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Friday, June 28, 2013

New York City Gay Liberation Day, June 27, 1970

Discovered a photograph of me from the book, Stonewall, The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution by David Carter. I had heard about this photo but didn't see it until today. I am standing to the right of the Sappho sign. I'm the guy with the beard standing to the left of a Philly activist, Lee Robins, who spotted me on the train to NYC that weekend because I was wearing my Gay Liberation Now button. Photo by Diana Davies via NYPL. Lee and I spent the weekend in NYC, after which I headed back to Boston-Cambridge to my conscientious objector alternative work service job at Tufts New England Medical Center.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Michael Hastings

Journalist Michael Hastings' car in Hollywood, CA, after the vehicle mysteriously went into high speed mode and crashed into a tree. LAPD said there were no mysterious circumstances surrounding the crash, but can one believe the LAPD? The FBI (NSA) had been investigating Hastings at the time of his death. Hastings was working on a big story prior to the "crash." In the coming years, will journalists become the new targets of secret government organizations?

Many are calling this accident a political murder.

The Irish vs the Germans

The Local Lens

Published• Wed, Jun 19, 2013

By Thom Nickels

A couple of weeks ago, I headed over to Port Richmond Books on Richmond Street to hear Marita Krivda Poxon talk about her book, Irish Philadelphia. As usual, proprietor and event MC Greg Gillespie orchestrated a memorable event. Who else but Greg Gillespie would arrange boxes of Philly soft pretzels and iced beer and wine for attendees? I’m afraid the answer to that is nobody, that’s who!

I met Poxon a couple weeks before when PR Books hosted my own reading and signing. Such as it is, writers often find it hard to attend each other’s events, but I couldn’t help but be interested in Poxon’s talk, being half Irish on my mother’s side. And yes, nearly everyone attending Poxon’s reading was Irish.

I met the Rev. John P. McNamee, Pastor Emeritus of Saint Malachy church in North Philadelphia. Father McNamee, in case you don’t know, wrote the book Diary of a City Priest, which won the Catholic Press Association Book Award. The book was made into a movie for HBO. Father McNamee is also a distinguished poet; his published works include Clay Vessels and Endurance—The Rhythm of Faith.

By the time I left Poxon’s reading, there was nothing but Irish facts and figures dancing in my head.

Being Irish gets a lot of play in this society. Sometimes when I board Route 15 at Front and Girard I see guys walk through the buses there and ask passengers if anybody is Irish. Two weekends ago a man boarded the bus and shouted "Irish pride" to ten or more waiting passengers as the shuttle bus idled for 30 minutes or more. "What’s going on?" I said to a friend. "St. Patrick’s Day is long past."

I am German on my father’s side. Growing up, the German side of our heritage got little play while the Irish side was constantly being honored. There’s no comparison between Irish hype (pride) and German hype. People of German descent get far less fanfare. People don’t walk into buses in this town and ask who the Germans are, and you never see German Pride tattoos or the words German Pride emblazoned on porch awnings. That must be because the Germans, generally speaking, are a more subdued people.

Because I am half German I can say this with some authority. My father’s family is from Dusseldorf (where they were burgermeisters) by the Rhine River. They came to America in the 1840s. One of them, Mathias Nickels, enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War but had to bow out because of an unspecified illness. He died in an Old Soldier’s Home in Ohio.

Growing up, my mother, whose family hailed from Tyrone County in Northern Ireland (but Catholic), found a lot of fault with my father’s German side. "I love your father, but his people hold everything inside," she said to me on many occasions, meaning that they were too interior, too cerebral, and too cold. I’d hear the words "cold fish" from her when referring to certain German uncles. As a kid I didn’t understand these things. "Can’t they get their words and feelings out?" I asked Mom scores of times. The truth is, I identified more with the Germans than with the Irish half. To me, the more "controlled" (German) way of expressing emotion fit my personality.

Poxon’s talk reminded of my mother’s clan in Sharon Hill and Lansdowne, the Muldoon and Kelly families, who migrated during the famine and went to California as gold prospectors, then to Michigan, and finally, Pennsylvania. The Irish in those days tended to have a lot of children. My mother was the youngest of thirteen; my father was one of three. Most Irish families had a son or daughter who became a priest or nun, but not our family. As one Muldoon put it, "We Muldoons and Kellys are too highly sexed for vows of that sort."

They say that Italians and Irish make the best combination, but from my point of view, I think German and Irish isn’t half bad either. The emotionalism of the Irish, the drama, angst and additional drama, needs a steely framework to keep it in check, and that’s where all things "cold and German" come in handy.

Of course, the downside of the German personality is the holding in of emotions until the inevitable cosmic explosion. They talk about the Irish temper, but I can tell you there’s nothing worse than the German temper. It can seethe silently like a tea kettle for a long time, but then it explodes and obliterates everything in its path.

When it came to talking about sex, I much preferred the German approach as a teenager. The German approach was more tell-it-like-it-is than the roundabout avoidance thing that the Irish often do.

I mean, isn’t it a stereotype of sorts that the Irish hate to talk about sex? When I came home from the 7th grade one day and announced that I knew the facts of life, it was Mom who pulled out all the stops and wanted to know who my source was. I gave her a name, under tremendous pressure, then told her that I needed the facts—real facts—not all that metaphorical birds and bees stuff which didn’t seem to relate to human beings at all. My German aunt was much more matter-of-fact when it came to sex. Although much older than mom, her birds and bees delivery was utility-driven. It left no doubts. As a postscript, she even provided personal details from her own experience and then threw in little ‘help mate’ suggestions.

A German mountain retreat. The spirit of Walter Gropius beckons.

"I know the Germans have a heart, you just have to dig for it," I told my mother often, especially after one of her "cold fish" complaints about my father’s family.

Today I would have added that it’s hard to survive if you are too much one or the other. If you are all heart, you can get taken advantage of, whereas if you’re too cold, nobody will love you.



by Ray Simon, Philadelphia Gay News, June 21,2013

“Sometimes people get answers in the strangest places,” says author Thom Nickels.

He’s referring to his new book, “Two Novellas: Walking on Water & After All This,” published by STARbooks Press this spring. Nickels hopes these two dream-like, phantasmagoric tales will entertain and enlighten readers.

In “Walking on Water,” historical personages such as Thomas Merton interact with the protagonist, Dennis, who can change his external reality at will but who also struggles with the guilt resulting from his desire to love other men and his desire to love God. Dennis reappears in “After All This,” a post-apocalyptic story that begins in a devastated New York City and continues in Philadelphia.

Although marketed as science fiction, both works defy genre expectations.

“It’s not conventional science fiction,” the author said. “It’s more fantasy and has elements of surrealism. But in the bookselling world, everything has to be categorized.”

On June 22, Nickels will read from this new work at Giovanni’s Room, 345 S. 12th St. The event begins at 5:30 p.m. and will be followed by a reception featuring wine, cheese and conversation.

This is actually Nickels’ ninth book. Past efforts include “The Boy on the Bicycle,” published in 1993, and “Philadelphia Architecture,” which received the Philadelphia AIA Lewis Mumford Architecture Journalism Award in 2005. Early versions of both stories in the current volume were first published in 1989, but Nickels has revised them so extensively that they amount to a new work.

A prolific author, Nickels writes on a wide range of topics, everything from architecture and LGBT issues to politics and travel. He regularly contributes to publications as varied as “The Spirit,” a local weekly serving residents of Philadelphia’s river wards, and “The Huffington Post,” an online journal of news and opinion reaching readers around the country.

Nickels, who was raised in Chester County, roams far afield in his nonfiction, which blends straightforward reporting, cultural criticism and social commentary. It’s the sort of writing that would be right at home in a European feuilleton. But even the most creative author of nonfiction is constrained by facts, which is why Nickels occasionally makes forays into fiction.

That choice seems apt for his new book, which tackles themes he’s been mulling over for quite some time: guilt, religion and sexuality.

In his early 20s, Nickels explored the possibility of entering a religious order, even going so far as to participate in a retreat at a Benedictine monastery to test whether he had a genuine vocation. Today, he continues to engage with religion, serving as spirituality editor of the “Lambda Literary Review.”

The fact that Dennis is drawn to a monastery in the opening of “Walking on Water” has clear autobiographical roots, as Nickels acknowledged. But, he also cautions readers against searching for a one-to-one correspondence between the author’s life and the work of fiction.

“As a writer, you want to make a book interesting to write,” he said. “Autobiography can be like straightforward reporting: You know what happened and where the story is going. Fantasy and miraculous elements take the story elsewhere.”

In the context of these novellas, “elsewhere” has a twofold meaning. On the one hand, it is a good way to describe the setting. Historical figures and well-known locations give readers an illusion of reality, but Nickels defamiliarizes things by allowing Dennis to shift his landscape at will.

And on the other hand, elsewhere refers to the innumerable possibilities of what might have been. Unconstrained by biology or history, Dennis is not limited to one path in life. Reflecting on his situation, Dennis thinks, “When he was tempted to stop, he told himself that this place — this monastery — was just a dream and that, theoretically, he could do anything he wanted.”

Fortunately for readers, Nickels stuck to the path of becoming a writer.

Not one to rest on his laurels, he is already hard at work on two major projects. The diligent author is under contract to publish a book he affectionately refers to as “Legendary Locals.” This illustrated compendium about the lives of Center City denizens will include biographical sketches of both the noteworthy and the notorious.

He is also completing a memoir entitled “Harvard Square,” which will examine his service as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, along with other personal experiences from the heady days of the late 1960s. According to Nickels, both books are near completion.

In Walking on Water, the body of water that appears and disappears outside Dennis' Cambridge, MA rooming house. "The river that flowed beneath his window narrowed considerably at the rooming house. At least it was like that on most days. Other days it would change just as the size of the rowboat changed. He [Dennis] would wake up to find not only a different boat, but a wider river like the Charles--perhaps stretching far out to the horizon so that it looked like the sea. Sometimes, but only on rare occasions, it was the sea."  (WW, 2)
When Orthodox monk Seraphim Rose visited Thomas Merton on the island monastery [in Walking on Water], he built an Eastern style cross to memoralize the visit. The modern iconoclastic monks of Merton' order thought Rose " a cranky old traditionalist," and called Eastern Orthodoxy, "the Church of the Fossils."   

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


We live in a hairy age, when stubble or hair on a man’s face is thought to be a good 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.

A recent article on cited a survey of 351 women in which they 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 on the list, 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?

Some men 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, or originality, especially when nearly everybody has one.

City Beat celebrated the Rites of Spring with a visit to Germantown’s Cliveden for a wine tasting with Dr. Patrick E. McGovern, Scientific Director of Biomolecular Archaeology (that’s cuisine and fermented beverages) at the Penn Museum. Dr. Pat, who looks good in a beard, explained the origins of our favorite beverage. We learned about the Royal winemaking industry along the Nile Delta (2700 B.C.), and about the large jars filled with wine buried in the tombs of the Pharaohs. As Dr. Pat talked, we sipped authentic replica wines like Domaine Vassiliou Retsina and Hermes Muscat of Patras and learned that in ancient Rome white wine with a touch of resin was for the upper classes, while Lora and Posca (both reds) were for plebeians and slaves. Conversely, we were sent spiraling back to Mesopotamia and even dipped our palate into a Neolithic-like wine (Iran; Chateau hajji firuz). Wine, for some ancients, was an exclusive club. Roman women, for instance, were thought unfit for the grape, while in the Islamic world the Bacchic poet and astronomer, Omar Khayyam, advised teatolers to “Drink wine. This is life eternal. This is all that youth will give you. It is the season for wine, roses and drunken friends. Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.” Our Cliveden departure was bittersweet although once outside the mists of falling rain mixed with the aromatic smell of wet leaves from surrounding trees put us in an altered state so that we almost mistook the local Septa bus on Germantown Avenue for a Pharaoh in a Chariot.

The Committee to Abolish the Broad Street Run (CABSR) doesn’t exist yet, but after last

month’s marathon which caused city-wide traffic jams, Septa detour fiascos and the transformation of I-95 into a parking lot, it’s a given that many have cooled on the idea of 38,000 runners bringing the city to a standstill. It’s no fun to have to wait for Septa detour buses when no schedules are posted. Such was the case the night before the run when we found ourselves with a group of people waiting for the Route 15 on Girard Avenue. Lost passengers forced to hail buses going in the opposite direction, were told, “You need to board this bus!” Who knew? It was worse the following day, May 5, the day the runners ran from Broad and Olney to the Navy Yard as heavily armed police, bomb detection dogs, low flying helicopters, and Septa transit police scanned adoring fans for Boston-style red flags. In other parts of town, it was Beehive Central as Cinco de Mayo celebrators in Fishtown--mainly drunk Anglo Saxon hipsters, faces half hidden in cheap wind blown sombreros ---mixed with exhausted Equality Forum Sunday Out stragglers, fresh from the Piazza in Northern Liberties. e spotted grandmother types in PRIDE t-shirts and lots of other happy people (sans those mad at Septa) as well as an unusual number of public drunks falling down in the street, one fellow even losing an entire bag of take-out as he crash landed in the middle of a trolley island. Stranger still, Septa seemed to get worse as the day progressed, reminding us of the relative harmony of winter when there were few disruptions in the city’s transportation schedules.

Fashionistas rarely get their hands dirty…that’s why when we heard that Philadelphia’s Dana Spain, the founder of PAWS and the one time owner of Philadelphia Style magazine, wants to run for mayor in 2015, we reached for our styling guns. Does Dana have what it takes to rule a city as gritty and as (sweat suit) unfashionable as ours? How would she handle home invasions in Oxford Circle and Mayfair? Or the still- unsolved murder of Michael Hagan in Old City? Will her luxurious hair get in the way of political verve? We admit we don’t know enough about Spain, often referred to as “one of Philadelphia’s most fashionable women,” to make a judgment. What we do know is that she has a nice billion dollar townhouse in Queen Village and that her family once owned the (now defunct) Spain Card & Gift Chain. While all this spells well connected, how will she measure up to that other Republican candidate, Tom Knox? And what about the Philly (pit bull) Dem machine that will most likely win the election anyway with Darrell Clarke, Jim Kenny or Bill Green--- or, barring these guys, any candidate at all. We’d welcome a woman mayor, even a glamorous one, and that’s why we’d like to clone Dana with Mariela Castro, daughter of Raul Castro, the current President of Cuba, in town recently to receive a reward from Malcolm Lazin’s Equality Forum for her work in helping to give Cuba’s irksome Marxist patriarchy a more humanitarian face. Ms. Castro, who could easily be a fashion model herself, spoke to a standing room only EF crowd in the UArts’ Tara Building as wired U.S. and Cuban State Department men scanned faces for potential trouble-makers. By advocating a hybrid candidate we’re not saying Dana’s not smart, just that it is going to take something like science fiction to deactivate… the Machine.

Is Philly Pop artist Perry Milou the next Andy Warhol? We headed to Trust at 2nd and Arch for a 20 year retrospective of Milou’s work. Milou, of course, is the son of Striped Bass and Rouge restaurateur, Neil Stein, and so as artists go he’s probably never starved in a loft. Since starving is no passport to genius, we resolved to overlook the “privileged son” angle when we joined hundreds of Milou fans at an all-out Pop and Wham bash that included a PAWS dog on a leash with an “Adopt Me” sign. The punch it to you audacity of Milou’s art brought us face to face with a huge Liz Taylor (that somehow reminded us of Sylvia Brown); a heavily bejeweled Marilyn Monroe: a strikingly beautiful (unibrow) Frida Kahlo; a remarkable full faced—and very distressed looking—,Geronimo as well as a few large iconic portraits of TV’s The Sopranos. The LeRoy Neiman-like sports paintings caught us off guard, as did the kitschy but powerful Yo Philly Rocky icon portrait. Milou, who really isn’t a talkative type, made the rounds, alternating between the first floor and the balcony exhibition area before we caught up with him at the lower level bar. “We like the beautiful Saint Mark’s Venice paintings” we said, referring to a large golden sun drenched impressionistic image of the cathedral that seems to bleed off the canvass. At the end of the evening—while noticing how close someone on the balcony had come to sending Kahlo’s unibrow flying off the wall—we recalled the times we’d spot Milou painting outdoor scenes with Philly artist Charles Cushing. In those days, the word was that Milou “was just learning.” What a difference twenty years-- and emboldened tenacity-- makes.

When we chatted with Clare Stuempfig, a member of the PAFA Women’s Committee, at the 112th PAFA annual student exhibition preview, we learned how at one time students in the show were not allowed to mingle with the preview crowds of potential buyers. Clare informed us she wasn’t sure how or why this rule ever came to be. We came to the conclusion that it was probably based on unfounded fears and sensationalistic stereotypes of how artists might behave among mature patrons. Were the student artists deemed too rustic to rub shoulders with the high and mighty? Would there, for instance, be a replay of Van Gogh slicing off an ear, a Willem De Kooning alcoholic binge, or an absinthe touting de Toulouse-Lautrec knocking over a tray of liver pate? Clare told us that the ban was lifted over a decade ago, meaning that not only do the student artists mingle freely, they even speak to patrons and guests before being spoken to. We got an arty does of that when we were enveloped—nay, nearly overtaken—by one young artist- entrepreneur, Charles Schultz, whose rapid fire pitch had us pinned against the wall and feeling as if we were being mowed down by 1920s gangster, Al Capone. Schultz good naturedly showed us a sample of his hand drawn artistic comic books while urging us to visit (the often forgotten) basement” gallery. Before calling it a night, we said a brief hello to Philly artist Bill Scott, a PAFA alum while looking in the direction of Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest, who sat with Derek Gilman, former PAFA head who (as we overheard in the crowd) “… absconded to head the Barnes…”

The fashion industry, it’s often said, can be a vicious and Narcissistic world, a kind of spiraling Revel’s Bolero in which models spin in a scheming, backstabbing vortex while some of the women that age are thrown out of the loop and left, like feral cats, along the side of the road. Models with a think skin survive, while those with a thinner epidermis may get so fed up they’ll do the unthinkable, like jump off the George Washington Bridge, just as 22 year old model Ashley Riggitano did in February of this year after leaving a note to survivors to make sure that two scheming peers were not invited to the funeral. None of this behavior was evident at the annual Art Institute of Philadelphia’s Student Fashion Show. Packed to the gills, students and parents of students, many in high fashion attire, eyed the stage of Locust Street’s Arts Ballroom as the lines of models began their mesmerizing robotic dance. Awards to top student designers were presented from sponsors such as Neiman Marcus, Nicole Miller and Joan Shepp. Nicole Cashman was also honored for her contributions to the local fashion industry.

Not a fashionista.
Muscles as fashion statement. Brain, the Incredible Hulk, of Mercer Street, 2011.

Philly Catholic churches: Going, going, gone

The Local Lens

Published• Wed, Jun 12, 2013

By Thom Nickels

The announcement that some 27 parishes would be affected by closings or mergers within the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was immense news, and the photograph of Archbishop Chaput and his aides accompanying the article clearly showed the pain of that decision.

The reaction of parishioners from the merged parishes, like Fishtown’s Saint Laurentius, was predictable. "We are the church and our voice needs to be respected and heard," one woman stated. Another parishioner, speaking of her parish church, commented, "Here is where I want to go," while yet another person told a reporter, "Never once have I questioned my faith until now," before backtracking and correcting that thought to mean not the faith per se but the people in charge of administrating the faith.

In 2012, the Catholic News Agency reported that the Ascension of Our Lord parish in Philly’s Harrowgate section would close because of low attendance. The archdiocese this year cited the same reason for the 2013 closures as well as Catholic population demographic shifts and the expense of having multiple Catholic churches within a small area.

Sadly, the world is teetering on the brink of a complete financial collapse. In Washington there is serious talk about getting rid of food stamps. Within ten years’ time, most financial programs for the poor will have been eliminated. Many experts see the United States following the situation in Greece or Cyprus, or what life was like in the 1890s during America’s Gilded Age. That’s when there was no middle class, only the very rich on one side and the very poor on the other.

This brings us back to the financial value of having two and three parishes within a ten or fifteen block radius of one another. Sometimes all business decisions—even from Church administrators whom you’d expect to have a higher regard for people’s feelings regarding their attachment to buildings or cherished childhood memories—have an ugly cutthroat quality, sort of like Genghis Khan riding into town slashing this steeple and that with his fiery sword.

The archdiocese maintains that low Mass attendance is one of the major reasons behind these closures and mergers. Low Mass attendance, of course, results in less money to keep a parish going. If 50 percent of the parishioners of a particular parish only go to Mass at Christmas and Easter, you can pretty much predict trouble down the line. I am not saying that this was the situation at Saint Laurentius. In fact, according to A.J. Thomson’s remarks in last week’s Spirit, this is not the case at all, but what about other parishes? Certainly there must be some truth in what the archdiocese is saying about low Mass attendance.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Catholic Mass attendance at every parish in the nation was at an all-time high. In my own childhood suburban parish, Saints Philip and James in Exton, there were five packed Masses every Sunday. On holy days, Christmas and Easter it was standing room only. In those days people went to church on a regular basis, and when it came time for the collection, people willingly contributed money.

While it may not be ideal to force anybody to go to church, before 1965 the Catholic Church was clever in suggesting that if you missed Mass for no good reason, you were inviting a little stain on your soul. Perhaps this guilt technique worked to bring many to church; perhaps not. But the "little stain on your soul" tactic worked to fill the churches and the collection plates.

By the mid-1970s many church rules and rituals were relaxed in the name of modernity and convenience. Nuns ditched their habits; parishes turned the altar around and in some cases threw out marble altar rails or covered colorful mosaics with white paint. This was a time when well-meaning liturgists were trying to make the Mass hip and not so old-fashioned in order to attract even larger congregations. I recall what happened at Fishtown’s Holy Name of Jesus Parish, when it was wrecked by a well-meaning Dominican friar between the years 1971 and 1973.

Officially founded in February 1905 in a three-story building on Frankford Avenue, ground was broken for the present-day church in the fall of 1921. Holy Name’s architectural makeover in the 1970s was the brainchild of Father Edward L. Martin, O.P., who felt that many of the traditional trappings had to go. Like so many other pastors around the country, the good priest was a victim of the "simplifying" frenzy that followed the Council.

"They cut off the principal altar, the high altar. They put in a butcher block in the center of the church and a crucifix hanging from the ceiling. The Dominicans also took the whole altar rail out. The sanctuary was carpeted. This kind of carpeting buckles over time, so it was pretty much a mess in 1998 when a new pastor took over," Holy Name’s then-pastor Father Francis P. Groarke told me some time ago.

The Dominicans, thankfully, did not remove the church’s side altars, and left the old wooden statues in place, a generous move considering the fate of other churches, where side altars wound up in piles on various city trash heaps. Also left untouched were devotional shrines to the Infant of Prague and Saint Jude.

"When the Dominicans left in 1998, they took everything, even the silverware," Father Groarke joked with me then.

"The pastor who took over tried to restore the church to the way it was. He got rid of the butcher block. He had a platform built and he got an altar from a church that closed in Philadelphia in 1999. The high altar is once again visible," Father Groarke said, adding, "This pastor also had the tabernacle redone. The church was painted, and he got rid of that big hanging crucifix. Ceramic tile was added to the sanctuary, so it is pretty much a warm welcoming place now. The pastor was complimented an awful lot for what he did, although the church was not returned to the pre-1972 experience, when there was an altar rail. There’s no altar rail at Holy Name."

No doubt some people left Holy Name and a lot of other churches as well during the simplifying craze. But does this answer the question: When, and how, did Catholics stop going to Mass?

I think it started when the archdiocese allowed Saturday night Mass. That’s when Sunday became just another day. Something about this switch made a lot of people stop going to Mass altogether. If you talk to so-called progressive Catholics, they might tell you that many Catholics aren’t going to Mass because they want a complete doctrinal overhaul: they want married clergy (which would be good), women priests, and a radical tune-up of traditional Catholic doctrines. "In the modern era," they say, "people have no time for an antiquated Church, but if the Church went ahead and updated itself, parishes would be filled to capacity."

This view fails to address the puzzling reality that the religions and churches seeing the most converts today, such as Islam, the Mormon Church and Eastern Orthodoxy, are hardly swinging denominations that merge with modern culture but which tend to go against it.

Other observers theorize that Catholics have stopped going to Mass because of the clergy sex abuse crises.

To me, a church filled with only saints is not a church you would ever find on earth. The Orthodox Church, for instance, has a saying that it is "a hospital for sinners", which I think is an apt description of the Catholic Church as well. Think about it: Do American citizens give up their citizenship and move to a foreign country because of a corrupt Congress or a few bad presidents? Generally speaking, no; why then should Catholics opt to not go to Mass because a priest, who is not a saint but a fallible fallen man just like the rest of us, disappoints us in the worst way?

Saint Paul's parish in South Philadelphia will not be affected by the latest closures.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Baby Bob of Fishtown

The Local Lens

Published• Wed, Jun 05, 2013

By Thom Nickels

Baby Bob, just 3 months old, looks like he can’t wait to walk. At least that’s what I see when I see him squirm in his mother’s arms and when he holds his arms out as if he wants to give the whole street a hug. Neighbors like to stand around and watch his baby gyrations: how he puts his hands to his mouth, squints in the sun, sucks his fingers or rubs his eyes before ruminating little streams of clear spring baby spittle all over his chin. Old timers call this "the mystique" of baby watching; an activity I didn’t know could be such a sport until I ran into Baby Bob’s family and friends the other day and stopped for a moment to introduce myself to the new Mercer Street resident.

There were a lot of eyes on him then, as well as a lot of competing baby talk expressions from the adults, since everyone wanted to be the first to make Baby Bob laugh. I offered a competing "Hello", then stepped up close as he looked in my direction but of course in no time at all his gaze had switched to someone else. Babies are like that; their world is a fast-moving visual smorgasbord. On that afternoon he wore a miniature pair of jeans, a small black t-shirt and white socks.

The conversation turned to possums. Actually, the correct word is opossums, ‘possum’ being the popular colloquial term. Karen, Bob’s mom, told the group how she saw a very large possum walk in front of my house and then waddle past the gate that separates my house from my neighbor Tom’s. I don’t know when this gated alleyway became Possum Alley, but it must have been a couple years ago when I saw a small possum back there for the first time. I was in my dining room polishing an antique desk given me by my great-aunt when I saw a furry thing balanced on the top of my patio fence. I knew straight away it wasn’t a cat because its body was too wide, besides which, cats don’t have thin rodent-like tails. The solitary creature was hiding in the dark of night and probably getting ready to feast on a diet of snails, slugs and cockroaches.

Possums have to watch their backs because they have more predators to worry about than someone stuck in a bad section of Philly in the middle of the night.

I don’t think Baby Bob has seen a possum yet, though his mother was eager to continue her story of the possum that waddled past the alley gate. This possum, she said, looked like it had small blobs attached to its body, although later she was able to see that they weren’t blobs at all but little possum babies, possibly protruding from the animal’s pouch. The sight, Karen said, reminded her of Velcro stick-ons, but once she realized they were babies going along for the ride she said she shivered because the look of it was creepy. The irony of Karen’s comment struck me: How odd, I thought, that she should see a mother possum so soon after the birth of her own son—although Karen, being a human being, has far more class and dignity than to go walking around like that.

"You know," I said, "Possums get a bad rap. They are almost vegetarians. They eat insects like beetles and cockroaches and have even been known to go after rats. And did you know that on the intelligence scale, they rate higher than dogs and are generally on the level of a pig."

The unfortunate thing, of course, is that they are very ugly. But "not too ugly to eat," I added. "Possums made delectable soup for some in the 1800s. And when not used in soups, they can be smoked and stewed." Of course, I would never eat a possum, though I might be tempted if I was on the verge of starving.

Baby Bob put his hands to his mouth and made a little noise. Was he trying to say something about possums? His sister, Ava, barely four years old, stared at him from her plastic cycle and gave him a curious look.

"Ew, I would never eat a possum," Karen said, who I knew liked fresh delivery pizza, Chinese take-out and then topping it all off with one of her long, slender cigarettes.

"Well, it’s not like Applebee’s sells possum stew," I said.

"Look, that old abandoned house up the street is filled with possums," Karen said, pointing to the most notorious house on the block that’s been an eyesore for so long neighbors here are beginning to get its history mixed up. "They all go in there. Feral cats too. It’s Animal House. They crawl in and crawl out. Can you imagine what it looks like inside? The smell?"

"I can’t," I said, having written about this boarded-up monstrosity for years without as much as a nod or wink from the city, leading me to the conclusion that nobody cares. I have even heard some people say that the rotting house is a good thing to have on the street because it keeps property taxes down. "If things look too spiffy, too much like Northern Liberties, then the city will come by with its hand out," one person suggested.

"It’s nice that the owner provides a shelter for wild animals," I offered, trying to remain upbeat. "Mother Teresa would be proud."

"He probably knows somebody in City Hall," somebody else said before reaching for Baby Bob, who gave a really big shout out.

"All I know is, people need to watch their animals," Karen’s aunt chimed in, pointing to the drying doggie doo spot caused by yet another little dog whose owner didn’t have a plastic bag. It was Karen’s aunt who earlier went in and got a plastic bag from her own kitchen and cleaned up the mess for me. She was demonstrating how to be a good neighbor, and for that I thanked her.

Sometimes in life you can literally "talk things or people up," because no sooner did we finish the doggie doo story than Karen spotted someone coming down the street walking their dog. "I wonder if it was them," she said, referring to the illegal doggie doo. "No, that dog is way too big," Karen’s aunt said. We stared at the dog walker and got a stare back. No offense, of course, but it makes you wonder.

"There’s no way to stop this kind of thing except by putting quicksand all around your tree, but then the tree would be swallowed up," I said, trying to make a joke but still thinking of the possum colony in the abandoned house and how many Velcro-baby-attached possum mothers might be in there sniffing around for slugs.

By now other neighbors had walked over to our circle, and a fresh round of baby talk began. Baby Bob was getting it from all sides.

"Such a sweet baby!"

"Gooey gooey goo!"

Overwhelmed by the cacophony of voices, Bob opted to stare at the sky. A jet plane was flying low over the neighborhood, although we couldn’t see it because it was hidden behind the clouds. Baby Bob wiggled, frowned, but then something across the street caught his attention. It was not a possum but old man Blitzer, fresh out of the hospital, but back on his regular diet of beer and cigarettes.

"God bless him," everybody said. "You got to do what you gotta do."

Or, as Philly writer Christopher Morley once wrote, "…If he finds his pleasure on a park bench in ragged trousers let him lounge then, with good heart."

The famous Possum and Feral Cat House on the 2600 block of Mercer Street, near Stock's Bakery. The City of Philadelphia turns a blind eye to this boarded up mess. Another 22nd and Market waiting to happen? Who cares! The possums are happy! 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

My Pilgrimage to (Fracking) Nowhere

The Local Lens

Published• Wed, May 29, 2013

By Thom Nickels

Traveling by Greyhound used to be an American rite of passage, and Philadelphia in the 1970s and 80s had a marked interest in bus travel. Both the Greyhound bus terminal near Penn Center and the (less popular) Trailways bus

station at 13th and Arch Street were bustling transportation centers complete with their own fast food eateries, waiting room chairs with coin-operated mini televisions, and easy storage lockers where you could stash luggage for the price of a soda.

That golden age is gone. Today there is only one bus station in the city, at 12th and Filbert, and as bus stations go, there’s not much to recommend it. A tolerable fast food eatery has been replaced by a small hot dog and soft pretzel stand; gone are the lockers, and the personable ticket clerks have been replaced by machines. Not only do security guards roam the station as if on perpetual bomb squad alert, but there are not enough seats for passengers, causing many to stand and wait until their bus is called. Greyhound ticket prices have also quadrupled as have the numbers of people traveling by bus since the 1980s.

Last week I made my way to the Filbert Street station for what turned out to be a pilgrimage to nowhere. After purchasing a machine ticket, I boarded the Scranton express bus for the 3-hour ride to the Pocono Mountains and to my favorite forest mountain retreat, an Orthodox monastery far from the maddening crowds of the city.

Everybody should have a quiet place of retreat, be it a yoga center, a cabin in the mountains, an apartment at the shore, or even your own Germantown-inspired Kelpius cave. My plan was to stay 3 days, just enough time to participate in the quiet and rigorous life of the bearded, black robed mountain monks.

Although the grey and rainy weather dampened my travel spirits somewhat, by the time the bus reached Scranton the sun was out. Scranton on a Sunday is what they say Philadelphia was like on a Sunday back in 1942: closed up. Inhaling the fresh mountain air, I looked in vain for signs of my ride to the monastery, about 40 minutes away in a remote section of the mountains. When my ride still did not appear, I reminded myself that they’d probably be along at any moment. That "any moment", however, turned into a two and a half hour wait and eight desperate voicemail "SOS" phone calls. "Where are you guys?" I asked. "I’m here." Then came the creeping realization that I had better find out the time of the last bus back to Philly, because who wants to camp out curbside, like those panhandling dudes in front of convenience stores? So, slightly sad, I resigned myself to taking the 4:30 return bus if a ride did not show. (For the record, I did check into taking a taxi to the secluded monastery, but the $70 fare seemed a bit steep).

Killing time in the Scranton bus station is like killing time in the Port Richmond Shopping Center when you’ve visited every store twice. I wound up peering into a lot of car windows (looking for a black robed monk) as well as checking passing traffic to see if I could spot someone wearing a black cassock. I did run into a dude in sunglasses who saw me standing roadside with my luggage, and who greeted me with a "Hello, brother."

"Quiet around here," I said, thinking of the old West.

I asked an older man, a Scranton native, if he knew of any unusual ways to get to the mountain monastery. He said I could hitchhike, "though you never know in this day what you might meet up with." Of course, I used to hitchhike all the time when I was in my late teens and early twenties. This was when the world did not have a fear of strangers. In Massachusetts and Colorado, I’d stick my thumb out in a heartbeat, no matter the time of day (or night), jumping into tractor-trailer vans, Volkswagens, or speeding convertibles. These were never long distance rides, although once I entertained a fantasy of hitchhiking cross-country a la Jack Kerouac. I did spend a full summer hitchhiking to work every morning and then hitchhiking home again in the early evening when work was over. During all these rides I never had a bad experience. Only once did things get a little hairy, when my ride told me once I settled into his car, "We’re going straight to hell!" After observing the look of panic on my face, he burst out laughing and said, "Just kidding, buddy."

In today’s world, hitchhiking would be tantamount to putting a "Shoot me" sign around your neck, besides which, men over 30 or 35 who hitchhike just don’t look right. Most people think by that age you shouldn’t have to hitchhike. It’s truly amazing what you can get away with when you’re in your twenties. It’s a shame that people in their twenties today will never know the joys of hitchhiking.

Anyway, after boarding the last Philly-bound bus, I looked out the window in case a monk should pull up at the last minute, but no such luck. The last bus was a 4-hour local, meaning it stopped at every small Pennsylvania mountain town. Unlike the weather during the trip up, the sun was out and the scenery had a clear, crisp look. The bus stopped at beautiful small towns like Easton and Stroudsburg. Both towns had arresting architecture, clean streets, and amazing drive-through vistas that included church steeples nestled against trees and the Delaware River water line. These small Pennsylvania towns looked a lot like the villages I visited while traveling through Austria several years ago.

In one town, a mother and son boarded the bus, both of them so incredibly fat they could barely walk down the aisle. Since I didn’t want to be caught staring at them, I put my eyes down but kept them in my peripheral vision to see if they would follow the usual pattern: sit near me and by so doing, obstruct my view. I say this because, strange as it seems, I seem to be a magnet for fat people. I can be sitting anywhere, in a terminal, plane, bus, or train, with many empty seats around me, but nine times out of ten a fat person will spot me and sit just one seat over. This has happened so many times I no longer attribute it to coincidence but to something in me that draws them near—maybe it’s the fact that I always stick up for fat people, despite the fact that I’m skinny, when I hear anti-fat jokes and worse.

The mother and son did sit in the seat in front of me, although they had to split up because they both couldn’t fit in the same seat. I tried not to stare when they sat down together in an attempt to make one seat work. It’s smart to be discreet. When we arrived in Philly, after the whole bus had emptied out, they waited for me to exit because they didn’t want anyone to see them struggle up the aisle.

But let me tell you about the most disturbing thing I saw on that return bus ride. In that breathtakingly beautiful Pennsylvania countryside, I saw gashes and gaps in the mountain landscape that were most likely caused by "fracking".

Fracking is the latest wonder technology, formally called "high volume hydraulic fracturing". "So here’s what everybody is talking about!" I almost said out loud, thinking of all the fracking articles I used to dismiss as boring—until now. The gaps and gashes in the scenery caused me to do a little research when I arrived home. The facts are frightening.

Fracking, simply put, is forced infusion of chemical and sand laced water into 500 million year old shale formations (or the remains of oceans that once covered much of North America). The high-pressure infusion of these chemicals is like a high speed shot into the shale formations. The impact forces the methane embedded inside the shale to shoot out. Since the methane is mixed with the fracking chemicals as well as radioactive material, when this stuff is released it gets into the water and atmosphere. When you understand that for nearly half a billion years, the methane was encased and protected inside the shale in a kind of secure self storage unit, it’s easy to see how once ejected into the atmosphere, bad things start to happen.

Since 2008, when fracking really began to accelerate in Pennsylvania, experts have found traces of arsenic in the water. This ecological violence has resulted in the deaths of Pennsylvania farm animals like horses, cows, chickens and even barn cats and dogs. Many of the people near the fracking sites have evidences of internal scarring, calcium deposits, and in some cases, cirrhosis of the liver (despite the fact that they do not drink). Farm families and others have come down with unexplained rashes, nosebleeds, headaches and memory loss. While this all sounds a lot like science fiction, the reality is all too real.

As the bus drove past other fracking sites—they resembled surgical incisions scarring previously healthy groupings of trees—I found it hard to understand how this could be happening in Pennsylvania. It was strange too, because before I left on this pilgrimage to nowhere, a good friend of mine referred to fracking as a "so what" issue. "I don’t have children," he said, "so what do I care what happens to the earth after I leave?"

Things ended on a good note when I got home and read an email from the monastery explaining the confusion. The good abbot offered me a free round trip to my rustic mountain retreat sometime this summer.

All’s good—except for the fracking!

I know my sister Carolyn Nickels would agree that 'fracking' not only ruins landscapes, it ruins lives.