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Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Challenge for Philadelphia City Candidate, Paul Steinke.'

The Local Lens

• Wed, Jan 21, 2015

By Thom Nickels

I don’t like to hang out in places where politicians and their friends rule the roost. When there are too many political-types in a room the atmosphere gets thick and tense.

Politicians can be genuinely insincere despite the face they like to wear. A casual conversation with a politician can be stilted because the things they say are usually carefully measured and controlled. What you wind up with during conversations like this are approved sound bites. To get raw, unadulterated feelings and opinions from a politician you’d first have to have those opinions sanctioned by their public relations machine and staff. This is necessary because the politician has to be sure that what he or she is saying is the right thing. On a human scale, this makes for a lot of insincerity.

Despite feeling this way, when I received an invitation to hear former Reading Terminal head Paul Steinke announce his intention to run for City Council-at-Large, I headed over to the Field House on Filbert Street to be a part of the event.
While on my way to the Steinke kick-off, I happened to fall alongside a young family walking with their young children near 11th and Market Streets. The family seemed to be rushing as if they were late for something. The mother, in fact, paced out ahead of her husband with one of the children running on her heels.

"Where’s the fire, lady?" I said to myself as we all crossed an intersection at the same time. But when I heard the mother say, "Here’s the Field House!" I knew they were going to the Steinke event. What I didn’t know (but would discover later) was that the father of the family was one of Steinke’s brothers. When this fact came to light I thought how lucky Paul was to have the total support of his family.

When I attended Nutter-for-Mayor events years ago it always amazed me that there were still so many people around who believed that "our" candidate— the "right" candidate– will change the world and that Utopia would be right around the corner when he or she wins. People keep holding on to this myth despite the fact that once these politicians get elected they inevitably fall short as their Utopian dreams come crashing down to earth. Still, we like to delude ourselves with the fanfare of political campaigns: the shiny candidate buttons or colorful placards to put in our windows.

At the Field House sign-in table there were Steinke candidate buttons and placards galore. Political-types in suits and name tags smiled like morticians. The room was crowded so it was hard to move about easily. I recognized a number of people— political faces I’d seen in years past at rallies or at City Hall events. I watched their lips move as they talked to others in attendance. TV crews readied their big cameras as some in the swelling crowd bought beer at the bar. A small table off to the side (but hidden by a portion of the crowd) offered pizza and pretzels. Unfortunately, I didn’t see the small table until the end of the rally, so my evening was a mix of politics and a growling stomach.

Anyone who has ever met Paul Steinke knows that he’s a "go to" nice guy. The Northeast-born Philadelphian is smart and accomplished. People like Steinke because he seems to be a genuinely humble man despite his accomplishments. He was the Finance Director of the Central Philadelphia Development Corporation as well as the first Executive Director of the University City District. He was also the head of the Reading Terminal Market from 2001 until 2014 when he resigned to run for City Council. At the Reading Terminal Market, Steinke’s tenure has been nothing short of phenomenal. He brought the market into the 21st Century and out of the doldrums of leaky ceilings and the smell of mildew to its current status as one of the top city markets in the country. Steinke also seems to have the ability to talk and listen to many different types of people. He’s not a business-only-type of candidate. If there are traces of arrogance in his personality, he keeps them well hidden.

At the event’s start, Representative Brian Sims of Philadelphia County addressed the crowd in his confident, humorously prickly style. He mentioned Steinke’s accomplishments while advising those in the crowd to pick up a placard and applaud vigorously at the right moment.

Sims had commented that introducing Steinke was like introducing a movie star and as Steinke came on stage he looked like a Kennedy clone or an actor in a Christopher Isherwood drama. The crowd applauded when the candidate took the mic and then listened attentively as he began his speech.

Kool-Aid was not passed around.

Steinke talked about the historic importance of Philadelphia, Independence Hall, the Constitution and all of the fine historic events that happened here.He then enumerated his positions on a number of issues, both local and national.
As the first openly LGBT candidate for City Council, Steinke had yet to play the sexual orientation card although this fact was (appropriately) mentioned by Sims during his introduction. It is doubtful whether anyone in the room had not been aware of this fact but it came out like fireworks at the end of Steinke’s speech when he thanked a number of LGBT activists for making his candidacy possible. He even mentioned the name of Frank Kameny, a Los Angeles based activist who left an important legacy in the area of LGBT civil rights.

At this point during the proceedings I was thinking a number of things.

My first thought was to send a message to Steinke and suggest that he "up" the volume and amplification in his public talks. After all, when making a speech, it is perfectly okay to speak up and show some passion and let your voice rise and fall like ocean waves meeting the shore.

Then I might suggest to him that if his talents are to grace the corridors of City Hall, perhaps he should first concentrate on winning the hearts and minds of Mr. and Mrs. Average Philadelphia and not focus too heavily on obscure (from a mainstream point of view) ideological personalities like Frank Kameny.

"After all, Paul," I might say. "As composer Ned Rorem once said, ‘It’s not Walt Whitman’s sexuality, but his universality that made him beloved throughout the globe.’"

We Are All Shane Montgomery

COMMENTARY: We are all Shane Montgomery

Weekly Press
• Wed, Jan 14, 2015

By Thom Nickels
Contributing Writer
We are all… Shane Montgomery.

Why am I saying this? Let’s start at the beginning.

Shane Montgomery disappeared after a night out with friends that included a stop at one of Manayunk’s most popular hangouts, Kildare’s Irish Pub on Main Street.

While I’ve never been to Kildare’s, I know that there are scores of places like Kildare’s all over the city.
At 21, Shane Montgomery was still a kid, a boy with some "man growth" but essentially still in adult formation mode. At age 21, few of us have a firm grip on reality, even if many 21 year olds pretend that the opposite is true.

Being 21 is not easy. For most 21 year olds, for instance, the tendency is to judge the world, our friends and family, harshly.

I’m not saying that Shane Montgomery judged anybody, but at 21 he undoubtedly found himself in that "almost mature" formation space described above.

When I was Shane’s age I was often in hyper critical overdrive. When I look back on those days I sometimes feel a little embarrassed. Was I really so critical and arrogant?

The twenties is a time when emotions and mental attitudes go up and down like an erratic seismograph. At that age we are on the hunt for what mature philosophers call a centered personal equilibrium.

Shane Montgomery lived in Roxborough, Manayunk’s next door neighbor, so Kildare’s on Main Street probably had a home turf feel for him. When Shane’s friends (and cousin) left him alone at Kildare’s, they probably thought nothing of it. Being alone in a bar is not necessarily a bad thing. People sometimes go to bars alone to meet a special someone because that’s harder to do in a group situation.

Quite a number of people, upon hearing the news that Shane had drowned in the Schuylkill River, offered theories as to what they thought may have happened to him.

Some suggested that he may have accidentally fallen into the river because he was drunk, while others offered the bizarre theory that he was a victim of a so called Smiley Face serial killer.

One off-the-wall theory even suggested suicide.

Shane, the rumor went, had drowned himself in the river because his family was unhappy after he told them that he was gay. This rumor is obviously bogus because had it been true a friend or two of Shane’s would have known this fact long before his parents did. Nothing like this ever came up in the investigation.

What is significant for me is the love and loyalty shown by Shane Montgomery’s family as divers spent almost 2 months searching for his body.

The television news reports were painful to watch, especially the clip of his mother speaking to reporters after his body was found near the Manayunk Brewery.

The magnitude of his parents’ sorrow indicates that they felt only unconditional love for their 21 year old son.
Most of us have encountered risky life situations where we could have wound up as a fatality.

Whether this means stopping your car on the side of a busy highway to change a flat tire, and then getting hit by a passing car; or waiting for the 15 bus outside the Gold Coast bar on West Girard Avenue in Fishtown as that January 3rd shooter fired a gun, wounding two men, and then (for the purposes of this column) innocent bystanders—you or I-- who happened to be standing nearby.

Or how about narrowly escaping (or not escaping) getting hit by a car while crossing Aramingo Avenue?
In some ways, we are all Shane Montgomery because unusual coincidences, like being at the wrong place at the wrong time, can alter our lives forever.

This is true even for those of us who take great pains in avoiding possible mishaps and disaster.
Consider the following family story I heard over the holidays.

My sister-in-law recounted how her fear of flying got her to talk my brother into taking the train, and not the plane, to Florida for a family trip. For my sister-in-law the train appeared to be a much safer mode of transportation despite the fact that the train ticket cost three times what it cost to fly.

Feeling confident that she had life’s unexpected disasters minimized, she packed her husband and two kids into a southern bound Amtrak train, not in the least minding the fact that the sleeping berths for the four of them were very small.

While the first leg of their journey went smoothly, something happened after the train left Baltimore and Washington and headed further south.

As the train crossed a highway, the road toll gates stopping traffic failed to go down and the train hit a car or two, killing one of the drivers. My brother’s wife and kids were thrown out of their berths as smoke poured into the train. For a time they had no idea what would happen to them.

Would they live? Would they die?

By avoiding the "dangerous" airplane, my sister-in-law had experienced a possible loss of life by taking the safer ("I’m being extra cautious") train.

People say about poor Shane: Why didn’t he go straight home? Why didn’t he leave Kildare’s with his friends? Why this and why that, but when we’re really living life or in the throes of a party with favorite friends, we rarely think that one inconsequential choice made along the way will lead to tragedy and death.

I remember the time I hitchhiked near Paoli when I was Shane’s age. With my thumb out standing on the side of the road, I was happy when a Volkswagen stopped to pick me up. But no sooner was I inside the car when the driver looked at me and growled, "We’re going straight to hell!"

What a relief it was when I discovered that the threat was a joke, but what if it had been real?

Suppose the driver had driven me to an isolated part of Chester County and disposed of me in serial killer fashion?

Would my family and friends have asked why I went into a strange car? Why I couldn’t see that the driver was dangerous? And why I just didn’t walk home?

When you’re 21 you don’t think of death as something that could really happen to you. Death is an abstract idea, more remote than watching a Good Year blimp flying out over the ocean and into the horizon.

Any number of things could have happened to Shane Montgomery that night-- small inconsequential events, like taking the train instead of a plane, that somehow put him along the river’s edge and led to his untimely demise.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

ICON City Beat Column January 2015

                ICON January City Beat 2015

  Is Philadelphia the City of Kleptomaniacs? Consider historic Strawberry Mansion, which has seen a lot of foot traffic since 1789, when it was built by Judge William Lewis.  Since 1930, The Committee of 1926 has safeguarded the mansion’s antiques and fine art, including the collection of dolls from the 1926 Sesquecennitial. But where there are collectibles, there are thieves. During one Philadelphia Museum of Art-sponsored tour an antique sugar snipper went missing from the dining room (some say this happened because the tour guide neglected to walk behind exiting visitors). On another tour, somebody pocketed a sterling silver soup latel after which the mansion got smart and fish-wired all the silverware to the dining room table. Earlier this year after a local preservation group held an event there a number of items came up missing: a brass letter holder with a shell design that had been used as a paper towel holder in the bathroom, extra rolls of toilet paper and a bowl filled with artificial strawberries.  Is there a link between historic preservation, a love for old buildings and the kleptomania gene?         

Growing up in an Irish family is not for the weak of heart. In John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar at the Suzanne Roberts Theater we found ourselves in rural Ireland watching the Muldoon’s and Reilly’s duke it out. Shanley, the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning author of 23 plays performed in 17 countries, grew up with a mother who claimed that she was “not affectionate.”  (In interviews, Shanley often refers to his mother as “a pill”). Many of Shanley’s plays are from family experiences, most notably “Doubt,” inspired by a relative’s experience with a priest convicted of child molestation. Outside Mullingar is the story of a man and woman who need years of prep time before declaring their love for one another. ‘Slow recognition’ like this was evident when we attended a recent Irish themed panel discussion at the Pennsylvania Historical Society. When many in the lecture hall grumbled because they couldn’t hear the panelists, rather than complain they left the hall early (and politely) for the post-talk reception. Perhaps shy Irish of this caliber need a high voltage shot of Jewish Yenta Forwardness, a Dame Edna shouting, “We can’t hear in the back! Speak up!”        

When we met celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck several years ago in Atlantic City, there was so much fanfare you’d have thought that an ex-President was in the room. As fellow journalists clamored to devour Mr. Puck’s latest creation—Flat Iron Steak with Peppercorn Sauce and Blue Cheese Butter—we found little difference between Puck’s creation and a “normal” Beef Kebob found in many Asian eateries. An equal comparison, in fact, might be how blogging has come to be seen as its own profession on an equal par with serious journalism, rather than as a sideline or adjunct pursuit. The city’s celebrity diva chef of the moment is Jose Garces. Garces has taken dining out to new heights: the pre-paid ticketed meal and so-called beverage-pairing, even though the latter seems nothing more than an excuse to raise prices. We prefer the classic standby: red with meat; white with fowl or fish or, better yet, whatever is affordable. An ex-chef once gave us his reasons to be wary about artsy food presentations: “The fancier the dish, the more hands and fingers have prodded, massaged, sculpted, squished, felt up, poked holes in, infused or otherwise violated your dinner. Hand and fingers, after all, have a history of (going in and out of) the darnedest places.”

We chatted with our friend Regina who went to Greensgrow Farms in Fishtown to shop for a Christmas tree. Greensgrow started out as a simple lettuce farm but has since grown into a multi-tiered organic food and farm industry with “mobile markets,” a nursery, and gift shop with T-shirts. Traditional no frills Lancaster County or even Iowa Farming is light years away from Greensgrove’s “transubstantiated” world where farming is an Agri-religion with esoteric antecedents like medicinal herbs, cultish followers and hydroponic lettuce machines. “I always felt a lot of snobbery there,” Regina confesses. “Their Christmas trees were $45.00, which seemed unusually high to me but I thought, well, maybe they are hydrophonic miracle trees with medicinal benefits.” In the end, Regina went into Port Richmond and bought an even better, forest grown (traditional) tree for twenty-two dollars.  


CafĂ© Twelve’s new ownership has much of its old gay clientele going to other cafes. Maybe it’s the influx of droll Drexel students who seem to be turning the place into a school cafeteria, or the “lap top” 12th Street gym bunnies who text for hours there that’s chasing away the former occupants.  
Growing Up Irish is Not for the Weak of Heart

Friday, December 19, 2014

Loch Aerie in Frazer, Chester County, Pennsylvania

Thom Nickels Headshot

A Victorian Mansion in Andrew Wyeth Country

Posted: Updated: 

When the poet James Whitcomb Riley visited William E. Lockwood in Glenloch, Pa, sometime in 1895 or 1899 during his tours of eastern U.S. cities, he arrived at the Glenloch station of the Pennsylvania Railroad. That station was nestled nicely in the 836-acre estate of Lockwood, founder of Glenloch and the millionaire inventor of the popular paper collar for men. Riley, at that time, undoubtedly noticed that Lockwood's Italianate Victorian Gothic marble and blue limestone mansion- built from quarries that have long been covered over by Route 202, and designed by architect Addison Hutton with its eaves, torrents, arches, tower and cranberry stained glass windows- resembled his own Indiana home.
Why the poet chose to visit Lockwood is unclear, unless of course the wealthy businessman had an avid desire to host America's most popular poet. Whatever the reason, Riley was now in the most spectacular house in Chester County, Pennsylvania. In those days the area was filled with grain dealers, dairy farmers, so called "maiden schoolteachers" and marble quarries. Glenloch- Scottish for "lake of the glen"- was Lockwood's personal kingdom, an area rich in Revolutionary War lore. The fields and forests there have long yielded continental army muskets and cannonballs which, at least until the 1960s, were occasionally unearthed by children or farmers. It was in these fields and forests that General Washington and his men established camps on their way to Valley Forge.
The original 836-acre estate once housed three separate farms, tenant houses and four railroad stations. Glenloch, in fact, constituted an entire town and had its own post office. The mansion itself cost $250,000 to build. The property also contained a number of springs, which attracted the wandering (and lustful) eye of the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR).
The PRR had already engaged Lockwood's fury when it built and named the Glenloch train station without getting Lockwood's permission to use the name, causing Lockwood to change the name of the Estate to Loch Aerie. The PRR would also break its promise to Lockwood that it would maintain the pipes that carried water from the estate's springs for the railroad's upkeep of its steam locomotives. In addition to breaking this contractual agreement, the PRR used all of the water from the Estate, leaving the Lockwood family high and dry.
Lockwood had no choice but to fight the PRR, but this would be a battle that he would lose. The fight cost him his fortune. When Lockwood died in 1911 at age 79, he left two daughters, Miss Daisy and Miss Edith, and a son, William E. Lockwood. Jr. who died in 1949. When I interviewed one of the sisters as a budding high school journalist, the William Jr. came up several times in the conversation.
The Loch Aerie mansion was just a quarter mile from where I grew up in Frazer. My boyhood home was originally built as a simple housing development consisting of six split level houses, thanks to the post WWII housing boom generated in part by the GI Bill. Some extended family members often referred to our Frazer house as being "in the sticks" because it was surrounded by fields, streams, hills and great swaths of hilly forests.
The three bedroom split level home was set square in the middle of land that once belonged to a nearby farmer who had cows grazing in our backyard. My mother, busy working in the kitchen, would often utter a shocked "Oh!" when a cow or two would break through the barbed wire fence and walk up to the kitchen window.
Driving along Lancaster Pike near Planebrook Road and Route 29, you could glimpse much of Loch Aerie behind clumps of trees. Trees also covered a good portion of the mansion's front porch. Only a section of the mansion's tower (which contained a 900 gallon water tank) could be spotted among the tree tops.
As children, we had always heard that old Loch Aerie was inhabited by two old sisters who rarely came outside but occasionally made appearances when curiosity seekers explored the estate's massive backyard. The backyard contained a man made pond and a weather beaten statue of Neptune, which seemed to recall ruins from ancient Greece.
You could not just walk on the grounds of Loch Aeries because one or two of the old sisters who lived there inevitably would spot you and say something. Miss Edith and Miss Daisy seemed to have eyes in the backs of their heads. The ornate mansion, with its Swiss Gothic architecture, alpine roofs and chalet dormers, approximated the gingerbread houses we had seen in children's books. For us it was a house of intrigue and mystery.
We especially liked to visit the house in summer, albeit in a sneaky way because we didn't want to be spotted by the sisters. The few times when we wern't "apprehended" we would linger by the fish pond near the overgrown and nearly ruined gardens and lose ourselves as we stared into the sun bleached eyes of Neptune. We were also careful to periodically scan the mansion's windows for shadows or silhouettes indicating that the sisters were spying on us. When this happened one of the massive shutters might open and a sister's voice would call out, "Who goes there?"
We ached to get inside Loch Aerie, but as the sisters were old and very private, we knew this would never happen. We did not know then that the estate was once one of the largest in Pennsylvania, and that in 1877 it had its own telephone system, security system and that every door in the house was wired with a burglary alarm. The 19th century also had its own version of the homeless problem, as vagabonds or tramps would sometimes try to hide on the property or try to get inside Loch Aerie through one of its many windows. At one point in the mansion's history, a dozen tramps were rounded up on the grounds of the estate.
Loch Aerie had five bedrooms, round stained glass windows, a large cranberry stained glass window on the second floor, a spiral staircase and that 900 gallon water tank that was half hidden in the trees. It also, at one point, had its own landscape designer, Charles Miller. Throughout the years, both before and after its demise, it had been featured in many magazines and newspapers.
Although Miss Edith and Miss Daisy both died before 1970, I would get a chance to meet them when I began working as a paperboy for The Daily Local News.
I'd ride up to the mansion on my bicycle, knock for Miss Edith or Miss Daisy, and wait to be admitted so that I could be paid for the week's worth of newspapers.
Sometimes I'd be asked to come inside while one of sisters counted out the exact change. I'd find myself standing in the magnificent foyer with its grand "Gone With the Wind" staircase while eyeing the gilt gold framed oil paintings on the wall. I forget whether the old ladies ever tipped me, but I do remember them as being nice but also somehow from another time.
When I graduated from paperboy to a teen-aged, first-time newspaper journalist on assignment, I went to Loch Aerie to interview Miss Daisy for a Main Line publication. Miss Daisy told me stories about her father and the paper collar, the Pennsylvania Railroad and about the poet, James Whitcomb Riley. Suddenly, all the years of mystery and reserve surrounding Loch Aerie- and its occupant sisters- vanished in a confessional waterfall.
After the sisters' death, the house lay abandoned for a time, opening the door to another kind of "tramp"--motorcycle gangs like the Warlocks and The Pagans who set up camp and used the mansion as their headquarters. Although Loch Aerie had a new owner then, this was the wild, experimental decade of the 1970s- a time when older forms of tradition were tramped underfoot. Nobody cared about exquisite ceiling carvings or moldings or grand staircases. Drop ceilings and modernism ruled the day.
In 2000, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that after the sisters died, "the house was sold, then became famous for a time in the 1970s as the home of the Warlocks motorcycle gang. The gang's stay included a fire in the east wing and a 1973 shootout with the rival Pagans in which one Warlock was shot, as was the gang's pet wolf."
Although Loch Aerie has been compared to Bryn Mawr's La Ronda Estate and to Granogue, Irenee Du Pont's Estate in Delaware, it's still on the real estate market today.
The magic of this old place is transcendental and compelling, although Neptune has long since vanished.

Teresa Muldoon-Nickels on her Wedding Day (with Nellie Kelly Muldoon and Patrica Biscotti (in the mirror)

                   ICON MAGAZINE City Beat Column December 2014

We spotted people falling asleep during Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn at the Wilma, and wondered how this could be given the play’s good reviews. Things got worse when, at intermission, some audience members walked, proving that even critically acclaimed works can generate nay sayers. Can a “juxtaposition of feminist theories with messy human desires” ever be funny? How about a comic version of Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics or Simone de Beauvior’s The Second Sex; would these be immune to walk outs and audience narcolepsy? Rapture’s stellar record-- a 2013 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama--suggests that nobody should be nodding off, even if  the play would have benefited from a 30 minute dramaturgical cut. The promotion around Rapture was stellar, however:  postcards advertising the play could be found all over town: in Center City restaurant and pizza parlors, and on random city buses and trolleys.       

 The Barrymore Awards used to go on for hours, so that by the time it was over you had Charley Horses in both legs and one, big primal urge: to tie a long scarf around your neck Isadora Duncan-style and drive off in a fast convertible. This year’s Award ceremony was much better (and shorter) than in years past, though we discovered this only after deciding not to attend. We didn’t want to sit through hours of theater minutia, like Award for Best Theater Usher Wearing Blue Contact Lenses, etc., etc. We’ll get our Barrymore act together in 2015.   

We marveled at all the tall hunky Israeli furniture guys in pointy European shoes at the grand opening of the Cella Luxuria Furniture superstore at 1214 Chestnut Street. Deputy mayor Alan Greenberger said he saw some furniture there he really liked, while HughE Dillon worked overtime photographing the city’s furniture subculture elite. The five floors of beds, sofas, desks and bookcases meant lots of styles and options, from modern minimalist to warehouse-rustic to the comfortably traditional. The Bauhaus style configurations on the first floor included an orangutan- colored recliner that had us thinking of the beach chaise lounges in Wildwood’s Doo Wop motels. Brulee Catering, Zavino Wine Bar and Pizzeria and Abbey Biery Cake Design provided the food. Since the bartenders told us that red wine was banned from the serving queue (it stains furniture), for a fix of deep, rich color we had to turn to Kory Zuccarelli’s lavish photography, which was featured on the walls.

 Philadelphians may love Rittenhouse Square with its “meet me at the goat” ambience, but for out-of-towners like Connie Willis (who came here to three years ago to land a job in broadcasting), the picture’s not so pretty. Willis’ bird’s eye view of the Square from her fifth floor apartment enabled her to see more rats than goats scurrying from bush to bush. She was soon calling Rittenhouse Ratinhouse Square, though she later dropped that after the furry creatures were exterminated. She added another name soon enough, -- Rittenhouse Dog Park—because everyday from her bedroom window she saw Chaplinesque replays of people putting picnic blankets on sections of grass that moments before had been a dog toilet: German Sheppards, Greyhounds, dachshunds, poodles and boxers would squat, and then after their owners dutifully bagged, another cycle of picnickers would sit directly over the spot, on and on all day long-- from picnic to poop to picnic and then back to poop again. Those without blankets would relax directly on the soft, fertile grass, never suspecting (or caring) that dogs had been there before.    

We spoke with filmmaker Nancy Kates, whose film, Regarding Susan Sontag, had its Philadelphia premier at the Jewish Museum. The effervescent Kates describes meeting Sontag years ago at a Meet Susan Sontag Night on the campus of the University of Chicago. Kates, who had been struggling with a paper on Jackson Pollack, found the artistic answers she was looking for in Sontag’s essays in Against Interpretation, but when she went to tell Sontag this she says that the diva looked at her “with utter disdain,” as if she were thinking, “I have better things to work on than helping a hapless undergrad.” Sontag, of course, could be hot or cold. We felt the cold years ago when Sontag spoke at the Free Library on Sarajevo and greeted us with a slightly hostile bark when we attempted to speak to her at the reception.   

Everybody’s an expert on architecture these days.’s stories on proposed buildings in Center City and elsewhere generate hundreds of inflammatory and passionate comments from readers who want their opinions to count. We related this fact to Radical Traditionalist architect Al Holm recently when he called to say that there were few registrants for an upcoming ICAA-Philadelphia seminar at the Franklin Inn. “How do we get the word out?” he wanted to know. “Does anybody care?” We suggested he try and recruit the passionate readers of whose online comments often get censored or deleted because they don’t know how to handle all their pent up architectural insights.  

We leave you with this: A revamped, reformed Vince Fumo has advised all good citizens in an Inky Op-Ed never to give money to the homeless. Lessons from a teacher—indeed!

The High Rise Center City Stalker in the Katherine Hepburn Hat

The Local Lens

• Wed, Dec 17, 2014

By Thom Nickels

My friend Lena lives in a big, lush Center City condo building with a 30-story high view of the city. The view from her living room window is anything but dull. She’s lived there peacefully for almost two decades—until she met the woman in the hat.

The woman in the hat, a building newcomer, is a woman of smallish stature and maybe 50 years old. She’s the type of woman who would blend anonymously into any crowd. At any local supermarket you wouldn’t look twice if you saw her picking over the broccoli and red peppers. If you spotted her at Dollar General or Family Dollar you’d think she was just an ordinary neighborhood lady out shopping for cheap rolls of toilet paper and paper towels.

Unstable people don’t always look crazy. Jeffrey Dahmer looked like a movie star. Ted Bundy, another serial killer, could have been a movie double for Anthony Perkins, the man who played the lead in Hitchcock’s Psycho.

As the Scriptures say, Lucifer can also appear as an angel of light.

The lady in the hat, to the contrary, has a huggable appearance, so much so that there’d be a battle among strong contractor types to open the door for her at any Wawa convenience store.

Lena recalls the night she was sticking a fork in her microwave cooked Idaho baked potato (her dinner at the end of a long day) when she heard someone pounding on her door. The pounding had the ring of an enraged parole officer or advance SWAT team member staking out a suspect.
"Who’s there?" Lena asked, her sing-song voice showing some signs of stress. "May I help you?"

The Idaho potato, safe in its skin, went cold as Lena peered through her condo’s security peep hole. She saw the smallish woman but could only see a portion of her face because the rest of her was hidden. Obviously, she had moved out of the perimeter of the peep hole. Not a healthy sign by any means. To an overactive imagination it might suggest a dangerous scenario straight out of the movie, Gone Girl.

The voice in the hallway might have been Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist:

"You’re smoking in there… smoke is coming into my apartment. You are speed walking all night… I can’t sleep. I’m calling the police. I am going to register a complaint!"

People—neighbors—have a right to complain about noises that keeps them up at night. On my own street, for instance, one sometimes hears neighbors raising their voices when there are problems with rambunctious pit bulls. Several years ago it was an all-girl riot, which I reported on in these pages. That was when ten or more high school girls were engaged in a massive street fight of hair pulling, screams, face slaps and ‘cheerleader’ style kicks to the shins. Although the rumble ended anticlimactically when the Alpha girls who started it all sped away in Daddy’s convertible, it left neighbors here wondering if heretofore quiet Mercer Street had become ground zero for a Philly version of West Side Story.

Center City high-rise "neighborhood" fights usually don’t begin with hallway rumbles but with zealous door poundings.
The woman at Lena’s door shouted her complaint several times so that all the neighbors would hear.
Lena remained nonplussed. "I… don’t… smoke….You have the wrong… apartment," she said.
"I’m calling the police," the woman screamed.

Had I been in Lena’s place, I would have been tempted to say, "The police won’t come anyway. They’re hanging out at Wawa in a group huddle." Honestly, when do the police do anything about domestic disputes?

I asked Lena why she didn’t open her door and engage the woman full blast. After all, wasn’t she afraid that a refusal to open the door would enrage the woman even more?

"How dare you talk to me through a hole!" I can easily envision someone saying.

Why not speak to the woman face-to-face? I suggested to Lena that perhaps she should have ‘humored’ the woman by inviting her inside for a bit of cold potato or a tall glass of Port. There must be some truth in that old clichĂ© about winning an enemy over with honey.

"I knew she was crazy from the start and didn’t want to engage her," Lena said, "I didn’t want to start any kind of relationship with her."

She had a point.

The woman’s accusation of speed walking seemed peculiar to me because speed walking used to be a popular women’s sport in Center City. It was often practiced in the 1990s as a substitute for jogging. The idea behind speed walking was to make your body look like it was running when in actual fact it was just walking faster than a stroll. The quick motion of the arms in contrast to the slow motion of the legs also gave it a comedic look. When I lived at 21st and Pine there were speed walkers all over the street.

"It’s positively Chaplinesque on this street!" visiting friends would comment.

Lena is more of a sleep walker than a speed walker; she’s slow and methodical in her movements.

"I do not speed walk," she said. "I’m not a road runner of any kind. The woman is nuts. Nuts!"
The big question, of course, was when the woman would return.

That question was answered two days later when another series of door pounds woke Lena up around midnight. The screams in the hallway referred to the same complaints: smoke and speed walking, in addition to "other noises that keep me awake." This time Lena did not bother spying at her through the peephole but stayed in bed until she went away.

"Tell management now," I suggested.

A few days later, Lena entered the condo elevator and pushed the 30th floor button before noticing that the smallish woman huddled in the corner of the elevator heretofore hidden by shopping bags was the woman in the hat.

Enter stage right: A film by Dario Argento or Brian De Palma.

Staring neurotic eyes framed by shopping bags kept their focus on Lena.

"I get off at the 29th floor," the woman said in a flat monotone.

"That’s nice," Lisa said, in Disney mode but secretly sweating bullets.

When the elevator opened at 29 the woman remained in the car, and at 30 she followed Lena out but walked down the opposite hallway. Lena went to her place and bolted the door but stood by the peephole to see if anything would happen. In a second or two she could see the woman pacing back and forth in front of her door. She was pacing and looking worried as if she was trying to decide what to do.

Lena, who rarely cries, felt a swell of emotion. She says she wondered how something like this could happen to someone who minds their business, is nice to neighbors and who has few if any enemies.

The next night, she was startled to hear the sound of someone trying to unlock her door with a key. Through the peephole, she could see the woman, still in her crumbled up Katherine Hepburn hat, fiddling with the lock in hopes of getting inside.

This story has an anticlimactic end.

The next day Lena registered an official complaint with management, only to find out that the woman in the hat had also lodged numerous complaints against her, among them making smoke, speed walking, and making strange nocturnal sounds.

Rationality finally prevailed, however, and the woman was given notice that she would soon be evicted. This process, however, could take some time.

What Lena’s story illustrates is that perhaps landlords should check the mental health of a prospective renters with the same tenacity and enthusiasm with which they tackle their credit history. A bad credit report never put anyone’s life in danger, but an unstable person with money can be more dangerous than full fledged bankruptcy.