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Sunday, December 27, 2009

My Christmas Tree, 2009

This is the story of my Christmas tree, a tall artificial tree with white lights.
I don’t put the tree up every year. Last year, for instance, I kept it in the basement beside the snow shovels and some old buckets, but this year something happened to make me want to give it a central place in my living room.
The tree was given me by my sister some years just before she moved to Florida with her husband. I won’t go into the ‘politics’ of that move other than to say that no one in the family wanted her to move south. She’s the sister—I have three—closest to me in age, so growing up we were almost always thought of as twins. The reason for this is that in the fifth grade I had a case of double pneumonia and this forced the nuns to hold me back a year.
Before my sister and her husband left Pennsylvania, they visited me on Mercer Street and presented me with the tree. Somehow the idea of a Christmas tree in Florida, with all its wintry connotations, didn’t sit well with them. Who needs artificial evergreens when you have real palm trees growing in your backyard? So, yes, I was happy to take this tall slender alpine specimen with its generous array of white lights and call it my own.
That first year I positioned it in front of my living room window, admiring the way it glowed out onto the street. Others commented that it was a subtle yet striking decoration
My sister has been in Florida for almost 8 years now, and during that time I’ve developed a rather ambiguous relationship with the tree. You see, there’s a part of me that is very 1960s bohemian or what they used to call anti-bourgeois. In my twenties I tried my best to eschew holidays, thinking they were anti intellectual or somehow beneath me. I’d criticize Thanksgiving as a trumped up Hallmark card fest in which turkeys were slaughtered. Traditional Columbus Day, my actual birthday, I’d categorize as Columbus’ unjust conquest (and slaughter) of the Indians. In my agnostic twenties, Christmas was more a winter solstice, a time for family and friends, but nothing more.
Most of these Scrooge-like feelings are history now that I’ve gotten older, though once in a while they “attack” me like an old virus. Perhaps this is the reason that lately I haven’t been taking care of the Christmas tree. Last year, for instance, I let it sit in a corner in my basement near a pipe with a small leak. For the longest time I’d see that water was damaging the tree’s base, but rather than move the tree I’d sweep around it as the base slowly withered away. When I noticed that half its lights had gone out, I resisted walking to the Dollar Store for new ones. The sad truth is, I allowed the Christmas tree to rot until a few weeks ago when the sister who gave it to me called to say that she had stage II cancer of the lymph nodes.
My sister is a “no BS” straightforward type, and announced the news as if she were reading something from the newspaper. She didn’t cry or preface the news with drama. She told me straight out that she would have to undergo chemotherapy and possibly radiation and that she had already gone shopping for a number of wigs in preparation for when she lost her hair. She told me she had great faith in her doctor, whom she quoted as saying, “We are going to lick this thing and put it behind you.” She seemed cheery and upbeat. Of course being her “twin” I heard the suppressed emotion underneath her words. I heard the occasional “crack,” the weak link that once activated would explode in a rush of tears.
After our conversation a stunned feeling came over me. There was, of course, a rush of childhood memories in which she, the vivacious beautiful sister with the blonde hair and magnetic personality, in short the family beauty, was suddenly vulnerable to the scary part of life.
I didn’t know what to do, but then I thought of the Christmas tree I’d neglected for so long, leaning in a “crash” position against the old oil tank.
I brought it up from the basement, cleaned off the dirty base, straightened out the crooked branches and placed ii in its rightful place on a table in front of the living room window. Then I brought up the dusty box of ornaments and placed them beside the tree. While doing these things remnants of that old anti-holiday feeling came over me, as if voicing one last pathetic protest—“Don’t celebrate! Don’t celebrate!”-- but in the end those cries didn’t stand a chance.
My sister, and her Christmas tree, won hands down.

Thom Nickels

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Port Richmond: Off Duty Cop's Preferential treatment an outrage

On this bright, crisp Sunday morning in Port Richmond the sidewalks are empty, rolled up like old patio furniture. Here and there neighbors poke their faces out front doors to see what the weather’s like. Traffic on the street is slow; the few drivers who are out have that ‘just getting awake’ looks on their faces. It’s the sort of day you imagine people sleeping in late.

But just when you think the quiet will go on forever, you hear people chanting slogans. The cries have the sound of protest, like people marching in unison for a common cause. They come from a playground near Indiana and Elkhart Streets, where a little boy about 10 years old happens to be walking along a deserted sidewalk playing with his cell phone. The boy looks around as if determining the source of the protest then walks in the direction of the noise, his gait accelerating a bit. It’s obvious he wants to find out what all the commotion is about. He skips down the street like he’s going to a country fair but then he slows considerably once he realizes there’s something serious about the noise he hears.

Eleven years ago, little Billy Panas was probably just like this kid, walking around the neighborhood, thinking of his mom and dad, his brothers and sisters, maybe a bicycle or a broken skateboard, his whole life stretched out before him like the infinite stretch of ocean one sees from the beach at Wildwood. Little boys, of course, cannot fully grasp the concept of death, so while this particular kid may have heard about the shooting of Billy Panas by off-duty Philadelphia police officer Sgt. Frank Tepper, his youth protects him from the horror of a life snuffed out so early in the game.

The boy disappears down a side street, unaware that life can bring on all kinds of experiences, including meeting a bully with a gun. Certainly Billy Panas, who was once 10 year old, didn’t expect to die on the evening of Saturday, November 21st, when he was allegedly shot in the chest by Tepper, a man whom neighbors describe as a bully who often took to waving his gun in the air in various confrontations with neighborhood teens. While there are different versions regarding how young Panas was shot, the fact remains that somebody, in this case Tepper, drew a gun to settle a dispute or an argument.

When Tepper allegedly fired that gun he crossed the line. And this is why the protestors—men and women as well as a mix of teens and children—are carrying signs and wearing red t-shirts asking for justice for the dead 21 year old boy.

The protestors march through the streets as neighbors offer their support. The police civil affairs unit follows the march in squad cars. Where are they marching to? They are headed to Tepper’s house, where Billy’s dad will speak through a megaphone, and where people will sign a petition to have Tepper put behind bars as quickly as possible rather than have him sit behind a plush desk answering police phones to the tune of $58,610 a year while DA Lynne Abraham (washing her hands like Pontius Pilate) hands the case over to a grand jury, a process that may take months, stretching on into spring, summer or fall of 2010.

The marchers hold a rally in front of Tepper’s house, where two uniformed police officers stand guard. The officers look a little tense as the crowd, numbering about 200, busy themselves with signing the petition, or going over to the pretzel, coffee and do-nut table for a little refreshment.
It looks like nobody’s home in Tepper’s house. Violence like this has horrible aftershocks: what must Tepper’s wife and children think, if indeed they are looking out from behind closed shades?
Billy Panas’ dad—he is a big guy with a full head of hair and a dog tag with a picture of his son on it—tells the crowd, “My wife Karen and I want to thank you. Remember one thing—there’s only one bad seed, all the other police are respectable and they’re doing their job. We have only vengeance in our hearts against the murderer of Billy Panas.” People applaud, and the two officers who had looked tense seem to relax. They even begin to smile a little bit but it’s not long before they go back to looking tense. The truth is never an easy potion to swallow. “If Tepper wasn’t a police officer he would be in jail right now. Why isn’t he in jail? This is the whole question,” Mr. Panas says. “What if he murdered somebody else’s child? It was obviously going to happen sooner or later, Tepper’s a loose cannon.”

A cannon so loose, as other news outlets have reported, he once sprayed mace at a group of children; a cannon so loose that he went for his gun when he thought his 8 year old kid was being harassed. A cannon so loose that fellow police officers refused to work with him. A cannon so loose he bypassed police procedure and didn’t call 911 the night he shot Panas.
So why wasn’t this man kicked off the force a long time ago?

“Tepper should not be on the street,” Mr. Panas told me. “We should not be paying for his food right now. That’s the whole thing in a nutshell. Do I think this process is being dragged out? Yes I do. It’s because he’s a cop. That’s all there is to it. Because he wears a badge, he’s protected. It’s not fair!”

And that’s true. The bottom line is that the Philadelphia Police Department is not inclined to think that one of their own can do anything wrong. In some ways the department is reluctant to call a spade a spade. This can make getting justice for Billy Panas a little bit like climbing the Matterhorn.

Mr. Panas, brave man that he is, knows how to hide his pain. It was evident when he started to joke with the crowd. One can only guess what some of his private moments must be like, when he lets his guard down, when memories of his son flood his mind.
Still, as protests go, the rally was remarkable in its civility. Here we have the family, friends and neighbors of a boy killed by a police officer, and yet here was a Philadelphia police car being used as a desk top for the scores of petition signers seeking justice for the shooter, a Philadelphia police officer. This “merging” together brought to light the bad seed concept: there are bad seeds everywhere, in every profession, from pope to president to lifeguard to wine steward to corner cop.

But it’s time to stop the preferential treatment. It’s time for Sgt. Tepper to experience a little discomfort and inconvenience: it’s time for the law to remove him from his plush desk job and give him the treatment they’d give you or me had we been accused of shooting someone in the street.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Ugly as Sin: Catholic Church architecture since Vatican II

While on a tour of some Roman Catholic churches in Vienna recently, I was struck by the haphazard clash of styles: magnificent Romanesque- Gothic high altars, richly appointed with frescoes and images, with an oddly shaped table plunked down in front like something dropped from The Planet of the Apes: the oh-so-simple Vatican II altar table (aka Julia Child’s table). In such historic environments, the table, however expertly made, looks fairly comical. While the elaborate iconography in these splendid old churches makes Julia Child’s table seem less intrusive, that’s not the case in many new Catholic churches built since the close of Vatican II—a Council called by then Pope John XXIII to renew and invigorate the Church.

Vatican II unleashed a virtual windstorm that not only affected how Catholics worship, but the buildings they worshipped in. The root cause, according to Michael Rose, author of ‘Ugly as Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces—and How We Can Change Them Back Again,” was a duplicitous 1978 draft statement by the U.S. Bishop’s Committee on Liturgy, entitled ‘Environment and Art in Catholic Worship.’ Rose asserts that the document was “cunningly published in the name of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, implying approval from Rome.” The Vatican II document falsely used as the catalyst for such a “reformation,” Sacrosanctum Concilium, did not, however call for the wholesale slaughter of traditional Catholic Church architecture. The U.S. Bishops apparently had another agenda: the reshaping of Catholic churches into (so called) more relevant, people-oriented worship spaces.
This meant plain wooden altar tables rather than marble high altars; carpeted rooms; plain glass stained windows; potted plants in place of traditional Catholic artwork; small and nondescript Stations of the Cross that disappear into the walls; churches in the round that resemble MTV soundstages; the elimination of altar rails and sanctuary lamps. Crucifixes replaced by Baptist-style wooden crosses or geometric plus signs; traditional baptismal transformed into hot tubs. Older churches, including many cathedrals, were renovated: high altars were removed and dismantled; historic frescoes and icons painted over.

In the end, many of the new churches and the “renovated” cathedrals had the look of conference halls or inter denominational chapels. Hundreds, maybe thousands of churches worldwide were destroyed by the architectural iconoclasts.

Many Catholic churches in my Philadelphia neighborhood were altered after Vatican II. Fortunately, the three big churches on Allegheny Avenue—St. Adalbert’s, Nativity B.V.M., and Our Lady Help of Christians-- were not changed significantly. One church in Fishtown was particularly affected: Holy Name of Jesus Parish at 701 E. Gaul Street, officially founded in February 1905 in a three-story building on Frankford Avenue. Ground was broken for the present day church in the fall of 1921.

Holy Name of Jesus had an architectural makeover in 1973, when the then Dominican pastor (Father Edward L. Martin, O.P.) felt that many of the traditional trappings had to go. Like so many other pastors around the country, the good priest was a victim of the “simplifying” frenzy that followed the Council.

“They cut off the principal altar, the high altar. They put in a butcher block in the center of the church and a crucifix hanging from the ceiling. The Dominicans also took the whole altar rail out. The sanctuary was carpeted. This kind of carpeting buckles over time, so it was pretty much a mess in 1998 when a new pastor took over,” Holy Name pastor Father Francis P. Groarke told me by telephone.

The Dominicans, thankfully, did not remove the church’s side altars, and left the old wooden statues in place, a generous move considering the fate of other churches, where side altars wound up in piles on various city trash heaps. Also left untouched were devotional shrines to the Infant of Prague and Saint Jude.

“When the Dominicans left in 1998, they took everything, even the silverware,” Father Groake joked.

“The pastor who took over tried to restore the church to the way it was. He got rid of the butcher block. He had a platform built and he got an altar from a church that closed in Philadelphia in 1999. The high altar is once again visible,” Father Groake said, adding, “This pastor also had the tabernacle redone. The church was painted, and he got rid of that big hanging crucifix. Ceramic tile was added to the sanctuary, so it is pretty much a warm welcoming place now. The pastor was complimented an awful lot for what he did, although the church was not returned to the pre-1972 experience, when there was an altar rail. There’s no altar rail at Holy Name.”

Vatican II did not issue any edicts calling for the removal of church altar rails. What happened is that in many American churches this was done more or less by design consensus when communion-in-hand became a popular from of receiving the sacrament. The altar rail, traditionally, is the western version of the Eastern iconostasis (a screen of icons that frames the altar).

Holy Name was lucky that it did not go the way of Saint Leo’s parish in Tacony, where the high altar was replaced with something that Father Robert Seeney, pastor of the church, called a “wooden stand, not even a table, something that people compared to an ironing board.” The 1960s makeover also ripped out the side altars and nearly all the statues in the church. Parishioners were furious, but what could they do?

Fr. Seeney, who was made pastor of the parish in June 2009, began his own counter revolution: restoring the altars and the statues, and making the church “Catholic” again.

“The church went from being a meeting hall to a cathedral in a couple of months,” he told me.

But Father Seeney says he will never forget the sadness he felt when he was first assigned to the parish. “When you looked at the church on the outside, it’s such an old church, and then went you went inside, it was stripped of all its beauty.”

But not any more, Father.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Snappy 20-Something Neighborhood Girl Bartender

What’s happened to the classic, neighborhood corner bar? Not so very long ago you could walk into any corner bar and find an older male bartender tending the space with the dignity of an old priest. Usually there’d be a lot of conversation in these bars: Customers talking to other customers or “consulting” with the bartender on any number of issues. The old style ‘priest’ bartender was everything: friend, mentor, father, therapist, but always a good listener. The ‘priest’ bartender was always a dispenser of sound advice. Once more, he never tried to steal the show. By that I mean he had a knack for making himself invisible until you needed him. He did not, unlike his replacement—the snappy twenty-something bartender girl in a ponytail—reduce his customer base to a hypnotic fan club that salivates over his every move.

Ah, yes, the snappy, twenty something female bartender! She’s quick, she’s saucy, she may even perform bottle tricks, but as for advice, counseling or commentary about world events, forget it, she’s too young and inexperienced to delve into these matters. Anyone, even a monkey, can be trained to mix drinks, but only someone with a lot of life experience can be a bartender with excellent people skills.

This is not to put down female bartenders. To the contrary, I think older women bartenders, when they have that motherly thing going for them, can be superb. Older women are not so lost in body self consciousness as their younger sisters, and they are not so set on prancing about being “sexy.” More importantly, they have more of ability to converse or act as barstool therapists. They have enough life experience to relate to customers on many different levels.

When I first moved to the neighborhood in 2002, one of the first things I did was familiarize myself with the local bars. At that time I found a number of bartender “priests” in little corner bars that had not yet been gentrified into beer palaces with wide plasma TV screens. The bars had old pool tables, as well as racks of cheap bar snacks—chips anyone?—lining the walls. Some bars even had complimentary bowls of nuts or popcorn, and the music was low enough so that you could actually have a conversation. Today, most of these same corner bars have gone the way of Delilah’s Den. The old ‘priest’ has been replaced by a snappy girl with a ponytail who would no more have a conversation about world events than she’d read to you pages from her diary. Gone are the small bags of chips; and forget the complimentary bowls of nuts or popcorn. If you want something to eat, you have to order something “important” from the kitchen. Nine times out ten, customers in these new bars are not talking to one another but seem lost in a hypnotic trance that has more to do with greased pole imaginings than anything else.

Sadly, the unassuming little neighborhood bar, once a great place for conversation, has been transformed into a cheesecake palace.

This is a change that’s been happening nationwide, not just in the neighborhood. It’s also a change that’s being noticed by unemployed male bartenders who suddenly cannot find work.
Recently, I stumbled onto an Internet out of work bartender message board and noted some of the comments.

“The female bartender is perhaps the most jaded, cold, walled off and unapproachable member of the female species,” says Maggie Savarino Dutton, herself a bartender, in the Seattle Weekly.

Dutton is referring to the fact that if male customers think they’re going to get a date from female-bartender, they’re mistaken. A young attractive female is not going to play therapist or devote too much time to any male customer because there could be “consequences.” She’s always “threatened” with sexual harassment. It’s precisely because she works in a bar that she knows all the male pickup lines.

What to do? “Bring back the neighborhood hangouts and send the metrosexuals and Girl Gone Wild back to the clubs and strip joints,” one male bartender wrote. “All trends fade away. Right now the trend is dumb, fake and plastic,” another man offered.

The economy and new tobacco laws are blamed for the decline in the neighborhood bar business, hence bar owners have latched onto young female bartenders as a possible solution. Female youth now trumps experience, knowledge and people skill—as a way to make money.
One solution is to find a neighborhood bar that hasn’t gone plastic, that’s still gritty in some respects. Better yet, why don’t these bars team the females up with male bartenders? The females can take of business while the male bartenders—all over 30, of course—could converse with the customers and do the counselor/therapist thing.

This, as one bartender wrote, would attract both a wide female and male customer base.

Thom Nickels can be rached at

Friday, November 13, 2009

A wedding in St. Peter's, an Opus Dei parish. But even in this beautiful church, we saw Julia Child's table in front of the high altar.

'The Third Man' tours in Vienna. The Vienna Tourist Board gave me a rental car to drive into the Berganland wine country. Unfortunately, I took a wrong turn somewhere and wound up lost in the Austrian mountains. After a while I spotted a farmhouse, parked the car and went to the door. "I am a lost American journalist," I told the woman who answered the door. She invited me inside for coffee or beer and introduced me to her friends. We proceeded to talk for 2 hours until I was able to navigate a path out of the Black Forest 'Sound of Music' countryside.

My guide, Hans Christian, took me across the border into Hungary. At the border we noticed this old Communist station house where guards used to patrol with guns. We walked around the station and went up into the woods, spotting an old campire with wooden benches. No doubt the woods held deep, dark secrets. We took a short ride into Hungary. Hungary is a very poor country. Many Hungarians have day jobs in Austria as waiters and restaurant workers. They also work in the vineyards.

The Esterhazy Park Tower, formerly a Nazi bunker during WWII. Winston Churchill wanted the Allies to bomb the Habsburg palaces, the opera house and the government buildings, structures valued by Hitler. The bunker now houses the Vienna State Aquarium.

The Otto Suite in the Hotel Aldstat in Vienna's 7th District. I stayed here for 3 days. The staircase leads to a private rooftop garden and observatory. It was too cold to sit on the balcony for long, but the sunsets were memorable.

The miraculous Byzantine-style icon in Saint Stephen's cathedral, Vienna. This icon has been shedding tears since the 17th century. When I visited the cathedral on October 16, 2009, there were many people praying in front of this shrine.
The icon is originally from an Eastern Catholic church in Hungary.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Andre Gide

ANDRE GIDE lived for his art. Born to a wealthy family, as a young writer he had no financial worries and he could afford to be experimental in his writing. For a brief time he associated himself with poet Stephane Mallarme and the Symbolist School. Later, his affiliation with the Communist party and his brief attraction to Christianity were both heightened and terminated by his aesthetic sensibility. Throughout his life, however, Gide stopped short of any ideological commitment, but he remained a firm believer in the life of the senses.

One of Gide's biggest mistakes was his rejection of Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu for his magazine, Nouvelle Revue Francaise. Later, Gide would regret the decision and invited Proust to resubmit. Many critics view Gide as the greatest journalist of the 20th century; Gide himself believed that he was preparing for a "much greater work" (as a child he wondered if adults could see this "future great work" in his eyes). For most of his life, he owned two manor houses and an apartment in Paris. It is said his house in Normandy contained staircases that glowed like polished amber.

"Polished amber" best describes Benjamin Ivry's first-ever English translation of Judge Not,* a little-known Gide work, which adds significantly to the Gide corpus. Ivry, the author of biographies of Francis Poulenc, Arthur Rimbaud, and Maurice Ravel, has translated and written a lengthy introduction to a small book that's a testament to Gide's fascination and even obsession with crime and punishment. In novels such as Lafcadio's Adventures (1928), Gide often explored the criminal mentality as well as the criminal's place in society. In Judge Not, Gide recorded his impressions and analyses of judicial cases while serving as a juror. He wrote about the cases in depth, examining both the facts of the case and the background of the accused in a way that dovetailed with his lifelong rejection of traditional morality. Many of the cases involved murder, with adolescents as the accused, and one can imagine Gide using them as the raw material for his fiction. Although Gide declared that his writings on judicial cases were not "literature," they are nevertheless artful journalism in which Gide often saw facts that judges and jurors overlooked. As Ivry explains, some critics have deemed Judge Not as too graphic in its descriptions of violent crime, but such charges appear illogical given the book's subject matter.

Gide used criminals in his fiction in order to explore human psychology. He himself was often considered an outcast or criminal because of his open defense of homosexuality in his writings--Jean Genet once referred to him as "the master"--and because of his brief alliance with the Communist Party. (Gide mourned what happened to Marxism twenty years after the Russian Revolution and documented these changes in Return from the USSR.) Despite his lifelong love of the Bible, he had a persistent wish to escape conventional morality and explore the sensual life. Writing about his youth in his journal in March 1893, he wrote: "I have lived until the age of 23 completely virgin and utterly depraved; crazed to such a point that eventually I came to look everywhere for some bit of flesh on which to press my lips." Although he married in 1895, the marriage ended once he announced his homosexuality. No longer content to live life according to values that were not his own, Gide advocated in Fruits of the Earth (1897) that one partake of life's sensual pleasures rather than think of everything in terms of "sin."

The newly liberated Gide was proud of his emerging "new self." His reinvention of himself laid the groundwork for the private publication of Corydon in 1911. This was his masterful defense of homosexuality as expressed in the "homosexual models" of ancient Greece. The first edition was a mere twelve copies; later it would go to 66 editions, representing 33,000 copies. Wrote Gide in Corydon: You must also recognize the fact that homosexual periods, if I dare
use the expression, are in no way periods of decadence. On the
contrary, I do not think it would be inaccurate to say that the great
periods when art flourished--the Greeks at the time of Pericles, the
Romans in the century of Augustus, the English at the time of
Shakespeare, the Italians at the time of the Renaissance, the French
during the Renaissance and again under Louis XIII, the Persians at the
time of Hafiz, etc., were the very times when homosexuality
experienced itself most openly, and I would even say, officially. I
would almost go so far to say that periods and countries without
homosexuality are periods and countries without art.

Gide considered Corydon his most important work. He remarked that he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1947 despite this book.

In 1924 he published another controversial work that dealt explicitly with his homosexuality, the memoir If It Die, where he described his first homosexual experiences, his first attempt at authorship, and his family relationships. It was the openly homosexual content of this work that turned Gide into an international target of derision by some critics. (The American author Dashiell Hammett, on hearing that Gide admired his detective stories, said, "I wish that fag would take me out of his mouth!") Even as early as 1912 Gide was aggressively supporting the idea of homosexual rights, if only in his private writings. In a journal entry, Gide wrote:
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Thursday, November 5, 2009

Sitting in Cafe Central, Vienna, November 16, 2009

End of Catholic Schools?

In Philadelphia, the protests surrounding Cardinal Justin Rigali’s announcement concerning the closure of Northeast Catholic High School in Frankford (Cardinal Dougherty High School is also slated to close) got me thinking about the reasons why Catholic schools have been shutting down throughout the country.
While I believe the protestors-- students, parents and alumni of Northeast Catholic—have their hearts in the right place (nobody wants to see their alma mater fade into obscurity); the reasons for this disaster go back some 40 years. One contributing factor has been changing Philadelphia demographics, but the big influence I think has to do with the changes in the Church brought about by the Second Vatican Council, which was called in 1962 by Pope John XXIII to regenerate the Church and bring it new life.
Unfortunately, instead of regenerating the Church, the Council seems to have set in motion serious degrees of decomposition.
. Take the schools, for instance. Cardinal Dougherty, which has a capacity for 2,000 students, currently has an enrollment of just 642. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Northeast Catholic’s enrollment dropped 29% in the last 10 years, and it is forecasted to decline another 24% in 3 years. While the Alumni of Northeast Catholic helped the school survive a financial crises 18 years ago, that’s unlikely to happen this time.
What do closed Catholic schools have to do with the Second Vatican Council?
According to the Seattle Catholic, in 1960 there were 53,796 priests in the United States. In the decades before the Council, there were so many seminaries in the country that bishops couldn’t open new ones fast enough. In 1960, religious Brothers (who often taught in Catholic schools) numbered 10,473; the total number of Sisters was 168,527. There were also 4.2 million parochial schools and 1,566 high schools. Before Vatican II, a 1958 Gallup Poll stated that 74% of Catholics went to Sunday Mass, proving that the Catholic Church in America, and throughout the world, was vibrant and healthy.
Does this sound like a Church in need of renewal?
After Vatican II, all these numbers took a nose dive. By 2002, there were 45,000 priests nationwide, and ordinations saw a decline of 350%. The number of seminaries saw a 90% decrease. The number of Catholics attending Mass dropped to 25%. (As for matters of faith, a New York Times poll also revealed that 70% of Catholics age 18-44 after Vatican II believe that the Mass is merely a symbolic reminder of Christ). The number of Catholic schools throughout the nation dropped by more than ½ from its zenith of five million students 40 years ago.
With seminaries and convents emptying out—don’t forget, it was the priests and nuns who used to run the schools practically free of charge—school staffs had to be replaced by lay people who expected big salaries and large pension benefits. Since the only way to meet this demand was to raise tuition to exhorbenet levels, families had to turn to public and charter schools. Catholic education was no longer an option because it was too expensive.
The closing of Catholic schools is a nationwide phenomenon. The New York Times reported that the Brooklyn Diocese had to close 14 schools (14 more schools will be closed in the coming year), while the Washington, D.C. Archdiocese is still in the process of converting many of its parochial schools into secular charter schools.
Despite the good intentions of the protestors fighting to keep Northeast Catholic and Cardinal Dougherty open, not much can be done to stop the decomposition of four decades.
Unlike the Church’s boom years before 1960, Catholics today don’t see much of a need for Catholic education. Add to this the slow trickle of Philadelphia Catholics into the suburbs, and what do you have? Big schools that are expensive to run that stand half empty. The reality is that many of the neighborhoods where these schools are located have become “unlivable,” with high crime, high city taxes, and poverty. Rising costs and a faltering economy have added to the problem, forcing those schools still open to triple tuitions to college level heights.
The causes of this problem are manifold, but mainly they can be traced back to the day that Pope John thought he was letting fresh air into the Church.
That fresh air, however, seems to have created a windswept house.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Philadelphia's CasinoNO activists: latter day prohibitionists

In 1901, Carry A. Nation, with her swinging Crandall hammer, set about smashing saloons to show her disapproval of alcoholic beverages and her support for prohibition. Although vilified by many, Nation had many supporters, some of whom even sent her hatchets and other weapons with which to smash new saloons. Today, Carry A. Nation is regarded as a symbol of obsessive overreaction to the consumption of alcohol.

In our own time, and in our own city, the tactics of Casino-Free Philadelphia (CFP) might be said to be a symbol of obsessive overreaction to legalized gambling. Why? Because CFP seems to be adopting the methods of Carry A. Nation. On June 6, 2009, a contingent from CFP went inside Harrah's Casino in Chester, Pennsylvania, and put on a demonstration meant to show slots users how they are being "used and controlled" by the casino industry. In short, the CFP raiders (called 'Beat the House') broadcast the message that the industry survives on the backs of hapless gamblers. The idea behind the message: casinos use gamblers like doctors used medical leeches on patients in the 19th century. The poor retirees, housewives and one day-trippers at Harrah's were trying to have a good time, when along comes the Carry A. Nation New Prohibitionists with a demonstration. While some may dismiss CFP's antics as harmless, what will tomorrow bring? An army of hatchets? The stated mission of CFP, after all, is "…to stop casinos from coming to Philadelphia and close any that open."

Excuse me, but does "close any that open" mean shutting down casinos that the majority of people approve of? Isn't this a form of tyranny? After all, what gives these self proclaimed addiction fighters, these self appointed messiahs, the right to save people from themselves? It's one thing to fight for a casino not to be built, another thing entirely to go into a casino and plan to close it. Carry A. Nation didn't care whether people actually wanted to drink alcohol. In her mind, all alcohol was evil because it led to "the destruction of families." Nation had no concept of drinking in moderation. A glass of wine with dinner was just as evil to her as the man who downs 20 beers and then goes home and beats his wife. By a not- so- strange coincidence, CFP's motto is the same as Nation's: that casinos (gambling) destroys families. Funny how prohibitionists of every strip use that old slogan, isn't it? Compulsive gambling and compulsive drinking may destroy families, but so does compulsive sex, compulsive Game Stop video watching, or a compulsive sports addiction.

As a society, do we really need to determine the morality of pleasurable activities based on whether a minority of genetically predisposed folks become addicted to it? Most of the gamblers who head to Atlantic City or Chester, Pennsylvania, are day trippers, not addicts out of Russian novelist Dostoevsky's novella on gambling addiction, "The Gambler."

Philadelphia's sister city, Pittsburgh, just opened a beautiful new casino, Rivers Casino, on the North Shore Riverfront. While Pittsburgh's own Carry A. Nation faction was active in protesting Rivers, they were not successful in delaying the project as has been the case in Philadelphia. The $780 million Rivers Casino has become the source of thousands of job opportunities, unlike what is happening in Philadelphia, where the only "job opportunity" for unemployed neighborhood residents seems to be the acquisition of an Access card. "While just about every economic indicator plummets, the glass, brick and steel walls of Pittsburgh's casino continues to rise," said The Tribune Review. "For the most part, the North Shore riverfront seemed to be an instant hit. If visitors weren't playing, they appeared to be eating, crowding several of the casino's restaurants, including its all-you-can-eat buffet," chimed The Pittsburg Post-Gazette, on August 9, 2009, the casino's opening day.Elmer Smith of the Daily News offered, "They [River Casino] won't drop enough coins to offset Pennsylvania's cavernous $3 billion budget gap this year. But they could keep the lights on in Harrisburg."

Pittsburgh seems happy with the way things are, but guess who was in town protesting the opening of Rivers, Carry A. Nation style? CFP. Never mind that River Casino made a $300,000 commitment to the Northside neighborhoods in the form of a $600,000 matching federal grant to support Northside small businesses; never mind that the city of Pittsburgh will stand to gain tens of millions of dollars in new tax revenues. Never mind that Pittsburgh and Allegheny County will each receive 2 percent of the casino's revenue as host fee.With that said, will Philadelphia ever get its act together?It will, good people, once we bury the Carry A. Nation hatchet!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Catholic Worker Karen Lenz: a tribute

There are small, unsung purveyors of hope in Philadelphia, and some of them are right here in the neighborhood.
One unsung hero is the Sister Peter Claver Catholic Worker House at 430 W. Jefferson Street. As a house it is not much. It’s filled with books, arts and crafts for children, holy pictures, a crooked, narrow staircase, and a kitchen that has fed thousands of needy and destitute people throughout the years.
My first contact with the Jefferson Street CW occurred several years ago when I was assigned to do a story on the place and interview the overseer, Karen B. Lenz. Karen, who was confined to a wheelchair for many years prior to her death on August 6, 2009, became a sort of friend after that first meeting. We discovered that liked the same Catholic authors, mainly Thomas Merton and Flannery O’Connor; that we shared similar beliefs regarding the treatment of the poor—especially in the area of health care, where private insurance companies make health care coverage an impossibility for low income people. We also shared a fascination for the history of the Catholic Worker movement, how founder Dorothy Day, a one time Marxist/Greenwich Village bohemian/ atheist, converted to Catholicism, and founded the Catholic Worker, a movement devoted to peace and justice and equality for the financially underprivileged.
We got along so well that Karen invited me to the community potluck dinner that evening, where I met Peaches and Jackie, two women who lived in the CW house because they had no place to go. That first night a number of other dinner guests arrived: a woman from the affluent Main Line with bags of donated clothing, and another woman deeply involved in the women’s ordination movement.
I’d make many visits to the CW house over the next few years. A convert from Lutheranism, Karen was an avid, but not uncritical Catholic with a deep spirituality. For Karen, the Eucharist was the sacred core of Catholicism, not the actions and edicts from the hierarchy, with whom she had issues. These issues included women’s ordination as well as peace and justice concerns, notably the war in Iraq. Another subject that concerned Karen was the way the Vatican behaved during the priest abuse scandal. She objected to the Vatican’s efforts to link homosexuality and sex with minors in the minds of people. “This is a pernicious and false connection,” she wrote in Equal wRights, a Catholic feminist newsletter that she also edited. “Indeed, most pedophilia and ephebophilia is heterosexual and most same sex love is healthy, good, natural, and holy…”
Karen exuded a Mother’s love; there was something about her that made you—or me, anyway—want to wrap my arms around her and hold her for a time. Her great heart, lively intelligence and sense of humor kept even the drollest conversation percolating throughout a cold February evening. Thursday’s were potluck dinner night, and when I’d visit to say the liturgy I’d bring a Stock’s bakery vanilla pound cake. Potluck dinner guests changed from week to week, so you never knew who you were going to meet. Karen knew everybody, from canonical hermits, to nuns, to baby-cheeked students from nearby colleges, so dinners were a feast of new people and stories, maybe a shared bottle of wine, and talk that made the hands of the clock race ahead so that we were always saying, “Gee, it’s time to go home already?”
During dinner there’d almost always be knocks on the door. Sometimes it would be a woman wanting food to feed her children, or somebody dropping off a donation. There were also times when addicts or the homeless would knock for something to eat.
Throughout the evening Karen’s Rabelaisian sense of humor had us pounding our forks on the table in good natured howls. Karen may have been saintly in many ways, but she was not made of plaster.
While Karen was passionate about women’s ordination issues, I tended to be lukewarm. Karen liked the liturgical changes in Catholicism since Vatican II whereas I believed that the so called “new” Mass was about as awe-inspiring as a political stump speech, or an Info-commercial on the Fox network. Despite these differences we managed to agree to disagree, so our friendship remained intact.
When we came and went we always gave one another a kiss. Her face, like that of a great lioness, would lean out towards mine, as I’d stoop over the wheelchair and tell her, “Thank you.”
Why thank you? Because Karen B. Lenz gave and gave…. a lot….

Thom Nickels

The Life of Edmund White

Keys to the Kingdom of Edmund
by Thom Nickels

My Lives: An Autobiographyby Edmund WhiteEcco (HarperCollins). 356 pages, $25.

THE CELEBRATED “FATHER” of modern gay literature had Christian Science roots so entrenched that when he was a grown man he had developed an uncanny habit of forgetting to take his medicine. Still, Edmund White doesn’t forget much in this tell-all autobiography that begins by ripping into the heart of his parents, his lovers of both sexes, and the therapists who led him astray. “In the mid-1950s, when I was fourteen or fifteen, I told my mother I was homosexual: that was the word, back then, homosexual, in its full satanic majesty, cloaked in ether fumes, a combination of evil and sickness.”White’s mother, a psychologist barely five feet tall, was not shocked by the revelation. White writes that she was “almost gleeful when she told me I was a ‘borderline psychotic with strong schizophrenic tendencies’” after testing him with the popular Rorschach inkblot test. As a result of the “blotched spots,” he grew up thinking he was mentally ill, though that didn’t stop him from writing and starring in plays, or from cultivating his childhood fantasy of wanting to be a king.Kings do anything they want, and King Edmund, barely out of the precocious toddler stage, had an early lust for life: he confesses to how he became adept at auto-fellatio at summer camp (“throwing my legs over my head in the first stage of a backward somersault”); how, soon after these gymnastics, he “tasted the first penis that wasn’t my own.” That first taste unearthed a yearning for more. The author of A Boy’s Own Story, Forgetting Elena, and The Farewell Symphony began life as jailbait (“I was afire with sexual longing”) who “haunted the toilets at the Howard Street elevated station, the one that marked the frontier between Chicago and Evanston.”Sex and lots of it is the theme of this memoir, which is populated by familiar figures from the literary, artistic, and musical worlds. We read how Michel Foucault overdosed on LSD at the baths and how Edmund came and rescued him (he confesses that he considered himself to be Foucault’s dumb friend—“but I thought hey, we all need one”); how Edmund cracked the rumor that Genet had once danced for the Black Panthers when Angela Davis confirmed for him that “Genet was the original gender-bender. He’d get high on Nembutal and dance for the Panthers in a pink negligee”; how he, Edmund, has no sense of style: “I used to be careful about my looks, but now I have to remind myself to have my hair cut monthly or my teeth cleaned every six months. I wear the same sturdy, waterproof shoes every day.”At various points in the long narrative he injects recent events. There’s the portrait of his sex master in New York, a former literary fan, who comes to dominate his life for years. Details of the affair, drawn out in explicit erotic detail, call to mind Rimbaud’s derangement of the senses: degradation, humiliation, and shame in fact rule these passionate encounters, and Edmund is literally a slave, lacking only a dog collar. The reader gets very used to sentences like this: “In an instant the head of his dick would be poking up stickily over the elastic waistband. When I’d peel down the jock and release it, it would be hard as wood and smell at once sweet like sperm and bitter like urine.”In “My Women” he recounts affairs or friendships with the women in his life. In these portraits, when the relationships were sexual, he withholds erotic detail. Scant mention is made of Susan Sontag, with whom he had a long friendship in Europe and New York but with whom he had a contentious parting of the ways over his portrayal of her in Caracole. Perhaps his reminiscences of Sontag were written before her death and he feared additional censure or retribution. He does recount how Sontag’s son, David Rieff, came after him with a bullwhip at a party for Caracole (1985) but was “apprehended” before he could lash out. His views on love are cynical yet realistic:Love puzzles me so much I can scarcely say whether I think it’s good or bad. It’s good (and bad) because passion-love, unlike esteem-love, is transformative, obsessional, impractical. It can’t be fitted in with a job, errands, and homework. It pushes friendship aside and upstages family attachments. It crowds out every mild or disinterested pleasure; in fact, it has little to do with pleasure of any sort except at the very beginning of its trajectory when the poor lover still imagines he might live happily ever after with the beloved.In “My Shrinks,” White sets the stage for his youthful obsession with Freudian analysis, a system he found “too devoid of comfort to serve as a substitute for religion” with its “narrow, normative view of humanity.” White came to reject this absolutist view in his early thirties, replacing it with “an interest in groups rather than individuals.” He credits psychoanalysis with leaving him with a few convictions, notably “that everyone is worthy of years and years of intense scrutiny—not a bad credo for a novelist.” He confesses that he began to feel a compulsion to betray his sexual partners, an observation that calls to mind Jean Genet’s betrayal of his lovers in The Thief’s Journal and Our Lady of the Flowers. While this identification with Genet is not specifically drawn out, Genet’s name is mentioned enough for the reader to draw parallels, fusing a kinship that places White and Genet in the same “bad boy” camp. For White, letting an older boy at summer camp “hypnotize me and press my mouth down on his penis” meant going to Mother, who was the camp psychologist, and spilling the beans. These were the Eisenhower years, when enrolling in a military school was seen as an all-purpose solution when it came to boys’ problems. White was the sort of kid who over-analyzed everything. At age fifteen, like a youthful Dr. Peabody, he confessed to a friend’s mother: “I’m very worried. I don’t seem to be moving out of the normal homosexual stage of development.”Coming out for White was anything but a polite society dance. He’d head over to Kentucky from Cincinnati and spy on the young men in white T-shirts and beltless, low-riding jeans, nursing cigarettes. “How convenient that these young Kentucky men, smelling of beer and Camels, their bodies so lean they had no hips, a T-shirt sleeve swollen because it was folded back over a cigarette pack above a tattoo—how convenient they were for hire.” He writes that he was “in a fever of desire for these hillbilly boys perched on the Fountain Square railing.” He’d cash his weekly paycheck from his job at his father’s Addressograph machine company and head over to where the boys were hanging out. “I wore nerdy Steve Allen black glasses and had a longish brush cut. I was skinny and given to tics—my neck was always stiff and bobbing and I nodded it in little spasms that were so noticeable that I hated to sit in front of anyone at the movies.” In these instances he was usually so flustered that he would go with the first man who spoke to him. During one cruising foray he encountered an out gay boy who called himself “Miss Thing,” who observed: “Mary, the joint is hopping tonight!” Not his type: the young White’s idea was to capture “a real man,” a heterosexual man. “A real man had to be primitive, angry, not too intelligent and, in conversation, a bit ludicrous, whereas we queens were clever but as sterile as eunuchs.”Years later, when living in New York and writing A Boy’s Own Story, he would call escort services (“Bottoms were a dime a dozen; real money was spent only on tops”) or pick up street kids. He was writing college textbooks at the time. Far from demanding perfection in his boys, he writes that he liked flaws, “a wound which acted as an opening to the communion of shared humanity.” He wrote A Boy’s Own Story in one of the back cubicles in the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU after nights of hard S&M play with a parade of escorts. “The heat and my hangover tempted me to put my head down on my desk and fall asleep. I was so sleepy I would write portmanteau words, which collapsed the syllables of two or three words I’d already sounded in my head. I even started to spell phonetically.”Although he never waxes sentimental, of all the portraits in the book the ones of his parents are the most powerful. His mother (“Like me she was prone to malapropisms.”) wore a Merry Widow girdle that Edmund had to help her get out of. Mother admired rich people but had a pantheistic view of God that young Ed found “unconvincing.” “I never liked God in any form, even at his most universal. To me he was like Santa Claus—a grown-up conspiracy perpetrated on children to humiliate them. Too good to be true.”Readers expecting a pristine, tasteful portrait of the author will be shaken out of their teacups. This reviewer loved its sometimes upsetting honesty, its self-effacing humor and its sensuality. There’s the story of French writer Gilles Barbedette, for instance, who wanted to translate Nocturnes for the King of Naples into French while still a skinny kid and whom White met when he was a “young-looking, chain-smoking, heavy-drinking New York sex addict of forty.” “As we talked about books I sat on the floor beside him and kept touching his leg,” White writes. “He always loved to tell the story of how he, a very young man, had approached me on a serious artistic and professional mission and I was, within minutes, kneeling on the floor before him and unzipping his fly, calling him ‘Master.’”Thom Nickels is the author of two recently published books: Out in History and Philadelphia Architecture.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

From Europe to Eurabia (The truth is never easy to Digest)

This week marks the eighth anniversary of September eleventh. Eight years is a long time in a culture like ours. While all of us can recount where we were when the twin towers in New York went up in smoke, the passage of time--and the fact that there have been no terrorist attacks on American soil since 2001--has lulled many of us into a sense that everything is okay--for now. But no matter how relatively peaceful those eight years have been, this is no time to forget what occurred on that fateful day, and what might occur again on a day as beautiful as that fall day in 2001.

You might remind yourself this week to remember those who lost their lives in the Towers, the Pentagon, and in a field in western Pennsylvania. The men and women who had to jump from the upper floors of the towers to avoid being burned alive--the falling men, their neckties whirling in the wind, the dozens of co-workers who jumped holding hands, the constant “thump, thump” sound of bodies hitting the ground that the news media eventually had to “black out.” The victims of 9/11 did not know why the towers were falling down around them. They may have known of a hit by a “random airplane” but they knew nothing or an organized terrorist attack. They went to their deaths not realizing that this first major attack on American soil also had a side component: the slow buildup of a radical Islamic powerbase throughout western Europe.

This buildup began in the 1970s when much of Europe agreed to trade crude oil with Arab countries in exchange for promises of “free form” immigration (Strasbourg Resolution 492, 1971). Overnight all over Europe there was a flood of immigrants camping in the streets, selling pencils and chewing gum in cathedral squares.

These were the years that Europe slept, the years when the governments of Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and the Netherlands, permitted unfiltered, free-for-all immigration of radical Muslim immigrants from Morocco, North Africa and the Middle East. I say ’free-for-all’ because this was no immigration on a case by case basis but a careless open door policy that eventually led to a population explosion, or radical Muslim enclaves in which the new citizens refused to assimilate into the host country (read: they rejected the host country’s values and social mores). Rather than bow to the laws and customs of the host country, these new immigrants proposed imposing their own view of life, Sharia Law or God‘s Law, into the secular society. Today we see examples of this all over Europe (or Eurabia), where radical Muslims in Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy and France stone or kill their daughters or wives for offenses against God (offenses such as not wearing the burka or chador, going to the hairdresser’s, or adultery). Meanwhile, the men are free to take more than one wife although polygamy is officially banned in the host countries. Despite this ban, these politically correct governments, afraid to prosecute the law breakers, turn the other cheek, and the result is the formation of a country within a country.

Here, then, is another form of terrorism, meaning: a form of conquest from within, and it is happening all over Europe, in heretofore progressive cities like Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Oslo, Rome, Paris and Frankfurt. Europe is doing very little to stem the tide of this new brand of terrorism. In the politically correct name of multiculturalism, Europe is exempting the new citizens from obeying laws everybody else has to obey.


For some hours on September 11,2001 I wasn’t so sure that Philadelphia would escape the terrorist’s wrath. The September 11th scenario could have unfolded in any number of ways. Today, I live in a good neighborhood, have a nice house, and have the freedom to believe in God or not believe in God, to dress as I want and love whom I want. But if Sharia law were in place, I’d be counted among the dead. (And so would you, noble reader).
On this September 11th I will thank God that in America we have a democracy and not a theocracy, where there is freedom for all religions, and where regardless of the tenets of a church or sect, if those practices (like polygamy or stoning) go against national laws, then that religion must suffer the consequences.

Sadly, I feel for our European brothers and sisters, who today struggle with an insidious 2009 version of terrorism that includes massive attempts at changing Europe from the inside out..
This week I will remember the words of Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, “…This new war does not aim at the conquest of our territory maybe, but certainly aims at the conquest of our souls and at the disappearance of our freedom.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Review: A Gay Catholic Memoir by Scott Pomfret

Since My Last Confession (a gay catholic memoir) by Scott Pomfret
Arcade Publishing, New York $26.00 288 pages

Vatican II brought radical changes to the (western rite) Catholic Church. Not only was the Latin mass changed to the vernacular but the nuances of the liturgy were streamlined or in some cases, “protestantized.” One of the intentions of Vatican II was to make the Catholic Mass “accessible” to mainstream Protestant religious bodies like the Lutherans and Methodists. The idea was to set the groundwork for Christian unity, to make Catholicism “ecumenically friendly.”
To the chagrin of Catholic traditionalists, the design of the “new” Mass was orchestrated by six Protestant clergymen. At the end of Vatican II, change for the sake of change in the Church became the order of the day. The concept of the Mass as a “meal’ rather than a “sacrifice” heralded the new position of the priest facing the people rather than east (or the altar). After that came the removal or deconstruction of the high altar itself. In Catholic churches around the world plastic or wooden tables replaced centuries-old altars. (Traditionalists derogatorily refer to these plastic tables as “Julia Child’s table—without the Cornish Hen”).
Other changes in the Church continued with the fever pitch of a Donna Summer song.
The tabernacle, once the immovable focal point of the high altar, was removed to a side table. Sacred iconography went the way of all flesh: statues and icons in some cases were removed and replaced with burlap banners decorated with Biblical quotations. Highly stylized Church crucifixes were replaced by a tacky looking resurrected Christ (arms outstretched) or in some cases bare plus signs. Altar rails, some of them hundreds of years old, were demolished and turned into parking lot slabs. The overall architectural design of Catholic churches changed as well. New churches came to resemble secular meeting halls or interdemonitional spaces.
“Is this a Catholic church or a Protestant church?” became the common refrain of the day.
In many ways the Catholic Church of the post-Vatican II era was a different Catholic Church than its predecessor. The 1970s saw folk masses, jazz masses, basketball masses, Halloween masses, hand clapping and other Protestant evangelical trappings. Gregorian chant flew out the window; in its place pedestrian “hymns” like “On Eagles Wings” became signature liturgical music.
Change even affected the religious habits of some orders of Catholic nuns. The “modern” nun, fashionably coiffed in short hair and long earrings, came to resemble the nice lesbian feminist next door. Sadly, the Audrey Hepburn nun of The Nun’s Story became a fossilized antique.
But if proponents of Catholic theological change thought that Vatican II would alter or modify Catholic doctrine, they were mistaken. The truth is, Vatican II was more style then substance. The Council took much of the fun out of Catholic worship (the smells and bells) but left more important areas like birth control or human sexuality, untouched.
Scott Pomfret’s memoir deals mostly with the “new” church (called the Novus Ordo by traditionalists), the church of “On Eagles Wings” and “cool” masses that get down (or up) like bad Broadway shows.
Mr. Pomfret, a Boston trial attorney and a lay minister, is a committed gay Catholic. He writes of his experiences as an involved parishioner with the satirical sagacity of a latter-day Art Buchwald. This highly enjoyable memoir touches on every aspect of parish life, from eccentric fellow parishioners to the anti-gay edicts of the Cardinal-Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, whom Mr. Pomfret refers to as “Sean.”
Jonathan Swift once wrote, “Nothing is above satire.” Mr. Pomfret would seem to agree. Here, for instance, is his take on a local Boston Dignity service:
“Dignity’s liturgical procedures mandated such strict gender equality. They hailed the Holy Spirit with all three pronouns, alternating among he, she, and it. Wherever possible, the liturgy used the word God instead of masculine pronouns and nouns, but the gender-neutral construction often caused blips in the rhythm of the prayers: ‘Our Father and Our Mother, who art in Heaven….’”
“Dignitarians’ capacity for egalitarianism,” Mr. Pomfret continues, “had outstripped my imagination. [During Mass] the entire assembly participated fully in Prayers of the Faithful. They appealed to the predilections and causes of so many splinter groups that it completely undermined the communal nature of the experience.”
Writing about the Dignity-style Kiss of Peace, or the greeting that Mass goers are supposed to extend to their neighbor, Mr. Pomfret reports that “the dyke sitting next to me gave me a kiss on the mouth,” as “everyone in the room had to be hugged—some of them twice.” In conclusion, he says that the average friar at his Boston parish church, the Shrine of Saint Anthony, “could have crammed two Masses into the span of time it took the Dignitarians to exchange peace.”
The author goes to great lengths to understand Cardinal Sean, whom he describes as “personally broken,” after the Massachusetts Catholic Church failed to stop the legalization of same sex marriage there. So devastated was the Cardinal, Mr. Pomfret writes, that he wouldn’t even look the opposition in the eye when it came time to shake hands at conferences or religious roundtable discussions.
“People who encountered [the Cardinal] reported a stunned, deer-in-the-headlights look,” he writes. The marriage victory in Massachusetts, Mr. Pomfret adds, was embarrassing for the Archdiocese of Boston where the state legislature is 70 percent Catholic.

“The Church, limping, haggard, once a moral contender, had weakened to a shadow of its former strength. A different Church, one that retained a speck of moral authority, might still have articulated Gospel imperatives that really did bear repeating: poverty, capital punishment, war, goldfish murder, the ubiquitous frat boy uniform of khaki pants and braided belts, and other objective evils,” Mr. Pomfret writes.
There’s hardly a niche or crevice in American Catholicism that Mr. Pomfret doesn’t cover.
When he visits a Courage meeting (a gay Catholic group committed to celibacy), he observes: “Their alienation from their sexual identity was compelling—but also obscene, like watching a little girl with a box knife cut herself.”
Surprisingly tolerant when he writes about Courage, Mr. Pomfret does manage to include a few Courage quotes.
“People who have successfully integrated homosexual desires with their personalities…are rare indeed.”
“It is therefore easy to see how the homosexual relation fails as a totally human relationship.”
The Boston Courage chaplain is described as a “hunk.” “…Father John was a man’s man—forty years old, movie star handsome, a strong handshake, and a tough South Boston accent. A lot of the celibate boys surely developed serious crushes on him,” Mr. Pomfret writes. Although Courage’s celibate boys are only about ten in number, the author wonders, “The Church really is determined to torture these guys. They couldn’t have chosen a little ninety-year-old eunuch as chaplain? Instead they assign this virile stud?”
As to why he remains a Catholic in the impossibly rigid doctrinaire atmosphere of Pope Benedict XVI (or B16), Mr. Pomfret says, “I can no more shed my Catholicism than my gayness.”

Thom Nickels is the author of eight published books, including Philadelphia Architecture and Out in History. He is also the architecture critic at The Philadelphia Bulletin. He can be reached at

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

SORE, metaphysical science fiction

The cover of my new book, due out in early 2010. I wasn't sure about this cover at first. I used to write erotic fiction in the 1990s. I no longer do that. My friends generally approve of this cover, although a few said it smacks of
tacky eroticism. SPORE is hardly a pornographic novel, however. Once again, I will have to take my chances. When 'The Boy on the Bicycle' was published in 1992-93,
The Philadelphia Inquirer refused to review it because of the cover.

An Argument over spilled beer leads to Murder

The Three [Philadelphia] Stooges—Charles Bowers, James Groves and Francis Kirchner-- who (allegedly) beat to death 22 year-old Lansdale-native, David Sale, over spilled beer, now face the possibility of life in prison.
They’d gone to McFadden’s bar in the Phillies ballpark on a beer road trip with other patrons from one of the sleazier bars in Fishtown. Their intention, I would assume, was to have a good time but that’s not what happened.
Whatever problems these men had before this incident are nothing when compared to what lies ahead for them. Ten years from now, perhaps, (if they are convicted of killing David Sale) they may wake up in a cell in Graterford Prison to participate in a Mural Arts prison Project. At that point they may think back to the stupidest night of their life, when they choose to let lose the ‘dragon within’ rather than talk things out, or walk away.
Walking away from impossible, alcohol-fuelled situations takes strength of character; there’s nothing cowardly about it.
If there ever was a lesson in controlling one’s temper before over reacting, this is it. Imagine having to spend a lifetime in jail because, under the influence of alcohol, you allowed violent, drunken impulses to possess you for the better part of 30 minutes?
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, when commenting on the Sale killing, said, “There’s a lot of violence out there.”
Psychologists, of course, have a lot of theories about why some men are violent. Violence can stem from a dysfunctional, abuse-filled childhood. It can stem from anger from unfulfilled personal desires (that which we seek to repress builds up stem, eventually producing a “volcano”). Violence can occur when lives are perceived as meaningless, when life itself is thought to be worth little. Nihilism may have its place in existentialist philosophy, but it rarely translates well to troubled individuals for whom life then becomes just as meaningless for everyone.
Sometime ago I wrote about vigilant violence, but ‘dog pack’ violence, when large groups that hang out, drink and do stupid things together, is a close cousin to roaming the streets and taking justice into your own hands.
Group dynamics, when mixed with alcohol, can have different effects. It’s unlikely that ten women having Martinis at a Union League luncheon will get into a barroom brawl, though their breeding might instigate conversational warfare should there be a breakdown in communications. Ditto for Knights of Columbus members who decide to share a brew at a local pub, say, and then get into an argument. Chances are the end result of that ‘fight’ would be a slammed drink on the bar, and a quick “disciplined” exit.
In movies there are lots of examples of barroom scenes in which a drink is thrown in someone’s face, and then a handkerchief offered to clean it up. Woman in those old films might even blow smoke in a man’s face and even get away with a slap or two before they walk out the door. Only in gangster films and western melodrama do we have examples of what happened in McFadden’s sports bar.
The testosterone-filled, crowded sports bar must be the direct descendent of the rowdy, western bar where cowboys used to shoot one another. Sports bars are “ripe” for public brawls because you can’t even maneuver the simple act of sipping (a drink) in such places without your elbow hitting your neighbor.
Sports bars are like little Roman coliseums: the wild laughter and good times always seem to threaten to turn into violence. Sports bars are places where just one drunk in the group may attempt to influence the pack, whether out of a sense of bravado or showing off in games of one-upmanship. Group drunks can turn into sloppy, dangerous affairs at the flip of a coin because the individual antics of just one member can cajole, encourage and otherwise instigate collective stupidities. This is what happened at McFadden’s bar, where police reported large numbers of people from “both sides” rumbling outside in small groups.
We may never know for sure how the fight at McFadden’s began in the first place. One thing is certain: alcohol almost certainly distorted the perceptions of what was only, on the surface, a simple beer spill. “Something” was read into the spill, and for that somebody had to die.
It’s one thing to die for one’s country, for someone or something that one loves, for work, family, religion, friends, etc., but “trading” a life for spilled beer just doesn’t make the grade.
Thom Nickels

Monday, August 24, 2009

Latin Liturgy: A Natural and Beautiful Thing

There’s something “new” and exciting on the (Roman Rite) Catholic Philadelphia landscape. What is it? It’s the permanent return of the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM).
After 40 years of buried obscurity, the traditional rite or the so called Mass of the Ages (Pope Urban VII in 1634 said that the Roman Mass was the envy of souls in Heaven) is being made more available in parishes throughout the Archdiocese. Although there have been random TLM’s at various parishes in and outside the City for years, momentum kicked in after Pope Benedict XVI’s Motu Proprio in July of 2007. At that time the Pontiff urged easy accessibility to the ancient rite. For the first time since the close of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, Catholics in parishes throughout the world were told that if they wanted a TLM in their parish, all they had to do was form a small group and request it from their church pastor..
In the Philadelphia-Lancaster-New Jersey area, the number of parishes hosting TLM’s are growing. Every month seems to bring in a new parish, a new inquiry. The traditional Masses are attracting people of all ages, from the middle aged to the very young. Traditional Catholic seminaries like the Fraternity of Saint Peter, as well as traditional convents and monasteries are also reporting a boom in religious vocations.
Beginning on October, 25, 2009, there will be a weekly TLM at St. Paul’s church in South Philadelphia. This is good news to St. Paul’s pastor, Father Gerald Carey, who calls the October change, “A very natural and beautiful thing.” Fr. Carey, who was ordained in 1998, says he first offered the TLM last year during the Year of Saint Paul. “Out of it came requests from the faithful. That’s what Motu Proprio is all about. I did get requests from parishioners and outside parishioners, so I asked the Archdiocese how I might accommodate them,” Fr. Carey said.
Over 400 people attended the Year of Saint Paul TLM at Fr. Carey’s church. The event was so successful a woman came up to Fr. Carey after the Mass and said that after years of being away from the Church, she was coming back.
Years ago, Center City’s St. John Evangelist church held regular TLM’s but those Masses were eventually moved to Holy Saviour Parish in Norristown. St. Patrick’s church on Rittenhouse Square once held twice monthly Latin Novus Ordo Masses (or the Mass of Pope Paul VI) until the death of its pastor, Father Fitzpatrick.
TLM’s have also been a regular staple of the Carmelite Monastery at 66th Avenue and Old York Road. On Thursday, July 16th, on the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a Traditional Latin Solemn High Mass will be held at 7:30 p.m., complete with monastery choir and guest soprano, Dolores Ferrico. The nuns will sing the traditional Carmelite chant, the Flos Carmeli.
Fr. Carey says that shortly after the Motu Proprio was issued, he availed himself of an official TLM training session the Archdiocese was offering to priests.
He explains that the process of instituting a TLM is more than just a language thing. Planning a TLM means that the church in question must have altar rails (for traditional kneeling at communion), and altar boys trained in the Latin responses. (If an altar rail has been removed from a church, it’s possible to improvise a “substitute”) In a TLM, the priest as well as the congregation will face east, and the tabernacle must be on the main altar.
Facing East is considered a symbol of the rising Son of God.
“The Motu Proprio is a major step, but to approbate it takes time,” Fr. Carey said. “You have to make sure if priests want to do this, are you going to ensure that they’re going to do it well? And thank God the Cardinal was on our side and really worked hard and provided these workshops. Priests need to know the rubrics. Years ago people grew up with this Mass, they saw it all the time so when you became a priest you sequayed into it. But now you have to study it.”
Since the early 1970s The Latin Liturgy Association, Inc. has worked hard to keep the old rite alive.
“When Motu Proprio was first issued,” says Philadelphia Latin Liturgy Association Chairman Dr. Rudolph Masciantonio, “the Association sent the Cardinal a proposal asking that the TLM initially be made available in each of the vicariates of the Archdiocese—North and South Philadelphia, and each of the suburban counties. We thought this would be start to have a TLM in each of the vicariates. We also pitched for a traditional parish in Center City, much like Ess Cee in Berlin, New Jersey, where all the Masses and rites are traditional.”
Dr. Masciantonio says that while the Association didn’t receive a written response from the Cardinal, it got something better.
“The Cardinal acted on it. He appointed a priest to be the facilitator of the TLM in the Archdiocese, Msgr. Charles L. Sangermano in Norristown, and he made it a rule that all seminarians train in the traditional rite, as well as the new rite. And he specifically authorized a weekly TLM at St. Paul’s beginning October 25th.”
“We’re very grateful for that,” Dr. Masciantonio says, “and the future looks good.”
While there are still no traditional Catholic parishes in Center City, Dr. Masciantonio believes that this will change. “More and more people are interested in the traditional Latin Mass. The TLM is one of the best things that the Church has going for it,” he said.
The Latin Liturgy Association advocates the preservation of Latin in the Church, even in the “new” Mass of Pope Paul VI. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy at Vatican II decreed that, “The use of Latin is to be preserved in the Latin rite.” As to the question, “Why Latin?”, the Association’s website answers that question by reminding readers that “Latin helps us overcome limitations of time and place, and helps us participate in the universal reality of the Catholic Church, linking us with the generations who have worshipped before us.”
“Once people get used to these Masses again, and understand how valuable they are spiritually and aesthetically there will be a real reluctance to give them up,” Dr. Masciantonio says.
Father Adrian Fortescue, an English liturgical historian and author of the book, “The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy,” believed that “the Mass of the Roman Rite is the most venerable in Christendom.”
Like historic architecture, how can this venerable rite not be preserved?
“I can assure you that all the priests I know, even if they don’t have a familiarity with the Latin language, are very supportive of the TLM,” Fr. Carey says. “Most of them say the Mass as the Church directs them, and if they make a mistake it is unintentional. These younger guys really aren’t about innovation; they just want to say the Mass.”

Thom Nickels

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Haunted House on Beacon Hill. What I saw and heard when I lived in Sumner's room

4. Charles Sumner On Hancock Street was the home of Charles Sumner (1811 - 1874), abolitionist, lawyer, and for many years, senator from Massachusetts. Sumner's statue stands on the Boylston Street side of the Public Garden, and a portrait of him hangs in the State House library. Look for this story at a later date. When I lived here in 1970 as a very young Vietnam War era conscientious objector, I saw and heard things in this house I have never seen elsewhere.

Removing Urban Graffitti

Recently, a friend of mine asked for help in calling the city and getting some graffiti removed from his Fishtown property. The property in question is on Girard
Avenue. Graffiti vandals spray painted a billboard-sized tag on the side of his house. My friend, who has spent months, not to mention a lot of money renovating the house, said he called the city’s anti-graffiti hotline and reported the tags but he hoped that another report might speed things along.
“Every man knows better than he hopes,” as E. W. Howe once said.
I called the hotline for my friend and heard the recorded message promising that
graffiti is generally removed 3 to 5 days after it is reported. After the initial 5 days were up, and the graffiti was still not removed, I called the hotline again only this time I placed a call to the city’s new 311 system, which also processes graffiti removal requests. At this stage of the game intuition and common sense told me that something else, like Mayor Nutter’s city budget cuts, might be contributing to the delay.
I decided to do some detective work and placed a call to Deputy Managing Director Tom Conway, who oversees the city’s graffiti removal programs.
I asked Mr. Conway why the billboard-sized graffiti was still on the Girard Street property.
Mr. Conway told me the rise of graffiti during the warmer weather, when graffiti tagging vandals, like seasonal insects, come out in force. “The vandals are out more at this time of year,” Mr. Conway said, “but the city still has a very aggressive removal program. During the winter months we can’t power wash unless it is above 40 or 45 degrees, so sometimes graffiti will sit there for a while.”
I imagined thousands of tagged houses like the Girard Avenue house waiting to be power washed. An inner voice urged me to “be patient.”
During my affable chat with Mr. Conway, I repeated the vandalized Girard Avenue address several times, hoping that Mr. Conway would see to it that there’d be no further delays in getting the graffiti removed.
Two more weeks came and went, but the graffiti still hadn’t been removed. I telephoned 311 again and asked an operator why the tags were still there after four reports, the passage of 30 days, and a twenty minute conversation with the Deputy Managing Director.
The operator told me that the tags should have been removed several weeks ago but for some reason the request had been dropped or fallen through the cracks.
“Fallen through the cracks” in my mind translated into fallen victim to the city’s budget cuts. Mr. Conway, in fact, had told me that the budget for the city’s graffiti removal program, like every other city department, had been cut, forcing the city’s anti-graffiti unit to “look for different alternatives,” such as asking the School District to help with graffiti [school] removal. To adhere to the new city budget, Mr. Conway also said that the anti graffiti unit has had to change its hours of operation so that it won’t “have to pay overtime.”
In the good ole days when Mayor John F. Street was in office, graffiti was almost always removed within the 3 to 5 daytime limit. Minor exceptions to this rule happened but I can honestly say that whenever I reported graffiti then I was always amazed at how quickly the tags were removed.
“A quick removal is our biggest deterrent. The quicker graffiti gets reported, the quicker we clean it up and this deters the vandals,” Mr. Conway told me.
But there’s been nothing quick about the removal of the billboard sized graffiti tags on this East Girard property. Even after five different reports over a 30 day period, the graffiti is still there.
During the public uproar about Mayor Nutter’s city budget cuts, there was little or no publicity about cuts to the city’s anti-graffiti programs. Unfortunately, the “building up” nature of graffiti is such that as it mounts on city buildings, walls and houses rather than being power washed, the damage will begin to be noticed.
Hopefully, by the time the city’s new budget permits a “quick deterrent” removal, we won’t be living in a jungle of spray painted tags.

Thom Nickels can be reached at

The Philadelphia Accent

What does it mean to talk like a Philadelphian?
Unfortunately, having a Philadelphia accent doesn’t carry the same cache as having a Boston, English or southern accent. A Philadelphia accent is regarded as something to get rid of, like crossed eyes or long nasal hair. The reasons for this are self evident: a Philadelphia accent just doesn’t sound as nice as all those other accents. It lacks the charm of a Georgia draw, and it’s not sophisticated sounding like the English accent, where the “unlearned” sound learned, and where even criminals can sound like they are members of Parliament.
The Philly accent is hardcore, like the sound of breaking glass under the Frankford El. “Where youz going, to get some wooder?” sounds more like a line out of a Pinocchio cartoon than something “real” people would say, and yet it is unadulterated Philadelphese.
“Hey dude, I’m toad-a-lee broke of corders though I need to go to the lie-berry to get a book on IT-lee,” a Philadelphian might say. “Gee, then I gotta go to the Ack A Me cause my Mom’s got Arthur-it is and can’t go downashore.”
Okay, so maybe they don’t speak mouthfuls like this on the Main Line or in Chestnut Hill. While a Main Line clip might not be as “ritzy” sounding as the upper class Boston Brahmin accent with its pretentious British overtones, it has a stuffy quality nevertheless. Come to think of it, Philadelphese only affects folks in the inner city and seems to stop mysteriously at City Line Avenue as if the preponderance of single dwelling homes there, rather than city row houses, acts as a kind of linguistic transformer. Go to any school on the Main Line (Haverford College?) and you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone there who pronounces beautiful, ‘beauty-full,” not to mention replacing the very ordinary sounding “mine and yours,” with the Philadelphese version: “Mayan and Urine.”
The question is: Why do so many of us talk like this? Is it something in the wooder? Our great but ailing city is already too much maligned. Is it our fault that the Philadelphia accent is the only accent in the world (wrongly) associated with stupidity?
It’s interesting to note that Philadelphians who become famous nationally go to great lengths to tone down their Philadelphese. Chris Matthews of MSNBC has small traces of Philadelphese, but I’ve never been able to detect the accent in Philadelphia born Jim Cramer of CNBC’s “Mad Money.”
The big stereotype, of course, is (bubble gum mouth) Rocky Balboa, but Zack Smith, author of (the online) ‘Philadelphia Accent, says that Rocky is representative of the New York working class dialect, not Philadelphia. For the most accurate Philadelphia accent in any movie, Smith says, go to Toni Collette’s performance in The Sixth Sense.
One can try to rid oneself of a Philadelphese but it is not easy. I have educated friends who say “youz” despite the fact that there’s no such word in the dictionary. It’s a fact that most people who have accents don’t even know they have accents. We are “infected” in ways we cannot imagine. All it takes is for one word to slip out, a stray “Yud’ or even mention of a “pros tee tute,” and the dye is cast. At that point you’re likely to hear, “You’re from Philadelphia!”
There are courses devoted to curing Philadelphians of Philadelphese, where teachers recommend that students learn not to distort vowels, and to “move” all L sounds from the back of the throat to the tip of their tongues. This takes some work and effort.
But is this really necessary? What’s wrong with confronting somebody for their “add-e-tude?” Shouldn’t we, as Philadelphians, be proud of who we are and what we sound like?
Perhaps the proof of how proud we are comes with how you’d answer the following question: If you could have one accent in the world, what would that accent be?
Would you opt for French, British, Scottish, ‘Georgia Peach’, an Irish brogue, or how about an exotic Jamaican or Indian accent? Or would you stick with ‘ACK A ME’-laden Philadelphese?

Thom Nickels can be reached at

On Michael Phelps and smoking Bongs

When I step out of my house everyday to go to work, go shopping or just to visit a friend, I often smell marijuana smoke in the air.
When I go into Center City, take the subway, or walk through Rittenhouse Square, I smell the same smoke. Last year, when I was in Montreal, Paris, Florence, Rome, Milan, Stockholm, Oslo, and Copenhagen—I smelled it again.
Marijuana, like American Express, is everywhere.
In fact, the smell is so prevalent if I had just dropped in from another planet I’d make a mistake in assuming that whatever it was that people had in their mouths was something that most people did, like chewing gum.
Enter Olympian champion Michael Phelps. Crowned a media darling after his seven gold medal win in 2008, Mr. Phelps was hailed by the American media as a supreme American hero. “All honor and glory belong to you, Michael Phelps!” became the daily mantra. The very likeable (and amazingly humble) 23 year old was praised for his down home style and his genuine niceness. “He’s the boy next door, totally without pretense,” observers cheered.
Adulations for Mr. Phelps were so high it was only a matter of time before the altar came crumbling down. People not only lost track of the fact that this winning Olympian gold medal winner was also a 23 year old boy, they did that perversely American thing and equated being a sports hero with something else: an icon who would serve as a role model for children.
I’ll get to the ‘children’ part later.
The so called scandal of Mr. Phelps being photographed sucking on a bong (by a fellow party person who no doubt feigned friendship but then sold the photo for money) unearthed an army of with hunters. At the front of the line was a redneck sheriff from South Carolina who wanted the Olympian arrested for breaking the law. Then 700-Club style moralists began whining about Mr. Phelps’ duty to be a “role model for children.” “Let him pay the price!” they demanded. Later, that famous but nearly brain dead ‘View” panelist (the only reigning Republican on the show) suggested that if this Olympian-- “who should be a role model for children”-- can smoke cannabis then he could just as easily take (sports) performance enhancing drugs. (Implication: Maybe Mr. Phelps’ 7 Olympic gold medals were dishonestly earned).
Kellogg’s then cancelled Mr. Phelps’ endorsement contract despite a heartfelt apology from Mr. Phelps (when no apology was needed). Mr. Phelps had a bong in his mouth. He was acting goofy. He may have been getting stoned. That’s what many 23 year olds do, like it or not. Kellogg’s turned a deaf ear to the Olympian’s mea cuplas, proving once again that when strict moralists demand apologies they just want the “transgressor” to humble himself before leveling the axe: “An apology is fine, but that’s not going to change anything. That would be too easy. We’re still going to punish you,” I can imagine them thinking.
When Mr. Phelps won 7 gold Olympic medals he did not consent to be a role model for children. While some children may choose to copy Mr. Phelps’ highly disciplined training habits, nowhere is it written that an adult athlete has to live his life as if that life was in the telescopic lens of a group of small children. An adult athlete does not cease to be an adult because he becomes an instant celebrity. If that same athlete is called upon to endorse products, then that’s what he is contracted to do: to put his mug on the cereal box, not live an illusive “perfect life” so that children can copy that life.
If you want saints, go to Butler’s “Lives of the Saints,” but even in this noble book you will read of youthful follies, fornification, drunkenness, and all manner of foolish and outrageous behaviors.
Not that marijuana is any kind of “sin.” While it’s not my cup of tea (it was for some years in my early twenties), it is, as they say, a plant and not a drug, and it should be legalized.
Experts have been calling for a change in the laws since the LeDain commission of 1972 recommended the decriminalization of Cannabis.
With that said, I think it’s time to leave my house and head into Center City where I can get my daily dose of marijuana smoke.

Thom Nickels can be reached at

Vigilante (City) Violence

The City of Philadelphia made the national news again. This time it was because a band of neighborhood men, mostly teens, descended on alleged rapist Jose Carrasquillo and beat him to a pulp with fists and large boards. Carrasquillo is a “person of interest” in the ugly and brutal attack on an 11-year old girl, a major crime that deserves prosecution to the fullest extent of the law. At the time of the attack on Carrasquillo, no charges had been filed against him. As a “person of interest,” he was, technically, not yet “targeted” by the District Attorney’s Office.
Ironically, some 48 hours prior to the attack on Carrasquillo, another man was attacked by vigilantes who mistook him for the rapist of the young girl. The man was beaten to a pulp as vigilantes held him down and called police. When the police arrived, the man was released because he was not a suspect. The beaten man just happened to resemble the police sketch of the rapist. According to news reports, the man received no apology from the police for the apprehension, and the vigilantes who attacked him were not arrested.
In these money-hungry, recessionary times, the $10,000 reward for information leading to the capture of the rapist is pretty lucrative bait. The vigilantes who attacked Carrasquillo at Front and Clearfield Streets no doubt had money in mind, but what they did was a crime, and they should have been charged with aggravated assault. Instead of beating Carrasquillo, they should have held him down until police arrived.
Some call the vigilantes heroes for what they did but the ‘hero-labelers’ have it all wrong. The vigilantes were thugs who took the law into their own hands, men who opted to act as judge and jury. While they had every right to make a citizen’s arrest and hold Carrasquillo until police arrived, they had no right to kick or hit him with boards. They had no right to draw a crowd and turn the beating into a circus act, with neighbors cheering them on like a 19th century lynching. Philadelphia’s name is not Nathedral-town the last time I checked. The emotions of an angry mob are never to be trusted. Mob mentality is simplistic: it feeds on primal instincts that must be held in check if we are to live in a civilized society. This is why we have a court of law.
Anyone who’s been the victim of a crime understands the emotional outrage that comes after the fact. When I had my wallet stolen recently by an anonymous thug in a local WAWA, I imagined myself giving the thief a good beating. But the “beating” took place in my mind, not in reality. In real life if I had snuck up to the thief with a weapon and inflicted some kind of violence, the end result would most likely be a legal problem. Violence has a tendency to breed violence: even a simple fistfight could end in death, as well as a murder charge.
While having a wallet stolen in no way compares to the trauma of rape, vigilante violence is the wrong response for all crimes. Vigilante violence cannot be acceptable in some cases and unacceptable in others. It is not for a mob to decide which crimes merit greater punishment. The neighbors who gathered around the men and applauded the beating are also not blameless. Until Carrasquillo is convicted by DNA and by a court of law, his “innocence” must be presumed, however shocking the crime. Our entire legal system is built on this concept.
This is not to minimize the brutal nature of the alleged rapists’ crime. Let’s hope that Carrasquillo, if found guilty, is prosecuted to the max, and that he gets his just deserts in prison (and we know what that is). But turning vigilantes into local heroes sets a dangerous precedent.
Adding insult to injury, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey announced that no charges will be filed against the group who beat Carrasquillo.
“It’s shocking that the police are not going to do anything in response to what is essentially mob violence against this guy,” ACLU attorney Mary Catherine Roper told the Associated Press. “This went beyond apprehending the guy.”
It is also unfortunate that Mayor Nutter didn’t step up and acknowledge the wrongness of the vigilantes. When Mayor Nutter said, “Philadelphians care passionately about this city, about our quality of life and certainly about our children,” was he thinking about the innocent man who was beaten by vigilantes before Carrasquillo was apprehended?
Don’t tell me that “caring passionately about a city” means that you have to be part of an unruly mob.
Thom Nickels can be reached at