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Monday, October 15, 2012

Unemployment Compensation Nightmare in the State of Pennsylvania

The Local Lens
Published• Wed, Oct 10, 2012
By Thom Nickels

When it comes to unemployment compensation, the state of Pennsylvania is in a state of emergency.

This will come as no surprise to the 524,547 people on the state’s unemployment rolls. A system that for years was considered already highly flawed but nominally workable has now crashed into a brick wall.

Anyone who loses their job at this time had better buckle their seatbelt because they will not believe how the "reformed" unemployment compensation process now works in Pennsylvania.

Let’s take a look at the past for some contrast.

Years ago, Philadelphia had unemployment compensation service centers where one could go for help in processing a claim. In the 1970s one could expect to stand in line for hours at these centers but at least one got to talk to a live human being at the end of the ordeal. Specific problems related to individual payments were handled by social workers in cubicles, a guarantee that nobody left with unanswered questions. These were bustling service centers that would shut down for one hour during lunch, causing the unemployed to place their yellow UC cards on the floor to save their place in line when lunch was over.

Today, the UC service centers, at least in Philadelphia, have been abolished, thanks to a cost cutting move by Governor Corbett this summer when his administration ordered the last remaining Philadelphia Center on Grant Avenue closed.

The Corbett administration blamed the closure on the slashing of a 30 million federal grant to the state, although nobody forced the governor to make up part of that federal loss by closing the center on Grant Avenue, where at least 100 people were laid off. Governor Corbett also eliminated all but two toll-free phone lines for claimants to use when processing unemployment claims.

The result of all this has been an unmitigated disaster. In the entire state of Pennsylvania there are less than 400 people to handle the questions, comments and "paperwork" of the 524,547 unemployed.

Why Governor Corbett chose only to close the Philadelphia office, and not the eight other unemployment compensation service centers in the state, has been chalked up to the state’s not being able to afford to renew the lease on the building.

Trust me, there isn’t a third grader anywhere in the city who, upon hearing this news, would not be able to suggest that if you cannot afford to renew a lease, you might consider finding a cheaper building rather than folding up your tent and leaving town.

But Governor Corbett pulled the UC center out of town, almost as if he was trying to sock it to the city for its decades-old Democratic majority and one-party rule.

For the record, let me say that I am all for breaking up Philadelphia’s one-party rule, but this is no way to go about it.

Critics of the governor’s move do not buy the lease renewal reason for one minute. If anything, why not close service centers in Allentown or Lancaster? It would be obvious to anyone, even to that third grader, that Philadelphia is where most unemployed people live.

What all this means is that if you were to lose your job tomorrow, you’d apply for Pennsylvania unemployment online and fill out an application. You would also register for something called Career Link, which would put you in a Want Ad pool for people looking for work.

Shortly after submitting your application you would receive notice of your approval for 26 weeks of unemployment. After that would come all the appropriate paperwork, including a UC debit card so you could access your UC payments. Traditionally, Pennsylvania has always been slower than most states in sending people their first UC payments, but at least before the Corbett cuts, people could find out fairly quickly what the holdup was.

That is no longer true.

With the absence of a UC service center and less staff to deal with problems, there are Philadelphians who have filed for UC benefits in mid-August who have still not received a single payment. The two toll-free 800 numbers—there used to be at least twice as many contact numbers—are chronically busy. We’re not talking twenty minutes of busy signals but more like five hours worth. No matter when you call, you will hear the busy beep. The lack of a voicemail also prevents you from leaving a message, unless you opt to skip orthodox procedure and call another Harrisburg Department, the Department of Labor and Industry, Office of Equal Opportunity, at 717-787-1182. A coordinator will answer and listen to your question and then switch you over to a live voicemail where you can leave a message.

The problem is that the number they refer you to is the same telephone number that’s always busy. If you’re lucky, the Dept. of Labor and Industry clerk may take your message, at which point you can expect a call back, but hours or days later.

I recently lost a small part-time job, and applied for benefits and was accepted for a 26 week run. Since the beginning of August I have been registering my biweekly claim but I have yet to see a single payment. When somebody from Harrisburg managed to return my call, he was as befuddled as Mary Poppins after a fall off her bicycle. "I don’t know why you’re not getting your payments," he said, ‘It seems there could be a problem with another part time job you had in 2008."

"What?" I asked. "2008?"

"I can’t be sure," he said. "Was there an overpayment then? I can’t verify this so we will have to check. I have no solid facts to tell you. You registered with Career Link, right? I’ll get back to you with the facts."

That was two weeks ago.

Naturally my only recourse was to call the 717 number and leave messages so that I could get the ball rolling. During one call the clerk confessed that the new system was in total disarray. "It is awful, yes," she said, " our hands are tied—we don’t know how to change this."

Well, how about telling the governor to put the additional phone lines back, and to find a new building for that UC service center?

Saturday, October 6, 2012


Before I sat down with Dre Urhahn and Jeroen Koolhass, the two artists hired by Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Project (MAP) to transform several blocks of Germantown Avenue into a vibrant colorful Oz, I stepped into a luncheonette not far from Philly Painting’s (the project’s name) central digs at 2400 Germantown Avenue, a makeshift office and ‘hangout’ space for painters and MAP administrator alike.
I had an hour to kill before my planned interview with the two friends who were commissioned by MTV in 2005 to do a short documentary on the hip hop community in Rio de Janeiro. During that venture the two men joined forces and achieved some fame with their transformation of the 34-building Praca Cantao Project in Rio’s Santa Marta Favela neighborhood. With no organized funding, or even a secret corporate backer, Urhahn and Koolhass took it upon themselves, brushes in hand, to change a mud-colored Brazilian slum into a kaleidoscope of light. The Favela’s boxy houses-- usually described as ramshackle shacks clinging to dirt hills by a thread-- had become, thanks to them, a series of cliff dwelling jewel boxes.

Although the joys of omelet eating are nothing compared to tales of art interventions, I ordered a late breakfast anyway from a waitress busy telling a co-worker to stop shooting off his mouth “because this is a family place.” The luncheonette, like the Avenue outside, was filled with conversation and talk. The mood, despite the humidity and the sound of a dying air conditioner, was so upbeat I had to wonder if there was some connection between the color show going on outside and the mood of the people in this tiny place. After all, when a carnival comes to town—and Philly Painting certainly qualifies as that-- residents traditionally feel some kind of perk.

In the small unofficial office, Urhahn sits at a table going over numbers. His rich tan shows that he’s been painting a lot of outdoor murals, and his wife-beater (Kensington lingo) T-shirt reveals his penchant for body murals: a swath of intricate tattoos that look as though they should be on the side of a building. His tattoos were hidden the first time we met months ago when the weather was cooler, and when Mural Arts Press liaison Cari Feiler Bender, of Relief Communications, LLC., offered to pick me up at the Huntingdon Market Frankford El station—a central marketplace for heroin distribution and an area where addicts tend to nod out collectively, like a still from Village of the Damned—and drive me to the Avenue, where I got my first look at the project. Urhahn at that time was on the street making his rounds, conversing with store clerks and a few neighborhood kids-turned-painters, all temporary MAP hires to help with the project.

“Do you want to walk?” he asked me then, indicating the blocks ahead of us with their freshly painted geometric designs stretching past Lehigh Avenue and then off into the distance to a place where a poet might say merged with something Utopian, to a new and better world.

No sooner did I say yes then I felt as if I was walking with the mayor of a small town. A chain of random ‘hellos’ and how-do-you-do’s’ punctuated the air as store owners and passers-by smiled or shook Urhahn’s hand. On the street were grinding sounds from two sidelined PECO trucks. Apparently the project had called for the turning off of the street’s electricity, a brief outage that caused one store owner some concern, since she approached Urhahn and asked when the power would be turned back on.

“Let me see about that,” he said, immediately jumping into a street hole to consult with two PECO workers. “Very soon,” he said to the owner, “within the hour.”

Recalling that moment in the office, Urhahn says, “Yes, we tried to have a conversation the first time but a million things happened at the same time. That morning was more of a display of what a real day is like rather than a real conversation. But it was fun.”

But ‘fun’ would not be the word he would use to describe his reaction to a recent City Paper article on Philly Painting. That article, he said, seemed to make the execution of the project in Philadelphia sound like a horror story. Even so, Philly Painting seems to have gotten more positive publicity than a filmed-in-Philly Colin Farrell movie.

“Everyday brings an interesting problem in the street,” he tells me. “Today the accident was a city truck ramming a car’s door off right in front of us and almost hitting a lady.”

Urhahn’s project partner, Koolhass, joins us at one of the fold up picnic tables in the office space. Like Urhahn, he’s from Rotterdam, but he’s showing no noticeable tattoos. He’s also dressed for the weather (or emergency painting) in his shorts and flip flops. In most circles the two artists are known as Hass&Hahn, a reference that has a corporate ring like Johnson & Johnson, even if these guys are anything but corporate. As partners, they split duties—Koolhass handles design issues and Urhahn focuses on organizational and administrative tasks. Once in a while, MAP Executive Director Jane Golden will swing by and the three will go out to lunch and discuss the project’s progress. Both men are paid salaries by Mural Arts, but money was never their main goal (they painted the 75,000 square feet of houses in Rio for free). Money came into the picture after a New York Times article on the favela project in Rio attracted the attention of Gary Steuer, Chief Cultural Officer of the City of Philadelphia. Steuer, acting as a talent scout, helped orchestrate the move to incorporate the pair as part of the Philadelphia Commerce Department’s plan to rebuild Germantown Avenue.

“This started as a hobby idea and it grew into a profession. This Mural Arts project is the first real assignment that we were hired for,” Urhahn says. “We were hired by a third party [Gary Steuer]. The work in Brazil was self-motivated and not orchestrated by an organization.”

Urhahn says the work that he and Koolhass did in Brazil was “altruistic,” and that they had no idea that anything would come of it. “One of the biggest problems in that altruistic world,” he says, “is that it is really hard to get paid.”

“At the start we had an idea as to how fast it would go, but it is so incredibly difficult to size it up,” he continues. “We had no idea whether we’d do one building a day, or 3 buildings. We had to get busy first and see how the buildings were going and then readjust our plans step by step.

“You know, there are projects that need an incredible amount of flexibility on everybody’s part,” Urhahn adds, “and this is one of them.”

Meaning, as he’d later divulge, that when they started they had no idea which buildings they would get approval for. And even at this relatively late date, a year into the project, they are still waiting for building approvals, especially since some of buildings are owned by investment companies. Because most of the owners do not live in the buildings, there can be delays when it comes to getting permission to paint, yet even once permission is gotten, there can be complicated questions regarding color choices. Urhahn shrugs philosophically, “It’s like a House of cards-- you have to build it carefully to get there.”

‘There’ in this case could extend far beyond Lehigh Avenue and the streets of Silver, Somerset and Cambria, since there’s talk of the project being extended far into alien streetscapes, of going into the neighborhoods behind the commercial districts so that ordinary homes, just like the hill houses in Rio, would benefit. There’s also talk that Philly Painting might expand into other city neighborhoods, and why not? Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods, so why can’t there be a Philly Painting in Fishtown or Port Richmond as well as in North Philadelphia?

Jane Golden, in fact, believes this is entirely possible, and in an email told me that, “We are in conversations with Haas and Hahn related to future projects, and would love for this relationship to continue.” Overall, Golden says that she is more than satisfied with what has transpired along the Avenue. “Philly Painting has been an incredible opportunity for the Mural Arts Program to hone our social practice. This has been a time of opportunity and learning and we are so appreciative of the support we have received from the Knight Foundation and the City’s Commerce Department to make it happen. This has become a model we have every intention of using in our work in behavioral health, criminal justice, and our community development work.”

For Koolhass, who also works as an illustrator for The New Yorker magazine, proposing color designs to building owners would seem to fall into the community development work category. “I do this so building owners can react to it. They might not like the colors,” he says, “so then in that case we might take them outside and say. ‘Do you like any of the other colors?’ I have a whole panel of swaths I can show them.”

Later, I get to see the swaths Koolhass is talking about when he takes me to his house, a small two-story structure right across the street from Urhahn’s house in what has become an impromptu Philly Painting Village, a street filled with colorful mosaics and a Stonehenge style sculpture park reminiscent of a Druid cemetery. The little street has a Grimm’s Fairy Tales feel. It’s where the artists lived as roommates until Urhahn brought over his wife and cats from Rotterdam. (Koolhass himself has a five month old daughter in Rotterdam.) Koolhass drove me to the street from the Avenue in a recently purchased vintage Mercedes Benz, a car the size of a WWII PT boat. After pointing out a large leather sofa that he bought second hand, he shows me the color panels the store owners get to choose from. They are all organic Philadelphia colors arranged in geometric patterns and look strangely like the fields of southern France as seen from 30,000 feet up.

Putting myself in a store owner’s place, it’s easy to imagine having a hard time making a decision.

“I do a lot of convincing,” Koolhass says, referring to the sensitive task of listening to people tell him what they want in terms of color. One building on the street, for instance—it’s called the ONE + SEVEN variety store-- stands out as a beautiful example of a pastel color blend, even though pastels are not popular among most in the neighborhood. Since one person’s favorite color is another person’s nightmare, the challenge is getting everyone comfortable with the general scheme while respecting individual differences. “You know,” Koolhass adds, “it would be much easier just to make one design and make everybody go along with it, but ultimately the concept of the design is to weave all of these demands into each other into a tapestry of colors.”

“What’s important to us,” he says, referring to Urhahn, “is…if you are living in the world and doing the kind of things---I am a graphic designer and Dre comes from the world of TV production---if you’re doing this kind of work you have a choice to work for companies and making them more money by working for them, or making up something else and creating your own job. I think we like working together because we like inventing our own jobs, and not being at the service of more powerful companies that are already in the business of making more money.
“Once you start working for a sponsor,” he warns, “you have to adjust your agenda to theirs. This makes it very hard to do the work you set out to do.”

That doesn’t seem to be the case with Philly Painting; they are doing the work they set out to do.

Urhahn has begun to see his time in the neighborhood as a fascinating sociological experience. “A book could be written about the store owners here. We know how many children they have, where they live, what colors their kids like, everything. Some of the owners are design-driven, but some are not, they don’t care,” he says.

Both artists, who have done a lot of flying back and forth to Rotterdam and to Rio to attend to old business, are seriously considering making Philadelphia their home. “Look,” Koolhass tells me, “I don’t even have a house in Rotterdam. The first time I came to Philly it was to look at the sites. I lived in New York City then.”

“We do hear from people who drive down here and say that things are so incredibly different now. And there have been people who have to park their car and get out and look at what is going on because it was a change from before,” Urhahn says, adding that it’s fascinating to see residents engaged in serious conversations about color, something they would have never chosen to discuss two years ago.
“The desired effect is not to create an extreme contrast with the rest of the neighborhood, but you want to have something that fits in with the look or feel that is already there.”

But if the practical end of painting storefronts means smoothing over a lot of infrastructure glitches like recessed walls, collapsed chimneys, or broken doorframes---a lot of what you see here is reminiscent of a construction site with scaffolding and construction crane lifts holding aloft painters with brushes ---then credit for the painstaking work of painting belongs to young people from the area, like the two month contract DHS worker kids who left some time ago. These young painters, who have had no experience in the arts, paint solid colors in the empty blocks as sketched out by West Philadelphia muralist, Felix “Flex” St. Fort but designed in-house by Koolhass. “In fact, we were able to ID two people who were working so hard and showed so much potential, we were able to get them longer contracts,” Urhahn said.

As for fears that the paint will fade or chip, Urhahn assures me that Mural Arts has legally bound itself for a certain amount of upkeep for a certain amount of years. “But the quality of the paints we are using is quite extreme. We invested a large portion of the budget in using extremely good paint.”

In other words, expect the finished project to last a good part into the heart of forever.


City Beat, ICON Magazine, October 2012


Near the wrap up of the Budweiser-sponsored “Made in America” concert MC’d by star rapper, JAY-Z, I got a heads up from people in the Art Museum area: “Hey, you should what’s happening here. There are people relieving themselves in the streets and on parked cars. The cops are riding by but aren’t doing anything about it. I’ve never seen anything like this.” The speaker in this case was not an old lady angry at young people having fun, but a sophisticated young woman quite active in the city’s social networking scene. Since rap is not top on our list, we avoided the concert, but another reason we stayed home is because the idea of being in the middle of thousands of people is shaky at best. Parkway concerts are notorious for cattle-herding congestion, noise, and elbow clashing confusion, but add beer and rap to the mix and you have, well, a port potty dilemma. Budweiser, the so called King of Beer, has a bargain basement rating among beer consoeurs. One of that beer’s legendary trademarks is how quickly it runs through the body. Add a thousand human lips to the Budweiser tap and you have a problem. A million port potties wouldn’t be enough in a case like this. Of course, there was no mention of the Art Museum area’s yellow plague in the local press post- concert. That might be described as a white wash, sans pee stains of course.

In Center City, it used to be that sidewalk cafés were located only in special areas. Near a public square for instance, like Rittenhouse, or on a very wide street where there’s 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 an alleyway with dumpsters. 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. Not all that long ago, the Center City foodie instinct was much more balanced than it is today. It was a time when writers, artists and students went to luncheonettes and diners, not slicked over $40.00 a plate Martini places masquerading as diners. They were authentic 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. We confess that having to look at hundreds of people stuffing their faces every time we walk through town has given us a new respect for food disorders like bulimia, anorexia and fasting, Karen Carpenter, where are you?
Still, we like a good European style restaurant-café as much as much as any other city dweller, yet when we sat down to enjoy ourselves at Washington Square West’s Le Pain Quotidien recently, we could only concentrate on the pain—yes, the pain.
At Le Pain Quotidien we ordered salad-plates, never suspecting that the “salads” where not salads per se but more like hors d’oeuvres plates you might serve at a cocktail reception. What were we thinking when we ordered so much Hummus and bread? Okay, chalk that one up to inattention, but when we asked for coffee and tea and were given cereal bowls as a replacement for mugs or a cup and saucer, we said “Enough!” While we may like Fruit Loops as much as next as the next Pathway shopper, when it comes to drinking tea, we don’t want to be relegated to Dickens character status that would have us holding our bowls out and clamoring, “More, dear sir, more!” There are some traditions worth sticking to and the cup and saucer is one of them.

Championship swimmers like Michael Phelps or Mark Spitz would have trouble swimming in the Delaware River. That’s because of the currents. Olympic strokes or gold medals will not keep you afloat when the river’s dangerous currents suck you under and make you disappear. That’s why the Delaware can only be appreciated superficially via boating, sailing, or watching the ebb and flow of the tides from someplace like Fishtown’s Penn Treaty Park. We did the sailing part one warm August afternoon when the Liberty Sailing Club (303 N. Front Street) had one of their rare open house events for potential new members. Commodore Nancy Becerino invited us to sit down, share a donut, and fill out an intake form, after which we were then invited to take a 30 minute sail on the river with a two man crew and a nice couple from Manayunk, Amanda and Rory. If this conjures up images of the Kennedy Hyannis Port compound, you wouldn’t be far off. Sailing is invigorating, especially when you have a knowledgeable skipper (we did). Sailing, however, is not for people who don’t like to be touched or get too close to people. The up and down ripple wave effect from passing boats (namely speed boaters on zigzag suicide missions), or quick yanks at the rudder, can thrust you into your neighbor’s lap. As it was, each of us got our turn at the rudder while careful to watch our heads as the enormous sail swayed sideways like the pendulum of a great clock. We were up near Pettys Island when the wind stopped blowing completely, and when we became-- if only for fifteen minutes--like lost characters in a Lena Wertmuller film. We watched as the crew attempted to pull-start the little power motor, in anticipation of what would happen next until at least the little motor that could, did, and we were speeding happily towards the Ben Franklin Bridge. The little mishap gave us an hour on the river, enough time for Amanda and Rory to begin thinking about getting engaged, or at least that’s what they told us back at the clubhouse, when we went for our second donut.

Call it a naïve Hayley Mills moment, but when we stopped in to hear the Institute for Classical Art and Architecture (ICAA) George Vanderbilt-Biltmore estate lecture at the Union League recently, we wrongly assumed that the League had become—in this, the first part of the 21st Century-- an egalitarian post-partisan club. While it’s true that women, Independents and Democrats are now allowed to join the League, that hasn’t changed the club’s core makeup, which continues to be orthodox right wing Republican. The Union League’s political bias hit us full face a couple years ago when we went to hear a lecture on Abraham Lincoln. While we loved the talk, the dinner afterwards in the League dining turned to worms when the talk became political. The retrograde banter had the effect of a thunder clap, forcing us to look everywhere-- even in the folds of our napkins-- for a progressive voice. Sadly, all we found then were cowering political moderates burying their heads in their vegetables.

We thought of the Union League again when we saw actor Daniel Beaty perform at Drexel’s Mandell Theater in a one man play titled, “Emergency.” “Emergency” is the story of what happens when a slave ship arrives in present day New York harbor. Beaty's characters-- from urban street walkers, cross dressers and angry black activist types calling for reparations for slavery-- played to a full house of mostly African Americans. Beaty, among other things, is an actor, writer, and poet whose oratory skills kept us on the edge of our seats, something I suspect that the sponsors of the event-- The Brothers Network, a Philly-based racial justice organization of diverse African American men—knew it would do all along. At the post-show reception at La Petite Dauphine, 22nd and Walnut (where they don’t serve coffee in cereal bowls), we chatted the night away, and thanked Brothers Network Gregory Walker for a fabulous evening.

While most things French tend to be a class act, this isn’t always the case. At August’s (imported from France) Diner En Blanc event, for instance, where 1,300 guests dressed in white were to meet at a secret location with picnic baskets and folding chairs, we thought we were in for an epic night. Diners were told to call a secret number to get the location of the dinner. We had no trouble dressing in white, even if white makes most people look like a line cook at Little Pete’s or a hospital sanitation worker. While waiting to get the secret location (Logan Circle) near the Clothespin at City Hall, we spotted a procession of people in white lugging folding chairs and picnic baskets. It became clear to us at this juncture that the event was not for us, especially since nobody told us to bring food and chairs. What to do? We threw away our white hankies and headed for a nice Thai restaurant in Chinatown, DJ Bruce and hand held sparklers notwithstanding.

Call him the Man in the Bubble, but Butch Cadora has been chosen over 500 plus other applicants by Bo Concept (17th and Chestnut Street) to live in the Bo Concept window for six days, ending October 4th. Bo Concept tried this in New York City last year and that experiment wound up being a feature in The New York Times. Cadora is allowed out 2 hours a day to go home and shower
We were blown away by the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective (PAC) production of August Strindberg’s Creditors at the Franklin Inn Club recently, so much so that we have since become diehard fans of Philadelphia actress Krista Apple ( Can an Apple be the apple of your eye?

Friday, October 5, 2012

Stephen Hawking and God

The Local Lens
Published• Wed, Oct 03, 2012

By Thom Nickels

Not too long ago, a lot of media attention was directed at physicist Stephen Hawking’s statement that "God did not create the universe." This short statement set off a debate firestorm, despite the fact that there are many famous scientists who are on record as believing in God.

Let me say upfront that I don’t have a beef with atheists. I was an atheist-agnostic myself when I was twenty-two and when I thought I had the philosophical world by the tail. People in their twenties tend to think they know everything, but their "knowing" also comes with a degree of arrogance. There’s nothing bad or even unusual about this. The arrogance stage, as I call it, is a rite of passage, even if some people never quite outgrow it.

I have atheist friends who are good, moral people. These people put many "believing" people to shame.

Still, let’s consider Hawking’s belief that "God had no role in the creation of the universe." With this statement Hawking officially leaves the realm of science and enters an area where he has little or no expertise: the metaphysical spiritual world. I say this because only a decade or so ago, in "A Brief History of Time," Hawking stated that his work was, "on the borderline between science and religion." He wrote at that time, "…I stay on the scientific side of the border. It is quite possible that God acts in ways that cannot be described by scientific laws…"

He should have left it at that, but then was then and now is now, as they say…

Let’s assume, for the sake of this column, that Hawking’s scientific voice is infallible and becomes the mainstay opinion of the nation. Imagine for a moment that Hawking converts people everywhere, even in the riverwards, to the belief that life is just a meaningless hodgepodge of joyful and painful experiences that mean nothing in the end. When you die, you expire like the flame on a cheap throwaway Bic lighter.

How different would everyday life be if we all "digested" the Hawking philosophy and put aside all God "superstitions?"

Perhaps there’d be a neighborhood Hawking Greeting Card Committee that would work to eliminate all Rite Aid/CVS greeting cards that mentioned God. The new Hawking-inspired greeting cards would use phrases like, "In the name of spontaneous creation, we wish you a speedy recovery so that you may do your part to make this a better world." Or: "We are sorry for the loss of your mother, but remember that even though you will never see her again, her genes live on in you and your children. Take consolation in the fact that when she returns to the earth her smile comes back in the eyes of a squirrel."

First Holy Communion cards would be replaced with Scientific Sensible cards that quote Mark Twain: "If there is a God, he is a malign thing."

Get well soon cards would proclaim, "Wishing you a speedy recovery so that you can further enjoy your family and friends, however temporal these joys in a life that means… nothing."

In the new Hawking world, mentioning God in connection with the birth of a new baby would only get you a scientific lecture on how God had nothing to do with it. "It’s all about natural selection and chance, idiot. Lose the superstition." You’d also be advised to shy away from talking about "God blessing you" or saving you from serious injury, possibly saving your life after a major accident or a near miss: "God had nothing to do with it; it was pure chance. Grow up and thank the Roulette table!"

It occurred to me that maybe Hawking’s change of mind about God had something to do with his having to carry a huge burden in life, namely his life in a wheelchair as a paraplegic. While common logic might incline us to believe that people with disabilities need God more than the rest of us, Hawking isn’t having it. Rather than asking God outright, "Why me?" he goes one step further and denies God’s existence altogether, which is maybe his way of "getting even", for a lifetime of… disability.

"You did this to me…okay, I’ll show you…I don’t believe in you—so there!"

In the new Hawking world, Campbell’s chicken noodle soup would be every bit as "powerful" as an all-knowing invisible entity. There’d be constant reminders on billboards and elsewhere for people not to fall prey to temptation: "Say NO to going back to God and bowing your head in mumbo jumbo prayer mutterings."

Television public service announcements would proclaim: "No deity, earthbound or cosmic, cares if you survive or die in a car accident, helicopter crash, or from cancer. When we die we are food for worms, nothing more. As Stephen says, ‘Spontaneous creation is the reason why there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.’"

Joy to the World!

Which means, forget about going to church. Forget silly superstitions such as the Rosary Society or the Sodality of Our Lady of Fatima at St. Adalbert’s church on Allegheny Avenue. Forget about walking to a novena at Saint Anne’s church, or all those silly First Communion decorations on your houses when your kids turn 7. Your many prayers in and out of church are gibberish with no meaning.

Forget absurd sounding parish names like Our Lady Help of Christians, or Nativity B.V.M., churches with colored states, Gothic designs and pointed arches. The only Our Lady, in a Hawking world, is The Lady Is a Tramp show tune from the 1937 Rodgers and Hart musical, Babes in Arms. As for those churches with onion domes in Northern Liberties, they are temples to a mythological god with no power except the power to be spontaneous in order to create new and different worlds for Hawking to talk about.

"They just give you a fake reason to live, but stand on your own two feet without a crutch why don’t you!"

Human beings have no allies on the other side because there is no other side. It’s a fairy story. There is only the bad economy, the inevitability of Monday, taxes, crime, the upcoming election, and SEPTA rate increases.

And while we’re at it, remember to come up to Stephen Hawking’s level, and put aside all this silly "Have a blessed day," nonsense.

Look reality in the face, and snarl.

Philly Trash Police

The Local Lens
Published• Wed, Sep 26, 2012

By Thom Nickels

They come into the neighborhood in the early hours of the morning, well before the scheduled Streets Department trash pickup. If you happen to be inside your house and hear them outside sorting through your trash, you’re likely to think they are homeless people with shopping carts looking for scrap metal. But take a closer look and you’ll see a uniformed city employee in rubber gloves going through your trash.

There they are, going through that bag of pampers you threw out, or sorting through all that dog mess you cleaned up on the patio. You’ll see them sorting through Kentucky Fried chicken bones, shuffling orange rinds like a deck of cards, opening up bathroom Kleenex swabs, or diving into the remnants of last night’s dinner. They are not looking for archeological treasures, pearls, or even illicit drugs, but for that one plastic soda bottle you may have forgotten to place in your recycle bin.

When that happens--- regardless of the fact that a sloppy passerby may have thrown a plastic bottle into your trash---you are issued a $50 ticket for the infraction.

The City of Philadelphia employs about 47 trash-picking officers whose job it is to inspect your trash on trash day for misplaced recyclable items. Ideally, these trash-picking inspectors are supposed to grant some leeway when they go through bags of trash. The unofficial but rarely followed rule, as I understand it, is that residents are permitted a couple of misplaced recyclable items in the regular trash but when that number exceeds four or five, that’s when the inspector writes a ticket. As I see it, the trash police should be looking for blatant violations, such as large bags of recyclable items posing as trash; they should not be nitpicking or looking for a needle in a haystack. This is what they call Orwellian- micro-management overkill, or a desperate attempt—on the city’s part—to make a fast buck.

It has almost nothing to do with saving the environment.

Last week, while walking around the neighborhood, I ran into a gentleman at the corner of Edgemont and Huntingdon Streets. He was quick to point out a trash inspector going through a neighbor’s bags of trash. I noticed a woman with a bright bleached blonde streak in her hair who looked rather stylish. She was nothing like the shopping cart trash pickers who seem to be able to rip a bag of trash apart with animated gusto. This lady inspected the bags with a great deal of care; opening them and shutting them, feeling the bag’s rough contours, bending down for a closer look, standing up again for a scientific nuanced view. As it was, she wasn’t having much luck because all I saw her do was look and re-look, as if she could not quite believe that she was coming up empty. In many ways she looked like a disappointed treasure hunter. I immediately thought of Janis Joplin singing, "Oh Lord, it just can’t be!"

Then an elderly woman up the street, obviously nervous that an inspector was making the rounds, raced out of her house and, in a sort of heart acceleration panic, went to her trash bags and rechecked them, fearing, obviously, that she had missed a recyclable. When I left the scene ten minutes later, the blonde wave inspector was still trying to find a violation.

I walked further up Edgemont, on the lookout for more trash inspectors but found only homemade signs planted next to sidewalk trees: "This tree is not a toilet. Please curb your dog." "How wonderful is this!" I thought. When you have a tree on the sidewalk, as I do, you find that you are constantly under attack by some dog walkers (who give dogs a bad name) who allow their pets to poop all over your tree plots without cleaning up. This is almost as bad as having a trash inspector fine you $50 for one wayward Coke bottle.

Then an idea occurred to me. In a world of picture perfect recyclers, wouldn’t the trash inspectors go out of business? The blonde wave lady, for instance, what would she do? Well, what about allowing her to ticket for other offenses, like dog walkers who allow their pets—even encourage them--- to poop all over tree plots or the sidewalk?

Why stop there? Why not even extend the inspector’s duties further by giving her the authority to issue tickets to people who litter?

Send her over to Lehigh Avenue where the piles of litter continue to mount to the extent that when a wind comes all the litter blows up into the branches of trees. Then have her snake down to the Belgrade Bridge near Lehigh where many people continue to dump large artifacts or big bags of trash. In Philadelphia, you can litter to your heart’s content, casting Mountain Dew bottles or Arctic Splash containers all over the place, as well as zillions of mounting cigarette butts and candy wrappers, and still never get a ticket or even a disapproving look.

Just last week, for instance, I saw a young professional woman in the late afternoon on Huntingdon Street ball up a large wrapper she was carrying and throw it down a sewer. She actually bent down and stuffed the enormous bag into the sewer in full view of neighbors, as if it doing that was the most natural thing in the world. What was even more curious was that she was a well-dressed woman and that she did this as if she’d been doing it all her life, with no regrets or apparent guilt.

"Who does she think cleans up the sewers?" I wondered. "Did it ever occur to her that if every Philadelphian did that the sewers of Philadelphia would backup and make for a very unpleasant disaster?

So, yes… if only we could move our fine blonde wave recycling inspector to the bridge area on Belgrade Street, or even have her ticket all the abandoned houses in the area that have owners who, while they pay property taxes, allow their properties to rot, much like the house on my Mercer Street block that has been slowly crumbling for years.

These new duties would surely be better than poking for hours for that one renegade plastic Coke bottle.

After all, if Philadelphia wants to be known as the City of tickets, let’s at least do it right.