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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A Man Jumps to His Death in Center City Philadelphia

The Local Lens
Published• Wed, Oct 23, 2013
By Thom Nickels

When I ran into my friend Eric in Center City recently, he said he wanted to talk to me "as a journalist." His tone was somber, and I was concerned.

"I’m a wreck," he said. "Three days ago I was having lunch with a friend of mine in restaurant Nineteen atop the Bellevue on Broad Street. Not far from my table there was a couple, a man and a woman, maybe in their sixties. At some point the woman got up to go the ladies room, and as soon as she left the man left the table, walked over to the restaurant’s huge balcony window, and jumped out onto Broad Street."

"He did what?" I said.

"He jumped out of the window, while the waitress fainted on the floor. Management then ushered everybody out of the place. I haven’t been able to sleep ever since."

There was a distressed look in Eric’s eyes as if the memory of the horrific event were still casting a shadow. "I even spotted the couple on the way up to the restaurant in the elevator. The man was standing in the rear of the car. What I want to know is: why wasn’t there anything about this in the news? There was nothing in the newspapers, and nothing on TV. There’s been no reporting on it at all."

Eric asked if I would please find out what happened.

"I’ll try," I said, while warning him that everybody gets tight lipped when it comes to suicide. "I’ll do what I can."

Although Eric never told me why he wanted to put a name to the jumper, I got the impression that he wanted a name because, as a Catholic priest, he wanted to pray for the guy.

Back home at my desk, I checked all the local news venues and found nothing on the incident. I couldn’t understand this. A man jumps from a Center City restaurant shortly after Noon, on Broad Street nonetheless, and not a single bit of information about it in the media. Years ago I had heard stories about the suppression of suicide stories because of their unpleasant nature. Some news outlets don’t want to upset readers but yet they think nothing of publishing stories about mass murders and serial killers. One can understand why families and loved ones of suicide victims wouldn’t want this fact publicized in obituaries. Very often an obituary will state that so and so "died suddenly," which is often a code word for suicide.

The Center City suicide was a very public event, however. The man in question chose a public venue in the middle of the day in a crowded, popular restaurant, and he chose to jump into Broad Street, which has thousands of people and vehicles moving up and down from north to south at any given time. The choice of Restaurant Nineteen was also a dangerous choice because of the possibility of pedestrians on the sidewalk. What if the man had fallen on top of someone? What if his suicide led to other deaths or permanent injury? No doubt this unfortunate man wanted to create a sensation of some kind.

I called restaurant Nineteen to see if management would confirm that a patron had jumped from one of their windows but I didn’t get very far. "We have no comment, sir," I was told, albeit politely. I explained that I was very sorry about the episode, and made it clear that telling the truth in no way indicts the restaurant as a suicide destination. The response, however, was the same. "We have no comment, sir."

Bellevue management was more forthcoming, as they confirmed that there was a death on the sidewalk in front of the hotel but they would not confirm that the victim had jumped. I was told to call the police. I gave the police the date and time of the incident, based on my friend’s report, and was told that somebody would get back to me by the end of the day. The day came and went, and so did the weekend and most of the following Monday, with no return call. I placed a reminder call to the police, explained that I’d been waiting to hear from them, but was coldly informed that I had to call the Medical Examiner’s Office. Somehow they’d forgotten that they had promised to call me back, and seemed very annoyed at the follow up.

The Medical Examiner’s Office, in turn, told me that their official contact person would have to get back to me, which took another two days.

When I received the information and could give Eric a name, he was thankful, but I was left feeling bad for this guy who had nobody to turn to in his final moments.

Could anything have prevented this?

The situation reminded me of my long conversations with my 95 year old great aunt in the years prior to her death. Aunt Dorothy would often review her life and comment on what it was like to get old. She would talk about what life was like for her when she was in her sixties ("the time when health problems tend to surface"), while adding that the seventies tend to be more balanced. "Once you turn eighty," she said, "watch out." Eighty, Aunt Dorothy liked to say, was when the body began to not let you do the things you wanted to do." As for the secrets of a long life, she repeated this stock phrase many times: "Everything in moderation." And Aunt Dorothy meant it. She smoked one cigarette a day after dinner; she enjoyed sips of sherry and a good rum and Coke, but never more than two drinks. When I would have lunch with her and go for a third glass of sherry, she would look at me disapprovingly.

She was a meat eater, but at the same time she was someone who believed in the goodness of vegetables and salads. As a steadfast walker, she introduced me to the world of walking sticks. She loved hiking on the trails near the Valley Green Inn. She loved grapefruit, cantaloupe, grilled cheese sandwiches and Spam. She went to church every Sunday and made it a point to tell everyone that she never used water on her face but instead dabbed it at night with something called Abolene crème. At eighty, she looked fifty.

Relatives would ask her: "Did you sign a pact with the Devil?"

About life’s ups and downs she was tremendously philosophical, and often liked to call her life The Agony and the Ecstasy, after the book by Irving Stone on the life of Michelangelo. In her blunt German manner, she told me there were many times when she felt like just going to sleep and not waking up.

One of her worst personal tragedies occurred after World War I when her fiancé, who had been in Europe at the Front, returned home and broke off the engagement without a word of explanation. She’d often show me his picture which she had in a special box on her dresser drawers. On the back of the photograph, she’d written: "Bill Stanton, the love of my life." The dashing, smiling uniformed figure didn’t look like the kind of guy who would mysteriously break off an engagement.

Aunt Dorothy described this time of her life as an extreme low point when life did not seem worth living, when in fact the option of going to sleep forever seemed like a good escape. But had Aunt Dorothy climbed to the top of City Hall tower and jumped down into City Hall courtyard, she would have missed the real love of her life, a man she was with for almost 40 years.

One never knows what the fates have in store.

That’s why I never believed her when, in her nineties, she’d tell me that I should just push her into the creek near the Valley Green Inn. "People would think it was an accident," she’d say, winking.

Good try, Auntie!

The whole family knew her philosophy when it came to living. "It’s great life if you don’t weaken!" she’d say many times over. "No matter what your problems in life, they are rarely permanent. Think of yourself as a train going through a tunnel. The tunnel is dark and foreboding, but the tunnel comes to an end. You come out on the other side."

I wish somebody had told that to the man in restaurant Nineteen, who ended his life on that beautiful September afternoon.

City Beat Column, ICON Magazine October 2013

City Beat October 2013

The applications are in for the City of Philadelphia’s next Poet Laureate. The two year term of Sonia Sanchez, the city’s inaugural Poet Laureate, ends in January. The appointment of the next Poet Laureate is being processed by the City’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (with final approval by Mayor Nutter) and the choice will be telling. What kind of poet is the City looking for?
In Philadelphia there’s not only a poet on every street corner but there are the readings as well as larger poetry events like Larry Robin’s annual Poetry Ink. At any of these venues you will be able to see the wide diversity of poets in the city.

There are women poets who sometimes come to readings dressed as Emily Dickinson; the ‘Come to Jesus’ poets; the girlfriend-boyfriend poets who write about their love for one another; female poets (dressed in black) who write about how they evened the score with cruel ex-boyfriends, while spurned boyfriend poets write about their “Medusa ex-girlfriend” who is “still on the loose.”

There are the sexual poets who go right to the ‘G’ spot with words and images meant to shock; poets stuck in an f-word vortex; jazz poets who try to sound like Ella Fitzgerald; first time poets who blush and stutter and who are afraid to make audience eye contact; black activist poets who remind us of the evils of slavery; academic poets who do their best to ape Virgil’s The Aeneid or the lyricism of Horace but who more often than not cause the audience yawn; slam poets who combine their words with body motions—a wiggle or twerk here, a twisted palsy arm spasm there, before they end it all with throw back “operatic” head motions.
Let’s not forget the retro San Francisco style Beat male poets with goatees who scream louder than they should as the cocked fedora on their head falls to the floor. Then there are the poets who takes fifteen minutes to explain the poem they are about to read.

As Poet Laureate, Sanchez was able to work with mainstream audiences through the Mural Arts Project, but will other city poets be so easily homogenized? We’re thinking of the talented CA Conrad and his Deviant-Propulsion word missiles, (“It’s True I Tell Ya My Father is a 50 cent Party Balloon”). Will a style like go over at a City Hall Business luncheon? How much will politics play in the appointment? Would a Democratic Machine Poet Laureate with a penchant for Parking Authority metaphors be a safer bet than, say, a latter-day Paul Goodman? Would a gay/ feminist Laureate be deemed too risky, or a Wasp W.H. Auden/ Robert Lowell type be dismissed as “too white bread?” Certainly a “Mom” poet named Sylvia with a love for Longwood Gardens would make no waves, but what happens if she changes her style, attacks her Daddy, and puts her head in an oven? The City is looking for a poet who can appeal to a great many people: not too classical, angry, obtuse, obscure or slam-theatrical. This is a hard bill to fill, although we think we found it in poet Daisy Fried. Joyce Carol Oates says that Fried’s poetry is “as fluid and quicksilver as life seen close up. Here is an original voice: provocative, poignant, and often very funny.” Whoever is appointed, we hope they never forget that a poet ceases to be vital the minute they become a City Hall bureaucrat.

Jeffrey Little and Stephen R. Saymon’s idea for a 9/11 memorial sculpture in Franklin Park was a design of a small Liberty Bell on a suspension bar placed between replicas of the twin towers. As reported by The Inquirer, Little, who is a building contractor, drew the initial idea on a napkin then showed it to police and firefighter friends who told him they liked the idea. He even got a boost from Mayor Nutter, who suggested that the sculpture be built in Franklin Square.

The Philadelphia Art Commission rejected Little’s proposal and called it “cartoonish with an amateurish design.” “There’s a mismatch between the memorial’s main imagery and its subject matter,” the Commission stated. On the message board next to the story some criticized the fact that the first design was made on a napkin, unmindful of the fact that Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Dali also did scores of napkin designs.

The Art Commission’s rejection reminded us of the Rocky statue debate in the 1980s. At that time the Commission decided that the Rocky statue was not art but something alien produced by the commercial world.

While the city doesn’t need another 9/11 memorial (there’s already a 9/11 memorial piece in the city’s Schuylkill Banks area), Little’s design has a miniaturized doll house charm that blends well with the park’s carousel and with the larger Independence Hall area. It even “speaks” to tourists in a much better way than the skeletal design of the Presidents House, which is really a huge mismatch between the main imagery and the subject matter, since it’s not about George Washington at all but about the slaves Washington owned.
One person’s art is another’s “load of plaster,” or “insult to the senses,” such as Jacques Lipchitz’s Government of the People was to former Mayor Frank Rizzo, who hated the work with a passion. "Maybe I don't know anything about art; it's not my background,” Rizzo is on record as saying. “But I looked at it and tried to be fair. It looks like some plasterer dropped a load of plaster. “

Claes Oldenburg’s Clothespin in Center Square is also an urban mismatch. It relates to nothing in the environment except obscure Tide television commercials from the 1960s. Susan Sontag in 2004 described the Clothespin in less than glowing terms: ““Philadelphia is weird. What other city would put a sculpture of a clothespin in the center of downtown?”
Consider also the iron sculpture in front of the Municipal Services Building. It’s an iron without an ironing board (and spray starch), a virtual toy, the same word used to describe Little’s design.
And speaking of mismatches, what about the Robert Venturi designed Benjamin Franklin House, which in dire circumstances could double as a children’s swing and gymnasium set?

Arcadia University in Glenside has so much too offer these days it’s only a matter of time before it is annexed by U Penn. We attended, No Person May Carry a Fish into a Bar—An exhibition of Crime in Art. This was no serenade in the park but a panel discussion on the bloody link between crime and art featuring three out-of-town speakers. The only Philadelphian involved, albeit by default, was the work of forensic sculptor Frank Bender, whose death in 2011 resulted in a larger than life New York Times obit that described him as “An elfin man whose bald head, fierce gaze and Vandyke made him look like a pocket Mephistopheles.” Mr. Bender’s work (his clay contoured faces of murder victims, created mainly through intuition, helped police solve crimes), formed the bulk of the discussion although panelists also discussed “bad boy” artist Mike Kelley’s installation work, John Wayne Gacy. The accompanying slide show of mutilated corpses in public places had us reexamining a statement in the exhibition handout: “…Looking at the ways that art has participated in crime, and how crime has generated art, gives us a better understanding of both.” While we’re not sure we understand violent crime any more now than we did before the show, we did enjoy our time with the Bender family, Ania Manicka and Sami Nakishbendi of Bendi Jewelers in Manayunk, and Judith and Jonathan Stein of Center City.

The last time Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn tried to put his footprint on Philadelphia was his cash and carry attempt to take the Maxfield Parrish Tiffany mural, Dream Garden, out of the Curtis Center and install it in a Las Vegas casino. This time he wants to build a 150,000 square foot casino and entertainment complex in the city’s Fishtown-Richmond neighborhood, but there appears to be another glitch: the ghosts of civilizations past. Apparently the property is also a treasure trove of archeological goodies, including glassware from the Dyott Glassworks and Native artifacts dating back thousands of years. While WynnResorts Ltd. will almost certainly get the okay from the city to build, it will have to work alongside armies of yellow vested, hard hat dirt sifters who will dig for bracelets, amulets, and glass bottles. But must we dig for every artifact in history? There are thousands of artifacts underneath most buildings in the city, including City Hall’s basement, which rivals the catacombs in ancient Rome. City Hall basement was a favorite stomping ground of ours in the 1970s, years before the arrival of the national security state when one could travel anywhere—even into the dust bin of past administrations-- as long as one was escorted by a city employee. Though our subterranean adventures then didn’t yield any arrowheads or bottles, we did encounter antique mayoral desks, tables and chairs. And while our curiosity did tempt us to sift—would we find poems by Richardson Dilworth or a Frank Rizzo love journal?-- in the end, we kept our hands to ourselves, which is what we wish these professional PennDOT sifters would do instead of spending months sorting through shards of glass. We think we’d all a lot better off if we just accepted the fact that older civilizations will always be resting comfortably under ours, and that old artifacts-- like the stars in the sky-- are everywhere.

We were content to miss this year’s Diner en Blanc, that pop up (and hyped) picnic where diners dress in white and carry their own table, chairs, food and drink to a designated place, eat, and then disassemble everything and head home. After all, Diner en Blanc isn’t so grand if you bring lousy food and if your table has a wobbly leg. The City of Boston tried it for one year but then ditched a follow up, proving that everything that begins in Paris isn’t necessarily awesome, despite what a friend of ours said who saw the spectacle of Diner en Blanc diners under the bright lights of the JFK Bridge at 30th Street: “It’s really something to see so many people in white!” “No it’s not,” we told him, “Go to a Dominican convent. You’ll see lots of white and you won’t have to bring your own food.” Or how about even going to The Oyster House on Sansom Street, where you can get a lobster dinner for two for 25.00, a much better deal than Diner en Blanc with its list of regulations and U-Haul flavor.

We felt similarly while making our way to a friend’s house in the Art Museum area during the Made in America concert, where Beyonce’s music (is she really illiterate?) shook the life out of the Rocky statue. Around town that day we heard refrains like, “Give us the old days with a drunk, falling down Lizi Mannelli, or even Barbra Streisand!” Instead of “Made in America,” we made plans to attend the James Oliver Gallery (JOG) opening exhibition for A Koenitzer Affair (on till October 7) where New Yorkers Gary, and daughters Nicole and Dana Koenitzer would be available to talk about their art. Dana (who’s also an architect) and Nicole, were both dressed to the nines, had us wondering if JOG has the most dressed up openings in the city.

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.

Barbara Chase-Riboud, the multi-disciplinary artist who left Philadelphia in 1961 to become a Parisian, was back in town last month for the opening of her PMA exhibit, The Malcolm X Steles. Riboud’s sculptures dedicated to Malcolm X are cast from wax but combine elements like bronze, knotted and braided silk and wool fiber. Something happens to a person when they spend decades in Paris. They develop a “persona.” At the PMA press preview, Chase-Riboud at first didn’t want to talk –“I am all talked out,” she said, though she graciously made an exception only to find out that many of the questions from the press could have just as easily have been answered via Google. There were no questions about Malcolm X or even about the civil rights movement in the 1960s—no Angela Davis references, who was in Paris when Chase-Riboud first arrived. Someone did ask if Oprah ever bought one of her works, to which the very self assured artist (her long hair somehow invoking Donna Summer) replied, “No, I’m not all that wealthy.” The money reference didn’t stop many in the room from noticing what Chase-Riboud was carrying: a glittering Chanel purse worth something in the neighborhood of three thousand dollars.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Staring at People in the City: the trouble with Jay on Almond Street

While walking home from my local shopping center, I passed a group of people on the steps of a house not far from mine at Almond and Huntingdon Streets near the neighborhood Rite Aid. Something told me to cross to the other side of the street, not because I felt danger but because I didn't want to dodge the tangle of bodies that had a good part of the sidewalk blocked. So I continued past the gender-mixed crowd of people in their mid to late 20s. Then out of the blue, I heard a male voice say:

"Do you have a staring problem?"

I turned around to see who it was who had asked the question. Since I was the only one on the sidewalk, I replied, "Are you talking to me?"

"Yeah, you got a staring problem?"

"No, I don't," I said, "Do you?"

Okay, before we go any further let me state that some of my problems in life are as follows: Money, dental bills, dampness in my basement, late daily mail delivery, city people who own monster dogs, city people who own two, three and four monster dogs, graffiti "artists" vandalizing the new construction along Richmond Street, the price of takeout coffee at Wawa, the upsurge in food prices, late Septa buses on Sunday morning, store clerks (and bartenders) who put change on the counter instead of in your hand and cars and SUVs with tinted windows.

Staring at people is not one of my problems, but even if it was I wouldn't make much headway considering that most people have their faces buried in some toy gadget.

Still, what constitutes a stare is open to interpretation, because one person's stare is often another person's quick glance, unless of course you happen to be paranoid and then everything becomes a threat, even a winning smile.

When I was a kid I had a problem with not looking people in the eye. This really bugged my father. When he would talk to me he found that I always averted my eyes or looked at the floor. "I want you to look straight at me," he would say. "You have to learn to look people in the eyes." Gradually over a period of months, Dad taught me to keep a steady eyeball gaze on the person I was having a conversation with. Years later I would thank him for this, because I really was much too shy as a child. Public speaking terrified me (probably because I had a stutter), and looking someone in the eye while speaking meant that I could see their reaction to my stutter. When I later became a fairly decent public speaker (this former stutterer is giving a TEDx talk at Drexel University on October 5), I learned to look at the audience and focus on a face or two while speaking. This is a classic method to reduce nervousness, besides imagining that everyone in the audience is in their birthday suit. But that's another story.

Anyway, I was fairly amazed when the man on the stoop stood up and approached me as if getting ready to throw a punch. Suddenly reality had become a dark Popeye cartoon with a 6'4" Pluto walking towards me as his friends on the stoop called out in a panic: "Jay, stop, don't. Jay, stop!" What was I to do? There were no cans of spinach handy (maybe I'll ask for a taser for my birthday), so I did the next best thing: I extended my hand and asked for a handshake. Make friends with the beast, right? As I did this I maintained steady eye contact, remembering Dad's lessons of course, but also mindful of the fact that in the world of some animals, especially dogs, direct eye contact is often seen as a threat. Would Pluto lunge like a rabid pitbull or German shepard? I'd have to be ready for anything.

What I found ironic is the fact that he had spotted me walking towards the stoop long before I passed the group. So, he'd been staring at me, but on the DL.

If you're thinking that city life is filled with such zany encounters, you'd be telling the truth.

Months ago, I witnessed a man on Philadelphia's Septa Route 15 lash out at a fellow passenger sitting behind him who happened to rest an arm on the back of his seat. "Remove your arm from my seat!" the man screamed, his anger clearly out of whack and headed towards the land of the insane.

Some people get up in the morning just looking for a person or an event on which to vent their anger. The smallest thing will set them off. Their only "job" is to find it.

But what if I had been staring? Among dogs, as noted, direct eye contact is often perceived as a challenge and in some cases the dog will behave accordingly -- with a snarl or a growl. Looking steadily into a dog's eyes is not recommended. Cats, thank God, have a different processing technique, which is probably why the Egyptians thought of them as mystical beings.

Let's consider actual (real) staring. I did a quick Internet search and came up with the following article titles: "Why Do People Stare at People in Church," "Why Do People Stare at Me When I Am Shopping," "The Asperger's Stare," "People Watching," "Staring Is Often Misinterpreted -- Stare Safely," "A Penny for Your Thoughts," "Why Do People Stare (They See Dead People)," "Why We Stare, Even When We Don't Want to Stare," "Why Do Japanese People Stare at Foreigners," and, "Why Do People Stare When I Hold Hands With My Girlfriend?"

When I asked for that handshake, Pluto paused for a second, looking confused but then reluctantly extended his hand while at the same time making sure he said something tough just to let me know that he was on top.

When I told a neighbor about the incident, she said that Pluto was probably strung out on drugs. "There's a lot of that around here. People on drugs do stuff like that. They imagine things."

While there's nothing like a good imagination -- what you see in surrealist paintings, novels, the stuff of dreams, even some of Walt Disney -- when it comes to dealing with neighbors both near and far, it's best to accent the positive.

To Be A Conscientious Objector (From the New Oxford Review and The Huffington Post)

The Local Lens
Published• Wed, Oct 02, 2013
By Thom Nickels

When I chose to apply for conscientious objector status in 1969 during the height of the Vietnam War, I was a teenager and in a quandary: How was I to prove my objection to conscription on non-religious grounds?

Although I’d been raised a Catholic, at age 17 I began calling myself an agnostic. Years later I would reclaim my Christian identification. But that year the challenge was to prove my objections to war based on philosophical principles.

Before 1971, when the U.S. Supreme Court permitted conscientious objector status for men whose pacifism was not based on specific religious beliefs, the odds were definitely stacked against such a stance.

A non-combatant status for CO’s was approved during World War I, but for pacifists who wanted no part of the military— even as a non-combatant— the only options were imprisonment in places like Fort Lewis, Alcatraz or Fort Leavenworth, or classification as mentally ill. Not until 1940 were COs who refused to be part of the military as non-combatants finally offered alternate service as fire fighters in Washington State or in menial jobs in psychiatric hospitals.

The Vietnam War saw a marked increase of COs, largely because many young Americans were beginning to question the war’s whole "domino theory" rationale. I remember telling my family that I admired the men who fled to Canada or who became COs rather than participate in an immoral war. We argued at the dinner table, at the breakfast table, and finally agreed to disagree without resolving the tension between us.

So you can imagine the tension once I announced my decision to register as a CO. My father’s biggest concern was protecting the family name. At the time he was running for the Board of Supervisors in a very Republican suburb in Chester County; having a son who was a CO was a scandalous liability. My mother, in tears, pleaded with me to think of my father and his work as an architect. Would his business fail because of me?

I was warned that becoming a CO would destroy my future career options. Employers would reject me outright or fire me once they learned my status. Intuitively I knew this wasn’t true. Time, I was certain, would provide a different scenario; surely beliefs about the value of the Vietnam War would change.

When I formally applied for CO status, I was told by a counselor at the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors in Philadelphia that my chances were not good.

"If only you were a Quaker," he said, "or a Mennonite." Nevertheless, this Quaker counselor helped me construct an agnostic case for refusing to participate in war.

Christian objections to war— outside of the traditional pacifist beliefs of the Society of Friends, Mennonites or Church of the Brethren— were not well known in 1969. Certainly most Catholics then were probably unaware that it wasn’t until the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in 310 A.D. that the concept of a just war (to protect the innocent) became a popular concept. Before 300 A.D., however, many early Church fathers expressed their opposition to Christians taking up arms. Hippolytus of Rome, for example (170-235), proclaimed that "soldiers who become Christian are not allowed to kill and must refuse to obey orders to kill."

To be sure, conscription in the early days of Christianity wasn’t a moral issue because Jews (and by default, Jewish converts to Christianity) weren’t permitted to join the imperial Roman army to begin with.

My CO beliefs were influenced not by Church teachings but by secular thinkers like Camus, Thoreau and Bertrand Russell. These writers helped me to formulate the idea that since the advent of nuclear weapons, every war, declared or not, risks destroying the planet.

I also concluded that to agree to become a soldier puts you in the hands of a sergeant or commander who, in the panic and anarchy of the battlefield, might order you to kill many people— women and children— rather than enemy soldiers.

This notion was confirmed for me years later when an ex-Marine in Vietnam showed me photos of Viet Cong he had killed just south of Saigon, and told me stories of random killings in bars and villages of civilians suspected of aiding the enemy. Gruesome tales like these, I found, often came out of the mouths of ex-soldiers and rarely if ever paralleled even the most upsetting war stories in the mainstream media. They confirmed for me what I had suspected all along: that the so-called rules of war are only vague guidelines that have little to do with reality.

In 1969, fleeing to Canada rather than register for the draft or as a CO became a valid option for many young men. In my case, jail seemed preferable to the idea of leaving my native country, especially when the laws then barred my return to the U.S. (That changed when President Jimmy Carter extended amnesty to young men who fled to Canada during the war.)

CO applicants in 1969 were required to write an essay explaining one’s beliefs. If that essay was accepted, the next step was a Q and A appearance before the local draft board. After the hearing a decision would be rendered, at which point the registrant would be obligated to obey the board’s decision. A rejected applicant must enlist in the Army or face a two-year prison term. Because a fair number of COs were then in prison, I was told to be open to that possibility. It would not be easy for a fallen-away Catholic to sway a local draft board.

Years later, of course, the Catholic Church would issue a wide range of supportive about the role of COs. During South Africa’s apartheid regime, for example, many Catholic men refused to be conscripted into South Africa’s Defense Force, resulting in an open declaration by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of South Africa in 1985 that called for the eradication of conscription. Similarly, at about that time Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Slavador declared, "No soldier is obliged to obey an order counter to the law of God."

They say God works in mysterious ways. For me it came in the form of three old mammoth 19th-Century volumes of the complete works of Shakespeare, given me by my grandfather to take to college. Because the CO hearing was on a Monday following the Thanksgiving holiday, I had no choice but to lug the books in with me when I presented myself before the board. I’ve no doubt that the draft board members somehow equated the books with my case.

The men, seated at a table on the raised platform in front of me, were my father’s age— probably World War II vets. I was prepared when they asked me if I would have fought in World War II to prevent Hitler from invading the U.S. I replied that World War II was over and that we live in a different time since the advent of nuclear weapons: Wars now risk obliterating the planet, and the issues involved, as Vietnam demonstrates, are hardly as clear as they were when Nazis threatened the survival of civilization.

Although I felt great relief when the draft board granted my request, afterward my family life became more stressful than ever. My father, in a desperate moment, ordered me to stop reading books, and my mother had the unpleasant task of informing relatives and friends that Tommy was a conscientious objector.

Five months later, I boarded a Greyhound bus to Boston, not knowing where I would live or work. I’d chosen Boston as my alternative service city— it was at least 100 miles from my home, which was the requirement then— because it was near the sea and in some way resembled Philadelphia. I found a room in Harvard Square with grad students. Soon after I was hired as an operating room orderly by the Tufts New England Medical Center.

To a young man with literary ambitions, Harvard Square in 1969 was almost as good a place to live as Paris or Berkeley— one of the capitals of intellectual freedom and American bohemianism.

When my service was up I felt a vast inner numbness. After two and a half years of grueling eight- or nine-hour shifts transporting patients to and from the operating room, assisting (in a minor way) in surgeries or wheeling bodies to the morgue, I didn’t know what I wanted to do.

I headed to Colorado, where I took a job in a hotel and wrote movie reviews for a local magazine. The year in Colorado helped me focus on the future. By this time my younger brother had enlisted in the Navy and was serving in Vietnam.

Day by day, the American public’s support of the war seemed to shrink. A sea change occurred in 1971 when Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, which made clear, as Ellsberg later put it, that "my government was involved in an unjust war that was going to continue and get larger."

Now, at family gatherings, I noticed that those relatives who had disapproved of my decision two years earlier were losing the judgmental look I used to see in their faces. Protests against the war were now mainstream events, as more politicians and world leaders called for withdrawal of U.S. troops.

My mother confided that while I was away she had jumped to my defense at a family cocktail party when an uncle had called me a coward. My father had indeed lost the election for the local Board of Supervisors; but contrary to his fears, his business was flourishing and had landed a contract as resident architect for a major university. Nothing, apparently, had happened to the family name, outside of a few disparaging remarks from random neighbors or drunken uncles.

To their everlasting credit, my father and brother eventually congratulated me for my prescience in knowing that public opinion would change, and that the war in Vietnam served no purpose except to kill thousands of young men. In perhaps his ultimate act of acceptance, one day my father drew me aside and suggested that I launch a movement to change the law so that conscientious objectors could collect veterans’ benefits.

I did follow up on Dad’s suggestion, without success. But looking back on that experience nearly half a century later, I feel that I and thousands of other conscientious objectors did succeed. We demonstrated that misguided wars can be ended, if enough people are willing to say "no" and stick to their convictions.

The Whacky World of Philly Poets

The applications are in for the City of Philadelphia's next poet laureate. The two-year term of Sonia Sanchez, the city's inaugural poet laureate, concludes at the end of 2013. The appointment of the next poet laureate is being processed by the city's Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (with final approval by Mayor Michael Nutter), and the choice will be telling.

Philly is called "Poetdelphia" because there's literally a poet on every street corner. There are city-based poetry magazines and zines like The American Poetry Review, The Painted Bride Quarterly, The Philadelphia Poets Journal and the New Purlieu Review. Every year in April (or National Poetry Month), Larry Robin of Moonstone (once part of the now-defunct Robin's Bookstore) hosts Poetry Link, in which hundreds of poets sign up for an opportunity to read their work on stage for 3 or 4 minutes. Poetry Link is an all-day event. It's a chance for the city's poets to come together and network. As a participant in several Moonstone readings, I can tell you that there's a huge range of poets in this city.

Here's a sample:

There are good lady poets who sometimes come to Moonstone dressed a little bit like Emily Dickinson.

There are "come to Jesus" poets, or earnest missionary types (usually women) who list the things that Jesus has done for them lately.

There are girlfriend-boyfriend poets who write about their love for one another, and female poets (dressed in black) who write about how they got even with cruel ex-boyfriends, while spurned boyfriend poets write about their "Medusa ex-girlfriend" who is "still on the loose."

There are the purely sexual poets who go right to the G-spot with words and images meant to shock; poets stuck in an "F" word vortex; jazz poets who try to sound like Ella Fitzgerald; first-time poets who blush and stutter and are afraid to make eye contact with the audience; black activist poets who remind us of the evils of slavery; academic poets who do their best to ape Virgil's The Aeneid or the lyric poetry of Quintus Horatuis Flaccus (Horace) but, more often than not, just make the audience yawn; slam poets who combine their words with body motions -- a wiggle or twerk here, a twisted palsy arm spasm there -- before they end it all with throwback "operatic" head motions.

There are occasional prose-to-poetry poets like me.

There are retro, San Francisco-style, goatee-sporting beat poets who scream louder than they should as the cocked fedora on their head falls to the floor.

There's the mom-with-grown-children poet from Cherry Hill who likes to talk about her rabbi, or the angry ex-Catholic poet who will "sandblast" lists of priests and nuns. There are poets who take 15 minutes to explain the poem they are about to read, or who take 25 minutes to read a series of poems after promising to be brief. Beware of poets who approach the podium with a portfolio of notes. These poets, you will find, are often champions at self-promotion. They'll spend five minutes filling you in on how to buy their discounted books on Amazon.

Sometimes the display is so embarrassing in its no-holds-barred narcissism that it makes you want to give up poetry altogether.

There are poets who breathe heavily into the microphone. I call these the pause-and-refresh poets, the listen-to-my-breathing poets who should really have been singers or dancers.

There are very good poets at Moonstone, to be sure, which makes Poetry Link worth the effort.

Still, there's the question: Who will replace Sanchez? As the city's first poet laureate, her ability to work with mainstream audiences through the Mural Arts Project was exemplary, but will other city poets be so easily homogenized?

Consider the very talented CAConrad, who continues to stun audiences everywhere with his Deviant Propulsion word missiles (e.g., "It's True I Tell Ya My Father is a 50 cent Party Balloon"). If Conrad becomes the poet laureate (assuming he's applied for the position), will his style go over at a City Hall business luncheon? After all, the poet laureate has to be able to relate to many different types of people, from grassroots bohemians to the Union League bowtie-wearing crowd.

It's too bad that the Fishtown-born poet Jack Veasey is now a Harrisburg native. Veasey would make a good Philadelphia poet laureate. He's the author of 11 books and reads his work in different cities across the nation. In a recent interview Veasey even talked about growing up in Fishtown:

I had plenty to struggle against in Fishtown. The neighborhood's old atmosphere -- when it was industrial, before it became gentrified -- still pervades a lot of my work. My poems are often set in gritty urban locales. I was oppressed as a kid in Fishtown -- I was a target for bullies -- and that gave me an outsider's perspective, and made me identify with the underdog, which I still do. That colors a lot of my choices of subjects, and the viewpoints from which I write, when they aren't my own.

Everybody in Fishtown in the old days had a story to tell if you let them -- and I went through a period where I re-told a lot of those stories in my poetry, particularly in my book "No Time For Miracles," which came out at the end of the eighties.
Poet Lamont Steptoe, an African-American veteran of the Vietnam War, has a "Sanchez kind of magic," but would a Steptoe-Sanchez succession interfere with the city's racial diversity goals? This brings us to the question: How much will politics play in the next appointment? I mean, would a vegetarian, Asian, female poet laureate with a penchant for socialist politics be a safer bet than, say, a latter-day Paul Goodman ("He was a beautiful mechanic / till his wife cut him down to size")?

Would a gay/feminist poet laureate be deemed too risky, or a waspish W.H. Auden or Robert Lowell type dismissed as "too white bread?" How about a safe mom poet with three names who likes to write about Longwood Gardens or Palmer Cemetery? While a poet like this probably wouldn't make waves, what would happen if she changed her style and became controversial in some way? What if she ended up sounding like Sylvia Plath?

What about an angry, revolutionary poet like a Leroy Jones, or a dense wordsmith like Hart Crane or Ezra Pound, whose words would have most Philadelphians scratching their heads?

The City is looking for a poet who can appeal to a great many people, which means not too classical, angry, political, obtuse, obscure, dense, out-there or slam-theatrical. In Poetadelphia, this may be a hard bill to fill, although there are poets who could fill Sanchez's shoes. Besides Jack Veasey, I can think of Daisy Fried. Novelist Joyce Carol Oates once said that Fried's poetry is as "fluid and quicksilver as life seen close up. Here is an original voice: provocative, poignant, and often very funny." Fried is the author of three books of poetry, including My Brother Is Getting Arrested Again.

Whoever becomes the next poet laureate is going to have a big job on their hands. Writing poetry is a dangerous business, and in general a poet ceases to be vital the minute they become a City Hall bureaucrat.