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Tuesday, August 17, 2010


It’s coming to your local grocery or drug store and it cannot be stopped. It has already “invaded” much of the world and has created quite a sensation. “It” in this case is the self-check out automated machine. It doesn’t talk; it has no personality; it doesn’t smile or bag your goods. It’s a computer and it is made of heartless steel or aluminum.

Invented by Dr. Henry Schneider in the 1980s, the first machines (called “robots”) were installed in a store in Clifton Park, New York.

The chief job of the “robot” is to get rid of your friendly neighborhood cashier named “Joe” or “Mary” who might ask you if you’re daughter’s expecting or how your day is going. The robot wants you to do Joe or Mary’s cashiering job-- scan, pay and bag-- without getting paid for it, as if you didn’t have enough to do at the end of the day.

The robot communicates via a series of beeps, error messages, or a machine like voice that often turns into a screeching garble. Like all computers, it sometimes acts up. If it freezes as you are scanning the barcodes on a box of oatmeal, you’re left with a line of impatient shoppers giving you the evil eye. The inevitable wait for a real human being to come to your assistance—if indeed, there are any to be found—will also create tension because the people behind you want you to hurry up. But nobody can hurry a frozen computer. Of course, the human being who eventually comes to your aid may once have been a cashier whose job was eliminated because of the robot. He or she may be biding their time until the public gets the hang of self checkout, at which point “the corporation” will hand them their pink slip.

Ordinarily it takes one attendant to run 4 to 6 self checkout lanes at one time. That’s a lot of eliminated cashier jobs no matter how you look at it.

For those of us who remember the days when you could pull up in a Pennsylvania gas station and have an attendant pump your gas, check the oil and even wash your windshield, the robots are just one more impersonal checkpoint in the continuing decline of western civilization.
While the robot has its fans—usually people who don’t want any human interaction at all, like the folks who walk about the city wired up 24/7 in earphones -- many others are coming to believe that self checkout is the scourge of supermarkets and stores.

For starters, self checkout means the elimination of millions of cashier jobs, despite the bogus public relations pleas to the contrary that it will make life easier for the consumer. The real beneficiary is the corporation because it stands to save money thanks to all the pink slips self checkout generates.

Unfortunately, many Philadelphia area drug stores are beginning to implement self checkout. In Center City, the CVS store at 15th and Spruce put in three or four self check out machines. During a recent visit to this store I found that only a minority of customers there were scanning and bagging, while most people were waiting in conventional check out lines. I must say that the sight of the unused self checkout lanes warmed my heart. It was especially gratifying to see shoppers happily engaged in saying “hello” or “thank you” to a human being who bagged their items. It occurred to me that perhaps store management was sitting behind a one way window wringing their hands over the public’s rejection of self checkout.

In our own area, a number of self checkout robots were installed in a CVS on Aramingo Avenue. Just as in the Center City store, during a recent visit there I found that a majority of customers were avoiding doing their own scanning and bagging but instead were lining up to check out the human interaction way. Meanwhile, the local Rite Aide stores have—smartly-- not installed any self checkout robots to date.

Consumers have the power to turn the tide and save jobs if they just avoid the self checkout option completely. Boycott the robot; go to a human being. If we do this, management may get the message that firing human beings for impersonal machines just isn’t the way to go.

The Traditional Latin Mass--again

The 12 Noon Traditional Latin Mass at Saint Paul's in South continues to keep attracting people. I headed down there this past Sunday (August 15) after my part-time job in Center City. I had some time to kill so I did an Italian Market walk-through. So many dead fish! So many fish heads! The hipsters were out in force having breakfast at the Morning Glory cafe: huge platters of blueberry pancakes, waffles the size of bricks, omlettes that could double as prayer shawls.

After Mass, I bumped into Jerry, a regular parishoner, who suggested a cup of coffee at the remodeled Melrose Diner. The moment we headed for his car a twentysomething couple, who had been at the Mass, asked Jerry for a car jump. The woman was from Valley Forge, where there are no traditional Masses--it's Novus Ordo hand clappin' country, folks--and her boyfriend was from Vienna. Jerry successfully jumped their car, we all shook hands, and then we headed for the Melrose.

My STAR column of 3 weeks ago:

I go to Mass about twice a month. The reason I only go twice a month is because I am a parishioner of Saint Paul’s parish in the heart of the Italian Market. I go to Saint Paul’s because they have the Traditional Latin Mass. If one of the Catholic churches in the riverwards had a TLM, I’d stick to the neighborhood, but since I can’t transport Saint Paul’s to Allegheny or Lehigh Avenue, I have to make do with the two hour Septa-transportation time twice a month.

To me it’s worth it. Saint Paul’s is incredible. The sung high Latin Mass is a powerful thing minus all the disturbing elements I find in the so called New Mass, such as contemporary hymns (or “praise and worship” songs that have a non-Catholic flavor), the blurring of distinctions between priest and laity, the chronic handshaking and the overall lack of depth and mystery.

In our increasingly casual culture, it’s rare to see a congregation in most Catholic parishes in anything other than jeans and T-shirts, but at Saint Paul’s, the sight is much different.

I still wonder why so few Catholic parishes in the Archdiocese offer the TLM, especially since Pope Benedict issued his motu proprio or indult in 2006 allowing the Latin Mass to be said in any parish without the approval of the local bishop. This means that a group of Catholic parishioners, however small, can request the TLM from the parish priest. The priest can then deny or fulfill that request depending on whether he or one of his assistant priests knows how to celebrate the 1500-year old Mass that was once the staple and center of Catholic life.

I asked a group of my fellow parishioners at Saint Paul’s why Philadelphia lags behind other major U.S. cities in the number of parishes that celebrate the TLM. “That may change in 2011,” one man told me. “Once your average Catholic reads the new English translation of the Roman Missal, they will be struck with the beauty of the original Latin and they will say, ‘What did we throw out?’ This is beautiful! Then there will be a resurgence of interest in the Latin Mass.”

The new Roman Missal, once it’s implemented in all English-speaking Catholic parishes in 2011, will be a vernacular missal faithful to the original Latin text of the traditional Mass. The English Missale Romanum that was approved in 1970 was a mere paraphrase of the original Latin text of the old Mass (or the Extraordinary Form), rather than a translation. The changes in the 2011 Missal will be significant. Regarding the future Missal, even Pope Benedict acknowledged that “many will find it hard to adjust to unfamiliar texts after nearly forty years of continuous use of the previous translation.” Those in the know say that the tone of the new Missal will emphasize the sacredness of the Divine Liturgy.

It’s inevitable, I suppose, that some Catholic modernists are not happy about the coming changes. Since Vatican II, different factions of Catholics have emerged: traditionalists, conservatives, and liberals can barely agree on anything and in many instances they are at war with one another. The coming “return to tradition” Missal has so enraged some liberal Catholics that the National Catholic Reporter, a modernist Catholic newspaper, has initiated an online petition asking that the publication of the new translation of the Missal be “delayed indefinitely.”

Ironically, Vatican II never called for the wholesale reconstruction of the Mass. Instead, Vatican II specifically envisioned Catholics learning to sing the key parts of the so called New Mass in Latin. Clearly, certain unwarranted liberties were taken over the last forty years, and this is what the Pope wants to change.

When I left the Church as a young twenty something I thought it was because I was an agnostic, but the fact is, I was unhappy at the new style of Catholic worship. In those days I felt I was the only one who felt that way but since then I’ve come to see that thousands, even millions of Catholics, are on the same wave length.

With the Latin Mass Indult and the 2011 Missal, the Church is reclaiming her traditions. For forty years Catholics like me have had to wince or hold our breath whenever we went to church. We had to put up with guitars, handshaking hootenanny’s or hymns that sounded like music from Pat Robertson’s 700 Club.

Catholics like me can now worship as the saints in the Church worshiped for almost 2,000 years.

I’d say that’s something to celebrate.

Mysterious Light at Lippincott House SPORE reading

A photographer captured this light image above my head during the Friday, August 13 Lippincott reading for SPORE. There was no light fixture on the wall, so the source of the light remains a mystery.

Nearly sixty people turned out for the event. The wine flowed, the food was delicious, and the conversation kept people "connected."

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


(Edward T. Gay, who died recently at age 81)

I received a curious email last week. It was from Martha Gay, who told me that her father-in-law, Edward T. Gay Sr. of Center City’s George Gay Realty, had died. This fact unleashed a lot of memories, since my interview with Ed Gay in the Center City Welcomat in the 1980s was one of the most unusual interviews I’ve conducted as a Philadelphia journalist. That piece, entitled Ed be nimble, Ed be Gay, Ed found another corpse today, was also one of my most popular Welcomat columns.

The column was unusual in that Ed Gay, who talked to me about his experiences as a Center City realtor, didn’t flinch when it came to telling the truth. Realtors today, some of whom who have become a new breed of celebrity, wouldn’t dare to open up and talk about what goes on behind-the-scenes in Center City apartment buildings: What happens when a tenant dies; what’s it like to discover a body weeks after death, when you discover that a tenant has committed suicide, or when a renter goes crazy and has to be evicted. In these overly litigious times, when “off the record” comments sometimes account for the most interesting part of any interview, you’d be hard pressed to find a 2010 version of Ed Gay who’d be willing to sit down and really open up about what he or she has seen over the years. But Ed Gay was different. Ed Gay couldn’t wait to tell his story.

Considering that I’d lost my only copy of the column and there was no chance of retrieving it online (no newspaper in the 1980s had online editions), I’d given up rereading the piece or including it in an anthology of my unexpurgated tales of the city. That ended when Ms. Gay mentioned that she had a copy of the column and just wanted to know when the piece was published. We both surmised it must have been 1987, give or take a year. Ms Gay then sent me a copy of her copy, in honor of her father-in-law.

(From Different Strokes, the Welcomat, 1987c)

One need go no further than Ed Gay (of George Gay Realty fame) to get the unexpurgated tales of the city. This real estate curmudgeon has seen it all—and then some.

The family business was started by George Gay, Ed’s father, in 1926. For 50 years the offices were located on the ninth floor at 1701 Walnut Street. Ed assumed control in 1962. Today, Ed works with his son Ted. The firm has been at its 2029 Walnut Street location for about 11 years.
Gay’s role as landlord enables him to observe hundreds of lives. He’s watched tenants grow into incapacitating old age. Fathers have come to him concerning their errant, sexually promiscuous daughters. In the 1960s, he met people like Ira Einhorn. Cathy Alessi, the Schmidt’s heiress who died of a drug overdose in the 70s, was a tenant of his. “A nice woman,” Gay recalls, “she just got mixed up with the wrong people.” (He shows me a National Enquirer article which mentions Alessi’s involvement with a MOVE member at the time of her death.)

Gay has seen his share of death and tragedy. When he and a young employee went to investigate an old lady’s apartment—there was some concern because neighbors hadn’t seen the woman in ages—his worst suspicions were confirmed when he smelled the stench of death.

“Let me go in first,” he said to his young assistant who, eager to prove his bravado, begged to take the lead.

“So I watched him enter…I heard him gasp, cough and wheeze. Suddenly he was running down the fire escape with his hands over his mouth. He stopped dead in the alley behind the building and threw up. I didn’t see him for three days.” When at last the kid phoned work he said he had never seen “a dead body look like that before.” What the kid saw was a corpse split open down the middle, a bevy of flies over the rotting entrails. The skin was every color in the rainbow: black, purple, green, yellow, blue.

A meticulous record keeper, Gay has kept crime report files concerning his properties since the mid-60s. The files document thefts, rapes, fires, attempted holdups. In a 1970 report, for instance, you can read that a Miss Potts of 1812 Pine had her Motorola TV stolen, or that Mr. Janis, a physician at 1600 Lombard Street, was robbed and left tied up in his office for three days.

Gay remembers renting to a felon on the FBI’s most wanted list. The tenant, a former Navy SEAL underwater detonation expert, sociopath and crack addict, was in the business of converting semi-automatic weapons. When officials from ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms) searched the apartment, they found it filled with industrial machinery.

Gay recalls a naked young man who ran screaming throughout his apartment complex, writing on the walls with crayons. When Gay questioned him about the incident, the tenant said, “Look, I have a valid lease. I pay my rent—there’s nothing you can do!” Gay said, “Watch this,” and ripped the lease in half.

Mr. Woo, another of his tenants, was a neat, quiet Chinese man who led a double life as an illegal exporter of goods to Red China.

In the days when physicians used real skulls and skeletons for anatomical studies, one Walnut Street doctor/tenant boxed six human skulls and stored them under his cellar staircase. One night a thief discovered the box and, thinking it contained valuables, undid the lock. One look was enough: He dropped the box and fled as heads rolled in different directions across Walnut Street. Soon, the coroner’s office, police and forensic scientists were looking at the possible work of a serial killer.

Gay’s son Ted recalls checking out a property at 20th and Walnut in the early 70s. Describing the renter as “a leftover flower child,” Ted says his father had reason to believe the apartment was being trashed. Ted, only 15 at the time, found the place filled with candles, spoons and cocaine but no tenant. “Suddenly this guy comes up behind me and pushes me against the wall. He said he was a cop and wanted to know who I was. When I told him, he said the tenant had just killed his girlfriend and his girlfriend’s lover.”

The ‘60s and ‘70s, Gay says, were not as violence-prone as today. “Most hippies, even the drug dealers, were peaceful creatures who tended to vegetate in their apartments. Today’s crimes are horrific, even demonic. People kill for the thrill of it, for no reason at all. A thief, for instance, will hit the same residence repeatedly. That’s because they know the owner is able (with insurance) to replace everything that was stolen.

“Look, if somebody really wants to rob a place, they can. Locks, safety devices, these just make it more difficult.” Gay recalls the home of a jeweler whose well-locked door wouldn’t budge, so thieves demolished the walls with sledgehammers. Gay says that the untouched door “standing alone in space” was an odd sight.

Over the last 32 years, he has discovered 32 corpses. Spruce and Pine Street residences top the list of property tragedies. He recalls a twentysomething couple on Spruce Street—art school students—who decided to commit suicide together. They took pills, got into a double sleeping bag, and waited. She was the only one to wake up. “I didn’t know he was dead till I yanked him by the hair,” Gay says the woman told him later.

One young man, fed up with life, threw himself out his 17th story living room window. A neighbor telephoned Gay. “Will you please send somebody over to clean up the blood of a guy who jumped out of his apartment!”

Lovers’ quarrels on Spruce Street have ended in lovers murdering their significant others. One man threw his lover through a picture window to the street below. In another apartment, a young European woman decided to ditch her American boyfriend because she wanted to return to Europe and marry someone else. “Her American lover came back and whacked her 18 times with a knife. There was so much blood it even got into the refrigerator,” says Gay.
Gay says that cleaning up after a death takes time. “The apartment has to be fumigated. The best thing is to get a five-pound bag of moth ball flakes and sprinkle them around. This kills the stench right away. It makes breathing near a corpse possible.”

People have jumped from the top of the Medical Arts building on S. 17th Street and crashed through the roof of another Gay property. One woman, a psychiatric patient, crashed a third of the way through the roof and was wedged inside. “That was a real mess; she was caught in an upright position like a stand up bullet,” Gay reflected. The oldest corpse Gay’s ever discovered had been dead anywhere from five to seven weeks. “Not a pretty sight by any means,” he says.
Gay remembers a young male tenant, a professional with a good job. “One day he started bringing pigeons into his place and nursing them back to health. Soon he was claiming to be half blind; he was also canvassing the city with a shopping cart. I called Social Service and Mental Health agencies, but there wasn’t anything anybody could do. He hadn’t committed a crime. Eventually the kid died.”

Ed says the last name of “Gay” has brought him and his family some grief over the years. College kids, mostly guys (perhaps the ones from a certain Center City art school he’s not likely to rent to) will leave prank messages on his answering machine. “Maybe they’re bored. It’s usually a drunk, lonely guy on a Saturday night. Often I hear lots of giggling in the background—dumb, stupid kid stuff, you know…:

Ed Gay prizes some students, however. Curtis Institute music students get first dibs on any of his properties, anytime, anywhere.

“Music,” as Confucius said, “is the blossoming of virtue.”

The AxD Gallery Reading and Reception

The crowd at AxD Gallery, 265 S. Tenth Street, on Saturday, July 24, for the third official reading of SPORE. It was a very hot day but nearly 50 people came out. The reception lasted until 8 pm. A group of us then went over to the Westbury for dinner. A special thanks to the two "Ed's"--Ed from Giovanni's and Ed from AxD.


Most people have heard of the New Age concept of plenty and wealth.

In a nutshell, this philosophy says: What you focus on, you attract. If you harbor beliefs of scarcity, separation or inferiority, the world will give you evidence to suggest this is true. Or: If you are always worry about your low checking account balance, your account will always stay low because you are not allowing the universe to work through you to change that. Translated: the less you worry about money and the more you spend the more money you will get.
Thank you, benevolent universe!

Now, I don’t which Swami on which mountain top in the Himalayas thought this up, but Oprah sure seems to love it. And some very practical people seem to swear by it too. (Is it an irony that most of these practical people happen to be wealthy?)

I got a heavy dose of this philosophy the other night when I was invited to dinner by a wealthy friend. My friend means well and I have no wish to criticize him too harshly, but when he invited me to be his guest in a local popular suburban restaurant, I assumed I wouldn’t have to spend anything. A guest is a guest, right? Well, what I didn’t count on was that after dinner he asked the invited guests to “chip in for the tip.” This sounded reasonable until I threw in a five dollar bill for my twenty-one dollar entrĂ©e, and was told that it was not enough.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard of anyone inviting someone to dinner and then demanding that they pay a fixed-sum for a tip.

“Put in a ten,” he said, “the wait staff works hard.” That they work hard I have no doubt, but I also work hard, and five extra dollars is five extra dollars I can use for Septa tokens. A ten dollar tip was roughly half the cost of my dinner. As it was, the server was getting a huge fifty dollar tip for the table’s one hundred dollar bill.

I am not cheap. I give to homeless people. I even help out a much younger friend by buying him soda and lunch several times a week. But when somebody invites me to dinner in a restaurant, I think it should be up to me what sort of tip I leave.

“You need to adopt the prosperity mentality,” my friend told me. “If you fear for every dollar you spend, money will not come to you. If you spend money freely, let it go in and out, money will come to you—easily!”

I’ve heard this New Age sauerkraut before, first from author Napoleon Hill, author of Think and Grow Rich. But even Hill admits that the fear of poverty is the most destructive of fears and the most difficult of any fear to master.

Years ago I delved into Indian and New Age philosophies where the underlying teaching was, “Thoughts are things.” I still believe this to a large extent but when it comes to money I think we’re talking about a different ballgame. Money just doesn’t flow to you because you project positive thoughts or because you visualize an overflowing bank account. You may find random cash in the 15 trolley, or you may spot a five dollar bill while walking through the neighborhood, but for the most part these are freak occurrences.

My friend insists that I have a poverty mentality because I always think of the account balance in my checking account before spending anything. Well, don’t most people?

This reminds me of a recent talk I had a talk with a Dominican gentleman who pushes a shopping cart around the neighborhood. “Sam” collects aluminum cans and throwaway appliances that he can then cash in at the local bone yard. Two years ago he won a $65,000 insurance claim and proceeded to spend the money in an easy “in and out flow” that reminded me of the prosperity mentality my friend keeps talking about: cash- out, cash- in. Unfortunately, the cash out thing for “Sam” worked like a charm, while the cash- in thing stayed stalled like a car on I-95. “Sam” is now homeless.

After ironing out or respective theories on money, my friend wanted to drive his daughter and me to Johnny Brenda’s on Girard Avenue for an after dinner drink. As we cruised down the avenue, she suddenly began to worry about finding a parking space. Not only was he worried about not finding a space, he was holding that worry “inside her head” in a tightly controlled manner, the same way I get when it comes to spending cash.

I saw my opportunity.

“What about prosperity parking?” I said. “Don’t hold it in, open up! Let it flow! Make a U-turn, drive anywhere, the universe will provide: prosperity parking!”

He game me a cross look but then something happened. Within two minutes we had found a suitable parking space without any effort at all.

Had I unknowingly tapped into an ancient truth while thinking I was making a joke?

I’m still holding onto my money, thank you.

Thom Nickels

Monday, August 2, 2010


SPORE II, A Reading and Reception with Thom Nickels Friday, August 13, 2010 at the Lippincott House Mansion B&B, 2023 Locust Street.
Executive Chef Brendan Smith-designed Hors d'oeuvre/Wine/Soda Reception Start: 6:30 pm End: 8:30 pm. Location: Lippincott House, 2023 Locust St. Hosts: Mary Beth and Jack and their little dog, JR. Built in 1897 by the famous publishing family, J.B. Lippincott as a wedding giftfor their granddaughter, the mansion is the perfect environment for SPORE II.

This Philadelphia author has set his new novel in Philadelphia's neighborhoods: Germantown, East Falls, Valley Green (Fairmount Park), Roxborough and Center City. After his wife leaves him on their honeymoon, Dennis. a struggling Philly architect, begins a quest to find out who he is, why he does what he does, and how to understand it all. He begins his mission to liberate the world as a "street preacher," but in so doing, stirs up reactionary forces that want him dead. Dennis's dire warnings shake up the status quo. One warning is that people who do not act on their latent desires will develop diseases caused by a spore and that religions that condemn love in its many forms will not inherit the new kingdom.Will his predictions prove right? Will he be condemned? And, what about the spores? SPORE will leave you wondering about the world you think you know.SPORE is truly a thought-provoking novel that will leave you wondering!