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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Miraculous Icon in Northern Liberties


By Thom Nickels

The news media likes to make light (and fun) of supposed miracles like images of the Virgin Mary on a piece of toast or on a McDonald’s Big Mac. The media will even extend coverage to farfetched abstract images of the Virgin Mary in French toast batter or dried house paint.

But what happens when something like the real thing occurs?

The media is not to be found, that’s what.

Perhaps that’s a good thing. If too many people knew where a real miracle was taking place the location would be so crowded they’d have to sell tickets. But that was not the case with the miraculous and healing myrrh-streaming icon of the Virgin Mary that was brought to Saint Nicholas EO church, 817 N. Seventh Street, in Northern Liberties recently.

There were no tickets to the event; news of the icon’s arrival, in fact, was limited to area parish news bulletins that circulated one week prior.

A little bit of history.

The internationally famous Holy Hawaiian-Iveron Icon of the Theotokos that was brought to Saint Nicholas church was not an image drawn on a piece of toast, although it is a modern picture of the Virgin Mary that was given to its owner in Hawaii sometime in 2007. The owner, a man named Nectarios, put this and another gift icon in the icon corner of his house and pretty much forgot about them. Nectarios, you see, collects a lot of icons, so he didn’t expect anything unusual to occur.

The icon of the Virgin Mary (Theotokos) began to give off a scent of roses or myrrh. At first Nectarios though the scent was “all in his head,” but when he came home one day and found his house flooded with the aroma, he knew that something extraordinary was happening. He was able to trace the scent to the two gift icons mentioned above, but especially to the Theotokos, which seemed to be oozing so much myrrh that you could take a cloth, apply it to the icon and the cloth would come up wet. A shocked Nectarios asked his wife if she had cleaned the icon earlier with anything liquid, but she answered in the negative.

The couple brought the icon to their parish priest, who placed it in the church on an Analogia or table while it continued to stream myrrh.

The stream of myrrh and the scent of roses would not stop. Soon people from all religions began to visit them. Nectarios stated: “The icons streamed quite hard; there was enough myrrh for everyone. They have continued streaming ever since. Many have come to see the icons. Russians, Greeks, Serbs, Roman Catholics, Protestants. All who approach the icons feel the Grace of God!”

When various miracles and healings started to happen, Nectarios knew that the image had been singled out for a special blessing.
To date, the Theotokos icon has been to over 250 churches in the United States and to nearly every country in the world. It is estimated that it has been venerated by nearly a quarter of a million people. For almost five years now the streaming myrrh has rarely abated. “There have been days when the icons have been completely dry, while on other days they are covered in myrrh. Yet whether they stream or not, they continually give off an extremely strong scent of roses. It is truly a great miracle. I sometimes wonder if it is a warning,” Nectarios has written.

When I heard that this famous icon was going to be in Northern Liberties, I made a point to see it. I headed over to St. Nicholas’ after work and waited inside the church, along with many others, for the icon’s arrival by car from another location. The wait was lengthy, but it was worth it; the extra time allowed the church to fill to capacity. At the entrance of the icon, the bells rang in a sustained powerful, staccato-like peel.

The ringing made me ponder the plight of people misled by amulets, crystals, divination cards, sage bundles, magic pendulums, gemstones or stones with words of encouragement written on them, occult oils, runes, Celtic Druidism, Cloudy Purple Floor washes or pop up Reiki.

Standing in the church, I also recalled a set of “healing” crystals somebody had given me years ago. The idea was to rub the crystals on any part of the body that was experiencing pain and then let the properties inherent in the crystals work their healing power. While I was never convinced that these crystals could do anything, an elderly relative of mine was. She would request that I bring them to the nursing home whenever I visited her. I think it was more psychological suggestion (and the placebo effect) that caused this relative to say, “Oh yes, I feel much better now. Don’t forget to bring them next time.”

Soon after the Theotokos icon was placed in front of the church, there was a floral fragrance in the air. This scent was not coming from the priest’s censer. The aroma got substantially heavier when I got in line to wait my turn to face the image.

During that half hour wait, altar boys distributed holy card images of the icon, as well as small zip lock baggies—the kind you see on the street left by those suffering from substance abuse---for a sampling of myrrh from the miraculous image.
As my turn approached, I noticed that the priests had small vials filled with myrrh that had been obtained from the image. They also used small Q-tips to anoint the foreheads and hands of those in line. (It is sometimes possible to dab the front of the icon with a cloth or cotton and get enough myrrh to anoint people, but at Saint Nicholas vials were used). The scent in the church was by now overwhelming.

When it was my turn at the icon, I noticed that the glass enclosure around it was foggy due to condensation.

Nothing happened to me after I paid my respects. I did not levitate five inches off the ground; I did not see stars; I was not able to divine the future. The far greater miracle was all around: the scent of roses, just as Nectarios described it, from this image of the Theotokos.

I placed my small baggie of myrrh in my satchel and headed to Front and Girard where I boarded the Route 15, my nostrils and body, awash in myrrh.

Even as I finish these last sentences, the baggie of myrrh on my desk continues to emit its mysterious aroma.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Local Lens
Published• Wed, Sep 12, 2012

By Thom Nickels

Finding the right contractor for household renovations can be a major headache. That’s because too many contractors have terrible reputations for "getting over," meaning that they overcharge clients—especially naïve or elderly people—for work that does not need to be expensive. That subjective category, ‘labor costs,’ is usually what ups the price, but how do you measure labor, really?

There are many honest contractors out there, but the trouble is finding them. Contractors with big names who own dozens of trucks and vans tend to arouse my suspicions. I see them as little companies that grew into big corporations and in the process lost their "little guy" roots. As "big guys," they very often adopt the ways of corrupt corporations and charge exorbitant prices.

More complaints are lodged against contractors than any other group of workers. According to the Better Business Bureau, roofing contractors are the worst when it comes to customer complaints. Choosing a contractor is no easy task, but once you know a few ground rules, that job can be made easier. It is unwise, for instance, to use the services of contractors whose business cards contain only a Post Office Box number. Another thing I’ve learned is that when you choose a contractor, be aware that a reasonable down payment for a job is about 30 percent of the cost. 50% is steep (but negotiable) but paying 100% is foolish.

Another ground rule: Always pay the balance when the full job has been completed, and not a day before.

The wrong contractor, of course, can help to drive a homeowner off the deep end. I am reminded of a man I worked for years ago when I was in the health care industry. He was rehabbing a house in South Philadelphia and had a number of contractors working for him. Sometimes his contractors failed to keep appointments for follow up work after the initial contract was signed. Showing up to give an estimate, or even the first day of work was easy, but usually a few days into the job the contractor would disappear.

The homeowner would rant and rave. "Where are they? They said they would be here at nine o’clock. It is already 11." Phone calls did no good because very often he’d get the contractor’s voice mail. I felt bad for the guy because the whole thing seemed like a trick: Present yourself as a responsible and meticulous contractor when you give an estimate, bank the deposit and promise a work schedule, then go out and do the same with other customers--so you can be sure you’ll have lots of work—but give no thought about the impending work overlaps that threaten prior job commitments.

"Where are you?" the homeowner would shout into the phone, his face a flush red. "You’re what? You’re on another job? What! You were supposed to be here two hours ago." Next I’d hear a babble of nervous words from the contractor, the fast talking explanation that went on like a babbling brook before the inevitable apology and summation: "We can get to you tomorrow morning, definitely."

"Tomorrow morning I’ll be in Cherry Hill."

Which meant, of course, another postponement, provided it didn’t rain or another job overlap didn’t intrude. And since ‘tomorrow’ always seemed to be a Friday, if that didn’t work it meant the job would have to be postponed until Monday, which in turn meant that the home owner would spend the entire weekend saying horrible things about the people he had working for him. At times I felt really bad for the owner and consoled him with, "How can professionals behave this way?" but he’d say, "They are not professionals, they are contractors." "Yes, but," I’d reply, "You can at least be certain that they will be back—if they want the rest of the money, that is."

But just as there can be bad contractors, there can be "bad" people who hire contractors. The homeowner in question fell into the latter category.

Observing his contractor interactions was always an education. For some reason he’d gotten it into his head that these workers were his personal employees in the old pre-Union sweatshop sense. Technically, the workers may have been his "employees," but his tendency was to treat them like slaves or servants and talk down to them.

All of this came to a head when the boss told the workers to wait while he went to pick up supplies. Since the trip took longer than expected, the workers used the time as an impromptu coffee break until the supplies got there. When the homeowner entered the kitchen for a bit to eat and saw the workers sitting on crates, instead of asking what was wrong he flew into a rage.

He called them a bunch of lazy bums, and told them he wasn’t paying them to sit on their duffs.

I was in another part of the house when this occurred and to me it sounded like the homeowner was scolding a group of nine year old boys. The stunned workers said little but when the boss returned from the store they reported what had happened.

This time it was the contractor’s turn to explode.

"You don’t talk to my men like that!" he said.

And with that, even though the wealthy homeowner needed the work on his house done before his scheduled meditation retreat to the Far East, the contractor and his men picked up their tools and walked out, never to be seen again.

The Local Lens
Published• Wed, Sep 19, 2012
By Thom Nickels

A certain columnist currently writing for The Philadelphia Inquirer has created a lot of smoke by publishing email responses from Archbishop Chaput to area Catholics who went to the trouble to email him with questions or comments.

In an unprecedented move, the archbishop made public his private email address and invited any Catholic in the archdiocese to drop him a line. Now, if you don’t think this move is extraordinary, can you imagine Mayor Nutter—or any City Council person for that matter—being this accessible to the public? Can you imagine any politician getting up at 4 a.m. (as Chaput does) to read and answer email from constituents? Politicians as a rule don’t like to subject themselves to the raw (often cantankerous) nerve of the public. That’s why they have public relations front people or surround themselves with an entourage of aides whose job it is to weed out "inappropriate people, places or things."

Not so with Archbishop Chaput. By publishing his private email address he’s exposing himself to a variety of voices and opinions, be they friendly, hostile, indifferent, or offensive.

Chaput was smart to institute an open email policy. After all, he inherited an archdiocese still wounded from a rash of clergy sex abuse scandals. He boarded a ship that many saw as sinking and that had already suffered a lot of damage, namely the "ruined" reputation of the Catholic Church among certain parts of the population. Of course, the people who used the clergy sex abuse scandals as an excuse to enhance an already deep seated hatred of Catholicism, are not to be taken seriously.

In my experience, these are very often the same people who like to proclaim that Catholics are not really Christians. I hear this all the time from some Protestant people, and it is really annoying. If Catholics are not Christians, what are they then? If anything, both the Catholic Church and Orthodox Church are the only two Christian bodies in the world that can trace their roots directly back to the apostles. You can’t get any more Christian than that.

Most would agree that the fallout from the clergy sex abuse tragedy has increased the willingness of some to attack Catholicism in general rather than castigate individual priests or higher ups for crimes against the young.

The Inquirer columnist in question is a snappy, cosmopolitian "with it" kind of writer. Religion is not a common subject with her, but when it is, her approach tends to be from a cynical perspective. Despite occasional issues with this writer, as a fellow columnist, I have a grudging respect for her. Columnists, after all, work hard, and getting a column out every week can be a minor challenge. There are, of course, random off weeks when ideas are harder to come by. There are also the rare weeks when the only ideas seem to be in the mental dumpster.

What’s this? I can safely say that in most columnists’ minds there is a no zone kind of place, a kind of dumpster filled with ethically suspect ideas we come to rarely use.

And it’s a good thing.

I like to compare these dumpster ideas to the short list of bad insult jokes a comedian may keep in his/her pocket in case their regular jokes fail.

These cheap shot columns rarely make it into print because the angels of our better themselves helps to snuff them out before they see the light of print.

I’m not talking about unsettling material that may disturb the status quo, like the fantastic Watergate era reporting of Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein, or the wonderful Truth Dig political columns of Chris Hedges, but the underhanded gossipy mucus membrane reports you might see on TV’s TMZ, or columns that purport to comment on the emails of Catholics based on their private email responses from Archbishop Chaput.

Think of it for a moment: Do you believe The Inquirer columnist’s intentions were good when she printed Archbishop Chaput’s private emails? Obviously if all of Chaput’s email responses had been benign or of a Shirley Temple variety, there’d be no story, no eyeball popping sensation to record. But because the emails showed the human side of the archbishop, she saw an opportunity to stoke a fire that had already been raging. (Remember, Chaput is trying to do damage control related to the sex scandals).

The emails only showed that the archbishop is a human being who gets frustrated like any human being despite his being an archbishop.

But is this news? And why did she print them? Does anyone really think that because one is a monk, nun, bishop, patriarch or pope, that one is like a plastic dashboard saint?

Listen to these lines from the column in question: "When pressed or second-guessed, Chaput can get snappy." Then the writer goes on to say, "Chaput’s annoyance intrigued me…" Intrigued in this case means fascinated, delighted, because hey, there’s something like a rotten fish here: Chaput’s weaknesses displayed like tumors on a chest x-ray. The columnist’s underlying message becomes: "You see folks; he’s no saint….he’s no better than your neighbor across the street that uses the F word all the time. By George, we need to take him off his pedestal!"

But the problem is, dear columnist, is Archbishop Chaput never put himself on a pedestal in the first place.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

James Holmes and the Madness in Aurora, Colorado


By Thom Nickels

Last week’s Spirit front page asking for prayers and thoughts for the victims in Aurora, Colorado, put me in the frame of mind to write about alleged killer James Holmes.

A person like James Holmes can come from any part of the country. Colorado has nothing in the water, or in its mountain air that taints the sanity of its inhabitants. I lived in Colorado when I was 23, and I can tell you that most of the people I befriended there were warm and honest. If anything, Colorado is super friendly. The personal reserve that is often encountered when you first meet people on the East Coast is not evident in Colorado. While I didn’t live in Aurora (Boulder was my hometown) I passed through the area many times.

Thinking about this tragedy naturally begs the question: what made this seemingly quiet science and math nerd to lose it and go on an evil bender? Nothing in Holmes’ background so far seems to indicate a reason for his rampage. Holmes was not bullied by fellow students, and what he did was not an act of retribution for a perceived transgression. He did not know the people he killed and injured.

Some pinpoint the killer’s academic failure, his flunking of an oral university examination as the catalyst that set him off. They theorize that Holmes snapped after this failure, causing him to lay the groundwork for the attack in Aurora.

This answer, however, seems too easy. A lot of people flunk exams, make major mistakes in their chosen profession, get fired from jobs or even get arrested, but life for them goes on. If someone goes on a killing spree because life throws them a major disappointment, you can be sure that “something” inside their heads prior to the disappointment was not right in the first place.

Smaller versions of the Colorado tragedy occur regularly in our own city. These are “passionless” crimes where killers kill as an adjunct to robbery. There’s no need to kill a robbery victim once you have taken his wallet, but more often than not this is what happens. The murder of Fishtown resident Michael Hagan at 4th and Lombard recently (an in-law of a goof friend of mine) is a case in point. Hagan was gunned down in the wee hours of the morning after a robbery. The thug who robbed Hagan already had his money; there was no reason to shoot him except for sport or fear that Hagan may identify him later.

Holmes, however, planned his spree for two months, so he had plenty of time to get over his academic blues. Instead he cultivated the idea of a massacre like a character in a Warner Brothers film. (Warner Brothers films, by the way, specialize in violence, psychologically disturbed characters and deranged criminals). Perhaps he wanted his fifteen minutes of fame and notoriety, unable to obtain it by working to be a famous scientist (he could not wait that long).

Holmes was obviously a paranoid schizophrenic. An article in Scientific American asserts that “Schizophrenia typically shows up in young adult men from 20 to 28 years.” The piece goes on to trace the development [of schizophrenia] to connections between the cells in the body. “Connections between cells are constantly broken and forged throughout our lives but there’s an amazingly large amount of so-called ‘pruning’ during adolescence…. While the defective gene may be there at birth, its effect does not show up until many years into one’s life, post adolescence in young adulthood.”

A Catholic priest, Father Dwight Longenecker, suggests that Holmes’ affliction might have been of a “psycho-spiritual” nature. “A malevolent, separate intelligence infests the mind and spirit of a person. It takes over the rational faculties and dominates the personality. The phenomenon is real, but anyone who has ever dealt with the problem realizes that the demonic realm is complex.”
Fr. Longenecker also comments on the relationship between role play games and a personality overcome by evil. In his blog he posted the following email comment sent to him from an alleged childhood friend of Holmes.’

“He played on ATL shard and had some weirdo character named Joka. Everyone who played with him including me knew he was weird and had this killing attitude about him. That was a long time ago (and many computers ago) so I guess Origins would have to pull up the chat records on their old server database to see what all his “Joka” character said back then. Anyhow, he was always obsessed with The Joker and Joka stereotypes. You know like clown killing psychopathic garbage….”
In the end, of course, I believe it is society’s job to construct some cautionary limits when it comes to private citizens purchasing military style magazines capable of shooting many rounds of ammunition. Society constructs limits in nearly every other area of life: security restrictions when we travel, laws against child pornography, laws penalizing sex with minors, the purchase of illegal drugs; laws that govern marriage, divorce and child support; laws that make it a challenge to visit countries like Cuba.

Restrictions and legal limits abound, sometimes to excess, but when it comes to guns our society has opted to sit on the sidelines and do nothing.
How long will we sit like the Buddha and wait for enlightenment?

A private citizen should not be permitted to own AK-47s or high-capacity magazines, or the type of gun that Holmes allegedly used, an AR-15 with a 100 round drum magazine. Military style weapons have no business in anybody’s home. For those who say that the Second Amendment of the Constitution permits American citizens to own any sort of weapon, I would ask: how far are we willing to take this right?
Why not the right to own biological weapons?

As a friend of mine said, “Let’s interpret the Constitution according to its spirit, but avoid the literal, strict fundamentalism."

Perhaps if there had been some gun control safeguards in place, Holmes would have just shot himself rather than do what he did.

Texting into oblivion

The Local Lens
By Thom Nickels

In Center City recently, while walking along Broad Street, I collided with a woman who was texting while walking. Because she was in zombie mode, she barely felt the clash of our arms and shoulders. She uttered no word of apology for walking into me but simply went on texting while moving to a different part of the sidewalk (presumably to collide with somebody else later on). Later, on Walnut Street, I had to sidestep another walking texter, this one an executive type with two devices and wires in his ears. That evening, in Starbucks, I sat across from a couple (obviously on a date) when, to the man’s chagrin—he was noticeably frowning—his date launched into a texting frenzy. He sat there for a long time hunched forward in his chair, looking more and more stressed until finally his friend quit texting and put the device in her purse.

During rush hour on the Market-Frankford line on any given day, one can see armies of texting zombies, their eyes fixed on their devices. Unique subway theatrical events, like the time a homeless man with a cardboard sign around his neck did a stump speech to 30 or more passengers about needing some sandwiches, are lost on the zombies. The man’s unique presentation, which included a detailed description of his wife and children holed up in a room in Center City’s Parker Hotel, all starving, was the most dramatic monologue I’ve listened to since I hear Philly actor Will Struts impersonate poet Walt Whitman.

Even getting off the EL at Girard to board the Route 15, one notices an increase in zombie texters. Texting under the El, in fact, has a peculiar frantic quality, as if the presence of train tracks somehow helps the movement of human fingers. Hanging around so many texters, I have to say that I’ve often felt inadequate with just a book in my hand. Since the books I usually carry are not even contained within a Kindle—but real books you can underline and save on your library shelf—I feel a sense of pride about not overusing every technological innovation. Still, one close look at Girard Avenue near Front is an intense snapshot of processions of zombies ambling every which way, most with hand held devices, some wired, some wired on bikes, and some—you just know it---thinking about taking out their devices and getting wired after dinner. Often to give my eyes a rest from reading, I’ll watch the uneven, walking styles of these zombies; their stop and go texting strut, heads down, as they walk across Front just missing telephone poles, the Route 5 bus, a Pepsi truck or taxi, a woman pulling two infants in a makeshift baby carriage, or even other wired up zombies. Once I saw a near collision of zombies with a small cluster of methadone clinic people. Since some of the methadone people were also texting, the confusion caused somebody to drop a device. The cluster of zombies jumped at the sound: whose Holy Grail had been broken into two parts?

It was as if the sun had fallen from the sky.

Put all this to music and you have something like Monty Python, Charlie Chaplin, or even a Woody Allen film, but my thoughts are anything but stuck on funny when I recall the sad story I heard the other day from a guy who told me how his twenty-eight year old, eight- month pregnant fiancé was struck and killed by a motorcyclist on Roosevelt Blvd. last year.

“I always worried about her because whenever we’d walk across a street, she’d never look where she was going but just keep her head down and text. She would walk into traffic and not take her eyes off the text and I’d have to pull her back and say ‘Yo, this is dangerous, someday something’s going to happen to you.’”

Kevin told me there were times when his girlfriend would walk into the street while texting, causing traffic to come to a screeching halt, missing her by a hair. While Kevin says he has no proof she was texting the night she and her unborn baby were hit and killed on Roosevelt Blvd., he says he’s pretty certain that’s what happened.

Philadelphia may soon be handing $120 fines to people who walk and text. Other cities in the U.S. are beginning to look at the problem, especially around train stations and transportation centers. Jim Fox, Septa’s director of system safety and risk management, told the Huffington Post that “Septa recorded reports from bus drivers and train engineers who say they nearly hit pedestrians who didn’t appear to hear them sound their horns because they were distracted by their electronic devices.”

Quite a number of people have been killed by Septa trains because they were wearing headphones or using cell phones while walking.

“To date, 1,152 people were treated in the emergency room in the United States for injuries suffered while walking and using a cell phone or other electronic devices,” the Consumer Product Safety Commission has reported.

The obsession with texting has also affected the way many people communicate. There are now large numbers of young people who make it a point never to talk on the phone. Talking, as in using your mouth the old fashioned cell phone way, is considered passé. Once more, the growth of texting has created a new and sometimes confusing abbreviated written language of internet acronyms and shorthand that in many cases has taken the place of Standard English. The influence of this new language is so powerful that many students have lost the capacity to differentiate between text-talk English and the English you need to know for writing a term paper.

What’s worse than Texting zombie hood? I’d say it is the inability of many students to do cursive writing. The notion of intelligent people only being able to print in block letters, like six year olds, is not a happy one.

“What happens when young people who are not familiar with cursive have to read historical documents like the Constitution?” The New York Times asks.

They shrug their shoulders and start to text, that’s what.

Ah, you say, but what are they texting—what are they saying?

You can bet your kindergarten alphabet it’s nothing that will go down in history…

Unprovoked attacked near Philadelphia's Front and Girard

The Local Lens
Published• Wed, Aug 15, 2012

By Thom Nickels

An acquaintance of mine who works in real estate, and who takes the EL from Girard to work everyday, told me that he’s becoming increasingly uneasy at the feelings he gets while riding the train. At first I thought he was talking about the El’s mechanical glitches but then he corrected me and said that it was certain feelings he was picking up from passengers that’s causing him to worry.

"Oh, like feelings of tension, even anger?"

"Yes," he said.

The real estate guy, I decided, was talking about the beneath-the-surface unhappiness you see in far too many people these days. One can attribute this unhappiness to many things: the economy, the heat, joblessness, cuts in welfare, the high price of food, frustration at not being able to purchase more material goods. Anger at life—since life is not always fair or just—for some people means finding an explosive outlet, whether that be a mass killing at a Sheik temple in Wisconsin or a one-on-one kicking of somebody under a bus at Front and Girard.

To "throw under a bus," according to, means "to get a person in trouble either by placing blame on that person or not standing up for him." Then there’s the literal meaning of to throw under a bus, and that’s where my story comes in.

I witnessed a literal throwing last Wednesday evening while waiting for the Route 15. It began when I noticed an older man in a green "Irish" T-shirt and baseball cap walking erratically under the El while mumbling to himself. I couldn’t tell whether the man was slightly developmentally disabled or had had a few too many beers at the bar. I decided it was the former when the bus appeared on Girard and the man shouted, "We are all in luck people, the 15 bus is here!"

I’m familiar with the developmentally disabled. I had a younger brother who was diagnosed as "severe/profound" and who, at 28, had the mentality of a six year old. My parents had a hard time raising him because he would often throw violent temper tantrums in the house and in public as well. (In restaurants he would suddenly snap out and throw his food across the room.) While these behaviors were brought under control with medication, every family member was exposed to the reaction of the public when we took David outside the home. David was lucky in one respect because his mental disability was registered as severe/profound, making it easy for strangers to grasp the severity of the problem. High functioning mentally disabled people have it rough because their impairment is not always noticeable, meaning that insensitive people often jump to conclusions about their "stupidity" when something goes wrong.

Something did go wrong when the Irish T-shirt guy walked close to a hulking man in an inverted sailor hat. I heard some noise and turned to see the guy in the hat kick the little guy directly under the rear tire of the bus, and then push-kick the guy further under the vehicle. To me it looked like he was trying to kill him. The big guy kept kicking the little guy further under the bus and then he bent over and repeatedly punched him. A group of women began screaming and yelling "Stop," but that only seemed to anger the man in the hat. His kicks became more intense. When it looked as if he had had enough, he walked away from his victim only to return and kick him some more.

By now a sizeable crowd had gathered. The bus driver was now on the sidewalk talking on his cell to the police. Bystanders were calling the police as well.

Because the man in the hat was the size of Lou Ferrigno in The Incredible Hulk, nobody was willing to play hero and take him on. Unfortunately, none of the men present, including this reporter, were willing to be kicked under the bus and become victim #2. Everyone steered clear of him because it was obvious that he was out for blood. This was made abundantly clear when he retuned to the scene of the crime, ten minutes after leaving the scene of the beating, to inspect the damages.

He showed up to gloat and maybe do some more kicking one minute before police arrived.

When asked how the ruckus had started, the little man—who had bloody cuts on his face and a very bloody right ear—said that the man just walked straight towards him on the sidewalk like he was going to knock him over. The little man said he put his hand up as if to say, "Stop, don’t walk into me."

"I just put my hand up like this," the little man demonstrated, blood pouring out of his right ear.

By now an ambulance and a couple of patrol cars were on the scene, and the bus driver, who had a schedule to keep, announced that he was getting ready to leave. He and a few other passengers had intended to hang around in case the police needed witnesses but the process was dragging out. People wanted to get home for dinner.

Where would this little man be without witnesses? Kicked under the bus a second time? Fortunately, a group of us stayed behind as the Route 15 took off (we could catch the next bus). We opted to talk to police in case that was necessary.

It was necessary, as it turned out. We produced our ID’s and phone numbers for witness testimony.

When we saw the inverted sailor hat guy being handcuffed, we could barely contain our excitement. It’s not often in this day and age that one sees the successful administration of justice. Usually the perpetrator runs away and the victim is left to sort things out alone. But as Mr. Inverted sailor hat was led to a squad car, one witness mentioned that The Hulk was studying our faces as if committing them to memory

"Don’t even go there," another witness said, "We’ll be fine, even if he sees us six months down the line."

It pays to be positive about these things.

Support the United States Postal system from right wing attacks

The Local Lens
Published• Wed, Aug 22, 2012

By Thom Nickels

The next time you see the person who delivers your mail, shake their hand and thank them for a job well done. Tell them that they are a vital part of what is truly American, the United States Postal Service, which became a cornerstone of American life during the 1775 Second Centennial Congress, when Benjamin Franklin was named the first Postmaster General.

Much like the right to bear arms, the "right" to a federal postal system is enshrined in the Constitution. In many ways, you can’t get more American than the Post Office. It is right up there with the 4th of July and The Bill of Rights.

But make no mistake: the United States Post Office is under attack from politicians who would like to see it privatized. They want to eliminate free mail delivery and replace it with a private for-profit company that would have the power to raise rates and charge outrageous sums for mail delivery. Home mail delivery at that point could become so pricey that many people would be forced to do without. Few people would be able to afford Fed Ex-style prices, like the $20 to $30 fee to send a letter from New York to the West Coat.

This is not what Benjamin Franklin had in mind.

In the early Twentieth Century, mail in the United States was delivered twice a day. My great aunt used to tell me stories about these twice a day deliveries—one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Mail delivery twice a day is nothing short of extraordinary, although once a day is quite acceptable. My old criticisms of the US Postal System had to do with the Post Office redesigning mail delivery routes; in other words, changing the time the delivery person drops mail in your slot. When I first moved to the Riverwards, the mail time on my street was between 10 and 11 AM. I’ve always thought that this was an ideal time to receive mail. It affords you ample time to get to a bank and get important business mail well before 5 PM. Since my childhood days in Chester County, I can happily report that mail has always come to my residence, in or out of Pennsylvania, between these hours.

When the Postal Office announced a redesign of my (Fishtown) street’s delivery time about 3 years ago, I was not a happy camper. The new time was slated somewhere between 2:30 and 4 PM, and the change hit hard. I complained to the Post Office, telling them that the delivery person circles my street all morning long but doesn’t actually deliver mail here till almost 3 PM.

"A postal re-design is a re-design," I was told. I didn’t like it, but I accepted it. Then things got worse. Because our regular delivery person had to undergo an operation, mail began to be delivered on my street close to 5 or 6 PM. There’s something perverse about getting mail at dinner time. I told the Post Office this in no uncertain terms.

Then I began to notice how forces in this country were trying to destroy the Post Office altogether. Not kill it with one large blow but hack away at it slowly, bit by bit. That’s when I realized that late mail is a small price to pay to safeguard the system just as Franklin envisioned it.

Consider what happened to Holland when that country privatized its postal system in 1989. Within ten years of the change about 90% of the post offices closed in that country, and mail pickups at mail deposit boxes went down to once a day. Mail delivery became unreliable and iffy, with packages getting lost or disappearing.

Say what you want about the US Postal Service—"They’re a bunch of slow motion lazy salamanders!" —but it is still the best system around. Under a Fed Ex style system you would have a lot more to complain about. The US Postal Service is a not for profit institution, unlike Fed Ex, whose goal is to make as much money as possible.

Does anyone think a for-profit system would attempt to deliver mail through rain, snow or sleet, or travel into obscure, isolated areas? Not on your life. Inevitably, for-profit institutions fall into some kind of corruption. As writer Michelle Maireese noted: "To this day, for-profit mailers refuse to service remote or dangerous locations, relying on the Postal Service for end-delivering of letters and packages."

The US Postal Service is not perfect, and its critics say it is broke and in need of reform, but these same critics and their allies are the very ones who put the US Postal Service in that position.

If you are going to thank your local delivery person, you should know the facts. In 2006, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act was voted on only after a "poison pill" was added to the bill. The poison pill was this: Politicians forced the US Postal Service to pre-fund their retirement for the next 75 years within a 5-year span.

A plan like that is almost bound to fail for obvious reasons.

The ideologues working to privatize the postal system used this "poison pill" to cripple the Post Office so that in the end they could say: "You see there! Government failed again. It does not work! We need to privatize!"

But does anyone or "anything" work well after being poisoned?

As the New Hampshire Labor News Network put it, "The citizens in our country who rely on the Postal Service are just collateral damage. Profits for the wealthy are placed above all else."

Politicians who want to abolish the US Postal Service have a problem because they don’t want to be seen as tampering with the Constitution, so rather than risk this label they engineer insidious long range plans that slowly attack the postal service financially.

But Benjamin Franklin knew better, and that’s why the Postal System was enshrined as a universal, American "entitlement."

Any politician who tells you otherwise is… un-American.

Meeting Arlen Specter in a Rite Aide; Meeting former DA Lynne Abraham on a bus, and more..

The Local Lens
Published• Wed, Sep 05, 2012

By Thom Nickels

Politicians at some point have to think about what they will do for a living when their ‘term of service’ is over. This must be a very difficult undertaking. I’m thinking especially of former State Rep. Babette Josephs, who represented the 182nd Legislative District from 1985 to earlier this year, when she lost to contender Brian Sims.

After that election, Ms. Josephs was not only out of a job, she was out of the (highly prized) public relations loop—the city’s ‘in the know’ circle that includes all sorts of perks and whistles. Prior to the election she was assured of walking down the street and getting nods, smiles and handshakes, but after her defeat (and the power shift) these things no doubt took a nose dive. This must hurt. I say this with some certainty because recently I passed Ms. Josephs on a Center City street and noticed that the fixed smile she wore for years seemed to be less slanted in the upward position. Sadly, she’d become--- in the six seconds that it took me to pass her on the sidewalk--- just another Center City elderly shopper.

Some months ago, I was in an Old City-bound bus on Chestnut Street when I noticed a sweet little old lady sitting to my left. Quiet and diminutive looking with her hands folded on her lap like a 1950s parochial school girl, I gave her a passing glance only to realize that the lady was none other than former Philadelphia DA Lynne Abraham (1991-2010), the ferocious lion who would not give up the search for Ira Einhorn, the founder of Earth Day in 1970 who murdered his girlfriend Holly Maddux sometime in 1977 and then stuck her body in a truck in his Powelton Village apartment. On television, strong personalities like Abraham appear larger than life; that’s why seeing them in person can sometimes be a shock. When I introduced myself, the former DA said something funny and self deprecating and wished me a good evening.

About this time I found myself in line at a Center City Rite Aid. The store was crowded but when my turn came to approach the register a customer appeared out of nowhere and threw the item he wanted to pay for on the counter in front of me. The cashier turned to the man and said, "I’m sorry, sir, but this gentleman [meaning me] was in line before you." I looked at the man who threw the item and saw that it was Arlen Specter, Philadelphia’s DA in 1965 and (for a while) Ira Einhorn’s defense attorney. Like the diminutive Abraham, Specter was far smaller and frailer than his TV image. He looked at me in a quizzical way as if he expected me to support his hijacking of the line.

I wondered then if Mr. Specter had a habit of throwing items on store counters as a way to jump the line. Was he used to people bowing to his wishes and saying, "Oh, honored sir of the Warren Commission Report, oh honored ex-Pennsylvania senator, please, by all means, step ahead of me and all the people behind me. As first among equals, please proceed."

While I didn’t say this, I knew I had to say something, so I did the next best thing: I introduced myself by mentioning that I’d been following his career for years and that it was a pleasure to finally shake his hand. This was not a lie or even flattery but the God’s truth. When we shook hands, Mr. Specter said, "I’m not worried about you, I’m worried about her," meaning the poor check out girl who had had the verve to do what was right but who was now being given an eyeball once over by Mr. Specter. The truth of course is that the cashier, being in her twenties, probably didn’t even know who Arlen Specter was and wouldn’t have recognized Lynne Abraham or Babette Josephs either. But even if she had recognized them, she still would have stuck to the rules of the line.

As for Mayor Nutter’s plunge into future relative obscurity, it’s my guess he will not go gentle into that good night.

Mayor Nutter will not go the route of other former mayors of Philadelphia. He will not become a man of the cloth like Wilson Goode, disappear into the either like John Street, or become a radio personality like Frank Rizzo. What he will do is attempt to follow former Governor and Mayor Ed Rendell’s example and opt for a spot on the national political stage. The national stage is where the real Public Relations perks and whistles are. This is where Mayor Nutter wants to be; the proof, my friends, is in the grooming process he’s already undertaken, namely his handling of the first ticketed concert ever on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

There’s never been a ticketed event on the Parkway, much less the $75.00 Labor Day weekend ticketed event that the city built up with the construction of two eight foot high walls, one draped in tarp to keep people without tickets from seeing anything and the other a wall to keep crashers from getting in free.

Listen here, the mayor told whiners, if you can’t afford a ticket, go buy the CD.

Ok, so let’s suppose you applaud Mayor Nutter’s exercise in thinking big. After all, what better way to attract a national or international audience than to hold a ticketed concert with acts like JAY-Z? Imagine the publicity Philly will get, never mind the boom to the city’s hotel industry, but think of it: Mayor Nutter on national TV the night of the concert—Mayor Bloomberg eat your heart out—talking about the urban Woodstock of the Depression Age (sans murders, of course). What a career catalyst! Talk about a musical trampoline to national prominence! Why, if this concert is a success, political head hunters will be all over Mr. Nutter like flies on butter.

The first of its kind anywhere: a JAY-Z concert as a resume career planning move!

His Honor’s reluctance to answer reporters’ questions concerning how much taxpayer money is being used to organize and clean up after the concert (think of all the extra police that were hired to arrest fence jumpers) is yet another indication that, in his mind at least, the mayor has already set one foot on the national stage.

"Philadelphia, Shrilladelphia," he might as well be saying, "What the promoters of Made in America didn’t pay for in their lion’s share agreement is none of your business.

"Because I’m moving on… and moving up…"

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Food culture as Religion

The Local Lens
Published• Wed, Aug 29, 2012
By Thom Nickels

The exploding foodie culture is everywhere; it is a world where dining out has become a daily ritual-- almost a religion, in fact-- especially at those restaurants and cafes that extend out onto city sidewalks with tables and chairs that often make walking in Center City difficult. And it is not only in Center City. Even the most obscure and unpretentious restaurant with nothing but dumpsters on all sides, will arrange a pop-up sidewalk café.

But the viral sidewalk spread of tables and chairs and attending wait staff darting between pedestrians is the new urban traffic jam. Philadelphia sidewalks tend to be narrow, meaning that more often than not it is difficult for two people to pass one another without bumping elbows, but add a plethora of sidewalk cafes to the mix, and you have uncomfortable congestion.

In Europe, of course, the wide avenues, trees and old buildings seem an appropriate setting for these outdoor cafes, but at 13th and Samson or in most city streets where trucks and traffic stall or spew their pollution into the faces of passersby and foodies alike, the scene is far from ideal.

Occasional sidewalk cafes are wonderful, but does every block have to contain several? Should walking through the city always be like walking through a crowded reception area, squeezing past wait staff, saying "Excuse me" over and over, bumping tables with shopping bags or satchels, or waiting on the sidewalk while some maitre de seats a party of ten, including one of the guest’s German Shepard and his special restaurant bowl?

It used to be that sidewalk cafés were only in special areas. Near a public square for instance, like Rittenhouse, or on a very wide street where there is lots of leg and vehicle room. Not anymore. Today they are more likely to be in highly inappropriate places like next to a firehouse or parallel to an alleyway with a dumpster. The foodie philosophy seems to suggest that a sidewalk café automatically ups the appeal of any new eatery, be it humble Jamaican sugar shack or a Stephen Starr show place.

We live in a food-obsessed age where going to brunch, lunch or dinner has become an important cultural ritual. In Center City on any given weekday night you see foodies gathered at outdoor tables eating specialty entrees on square plates, bottled water, a bottle of Jack Daniels or wine nearby. Dressing up for the occasion is important. The diners are almost all in their twenties or thirties. The restaurants I’m referring to are not cheap diners that used to dot the urban landscape, but expensive places often specializing in minimalist food and chic portions (you leave hungry) where the art of food presentation is almost more important as the taste of the food itself.

I love to go out to dinner as much as the next person, but the culture foodies seem to go to extremes. At Honey’s restaurant in Northern Liberties on any given Sunday afternoon, people line up like people do at Macy’s for a Black Friday shopping spree. The wait line to get into Honey’s extends on both sides of the street, and waiting patrons often lounge in the street level windows of Saint Agnes-St. John’s Nepomucene Roman Catholic church until their names are called. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I’m thinking that maybe these weekly brunchers are all children of parents who used to drag them to church on Sunday and so they grew up feeling that Sunday is special. When they left home (and lost their religion), brunch became a kind of marker for the Sunday is special tradition, a replacement for going to church.

A life of restaurant indulgence can be expensive, so of course my next question is: where do these foodies get their cash? I thought we were in an economic Depression. Well, you’d never know it passing the outdoor café tables in Center City and seeing what some of these foodies order. (A glass of wine = eight dollars).

I cannot believe that their parents send them food allowance checks so that they can be seen at all the right places. Or do they?

I tell you, watching the foodoholics cram, every nook and cranny of the city, and having to look at hundreds of people stuff their faces every time I walk through town has given me a new respect for food disorders like bulimia, anorexia and fasting, Karen Carpenter, where are you? When I lived in Center City the foodie element was much more contained; it was a time when writers and artists and students went to luncheonettes and diners, but not the slicked over $40 a plate Martini places they call diners today. They were real diners with real homespun waitresses who had personality, not the mostly zombie "I’m really a career actress or actor, NOT a waitress" attitude that’s all too common today.

So how do we fix this, and do we fix this? How do we get foodies interested in something else besides eating?

(Don’t say dogs, because they are already heavily into that).

Last week I lunched with a friend in a popular "foodie" restaurant near 8th and Walnut. The place was so avant garde they served coffee and tea in small cereal bowls. We were both disappointed. Later I found an online critique of the place from a serious foodie type. I present it here as an example of foodie-cult-talk:

"…An atmosphere constantly reminding you of LPQ’s environmental awareness (organic ingredients are proudly touted). Stylish, international and yet with an informal vibe that makes anyone feel welcome. We had an octogenarian and a 2-week old nearby, and it was wonderful. This place is definitely setting a new standard in Philly…"

When I read ‘octogenarian’ I nearly choked on my Wawa coffee.

Why can’t they just say ‘grandma?’

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Philadelphia Style Magazine; Marilyn Monroe, the Fringe Festival and Chick-Fil-A

CITY BEAT, September 2012

Thom Nickels

We were hoping there’d be a significant event in the city honoring the 50th anniversary of the death of Marilyn Monroe. The numerous little theaters here weren’t offering anything (for that we had to check out the Off-Off Broadway production of Siren’s Heart—Norma Jean and Marilyn in Purgatory—Norma Jean Sings Songs Marilyn Never Sang, a one-woman show starring Louisa Bradshaw). The Daily News printed a bio- acknowledgment of sorts, but there wasn’t much else. Still, the anniversary got us thinking about Monroe’s career and her descent into Lee Strasberg’s method acting nether world. Method acting was all the rage in the 1950s, about the time Monroe left Hollywood for New York (at the urging of playwright Arthur Miller) where she wound up learning how to become a “real actress” at Strasberg’s Actors Studio. Monroe had lots of student company-- Shelly Winters and Marlon Brando to name two—as well as pressure from Strasberg to see a psychoanalyst who would proscribe her barbiturates and tranquilizers. Referrals like this were Strasberg’s MO; it almost ruined Brando (who later confessed that his experience with the Actors Studio left him no better off than before). Thanks to the deleterious effects of method acting, Monroe would never do another successful film like The Seven Year Itch, but at least-- like those women in The Valley of the Dolls-- she had her pills. Was it really Lee Strasberg who killed the star? Or do we blame Miller, who urged her to move to New York in the first place? Of course, had Monroe survived perhaps she would have gotten caught up in that other mental barbiturate: Scientology.

Every month, the lobby of many Center City high rises becomes a boxing ring with Icon magazine vs. Philadelphia Style going at it neck and neck. While Icon rarely fails to disappoint in terms of copy, Philadelphia Style, with its mega photo spreads of celebrities and people who want to be celebrities, proves that if you get your picture taken often enough you can become a self-created star. While a pretty face can hardly be called a professional accomplishment, a TMZ-style plunging neckline topped with tanned cleavage does provide the right sizzle when the subject is the opening of a new steak house or an Old City virgin America launch party. Does Icon need to go to more parties and focus on professional party-goers? We might be tempted to take the plunge if we knew who these people were in the first place. We know regular photo-opers like Cole Hammels, Sharon Pinkenson, John DeBella, Sam Katz or Dawn Timmeney; but what about that larger gallery of anonymous faces with the uncanny ability to sniff out the location of every city party, both great and small? One good thing: At least all the PR posing gives Philly’s local amateur paparazzi something to do.

While we’ve certainly had our fill of Chick-fil-A, we did take a little stroll down to the Chick-fil-a outlet in the Gallery on Kiss-in equality day. We saw a few people in line for chicken and even noticed a special “free drink” table that management had set up. We looked far and wide for kisses—Eskimo nose rub kisses, cheek-to-cheek pecks or the full mouth French express kind—but found only an uptight-looking security guard by the waffle fry section who didn’t look like he was about to kiss anybody, but rather pounce (eyes wide shut) should those activist kisses morph into a riot. (The Gallery, traditionally, has never been on the cutting edge of anything, although its lavatory stalls provide the homeless with a motel-like shelter). Just being at the Gallery, however, seemed like the perfect opportunity to look for our favorite men’s cologne, Dior Homme at one of the kiosks near the food court. Dior Homme is not sold at Macy’s on Chestnut or anywhere else in Philly for that matter. (Macy’s colognes run the teenage gamut from Vintage Black to Le Male). When we didn’t find the cologne at the kiosks, at least one purveyor knew what we were talking about, and offered to order it. Now, that was worth a kiss.

Angels in America was big stuff when it burst upon the theater scene in 1990-91, with its story of a closeted Mormon married man and the self hating HIV-infected Roy Cohn. Last year, when the Wilma announced it was bringing Tony Kushner’s play to Philly, there was an audible gasp in the audience. “Really!?” people exclaimed. Many went on to say that Angels was a far cry from the Wilma’s penchant for obscure esoterica, and that they were happy the theater was finally letting in some “mainstream light.” But what a difference a year makes. At the conclusion of the interminably long Part I earlier this year we left the theater with an impression of the Wilma’s seats stuck to our dearieres; we also became nostalgic for traditional Wilma esoterica. (Blanka Zizka, please tell Mr. Kushner he’s no exception when it comes to editing or getting a dramaturge.) That’s why when we read that Angels, Part 2 will be staged at the Wilma this fall, we ran full tilt further down south Broad to see what Suzanne Roberts had up her sleeve,

The Philadelphia Fringe Festival started life as cornucopia of short bohemian productions, when the only aim seemed to be to out avant garde the avant garde. This was well before hipsters and others started stretching their ear lobes, wearing tribal Ethiopian rings, and sporting tattoos to prove their coolness. In today’s world, everyday life is pretty much of a Fringe Festival although the FF in general has much more polish now than it did then. We’re thinking especially of the Tina Brock directed Ivona: Princess of Burgundia by Witold Gombrowicz, an absurdist comedy about a medieval kingdom where appearance is everything. That’s why the princess in question has a hairdo that can only be described as architectural: it towers so high in the air that Ivona’s hairdresser must take a ladder to attend to the upper eaves, window casements, lintels, balusters and hidden patios among the sprayed hair follicles. Ivona runs through September at the Walnut Street Studio 5 and stars the Fishtown-based identical Dura twins, Tomas and Michael.

The Kelly Writers House at U of P is famous for packing in area intellectuals, the extreme opposite of a paparazzi photo op. Here the tanned plunging neckline attractions are writers like John Barth (who visited Kelly’s earlier this year), and Susan Sontag (now dead, but when she appeared at Kelly’s years ago it was a pleasure to bump into her while she cream cheesed a bagel). 2012 will be a triple TMZ explosion for KWH--- that’s three Virgin America Launch parties in one--- with the announcement of Kelly House Fellows John Ashberry, poet (February), and The New Yorker’s Janet Malcolm (March). Poets—unless your name is Maya Angelou or Sonia Sanchez-- rarely get any mention outside of Larry Robins’ Moonstone poetry circuit. But KWH is living proof that to be a poet in Philly you don’t have to be weird, dress up like Emily Dickinson, or even wear an opera cape while mumbling a defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal.
A recent headline in The Philadelphia Weekly read: Why Are So Many Philly Art Galleries Closing? Icon asked that question many months ago, and the answer is the same now as it was then: the economy. We found some of the online comments to the PW piece amusing, especially, “Oh, you want thousands of dollars for exhibiting a cat litter box full of poop in the middle of your gallery?” One thing we were glad to see was a shout out by Newman Galleries, the gallery that everybody seems to forget in the rush to idolize the hottest and latest art space in town. Newman Galleries is in fact the oldest gallery in the city, dating from 1865, the year Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

Our old friends at Ven and Vaida on 3rd Street have reminded us that they are not closing, and that they have another winning photography exhibit (the photography of RA Freidman) this fall.