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Sunday, May 3, 2015

the pete dexter devil's pocket philly syndrome

The Local Lens

Wed, Apr 29, 2015

By Thom Nickels

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

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

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

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

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

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

"A pose exposes itself," he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                              THE STORY OF UNITED AIRLINES FLIGHT 409

When United Airlines Flight 409 took off from Denver, Colo., on the morning of October 6, 1955, the 66 people on board, including five female members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and a number of military personnel, had no idea that the DC-4 propliner would never make its Salt Lake City destination.

Something happened as the plane flew over the Rocky Mountain Continental Divide to make it veer to the west, and then fly at a dangerously low altitude. It’s probably safe to say that the passengers never knew any danger, and did not experience any panic prior to the plane’s crash into the face of Medicine Bow Peak in the Snowy Range Mountains of Wyoming. The crash was that sudden.

The crash was the worst air disaster in the United States at that time. Evidence of the crash can still be seen on the face of the cliff, because it left a very large black stain at the point of impact. The sun-bleached cliffs of Medicine Bow Peak are daunting enough without the black stain, because the jagged peaks have a prehistoric look.
Standing at the foot of Medicine Bow, as I did at age 19 with Zane, the father of a high school friend, I studied the face of the cliff and inspected the stain above my head that stands out like a massive birthmark. I wondered how an experienced pilot could end up flying 60 feet lower than he should have been flying so that, at the last minute, he attempted to gain altitude before slamming the plane into the face of the cliff.

Observing the point of impact in that quiet, beautiful, desolate area put Zane in a meditative mood. It was the month of September, some fourteen years after the crash. I was standing on a large boulder while Zane faced me on another boulder. I was wearing tan desert hiking boots and Zane, who had driven us here from his home in Boulder, Colo., wore a white shirt and jeans. We were at the beginning of a road trip through Utah, Nevada and Wyoming, when he decided to show me Medicine Bow.

He called Medicine Bow a place of beginnings and endings. Zane was not a religious man; in fact, he hated organized religion, and he often criticized my family’s Irish Catholic roots. In many ways, he was an atheist who didn’t want to be an atheist; he knew that life’s mysteries couldn’t always be answered by science. He liked to quote Henry Miller while driving, and he also liked to tell me stories about his life as a young ranch hand who wrote detective stories and who had multiple affairs with waitresses who worked in diners on lonely mountain roads.

Standing at the foot of Medicine Bow, his reverence seemed to rival my grandparents’ attitude when I would see them kneeling in church. The man of many words had been reduced to silence.

Medicine Bow was sacred to him for many reasons: there was the sheer beauty of the place and there was the black stain on the face of the cliff, with its symbolic reminder of human mortality and the unpredictability of life. One could easily imagine filmmakers redoing Planet of the Apes here, or a western epic with cowboys and Apaches. It was also the perfect Sci-Fi environment, as one could easily imagine a UFO landing as space visitors emerged from the craft.
The sun was beginning to set as we continued to talk about life. Zane became very philosophical, talking about his life and about his meetings with Idaho novelist Vardis Fisher.

The "Great Atheist," as I used to call him, then started to pepper his comments with stories of Edgar Cayce’s teachings about reincarnation. At age 19, the idea of death seemed far off to me. This was the summer that I had foolishly allowed Zane’s oldest son to take me mountain climbing and then coax me into rappelling down a mountainside with just a rope and a spike driven into the top of the mountain as the only things standing between me and a fatal fall.
Zane was furious when he learned that his son had talked me into doing this because fatal mountain climbing accidents happen frequently near Boulder.

I wasn’t thinking about God or the meaning of life in those days—only about experiencing as much of life as possible. The idea was to go to extremes, then try to make sense of it all afterwards.
For Zane and I, the black stain on the face of the cliff represented death, and death was a nudging problem. Was life only about racking up experiences like a miser hoarding cold coins? Why was this black stain on the side of the cliff so annoying, and why did it silence Zane and give him, if only for a while, priestly air?
Talking about the plane crash in that early evening September light, I thought of the passengers, what they felt the moment they died, and where they were now.
Zane told me that the plane had wavered off course and was flying too low, and that the pilot could not see the face of the cliff because there were many low-lying clouds. The clouds had led the plane to its destruction.

On October, 7, 1955—a day after the crash—The New York Times reported:

"First rescuers to reach the scene said they had found about 50 bodies strewn along a 300-foot course down the face of the mountain. Only a tailpiece, part of the fuselage and a wing of the plane had been located at mid-afternoon by rescuers who fought snowdrifts and a howling wind on the 12,005-foot Medicine Bow Peak. The mountain is about 40 miles west of here in the Snowy Range. The front part of the split plane was believed to have fallen down the other side of the peak. Another rescue group went up the north face of the mountain from Rawlins. The operation was suspended this evening because of a snowstorm and darkness."

The report continued:

"The scene was marked by two huge patches of oil where the plane’s engines apparently struck about 50-75 feet from the peak. The wreckage then slid down the steep incline in two ravines, much of it coming to rest 300 feet down on a small glacier. I don’t see how there would be a chance of anyone surviving, said Capt. Conine, Wyoming Air National Guard jet pilot, who was one of the first to spot the wreckage."

After the crash, nearby ranchers approached the site then notified authorities but it took the Wyoming Air National Guard several attempts before they were able to locate the crash. They searched nearby Elk Mountain, but then as they approached Medicine Bow, they spotted the wreckage southwest of the highest portion of the peak.

When help finally arrived, many of the bodies had to be removed on horseback because of the inhospitable terrain. A number of Catholic priests were brought to the area to bless bodies and perform extreme unction.

In a popular YouTube video about the site, filmed within the last ten years, one can see an explorer rummaging through fragments of the wreckage. He finds scrap metal, part of a propeller and engine parts. Other hard-to-identify airline fragments turn up tucked into the crevices of rocks. The explorer even finds broken passenger shoes.

Initially, United Airlines wanted all of the wreckage fragments removed from the site, so the area was bombed. But how it was bombed is still a source of controversy: Some say that the military dropped napalm to destroy the crash remnants, while others maintain that explosives were placed into face of the cliff.

Whatever method was used, it proved ineffective. Remarkably, crash site hunters who have explored the area since then leave the wreckage parts where they find them. Stealing parts for personal archival use has, fortunately, not been a problem.

The history of Medicine Bow Peak illustrates another reason why the site is considered sacred. The name "Medicine Bow" came together because the name "bow" refers to the mountain mahogany wood that the local Native tribes used in the making of bows.

These bows, apparently, were rather exceptional and strong. The word "medicine" can be traced to the tribal gatherings that took place in the area once a year. Not only did the various mountain tribes make their bows here, but they held powwows, the purpose of which was to heal the sick and to prevent the tribes from contracting diseases. This certainly gives it a right to be called a sacred place.

I’ve thought of the Snowy Range many times since my only visit there as a kid. During moments of personal reflection, I sometimes envision the mountain peaks and recall the stark beauty of the place. Thoughts of Zane also surface, as he passed away over a decade ago. Sometimes I wonder why Zane didn’t encourage me to explore the base of Medicine Bow when we were there, and why he was so insistent about our not wandering too far from his parked car.
When I researched the area, a little more, I think I discovered the reason:

The Medicine Bow/Snowy Range area is home to many different kinds of wildlife, including moose, elk, mountain lion, black bear and bobcat. When famous American frontiersman Kit Carson was alive, he barely escaped the jaws of death when he wrestled himself away from two Bow grizzly bears.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

                                             ICON MAGAZINE CITY BEAT APRIL 2015
                                                                     Thom Nickels

   We fell down the Who’s Who rabbit hole at the Reading Terminal’s fifth annual Party for the Market fundraiser. Some sightings: Lynne Abraham, whose white hair recalled the bonnets of absent Amish and Mennonite vendors; the large, moon-shaped eyes of DA Seth Williams, staring fixedly into space and reminding us of Transcendental Meditation; and City Council-at-Large candidate Paul Steinke, who seemed to be surveying his old work site. The Market’s promise of unlimited food, drink and dancing held true even though we never did locate Molly Malloy’s Breakfast Buffet or the gypsy palm readers. Our cozy chat with Greta and Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger (while munching a Hershel’s Mini Reuben) preceded two other sightings: Judy Wicks’ comet of long white hair and a Seth Williams redux, his TM eyes still dilated.  

Crowds at the Philadelphia Flower Show this year were rock concert thick. Ice, snow and sleet didn’t deter the armies of mommies with strollers, serenading couples, or the leg weary huddled masses camped out on carpeted corridors like stand by passengers at Philadelphia International. The public’s violent obsession for a spring flower infusion seemed to parallel Tennessee Williams’ quip: “The violets in the mountains have broken the rocks.” PFS has come a long way since its first show in 1829, the same year that Eastern State Penitentiary welcomed its first prisoners. At the PFS lgbt party we counted less drag queens and familiar faces than we did last year. The party’s guest of honor, Pam Grier, and host Josh Middleton’s on site interview could hardly be heard because of a botched sound system.

 At the opening of U-Bahn at 1320 Chestnut Street familiar faces dominated: AD Amorosi, Toni and Suzi Nash, Kory Aversa, Bobbi Booker, Nathan Lerner and I Am a Camera, HughE Dillon. The photo op extravaganza included lots of interlocked arms, group hugs, and bar-fueled smiley faces.  Introverts had no place to hide in this tight. German style subway bunker space. Dillon must have taken a million shots but only a few showed up on, proving that even the best poses often wind up on the cutting room floor.  


  The annual Red Ball held at Memorial Hall’s Please Touch Museum to benefit the Red Cross attracted over 1400 guests many of whom rode the carousel or “drove” a faux Septa bus. We met the newly crowned Miss Philadelphia, Julia Rae Schlucter, 22, currently enrolled at Fordham University, and a dead ringer for Grace Kelly. Julia will go on to compete in the Miss Pennsylvania contest in June. We chatted with Jane and Roger Willig of Norristown and Center City, and told Lenny Bazemore of Bazemore Galleries that the only wine on hand was Barefoot Wine, a step up from Manischewitz and definitely low rent. “Tell them to come to the Bazemore,” Lenny said, implying that his wine wears good shoes. The mostly dessert-heavy ball had us wondering about diabetes and extra pounds, but with the Red Cross nearby, most opted to indulge.   

The Bach At Seven Cantata series (Choral Arts Philadelphia) is one of our favorite monthly events, transporting mini concert goers to the high gothic realms of the city’s most beautiful Episcopal churches. But how about switching Bach for Chopin At Seven; Baroque At Seven; Mozart At Seven; Stravinsky At Seven, or maybe even Wagner At Seven?  Choral Arts could even pair up with Moore Brothers Wine Company, the event’s libations provider, to do an all-Moore composer program: Carman Moore At Seven; the 18th Century composer Thomas Moore at seven; Australian composer Kate Moore at seven, or the award winning Dorothy Rudd Moore at Seven. This Moore on Moore action would surely make the snail’s pace after concert wine line move a lot faster.

We attended a lecture at the Athenaeum in Philadelphia’s Washington Square. The subject matter was the life of Saint Katharine Drexel, the Catholic saint canonized by Pope John Paul II on October 1, 2000. The speaker was Cordelia Biddle, a direct descendant of Francis Martin Biddle, grandfather of Saint Katharine Drexel and Nicholas Biddle, president of the Second Bank of the United States. Cordelia was just getting into her  talk– expounding on Katharine’s wicked sense of humor, and explaining that before she enetered the convent  she was "the Paris Hilton of her time," when something unsettling happened..She stopped talking and put her left hand to her head as she slumped to the floor, landing with a thump. Gasps could be heard among the audience. There was a frozen feeling in the room as people in the front rows attended to the fallen speaker.  While the Athenaeum brass waited for the ambulance to arrive, the audience was ushered into an adjoining room for an early reception, where a mostly somber mood prevailed. Cordelia survived the fainting and is back on the lecture circuit.

Photos: Paul Steinke, The Red Ball, Barefoot Wine (Ugh!)


Sunday, April 12, 2015

Harry and Me :Journalism School Radicals

The Local Lens

Wed, Mar 25, 2015

By Thom Nickels

The world was a very conservative place in the 1970’s, the so-called Vietnam War years. If you were a student then, as I was, you belonged to one of two camps: the anti-Vietnam War people or the pro-war people. There were very few in-betweens. This was a time when everybody had an opinion on war.

I met Harry at the Charles Morris Price School of Journalism, near 13th and Locust Streets, in Center City. I’d gone to the Price School right after high school and was one of the youngest students in the school; Harry was 26-years old, which seemed old to me then. Harry lived with his parents in Huntington Valley and took the train to school everyday, while I took the Paoli Local in from Malvern and Frazer, where I grew up.

I was a shy and nervous kid who very often stuttered when I spoke. On the first day of journalism school, I was shocked to learn that one of the required courses was Public Speaking. I knew there was no way that I was going to stand in front of the class, stutter and possibly be laughed at. The only solution, I decided, was to cut Public Speaking class altogether by sneaking around the corner to a greasy spoon named Dewey’s, and wait out the class.

After cutting that first class, I headed back to school and noticed another student coming from the opposite direction. That student was Harry, who told me upfront that, like me, he had just cut class because he had a fear of public speaking. We bonded immediately as fellow stutterers. We made a pact on that sidewalk in front of the school that we’d cut Public Speaking together, and we’d use that time as an excuse to hang out at Dewey’s.

The school newspaper, at that time, was a small, mimeographed four-page newsletter called The Kite and Key. The name had a Benjamin Franklin connection, since the school was associated with The Poor Richard Club. The Kite and Key was a tame, safe, cute little paper. One could read it and come away without having any sense of what was going on in the real world.

The newsletter’s cuteness, and the fact that people called it "little," bothered Harry and me. During our breakfasts at Dewey’s, we decided that we wanted a far more daring publication for the school. We wanted a newsletter or magazine that wasn’t afraid to possibly offend the suit-and-tie wearing teachers and professors, who, by and large, were advertising, marketing and journalism professionals.

The editor of the Kite and Key was an amiable and professional female student in her late twenties. She wore sensible shoes, and it was easy to see that her one goal in life was to make a lot of money in marketing or public relations. Despite our feelings about her, Harry and I wrote "little" pieces for the "little" newsletter, never dreaming that anything would change—until the day we heard that the efficient editor with sensible shoes was graduating early, which meant that the "little" newsletter would need a new editor.

We decided to run for the position as co-editors, so we put together a plan for a much thicker, more diverse and controversial publication, which we christened The New Price Review. By changing the name to NPR, we were thinking of magazines like The Paris Review or even Rampart’s Magazine, which were popular at the time. Our NPR vision included the publication of short stories, poetry, commentary pieces, one-act plays, essays and even editorial cartoons. The only student competition for the editor’s slot was a marketing major, a young woman who happened to be a friend of the former editor.

The campaign for a new editor was like a mini-presidential race, although Harry was the one to make the campaign speech before the student body. He was less of a stutterer than I was, although when he gave his speech before the student body, his face turned a terrible shade of red.

Harry promised the students that we would give them something substantial to read.

While Harry was speaking, I surveyed the class and got the feeling that we would win the election. Our competition, the efficient marketing major, wanted to keep the name Kite and Key. She also emphasized the editorial value of entertainment and fun, and that the newsletter should stick to school topics.

The class voted by paper ballots. Harry and I were elected co-editors in a near landslide. We celebrated by going to Alvin’s Alley, an old-time, very dark and rustic Evening Bulletin newspaper bar for reporters at 13th and Walnut streets. Alvin’s Alley smelled of stale draft beer and cigarettes. It wasn’t a big bar, but a tidy, efficient hole-in-the-wall where women never entered. The bartender was an old guy who looked like a Noir character in a Glenn Ford film. Alvin’s Alley was my first introduction to beer and serious discussions in dark bars.

After the celebration came the hard work. Now we had to make good on a promise to the students.

We put out the first issue of NPR right away after collecting submissions from students, writing pieces ourselves, and holding editorial meetings at Journalism School Radicals over French toast. Since the magazine was mimeographed, we had to buy mimeograph stencil sheets that contained strips of blue carbon, and then retype the articles for publication on each sheet—a process that took many hours. Since Harry wasn’t one for this sort of task, I gladly welcomed the opportunity, because it meant that I could fill in blank pieces of pages with quotations or sections of books that I found interesting.

I’d spend entire weekends editing and then typing articles onto these long stencils on a typewriter lent to my by my father. Problems like stuck typewriter keys, botched or dried-up typewriter ribbon, typos, or excessive build up of White-Out often plagued these weekend work sessions. When Monday morning rolled around, I’d take the completed stencils to a printing place on Sansom St., where it would take the printer at least a couple of days to print out multiple copies of the 27-page magazine. Back at the school, Harry and I would collate the pages and then staple them. This process took hours, and was done after class.

Working on the magazine became our hands-on journalism experience. We were still cutting Public Speaking class and using that time to visit the city’s many old bookstores, obscure pizza cafés, or even Larry Robin’s original bookstore near 13th and Market Streets, where there was more radical literature than in all of San Francisco or Berkeley.
The first edition of The New Price Review was met with curiosity and excitement. It also put some professors on the offensive. The more conservative professors started calling us "The Berkeley Bunch," and the Dean, Mr. Kaplan, was rumored to be unhappy with the publication.

But this was the age of protest, and there was no stopping us. When the Poor Richard Club awarded Pennsylvania Supreme Court judge Michael A. Musamanno an award for Patriotism and "Love of America," we organized a petition drive and drafted a letter to The Philadelphia Inquirer. We protested Judge Musamanno’s characterization of anti-Vietnam War protesters as ill-intentioned and unpatriotic. The published letter in The Inquirer caused consternation among the faculty, but Dean Kaplan made no steps to pull the plug on NPR.

But it was the second issue of NPR that really got the school talking.

As thick as a small Yearbook, the second issue’s front cover was a collage with satirical references to LSD, Vietnam, LBJ, the CIA, God is Dead, Sex, Mount Airy hippies, and Clutch Cargo. The contents included the results of a student poll in which Philly was voted a dull city. By a slim majority, most of the students also supported the Vietnam War. Harry wrote a piece on the faculty’s perception of the NPR as "The Berkeley Bunch," while I wrote a one act play on Vietnam. There were stories on drug addiction, poems about The New York Times, and profiles of students and teachers. The profiles balanced out the perceived radical nature of the magazine.

As much as we hated to do so, we also published pro-Vietnam views to emphasize our belief in freedom of speech.
The second issue of NPR was so popular among students, they had to be told to stop reading it during class.
Long-suffering Dean Kaplan kept his nose out of the magazine the entire time Harry and I were co-editors. He could have squashed the magazine at any time, but he relegated his criticisms to short meetings with us in which he registered his concerns. Dean Kaplan passed away a while ago, but I can still see him clearly with his auburn-colored, Wise Owlglasses and bald head.

At our graduation ceremony at the Franklin Institute, Harry and I were shocked when the ceremonial MC (M.C. or emcee) announced that we had both won the Carrie May Price Award for Best Student in Journalism. We nearly fell through the floor. Among the crowd congratulating us was Mrs. Kearney, the Public Speaking teacher, who had mysteriously given us both a ‘C’ as a grade for her class—despite the fact that we never attended it.

Photos: Charles Morris Price School; Dewey's at 13th and Chancellor; Actor Anthony Perkins, a dead ringer for Harry.

Benjamin Franklin, the Santa Claus of History

The Local Lens

Wed, Apr 01, 2015

By Thom Nickels

The myth of Benjamin Franklin is probably greater than that of Santa Claus. That’s because the Ben Franklin that most school children know is nothing more than a jovial, benign Kris Kringle—a smiling, kite-flying granddaddy figure—filled with chuckles, winks and wise sayings that sound like they were lifted from the pages of Readers Digest.

The undisputed fact, of course, is that Ben Franklin really was a genius with a dark history. Born in Boston in 1706, the 10th son of soap maker Josiah Franklin and Abiah Folger, Franklin was many things: a printer, inventor, writer, publisher, adventurer and lover, as well as a man of secrets and mystery. His childhood was difficult, with his father marking him early on as "destined" for the clergy—although that plan failed when the cost of divinity school proved prohibitive. Instead, the precocious, troubled boy who liked to read was farmed off to his older brother James, then-editor and publisher of The New England Courant.

James put young Franklin to work as a printing hand, so the 12-year-old was soon diligently working all the time, setting type. In the end, the ‘technical only’ job proved unsatisfying. Little Ben wanted to write for the Courant, but knew his brother would never allow a lowly print assistant—much less his younger brother—to become a contributor to the magazine. Ben, undeterred, went on to invent a nom de plume, "Silence Dogwood," supposedly an anonymous female writer who wrote letters to the editor criticizing the treatment of women in the colonies. Unaware of his younger brother’s duplicity, James published Dogwood’s letters in the Courant and they became quite famous, on the order of a Colonial version of Dear Abby. Soon, everyone in town wanted to know who Silence Dogwood was.

When Ben owned up and confessed the truth to his brother, James’ reaction was not nice. In fact, it was downright volatile. James became self-righteous and claimed that Ben had harmed the publication, and then proceeded to beat him. But the teenage Franklin had had enough. He found passage to Philadelphia, where he hoped to find a job in printing, arriving with just enough money for a few loaves of bread. On his first day in the city, it is said that he walked the streets soaking wet (it had just rained) and that his "odd" look impressed his future wife who, serendipitously, happened to catch a quick glimpse of him walking the streets. They would marry years later, after her first marriage failed, and after Franklin had established roots working for The Pennsylvania Gazette.

The Founding Father’s life then takes on a mythic cast. He fathered an illegitimate child named William before his marriage, but after his marriage, tales of his flirtations with other women, especially in France—where the spirit of sexual licentiousness always seemed to rule with an iron fist—began to circulate. He also embarked on a number of simultaneous careers, including that of inventor. His inventions included the lightning rod for homes, and the glass armonica. On one sailing trip, he was the first to discover the warming effects of the Gulf Stream. He also resurrected Silence Dogwood in the form of another pseudonym—"Poor Richard," or "Richard Saunders"—when he published the annual Poor Richard’s Almanac, a chapbook of aphorisms, quotations, reflections, weather reports and other oddities that the public found endearing.

Noted by some as America’s first arms dealer, Franklin went to London to work on behalf of the colonies, and stayed at the estate of Lord Snowdon, in East Wycombe, just outside the city..

Here’s where his life takes a mysterious turn: Lord Snowdon was the founder of the "Hellfire Club," a secret society that held meetings and parties underneath the Wycombe estate, where the male members dressed as monks and the women as nuns. The behavior among Hellfire Club members was in perfect alignment with Philadelphia’s own ‘Sin City’ reputation in the 18th century, when bawdy houses (brothels) were common in the city. This may be difficult to imagine now, but in 18th century Philadelphia, most neighbors had a ‘live and let live’ attitude when it came to the local bawdy house. People left the houses alone, as long as no trouble came from them. When trouble did come from these houses, it was often in the form of fights, noise, and gunshots. If a house was too troublesome, it was often razed by neighbors, but it was razed not from a sense of moral outrage, but for practical reasons—too much noise is never acceptable.

In some correspondence, Franklin makes references to Wycombe’s ‘underground’ life, although the extent of his involvement there is unknown. Ben, after all, was the ultimate public relations man. In his book, Benjamin Franklin, Politician: The Mask and the Man, Francis Jennings, wrote: "To begin with, Franklin’s Autobiography is about as valid as a campaign speech. It sounds good. Everything he wrote sounds good. Franklin’s public life was devoted to public relations, of which he became a preeminent master."

Jolly ol’ Ben was a man of so many "different selves." In fact, today there are still a number of people who accuse him of being a British spy, or of murdering and then burying the corpses of women and children under his old house on Carver Street in London. Others even reduce him to a Satanist who worshipped Lucifer in the Hellfire caves at Wycombe.
But it was Franklin’s PR abilities that continue to affect how biographers see him through the present day. These biographies paint too sweet a portrait of the man, an image that thoroughly keeps up with the touristy imitation of Franklin’s walking around Independence Hall. If your knowledge of Ben didn’t extend beyond this Santa image, you would never know, for instance, that novelist D.H. Lawrence found Franklin "a little pathetic…ridiculous and detestable," and that German sociologist Max Weber summed up Franklin’s thinking as a "philosophy of avarice."

Franklin, for instance, called German immigrants "the Refuse of their People," and he referred to the black slaves on American soil of having "a plotting disposition, dark, sullen, malicious, revengeful and cruel…"

The most evenly balanced depiction of the man is Mark Van Doren’s biography that spells out—quite literally—that when Franklin’s wife was dying in Philadelphia, ol’ Ben was spending his time living it up surrounded by French women in Paris. Van Doren also describes how Franklin and a friend played a prank on a young man in Philadelphia’s Oyster Alley, and then accidentally burned him to death. Then there was Ben’s cynical view of American Indians in western Pennsylvania. It seems that before negotiating a treaty with these Native Americans, Franklin sent them a case of whiskey to "lubricate their compliance."

At his funeral in 1790, 20,000 people paid tribute to this remarkable human being who was really much more complicated than the fake glossy image that’s become popular today.

At age 39 in 1748, Franklin wrote:
"Fair Venus calls; her voice obey;
In Beauty’s arms spend night and day
The joys of love all joys excell
And loving’s certainly doing well."

Life, for Benjamin Franklin, was all about the next conquest, be it political, scientific, or romantic.

What Passes Today for Breaking News

The Local Lens

Wed, Apr 08, 2015

By Thom Nickels

The "new" journalism of today can be quite sloppy and can lead to a lot of confusion. Let me explain:
Every once in a while, a crime story will catch my eye, and I’ll look into it. Recently, I came across an Action News 6ABC headline that read: Teen Shot Outside Port Richmond Mini-Mart Dies, Gunman On Bike Sought. The reporter states the address of the mini-mart as the corner of Amber and Cambria Street.

Okay, so what’s wrong with this picture, other than the fact that a gruesome murder has been committed? This Amber and Cambria street corner is clearly a Kensington address, not a Port Richmond address. The comments section that accompanied this story contained many messages addressing this fact.

My first thought when reading this report was, "Here we go again," even though I wasn’t all that surprised to read that another misidentification of Port Richmond had occurred. For many years now, both print and broadcast media have frequently misidentified the Fishtown-Port Richmond area. Not to be cynical, but I don’t expect this to change anytime soon.

One reader comment, however, caught my eye. This comment alluded to the fact that 6ABC is controlled by folks who want to do everything in their power not to tarnish the Kensington name because, well, Kensington is currently cool and on the upswing, despite decades of a bad rep. But fact is fact, after all, whether or not the "new" Kensington is currently cool or not cool. "Traditional" Kensington is still a pretty dicey area while Port Richmond has never played that particular "game of dice." Port Richmond has never had much of a reputation problem.

I also don’t think that there are behind-the-scenes broadcast media hipsters who regulate the positives and negatives when it comes to using the name Kensington. While I subscribe to some conspiracy theories (the Kennedy assassination and the death of Pope John Paul I), the idea of a bunch of bearded, mustached guys in flannel shirts, skinny jeans and tats altering news headlines to save the reputation of the Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby and Festival seems cartoonish and far-fetched.

Several years ago, the neighborhood misidentification problem had a different twist. That’s when I walked into a broadcast media camera crew outside Applebee’s on Aramingo Avenue. I forget why the film crew was there, but at that time, the misidentification problem was the reverse of what it is now.

News sources like 6ABC had a tendency to call most of Fishtown and Port Richmond Kensington. So, I took it upon myself to tell the camera guy to please remember that the area where he was filming is not Kensington. As it happened, he was getting a lot of people coming up to him, explaining where one neighborhood ended, and another one began. In many ways, the comments reflected the old neighborhood boundary line controversies, although everyone agreed on one thing: The area was definitely not Kensington.

In retrospect, I hate to think that perhaps I helped create the present day misidentification problem, because now the news media rarely uses the word Kensington. In fact, it seems they go out of their way to avoid using it.
While we’re on the subject of broadcast and online news, I’ve noticed another dangerous trend lately. That trend is to categorize what used to be called "petty news" as "breaking news."

Consider the case of the man who stole eight cans of Red Bull from the Wawa at 3222-48 Richmond Street: 6ABC reported this incident as a major robbery, because the Red Bull shoplifter was said to have "pushed" a cashier who tried to block his exit from the store. But really, what self-respecting shoplifter is going to let himself get caught if all it takes is a push to clear the exit? And when did shoplifting become breaking news?
A couple of months ago, there was a story on about a protest at a college lecture, because of the lecturer’s views on rape. The story quoted the protesters, and described the scene during the lecture in which people held up signs and/or walked out.

What was left out of the story was a crucial element: Just what were the lecturer’s views that made her so detested and so controversial? This was left unsaid. To me, this seemed incomprehensible. How could any reporter—or that reporter’s editor—miss such a thing? The reader finished the story not knowing what made the protesters angry.
While I’ve been critical of in the past for its sensationalistic, tabloid tendencies, I admit, the website has been slowly improving despite still having problems with what passes as "breaking news." Do we really need to know about every high school teacher who exchanges mash notes or who has a love affair with one of his or her older students? Are these really mega stories on par with the latest ISIS attacks? Years ago, even truly scandalous sexual molestation and abuse cases were reported on page 15 in The Philadelphia Inquirer not only that, they were condensed down into small box notations, almost as a journalistic afterthought.

When I was 16 years old, there was a huge sex scandal in my Chester County high school involving an English teacher and over 20 underage male athletes. The Daily Locals News, located in West Chester at that time, buried the incident in the middle of the newspaper, even relegating it to a small box item. It was as if reporting on a dog that had been hit by a milk truck. Today, that story would go viral.

It seems that journalism has yet to find a respectable middle ground when it comes to this topic.
Then there’s the very controversial subject of race. Fear of talking about race, or even alluding to the subject of race has become more of an issue than talking about real race problems.

In March, a CBS Philly story on the rape and robbery at gunpoint of a young woman at 3900 Richmond Street, by two underage teen boys, spelled out all the pertinent details of the incident, except for a physical description of the alleged rapists.

Descriptions of the two rapists were no doubt omitted because they were caught almost immediately. But if that were not the case, a thorough ID would have been necessary, because other women in the area late at night would want to know who to look out for: such as a boy with freckles, a crooked nose, a cleft chin, or a uni-brow. Without a physical description, everyone is left guessing, and guessing leads to confusion.

More bothersome, however, was the fact that the reporters did not say where the underage teens were from. Were they from the immediate neighborhood? Were they local Catholic school students? Were they kids from other neighborhoods who came into Port Richmond to cause trouble? It’s important to know these things because it gives residents a frame of reference.

Without a frame of reference, we don’t get the full story.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Life in Philly's Riverwards

The Local Lens

• Wed, Mar 11, 2015

By Thom Nickels

The word on the street is that the neighborhood is changing. You only have to look at the housing construction on many of the streets here to see that this is true. Changing patterns are everywhere; on my own block there are three new and slightly out of scale houses (three stories) that dwarf all the homes around it. While I don’t like being "dwarfed," I like the change despite impending property tax increases.

When I first moved to "The Triangle" neighborhood bordering Lehigh Avenue, Aramingo Avenue and Richmond Streets almost 13 years ago, I had a sense of the area as being surrounded by an invisible wall that kept the rest of the city out. That sensation of isolation or remoteness, I think, was based on the fact that unless you had specific business in the neighborhood, there was no reason for you to come here. Usually nobody wanted to come here because, well, there was nothing here but Stock’s Bakery and rowhomes.

When visiting the general Port Richmond area in the 1980s to meet the mother of a friend of mine, I remember feeling that I was traveling to a radically different part of the city that I rarely had an opportunity to visit. I felt as if I was taking a road trip to a place like Palmerton, Pennsylvania.

Apparent to me then was the fact that the Richmond area was an affordable neighborhood with respectable, albeit simple, houses that very often changed hands within families so that "outsiders" rarely had a chance to intrude and change the demographics of the neighborhood.

Moving here from Center City in 2002 was a traumatic experience for me because I soon felt isolated from the city I left behind. The problem for me was that there was nothing to do in the immediate environment.

Hanging in Dunkin Donuts, at that time in the Port Richmond Shopping Center, and pretending it was a café, was not an option. Strolling along Allegheny Avenue and sampling the Polish eateries there cannot take the place of indulging in Center City activities. Today’s options are much more diverse because there’s more of a culinary arts and culture scene here than there was a decade ago. There are new restaurants, theaters, galleries, bars, markets, real cafés, and even Catholic parishes that offer traditional Latin Masses.

Ten years ago, I’d be waiting late at night at Front Street and Girard Avenue for the Route 15 or a taxi, whichever came first. But there was almost never a taxi because they were all in Center City where the money and the people were. That’s not necessarily the case today.

Let me tell you what I did before moving here:

I placed a call to the 26th Police District and asked about the safety of the area. I was told that the major crime issues in the River Wards were substance abuse and domestic violence. While this hardly qualifies as Shirley Temple movie material, it’s certainly better than getting shot while withdrawing money from an ATM machine.

So yes, The Triangle, along with parts of Fishtown and Port Richmond, are still one of the best and safest sections in the city. This area also has the distinction of having triumphed over the Northeast as one of the best places to live. That wasn’t always the case — not so long ago most people had the impression that to "improve one’s standing in life," or to move on up, meant a move to the Northeast. That’s no longer true. The Northeast, to the contrary, has proven to be a move on down.

For me, moving to the River Wards from Center City was a stressful odyssey. It was stressful, in part, because it involved changing my wardrobe, at least according to the advice of one friend who suggested that I shouldn’t walk the streets here dressed like a Center City person.

"How do people in Center City dress?" I asked, amazed at the comment.
"They dress to attract attention," he said.

"Attract attention?" I asked, thinking of my run of the mill conservative dress that a zillion other men wear.
Thinking he wanted me to put on an Eagles sweatshirt or a Phillies jersey, or even wear a backwards baseball cap, I was surprised when he said it was the leather jacket I chose to wear while house hunting on the weekends that would attract the unwanted attention.

"A leather jacket means only one thing," he said. "You are a snob from Center City."
While I didn’t ditch the jacket, I did notice that my friend was half right— there were few to zero leather jackets being worn in The Triangle.
Let me list a few things I’ve learned since moving to the River Wards.

1. Make eye contact and try to establish contact with neighbors: Do this regardless of educational or other perceived differences. No man or woman is an island; you never know when you are going to need the assistance of a neighbor.

2. Visit an "alien" bar: While I don’t regularly frequent bars, I think it’s a valuable life experience to visit a real neighborhood bar. I’m not talking about semi-upscale, quasi-hipster bars like Green Rock Tavern on Lehigh Avenue, which I actually like, but root-authentic places like Sam and Ruthie’s— a bar trapped in a 1969 time warp because it’s where people still smoke and where you can find a gritty Rocky Balboa atmosphere.

It’s easy to imagine Rocky walking into Sam and Ruthie’s and ordering a drink while eyeing the rack of 25 cent potato chip and pretzel bags tacked in front of the bar mirror. It’s much harder to imagine him going into Green Rock where, if he got the munchies, he’d have to forgo chips for something more expensive on the menu. While I don’t think it is the wisest choice to be one of those people who identify their self worth or status in life by the quality of bars they visit but a little Philly grit will add salt to your urban perspective.

As one seasoned world traveler told me after a visit to Sam & Ruthie’s: "This bar shows you the guts of the city. There’s a book of short stories here!"

3. The fence will always be crappy: I’m talking about the chronically dilapidated fence that borders E. Thompson Street and that runs behind Rite Aid on Aramingo Avenue. This fence has been falling down for years and it borders what is perhaps the trashiest stretch of property in the entire Triangle area. The curbside debris here never seems to go away, making you wonder who’s in charge here. When I volunteered with ORCA several years ago to help clean up this mess, the mood among the volunteers was hopeful despite a long time neighbor saw who told our group, "It’s hopeless! It’s not going to do any good!"

While I objected to the comment then as tacky negativity – why not at least try to make things better, right? – I knew she was right when the debris reappeared two weeks later. And reappeared four weeks after that, and so on until today.
The debris on E. Thompson and the broken down, spray painted fence gives newcomers to the area huge negative impressions.

I remember back to when a colleague of mine visited from Northern Liberties, saw the curbside E. Thompson Street trash and the broken fence and said, "I didn’t know that you lived in the ghetto."

Rocky would never hang out in a quasi-hipster bar where there were no 50 cent bags of potato chips.