Thursday, September 18, 2014
Philadelphia’s Dr. Mütter and his marvels
• Wed, Sep 10, 2014
By Thom Nickels
The Mutter Museum is the talk of the talk of the town these days. Although it was always on the city’s radar of extraordinary places to visit, it has never been as popular as it seems to be today.
Adding to the museum’s popularity is a new biography of Thomas Dent Mutter, by Philadelphia born Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine (Gotham Books). Aptowicz, a New York University grad, has garnered a reputation as a good slam poet in the New York City slam poetry scene, although she currently lives in Austin, Texas.
Although the subculture world of the poetry slam is a mixed bag of verbal insanities, I did not expect an unorthodox lecture at the museum when I went with a friend to hear Cristin speak about Thomas Mutter. Of course, it should be noted that it was my first time in the museum in years.
In years past that I would come away from the Mutter with a strange sense of inner paralysis bordering on depression, as if some energy in those bottles and vials had reached out and caused me to feel lousy about life and people. In my more rational moments, I dismissed this all as superstition.
At the Mutter this time to hear Aptowicz, I’d forgotten about those unpleasant experiences. Guests were treated to an appetizing reception in the museum’s main hall. Clearly, much of the author’s family was present, even children, and the overall vibe was happy and enthusiastic, in stark contrast to all those hidden bottles of specimens (and death) in the museum’s back rooms.
I was looking forward to hearing about the Virginia-born Thomas Dent Mutter, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania before he became a professor of surgery at Jefferson Medical College. Thomas Mutter’s massive medical research specimen collection became the basis for the museum’s founding in 1863. I need not list all these medical marvels, but among them you will find the body of the soap lady; a nine foot long human colon, preserved random human organs and body parts, and the skeleton of a dwarf and a giant. And this, of course, is just the beginning.
But who was Dr. Mutter, really? What did he think and what did he believe? Was he married with children? Was he a Freemason? When and how did he die? But most importantly, how did the museum come to be established? I was hoping the lecture would be a Whitman’s Sampler of information bits.
The mostly upbeat crowd—there were lots of giggling girls although the children present did not misbehave—almost filled the strikingly attractive lecture room. Aptowicz was introduced by her husband, always a nice thing, but she wasn’t anything like I expected. I suppose I expected a tall, regal woman like Gretchen Worden (1947-2004), the museum’s curator in 1982 until her appointment as Director in 1988. Aptowicz’s likeable ham-it-up persona—one could easily imagine her talking up a Julia Child cookbook—made me understand, in a way, the chorus of gigglers I had heard earlier.
Clearly, this was not going to be a conventional talk on Dr. Mutter’s life but instead it would veer off into the unpredictable, most notably into the loose ended come-what-may world of slam poetry, with three guest readings by friends of the author, one of them a slam poet military paratrooper who, as it turned out, looked more like an accountant.
By the talk’s end, I only learned two things about Mutter, the first being that he was the first to advocate anesthesia during surgery; the second being that he was the first physician to come up with the idea of a recovery room after surgery. Aptowicz did touch very briefly on Mutter’s time in Paris (to bring back medical ideas) but after that the talk became an info-commercial on the author’s life.
The info-commercial went as follows: how a portion of the book was excerpted by The Atlantic Monthly; a report to the audience on a rave review in The Wall Street Journal; how the author obtained a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for Poetry; how she landed a 2013 Amy Clampith Residency; some references to her six books of poetry; how she was named a University of Pennsylvania Arts Edge Writer in Residence, and her being given a Francis C. Wood Institute Travel Grant to support her work on the book. The guest readers, in keeping with the surrealist come-what-may dynamics of a poetry slam, read sensationalistic excerpts from 1800 medical texts, while one reader beautifully acted out a scene of hospital gore, after which there was a round of giggly applause.
At the delightful reception, Aptowicz’s mom told me that she had great hopes that one of those Long Island wealthy simmer vacationers reading The Wall Street Journal’s review of the book were hopefully thinking of producing Aptowicz’s screenplay on Dr. Mutter, a 2003 award winner at the Philadelphia Film Festival.
"Plus, you know, Mom added, "she was on Marty Moss-Coane earlier, and she’ll be at the Free Library later this month."
"All of this is super fabulous," one might have answered. "Kudos and accolades and laurel wreaths to your wonderful daughter, but can you tell us where to go to find out something about Thomas Dent Mutter?" (It didn’t help, of course, that when I gave my card to the Texas writer—ostensibly asking to interview her—she immediately directed me to her marketing person, after first directing me to her agent, who looked like Ann Coulter.)
Out on the street, my head reeling with info commercial data, I only wanted to go home and go to bed.
Tuesday, September 2, 2014
The Local Lens
• Wed, Aug 27, 2014
By Thom Nickels
While hospitals are generally places for healing, sometimes—unfortunately-- the reverse is true.
An older woman friend of mine, for instance, talked about a lung biopsy she underwent in a large Center City mega hospital. For quite a while this friend had been having disagreements with her doctor on whether to remove half her lung or to treat her condition with antibiotics. Having half your lung removed is a life altering procedure, so there should be an iron clad reason for doing so. My friend felt that her doctor didn’t have a good enough reason for removing half her lung, so she kept telling him no thank you. In addition, she felt he was far too ‘knife happy,’ almost as if opening the human body and removing organs had become his obsession. In one instance, the knife happy surgeon even told her, "I’m going to get your lung one of these days!" as if he were a vampire or a ghoul.
Life occasionally takes unexpected turns, and that’s what happened when my friend underwent a lung biopsy by the surgeon in question. Now, a biopsy is just a mission in search of a tissue sample, nothing more, so the idea of it didn’t seem complicated until someone in the operating room made a mistake. During the biopsy, the surgeon, or his accompanying resident, nicked her lung, meaning that another surgical procedure was needed to fix the problem.
The operating room team knew about the nicked lung at the conclusion of the operation because they wrote specific instructions on the patient’s chart that she was not to have any solid food because another procedure was immediately pending.
Do you think the floor staff read the doctor’s instructions? My friend was fed solid food, and as a result she could not be given an anesthetic for the second go-round but instead had to endure the feeling of a surgical knife cutting into her skin and into the skin’s deeper sub strata layers so that they could uncoil a tube inside her.
The flimsy local anesthesia that she did receive did nothing to mask the pain caused by the deep digging surgical knives.
My friend described the pain as "unbearable."
But her odyssey didn’t end there. Once the procedure was over, she told me that she wasn’t given enough pain medication, and that she had started to bleed all over the sheets. When she rang for a nurse to change the sheets and also to request more pain medication, nobody came. She waited for a time and rang again, but the response was still the same—nothing. Finally, after giving it one more shot (she pressed down hard on the call button this time), she disconnected herself from a wire holding her to the bed and walked to the nursing station herself, a sight for sore eyes in her bloody hospital Johnny.
Once at the nursing station she let the little circle of telephone yapping-folder filing personnel, have it.
I will not repeat here what she said, except to say that the thunder and verve of her scolding got results fast. Suddenly, the nurses couldn’t do enough for her. Would she like to be escorted back to her room in a wheelchair? Would she like a Krispy Crème donut? And yes, her bed sheets would be changed immediately.
Later, a nurse appeared at her bedside, practically in tears, apologizing for the neglect of the general staff and telling her that she would report the neglect to the floor supervisor. "This is awful, really awful," the good nurse kept saying. "I’m so sorry. Heads will roll!"
The hospital in question is a big city hospital. I remember this hospital from childhood, because a classmate of mine in the 8th grade died there.
His name was Richard H., and he died of a brain tumor after being sick for what seemed like a short while. The tumor came on quickly. Richard had several surgeries, would come back to school with his head in bandages-- on the road to recovery, we thought-- but then in no time he’d be sent back to this hospital. One morning, Sister Immaculata, our teacher, announced that Richard had died. His High Solemn Requiem Mass was one of the saddest experiences of my childhood.
While I’m sure that the big city hospital in question was a much better place years ago, it’s almost a certainty that long time employees there even at that time suffered from the same condition that’s prevalent among hospital personnel today: occasional bouts of medical callousness.
Like it or not, a basic callousness to human suffering comes from working in a hospital environment for too long a time. Hospital workers may not even be aware of what has happened to them in this regard, either.
During my time as an operating room orderly at age 21, I witnessed many things: Nuero- surgeons talking about their weekend golf outings as they drilled through a patient’s skull, or as they dug deep with gloved hands into a man or woman’s abdomen. Some surgeons were like temperamental opera divas or restaurant chefs. If an action of a scrub nurse displeased them, they might throw a set of forceps across the room, or kick one of the floor waste buckets (they were on wheels) so that it went rolling across the room and slammed into a portable X-ray machine. Other surgeons screamed that they wanted "Nurse so-and-so to get the hell out." Sometimes the surgeon in question would walk out of the room himself (there were only a few female surgeons, but only the males had problems with their temper). I don’t know whether this "walking off stage" ever put a patient’s life in jeopardy. My guess is that most often it did not because there was always a resident (in scrubs) ready to take over when a surgeon misbehaved. Residents, in fact, were almost always on hand to observe and then, when asked, try doing the operation themselves.
During most operations, the surgeon would do the opening incision and then maybe stick around for a few exploratory "digs," but once the work became "mechanical," an assistant would take over. The surgeon almost never hung around as the patient was being stitched up before the transfer into the recovery room. At this point they were already in the surgeon’s lounge or in the small doctor’s lounge having a cup of coffee and eating a sticky bun.
The stresses of meeting the demands of diva surgeons meant that many scrub nurses were ready for a laugh, and this sometimes took a bawdy turn, such as when a nurse or two would steal a peek under the cover sheet when an especially good looking young man was fast asleep on the operating room table. While these were very unethical peeping tom moments, I witnessed their occurrence time and time again and wondered what the guy who was being looked at would do or say if he knew what was happening.
As an OR orderly, I was expected to open all the operating rooms at 6:30 AM, set up the IV stands in the individual curtained cubicles and retrieve the patients for 8 AM surgery from the hospital’s upper floors. It was a huge responsibility. If an OR orderly was squeamish about blood and guts, there were only two options available: quit, or find a way to get used to the gore.
My job included taking specimens to pathology, including aborted fetuses from the many therapeutic abortions preformed at the hospital. As a twenty year old I didn’t give too much thought about these procedures. I naively assumed that the abortions were performed to save the life of the mother until I got talking to an Eastern Orthodox nurse who said that this was not the case at all. She also told me that she was on record as refusing to assist in these "therapeutic acts of murder." While I admired her for having the courage of her convictions, it made me wonder about all the Irish Catholic nurses (this was Boston, after all) who didn’t seem to have any issues with abortion, but who would look very, very distressed when handing me the little fetus jars to take to pathology.
These quick, guilt-ridden "exchanges" reminded me of Pontius Pilate washing his hands of the situation.
Mastectomies and amputations affected me the most, especially when a scrub nurse would put a still warm, wrapped in blue linen amputated leg in my arms, and ask me to deliver it to the morgue.
Of course, when a patient died on the operating room table, the mood in the room turned solemn. Many scrub nurses became upset. Some actually cried. The nurses were the ones who felt a death the most. The surgeons, for the most part, were stoned faced. It was hard to know what they were feeling. It was always the nurse or the orderlies who stayed behind and cleaned up the room and washed the body of the deceased. For me, a death in the OR was always a shock, especially if I was the one who had escorted the patient to the operating room earlier. Times like this, I’d think back and try to remember if the patient had said anything of note, or whether their behavior pointed to a premonition regarding their own death.
After the washing of the deceased’s body, an orderly’s help was needed in moving the man or woman onto a special stretcher for the trip to the morgue. The silence in the OR room at this time was profound. People spoke only if necessary. There was certainly no talk of golf, or how great it would be to get drunk at the after work happy hour at the local pub.
Wheeling the stretcher with the covered up corpse on it to the elevator nearest the operating room, and then getting to the basement morgue without anybody else coming on the elevator was hardly a guarantee. There’d be no emotional reaction if a nurse, doctor or resident got on the elevator at different floors, but if a non-medical visitor to the hospital saw the stretcher, he or she would step back as the blood would seem to drain from their faces.
In conclusion, I’d say that long time hospital experience can either plunge you into a river of callousness, from which it may be difficult to return, or it can work to increase your human empathy skills. I don’t know where into which category I fall. I like to think it’s the latter, but who knows.
Decades after my job in the OR, I still have dreams of wheeling stretchers down long antiseptic corridors and of bumping into surgeons in masks, who may or may not be holding a pair of forceps.
Tuesday, August 12, 2014
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 deity
• Wed, Jul 16, 2014
By Thom Nickels
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.
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.