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Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Most Talented Psychic in Philadelphia

While wrapping up my book, Legendary Philadelphians of Center City (to be published this spring), I decided that I had to include the story of my friend, Arlene Ostapowicz. While there are "name brand" famous people in the book, the idea is also to include unconventional personalities, even notable eccentrics who are famous via "word of mouth." After all, I don't want the book to be the written version of a tacky TMZ celebrity show. There are many fine people in the "word of mouth fame" category. This brings me to Arlene, who is far less eccentric than she is... talented.

Though not an attorney, singer, artist or writer, Arlene has been a guest on many television and radio shows. In fact, she was once offered a guest spot on Bill Maher's show, Politically Incorrect, but had to decline because the live show was on too late at night. For several years she worked at The Courier Post of New Jersey and as a monthly commentator on an Atlantic City cable TV station. In the 1980s, she was in high demand with City Hall politicians and judges.

Her life as a City Hall consultant started when Councilwoman Joan Krajewski (now deceased) stopped at Arlene's place one day for a session. Krajewski had heard about Arlene's talents via "word of mouth," the most powerful advertising tool there is, and decided it was time for a reading. After the session, Krajewski became a fan and wanted to see Arlene on a regular basis. She liked what Arlene told her, not because it was what she wanted to hear, but because it was accurate stuff. Very soon, word of Arlene's talents, thanks to Krajewski, spread among the vast network inside City Hall, especially among the judges, some of whom contacted Arlene and asked for appointments.

The judges were so eager to see Arlene that they sent limos to her humble house in the city's Wissinoming section to pick her up and drive her back to their chambers. For the judges, the process must have been like ordering a delicious take-out lunch. Once delivered to their chambers, Arlene did her thing, after which she was quietly chauffeured home again. After a few months of this, Krajewski came up with an idea. She asked Arlene if she would see former mayor Frank Rizzo, who was then set on running for a new term as mayor. This was in the 1980s, when Rizzo had his famous radio show. Arlene agreed, and met Rizzo and Krajewski in a South Philadelphia house where the consultations began.

A little segue here: I met Rizzo in the 1980s and remember being awed by the size of the man. The guy was a giant, with hands the size of waffle irons and shoulders as wide as a Broad Street intersection. I was there to interview the man for a Center City newspaper, and was seated in a waiting area at the radio station when Rizzo walked in the room. When I first saw him I assumed he was part of the in-house security team because what I saw resembled a WWE wrestler. The face was unmistakable; however, it was Rizzo. After we shook hands, he led me to a sofa where we sat for the interview. Within minutes we were eyeball-to-eyeball, with the ex-mayor slapping my shoulder and calling me by my first name.

"So this is that magic charisma I've always heard about," I said to myself. The interview was a success.

Arlene never told me what Rizzo asked her, or even what she said to him (it's unprofessional to break confidences), but what went down must have impressed him because the next time he saw her, he said, "If I get elected, I'm going to get you an office in City Hall and put you on the payroll."

How's that for instant enthronement? Arlene was worth it, however. When she was on TV during the Goode administration and the city was on the verge of bankruptcy, she was asked by a reporter if the city would sink or swim, and she said swim, meaning that the federal government would come to the city's rescue at the last minute. She provided other details, of course, and when the prediction came true, there were more limos at her door.

Naturally, you'd think that a woman this talented would charge the moon for consultations, or if not that, then she'd certainly move into an exotic penthouse with busts of Egyptian gods and goddesses, get her hair done every few minutes, and start to strut like a diva. She'd also have to have a press agent who screened calls and booked customers, and then she'd have to hit the lecture circuit, all for a very big fee of course. Our culture, up to its ears in gross materialism, overflows with corruption, whether it is how Philly (house) Sheriff Sales are conducted, how local firehouses are funded, or how "important" people put on airs. Had Arlene allowed her head to swell, she might even have started her own religion, a la Sylvia Brown (RIP). But no, here she was, still in her almost cold water flat in the Northeast with its ramshackle porch doing consultations for the high and mighty, but also for so called "little people," who she says are just as valuable to her.

"I never wanted to be famous," she told me. This was true even when she studied metaphysics in England in 1972 and became an organizer of the Atlantean Society, and then came back to the U.S. to start a chapter here. The chapter studied things like auras and everything related to the paranormal, even possession and exorcisms.

A good many people equate people with a natural gift of prophecy (like Arlene), with the dark side. I don't know where this comes from. Instead of something good, they see sinister shades of Aleister Crowley, Anton Lavey, black magic or Satanic stars. Rather than these monsters, Arlene honors a number of Catholic saints, like Saint Therese of Lisieux. Or you may hear her exclaim how she has a special devotion to the Sacred Heart. She also says the rosary -- she believes in angels, and she sometimes makes believers out of skeptics. She will tell you that St. Thomas was the medium for the 12 apostles, and that the gift of prophecy has always been with the world, from Moses on, and didn't suddenly disappear with the death and resurrection of Christ. This is why she is able to attract people who wouldn't otherwise venture into these realms. Like Jeanne Dixon, who was also a devote Catholic.

Arlene sees no spiritual danger in her work. She wants to exercise her gift for the good of people, even if she wants to get paid, but not too much, for a lot of money inevitably attracts corruption.

All types come to her: real estate agents, crusty businessmen who battle out ugly deals, worried moms and dads, nurses and physicians, judges, politicians and even other talented people who see the future. They all come and want to know. Some ask how she can stand to be so humble and charge so little when she could be sitting on Easy Street.

The Philadelphia Police Department has also come to her, usually in the form of a detective knocking on her door, asking for help to solve a murder or a missing person case. She has worked with the police on many crimes, such as the Dolores Della Penna murder in 1972, the Candace Clothier killing in 1968, as well as far more recent cases.

She told me about her experiences in a possessed house in Bridesburg near All Saints parish. The malevolent presence was so bad that when the home owner tried to get the pastor of All Saints to come by to do some prayers, the poor priest couldn't get up the steps. A force kept pushing him back. With her Atlantean Society friends, Arlene says that she then went into the house and to the troubled room in question where her group formed a circle, held hands and began some prayers when something unbelievable happened. She says that she was pushed all the way across the floor, as if gliding on ice, to the very edge of the stairs.

While there's no way to prove to skeptics who laugh or sneer at the paranormal, those of us who've had a "Ostapowizc" moment, know better.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

House of Cards

Things we missed (so far) in January: Russian Christmas
and a friend's visit from California.


The Local Lens
Published • Wed, Jan 08, 2014

By Thom Nickels

I didn’t expect to attend the 114th Mummers Parade, but there I was with friends Tara, Walt and Bob walking up Broad Street to the Union League, the only place where the string bands stop and play during their long strut up Broad from South Philly. Having watched the Mummers in the late 1970s and in the early 1980s, the fact that string bands like Aqua, Woodland, Quaker City, Fralinger and Avalon only play in front of the Union League (and then later in front of the judges and TV cameras), is just a little bit shocking.

In prior days the string bands were quite generous when it came to the number of tunes they belted out. If they saw a highly appreciative crowd, say at Broad and Locust or Broad and Spruce, they would offer a song and a strut. Unfortunately, those crowd-pleasing days are over. Since the Mummers went corporate, money is the operative word; and since time is money and money is everything, little or no attention is paid to the appreciative crowds along the way. Of course, there is always the outdoor Mummers party on 2 Street, where the string bands still let loose, but 2 Street, compared to Center City, might be compared to a small fishbowl. There’s no escaping the fact that what happens today on 2 Street, used to happen on Broad.

In the new world of Mummery, the string bands save their heart and soul for the TV cameras but they will, however, play a tune or two in front of the Union League because, as Tara told me, the Union League gives the Mummers huge annual cash donations to do so.

Money talks!

The result of all this is that the city has a far different parade than it did in the days before corporate sponsorship. New Year’s Day in Philly had a decided New Orleans feel but that party-hardy ambience has been reduced to an event created by Walt Disney.

The new sanitized, "Disney" Mummers is just a little more exciting than watching a 4th of July parade in a small town in Utah. In fact, compared to what the parade was like in the 1970s and early 80s, the parade has become a practice run for performances before TV cameras and for those special shows in the Convention Center. In prior years, the parade usually lasted until midnight. There was an exhilarating feeling on Broad Street then, an actual atmosphere of joyful revelry and personal involvement as people on the street camped out or huddled curbside, staying late into the night or until the last Mummers marched on past. It was that one day of the year when you were allowed to take the party mentality to the limit, stay out late and drink on the street, or sit on a lawn chair by an alleyway while dressed in Mummers glitz. This healthy venue for letting go was great for Philadelphians everywhere. It provided an air of spontaneity and freedom. People would host all day parties along South Broad Street and guests would come and go until the late evening hours knowing that the parade would still be happening when they went back outside.

The new corporate Parade ends at five o’clock like the roll up of a security gate in front of a retail store. By six, the sidewalks are as clean as they were before the first Mummers set foot on Broad Street. While this has an antiseptic, "clean Jean" feel to it, it’s also somewhat spooky. The corporate parade has lost its spontaneous character and patina. The "fun" in today’s Mummers is dispensed like those building passes you get once you pass through security at the lobby desk. The truth is that sometimes real fun involves a little bit of messiness and elements of the unpredictable.

Big money was certainly on Mayor Rendell’s mind when, in 1995, he rerouted the parade to include Market Street so that it could "play to" the proposed Disney entertainment center. But both the rerouting of the Mummers and the Disney complex proved to be complete failures.

Despite the parade’s corporate veneer, our group still managed to have fun. After listening to one string band play outside the Union League (thanks to that hefty cash donation), we headed into the Ritz Carlton bar where the atmosphere was as lively as a 1920s speakeasy. Walton, generous to a fault, bought rounds of red wine as two women sitting next to him proceeded to comment on his British scarf, which resembled something The Who would wear. The women prodded Walton with questions. "That’s an English scarf. We’re Irish. Where are you from? I’m American," the younger of the two said. For some reason, she thought that Walton was a recent immigrant, so he had to tell her that his Dutch family came over on the Mayflower. You can’t get more American than the Mayflower.

Conversations sometimes get skewed at bars, especially on New Year’s Day. Before we left the Ritz and headed to a place called Time, our Irish friend cushioned her good-bye with a warm handshake and some political comments: She told us that she hates Congress, supports Hilary Clinton for president, and is in love with the views of Rick Santorum. That’s quite a stretch.

Leaving the bar Time—where there was a live band and where one guy was happily dancing with himself--we were once again on the streets of Center City, the quiet, dead streets of Center City where there was no evidence of a Parade at all as the sanitation squads, out in force, did their corporate best to erase all the rustic reminders of the Broad Street strut.

Certainly not like the old days when you’d see groups of stragglers limping home or huddled on stoops and street corners while blowing the last silver paper horns of New Year’s Day.


ICON MAGAZINE City Beat, January 2014

We headed to the Suzanne Roberts Theater to catch Nerds, the recently rejuvenated Hal Goldberg musical that created a buzz on the Roberts stage in 2007. Then as now, the epic story of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates took the audience by storm. The final scene, with Jobs in Heaven, was the jolt we needed (besides the give-way Nerds glasses) before heading to the post-play reception where a joyous Sara Garonzik shook a lot of hands. Though many Roberts regulars were not present, there were still crowds around the buffet table (food is the new gold). We chatted with Neal Zoren who let it be known that Nerds may be headed to Broadway. While we didn’t wear the Nerd glasses immediately (like the so many of the millennials present), when we put them on in the subway we swear we heard somebody murmur, “Bill Gates!”

We headed to PAFA to meet the effervescent Tish Ingersoll, and check out another alumni art show. Miniature canvasses lined the walls of the former PAFA bookstore but we preferred the paintings in the room’s small alcove which also doubles as a good conversation space. With Lisa Heyman, Noel Miles and PAFA student Charles Schultz, we said hello to artist Bill Scott although Scott left before he could hear our discussion about whether the miniatures could be merged into a single collage of Jane Golden-proportions. Our least favorite pieces were the Miami Beach glitz style pet portraits with jewelry embedded into the frames. We topped the evening off with a walk to Dirty Franks’ (where we hoped to meet poet Frank Sherlock) in order to catch “Cohabitation,” a photography exhibit exploring the merging of classical and modern styles in Philly. We spotted Thomas Carroll, an expert on Wissahickon German mystic, Johannes Kelipus, and Walton Van Winkle, artist/rancetour and a descendent of Cornelius Van Winkle, the publisher of Washington Irving’s first book. Van Winkle’s image of the Cira Center-- one of the more arresting pieces in the show—made us forget Dirty Frank’s reputation as a community match maker: more people here have met their spouses (and 11th hour pickups) than in almost any other bar in the city, despite Dirty Frank’s brash Wall mart-style lighting. Our booth, for instance, was directly under a high intensity (film noir interrogation) bulb, which made us think of old Glenn Ford films and which put us eye to eye with a Zoe Strauss imitation photo of a haggard and potentially angry woman (Kensington?) who was staring hard at something in the distance.

Sometimes we perform wedding ceremonies for couples who have problems with legalistic churches. Julie and Frank’s wedding at the First Unitarian Church in Center City was one for the books: Stretch limo, Rose pedals from China, candles, not to mention flows of happy tears. The reception and dinner on the 33rd Floor of the PSFS Building afterwards opened our eyes to the faults of the International Style. We’re not talking architecture but about the building’s use as a hotel. Maybe it was the holidays, but there were always crowds around the elevators. Whether one pressed Up or Down, the process took 15 minutes as agitated passengers did their best to look nonplussed although some could not suppress a sneer, a rolling of the eyes or an exasperated laugh. The Kabuki Theatre-sized lobby was no consolation either: it transformed small crowds into elbow-to-elbow congestion. For a design comparison, we headed across the street to the Marriot where the lobby was much more spacious and empty, but where the line to Starbucks snaked interminably out the door and into the lobby. It was packed with young female Irish dancers practicing intricate leg maneuvers that made their curly manes of hair bounce, a scene that inevitably made us think (somewhat tenderly) of city film rep, Sharon Pinkenson.

The Crystal Room (in Macy’s) was better before they carted out the original chandelier and replaced it with a faux imitation. We still loved our time under the lights celebrating The Attic’s 20th Anniversary Gala, Unlocking the Future. You have to love an organization that starts out in 1993 as tiny, weekly support group for lgbt teens and then grows into multi-service giant. The Who’s Who LGBT event kept us recognizing faces—from Mark Segal and Malcolm Lazin to a teacher we had at Great Valley High in Malvern. We chatted and exchanged smiles at the bar with an Asian/Latino/ couple (of indeterminate sex) as they sipped Shirley Temples. We also enjoyed watching Carrie Jacobs, PhD, The Attic’s Executive Director, being the belle of the ball. We wanted to ask Carrie to dance, as well as Philly Pride’s Franny Price, but the bulk of the dance time was taken up with auctioneering. We felt somewhat impoverished as smartly dressed couples threw out huge bid numbers, as if money grew on faux chandeliers. The Attic celebration was a superb compliment to the Philadelphia FIGHT for Life Gala at the Union League, where former Governor Ed Rendell was the official honoree for his long term commitment to AIDS/HIV communities. We met Chip Alfred, FIGHT’s new Director of Communications, Public Relations & Events, and told him how happy and relaxed he looked in his new position.

We admit to having reoccurring dreams of moving into a large and affordable Center City apartment house. This led us to the offices of Carol Sano, Resident Sales Manager of The Franklin Residences, who took us on a guided tour. The DiBruno Brothers market just off the lobby had us sampling different cheeses, and our tour of the 18th and 19th penthouses, had us immersed in skyline fantasies. If we ever sell out house, we’re moving to the Franklin, if only because of the rows of original framed Horace Trumbauer (Benjamin Franklin Hotel) blue prints that lined the corridor to the fitness room.

Over the years, we’ve noticed a tendency, especially among millennials, to travel in packs of ten or more when they head to clubs. We don’t know when this trend started but it is now at full tilt. Stand for a time at the El stop at Front and Girard on a weekend night and you will witness millennial armies walking in unison up Girard Avenue. When we were 21, we never went out on the town with this many people. We had friends, of course, and would arrange to do things with one o two at a time, but never ten or fifteen. The millennials always return to the El in much smaller numbers, which would make some (but not us) ask: What caused the downsizing? While it may be possible to corral fifteen people to leave from point A, keeping them together for the duration of a pub crawl just isn’t possiible. The millennials who do walk back to the El alone usually hail a cab rather than wait for SEPTA. Waiting curbside, alone, for a bus seems to be the last thing they want to do. While the city can be a wonderful place, there’s always talk of danger, some of it warranted and some of it exaggerated. The people who exaggerate the dangers have the edge every time. Their message has saturated the suburbs. We know how suburbanites exaggerate their dislike of the city: how two murders becomes twenty, how every dilapidated neighborhood, even those experiencing high gentrification, harbors a rapist or two, a knife wielding maniac, muggers, or homeless people ready to breathe on you with their stale fish breath. In the Teflon shopping malls of Exton or Radnor, there are no such horrors, although death by boredom is the number one killer there..

While we love a cute baby as much as anyone else, we don’t think that infants in swaddling clothes belong next to corporate buffet tables filled with sushi and gourmet cheeses. For starters, some of the babies we’ve seen at these functions look like they were born yesterday.

While attending (the otherwise wonderful) Voith & Mactavish Architects holiday party celebrating their new offices at 2401 Walnut Street, we noticed a small child being taken out of a stroller and placed on the floor of the reception room while party goers circled the stroller with drinks, plates of crab, blue cheese and slices of roast pig. Not only was the stroller blocking much needed room in that confined space, but the baby’s daddy insisted on giving the child walking lessons in the middle of the floor, making it necessary for guests to take “design” detours around them in order to avoid a collision. Daddy, meanwhile, was all smiles and not the least embarrassed about the public display. He reminded us of a fisherman waiting for a bite only in this case he was fishing for compliments. While a few party goers did stop and say, “Oh, what a cute little baby!” most looked the other way and ignored the show, almost as if they were thinking, “Haven’t you ever heard of a babysitter?”

The world of pet ownership has changed drastically in the last twenty years. We got a sense of this when we watched Sunday Bloody Sunday, an old film by John Schlesinger (starring Murray Head and Glenda Jackson), that we first saw in the Seventies. The London-based love story shows the death of the family dog when the dog is hit by a car while racing across the street. The reaction of the characters at the death stunned us. They frown, look a little distraught, but within seconds they recompose themselves and talk about “getting another one,” as if they were talking about replacement ping pong balls. In today’s more pet emphatic environment, there would be considerable grief at the death, possibly even an extreme reaction comparable to the death of a child.

We did our best to cover The Woodland’s Second Annual Madeira Party, but were told “No press invited.” What would The Woodland’s namesake, William Hamilton have to say about this? We’re pretty sure this is it: “The will of the world is never the will of God.”.
Happy New Year~!