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Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Mother Divine: The Real Philadelphia Story

THE REAL PHILADELPHIA STORY

By Thom Nickels
       Contributing Editor

Woodmont is not only a world set apart, it is a world with a history. Located in Montgomery County, this 72-acre estate is the home base of The Peace Mission Movement, started by Father Divine in 1919 in Sayville, New York.
 The mansion itself is a multi-room French Gothic masterpiece, designed by Quaker architect William Price for Philadelphia industrialist Alan J, Wood, Jr., in 1892. After the demise of the Gilded Age and the selling off of many of Philadelphia’s old mansions, it was sold to Father Divine for a relatively humble $75,000.
                Woodmont then became the headquarters for the Peace Mission Movement.
                As the rush of 21st century events seems to pummel the world towards some kind of catastrophe, Woodmont has remained outside the fray. Since the passing of Father Divine in 1965, the Peace Mission Movement has been under the direction of Father Divine’s second wife, Edna Rose Ritchings, a white Canadian woman he met in 1946. 
                The Peace Mission Movement began as a force for peace and goodwill between the races, as an incentive to make-- as Mother Divine notes in her small book, “The Peace Mission Movement”-- people “industrious, independent, tax-paying citizens instead of consumers of tax dollars on the welfare rolls.” In the area of theology, many of Father Divine’s followers believe that he was/is God. In the past, this fact has annoyed many members of the press and resulted in bad publicity for the Movement.
                Father Divine’s greatest contributions are probably in the area of Civil Rights. As early as 1951, he advocated for reparations for the descendents of slaves and for integrated neighborhoods. Decades before the Civil Rights Act, before the NAACP, before Stokley Carmichael, Angela Davis or the Black Panthers, Father Divine preached peaceful non-violent social change.   Unfortunately, Father Divine’s “preaching” work on behalf of Civil Rights is a mostly understated fact.
 Father Divine’s marriage to the second Mother Divine (the first was an African American woman named Peninniah, who died shortly after the Woodmont purchase) was a celibate affair, as members, both married and unmarried, are prohibited from having sex, or using alcohol and tobacco. 
                An invitation to attend the monthly Sunday banquet at Woodmont, which the Peace Mission Movement considers a Holy Communion service, was extended to me and Philadelphia artist Noel Miles because of a book we are working on.  Miles had gone to Woodmont before, with brush and canvass, to capture the marvelous interiors for our project when Mother Divine extended the invitation.
                When the day of the pilgrimage arrived, we boarded the R-7 for Bryn Mawr, and then hailed a cab to Gladwyne, where Woodmont is located. Our cabbie, a rather youngish urban type who seemed more suited for a city taxi than navigating the lost vistas of Montgomery County, had no idea where Woodmont was, but, like a true shyster, he tried to hide this fact by driving fast.
                When it became apparent that he was winging it, Miles made him get his bearings. By happenstance or miracle, we happened to notice the Woodmont address etched simply and unobtrusively on a stone wall. The taxi then took the long rustic driveway through a corridor of trees. Along the road to the mansion I noticed a few clumsily etched hand carved road signs, the kind you’d see in a Boy Scout camp circa 1960.
 A wide clearing in the brush brought the mansion into view.
                .
At this point, the cabbie could barely suppress an “Ahhhhh!”
Holy Royal Family Highgate! Or was this some unnamed palace on the Thames transferred via UFO to fairly predictable Montgomery County where the only queen had been Hope Montgomery Scott? I spotted an elderly white man sitting on a chair—or was it a tree stump?—near what looked to be a shed. A watchman of some sort, very polite. Did he sleep in the shed? I was full of questions.
The cabbie let us off in the middle of the massive semi circular drive.
                 A small black woman in a beret and white gloves with a “V” embossed on her blouse, waved to us as we approached the mansion. She was perched several heads above us, sentry-like, on the portico landing. Shades of Buckingham Palace formality. Her smile was beatific but steely; her thin body conjuring images of self denial. Introductions were made and up the steps we went, the cab idling as if the cabbie wanted a longer glimpse. 
                “Call if you want a pick up,” he shouted from the cab.
                We were not banking on a pickup but a ride home, or at least a ride to the station from one of the dinner guests.
                 
               
 Inside the grand reception room, we saw museum quality gilt framed paintings, lush carpets and oak woodwork. Miss Faith, the sentry of the steps, explained the history of the house.
               
                We noticed a mammoth framed portrait of Mother and Father Divine hanging over the reception area like an iconostasis in a cathedral.
                “My one aim is to live a virtuous life under the Personal jurisdiction of FATHER DIVINE,” Mother Divine wrote in 1952. “My Marriage to FATHER has brought the fulfillment of this desire and I can most assuredly say that in these past four or more happy years that I have been married, FATHER’S Virginity has been more firmly established in my consideration, for I have not seen anything about Him that reflects that of a man.”

                “May I tape our conversation?” I asked Miss Faith.
                “Oh no, you may not,” Miss Faith said, looking at me in disbelief.
                This was a perfectly natural question for a journalist, but Miss Faith’s reaction somehow made me feel thoroughly ashamed of myself. Was I now a besmirched house guest who had to be watched?
                 I would later discover that in years past journalists delighted in taking advantage of Mother Divine’s generosity and then went on to butcher her in print. It’s the way journalism is these days, where stories about suburban teachers having sex with seventeen year olds is considered breaking news.
                Without any sort of announcement, namely the ringing of chimes or a small hand bell, my eyes were drawn to the top of the magnificent central staircase.
                 
A woman in a long white beaded dress who was being escorted down the central staircase by an elderly woman in a beret. It was one of those cinematic moments, half Royal Family, half an exciting ‘new’ story that has yet to be told.
 “Who are these people?” I heard Mother Divine whisper to the aide. When she was reminded who we were, Mother approached Miles first, extending a hand.
When Mother turned to me, I took her hand and said that it was an honor to meet her.
 After all, this was the brave woman who, in 1972, issued the Rev. Jim Jones and his followers, his marching orders. Mother Divine ordered Jones to leave the Woodmont estate after he attempted to take over the Peace Mission Movement, claiming that he was the reincarnation of Father Divine.  Some 200 of Jones’ followers had arrived from California, “pretending,” as Mother states, “a sincere desire to fellowship with members of the Movement.”
                Mother asked them to leave when “his distaste for the government of the United States and the establishment, and the prosperity of the followers in general began to be expressed in casual, then more deliberate remarks he made to Mother Divine and others.”
                Several years later would come the insanity of the People’s Temple in Guyana.


                In my quest to find out more about the Mission, I asked Miss Faith “where the chapel was, the place where you have services.” My question was met with puzzlement. “The banquet is the holy communion service,” Miss Faith said.
                I would understand the mechanics of this very soon, once the banquet got underway.
                The lush, white banquet table sat about 60 people. A swan on a “lake” of glass was the centerpiece, in addition to fresh flowers. Women outnumbered men about 10 to one. Mother sat at the head of the table; beside her was a setting for Father Divine. An attendant stood behind my chair and Miles’ ready to assist us during the meal.
                Dinner began when Mother rang a large hand bell. A female cook in a white uniform produced the platters from a small kitchen directly behind Mother. Numerous platters of salad items, including a wide assortment of vegetables, condiments and sauces, set the pace for more complicated platters offering meats and fish, rice, potatoes, breads, more vegetables and meats until at last diners could devote their entire attention to the business at hand, eating, rather than the elaborate ritual of passing platters.
                When platters are passed from one diner to another, they must never touch the table. Diners must also not hold two platters at the same time, so the entire synchronization of the plates had the movements of a dance. While this was going on, diners listened to an old audio tape of a Father Divine sermon. The mostly elderly crowd—men in suits and women in Peace Mission uniforms—beret, and a jacket embossed with a V—combined eating with the singing of hymns. A few elderly white women, European by birth, clapped their hands in sing song fashion in between mouthfuls.
                The plate passing started up again when dessert was served: huge cakes, pies, jello molds and ice cream were passed in the same fashion, all homemade, all luscious, and yet not a single person at the table looked to be overweight.
With synchronization worthy of the Rockettes, additional platters kept being delivered to both sides of the table. Diners were expected to take only what they could eat. I ate all of what I put on my plate except for a little bit of Salmon skin. The food was marvelous, the vegetables among the best I’ve ever tasted.
                After dinner, Miles and I were asked if we wanted to say a few words to the assembly. I mentioned that the dining experience reminded me of the time I spent in Catholic monasteries, when you would eat in silence while listening to a monk read from scripture or the lives of the saints.
The Catholic connection, as it turned out, was not that far fetched. A woman from Saint Paul’s parish in South Philadelphia told me to look out for a lineup of Catholic saint statues around the parameter of the Peace Mission dining room.
I counted ten or more Catholic saints positioned some ten feet above the heads of the diners.            
                For me, the hymns and hand clapping that occurred during the banquet raised a red flag: “Here’s where biting journalist types like Christopher Hitchens have a really wicked time ripping into Mother and all things Divine,” I thought.  
                But Woodmont, in rapidly deteriorating world, is actually more of a treasure than not. It’s quiet, isolated, beautiful, a mansion with many rooms and good food, an empire with its own benevolent queen, a masterful lady with a piercing glance.
                After dinner, Miles and I were told that Mother wanted to see us alone, in Father Divine’s office.
                The office, as it turned out, is a dead ringer for the oval office in the White House. Miles and I stood with Mother by Father’s desk, an aide not far away.  Directly in front of the window was Father Divine’s shrine and tomb. For a few moments things were very quiet, then sunlight hit Mother Divine’s face.


                We both agreed, on the train ride home, that here was the real Philadelphia story.  

Saturday, February 18, 2017


    My Review of the film 'Jackie' for Philadelphia's Irish Edition

  Look at photographs of the grassy knoll at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, where President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade sped away after an assassin’s bullets in 1963 changed the course of history, and you may find yourself imagining the pain the First Lady felt as she held her dying husband in her arms.  

   That horrific moment still lives in grainy newsreel footage, but it comes alive for us again in the form of Natalie Portman who plays Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy in Pablo Larrain’s “Jackie,” an intense psychological biopic about the life of the First Lady immediately after the assassination. Those dark days put the nation in mourning even as Jackie processed the shock alone, as the scene of Portman as Jackie scrubbing her face of her husband’s blood in the bathroom of Air Force One so chillingly details. 

    “Jackie” opens with the former First Lady being interviewed in the Kennedy Hyannis Port compound by Theodore H. White for Life magazine. White is played by Billy Crudup who captures the writer’s suave and erudite manner. Eager to make a name for himself in journalism, his engagement with Jackie has all the elements of a verbal fencing match. Jackie isn’t going to let him have her story without a struggle. More therapist than journalist, Crudup’s White is patient to a fault but he’s not afraid to dig deep. He wants Jackie to spill her guts and relive what she saw and felt that day near the grassy knoll.  Jackie acquiesces in small doses and gives White an occasional Big Feeling Moment, but then states, “Of course this is off the record.” Portman is so believable as the First Lady that we begin to realize that this is much more than a film but, as has been stated, “The scariest history lesson ever.”

    The nearly flawless script by Noah Oppenheim makes this 95-minute film seem much shorter. It also makes us not care so much that JFK (Caspar Phillipson) appears only a few times in quick juxtaposed flash backs. 

    Portman’s Jackie opens a world heretofore unseen: We are with her as she walks through the rooms of the White House like a numb, disembodied spirit. On her first night in Washington after the assassination we see her taking off her blood stained clothes and breaking down in the shower. Then she puts on a chiffon night gown and in a radiant gesture, crawls into bed in a lounging position and lights a cigarette to life.

   Alone with her children, who can’t understand where daddy is and why he won’t be coming home, Jackie’s sense of alienation grows. The viewer feels her growing displacement and the fact that the White House is now alien territory, a morgue of memories filled with mementos that she must wrap up and put into boxes for her new home in New York City. If there is one flaw in the film it is the odd choice of actors portraying Caroline (Sunnie Pelant) and young John John (Brody and Aiden Weinberg). Their odd physical features are far removed from the standard Kennedy and Bouvier good looks.  
  
   
     A decidedly unhappy moment in the film occurs when Jackie’s walks in on Lyndon Johnson and Lady Byrd as they pick out new White House wall paper; in an instant we see what the widow sees: her famous remodeling of the White House going up in smoke. But all is not perfect ladylike composure, especially when she loses her temper with brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) and with the Secret Service over arrangements for the presidential funeral.

      Priests are rarely portrayed well in Hollywood, but John Hurt as Father Richard McSorley displays the seasoned wisdom of a long suffering philosopher. When he walks with Jackie in a tree lined Washington park on cold gray winter afternoons, he does his best to answer her questions concerning the mystery and (possible) futility of life.  

       Happily, Jackie feels little futility when she decides to promote the legacy of Camelot after replaying the music that she and Jack had so enjoyed in happier days.  If she cannot have her husband back, she can at least extract ‘revenge’ in the form of an historic legacy that will live well into the ages.
   

   

      

The New Civil War

THE LOCAL LENS

THOM NICKELS          AMERICA'S NEW CIVIL WAR
   
    Some people say that the political polarization in the country is worse now than it’s been since the American Civil War. It has even been predicted that the country is on the verge of another civil war. That seems a bit of a stretch although it is true that during the Vietnam War many protesters believed that the antiwar movement was the second American Revolution.

     But what if the current unrest in the country does lead to a second American Civil War? How would that play out in the modern era? Granted, there wouldn’t be battles like those that were fought in Gettysburg or Vicksburg, but it’s very conceivable that each side would come up with their own flag design. Signs and symbols, after all, are important. The President’s people might construct an orange flag, which would stand in stark contrast to the flag of the Resistance: a pair of big furry pussy ears fixed to a raised fist.

   The first shot of the new civil war will not be fired at Fort Sumter but will ring out during one of the many demonstrations being held throughout the nation. Lulled into a false sense of security by the relative liberality and “ease” of the Obama years, the Resistance will have little sense of limits when it comes to protesting President Trump and the GOP, which they will happily refer to as Grab Our Pussies. The false sense of security that former President Obama’s policies would last forever will mislead those in the Resistance to believe that a slap on the wrist or squirts of pepper spray will be the highest price to pay for blocking highways and traffic at rush hour. They will have forgotten about history, namely the May 4, 1970 killing of Kent State antiwar student protesters by the National Guard. The Resistance will be taken by surprise when after months of engaging in property destruction, government building invasions and street mayhem, President Trump declares Marshal Law.

      The Resistance’s worst fears will materialize but only because they worked to push the protest limits into the stratosphere. One might compare this ‘every action has a reaction’ mindset to the closing of Cione Field to the general public because of the irresponsible habits of a few dog walkers who don’t clean up after their animals poop. The Resistance will have created a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Like Mary Shelley who created the novel Frankenstein, they will have created Dictator President Trump.  The Resistance will pretend to be scandalized at the turn of events but down deep they will be happy because life for them has no purpose if one cannot ...resist.   

         Driven underground, the Resistance will form collective huddles in basements and community centers. Formerly benign groups like Nuns on the Bus will be renamed Nuns with Guns and the streets of the city will become like an armed camp.  At night, armies of pussy eared fem soldiers and their Lone Ranger masked boyfriends will scurry from one back alley to another in defiance of the new curfew laws. The Marshals will catch many of the curfew breakers, remove their knitted hats and then put the ears on the top of stakes that will line major thoroughfares.
 

     Citizens not involved in the new civil war will stay put in their houses after sundown, where they will load up on popcorn and NetFliks. These people will be called ‘The Middles’ because they admire some things about President Trump although they cannot buy his entire agenda. The Middles will support some Resistance ideas although they will continue to have issues with abortion or dressing up their two year old daughters as “walking vaginas” who scream “fuck you” at supporters of the President. The Middles will call for peace and compromise but the nation will have become so polarized that The Middles will be seen as even greater enemies than the enemy that each side is supposed to hate.  

   Violent skirmishes in the streets of the city will be common, such as gunshots, home made explosions, screams and the sounds of large groups as they charge into buildings or attack limos in the vicinity of the Union League. These will be intensely dark times for the nation, and especially for Philadelphia, which will see brother against brother, mother against son, and neighbor against neighbor. The agreed upon boundaries of civil tolerance will disappear. There will be no discussion, no dialogue. Speakers with an “incorrect” point of view will be dragged from podiums, hog tied and gagged. It will make the humble beginnings of political discord and intolerance on Facebook, when friend “unfriended” friend, seem like innocent child’s play. 

    Philadelphia City Hall, because of its prime reputation as a major Resistance city, will become a nerve center in the new civil war, even under Marshal Law.  Mayor Kenney will lead the charge, continuing to defy a federal ban on Sanctuary cities to the bitter end, even as the stoppage of federal funds from Washington hurls the city into dire poverty and forces many public schools to close. The mayor will ask citizens to accept the suffering as a sacrifice for the noble ideals of The Resistance. Many will come to see him as the American male version of Joan of Arc and join in chants like, “death is better than capitulation.” Indeed for some it will be death because many will even not be able to afford a block of Velveeta cheese. The end of federal funding will spiral outward and affect all areas of city life. Outdoor restaurants and cafes will close sidewalk service and theaters will close or choose not to offer frivolous plays about millennials in love or esoteric love stories that have ties to quantum physics. Every play will have a Resistance theme.  
   Civil War, after all, is serious business!

    Ideological frenzy will be the order of the day. The Resistance will demand the resignation of President Trump and demand that “reality” return to the way it was under President Obama.  The Orange Brigade, on the other hand, will be just as immovable, having long ago repealed Obamacare without replacing it with anything except a promise to come up with something better “very soon.” But even President Trump, with all of his mighty Executive Orders, will not be able to slay three giants, the American Medical Association, Big Pharm and the insurance industry when it comes to implementing a sensible health care program for all Americans.   

     Without national health insurance and with the new Congress’ dismantling of many programs for the poor, like Medicaid, long standing institutions like Health Care Six on Girard Avenue will close its doors. The poor will now have no medical care even in hospital emergency rooms where it was once possible to apply as a charity case patient. Those who cannot pay for hospital treatment upfront on a credit card, check or cash will be sent back into the streets or to their homes to die.   

   The lovely, free Obama phone will disappear from view. Methadone clinics will disappear or be taken over by for profit companies that will demand hours of work in exchange for counseling and treatment. Social Security will not be affected for those already retired but the scale of future benefits will be radically marked down for millennials so that by the time they retire the benefits will be down to almost nothing. 

   Conversely, there will be plenty of jobs. Factories will make reappearance so that if a new hire doesn’t like one job they can quit and literally walk down the street to another factory and be hired on the spot.

       America will be a mixed bag of opportunities and devastation.  

   The new Civil War will be long and protracted. It will mostly be a war of banishment and shunning more than a violent conventional war. In the end, it will be The Middles who will work to negotiate a peace treaty. They will find a way to get both sides to sit down and talk and come up with a comprehensive Middle Way to Restore the Nation.  Ideological fanatics on both extremes will fight this but in the end they will lose.

      The nation, exhausted by strife and unrest, will finally realize that the extreme ideologues on the Right and the Left have to go.  

     
THE LOCAL LENS

THOM NICKELS               FAREWELL, FIORELLA NICKELS

   The death of a loved one or family member is for most people a traumatic experience.   That’s because most of us assume that our lives will go on for a long time and that death won’t happen today or even the day after tomorrow but sometime in the distant future.
    
   Death is never a pleasant topic. There are no “nice” deaths, either. One can die instantly of a heart attack, stroke or in an automobile accident, or one can die slowly over a period of months or years. In the case of the latter, at least there’s a chance for the one who is about to die to say good-bye. In the case of the former, there are no such options. In the Orthodox Church there are prayers asking God to save us from an instant death. It is always better to be prepared for this important transition from life to after life.     
   My sister in law recently reposed. We were not extremely close but we still had a closeness made palpable by decades of family dinners and reunions. When I say we were not extremely close I don’t mean to imply a distance caused by alienation. Like most people, we were caught up in our own lives which led us to assume that there would be plenty of time to see one another again.
      Fioerlla came into my brother’s life at a point when he really needed change and a life partner. One day my mother called me up and said, “You’ll be meeting Fiorella this Sunday. I think your brother has met his match.”
   
   Fiorella had long straight hair, a winning smile, a keen intelligence and an acute sense of humor. Her Italian family roots could be traced to the area by the Adriatic Sea. She was born in Italy but migrated to the United States as a toddler with her parents. She married my brother in Saint Patrick’s church in Malvern, an old gothic structure with enormous glass stained windows. I attended the wedding. It was the 1970s and all the men in the wedding party had long hair and mustaches. The reception was a rollicking party along the lines of Saturday Night Fever.


     Fiorella’s mother was a gifted seer who provided her daughter with advice and counseling. Her father had a talent for winemaking; his wine was famous for its smooth medicinal properties and it rarely if ever caused a morning hangover. We all asked one another, “how does he make this stuff?’
     My brother often spoke of his mother-in-law’s intuitive talents. Like the mystic and saint, Padre Pio, it was claimed that Fiorella’s mother could be in two places at once. This is called bi-location. My brother once told me that his father-in-law would often see his wife in the garden and then half a second later at the kitchen stove. It was just one of life’s unexplained mysteries. Still, Fiorella’s mom’s excellent “intuitions” were sometimes not what her daughter or my brother wanted to hear.
     I remember the time when she warned them to travel by plane rather than take the train when planning a cross country trip. The advice seemed backwards because conventional wisdom suggests that flying would be more dangerous than traveling by Amtrak. Fiorella was afraid of flying and she tried to avoid it whenever possible, so it took all her strength to muster up the courage to fly with my brother when they embarked on their honeymoon to Acapulco.
   But Fiorella’s mother was persistent: “Do not take the train! Take the plane!”
    
      Fiorella’s fear of flying was just too great, so she and my brother decided to take the train, despite the warning. Once on board Amtrak in the train’s sleeping compartment, there was a crash and a sort of explosion that sent the two of them flying off their bunks. Smoke entered their compartment and a lot of panic ensued. Fortunately they escaped without injury: the train had derailed or had crashed into something, I’m not sure which, but those uncertain moments were very scary for them.  
    
    Fiorella and my brother settled in a house in a development in Exton, Pennsylvania   where they raised three children. The years advanced and as often happens with families there were times when we Nickels siblings would drift apart only to come together during the holidays or a 4th of July picnic. On one 4th of July Fiorella and my brother hosted a massive reunion for my mother’s side of the family. The ‘Muldoon-Kelly’ reunion covered the waterfront in terms of disparate personalities and incomes. Fiorella and my brother had also managed to obtain old photos of distant relatives in Tyrone County, Ireland, men with long black beards covering their chest and women carrying parasols.  
   Fiorella contracted breast cancer a few years ago. She had a single mastectomy and routine chemo and radiation treatments. After that she and my brother went on an extreme health regime. Life was fine for a while but then two or three days after Christmas it was discovered that the cancer had returned, only now it was in her liver.
    In no time at all it seemed the cancer got worse and spread to other parts of Fiorella’s body. She was admitted to Bryn Mawr Hospital. When the truth of her incurable cancer became an undisputable fact, her youngest daughter, Amanda came up with a plan.
     Scheduled to be married to her fiancé Mark in September 2017, the couple organized a wedding in the hospital chapel before their big September church wedding. All of my brother’s children pitched in to create what became a miniature but full extravanza in just 24 hours. That included getting the wedding rings, hiring musicians, a priest, ordering food and champagne and negotiating with a tailor to alter Fiorella’s old wedding gown for Amanda to wear.
   Fiorella was informed of the impromptu chapel wedding and was given an extra treatment of radiation so she could attend. The morning of the wedding she woke up and said, “I feel great!”
    
   The small ceremony turned the hospital upside down when nurses and physicians, and even the hospital’s president and CEO, crowded into the small chapel, many of them in tear.
    My last visit with Fiorella was Tuesday January 31 when I entered her hospital room around 5:20 PM. She was alone and she looked to be sleeping. The room was empty except for the sounds of a nurse running water in the bathroom. When the nurse asked me who I was, I told her that I was a brother in law. In the few seconds that it took me to say this I thought I saw a smile cross Fiorella's face. Was I imaging this? My brother had told me earlier that his wife was comatose but that she could hear what was being said. The nurse said I could spend as much time with her as I wanted, and so I sat with Fiorella until the chaplain walked in and told me that Fiorella had actually died hours before, at 3:20.
    Hearing this was disconcerting because all along I had thought that she was asleep. I spent 30 minutes sitting with Fiorella, meditating, thinking of times past.
   Then I thought of the words of St. John Chryosotom who wrote that although death is terrible and frightening—yes, even its name is devastating-- that for those who know the higher philosophy there should be no shuddering,
      That’s because death is merely a passing over when we leave this corruptible life and go on to another, which is unending and incomparably better. 
   
        
          

         

Three Political Philadelphia Stories

THE LOCAL LENS

THOM NICKELS


   There have been a number of quirky, unsettling city news items lately that make me wonder what else might be in store in 2017.    
  
   One issue that got everybody stirred up was Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell’s introduction of a City Council bill that would have made it mandatory for city residents to get a letter of support from their local or district Councilperson before putting flowers or potted plants on the sidewalk in front of their own homes. Talk about House and Garden floral Marxism. This news struck me as so strange that for a minute I wondered what Ms. Blackwell had been smoking. I even thought of Pedro Almodovar’s 1988 Spanish black comedy-drama film, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and wondered if perhaps something like a breakdown had happened to the venerable Councilwoman.

        Also included in Blackwell’s bill was a clause stating that businesses, especially restaurants, had to ask permission before expanding their bevy of café tables and planters on city sidewalks. This section of the bill didn’t seem so unreasonable since navigating Center City sidewalks in warm weather can often be a precarious experience, with pedestrians bumping into restaurant wait staff or tripping over café table legs. It was Blackwell’s focus on residential flower pots, however, that got so many city row house dwellers up in arms. Much like Mayor Kenney’s soda tax, the proposed flower pot rule seemed to stretch into Twilight Zone absurdity, or ust another notch on a big tree called The Nanny State.  
        The situation got me thinking about the mood swings a City Councilperson must experience when the thrill of the job begins to wane.  When someone is first elected to City Council it must be a terrific feeling to know that you are about to become an integral part of City Hall. Imagine the rush new Council members must experience when they realize that they are going to represent constituents and be taken so seriously that every word they utter will probably be quoted in the local press. Add to this the excitement of photo ops, assorted professional and personal perks and guest-of-honor speaking engagements at swank luncheons and dinners, and you have a pretty nice life.  

                  Over time, of course, all those City Council perks and privileges would probably become routine. After so many years they may even become mundane. Drifting in placid seas is even boring for sailors, so it’s not surprising that every now and then a City Councilperson will come up with an outrageous suggestion just to show the public and the press that they have not fallen asleep on the job.  Jannie Blackwell’s chose flower pots to get city residents to notice her again but her bill   was shot down like an ill designed drone wobbling in the air over Bridesburg.  
  
    When Blackwell withdrew her bill she artfully segued out of some embarrassment by stating that her original intention was to put a hold on the proliferation of bike racks that have been swallowing up city sidewalks. The bill was not killed but put on hold, meaning that at a future date it could rear its head again.
        In other city news, it was reported that the city’s Director of LGBT Affairs, Helen “Nellie” Fitzpatrick, would resign her office sometime in the coming months.  While I’ve never met Ms. Fitzpatrick, she seemed like a thoroughly earnest person intent on doing the best job possible but in the end pleasing all of the people all of the time just isn’t humanly possible. Fitzpatrick has been around since 2014 when she was appointed to the post by then Mayor Michael Nutter. Given the strict progressive political tenor of this town, Fitzpatrick seemed to be a sensible choice. Her progressive credentials were so stellar it was a shock when she came under fire from those in her own political camp. And it all had to do with a bar called ICandy.

      ICandy, a gay bar in Center City, has never had a good reputation. It is a bar that caters to a very young party hearty crowd. It’s the sort of bar where over 40 patrons are ignored as if they are wearing a cologne called Invisible. ICandy used to be called Equus in the 1980s and at that time it was considered to be one of the city’s major musical hot spots.  Maureen McGovern of Superman fame appeared there for several nights in a row. Decades before that, sometime in the 1910s or earlier, it housed an illegal, news making abortion clinic. One can almost say that the ground on which ICandy stands is both blessed and cursed. 

         The story goes that ICandy’s owner was secretly taped using the N-word during a private 
conversation. There were also allegations that the bar was turning away people dressed in sweats and dirty Timberland boots, claiming that these items violated the dress code. The unfortunate N-word tape was actually three years old when it resurfaced and recycled into the public arena. The bar owner issued a public apology  but some activists claimed the apology was insincere and called for boycotts and on-site demonstrations demanding ICandy’s closure.

   Apparently, forgiveness does not come easily in the world of political activism. The bar owner might as well have raised his middle finger and said that he stands by the word he used on the tape. How is it that even in the worst fundamentalist religions one can be forgiven and even promised “a life after sin.” Why is kind of mercy nonexistent in the activist realm?
       
     
   When mob mentality triumphs, there comes a need for a sacrificial lamb or scapegoat, so activists blamed Nellie Fitzpatrick for not doing enough to stem the shadow of “racism” in the Gayborhood.  Mayor Kenney, to his credit, jumped into the fray and defended Fitzpatrick, saying, “the attacks against her are misplaced.” 
   

   In yet another news item, we saw newly inducted Philadelphia Councilwoman-at-Large Helen Gym take to the streets and join a die-in protesting President Trump’s immigration and refugee policies when Republican lawmakers spent the day in Philadelphia.
   Now, I have to hand it to Gym, she has extreme national aspirations and she’s a PR genius. I’d even say that she’s aiming for the cover of Newsweek or Time and that she’ll stop at nothing to make sure that the ‘gymnastics’ implied in her last name catapults her into being Philadelphia’s first female mayor. (When she becomes mayor, Jannie Blackwell’s flower pot bill will resurface).

    Helen Gym’s first political protest photo op occurred when she attacked the Wheely Wheely Good University City food truck as being racist because ‘wheel wheely’ sounds like what a thick accented Chinese immigrant might sound like when they use the word ‘really.’ The Chinese co-owner of the truck was taken aback at Gym’s charge, and told Philadelphia Magazine that, “She approached our truck while we were working and started to argue with my partner and me.  She told us, ‘Your truck’s name is super-racist.’ She used those words.”
   Gym also criticized the Asian caricatures on the truck and the typeface used in the design. In 2016, Gym was adamant about instituting a parking tax to help pay for the schools. "Parking lots don't move, they're ugly, and we should tax them more," she said.
   That’s right, let’s tax the immovable and the ugly.
    

   

     

Saturday, January 28, 2017

                                    ICON Magazine Theater January 2017




Found. This PTC millennial song fest celebrates the story of Davy ( F. Michael Haynie) and his magazine of the same name that publishes random notes found in the city. With his roommates Mikey D (Juwan Crawley) and Denise (Alysha Desloreieux), Davy’s gimmicky, substance-starved magazine soon lands him an interview on NPR. Success is assured when a beautiful Hollywood female producer, Becka (Erika Henningsen) offers to transform Found into a TV show. Davy flies to LA, leaving Mikey D. and wannabe girlfriend Denise in the dust although his dreams of major celebrity crash when the Hollywood project fails and the affair with Becka ends. Davy then resurrects the magazine after a profound apology to Denise, whereupon everyone begins dancing and breaking out the Pabst. Found is based on the real life experiences of Davy Rothbart and his magazine of the same name and theme with music and lyrics by Eli Bolin. The music is charming although a few of the numbers don’t connect to the story at all. Part After School Special, main stage Walnut Street Theater, and SNL skit, the enthusiasm of the cast is contagious and Crawley’s falsetto is arresting, even if many in the cast look like they could use six months at Planet Fitness.     

  Black Nativity. New Freedom Theatre kicked off its 50th anniversary with this colorful, drum enhanced production. The traditional epic of Mary (Leedea Harrison) and Joseph (Jordan Dobson) and the manger in Bethlehem included classic Christmas songs mixed with African drumming and dancing. The dazzling effect and brilliant costumes electrified an old story. Under the direction of Freedom’s new artistic director, Rajendra Ramon Maharaj, Black Nativity also blended the story of another Mary (Lauren Morgan) and Joseph (James Pitts, Jr.) from Africa’s war torn (and atrocity ridden) Darfur area. While Mary and Joseph #1 escape Herod’s hunt for Jewish first born sons, Darfur’s (pregnant) Mary contemplates suicide after presuming Joseph has been killed. “There is no God in Darfur!” she laments, as soldiers rape and murder local villagers.  The parallel stories merge gracefully when Darfur Mary looks into the eyes of the Bethlehem babe, after which Joseph returns and Mary gives birth to a son. While the melding of the two stories has some clumsy moments, by the end of the musical the juxtaposition is at perfect pitch.

 Last of the Red Hot Lovers.  The Walnut Street Theater takes us back to 1969 with Neil Simon’s seminal hit about a 47 year old married Manhattan fish restaurateur who wants his share of the Sixties sexual revolution despite the fact that he has to use his mother’s studio apartment for his assignations. Can this Mamma’s boy get any satisfaction?  (January 10-February 5).

Constellations.  It’s boy meets girl again at The Wilma as Director Tea Alagic brings us the convoluted love story of physicist Marianne and beekeeper Roland whose relationship falls into the vagaries of quantum physics or a universe filled with more questions than answers and too many ‘maybes.’ This 3 hour, 15 minute drama has two 10 minute intermissions, so buckle down. Jake Gyllenhaal of Brokeback Mountain fame and Ruth Wilson played the Constellation lovers to great acclaim on the off-Broadway stage. If you can get over an aversion to physics, bee stings, and millennial angst, then Constellations might be a good antidote to winter. (January 11-February 5)   


John.  The season of the long plays continues with the Arden Theatre Company’s 3 and a half hour story of Brooklynites, Elias and Jenny, a feuding married couple (Jenny once had an affair) who visit a Gettysburg B&B and get talking with a blind woman who has  other worldly perceptions. Slate describes John as an “examination of the murkiness of human relationships.”  When the play first ran at New York’s Barrow Street Theatre, large numbers of subscribers walked out because of the protracted silences onstage. John has since been reconfigured.      


 



Cafe Dunkin Donuts & a Trip to McFonald's

While in the neighborhood of 12th and Locust Streets recently, I came across an old building that used to be one of the city’s quirkiest restaurants. It also sold the worst coffee I had ever had in my life. Imagine coffee that sits burning up in pot all day long, so stale and strong that it stays with you all day long.
  The coffee problem, I think, can be explained because the restaurant’s name was Polly’s Spinning Wheel Restaurant, or Polly’s Tea Room. The luncheonette had a large-scale tea kettle over its exterior window — in old photographs of 12th and 13th and Locust Streets you can see Polly’s gigantic tea kettle looming over the sidewalk.  I’m not sure when Polly’s opened for business, but it could have been in the 1950s.  The place was a Philadelphia institution on the order of Pat’s Steaks or Geno’s.
  Polly’s unusual attraction was that all customers got their tea leaves or Tarot cards read after they completed their meal. There were three or four readers in the eatery at any given time and customers waited up to an hour to get a reading.
  I first went to Polly’s with a friend of mine, Sherry. She was obsessed with a talented reader there who seemed to give her accurate answers concerning her love life. Before I went to Polly’s myself, I had always assumed that the customers there were slightly cracked. They certainly were not foodies.
  The food at Polly’s was far from great, but it was adequate. We often ordered a chicken entrée and coffee. The rubbery chicken made me think of a bad Three Stooges movie; the meatloaf was bricklike and the mashed potatoes were hard and cold like a soupy salt marsh in Cape May. When you ordered a pie, the crust was usually stale or hard.
  The clientele was interesting. The majority of the customers were odd-looking women in small “church” hats. Younger, professional women began to frequent the place when the Philadelphia Inquirer did a feature on Polly’s. Male customers were far less numerous, but when men came they came in groups of two or three, probably for emotional support.
  Polly’s wait staff was made up of older women who had once worked at Horn and Hardart’s on Broad Street. Some of these ladies wore hair nets and called you “hon.” All you heard there was the ching-a-ling sound of the doorbell whenever anyone entered or left. I felt as if I had walked through time into Dickens’ London every time I sat down at Polly’s.
  The bad coffee at Polly’s got me thinking about the coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts (or Café Dunkin’) on Aramingo Avenue. Café Dunkin’, as all locals know, is a funky place. While it might not be the best café in the world, it will do when you want something close to home. It’s cheap, it’s real and it is about as unpretentious as you can get.
  Compared to the café I visit when I am in Center City, Square One Coffee, Café Dunkin’ is not a café at all. Square One Coffee is a specialty coffeeshop near 13th and Spruce Streets. People park themselves there for hours. Square One is not representative of the general population because it attracts students with laptops, so most of the time it feels like an extension of a college cafeteria. Adults who are not students rarely go there because having 30 laptops in your face can be blinding. You’ll never spot a homeless person in Square One. Ditto for screaming kids or Comcast workers dressed in overalls. One good thing about Square One, though, is that the second cup of coffee is free.
  Specialty coffee is all the rage, but these fancier roasts sometimes have an awful taste. Overworking the coffee bean all too often destroys the simple deliciousness one can find in a Wawa or McDonald’s coffee. McDonald’s coffee, in my opinion, always comes out on top when compared to the more expensive blends.
  On rare occasions I head to the McDonald’s near Front and Girard, probably the least attractive McDonald’s in the city, where I order the fish fillet and fries meal. McDonald’s is certainly better than the after-hours pandemonium one encounters in the 7/11 across the street, but junk food is junk food.
  My last visit to McDonald’s was a couple of weeks ago while waiting for the 15 shuttle bus. I was seated not far from a man who was seated behind a woman and her small son. The woman’s son had very thick eyeglasses, which gave him a Dr. Peabody look. It was apparent to me that most of the McDonald’s staff knew the kid because they all took turns hugging him. While eating my sandwich, I heard the man tell the woman how beautiful she was. He kept repeating the compliment, but was then quick to tell the woman that he wasn’t trying to pick her up. Instead, he explained that his compliment was for the “greater good” and that “the universe” was telling him to tell her that she was beautiful.
  The man piled on more compliments and then he honed in on Dr. Peabody, who was happily munching on fries.
  “Hey, you have cornrow hair,” the man announced. “Cornrow, wow! Don’t get me wrong. That’s not bad. Look at me, I can’t do cornrows in my hair — look at it… but you can and that’s beautiful.”
  The zany exchange reminded me somewhat of a recent Café Dunkin experience with Steve Janas, a filmmaker with the Discovery Channel, who has also worked with actor James Franco’s Rabbit Bandini Productions. Janas was there with his camera cohort Joshua Staub and the three of us were happily munching when a pleasant homeless guy who frequents the area walked up to our table.
  I’ll call the homeless guy Jethro, only because he likes to wear a Peruvian-style knit hat with knitted braids that sort of curl down on his shoulders. Jethro actually resembled a neighborhood millennial, not someone who’s always walking back and forth into the deeper pockets of Kensington.
  I’ve given Jethro money in the past, but today was not his day. Apparently he had done something to win the disfavor of management, because no sooner had he said hello to us than he was told to get out. What he did days or months ago to warrant getting kicked out is anybody’s guess, but rules are rules. Meeting Jethro, you’d never know that he was capable of anything bad except laying on a lot of charm for handouts.
  After Jethro’s exit — he survived walking across dangerous Aramingo Avenue — I thought of all the other cafes that I have yet to visit. One of them is The River Wards Café on Richmond Street. I met the chief designer of this café on the 15 shuttle months before the café opened and was promised an invite to the opening, but that never happened.
  For me, a café has to be accessible, and that’s why Café Dunkin’, with all its glaring imperfections, usually does the job. It also happens to be the place where I can connect with neighbors who would never go to a Square One Coffee or the River Wards Café — neighbors like Maria, who is fond of corn muffins and Café Dunkin’s tuna fish croissant.
  Maria likes to tell me how the tuna fish has a tranquilizing component to it because after eating it, all she wants to do is sit there and meditate. Friends tell me to be careful about eating tuna because of its high mercury content, but when you love tuna, what can you do?
  Maria also has some weird theories about Café Dunkin’s donuts and muffins. For instance, she likes to say how sprinkle donuts have been known to cause hallucinations. Perhaps we better not go here because I don’t want to give weight to the theory that Café Dunkin’ managers are part of the Illuminati who participate in strange nighttime ceremonies when the place is bereft of customers.