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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Organized Trash Picking:STAR column

On Saturday, April 2nd I finally did it. After writing about the trash problems in the neighborhood for a number of years, I put my muscle where my writing hand is and joined a handful of volunteers from the Olde Richmond Civic Association (ORCA) and spent a few hours cleaning up the neighborhood.

We met at 9 A.M. behind the Wawa on the 2400 block of Thompson Street where we signed waivers, received a pair of work gloves and then split up into teams of 2 or 3. Equipped with brooms, rakes, trash picking hand extensions and industrial strength trash bags, we set out like determined missionaries to rid the hood of debris.
What struck me first of all was how quiet the streets were on this cool, sunny morning. Do people really sleep this late?

Those of us with brooms got to work right away sweeping the curbs until we had significantly high trash piles. When a pile seemed sufficiently high we’d sweep another long stretch of the street and then make another one. It wasn’t long before our eyes became accustomed to food wrappers, iced tea bottles, half eaten sandwiches and discarded articles of clothing. Sweeping the streets you very often get a lot of dirt so the process isn’t as easy as sweeping your kitchen.

When my little group hit the area behind Wawa and Applebee’s restaurant—that stretch of green grass bordered by the East Thompson Street fence—we encountered a heavy concentration of trash.

The number of cigarette butts alone could very well have matched the plague of locusts that hit Salt Lake City during the great Mormon migration of the 1800s. Picking up individual butts with those E.T. extension arms would have taken all day; not only that, it probably would have had a deleterious mental effect on the picker. As a result, we decided to let most of the butts go. In the meantime, some of us had to dislodge large pieces of cardboard stuck into the ground from the Wawa and Rite Aide properties. But the big cinematic trash moment came when we cleaned Applebee’s backyard, an area that the Applebee’s General Manager told me later is regularly cleaned by his staff at least once or twice a week and then given an in-depth cleaning once a month. But more on Applebee’s later.

I don’t know what it’s like for everyone, but I went through a couple of different mental stages as I was picking up trash. The first stage is the reluctance to get started stage because of the daunting task ahead. The second is the “God awful!” stage when your eyes settle on something unusually disgusting or offbeat. It’s as if your hands, though gloved, were in full revolt at the mere thought of reaching out, if even by proxy, to the conglomerate of garbage. This stage soon passes, and suddenly everything changes as a ‘trash killing’ instinct kicks in. I compare it to going to the gym and experiencing muscle resistance for the first 5 minutes before feeling an all consuming adrenalin rush. Suddenly you and the rest of the volunteers are like synchronized dancers in some cosmic You Tube video, especially as you watch members of team throwing large cardboard pieces over the Wawa fence.

“You’re wasting your time,” a passerby snorted to one of the volunteers.
Had we listened to this advice we would have promptly given up and gone home and effectively killed any plans for future spring time cleanups. “Yes, you’re right, lady,” the ORCA volunteer could have replied, “This is a total waste. I switch my allegiance to trash.”

The plan was to cover as much of the neighborhood as possible. At first there was talk of going under I-95 but in the end we decided that that area was a day’s work in itself. We still stuck to the tributary streets around Thompson like the stretch to Richmond and then north to Cumberland Street and the Conrail tracks. But there was also Sergeant Street, Albert Street, parts of Webb Street, and of course the Vatican of Trash itself, Thompson Street behind Wawa, where most of this stuff seems to have mimicked evolution in its breeding capabilities.

The cleanest street was Salmon Street and parts of Edgemont. Give these streets the Gold Medal Award.

It’s hard to think of a family restaurant as being a magnet for trash, but when we tackled the backyard of Applebee’s, we got more than we bargained for. With Lisa, the volunteer in my group, I extracted a full set of wet, half decayed sweats—shirt, pants, undies—as well as an entire encampment of contemporary archeological finds: crack pipe, beer cans, condoms, half eaten Wawa wrap sandwiches, combs, suspicious plastic bags, and more condoms. If the early Native Americans could come back and compare our culture’s archeological findings with theirs, they’d regret that Penn Treaty deal with William Penn.

When I phoned Applebee’s GM after the cleanup and asked him what his take on the situation was, and if he could do something to help, I got good news.

“In the winter people camped behind the restaurant and drank beer all night, and sometimes things got rowdy when we would ask them to leave,” he said. “One night they even lit a bonfire. Unfortunately, much of the trash blows in from Wawa, and if we don’t clean it then it all blows into the parking lot. But I really want to work with the community,” he said. “I support your efforts.”
But the next time ORCA does a cleaning, let me know and we’ll arrange a free lunch for the volunteers at Applebee’s.”

That’s saying something in my book.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

ICON City Beat Column, March 2013

   (Photo: The Franklin Inn Club Five months before the March Debacle.
                 As one FIC member noted (not pictured): "The Club should not
                  coddle poor members who cannot pay their dues." Story coming.)

While last month’s PAFA debate on gender and race in the art world was not as volatile as the NYC 1971 Town Hall debate on Women’s Liberation where panelists Germaine Greer, Diana Trilling, Jacqueline Ceballos (of NOW) and Norman Mailer watched fellow panelist Jill Johnston being dragged offstage by female friends who wanted to French kiss, the event did heat up an otherwise dull Sunday February afternoon. As PAFA VP of Marketing, Heike Rass put it; the panel’s aim was to discuss “how gender and ethnicity factor into how art is received.” The debate was called to address New York Times art critic Ken Johnson’s controversial comments on PAFA’s current exhibit, The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making Their World. “Sexism is probably a good enough explanation for inequities in the market, “Johnson wrote. “But it might also have something to do with the nature of art that women tend to make….Anyone with a theory about that will have a good opportunity to test it at PAFA.” PAFA invited Huff Post Founding Arts Editor, Kimberly Brooks, and artists Njideki Akunijcli and Joyce Kozloff to challenge Johnson at the standing room only event. Throughout the ordeal Johnson maintained a cool as a cucumber demeanor despite a history of slighting various minority groups in his reviews. Audience members questioned his chronic deference to men as the authentic inheritors of lasting artistic talent. To wit: Doesn’t your obvious bias help perpetuate a privileged all- boys club? etc., etc. “The Times view is just one opinion,” one panel member said in a scolding tone, a true enough statement in today’s world where paid criticism has been eroded considerably by that Op Ed Tower of Babel known as The Huffington Post. Both sides made valid points, even if Johnson was outnumbered and out voiced. In a fantasy scenario, perhaps a pro-Times ally like provocateur feminist Camile Pagila would have come to Johnson’s rescue. Temperatures got hotter when an inference was made that the word ’critic’ implied hierarchy and privilege (read: white male dominance) in what should be an egalitarian free-for-all art opinion market where no one voice, credentialed or non-credentialed, holds sway. We couldn’t help but think: Isn’t this “cultural communism” reminiscent of the time when teachers told students that everybody is an artist, and that anyone can be a Renoir or a Picasso if they just apply themselves? Bottom line: We admire the PAFA show and advise everyone to see it before it leaves the city in April, even if we admit that in a future theoretical exhibition there could be issues around what The Times calls “identity politics in art.” To wit: Should powerful critics in major publications be fearful of panning bad Feminist art, LGBT art, Scientology art, Jewish art, Greek Orthodox art or even Developmentally Disabled handicapped art, for fear of being labeled phobic? And: Should art be subservient to current political and cultural trends in the interests of equality? Mao thought that art should be “socialist in content and Chinese in style,” while Paglia throws the whole of modern art into the garbage can when she states: “Contemporary art has no big ideas left,” which might explain why we’re in this jar of pickled (Keith) Herring. What do you think? You owe it to yourself to check out The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making Their World and let us know.

Requirements for membership in Philadelphia’s Franklin Inn Club used to be that one had to have published a book, but today, as Inn member Dan Rottenberg likes to note, the only requirement is that you must have read a book. Inn members and guests have included Christopher Morley, W.B. Yeats, Bram Stoker, Ezra Pound, G.K. Chesterton, and (the very much alive) former US poet Laureate, Daniel Hoffman. Today the Inn is only vaguely literary, with most members being active (or retired) lawyers, physicians or business people. During our recent visit there we heard Philly architect/classicist Al Holm and Philly folklorist Tom Carroll, president of the John Kelipus Society, lecture on the Wizard of the Wissahickon, or What Led an Old German Pietist to build a cave by the Wissahickon to wait out the Apocalypse. We were glad that the Kelpius talk happened the same week that Richard II’s bones were discovered under a parking lot in London, and were made twice as happy when we received notice of Larry Robin’s Moonstone 100 Poets event (Poetry Ink 20123) which takes place April 7th. That’s when 100 poets get 3 minutes to read a poem to other poets. At last year’s Poetry Ink, a few naughty poets spent 5 minutes explaining their poem before reading it, which extended the list’s wait time considerably. FYI: Really, really famous Philly poets tend to skip 100 Poets altogether because they want audiences where there is ONLY one poet—them. Still, we think that the 2014 100 Poets event should be held at the Inn, which might help restore some of the Inn’s literary heritage as well as tame the overactive lawyerly impulses that continue to unwittingly push the Inn closer to some kind of Union League identity precipice.

We’ve been to The Mountaintop and met an angel that drinks and cusses—and it was good. The Philadelphia Theater Company’s production of Katori Hall’s play about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last hours in Memphis had us cheering, even if there were no stagehands present to make the stage revolve the way it revolved when the work was on Broadway. Having an onstage reader exclaim, “Blast of thunder, lightning strikes, the room shakes,” not only encourages one not to take stage hands for granted, it sets the stage for other far flung unconventionalities, like a motel chambermaid who’s really an angel sent by God (a big black woman with Medusa hair) to tell Martin that he needs to prepare for a trip to the after life. Although the lack of sound effects was not totally bad---it added something existential to that (staged) lonely motel room in Memphis--- the strike did take its toll. Gone, for instance, was the post play PTC press reception, apparently a stage hands event, but even more importantly, when we retuned 3 weeks later when the strike was over, the talented onstage reader was still there, shouting “Blast of thunder, lighting strikes, the room shakes!” And so, with all due respect to the ever gracious Producing Artistic Director, Sara Garonzik, the stage hands do owe the press two things: a stage that revolves, and a party! .

There were plenty of words but no sound effects (except the ringing of phones) at The Wilma’s production of Assistance, a play by Leslye Headland, a look into the “hell is other people” workplace angst at a powerful Manhattan tech company staffed by sycophant careerists going crazy trying outdo co-workers and please a boss who’s never satisfied. As a snapshot of fanatical careerists (who will do anything, including murdering their first born, to ascend the corporate ladder) the play was on the money but came up short when offering solutions other than walking away in order to escape the insanity. After all, where does one go when so much of the world is filled with bosses who are never pleased?

There are no Ideal Husbands, anywhere, despite what Oscar Wilde says. The Walnut’s production of the Wilde classic was predictably lavish with a stage set that garnered applause, a rare thing in today’s theater world where stage minimalism a la Beckett has become the (yawn) norm. Still, we have to ask: are subscribers to the Walnut theater real theater people? While it’s true that we uttered a silent, “Wow,” when the curtain went up on a lavish chandelier-draped Victorian library living room, we would never think to applaud an arrangement of table and chairs, or marvel at how the luxurious ripples of a curtain tapestry frames a stage window The Wilde play, as Wilde plays go, was amusing, even if we did notice how the playwright contrived the ending in a pulp fiction manner. Oscar Wilde, you devil! We were reminded once again how you bent over backwards to entertain the very people who later stood in line to lock you up in Reading Goal.

We headed over to the Pennsylvania Convention Center to check out the Tattoo Convention and left feeling glad that we never came under the spell of Ink. Tattoo artists from all over the country waited in open stalls for passersby to offer their bodies: Large women in red undies lounging on their sides like Reuben or Cezanne models (making us think of the current show at PAFA); lithe young men, some tattoo virgins, sitting or lying on their backs with their shirts off on what looked like operating room tables, eyes closed, as tattoo surgeons drilled, inked, wiped, and then bored into their nubile skin. We heard no cries of mortification or pain as these fellows and ladies accepted mark of the beast brand names like Josh Fallon, Trueblue Tattoo, Jay Blondel, DNA Tattooing, and Bonedaddy’s. As for the tattoos themselves, there was a marked preponderance of skulls and funny horror faces--- even, we dare say, on the bodies of various parents, their tattoo-less kids in tow. Before leaving we bumped into Mike Allenbach (, a personable entrepreneur who told us about his specialty: photographing tattooed brides. We’re not talking about the Bride of Frankenstein or brides like the one in the Rocky Horror Picture Show but normal Presbyterian or wayward Catholics who may have overdosed on Ink.

If the University of Pennsylvania were to be suddenly swallowed up by Robert Smithson’s 1970 environmental sculpture, Spiral Jetty, located on the shores of Utah’s Great Salt Lake but propelled eastward on some Sci-Fi asteroid, there’d still be Arcadia University, or the University That Could. Penn does not rule all, as we learned when Arcadia put us on a shuttle bus with a contingent from the Fabric Workshop and delivered us into the hands of British-born Berlin-based artist Tacita Dean who delivered one of the most unusual art lectures since William Burroughs’ private monologue rampages in his New York City bunker apartment. We won’t attempt to explain Dean’s work in such a short space except to say that by the end of the evening we felt as if we’d been transported to some alien world, and then deposited back, our heads spinning. To check the whole thing out, go here:

Focus Point Global and the Paid Opinion Racket

The Local Lens

Published• Wed, Mar 13, 2013

While there may be no such thing as free money, in some instances if your patience exceeds that of a saint, and if you like to talk, there can be financial rewards.

I’m talking about Focus Pointe Global, an international organization devoted to qualitative market research. If you haven’t heard of Focus Pointe Global (FPG), this is how the system works: You sign up to receive screener questionnaires which ultimately determine whether or not a panel of experts finds you qualified to join a round table of paid people to give their opinions about social issues, an ad campaign, or new products like hair gel or breakfast cereals. Other FPG panels might deal with health and diet issues, non-prescription drugs, or exercise. FPG pays focus group participants for their time through funds provided by the companies pushing their products and services, while these same companies give FPG specific guidelines regarding the selection of focus group panelists.

Subscribers to FPG are sent several online screeners a week. The first part is a screener which determines your eligibility (age, income, where you work, and availability); next comes the verification process, meaning that if you pass Go, you get to speak with a FPG rep who confirms your eligibility by asking you additional questions. Next there is the confirmation process, where a select group of behind-the-scenes people will review you as a potential focus group panel member. If you pass this test, you finally get to join the focus group.

Focus groups, depending on their length, can pay participants anywhere from 50 to 150 dollars in cold cash, usually distributed at the end of the session in crisp new bills in an envelope with your name on it. It’s a great way to make money, especially if you are not afraid to talk and give your opinion about social issues, services or products.

Over the years, I’ve participated in a number of focus groups in Center City. Traditionally, the eligibility section has always been brief, but lately that has changed. Participation in a focus group used to be relatively easy with a few quirks along the way. Since one cannot expect to be selected for every group, a number of rejections are to be expected. On the average, it used to be considered good luck to be selected for a group at least once a year. Today’s ailing economy, as well as the changing demands of clients who pay FPG to arrange focus groups, means that you can consider yourself "lucky" if you get picked for a FPG group once every three years.

My last FPG group was almost two years ago. Since that time I have probably answered 150 to 200 online screeners to determine my eligibility. In all cases I was rejected. For starters, the eligibility section asks if you work (or have ever worked) in a number of jobs or professions, and very often one of the professions listed is journalism, as in TV, radio, magazines or newspaper work. To admit the truth and check a "Yes" on this box is usually an instant disqualifier, as corporate head honchos who pay FPG don’t want journalists or writers in focus groups. In eight out of every ten eligibility screeners that come my way, the newspaper-magazine-TV question is paramount. When I check "Yes" I am disqualified immediately.

I’ve gotten used to the rejections at this stage of the game, since a similar thing happens every time I receive a jury duty notice. The jury duty screening process always includes a pass or fail test by attorneys; when an attorney reads that you’re a journalist, forget it, you are rejected out of hand.

If lawyers and focus groups don’t want journalists on their panels or juries, why don’t they just come out and say so?

At one point things got so bad with the FGP screeners that I started to keep score of all the rejections I was piling up. Then I decided to conduct an experiment. I started to lie when filling out the eligibility screener, but even then I was rejected. I tried all sorts of lies and even stated that I was a pharmacist just to see if I would be accepted (I was not).

FPG sometimes gets slick and offers very long eligibility screeners that may take ten to fifteen minutes to answer. Sometimes the questions are real focus group survey questions, meaning that the company in question is getting their information for free (in the name of eligibility) with the added benefit of rejecting you in the end. If I could tabulate the time I’ve spent answering screeners in the last 24 months it would register somewhere near the four or five hour mark. All done for free, of course.

The focus group game has now become comparable to gambling.

I had a taste of victory recently when a FPG verifier called to confirm my answers to a screener, and then said I was to be included in a group. This led to dreams of that envelope filled with crisp cash, but five minutes later someone from FPG called and canceled my participation. No reason was given.

More recently I was selected for a health issues panel, passed both the verification and the confirmation process, and slated to show up at 8 AM the next morning for a 7-hour group. After rearranging my schedule so that I could attend, some four hours after being told I was "in" I received a call which said that the client has changed the criteria for the group, and that my participation wouldn’t be needed. "Good luck next time," the recorded message and email stated.

"Luck" like this is enough to make one paranoid. I called FPG to ask if I was on a blacklist. "I’ve done two hundred screeners during the last two years and was rejected for every single one of them," I said. "Statistically, this looks odd."

I was assured there was no blacklist, that my FPG standing was fine, and that my participation in future FPG focus groups was valued. But something seems rotten in Denmark. Could it be true that the information submitted on the "screener" surveys is the actual information that companies want, and that FPG turns around and sells those answers?