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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Librarians are Book Processing Technicians: George Lippard, Friend of Edgar Allan Poe

The Local Lens
• Wed, Jul 30, 2014
By Thom Nickels

Now that I’ve finished my book on Legendary Locals of Center City Philadelphia (the publication date is September 8th), I find my mind drifting back to a few of the most important people in the book.

One of them is 19th Century Philadelphia writer George Lippard. Not many people have heard of Lippard, unlike the multitudes who have heard of Edgar Allan Poe, who was a close friend of Lippard’s. Lippard was born in Chester County, and received a haphazard education in a Methodist seminary at fifteen years old in upstate New York before deciding that he really didn’t want to be a preacher. Lippard discontinued his studies and headed back to Pennsylvania but not, as it turns out, to live with his parents, who were very ill—his mother had TB and his father was severely crippled—but with his grandfather and two aunts in Germantown.

The young writer-to-be loved Germantown and the woods around the Wissahickon Creek, so it is likely that much of his time was spent hiking and exploring the area, especially the old Indian trails there. This idyllic interlude was cut short at his father’s death in 1837, when Lippard was not given any part of the estate. The empty "last gesture" from his father caused young George to become penniless. Although he would work as a law assistant at various city law firms, the work was sporadic and not enough to support him, so he wound up on the streets of the city, a virtual vagabond, sleeping in the open, in abandoned buildings, under trees or along the banks of the Delaware. His life for a period of time was much like the lives of the aimless drifter types we see standing in front of convenience stores today offering to hold the door for you (for a tip), or the traffic panhandlers who carry cardboard "I am homeless" signs while parading through traffic lanes on Aramingo Avenue.

All of this happened during the horrible Depression of 1837-1844, but the experience provided Lippard with a sense of how poor people are treated by the very rich, and how difficult it is for poor people to "pull themselves up by their own bootstraps" when confronted with the biases and barriers set up by the wealthy ruling class.

Despite these difficulties, Lippard managed to find time to write a novel, Lady Annabel, which his friend Edgar Allan Poe read and didn’t think half bad, despite Poe’s somewhat condescending attitude towards his writer friend. Since writing novels rarely brings in a lot of cash, Lippard found a newspaper job at the (Philadelphia-based) Spirit of the Times newspaper, where he wrote satirical columns that attacked the rich and other writers. He also did crime reporting, something that appealed to his somewhat lurid imagination, since Philadelphia at the time had passed from her former Colonial glory to a much lower status, often described as a "place for murder and intrigue."

Lippard’s writing courted a lot of controversy, although he soon became a best selling novelist, despite the fact that literary critics, those arbitrars of taste (librarians perhaps?) called much of his work "trashy." He also cut a daring personal figure because he resembled the young poet Lord Byron with his thick eyebrows almost connecting above the bridge of his nose, and his long straight hair framing an angular face which many were quick to describe as poetically dreamy and good looking. Lippard, as a columnist for "The Spirit," had plenty to say if only because homelessness had made him aware of the terrible treatment of the down and out in the City of Brotherly Love. This fact set him on a mission: to become a writer "for the masses."

While the so-called master of the macabre, Poe, may have condescended to Lippard as a "lesser version of himself," many readers today who have had a chance to read Lippard’s novels and essays come away with the feeling that, "Lippard makes Poe look like Mother Goose." Appreciation for Lippard, in fact, has had a "sleeper" quality to it—unlike Poe’s meteoritic rise immediately after his death (he was especially praised and appreciated in France). To this day, Lippard is often referred to as "Poe’s Philadelphia Friend," although many have come to appreciate his unique sensibility.

Lippard, in fact, wrote of the way that Poe was treated during his life in an essay published after his friend’s death. "…One day, news came that the poet was dead. All at once the world found out his greatness. Literary hucksters who had lied about him, booksellers who had left him to starve, gentlemen of literature, who had seen him walk the hot streets of Philadelphia without food or shelter—these all opened their floodgates of eulogy, and slavered with panegyric the man whom living they would have seen die in the next ditch without one effort to save him. This is the joke of the thing," Lippard concludes.

In his travels about the city, Lippard loved to wear colorful, flamboyant capes, under which he always carried a dagger or two. He also carried a cane in the shape of a sword and had a belt or brace of loaded pistols around his waist. Such shenanigans today would get him thrown into the back of a police wagon or sent to the psyche ward at Friends Hospital. But Lippard had no interest in writing for critics or for the upper classes—or, if there had been a Free Library system when he was writing, in obtaining a speaker’s slot in a literary lecture series. Lippard, in fact, had his eye set on the working class masses and put his energy into becoming an early labor union organizer, forming the Brotherhood of the Union in 1849, an organization that sought "the unity of all workers." By October 1850, there would be Brotherhood chapters in nineteen states.

As if the formerly homeless writer didn’t have enough to do, he was also a newspaper publisher and editor, publishing the Quaker City weekly for some 15,000 readers, a publication that enhanced his reputation as a radical reformer against the elite.

A true romantic, he married his sweetheart, Rose Newman, 26, on a large rock overlooking Wissahickon Creek. The couple had one child but both Rose and the child died from TB in 1851 right around the time that his sister Harriet and her two children died from the same disease. Suddenly, life’s tragedies became too much for the fearless writer. He found it hard to go on. It is said that in his despondent state he became suicidal and came very close to throwing himself off Niagara Falls but was talked out of it by friends.

Lippard’s role as a "working class hero" did not preclude a talent for eloquent and powerful public speaking. When I read references to Lippard’s talents as a speaker, I can only conclude that he spoke the King’s English, meaning that he didn’t cut corners or fall into a world of embarrassing grammatical and rhetorical blunders, such as saying youse for you.

He contributed much to the mythology of the city. For one thing, he gave Philadelphia its sobriquet, "The Quaker City," and his short story, "Ring, Grandfather, Ring," (published in 1847) details the doings of the Second Continental Congress at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and ends with a bit of fiction, or how the Signers of the Declaration rang the Liberty Bell atop Independence Hall so hard after the signing that the bell actually cracked.
Lippard’s "how the Liberty Bell got its crack" story still fools people, but at the same time it is a testament to the power of Lippard’s pen that fiction and myth has been allowed to override historical truth.

Lippard died at 31 years of age in 1854 of TB just like his wife, sister and child before him. His death came well before the start of the Civil War although it is said that his writings on slavery awakened Abraham Lincoln to the plight of slaves. Lippard’s Gothic sensational style and his interest in esoteric spirituality give many of his works a prophetic ring. In his book, "Monks of Monk Hall: A Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery, and Crime," Lippard wrote that it was his intention to write a book that "describes all the phases of a corrupt social system, as manifested in the City of Philadelphia."
Lippard writes: "To the young man or young woman who may read this book when I am dead, I have a word to say: Would to God that the evils recorded in these pages, were not based upon facts. Would to God that the experience of my life had not impressed me so vividly with the colossal vices and the terrible deformities, presented in the social system of this Large City, in the Nineteenth Century…"

These are damning words, enough to make one wonder if his criticism of the city perhaps helped to seal his fate when it came to the cultivation of his legacy by politicians and those same "elite" legacy-makers that he once railed against.
I thought of George Lippard recently when I came across a series of online articles about a July 2013 exhibit entitled Philadelphia Literary Legacy at the Philadelphia International Airport in Terminal A-East. The purpose of the exhibit was the celebration of 200 years of Philadelphia writers, past and present, and to display for one year photographs, book covers and biographies of 50 authors, playwrights and poets from the time of the Declaration of Independence.
Sounds like a great idea to boost the city’s legacy, doesn’t it?

The writers chosen to be part of the exhibit were picked by a number of librarians in the Philadelphia Free Library system. While the names of widely known historic authors, like Thomas Paine, are predictable shoo-ins, the exhibit’s selection process slipped into dicey mode when it came to contemporary writers. Were authors chosen on the number of books they sold? Does a chick lit novelist or politically appointed city poet compare to an I.F. Stone (chosen) or to a Pearl S. Buck (chosen), or even to a George Lippard (chosen, thank God) or to an Agnes Repplier (chosen), once the leading essayist in the United States and often referred to as the Jane Austen of America?

Politics are always involved in selections of this nature, and that’s why it gets dicey when city and governmental bodies get into the business of designating who is (and who’s not) a literary cultural icon.

Think for a moment of the librarians who recommended what writers to include in the exhibit. Librarians are not writers or literary critics. If anything, they are book processing technicians who tend to skim books for shelving purposes. Yes, you read that correctly, they are book processing technicians. They may be experts on the latest abbreviated reviews (of books), and they may be opinionated as to what books they think are good or bad, but this is as related to authentic literary insight as a fly is related to a Wissahickon hiker.
Just ask George Lippard!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Dog as Urban Diety

The Dog as urban deity
Weekly Press
• Wed, Jul 16, 2014
By Thom Nickels
Contributing Writer
Who let the dogs out?

Or: Here come the pit bulls, twenty in a row and howling like wolves in Germany’s Black Forest. Where to escape? Many people slip inside their houses. Moms who had been sitting on stoops reach out and take their babies out of strollers and tell their other toddlers on tricycles to stop everything and get inside.

"The pits are coming! The pits are coming!" somebody shouts.

I witness the Stephen King scenario from my second story window. "Does this explain the odd disappearance of feral cats from the neighborhood?" a friend of mine who dropped by, asks.
"How’s that?" I say.

"Feral cats slip in and out of backyard tiny spaces, the same private backyard spaces where the city’s new breed of choice, the pit, lingers and waits. It’s much like the fly going into the spider’s web. The pit eliminates the feral!"
My friend may be right. The neighborhoods used to be filled with feral cats... On my own block we used to see two or three a day. Suddenly there’s an absence.

Of course, I never did see twenty pits in a row racing down my street, but given the popularity of pits, it could happen in the future.

It’s not the breed it’s the people who raise the dogs, the pro-pit campaign posters state. We’re supposed to commit this feel good advertising to memory. We’re supposed to remember this the next time we read an awful story in the press about a pit attacking a toddler on the way home from school. We’re supposed to get it straight that pits are just like any other dog—the regal Greyhound, the cute as pie Chihuahua, the hot dog or Dachshund or the supremely benevolent Collie. Blame the awful person who taught the pit how to be an indiscriminate fighter or growler, the pro-pit campaign says. The pit, by itself-- as a blank slate—is as angelic as the lower order of angels. "Stop the persecution!"
Stop the persecution!

Let me review my experience with bad dogs.

There was the ferocious German Shepherd that would chase me on my bicycle when I was a paperboy. At 12 years of age, I avoided big dogs but this mammoth Shepherd loved to snip at my ankles whenever he saw me riding by. On Fridays, when I’d go door to door to collect the weekly newspaper subscription fees, the Shepherd would circle my bicycle, growl and then force me to bypass the house and collect when the Shepherd was out of sight. I tried my hardest to process the dog’s nasty demeanor, but couldn’t come up with an answer. I learned very early on that however endearing a pet may be, on a base level they are still beasts, and that no matter how sweet and lovely they are, every now and then a portion of that beast emerges.

Our own dog, Lucky, a tan and black Dachshund, was a good looker but he was known to growl illogically and violently whenever any of the males in the family placed a plate of dog food in front of him.
"What’s with Lucky?" my brother would ask, "Licking and loving you one moment, then ready to take your head off the next"
Lucky had a good life. He loved to roam the cornfield behind our home, run down to the creek and sniff the water’s edge for crayfish, and then explore the stacked hay bales inside a nearby barn. He was combed and brushed and given endless treats from the dinner table. One day he even brought home what looked like a monkey’s paw. Where did he find a monkey in Chester County? The paw (or claw) was a topic of conversation in our house for years.

Loveable as Lucky was, his dangerous habit of running into the street in front of our house at the approach of a car or tractor trailer truck eventually did him in. His insatiable thirst for nipping at wheels going round backfired when he miscalculated and nipped too far underneath a moving vehicle. "He was hit by a car," my mother told me the day I walked home from school and found her cuddling Lucky in her lap on the grassy embankment in front of our house. She was weeping terribly.

Because Lucky had never once growled at my mother, the family came to believe that she had a special bond with him. That afternoon on the embankment I felt bad mostly because my mother was feeling bad. I felt for Lucky although I could not bring myself to cry.

With the Lucky era over, it would be a while before we got another dog. When that happened I was already out of the house away at school or in Boston but when I heard of the dog I also heard of the new pet’s bizarre behaviors: like how she liked to "eat" her own tail.

What sort of dog is into self-cannibalism, I wondered. The tail eating got so bad that the pet’s tail had to be amputated, but instead of correcting anything the lack of a tail led to other self-eating attempts. The otherwise sweet dog just wanted to eat herself off the planet. It occurred to me then that maybe dogs had more neuroses than human beings and were often more trouble than they were worth.

Nobody had pit bulls in those days. I remember Collies, Dachshunds, Boxers and Shepherds, although the term junkyard dog (breed unknown) made the rounds from time to time, referring to ill-mannered ugly dogs who were so nasty they would attack their own shadow.

The entire time I lived in Baltimore (as a student) or Boston or Colorado I barely remember seeing anybody walk dogs, even though I’d done plenty of that with the most infamous dog in my extended family, the black French Poodle, Monsieur Faux Pas.

Monsieur Faux Pas was an indiscriminate, shameless cad. He loved legs, all sorts of legs, male, female, young and old, small children, toddlers just starting to walk, even furniture stumps. As a teenager, I would walk Monsieur Faux Pas all over the streets of West Chester. I had great fun doing this. (Of course, these were the days before the idea of bagging your dog’s poop had entered the public consciousness). Monsieur Faux Pas was well behaved during these walks but he showed his Jekyll and Hyde side at family gatherings, namely Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter, all occasions when the adults would be sipping cocktails in the living room.

That’s when he would go on a leg tear. There’s nothing in life that brings one down to earth faster than having a dog greet you with a leg humping routine. My venerable grandfather, dressed in one of his meticulous tailored suits, would suddenly be jolted forward on the sofa as Monsieur PP wrapped his beastly paws around his argyle socks.
"No, no, no!" grandmother would interject. At that, Monsieur PP would disengage as grandfather would check his trousers for marks.

Monsieur PP, undeterred, would proceed to Aunt Dora—silk stockings always made the grade—then proceed to grandmother herself, and then after that to each of my siblings, going down the line, sometimes leaving trails and sometimes not, until the group outrage turned into a kind of fascinated, guilty laugh. Monsieur PP had succeeded in breaking up the stuffy formal atmosphere.

"He needs to be locked in a room," his owner, Aunt Katherine, would offer, and so Monsieur PP would be ushered upstairs until the terrible spell that had possessed him had passed. In an hour or so he could be released into polite company.

Of course, once released, Monsieur PP would bide his time, staring sheepishly at each one of us in turn while lounging in front of the fireplace, his eyes focused on our legs as if he was just waiting for an opportune moment to begin again. Sometimes he got his wish, especially when he’d position himself under the dining room table during dinner where there would be a cacophony of legs of all types and sizes.

"Monsieur PP, please stop that," Aunt Gertie would mumble between mouthfuls of fresh fruit cocktail or shrimp.
"Is he up to his old tricks?" Aunt Katherine would snap.
"He is," Aunt Gertie replied. "Maybe if we ignored it, he will stop."

When I heard of Monsieur PP’s death when I was in my twenties, I felt a little sad. "He was a family unifier all right," I said to my sister Susanna. "He knew when to strike. At the height of a heated political discussion, or when one of the older relatives made a bitchy comment about something. He’d come in and do his thing."

Had Monsieur PP been a pit bull I cannot imagine there would have been much laughter as he went from leg to leg.
Monsieur PP may have had a sexual problem but it was a benign problem at best, a mere indiscretion. But substitute real flesh biting or the gashing of teeth for comedic humping and you have a First Aid kit nightmare. Monsieur PP was also good-natured. I don’t think I ever heard him growl in my life. He loved life, he loved people, and of course he loved legs.

I’m reluctant to comment further on pits because I don’t want the pit lobby to come after me and tell me to stop persecuting them. Live and let live, I say, even if pits in my mind are a symbol of how far the world has fallen from being a relatively civilized place into a rustic cellar filled with brutal uncertainties.

My Time as a Philly Juror

The Local Lens
• Wed, Jul 16, 2014

By Thom Nickels

When my Jury Summons notice appeared in the mail, all I could do was breathe a sigh of despair. You know how it is: the Jury in-take crowds, the lists of instructions to be followed, the canned videos, and the line formations going to the rooms of the various judges. The last time I received a Jury Summons was five years ago. Back then my name was called along with other names for a case but just as our group was about to head to the courtrooms, we were informed that the two parties involved in the case came to a settlement.

Obviously, this was not an exciting criminal case but just another lawsuit.

"You can collect your check and go home," we were told.

In prior years, it was my belief that I was never accepted as a juror because I noted on the questionnaire that I was a journalist. I assumed this was the reason because during personal questioning by the attorneys, I felt that the word journalist was a buzz word, a kind of psychic red flag. Since that time, I’ve been of the opinion that lawyers would rather not have a journalist as a juror.

Could it be because they think journalists are going to write about the case or critique their courtroom performance in some way?

This year’s Jury Summons broke the mold. When I was questioned by a court official and attorneys for both the plaintiff and the defendant, they seemed excited about the ‘J’ word. In fact, the court official immediately began telling me that he’s read a number of things I’ve written over the years. "I know who you are," he said, looking me square in the eye, but with a smile.

"I know who you are, Tommy Nickels!"

He was a tall man from South Philly and he very much reminded me of Frank Rizzo. He was almost as tall as Rizzo was, and he even spoke like Rizzo, enough to make me wonder if he had ever known the former Mayor.
I did, in fact, ask him that a little later on, to which he said: "Yes, I knew Frank. He had an appetite like no other. He once ate three entrees of mussels in front of me, and he devoured 3 long rolls of bread. "

The case I was being auditioned for called for 8 jurors out of a pool of 30 people. You can imagine my surprise when my number was called.

"You’ll be here till Friday," the court official told us. "That’s three days."

Entering and leaving City Hall is much easier as a juror. The procedure is simple: bypass security (always a pleasure), take the elevator to the appropriate floor, then head for your assigned jury room and hang out with the other jurors until the judge calls you into the courtroom.

The general jury selection process, however, is like cattle herding. Years ago, the City provided drinks, soft pretzels and donuts for all prospective jurors. These were the lush years. At that time, nobody had to stand during the selection process because there weren’t enough chairs in the main hall, but that’s no longer the case. I stood for over an hour in the massive room as various groups were called into different courtrooms. I’m not sure why the place was so packed. Are there that many cases being tried in the City of Philadelphia?

Even if there are a lot of courtroom cases going on, why book more people than the room can hold?
It was a very hot day when the selection process was going on, so people didn’t look to be in a very good mood. Having to pass through "take off your belt" security is humiliating enough, but when people discovered that there were no empty seats in the hall, the mood in the room seemed to thicken.

It took a court official, the one who calls names and takes attendance, to lighten the atmosphere. Ms. X worked the room like a high energy stand up comic although 2 hours later you could feel her spirit diminishing. She told jokes and offered antidotes like a cruise ship MC. She’d mimic being tough, then giggle and wink at the crowd. At one point, she announced that far too many faces in the room looked depressed. She tried her best to be a mood altering drug.
Her job wasn’t easy. Sitting there waiting for my name to be called, I realized how many strange names there are in the City of Philadelphia.

Names like Philomena Villanova, Myers Pumpernickel, Jesus John Peter Savior, and Sayczar Akaka Apple came rolling off her lips. Ordinary names seemed scarce. This must have been the odd name day. Some names were so weird she had to spell them out because she couldn’t pronounce them.

When she called your name you had to answer with the word "Here," a system that reminded me of my grammar school days when the nuns would take attendance. Everybody had a different way of saying "Here." Some people mumbled it; others shouted it, while others seemed to go silent when they heard their name. A woman with short black hair reading a Harry Potter book responded with an upright jerk and a loud "yep!" when she heard her name. Several jurors answered with a depressed sounding "Yes" while others, it seems, could barely speak at all. Their voices were so soft most assumed that they had fallen asleep in their chairs.

Standards have gone by the wayside when it comes to how people dress for jury selection. Many were dressed as if they were headed to a summer picnic or ball game-- shorts, t-shirts, sandals, and sneakers were not uncommon. Some even wore dirty, stained shorts. One man was in a tank top, his arm tattoos exposed like sun bleached leper sores. The women were better dressed overall. What these men in shorts didn’t count on, however, was the fact that once they were pulled into a courtroom-- where the air conditioning turned the environment into an Arctic blast--they began to freeze.

As in, really freeze.

In fact, everyone who was in extreme summer dress complained of the high air conditioning once they got into the courtroom. "Please turn the air conditioning down," they pleaded.

The attorneys, in full suits and ready to go into slick attorney mode, were comfortable. "Over our dead bodies," they must have wanted to say, but didn’t.

Tank tops may be good on hot days when you have to weed a garden or take out the garbage, but when did they take the place of real shirts?

"Remember people, no open toe shoes or sandals in the courtroom," the court official told our little group of eight. "No flip flops. Flip flops are for the beach, for those zany, Wildwood days, but not court! Dress appropriately, please. Please!"
While going through security on the morning of the first day, I noticed that a guy behind me was dressed in short Bermudas and a tie dye shirt. "You’re the first guy I’ve ever seen wear shorts to a Jury selection session," I told him.
"Well," he said, "I wear a suit every day and when they said we could dress comfortably, I thought of shorts." We laughed at this and went our separate ways but I couldn’t help but wonder at the word comfortable. One person’s comfortable is another’s inappropriate attire.

Imagine a judge in flip flops and a tight tie dye shirt tucked into ballet tight Bermuda shorts. If anybody should be comfortable, it should be a judge.

Yes, it was really good to know that it was the "naked" ones who got their just desserts when they arrived in the sub-freezing courtrooms and begged officials to turn down the air conditioning.

On day 2 of the trial, our court guide told us that the jury room where we met in the morning and where we took our 5 or 10 minute breaks was once a City Hall holding cell. The guide pointed to a row of pay phone shells, where the newly arrested could make their one constitutionally guaranteed phone call.
"Elmo Smith was in your holding cell," the official explained.

Elmo Smith was arrested and charged with the brutal death and rape of a sixteen year old Manayunk resident, Maryann Mitchell. Mitchell, a student at Cecelian Academy, had been out with girlfriends on the night of December 29, 1959 to see the movie South Pacific. After the movie and a stop at a hamburger joint, her friends left her at a bus stop so that she could make her way home. Her body was found the following day near Harts Lane in Whitmarsh Township.

Like the Center City jogger case at 21st and Pine Streets in Center City in November 1995, the Mitchell case was a gruesome one. Our guide told us that he had seen the files on the Mitchell case in the City Hall archives. I didn’t have time to tell him that when I was working on a story about the Center City jogger case, I was shown an upsetting photograph of Kimberly Ernest’s body at the base of the stairwell at 21st and Pine. The photo upset me for weeks.
The Maryann Mitchell case rocked Philadelphia like no other murder case in the 50s and 60s. Women everywhere were afraid to go outside or were constantly looking over their shoulders for "another Elmo Smith." Smith, a handyman with a long arrest record for rape and attempted abductions of young females, was the last person to die in Pennsylvania’s electric chair.
Of course, there’s not much in Jury Room 646 that still resembles a holding cell, although you might make a case for the small caboose style windows that form the base of a much larger window. There’s also an old radiator painted brown or dark green that was undoubtedly in the room when it was a jail cell. Had Elmo Smith ever reclined against the radiator and reviewed the events of December 29th?

Had he shed a tear? Or did he grip the edges of the radiator in an act of frustration over being caught?

In ways that we cannot fathom, all rooms hold memories. The fears, agony and pain of people once confined to certain rooms can seep into the walls, forming shadow impressions that a sensitive person can pick up. There have been many rooms in my life that have caused me to say, "Something went on in here."

Around the corner from Jury Room 646 is an old staircase that looks to be falling apart. It’s a narrow staircase with tattered paint and split wood; although, you can see that at one time it was a very fine staircase. In some ways it resembles a staircase that was meant to be kept secret, but here it was in full exposure, lonely, decrepit, one of City Hall’s secrets.

What had happened on those steps? Who was pushed, handcuffed or threatened?

On day 3 we deliberated in the jury room, and that’s when things got crazy.

When it came time to select a foreman I was surprised when most of the jurors said they wanted me but that was no sooner said when the one woman in the room said that the honor should go to the really, really quiet guy in the back who’s hardly said anything "since we got here."

Life is strange, and it was too hot to argue.

I gave the odd honor to the quiet guy, but soon after regretted giving in so easily.

Thank God my time as a juror is over.
                      CITY BEAT, ICON MAGAZINE    JULY 2014

We learned a lot about the human brain and violent criminal behavior at the Athenaeum recently. The featured speaker explained that a marker for psychopathic individuals who are prone to violence was small ears set low on the head. While this characterization was presented as a general predisposition rather than fact, small ears set low on the head has for us always been an indicator of trouble. We couldn’t sto
p thinking about low hanging ears a week later when we participated at the first annual East Kensington Trenton Arts Festival as a food truck vendor judge. We sampled lobster, shrimp, Asian Foo delights, sumptuous cupcakes, ice cream, tacos, cheese steaks and more. Can too much deliciousness be a bad thing? By the end of the tour we came not only to appreciate why the ancient Romans valued the vomitorium, but how many low hangers there were in the world…Of course, we’re talking ears here, not meatballs.  

Nantucket was on our travel agenda years ago when, eating in a local bistro, we noticed our dead great aunt sitting at a table across the room cutting into a breast of chicken. This was no ordinary resemblance, but a shocking ultra-Xerox copy right down to the last hair follicle and freckle. Auntie had talked about Nantucket all her life, praising it as her favorite place. We thought of auntie (and her double) at the inaugural John C. Van Horne lecture at the American Philosophical Society (the occasion: Van Horne’s retirement from his position as CEO of the Library Company of Philadelphia). Guest speaker, author Nathaniel Philbrick (Whales, Pilgrims, and Revolutionaries), who lives in Nantucket, talked about his historical non-fiction. Philbrick’s presentation was no canned sound bite but an inside look at his writing habits. While we never asked Philbrick whether he’s had any auntie ghost sightings, we did chat with PMA’s Kathy Foster at the small-plate cocktail reception afterwards. “How great was that!” Kathy exclaimed, her eyes lighting up like a New England lighthouse. “I have a full time job, but my greatest wish is to write full time…to get up in the morning and sharpen those pencils and get to it!” We know what Kathy means, even if the sharpening pencil part makes us think of math, not literature.     

We met Fergie of Fergie’s Pub fame the day before Philly Beer Week (and two weeks before Bloomsday) even though every week seems to be Philly Beer Week. Fergie’s a pleasant Irish guy who sees the humor in everything. As committed wine drinkers (beer is a food, after all), we couldn’t get into Beer Week’s rowdy axe smashing-the-keg-here-comes-the-suds antics. Beer Week, however, did bring us a plethora of sudsy emails, one of them from Sugar House Casino announcing the Philadelphia Cornhole League Tournament. Now, we remember that riotous word from adolescence when it conjured up hushed Philip Roth woodshed scenarios and when it was the banter of jokes. Can it be that people don’t know the history of that word? We added the Cornhole League ad to our list of Philly oddities alongside sidewalk hookah smoking (very popular in London), but we’re not sure why. While hookah may be the dumbest thing to do since blindfold bungee jumping, doing things with corn has no malevolent after effects.    

We tried (but failed) to imagine Jane Golden doing hookah when we saw her at the Mural Arts annual Wall Ball at Union Transfer. Jane MC’d the evening and her performance on stage (jumping up and down like a female Howard Beale in the movie Network) called to mind her limitless energy. The annual fundraiser and auction drew hundreds of people, including the mayor, Philly’s Poet Laureate, and a lot of people intent on serious partying. But nobody parties like the people at Dirty Frank’s, where getting—and staying—drunk is an obligation. We visited DF’s for the opening of “Is it Art?” even if the exhibit didn’t live up to the “Is it?” factor at all. We expected found objects like Triamcinolene Acetonide Ointment, chlorhexidine gluconate oral rinse, or used band-aids arranged like a Leger painting, but instead saw some really handsome pieces. We sat in the front of the bar with Walton, Tamara and their dog Harry so as to avoid the crush of elbows. DF’s cultish atmosphere is the polar opposite of more upscale places, like the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s 2014 Heritage Day, where Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw (the founder of India’s largest biotechnology enterprise) was awarded the Othmer Gold Medal.

Our time at CHF reminded us that there’s a proper way to behave at cocktail receptions, namely that stockpiling glasses of wine at your table for later consumption (as we witnessed one guest do) is a major transgression. Maybe what’s needed is a cool book on Philadelphia reception etiquette. Some people who frequent city receptions could care less about the play, lecture or the exhibited art. We first witnessed this phenomenon years ago at Wilma Theater receptions when we spotted elderly women opening their handbags and sliding in napkin-wrapped hors d’oeuvres. The old ladies moved fast yet the tendency was for observers to think: “Ah, the poor dears must need it, they’re on fixed incomes.” Recently, at another reception, we witnessed two sloppily dressed Dickensian types gobble up massive amounts of the hors d’oeuvres. When we pointed out the culprits to our friend Emily, she told us that one of the two was actually mentally ill and had an awful habit of pouring wine over your head if he doesn’t like what you say, or if you are talking too long to someone he really, really wants to speak with.   

Not long ago, one of the best things someone with an inquiring mind could do was listen to NPR, especially Terry Gross’ award-winning show, Fresh Air. As a second-best listening alternative, one could also listen to NPR’s Radio Times with Marty-Moss Coane. But then was then and now is now. Listening to Fresh Air today, one is struck by the preponderance of cable TV star guests, often vapid twenty- or thirty-something actors from obscure but popular cable TV shows. Add to this list Fresh Air’s repeated series of interviews with Judd Apatow, a director of the once (esoterically) popular cable show Freaks and Geeks, and you might ask: Is Terry Gross now serving a commercial purpose by supporting the careers of certain actors? When Gross’ replacement, Dave Davies is put in charge, however, Fresh Air’s heavyweight guests return like a South Pacific tsunami.  

Yes, Virginia, it is True: we did coin the line, Baby Up Talk, or BUT. “BUT” is when the sentences that come out of the speaker’s mouth have an upward tilt as if the speaker was intentionally raising the conversational pitch above normal speaking tones. BUT sentences also end with a blatant question mark. We got a big dose of BUT when we heard the son of a former colleague of ours interviewed on Radio Times. The son was being interviewed with a local filmmaker. We’ve never known him to speak in BUT, but here he was, pushing every declarative sentence into high tonal regions and ending them with a question mark. What in the name of God had happened to him, we wondered. 

  At the City Institute branch of the Free Library we chatted with the retiring Artistic Director of the Pennsylvania Ballet, Roy Kaiser, a handsome, gracious man who came to Philly 35 years ago on a Greyhound bus from Seattle intending to stay for only six months but wound up staying. Decades of dancing, however, have ruined Kaiser’s hip, so this athletic-looking man of dance is slated for a hip replacement. Kaiser said he doesn’t tell young dancers what awaits them in terms of disintegrating discs and kneecaps, even if runners have certainly heard the message by now. After the lecture we bumped into a once-vibrant 40-something acquaintance hobbling down the street in crutches, the result of years jogging on Center City sidewalks.   

We visited the Center for Emerging Visual Artists (CFEVA) reception at the Barclay and realized that it’s always the same social interaction when it comes to emerging artists (EA’s): They cluster together in a corner, identifiable by age, as the adults circle them until one of the artists (perhaps a woman in bangs, the new “artsy hairdo”) consents to a momentary commingling, laughing and chatting, until the EA’s cluster group comes to the rescue, forcing the adult to go back to his pen of spent peers.    

When we went to the Center for Architecture to hear photographer Vincent Feldman talk about his book City Abandoned, we expected to see an old man, but instead saw a buff, Van Dyke-goateed younger man with fire in his eyes. For all of Feldman’s marvelous stories on some of the city’s most neglected structures, he spoke non-stop for over an hour, which had us wondering whether he’d ever come up for air. When an air bubble finally did appear, the Center’s host, David Bender, said the audience might be able to squeeze in a question or two.                                                                                                                                                                                                             

We ended the month at the 2014 Preservation Alliance Awards, for the first time held at the Union League, a big improvement over the old days when it dragged on endlessly at the Crystal Room at Macys. The new streamlined award ceremony allowed for a lot more moving around. We met the Reading Terminal’s Paul Stanke, David Richards of The Right Angle Club, and architect Ed Barnhart of Always by Design, one of the evening’s award winners. We last saw Paul Stanke at the 1616 Walnut Street design opening, sponsored by Cashman and Associates, where we walked through sample apartments after hitting up the champagne bar. That evening, while historic in many ways, is very much off the record. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

City Beat June 2014

June ICON Magazine City Beat 2014

 At the 113th PAFA Annual Student Exhibition we noticed an emphasis on “art for art’s sake.” One student had constructed a large open plot of plastic kitchen utensils, a sort of faux Midtown diner for Barbie dolls. The bizarre walk-through display reminded us that one cannot go beyond a certain degree of logic in art. We noticed a preponderance of paintings, namely facial portraits, duplicating the kind of theatrical staging common in photography. “They don’t seem to be well painted enough to be convincing,” our artist friend, Noel G. Miles, suggested. “The larger fact doesn’t change: Expression still counts. What you are trying to convey still counts.” The best student pieces focused on conceptuality, or a tight unity of theme, rather than Gehry like incongruousness.  We saw excellent black and white “draftsman” renditions (reminding us of the work of Georges Rouault), and were fascinated by student Lauren Pellerito’s sculpture of two tree roots in a light “embrace.” We spoke with students Matthew Carrieri, Santiago Galeas and former student, Chuck Schultz (who dedicated a painting in our name). The annual student exhibition attracts a diverse, mostly upscale crowd (think The Philadelphia Story and Devon Horse Show). We heard from Hieke Rass that Chase Utley (Phillies) and his wife were in the building browsing for art for their new home. When we spotted Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest (they get around) shaking hands with people as they waited to board an elevator, we couldn’t help but think how tiring it must be to be Gerry with so many people offering to shake your hand. Does Gerry even remember their names in the morning?

From PAFA we headed to Tops bar on 15th Street where the student exhibitors went to hang out after the show. In this smoking den of artistic indignity, we spotted wannabe Guillaume Apollinaire’s, aspiring Georgia O’Keeffe’s, a few posers, and even an artist named Kyle, who happened to be a dead ringer for Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. Seeing so many drunken artists made us want to bump into a jock or a vacuous cheerleader type. The paneled bar somehow called to mind the legendary Tin Angel on South 2nd Street, where we wound up a week or two later (thanks to an invite by Randy Alexander of Randex Communications) to hear a live concert by Kenny Davin Fine, a super buff physician who sings best when he taps into his Kabbalah Jewish roots (and forgets Dylan). Fine talked at length about the delights of a gluten free diet and ended the evening with a song.

 In 2010 we attended groundbreaking ceremonies for architect Frank Gehry’s underground addition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gehry talked about a new museum loading dock, gallery and storage area. The audience was charmed by the always informal, quip-happy 1989 Pritzker Prize winner who seemed to be at the peak of his architectural celebrity. Yet the launching of the 81 million dollar underground utility space project had an anti climatic feel: the buried addition would never be a “seen” addition to the city’s skyline. Since 2010, appreciation for Gehry’s work has taken a nosedive. “When did Frank Gehry become a joke?” many now ask, referring to the architect’s cold, skeletal structures, especially his proposed design for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, which has been compared to everything from a Nazi concentration camp to an unfinished overpass. As a friend remarked, “The best feature of the Gehry project at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is that it is virtually all underground, which means that no one outside of the building really has to see it. If only every city that is afflicted with the latest Gehry monstrosity could be so lucky as to not have to look at the results. “

In another bizarre PMA-related story, we received a series of emails from a local writer who told us to be on the lookout for two major (coming) law suits charging art critic Edward J. Sozanski (deceased) and former PMA CEO Anne D’Harnoncourt (deceased) with conspiracy. Conspiracy to do what, we asked? How does one sue dead people, unless of course the suit involves the institutions they were once associated with?  “This is no joke,” the reporter assured us, “you will read the story when it breaks.”  

We braved a crowded Route 38 bus to attend the 7th Annual Centennial Celebration in Fairmount Park’s Horticulture Center to support park conservancy. The long and winding road to the Center is far from the bus stop, so we hiked on foot to the crowded Stephen Starr-catered event. We love Fairmount Park, especially Valley Green, though we wish there was no graffiti on the rocks and trees there. Can an event ever be too large? We were guzzled up by the swirling mass of people, some of whom included the mayor and his wife, Gerard H. Sweeney, Patricia Kind, John K. Binswanger, Darrell L. Clarke, and reps from the Phillies, Peco, Bank of America, Robert A.M. Stern Architects, and countless others. At one point we felt carried along, even pushed by the crowds, like someone being lifted and passed over the heads of people at a rave. Serenity returned when we stood face-to-face with Laura Krebes (Cashman and Associates), who got us a dinner spot next to Al Spivey, Jr., Chief of Staff to the Majority Leader (City Council), with whom we discussed the politics of Frank L. Rizzo. The butler-style hors d’oeuvres reception and dinner reminded us of a Federico Fellini fashion show:  lines of synchronized marching servers, silver trays in hand, crisscrossing the maze of revelers like models on multiple runways. The highly dramatic evening ended with terrific rain and wind storm that unfurled the edges of the massive white dinner canopy, forcing us to ditch Septa and hitch a ride into Center City.              

We danced briefly with Blanka Zizka at the Wilma’s Annual Theater Lovers Fete, a fundraising party honoring Virginia and Harvey Kimmel, who have supported the theater in various ways since 1998. The multi-tiered event included a reception, a special stage show for participants, and a fundraiser-auction dinner held in the Doubletree Hotel. We were almost introduced to Harvey and Virginia Kimmel but the couple’s long receiving line prevented that from happening. Our friend Will Jordon arranged a seat for us at his center stage table when his friend—a woman named Rothschild, no less-- had to leave early. Look for The Wilma’s production of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, directed by David Kennedy.

Opera Philadelphia’s Don Giovanni at the Academy got bad Inquirer reviews, but for us it made us think of the time we visited Mozart’s home in Vienna, as well as stories of how the composer would travel back and forth from his home to Saint Stephen’s cathedral, a few blocks away. (The cathedral is still riddled with bullet holes and shell cashing from WWII.) Mozart, a devout Catholic, ended Don Giovanni with a virtual catechism lesson, a fact that doesn’t seem to deter the opera’s secular popularity in 2014. The composer was much abused by his father as a child. The abuse was so great, in fact, that Father Mozart would drag little Mozart by the hair (or hand) through the streets and public markets. It’s no wonder then that Don Giovanni ends with the anti-hero being dragged to hell.       

        We visited Palmerton, Pennsylvania and noticed the town’s inactivity and the quiet. It was a Saturday morning, after all, a time when many towns are alive with activity.  We saw very few people walking about. If you are sick of inner city congestion, chronic Septa detours on weekends (thanks to marathons and street festivals), standing room only “seats” on the Frankford Market El, and unrelenting stop and go traffic (not to mention angry drivers and honking horns), this peaceful river town will soothe your spirit. The mountains certainly add a dimension of beauty along with the Lehigh River and Aquishicola Creek. The sight of the famous Blue Mountain Tunnel that cuts through the Kittatinny Ridge has a western Colorado feel. It is also takes you to the turn that goes into Palmerton. We remember the Blue Mountain tunnel from childhood, but that’s another story.

Who would not want to escape to a place like this? Of course, for any city sophisticate, the ‘John Boy Walton’ beauty of this town doesn’t erase the fact that it is also a cultural wasteland. Forget rock concerts, jazz festivals, theater, opera, art galleries, and museums. You might be able to hang out at the local Subway restaurant with its plastic orange chair Kabuki theater seating area, or hunt out a local Dunkin Donuts, or go bowling, but aside from this your only option is a pastime like rafting. Or staying at home and weeding your garden. There’s Palmerton hospital in case you break an arm, have an allergic reaction to a bee sting, or come down with food poisoning.  If your imagination is rich enough you might be able to fantasize about what goes on in the large gothic Victorian house that sits alone on a mountain top and which seems to be the town’s crowning glory.  The site of this house from a distance is impressive. It reminded us of Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, or even the house in Hitchcock’s Psycho.



Living in the New Security State

One of the greatest job opportunities for a young person today has to be in the security field. That’s right. Forget software technology, insurance, real estate, sales or becoming a lawyer. The security industry is the future.
Let’s review. Going to law school is no longer a guarantee of getting a position with a reliable law firm. There are just too many lawyers. In the last decade, I’ve met more out of work lawyers, or ex-lawyers, or law school dropouts than I can count.

What about becoming a funeral director? That can work but only if you do not have a fear of death, or dying. While there are no lawyers in my family, we do have funeral directors (the Donohoe Funeral Home Empire are relatives on my mother’s side). The death industry is a lucrative business, even with the popularity of cremation (somebody has to stoke the fires and gather the ashes). But it takes a special personality to work with dead people, especially in a culture where so many people are even afraid to attend funerals.

How about real estate? While jobs in real estate may seem to be booming, most of these "jobs" are part time and dicey at best. Becoming a real estate agent these days is as common as becoming a mail order minister. In my own family, there are 4 or 5 real estate agents (and the numbers are still growing). These real estate nieces, nephews and one sister-in-law had high hopes when they first got their license but once that happened, they discovered just how crowded the field is. For the most part, real estate jobs are a lot like babysitting jobs. Weeks can pass without any activity, but then there’s a high cycle and all systems are go. In the interim, the agents stay glued to their cell phones twenty-four seven.

"She’s showing another house," I’ve heard my brother say many times, referring to his absent wife when I’d call on weekends. Real estate house showings know no boundaries—Sundays, holidays, even Christmas and Thanksgiving are all fair game "show" days. It’s the potential buyer, after all, who sets the schedule.
The security industry, of course, has become big business since the nation went on a security roll after September 2001. There’s airport and Amtrak security, TSA body friskers, yellow vested agents pacing tarmac airfields, highways, parking lots, shopping malls, gas stations, vacant lots and isolated, overgrown-with-weeds Conrail yards. Go to a department store like Macy’s and you’ll see more security agents than customers. Yes, Virginia, the world has become a barbed wire camp, and with the new security conscious world there’s a preponderance of public cameras, both hidden and visible.

In the Riverwards now there are scores of somber dressed in black security guards in the local Rite Aid, CVS, the various Dollar Stores and Dunkin Donuts. There are security guards where there didn’t used to be security guards. There’s even a yellow vested security guard stationed in front of the Clothespin near City Hall. This guard stands mannequin-like watching people as they loiter or wait for buses.
Where are there not security guards, is perhaps the right question to ask, although whatever answer you might give will be sure to change by next year.

Security jobs are lonely jobs where there tends to be a lot of standing and watching. Persons with weak knees (or eyes that cannot focus) need not apply. Ditto for fidgety types who can’t (and won’t) stand still. When security guards do move around, presumably it’s to patrol or "shadow" a shopper who seems suspicious in some way. The trick for the guard is to do this without appearing to harass or follow someone outright, which might cause offense. One local store not far from my house has a stationed guard near the front entrance, so that the guard is the first person you see when entering the store. As soon as the sliding glass door opens, you are confronted with a badge. This is a constant reminder that we live in that barbed wire society, and it’s depressing and disheartening.

While these individual guards may be nice people, their role is to regard every customer as a potential thief and suspect, even if a customer happens to be a habited nun or an elderly woman in a flowered sun hat who walks with a cane. Even people in wheelchairs are prime suspects. Everybody is a potential criminal. Given this situation, how are we (the customer) supposed to react when we enter a store and come face to face with a guard who smiles and says hello but whose eyes seem to suggest that we may just be a shoplifter posing as "someone nice?"

Accepting the new security state as an unfortunate inevitability suggests that we have come to terms with the fact that we live in a rotten society where nobody can be trusted, and that we should just accept the fact that the same guard who smiles and nods to us when we enter a store will also watch us as we shop.

Yet it is getting to the point where entering a store often involves forced ritual eye contact with a guard, even if you may not want to acknowledge the guard with a "Good morning."

"It’s a psychic energy drain," as one friend of mine commented. "I might say hello to the sales clerk, but I don’t want to have to say hello to all of the guards in every store I visit. This makes it seem like passing through US Customs. I just want to go into a store without being "inspected." And I don’t want to go out of my way to smile and say ‘hi there’ when I just rolled out of bed."

One may blame the rowdiness of certain neighborhoods or cities for the new security state.

"Are the people in this neighborhood prone to violent outbursts, or what?" I heard someone say, as they entered the local WAWA on a weekend night and counted four or five Philadelphia policemen standing in a row with their backs against the take-out sandwich counter. Seeing four police officers guarding an almost empty store was an extremely odd sight indeed.

Are things so bad in the Riverwards that it takes three or four Philadelphia police officers to "guard" a WAWA, where at first glance the worst "criminal" offenses there seem only to be insistent panhandlers (Mother Teresa’s people), post-midnight drunks in multicolored Mohawks, lines at the gas pumps, or giggling girls rushing in for take-out snacks?
One can only presume that WAWA knows what they are doing, but the negative effect of seeing so many police guarding a WAWA can be misleading.

"Is your neighborhood turning into a slum?" a friend from out of town asked me several weeks ago. "Do you risk life and limb when going out for a cup of Hazelnut coffee? Has there been a shooting there?"

"No," I replied, "this neighborhood has always been super safe, and I know that most people here would like to keep it that way. "

Perhaps what I should have said is, "The guards are just standing around and waiting for that unknown something that may come down the pike…"

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Walt Whitman and Peter Doyle Get Married in Philadelphia City Hall

Walt Whitman and Peter Doyle get married in City Hall
Weekly Press
• Wed, Jun 04, 2014
By Thom Nickels
Contributing Writer

The big news last week was that marriage for same sex couples became legal in the state of Pennsylvania. This was something I didn’t expect to happen until 2020, if only because Pennsylvania can be a far more conservative state than most. (Pennsylvania, after all, is still in the business of selling wine and spirits, and it doesn’t look like liquor privatization here will be happening anytime soon.) An even greater surprise was the fact that Governor Tom Corbett said he would not challenge the new ruling. Corbett, a Republican, was expected to challenge any change in the definition of marriage, but like so many politicians today he recognizes that same sex marriage is here to stay.

Corbett didn’t challenge the ruling because the so called "gay thing" is no longer a liberal or conservative issue. The roots of this can be traced back to the days when Barry Goldwater ran for president against Lyndon Johnson. At that time, Goldwater said that he supported civil rights for homosexuals, an absolutely revolutionary thing for any politician to say in the 1960s, but especially for a conservative Republican. Years later, when Dick Cheney ran as George W. Bush’s Vice Presidential candidate, he made it clear during a debate that he supported same sex marriage. That announcement drew sighs of shock and disbelief from many Republican social conservatives who saw the acceptance of marriage equality as part of the liberal social agenda. The fantasy then seemed to be that Republican conservatives didn’t have gay children—or, if they did, they bound and gagged them in the family china closet.

After Cheney announced his support for marriage equality, more and more Republicans began to talk about their gay children and family members. Suddenly the idea that "the gay thing" only happened to liberal Democrats went flat like a bad tire on I-95. Sexual orientation, after all, is no respecter of political party or religious affiliation: A Baptist minister can have a gay son just as easily as a Broadway playwright can. After all, having your child "turn gay" has nothing to do with how you raise that child or what values you instill in him or her. Forget about "educating" a child to like the opposite sex; that’s like training a pigeon to crawl onto your lap and meow like a cat.
While thinking of last week’s marriage ruling, my thoughts turned to poet Walt Whitman, famous for his volume of poetry Leaves of Grass.

In the late 1980s, I took a tour of the Walt Whitman house in Camden, New Jersey, and got into an argument with the elderly tour guide. "Mr. Whitman was not a homosexual!" she said, angry that I had the gall to bring up the question. In an attempt to reason with her, I held up a 1982 issue of Partisan Review magazine [containing the essay, "Whitman and the politics of Gay Liberation"] and asked her to put the magazine inside Whitman’s desk. She took the magazine out of politeness, though I’m sure she destroyed it the moment I walked out the door. She then went on to mention that Whitman’s nurse, Mary Oakes Davis, had been in love with him. "Well, that may be true," I said, "But one of the fun—or agonizing-- things about life is that many people can fall in love with us but that doesn’t mean that the love has to be returned. Unrequited love is probably more common than the returned kind."

The guide then suggested that Whitman did return the love but to me this only indicated that he might have been bisexual. I was taken aback when she then quoted Whitman’s infamous line to John Addington Symonds when Symonds confronted the poet on the homoerotic content of the Calamus poems in Leaves of Grass.
"…I am fain to hope that the pages themselves are not to be even mentioned for such gratuitous and quite at the time undreamed and unwished possibility of morbid influences—which are disavowed by me and seem damnable."
Wow, spoken like Billy Sunday in a preacher’s tent.

On the surface, these words seem pretty clear, even if Edward Carpenter, a contemporary of Symonds’, knew that Whitman was telling a bold face lie. Carpenter blamed Whitman’s cowardice on the social atmosphere of 1891. Carpenter actually came out and said that he slept with Whitman and he gave details of the encounter to a writer named Arthur Gavin. As for the poet’s off-putting letter to Symonds, Charley Shively in his book about Whitman, Calamus Lovers: Walt Whitman’s Working Class Comerados, states that, "Whitman wasn’t ready to join Symonds in a crusade for gay rights," although he was quick to praise Symonds’ poem, Love and Death, which honored two Athenian male lovers "who sacrificed themselves in the war against Sparta."

"Comrade love," Shively continues, "was thus presented as less selfish than family love, which was concerned with procreation more than community….Whitman’s problem with Symonds was that the Englishman wasn’t enough of a democrat."

Whitman was being smart and discreet. He also didn’t like labels. Had he come out and joined Symonds’ crusade, it’s unlikely that his poetry would have maintained its broad based appeal.

Whitman had special male friends like ex-Confederate soldier Peter Boyle [a thin Irishman who was the poet’s primary companion in Camden for 15 years]; Warren Fritzenger [the male nurse who took Whitman along the Camden waterfront in his wheelchair]; William Sydnor [a guy who drove a Pittsburgh streetcar]; David Fender—"a redhaired young man," Whitman wrote; John Ferguson, "tall and slender," and Willy Hayes, "a drummer in a marine band." There was also Walter Dean, whom Whitman met in Philadelphia’s John Wanamaker’s Department store (John Wanamaker, the so-called King of Merchants, banned Leaves of Grass from Wanamaker’s bookstore). But I have only scratched the surface.

I left the small, Mickel Street house that day not having convinced the housekeeper that Whitman was gay, even though thousands of other visitors—famous academicians, poets, critics, writers—had all heard the same talk from this [otherwise gracious] elderly lady who went out of her way to insist that the old bard was as heterosexual as John Wayne. Unfortunately, I did not ask the guide if she had any comments on Oscar Wilde’s famous remark when Wilde was asked by George Ives in London whether the American poet was "one of the Greek Lovers." Ives asked the big question after Wilde’s visit to the poet’s brother’s house at 431 Stevens Street in Camden (now demolished), where Whitman lived from 1873 to 1884.

Wilde at that time told Ives, "Of course, I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips," but he didn’t say any more. The "Of course" speaks volumes.

Literary history is full of stories about how Whitman dealt with women who wrote him love letters, including unflattering and shocking descriptions of Mary Davies (the woman praised by the tour guide) as a woman who preyed on widowers for their inheritances. Poet Allen Ginsberg, when I interviewed him by phone in the early 1990s, was full of Whitman lore, of how he had slept with someone who slept with someone who slept with someone who slept with Whitman, and so on and on. While I’ve never been a fan of sexual bragging rights, investigating a "chain link fence" like this can be fun.
If Whitman were alive and well today, there’s little doubt that he would have been one of the first in line at Philadelphia City Hall to apply for a marriage license. Whitman loved City Hall and I’m sure he would have made the trek via high speed line with Peter Doyle to tie the knot. I don’t think the Good Gray Poet, as he was called, would have wanted a lot of congratulatory marriage fanfare either. His poetry indicates that he knows the ups and downs of relationships, so he would harbor no illusions about marriage. "Perpetual honeymoons exist only in dreams," he might even suggest. While he would have been proud of Pennsylvania’s new openness, at the same time, I’m sure he would urge everyone to move on and begin to concentrate on the world’s real problems, which have nothing to do about how or "who" we love.