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Sunday, March 30, 2014

My Italian Journey

Before I traveled to Florence, I wasn't aware that it had become one of the most popular European getaways for Americans, especially for couples and groups. Nestled in the cradle of the Tuscan hills, this city of light, good food and tiny medieval streets has a history as extraordinary as its beauty. Florence is the birthplace of the Renaissance, secularism, liberalism, rationalism and the pagan world.
When I visited the city two years ago, I saw many of the same medieval streets that Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the poet Shelley once traveled. The narrow streets, sheltered from the noonday sun by the close proximity of buildings, have sidewalks barely a yard wide. Strolling along these intimate byways can be a hazardous endeavor: At any moment a motor scooter can zip up behind you. Because of this, it's best to keep from daydreaming when you marvel at the 15th century doors, the historic cobblestones beneath your feet, the religious mosaics or icons encased below the second story windows, or that worn plaque above a door describing a famous 16th century occupant.
Where Florence's small streets splinter into myriad pathways, you may come out onto Piazza Della Signoria, the city's main square, and find large numbers of locals and tourists mixing together. There are so many merchants from West Africa, Algiers and Morocco hawking their wares that sometimes you forget you are in Italy. Florence, in fact, has one of the best wholesale markets for leather goods -- designer wallets for $15, leather knapsacks for $60 that would go for $500 in New York or Philadelphia. The street markets also offer tapestries, jeweled wristwatches with humble "Timex" prices. This is a bargain hunter's paradise.
One afternoon, the owner of a leather store practically pulled me into his shop to show me a variety of garments. When I told him I was an American journalist writing about Florence, he assured me I'd get 70 per cent off the retail price of any coat in the house. Unfortunately, this budget-conscious traveler had to shelve these cloth works of art.
"Don't worry, the offer will be good the entire time you're here," he insisted. "Think about it -- we never do this for anybody." Some shop keepers really know how to make a tourist feel special. 

I told the shopkeeper about a good pair of dress shoes I'd left behind in a Milan hotel room, and then about how I'd been traveling with two friends from Philadelphia, first to Paris, but then by myself to Florence because my married couple companions had to hurry back to the States. "My friends ditched me," I joked, "although they couldn't help it. Now I have to learn to be a solitary traveler."
Which isn't easy, let me tell you.
My home base was the Hotel Londra, an almost elegant four-star hotel situated in the heart of the city (and just a few yards from the train station, Santa Maria Novella) that, like most Italian hotels, didn't have an ironing board or iron, so if you wanted your clothes pressed you had to send them out to be dry cleaned. This is true in almost every Italian hotel, except perhaps the Hilton chain.
"But I don't need dry cleaning, sir!" I told the Londra desk clerk, "My clothes are very clean, they just need an iron." "We have no irons here," the clerk said. "Would you like dry cleaning?" At seven dollars per item, that would mean 40 dollars just to get rid of the wrinkles on my all cotton travel wardrobe. I suddenly understood the value of polyester. "No thank you," I said. My plan was to hand press my clothes with warm water and then hang them in the bathroom to dry. I made do with wearing a suitcase wrinkled shirt to the city's main cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, or the "Duomo," built in the 13th century but constructed on the site of a 7th century church, Santa Reparata. The cathedral's massive pink, white and green marble exterior lords over Florence like an occupying army. Considered one of the finest examples of Renaissance architecture, it has a dome designed by Brunelleschi that for some reason made me think of multicolored taffy. On the wide cathedral plaza, groups of Moroccan kids sold a variety of trinkets. On that first afternoon, I bought a toy wooden train from a boy who told me he had just arrived in the city with his family from Algiers.
The famous cathedral is a cavernous space with a surprisingly stark interior, reminiscent of soaring but "empty" Catholic Church architectural styles after Vatican II. "A super Spartan structure," I thought, "Take away the few mosaics and the simple altar, and you have a mosque." The long line of tourists that assembled on a downstairs staircase suggested a basement catacomb crypt filled with skeletal saints or relics, but that was not the case at all. The touristy draw was a small book and souvenir shop, and a bad one at that.
A small city by any standard, Florence's boundaries can be walked in 45 minutes, about the time it takes to walk from Girard Avenue into Bridesburg. That walk would include a stroll along the Arno River (where you'll get a good view of the rowers and the Tuscan hills) but where your only challenge will be navigating the huge throngs of tourists -- camera-laden Japanese, ice cream cone licking Americans and student contingents the size of small villages -- as you cross the Ponte Vecchio bridge into the city's other side. I have never seen so many tourists anywhere on the globe.
A Disneyland-style effect permeates the whole of Florence, and on the Ponte Vecchio, the only thing missing are caricatures of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. The elbow-clashing crowds forced me to beat a hasty retreat into a number of museums where I saw reliquaries, each one more elaborate than the next. In a way I began to understand why my friends, who had been to Florence many times, had no great desire to revisit it.
While walking through the city, I was often almost sideswiped by buses and those bee buzzing motor scooters that seemed to scrape the edges of the sidewalks. Other times, I'd do a fast U-turn when I'd spot yet another tourist group with its flag-toting guide. But escaping madcap buses and tourists is easy when you have museums, cafes and shops that Florence offers in abundance.
The Piazzali degli Uffizi is the city's most complete Italian painting gallery. It has paintings by Giotto, Paolo Uccello, Botticelli and Michelangelo. The museum is much bigger than it looks; one can spend an entire afternoon not only contemplating the works of art, but enjoying the spectacular views from the windows. Much of the Uffizi collection was enriched by members of the Medici family.
I visited a small museums like the Valencia a Firenze (Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Via Cavour), which offers a selection of religious panel paintings from the early Renaissance. Here, I spent a serene hour before rejoining the parade of tourists outside. And then, of course, there were the rows and rows of reliquaries, some of them virtual small golden palaces containing the bones of saints I've never heard of. While there's a lot of Catholic stuff in Florence, there's also a beautiful Orthodox cathedral that's much more decorated on the inside than Santa Maria del Fiore. .
My friends had warned me that many Italian museums open and close sporadically throughout the day. Often I would go to a museum only to find it closed even though I'd been assured by the Landro desk clerk that it would be open. Or the reverse would be true. It was hard for me to understand such a lackadaisical attitude. How can anyone, especially tourist groups, plan tours when the moment they arrive at the museum there's an "Out to Lunch" sign posted on the door?
A serene, almost mystical quiet descends on the city about midday as the light patterns mellow into an incredible orangey hue. This is when you're likely to find locals basking like lizards in the midday sun. It's a transcendental time that makes you happy that you are in Italy, even if traveling alone. As I soaked in the golden light (and wanted to become a lizard myself), I understood the "why" behind all those "Out to Lunch" signs. 

Nightlife in Florence can be a wild affair, ranging from the sedate cafes to boisterous bars and clubs like Irish Pub (where half the occupants are East Indian) The Dublin Bar (only a few Irish) and the Hot Pot. Party-hardy teens and young people jam the tiny streets carrying beer or cocktails from bar to bar (it's legal in Florence to drink in the street), often blocking pedestrian traffic.
Good restaurants are easy to find in this city of good food, bread and charming Chianti. I found many medium-priced places near my hotel and the vicinity of the train station. For a mere 16 euros, one can enjoy authentic Italian cuisine that many Italian American restaurants can only dream to duplicate: sumptuous pasta, breads and delectable red table wines that will make you want to prolong your dinner for hours, even if dining alone, as I did night after night.
Of course, not speaking Italian, I had to keep to myself during my five day visit. While it is theoretically possible to start conversations in restaurants and cafes, that's much harder to do when most of the people there are coupled or part of a group. My usual pastime was to walk the city in the middle of the night, when most of the tourists were in bed. It was then that I got to say a few words to some of the Algerians, who spoke broken English, or go over to the cathedral square where I'd watch the gypsy fortune tellers tell fortunes (under a full moon) to random customers. Florence is also an edgy city when it comes to romance. Couples thought nothing of stretching out over the cathedral steps, or cuddling up under old archways
Scenes like this would be shocking in Philadelphia. I didn't spot many drifter types or homeless people, such as I did when I traveled to Vienna. In Vienna, the homeless congregate by the main train station, where they tend to line up in rows like a chorus line and beg for money all at once. The police do not chase the homeless away; apparently the train station area is known as a "free zone." (My Austrian guide told me that the beautiful Vienna opera house where Beethoven once worked is built over a series of tunnels where the city's heroin addicts hang out).
In Vienna, I once gave a panhandler some change, but after counting the money the panhandler told me it wasn't enough. "Enough for what?" I said to him, shocked at his attitude. "I just arrived here from America." When I told him I didn't have any more change, he followed me for a block or two, forcing me to seek temporary refuse in a hotel lobby until the coast was clear. Years ago when I went to Paris for the first time, I was walking in the Right Bank district when a passerby stopped alongside me and gestured as he picked up a large gold coin on the ground. Holding it up to my face, he insisted that I had dropped it. "I did?" I said to him in total astonishment, inspecting the stunning gold piece. "That's funny. I just arrived from America and haven't exchanged my money yet." His ruse, of course, was to make personal contact so that he could then con me into taking the coin "for free," after which something even stranger and more unexpected would happen. I didn't hang around to find out what.
When I left Florence and took the train to Rome on the last leg of my journey, I ran into several beggars near the Trevi Fountain. After tossing three coins in the fountain (as instructed by that famous Hollywood movie), I wondered at what point the beggars waded into the pool to pocket the coins.
The Trevi Fountain area was filled with many North African and Moroccan kids selling a variety of trinkets. I wasn't buying, however, although the mood at the fountain was giddy and quite contagious. In many ways, it's probably the happiest place on earth. I attributed that to the vortex of foaming splashing water running down the façade of the largest Baroque fountain in Rome.
I ended my Italian journey with a walk around the ancient Coliseum. I circled it three times, running my hands along the ancient stones while thinking of all the emperors who had passed through the grand entranceway to the roar of the crowds.
But you can't walk around the Coliseum three times without becoming slightly disorientated, so after my third time around I lost my bearings completely, and had to take a taxi back to my hotel.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Pearl S. Buck Celebration

Event Details
Wine and Readings at the Rosenbach Museum & Library

Wed, 12 Mar, 2014 5:30 PM - 7:30 PM
Time Zone: America/New_York
Local Time: Wed, 12 Mar, 2014 5:30 PM - 7:30 PM
Discover the Legacy, Life and Literature of Pearl S. Buck at a complimentary Women’s History Month event with wine and readings honoring the one of the most notable authors of all time. Readers include Thom Nickels, author and City Beat Editor of ICON magazine, Docent Sisue Woodland of the Pearl Buck House, and Carol Breslin, Professor of English at G. Mercy College.

Mayor Nutter and PGW

The Local Lens
Published • Wed, Mar 12, 2014
By Thom Nickels

When Michael Nutter first became mayor in 2007, I was lukewarm in my support for him. The progressive maverick seemed to have all the "right" positions on issues; he was articulate, polished, professional, although perhaps too much so. Can a politician be so polished that he/she comes across as slick, as in, I smell a con job in there somewhere? In 2007 I even had a Republican Tea Party friend who volunteered for the Nutter campaign. "Joyce" felt that Nutter would help improve life in the City of Philadelphia.

Dreams (and illusions) die hard. Fast forward seven years and "Joyce" is hardly a Nutter fan at all, but in fact has moved out of the city to the relative quiet of New Jersey. As for me, I could never understand the excitement and support that Nutter received from political progressives. Liberals everywhere seemed to put him on a pedestal. For me it was always a case of when the "real" Michael Nutter would surface.

For me, that happened when the mayor announced his proposal to sell the Philadelphia Gas Works to a private corporation in Connecticut, the UIL Holding Corporation, for 1.86 billion dollars.

What a bombshell. The New Deal style political grassroots Democrat had become an urban version of Governor Tom Corbett. Welcome to a Philly nightmare.

I say this because I wonder if most Philadelphians know just how bad an idea like this is. The media, namely broadcast news, has had an almost indifferent reaction to the impending sale, choosing instead to headline stories of North Philadelphia crime, or home invasions in the Northeast as ‘breaking news," while giving minor play to the PGW story. But the fact is, if the mayor’s proposal materializes, the city will be giving up—forever--its 178-year ownership of PGW. Why is this important? It’s important because PGW continues to be a not for profit public utility company, not for profit meaning that PGW’s profit margin has more to do with covering operating expenses rather than the accumulation of major wealth.

The mayor says the city needs to sell off PGW (for 1.86 billion dollars) in order to rescue "the city’s ailing pension fund." He adds that the sale of PGW would inject 424 million into the city’s pension fund, a fund that affects only a miniscule percentage of Philadelphians, while the vast majority of Philadelphians have no connection to the fund because they do not work for the city. This tells us that PGW is good for Philly because, as a non profit public utility, it benefits the entire city with gas rates that, although still high, would be three times as high if a private corporation like HIL (which exists only to maximize shareholder value) gains control of PGW.

Look at it this way. Pension funds all over the country are dying out or being drastically reduced. In some cases, such as in Detroit, city pension funds have been radically cut. Philadelphia’s pension fund is, by comparison to other cities, extremely generous. There have been no cuts, although according to the mayor there is an 8 billion dollar pension fund deficit.

But why should any public employee, whose salary is 100% taxpayer funded, ever collect $400,000 on day one of their retirement plan (the DROP program) and then turn around and collect over $100K or even $50K per year in pension?

The mayor’s pro-sale PGW friends insist that $50K per year in pension payments isn’t really all that high. Well, let’s compare that to maximum Social Security benefits at $2,600 per month (and it is almost impossible to qualify for this). When you spread that $50K city pension per year over 12 months it comes to $4,166 per month. Even the so called "cheap" city pension is about $1,600 per month higher than the maximum social security possible. City pensions kick in after 25 years on the job (you start working at age 25 and collect at 50), whereas maximum Social Security requires 47 years in the system so that you can collect it at age 67. What this all means is simple: The current pension system is in fact, outrageous.

For starters, an annual pension of $50K is huge. Most people in fact do not make that amount annually when they are working, let alone in retirement. And the vast majority of people, who are not city workers, do not even have a pension. The Philly system is bloated, mismanaged, and broken.

Politicians, city workers—sans police and firefighters—and the mayor are the only ones who would benefit from the sale of PGW to UIL. How could this group not be happy that they are the only ones who stand to benefit from the sale of PGW? If the sale of PGW happens, they will keep their high pensions, while the rest of the city—the overwhelming majority of Philadelphians —will be subject to the whims of HIL.

The mayor and his "for sale" cronies want to appease the public with promises that UIL will not raise gas rates for customers for 3 years after the sale, and that UIL will keep discount programs for low income seniors and others. An additional promise was made that old PGW employee retiree pensions will be respected.

But three years is a very short time, and when that flash in the pan is up, if you think that UIL, a "for profit" company will behave in the low rate increase and caring customer manner that PGW has been adhering to for 178 years, then you are just naïve. As a smart public relations gimmick, UIH’s first rate increase after 3 years will of course be very small, because they will not want to arouse customer antipathy, but very soon after that, the scenario will change. Next will see moderate increases, and then UIH will do what all private corporations do: accelerate the motion and go in for the big money.

Within ten years or less, gas rates under UIL will be through the roof. In the meantime, the temporary fix that Nutter made back in 2014 to fund the "ailing pension plan" will be history, and not only that, but the "for sale" money, 1.86 billion will be all used up. The brash of new city pension funds, if pension funds are even still around then, will go hurting because of continued city mismanagement. But the lasting legacy of all this will be the fact that PGW will be gone forever. There will only be HIL, a for profit corporation.

Philly is a poor city, one of the poorest in the nation. With very cold winters in our future (friends of mine pay as much as $200 a month for gas heat), future gas rates under UIH may very well spell disaster for most city residents. Will a private corporation be as benevolent or as generous as PGW when people are late or don’t pay their bills? Can a "for profit" company ever be as "benevolent" as a not for profit company?

Can you name one large private corporation that has ever put people before profits?

While it is true that City Council has been at odds with the mayor over many issues, this issue—the sale of PGW—is different because City Council members stand to benefit from this attempt to rescue the ailing fund.

Will City Council members vote for their own self interest and support the mayor, or will they think about the vast majority of Philadelphians who are not city workers, and who generally have no pension plan whatsoever?

Most importantly, why should the entire city suffer just because the mayor wants to rescue the "ailing pension fund" for a special few?

Thursday, March 6, 2014

March 2014 City Beat ICON MAGAZINE——————————————————— by Thom Nickels

Every Philadelphia theater company has its cultish following. The Wilma crowd looks different from the opening night audience at Suzanne Roberts, while Walnut Street Theater people are worlds away from Theatre Exile. We visited Plays and Players recently to see Theatre Exile’s performance of Sam Shepard’s “True West,” a black comedy about what happens when two deranged writer brothers compete to win the attention of a fast talking producer. We had hopes for this play before things went Animal House. One brother attacked the stage set with a golf club before turning it on a typewriter. The scene made us think of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar-smashing. Applause at the end was tepid, though one person stood up and cheered as if intent on igniting a standing ovation. The shoe-box structure of P&P makes the flow of large crowds there painful at best. At the reception (three flights up narrow stairs) patrons helped themselves to fabulous food, though not many were able to get a drink at the dollhouse bar. Unlike opening nights elsewhere, P&P has a one-drink ticket policy. We spent twenty minutes trying to get the bartender’s attention, but even flashing money like those rammy
dudes at Delilah’s Den didn’t work. We looked (in vain) for a golf club to use as an attention-getter then decided to call it quits. On the way out, we noticed the dedicated staff working hard to clean up the Shepard’s pie on stage.

When the Center City District announced plans for a redesign of Dilworth Plaza, we wondered what would become of Emlen Etting’s public sculpture, Phoenix Rising, a memorial to former mayor Richardson Dilworth. Etting (1905-1993), a Philadelphia blueblood bisexual married to the former Gloria Braggiotti, lived on Panama Street, and knew everybody from Hemingway to Henry McIlhenny. It’s not often that the home of a Philadelphia gentleman artist gets raided, but that’s what happened in 1958 when Emlen hosted a party for the cast of The World of Suzy Wong, and a neighbor called police to complain about noise. Etting contacted then-Mayor Dilworth about the “Gestapo tactics of Center City police,” implicating Capt. Frank L. Rizzo, who wrote the original police report. Not only did Rizzo insist that the police had been polite, but after his election as mayor he turned a deaf ear when the artist needed City Hall’s help around the time of Phoenix Rising’s installation. We visited the Rizzo statue recently and saw that it was holding up well… aside from pigeon droppings on the shoes. We found that the most intricate part of the sculpture is the shoelaces. They are so authentic looking it’s easy to imagine a passing toddler trying to unlace them. When tourists are not photographing the sculpture, they’re positioning themselves (for selfies) with their arms draped around Frank’s thighs. The statue must be the least vandalized sculpture in the city, even if its frozen wave is anything but benevolent, at least for Etting. We see the Rizzo wave as a get lost gesture to Phoenix Rising, moved last year to an area near Society Hill Towers. Etting would not have wanted that since the piece was designed for the Plaza, not condos in the sky.

We headed over to painter Elizabeth Osborne’s house for a party and met former Inquirer cartoonist, Tony Auth. The winter soiree massaged our spirits and brought news that the Grand Dame of Philly painters is also the daughter of architect Paul Cret. While munching on tasty edibles, we followed Liz’s suggestion to rotate seats so we could chat with everybody present. Auth, who appeared months ago at a public lecture with Charles Croce at the Philadelphia History Museum, mentioned where his papers would go when he’s no longer around. “We’re getting to the age now where you have to think of these things,” Liz added. It’s not possible to talk to Auth without bringing up the old Inquirer, so the comments drifted to that hybrid Inquirer-Daily News creation,, which has evolved into a salacious, tabloid-like broadside where breaking news amounts to the misadventures of a so-called Swiss cheese ‘pervert,’ or random teachers caught having sex with students. How does the spawn of a Pulitzer Prize-winning empire wind up in the sewers? Auth suggested it might be because Inky-DN head honchos have staffed with twenty-something “editors” who think the tabloid style is way cool. We were relieved to hear this, since we didn’t think it was the handiwork of Daily News Editor Michael Days, who seemed fairly respectable when we met at the Franklin Inn some time ago.


Poet Frank Sherlock has been selected to succeed Sonia Sanchez as the city’s 2014 Poet Laureate. We wish Sherlock well in putting together a public face even though we’re surprised to hear so many say that they’ve never read his poetry. Poets are the opposite of politicians: The raw, unfiltered juice from the Muse caused Ginsberg to take to the harmonica, W.H. Auden to begin wearing bedroom slippers, and Hart Crane to jump
into the sea from the stern of the Olympia. We’re sure Sherlock is more the Wallace Stevens type, stable and constant, though we’re pretty sure he knew he was the winner when we saw him at Dirty Frank’s the night before the announcement. He had a different look on his face then. Was it a shadow cast from the weight of City Hall?


Is the Nutter administration determined to leave its design mark on the city? Like the re-make of Dilworth Plaza—where a plastic cheese grater structure that makes us think of patio furniture is slowly rising—JFK Plaza (LOVE Park) is headed for a redo.
The 15-million rehab job (city tax dollars) will rid the plaza of the (slippery when wet) terraced surfaces, add more greenery, and add one or more food concession stands. Something’s wrong when the city has to sell assets in order to pay current expenses. The impetus behind the rehab is the poor condition of the parking garage underneath the plaza, so to “do” the bottom you have to “do” the top—despite the fact that the Plaza has just been rehabbed. We say bring back the skateboarders. Skateboarders provide entertainment and keep the homeless to a minimum. Both
Mayor Nutter and City Council President Darrell L, Clarke want food courts on the Plaza, but just as every blank wall doesn’t need a mural, so LOVE Park doesn’t need a café or a food concession stand. LOVE Park can do without an overpriced Stephen Starr commissary, or a mini-Rouge with a lineup of fancy dogs (in sunglasses) eating alongside their owners.


We like the Barnes Museum as much as the next person, so when we heard that there’s a rule there against visitors doing sketches (in notebooks) of the paintings on the wall, we wondered why. Sketching makes no noise and it is an intensely private endeavor, and yet to be caught sketching in the Barnes is tantamount to lighting up in front of a Degas. No such taboo exists at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. We know that Barnes was a fussy curmudgeon, and that many of his in-house Merion rules were of the “stick-in-the-mud” illogical kind. While it’s true that a case can be made for our friend Katharine being asked to leave after photographing a painting there, even at PMA they
would first ask you to put the camera away before kicking you out. We somehow imagined that the Barnes would be so grateful for having sidestepped Albert’s will that they would err on the side of generosity when it comes to the little stuff.

At any City Hall press conference, broadcast journalism always sets the tone with its cameras, testing of lights, and the constant moving of cameras to different angles in the room. We were constantly switching seats at the last press event as different broadcast cameramen (they are usually men) kept moving their cameras, blocking all views of the podium. This game of musical chairs continued until we found a safe haven toward the front. Observing other journalists in the room, it was easy to locate the talking heads with their stamped NBC 10 jackets. Compared to the invisible notepad-holding print journalists, who wore no jackets or name tags and who for the most part had no identifiable “faces,” the broadcasters seemed like first class Titanic passengers as compared to we print ruffians in third class.
The big moment in any press conference comes when the mayor’s entourage enters the room. Then it is a single file procession of bigwigs, faces you’d recognize in
the news, the usual suspects in dark suits. Like a chorus line, they know how to assemble around the podium near the speaker. Since this announcement was about the new Mormon construction at 16th and Vine Streets, the city officials were up front with most of the Mormon delegation standing off to the side.
The mayor spoke first. He’s a good public speaker. We like speakers who make eye contact with the audience. Standing directly beside the mayor was City Council President Darrell L. Clarke, in his trademark Clark Kent glasses. Clarke’s speaking style isn’t as forceful as the Mayor Nutter’s. In fact, it has an “aw shucks” shy, self-effacing quality to it, as if he was insecure about speaking in public. At the Q and A, the mayor’s tone was politician sharp. There’s a knack to delivering one word answers, like “Yes” or “No,” and doing this in a way that makes the delivery sound like the crack of a whip. We call it press conference-speak, something that most seasoned politicians have learned to master. (Clarke is also a very tall man, so seeing him standing beside the mayor made us think—for the first time—about the mayor’s height.)
The end of a press conference is always anti-climactic. The political suits disappear first; journalists scatter to the four winds, and the cameramen are usually the last to leave.

March 1, 2014
Emlen Etting with self-portrait.
Tony Auth.
Frank Sherlock.
Featuring Jeb Kreager & Brian Osborne with Joe Canuso & E. Ashley Izard. Directed by Matt Pfeiffer
Plans for Dilworth Plaza.
Barnes Museum.
Mormon Temple.
March 2014

How to Work at Home as a Writer

Years ago, when I worked in the check processing department of a now defunct Philadelphia bank, I dreamt of one day becoming my own boss while working at home. The bank was an unusually strict sort of workplace. In my case I worked in a small room with my back to a low-level supervisor, an elderly woman, Miss Stiff, who wore a white Mennonite bonnet.

Another employee sat a side desk, although he was rarely present. Usually it was just me and Miss Stiff, which meant no talking ever, and no unnecessary breaks or staying out too long for lunch. There was certainly no small talk, which made the boring work of processing checks an ordeal. While the military style discipline was hard, I was sensitive enough to be able to feel Miss Stiff’s eyes bore into my back at various times during the day. This told me that Miss Stiff was fighting off an urge to start a conversation. We did chat on very rare occasions, usually on a Friday afternoon or right before a major holiday, although she tended to put a "timer’ on all idle chit chat. In just five minutes, she’d go silent and I’d be left facing the four walls. I have no doubt that her philosophy of life was, "To work, is to suffer."

By the end of my day at the bank, I was in no shape to go home and work on my freelance writing. For one thing, I usually had a crink in the back of my neck, very near the spot where Miss Stiff’s eyes had inadvertently drifted during the course of the day. In order to do any writing at all I had to get up well before I would normally have gotten up in order to catch the train into Center City. This meant rising at 5 a.m., and working for two hours before heading into town. The downside of a routine like this is that once I arrived at the bank, I felt like I had already accomplished my real work. Thank God that Miss Stiff, who was a very religious woman, had the good sense never to ask me what it was that I was writing, because it’s certain that she would have disapproved of it.

At another job, the monastic pattern of waking up at 5 a.m. was alleviated when I worked as a cashier at an all-night movie theater on Market Street. This was a casual summer job. One of the reasons I applied for the job was because it enabled me to write during the day and then go to the movie house at 9 p.m., where I’d sit in a large lighted glass booth that was situated almost in the middle of the sidewalk. Sitting there on public display, I’d dispense tickets to businessmen, sailors and other urban night crawlers, especially drunks from nearby bars and clubs. The theater showed very soft-core "respectable" blue movies, not outright pornography, so the cliental was of a better grade than the folks who frequented the scandalous Studio theatre, a few doors away. My neon ringside seat right in the middle of Market Street gave me a bird’s eye view of the city’s nightlife: drunken, falling down sailors, bag people (or the homeless), such as the Elephant woman, who once told me never to kill spiders because seeing a spider meant you would come into money. I’d also spot post-midnight newspaper delivery men, suspicious criminal types, strolling prostitutes, and streams of fresh arrivals from the Greyhound bus station across the street. While I didn’t like working in a glass booth and being on display like that, at least I was able to bring a book and read when I wasn’t cashing in customers.

I read a lot of books that summer, besides which I had the best reality show in the city. All I had to do was look up from the page and there’d be another city marvel: a parade of guys in platform shoes dressed as David Bowie, or I’d catch a glimpse of police chasing a suspect. When I thought I had seen it all, I looked up one day from my book and saw, on the other side of the glass, my family doctor from childhood, the same kind doctor who made house calls and who treated me for double pneumonia when I was in the fifth grade. Of course, discretion is everything when you work as a cashier at a soft porn palace. I did not meet the good doctor’s eyes, but handled the transaction anonymously. My boss at the theater was a thin, quiet, patient older man who had the manners of an old monk. He went about the business of counting cash and receipts at the end of the night in a solemn manner. His facial expression always bore the look of sad resignation. Occasionally he would ask what I was reading, or tell me about a small incident that happened inside the theater, such as a fight or how long the Elephant woman had been camping out near the restrooms. There were no security guards on the premises then because they were not needed.

Of course, working all night—the theater closed at 4 a.m.—and then waiting for the subway to open at 5 a.m. (this was before the shuttle) was often difficult. For me this lost hour usually meant finding a place to have breakfast, after which I’d head home. That summer I slept much less than usual, and was often still too tired to write in the late afternoon when I got up.

No matter what job I found then I learned to put in sufficient writing time, but the best job of all was a lucrative part time early evening job that allowed me to work at home the better part of the day.

At first the freedom was terrifying. With machine like precision, I began to segment the hours—two hours for this publication, an hour for another publication; then an hour or more for a new book project. The idea was to move gracefully among projects while allowing time for lunch, an occasional break and maybe a telephone chat or two.

To work effectively at home, I found that I had to pretend that I had a no nonsense boss with a leather whip hiding in my closet. I’d sometimes imagine Miss Stiff sitting behind me, her eyes boring into the back of my desk. Her "rules" are the rules from the old bank: get up at the same time every morning; begin the day with exercise, a shower and a brisk walk around the block to get coffee. Morning air is a stimulant, and a small walk to the neighborhood convenience store is like a morning commute to work.

Before beginning the work day at home, you may warm up at the computer by reading and answering email, or reading a daily online newspaper or two. Yet even here, dangers lurk. Reading can be a dragging vortex and before you know it, you’ve spent far too long idling with the UK Guardian, The Times or The Washington Post.

Living with roommates, children, or a spouse can be a liability, especially if they are home while you work. Interruptions are the rule. Sometimes even the best housemates want to talk, share ideas or have conversations that last too long. Even a beloved pet can be a distraction. The French writer Colette wrote with cats milling about her desk and in her lap, but not everybody is so versatile.

The telephone can also be a distraction, since some people believe that working from home is not as "real" as working from an office.

"That’s not true at all," I sometimes have to tell these friends, "Miss Stiff is here, and she says I have to hang up—and get back to work."