March 2014 City Beat ICON MAGAZINE——————————————————— by Thom Nickels
THEATRE EXILE’S DERANGED BROTHERS
Every Philadelphia theater company has its cultish following. The Wilma crowd looks different from the opening night audience at Suzanne Roberts, while Walnut Street Theater people are worlds away from Theatre Exile. We visited Plays and Players recently to see Theatre Exile’s performance of Sam Shepard’s “True West,” a black comedy about what happens when two deranged writer brothers compete to win the attention of a fast talking producer. We had hopes for this play before things went Animal House. One brother attacked the stage set with a golf club before turning it on a typewriter. The scene made us think of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar-smashing. Applause at the end was tepid, though one person stood up and cheered as if intent on igniting a standing ovation. The shoe-box structure of P&P makes the flow of large crowds there painful at best. At the reception (three flights up narrow stairs) patrons helped themselves to fabulous food, though not many were able to get a drink at the dollhouse bar. Unlike opening nights elsewhere, P&P has a one-drink ticket policy. We spent twenty minutes trying to get the bartender’s attention, but even flashing money like those rammy
dudes at Delilah’s Den didn’t work. We looked (in vain) for a golf club to use as an attention-getter then decided to call it quits. On the way out, we noticed the dedicated staff working hard to clean up the Shepard’s pie on stage.
DIDDLING WITH THE DILWORTH
When the Center City District announced plans for a redesign of Dilworth Plaza, we wondered what would become of Emlen Etting’s public sculpture, Phoenix Rising, a memorial to former mayor Richardson Dilworth. Etting (1905-1993), a Philadelphia blueblood bisexual married to the former Gloria Braggiotti, lived on Panama Street, and knew everybody from Hemingway to Henry McIlhenny. It’s not often that the home of a Philadelphia gentleman artist gets raided, but that’s what happened in 1958 when Emlen hosted a party for the cast of The World of Suzy Wong, and a neighbor called police to complain about noise. Etting contacted then-Mayor Dilworth about the “Gestapo tactics of Center City police,” implicating Capt. Frank L. Rizzo, who wrote the original police report. Not only did Rizzo insist that the police had been polite, but after his election as mayor he turned a deaf ear when the artist needed City Hall’s help around the time of Phoenix Rising’s installation. We visited the Rizzo statue recently and saw that it was holding up well… aside from pigeon droppings on the shoes. We found that the most intricate part of the sculpture is the shoelaces. They are so authentic looking it’s easy to imagine a passing toddler trying to unlace them. When tourists are not photographing the sculpture, they’re positioning themselves (for selfies) with their arms draped around Frank’s thighs. The statue must be the least vandalized sculpture in the city, even if its frozen wave is anything but benevolent, at least for Etting. We see the Rizzo wave as a get lost gesture to Phoenix Rising, moved last year to an area near Society Hill Towers. Etting would not have wanted that since the piece was designed for the Plaza, not condos in the sky.
INKY: WAY COOL OR HALF IN THE SEWER
We headed over to painter Elizabeth Osborne’s house for a party and met former Inquirer cartoonist, Tony Auth. The winter soiree massaged our spirits and brought news that the Grand Dame of Philly painters is also the daughter of architect Paul Cret. While munching on tasty edibles, we followed Liz’s suggestion to rotate seats so we could chat with everybody present. Auth, who appeared months ago at a public lecture with Charles Croce at the Philadelphia History Museum, mentioned where his papers would go when he’s no longer around. “We’re getting to the age now where you have to think of these things,” Liz added. It’s not possible to talk to Auth without bringing up the old Inquirer, so the comments drifted to that hybrid Inquirer-Daily News creation, Philly.com, which has evolved into a salacious, tabloid-like broadside where breaking news amounts to the misadventures of a so-called Swiss cheese ‘pervert,’ or random teachers caught having sex with students. How does the spawn of a Pulitzer Prize-winning empire wind up in the sewers? Auth suggested it might be because Inky-DN head honchos have staffed Philly.com with twenty-something “editors” who think the tabloid style is way cool. We were relieved to hear this, since we didn’t think it was the handiwork of Daily News Editor Michael Days, who seemed fairly respectable when we met at the Franklin Inn some time ago.
2014 POET LAUREATE
Poet Frank Sherlock has been selected to succeed Sonia Sanchez as the city’s 2014 Poet Laureate. We wish Sherlock well in putting together a public face even though we’re surprised to hear so many say that they’ve never read his poetry. Poets are the opposite of politicians: The raw, unfiltered juice from the Muse caused Ginsberg to take to the harmonica, W.H. Auden to begin wearing bedroom slippers, and Hart Crane to jump
into the sea from the stern of the Olympia. We’re sure Sherlock is more the Wallace Stevens type, stable and constant, though we’re pretty sure he knew he was the winner when we saw him at Dirty Frank’s the night before the announcement. He had a different look on his face then. Was it a shadow cast from the weight of City Hall?
GIVE THE SKATEBOARDERS SOME LOVE (PARK)
Is the Nutter administration determined to leave its design mark on the city? Like the re-make of Dilworth Plaza—where a plastic cheese grater structure that makes us think of patio furniture is slowly rising—JFK Plaza (LOVE Park) is headed for a redo.
The 15-million rehab job (city tax dollars) will rid the plaza of the (slippery when wet) terraced surfaces, add more greenery, and add one or more food concession stands. Something’s wrong when the city has to sell assets in order to pay current expenses. The impetus behind the rehab is the poor condition of the parking garage underneath the plaza, so to “do” the bottom you have to “do” the top—despite the fact that the Plaza has just been rehabbed. We say bring back the skateboarders. Skateboarders provide entertainment and keep the homeless to a minimum. Both
Mayor Nutter and City Council President Darrell L, Clarke want food courts on the Plaza, but just as every blank wall doesn’t need a mural, so LOVE Park doesn’t need a café or a food concession stand. LOVE Park can do without an overpriced Stephen Starr commissary, or a mini-Rouge with a lineup of fancy dogs (in sunglasses) eating alongside their owners.
KEEP YOUR PENCILS IN YOUR POCKET
We like the Barnes Museum as much as the next person, so when we heard that there’s a rule there against visitors doing sketches (in notebooks) of the paintings on the wall, we wondered why. Sketching makes no noise and it is an intensely private endeavor, and yet to be caught sketching in the Barnes is tantamount to lighting up in front of a Degas. No such taboo exists at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. We know that Barnes was a fussy curmudgeon, and that many of his in-house Merion rules were of the “stick-in-the-mud” illogical kind. While it’s true that a case can be made for our friend Katharine being asked to leave after photographing a painting there, even at PMA they
would first ask you to put the camera away before kicking you out. We somehow imagined that the Barnes would be so grateful for having sidestepped Albert’s will that they would err on the side of generosity when it comes to the little stuff.
At any City Hall press conference, broadcast journalism always sets the tone with its cameras, testing of lights, and the constant moving of cameras to different angles in the room. We were constantly switching seats at the last press event as different broadcast cameramen (they are usually men) kept moving their cameras, blocking all views of the podium. This game of musical chairs continued until we found a safe haven toward the front. Observing other journalists in the room, it was easy to locate the talking heads with their stamped NBC 10 jackets. Compared to the invisible notepad-holding print journalists, who wore no jackets or name tags and who for the most part had no identifiable “faces,” the broadcasters seemed like first class Titanic passengers as compared to we print ruffians in third class.
The big moment in any press conference comes when the mayor’s entourage enters the room. Then it is a single file procession of bigwigs, faces you’d recognize in
the news, the usual suspects in dark suits. Like a chorus line, they know how to assemble around the podium near the speaker. Since this announcement was about the new Mormon construction at 16th and Vine Streets, the city officials were up front with most of the Mormon delegation standing off to the side.
The mayor spoke first. He’s a good public speaker. We like speakers who make eye contact with the audience. Standing directly beside the mayor was City Council President Darrell L. Clarke, in his trademark Clark Kent glasses. Clarke’s speaking style isn’t as forceful as the Mayor Nutter’s. In fact, it has an “aw shucks” shy, self-effacing quality to it, as if he was insecure about speaking in public. At the Q and A, the mayor’s tone was politician sharp. There’s a knack to delivering one word answers, like “Yes” or “No,” and doing this in a way that makes the delivery sound like the crack of a whip. We call it press conference-speak, something that most seasoned politicians have learned to master. (Clarke is also a very tall man, so seeing him standing beside the mayor made us think—for the first time—about the mayor’s height.)
The end of a press conference is always anti-climactic. The political suits disappear first; journalists scatter to the four winds, and the cameramen are usually the last to leave.
March 1, 2014
Emlen Etting with self-portrait.
Featuring Jeb Kreager & Brian Osborne with Joe Canuso & E. Ashley Izard. Directed by Matt Pfeiffer
Plans for Dilworth Plaza.
Thursday, March 6, 2014
Years ago, when I worked in the check processing department of a now defunct Philadelphia bank, I dreamt of one day becoming my own boss while working at home. The bank was an unusually strict sort of workplace. In my case I worked in a small room with my back to a low-level supervisor, an elderly woman, Miss Stiff, who wore a white Mennonite bonnet.
Another employee sat a side desk, although he was rarely present. Usually it was just me and Miss Stiff, which meant no talking ever, and no unnecessary breaks or staying out too long for lunch. There was certainly no small talk, which made the boring work of processing checks an ordeal. While the military style discipline was hard, I was sensitive enough to be able to feel Miss Stiff’s eyes bore into my back at various times during the day. This told me that Miss Stiff was fighting off an urge to start a conversation. We did chat on very rare occasions, usually on a Friday afternoon or right before a major holiday, although she tended to put a "timer’ on all idle chit chat. In just five minutes, she’d go silent and I’d be left facing the four walls. I have no doubt that her philosophy of life was, "To work, is to suffer."
By the end of my day at the bank, I was in no shape to go home and work on my freelance writing. For one thing, I usually had a crink in the back of my neck, very near the spot where Miss Stiff’s eyes had inadvertently drifted during the course of the day. In order to do any writing at all I had to get up well before I would normally have gotten up in order to catch the train into Center City. This meant rising at 5 a.m., and working for two hours before heading into town. The downside of a routine like this is that once I arrived at the bank, I felt like I had already accomplished my real work. Thank God that Miss Stiff, who was a very religious woman, had the good sense never to ask me what it was that I was writing, because it’s certain that she would have disapproved of it.
At another job, the monastic pattern of waking up at 5 a.m. was alleviated when I worked as a cashier at an all-night movie theater on Market Street. This was a casual summer job. One of the reasons I applied for the job was because it enabled me to write during the day and then go to the movie house at 9 p.m., where I’d sit in a large lighted glass booth that was situated almost in the middle of the sidewalk. Sitting there on public display, I’d dispense tickets to businessmen, sailors and other urban night crawlers, especially drunks from nearby bars and clubs. The theater showed very soft-core "respectable" blue movies, not outright pornography, so the cliental was of a better grade than the folks who frequented the scandalous Studio theatre, a few doors away. My neon ringside seat right in the middle of Market Street gave me a bird’s eye view of the city’s nightlife: drunken, falling down sailors, bag people (or the homeless), such as the Elephant woman, who once told me never to kill spiders because seeing a spider meant you would come into money. I’d also spot post-midnight newspaper delivery men, suspicious criminal types, strolling prostitutes, and streams of fresh arrivals from the Greyhound bus station across the street. While I didn’t like working in a glass booth and being on display like that, at least I was able to bring a book and read when I wasn’t cashing in customers.
I read a lot of books that summer, besides which I had the best reality show in the city. All I had to do was look up from the page and there’d be another city marvel: a parade of guys in platform shoes dressed as David Bowie, or I’d catch a glimpse of police chasing a suspect. When I thought I had seen it all, I looked up one day from my book and saw, on the other side of the glass, my family doctor from childhood, the same kind doctor who made house calls and who treated me for double pneumonia when I was in the fifth grade. Of course, discretion is everything when you work as a cashier at a soft porn palace. I did not meet the good doctor’s eyes, but handled the transaction anonymously. My boss at the theater was a thin, quiet, patient older man who had the manners of an old monk. He went about the business of counting cash and receipts at the end of the night in a solemn manner. His facial expression always bore the look of sad resignation. Occasionally he would ask what I was reading, or tell me about a small incident that happened inside the theater, such as a fight or how long the Elephant woman had been camping out near the restrooms. There were no security guards on the premises then because they were not needed.
Of course, working all night—the theater closed at 4 a.m.—and then waiting for the subway to open at 5 a.m. (this was before the shuttle) was often difficult. For me this lost hour usually meant finding a place to have breakfast, after which I’d head home. That summer I slept much less than usual, and was often still too tired to write in the late afternoon when I got up.
No matter what job I found then I learned to put in sufficient writing time, but the best job of all was a lucrative part time early evening job that allowed me to work at home the better part of the day.
At first the freedom was terrifying. With machine like precision, I began to segment the hours—two hours for this publication, an hour for another publication; then an hour or more for a new book project. The idea was to move gracefully among projects while allowing time for lunch, an occasional break and maybe a telephone chat or two.
To work effectively at home, I found that I had to pretend that I had a no nonsense boss with a leather whip hiding in my closet. I’d sometimes imagine Miss Stiff sitting behind me, her eyes boring into the back of my desk. Her "rules" are the rules from the old bank: get up at the same time every morning; begin the day with exercise, a shower and a brisk walk around the block to get coffee. Morning air is a stimulant, and a small walk to the neighborhood convenience store is like a morning commute to work.
Before beginning the work day at home, you may warm up at the computer by reading and answering email, or reading a daily online newspaper or two. Yet even here, dangers lurk. Reading can be a dragging vortex and before you know it, you’ve spent far too long idling with the UK Guardian, The Times or The Washington Post.
Living with roommates, children, or a spouse can be a liability, especially if they are home while you work. Interruptions are the rule. Sometimes even the best housemates want to talk, share ideas or have conversations that last too long. Even a beloved pet can be a distraction. The French writer Colette wrote with cats milling about her desk and in her lap, but not everybody is so versatile.
The telephone can also be a distraction, since some people believe that working from home is not as "real" as working from an office.
"That’s not true at all," I sometimes have to tell these friends, "Miss Stiff is here, and she says I have to hang up—and get back to work."
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
The Local Lens
Published • Wed, Feb 19, 2014
By Thom Nickels
I don’t usually attend City Hall press conferences, but last week I was advised to check out the mayor’s 12:30 announcement in Conversation Hall about a new Mormon Church construction project at 16th and Vine Streets. I had about two hours notice, so I wrapped things up at my desk, dressed appropriately, and headed for City Hall via the 15 bus and the El.
This was just one day prior to the big storm so the mood on the El was bleak. Winter weary faces were everywhere, my own included. On the El I saw the usual sights: the guy selling cookies for a dollar a pack; the ex-veteran Marine who saw combat in Afghanistan who wants to return to Oklahoma; the guy who announces, "I am not a drug addict. I am not an alcoholic. I just need your help—for a simple sandwich." Then there’s the guy who announces that he has AIDS and needs help with rent and food money, and of course the robed Muslim guys selling scents and colognes. Taking the El these days is a bit like going to the circus—you never know who is going to stand up and announce what. Traveling to City Hall is almost as much fun as walking into City Hall, especially now when the usual entrances are blocked by construction.
Before the rehab of Dilworth Plaza, there was always a quick way to enter the building, but now that heavy construction has the West portal blocked, it is necessary to walk in the street (if you’re coming from Suburban Station) to get to the North portal. No construction site is ever pleasant to look at, unless of course you are an engineer and appreciate seeing the guts of a new building. Walking to the North portal was a chance for me to observe the changes in the plaza, so I studied the new addition, a structure that somehow reminded me of a cheese grater made from white plastic like those white patio chairs one buys from Home Depot or Target. The new structure concerned me, not only because of its ugliness, but because it didn’t look very sturdy. My sense was that the structure would age quickly, and that in twenty years it would resemble a ruin. At the very least its patio furniture resemblances put me in mind of summer.
Entering City Hall, for those of you who don’t know, requires a show of ID, as well as your signature in a log book after which you can take the stairs to the second floor (or the elevator if you hate steps). There’s a security detail near Conversation Hall, where the mayor’s office is also located, so you are "checked" again by security guards. Once passed "the gate," you are free to amble about, or look at the grade school art behind the glass cases in the hall. If you walk a little further, as I did, you might run into a press conference other than the one you’re meaning to attend. On a heavy press day, the conferences can occur in clusters.
At any press conference, the broadcast journalist people always set the tone with their heavy cameras, testing of lights and sounds, and the constant changing and moving of cameras to different angles in the room. Since I arrived early for the 12:30 event, I was constantly changing my seat as different broadcast cameramen (they are usually men) kept moving their cameras about, repeatedly blocking my view of the podium. This became an ongoing game of musical chairs, until at last I found a safe seat towards the front, where I didn’t think a cameraman would go. Watching other journalists assemble in the room, it was easy to locate the talking heads with their stamped NBC 10 jackets which of course reminded me of a pile of Ralph Lauren logos at Macys. Compared to the invisible note-pad holding print journalists, who wore no logo jackets or name tags, and who for the most part didn’t have identifiable "faces," the broadcasters seemed like 1st class passengers on the Titanic compared to the print ruffians in 3rd class. (Perhaps this is one reason why most journalism school students today have their sights set on broadcast journalism.)
The big moment comes when the mayor’s entourage enters the room. This is a single file procession of bigwigs, all the usual suspects in dark, somber suits. Like a chorus line of trained dancers, they know how to assemble themselves around the podium so that they form an attractive "fan" around the speaker. They spill out like a bureaucratic form of The Rockettes. In the mix was a Mormon official or two, although most of the Mormon chieftains stood off to the side.
The mayor spoke first. He’s a good public speaker; you have to hand it to him. I like speakers who are able to make eye contact with various people in the audience. Standing directly beside the mayor was City Council President Darrell Clarke in his trademark Clark Kent glasses. At the Q and A, the mayor’s tone was politician sharp. There’s a specific style in delivering one word answers, like a "Yes" or a "No," and then saying no more so that the delivery sounds like the snap of a whip.
I call this press conference speak, and I think most seasoned politicians adopt this way of talking to the press. Clarke is a very tall man, so seeing him standing beside the mayor made me think-- for the first time, actually—about the mayor’s height.
If you are a reporter at a news conference you have to be prepared with your question before the Q and A is announced. The time allowed for a Q and A is short. I like to compare this time to watching people fire guns at a firing range. The same rapid fire dialogue happens at Presidential news conferences.
The big news at this conference was the unveiling of the Mormon Church’s redevelopment of the block of 16th and Vine Streets, including the building of a meeting house and a high rise apartment house. A mammoth project like this caused me to wonder if the LDS Church sees Philadelphia as a potential Salt Lake City of the east. In all the years that I’ve lived in the city, I don’t think a Mormon missionary has ever knocked on my door.
At the press conference, I wanted to ask Mormon Church officials if there was something special about Philadelphia that appealed to them. Could it be the simple fact that so much of Mormon history happened here?
After leaving City Hall, I headed for the El and another ride home with the veteran ex-Marine talking once again about finding his way back to Oklahoma. Like a boomerang that always comes back, the one dollar per cookie package guy was once again making his rounds but missing were the incense-scent canvassers, the guy with one arm, and the old guy asking for a sandwich, be it liverwurst, cheese or chicken salad.
Thursday, February 6, 2014
ICON Magazine February 2014 CITY BEAT Column
“I Love Lucy” Live on Stage at The Merriam brought us face to face with Fred and Ethel Mertz, Ricky Ricardo, and of course, Lucy. Fred (Kevin Remington) was his sour curmudgeon self, Ethel (Joanna Daniels) just as clueless as the television original, Ricky (Bill Mendieta) just as patriarchal and macho. All eyes were on Lucy (Sirena Irwin), however, to see how close she resembled the original. She came very close, especially when she went into cry-baby mode. What affected us most were the redos of 1950s and early ‘60s television commercials preformed live with dancers. ‘See the USA in your Chevrolet’ became a fleshed out dance number with Dinah Beach (not Shore), although we would have preferred Shore, fresh from a rendezvous with (archival hunk) Burt Reynolds. Vitalis and Vaseline Hair Tonic were famous hair lotions for men in those days but the featured commercial was Brylcreem (“A little dab will do ya”). We also anticipated Canoe and Jade East (cologne) commercials but instead got a big blast of Mr. Clean. Enjoyable but heavy on the cheese is how we would sum up the evening.
Our friend, South Philadelphian Frank Brancaccio, author of the book, Ephemeral Nights, called to say that his name was splashed across the pages of the National Enquirer and Midnight Globe. While Frank is no rabid publicity hound, his American Bandstand story is making the rounds. As a misfit teenager, Frank says he found solace hanging out (and dancing) with the Bandstand “in” crowd, which eventually made him an on-air celebrity. With his 1960s Ricky Nelson-style good looks, it’s hard to think of Frank as ever being a misfit, but in those days if you didn’t want to play baseball, people looked at you funny. Frank told me a while ago —way before Perez Hilton picked up the story--that most of the good looking (and masculine) Bandstand male regulars were not straight. Dick Clark had three rules for dancers: No camera hogs; no close dancing, and no dancing with someone of a different color. To filter out the show’s pansies, Clark sent spies to Rittenhouse Square to see if any of the male regulars were conjuring lavender spirits. Frank, who regularly hung out in the Square when he wasn’t dancing with Arlene Dipitro, survived the witch hunt because he says that Clark liked him and probably never suspected that a macho South Philly kid could be cut from the same cloth as…Liberace.
At The Print Center on Latimer Street, we watched as our friend Regina crawled through an oversized dog door in a silo-like paper column into a dark womb like space to see the planet Sirius, a la Fels Planetarium. After Regina was swallowed up, we moved into the Center’s chapel, a darkened space with benches facing an eight-channel installed video featuring multiple close ups of artist Demetrius Oliver’s 2011 kinetic sculpture Orrery. Orrery, a mechanical model of the solar system, was best viewed from one of the aforementioned benches. We sat (in the dark) chatting with Frank Luzi of the Philadelphia Opera Company, while trying to figure out the meaning of it all, since the installation art exhibit had more in motion swirling symbols than a game of Candy Crush. “It’s like a traveling Rosicrucian road show,” we exclaimed, after which we also thought of the puzzles in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. We’re sorry that we missed the opening lecture by Derrick Pitts, Chief Astronomer at The Franklin Institute, on the mystery of Sirius, although we liked the fact that everyone present was an integral part of the show. Regina, fresh from the Silo (and out of her dog position), told us, “I’m not sure what this all means, but I’m sure it means something.” Why does everyone say this? The Print Center is a venerable “best of” Philly institution, that’s why it seemed odd to us that this Pew Charitable Trust funded exhibit was ultra Spartan when it came to reception fare: two small bowls of miniature pretzel nuggets and one person to pour carefully measured amounts of wine for the over one hundred people seemed a paltry nod to the wonders of the cosmos.
In the 1960s our Aunt Dorothy loved the fact that Princess Grace, a Catholic, seemed to be getting more press than the Queen of England, a Protestant, despite the fact that English royalty thought of Monaco royalty as second rate, "thrift store royalty." When traveling with Aunt Dorothy in her cream-colored Chevrolet Impala, she'd drive up to the Kelly home in East Falls, slam on the breaks, and exclaim, "There's where Grace Kelly grew up! Her father was a common brick layer!” Together we'd examine the grounds of the house as if hunting for tell-tale signs: a lock of Grace’s hair or a mash note from Alfred Hitchcock on the lawn. Aunt Dorothy's penchant for the living legend came to a head when the princess herself appeared at a special Mass at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. Aunt Dorothy, standing nearby, extended her gloved hand to the Monaco icon, apparently touching a portion of the princess’ tweed jacket. Her well meaning, "Hello, Princess," was greeted with a Medusa stare. "I gathered from that," Aunt Dorothy reminded us years later, "that it is not permissible to touch royalty -- ever!" Even, of course, royalty of the thrift store kind.
In her book Philadelphia: The Place and the People (1898), Agnew Repplier, wrote that, above all, “…The Quaker City lacks that discriminating enthusiasm for her own children…which enables more zealous towns to rend the skies with shrill paeans of applause.” Repplier goes on to say that, “If mistaking geese for swans produces sad confusion…the mistaking of swans for geese may also be a serious error. The birds either languish or fly away to keener air.” What Repplier had in mind were those Philadelphians who left the city for more welcoming environments. Repplier’s writing career lasted sixty-five years (she died in 1950) attracting the admiration of both Henry James and Edith Wharton, yet in order to experience her reading public’s appreciation she had to travel to Boston. As her biographer, George Stewart Stokes, notes, “…If her head had been understandably turned by Boston, it was swiftly unturned again by Philadelphia. Back home, she was merely Agnes Repplier, a relatively insignificant writer living quietly west of the Schuylkill. Here she found no open-arms reception, and this in spite of her ‘triumph’ at Boston. Here she found only obscurity, the obscurity, she felt, that is Philadelphia itself.”
This reminds us that in The Perennial Philadelphians (1963), Nathaniel Burt lays the blame for the city’s failure to be driven by literature to the effects of colonialism. “Philadelphians were slobbering over Tennyson and Thackeray,” he writes, “while they condescended to Emerson and Hawthorne.” While Repplier may have admired Thackeray, she had no compulsions against sharing a drink of whiskey (in a china toothbrush mug) with Walt Whitman even as most Philadelphians, according to Burt, considered Whitman and Melville “rude barbarians.” Burt concludes: “In later years, colonialism became provincialism, and Philadelphians waited for the accolade from Boston or New York.” We think that’s a little bit changed, but not enough.
We didn’t expect to attend the 114th Mummers Parade, but there we were with friends Tamara, Walt and Matt walking up Broad Street to the Union League, practically the only place where the string bands stop and play during their strut through Center City. In prior days the bands were generous when it came to the number of tunes they belted out. If they saw enthusiastic crowds at Lombard, Locust, Spruce, or Walnut Streets, they’d offer a song and a strut. But those crowd-pleasing days are over, thanks to Mayor Michael Nutter’s 2009 “October” Revolution in which he made the bands cut down on the number of playing sites, reduce 16 foot props to 12 feet, and then stop marching completely at 5 P.M. as if ordering church ladies home ahead of a hail storm. This has made the Nutter-reformed parade about as exciting to watch as a 4th of July parade in Utah. Before 2009, not only did the parade end around midnight but there was an exhilarating feeling on Broad Street, an atmosphere of revelry as people camped out or huddled curbside, staying late into the night or until the last Mummers marched past. It was the one day of the year when you could be a public Party Monster, drink on the street, or sit on a lawn chair by an alleyway dressed in Mummers glitz. This healthy venue for letting go gave the city a spontaneous, New Orleans-feel. A real life Mummer agreed with us when he said-- on condition of anonymity, of course-- that the Mayor really hates the Mummers and that he made this fact clear to the string bands and to the Mummers Association. “He sucked the life out of us making the changes he did. But trust me… we will never give up trying to make the parade as it was before.”
Strolling through Center City on a Sunday afternoon usually reminds us of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” especially when we linger near the Rittenhouse Square area. On a recent Sunday we headed over to Barnes and Noble, the only remaining big chain bookstore in Center City, and were shocked by what we saw: Familiar book nook areas--literature, history, religion, etc.-- had been revamped or downsized. We rode the escalators hoping to spot the new nooks but wound up in the poetry section where we spotted the usual suspects (Plath, Ginsberg, etc.) but no tomes by local poets (who can also be international), such as CA Conrad (who was once a clerk at B&N and who took great pains to give prominent shelving space to local writers). It was the same in the fiction area (sans the work of Jennifer Weiner, who is everywhere like Trident gum). We asked a clerk if there had been an “October Revolution “because the place seemed so different,” and she told us that “corporate” had reorganized and downsized, meaning that entire populations of books now only get into the store if a customer orders them. Corporate began this trend years ago when they made it a rule that only books with publishers willing to shell out ad money can be placed in the front window.
We pulled the plug on January at We Will Rock You, an appreciation of Queen and Freddie Mercury, at the Academy of Music. Packed-to-the-gills with an age diverse crowd (women in opera furs), we thought of the coming spring thaw during the finale, Bohemian Rhapsody.
From The Philadelphia Weekly Press and The Spirit Newspapers
By Thom Nickels
I am trying to think of a good way to write about my friend Carol. Like a lot of friendships, it ran the gamut from thick to thin. I wish that it had been otherwise, but sometimes things happen to keep people apart. The ‘thin’ friendship part, however, can’t compare to the years of positive interaction when Carol was an essential part of my life in the riverwards.
So who is Carol and why is she important?
I met Carol when we were fellow co-workers in a Center City law firm. We were both part of a temp agency crew assigned to work as document clerks at a big downtown firm in the 1980s. The ten of us sat around a large table, as our job was to stamp and collate Conrail documents. It wasn’t the most exciting of jobs, but it paid well and work conditions were excellent, it also allowed us to get to know one another as friends. Our boss attorneys were amazingly lenient in that they didn’t seem to mind that we were having fun while we worked. Too many bosses seem to think that having fun at work is a sin of the highest order, even if there’s no rule that says that work has to be dismal, painful or stressful. This was the 1980s, after all, when the economy was good. The big law firm was also generous about overtime, so we stacked up the hours and went home with fat paychecks. An additional perk were the once-a-month beer and pizza parties the firm provided in addition to the meal and taxi vouchers. We were all half in love with this job. I doubt whether anything like this exists today.
Carol was easily the sassiest female in the group. She had a wry intelligence and a bawdy sense of humor that did more than keep conversation flowing. Her style was the loaded innuendo combined with a wink and half grin “delivered” with a dimpled smile. The other women were pleasant enough but none as interesting with the exception of Barbara, a full employee of the firm, who told the group that in a few months she planned to enter the convent. None of us had ever known a woman who planned on becoming a nun, so we paid close attention to her—how she engaged in small talk or reacted to problems—as if looking for clues as to why she would want to leave the wonderful world of the big, generous firm.
Carol acquired a boyfriend while working at the firm. Mike was another temp, a grad student who planned on entering law school. Mike and Carol hit it off right away. The attraction between them was immediate and intense. They were both verbal types, so conversation between them sometimes came off like a cabaret act. On a Friday afternoons, a giddy Carol would occasionally sit on Mike’s lap, which put a new spin on collating documents. Their unconventional behavior was overlooked by the bosses because our group met all the firm’s deadlines. It seems the bosses knew that the way to make us collate and stamp faster was to keep us happy.
Some nights a few of us would head out to a Center City bar, with Carol as the entertainment ringleader. I think she enjoyed these jaunts because it was a chance to get away from Juan, the alpha male leader of our temp group. Juan often enjoyed getting a rise out of Carol. He was one of those macho types who became bored with too much group harmony. His nature was to create mild dissention and then charm the group back to liking him. I sometimes felt sorry for the women he dated.
When the temp job came to an end, we ate the last slices of the farewell party pizza and cried a few tears, promising to keep in touch, no matter what, but of course that didn’t happen. Barbara entered the convent but left a year later, realizing that being a Carmelite nun wasn’t for her. I’d see Juan from time to time in Center City, and we’d grab a beer, but then he disappeared. I met Mike once in Center City. He told me that he and Lyn broke up shortly after the job ended and that he was now an attorney, and married.
What Carol was doing remained a mystery.
A good thirteen years passed and every so often I’d think about the people in the old temp group. I wondered about Barbara: Did she enter another convent or go back to the big firm? Was Juan wining and dining women in Rio? Was Mike now Mr. Attorney Extraordinaire with pull out ads on the Market Street El? I’d totally given up hearing about Carol but that changed when I moved to the Fishtown area and began writing for a local newspaper there.
One day I got a telephone call. “Do you know who this is?” the female caller asked, her voice vaguely reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich’s. “I know you do.” I did, for sure. Carol had read a newspaper column of mine and traced me to Mercer Street and announced that she was a mere three blocks away, and that we had to get together. “We are riverward neighbors,” she said.
We recalled old times at her place. I mentioned that living in Center City had become prohibitive with the scandalous rent increases. I told her what I did after the law firm, the resume writing and managerial jobs, publishing my first books, my experiences living at 21st and Pine Streets, including my involvement in the Kimberly Ernest jogger case. She filled me in on her life, and for the first time we really got to know one another. She became more than just the document collating party girl who got upset at Juan and loved sitting on Mike’s lap.
She had a handful of celebrity stories, such as her tale of meeting David Bowie after one of his Philly concerts. Bowie had taken a shine to her so they wound up getting a drink together when they bumped into Iggy Pop. Since Iggy Pop happened to be Bowie’s boyfriend at the time, what happened next was right out of a soap opera. Carol was full of stories like this, but her Iggy Pop jealous fireworks misadventure stayed with me for a long time.
Since Carol had purchased her house sometime before I purchased mine, she filled me in on life in our neighborhood. This was the time when remnants of the old paint factory blotted the landscape. It was before they built a large WAWA, Rite Aid and an Applebee’s’ it was the time when the neighborhood had not yet been discovered by people fleeing Center City. We called the area The Triangle (some still do). It was rustic and private—Philly’s best kept secret—with almost no crime, plenty of parking spaces, and peace and quiet.
We’d head out to Johnny Brenda’s on Girard Avenue when it was just a word-of-mouth popular hangout, when the wine there was four dollars a glass vs. eight dollars, and when there was always room at the bar. I began inviting her to press events in Center City, theater openings at the Wilma or the Suzanne Roberts theatre. Some people thought we were a married couple. Take a friend to an event in the city and it’s always the same: people imagine super intimate connections and alliances that aren’t there. We’d joke at these assumptions but play along just the same.
With Carol, life could sometimes be a masquerade.
I had fun introducing Carol to friends and to members of my family, most notably one of my sisters. They hit it off. I’d have summer parties on my patio where we would barbecue and dance to Beatles tunes. Carol would usually arrive at my place with a house gift. She was classy and generous that way, despite the fact that we disagreed about Yoko Ono (it was my view that Ono was dangerous because she introduced Lennon to heroin, and kept him on it). In my house I have the following reminders of her: a beautiful candle holder, a framed picture, a wine rack, and a mosaic tile. At the one and only Mercer Street block party held since I moved here, she sat at our makeshift sidewalk café table, posing with her cigarette and wine glass like she was sitting for her portrait at Rogue on Rittenhouse Square.
Friendships, like marriages, sometimes get rocky. Problems can enter like an unwanted guest, born of something that at first appears slight, perhaps an untoward comment, deed, or misunderstanding. Then the fabric is disrupted, if only for a while. This happened to us, a misunderstanding connected to our trips into Center City for those press events. For a good year and a half we barely said a word to one another. It sometimes got dicey for me because her friendship with my sister and other friends continued.
Carol was no slouch when it came to work. In fact, one of the things that she prized most in her life was her job as a paralegal at a firm in Media. In many ways this job was like an extension of the Center City job where we first met. This job held her together body and soul until she was laid off about two years ago. Ironically, the layoff happened about the same time that we split paths. The experience was devastating for her: the undivided loyalty she had given the firm for so many years didn’t seem to count for anything.
Some people navigate loses like this and go forward, but for Carol it was much like a death. Replacing the lost income with a new job would be difficult, not to mention the “humiliation” she felt collecting unemployment. She was a worker, and she did not want to sit at home doing nothing. After the layoff, she’d tell my sister: “I haven’t left my sofa for three days.”
Although her house cats were a great source of solace and comfort —especially the majestic George—they could not take the place of a career and a healthy income.
Though I’d been getting hints of a thaw in our friendship for some time, evidence of a real thaw occurred a few days before her death when she sent me a Facebook message accepting an invitation to a party I was throwing for my California-bound sister. Not only did she accept the invitation, she wrote: “I’m sorry I lost the connection. I can drive you to the party. Looking forward.”
While I offered my own apology, I told her that I looked forward to the party and that I’d be in touch in a day or so.
I was never able to do that because the next thing I knew I received a report from a friend that police cars, and even a fire truck, were seen parked outside her house for a very long time. A report like this usually means one of two things: a serious crime has been committed or there’s been a suicide. We did not want to think about the latter although the truth of this was revealed at her memorial service.
Sometimes there are no words of consolation, only the word Why?
A month before her death many of her Facebook messages became half sentences, fragments of thoughts, or sometimes just initials that caused some to reply, “Is there something wrong?” At one point she posted that she quit the new job she acquired after she was forced to leave the Media firm. She kept the joke going for nearly a week, as friends wondered, “What happened?” and “I hope you’re okay.” Most did not suspect that the post was not real.
It is hard to believe that the Carol we knew is gone and that the only real Carol now is the Carol in spirit, above and beyond the Carol of Facebook photos and personal memories.
We can only hope and pray that she has found peace.
Thursday, January 30, 2014
While wrapping up my book, Legendary Philadelphians of Center City (to be published this spring), I decided that I had to include the story of my friend, Arlene Ostapowicz. While there are "name brand" famous people in the book, the idea is also to include unconventional personalities, even notable eccentrics who are famous via "word of mouth." After all, I don't want the book to be the written version of a tacky TMZ celebrity show. There are many fine people in the "word of mouth fame" category. This brings me to Arlene, who is far less eccentric than she is... talented.
Though not an attorney, singer, artist or writer, Arlene has been a guest on many television and radio shows. In fact, she was once offered a guest spot on Bill Maher's show, Politically Incorrect, but had to decline because the live show was on too late at night. For several years she worked at The Courier Post of New Jersey and as a monthly commentator on an Atlantic City cable TV station. In the 1980s, she was in high demand with City Hall politicians and judges.
Her life as a City Hall consultant started when Councilwoman Joan Krajewski (now deceased) stopped at Arlene's place one day for a session. Krajewski had heard about Arlene's talents via "word of mouth," the most powerful advertising tool there is, and decided it was time for a reading. After the session, Krajewski became a fan and wanted to see Arlene on a regular basis. She liked what Arlene told her, not because it was what she wanted to hear, but because it was accurate stuff. Very soon, word of Arlene's talents, thanks to Krajewski, spread among the vast network inside City Hall, especially among the judges, some of whom contacted Arlene and asked for appointments.
The judges were so eager to see Arlene that they sent limos to her humble house in the city's Wissinoming section to pick her up and drive her back to their chambers. For the judges, the process must have been like ordering a delicious take-out lunch. Once delivered to their chambers, Arlene did her thing, after which she was quietly chauffeured home again. After a few months of this, Krajewski came up with an idea. She asked Arlene if she would see former mayor Frank Rizzo, who was then set on running for a new term as mayor. This was in the 1980s, when Rizzo had his famous radio show. Arlene agreed, and met Rizzo and Krajewski in a South Philadelphia house where the consultations began.
A little segue here: I met Rizzo in the 1980s and remember being awed by the size of the man. The guy was a giant, with hands the size of waffle irons and shoulders as wide as a Broad Street intersection. I was there to interview the man for a Center City newspaper, and was seated in a waiting area at the radio station when Rizzo walked in the room. When I first saw him I assumed he was part of the in-house security team because what I saw resembled a WWE wrestler. The face was unmistakable; however, it was Rizzo. After we shook hands, he led me to a sofa where we sat for the interview. Within minutes we were eyeball-to-eyeball, with the ex-mayor slapping my shoulder and calling me by my first name.
"So this is that magic charisma I've always heard about," I said to myself. The interview was a success.
Arlene never told me what Rizzo asked her, or even what she said to him (it's unprofessional to break confidences), but what went down must have impressed him because the next time he saw her, he said, "If I get elected, I'm going to get you an office in City Hall and put you on the payroll."
How's that for instant enthronement? Arlene was worth it, however. When she was on TV during the Goode administration and the city was on the verge of bankruptcy, she was asked by a reporter if the city would sink or swim, and she said swim, meaning that the federal government would come to the city's rescue at the last minute. She provided other details, of course, and when the prediction came true, there were more limos at her door.
Naturally, you'd think that a woman this talented would charge the moon for consultations, or if not that, then she'd certainly move into an exotic penthouse with busts of Egyptian gods and goddesses, get her hair done every few minutes, and start to strut like a diva. She'd also have to have a press agent who screened calls and booked customers, and then she'd have to hit the lecture circuit, all for a very big fee of course. Our culture, up to its ears in gross materialism, overflows with corruption, whether it is how Philly (house) Sheriff Sales are conducted, how local firehouses are funded, or how "important" people put on airs. Had Arlene allowed her head to swell, she might even have started her own religion, a la Sylvia Brown (RIP). But no, here she was, still in her almost cold water flat in the Northeast with its ramshackle porch doing consultations for the high and mighty, but also for so called "little people," who she says are just as valuable to her.
"I never wanted to be famous," she told me. This was true even when she studied metaphysics in England in 1972 and became an organizer of the Atlantean Society, and then came back to the U.S. to start a chapter here. The chapter studied things like auras and everything related to the paranormal, even possession and exorcisms.
A good many people equate people with a natural gift of prophecy (like Arlene), with the dark side. I don't know where this comes from. Instead of something good, they see sinister shades of Aleister Crowley, Anton Lavey, black magic or Satanic stars. Rather than these monsters, Arlene honors a number of Catholic saints, like Saint Therese of Lisieux. Or you may hear her exclaim how she has a special devotion to the Sacred Heart. She also says the rosary -- she believes in angels, and she sometimes makes believers out of skeptics. She will tell you that St. Thomas was the medium for the 12 apostles, and that the gift of prophecy has always been with the world, from Moses on, and didn't suddenly disappear with the death and resurrection of Christ. This is why she is able to attract people who wouldn't otherwise venture into these realms. Like Jeanne Dixon, who was also a devote Catholic.
Arlene sees no spiritual danger in her work. She wants to exercise her gift for the good of people, even if she wants to get paid, but not too much, for a lot of money inevitably attracts corruption.
All types come to her: real estate agents, crusty businessmen who battle out ugly deals, worried moms and dads, nurses and physicians, judges, politicians and even other talented people who see the future. They all come and want to know. Some ask how she can stand to be so humble and charge so little when she could be sitting on Easy Street.
The Philadelphia Police Department has also come to her, usually in the form of a detective knocking on her door, asking for help to solve a murder or a missing person case. She has worked with the police on many crimes, such as the Dolores Della Penna murder in 1972, the Candace Clothier killing in 1968, as well as far more recent cases.
She told me about her experiences in a possessed house in Bridesburg near All Saints parish. The malevolent presence was so bad that when the home owner tried to get the pastor of All Saints to come by to do some prayers, the poor priest couldn't get up the steps. A force kept pushing him back. With her Atlantean Society friends, Arlene says that she then went into the house and to the troubled room in question where her group formed a circle, held hands and began some prayers when something unbelievable happened. She says that she was pushed all the way across the floor, as if gliding on ice, to the very edge of the stairs.
While there's no way to prove to skeptics who laugh or sneer at the paranormal, those of us who've had a "Ostapowizc" moment, know better.