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Saturday, May 25, 2013

America's Booming New Criminal Class

CONCRETE STEEL & PAINT: a film for our time

By Thom Nickels

Something’s seriously wrong with America’s criminal justice system. The world’s greatest democracy is also the world’s greatest embarrassment when it comes to incarceration. The American prison system is, in fact, a mammoth Guantanamo, bursting at the seams with massive overcrowding.

While the United States accounts for just 5% of the world’s population, it houses 25% of the world’s prison population. Twenty-five percent is no small percentage. These numbers reflect a rise of drug offenders. In fact, the numbers of incarcerated drug offenders has risen 1200% since 1980. Today there are over 500,000 people in the nation’s prisons for drug-related offenses.

These Orwellian statistics give one pause: Either the world’s greatest democracy has the most “evil” people in the world, or the system itself is rotten and flawed.

In Pennsylvania, the state prison population has grown by 21% in just 6 years, from 37,995 in 2001 to more than 49,300 today, according to Marc Goldberg, deputy secretary for administration at the State’s Department of Corrections. Mr. Goldberg speculates that the state prison population is expected to grow at an average of 4% each year through 2012.

So why is the United States throwing everyone in jail?

Senator James Webb, D-Va., is asking the same question. On March 26, 2009 he sponsored the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, which calls for the creation of a blue-ribbon commission to study every aspect of the criminal justice system, with an eye to reshaping it inside and out. Senator Webb’s statistics are even more alarming then the numbers quoted above.

There are four times as many mentally ill people in prisons than in mental hospitals, Senator Webb reports, and when it comes to post-incarceration and re-entry programs, they are virtually non-existent in this country.

Moral of the story: The world’s greatest democracy comes up empty.

Enter the Philadelphia Mural Arts Project, which for years has been sponsoring rehabilitative mural painting inside Pennsylvania prisons. Paint and color might appear to be a lightweight connection to the state of U.S. prisons, but when the U.S. prison system offers prisoners so little, MAP’s value skyrockets.

Case in point: A documentary film, “ConcreteSteel&Paint,” by filmmakers Cindy Burstein and Tony Heriza, is the story of a group of Graterford State Correctional prisoners and neighbors coming together to paint a MAP mural dedicated to healing. Forget the notion of a “feel good” retro Haley Mills Disney film epic. This story of healing is a compelling one, as the two groups, prisoners and victims of crime, struggle to understand one another. (Mr. Heriza, the Director of Educational Outreach for the American Friends Service Committee, and a teacher of video production at the University of Pennsylvania, also happens to be married to MAP Director Jane Golden. As Ms. Golden’s husband, Mr. Heriza opted not to “cosmeticize” Ms. Golden’s looks of frustration and heartbreak as she is shown listening to victims explain why any interaction with the prisoners might not be possible.)

It’s no cliché to say that the viewer feels the painful struggle between these two factions as they mesh out differences: the prisoners, some convicted for murder or rape, reaching out to victims and victim advocates only to be told that they have no right to ask or demand forgiveness from people they have victimized. The first meeting between victims and prisoners is tight with accusatory stares, sour expressions carved underneath forced smiles. One feels the impossibility of the situation.

At the world premier of the film at International House, Mayor Michael Nutter offered a few introductory remarks, as did Dr. Howard Zehr, Professor of Restorative Justice at the Center for Justice & Peacebuilding.

The reception buzzed with compliments and stories of how the film had changed, over a period of several years when it was a work-in-progress, from “rambling” versions to the work of art it had become.

“Some of the initial tension came from the advocates wanting to come in and hear a lot more remorse from the prisoners,” Ms. Burstein told me by phone. “With these guys in many ways, their crimes were committed in the past. This doesn’t excuse them for having done it, but they are at the point where they’ve expressed their remorse, and that’s why they wanted to do the mural project. They were onto a step where they wanted to give back and show that they could positively contribute, and that that would be their message to the community. On the other hand, there was tension when the victim advocates would come in and just wanted to hear the remorse, over and over and over again….There’s only so many times you can express remorse, then it becomes, ‘Can we move onto something else?’”

Ms. Burstein, who also works as Adjunct Professor of media and cultural studies in the Film & Media Arts Dept. at Temple University, said that the film comes along “at the right time.”

“The number of people in prison since the late 1970s, when the prison population was about 300,000, is now up to two million. A lot of that has to do with the drug laws of the 1980s, as well as sentencing laws that are keeping non violent offenders in jail for longer periods of time,” she said.

While State law mandated that the prisoners’ faces not be shown, the filmmakers opted for discreet “fuzzing” of the faces or close ups that included everything but their eyes. “Our intention was to conceal the identity in such a way where you could still feel the humanity of the prisoners,” Ms. Burstein said. “Some people said to me after the premier that even though blurring the faces wasn’t our intention, it was a positive outcome in terms of the messaging of the film. Having to conceal identities made people more aware of the dehumanization that goes on when people are in prison.”

At the conclusion of the film, Dr. Zehr suggested that audience members turn to someone they didn’t already know in order to discuss what they had seen.

“People appreciated the chance to talk with one another, to meet somebody they didn’t know, to have a brief conversation with them. Our goal was to use the film as dialogue. At the premier we wanted to demonstrate how that would happen.”

Graterford State Prison opened in 1929 as a maximum security facility. Of the 3500 or so prisoners the most famous were Ira Einhorn (who now resides at the State Correctional Institute at Houtzdale, Pennsylvania), and Garrett Reid, son of Eagles coach Andy Reid.

A new building housing up to 4,000 prisoners now replaces the 1929 structure. We need bigger and better buildings to ensure the quick processing of America’s booming new criminal class.

Let us attend to...another hanging.
Upside down 'criminal class' in Palm Springs, CA. It's criminal the way some people use a camera.
Palm Springs pearl extraction. Did you know that the population of Palm Springs is 65% gay? Where is the Pearl of Great Price?
Roasting marshmellows in Palm Springs.

Friday, May 24, 2013

What Would Oriana Fallaci Do? [The Boston Marathon]

The Boston Marathon bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, seemed to have been thoroughly assimilated immigrants living in one of the most exciting, urbane progressive centers in the world: Boston and Cambridge. As a former resident of Cambridge, I can tell you that the area is home to some of the most diverse, international communities this side of San Francisco.

The people of Cambridge, home of MIT and Harvard, are especially welcoming to “outsiders.” In many ways, there are no “outsiders” in Cambridge. People there make no assumptions based on race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation.

It is curious that some Americans look at the Tsarnaey brothers and ask how they went undetected as religious jihadists by everyone in their environment. These people wonder how the brothers led seemingly healthy student lives while jihadist thoughts were forming in their heads. That’s an easy question to answer: a person’s conversion to religious fanaticism can happen mentally—silently-- without a showy display. The Tsarnaey brothers are proof that religious jihadists can be effective as terrorists despite the lack of a supportive terrorist community.

Because the Tsarnaey brothers were not foreign-trained professional throat-slitting thugs but clean cut student-terrorists who went to the gym and partied with their American friends, there are people (and media outlets) trying to make sense of this tragedy, by asking why they committed these “senseless deeds.”

Question: why are these people asking the question why? One must understand the way Islamic fundamentalism works: to the religious jihadist, violence and murder is anything but senseless. It has a “holy” purpose.

After the marathon tragedy, I read up on the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, and then read reports of the building of a 50 million dollar Islamic Cultural Center ten miles north of Dublin, Ireland. Ireland, a country of some 4.6 million people, used to be a robustly Catholic country. The 1991 Irish census had the number of Muslims at 3,875. They were mostly refugees from Bosnia, Kosovo and Somalia. Today Muslims constitute about 1.07% of the population, but the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life forecasts 125,000 Muslims in Ireland by 2030.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. The problem is that, generally speaking, immigrant Muslim populations do not assimilate into the general culture, but form parallel communities. Well, you ask, didn’t Italians and the Irish do the same thing when they immigrated to America? Yes and no. The Irish and Italians did form enclave “ethnic” communities, but they did so not in order to resist or “fight” the custom and social mores of the host country. This is what has critics of the Dublin mosque up in arms. They are afraid that the newly created suburb around the mosque will be the genesis of a Muslim community that will eventually challenge Ireland’s governance and then eventually wish to establish Sharia law.

Is this just a paranoid fantasy?

The wealthy Irish real estate mogul who sold this six acre stretch of farmland to the Islamic Center has come under the radar screen of the Emir of Qatar, a Muslim leader who said of the real estate mogul:

"If there's one thing the west yearns, it is money. For it has worshiped this false god without fail for as long as they have departed from the worship of the true God. And it is this weakness, nay addiction that will see what they hold precious being wrenched from their spindly hands…”

Some time ago, I had a close Muslim friend; this fact is what makes writing this column somewhat difficult.

You see, you have to be careful when you write about Islam these days. If you criticize an aspect of Islamist life too harshly, you’re called an Islamophobe and a possible “hater.”

Here’s the rub: Omar’s (not his real name) brand of Islam can be described as moderate. He’s also bisexual, a fact that could get him into legal trouble if he were to take up residence in a Muslim country that follows Sharia Law. (Same sex relations are outlawed in 26 Muslim countries worldwide). Sharia law is Islamist religious law incorporated into the secular realm; it’s what the U.S. Constitution forbids in this country, namely the mixing of Christian or Jewish doctrine in the laws of the land. We know it, traditionally, as the separation of Church and state.

In Sharia Law there’s no separation of Church and state. The laws of the “church” are the laws of the state. This means that gay people in Muslim countries don’t have the luxury of debating gay marriage or marching in Pride events. The penalty for homosexuality is death, death by hanging or death by having a stone wall fall on top of you. In more moderate Muslim countries where the death penalty is not proscribed for the “crime” of being gay, the couple may be subject to beatings or public floggings.

Medieval, you say? Of course it is. But what’s just as medieval is the fact that Sharia Law is becoming the rallying cry of radical Islamists who want to destroy any notion of a moderate Islam. Sadly it seems that the notion of moderate Islam is becoming more remote as time goes by.

The cry for Sharia Law within the various Muslim enclaves in Western Europe has already become a serious problem. While I enjoyed hanging out with Omar, this doesn’t change the fact that in many Muslim communities in England nd France Sharia law is sometimes applied in a covert way within these communities despite the disapproval of secular authorities. Omar was embarrassed by this, and rarely wanted to talk about it. I didn't blame him. If I was writing this column in the 12th century during Christianity’s Inquisition, as a Christian, I’d feel the same sort of embarrassment, and I wouldn’t want to talk about it either.

Tom Trento, an evangelical Christian and a member of the Florida Security Council, came to Philly some time ago to showcase the film, “The Third Jihad” before 400 people who packed the Central branch of the Free Library. Among the people interviewed in the film was Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the former member of the Dutch Parliament who made the film, Submission, with Theo Van Gogh. Van Gogh was later killed by a radical for his portrayal [in Submission] of the treatment of women in Islamic societies.

At the end of the film, Trento spoke about “the silent jihad in Philadelphia.”

“Sharia law begs the question: can this coexist with a Constitutional Democratic Republic? Is there a way to bring these two together?” he asked.

Mr. Trento’s answer was an unqualified no.

Mr. Trento believes that most Americans are asleep when it comes to the silent jihad happening all around them.

“My intent is not to bash individual Muslims,” he said. “I want to confront a specific ideology of radical Islam that desires to implement Sharia Law in place of the Constitution of the United States. If anyone wants to mess with the Constitution, they become an enemy of the United States. So the issue isn’t Muslims; it’s where you stand on Sharia Law. If you’re for Sharia Law, you’re an enemy of the United States.”

Trento is convinced that the groundwork for Sharia Law lies in “peaceful” presentations by radicals.

“Whenever poison is introduced anywhere, it is to introduce it in a nice container of some sort,” Mr. Trento said. “The container used in the US right now is trying to rebuild the inner city…”

As for my old pal, Omar: sometime ago he told me that he was about to marry his girlfriend, which meant, I suppose, that it was safe for him to go home again.

What will they reconfigure next?
I prefer the quiet of nature and the isolation of mountains to the mayhem of big city marathons.

Thwarting Big City Crime?

The Local Lens

Published• Wed, May 22, 2013

By Thom Nickels

Open the newspaper or watch the news everyday and what happens? You are greeted by another bizarre crime story. The stories that get to me are the ones that involve home invasions. It is hard to imagine the horror of having someone break into your home to steal, do you harm, or worse.

This is not to downplay conventional muggings and attacks in the city or, worse yet, on the street where you live. Some seven months ago, for instance, a neighbor of mine was unlocking her door when a youth—in a hooded sweatshirt, of course—came up behind her, pushed her off the step, and stole her purse. In another incident, a neighbor a few blocks away was walking along Albert Street when he was jumped.

Unfortunately, there are no crime repellents like those preventative mosquito bite sprays to ward off criminals, but there are some things that ordinary citizens can do to try to thwart or even scare away potential criminals.

One thing that’s gotten some play in recent times is acting crazy. Imagine a thug sneaking up behind you with the intent to throw you to the ground, when all of a sudden you begin to shout "Praise the Lord!", drool at the mouth, or lapse into a few facial twitches. As Steve Martin once said, "If you get mugged, throw up on your money."

Of course, acting crazy in a world where almost everyone already acts crazy to some degree can be a problem. As citizens of the 21st century, we have grown increasingly tolerant of untoward and bizarre behavior, from seeing men and women pushing and living in shopping carts, covered head to toe in tattoos, or even having fights in public with their significant others. For me, one supremely crazy incident stands out: On the Market Street El some months ago, I spotted a man walking from car to car with a sign around his neck promising to perform sexual services for one dollar. The man in question walked with a limp, had one eye, carried a walking stick, and smelled like four-day-old flounder. People on the El rubbed their eyes and looked twice: Was what they were seeing really real? Could it be? Yes, it was all too real.

Chances are a thug or mugger doesn’t care how crazy you act. People nowadays, as we read, kill for the sport of it. So we need something more than acting crazy to scare the bad seed away.

We might consider how we appear in public, since muggers do not select victims by age, race or gender but by the way they behave in public. If you are walking along a dark, deserted city street with your head hanging down and looking at the sidewalk, a mugger might see that as a sign of weakness. It is much better to hold your head high and to walk at a healthy pace. Writer Vernon Coleman believes that "the way you dress, walk and behave can determine whether or not you become a victim of crime." For women this means not to carry a huge purse; for men, avoid knapsacks and backpacks (unless you are about to take a trip to the moon).

Knowing karate might be a good defense trick, but it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to take karate lessons. Pepper spray is good; ditto for tear gas, a vial of lye, hot coffee, scalding water, etc.

One can carry weapons like a Swiss Army knife, a switchblade, or even a pistol, but if a thug catches you unaware, these things will prove fruitless. It’s almost as if "If it’s your time, it’s your time." Of course, running fast can be an asset. Getting into a fight with or challenging a mugger is foolish because he may have sleazy friends hiding in a small alley. When I was a boy I was the victim of a fat bully who lived on my street. The bully loved to chase me but could never catch me because he was so fat, but what he did do was hide in the bushes and jump out in front of me like a jackrabbit. Then, because of his immense weight, he’d sit on my chest and hold me to the ground until he felt ready to let me go—until my father taught me how to bring my legs up behind him, grasp his neck and then push his body backwards until his weight was off me for good.

One can reason with a criminal, of course, if that seems appropriate. One time, years ago in Center City a man demanded a certain amount of money from me while he had me cornered in a niche between two buildings. I didn’t know what to do. Yelling didn’t seem appropriate; throwing a punch didn’t feel right either, so I just told him in a Silence of the Lambs inspired voice (read: very serious with a demented quality) that I was a karate black belt and I could really injure him severely if he did not let me go. I repeated the threat until I began to believe it, and sure enough in a few minutes the guy backed off and I was free to leave the small niche.

Another time when a thief ripped the gold Orthodox cross from around my neck, I told him that he had to give it back because the cross was given to me by my mother on her deathbed, and that with the gift came my mother’s warning that whoever stole this cross from me would be burdened with a terrible curse. I only had to say this three times before the culprit, looking quite pale, handed me the cross, after which he denied ever having tried to steal anything.

All of us have had flying dreams in which we can will ourselves off the earth and then up and over the heads of the people around us, sometimes going way above the rooftops so that the city below appears smaller and smaller. If you’re like me, you have had dreams in which you escape a thug by willing yourself into the air, floating like a red balloon to a place far away. If only we could make dreams reality.

I’m thinking especially of those two gay guys who were attacked by thugs in Manhattan after a sporting event. The two men were walking along West 32nd Street when five Knicks fans attacked them while uttering antigay slurs. The men were beaten up pretty badly and needed medical treatment. They were attacked simply because they were gay, something that used to happen a lot years ago, years before half the world and twelve U.S. states went on to legalize same-sex marriage. This is a throwback to the 1950s in that it is hard to imagine how being gay can still be an issue for some people. I took some solace in the fact that people who have this kind of intense hatred of gays are usually dealing with some deep-seated sexual repression issues: They want to hate or attack that which they find objectionable within themselves.

I’m still disturbed about the murder of Fishtown resident Michael Hagan last year near 4th and Lombard Streets in the early morning weekend hours. The killer has not been caught—it was probably a lone guy in a hooded sweatshirt—despite a $50,000 reward and posters all over Septa trains and buses asking people if they know anything about the crime. One hopes for justice in this case, but as the Philly murders keep piling up, the older murder cases get buried in new ones. As time goes by, the older cases become less relevant.

Another murder that shook me was the killing of the DJ on South Street who lived in an apartment inside an ice cream store. The poor guy was just going into his apartment, which happened to be inside the store, when the thug or thugs thought he was the manager.

Then of course there was the gruesome Caleb McGillvary "Kai hatchet man" murder. This homeless "home free" bum achieved his fifteen minutes of fame when he supposedly saved a woman’s life with a hatchet, but then turned around and took another human life with the very same tool.

People applauded "cool Kai" on a late night TV talk show because he seemed so funny when describing how he "smashed" the woman’s attacker. To the giggling masses he seemed like a new kind of cult hero, despite the fact that most were blind to the psychosis lying dormant behind his heroic rescue. That psychosis, of course, is the fact that anyone who describes a killing (justified or not) with such smiling enthusiasm and glee, is not somebody who can be trusted or who you’d ever want to call a friend.

He could be a New York rapper, or a home invader.
This kitten was found on fire near a park in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. Thugs set fire to "Justin," and ran. Justin's ears had to be removed.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

At the Grave of Thomas Merton

By Thom Nickels

Odd to be standing on The Seven Story Mountain,

Here at the Abbey of Gethsemani, 2012,

A simple cross marking you

The June sun framing your hermitage, site of Joan Baez picnic lunches & theologians in slanted berets toasting Vatican II voodoo--

So much has changed since your electrocution in

Bangkok, that religious conference with nuns

In white, your new Zen attitude

Announcing a Coca Cola break

A day when hope seemed limitless---

The marriage of Buddhism & Catholicism, the Oneness of everything

But not the fan that killed you--in an instant hopefully before

They brought you back in a box

So much has changed--- even the nuns, decked out now in stretch pant suits & Macy’s jewelry, some raising a faux chalice to Germaine Greer---

Or the male clergy, caught in the sacristy with Ganymede, being led away in handcuffs. One pope even kissed the Koran & called it holy,

while another abdicated, paving the way for St. Malachy’s Peter the Roman, bishop of the New York Apocalypse, three days of darkness or helter skelter on the streets of

Camden despite whimsical intermissions by the Shake it Up liturgical dancers of LA cathedral fame, the temple  Cardinal Mahony built when he wasn't busy covering up semen spills- Still--- don’t go thinking they’ll make you a saint

Anytime soon---

Too much sex in those journals, Tommy

That Louisville nurse, Maggie,

The one you called late at night when

You thought the other monks asleep,

Sneaking around like Portnoy’s Complaint,

Though the world honored you

“Leave the monastery,” Joan urged, “marry Maggie,”

But how many marriages last, really? Look at Dorothy

Day, her Marxism & one abortion--

No, they won’t canonize you two though how soon they

Forget St. Mary of Egypt, 1st century Lolita girl addicted to

Sex, giving it away, selling it, Can’t get enough—bad girl

Trapped in the shadows of Allen Ginsberg. When she tried to

Enter the church of the Holy Sepulcher an invisible

Shield shut her out —she’d just had sex in a

Jerusalem alley, after all—“I will give it all up if I can enter,” she pleaded & so the NO became YES & paved the way for a lifelong desert retreat of fasting & prayer till she became as the sun baked armadillo--- ugly, transcendent, but saved.

April 2013 City Beat Column, ICON Magazine

Participation in a paid focus group used to be relatively easy with just a few quirks along the way. Focus groups are opinion forums where participants are paid for their thoughts and opinions about a wide variety of products and services.

One of the largest Center City-based focus groups is Focus Point Global.

It’s not unusual for FPG subscribers to answer 150 to 200 online screeners per year to determine eligibility for a 3 to 4 hour session that can pay upwards of 75 to 150 dollars. In a down economy, subscribers generally try to “out trick” FPG’s eligibility screeners, even if 90 percent of these pre-qualifying questionnaires ask applicants if they work (or have ever worked) in TV, radio or print journalism. A ‘yes’ answer in this case is an instant disqualifier, as the corporations who pay FPG to conduct the surveys don’t want journalists in their focus groups.

A similar thing happens when it comes to serving on juries. A Yes answer to one eligibility question-- Are you a journalist?-- will likewise guarantee an automatic rejection.

Want to get out of jury duty? Tell the attorney in charge that you’re a journalist. Watch and see how fast they run.

Wouldn’t it just be easier to state: journalists need not apply?

Tarnished Sidewalk Plaques

Let’s here it for Philadelphia’s Walk of Fame!

That mantra sounded big in 1987 when the Philadelphia Music Alliance put into action its plan to create a Walk of Fame along the Avenue of the Arts. The idea then was to install in the sidewalk commemorative bronze plaques with the names of famous-born Philadelphians who made it big in the music world. Developed as an idea of the Philadelphia Music Alliance, a community-based, non-profit organization founded in 1986, the first plaque inductees included Philadelphia greats like Marian Anderson, Mario Lanza, Dizzy Gillespie, Bessie Smith and Chubby Checker.

For a decade at least, the South Broad Street plaques were shiny and bright. With every new inductee there were parties, photo ops, champagne toasts and gala dinners.

The last Walk of Fame commemoration in bronze was in June 2010 when The Tonight Show’s band leader, Kevin Eubanks, was awarded a plaque. Since then the Walk of Fame has gone the way of Philadelphia’s abandoned and boarded up houses:

It has become the Walk of Neglect.

A good many of the plaques are partially sunken in cement or so dirty and corroded it makes you wonder if anybody in the city even cares about these bronzes anymore. Gone also are the parties, the plaque galas, the on site photo ops.

In the 1990s there’d be periodic “Star dust” cleaning parties where music celebrities and others would lend a hand scrubbing grime off the various plaques. Parties like this are no more, which may be indicative of either a change in PMA’s financial priorities or a change in the way the normal citizen perceives celebrity.

Our age is the age of instantaneous celebrity when people expect to become famous for nothing. A musician working for decades may not achieve the star power of a silicone lipped reality TV bit player who happens to catch the eye of a lascivious producer. So yes, the nature of celebrity has changed: A square sidewalk star has become a cheap thing, indeed.

Traditional Catholic Liturgical Art

What’s a nice Jewish couple like Roberta and Richard Huber doing collecting 17th century Latin American Catholic art? Richard began his career at the First National Bank of Boston but later relocated to Buenos Aires (where there’s always been a large Jewish community) with his wife, Roberta in 1962. The couple decided to purchase local sculptures and paintings that interested them—mostly Catholic iconographic or Spanish and Portuguese Colonial Art. They say they bought only what interested them with no thought of where an item stood on the art hierarchy scale. That artistic intuition has resulted in the transformation of the Exhibition Gallery at PMS’s Perelman Building into a small basilica. The timing, of course, blends well with that other “Argentine” event in the city of Rome: the election of a pope who was known to join with local Jews in Buenos Aires to celebrate Hanukkah. Viewing the plethora of startling silver, ivory and wood masterpieces--most imported to Latin America at the bequest of patrons-- we were reminded of the Museum’s The Arts in Latin America exhibit in 2006, organized by Joseph J. Rishel and aided by the Huber’s, who also happen to be Rishel’s longtime friends.

Bold and Brassy: hanging out in the local Casino
The brassy, neon world of casinos stands in stark contrast to almost everything else in life, but when we were invited to check out a Philly Style party at Sugar House in Fishtown recently, we jumped at the chance. The gambling arena is only slightly larger than a casino on a cruise ship, but the players—poor, minority people at the slots, most smoking and drinking robotically, confirmed for us what we’d always known: casinos are mainly a draw for the down and out. The faux glitz put us smack down into a “garden” of life size Queen of England cardboard cut outs meant to advertise this year’s British themed Flower Show. The Queen looked odd in this mix of Secret Service -looking male employees in ultra-sheen polyester suits and party-happy Style babes primping for vodka martinis and photo ops. We thought we’d die of Stylitis until Einstein Healthcare ‘s Senior Manager of Communications, Kerry O’Connor, took us aside and made the observation that if Sugar House was savvy they’d make arrangements for a pier to be built on the river so that boaters could anchor up for a Sugar siphon from the rear of the building.

No sooner did we toast Kerry’s proposal then we found ourselves thick inside the Pennsylvania Convention Center to take-in a special Wedding Wednesday party for brides-to-be. We watched as future brides sampled a variety of wedding reception miniatures, from chocolate candies, cupcakes and wedding cake squares to (very) carefully measured portions of vodka and wine. The Queen, still cardboard stiff, acted as a magnet for photo-op brides, as did a cutout of Prince Harry, whose mischievous grin seemed to suggest, to the future wives at least, that one last round of dirty dancing before their big day might be the way to go. We ran into photographer HughE. Dillon, who snapped our picture, after which we checked out the wedding gown samples which unfortunately made us think of Mummers costumes. We recalled the bridal gown shop near 13th and Locust Street with its storefront displays of over-the-top dresses that always put us in mind of the Fellini film, Roma, especially the scene where the clergy of Rome, some on roller skates, model holy taffeta and brocade. “Where is the simplicity of the Aubrey Hepburn or Jackie O?” we asked a woman offering us cupcakes. “Why do so many brides in modern weddings have to look like white plume ostriches on parade?”

 The Sham of (much of) Modern Art 

Pablo Picasso confessed that he was a fraud when he stated, “…I am celebrated, I am rich….But when I am alone with myself, I have not the courage to think of myself as an artist in the great and ancient sense of the term. Giotto, Titian, Rembrandt were great painters. I am only a public entertainer.” Picasso even adds, “The less [my public] understood me, the more they admired me….Mine is a bitter confession, more painful than it may appear.” Architect Al Holm forwarded us this quote shortly before the annual Al Holm lecture at the Athenaeum on Washington Square. These lectures, though named after Holm, offer a different speaker every year. This year’s topic was “The Great American House: Tradition for the Way We Live,” by New York architect Gil Schafer. An Athenaeum lecture is the next best thing to being in Rome or Paris, though this year’s event was packed to the gills due to the renovation of the new Bush Room (which Bush was never specified). Al and his wife Nancy joined us at the congested after party where we chatted with Wesley Parrott, former president of the Franklin Inn Club. We ran into a smiling Daniela Holt Voith of Voith & Mactavish Architects who told us that the firm’s move to 2401 Walnut Street, 6th Floor, has finally been made and that-- despite reports to the contrary-- the new digs do offer spectacular view of the city.

Goodbye Toothless Yahoos

Philadelphians who still refer to Kensington as a terrain of toothless yahoos and empty syringes need only to walk along the Frankford Arts corridor to see that a revolution has occurred. Bundled up in winter scarves, we got an eyeful in late February when we headed to the FJord gallery at 2419 Frankford for their annual Valentine’s Dessert Party. The Frankford Avenue renaissance got us thinking of New York’s Soho because this once barren industrial-waste land dotted with deserted lots, boarded up factories, remnants of soup kitchens, now looks as though it’s been combed free of infestation with RID. The FJord Arts collective was co- founded by Philly-based urban planner and antique car expert, Rick Shnitzler 28 years ago. Rick introduced us to Fjord’s new president, Lindsay, who gave us an impromptu tour of the upstairs studios for working artists. These small rustic spaces crammed with canvasses, paint, and preliminary sketches had great window views of nearby tall factory smokestacks. For a peek:

North Philadelphia is another neighborhood beating the odds despite the long lines there at many PhilAbundance outlets. We headed over to the new Stephen Starr 11,000 square foot commissary at 667 North Broad Street for an evening of “interactive stations and demos.” Although the commissary’s understated wood Swiss chalet entrance is located near a small Dunkin Donuts and a gas station/car wash named East Coast, the place is a culinary Kubla Kahn. Are their people anywhere in this city who can claim to dislike Stephen Starr food? We chatted with Laura Krbes (Cashman and Associates), and Janet Binswanger and Morgan Bedore (Starr restaurants). High energy reigned supreme as A. D. Amorosi remarked, “It’s a sexy night,” and as Queer Times Three Musketeers Thom Cardwell, James Duggan and Josh Kruger gave us their spin on local politics.

Philadelphia’s Weekly Press celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, not an easy fete in an age when hard copy newspapers are not only shrinking in size but in content. Bob and Claudia Christian, publishers of the Weekly Press along with its West Philly counterpart, The University City Review, have weathered intense competition from online publications and two other alternative city weeklies. Through the years, they’ve have had to dodge snide attacks from some who have dubbed their paper, The Center City Toilet Weekly, which is far from the truth, really, considering that from the very beginning the couple took an oath that they wouldn’t accept ads from massage parlors and escort agencies to help fund the paper. Turning down the lucrative ad cash flow of the T and A industry is no easy task when you’re almost always in the red, but this newspaper has managed to do just that. More interesting still is the fact that many of the stories in The Weekly have been picked up (and expanded) by the competition.

The City Beat Patrol, somewhere near Rittenhouse Square.

May 2013 City Beat Column, ICON Magazine

Decades ago when you walked into a Philadelphia state store you had to ask a guy behind the counter what you wanted. They had state store catalogs with numbers; the customer would give the guy a number, he’d disappear into the back and come back with the bottle. The operation was run like a pawn shop. Not only that, but by law the guy behind the counter couldn’t give you any recommendations.

While Pennsylvania Wine and Spirit Shops have made a lot of good changes since then, the fact remains that the state is still in the business of selling alcohol.

As far back as 2003, a Hershey Philbin Associates Online Poll revealed that 75% of Pennsylvanians said they favored abolishing the LCB.

The poll numbers since then have favored privatization even more, although politicians—in this case, Democrats—don’t seem to get the message.

In March, the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives voted to end the legacy of Prohibition in the Keystone State. The House voted to privatize wine and liquor sales, a positive move that promises to move the state into the 21st Century.

Since the vote State store liquor clerks and their allies have launched a staunch defense of the system despite the fact that the vast majority of Pennsylvanians want privatization. In some ways it’s easy to understand why the clerks are up in arms: they want to save their jobs, an understandable albeit selfish sentiment that pretty much ignores the wishes of the majority: to get the state out of the alcohol selling business.

Unfortunately, the longer the state is involved in alcohol sales, the harder it will be to uproot that alliance. We are seeing the first effects of that rupture now.

The fact that every Democrat in the Pennsylvania House voted against privatization is telling. Think about it: Democrats voting to retain an antiquated system with roots going back to the days of bathtub gin.

Privatization, generally, is not a good thing. Privatization ruined the airline industry, it threatens to destroy the US Post Office (and replace it with expensive Fed Ex style deliveries) and it is always ready to pounce on Social Security. Yet privatization in this case is very good, and the Democrats who voted against the measure stooped to a new low when they stated that privatization was “as bad morally as it was fiscally,” and that “increased access to drinking would lead to increased drinking and the social ills that come with it.”

We don’t believe we’ve ever heard a Democrat say that something could be “bad morally.” That charge is usually reversed for right of center Republicans on any number of social issues. Democrats, at least in the abstract, are supposed to be moral relativists, so this “moral” thing is queer indeed.

How is a greater access to a bottle of wine for a dinner party, “bad morally?” Civilization will not fall if a bottle of Merlot is sold next to the Tastykakes in the local grocery store.

We would have had more respect for the Democrats who voted against privatization if they had said that they were concerned about the loss of union jobs or the loss of PLCB annual profits totaling some 170 million which wind up in state coffers. Instead, they blabbered on about “social ills” and that left us… cold.

Union League Dress Codes
We had every intention of catching a Royal Oak Foundation Lecture, The Day Parliament Burned Down, in the Grant Room of the Union League, until we were stopped by a UL overseer who asked, “Do you have jeans on?” We might have been carrying zip lock weed from Colorado, judging from her full frontal lunge in the direction of our shoes. “No, mam,” we said, respectfully, “In fact, our natural tendency is to overdress. We are wearing dress Levi’s from the Glivenchy store in London to match this very hard to find Calvin Klein caudoroy jacket.” “You are wearing jeans,” she said, ignoring our Ralph Lauren sweater, Italian shoes and Helsinki-made dress belt. A fashion debate then ensued at which point she mused, “So far this evening we’ve had to turn away 16 people.” “Sixteen?!” we exclaimed, happening to glance at a man on a UL lobby bench in the act of removing his jacket when, like a bolt of thunder, she targeted him with an extended finger. “Please do not remove your jacket, sir!” Two men standing behind us, also wanting to know why Parliament burned down, were in skinny (Pee Wee Herman) ties, tight jackets and a hybrid version of hipster painted- on casual slacks. To our astonishment, the overseer gave the men a pass, perhaps mistaking them for the A-list UL Gays featured in a recent edition of Philadelphia Magazine. When we (in good humor) subtly suggested that these men were wearing something ambiguous, she radioed the rear door UL guards to double check the men for… denim. Though we never did find out why Parliament burned down, we knew that our love affair with faux dress casual hybrid Levi black “slacks” was over.

The Most Dangerous Woman in Journalism

Escaping the grit of the city for the ivy-draped tapestry of the Penn campus always gives us the feeling of a small vacation or even of slipping into Grimm’s Fairy Tales. At the Kelly Writers House (which somehow reminds us of Hansel and Gretel) we watched as KWH director Al Filreis introduced The New Yorker’s Janet Malcolm, called the most dangerous woman in journalism, to a cramped crowd of mostly (bagel munching) grad students. Malcolm’s demure countenance—she could blend in easily with a pack of ladies looking over an Entenmann’s display---was countered by steely eyes that held hits of a Scorpion’s Den. As a speaker, Malcolm has none of the exterior thunder of a Susan Sontag or a Camille Paglia, even if Robert S. Boynton, in The New Journalism, warned potential Malcolm interviewees to beware. “Don't ever eat… or show her your apartment; or cut tomatoes while she watches. In fact, it probably isn't a good idea even to grant her an interview, as your every unflattering gesture and nervous tic will be recorded eventually with devastating precision. You most likely won't be happy with the results; you may even want to sue.” Part of Malcolm’s talk focused on The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm’s book about former Inquirer columnist Joe McGinniss’ book, Fatal Vision, about Captain Jeffrey Mac Donald, M.D., convicted of the murder of his pregnant wife and two daughters in 1979. But the real reason we like KWH events is because they remind us of our own student days, when the “good” students sat up front and asked the most questions, even if the woman of the hour, as a writing student in college herself, only earned a C grade. “In college—the University of Michigan—I took a creative-writing course with the novelist Allan Seager, who gave me a C for the term. It was mortifying but probably helpful. I never tried to write fiction again,” Malcolm told The Paris Review.

Writing "Teachers"

Theresa Rebeck’s play Seminar at the Suzane Roberts Theater, about a group of grad student types learning how to write from a pricey sadistic writer instructor, should never be seen by beginning writers. Leonard, the teacher (Rufus Collins) is a caricature of the impossible-to-please critic who gets his students so wound up that when they sit down to create they are barely able to get the words out despite Hemingway’s admonition to “Just get to the typewriter and bleed.” There was plenty of onstage bleeding, however, in terms of hurt feelings after Leonard excoriated the prose of all present. The end result of these autopsies had us thinking of a literary companion called Rotten Rejections, where the Leonard’s of the world panned works that later went on to become classics. To wit: Lolita: “..It will not sell, and it will do immeasurable harm to a growing reputation’; Valley of the Dolls: “…Dreadfully dull and endless talk”; The Fountainhead: “Badly written”; James Purdy’s Malcolm: “Incomprehensible”; Madame Bovary: “Utterly superfluous”; The Time Machine: “Not interesting enough for the general reader.” After the play, we chatted with Sara Garonzik, Lisa N. Heyman and Christopher Munden (Philly Fiction) and then headed over to Fergie’s bar to forget the whole excoriating experience.

  WhAS 'UP?


We lowered our trousers, dusted off our bling and baseball caps and headed over to the Ten Six Club on Walnut Street for the Smimoff vodka-sponsored VH1 ‘Master of the Mix’ premier party with Philly’s own DJ Royale. Though as out of our element as Mayor Nutter at a Westboro Baptist church protest, once we got the finger symbols down pat we had to contain a passion to jump on stage and scratch some LPs. In the 1980s DJs were called record spinners and had not yet entered the realm of celebrity. That’s all changed. There are genius polymath DJs as good as Bach, Beethoven, and the Beatles—or so they say. We met the tall and handsome Mr. Royale who has 4 years of Philly Sound DJing under his belt, who seemed eager to compete for Best DJ in Master’s Season 3, a cable reality show we admit we’ve never watched. We enjoyed the subculture anthropological scratchiness of it all even though the Smimoff “open bar” was not open at all (wine not included). More women (in heavy perfume) than men moved through the crowd with guest Djs like Elvis Sunrez, Arun and Mr. Sonny James. Mr. Royale, as it turned out, made it past the first and second round.

Jackie O wants a cup

We previewed the 52nd Philadelphia Antiques show, courtesy of Cashman Public Relations, and got a pre-show glimpse of early American pewter objects, furniture, art and decorative pieces from 65 antiques and art galleries. Exhibitors set up booths as buzz saws and fork lifts had us thinking we were in a classy Home Depot. We were invited to touch, smell and squeeze every type of antique imaginable, which eventually led us to the booth of Gemini Antiques Ltd. (of New York fame), where one of the Weiss family proprietors pointed out the shops’ specialty: antique toys. The Weiss’ were full of stories, most notably how Jackie Onassis once swooned over a small cup, insisting that she had to have it and that if she were given it “as a gift” she’d tell her friends to shop at Gemini. Weiss, whose shop has a huge celebrity cliental, ended the conversation when he told the former First Lady, “Didn’t you just inherit 100 million from your late husband’s estate?” John F. Kennedy Jr. was also a regular visitor and, according to the Weiss’, the only word they heard him utter when commenting on an item was “Cool” (“Here’s the son of a President, and the only word he knows is cool!”) This wasn’t the end of it. One day when the handsome heir of Camelot wanted to buy something, he had to ask the Weiss’ how one goes about endorsing a check. At the end of the day, we thanked our tour guide, PAS Chair Katharine Eyre for her economical maneuvering around the forklifts and unopened boxes.

Nigerian Pancakes
Zebras stand alone: that’s what we told ourselves when we got into a staring contest with a Zebra at the Philadelphia Zoo some time ago. The Zebra in question kept us visually engaged for a full five minutes, locking eyes in the steady manner of a shaman, even following us as we made our way to another animal habitat. This unusual eyeball dance remained a mystery for years until The Sofitel’s Patricia McDonald showed us the work of Paris artist Norma Bessieres, “Taming of the Stripes,” on display in the hotel lobby through June 2013. Bessierres’ work illustrates many examples of the Zebra eye, what the artist calls a “sensual gaze in the intimacy of a tête-à-tête.” In conjunction with the exhibition, Executive Chef Jim Coleman and Chez Colette of Sofitel’s Liberte Lounge have prepared an African-inspired menu, such as Uganda Veal with Bananas and Ginger and Nigerian Pancakes with Smoked Shrimp. Now we can all have a farm in Africa.

Dallas, Texas, 2007 Press Tour

Dallas Press Tour 2007, the day we visited the Grassy Knoll and the Book Depository Building.

Bearded Male Hipsters and other Old Men

The Local Lens

Published• Wed, May 08, 2013

By Thom Nickels

We live in a hairy age, when stubble or hair on a man’s face is thought to be a wonderful thing. Proof of this is all around: full beards on the pasty white faces of twenty two year olds; Ho Chi Minh goatees on the chins of drug dealers, the homeless, karate kids, bankers, supermarket clerks and bicycle messengers. And in that other hairy world, or the world of facial stubble, the famous five o’clock shadow has become the nearly permanent ten o’clock shadow, proving—as if you needed proof at this point—that this is the season of facial hair.

If you want additional proof that the beard is king, stand under the El at Front and Girard on a Friday evening as students from Penn, Drexel and Temple stream onto Girard Avenue from the El to the Fishtown bars. Try counting the number of men with beards and I guarantee your mental calculator will go off the charts as the number of beards will spin into the hundreds.

While beards look great on some people, the operative word here is some. The beard, or the ten o’clock permanent shadow, has become a sort of conformist non-conformity badge, like tattoos and piercings. Men today grow beards whether or not they have faces that look good in hair. Only one thing matters: to have a beard! With so many faces hidden behind Jerry Garcia paste-on hair, it’s as if life has become a never-ending celebration of Halloween.

"Boys across the country are laying down their razors and fighting back against metrosexual revolution. It’s back to feeling like we’re kissing mom’s sewing needles. Now guys are proud to show their man mess in the face area," wrote a blogger named College Candy a few years ago.

I grew a beard at 22 because I wanted to emulate my college literary hero, D.H. Lawrence, who sported a beard to die for. I began with a goatee but because the goatee didn’t grow in properly (think hairless gaps), I opted for a trim beard around the jawbone (as opposed to a full Moses beard). Unfortunately, the finished hairy product got poor reviews from the people I used to hang with. "You know," one friend confided, "why do you go out of your way to make yourself ugly?"

I was devastated. My jawbone beard was filled with empty spaces where hair would not grow. "Life’s not fair," I thought, "why do I have beard gaps?" I wasn’t thrilled when those same friends compared my beard to a "bad imitation of Abraham Lincoln."

Since that time, I’ve shaved every morning except during those periods when I took long or short forays into the Land of the Mustache. I never experienced any hairless gaps when I had a ‘stache and in fact I even went so far as to spruce things up with various shades of mustache wax. Then they stopped selling mustache wax, and I thought, "Enough—this is too much work, more work than shaving as a matter of fact." It didn’t help matters any when I started to notice a few gray facial hairs. I’m a fan of many things in life, but gray hair is not one of them.

A recent article on cited a survey of 351 women in which the women were asked to rate a man’s appearance in terms of facial hair. Are bearded men more attractive than clean-shaven or stubbly-faced men? By a slim margin, the women found that men with at least a 10-day growth of stubble were the most attractive, and that overall hair on a man’s face conveyed "masculinity and maturity." In addition, most of the women thought that bearded men or even those with thick ten o’clock shadows had potential "good parenting skills." (Yes, you read that right.) While fully bearded Moses-style men and clean-shaven guys also scored high in the survey, men with a 10-day growth of stubble won hands down every time.

Stubble, of course, is really just a beard-in-progress, and has a shelf life of about ten minutes. Maintaining stubble means shaving it off before it reaches the Moses stage. Stubble men, therefore, are also clean-shaven men, at least for a while.

One common criticism of the full Moses beard is what can happen when you try to plant a kiss on the lips of the man hidden inside all that hair: Might those hair follicles contain remnants of yesterday’s food?

My hunch is that most of the women quoted in the survey voted for facial hair because it’s something wired in some females’ brains, a genetic thing that goes back to hunter-gatherer times when men were mostly protectors of women and had to look big, burly and hairy.

Some men, of course, grow beards because they want to hide a weak chin or mandible. Not so long ago a strong chin used to be an emblem of masculinity. While there’s little talk of strong chins anymore, a man with a pointed or weak chin can always camouflage it behind a beard. You can also hide acne scars and wrinkles behind a beard. Double chins can be hidden with neck hair.

Other men grow beards because they believe their clean-shaven faces are too feminine or pretty. Some people call this the Justin Bieber effect: "No pretty boy look for me!" When you’re 22 it is not uncommon to want to make yourself look as old as possible. A beard will put on five years, maybe ten.

Beard wearing among the hipster subculture has become a signpost of everything ironic and cool, even while a beard is hardly a sign of rebellion when everybody has one. As Hal Neidzviecki wrote in his 2008 book, Hello, I’m Special, "…Non-conformity is now the accepted norm of society...Individuality is the new conformity."

On the other hand, beards can be a good thing, at least according a study from the University of Southern Queensland as quoted in an article in the World Observer. The study found that beards block 90 to 95 percent of UV rays, thereby slowing the aging process and reducing the risk of skin cancer. As for asthma, the study suggests that pollens and dust will get stuck "in that lustrous facial hair." The study also says that "all that hair retains moisture and protects against the wind, keeping you looking young and fresh-faced. What’s more, shaving is usually the cause of ingrown hairs and bacterial infections that lead to acne."

So what will it be—beard, stubble, or clean-shaven? And what about men like me who can’t seem to grow anything except the now defunct and thoroughly out of fashion ‘stache? Shocking but true, a facial toupee may be the only answer!

You see him everywhere: on a bike, walking with a knapsack, on trains, walking along the highway. Years ago he would have been a hitchiker; today he is likely to take Greyhound (to Wildwood, NJ) or the Mega bus to New York. He probably has a drug habit of some kind. An ex-wife or girlfriend and maybe a baby (who lives with the ex-girlfriend). His story is still evolving. Any day now he will shave off the beard.