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Friday, January 18, 2013

January CITY BEAT column, ICON Magazine

January 2013 City Beat Column, ICON Magazine

They come into the neighborhood in the wee 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 might 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 the mess.

Watch as they inspect old bags of pampers, bundles of stored doggie do, Kentucky Friend chicken bones, or last week’s discarded orange rinds. They are not looking for illicit drugs but for that one renegade plastic soda bottle you may have forgotten to place in your recycle bin.

When that happens--- regardless of the fact that a 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 inspect trash. The unofficial but rarely followed rule, as we understand it, is that residents are permitted a couple of misplaced recyclable items but when that number exceeds four or five, the inspector writes a ticket. But shouldn’t the trash police be looking for blatant violations, such as large bags of recyclable items posing as trash? Why this Orwellian overkill just to make a fast buck?

Is it really about saving the environment?

What about allowing the trash police to ticket people who litter?

Recently we spotted a young professional city woman ball up a large wrapper she’d been carrying and throw it down a sewer. The woman bent over and stuffed the enormous bag into the sewer in full view of passers-by, as if what she was doing was the most natural thing in the world. What was even more curious was that she was a well dressed and acted as if she’d been doing this sort of thing all her life.

“Who does she think cleans up the sewers?” we wondered. “Did it ever occur to her that if every Philadelphian did that the sewers of Philadelphia would backup and we’d have an urban version of Albert Camus’ The Plague?

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

Killadelphia is a word that makes most Philadelphians flinch, however there’s no getting around the fact that years ago there were less city murders even if they were no less gruesome. In December 1959, a sixteen year old Manayunk schoolgirl by the name of Mary Ann Mitchell went with friends to the Roxy Theater in Roxborough to see the movie, “South Pacific.” Afterwards Mary Ann caught the “A” bus on Henry Avenue in order to return to her parents’ home on DuPont Street in Manayunk. The young schoolgirl was never seen alive again because the next day her badly bludgeoned body was discovered in a wooded area in Montgomery County. Mary Ann had been sexually assaulted and her body desecrated after death with a Coke bottle and a tree branch. A small time criminal, thirty-nine year old handyman Elmo Smith, was accused of the crime and sentenced to die by electrocution in 1962. Following the murder, the name Elmo Smith took on a Freddie Krueger like ring. For years bad jokes about there being an Elmo Smith behind every bush and alleyway made the rounds in Philly schools. Donna Persico, a Manayunk native, believes that Smith was charged with a crime he did not commit. In Murdered Innocence: The Maryann Mitchell Murder Revisited, Perisco explains why she feels that a local city bus driver was guilty of the murder. Among the more disturbing revelations in the book is the author’s admission that while researching Murdered Innocence her request to secure the case file on the murder from the Montgomery Country DA was denied not once, but twice.

There’s nothing like a large roasted pig with an apple in its mouth to get a party going, and to get Vegans to move to the other side of the room. At Voith & Mactavish Architects’ annual holiday party, the classic roasted pig (eyes wide open) was on display, somehow reminding us of the character Piggy in William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, and of course calling attention to the firm’s accomplishments (VMA rates as number 40 in the Top 100 women owned businesses in the Philadelphia region). Led by the statuesque Daniela Holt Voith, AIA and supported by talented lieutenants like John H. Cluver, AIA, a dead ringer for the young Abraham Lincoln sans beard, the firm is especially noted for its innovative designs within the context of tradition. Sadly, Cluver informed us that this year’s party will be the last at the firm’s 1616 Walnut Street address, which means a fond farewell to VMA’s conversation-stopper 24th Floor private outdoor balcony. Next year Voith & Mactavish will be in new digs although the roasted pig (eyes wide open) will still be scaring away Vegans.

We took the number 11 trolley from City Hall and headed to the West Philadelphia historic estate of William Hamilton overlooking Woodlands Cemetery. It was a cool, brisk night with the moon visible between tree tops when we started our solitary walk through this city of tombstones. “Dead people are our friends,” we mused, while strolling past the graves of Thomas Eakins, Anthony J. Drexel-Biddle and Samuel David Gross, M.D. of The Gross Clinic fame, and countless other luminaries. Inside the mansion, Woodlands Executive Director Jessica Baumert worked the crowd of mostly Penn students and West Philadelphians as volunteer Penn bartenders poured fortified Portuguese Madeira, favorite drink of French novelist George Sand and Frederic Chopin as well as the Founding Fathers--George Washington drank a pint a day—while a few teetotalers stuck to cranberry juice. When we looked around in vain for Center City people we were told by Ms. Baumert that The Woodlands is still too much of a secret in Philly but that she hopes to change that. We wondered how this could be, given the mansion’s spectacular setting and history. On hand to raise-high-the-roof beams was the sound of the Dill Pickle Old Time Orchestra (610-436-1000) featuring Charley Handy, Zach Say, Brenden Skire, Nikoli Fox, and Eliza Jones (of the award-winning group, Buried Bed). The band played a mixture of American old time string band music, Tin Pan Alley and 18th Century fiddle tunes, not quite causing the dead outside to awaken, but almost.

Cancer is no joking matter; ditto for chemo and radiation treatments which tend to weaken the body and turn people into the walking dead, a breath away from a Woodlands burial. When we heard that local author Sarto Schickel was going to speak about his book, Cancer Healing Odyssey (Paxdieta Books) at the First Unitarian Church in Center City, we headed over with a few friends to hear what he had to say. Schickel, who is tall with mesmerizing eyes, told us the story of his wife, Sun Hee, diagnosed with ovarian cancer and a collapsed lung but who has been possibly cured through a macrobiotic diet, a touch of chemo, along with a trip to the Gerson Clini in Mexico, where cancers tend to disappear after extensive juice therapy and coffee enemas. If this sounds to you like comic book Sci-Fi, we recommend Schnickel’s book as a sturdy case study. In fact, Schnickel’s presentation was so good we decided it was PBS-worthy and wondered why he wasn’t doing this on television. By the end of Schickel’s presentation, we weren’t even all that spooked by the coffee enema thing, even if we prefer Starbucks to “down there” injections.

We headed to the Radnor Hotel on the Main Line to help celebrate Bernie Robbins’ Jewelry 50th anniversary, but arrived late, just after the winner of the 1st annual Student Design Contest was announced: Raymond Hakimi, from New York’s FIT. Students from fashion schools and colleges were invited to submit three pieces back in September. Then a Facebook vote was held with the finalists going before BR’s executive team and a panel of celebrity judges, one of whom was Ivana Trump. While we didn’t see Ivana, we learned from Cashman and Associates’ Laura Krebs that the owners Harvey and Maddy Rovinsky do know a lot of high end celebrities. Yet Harvey and Maddy weren’t obsessing on star power that night but on Hakimi’s win and the presence of their infant granddaughter, their first, bundled up in a portable mini crib set atop a jewelry case, a juxtaposition proving that life’s real jewels are not the ones under glass. We spoke to winner Hakimi, whose design, a beautiful butterfly in , will be produced and sold in all seven BR stores. Also on hand was Ilaria Lanzoni, one of the celebrity judges, whose Hearts on Fire jewelry design company in Boston ( has taken that city by storm. “I met Ilaria at the Trevi Fountain in Rome, “ Harvey told me, his eyes lighting up like sapphire diamonds. The Trevi Fountain---can anything be more fortuitous?

Today’s twenty -something’s will never know the eclectic mix that was the 1960s and 1970s, when life, politics and art had a special kind of power. There was Andy Warhol riding his bicycle through the streets of Manhattan; Allen Ginsberg chewing on his harmonica; Yoko Ono in a box and Ed Sanders and the Fugs providing musical accompaniment as thousands shouted, “Hell no, we won’t go.” Posters, illustrations and other ephemera lined to the years around the counterculture can be found in the Collab Gallery in PMA’s Perelman Building. Titled DOUBLE PORTRAIT, famous husband and wife team Paula Scher and Seymour Chwast, fresh in from New York City to receive the annual Collab Design Excellent Award, led us around the gallery where we were hit with more images than we could process. On display: Chwast’s best political work of the 1960s, antiwar posters like End Bad Breath (1968), created to protest the US bombing of Hanoi and War is Good Business: Invest Your Son (1967). Paula, who describes herself as “a designer who illustrates,” met Seymour when she was an art student at Tyler School of Art—the days, she said, when Tyler was located in a really beautiful building. Who knows why Philly journalists didn’t show up for the DOUBLE PORTRAIT preview in droves--- any hints as to what motivates our kind? Chwast’s posters speak to a kind of genius in this age of mouse-controlled digital photo shop “art” which can only hope to ascend the heights of the work of real graphic designers. Then again, Paula would castigate us for this sentiment: “…You can’t be a designer and say, ‘Oh, this is timeless.’ Nothing is timeless,” she’s been quoted as saying. And she’s right.