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Saturday, May 11, 2013

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.