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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 The old ‘priest’ has been replaced by a snappy girl with a ponytail who would no more have a conversation about world events than she’d read to you pages from her diary.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.