Total Pageviews

Popular Posts

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

                                    ICON City Beat June 2015

 Political correctness stunted honest opinions after PTC’s press opening of Brownsville song (b-side for tray) by Kimber Lee. People were afraid to say they didn’t like this tale of a teenage black boy from the ghetto who works at Starbucks but who is then killed in the streets. The play tries hard to be original but in the end its predictability (The New York Times lamented the play’s “well worn paths”) and erratic timeline juxtapositions made us think of the word juvenile.  More reality TV and Hallmark After School Special than classic theater, we realize that genius theatre companies like PTC must fail from time to time.  

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s annual 2015 Founders Award gala at the Union League brought us face to face with art critic Edie Newhall who told us about her ancestor, Charles Godfey Leland, Philly’s own Aleister Crowley who wrote books on witches, wrote for The Evening Bulletin and was a friend of Oscar Wilde’s. Novelist Sue Monk Kidd, author of “The Invention of Wings” (an Oprah Book Club selection) was this year’s award winner, while HSP board member Alice Lea Tasman walked away with the Heritage Award. Gerry Lenfest, fresh from his Attila the Hun Inquirer debacle in which he overturned the newspaper’s endorsement of Jim Kenny for Tony Williams, showed no remorse for his sins when he took to the podium. What’s this world coming to when money outshines integrity?  (Later reports indicated that the Kenny campaign had mispresented what happened at The Inky. It was NOT Gerry Lenfest who strong-armed the Editorial Board.) 

 Fran Lebowitz once said that she never reads the works of 22 year old writers. The idea is to go up the age scale, not down, she says, though she’s mum on the work of young, emerging visual artists. While soaking up art auction items at the recent Center for Emerging Visual Artists (CFEVA) gala, we ran into the Switzerland-born Nadia Kunz, a board member of the Da Vinci Art Alliance Gallery, who showed us her bright as Easter hand made baby clothes. We hate baby clothes on general principal, but the twenty-something couple we caught eyeing Kunz’s cute as pie fabrications seemed to be having second thoughts about a commitment to childlessness. We chatted with Madrid-born artist Maria R. Schneider, and later ran into Deb Miller who spiced up Theater Exile’s superb Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Plays and Players when she insisted that her donated wine be served to patrons at the post production reception. While Plays and Players may love their cash cow bar, when wine is donated, the idea is not to pull a Gerry Lenfest.  


     On the scene of the Amtrak tragedy, Mayor Nutter was adamant: The projectiles that hit a number of trains on the same bank of tracks 30 minutes before Train 188’s derailment were inconsequential and irrelevant. As reporters continued to grill him on the subject he softened his tone but it was too late: His Honor’s old arrogance had returned like a boomerang. It’s called speaking before knowing the facts. Projectiles are thrown objects, stones or rocks, and one or more hit a northbound Amtrak Acela train while another smashed through the driver’s window of a Septa R7 Trenton-bound train. The R7 window smattering was so severe passengers had to be transferred to a bus. Acela train passengers recall hearing a huge crash when that train was hit. Septa’s Chestnut Hill Local has a rich projectile history: Two shattered windows a month has been this line’s monthly average for years. For decades the projectile problem has been dismissed as the shenanigans of “rogue kids,” but it’s time to up the ante and increase the penalties for open warfare.    

   At The Print Center’s Book Launch for poets Thomas Devaney and Joanna Fuhrman, we met Philly’s most famous woman poet, Eleanor Wilner and then chatted with poet Jim Cory before catching up with artist Diane Burko. From there it was a short ride to the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s Heritage Day where the flavor was definitely Saudi Arabian, since one of this year’s award winners was “His Excellency” Abdulaziz Al-Zamil, chairman of the Zamil Group Holding Company and a leader in Saudia Arabia’s chemical industry. The exoticism continued when we met a blonde American girl who now lives in Dubai and who said she has plenty of freedom there, including wearing her bikini to the beach. She corrected our misperceptions about the place and told us that Dubai freedoms were just as liberal as they are in New York, except that you can’t have sex on the beach, which also happens to be true in Florida.  Our evening ended at the Nationalities Services Center Global Tastes Award gala at the Reading Terminal, NSC has been helping immigrants and refugees since 1921. This year’s Margaret Harris Award went to Ballard Spahr LLP for their pro bono work in support of NSC.   

Spirit Newspapers: Philly's New Prison

Jails: If You Build It, They Will Come – The Local Lens

“If you build it, they will come.”
I’m talking about a new prison for the City of Philadelphia in the Holmesburg section of the city. If you’ve ever traveled to Holmesburg in the Northeast, you know that this area has been heavily targeted as a blight zone filled with a waste treatment plant and a number of prisons near State Road.
While I feel sorry for the residents of Holmesburg—prisons tend to be ugly architecturally—I have to wonder where these residents were when the powers that be started to turn this section of the city into Prison Central. I can’t imagine residents of the Riverwards allowing this to happen in their neighborhoods.
Let’s go back to the year 2007. At that time, Churchill Development, a Bridgewater, New Jersey developer, announced plans to build Independence Point, a $460 million residential community. Sounds like a good idea, right? Churchill had purchased 100 acres of the State Road land from an organization called Northern Associates. Although the project was initially greeted with great enthusiasm, plans for that residential community never materialized. The property wound up in the hands of BNP Paribos of New York. At that point it was valued at $7.3 million.
There was no movement for a number of years until Philadelphia City Councilman Bobby Henon had a “dunghill mountaintop” vision (this would be the opposite of a Martin Luther King, Jr. vision) to engineer a City Council bill giving a green light to the city’s Commission of Public Property to buy the land for another prison. Apparently, Henon sensed he would get city support because Mayor Nutter had already earmarked $7.8 million for the Philadelphia Prison System to replace the House of Corrections, which had been in use since 1927.
City Council’s Committee on Public Property, having swallowed the Henon Kool Aid, voted to approve the bill to buy 58 acres of the riverfront land to build a new prison to replace the old jail.

The news of City Council’s initial approval for another prison caused me to rewrite that famous Emma Lazarus line:“Give me your tired, your poor, your johns and prostitutes: Give me your weed, Oxycontin and Percocet peddlers, and all deadbeat dads. Give me also the wretched refuse of the littered streets: hard drug dealers, parole violators, obstructers of sidewalks and traffic ticket non-payers….Send even the homeless to the Tower of Philadelphia (modeled after The Tower of London), so they can lift their lamp beside the Holmesburg waste treatment plant.”   

The city was eager to spend $7,265,299 for the 7777 State Road purchase from the company that now owned the land, a carpetbagger operation called Philadelphia Loan Associates, LLC, a New York-based group that should be fined for using the name Philadelphia.
But here’s the creepiest rub of all: The New York carpetbaggers bought the property for $100 (the price of a one way Amtrak ticket to New York) last year, and then sold it back to the city for the 7-digit figure mentioned above.
Is this not the most Machiavellian of backroom deals, perhaps completed with cigar smoke, poker chips and thuggish guards carrying loaded .45 revolvers?
After a public outcry, Councilman Henon suspended Bill 150406. But suspended does not mean eliminated—the Bill could be acted on before Council’s summer recess. Whatever happens, it is almost too late to save this section of the Northeast, which has seen their old factories and warehouses east of I-95 torched, and the implementation of so much public housing that much of the old tax base there had fled for greener shores.
A few questions worth asking are why the city needs to build so many prisons, who are we throwing in jail, and why?
While I don’t have any friends in prison, many years ago I once spent a night in jail when a police van picked me up in Center City because the cops were looking for a red haired suspect. Faster than you can say “climate change,” I was ordered into the back of the van where I was shocked to find ten other confused-looking guys, all of them with red hair. Together we were taken to the Roundhouse then put in a lineup while a witness behind a one-way glass panel examined our faces. There I stood nervously until the witness in question decided that she could not identify anybody in the lineup. Then the group of us was summarily dismissed and told to find our way home.
In those days I was naïve and expected an apology like, “Sorry to have inconvenienced you. Would you like a lift home?”
Being in a lineup was everything I’d seen on TV: You stand on an elevated platform or stage with the other suspects. You look straight ahead. You do not smile or grimace. In front of you is the big, dark glass panel behind which the victim or victims of the crime scrutinize your face. Tension mounts like the buildup of steam in a shower stall. If there are chorus lines in Hell, this was it. I don’t recommend it as an “experience.”
In my travels around the Riverwards, I’ve heard far too many people say that they know somebody on parole, or in prison. I think it is sad that so many people are behind bars for drug related offenses.
While the United States accounts for just 5 percent of the world’s population, it houses 25 percent of the world’s prison population. That is an astounding amount. These numbers do not reflect a rise in violent crime but in the number of drug offenders. In fact, the numbers of incarcerated drug offenders has risen 1200 percent since 1980. Today there are more than 500,000 people in the nation’s prisons for drug-related offenses. The booming state prison population in Pennsylvania has grown by 21 percent in just 6 years: From 37,995 in 2001 to more than 49,300 in 2009. It is far higher today.
Meanwhile, as the economy continues to nose dive, petty (potentially violent) crime seems to be on the upswing. Last year a neighbor of mine was stopped on the street by three people who lunged at her from a parked car. As a side note, beware of people seated in parked cars pretending to be listening to music. These interlopers from another neighborhood pointed a gun at her and demanded the groceries she was carrying, a small bag of snacks from the local deli. They also took three dollars. Had she resisted or screamed for help, God knows what would have happened to her. People have died for less than three dollars.
These are the people who belong in prison, not the Oxycontin and Percocet dealers who pass their tiny discounted plastic bags behind parked cars in a Dunkin Donuts parking lot.
Obviously, the criminal justice system needs massive overhauling. A good first start would be to not build prisons in just one area of the city.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Wide, Wide World of Independent Internet Churches

You can thank the Internet for the birth of so many independent Catholic churches. Google the phrase and you will get a huge configuration of church names like Liberal Catholic, Apostolic Catholic, the American National Catholic Church, Independent Old Catholic Church of America, United American Catholic Church and the Anglican Catholic Church. These don’t even scratch the surface.
Most of these churches are generally progressive, “inclusive” churches with female priests and bishops; married clergy; lesbian archbishops, and so on. Some independent churches will be traditional and conservative, but this is generally not the case.
I once wrote a column for another newspaper about my ordination to the priesthood in July of 2001. This may sound like a funny thing coming from this newspaper columnist; I hardly qualify for sainthood. Still, it remains a fact that in 2001 I took an Amtrak to New York state and received the traditional laying on of hands from both a bishop and an archbishop, from Israel, with Roman Catholic, Old Catholic, Anglican and Russian Orthodox ties.
The name of the Church that ordained me covered the waterfront for umbrella inclusion: the Anglican Catholic Byzantine Orthodox Church. How’s that for a mouthful? I came across ACBOC after an intense Internet search and sent an email to the presiding bishop, inquiring about ordination. The bishop who ordained me said that my ordination was valid, despite the fact that the church had a primarily Internet-only presence with priests whose home doubles as a parish. For the most part, these home parishes include a basement or a garage that has been converted to a small chapel. While I never went to seminary, I’ve spent half a lifetime reading theological and church history texts, so becoming a priest didn’t seem that far-fetched. After ordination, my bishop gave me a chalice, a friend in Montreal made me a chasuble and a stole; I was ready to go!
But go where?
Shortly after moving to the Riverwards from Center City in 2002, I started saying Mass for the Sister Peter Claver Catholic Worker House in Kensington. These were home table Masses in the bland and predictable Novus Ordo rite, and they always preceded dinner. While I had great affection for the CW crowd, the liturgies were a hodgepodge of influences reminiscent of the scattered method of writing used by William S. Burroughs. Pop music CDs often supplemented prayers and chants, and generally the Mass prayers were altered to fit the latest theological fashions: God the Father became Mother and Father God, and some celebrants even called God “She” or  “Cosmic Mother.”
Depending on the personal style of the priest saying Mass, you could expect almost anything when it came to communion. Use of traditional communion wafers was rare. Often it was seedless rye bread or chunks from a Thriftway Kaiser roll, reports of occasional oatmeal cookies, and grape juice for wine. Despite these innovations, the CW participants were role models when it came to practicing what you preach, like loving your neighbor as yourself. When I said Mass at the CW House I came equipped with real communion hosts, a crucifix and a traditional stole.
In time, the CW house became so theologically out-there that anyone with a sincere intention to say Mass was allowed to do so; the thought was that every person sitting around the table was a member of the priesthood of believers, suggesting that everyone was a priest.
The bishop who ordained me would periodically ask how I was getting along in my new role.  “It’s lonely.” I would tell him. “Saying Mass for a congregation of one is weird. It’s like the sound of one person clapping.” Initially, the bishop had hoped that there would be lines of people outside my house on Sunday mornings. “Look,” I reminded him, “nobody is going to leave Saint Anne’s parish on Lehigh Avenue for my humble coffee table church. I don’t even have acolytes.”
Other difficulties arose when people quizzed me about how ACBOC worked. Many were perplexed when it came to the “mechanics” of the independent Catholic movement.
“Oh,” they’d say, “So it’s Catholic but it’s not really Catholic as in part of the Archdiocese or under the Pope?”
“No, our bishop is in upstate New York. We respect the Pope, but we’re not under him necessarily; we follow the Catholic tradition.”
“You follow the Catholic tradition but you are not 100 percent Catholic? I don’t understand.”
Others wanted to know if ACBOC was headquartered in a city cathedral and I’d tell them that the only cathedral was a large garage chapel in a New York country split level home. Things got worse when people wanted an explanation of what I meant when I said that our little Internet church had a valid apostolic succession. All too often I faced empty, incredulous stares.
Nonetheless, I was still a priest prepared for anything. In my house I had a ready stock of communion hosts that I purchased from a religious goods shop in South Philly. The unconsecrated hosts had IHS inscribed on them. At one point I even debated buying a cassock but, in the end, decided that I didn’t want to walk around the neighborhood in it; it would only cause more confusion.
“What do you mean you’re not a Catholic priest but a priest with Catholic, Anglican, Old Catholic and Russian roots? What does that mean?”
“It means,” I could have answered, “that my little church contains multitudes.”
One day, I was asked to attend a Mass at an Old Catholic Church in Lansdowne. This was a traditional  church with a large congregation, mostly families. Some weeks later,  when the parish priest was away, I said Sunday Mass for the entire congregation. Most of the Masses in the Lansdowne church were Catholic-Evangelical hybrids, a Catholic liturgy with Methodist music and an occasional female priest thrown in for good measure. The parish was up on the social, cultural and political issues of the day; it was politically correct to a fault. My first homily wasn’t bad, but I ended up wishing that I could have read a short story instead. I hated pointing fingers and preaching to people. I knew I had to find a new way to preach.
Meanwhile, my bishop was sending me disturbing news about the interpersonal wars going on among the hundreds of independent Internet Catholic churches. These churches were like jealous siblings or vengeful spouses intent on destroying the competition. The stories I heard were quite shocking, everything from the intentional spreading of malicious gossip, tarnishing the reputations of competing churches to full-on lawsuits. Our own church was even being sued by another independent church with a similar name. Under threat of a lawsuit, our church had to come up with another name; the bishop was hard at work trying to think of something that could work.
The small mindedness of all this shocked me and, in a single moment, I understood why I once considered myself agnostic; there were just too many Pharisees in the world of organized religion. It was astounding to me how a group of people purporting to believe in the message of Christ could act like the corrupt corporations in an Ayn Rand novel.
When the bishop emailed me the new name of our church, I had mixed feelings. Yes, the bishop was a good person. Yes, I liked and respected him; but the name he came up with sounded almost farcical.  The Orthodox Church of the Near Isles just didn’t sound right and I couldn’t take it seriously.
I emailed the bishop, “Please, do not use this name. It makes me think of Hobbit stories by J.R.R. Tolkien or the hair washing scene in the movie South Pacific.” But my protests went unheard. The church website was changed and from then on everything went downhill. ABCOC is now a shadow of its former self.
Not long after this, strange things started to happen in the independent church world; there were schisms and breakaways every five minutes. A priest would have an argument with his bishop and then leave in a huff to join another church. Or bishops would make their best friends bishops, then outfit them in lavish pectoral crosses and red robes. It didn’t take me long to realize that I clearly had entered a lunatic asylum where the inmates were merely playing Church.
I wanted out. I had had enough. But along the way, really good things happened. I married three nice couples. One was near the creek at the Inn at Valley Green, another in a large Center City church with over 200 invited guests. After this, I folded up and put away my faux chasuble and joined an established Northern Liberties parish as a pew occupying parishioner.

Monday, May 18, 2015

                                              May City Beat 2015

We spoke with Lenny Bazemore, Manayunk’s unofficial mayor, about his gallery on Main Street, and whether being a businessman has affected his own work as an artist. Lenny, who rarely seems stressed, told us that the gallery has allowed him to expand his skills to use design as a medium in addition to his painting, sculpting, drawing and photography. “Having the gallery, gives me tremendous joy in helping other artists promote their work,” he says. “My focus on developing the gallery and working with other artists has diverted my attention away from doing my own art.  Now that I have a full-time sales person in the gallery, I intend on devoting more time to engaging in my own artistic endeavors.” Lenny sees The Bazemore as a “peaceful space where all people can come and experience diverse forms of art,” and says that this is reflected in the gallery’s programming. But while The Bazemore seems to have it all, what about longevity in a world where galleries close everyday? The answer may have something to do with ownership. “Owning the building,” Lenny says, “has helped us have a more sustainable business model.”  Be on the lookout for Lenny’s new endeavor, an organic juicery and café called The Juice Merchant. “We will serve juices, smoothies, salads, soups, sandwiches, wraps, hummus and specialty deserts. Our mission is to provide organic, healthy food options that are affordable.  The Juice Merchant team will be led by our head chef and manager  Monica Sellecchia. Monica is a holistic foods chef who trained at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City. Her speciality is in all-natural, vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free eating.   

  Can Love Park’s flying saucer building, or the Fairmont Park Welcome Center, be saved? In the 1970s this Mid-Century modern structure, then called the Philadelphia Hospitality Center, was a “first aid” station for stranded travelers who needed emergency cash and/or a one way ticket home. This iconic, quirky UFO building opened in 1960 and represented Philadelphia’s crawl out of Blue Law obscurity and downtown blight, when the City of William Penn boasted that it did not have a night life. City Officials today anticipate the reconfiguration of JFK Plaza but they’ve left the door open for bulldozers to level the Saucer if a new purpose for the building can be found. Mayor Nutter and Council President Clarke both say that the Saucer “may or may not be included in the final design.” That doesn’t sound hospitable to us at all.  

New York Magazine’s senior art critic Jerry Saltz had audience members howling at the normally sedate Barnes Foundation. The ex-truck driver’s salty critique of art and life included Zen advice bombs like: the worst thing any artist could do is to feel envy or jealously at another artist’s good fortune. It was while driving cross country that the self educated Saltz realized he could call himself an art critic. This was easy to do, he said, because the art world is so disorganized that nobody in it knows what they are doing. He mentioned the excessively macho and alcoholic Abstract Expressionists and Andy Warhol. Warhol described the Expressionists as “hard-driving, two-fisted types who’d grab each other and say things like ‘I’ll knock your f--king teeth out’ and ‘I’ll steal your girl.’ The toughness,” Warhol wrote, “was part of a tradition; it went with their agonized, anguished art. They were always exploding and having fistfights about their work and their love lives.” Despite his soft voice, Warhol never ran from a confrontation. This is why his pals dubbed him Drella, a name that was a mix of Cinderella and Dracula.

At UArts Art Unleashed 2015 we hung out with E-Moderne Gallerie’s Edward Fong who told us he needed to escape the bands of roving artists tracking him down for exhibition space. Fong joined us in an obscure nook near the kitchen where the food servers congregated. He told us he was looking forward to E-Moderne’s world class Haiti exhibit in May but expressed reservations about why Philadelphians buy the kind of art they do. International art doesn’t go over big in Philly, he said; what sells in Berlin or Paris stays unsold on the wall in Philly, but put up a casual art show and these popular pieces fly off the wall. “I don’t understand it,” he mused, just as another artist drew him out of hiding. What to say to this fine man from China besides hang in there, baby?  Will “Don’t flee to New York yet, Ed!” work?       

The National LGBT 50th Anniversary Celebration will culminate with a Constitution Center exhibit (Speaking Out For Equality). There will be panel discussions and festivities from July 2-5 near Independence Hall. The movement’s come a long way since the 1970s when protestors shouted down passage of the city’s first Gay Rights Bill with cries of, “Gays have rotten teeth!” We find it strange that most of the panelists like Bishop Gene Robinson, Judy Shepard, Marc Stein, Eliza Byard, Michael Long and Eric Marcus are out of towners. They may be substantive voices, but a “localized” event of this magnitude should employ a few locally based historians, activists and writers.  

 When ran a story about a protest at a college lecture because of that lecturer's views on rape, we wondered why the protestors were angry.  Left out of the report was a crucial element:  what were the lecturer's views that made her so controversial?  How could any reporter miss such a thing? The reader finished the story not knowing what made the protesters angry.  We also have problems with what passes as "breaking news” these days.  Do we really need to know about every high school teacher who exchanges mash notes or who has a love affair with one of his or her older students? Are these really mega stories on par with the latest ISIS attacks? Journalism, it seems, has yet to find a respectable middle ground when it comes to this topic.

We headed over to the All That’s Jazz Art in City Hall exhibit to find more than a hundred people gobbling up chicken gumbo, French fries, cookies and boxed wine. This was Philadelphia at its grassroots finest, despite the Moroccan street bazaar atmosphere. Curated by Richard J. Watson, we were delighted when the dead poet Allen Ginsberg “returned” in the form of a Philly artist, Alan Ginsburg, with his “java Jive,” a coffee table sculpture, and a charcoal drawing, “The Piano Movers,” inspired by a crowded, impromptu happening in a performing space.   

Midnight Journey: With Sam and the Homeless Pretenders

The Local Lens

Wed, May 06, 2015

By Thom Nickels

I’m walking through Center City with Sam, a man from Reno, Nevada. It’s 2AM, the bars are closed, and Sam doesn’t want to call the night quits and go back to his hotel to prepare for his 7AM flight home. He wants more of Philly.
"The bars are closed, Sam," I said. "This is it, unless you’re a member of a private club."

Five feet away from us a cab is waiting for customers. The driver overhears our conversation and adds his two-cents:
"In New York City the bars stay open all night!"

"They’re open in Reno, too," Sam said, alluding to Reno’s casino life. "Closing down at two seems awfully early."
The cab driver and Sam start talking and soon the driver says he’ll take Sam to the airport when the sun comes up. They exchange numbers and, as a bonus, the driver promises to give Sam a wake-up call.

I’ve been with Sam for a total of four hours and I already feel like we’re best friends. When he suggests that I hop into the cab and take it to Fishtown, I do just that. The El has already closed for the night, and this is a much better option than waiting for the shuttle bus. Twenty-five minutes ago Sam put a twenty dollar bill in my hand for a taxi because I told him that I missed the last El but that the shuttle bus was "just fine."

"No it’s not," he said.

Not only did Sam, "The Stranger," give me taxi fare, he bought me dinner at Moriarty’s Pub on Walnut Street. We had a lot to share in Moriarty’s but it was mostly Sam who did the talking. I had asked if everyone from Reno was that nice.
As I hop into the taxi, I give Sam a hug and watch as the seventh or eighth homeless person of the night comes up to him and asks for help.

"What’s he going to say to this one?" I wonder.

Let’s backtrack a little:

Five hours earlier I was hanging out with my friends Lena, Jane and Brad at an art reception at Freeman’s Auction House. After the show, we went to Cosi’s near the Academy House for coffee and dessert.

When Brad leaves Cosi, Lena, Jane and I start talking about the relative nature of sexual attraction. We’re getting into it, French-café style, when a well dressed passerby, a dark haired guy about 35, turns in our direction and says, "What’s this about attraction?"

This is more than just a random question. The stranger is really interested, so much so that Lena offers him a seat and suddenly it’s a four-way with a new friend. Sam tells us that he’s a software engineer from Reno, and that he comes to Philly once a year on business and that he looks forward to the trip like a kid looks forward to Christmas. Philly, he says, is positively the greatest city. This is all Jane needs to hear. She invites everybody up to her 36th floor condo so that Sam can see some spectacular views of the city.

Fifteen minutes later the four of us are staring out over the city lights on Jane’s balcony with its bull’s eye view of the roof of the Academy of Music.

Sam takes our little group by storm. He’s a one man charisma machine. He has us hypnotized; we are thoroughly under his spell. We linger a long time at Jane’s place, but when we disperse it is only Sam and I who wind up back at Cosi’s.
"Let’s get some dinner, dude," Sam said to me. "I’m starving."

While deciding where to eat—it’s not easy at 1AM—Sam tells me about a homeless man who asked him for money earlier in the evening. "There he is right over there," he said, pointing to a guy in a North Face jacket and white sneakers, scurrying up a small side street to pee.

"I was going to get him something to eat," Sam said, "but then he started saying how he only wanted money for his hungry kids, lying, talking about how starved they were, and how he was evicted from his place and then fired from his job and forced to live on the streets without food. It’s bullshit. He’s got money. Just look at those hundred-dollar sneakers. I’d have more respect for him if he just said he needed the money for beer or drugs."

Not soon after Sam tells me the man’s story, the guy waves to us and crosses the street. Suddenly, it’s high-five buddy-time. North Face wants to know what we’re doing, implying he’d be happy to tag along. Sam toys with him, asks him if he’s gotten food yet for those starving kids but the guy says no, he hasn’t gotten the money to feed them, or money to buy himself something to eat.

"So what you doin?" he asked Sam.

Sam says he’s on his way to eat, after which the man asks for money. "So what you guys doin’ later?" he asked.
In Moriarty’s, Sam tells me about his life as a foster child, how he was raised by a Catholic family, a Mormon family and then a Jehovah’s Witness family. He relates tales of alcoholism, abuse, drug addiction, and stories about how he used to have nothing to his name. Now he travels throughout the US with an expense account.

After dinner, we’re out on the street again because Sam likes to soak up the sights and sounds of Philly. Another homeless man approaches.

This one is all about "Hey, what’s up," but the good cheer ends at the mention of money. He’s an older guy, kind of doughy and soft looking, not tough at all. He has the look of a perpetual victim but underneath his sad eyes I detect a snake in the grass. He’s tall and big boned and looks extremely well fed.

Sam questions him. He lays it on thick. How did you arrive at this point in your life? What happened? The guy said he doesn’t have a job. His deadpan monotone is even more annoying than the look on his face. Like the first guy, his sneakers look brand new. I keep thinking Sam is going to give him something because of all the questions he asks, but this doesn’t happen. The guy doesn’t ask if he can hang out with us but shuffles off to the next person, his sad face even looking sadder than before.

Sam tells me about the time he was unemployed, although it wasn’t for a long time.

"These guys, you know," he said, "if they just put their willpower into finding work, any kind of work, they could do it. Even if that meant going down to the river and washing their face in the water in an attempt to get clean, then walking into a place and asking if there is anything they could do, sweeping floors, taking out the trash - anything, going from one place all day and never giving up and even going down to the river again and washing their face, over and over again, then looking for work the next day and the day after until something happened. They would find something if they did that. This kind of heavy focus would work. It would produce results but what happens with these guys is that they are not 100 percent serious. Panhandling becomes their career, and drugs or alcohol sidetracks them. Yeah, I like to play with them. I like to make them see themselves, but sometimes I will help them if I feel they’re real."

We take a walk up Latimer Street, then down Walnut and Locust and finally down 13th Street where we are interrupted by a skinny women in a ratty looking turban coming up the PATCO subway stairs. She catches Sam’s eye, and suddenly we are transported to the Wilma or the Suzanne Roberts stage.

"Guys, how you all doin? You know, this weather is nice but my husband beats me and my children have been sent away, and now I’m walkin’ around cause I can’t get home, everything’s been shut down, I’ve been goin’ around like this for hours, goin’ up and down these stairs, askin’ for help. I need to get back into singin’ and this band I was with…"
She mentions the name of the band but I am already not paying attention. I try to imagine her as a singer with a lily in her hair, or slanting a microphone sideways down to the floor as she belts out a jazz tune.

She unleashes more biographical information, but I have my back turned to her while gazing out onto 13th Street. The gay bars have let out and all hell is breaking loose. The quiet of the city has been broken. Sam and I walk up 13th Street, past Woody’s bar. Soon we are on Broad Street by the Doubletree Hotel, where Sam is staying. We stop and talk some more, getting philosophical now, when Sam notices another homeless guy sleeping in the middle of the sidewalk under a streetlight. "Who the hell would sleep there?" he asked. "Do you see the way he keeps bobbing his head up and down, like he never allows it to touch the ground?" To me it seems like just another Philly scene, but Sam is fascinated. "We don’t have anything like this in Reno," he said, "People sleeping in the middle of the sidewalk. It’s incredible. Do you think he’s a spy? Do you think these homeless people have a spy network? Is that why all these homeless people are coming up to me?"

"He’s not a spy, Sam," I said to him, "This is just…Philly."

When Sam suggests that we go over and talk to the guy, I say yes because I want to see where he’s going with this. Up close to the sleeper, I can see that this is a serious case, someone who’s been on the streets for a while and drugged or drunk into unconsciousness. He has his head flat on the sidewalk, as it turns out—the bobbing of the head was just a reaction to a drug. Sam leans over him and asks if he is okay. He calls him "brother" and keeps repeating that he shouldn’t be sleeping in the middle of the sidewalk.

"Hey brother, hey brother," he said over and over again.

Finally, the man rouses. He thinks Sam is an undercover cop or a big-shot restaurant owner who wants him off his sidewalk. He doesn’t know that Sam is just a well dressed pussycat (who poses as a killer-type) from Reno. The guy stands up obediently when Sam urges him to find a dark, private alley where he can be cozy and safe. The guy is so stoned it is hard for him to talk or walk, and his jeans are falling down. He wobbles towards the curb. He’s too out of it to say anything except to ask for money.

A few minutes later we bump into the North Face jacket guy.

"Hey, my friend," Sam said, "Did you ever find something to eat?" Sam knows he’s not after food.

The guys says no, and then, like a robot, adds, "what you doin? You got a dollar?"

Sam tells him that he’s spent all his money on me.

It’s a joke, of course, fit for a cheap laugh, but by the end of our walk around the city I lost count of the numbers of homeless men we met, these creatures of the night, or so-called "expensive sneaker people down on their luck." Men who can’t or won’t find jobs, and to whom it will never occur to go down by the river, wash their face off in a symbolic baptism so that they can try to get into a different groove.

Remembering Andy Warhol

Remembering Andy Warhol

Weekly Press
Wed, Apr 22, 2015

By Thom Nickels
Contributing Writer
It’s been an art-filled week for this columnist, first with a trip to the Barnes Foundation to hear Jerry Saltz, a former truck driver who became the senior art critic at New York Magazine. Saltz talked about the state of painting and sculpture in 2015. Then it was off to check out Art Unleashed at the University of the Arts, after which I was supposed to head into the Riverwards to check out Warren Muller’s new gallery show at Bahdeebahdu’s, but I never made it. Having to attend too many art events in one day is never a good idea. By the end of the week my head was spinning with multiple visual images although I found that I was mainly focusing on the work of Andy Warhol, probably because Saltz had mentioned Andy in his talk in connection with the New York Abstract Expressionists.

It’s been almost 30 years since Andy Warhol died in Manhattan’s New York Hospital on February 22, 1987. Since his death, Warhol’s star has not faded. His works still sell for unprecedented prices: In 2002, ‘Green Car Crash’ sold for 71 million; last year ‘200 One Dollar Bills’ was sold at Sotheby’s for a cool 43.7 million, and the artist’s 1963 work, ‘Eight Elvises,’ netted 100 million.

I saw Andy Warhol once on the streets of Manhattan riding his bicycle. The flash of white hair was unmistakable.
Ask anyone on the street today what he or she thinks of when they hear the name Andy Warhol, and you’re likely to get different responses. Some see him as the hedonist filmmaker of the 1960s and 70’s (Joe Dallesandro, where are you?); others see him as a mediocre artist who got lucky when he fused commercial and fine art and came up with his own artistic hybrid. Still others recall a manipulative artist who, while maintaining a rigid and highly disciplined work life, did nothing to "save" the hosts of men and women around him in the Factory who destroyed themselves with drugs in the name of "Art."

When Warhol’s diaries were published in 1989, the world saw that the most outrageous artist of the 20th century was really a very conscientious workaholic who went to Mass every Sunday. The same man who made movies entitled "Heat" and "The Chelsea Girls" didn’t believe in modern (non-monogamous) marriages, and was very nearly celibate as a gay man. If one expected to find in Warhol’s diaries an endless litany of sexcapades à la the Ned Rorem Diaries or Paul Goodman’s famous sex diary, "Five Years," they were sadly mistaken. The great artist might as well have been a Trappist monk with an occasional penchant for voyeurism. In life, Warhol only posed as a jaded debauchee. It was, as they say, a big act.

As an artist, Warhol is mostly known for the Pop phase of his work. He fused high art with low art. One of his major influences was Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school of architecture. Gropius believed that a "collective" of artists was necessary, because the arts had become "isolated" in modern times. To forge this new unity among the arts, Gropius founded (and designed) the Bauhaus School in Dessau, Germany, in 1925. Much like Andy Warhol’s New York Factory, the Dessau Bauhaus School was a hydra-headed endeavor. Students and teachers alike worked together on the design of buildings, furniture, teapots, wall hangings, table lamps, photography and advertising posters. Gropius’ vision of a synthesis of the arts, just as Warhol’s marriage of the fine and commercial art worlds, gave the world something brand new.

But Warhol left the world of painting in 1965 in order to make movies. The change was perhaps predictable, given that the prince of Pop art had worked with a diversity of media and styles. By 1965, he was calling painting "old fashioned". "I don’t paint anymore," he said in 1966. "I gave it up a year ago and just do the movies now. I could do two things at the same time but movies are more exciting. Painting was just a phase I went through." Warhol’s films, although they won awards in small artistic circles, never had the popularizing effect of his art. People did not line up for a Warhol premier.
Like many famous artists, Andy eventually felt trapped by the public’s expectations of him. The public wanted him to produce more images of popular culture, but at this stage of the game he was getting sick and tired of the non-stop parade of society portrait commissions that were coming his way. He was also beginning to grow bored with his life of nightly clubbing in Manhattan.

Warhol’s future as an artist might have been different had he not met Jean-Michel Basquiat in the fall of 1982. Basquiat, originally a street artist, breathed new life into Warhol’s love of the paintbrush, and exerted enough influence that Warhol quit making movies after he made "Andy Warhol’s Bad" in 1976. The artist Keith Haring once said that "…Andy trusted Jean even to the point that he would actually let him cut and sculpt his hair." Warhol took Basquiat under his wing. Soon the two men were doing everything together, including filling the Factory with sweet smelling pot smoke.
Before Warhol came on the art scene, the New York art world was ruled by the Abstract Expressionists. The Abstract Expressionists were exclusively male (women in that art world were relegated to making coffee or becoming lovers and mistresses of the Abstractionists). The Abstractionists were also excessively macho, alcoholic, and homophobic. Warhol, who was anything but macho, did however find much to admire in the work of Jackson Pollock.
A lot has been written about the Jackson Pollock crowd. In his diaries, Warhol refers to them as "hard-driving, two-fisted types who’d grab each other and say things like ‘I’ll knock your f--king teeth out’ and ‘I’ll steal your girl.’ The toughness," Warhol added, "was part of a tradition; it went with their agonized, anguished art. They were always exploding and having fistfights about their work and their love lives."

Pollack, who was very antigay, would greet every gay person he met with a sexual insult that cannot be printed in this newspaper.

But shy little Andy couldn’t resist annoying these beefy Abstractionist thugs. Despite his soft-spoken voice, he never ran from a confrontation. Perhaps this is why his friends called him Drella, a name that was a combination of Cinderella and Dracula. "I certainly wasn’t a butch kind of guy by nature, but I must admit, I went out of my way to play up the other extreme," he wrote of his time with these guys. Rejected by the Abstract Expressionists for being gay and for his love of commercial art, Andy had no choice but to cultivate an artistic life as a contrarian.

In the 1950s and 60s, Warhol made it his mantra to keep repeating that the "snobbish distinctions between fine and commercial (so-called high and low) art were no longer valid. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good," he wrote in "The Philosophy of Andy Warhol." Later, under the influence of Pollack and painters like Ellsworth Kelly, Warhol came to paint works of art like "Red Disaster," 1985, a painting which clearly demonstrates his fondness for the so called clean machine aesthetic. His so-called urine paintings, which were influenced by Neo-Dadaist artists and Pablo Picasso, caused him to paint with a sponge mop.

Sometimes art imitates life, and vice versa. After a death threat, Warhol went into a sporting goods store to buy a camouflage hunter’s hat and proceeded to paint a series of Camouflage Paintings.

A year before his death, he painted a series of self-portraits. He also began a rash of religious paintings, such as The Last Supper, and a slew of acrylic and silkscreen works like "Heaven and Hell are Just One Breath Away," "The Mark of the Beast," and "Repent and Sin No More." These last paintings of his show the influence of his childhood experiences of going to his Pittsburgh Byzantine Catholic church with its egg tempera and gold leaf icons.

In an old YouTube clip of Andy’s graveside service, one can see elaborately vested Byzantine priests swinging censers over the artist’s open grave.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

the pete dexter devil's pocket philly syndrome

The Local Lens

Wed, Apr 29, 2015

By Thom Nickels

For a writer, the ability to entertain readers doesn’t require a pronounced accent or a certain pose while smoking a pipe. Raw talent can appear anywhere. It can even assume the guise of the so-called average man in a pickup truck.
Take Pete Dexter, for instance. Dexter is about as far from the "finely-cultured" literary gentleman as one can get. In personal appearances and interviews about his astonishing writing career, he usually appears in a baseball cap, sometimes cocked at an angle, with his hair uneven and spiraling out from behind his ears.

In YouTube interviews, Dexter doesn’t appear to be as tall as the people who interview him. I noticed something else about the man: he has eyes like Edgar Allan Poe. Poe, of course, had a highly dramatic personal life. Dexter’s life, especially when he lived in Philly, was also highly dramatic.

Like Poe, Dexter didn’t make Philly his permanent home. He was born in Pontiac, Mich., in 1943, did his undergrad work at the University of South Dakota. He eventually wound up in Philly because of journalism, arriving just before the Christmas of 1974 to churn out articles for The Philadelphia Daily News.

Before that, the Puget Sound, Wash., resident worked a series of menial jobs like mail sorter in a post office, car salesman and truck driver. He was once even a ditch-digger in Florida. This was before he landed his first job in journalism as a novice reporter for The South Florida Sun-Sentinel. He lucked out one day when he saw a Help Wanted ad for a reporter in the window of the Sentinel, something that would never happen in today’s world. He got the job and worked as a reporter for The Palm Beach Post. He also started writing for magazines, but his real jump into the newspaper limelight occurred when he began working for The Daily News.

Two years after his arrival in 1974, Daily News Editor Gil Spencer would let Dexter try his hand at writing a column. By the time he left Philly in 1986, he was one of the city’s most famous columnist. But Dexter hasn’t always gotten along with newspaper editors—there’s a famous story about how he once allegedly threatened to push an editor’s head into a pot of chili during a holiday party.

These were the days when newspaper columnists produced two or three columns a week at 800-900 words per column. Newspaper columnists today appear once a week if they are lucky. Dexter likes to say that columnists who are published once a week can easily hide who they are, but when you write three or four or five times a week, you can’t hide who you are from readers.

"A pose exposes itself," he says.

Dexter likes to joke that he got his column at the Daily News because the editors there got tired of him pestering them about writing stories. But once he settled into the life of a columnist, he says it was one of the happiest periods of his life. His days as a Philly columnist were fun and reckless. He could be seen hanging out in—and closing out—bars like Dirty Frank’s, McGlinchey’s and Doc Watson’s in Center City. He had a penchant for pushing the envelope, getting into small fights, wrecking company cars and carousing into the wee hours.

Then there was his fateful column on December 9, 1981 about the efforts to combat drug dealing in the tough, often-violent Irish neighborhood of Grays Ferry, also called Devil’s Pocket, near Center City. Entitled, In Tasker, It’s About to Stop, the column mentioned the death of a 21-year-old male.

After the column was published, Dexter got a call from the victim’s mother, angry that he had called her son a "doper" in print. The victim’s brother, a bartender in Grays Ferry, was also on the line with the mother demanding that Dexter retract everything he wrote. Dexter refused to do that but offered to meet the bartender personally at his bar, where they could chat and iron things out.

The column began: "A couple of weeks ago, a kid named Buddy Lego was found dead in Cobbs Creek. It was a Sunday afternoon. He was from the neighborhood, a good athlete, a nice kid. Stoned all the time. The kind of kid you think you could have saved."

When Dexter went to the bar, he introduced himself to the bartender, making it clear he wasn’t going to retract anything. At this point, the scenario gets fuzzy. Dexter says that somebody hit him from behind, knocking out some of his teeth. Later reports have the bartender attacking him with a cue stick.

Dazed and bloodied, the columnist went home and contacted his prizefighter friend, Randall "Tex" Cobb, and a few others, and they all decided to go back to the bar and protect Dexter during another attempt to "reason" with the bartender.

But as soon as they entered the bar, Dexter would recall in interviews that an ugly, fat, red-haired guy ran out, and then came back with numerous men with tire irons, nightsticks and a baseball bat. Since you cannot reason with tigers, sometimes the only thing to do is strike while the iron is hot. But for Dexter, Cobb and friends, it was too late to defend themselves and spring into action. There were just too many people to fight.

The 38-year-old columnist was out cold on the sidewalk, and Cobb had been injured as well. The rest of the group took off. Dexter suffered a broken pelvis, a brain hemorrhage, a concussion and plenty of nerve damage to his hands. But his troubles were just beginning: During surgery, there had been a problem with the anesthesia, so that while it appeared that Dexter was totally unconscious, he was simply completely paralyzed. He could feel the surgeon drilling into his leg, but he was unable to do anything about it. What saved the day was the fact that his heart was beating furiously, alerting the surgical crew to his consciousness. After that, he was numbed sufficiently

Dexter said the horrendous pain he felt would have driven a lot of people to the nut-house. While recovering from the incident, he started work on his first novel, God’s Pocket.
The incident would pave the way for his move to Sacramento from Philly. In 1986, he wrote his last column for the Daily News:

"I have seen a pope. I have seen Julius Erving at the top of his game. I have seen a city administrator burn down a neighborhood. I watched Randall Cobb slowly realize he would never become heavyweight champion of the world. One night I almost watched myself die."

"And as moving as those things were at the time, they are not what endure. What endures are the people I loved."
"Somewhere along the line, this city has done me a profound favor. I glimpse it once in a while at night in the street, among the people who live there, or along the road. Hitchhikers. It cuts fresh every time.

"I recognize the lost faces because one of them, I think, was supposed to be mine."

In Sacramento, he started a new life as a columnist for The Sacramento Bee, then proceeded to write a series of ground breaking novels, beginning with Deadwood in 1986; Paris Trout, 1988 (which won the 1988 U. S. National Book Award); Brotherly Love, 1991; The Paperboy, 1995; Train, 2003; and Spooner, 2009. Three of his best newspaper columns were also included in Deadline Artists: America’s Greatest Newspaper Columns, which also featured the works of Jimmy Breslin, Will Rogers, and Walter Lippmann.

His years as a columnist paid off, because when he’d work on his novels, he would write two pages—or 900 words—per day, as per his erstwhile columnist routine. He admits his books are pretty dark, but he also says he doesn’t "walk around like that all the time."

His novel Spooner has been compared to Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel and even the works of Mark Twain. It’s not often that you hear the name Thomas Wolfe these days. Of course, it was the very tall Wolfe who used to write in longhand on long yellow legal tablets while standing up and using the top of his refrigerator as a desk top.
Wolfe would then take the completed manuscript—boxes of these legal tablets filled with his cursive scribble—into the office of his publisher, Thomas Scribner, who would then hand it to a secretary to type out.
Dexter likes to write at night, when it is quiet. He writes everyday, unlike some writers who can go for weeks and even months at a time without writing anything.

Regarding Spooner, Dexter says that he hates the word "memoir," adding that the novel is "more true than a memoir would have been," and that the story "kind of follows a lot of the places, characters, and events in my life." This includes the characterization of his stepfather, whom Dexter says he keeps dreaming about. In Spooner, there’s a saintly character named Calmer, an old South Dakota name, who, in many ways, represents the figure of his stepfather.  
In Dexter’s fourth novel, Brotherly Love, about a power hungry union boss with Mafia connections, the staccato prose style is reminiscent of the feel of a screenplay. The novel captures the underbelly thug-culture of the world of roofers and amateur Mafiosos. The prose is not for the faint of heart:

"A week to the day after Bobby is left in a garbage bag on the service road at the airport, Michael climbs through the kitchen window of a small brick tow house on Snyder Avenue—Leonard Crawley boosting him up, Monk already waiting inside—and takes the old Italian who lives there out of his bed, a confused old man who cannot see them without his glasses, and tapes him to the water heater in the basement."

"His wife finds him there, his socks sticking halfway out of his mouth, when she comes back from Levittown. She has been there visiting her grandchildren. The bats they used, stained with the old man’s blood, are still lying on the basement floor."

"Peter reads the details of the old man’s death in the Daily News. It says he was naked."

When writing a novel, Dexter says he has the feeling that he is not in control.

"When I start a book, it’s usually with just a character in mind, something small, and then I feel like I’m an observer, watching things. The book goes its own direction, don’t try to steer it … I’m not one of those people who outline plots."
Dexter believe that writers should write to entertain audiences—"If not, what is it for?"—but agrees that it’s impossible to predict the marketplace or what the public will like. In one interview, he came down hard on Dan Brown, who "sells a billion books, but can’t write a line." Dexter says he’s never walked into an airport or an airplane and seen somebody reading one of his books, whereas he’s seen people reading Dan Brown.

His encounter in Devil’s Pocket marked him for life. The experience changed his taste perception; alcohol, for instance, now tastes "like battery acid," so he sticks to just an occasional beer when he goes out with his wife, Dian. He says he doesn’t miss Philly when it comes to the traffic, the noise, and waiting in line.

"People don’t realize how much of their lives they spend doing that stuff," he said.

The perfect life, he says, would be to transport himself to Philly for three hours a day, get a soft pretzel, and then leave.