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Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Real Story of Johnny S. Bobbitt, Jr.

                                            Stay Tuned: The 'Real' story of Johnny S. Bobbitt, Jr.

   The media’s embrace of the plight of a homeless ex Marine EMT firefighter from North Carolina
who struck public relations pay dirt when he came to the aid of a driver who ran out of gas near his I-95
exit panhandling station had all the elements of a Walt Disney After School Special. Pretty girl runs out of gas, attempts to leave her vehicle after sunset in an area as bleak as it is dark; sees a shadowy figure emerge in front of her. Is it an alien from Whitely Strieber’s Communion? No, it’s Johnny S. Bobbitt, Jr. a transplant to Philadelphia some 10 months ago who wound up homeless on the streets of the city through a series of “bad choices.”

     The “bad choices” part is what the media has chosen to ignore now that the full story of this nocturnal meeting has gone viral.

   Most people are probably unaware that the 95 exist ramp near Richmond Street where Johnny met the woman Kate was a relatively new panhandling spot for Johnny.  A few months prior to the meeting Johnny was stationed outside the Dollar Tree store in the Port Richmond Shopping Center. He would sit like yogi-like on a slat of cardboard near the entrance way of the store so that shoppers had a good view of him. A sign propped up beside him read: Homeless ex-Vet trying to go home, anything helps. He would change the sign periodically, as most homeless do. Upgrading your sign is essential if you want to grab the attention of the public.

    Johnny’s method of asking for money in front of Dollar Tree was never intrusive. He often had his nose in a book and only rarely looked at people entering the store. There’d usually be a small stack of books beside him as well as a large plastic WAWA cup for donations. The fact that he was reading books stood out. When other homeless people sit on the ground they usually stare into space. During Johnny’s Dollar Tree days about a year ago, other homeless would stand outside stores like WAWA where they would make it a point to hold open the doors for customers. Some of the homeless asked for money outright but aggressive asking often got many of the homeless banned from various businesses.  The fact that Johnny never asked for money outright but seemed earnestly engrossed in his books sparked the interest of many people, myself included.

  Many Dollar Tree customers engaged Johnny in conversation and wound up asking him the same questions: How did you wind up homeless? Johnny’s story was that he came to Philadelphia to start a job but then the job fell through and because of that he was not able to rent an apartment.

   But if Johnny’s homelessness was just a matter of a job falling through, why didn’t he return to North Carolina? There had to be another reason for his homelessness, and of course there was.   

    Some background information: Most heroin addicts lie about their addiction. This is especially the case when you first meet them. I’ve talked to many homeless men in the Riverwards and very few of them will tell you upfront that they are panhandling for drug money. Ask them how they became homeless and the vast majority will blame it on everything but drugs: the breakup of a relationship, the loss of a job, getting kicked out of their homes by upset parents. When they do mention drugs they will often mention prescription drugs. A heroin confession usually comes later after a bit of probing by the questioner. While Johnny never admitted that he was a heroin addict (we would argue about that later), he did tell me that when he came to Philadelphia he was on prescription meds for depression but when he was unable to renew his prescription, he was forced to buy drugs on the street.  

                                  To be continued...

Saturday, December 2, 2017

ICON Magazine City Theater December 2017

Barrymore Awards. Whether it’s the Academy Awards or Philadelphia’s Barrymore Awards, the adulation that actors receive can sometimes rival 4th of July fireworks. At this year’s Barrymores the Award for Outstanding Production of a Play went to Ego Po’s The Seagull. Jered McLenigan won Best Lead Actor in The Wilma’sConstellations. The Wilma’s Blanka Zizka walked away with Best Director award for When the Rain Stops Falling. Winner for Outstanding New play went to Will Snider’s How to Use a Knife (InterAct Theatre Company), an extraordinary gem directed by Seth Rozin. Outstanding Leading Actress Award went to Patrese D. McCain of People’s Light in Malvern for Mountaintop. Unfortunately Malvern’s twenty plus miles distance from Center City kept McCain’s talents hidden from city theater goers.

 Blood Wedding. Famed Hungarian director-choreographer Csaba Horvath transformed Frederico Lorca’s seminal work into a hybrid mix of dance, poetry and hypnotic mantra making. A weak willed bride (Sarah Gliko) is conned into leaving her marriage celebration by a former lover, Leonardo (Lindsay Smiling), a sexy man without a future. Harsh reality intrudes when Leonardo kills the groom (Jered McLenigan) in a madcap fight. Lorca’s prose poetry isn’t easily translated into English so the beginning of the play was more an alphabet soup of poetic phrases than anything resembling narrative. Horvath’s choreography had its beautiful moments, such as when the cast picked up sections of the floor and used them as shrouds or cloaks, suggesting a human metamorphosis into mushrooms. But watching these same dancer-actors form human pyramids to scale a giant on-stage wall seemed more like a distraction. Acrobatics as dialogue may work for BalletX, but it rarely takes the place of language when the idea is to tell a story. 

Broken Stones. Playwright Fin Kennedy is a noted teacher of playwriting in London’s East End. He also writes plays for young adults and children. In this play Kennedy seems lost between the worlds of childhood and adulthood. Rand Guerrero plays Ramirez/Romano, an Iraq war vet who’s Marine Company was involved in the looting of antiquities from an Iraq museum. A writer (Charlotte Northeast) convinces Romano to tell his story. The result is a best selling book and war hero status for Romano. But here the story devolves quickly. Did the theft really happen? Did Romano really lose his wife on 9/11 in one of the Twin Towers? Is his story about the antiquities theft really real? The only certain thing here is the fact that The Writer plays God while flaunting her ability top reinvent Romano or even erase him from the script altogether. During the post-play talk-back, director Seth Rozin confessed that he had initial concerns that Kennedy pulled the rug out from the audience too many times. Rozin was right: Kennedy wiped out the play with too many rugs.

See and be Scene.. PTC Producing Artistic Director Paige Price moderated a preview of possible new plays to be staged at the Suzanne Roberts Theater. Choices included R. Eric Thomas’ The Folks at Home, an interracial political comedy; The Anatomy of Love by Ted Malawer, a story about the gender transition of a couple’s toddler daughter; If I Forget by Steven Levenson, about the life and times of a Jewish Studies Professor; A Small Fire by Adam Block, about illness and unconditional love. What struck me about all these offerings was the preponderance of female themes. Does this mean that male themes and stories about men have been relegated to the back of the bus at PTC?


The Craftsman. Playwright Bruce Graham scores another hit with this Lantern Theater Company Production which takes place immediately after WWII when the Dutch Provisional Government in Amsterdam becomes as power hungry as the Nazi siege that it succeeded. Anthony Lawton excels as the artist Han van Meegeren who goes on trial for suspected treason and collaboration with the Germans. Directed by M. Craig Getting, the play is a triumphal study of hatred and the hazy boundary between revenge and forgiveness. A fascinating two hours and fifteen minutes. (Till December 10).  





Wednesday, November 29, 2017

An Unpleasant Coffee with Sister Vassa

I've decided to title this entry, 'My Unpleasant Coffee with Sister Vassa.' Why such a title? I'll get to that in a minute. First let me say that I've always felt admiration for Sister Vassa, mostly because of her earlier Coffee with Sister Vassa YouTube shows, which are usually taped in Vienna, Austria, where I visited once several years ago (and loved). As an Orthodox Christian (from Roman Catholic) I jumped at the chance to hear a lecture by Sister Vassa at a local Orthodox Philadelphia parish. But shortly after the lecture began I felt a growing sense of disappointment. I found Sister Vassa a little too sassy and snarky and too much 'in love' with her own celebrity.

 I even detected more than a flair of arrogance in her, especially when I asked a question during the post lecture Q and A. My question that had to do with the growth of Islam in western Europe. I wanted her unique perspective as an Orthodox nun but what I got was a cryptic wink and a nod. Then she told a joke which seemed to suggest that I had committed a small offense by asking such a question. I approached Sister Vassa at the reception after her talk and asked why she had answered my question in such a strange, hostile manner. Fortunately, she was slightly more agreeable (reception food and drink work wonders), or at least her snarkiness was gone. Then she mentioned something about having to "be careful about saying certain things" in public and at that moment I thought, "Oh, it's all about perceived Islamophobia, EU rules and so called 'hate' crimes." She lives in Vienna, after all.

In late November 2017, I spotted a Facebook post of hers in which she appeared without her religious habit. Apparently she was in Boston for a liturgical/theological conference of some sort (in conjunction with the respected Eastern Catholic Jesuit priest, Fr, Robert Taft). The Facebook photo showed Sister Vassa in long flowing locks looking very much like a sexy coed holding a purple umbrella in the rain. The photo's caption read something like this:, "Here I am in my civies." What's this, I thought, a Novus Ordo Russian Orthodox nun? I know that many Catholic nuns have gone the way of all flesh and now dress in skirts, hoop earrings and makeup, and I said as much on Sister's Facebook page and even took it a step further when I said, "What's next for you, dating?" I was just returning snarky for snarky, after all. Then I suggested that perhaps she was walking around in public in her "civies" because she was hanging out with a Jesuit. Later, to my dismay (but not complete surprise), Sister Vassa 'unfriended' me on Facebook. I am now no longer on her coffee train and will have to take my brew with priests who don't take 'selfies' under purple umbrellas.
  I came upon a wonderful paragraph about Sister Vassa in the Saint Euphrosynos Cafe Discussion Forum:

 "Whereas, despite Sister Vassa's attempt to post uncontroversial themes, her emphasis is entirely upon herself ! This should tipoff everyone that she is not a fit leader for a 'ministry'. There are too many sociopaths and narcissists already in various Protestant, evangelical and other 'ministries' who are using the adulation of the congregation to do much harm to the souls of their flocks. It has almost become commonplace to find out that so and so preacher or popular local minister has actually been living an undercover life of darkness all the while the pastor was loudly proclaiming his belief with thundering preaching."

 Oh my! Perhaps that quote is a bit extreme, but it's my prediction that Sister Vassa's journey into the mesh of Novus Ordo is far from over. 
My new book, publication date March 19, 2018. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

guest blogger


George E. Thomas’s Book First Modern Extols PAFA’s Architectural Importance:  A Review  

  (By) Marita Krivda Poxon

George E. Thomas has taught at the University of Pennsylvania for over thirty years in the Historic Preservation Program. Since 2002 he commutes from Philadelphia to Harvard University where he also lectures in architecture. His title at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design is Co-Director of Critical Conservation Program.  He refuses to move to Cambridge since he has not been a fan of the derivative colonial housing stock nearby Harvard’s campus. Since he was a young historian he has loved Philadelphia and has been the number one champion of Frank Furness. He even lives in a Frank Furness carriage house in Chestnut Hill. 

The buildings of Frank Furness are his passion ever since he rolled up his sleeves to spearhead the amazing restoration of PAFA during the Bicentennial.   He advised architects on every inch of the building’s restoration to make whole again the glories of its basic bones.  Years of work were spent in the study of surviving original architectural drawings and historic photographs of the building. 

                  PAFA Exterior 

                                                                                 (F. Gutekunst’s photo of PAFA in 1876)

Thomas is also a prolific, fine writer whose books include: William L. Price: From Arts and Crafts to Modern Design (2000) and Building America’s First University:  An Architectural and Historical Guides to the University of Pennsylvania (2000) and many others.  In 1990 Thomas along with Bryn Mawr College’s Jeffrey A. Cohen wrote Frank Furness: The Complete Works. This book documents over 640 buildings that Furness designed that continue to inspire what today is called the Philadelphia School of Architecture.

George E. Thomas’s new book is: First Modern: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA Distributed by University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017). No other architectural historian could have written the book just published with such obvious love of and appreciation for Frank Furness as Thomas. In the book’s Foreword, David Brigham, PAFA’s President and CEO praises the author since his book will enable its readers “to understand the innovative nature of the building and appreciate its value today at the heart of PAFA’s mission.” Also its publication serves as a lynchpin in the current Capital Campaign for the 21st Century preservation of the Furness masterpiece. 

  What makes the PAFA building the first modern is the way Furness connected his design to the machine culture that took over Philadelphia during its 19th Century industrial expansion.   Mechanics, industrialists and inventors thrived in Philadelphia. It was the leader in global innovation with businesses like the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Baldwin Locomotive Works.   The impact of the city’s industrial growth extended into all areas as engineers and inventors served on the boards of cultural centers like PAFA. Many members of the 1870 PAFA Board came from this industrial culture.  They selected Furness and his partner Hewitt to construct a new museum which would use iron and steel as they themselves had used in building their own commercial enterprises.  The Board wanted to create an industrial caliber “capacious fire-proof” art museum and school. The chapters on the intrigue and battle among these board members to select Furness & Hewitt as competition winner are riveting.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was important to Frank Furness.  At an early age, he learned about Emerson’s forward thinking, American-centered philosophy from his father, the Reverend William Henry Furness who was the head of the city’s First Unitarian Church.  Emerson called for Americans “to represent in their culture the opportunities of their own time.” This Emersonian emphasis on the future not the past dominated Furness throughout his life.

              PAFA Trusses

The new technologies that make PAFA modern include: the use of iron beams to span smaller interior rooms as well as wider interior galleries. The use of steel trusses on the Cherry Street exterior fa├žade and above the long gallery was revolutionary.  Building materials of the industrial age were exposed and visible including iron columns that carried wrought-iron beams.  Massive steel girders with exposed rivets span the auditorium. Modern industrial machinery created the floral and linear ornament on the stone work of the main entrance hallway.  Industrial iron beams and steel columns - truly modern!

Thomas includes stunning old and new photographs.  Those from PAFA’s archives are amazing since they bring the reader back to another century. The modern photographs highlight the continued integrity of Furness’s structure.  The book itself is a treasure through its visually stunning pictorial representations and its splendid organization.  Kudos to the author for writing a book whose meticulous scholarship proves, celebrates and christens PAFA as “the first modern” building in the world.

  My Tonsure as a Reader in the Russian Orthodox Church at Saint Michael the Archangel Church in Philadelphia. With Bishop John before the start of the Hierarchial Divine Liturgy. The full occasion was the celebration of Fr. Vincent 41 years as pastor of the parish. Sunday, November 12, 2017.