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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Leave the Driving to Us: Traveling by Greyhound (from The Star)

Traveling by Greyhound in the last days

More than twenty years ago when you went to buy a ticket at Philadelphia’s old Greyhound bus terminal at 1711 Market Street, you got to interact with live human beings. Not only that, but travelers had a lot more “fun” while waiting for a bus. The plastic seats had bolted- on TV sets and were spaced far enough apart so that you were not on top of fellow passengers. In an adjoining room was a Roy Rogers restaurant where you could get a tolerable fast food meal. When it came time to board your bus, you took an escalator down to the departure level.

Years before this, in the 1950s, both Greyhound and Trailways buses employed on board stewardesses. Dressed in uniforms with hats and gloves, the stewardesses served coffee and Danish on morning road trips to New York City and back. The ‘50s, 60s, and 70s of course were peak years when it came to bus travel. Greyhound had its 1956 double-decker Scenicruiser, the 1955 Courier and the classic 1948 Silverside. Bus terminals, such as Washington D.C.’s super station on New York Avenue, built on the ground floor of a skyscraper, were noted for their various architectural amenities.

Philly’s old Greyhound terminal was a kitschy paradise. There was a small arcade with pinball machines, an instamatic 50 cent photo booth, and an Ellsworth Kelly anodized aluminum 12 foot high and 64 foot long prize winning Sculpture for a Long Wall (1957) on one of the station walls. There were also coin-operated luggage lockers where layover travelers could stash suitcases before setting out to explore the city.

When Philadelphia’s Greyhound bus station moved to 1001 Filbert Street, the fast food restaurant morphed into a glorified food stand where travelers could watch hot dogs and soft pretzels bake to death in plastic neon heaters. Vending machines were installed in place of the treasured foot lockers, while the restrooms had most of their private stalls removed, a redesign that made for a lot of wasted space unless your idea of a bathroom is a smelly lecture hall.

While I rarely travel by bus, I recently traveled by Greyhound to Scranton. My last Greyhound venture was in the 1980s, when it was possible to converse with a ticket agent.

Did I say ‘ticket agent?’ Aside from the very humane NJT booth (where there’s a live person), Greyhound travelers are forced to purchase tickets from machines. A machine attendant barks orders while overseeing other tasks: “Push the red button. Go back. Where do you want to go?” Dealing with so many people, the stressed attendant—who is outfitted in a yellow police style vest—is obviously overworked.

The attendant on duty the day I bought my ticket, though polite, was beside herself.

“Where you’d say you were going?” she shouted into my left ear. I don’t know about you, but when somebody barks in my ear I tend to react like someone escaping gusts of wind. It didn’t help that the terminal was packed with end-of-summer passengers, with everybody trying to figure out where they were supposed to go.

After the machine produced a round trip ticket on thin tissue like paper, I noticed that the price was unusually high. Miraculously, I tracked down the still vexed yellow vest attendant: “Can you tell me why this is? This isn’t the price quoted me when I called Greyhound last week.”

“You got a March Trailways for your return trip, that’s not Greyhound,” she said.

“You mean the machine gave me Greyhound on the way up and Trailways on the way back—without letting me know? Did I miss the fine print?”

“It’s the departure time you selected,” she said, “when there are no Greyhound buses available, it switches you automatically.”

“And raises the price, without offering you an option?”
“You can exchange it,” she said.

But I had had enough of lines and kept the ticket, thinking I’d just watch the machine with a wary eye the next time traveled Greyhound.

Fortunately, the bus ride to Scranton was enjoyable. The driver, who was an older man, didn’t speed on the passing lane. Younger drivers, such as the 24 year old driver who recently lost control of his Greyhound bus on the Pennsylvania turnpike while traveling in the passing lane (the front end of this kid’s bus struck the concrete barrier and eventually flipped on its side, injuring 14 people), tend to like speed. The older driver also had the good taste to wish the passengers good morning and then map out the route to Scranton. As a traveler, one feels comfortable hearing such things, but that was not the case on the return trip.

The return trip reminded me of traveling on a crowded Septa bus or a crowded cattle car in India. The driver said nothing about the route or how many station stops the bus would make on the way to Philadelphia. He did manage to address chronic cell phone users. “Use your cell phones for emergencies only,” he advised, “Be respectful of other passengers.”

Nobody listened to him, of course.

As an added bonus, it was a Friday, the worst possible day for travel; everybody and their grandmother was high tailing it to Philly.

The biggest shock came twenty minutes after the bus pulled out of Wilkes-Barre. No, I’m not talking about a Greyhound beheading, such as what happened to a poor 22 year old Canadian man in 2008 when his seatmate started stabbing him uncontrollably. I’m referring to the odor of second hand smoke coming from the back of the bus. “It can’t be now,” I thought, in my best Janis Joplin wail. “Who would dare do that in 2011.”

Bold as brass, the smokers lit up repeatedly until smoke filled the entire cabin, the driver as oblivious to the smell as the passengers. The only thing missing was the voice of ‘Twilight Zone’s’ Rod Serling announcing that this was a road trip into the past.

It was also hardly coincidence that the smokers waited until the driver had pulled onto the turnpike before lighting up. On the turnpike, the driver’s attention would be focused on traffic.

When we arrived in Philly, the yellow vested attendants weren’t smoking but they were still barking orders to the machine-clogged crowds.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Rembrandt (from The Star)

The current Rembrandt’s The Face of Jesus exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is something every Philadelphia should see.

The exhibit allows Philadelphians an opportunity to view “human friendly” images of Jesus. Prior to Rembrandt, artists ignored their imaginations when it came to portraying Jesus but followed standard images based largely on Veronica’s Veil, (the imprint of the face of Jesus taken when Veronica offered Jesus a cloth to wipe his face on the way to Calvary) or the Holy Mandylion, a legendary imprint of the face of Christ in the Orthodox world that originated well before the crucifixion.

The Rembrandt exhibit comes pretty close to capturing what Jesus may have actually looked like. For starters, Rembrandt used mostly Jewish models. But a Jewish Jesus in Rembrandt’s day was a revolutionary thing.

History tells us that immediately after the crucifixion Jesus was pictured as a clean shaven, Apollo-like deity. In the 4th century, most Jesus images had the close-cropped hair we see today on most Byzantine icons. (These images seem to jive with St. Paul’s famous admonition against men having long hair.) By the 6th century the tide had turned and Jesus was being painted as someone with long hair and a beard. What helped this new view was the discovery of the Shroud of Turin in the city of Edessa (Mesopotamia) in 544.

What Jesus might have looked like has always a subject for speculation.

In my Irish-German Catholic childhood home, for instance, the Jesus images had an Irish troubadour look. Rembrandt actually comes pretty close to this ideal only his models are not Irish. Going back to the 2nd century, you can read how Church Fathers, Justin Martyr and Origen thought that Jesus was unattractive. Both men held fast to the Isaiah 53 quote: “He has no form nor glory, nor beauty when we beheld him, but his appearance was without honor and inferior to that of the sons of men.”

Then there was St. Augustine, who said, “The physical face of the Lord is pictured with infinite variety by countless imaginations, though whatever it was like He certainly had only one.”

In the 20th century, psychic Edgar Cayce wrote that Christ had long red hair and steely blue eyes. Cayce goes on to explain that among Jews the birth of a red haired son was always a special event.

The famous Lentulus letter, allegedly written by a predecessor of Pontius Pilate, spells out Christ’s appearance: “…Hair is the color of ripe hazelnut, parted on top and falling straight to the ears yet curling further below. His beard is large and full but not long and parted in the middle. His glance shows simplicity adorned with maturity, his eyes are clear and commanding. Never apt to laugh but sooner inclined to cry.”

The exhibition is a sort of gamble for PMA. Will going to see it be perceived as paying homage to Jesus? Or will people use the excuse that it’s only Rembrandt that attracts them?

On Facebook, I noticed that someone was offering his two PMA members tickets to the exhibition because he was not into honoring “demi-gods.” For some (perhaps many), Jesus is controversial like that. Some people hate him because they associate him with right wing religions, witch hunts, the Inquisition, and other bad things that Jesus’ followers have concocted. It’s understandable but lamentable, because this exhibit will make you want to come back, again and again and look into this “man’s” eyes.

This is another way of saying that the images are haunting.
For PMA President Gail Harrity, organizing The Faces of Jesus became an opportunity to reach out to Philadelphia’s faith community.

` “Over the last several months we’ve made a robust effort to reach out to a broad cross section of our community, as broad as possible,” Harrity told journalists at the exhibition’s press preview. “In May 2011, for instance, we held a mass discussion for 50 or 60 leaders of different faith communities with the hope that many members of these faith communities would join us for a community opening on July 28th.”

Many in the faith communities did, in fact, stream into PMA for a special two hour community reception. There were Protestant pastors and their wives; innumerable Rosemont College alums; secular dress “invisible” nuns as well as nuns who looked like nuns; clergymen in collars who appeared Catholic although they could have been Anglican or Lutheran. There were no breaded Orthodox priests although Cardinal Rigali made a brief appearance.

Rembrandt should also appeal to Philadelphians because of his prickly individuality. Rembrandt was not a fussy-wussy academic type who did things to further his career but in fact he often did the opposite. He was criticized for hanging out with people of low estate (the wrong people) and for not paying enough attention to the rich and powerful. Rembrandt did not play the game but went his own way. He was no court portrait painter who painted king, queens and cardinals but stuck to the low and non-mighty, like beggars and lepers.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Three Day Visit/Retreat to St. Tikhon's Orthodox Monastery near Scranton, PA

Went up on a Greyhound bus, was met by Brother Ken
We drove into the wilderness, by fields, hills and trees
Until I spotted icon grottos and three bar crosses.
Settled in my comfortable room in the Men's Quarters
Then off to Dinner (lunch) with the monks, over half
converts from evangelical Protestantism, guys from
Kansas, Ohio, Los Angeles. The Abott himself is a
former Roman Catholic. In his office before the end
of my stay he said that as a boy he was an altar
server at the Novus Ordo Mass. (Story in the works, stay

By Comparison: From my Florence, Italy Journal, March 2007

The Novus Ordo Catholic Mass in Italy: Majestic church,
nearly medieval, museum-like sanctuary, icons, hanging
votive lamps, candles, gold and gold and gold.

Holy Mass is about to begin. A laywoman approaches the
lectern; a priest in a simple alb and hood approaches
the other lectern. Suddenly everything turns
Presbyterian. I walk out.

A Trip To America’s Mount Athos
St. Tikhon’s. The dining room with monks. Photo: Thom Nickels
Weekly Press• Wed, Nov 23, 2011

By Thom Nickels
Contributing Writer

It’s a little bit after one in the afternoon and Father Sergius (Bowyer), the Abbott of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk monastery in South Canaan, Pennsylvania, is chatting with a handful of monks. The small group is standing in the garden-grotto area just outside the monastery dining room. The mood is upbeat because in a couple days a miraculous icon from the 13th century, The Wonderworking Kursk Root Icon of Our Lady of the Sign, will be visiting St. Tikhon’s.

On this afternoon, which happens to be the last of my three day visit to St. Tikhon’s, I mention to the monks that since I haven’t read a newspaper in three days, for all I know New York City could have disappeared in a cloud of Armageddon smoke.

"If that were to happen," Fr. Sergius says with a smile, "they’d all be coming up here for refuge."

"They’d be coming here by the hundreds for food and shelter and the safety of the mountains," another monk offers. "But we would require them to go to Divine Liturgy first."

"No we wouldn’t," Fr. Sergius says. "You do not force people to attend Divine Liturgy. We would take them in, regardless."

"Taking people in" has traditionally been the mark of a monastery’s commitment to hospitality. Generally, visitors to monasteries, both Orthodox and Catholic, are advised to stay not more than 3 days and to donate whatever they can at the end of their stay. Visitors are also encouraged to follow as much of the routine of the monks as possible, and this includes attendance at the daily Divine Liturgy.

The Divine Liturgy is the Orthodox "version" of the Catholic Mass, albeit with none of the changes, novelties or controversies surrounding the Western liturgy since the time of the Second Vatican Council. At St. Tikhon’s and elsewhere in the Orthodox world, there are no updated liturgies that attempt to be "modern." You won’t, for instance, see lay ministers in high heels distributing communion, or little children walking up to the altar area with "the gifts." You won’t hear guitars or hymns like On Eagles’ Wings, and you will never come across an Orthodox parish that has weekly Young Adult Community Divine Liturgies.

At St. Tikhon’s, prayer and Liturgy begins at 6 a.m. Congregants mostly stand throughout the 3-hour service. Chairs are arranged alongside the church for the old and infirm, but anyone can take a seat if standing becomes unbearable. Prior to my visit I feared that the constant standing would be less than tolerable; however, I soon found that the rhythm of the chanting and prayers produced a transcendent state that erased discomfort. After a while, I almost forgot that I had legs. The sensation was a little bit like floating.

St. Tikhon’s is located high in the Pocono Mountains on 300 acres of land some 30 minutes (by car) outside Scranton, Pennsylvania. The monastery was founded in 1905 by Patriarch (Saint) Tikhon under the auspices of the Russian Orthodox Church. Years later the word Russian was dropped for the more inclusive Orthodox Church of America, or OCA. The monastery houses 14 monks from various parts of the country. Fr. Sergius, a former Roman Catholic who once served at the altar at his boyhood Novus Ordo parish, converted to Orthodoxy and soon after became an Orthodox priest. His conversion happened, he says, because he felt that Orthodoxy offered him a life "more fully in Christ."

"My family is still very much Catholic," Fr. Sergius told me in his office in the monastery bookstore. "Ultimately the important thing is to keep Christ as the center of our lives."

The historic debate having to do with which Church is the true Church of the apostles has been raging since the official split of East and West in 1054 AD. Some Orthodox clergy believe that the split was a mutual parting of the ways, like a divorce, but this does not stop "experts" on both sides from accusations of schism or heresy.

. Fr. Sergius explained that the Orthodox Church hasn’t changed at all in 2,000 years. Besides safeguarding its Liturgy intact, Orthodoxy did not add the Filoque clause to the Nicene Creed as did the Latin Church after it got its arm twisted to do so by Charlemagne in the year 809.

"From that moment on," he pointed out, "the Latin Church continued to make more and more changes, right up to and including the Second Vatican Council."

At first glance, a stranger wouldn’t necessarily pinpoint the young Hieromonk Sergius as St. Tikhon’s Abbott. Older monks with long ponytails and patriarchal beards, such as white haired Fr. Alexander, a retired priest who could easily play Moses in an Old Testament play, looks more like the Abbott type. Fr. Alexander, also a former Catholic, joins Fr. Sergius in wearing the dramatic kamilavka hat covered with a black veil during church services, which helps give St. Tikhon’s a "Mount Athos" look.

Most visitors to St. Tikhon’s, unless traveling by car, must take a bus to Scranton (where there is no Amtrak service) and then arrange to be met by a monk who will drive them the rest of the way to the monastery. My driver, Brother Ken, met me at the station in his black cassock, beard and black hat. In the car he told me that before he became a monk he spent considerable time traveling the world and that for a time he managed restaurants in Phoenix, Arizona. Having worked in restaurants myself, we told stories about customers who make unreasonable and outrageous complaints in the hopes of getting free meals.

Brother Ken, who was born Orthodox, and who is in his late thirties or early forties, talked about entering a monastery late in life. "It’s far better to become a monastic when you are in your twenties. The problem of obedience is especially hard when you are considerably older than the Abbott. Becoming a monk in your mid-twenties is better, when you’ve had some life experiences but are still malleable or "in formation."

After the lift from the bus station, he escorted me to the newly refurbished men’s guest house. In this "off season," I was the only guest in the large B&B-style space sans television, radio or telephones. A small library in the guest house foyer included books by Fr. Seraphim Rose, Orthodoxy’s answer to Catholicism’s Thomas Merton, as Rose (or Eugene Rose) was a former San Francisco-based atheist and Marxist who hung out with the Beats and studied under Alan Watts (and even had a male lover) before converting to Orthodoxy, becoming a monk and then a candidate for sainthood.

(In his most famous book, Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future, Rose describes Merton as "a sincere convert to Roman Catholicism and Catholic monasticism who ended his days proclaiming the equality of Christian religious experiences and the experiences of Zen Buddhism and other pagan religions.")

Meals at St. Tikhon’s (except for breakfast) are mostly silent affairs as monks and visitors listen to readings from the lives of the saints or the writings of the Church Fathers. The silent portion of the meal concludes when the Abbott rings a hand bell. Afterwards everyone rises for a short prayer and then, if the Abbott allows it (and he almost always does) everyone resumes eating with some conversation.

While there are many orders of Catholic monks who dress in a variety of habits, in the Orthodox world all monks dress alike: black cassock and belt with a small raised black hat. Orthodox monks do not shave or cut their hair, so depending on the monk, long hair can be bunched up ponytail-style or arranged in a "bun" of some sort to get it off the neck. The visual effects of this for the first-time visitor can be startling.

One gray haired monk’s rustic demeanor and long ponytail kept reminding me of the Hell’s Angels, whereas a young novice’s appearance—with his long hair arranged in a fan-like web at the nape of his neck—seemed to be "modeled" after an angelic figure in a Byzantine icon.

Brother Ken told me that he sometimes gets mistaken for Islamic when he goes into Scranton on monastery business. Unlike Catholic monks, who often don secular clothing for trips outside the monastery, Orthodox monks wear the habit 24/7. For Brother Ken, the hostile stares he received when being mistaken as a Muslim at first caught him off guard, although he says he soon learned not to pay any attention to them. "Most of the townspeople know us and enjoy seeing us," he said.

When it comes to international travel, Fr. Sergius allows Brother Ken to wear a silver cross so as to minimize any "identity" confusion. But this does not prevent TSA officials from making life difficult for Brother Ken when they insist that he remove his habit before boarding a plane.

The majority of the monks at St. Tikhon’s are converts from evangelical Protestantism. Fr. Sergius says there’s also a significant waiting list and that plans are underway to expand the monastery.

Many of the converts are in their twenties, typical "white bread" boys from Kansas, Ohio or Los Angeles, where they found their way—"through the grace of God," as Fr. Sergius likes to say—to this esoteric mountain top.

Brother Basil, who hails from Los Angeles, is the monastery maintenance man. He happened upon St. Tikhon’s while on a job search, having worked maintenance jobs at Protestant mega churches. Exposure to the monks and liturgy of the monastery led to his conversion. As a former evangelical who was taught that drinking alcohol is always a sin, a memorable part of his conversion process was learning that Jesus didn’t really drink grape juice at the Last Supper, but real wine, as the monks are allowed to do on Sundays, Easter and certain feast days.

Brother Basil, who conversed with me while sitting on the floor of the kitchen in the men’s guest house, Hilti tools in hand, spoke of a big family evangelical family wedding he had to attend in the fall. He talked about the coming wedding as a dreaded "drunken secular affair" and said that he would probably sit the whole thing out in a corner, as well-meaning old friends came up to him and slurred, "Hey, what’s happening brother!?"

The monks sometimes watch documentaries about Catholic monastic communities like the Carthusians, Trappists and Benedictines.

Brother Basil said that he was recently fascinated by a film detailing the life of a Catholic contemplative nun. When he explained some of what he saw in these films, I asked him whether in Orthodox monasticism there was anything equivalent to the Benedictine prohibition against "particular friendships."

The term "particular friendships" puzzled him, so I explained the Benedictine view that too close a friendship between monks could at some point lead to dangerous intimacies bordering on impurity.

"There is no such thing as that in Orthodoxy," he said, meaning that there is no official restriction or prohibition if two monks want to hang out as a special "team."

Although talking with the monks didn’t come easily for me, the process was helped considerably when Fr. Sergius announced to the group at dinner that I was visiting the monastery "to do a story for a newspaper." Before the announcement, I felt as if I was breaking some rule whenever I’d ask a brother a question or request a photograph. While a few of the younger monks tended to shyly defer to "the Abbott," the older monks were eager to talk.

"I spent a lot of years searching," Brother Michael, the main cook, told me. "I was an atheist, I shopped around. I’d go to Catholic and Anglican churches. Once I went into this really fancy high Anglican Church, prayed, but when communion time came around they started passing out little cups of grape juice. No way can I do this," I thought. Brother Michael says that Orthodoxy gave him the spiritual fullness that he had been searching for.

On the monastery grounds is St. Tikhon’s seminary, opened in 1937, which trains hundreds of married and unmarried men for the priesthood. Students from the seminary sometimes work and live at the monastery for a time. Not far off is one of St. Tikhon’s two lakes, hand dug by the monks and stocked with fish that invariably wind up in the monastery dining room. In its 107-year history, St. Tikhon’s has courted its fair share of dramatic intrigue. Decades ago a famous Serbian Metropolitan was poisoned to death during an overnight visit. A man who was seen entering and leaving the Metropolitan’s room is suspected of poisoning the cleric. (The Metropolitan’s vestments can be seen in St. Tikhon’s museum. To illustrate the murder, an Agatha Christie-inspired tilted teacup sits on the cleric’s portable nightstand).

Brother Jesse, a St. Tikhon’s seminarian from Pennsylvania and a convert from evangelical Protestantism, sat near me during many noonday meals. Since Orthodox priests (but not monks) can marry, Brother Jesse often made references to "finding a wife" when the time was right.

References to seminarians dating women will always get this western Catholic’s attention. During my tour of the museum, for instance, I was joined by an Orthodox woman who kept referring to the time she dated a certain St. Tikhon’s seminarian. Had she mentioned this fact once I would have forgotten it, but when she kept bringing up the reference I had to wonder what exactly had happened to break things off between the two of them.

How does one dump a man of God, or tell him to take a flying leap?

No doubt Father Sergius, who appears to have a sense of humor, could offer some insight here.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Meeting Distant Family from California: The Belz-Faulkner-Nickels Connection

We met for a delicious Chinese feast at 10th and Race in Philadelphia's Chinatown one month ago. Some of the conversation focused on Mathias Nickels, who fought for
the Union in the Civil War and died in an Old Soldier's home in Ohio.

The Last Word by Thom Nickels, ICON Magazine, August 2011

The Last Word from ICON Magazine, August 2011When the French Renaissance-style Bellevue-Stratford hotel opened in 1904, it was known as the most sumptuous hotel in the United States.
With electric lights installed by Thomas Edison, expensive marble in the lobby, a grand staircase that recalled the dizzying waltz in Flaubert’s “Madam Bovary,” and a ribbon-cutting ceremony conducted by Noel Coward, it’s no wonder that people would visit the lobby just to ponder the building’s grandeur.

The Bellevue’s architects, G.W. and W.D. Hewitt, also designed New York’s original Waldorf Astoria Hotel before it was demolished to make way for the Empire State Building.

In the beginning the Bellevue was two hotels, the Bellevue hotel on the northwest corner of Broad and Walnut, and the Stratford hotel on the S.W. corner of the same intersection.

The owner of both hotels, George Boldt, a Prussian immigrant who began his working career in Philadelphia by waiting tables, eventually merged the two hotels and built the Bellevue-Stratford. For decades the Bellevue hosted international celebrities, political conventions, and society charity balls. Then, in the late 1940’s and 1950s, with the rise of architectural modernism, many began to criticize the building’s “ostentatious” exterior details. One fatality of this revolution was the elimination of the hotel’s Beaux Arts awnings. While the 1950s saw many improvements in Center City like the destruction of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Chinese wall, the re-imagining of Society Hill and the construction of Penn Center, the era was also known for its advocacy of drop ceilings with harsh florescent lighting that were placed over ornate, inlaid plaster interiors. The Bellevue, fortunately, managed to escape wreck-o-ovations of this sort.

Boldts’ consolidation of two small hotels to create the Broad Street “Grand Dame” would be dicey proposition in today’s depressed economy.
Hotels the world over have taken a major hit as a result of an economic downturn that some experts attribute to behind-the-scenes tampering by the World Bank and the Trilateral Commission rather than anything related to President’s Obama’s so called “debt crises”—but that’s another story.

The Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation (GPTMC) reported that the industry rate in the city experienced a drop-off in occupancy in 2008 and 2009 from a strong 2007.

Things took a brighter turn in 2010, when, according to Smith Travel Research, four million room nights were sold in Philadelphia in 2010, a jump from 3.74 million rooms sold in 2009.

The good news throughout the crises is that no Philadelphia hotels have had to close, although some layoffs were inevitable.

Few would argue that it would be a tragedy to lose an historic landmark like the Bellevue.

After all, in one of the hotel’s 1,000 rooms, Bram Stoker wrote “Dracula.” During the Jazz Age, Philadelphia high society danced on the same roof deck that they flooded in winter for ice skating and champagne. Those steeped in city history will also remember the shocking death of Main Line socialite Louise Schoettle in 1956 when Ms. Schoettle fell 37 feet to her death during a dinner party and dance. Straddling the railing of the “Flaubert” grand staircase to show friends how she slid down the banisters as a girl, Ms. Schoettle slipped over the edge.

The Bellevue, if anything, has been a survivor.

In 1976, a bacterium called Legionella Pneumophila got into the hotel’s hot water systems and, like a Stoker plot, spread throughout the hotel through aerosolizing devices such as shower heads and air conditioning vents. Hundreds of people attending an American Legion convention became ill and more than 30 died as a result.

Soon after the tragedy, Mayor Frank Rizzo wanted to demolish the hotel and build a convention center on the site. Not all Philadelphians agreed with the mayor’s proposal.

On November 12, 1976, the president of the Society of Architectural Historians, H. Reed Longnecker, wrote the mayor and pleaded with him to spare the hotel.

“Tearing down the hotel would represent tremendous waste. Presumably all the facilities at the Bellevue are in good condition. The immediate cause for this crisis is of course Legionnaires disease. As one Bellevue employee said on local television recently, ‘The disease came with the Legionnaires, and went with the Legionnaires.’ How will the demolition of the Bellevue look to generations to come?”

The, Bellevue, like the nation’s up and down economy, has been closed and reopened at various times in its history.

When Elizabeth Taylor visited Philadelphia in 1983, to do the play “Private Lives” with Richard Burton, it was known as the Fairmount. Today it is known as the Park Hyatt at the Bellevue.

James O’Keefe has been called everything from a morally deranged individual to a guerilla in the war against everything that is right, good and just in society.

The fey-looking Irishman is noted for his undercover videos of public figures that inevitably show them in an unflattering light. O’Keefe’s sting operations generally target (perceived) liberal institutions like Planned Parenthood, ACORN, and NPR. In 2009, O’Keefe dressed as a pimp (sunglasses and fur jacket) entered ACORN offices in Washington with a hooker in hoop earrings (also a plant). In that sting he attempted to expose 8 ACORN employees for their involvement in a child prostitution ring. O’Keefe’s operation failed (there were no child prostitutes), but in 2010 he scored a huge success when his operatives—listed online as Project Veritas—impersonated members of the Muslim Brotherhood and videotaped a meeting with NPR’s Ron Schiller. The meeting, which is now a classic on You Tube, shows Schiller espousing negative views on Republicans and the Tea Party. Schiller, of course, says nothing that the ordinary citizen doesn’t hear everyday. He was also careful to frame his comments as personal views, a sensible precaution that was no help to him at all once the video was posted on Project Veritas.

Shortly after the video went viral, NPR issued an apology, and Schiller, who sometime before had already decided to resign his job, resigned immediately. NPR, no doubt nervous because of its vulnerable position in a political landscape that wants it DOA (witness New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s killing of NJN public television) terminated its CEO, Vivian Schiller (no relation), in what appeared to be a self-abrogating purge.

O’Keefe later said that the Schiller sting was in retaliation for NPR’s firing of Juan Williams, excommunicated by NPR for “offensive” remarks about Muslims.
O’Keefe, of course, had only one aim: to add another lash in the public execution of NPR in order to make it ripe for the slaughter (its eventual dismantling) by the right wing, an action which would then leave the American public with only one news source-- the corporate, mainstream media. The corporate media, of course, only tells the public what it wants the public to know.

So how did a “nice” Irish guy turn out this way?

O’Keefe, who hails from Bergen County, New Jersey, was raised by mildly conservative parents. He joined the Boy Scouts, attaining (conformist) Eagle Scout status before enrolling in Rutgers University. In one student photo he can be seen aping his literary hero, G.K. Chesterton, when he chomps down on a large cigar. At Rutgers, O’Keefe initiated a crank “political correctness” campaign to ban the cereal Fruit Loops from the student cafeteria. O’Keefe wanted to see if Rutgers would take him seriously when he claimed that because the cereal had a leprechaun on its box it was an insult to Irish Americans. (The school was unresponsive).

While still a teenager, O’Keefe was approached by the Leadership Institute (a 501 © (3) located in Arlington, Virginia) and enrolled in the Institute’s “political technology” (aka, Intro to the Dark Side) program. Founded in 1979 by conservative activist Morton Blackwell, the Leadership Institute is part and parcel of the vast array of right wing think tanks supported by the likes of billionaires Richard Mellon Scaife, the Koch brothers and the Coors family empire.
In his post-student days, O’Keefe has proven to be a good drone by following the Institute’s mission to help place conservative activists in politics, government, and (most importantly), the media.

As both Adolph Hitler and George Orwell’s character in 1984, Winston Smith, knew very well, when you control the media or the Fifth Estate, you control everything.

And that’s why NPR is worth saving.

Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957 to zero critical acclaim. In fact, the reviews were so bad that Rand spent several days crying about the matter. The book’s moral message concerned an individual’s right to live life according to the dictates of self interest. Gore Vidal, certainly no slouch in the hedonistic self interest department, called Atlas Shrugged, “Nearly perfect in its immorality.” Despite the initial bad reviews, Rand’s book became a sort of bible for the corporate-Fortune 500 crowd, where executives found that Rand’s “free market” business principles could also be applied to life.

An early admirer of Rand’s was Alan Greenspan. Greenspan was also an early member of a Rand support group that met weekly in the writer’s New York apartment. Greenspan continued his ardent discipleship until 2008, when he suddenly announced that he was “wrong for years to assume that government regulation was bad for markets.”

The startling confession had Greenspan admitting that his libertarian views of the financial world had not worked out, which I can only assume is also a condemnation of Ayn Rand’s philosophy.

“I’ve been going for 40 years or more,” Greenspan lamented, “with very considerable evidence that it [free and loosely-regulated markets] was working exceptionally well.”

What many people don’t know is that Greenspan was warned early on that something was amiss with his financial policies, and if he didn’t change his ways there would be a national financial disaster.

The Cassandra in this case was Brooksley Born, former chairperson of the Commodity Fixtures Trading Commission (CFTC), an organization that oversees the futures and commodity options markets. In the early 1990s, Born campaigned heavily to convince Congress to regulate the risky derivatives market. Her prediction of a great downturn sometime in the future angered Greenspan, then Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin, and Larry Summers (all free-market devotees from the Reagan era who occupy top spots, sans Greenspan, in the Obama administration). All three men were so upset by Born’s determination to reinstitute regulations that they managed to get Congress to stop Born in her tracks. Born was prevented from putting a cap on the regulation of derivatives.

Born, who was the first female student to be made president of the Stanford Law Review, and who was briefly considered as a candidate for U.S. Attorney General under President Clinton (Janet Reno was named), was made to feel like an enemy of the United States.

Libertarian propaganda defines government as the root of all evil, conveniently forgetting that the era before and after WWII saw the greatest era of prosperity in the nation’s history. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal helped get the nation out of its financial morass with the creation of the Social Security Act, by extending and revising the tax structure and by the creation of agencies like the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Wall Street did not save the Nation after the Great Depression, government did.
Who, after all, would trust Wall Street to save anyone much less regulate itself?

So, hats off to Brooklsey Born, a true American hero.

The “global warming is a myth” folks continue to march in step despite eerie evidence to the contrary: mega tornados in Oklahoma and Kansas in which many were left homeless; tornados over water in Massachusetts; boiler plate summers; the death of honeybees and bats; the disappearance of wildflowers, and the emergence of Antarctica winters. Greenpeace recently announced that one of the world’s most prominent scientific figures to be skeptical about climate change has confessed—yes, confessed-- to being bought off by more than $1 million in the past ten years by major U.S. oil and coal companies. The so called climate "skeptic" — Dr. Willie Soon — works as an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Since the year 2001, Dr. Soon has received cash from ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute, Koch Industries (here we go again) and Southern, one of the world’s largest coal-burning utility companies.