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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The new American (and international) family



  When I worked in a Chester County hospital in the late 1970s I was sitting with several surgeons in the break room when I heard muffled grunts of disapproval. The bone of contention seemed to be the front page stories in both The Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Times.  The stories concerned a massive Gay Rights march down New York’s Sixth Avenue. Most in that small break room read the newspapers without comment, but one urologist shook his head contemptuously and said, “These protests are a fad, a phase!”

  I heard the words “phase” and told the urologist, “This is not a fad but the beginning of something really big.”  

  One of my favorite anesthesiologist’s happened to be standing in the doorway. She was a tall gangly woman from New Zealand with enormous owl-like glasses. Although well read and generally smart, she had one failing: she loved using the word ‘queer’ when referring to gay men. She proceeded to tell the assembly a story about a “queer” she had once known in New Zealand. “This queer,” she said, “dressed in white, drove a white car and lived in a white house.” 

 Was I missing something here? Then it hit me that she was making a vague reference to bodily fluids. How gross, I thought. She then reminded everyone that playwright Tennessee Williams also wore white. The break room had suddenly become surreal though I couldn’t bring myself to dislike her because I knew that she was just saying these things for group approval since most of the staff considered her an odd duck. She may in fact have been gay herself and just wanted to deflect attention away from her single status.  Homophobic men do this a lot.
   The idea of gay marriage in the 1970s was so remote you couldn’t even find references to it in published (gay) science fiction. In early gay liberation circles, men who had long term partners were regarded with suspicion if they said that they were monogamous. The 1970s politically correct way of thinking for activists was to equate romantic jealousy and monogamous long term relationships with wanting to “own” and possess a partner. Wanting to “own” someone body and soul was seen as one of the negative effects of growing up in a patriarchal, capitalist society. Many activists criticized heterosexual marriage as the spawn of capitalism with its idea of spousal “ownership.”  
    Homophobia was everywhere in those days. Even in countercultural Boston and Cambridge I used to hear bearded, socialist hippie revolutionaries spout the word ‘fag’ with abandon. They could talk about tearing down the capitol building, but they couldn’t free themselves from a prejudice inherited from their parents and grandparents.   
    When the idea of gay marriage first made small strides in the early 1980s, it was a fringe idea at best. Most self respecting gay people valued their personal sexual freedom and saw the insular married world of Ozzie and Harriet as a form of relationship slavery. For many the idea that you could only have sex with one person for the rest of your life seemed like a special kind of hell. But like the acceleration of a small faucet drip into a robust, gushing stream, the idea of gay marriage began to catch on.  The first reports of marriages came from gay-identified churches like the Metropolitan Community Church, or the gay friendly Unitarian Church and the United Church of Christ. In the Jewish world, you’d hear stories of a liberal rabbi uniting two men or two women in a home ceremony.  Reports of renegade Catholic or Anglican priests “marrying” two men or two women would surface a little later, but they were not common.  Generally, these union ceremonies were still regarded as freak occurrences in a community that still saw marriage as a straight institution. “We don’t want to be like straight people,” was a common refrain then.  

       In the early days, MCC couples who wished to tie the knot had a Holy Union ceremony. There were no legal ramifications to this ceremonial blessing. I attended one Holy Union service in the mid 1980s when a Navy lieutenant “married” his sailor boyfriend in the Joseph Priestly chapel at Center City’s First Unitarian Church. The reception was a snapshot of the traditional straight wedding: a sit down meal, champagne toasts, dancing, two men in tuxedos, a tall white wedding cake topped with two grooms plus an end show where the two grooms rubbed cake in each other’s faces. Attending this Navy wedding made me realize that the old activist line concerning marriage was fading, even though the MCC minister at that time was warning male couples who wanted a Holy Union that they first needed to take a serious look into making room “for the occasional other,” meaning, of course, an “on call” boyfriend once the marriage got stale. The assumed truth here was that all marriages, like seltzer water, go flat and that sexual passion eventually dims and fades.

    Now that the Supreme Court has put gay marriage on an equal footing with straight marriage, effectively relegating that those old PC “marriage is bad” activists to the dinosaur bin, the reactions have poured in.  Some people were indifferent to the ruling, claiming that it came too late, way after Canada and most of the western world. Many were jubilant. The ‘thumbs down’ reaction from Vladimir Putin and Russia was expected; ditto for places like Nigeria. Most gays expressed happiness at the Court’s decision despite the fact that many said they would never get married. As one friend of mind commented, “I won’t marry because I’ve made too many romantic mistakes in the past, but I’m glad it’s there as a civil right for others.”

    Of course, making a mistake in marriage can come close to becoming a fatal, if not expensive, error. Two men in their twenties and crazy in love are no different than a boy and a girl of the same age, also crazy in love, or lust, getting the two confused while on a deep chemistry level they are totally incompatible. In the old days the gay guys could split up by walking away from one another. ‘Divorce’ was as easy as slamming a door and going into the nearest gay bar for a fresh meet up, while the poor straight couple went through the prolonged, expensive agonies of legal divorce, complete with high voltage acrimony and vindictive, child visitation debates, alimony payments, not to mention dire end scenarios like, “She took my house, my car, everything,” etc. Yes, falling in love can be dangerous. It can also empty your bank account. 
       Some religious zealots responded to the Court’s decision by stating that gay marriages aren’t real anyway while others warned that now marriages will be legalized between humans and pit bulls, brother and sister, mothers and sons. Next up would be the legalization of pedophilia. On Facebook the volatile reactions to the Supreme Court ruling covered every conceivable opinion. The reaction among the haters was relentless and obsessive. One “I hardly know you” FB friend, an older woman, famous for her innocuous FB postings of drippy sweet Hallmark card verses, went Jekyll and Hyde and began dishing out the word sodomite. The transformation of this sweet Church Lady into an angry ‘Exorcist’ Linda Blair type was truly amazing.  Conversely, gay FB friends were also going ballistic, threatening to unfriend anyone who used the slightest homophobic slur. Extreme gay ideologues used the hate expressed against them by fanatical religious groups as a reason to hate back, calling for an end to Christianity or by saying that all Christians are evil.  

   Then, of course, there was the FB post of Father James Martin, from the Jesuit magazine, America, whose FB post reminding Catholics that no matter what their views on the subject, they should be mindful of what the Catholic catechism teaches when it comes to the subject of gay people. In other words, you can be against gay marriage and still be respectful. You don’t have to hate.

    “Catholics who disagree with the Supreme Court must treat gays with respect,” Fr. Martin said, “and with compassion and sensitivity, as the Catechism asks.” Unfortunately, many people did not listen to him, which then forced Fr. Martin to say, “Even after 25 years as a Jesuit, the level of hatred around homosexuality is nearly unbelievable to me.”

    The future looks bright, however, because as the “enlightened” realize, the collective trend is away from bigotry and darkness and into a much more generous, loving and accepting space.   


Friday, July 3, 2015

Coast to Coast AM, with Connie Willis, July, 1 am EST

Coast to Coast AM, where Malachi Martin was Art Bell's guest in the 1990s.


Remote Viewing Feats

Hosted by Connie Willis    
Guest(s): Joe McMoneagleThom Nickels
Host Connie Willis (email) will be joined by Joseph McMoneagle, known as the best Operational Remote Viewer in the history of the U.S. Army's Special Project-- Stargate. He'll describe how he achieves his results using scientifically designed and double-blind protocols, and how he's continued to demonstrate these abilities on camera, and in the lab at the famed Monroe Institute. First hour guest, Philadelphia author, Thom Nickels (Amazon page), shares weird stories of the founding fathers of the US, including the secret life of Ben Franklin.
6-10pm PT: Art Bell - Somewhere in Time returns to 9/30/96 for an evening of Open Lines covering such varied topics as the presidential race, Neanderthals, New Orleans, ValueJet airlines, and the inside of the Sphinx.

Fighting terrorism at The Prince Theater

Fighting terrorism at The Prince Theater

Weekly Press
Wed, Jun 24, 2015

By Thom Nickels
Contributing Writer

When two Philly film society friends offered me and a friend two free tickets to see Magic Mike XXL at The Prince Theater at 1412 Chestnut Street, I had to ask, "What is Magic Mike?" Could Magic Mike be the story of a gay magician who pulls off Marriage Equality in Russia, or could it be a movie about a magical millennial named Mike who changes craft beer into tattoos?

The Prince Theater, of course, was almost lost to the city when it went bankrupt several years ago. The theater’s legacy brightened when it was sold to The Philadelphia Film Society. I’ve visited The Prince many times in years past when I would attend film festivals.

In the lobby we picked up our free tickets then proceeded towards a lineup of ushers and serious looking men in suits. What was this? The men in suits were arranged widthwise across the floor like a chorus line of border guards, only they didn’t look very happy. As a frequent Ritz Theater movie patron, I’ve certainly never seen a lineup of suited security there, or at The Roxy or anywhere else for that matter.

Here’s what happened next: I was asked to stand still with my arms out at which point one of the unusually tall men had me spread my legs so that he and another man, who was also over six feet tall, could pat them while yet another man ran one of those little counter-terrorism brush gizmos over my crotch and pocket area.
Were they checking for weapons, bombs, or tubes of nitroglycerin, or did they think that some members of the audience had something against Magic Mike XXL? I suppose what spooked me the most was the fact that these suited no-nonsense men went about their job with the cold, unfeeling precision of TSA agents.

Since when did The Prince Theater become an airport?

As I’m wont to do in such situations, I said something vaguely humorous like, "Is this movie really a non-stop flight to the Middle East?" But nobody was laughing. The suits had no sense of humor and even seemed to resent the collective enthusiasm among patrons in the lobby that often precedes Showtime. Even the stoic looking Asian woman who collected my ticket after the suits had their way with me and who I recognized from past film festivals, had a glum, worried look on her face.

Inside the theater, I noticed additional lines of security near many of the aisles. At the entrance to our aisle a security guy who looked to be seven feet tall had his eyes glued in our direction. Here and there I noticed more relaxed looking guards, most of them women with long, curly hair. While some of these women didn’t seem to be taking their job as seriously as the men, they were still eerily "Watchtower" watchful.

When my friend decided that he should go to the men’s room before the start of the film, one of the security guys told him that nobody was allowed to use the rest rooms "at this time."

Now, I’ve been going to the movies for some forty-five years but I’ve never been told that the urinals are off limits.
"It’s not like Hilary Clinton is in the lobby," I said to my friend, "This is just a movie, after all!"

Finally, the lights went down and movie goers heard a faux theatrical explosion as ten male strippers appeared on stage while a few others popped up in the audience area. They were vastly overbuilt muscle thug types with huge arms and torsos but skinny legs. They proceeded to rip off their T-shirts and throw them into the audience as the screaming women collectively raised their cell phones to take pictures. The strippers then proceeded to gyrate, somersault, twist, twirl and dance, as one or two even leapt out into the audience and crawled over the seats. One guy in a bikini bottom or codpiece crawled past me in a paroxysm of ecstasy. I had to duck to avoid a body slam.

Then, as suddenly as it all began, the strippers disappeared and the movie began. It was Magic Mike time, meaning the story of "a male stripper teaching a younger performer how to party, pick up women, and make easy money."
Like the on-stage strippers, the movie strippers had overbuilt disproportionate bodies and talked as if they had bubble gum stuck in their mouths. Magic Mike, the star, even wore a backwards baseball cap as if it was 1995. These beefy guys had all left their jobs and private lives to take time off to be with their stripper buddies for one last road trip before their bodies fell apart or turned to fat from weightlifting.

In the story they travel around in an old food delivery truck straight out of Philly’s Vendy Awards, and camp in out of the way places. On a beach they macho it up by passing a football around but then suddenly they find themselves in Mad Mary’s, a drag queen hangout where, inexplicably, the toughest of them consents to dressing up like Carmen Miranda during the group striptease.

Throughout the film I looked for a correlation between police or suited security men and the action on-screen. Despite the fact that the men have wild escapades and even get into an auto accident on a country road, not one cop surfaces. These guys do what they want, crashing southern society parties and building bonfires in open fields, but the face of authority-- totalitarian authority-- is strangely absent.

The on screen absurdities get even zanier, especially when it came to scenes of the female audiences at the striptease shows. The women are presented as "ordinary" women you might see at CVS or Applebee’s although many are overweight and quick to giggle, blush and scream when the overbuilt male torsos strut their stuff. One might describe these ladies as readers of romance novels on methamphetamine.

The erotic mayhem on screen had the effect of loosening up the Prince’s security system because my friend was finally allowed to go to the bathroom. Yet as soon as he returned I noticed a security usher (a suit?) aiming a bright flashlight over a certain segment of the audience. Was something amiss? Did they find that nitroglycerin?

Most likely the suit (or usher) was investigating a potential cell phone violator who was attempting to film the Warner Brothers production from an iPhone. In any event, it proved to be a false alarm, especially since this crowd was really well behaved. Large groups of young women in business attire carrying expensive iPhones and on a major giggle tare don’t need an Israeli-Palestinian style clamp down.

They really….don’t.

As one who has seen hundreds of plays in the city, I’m used to requests to audiences to "please turn off all cell phones and gadgets before the show begins." Usually these requests are made politely and/or humorously, but when the announcement was made at The Prince it had emotional echoes of The Red Guard in old Russia.
So what, dear readers, has happened to the venerable Prince? Has it turned into a frog? Or has the theater, unbeknownst to us, merged with Philadelphia International Airport?

When this overlong, unedited movie was finally finished, guests had to make their way through another ring of security, only this time the suits seemed more relaxed, no doubt happy that the despicable, terror-prone crowd was finally going home.

The Confederate Flag (The Local Lens, Spirit Newspapers)

As a kid I was a Civil War buff and I loved visiting an old burned out Civil War era chapel near my parents’ house. This old stone chapel was set off by itself in a small clearing in the middle of a forest.
Next to the chapel were two graves. Buried there were two Civil War soldiers, both from the Union army, with their names and dates of birth and death barely distinguishable on the disintegrating grave stones.
These two, long-passed Union soldiers captured my imagination, especially since the area around the chapel was not an official cemetery.
Civil War inspired imagery and pop culture was everywhere in the 1960s. There was even a popular half hour television show called “The Rebel” starring Nick Adams—a friend and alleged lover of actor James Dean. The show centers around a displaced ex-Confederate soldier, Johnny Yuma, who wandered from town to town after the defeat of Robert E. Lee. Displaced Johnny didn’t seem to have a job, possibly because he refused to take off his gray Confederate uniform, which he wore on nearly every show. He would wander into a strange town, find a place to spend the night, adventures ensuing along the way—and with his rebel status, not all of them pleasant.
What made the story of Johnny Yuma so compelling for me was his incessant journal writing. Throughout the drama the viewer saw him sitting under a tree or in a hotel room writing in his journal. At the end of the show he would gather his few personal belongings, hop on his horse and then head out into the wilderness, a lost soul without a home.
The Confederate flag played a big part in “The Rebel.” As a Yankee identifying kid, I had little respect for the Confederate flag. Chester County, where I grew up, was hardly the South; But one you could always find a Confederate flag or two in a few sections of the county—painted on the side of barns or found on pick-up trucks.
The message I gathered was that the lovers of this flag were bitter over the South losing the war. But I found great irony in the fact that the people who brandished the Confederate flag were also the most vehemently patriotic Americans. In the late 60s these same Confederate flag bearers would go on to support the Vietnam War and many of them were adamant followers of the My Country Right or Wrong philosophy. There were bumper stickers then that read: “America: Love it or Leave It.”
Watching the Democratic National Convention on television as a boy I saw scores of Confederate flags on the convention floor.
Growing up, the Confederate flag represented ignorance and a ruinous southern redneck mentality. I didn’t like the flag and I couldn’t understand how it was allowed to fly over various southern state capitol buildings.
But can one loathe the Confederate flag without wishing to ban it from public display
As a kid, I used to canvass the neighborhood with a petition from my parish church which urged the banning of certain movies. These were the days when Catholics had to abide by the Church’s list of condemned movies. Of course it makes no sense why the Church would want everyone in society to abide by its in-house movie decency rules. “The Pawnbroker,” with Gene Hackman, was a big offender in those days because it was the first American mainstream film in which a woman bared her breasts. “The Pawnbroker” was a condemned but I went and saw it anyway.
Books like Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer,” “Candy” by Terry Southern and numerous poems by Allen Ginsberg were also being banned. These were the days when Banned in Boston was known throughout the nation. In the early 1990s, I even got my own taste of censorship when a book I wrote, “The Boy on the Bicycle,” was banned in Ireland.
It is no secret that flags can be strangely multi-symbolic. They can represent different things to different people at different times in history. For the Vietnam War protesters of the 1960s and 70s, the Stars and Stripes stood for genocide, imperialism and napalm; while, to others it stood for freedom, fighting Communism and democracy. Each side had its own definition of the flag’s true symbolic meaning.
When Puritan preachers in New England held bibles high as they hung or burnt witches they saw the bible as a symbol of righteous punishment. There are those who have used scripture to condone the horrors slavery, the subjection the women or the persecution of gay people. But what do we miss when we attribute the source of this hate onto the object itself rather than ourselves?
When certain passages in The Quran lead some in the Muslim world to blow up buildings, does this mean the text itself is evil and should be banned? Or do these actions say more about ourselves than they do about any object.
And what about those who endlessly consume Nietzsche only to  commit suicide because, like Nietzsche, they came to the conclusion that life is meaningless and futile? Should Nietzsche’s writings be banned for the actions they inspire?
Because my mother’s youngest brother, at 18 years of age, was captured, tortured and killed by the Japanese in a South Pacific island during WW II, should I incorporate that tragedy into a hatred of the Japanese flag? Should I avoid Japanese restaurants?
How should we navigate between our actions, our history, the powerful emotional symbolism that we bestow onto objects, our various and diverse stories?
I say, don’t ban the Confederate flag but work to make that flag’s sinister implications (or symbol) archival and irrelevant.
Let’s work to give a new meaning to those crossbars of stars.

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 na├»ve 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.