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Wednesday, February 26, 2014
The Local Lens
Published • Wed, Feb 19, 2014
By Thom Nickels
I don’t usually attend City Hall press conferences, but last week I was advised to check out the mayor’s 12:30 announcement in Conversation Hall about a new Mormon Church construction project at 16th and Vine Streets. I had about two hours notice, so I wrapped things up at my desk, dressed appropriately, and headed for City Hall via the 15 bus and the El.
This was just one day prior to the big storm so the mood on the El was bleak. Winter weary faces were everywhere, my own included. On the El I saw the usual sights: the guy selling cookies for a dollar a pack; the ex-veteran Marine who saw combat in Afghanistan who wants to return to Oklahoma; the guy who announces, "I am not a drug addict. I am not an alcoholic. I just need your help—for a simple sandwich." Then there’s the guy who announces that he has AIDS and needs help with rent and food money, and of course the robed Muslim guys selling scents and colognes. Taking the El these days is a bit like going to the circus—you never know who is going to stand up and announce what. Traveling to City Hall is almost as much fun as walking into City Hall, especially now when the usual entrances are blocked by construction.
Before the rehab of Dilworth Plaza, there was always a quick way to enter the building, but now that heavy construction has the West portal blocked, it is necessary to walk in the street (if you’re coming from Suburban Station) to get to the North portal. No construction site is ever pleasant to look at, unless of course you are an engineer and appreciate seeing the guts of a new building. Walking to the North portal was a chance for me to observe the changes in the plaza, so I studied the new addition, a structure that somehow reminded me of a cheese grater made from white plastic like those white patio chairs one buys from Home Depot or Target. The new structure concerned me, not only because of its ugliness, but because it didn’t look very sturdy. My sense was that the structure would age quickly, and that in twenty years it would resemble a ruin. At the very least its patio furniture resemblances put me in mind of summer.
Entering City Hall, for those of you who don’t know, requires a show of ID, as well as your signature in a log book after which you can take the stairs to the second floor (or the elevator if you hate steps). There’s a security detail near Conversation Hall, where the mayor’s office is also located, so you are "checked" again by security guards. Once passed "the gate," you are free to amble about, or look at the grade school art behind the glass cases in the hall. If you walk a little further, as I did, you might run into a press conference other than the one you’re meaning to attend. On a heavy press day, the conferences can occur in clusters.
At any press conference, the broadcast journalist people always set the tone with their heavy cameras, testing of lights and sounds, and the constant changing and moving of cameras to different angles in the room. Since I arrived early for the 12:30 event, I was constantly changing my seat as different broadcast cameramen (they are usually men) kept moving their cameras about, repeatedly blocking my view of the podium. This became an ongoing game of musical chairs, until at last I found a safe seat towards the front, where I didn’t think a cameraman would go. Watching other journalists assemble in the room, it was easy to locate the talking heads with their stamped NBC 10 jackets which of course reminded me of a pile of Ralph Lauren logos at Macys. Compared to the invisible note-pad holding print journalists, who wore no logo jackets or name tags, and who for the most part didn’t have identifiable "faces," the broadcasters seemed like 1st class passengers on the Titanic compared to the print ruffians in 3rd class. (Perhaps this is one reason why most journalism school students today have their sights set on broadcast journalism.)
The big moment comes when the mayor’s entourage enters the room. This is a single file procession of bigwigs, all the usual suspects in dark, somber suits. Like a chorus line of trained dancers, they know how to assemble themselves around the podium so that they form an attractive "fan" around the speaker. They spill out like a bureaucratic form of The Rockettes. In the mix was a Mormon official or two, although most of the Mormon chieftains stood off to the side.
The mayor spoke first. He’s a good public speaker; you have to hand it to him. I like speakers who are able to make eye contact with various people in the audience. Standing directly beside the mayor was City Council President Darrell Clarke in his trademark Clark Kent glasses. At the Q and A, the mayor’s tone was politician sharp. There’s a specific style in delivering one word answers, like a "Yes" or a "No," and then saying no more so that the delivery sounds like the snap of a whip.
I call this press conference speak, and I think most seasoned politicians adopt this way of talking to the press. Clarke is a very tall man, so seeing him standing beside the mayor made me think-- for the first time, actually—about the mayor’s height.
If you are a reporter at a news conference you have to be prepared with your question before the Q and A is announced. The time allowed for a Q and A is short. I like to compare this time to watching people fire guns at a firing range. The same rapid fire dialogue happens at Presidential news conferences.
The big news at this conference was the unveiling of the Mormon Church’s redevelopment of the block of 16th and Vine Streets, including the building of a meeting house and a high rise apartment house. A mammoth project like this caused me to wonder if the LDS Church sees Philadelphia as a potential Salt Lake City of the east. In all the years that I’ve lived in the city, I don’t think a Mormon missionary has ever knocked on my door.
At the press conference, I wanted to ask Mormon Church officials if there was something special about Philadelphia that appealed to them. Could it be the simple fact that so much of Mormon history happened here?
After leaving City Hall, I headed for the El and another ride home with the veteran ex-Marine talking once again about finding his way back to Oklahoma. Like a boomerang that always comes back, the one dollar per cookie package guy was once again making his rounds but missing were the incense-scent canvassers, the guy with one arm, and the old guy asking for a sandwich, be it liverwurst, cheese or chicken salad.
Thursday, February 6, 2014
ICON Magazine February 2014 CITY BEAT Column
“I Love Lucy” Live on Stage at The Merriam brought us face to face with Fred and Ethel Mertz, Ricky Ricardo, and of course, Lucy. Fred (Kevin Remington) was his sour curmudgeon self, Ethel (Joanna Daniels) just as clueless as the television original, Ricky (Bill Mendieta) just as patriarchal and macho. All eyes were on Lucy (Sirena Irwin), however, to see how close she resembled the original. She came very close, especially when she went into cry-baby mode. What affected us most were the redos of 1950s and early ‘60s television commercials preformed live with dancers. ‘See the USA in your Chevrolet’ became a fleshed out dance number with Dinah Beach (not Shore), although we would have preferred Shore, fresh from a rendezvous with (archival hunk) Burt Reynolds. Vitalis and Vaseline Hair Tonic were famous hair lotions for men in those days but the featured commercial was Brylcreem (“A little dab will do ya”). We also anticipated Canoe and Jade East (cologne) commercials but instead got a big blast of Mr. Clean. Enjoyable but heavy on the cheese is how we would sum up the evening.
Our friend, South Philadelphian Frank Brancaccio, author of the book, Ephemeral Nights, called to say that his name was splashed across the pages of the National Enquirer and Midnight Globe. While Frank is no rabid publicity hound, his American Bandstand story is making the rounds. As a misfit teenager, Frank says he found solace hanging out (and dancing) with the Bandstand “in” crowd, which eventually made him an on-air celebrity. With his 1960s Ricky Nelson-style good looks, it’s hard to think of Frank as ever being a misfit, but in those days if you didn’t want to play baseball, people looked at you funny. Frank told me a while ago —way before Perez Hilton picked up the story--that most of the good looking (and masculine) Bandstand male regulars were not straight. Dick Clark had three rules for dancers: No camera hogs; no close dancing, and no dancing with someone of a different color. To filter out the show’s pansies, Clark sent spies to Rittenhouse Square to see if any of the male regulars were conjuring lavender spirits. Frank, who regularly hung out in the Square when he wasn’t dancing with Arlene Dipitro, survived the witch hunt because he says that Clark liked him and probably never suspected that a macho South Philly kid could be cut from the same cloth as…Liberace.
At The Print Center on Latimer Street, we watched as our friend Regina crawled through an oversized dog door in a silo-like paper column into a dark womb like space to see the planet Sirius, a la Fels Planetarium. After Regina was swallowed up, we moved into the Center’s chapel, a darkened space with benches facing an eight-channel installed video featuring multiple close ups of artist Demetrius Oliver’s 2011 kinetic sculpture Orrery. Orrery, a mechanical model of the solar system, was best viewed from one of the aforementioned benches. We sat (in the dark) chatting with Frank Luzi of the Philadelphia Opera Company, while trying to figure out the meaning of it all, since the installation art exhibit had more in motion swirling symbols than a game of Candy Crush. “It’s like a traveling Rosicrucian road show,” we exclaimed, after which we also thought of the puzzles in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. We’re sorry that we missed the opening lecture by Derrick Pitts, Chief Astronomer at The Franklin Institute, on the mystery of Sirius, although we liked the fact that everyone present was an integral part of the show. Regina, fresh from the Silo (and out of her dog position), told us, “I’m not sure what this all means, but I’m sure it means something.” Why does everyone say this? The Print Center is a venerable “best of” Philly institution, that’s why it seemed odd to us that this Pew Charitable Trust funded exhibit was ultra Spartan when it came to reception fare: two small bowls of miniature pretzel nuggets and one person to pour carefully measured amounts of wine for the over one hundred people seemed a paltry nod to the wonders of the cosmos.
In the 1960s our Aunt Dorothy loved the fact that Princess Grace, a Catholic, seemed to be getting more press than the Queen of England, a Protestant, despite the fact that English royalty thought of Monaco royalty as second rate, "thrift store royalty." When traveling with Aunt Dorothy in her cream-colored Chevrolet Impala, she'd drive up to the Kelly home in East Falls, slam on the breaks, and exclaim, "There's where Grace Kelly grew up! Her father was a common brick layer!” Together we'd examine the grounds of the house as if hunting for tell-tale signs: a lock of Grace’s hair or a mash note from Alfred Hitchcock on the lawn. Aunt Dorothy's penchant for the living legend came to a head when the princess herself appeared at a special Mass at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. Aunt Dorothy, standing nearby, extended her gloved hand to the Monaco icon, apparently touching a portion of the princess’ tweed jacket. Her well meaning, "Hello, Princess," was greeted with a Medusa stare. "I gathered from that," Aunt Dorothy reminded us years later, "that it is not permissible to touch royalty -- ever!" Even, of course, royalty of the thrift store kind.
In her book Philadelphia: The Place and the People (1898), Agnew Repplier, wrote that, above all, “…The Quaker City lacks that discriminating enthusiasm for her own children…which enables more zealous towns to rend the skies with shrill paeans of applause.” Repplier goes on to say that, “If mistaking geese for swans produces sad confusion…the mistaking of swans for geese may also be a serious error. The birds either languish or fly away to keener air.” What Repplier had in mind were those Philadelphians who left the city for more welcoming environments. Repplier’s writing career lasted sixty-five years (she died in 1950) attracting the admiration of both Henry James and Edith Wharton, yet in order to experience her reading public’s appreciation she had to travel to Boston. As her biographer, George Stewart Stokes, notes, “…If her head had been understandably turned by Boston, it was swiftly unturned again by Philadelphia. Back home, she was merely Agnes Repplier, a relatively insignificant writer living quietly west of the Schuylkill. Here she found no open-arms reception, and this in spite of her ‘triumph’ at Boston. Here she found only obscurity, the obscurity, she felt, that is Philadelphia itself.”
This reminds us that in The Perennial Philadelphians (1963), Nathaniel Burt lays the blame for the city’s failure to be driven by literature to the effects of colonialism. “Philadelphians were slobbering over Tennyson and Thackeray,” he writes, “while they condescended to Emerson and Hawthorne.” While Repplier may have admired Thackeray, she had no compulsions against sharing a drink of whiskey (in a china toothbrush mug) with Walt Whitman even as most Philadelphians, according to Burt, considered Whitman and Melville “rude barbarians.” Burt concludes: “In later years, colonialism became provincialism, and Philadelphians waited for the accolade from Boston or New York.” We think that’s a little bit changed, but not enough.
We didn’t expect to attend the 114th Mummers Parade, but there we were with friends Tamara, Walt and Matt walking up Broad Street to the Union League, practically the only place where the string bands stop and play during their strut through Center City. In prior days the bands were generous when it came to the number of tunes they belted out. If they saw enthusiastic crowds at Lombard, Locust, Spruce, or Walnut Streets, they’d offer a song and a strut. But those crowd-pleasing days are over, thanks to Mayor Michael Nutter’s 2009 “October” Revolution in which he made the bands cut down on the number of playing sites, reduce 16 foot props to 12 feet, and then stop marching completely at 5 P.M. as if ordering church ladies home ahead of a hail storm. This has made the Nutter-reformed parade about as exciting to watch as a 4th of July parade in Utah. Before 2009, not only did the parade end around midnight but there was an exhilarating feeling on Broad Street, an atmosphere of revelry as people camped out or huddled curbside, staying late into the night or until the last Mummers marched past. It was the one day of the year when you could be a public Party Monster, drink on the street, or sit on a lawn chair by an alleyway dressed in Mummers glitz. This healthy venue for letting go gave the city a spontaneous, New Orleans-feel. A real life Mummer agreed with us when he said-- on condition of anonymity, of course-- that the Mayor really hates the Mummers and that he made this fact clear to the string bands and to the Mummers Association. “He sucked the life out of us making the changes he did. But trust me… we will never give up trying to make the parade as it was before.”
Strolling through Center City on a Sunday afternoon usually reminds us of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” especially when we linger near the Rittenhouse Square area. On a recent Sunday we headed over to Barnes and Noble, the only remaining big chain bookstore in Center City, and were shocked by what we saw: Familiar book nook areas--literature, history, religion, etc.-- had been revamped or downsized. We rode the escalators hoping to spot the new nooks but wound up in the poetry section where we spotted the usual suspects (Plath, Ginsberg, etc.) but no tomes by local poets (who can also be international), such as CA Conrad (who was once a clerk at B&N and who took great pains to give prominent shelving space to local writers). It was the same in the fiction area (sans the work of Jennifer Weiner, who is everywhere like Trident gum). We asked a clerk if there had been an “October Revolution “because the place seemed so different,” and she told us that “corporate” had reorganized and downsized, meaning that entire populations of books now only get into the store if a customer orders them. Corporate began this trend years ago when they made it a rule that only books with publishers willing to shell out ad money can be placed in the front window.
We pulled the plug on January at We Will Rock You, an appreciation of Queen and Freddie Mercury, at the Academy of Music. Packed-to-the-gills with an age diverse crowd (women in opera furs), we thought of the coming spring thaw during the finale, Bohemian Rhapsody.
From The Philadelphia Weekly Press and The Spirit Newspapers
By Thom Nickels
I am trying to think of a good way to write about my friend Carol. Like a lot of friendships, it ran the gamut from thick to thin. I wish that it had been otherwise, but sometimes things happen to keep people apart. The ‘thin’ friendship part, however, can’t compare to the years of positive interaction when Carol was an essential part of my life in the riverwards.
So who is Carol and why is she important?
I met Carol when we were fellow co-workers in a Center City law firm. We were both part of a temp agency crew assigned to work as document clerks at a big downtown firm in the 1980s. The ten of us sat around a large table, as our job was to stamp and collate Conrail documents. It wasn’t the most exciting of jobs, but it paid well and work conditions were excellent, it also allowed us to get to know one another as friends. Our boss attorneys were amazingly lenient in that they didn’t seem to mind that we were having fun while we worked. Too many bosses seem to think that having fun at work is a sin of the highest order, even if there’s no rule that says that work has to be dismal, painful or stressful. This was the 1980s, after all, when the economy was good. The big law firm was also generous about overtime, so we stacked up the hours and went home with fat paychecks. An additional perk were the once-a-month beer and pizza parties the firm provided in addition to the meal and taxi vouchers. We were all half in love with this job. I doubt whether anything like this exists today.
Carol was easily the sassiest female in the group. She had a wry intelligence and a bawdy sense of humor that did more than keep conversation flowing. Her style was the loaded innuendo combined with a wink and half grin “delivered” with a dimpled smile. The other women were pleasant enough but none as interesting with the exception of Barbara, a full employee of the firm, who told the group that in a few months she planned to enter the convent. None of us had ever known a woman who planned on becoming a nun, so we paid close attention to her—how she engaged in small talk or reacted to problems—as if looking for clues as to why she would want to leave the wonderful world of the big, generous firm.
Carol acquired a boyfriend while working at the firm. Mike was another temp, a grad student who planned on entering law school. Mike and Carol hit it off right away. The attraction between them was immediate and intense. They were both verbal types, so conversation between them sometimes came off like a cabaret act. On a Friday afternoons, a giddy Carol would occasionally sit on Mike’s lap, which put a new spin on collating documents. Their unconventional behavior was overlooked by the bosses because our group met all the firm’s deadlines. It seems the bosses knew that the way to make us collate and stamp faster was to keep us happy.
Some nights a few of us would head out to a Center City bar, with Carol as the entertainment ringleader. I think she enjoyed these jaunts because it was a chance to get away from Juan, the alpha male leader of our temp group. Juan often enjoyed getting a rise out of Carol. He was one of those macho types who became bored with too much group harmony. His nature was to create mild dissention and then charm the group back to liking him. I sometimes felt sorry for the women he dated.
When the temp job came to an end, we ate the last slices of the farewell party pizza and cried a few tears, promising to keep in touch, no matter what, but of course that didn’t happen. Barbara entered the convent but left a year later, realizing that being a Carmelite nun wasn’t for her. I’d see Juan from time to time in Center City, and we’d grab a beer, but then he disappeared. I met Mike once in Center City. He told me that he and Lyn broke up shortly after the job ended and that he was now an attorney, and married.
What Carol was doing remained a mystery.
A good thirteen years passed and every so often I’d think about the people in the old temp group. I wondered about Barbara: Did she enter another convent or go back to the big firm? Was Juan wining and dining women in Rio? Was Mike now Mr. Attorney Extraordinaire with pull out ads on the Market Street El? I’d totally given up hearing about Carol but that changed when I moved to the Fishtown area and began writing for a local newspaper there.
One day I got a telephone call. “Do you know who this is?” the female caller asked, her voice vaguely reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich’s. “I know you do.” I did, for sure. Carol had read a newspaper column of mine and traced me to Mercer Street and announced that she was a mere three blocks away, and that we had to get together. “We are riverward neighbors,” she said.
We recalled old times at her place. I mentioned that living in Center City had become prohibitive with the scandalous rent increases. I told her what I did after the law firm, the resume writing and managerial jobs, publishing my first books, my experiences living at 21st and Pine Streets, including my involvement in the Kimberly Ernest jogger case. She filled me in on her life, and for the first time we really got to know one another. She became more than just the document collating party girl who got upset at Juan and loved sitting on Mike’s lap.
She had a handful of celebrity stories, such as her tale of meeting David Bowie after one of his Philly concerts. Bowie had taken a shine to her so they wound up getting a drink together when they bumped into Iggy Pop. Since Iggy Pop happened to be Bowie’s boyfriend at the time, what happened next was right out of a soap opera. Carol was full of stories like this, but her Iggy Pop jealous fireworks misadventure stayed with me for a long time.
Since Carol had purchased her house sometime before I purchased mine, she filled me in on life in our neighborhood. This was the time when remnants of the old paint factory blotted the landscape. It was before they built a large WAWA, Rite Aid and an Applebee’s’ it was the time when the neighborhood had not yet been discovered by people fleeing Center City. We called the area The Triangle (some still do). It was rustic and private—Philly’s best kept secret—with almost no crime, plenty of parking spaces, and peace and quiet.
We’d head out to Johnny Brenda’s on Girard Avenue when it was just a word-of-mouth popular hangout, when the wine there was four dollars a glass vs. eight dollars, and when there was always room at the bar. I began inviting her to press events in Center City, theater openings at the Wilma or the Suzanne Roberts theatre. Some people thought we were a married couple. Take a friend to an event in the city and it’s always the same: people imagine super intimate connections and alliances that aren’t there. We’d joke at these assumptions but play along just the same.
With Carol, life could sometimes be a masquerade.
I had fun introducing Carol to friends and to members of my family, most notably one of my sisters. They hit it off. I’d have summer parties on my patio where we would barbecue and dance to Beatles tunes. Carol would usually arrive at my place with a house gift. She was classy and generous that way, despite the fact that we disagreed about Yoko Ono (it was my view that Ono was dangerous because she introduced Lennon to heroin, and kept him on it). In my house I have the following reminders of her: a beautiful candle holder, a framed picture, a wine rack, and a mosaic tile. At the one and only Mercer Street block party held since I moved here, she sat at our makeshift sidewalk café table, posing with her cigarette and wine glass like she was sitting for her portrait at Rogue on Rittenhouse Square.
Friendships, like marriages, sometimes get rocky. Problems can enter like an unwanted guest, born of something that at first appears slight, perhaps an untoward comment, deed, or misunderstanding. Then the fabric is disrupted, if only for a while. This happened to us, a misunderstanding connected to our trips into Center City for those press events. For a good year and a half we barely said a word to one another. It sometimes got dicey for me because her friendship with my sister and other friends continued.
Carol was no slouch when it came to work. In fact, one of the things that she prized most in her life was her job as a paralegal at a firm in Media. In many ways this job was like an extension of the Center City job where we first met. This job held her together body and soul until she was laid off about two years ago. Ironically, the layoff happened about the same time that we split paths. The experience was devastating for her: the undivided loyalty she had given the firm for so many years didn’t seem to count for anything.
Some people navigate loses like this and go forward, but for Carol it was much like a death. Replacing the lost income with a new job would be difficult, not to mention the “humiliation” she felt collecting unemployment. She was a worker, and she did not want to sit at home doing nothing. After the layoff, she’d tell my sister: “I haven’t left my sofa for three days.”
Although her house cats were a great source of solace and comfort —especially the majestic George—they could not take the place of a career and a healthy income.
Though I’d been getting hints of a thaw in our friendship for some time, evidence of a real thaw occurred a few days before her death when she sent me a Facebook message accepting an invitation to a party I was throwing for my California-bound sister. Not only did she accept the invitation, she wrote: “I’m sorry I lost the connection. I can drive you to the party. Looking forward.”
While I offered my own apology, I told her that I looked forward to the party and that I’d be in touch in a day or so.
I was never able to do that because the next thing I knew I received a report from a friend that police cars, and even a fire truck, were seen parked outside her house for a very long time. A report like this usually means one of two things: a serious crime has been committed or there’s been a suicide. We did not want to think about the latter although the truth of this was revealed at her memorial service.
Sometimes there are no words of consolation, only the word Why?
A month before her death many of her Facebook messages became half sentences, fragments of thoughts, or sometimes just initials that caused some to reply, “Is there something wrong?” At one point she posted that she quit the new job she acquired after she was forced to leave the Media firm. She kept the joke going for nearly a week, as friends wondered, “What happened?” and “I hope you’re okay.” Most did not suspect that the post was not real.
It is hard to believe that the Carol we knew is gone and that the only real Carol now is the Carol in spirit, above and beyond the Carol of Facebook photos and personal memories.
We can only hope and pray that she has found peace.