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Monday, July 22, 2013

When the Parents of Hipsters Buy Them a House

The Local Lens
Published• Wed, Jul 17, 2013
By Thom Nickels

Moving into a city neighborhood from the suburbs (or country) can be rough. When I moved to the Riverwards 11 years ago from Center City there were no guidebooks to suggest the best way to blend in.

At that time I was the only person from Center City on my block. When the realtor sold m
e the house she quipped that it was situated in an odd sort of triangle, "not quite Fishtown, not quite Richmond but something undefined in between."

"I like unclassifiable areas," I told her. A friend who helped me move at the time made a prediction: "In ten years, this will become the new Northern Liberties. Wait and see."

His prediction is beginning to come true. Across the street an Albanian family has been working feverishly on a huge 4-story house, built from scratch after the smaller original house was demolished. Other neighbors have planted trees, scrub-washed their brick facades, or created planter gardens along the sidewalk. The only eyesore on the block is an abandoned house which has been boarded up for almost twenty years. I wrote about this public health hazard weeks ago and pointed out how the house attracts feral cats and possums. The City of Philadelphia seems to like it when boarded up, abandoned houses sit for decades—until, of course, they collapse, or when someone breaks in and steals the copper tubing and causes a gas explosion.

Ah yes, that’s when the city does something about abandoned properties!

At one time my block was a block where people rarely moved but that has changed. Blink twice and you might miss a new neighbor.

Unfortunately, one of the by-products of gentrification is parking problems and the multiplication of No Parking/Two Away Zones.

Some of these No Parking/Tow Away zones stretch the limits of legality. I’m thinking of one house two blocks away that has its backyard framed by a garage-like gate as if there was a driveway inside. But if there’s a driveway inside the gate, it’s invisible. It’s just an ordinary backyard that in former years used to house a swimming pool and a work shed; so why the No Parking/ Tow Away signs? The change has caused many here to scratch their heads. And it’s got me thinking of putting up a No Parking/Tow Away Zone sign of my own (signs can be purchased at Home Depot or Family Dollar). My reason for doing this could be as simple as: I don’t want people with big SUVs blocking the view from my living room window.

Of course I’d never do this, but this doesn’t change the fact that lately when it comes to parking, anything goes. Keep putting up questionable No Parking/Tow Away Zone signs long enough and people will obey. It’s like group hypnosis.

In an ideal world, neighbors would be looking out for neighbors, whether it’s neighbors on my street or the next.

When I first moved here, I was informed by an astute friend that the best way to build good neighborly relations is to make contact with neighbors rather than isolate yourself in your house like an urban Robinson Crusoe. This does not mean that you have to be intimate friends or share everything with your neighbors; it simply means that you should not be afraid of eye contact, be open and willing to say hello or even to have that 2 minute chat on the street.

One should do these things regardless of educational or social differences; income disparities; race; religion; political affiliation, etc. When you live on a small street in a sense you join a small community.

When the area of Fishtown around Girard Avenue began gentrifying many long time residents complained that the new people-- the Center City, suburban and New York newcomers--never made eye contact with them or said hello. The new residents instead seemed to view themselves as islands and "very different" from the so called indigenous population.

I can imagine the newcomers thinking: "Why should I say hello to them? We don’t even speak the same language!" A simple hello however, is just good manners and not an offer of a lifetime friendship or shared Saturday nights. A "you do not exist" attitude, on the other hand, almost always has a subtle negative connotation.

I have some empathy for the suburbanites who move here and who are afraid to say hello. Let’s face it, coming from Ardmore or Bryn Mawr to a tiny Philly neighborhood not far from the El can be a shocking transition. The suburbanite might notice that the people in the street don’t speak like them; or maybe they talk too loud or use too many curse words. Of course, if you are really going to be a snob, perhaps it is the perception that "the locals" just aren’t, you know, "edu-ma-cated," as Lucy Ricardo in I Love Lucy once put it. If you are "edu-ma-cated," then of course you are superior; you belong to a different class; but no way are you going to stoop so low as to rub shoulders with…riff raff.

I’d like to tell every suburbanite who moves into the riverwards to get to know local etiquette. The only way to get to know the local etiquette is by listening, observing, and talking to the people who live around you. Knowing the etiquette of certain Riverward neighborhoods is essential to happy living. And while it may be uncomfortable to go beyond your small universe of like-minded peers, it is a "must do" if you are going to get along.

Last year, on the other side of Lehigh Avenue, a group of suburban college kids moved into a house but made no attempt to get to know the locals who lived around them. It was as if the locals were not there at all.

Then something happened.

The suburbanites hosted a New Year’s Eve party and had guests coming in from many different areas. There were a lot of cars and the few parking spaces on the street got taken up early in the evening. Some of the party guests parked their cars directly on the sidewalk in front of a number of houses, certain that this was legal because they had seen people park their cars on the sidewalk before. But had they been aware of neighborhood etiquette they would have known that the people who park on the sidewalk are people who live in the house directly behind the car, not neighbors from another part of the street or around the corner. Although sidewalk parking is technically illegal, neighborhood etiquette says that nobody except the home owner or renter should ever park on the sidewalk in front of a house that is not theirs. This is the golden rule.

I don’t need to tell you the conclusion of the parking story except to say that there was a lot of unnecessary pandemonium.

And that didn’t have to be….

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Colorado Rental Car

The Local Lens
Published• Wed, Jul 10, 2013
By Thom Nickels

What’s it like to return to Colorado, where I lived when I was 22, after years of living in Philadelphia? It’s a little bit like exchanging your old box TV for a large flat screen that covers half the living room wall. Colorado is big; it’s a state that’s all about open spaces, tall, jagged mountains and long sloping mesas, but most of all it’s about big sky. The sky in Colorado is nature’s Sistine Chapel. In fact, flying in from Philly, I had to look twice to make sure that it was the same sky that exists in Philly and not one that had been annexed, abridged and oversized to fit the land of the Green Giants.

In Colorado, you are also at a higher altitude, some two thousand feet or more above all your Philly friends and neighbors. People from flat areas who have health problems are told to slow down when they first arrive here. Generally the prescription for new arrivals is to drink lots of water, even though so-called "altitude sickness" usually doesn’t hit until you’ve been in the state for some 48 hours. Because you’re so high up and closer to the sun, it also helps to wear hats or sunscreen. Many people who have spent all their lives in Colorado wind up with aged or weathered skin. It’s a bit like the "Arizona sun" skin effect (or alligator skin), only not as bad.

Seeing Colorado again was much like a homecoming, although I’d forgotten the fact that in order to live here—at least in the western part of the state—you have to have a car. Since this was my first trip to the western edge, I wrongly assumed that there’d be random city buses in the three towns on my itinerary—Grand Junction, Delta and Montrose—just as there are in Denver. But people in western Colorado consider Denver to be much like a big coastal city; in other words, a place so cosmopolitan it has lost many of the accruements of the Old West. "Oh, Denver is just like New York," they say, "noisy, too much traffic, too crowded with people always in a rush."

The "you’ll need a car" mandate was brought home to me many times during the trip’s planning stages. The organizers of this travel writing gig told me that it would be impossible to visit the western slopes without a rental car. Driving steep mountain roads that wind unpredictably like a snake was a scary proposition, causing me to think about accidents or even a car breakdown. I remembered something Henry Miller wrote years ago in a small essay entitled Automotive Passacaglia: "…Take it for granted that nobody, not even a genius, can guarantee that your car won’t fall apart five minutes after he’s examined it. A car is even more delicate than a Swiss watch. And a lot more diabolical, if you know what I mean…"

Drunk drivers have been known to miss a turn on these mountain roads and go off a cliff.

A few years ago I rented a car from Philly Car Share to help a friend move, but found the workings of the car so alien—with symbols instead of words indicating how to do the smallest things like turn on the windshield wipers. Because the symbols looked like Egyptian hieroglyphics, I played a random guessing game pushing buttons and wound up driving on I-95 at night for a good 30 minutes without headlights—all because I couldn’t find the right symbol. "Why not just label the headlight-on switch headlights rather than with symbols for Egyptian fertility!" I said to my equally befuddled friend who couldn’t find the lights either.

Needless to say, I was reluctant to drive a car hundreds of miles on long mountainous roads. I shared my feelings with my sister Susana who quickly told me, "Tommy, we know how you are when it comes to directions. We want you back alive. Don’t do it!" I was now more insecure than ever, and went ahead and suggested to the trip planners that I wanted to cancel the rental car because I was an avid walker and didn’t mind taking the bus because I wanted to mingle with everyday commuters. "I once took a Greyhound from Frisco to Philly," I said. "The only bad part was the Nevada desert when the bus filled up with screaming Navajo babies."

"What bus?" the trip planner said. "There are no buses where you are going. Do you want us to cancel the trip?"

"I’m going to have to bite the bullet," I told Susana. "Just pray that no trucks out of Steven Spielberg’s Duel sneak up behind me."

The rental car I got was an olive green compact Nissan. With a minimum of dashboard symbols posing as names, the Nissan and I bonded instantly. I drove her to the Colorado National Monument, to and from downtown Grand Junction, back and forth to the hotel, to wine vineyards and back, and finally across a massive interstate to Delta, up beautiful winding mountain roads, across great vistas with rolling hills, mesas, and through high desert areas with mountains and the faint clouds of forest fire smoke in the distance.

At one point, while driving from Grand Junction to Montrose on US Hwy 50 and 65, I was the only car on the road for at least 45 minutes. Try doing this in Pennsylvania. Only when I neared Montrose did the first inklings of traffic appear. I also noticed that there were a fair number of hitchhikers, some with knapsacks, lining the roads. Living on the east coast for so long I had pretty much assumed that hitchhiking was dead in every state of the union, so it’s good to know that it is alive and well in pioneer country, where apparently there’s far less fear of meeting and talking with strangers.

Although I got lost many times, all I had to do was stop the car and "look" lost to attract the attention of a neighbor or a farmer, who would then ask, "You lost? Can I help you in some way?" While traveling to meet my new tour guide in Delta, I got so lost I had to turn onto a small gravel road that led to one of those all-purpose automotive shops with a big spare parts lot in the back. The place resembled one of those deserted western way stations in a Rod Serling Twilight Zone episode. The husband-in-charge had the sun-weathered look of an old cowboy, and he smelled of motor oil.

"Hello, I’m from Philadelphia and driving a rental car, and I’m lost as sin," I said.

Coloradans, I’ve found, like it when you say you’re from Philadelphia. They almost always have something to say about that, like "Oh, my daughter lives there," or, "I was in Philadelphia once." In the case of the motor oil guy, he said he was in Philadelphia once when he was in the military, "a long time ago." His eyes lit up like the bright headlights of my rental car. "Didn’t spend enough time there, though," he added. He then proceeded to draw me a map of the road system in Delta, complete with recognizable signposts, images of trees, and even a few Stop ‘N Go convenience stores. Can you imagine anyone in Philly taking the time to draw a lost traveler a map, complete with tree cluster locations?

The friendliness of the people is what most strikes you most about Colorado. Many times while on the road other drivers waved to me and I’d wave back. It was the same thing walking through the hotels or on the town streets: people said hello, nodded, or wished you a good morning.

Most importantly, not once during my six-day visit did I ever hear the honking of a car horn. This came as a shock, since my hometown has a reputation for rude, impatient drivers who reach for the horn and blast it at the slightest provocation.

Ah, the golden west!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Asexuality and the transitory nature of EROTIC LOVE

The Local Lens

Published• Wed, Jul 03, 2013

By Thom Nickels

It’s been quite a week on the American political stage. There was the repeal of DOMA, or the Defense of Marriage Act, which leaves the door wide open for marriage equality, but two weeks before that a heretofore ‘hidden’ group came out of the closet: the asexuals.

An asexual person, according to The Asexual Visibility & Education Network, is a person who does not experience sexual attraction. Researchers are now calling asexuality a sexual orientation alongside heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality. Asexuals, these same researchers say, constitute at least one percent of the population.

An asexual will have no interest in dating, marriage (unless for companionship purposes only), having children, or what some people call "falling in love". Because asexuals never "fall in love" in the traditional libido-driven sense, they cannot know the depths and heights of passion but rather they’d be stuck on an evenly balanced Zen-like plane where all feelings and emotions would not be too low or too high.

To be fair, it may be safer to live life this way. If you never fall in love, you can never be hurt; never feel the pain of love but on the other hand, you will never feel the oh-so-very-fleeting transcendent highs. (What if novelist D.H. Lawrence had been an asexual? One thing’s for sure, he would have never written Women in Love. Would an asexual person make a good novelist? I somehow I doubt it.)

I met my first asexual years ago in Boston. Zachary, who lived in my apartment building, was a studious guy whose idea of a wild Saturday night was to watch old Hollywood movies on TV, drink tea and eat popcorn. His "old man’s life" was an anomaly for someone not yet twenty-three years old. Compared to the buzzed beer-drinking grad students and free-love-advocating hippies of that era, he was like a museum specimen, a freak.

"Something’s seriously wrong with this guy," I remember one girl declaring. "He’s not gay, he never talks about girls. All he does is eat popcorn and watch movies. Weird!"

The word ‘asexual’ was not in vogue in the hippie era, especially in those early days of the Sexual Revolution, when America was being liberated from the Draconian laws and repressions of the 1950s. Most people, in fact, assumed that Zachary had something going on in his private life but had just decided to keep his "love connection" a secret. Most of us at that time, had we put forced to define an asexual, would probably have placed them in the same category as someone with anemia or leukemia. We would have called asexuality a disorder with a traceable cause such as a fear of getting close to people, or someone who has "intimacy issues".

In my own family there have been aunts and uncles who have never married, and who seemed to live a life apart from a formal primary relationship with another human being. Not long ago, the general assumption regarding people like this was that they were heterosexual but just couldn’t find anybody. The women were called ‘spinsters’ (as if sex, which usually complicates things, could solve all their problems) while the men were assumed to be covert playboy bachelors unable to commit to a relationship. As the times changed, these same unmarried aunts and uncles were thought to be secretly gay. Rarely, if ever, were they thought to be people who had zero interest in a romantic dalliance.

One of my elderly great-aunts—a fiercely independent woman who traveled alone on a cross-country train trip in 1929—was often referred to by some of my uncles as "the Virgin Queen" because she never married. It was also hinted that perhaps "Aunt Beatrice" was "a bit like Gertrude Stein." Both "charges", I might add, were absolutely false. Yet there’s no question that not marrying at that time had negative consequences. The single state left you open to rumor and innuendo. On the other hand, getting married and losing your spouse to death also had consequences. Elderly widows were perceived as "used up" women who had to learn to live—and sleep—alone, becoming, by default, asexual, while widowers were more than likely expected to remarry ("men being men"). Old people in general, whether widows, widowers or single people, are to this day seen as people who have transcended the world of the passions to take up residence in the No-Zone world of…asexuality.

So, could it be that we all become asexual in the end?

While the end of DOMA and the move towards marriage equality is a good thing, I hope that na├»ve over-eager young gay people will not rush in to tie the knot with the wrong partner. The wrong partner, of course, means many things, but mainly this: someone who is not right for you but someone who may have seemed right in the beginning because of the allure of sexual passion. Sexual passion has a fifteen-minute life span; maybe twenty-five minutes if you’re lucky. (If it lasts twenty years, smile and thank God for the miracle.) The fact is, there are more ex-husband and ex-wife complaints among people these days than there are cracks in the sidewalks.

I guess this explains why so many straights are now telling gays: "You’ve gained the right to be as miserable as we are," which is a really cynical comment when you think about it, but which seems to emphasize the fact that love is hard, hard work, and that the fanciful honeymoon at the beginning of a relationship can often morph into a long utilitarian yawn, the passion fading like grandmother’s old wallpaper.

Feeling the pulse for a moment in Time.