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Thursday, November 8, 2012

November 2012 CITY BEAT column, ICON Magazine


THE DEATH OF ARLEN Specter got me thinking 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. I think it was dental floss. The cashier turned to the man and said,

“I’m sorry, sir, but this gentleman [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. 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 checkout girl who had had the verve to do what was right, but who

was now being given an eyeball once over by The Man. The truth, of course, is that the

cashier, being in her twenties, probably didn’t even know who Arlen Specter was. But even

if she had recognized him, she still would have stuck to the rules of the line. Rest in peace,

you old curmudgeon.

We heard Jackie Salit of the Independence Party of New York speak at the UPenn Bookstore

in University City. Salit, who could easily double as a latter day Mary Tyler Moore, is the

author of Independents Rising, a book that traces the growth of the Independent Party

movement in NYC. Salit’s book is a chatty but intelligent account of her work with New

York’s Mayor Bloomberg to “mainstream” the Independent Party movement there. The

event attracted a few diehard Philadelphia politicos who seemed to agree that New York is a

less partisan city than Philadelphia. (There’s a fluidity in New York’s political waters that allows

for the election of liberal Republican mayors, something that would never happen in

Philadelphia). We were thoroughly into Salit’s presentation when up popped Cheri Honkala

who stole the spotlight by introducing herself and telling the audience that she was the

Green Party’s vice presidential candidate. While Green Party stuff and Honkala’s history of

welfare rights activism warms our heart, microphone hijacking is always an arched eyebrow

moment. Salit, ever gracious, let Honkala go through the Green Party alphabet even as it became

apparent that much of the audience was now fixated on the interloper. Seasoned

coitus interrupters, of course, know when to apply the brakes, but in this case it took the

UPenn moderator to step in and redirect the focus. The silver lining in all this was that we

were at least encouraged to double-check the style and qualifications of Jill Stein, the Green

Party candidate for president. Later, we headed to Doc Magrogan’s at 34th and Sansom

Streets, (formerly La Terrasse) with Salit, her entourage and Save Our Sites president, John

Dowlin, for a light bite.

Who doesn’t love the Roaring Twenties, with its libertine razzle dazzle, bathing cap hats,

and beads? The Young Friends of the Philadelphia Museum of Art were supposed to hold

the annual event at the Rodin, but the threat of rain forced a cancellation. Instead, we headed

over to the Perelman Building with Drexel’s new Director of Development, Vanessa Bender,

for an evening of Elliot Ness and Dorothy Parker. Our fears that we’d be the only fogies

in this mainly twenty-something event were unfounded. We blended in well despite our lack

of a flapper-era costume. Some of the fedoras we spotted were of the very un-‘20s — thin

brim Northern Liberties variety, but who’s complaining? Music ranged from Al Jolson’s “Toot

Toot Tootsie (Goo’Bye)” to Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five and the Peerless Quartet, although

there was no Charleston to speak of and no bootleg booze either, unless you count

the bar’s delicious hybrid concoction in addition to bottled wine. As with every Museumbased

party, there were the less than celebratory looks on duty security guards’ faces making

sure that nobody brought their drinks into the exhibition area. While some guards wore

a stoic expression, others seemed to be noticeably frowning as if feeling left out of the fun.

We wish Kevin McLaughlin well in his 25-year-old dream to open Mae

Downs & Co Accessories for Home, at 1118 Pine Street. The store, which

carries a quality selection of interior decoration, antique and decorative arts

selections, had a lively opening reception that brought in many friends and

neighbors. Philadelphia Mural Art’s Brian Campbell worked the introductions

and told me that Mae Downs will donate ten percent of its profits

every month to a different charity.

Henry Miller once wrote, “When I hear the word culture, I reach for my

revolver.” Miller, of course, was talking about the cultural status quo labeling

some forms of art bad and other forms of art good. He also might have

been thinking of the banning of books like Ulysses and even his own Tropic

of Cancer. He was not thinking of the Knights Arts Challenge Philadelphia,

which dispenses grants for “innovative ideas in the arts from nonprofits,

companies and individuals.” In 2011, 36 Knights Challenge winners received

some 2.7 million dollars in funding. While the money received is generally

smaller than funds from grant giants like the Pew Fellowship, the problem,

as we see it, is that individual artist applicants often get weeded out of the

KG system by organizations with the ability to generate financial support. To

wit: grant recipients in 2011 included established Philadelphia museums,

ballet companies, the Barnes Foundation, arts and cultural organizations,

the Opera Company of Philadelphia and even the City of Philadelphia’s Office

of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. Individual artist winners are

almost nowhere to be seen. Based on this, is it fair to conclude that struggling,

worthy individual artists are being overlooked? Do we dare ask those

lucrative organizations with fancy Boards of Directors to try to get their

small grant money elsewhere?

What’s in a book festival? The annual fall Chestnut Hill Book Festival

(“Great Authors of Philadelphia”) hosts many readings by writers. While

hosting multiple writers at one time is often well intentioned, the mistake is

to think that festivals like this can duplicate the annual June Rittenhouse

Square clothesline art exhibit where artists line up like Wyoming cattle. The

written word, after all, is about investing time listening to individual readings.

This is why we will continue to value single or duo classic staged author/

poet reading events at places like Robin’s Books on So. 13th St., where

we recently heard Philly legendary poet Jim Cory read some new work.

What better place to hear the polyphonic singing style of ancient Constantinople

and Russia, sans Pussy Riot, than with the Choral Arts Philadelphia’s

performance of Rachmaninov’s Vespers (All Night Vigil) Op. 37 at the

Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. No instruments of any kind are

permitted in Eastern Church music, which made the voices of Mezza-soprano

Jenifer L. Smith and Tenor David Price all the more powerful. At the end

of the performance, the audience all but levitated out the door and into the

autumn evening.