions.
None of that is still the true measure of Alan Davis. The more I got to know him, the more I appreciated the absolute rarity of his mind. He knew so much about everything, so unlike most public servants I had met over the years who basically knew a little about nothing and had absolutely no interest in anything beyond themselves. I loved to hear him talk, because his observations were shrewd and unpredictable and always to the bone. But I also noticed that he liked to listen, was curious about the world and understood that the only way to sustain that curiosity was to let others talk about it.
We did not see a lot of each other over the years, but I felt an instant closeness when I did, considered myself lucky for the intersection of the book that had first brought us together. He appreciated the end product of A Prayer for the City, which meant more to me than any review or any other single comment I received. I knew he would have told me if I hadn't gotten it right.
But maybe not. Because it is the gentleness of him that reverberates the most. He had a son who was trying to make his way in the film business, so he understood the artistic soul, the terrible insecurities, the lack of any lasting safety net. I also think there was an artistic soul within Alan himself, a way of looking at the city, with eyes that saw what most of us just missed.
I was shocked to hear of his death when I received a phone call on Wednesday. I felt the sucker punch that you feel when something terrible has happened, the loss of something that cannot be recovered. But then I thought of the dozens of times I had seen him in action, and I couldn't help but lift a private toast as I remembered my favorite one.
It had of course to do with the union negotiations. After months of fruitless back-and-forth, a deadline had been set for settlement or strike. Alan Davis wasn't big on smiles. Whenever he did smile, he looked extremely pained. Because remember: Disillusionment is reality. But with precisely an hour and a half left before the deadline, he got on the phone with his union counterpart, attorney Deborah Willig. When she asked him how he felt about the union's latest offer, he replied exactly as follows:
"I can start from the top. We don't like the wages. We don't like the health care. When you're talking about scheduling, transfers, working down, classification . . . All of that are things that we want and we need. There's none of that in there."
In other words, Shove it. Then he hung up. Then he turned to the other members of the negotiating team. Then he said, "It's conversations like that that make the whole six months worth it." And then he smiled, revenge finally his, the message clear that the Rendell administration was not going to fold. The negotiations plodded on after that, but in the end, the city came to terms with its unions in what what may well be the most favorable settlement for a municipality in the modern era of urban government. And Alan was among those largely responsible.
Fifteen years later, I can still feel the megawattage of that smile, just as I can still see the look of it, as merry and mirthful as a little boy. It's the image of him that I have and the image of him that I choose to have in a life that was far too short. A character of the city that he loved because of itself and in spite of itself and now leaves, into eternity.