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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

My cat Zoey

Zoey came into my life about two weeks ago. She’s a black cat with white paws and white markings under her chin, and roughly 4 months old. Before she found her way into my life she led a random life on the street, preferring to hang out in front of a Port Richmond bar. A friend of a friend “found” her outside the bar and brought her home.
The next day she sent out an SOS: “Cute black cat up for adoption.”
A friend of mine who knew I loved his cat but didn’t want one of my own told me about this woman, and said I should look into adopting the stray.
“Black cats tend to be skittish, suspicious, unaffectionate, cold,” I said. “Plus, I’m not even sure that I like the color black.”
These discombobulating reservations faded fast as the woman in question called me and told me about her find. I agreed to meet the cat in question (and consider adoption) if the woman took the stray to a vet and obtained all the proper vaccinations. I never expected the woman to agree to these terms. In fact, this was my way of making sure that I wouldn’t get a cat, but when she good naturedly obliged, I knew there was no way out: adoption was in my future.
I was suspicious of Zoey. The fact that she had spent a couple months on the street worried me. Had life in the urban jungle given her an untamed, wild streak that would prove detrimental, and even dangerous, to plants and furniture?
One day the woman brought Zoey over for a trial meeting. This was much like a first date. Would we like one another? Would the interspecies chemistry ignite a domestic, nurturing fire or would it generate a dangerous, “Not for me” feeling?
I felt nothing but nervous energy as the woman lifted Zoey out of the cat box.
“She’s cute,” I said, offering the obligatory pet behind the ears. “But are you sure she doesn’t bite or hiss?”
That’s the moment I began to see that I was concentrating on the negative. Zoey, obviously, had none of these behaviors.
When Zoey was delivered to my home on Mercer Street I expected instant feline warmth and gratefulness. After all, hadn’t I saved her from a short life on the streets-- from unwanted pregnancies, fights with other cats, injuries from automobiles and attacks by possums?
Wasn’t I committing myself to a lifetime of purchasing kitty litter, Friskies, and assorted cat treats?
But instead of cuddling (with me) or purring uncontrollably Zoey chose to hide under my sofa and sleep under chairs. At night she made herself scarce and slept in undisclosed locations. While she’d eat the food I placed before her afterwards she’d disappear again. Occasionally she’d look at my from afar with skeptical, suspicious eyes, as if taking human inventory.
Her eyes seemed to say, “Do I really want this person to be my keeper?”
When I awoke one night to find her asleep on my bed I expressed my delight (“Nice kitty!”) by reaching out and offering to pet her. But Zoey, fearing for her life, raced out of the bedroom.
Two, three days passed in which Zoey and I lead separate lives. We were like an estranged couple, she doing her thing on one side of the house and me occupying myself on the other side. There was no bridging the gap, only more suspicious stares and tense silences.
“I’m beginning to think I adopted a lump of clay,” I told friends. “She seems afraid of her own shadow. She jumps and runs when I walk behind her. She gives me dirty looks. When friends come she seems to disappear into thin air.”
My astute cat friends told me to bide my time. “She’ll adopt you when the time is right,” they said. “Give her time.”
I was reduced to sniveling human being mode, begging for a cat’s love. And what if she never comes around? What if she’s one of those cold, permanently skittish cats with whom one never makes a connection? Must I spend ten, twenty years in an estranged pet relationship?
Then, like a thunderbolt, came a total eclipse of the heart.
On the fourth night, Zoey charged me from a nearby chair, where she had been evening me analytically, and sat square on my lap. I began petting her behind the eras, and the rest is history.
Somewhere in that brain of hers she decided that I was okay, and so for the last week she has been on a cuddle and purr campaign, jumping on me every time I sit down, or perching on my leg when I converse with friends. Today we are glued at the bone like interspecies twins. In fact, it is a major chore to shake her lose so I can go about my business as a working, living human being.
Zoey’s happy now with her human stray.

Thom Nickels can be reached at

Memories of Susan Sontag

My first exposure to Susan Sontag was as a teenage journalism student, when the opera-cloaked author of “Against Interpretation” spoke at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Not only did Ms. Sontag walk to the lectern from a seat in the audience rather than from the stage, but at the podium she was a sight to behold: first there was the flamboyant way in which she used a cigarette holder, then there was the dramatic way she’d toss her head to keep her long black hair from getting in her face. These two small personal mannerisms had a spellbinding effect on the audience.
After the Free Library lecture I made it a point to follow her career. Her two first novels, “The Benefactor,” and “Death Kit,” were not successful or even good by literary standards, although towards the end of her life she did write and publish two critically acclaimed novels, “The Volcano Lover,” and “In America.” Ms. Sontag won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2000 for “In America,” a significant achievement for a writer of mostly non-fiction (essays). Critical appreciation for her fiction (she took to writing novels again when she was almost 60), seemed to vindicate Ms. Sontag’s wish to be known as an “imaginative dreamer.” Yet despite her late “reentry” into the world of novel writing, most critics (and readers) believed that Ms. Sontag was first and foremost an essayist.
A listing of her most famous essays would have to begin with the iconic essay, “Notes on Camp” in “Against Interpretation.” The “Camp essay” as it began to be called, catapulted Ms. Sontag to international fame. The Vietnam War-inspired, “Trip to Hanoi,” a political-literary work which identified her with the American Left, was published in her second collection of essays, “Styles of Radical Will.” Over the next twenty-five years, Ms. Sontag’s essays, most notably the books, “On Photography” and “Illness as Metaphor” would astound readers and critics with their acute observations. Ms. Sontag’s third book of essays, “Under the Sign of Saturn,” which includes an essay on social reformer Paul Goodman and German Nazi filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, is considered by many critics to be the author’s best work of non-fiction.
When Ms. Son tag died of leukemia in 2004, her honors included the Jerusalem Prize (2001) and the Friedenspreis, the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (2003).
Often referred to as “the Natalie Wood of American Letters” because of her Hollywood-like beauty, the Harvard and University of Chicago educated girl intellectual was considered a prodigy genius by some of her professors.
As a teenager, her wish was to move to New York and write for Partisan Review. As it happened, the young prodigy did all that and more.
Although Ms. Sontag had a particular disdain for autobiographical writing, in this first volume of her diaries (“Reborn, Journals & Notebooks, 1947-1963), edited by her son, the writer David Rieff, we see the unmasked Sontag.
As a young girl Ms. Sontag was an avid reader of diaries and journals. In ‘Reborn’ one can see the influences of the Journals of Andre Gide, or the infamous diary, “Five Years,” of writer Paul Goodman.
As a diarist, Ms. Sontag is honest and straightforward.
Always reserved about her sexuality, Reborn unleashes a firestorm of sexual personal discovery. Although she married one of her University of Chicago professors, Philip Rieff, when she was a teenager, she has already discovered her bisexuality, a fact that she would hide, although not deny, for decades to come. In the diary she writes at length of her experiences in San Francisco gay bars in the late 1940s. She also dwells on her marriage to Mr. Reiff.
“Whoever invented marriage was an ingenious tormentor,” she writes in 1956. “It is an institution committed to the dulling of the feelings. The whole point of marriage is repetition. The best it aims for is the creation of strong, mutual dependencies.”
She confesses that in marriage she has “suffered a certain loss of personality—at first the loss was pleasant, easy; now it aches and stirs up my general disposition to be malcontented with a new fierceness.”
The diary is proof, as if we needed any, that Ms. Sontag was no ordinary teenager. While kids her own age were reading comic books and necking in the back seat of cars, she’s reading Kant, Dostoyevsky, William Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson, as well as trying to figure out the nature of existence.
Consider, for instance, her teenaged ideas about the “ideal state”: “It should be a strong centralized one with government control of public utilities, banks, mines, + transportation and subsidy of the arts….”
Hungry to learn and experience everything in life, she lists books she’s read or wants to read, movies she’s seen and her ideas about life and love.
The diary opens with her unequivocal statement that “there is no personal god or life after death,” but ten years later she confesses to toying with the idea of converting to Catholicism. “…A religious vocation within Catholicism is still impossible for me, because the Church is so patriarchal—but the Jews are even worse in that respect,” Ms. Sontag, a Jew, wrote in 1957. “Where in all Jewish history is there a St. Teresa, an Edith Stein, not to speak of Mother Cabrini.”
In Paris, after making the decision that an academic career was suffocating and injurious to the spirit, Ms. Sontag throws herself into her relationship with H, a woman she met before her marriage to Mr. Rieff. The torturous affair has all the existential angst of a novel by Colette: there are several entries where the future winner of the Jerusalem Prize runs weeping into the Paris Metro, or sobbing uncontrollably in the cinema.
Ms. Sontag’s acute intelligence, as well as her ability to rise above misfortune, makes this diary an incredible read. It is good to know that the author’s son, Mr. Rieff, did not strip the diary of its raw power.
My brief encounters with Ms. Sontag over the years—conversations at a Free Library reception in the 1990s when she returned from staging Samuel Becket in Sarajevo; a short telephone interview in the 1980s when she was commuting to Philadelphia everyday to teach a grad course at Temple; a discussion at Kelly’s Writers House in 2003 in which I asked her about the public reaction to her infamous 9/11 comments in The New Yorker; a playwrighting workshop at Penn; and, finally, years later, a lecture on Marianne More and photography, sponsored by the Rosenbach Museum, the last time I’d see her alive—have resulted in a personal appreciation for the writer’s various moods.
No, the grand dame of American Letters wasn’t always nice. She could be dismissive, even pushy, but then when you least expected it she’d surround you with great warmth.
One incident comes to mind.
After the Marianne More lecture I asked Ms. Sontag what she thought of Philadelphia. Without a moment’s hesitation she zeroed in on the clothespin sculpture in front of City Hall. What I heard next was something that could have come out of the mouth of a little old bourgeois lady from Utah.
“Philadelphia is weird,” she told me then, “What other city would put a sculpture of a clothespin in the center of downtown.”

Thom Nickels can be reached at
(From The Philadelphia Bulletin)

Journals & Notebooks
Susan Sontag Farrar Straus Giroux
318 pages

Being Gay in the Hood

June is gay pride month, a month dedicated to the proposition that gay, lesbian and bisexual folks should have the same rights as everybody else. In 2009, many people, thankfully, don’t have a problem with that. After all, we live in an age where every week in The New York Times there are photographs of gay and lesbian couples alongside heterosexual couples in the marriage announcement section. These marriage announcements rarely mention the words gay or lesbian. What you get are short bios of the engaged couples.
Fishtown and Port Richmond are generally ‘live and let live’ places when it comes to sexual orientation, but sometimes old school prejudices die hard. Recently a lesbian friend of mine told me about the reaction caused by a friend of hers wearing a t-shirt with the name ‘Dyke’ blasted across the front. A few men on her street made their objections to the t-shirt audible in an impolite way. Their manner was so gruff my friend categorized it as a ‘gay bashing.’
I found the men’s reaction odd. After all, the stereotype is that many straight men like the idea of lesbianism and lesbians. Watch reruns of the old Jerry Springer show and count every time the audience chants, “We love lesbians!” If this is truly the case, why were these Fishtown men upset at a corny old Dyke t-shirt? How could that threaten their rough-hewn masculinity? Shouldn’t they have been upset about the economy instead? Or how about rising food costs at the local market or even the high rate of unemployment?
The t-shirt episode forced my friend and I to dissect the mores of the neighborhood: it seems you can be gay here, but you can’t be too showy about it —no hand holding in public, no political signs, no rainbow flags, no “in your face” slogans printed on jackets, hats or t-shirts. If you want to walk hand-in-hand with your same sex partner, then you had better head for Center City (where that is quickly becoming the norm). It’s not that people in the hood don’t know you’re gay; it’s not that they can’t “see,” they just don’t want blatant visuals, even if everybody has a different interpretation of what a ‘blatant visual’ is.
I think everybody should be able to hold hands, despite the fact that I find the whole public hand holding business a bit odd. It’s uncomfortable to walk in public and hold somebody’s hand. To me it feels like you are leading a little child around. It’s also sweaty on the palms, and then there’s the question of unequal walking styles.
For years prior to my move to the neighborhood I had heard that Fishtown and Port Richmond were not ideal places to be gay or lesbian. Once I settled in, however, I was surprised to learn that the numbers of gay people who live here are significantly high. My eyes were opened. “This area is the best kept secret in the city,” I exclaimed then. “It’s a mini (under wraps) San Francisco!”
I also discovered that most people here are generally respectful, civil and tolerant—good people-- but that (hey, life is not perfect) sometimes there were “eruptions” from cranky old school types and from children whose parents may have taught them the “art” of bigotry.
The aim of the gay rights movement, as I understand it, is to make itself obsolete, to go out of business and disappear. This is a good thing, but this can only happen when being gay is a completely irrevelent fact of life. Let me give you an example: Say, if in a dispute with a neighbor, one neighbor calls another a “queer,” an irrevelent fact not related to the dispute in question. This statement would reveal bigotry, right? The gay neighbor may have never realized that the neighbor she is in conflict with felt that way, but when the truth comes out under pressure, she is suddenly aware of it. Prejudice, then, is often hidden or masked until it is tapped, like a volcano in waiting.
Making the ‘gay thing’ totally irrelevant would mean that the two neighbors would stick to the issue at hand without getting into name calling.
Statements like “He’s a queer,” or “She’s a dyke” are labels that attempt to set people apart. Granted, wearing a Dyke t-shirt is a little silly when you think about it. Certainly the impetus there is to shock and get a reaction from people. In an ideal society, a t-shirt like that would generate no reaction, but unfortunately we live in a society where certain buzz words make some folks go off the deep end.
What’s funny about people who overreact, those folks who are the first to yell queer or fag, is that very often they are the ones with deep seated sexual orientation issues. It’s not uncommon, for instance, for those people to come out as gay at a later point in life.
Let’s not forget Shakespeare’s line, “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.”

Thom Nickels

Nine Days on a Cruise Ship

Recently I took a 10-day ocean cruise to the Caribbean. I went with a handicapped friend who needed my assistance to get around. He wanted to see the islands of Bermuda, Saint Maartin, St. Thomas and San Juan, Puerto Rico. We sailed on the Royal Caribbean line, Explorer of the Seas, a ship about the size of the Titanic. Explorer of the Seas is so big it can hold more than 3200 people plus a staff of 1500. Many people have compared this ship to a huge floating city.
Although I had a fear of becoming seasick, that never happened. What I didn’t expect was to feel the power of ocean waves in so huge a ship. Occasionally the ship would rock back and forth, making the passengers seem a little drunk because people kept bumping into one another. When Explorer pulled out of Cape Liberty, New Jersey, the cool and rainy weather didn’t seem like much of an inducement to a cruise. That changed the following day as we neared Bermuda: we saw hints of a blue Caribbean sky and ocean.
As a veritable reader of ‘lost at sea’ stories, while gazing out into the middle of the ocean from an Explorer deck, I couldn’t help but think of the last moments of people who jumped overboard. The ocean that far out, especially in the dead of night, has a lost, scary quality—it feels like you are at the ends of the earth.
Most people on cruise ships do two things: eat and shop. Life on Explorer was no exception. Culinary delights are many, and most passengers I observed went into an eating frenzy. A pre-paid trip guarantees free food, from formal sit down dinners, to lavish buffets, to the most incredible desserts worthy of Le Bec Fin. Second, third, and forth helpings of lunch became the norm for most people. On the ship’s Royal Promenade—copied after a 19th Century Street in Italy— the jewelry, clothing and wine and spirits shops were always packed. There was also a cafĂ© where passengers could help themselves to free Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, sandwiches, bagels, fruit, coffee, and donuts. Alcohol and soda, however, were not free.
I brought two bottles of red wine in my carry-on luggage and made it a point to sip a glass of wine before the evening meal in the formal dinning room. If you’ve seen the movie Titanic, then you know what the dinning room was like: central grand staircase, chandeliers, women in evening gowns, a wait staff in bow ties. The only thing missing was the iceberg, although on our first night at sea a live orchestra played the theme from the Titanic as we dined.
My friend and I shared the dinner table with three ‘shopalocholic’ Jersey girls. These snappy twentysomethings tried not to be put off by the site of my handicapped friend, but I don’t think they succeeded. My friend’s objective in taking the cruise was to find a wife, a precarious endeavor even for the non-handicapped. People on ships tend to be in frivolous moods, and this is when they are not drinking. Cocktails by the pool are served every day before 11 am. Under the blue Caribbean sky, reggae music from a live band, and silky sea-breezes that put you into a deep trance, the offer of a tropical cocktail can be a hard temptation to overcome.
My friend, although he did not find a wife, got the attention of a woman with a penchant or fetish for handicapped fellows. I don’t know what it is about the sea that makes people throw away their inhibitions, but after two or three days of stalking him by day, this evening gowned clad “lady” turned my friend off forever when she fell down in front of him in a cocktail-induced stupor during the Captain’s Ball.
The Jersey girls had a good laugh, but my friend was mortified.

Our visit to the island of Bermuda was our best tourist experience, if only because Bermuda had a small beach near where Explorer docked. Ditto for Saint Maartin, where I strolled the town and took pictures while my friend talked to a local bar owner who described to him how the island came to legalize prostitution.
The generic shopping centers and tourist stores on St. Thomas where the Explorer docked could have been groupings of stores in South Jersey. To see St. Thomas you have to take special tourist excursion buses. When we stepped out of the ship to get a glimpse of San Juan, Puerto Rico, the first thing we saw was a giant rat race across the sidewalk.
Life at sea has one supreme advantage: worries and anxieties disappear in a flash, and you tend to live in the present.
Most people also gain anywhere from 12 to 14 pounds after an ocean cruise, but I actually lost weight. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it was my frayed nerves after spending so much time listening to the Jersey girls talk about their shopping expeditions.
While it was great to travel the sea, it was an even greater feeling to get back on land.

Thom Nickels

Spitting on the Sidewalk

While spitting in public happens all over the world, the unpleasant custom has always been a special problem in Philadelphia.
When Charles Dickens visited Philadelphia in1842 during his American tour (in which he visited cities like Boston, Baltimore, Washington, and Louisville), he noticed something odd: Philadelphians have a tendency to spit on the sidewalk. This fact did not endear Dickens to the city, especially after his criticism that the city, although “handsome,” was “distractingly regular.”
“After walking about it for an hour or two,” Dickens wrote in “American Notes,” “I felt I would have given the world for a crooked street.”
Dickens also could not understand why Philadelphians at that time were mystified with his penchant for physical exercise. Dickens, after all, was known to walk at least 6 miles a day. This was considered “freakish” by Philadelphians in 1842.
If Dickens were to return to the city in 2009, he’d find the topography changed but he’d still encounter hordes of public spitters. Today’s spitters are mostly men, most are young. Some who spit do so in groups who use spitting as a form of posturing, a tactic to make them appear “stronger” than they really are. I’m sure that Dickens would be aware of the symbolic nature of spitting—spitting as an act of purging, or even as an act to rid oneself of a bad feeling or some kind of fear.
Spitting might be okay if you have a sudden pleghmy cough and are on the verge of choking to death. By all means, spit if your life is in danger, but how many spitters fall into this category?
What strikes me as most mysterious is why Dickens didn’t see much public spitting in any of the other cities he visited.
What is it about Philadelphia that makes so many men want to crank up their throat engines and shoot protoplasmic projectiles high into the air? Could it be Philadelphia’s hard core identification with sports, such as baseball? Well, Boston is every inch the sports town that Philadelphia is, but the public spitting problem there doesn’t seem to be as epidemic as it is here.
This of course leads me to another question: why do baseball players feel the need to spit when tennis players, golf players, and even basketball players seem to avoid the bad habit? Tennis and basketball or no less stressful than baseball, but can you imagine watching a tennis match on a court filled with pleghm?
Imagine golfer Tiger Woods spitting after every putt. Do you think this would make the caddies happy?
Public spitting does have some cultural roots: If Dickens were to go to China, he’d be appalled because the spitters there number in the millions. In fact, public spitting is such a problem in China that when the 2008 Olympic Games were held in Beijing, city officials hired former U.S. swimmer Mark Spitz to help the city in its anti-spitting campaign. Spitz was paid $5,000 to appear in commercials and ads advising residents not to spit.
I’ve never been to London, so I can’t tell you whether Londoners spit. I can tell you that people do not spit in Scandinavia. I also never saw it in Rome or Paris but maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough. Growing up in Chester County, the only public spitters were old farmers who chewed tobacco or boys from the wrong side of the tracks marking out their territory like peeing dogs or bears scratching their butts against trees.
Okay, I confess, I once had a friend who was a compulsive public spitter. The man was my mentor when I was in my twenties, and I cannot speak about him now (he is deceased) without feeling a great deal of affection. He was a former priest, a learned and educated man, which made his spitting like a longshoreman all the more perplexing.
“Why do you spit?” I asked him once. “Does your mouth produce that much salvia? Please, tell me. I’ve never known a smart person to spit in public.”
I don’t remember what he told me, but now when I think about it, his spitting may have had something to do with what we were discussing at the time: Ronald Reagan’s America. It is quite plausible that my friend was punctuating his comments with a symbolic act of contempt.

Thom Nickels

Sad State of the Catholic Liturgy

When I went to my nephew’s big Catholic wedding last month, it was the first time I attended a Catholic Mass since walking out on one while vacationing in Wildwood Crest a couple years ago. At the Wildwood Crest Mass the priest began the service by strolling around the altar table while saying good morning to the congregation. Then he proceeded to make a series of announcements in place of the old prayers at the foot of the altar. The lone altar server was dressed in a white bathrobe of sorts that rode up around his jeans and dirty sneakers. I did not feel like I was attending Mass at all but felt that I had somehow stumbled into a Presbyterian service by accident.
I did not feel good walking out but I had no choice. As someone who spent most of my childhood going to the Latin Mass and even serving as an altar boy for a time, the post Vatican II Mass, or Novus Ordo Mass, seems like a dumbed down secular affair compared to what the Catholic Church threw out the window.
With that said, I can also state that Pope Benedict XVI, with his recent Motu Proprio, has encouraged the return of the traditional Mass, and has allowed Catholic parishes to hold Latin Masses without the permission of a bishop. Unfortunately, 40 plus years have gone by since Vatican II, and huge numbers of Catholics don’t even know what the Latin Mass was about. You cannot miss what you never experienced, so it’s no surprise to me that Latin Masses are not offered in any of the Catholic churches in Fishtown or Port Richmond. Catholics seem to be generally happy with the status quo. Most have no idea that the traditional Mass was much more than the use of Latin. In fact, if the Council Fathers had just stuck to changing Latin to the vernacular, and not changed anything else, the Mass would have been okay, but along with Latin many extraordinary rites and traditions were abolished.
While there’s currently a push for return of tradition in the Church, it is probably too late to restore everything that has been lost. That is tragic.
I got a taste of that at my nephew’s wedding. The big Catholic church where the wedding took place looked more like a gymnasium with glass stained windows than a Catholic church. A minimalist altar table (in place of a high altar), a crucifix the size of a UFO descending from the ceiling, and one lone image of the Virgin Mary on a side altar were the only recognizable traditional images. Spartan, cold bare simplicity seemed odd in a church so large.
An agnostic niece of mine commented, “I hate modern Catholic churches. They are so cold.”
The Novus Ordo wedding Mass was much like the one I experienced in Wildwood: uninspiring, full of announcements with the priest walking in circles trying to be “cool,” even slapping the bride and groom on the back “good ole boy” style. The altar servers were in bathrobes rather than cassock and surplice. At least they had bells at the consecration, something that many Catholic churches have eliminated, although there was no altar rail in the church. The tabernacle, which for hundreds of years had always been at the high altar, was placed in a cabinet off to the side of “Julia Child’s table.”
I was glad when the talky and hand shaky Mass was over. I told my nephew it was a beautiful service. I lied.
My nieces and nephews, as far as I know, have never attended a traditional Mass. They grew up with the revised “new Coke” liturgy with its Kumbaya song lyrics, altar servers in bathrobes and Eucharistic ministers delivering communion in hand like deli meat slicers handing out Lebanon bologna samples.
All this hasn’t helped me find a church to attend on a regular basis. That seems ironic, I know, with all the beautiful Catholic churches in my neighborhood.
Recently, however I bumped into a group of traditional nuns shopping in the local Thriftway super market. I introduced myself, congratulating them on not throwing away their religious habit. They told me they were Eastern Catholic nuns from the Ukrainian Cathedral in Northern Liberties. They also told me that whenever they shop in Thriftway, scores of people come up to them and thank them for looking like nuns, not corporate CEO’s in pant suits.
The nuns told me about an English liturgy at the cathedral on Saturday’s, a non Novus Ordo affair where announcements come at the end of the Mass and where reverence and ceremony hasn’t been replaced with…Roman-style Kumbaya.
I think I’ll give it a try.

Thom Nickels

Hard Times in Journalism

A couple weeks ago I was invited to sit on a journalism panel and speak to Temple University grad students in journalism about the changes in the profession.
The discussion focused on 1) the demise of newspapers, 2) online vs. traditional journalism, and the most important question of all: Is a career in journalism worth it?
Among the panelists was long time Philadelphia Daily News columnist Elmer Smith. As panelists we were supposed to talk about our experience in the field and answer questions from the 15 or so grad students in attendance.
I was surprised to discover that the vast majority of students were broadcast journalism majors.
With the closing and bankruptcy of so many newspapers across the country, there seemed to be a consensus among the students that a career in print journalism was suspect, whereas a career in broadcast journalism, where there have been no reported of closings of television news departments, was “safer.”
Broadcast journalism, of course, has other pitfalls. There’s the visual “reliance” on the cosmetic (Are the talking heads pretty to look at?) as opposed to the “face anonymous” reporting of print journalism.
All of the students, even the broadcast majors, were worried about finding a job after graduation. One student due to graduate with a Masters in Journalism said he had no illusions about landing a job with a newspaper like The New York Times after graduation. He was open to the suggestions from panelists that he prepare himself to begin his career as a freelancer or on the staff of a small newspaper doing (seemingly) insignificant stories. A Masters degree in journalism might guarantee you a good teaching job, but in the world of journalism is does little if you don’t have any stories in your portfolio.
The panel told the students: it’s the story that counts: getting a good story, finding a new angle or a different twist to a story. More importantly, your passion for the material must carry through because “the” story is everything.
Many of the students wondered about the availability of job opportunities in the Philadelphia area.
While prospects look bleak at both The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Daily News, the situation is not much better at the smaller city weeklies or even at the city’s newer publications, like The Philadelphia Bulletin, which used to have one of the best Arts and Culture sections in the city.
I reminded the students that although I write for three city newspapers, two of those newspapers are currently undergoing tough times. One of these newspapers (Not The Star I am happy to say) in fact, hasn’t been able to pay its writers for at least two months, and the other, larger newspaper has practically eliminated its arts and culture section.
“As a journalist you have to be incredibly flexible,” I told the panel.
This means you may have to work a part-time job. It also means that if there are no journalism jobs in the city you have to be prepared to move out and find a city where there are jobs. Journalism jobs are out there but they tend not to be in glamorous cities like New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, but in places like Salt Lake City, Phoenix and New Mexico. Or even in Montana or South Dakota.
One need not be in a crowded, urban melting pot like Philadelphia to do good work. One can also go where there are mountains, fresh air, and clean buses.
I reminded the students that once they are working in the world as journalists not to think of any job on a newspaper as necessarily permanent. I say this as a writer who has written for virtually every newspaper (and almost every magazine) in Philadelphia—from The Philadelphia Inquirer on down.
I reminded them that unforeseen events, like the replacement of a favorite editor or publisher, can radically change a newspaper’s editorial direction, and that after such a coup, long time writers and staffers may also go the way of all flesh, to be replaced—in some cases, literally overnight-- not necessarily by “better” writers, just different writers who fit “the new mold.”
Each Editor has his or her own idea as to what constitutes a good writer. While one editor may view you as a writer with Pulitzer Prize winning potential, another might be much less impressed with your abilities.
Everything is fluid, and nothing final. That’s why Journalism is not a profession for the weak hearted, or for those unwilling to take chances.

Thom Nickels can be reached at

Hard Times in the Neighborhood

He stands on a traffic island along the borders of Port Richmond Village, holding up a crude cardboard sign: Homeless, Out of Work, Won’t You Help? His name changes everyday. Some days he’s a short guy, other times he’s tall. One week he carries a knapsack, other times he has a plastic bag filled with clothes tied to his back.
The people in their cars, eager to get onto Aramingo Avenue, rarely stop to deposit change into his paper cup. Some motorists don’t seem to care that he may be panhandling for drugs or a swig of Jack Daniels, and give him fistfuls of change. Most people clearly understand that the world economy is such that the ranks of the homeless are growing, that what one assumed about the homeless ten years ago, is not a valid assumption today.
Old adages like, “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps!” or “Get a job!” no longer apply, especially when there are few jobs to be had. Even folks who have jobs are reporting cutbacks, layoffs, and so called furloughs where employers demand that employees take off two weeks twice a year without pay. This new trend in the American workplace-- forced “vacations” without pay-- was unheard of just a few years ago.
Ironically, as things get worse for the average worker, prices continue to go up, forcing people to make cutbacks and alter their lifestyle in ways they’ve never had to do before.
Despite the ailing economy, many wealthy Philadelphians seem to be frolicking in gardens of plenty. One has only to look through the glossy pages of (the ever annoying) Philadelphia Style magazine to see that there’s a large “upper” class smiling at the recession through their $10,000 dental veneers and champagne toasts. We’re talking Rittenhouse Row Spring festival kickoffs, Viva la Diva Opera Galas, and white tent receptions (bow ties only, please) after the Radnor Hunt Races. If Daddy left you a big trust fund, rest assured that Philadelphia Style will find its way to your door to snap your picture.
Meanwhile, in the real world, we have the new beggar class populating the streets of Center City and elsewhere. Not far from the upscale boutiques and cafes where the “well connected” make plans for a new bow tie benefit, you’re likely to see young men and women sitting curbside with cardboard signs announcing that they’re homeless. “Hello, my name is Michael, I am homeless. I used to have a job.” Or: “Help me! I can’t pay my rent!” Homelessness has now become an “out and not so proud” part of the urban landscape. Ride the Frankford El any day of the week and you’ll see a young or old man announce to passengers that he’s lost his job. Guys who panhandle on subway trains used to be substance abusers or alcoholics but these days many are very young, sober, and well scrubbed.
There are organizations for the homeless, like Philadelphia’s Project H.O.M.E., which in 2005 provided emergency shelter and services for 14,986 people. Project H.O.M.E. also reports that there are 4,000 homeless people on the streets of Philadelphia on any given day. That’s a lot of souls. Poverty, lack of jobs, minimal governmental assistance, affordable health care and substance abuse are the main causes of homelessness.
But just as the economy has created forced vacations and layoffs for Americans who want to work, it is also creating a professional class of homeless who use shelters only in an emergency but who have otherwise turned panhandling into a full time job.
On Aramingo Avenue recently I met a clean cut young guy who said he was trying to get back to Delaware, “Where my folks live.”
His self depreciating humor, his charisma (think super car salesman), his extended apologies for having to ask for money, got my attention. His superb acting talents had transformed charitable giving into an art.
After offering him spare change for his performance, he told me that he spends 8 to 10 hours a day using his “sales” approach all over Fishtown, especially on Girard Avenue, where he makes anywhere from 40 to $50 a day.
“Some people just hand me a ten or more,” he said.
Begging on the street had trained him to read faces. “I know who to approach or who to avoid,” he said. Indeed, even as we walked just six blocks together, I saw him approach five people whom he had almost managed to charm.
You won’t find this “job,” in the Help Wanted section, but it’s there for the taking.

Thom Nickels can be reached at

Saying Farewell to Television

Walk around the neighborhood for a period of time, and it’s a given that at one point you’ll inadvertently glance into the first floor window of houses where there are no blinds or curtains. When you do this you are sure to see a lot of big plasma TV screens. These plasma screens are sometimes as big as small cars, for they not only dominate a room, they are sometimes the only real piece of furniture in sight. In most cases, the plasma TV screen is arranged like a high altar on a central stage. Everything else--chairs, tables, even the occasional, rare book shelf—is arranged off to the side as a mere afterthought.
In those same houses where the plasma TV is king, you might also discover that everybody’s watching the same show. This Orwellian fact of life might lead you to revise Karl Marx’s famous quote that television, and not religion, is the opiate of the people.

“When you watch TV,” writes Wes More in ‘The Journal of Cognitive Liberties,’ “brain activity switches from the left to the right hemisphere. In fact, experiments conducted by researcher Herbert Krugman showed that while viewers are watching television, the right hemisphere is twice as active as the left, a neurological anomaly.1 The crossover from left to right releases a surge of the body’s natural opiates: endorphins, which include beta-endorphins and enkephalins. Endorphins are structurally identical to opium and its derivatives (morphine, codeine, heroin, etc.).”
In other words, TV can be addictive, and withdrawing from regular TV watching can be painful. TV is its own kind of drug.
Well, I’ve been living without TV for nearly 3 months now, and I must say the effect has been liberating. Since television switched to all-digital and I let my converter box collect dust under an old family desk, I’ve been reading more books, renting more movies, doing more things socially, and paying more attention to “real life” around me. I believe I’m also a happier person. Today, I don’t miss TV at all. In fact, I never even think about it.
I admit there were withdraw pains at first. Not having morning coffee to Matt Lauer on ‘Today’ had me grasping for a substitute, although I did not miss Today’s second half hour, which more often than not was focused on young blond women who disappear on cruise ships, get kidnapped when they go to Aruba, or are murdered by insane husbands. Just like certain people, TV news shows have their obsessions: The ‘Today Show’ would follow certain stories other networks downplayed considerably. In the end, it all became too much.
Garbage in, garbage out; I was also getting tired of all that talk.

Though never a compulsive TV watcher, the hour or so a day I’d spend watching wound up depressing me. It’s not what I saw that got me down; rather it was the act of sitting passively before a screen watching other people live their lives while I hibernated, even briefly, on the sofa.
But long before I “killed” my converter box, I was lamenting the state of television land.
The number of reality shows, multiplying everyday faster than viruses in a tropical climate, became as annoying as a persistent mosquito. Reality shows, while currently popular, are cheap to make. Harsh economic times have led producers to produce these low cost, one-location shows where you can get away with paying the participants much less than you’d pay a real actor. American Idol and its spawn of clone shows also seemed to be taking over the airwaves. Forget the evening news and so called news analysis shows. Compared to reading the online version of The New York Times, network news was a bubble gum sound bite. Even PBS was becoming a disappointment: hours of Suzie Orman talking about money in a moneyless nation; “feel good” gurus with shaved heads drawing tears from middle aged women, or fundraising telephones with 1950s Dick Clark dancing stars and washed up DJ’s with big hair didn’t jive with my idea of “education.” Adding insult to injury, good PBS shows like Amy Goodman’s ‘Democracy Now’ were moved to obscure times.
Now that my small addiction to TV is gone, I don’t have to worry about the obnoxious crush of political advertisements when election time rolls around again. All that negativity weighs you down without your ever being aware of it.
So if you ever pass my house and peek in my window one day during one of your walks in the neighborhood, you’re likely to see a big empty shell of a TV with no picture and no sound and with nothing to live for.
And that’s just the way I like it.

Thom Nickels can be reached at

Opening Day

The subject of health care has been in the news lately. Locally, State Rep. John Taylor has made a bold move to have his colleagues support his effort not to give Temple University any school funding appropriations. Temple University, in case you don’t know, refused to negotiate or participate in any community discussions aimed at preventing the closure of Northeastern Hospital. As a “pay back” measure, Rep. Taylor very smartly lobbied his friends in the legislature to side with him in his mission to withhold funds from Temple.
Now that Temple realizes they may lose thousands of dollars in state funds, they are willing to talk. But they are a day late and a dollar short.
Northeastern was a solid, well respected community hospital for mostly low income people. It employed more than 800 people. Because of Temple University’s arrogance, Northeastern is history.
The plight of Northeastern is systematic of health care across America. More than 40 million Americans currently have no health care insurance (including this writer), so when President Obama made his move to revamp the nation’s health care system to include low income and poor people, what did he get?
He got (and continues to get) angry (mostly white) suburbanites—most of whom already have health insurance, —who cram local town hall meetings designed to gather feedback on how to fix the nation’s ailing health care system. Since these health care proposals are just that—no final bill has been crafted-- everything is still a work in progress. But just talking about the talking points has hit a nerve with right wing pundits. Michelle Malkin, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and even Sarah Plain have distorted the facts about the president’s proposed reforms. Right wing pundits have riled up their base with lies, and now self styled ‘Tea Party’ revolutionaries are lashing out at people like Senator Arlen Specter in places like Lebanon, Pennsylvania, accusing the supporters of health care reform of wanting to set up ‘death panels’ that would make it okay to pull the plug on poor ole grandma. .
The New York Times reported that many of the people shouting down the president’s health care ideas at town meetings “seemed concerned about the issues that are either not in the health care legislation or are peripheral to the debate in Washington—abortion, euthanasia, coverage of immigrants, privacy…”
At the Lebanon, Pennsylvania town meeting, these irritable white suburbanites wore T-shirts that proclaimed, “We don’t Want This Country to Turn into Russia.”
Every industrialized nation in the world, except the United States, has some form of universal health coverage. These countries include Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Finland, Israel, and Canada (more than 85% of Canadians approve of the quality of their “socialized” health care, despite distortions of those numbers by American right wing pundits).
Recently I received an email from a Tea Party organization that read: “Get your hands off my health care.” I wrote back, “What health care?” With a mortgage, insurance payments, bills and daily living expenses, who can afford an additional $250 a month (or even less) for health insurance? Health care reform is no reform at all when the only options are slightly cheaper monthly plans than the ones already in place. If I needed hospital care today, I’d have to be admitted via the ER (now that Northeastern is gone, where would I go?) and then claim myself as a charity case at the conclusion of my hospital stay.
But rather than going the charity case route, why not reform the system and offer me a really affordable health care plan, or even a free government sponsored plan, where I can get ongoing preventive care, and therefore avoid that expensive hospital stay that somebody else has to pay for?
These Tea Party mobs claim that President Obama will take their Medicare away, when in fact that’s what the right wing pundits would do, since Medicare is controlled by the government. Next, they scream socialism when the president says that every American citizen should have health care coverage. The truth of the matter is: they don’t want every American to have access to health care.
The biggest lie in this debate is the institution of so called government ‘death panels’ pundits say that Obama’s plan would create. Ironically, this distortion was spun from a Republican sponsored bill which would allow Medicare to reimburse people for end of life care. This proposal called for people to have access to more information on end of life care, and that’s it. It never said that it wanted to make it easier to pull the plug on grandma.
So, dear reader, the next time you’re tempted to listen to a right wing pundit, please count to ten and get your sanity back first.

Thom Nickels