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Monday, November 18, 2013

Expulsion from the Union League

The Local Lens

Published• Wed, Apr 10, 2013

By Thom Nickels

Philadelphia is basically a "dress-down" kind of town, where it’s not unusual to see theater and concert-going patrons in casual clothes bordering on rustic. By "rustic" I mean torn or split jeans, corduroys with holes or stains, or shirts that resemble lumber yard work frocks.

I sometimes think the "dress-down" style here has something to do with the city’s Quaker heritage. The original Quakers liked plainness over ornate or showy materials. New Yorkers have often observed Philadelphia’s penchant for dress-down attire, especially when it comes to theater audiences. A long time ago I remember reading a New Yorker article about Philadelphia men wearing bib overalls to the theater. Bib overalls, of course, are what farmers in the country wear. You don’t expect to see men in bib overalls when attending opening night in one of the city’s major theaters.

When it comes to dress, Philadelphia is also a city of extremes. Consider the class of men who like to wear bow ties. These fellows can be any age; they can be prep school grads, conservative Republicans, men from old money, rich suburban families or even men who aspire to attain something of what wearing a bow tie seems to suggest: sophistication beyond the pale. In some cases, a bow tie can looked affected, although wearing the right bow tie with a nice seersucker suit is a sure way to suggest money and class.

Suspenders are another specialty dress item. They can look like the Farmer in the Dell or just downright cool, depending on what they are holding up. I wore suspenders as a boy with white shirts and a small checkered bow tie. To get my attention sometimes or to make a point, my mother would snap my suspenders. Perhaps that’s why I opted to stop wearing them, although it may also have been because suspenders were sometimes known to come undone in violent recoil that had me holding up my trousers for dear life. To this day whenever I see somebody in suspenders I experience a slight urge to go over and give them a snap. As for bowties, we wore them in parochial school as an alternative to the sometimes boring necktie.

I grew up when boys and men wore ties to school, church and work, when shirts were tucked into trousers in the classic Brooks Brother’s mode rather than left to hang over trousers like untailored drapery. Today it is fashionable among many twenty-something men to wear shirts - dress, casual or grunge - hanging over their trousers, a fashion trend started years ago by overweight designers who wanted to hide the huge expanse of their waistlines. A tucked-in shirt, after all, accentuates body image.

Many, though not all, younger men go to extreme lengths to avoid wearing sports jackets and suits. I have seen these guys underdress at social and press events where almost everyone present is wearing a jacket and tie. What amazes me is how these guys don’t seem to care that they stand out like boiler room janitors or party crashers. Don’t get me wrong: I love old, sloppy clothes. Weather-beaten clothes are fun to wear around the house and to do work in. I tend to wear one work shirt, for instance—something I bought at the local thrift store—that is starting to sport holes, but because I like the shirt I have come to regard it as my work uniform. But would I go to a museum exhibition opening in it? I don’t think so.

When I was in my twenties I began to think of wearing suits and ties as the province of old men. You know the look: oversized sheen jackets, fat clown ties, neatly pressed baggy trousers and shiny black shoes that not reflect way, way up into Carl Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden universe. My beloved old great aunt, who once corresponded with Clare Booth Luce and knew Connie Mack, expected me to dress in a tie whenever I visited her in Cathedral Village, a retirement/nursing home in Roxborough. Sometimes I complied, although I would only put the tie on when I entered the Village, and never wore it on the bus going there or returning home. There were other times when, out of stubbornness, I would decide, "NO tie for great aunt!" so I’d visit her with an open collar.

At no time, however, did I visit her with my shirt hanging out of my pants like those hipster exhibition janitors. My great aunt, who was born in 1895, had no time for an open collar, while an open collar to me was a beautiful thing (like reading the poetry of Walt Whitman), especially in the summer. The prospect of having lunch with me and my open collar in the Cathedral Village dining room once drove her to tears. In her panic to make me look presentable, she suggested that I wear one of her broaches in place of a tie.

Of course, it not being Halloween, I did a double take. "I’m sorry I didn’t bring the tie," I said. "I will next time, if it means that much to you, but I’m going nowhere near that broach." We decided on a compromise: I would button the top button and leave it at that. Later, however, I saw that I was being unfair to her and so I made the decision that if a tie made her happy, why not wear one, especially if she’s paying for lunch?

Through the years I’ve come to realize that when it comes to dressing for events, it’s always better to be overdressed than under. In some cases it’s actually possible to do both, as hybrid dress configurations like the sports jacket/sweater/ jean combination manage to bypass any suggestion of janitorial influences. Suits and jackets today have lost the Square Bob look of yesteryear, thanks to certain European influences like shorter, tighter jackets, slimmer trousers and slim ties.

Of course, there are things I’d never wear, even if I found myself (during a terrible war with North Korea, say) crawling on all fours in the streets in a search for water and food rations. These items include: (1) sweat pants and sweat suits, which should never be worn outside a gym or the backyard. (2) Flip-flops: No self-respecting man should wear flip-flops in the city (the beach is okay). There’s no sadder sight in contemporary life than watching a grown man in flip-flops trying to descend the steps at Girard and Front after getting off the El.

Please don’t think of me as a fashion expert. I flunked a big test recently when I went to cover a Royal Oak Foundation Lecture, The Day Parliament Burned Down, in the Grant Room of the Union League. As I entered the building, I was stopped by a UL overseer who asked, "Do you have jeans on?" I might have been carrying a ziplock of weed from Colorado, judging from her full frontal lunge in the direction of my shoes. "No, ma’m," I said, respectfully. "In fact, my natural tendency is to overdress. I am wearing dress Levi’s from the Port Richmond Plaza thrift store to match this very hard-to-find Calvin Klein corduroy jacket."

"You are wearing jeans," she said, patently ignoring the Lauren sweater, Italian shoes and dress belt from Helsinki. A fashion debate then ensued at which point the overseer mused, "So far this evening we’ve had to turn away 16 people."

"Sixteen?!" I exclaimed, happening to glance over at a man on a lobby bench in the act of removing his jacket, when like a flash of lightning the overseer pointed at the culprit and said for all to hear, "Please do not remove your jacket, sir!" Two men behind me, also wanting to know how and why Parliament burned down, wore skinny peg ties (Pee Wee Herman), tight jackets and a hybrid version of hipster petite casual slacks. They were also waiting for the overseer’s green light. To my astonishment they were allowed to pass through without the overseer ever checking their trousers.

Life is unfair sometimes.

It was not a good day, and I did not like being number seventeen, but out on the sidewalk, in the sunlight of truth, I could plainly see that the Levi’s on my body were in fact denim (or black jeans) and not cotton.

November ICON MAGAZINE City Beat Column 2013

November City Beat columnb> 2013

We hope that the Mural Arts Project’s October 5th The Meal, an extravaganza staged to celebrate the organization’s 30th anniversary, becomes an annual event. Imagine eating art off the walls “and putting it into a public space in the form of a table setting?” That’s how French artist Lucy Orta referred to The Meal. “In a sense, the murals on the wall will be found on a table runner and the plates of The Meal,” Orta said. This was Philadelphia’s first free collective dining experience but the 34th for Paris-based artists Jorge and Lucy Orta, who created The Meal as an art event. Many of the 904 guests were selected by a lottery system. The vegetarian fare was created by Chef Marc Vetri. Guests got to take home a rather spectacular Orta art plate. We ate with Amy Johnson, a Media, Pennsylvania, City Council candidate, and muralist Ben Volta and his young son Milo (Milo crawled under the table at one point and pinched our knees). Jane Golden gave a speech that had the airborne pounce of an Olympic discus throw. Onlookers beyond the perimeter of the Thomas Paine Plaza at the Municipal Services Building were surprisingly sedate when spotting so many people chewing on Black Krim, Dabinett, Celtuce, Spitzenberg and lots of cubed carrots. “What I want to know is,” Amy Johnson asked, “is who cut all of these carrots into such tiny cubes?” Since vegetables, like Chinese food, leaves the stomach fast, we headed out to a fast food restaurant afterwards for something meatier to chew on.

At Drexel University’s second TedX symposium last month we led the pack with a 9 AM presentation on how technology effects human interaction. Later, we answered questions from students about the value of cursive writing, and were taken aback when one seemingly smart woman asked, “Isn’t advocating for cursive retrograde thinking?” What? We let it be known that cursive writing is a kind of poetry, a basic skill like learning the alphabet. In addition, we told her that intelligent people who can only print block letters make most observers think of the developmentally disabled. It’s much like the argument we got into last year with a woman who announced that she was starting a movement to abolish the use of the semicolon. We love the semicolon, just like we love cursive writing-- and just like we love astronauts like Paul Richards, another TedX speaker who was part of the eighth Shuttle Mission to the International Space Station. Richards told us at lunch that astronauts who travel in space are given so much to do that they often forget to look outside at the ball of earth, or at the stars within arm’s reach.

We don’t usually attend film screenings. Philly’s film world, like the Philly poetry circuit, can be an odd feudal kingdom. We ventured to the Kimmel Center anyway to see the 2012 Susan Seidelman film, Musical Chairs, about two New Yorkers and their love for ballroom dancing (even after one becomes physically disabled), as part of a benefit for the Mayor’s Commission on People with Disabilities. The red carpet affair included “I am a camera” HighE Dillon who took posed and random shots of Mayor Nutter, Governor Ed Rendell, and Joan Bressler of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office. Seidelman was also present but tracking her down at the post film reception was not easy. We wanted to ask her about her film, Desperately Seeking Susan, with the then rising star Madonna, but like Governor Rendell and the Mayor, she either skipped the reception or was being held hostage by admirers. The film had many in the Kimmel wiping their eyes. “What a tear jerker,”Dillon told us afterwards, still wiping an eye.

When you go out to lunch at a restaurant like Nineteen atop the Bellevue on Broad Street, you expect to dine in pleasant surrounding, pay your check and leave, not witness a man in his sixties get up from a neighboring table when his wife goes to the ladies room, walk over to a window and jump out onto Broad Street. That’s what a friend of ours saw weeks ago as he dined there with a friend. “I haven’t been able to sleep for 3 days,” he told us, fairly distraught. “The man just walked over to the window and jumped out, after which one of the waitresses fainted.” After the tragedy, management closed the restaurant and escorted diners out. “But there was nothing on the news,” our friend added. “A man jumps out onto Broad Street at lunch time and it goes unreported!” We researched the incident but getting the facts wasn’t easy. Nineteen had no comment while Bellevue management confirmed that someone had indeed died out on the sidewalk in front of the hotel, adding, “You’ll have to call the police for the rest of the story.” The police were “sort of” forthcoming. They took our information with a promise to call back but it took a reminder call from us two days later to get them to tell us that we had to call the City Medical Examiner’s Office. When we did that we were told to call another number and then wait for a return call. We finally received the confirmation we were looking for 5 days after the original request: a 66 year old man from Ventor, New Jersey, had indeed committed suicide from Nineteen on that fateful September afternoon.

Pulitzer Prize winning political cartoonist Tony Auth was on hand at the Philadelphia History Museum for a retrospective of some of his best work from The Philadelphia Inquirer. Auth was everything to political progressives during the Ronald Reagan era. An engaging, almost elfin looking man in a perfectly contoured John Steinbeck beard, Auth greeted well wishers and chatted with PHM Executive Director Charles Croce about his career and the glory days of The Inquirer. We learned, among other things, that when he lacked inspiration, he’d head to the movies for ideas and that during his tenure at the paper he only had one cartoon rejected by Inquirer bosses. While The Inquirer gave Auth complete artistic freedom, it also reminded him that it held editorial veto power. During the Q and A with Croce Auth made several inferences that the once great Philadelphia Inquirer has indeed fallen from grace. At the reception he elaborated further when he told us that a young Tony Auth looking for a newspaper venue in 2013 wouldn’t stand a chance at his alma mater.

What’s going on with PAFA, one of our favorite institutions, and its fascination with cartoon characters? We tried to get into the mouse like blow up doll, the ‘Companion’ statue by artist Brian Donnelly (aka KAWS) last spring when PAFA plunked it down in 30th Street Station directly across from the Angel of the Resurrection sculpture. We know that times are tough and that people need laughter, but are blow up dolls the answer? KAWS has found a good “Red Grooms” style gimmick although the whole thing makes us think of a children’s circus. The new KAWS @ PAFA exhibit suggests to us that cartoons masquerading as art are propagating like bed bugs: from the single 30th Street blow up doll there are now three more KAWS blow up dolls, one a 9 ¾ foot tall sculpture entitled ‘Born to Bend’ as well as cartoon character portraits hung salon style in the venerable halls of PAFA. The KAWS phenomena makes us think of the time Thomas Eakins accepted an award from PAFA in red bicycle pants and then promptly had the award (a medal) melted down. Was Eakins seeing the birth of a cartoon art in the museum’s future? Since there’s no telling what might happen next in the world of art, how about an inflatable KAWS PAFA building--- the art museum as a pop-up, moveable rubber raft?

We talked shop with The Philadelphia Tribune’s Bobbi Booker during the Museum of Art’s press reception for Ledger: Modern Art and the Metropolis. The massive exhibition (October 2013-January 5, 2014) is in the Dorrance Galleries. Leger, who studied architecture, was, like Warhol and Jean Cocteau, an artist who engaged painting with the popular arts. The exhibit includes “The City,” one of the greatest works in PMS’s collection, at least according to Timothy Rub, PMA CEO. Check out the PMA gift shop for Leger goodies as well: there’s resin jewelry, ceramic kitchen and dinnerware, and more.

Marty Moss-Coane was born on Valentine’s Day, 1949. The host and executive producer of Radio Times With Marty Moss-Coane in Philadelphia, started as a volunteer at Philadelphia’s WHYY-FM studios in 1983. From her role as associate producer of Terry Gross’ Fresh Air, she became the host of Radio Times when Gross went national in 1987. Moss-Coane says that in the beginning of her career she was “terrified of making a mistake, of sounding like a fool, of not being as good as Terry Gross.” In another interview, she talked of her radio guests. “We’ve had lousy guests—the lousy guests are ponderous talkers. We’ve had hostile guests; we’ve had guests who were drunk or high. We had one guy who was as high as a kite. The truth is, that’s the rare guest. Most of them are pretty good and we’re pretty choosy who we have on.” Well, maybe not choosy enough if some of these high recognition “names” are snorting in the back aisles.


The Local Lens
Published • Wed, Nov 13, 2013
By Thom Nickels

The recent cut in SNAP benefits or food stamps has made more than a few people uneasy. Obviously, this is the beginning of the end for food stamps. The cuts will lead to more cuts until finally food stamps will be a thing of the past. As reported by The New York Times, this year’s cut is "the largest wholesale cut in the program since Congress passed the first Food Stamps Act in 1964 and touches about one in every seven Americans."

Right wing Republicans (and even some Democrats who should know better) think that these cuts are good for people. "The government shouldn’t be helping people anyway," they proclaim. "One shouldn’t depend on the government for assistance."

Well, that was the general feeling in the year 1890, or the Gilded Age, when the poor literally starved in the streets or were mistreated by employers.

The SNAP cut is problematic because of what it portends for the future. Since the age of Ronald Reagan nearly every social program begun by FDR, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson has been marked for shrinkage or elimination. Assistance programs of all types are being slashed, from unemployment benefits, LIHEAP, and welfare. There are even those who still want to privatize Social Security and the Post Office.

But food, in case you haven’t noticed, is the new gold. That should be obvious to anyone who walks through the doors of the supermarket. Sometimes as I walk about the aisles there, I have to look twice at the very obvious spike of prices on many items. In fact, it’s gotten so bad at the supermarket that spending twenty dollars there will only net you a miniature (as in microscopic) bag of supplies.

Everyone is feeling the punch. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen disgruntled customers checking and rechecking the prices on receipts outside the supermarket before loading their groceries into cars. Their faces have a pale, shocked quality. They’re hoping that the huge total is the result of a mistake. But it is not a mistake. The total is as real as the cut in food stamps.

As a result of the upsurge in food costs, many people have discovered the "more for your money" pleasure of the Port Richmond Village mall’s two Dollar stores, that used to be places to buy non-food items like paper products but which are now fast becoming supermarkets because of the addition of more food aisles than ever before.

O the blessed times in which we live!

People who have never shopped at dollar stores are now packing the aisles there because, outside of blowing an entire paycheck on food, there’s simply no alternative.

"One can always eat less," as somebody once told me. Well, that’s true, but when ‘less’ spells hunger, then we have a problem.

There are food banks, of course. The PhilAbundance depository at 601 W. Lehigh Avenue is only one of many such free food banks in the city. On certain days of the week you can see the long lines of people waiting to obtain a very small amount of free food, from canned goods, meats, milk and cheese. Just one year ago the lines outside the Lehigh Avenue outlet were moderate in length, but today they stretch on for at least a block and a half. It’s obvious that the lines will grow substantially in the future. A good many of people in line are elderly who very often bring portable stools or fold up chairs to sit out the interminable wait, since the line moves at a snail’s pace. Good-natured volunteer workers stock the Lehigh Avenue outlet’s shelves and guide participants through the small room packed with food selections that vary from week to week. Some weeks, it seems, the selections are exceedingly generous, but other weeks there’s no variety at all. But you can always count on canned beans, corn, plantains (not bananas), crème of chicken soup and frozen pork sausage. Hey, it’s food!

While the PhilAbundance scene is enough to make the uppity Whole Foods crowd hold their noses, if things get much worse the invisible food immunity granted to Whole Foods Foodies will come to an end.

Unfortunately, the variety of free food offered at PhilAbundance has suffered serious declines. A year or two ago participants could take twice as much food as they are being offered today, a downsizing that suggests the program might be in trouble because of the huge numbers of new applicants.

It’s enough to make a prophet of doom ask: are we headed for some kind of food shortage or famine? As reported by Stephen C. Smith of George Washington University, "About 925 million are currently hungry, not far from the all-time record. A family living in poverty in a low-income country may spend almost three-quarters of their income on food."

Are we, as a nation, going to suffer food shortages in the future so that we go around looking like those leading Hollywood actors who lose weight just to excel in a movie role? Careerism, not hunger, nearly destroyed the bodies and health of these actors (who should know better) when they lost 50 pounds or over to win a Golden Globe or an Academy Award. The photos of these emaciated men, available on the Web, remind us of authentic victims of hunger, or even some future scenario of what many of us would look like when, and if, there’s not enough to eat, or if food becomes so expensive that it is attainable only by a few. The results of not eating can be ghastly. Nothing can explain the absurdist antics of those careerist actors who risk death, disease and the deterioration of their looks just to sustain a role in a movie.

Actor Tom Hanks may have been having fun when he lost 55 pounds to play a FedEx employee stranded on an island in the movie Castaway’ but in the end he gave himself infections, a rapidly aged face and body, and diabetes.

Actor Christian Bale is probably the most extreme example of a careerist weight loss fanatic. When he lost weight to appear in The Machinist, not only was he barely recognizable in his new skeletal state but also many say that he came very close to death. Of course, this latest Hollywood trend among male actors is its own story, but it does serve to point out the horrific effects of going hungry and starvation.

I’m not saying that the people in the PhilaAbundance line look like Christian Bale or Tom Hanks after a self-imposed starvation diet, but the sickly images of these guys do illustrate the supreme importance of food and nutrition, and the disastrous effects of forced fasting or not being able to eat because of controlled (high) food prices, corrupt Agribusiness, or famine.

It may or may not be science fiction to imagine that during any world emergency, the availability of food would almost certainly be affected in a negative way, and that eating as one ate "before" would be the exclusive province of the rich.

Food, at that point, would have an even higher value than gold.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Miraculous Icons

I took to the road again but this time headed to visit one of my favorite places, Saint Tikhon's monastery. Saint Tikhon's is an Orthodox monastery about 40 minutes outside of Scranton. The three hour trip on Martz Trailways went without a hitch. One of the monks, Brother Stephen, was at the bus terminal waiting for me when I arrived. We chatted amiably in the car on the way to the monastery gates, and then I was left on my own at the guest house where I unpacked and read until the two-hour Vespers service at 4:30. Dinner followed at 6:30 and then there'd be free time to read, explore the grounds (and the woods) until bed.

Life in a monastery is generally serious business. There is no such thing as "monastery entertainment," no movie nights or daily happy hours. I didn't take a cell phone or a laptop but opted to go natural. It was good to get away from the city and to talk to the monks. In the car on the way from the bus, for instance, Brother Stephen told me about a group of retired Catholic nuns who love to visit St. Tikhon's. These sisters are ultra modern types who don't wear a religious habit, so it's my guess that they are drawn to the extreme traditionalism at the monastery, where the monks wear cassocks twenty-four seven. In any event, Brother Stephen had a lot of nice things to say about these nuns.

Like my first visit to the monastery a year and a half ago, I was the only one staying at the guest house. My large room had two twin beds, a desk, closet, and a bathroom across the hall. Near the bathroom was a communal kitchen of sorts that was also attached to a hermitage where a very learned priest-monk, Father Athanasay lived. Father Athanasay, Brother Stephen informed me, was a former Jesuit Catholic priest who switched to Orthodoxy around the time of the Second Vatican Council. Father Athanasay has a particular devotion to Saint Anna, the mother of Mary. As a result of that devotion he was able to donate a miraculous icon of Saint Anna to St. Tikhon's, although this icon didn't start out as miraculous at all.

Years ago Father Athanasay was approached by an elderly woman who gave him money to spend as he pleased. Father Athanasay decided he would go to an iconographer and have an icon made of Saint Anna, his patron saint. Shortly after the icon was made, it began to stream myrrh (perfumed oil). This fact attracted considerable attention, which inevitably led to numerous reports of miracles and healings after people prayed before the icon. The icon of Saint Anna is located in a small, separate chapel near the monastic dormitory. The chapel is large enough for fifteen monks and is sometimes used when the main church is over crowded due to a St. Tikhon's seminary event. Brother Stephen was kind enough to show me the icon, taking it out of its glass container so that I could get a close up view of it as well as see the gifts of jewelry, necklaces and rings draped around the perimeter of the icon. These gifts were left by people who had benefited from miracles as a result of prayers to Saint Anna.

If you're not Catholic or Orthodox, all this might sound like Halloween hocus pocus. Some people, in fact, have suggested that the miraculous effects of the icon (or any icon) are illusionary, and that the streaming part is a hoax engineered by priests or monks just to get people to donate money or come to church. "There has to be a rational explanation," one friend of mine insisted. I am at a loss to explain these things to skeptics except to shrug and say that the mysteries in the universe sometimes outweigh rationality and logic. Sometimes there isn't a rational explanation. When Brother Stephen showed me the icon of Saint Anna, I didn't smell perfume or see it stream myrrh, but I did cross myself and give it a kiss.

Two days later I would visit Saint George's Orthodox Greek Catholic church in Taylor, Pennsylvania, when the Abbott of Saint Tikhon's invited me to accompany one of the monks and his visiting parents to a service around the exposition of two weeping icons that have been attracting considerable attention.

For at least two years these icons of the Virgin Mary (Theotokos) have exuded a fragrant oil or perfume like substance that literally flows down the surface of the icon, so much so that it can be collected in a bottle or swabbed up with cotton balls. Sometimes the streaming is so intense it fogs the outer glass containers into which the icons are placed. The service, called a Moleben, is about 40 minutes of prayers and hymns during which the priest places the icons on a Tetrapod (or stand) and then anoints the congregants with the myrrh. In the past, the Moleben has attracted thousands of people, some of whom have reported healings of serious back pain and stroke related problems. Brother Stephen said that there were so many people at the service one year that the local police had to direct traffic in and out of the church parking lot.

The people who attend these services are Orthodox, Roman and Byzantine Catholic Christians. In the Catholic world, there are statues and pictures of the Virgin Mary that also weep. But this is not about seeing the face of Jesus or Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich or the swirl of a Dairy Crème ice cream cone. The media favors these frivolous stories because they tend to poke fun at crazy religious people up to their necks in superstition. There's nothing laughable about an icon that weeps.

That's why when the Abbott, Father Sergius, asked me if I'd like to accompany the monk and his parents to see these icons, I replied with curious enthusiasm. On the evening of the service, I met up with Father Silouan, the young bearded monk who converted to Orthodoxy several years ago after finding himself in a rut while attending art school. Father Silouan, who is currently an iconographer at St. Tikhon's, changed his mind about a career as a secular artist when the instructors at the art school he was attending announced that they would begin to teach students how to sell and make money from their art. The future monk, cooled by this emphasis on money, announced that he was not interested in doing art for cash. As a result, he left art school and then, through a serendipitous chain of events, happened to find himself inside an Orthodox church when one of his friends told him that he "should take a look at this place."

Father Silouan took to Orthodoxy like a fish to water and not long after entered the monastery at St. Tikhon's. But for his parents it was a slightly longer road. While traveling with Father Silouan's family, his mother told me that she was at first a little put off by her son's conversion. For many Protestant evangelicals, like Father Silouan's mom, Orthodoxy can seem like voodoo with its icons, candles, incense and blatantly un-modern vestments. Nevertheless, both she and her husband followed their son's path. For Fr. Silouan's father, who was born Catholic, the transition was easier. He told me that following his son was like going back to the Church of his childhood before Vatican II.

Fr. Silouan's mother recalled the initial reactions of her evangelical friends when she told them she was now Orthodox: "It's superstition, almost witchcraft!" some of them replied. Of course, her friends were thinking about the icons, and how they saw them as idol worship, even if they didn't realize that prayers are said to the saint the icon represents, not to the icon per se (as an idol). Icons, simply put, are not worshipped. Catholics get similar criticisms when some insist that they pray to statues, not to the saint a statue represents. Father Silouan's mother found that explaining these things to her questioning friends to be a hopelessly frustrating experience. "This is the original Christianity," she told me she told them. "Before there was scripture -- before there was a bible -- there was liturgy."

The church was crowded when we arrived. There were Greeks, non-Greeks, non-Christians, workmen who looked as though they'd just left a construction site, elderly couples, people with obvious medical conditions, families, children and curiosity seekers. The two icons, in glass containers, were placed front and center before the iconostasis. The priest, in blue vestments, chanted a prayer that elicited robust responses from the hundreds present. The energy in that small church had an upward drift, even a touch of the charismatic, but just a touch, because the Orthodox never get crazy with these things. You won't find hand waving, head rolling, or snake charming.

By the time we made our way to the icons to get anointed from the streaming myrrh, the entire church had the smell of roses. We watched as the priest would switch from one icon to another, sometimes holding one aloft but at an angled position so that the myrrh would run in a steady stream into the cupped hands of congregants. The streams of myrrh were constant. When it was my turn, my forehead was swabbed with the fragrant oil. Some people were in tears.

For a good 10 minutes or so in the car on the way back to the monastery, nobody said a word. We were all still in the perfumed environment of the church.

The tempo changed when Fr. Silouan announced that, compliments of the Abbot, we would be stopping at a Chinese restaurant for a bite to eat because we had missed dinner at the monastery.

We continued to talk about what we had experienced through dinner, feeling very good that we had witnessed a true... miracle.

Halloween and the Henri David Machine

It's Halloween, and I'm sitting in Henri David's living room in Philadelphia on a small Victorian sofa. On the mantelpiece in front of me are two bronze dragons perched on globe-like foundations. Dragons are never pictured as happy creatures, and these monsters are no exceptions. On the floor a bust of Nefertiti catches my eye, while directly above the mantle is an oil painting of Henri in a Salvador Dalí-like setting.

The house has the air of ruined aristocracy. In fact, you expect Madame Blavatsky and her crystal ball to walk in at any moment and take a seat.

Forty-five years ago Henri David, or Mr. Halloween, was a bearded, long-haired hippie who liked to hang out with female impersonators. The impersonators took him under their wing and brought him to New York City, where they showed him auditorium-sized drag balls. There were no large-scale drag balls like this in Philadelphia. (Of course, Henri would later change that.) Worse, when Halloween came around, there were only private Philadelphia house parties and bars to frequent, but no glamorous Halloween balls.

In 1968, Henri, all dressed up for Halloween and with no place to go except to those isolated, private house parties and bars, decided that it was time to do something big on his own.

He knew right away that he had to start his own Halloween ball tradition, so he went to the Philadelphia Hotel at Broad and Race Streets and initiated the first big city ball. Preparation for the first event was tough. He printed flyers and pasted them himself to poles all over the city, in stark contrast to then-popular counterculture posters calling for an end to the war in Vietnam.

He had no money but still managed to pull it off.

The next year the Halloween ball went to The Drake on Spruce Street, and to Town Hall at Broad and Race after that.

"When it all started," Henri tells me, "the Rittenhouse Square society ladies decided, 'Ah, this is wonderful! This is like a masked ball, like the old days!'" The society ladies (who frequented teas at the Barclay Hotel) liked Henri, and he was soon getting invites to their fancy cocktail parties, where he says he met the likes of Fernanda Wanamaker and Hope Montgomery Scott (who lost the vision in one of her eyes when she tried uncorking a champagne bottle). Hobnobbing with the social register set didn't stop him from posting flyers about the Miss Gay Philadelphia contest, a drag ball that he organized and that no doubt helped him refine his Halloween skills.

"For the Halloween ball, I would always get the most glorious building I could afford with chandeliers and velvet curtains," he says.

Hotel managers, benevolently suspicious, saddled him with questions: "Why do you need a runway? Why don't you want this set up like a wedding?"

"'Think of it as fashion show,'" Henri says he told them. ""I want everyone to be seen. This is a show. There's got to be room for dancing, so I don't want big tables all over the floor.'

"Philly used to be a drag town in those days," he reminds me. "People would come from New York because we had such beauties here. That changed in the 1980s, when gay men started wearing 501s and desert boots and flannel shirts. They all went to that extreme to the point where you wanted to say, 'Ease up a little bit.' In those days it was politically incorrect to do drag."

The new, macho, "construction worker" drag, Henri says, "changed everything."

"I got fewer and fewer impersonators at the party, but the costumes got better and better. It forced guys to say, 'I can come as an emperor now without putting on a dress.'"

Today, of course, the impersonators are back in force, but people come to the ball dressed any way they want. You can find Roman soldiers, zombie cowboys, bishops in towering miters, '50s girls, biker-chic, mermaids, nuns in neon habits, vampire seductresses, hobo werewolves, or people dressed as pizzas or boxes of Franzia and macaroni and cheese.

"The 1970s were the 'take-a-fag-to-lunch' decade," Henri says, smiling, recalling how one time Philly celebrities like Harry Jay Katz and Sam Rappaport would invite him to accompany them all over town.

"Katz would make sure I went to every event that he did. Their attitude was, 'Oh, Henri's a little naughty. He'll do it with style. He won't bare his full bottom. He'll bring well-dressed freaks and elegant freaks who would not grab your husband!'"

When the ball was held at the Warwick Hotel in 1973, the same year that Philadelphia Magazine did a feature on the event, the area around the hotel exploded with taxis, limos, streaming paparazzi, horse-drawn carriages and even hearses that delivered famous guests at the door. Henri recalls how Frank Rizzo, who was mayor then, "very graciously" sent mounted police officers to direct traffic.

"I met with Mayor Rizzo once or twice face-to-face. He was from the old school of Italian mentality where you don't raid gay bars, you don't bother gay events, because you know where they are. If you raid them, gays scatter, and you're going to have to find them again."

"Today at the ball there's a whole generational change," Henri says. "Whether people passed away, moved, or have gotten too conservative, my army is no longer around. The people I grew up and came up with just don't go out. Or they'll come to the party at 9 and leave at 10."

But it's the art students, he says, who are his new fans.

"So many of them think I'm the bomb," he says. "They've figured it out, even if most of them might not be aware of the history of the ball and how it used to be mainly a drag affair." But this cross-pollination of sexual orientations is something that Henri relishes. "I've always wanted that," he says, despite the number of young female fans today who don't recognize him and approach him on the night of the ball and remark, "Oh, that's a fabulous costume. I hope you win something."

Perhaps it takes some maturity to put a "face" on history, but Henri is always there to teach the "newly" hip. He's even "there" for his jewelry customers who come up to him in his shop and say, "Oh, did you know that there's another Henri David who puts on the Halloween ball?"

Then there are the people in the city who get Henri confused with John DeBella, the radio celebrity who throws his own, albeit smaller, Halloween party in Northern Liberties.

"We'll cross paths, and he'll tell me, 'I don't look like you!' and I'll say, 'I don't look like you either!'"

Of course, the ball always attracts major celebrities who are performing at the casinos or at local theaters. They'll come up to Henri, masked, lean over and whisper, "Guess who I am."

Could it be Brad Pitt? Johnny Depp? Richard Gere? Nicole Kidman?

As for the art of costuming, Henri suggests that if you want to come to the ball, don't fret, just go to your closet and take out something you never wear, something old or exotic, and then build on that. "Get yourself out of your normal mode. Our door people are very lenient as to what constitutes a costume."

His worst fear, he says, confiding to me as we leave the rustic Victorian setting, is staying too long at the fair. He does not want to become one of those tired old hacks who keep putting out a product when they should walk away and give it a rest. "If I reach that point, tell me," he says. "Just tell me."

Bishop Kenrick and the Fallen Angel: A Ghost Story

The Local Lens
Published • Wed, Nov 06, 2013
By Thom Nickels

When I was asked by Marita Krivada Poxon author of Irish Philadelphia, to write a ghost story for a Halloween Irish Ghost Story Night at Saint Malachy’s Catholic church at 1429 North 11th Street last month, I was curious to know whose ghost I would be.

When Marita suggested, Bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick, the 3rd Bishop of Philadelphia in 1844, I did the necessary research and wrote the story. Since it was suggested that the five ghost writers and performers come dressed as their characters, I knew I’d wear an old chasuble a friend of mine in Montreal made for me sometime in 2007. The green chasuble with lots of gold in it was not made as a costume but as the real thing, but that’s another story for another time.

The idea around the stories was to explore the lives and attitudes of famous people in the Kensington area during the time of the Nativist anti-Catholic riots. The characters represented on stage were culled from the local history books of historian Ken Milano.

Since Roman bishops wear a lot more than a chasuble-- especially a bishop from the 1800s when liturgical vestments were a lot more elaborate than they are today—I found a large faux gold ring with a cross on top, gaudy enough to be loved by Liberace. If I had had an opportunity to incorporate a miter, it would have been one of those pre-Second Vatican Council sky high miters, not the little pointed hats that pass as miters today. While I skipped the miter part, Re. Monsignor Kevin C. Lawrence, pastor of Saint Malachy’s found an old pole with a small cross on top that probably held a banner at one time but which could reasonably pass as a bishop’s (miniature) processional cross. (For the record, Saint Malachy’s is the parish church of Father John McNamee (Pastor Emeritus) a poet and author of Diary of a City Priest, winner of numerous literary awards and later made into a film for television starring David Morse).

The following is Bishop Kenrick’s tale from the grave.

I, Bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick, was blessed with a fine clerical career. In my home town of Dublin, I was selected, at age 18, to study in Rome. In Rome I spent many summers reading on the Spanish Steps and praying in St. Peter’s. I was ordained in April of 1821. I had prayed for a significant priesthood if that be the Lord’s will, and very soon it seems I was rewarded when my superiors announced that I had a special gift for theology and Greek, the Greek part being as much a mystery to me as it was to my bother, Peter Richard, the Archbishop of St. Louis, Missouri, who would ask, in jest, if I was planning an escape to Mt. Athos, where there was once a Benedictine monastery before the great schism of East and West.

After ordination, I was called to Bardstown, Kentucky, not far from the present day Abbey of Gethsemane of Thomas Merton fame. Country living was never my ideal, my heart being in the city, so I prayed and began work on translating the Gospels and a new version of the Douay Rheims, a project that would take many years. When I had resigned myself that my priesthood would be as placid as Kentucky’s green pastures, I was appointed Coadjutor Bishop of Philadelphia. My heart skipped a beat on that blessed day! A bishop! How often as a boy mother would look at me, pat my head, and murmur, "My son, the bishop!" as if she knew my destiny. I had actually fallen a little bit in love with Kentucky and shed tears as the train pulled out of the station. Through the cracked glass of the railway car, I blessed those who had come to say good-bye then buried my head in my breviary.

Kentucky’s quiet gave way to very terrible events in Philadelphia, although I did have a brief honeymoon of sorts when I had two successes, one involving a struggle with the lay vestry and the other the founding of Saint Charles seminary. These victories got me thinking I was well on my way to receiving the red hat. But, as I was to learn, even the sacred priesthood is no defense against the sins of Narcissism and ego. Life changed in a big way when the cholera hit. After that, I had to struggle to find the peace I’d so taken for granted in Bardstown.

When I was made the 3rd Bishop of Philadelphia in 1844, the world, at least for Philadelphia Catholics, seemed to come to an end. It was a time when hatred swept the city.

But let me say that even now, so many years after my death, I can attest that one of my greatest struggles occurred seconds after I breathed my last as Archbishop of Baltimore, my last position in the Church.

Although on my death bed in 1863 I did not, like the dying Thomas Aquinas, announce that everything I’d written was straw, I did feel a tremendous jolt when my spirit left my body. I’d been ill for some time and knew the hour was fast approaching when my spirit ascended and lingered over the heads of the mourners. Startled to find myself gifted with second sight, I saw that many in the room cried not for me but for their own mortality. Some of them, I am afraid to say, were also thinking about getting something to eat.

I was even able to read the mind of the young Monsignor who’d given me Extreme Unction, his eyes firmly fixed on my bishop’s ring and on his own clerical ambitions.

Of course, no one could see my spirit pass through the windows into the heart of the city where, the Lord be praised, I encountered a great white heavenly vault. I was headed towards it when, without warning, an angel with a crooked smile, one of the fallen ones, blocked my passage. I had read of the toll houses in patristic literature but took such stories with a grain of salt.

Pulled away from the vault by the fallen one, I was swept away in the air to Philadelphia when I felt great tumults of rage enter into me. In the blink of an eye, I was standing before the cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul talking with architect, Napoleon Le Brun, listening as he cursed the necessity of windows having to be built so high so as to avoid attacks from Know Nothings. With an air of resignation, he said the high windows would be a reminder of the hatred for future generations. At his words the anger within me increased, buoyed by the fallen one who seemed to coax and massage it, so that soon I found myself picking up nearby rocks and assaulting the very windows that in life I sought to protect. I did this repeatedly with unbridled passion, a madman, the fallen angel laughing all the while: it was nothing less than hatred spilling out of the margins causing confusion within myself.

Where were these Nativist Know Nothings now, I wanted to know? Were they hidden away in their homes, nursing little Know Nothings who would one day burn other churches to the ground? After St. Augustine’s was torched, I pleaded with the Lord’s people to "Follow peace and have charity" above all else. I closed the churches and even stopped the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice until some future date. I withstood every slight and insult, every obscene and ungodly message posted to my door, every catcall in the street, every stone, brick and pile of horse manure thrown at me from behind a tree or from a rooftop.

During this trial I took the moral high road, but in the grasp of the fallen one, I knew I’d been a fool and that all my prattle about charity with regard to Know Nothings was hogwash. Hadn’t I, earlier on, given the whole of myself to the city when the cholera struck? Hadn’t I helped Protestant and Catholic alike despite my proclamation that the plague was God’s punishment for overindulgence in food and drink? We saved many lives then, walking the streets with brother priests and the Sisters of Charity. All were grateful, many close to tears as they asked for blessings.

From the cathedral the fallen angel took me like Dante over into Kensington to the homes of the Nothings. He said I now have the power to move objects, to have flames jump from the fireplace, to create havoc and cause confusion, to have infants roll over onto cement floors; to create accidents on the road by making horses kick, bite or run into buildings. "Remove the wheels of their carriages," he offered, "watch them detach as the occupants tumble out and die." Or: slip into their kitchens and poison their food, levitate a knife so that it pierces the breasts of the guilty. Oh sweet revenge, I offer you all this—Look, he said, pointing to a number of city officials who stood by and did nothing while churches and homes burned, "Take them, take them now. "

"I offer you all this. Do it!" he screamed until the sound came like a clarion call that pushed me into something sweeter, a kinder and gentler presence that held me until I could feel my rage subside. It was, need I say, the Lord’s angel who then made me see the future, the schools that I had founded flourishing like a great garden, where even the ancestors of Know Nothings came to learn. And there was more. I saw that this ignorance that had given rise to hatred affected both sides and was in many ways like the cholera that had come before it. I came to see that only in loving Him who redeems all, can we at last come to peace. And so with these thoughts and images I at last swiftly arose, away from the fallen one and his confusion, and into the heart and mind of the great heavenly vault, forgiving and loving all.