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Thursday, June 26, 2014

City Beat June 2014

June ICON Magazine City Beat 2014

 At the 113th PAFA Annual Student Exhibition we noticed an emphasis on “art for art’s sake.” One student had constructed a large open plot of plastic kitchen utensils, a sort of faux Midtown diner for Barbie dolls. The bizarre walk-through display reminded us that one cannot go beyond a certain degree of logic in art. We noticed a preponderance of paintings, namely facial portraits, duplicating the kind of theatrical staging common in photography. “They don’t seem to be well painted enough to be convincing,” our artist friend, Noel G. Miles, suggested. “The larger fact doesn’t change: Expression still counts. What you are trying to convey still counts.” The best student pieces focused on conceptuality, or a tight unity of theme, rather than Gehry like incongruousness.  We saw excellent black and white “draftsman” renditions (reminding us of the work of Georges Rouault), and were fascinated by student Lauren Pellerito’s sculpture of two tree roots in a light “embrace.” We spoke with students Matthew Carrieri, Santiago Galeas and former student, Chuck Schultz (who dedicated a painting in our name). The annual student exhibition attracts a diverse, mostly upscale crowd (think The Philadelphia Story and Devon Horse Show). We heard from Hieke Rass that Chase Utley (Phillies) and his wife were in the building browsing for art for their new home. When we spotted Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest (they get around) shaking hands with people as they waited to board an elevator, we couldn’t help but think how tiring it must be to be Gerry with so many people offering to shake your hand. Does Gerry even remember their names in the morning?

From PAFA we headed to Tops bar on 15th Street where the student exhibitors went to hang out after the show. In this smoking den of artistic indignity, we spotted wannabe Guillaume Apollinaire’s, aspiring Georgia O’Keeffe’s, a few posers, and even an artist named Kyle, who happened to be a dead ringer for Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. Seeing so many drunken artists made us want to bump into a jock or a vacuous cheerleader type. The paneled bar somehow called to mind the legendary Tin Angel on South 2nd Street, where we wound up a week or two later (thanks to an invite by Randy Alexander of Randex Communications) to hear a live concert by Kenny Davin Fine, a super buff physician who sings best when he taps into his Kabbalah Jewish roots (and forgets Dylan). Fine talked at length about the delights of a gluten free diet and ended the evening with a song.

 In 2010 we attended groundbreaking ceremonies for architect Frank Gehry’s underground addition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gehry talked about a new museum loading dock, gallery and storage area. The audience was charmed by the always informal, quip-happy 1989 Pritzker Prize winner who seemed to be at the peak of his architectural celebrity. Yet the launching of the 81 million dollar underground utility space project had an anti climatic feel: the buried addition would never be a “seen” addition to the city’s skyline. Since 2010, appreciation for Gehry’s work has taken a nosedive. “When did Frank Gehry become a joke?” many now ask, referring to the architect’s cold, skeletal structures, especially his proposed design for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, which has been compared to everything from a Nazi concentration camp to an unfinished overpass. As a friend remarked, “The best feature of the Gehry project at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is that it is virtually all underground, which means that no one outside of the building really has to see it. If only every city that is afflicted with the latest Gehry monstrosity could be so lucky as to not have to look at the results. “

In another bizarre PMA-related story, we received a series of emails from a local writer who told us to be on the lookout for two major (coming) law suits charging art critic Edward J. Sozanski (deceased) and former PMA CEO Anne D’Harnoncourt (deceased) with conspiracy. Conspiracy to do what, we asked? How does one sue dead people, unless of course the suit involves the institutions they were once associated with?  “This is no joke,” the reporter assured us, “you will read the story when it breaks.”  

We braved a crowded Route 38 bus to attend the 7th Annual Centennial Celebration in Fairmount Park’s Horticulture Center to support park conservancy. The long and winding road to the Center is far from the bus stop, so we hiked on foot to the crowded Stephen Starr-catered event. We love Fairmount Park, especially Valley Green, though we wish there was no graffiti on the rocks and trees there. Can an event ever be too large? We were guzzled up by the swirling mass of people, some of whom included the mayor and his wife, Gerard H. Sweeney, Patricia Kind, John K. Binswanger, Darrell L. Clarke, and reps from the Phillies, Peco, Bank of America, Robert A.M. Stern Architects, and countless others. At one point we felt carried along, even pushed by the crowds, like someone being lifted and passed over the heads of people at a rave. Serenity returned when we stood face-to-face with Laura Krebes (Cashman and Associates), who got us a dinner spot next to Al Spivey, Jr., Chief of Staff to the Majority Leader (City Council), with whom we discussed the politics of Frank L. Rizzo. The butler-style hors d’oeuvres reception and dinner reminded us of a Federico Fellini fashion show:  lines of synchronized marching servers, silver trays in hand, crisscrossing the maze of revelers like models on multiple runways. The highly dramatic evening ended with terrific rain and wind storm that unfurled the edges of the massive white dinner canopy, forcing us to ditch Septa and hitch a ride into Center City.              

We danced briefly with Blanka Zizka at the Wilma’s Annual Theater Lovers Fete, a fundraising party honoring Virginia and Harvey Kimmel, who have supported the theater in various ways since 1998. The multi-tiered event included a reception, a special stage show for participants, and a fundraiser-auction dinner held in the Doubletree Hotel. We were almost introduced to Harvey and Virginia Kimmel but the couple’s long receiving line prevented that from happening. Our friend Will Jordon arranged a seat for us at his center stage table when his friend—a woman named Rothschild, no less-- had to leave early. Look for The Wilma’s production of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, directed by David Kennedy.

Opera Philadelphia’s Don Giovanni at the Academy got bad Inquirer reviews, but for us it made us think of the time we visited Mozart’s home in Vienna, as well as stories of how the composer would travel back and forth from his home to Saint Stephen’s cathedral, a few blocks away. (The cathedral is still riddled with bullet holes and shell cashing from WWII.) Mozart, a devout Catholic, ended Don Giovanni with a virtual catechism lesson, a fact that doesn’t seem to deter the opera’s secular popularity in 2014. The composer was much abused by his father as a child. The abuse was so great, in fact, that Father Mozart would drag little Mozart by the hair (or hand) through the streets and public markets. It’s no wonder then that Don Giovanni ends with the anti-hero being dragged to hell.       

        We visited Palmerton, Pennsylvania and noticed the town’s inactivity and the quiet. It was a Saturday morning, after all, a time when many towns are alive with activity.  We saw very few people walking about. If you are sick of inner city congestion, chronic Septa detours on weekends (thanks to marathons and street festivals), standing room only “seats” on the Frankford Market El, and unrelenting stop and go traffic (not to mention angry drivers and honking horns), this peaceful river town will soothe your spirit. The mountains certainly add a dimension of beauty along with the Lehigh River and Aquishicola Creek. The sight of the famous Blue Mountain Tunnel that cuts through the Kittatinny Ridge has a western Colorado feel. It is also takes you to the turn that goes into Palmerton. We remember the Blue Mountain tunnel from childhood, but that’s another story.

Who would not want to escape to a place like this? Of course, for any city sophisticate, the ‘John Boy Walton’ beauty of this town doesn’t erase the fact that it is also a cultural wasteland. Forget rock concerts, jazz festivals, theater, opera, art galleries, and museums. You might be able to hang out at the local Subway restaurant with its plastic orange chair Kabuki theater seating area, or hunt out a local Dunkin Donuts, or go bowling, but aside from this your only option is a pastime like rafting. Or staying at home and weeding your garden. There’s Palmerton hospital in case you break an arm, have an allergic reaction to a bee sting, or come down with food poisoning.  If your imagination is rich enough you might be able to fantasize about what goes on in the large gothic Victorian house that sits alone on a mountain top and which seems to be the town’s crowning glory.  The site of this house from a distance is impressive. It reminded us of Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, or even the house in Hitchcock’s Psycho.



Living in the New Security State

One of the greatest job opportunities for a young person today has to be in the security field. That’s right. Forget software technology, insurance, real estate, sales or becoming a lawyer. The security industry is the future.
Let’s review. Going to law school is no longer a guarantee of getting a position with a reliable law firm. There are just too many lawyers. In the last decade, I’ve met more out of work lawyers, or ex-lawyers, or law school dropouts than I can count.

What about becoming a funeral director? That can work but only if you do not have a fear of death, or dying. While there are no lawyers in my family, we do have funeral directors (the Donohoe Funeral Home Empire are relatives on my mother’s side). The death industry is a lucrative business, even with the popularity of cremation (somebody has to stoke the fires and gather the ashes). But it takes a special personality to work with dead people, especially in a culture where so many people are even afraid to attend funerals.

How about real estate? While jobs in real estate may seem to be booming, most of these "jobs" are part time and dicey at best. Becoming a real estate agent these days is as common as becoming a mail order minister. In my own family, there are 4 or 5 real estate agents (and the numbers are still growing). These real estate nieces, nephews and one sister-in-law had high hopes when they first got their license but once that happened, they discovered just how crowded the field is. For the most part, real estate jobs are a lot like babysitting jobs. Weeks can pass without any activity, but then there’s a high cycle and all systems are go. In the interim, the agents stay glued to their cell phones twenty-four seven.

"She’s showing another house," I’ve heard my brother say many times, referring to his absent wife when I’d call on weekends. Real estate house showings know no boundaries—Sundays, holidays, even Christmas and Thanksgiving are all fair game "show" days. It’s the potential buyer, after all, who sets the schedule.
The security industry, of course, has become big business since the nation went on a security roll after September 2001. There’s airport and Amtrak security, TSA body friskers, yellow vested agents pacing tarmac airfields, highways, parking lots, shopping malls, gas stations, vacant lots and isolated, overgrown-with-weeds Conrail yards. Go to a department store like Macy’s and you’ll see more security agents than customers. Yes, Virginia, the world has become a barbed wire camp, and with the new security conscious world there’s a preponderance of public cameras, both hidden and visible.

In the Riverwards now there are scores of somber dressed in black security guards in the local Rite Aid, CVS, the various Dollar Stores and Dunkin Donuts. There are security guards where there didn’t used to be security guards. There’s even a yellow vested security guard stationed in front of the Clothespin near City Hall. This guard stands mannequin-like watching people as they loiter or wait for buses.
Where are there not security guards, is perhaps the right question to ask, although whatever answer you might give will be sure to change by next year.

Security jobs are lonely jobs where there tends to be a lot of standing and watching. Persons with weak knees (or eyes that cannot focus) need not apply. Ditto for fidgety types who can’t (and won’t) stand still. When security guards do move around, presumably it’s to patrol or "shadow" a shopper who seems suspicious in some way. The trick for the guard is to do this without appearing to harass or follow someone outright, which might cause offense. One local store not far from my house has a stationed guard near the front entrance, so that the guard is the first person you see when entering the store. As soon as the sliding glass door opens, you are confronted with a badge. This is a constant reminder that we live in that barbed wire society, and it’s depressing and disheartening.

While these individual guards may be nice people, their role is to regard every customer as a potential thief and suspect, even if a customer happens to be a habited nun or an elderly woman in a flowered sun hat who walks with a cane. Even people in wheelchairs are prime suspects. Everybody is a potential criminal. Given this situation, how are we (the customer) supposed to react when we enter a store and come face to face with a guard who smiles and says hello but whose eyes seem to suggest that we may just be a shoplifter posing as "someone nice?"

Accepting the new security state as an unfortunate inevitability suggests that we have come to terms with the fact that we live in a rotten society where nobody can be trusted, and that we should just accept the fact that the same guard who smiles and nods to us when we enter a store will also watch us as we shop.

Yet it is getting to the point where entering a store often involves forced ritual eye contact with a guard, even if you may not want to acknowledge the guard with a "Good morning."

"It’s a psychic energy drain," as one friend of mine commented. "I might say hello to the sales clerk, but I don’t want to have to say hello to all of the guards in every store I visit. This makes it seem like passing through US Customs. I just want to go into a store without being "inspected." And I don’t want to go out of my way to smile and say ‘hi there’ when I just rolled out of bed."

One may blame the rowdiness of certain neighborhoods or cities for the new security state.

"Are the people in this neighborhood prone to violent outbursts, or what?" I heard someone say, as they entered the local WAWA on a weekend night and counted four or five Philadelphia policemen standing in a row with their backs against the take-out sandwich counter. Seeing four police officers guarding an almost empty store was an extremely odd sight indeed.

Are things so bad in the Riverwards that it takes three or four Philadelphia police officers to "guard" a WAWA, where at first glance the worst "criminal" offenses there seem only to be insistent panhandlers (Mother Teresa’s people), post-midnight drunks in multicolored Mohawks, lines at the gas pumps, or giggling girls rushing in for take-out snacks?
One can only presume that WAWA knows what they are doing, but the negative effect of seeing so many police guarding a WAWA can be misleading.

"Is your neighborhood turning into a slum?" a friend from out of town asked me several weeks ago. "Do you risk life and limb when going out for a cup of Hazelnut coffee? Has there been a shooting there?"

"No," I replied, "this neighborhood has always been super safe, and I know that most people here would like to keep it that way. "

Perhaps what I should have said is, "The guards are just standing around and waiting for that unknown something that may come down the pike…"

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Walt Whitman and Peter Doyle Get Married in Philadelphia City Hall

Walt Whitman and Peter Doyle get married in City Hall
Weekly Press
• Wed, Jun 04, 2014
By Thom Nickels
Contributing Writer

The big news last week was that marriage for same sex couples became legal in the state of Pennsylvania. This was something I didn’t expect to happen until 2020, if only because Pennsylvania can be a far more conservative state than most. (Pennsylvania, after all, is still in the business of selling wine and spirits, and it doesn’t look like liquor privatization here will be happening anytime soon.) An even greater surprise was the fact that Governor Tom Corbett said he would not challenge the new ruling. Corbett, a Republican, was expected to challenge any change in the definition of marriage, but like so many politicians today he recognizes that same sex marriage is here to stay.

Corbett didn’t challenge the ruling because the so called "gay thing" is no longer a liberal or conservative issue. The roots of this can be traced back to the days when Barry Goldwater ran for president against Lyndon Johnson. At that time, Goldwater said that he supported civil rights for homosexuals, an absolutely revolutionary thing for any politician to say in the 1960s, but especially for a conservative Republican. Years later, when Dick Cheney ran as George W. Bush’s Vice Presidential candidate, he made it clear during a debate that he supported same sex marriage. That announcement drew sighs of shock and disbelief from many Republican social conservatives who saw the acceptance of marriage equality as part of the liberal social agenda. The fantasy then seemed to be that Republican conservatives didn’t have gay children—or, if they did, they bound and gagged them in the family china closet.

After Cheney announced his support for marriage equality, more and more Republicans began to talk about their gay children and family members. Suddenly the idea that "the gay thing" only happened to liberal Democrats went flat like a bad tire on I-95. Sexual orientation, after all, is no respecter of political party or religious affiliation: A Baptist minister can have a gay son just as easily as a Broadway playwright can. After all, having your child "turn gay" has nothing to do with how you raise that child or what values you instill in him or her. Forget about "educating" a child to like the opposite sex; that’s like training a pigeon to crawl onto your lap and meow like a cat.
While thinking of last week’s marriage ruling, my thoughts turned to poet Walt Whitman, famous for his volume of poetry Leaves of Grass.

In the late 1980s, I took a tour of the Walt Whitman house in Camden, New Jersey, and got into an argument with the elderly tour guide. "Mr. Whitman was not a homosexual!" she said, angry that I had the gall to bring up the question. In an attempt to reason with her, I held up a 1982 issue of Partisan Review magazine [containing the essay, "Whitman and the politics of Gay Liberation"] and asked her to put the magazine inside Whitman’s desk. She took the magazine out of politeness, though I’m sure she destroyed it the moment I walked out the door. She then went on to mention that Whitman’s nurse, Mary Oakes Davis, had been in love with him. "Well, that may be true," I said, "But one of the fun—or agonizing-- things about life is that many people can fall in love with us but that doesn’t mean that the love has to be returned. Unrequited love is probably more common than the returned kind."

The guide then suggested that Whitman did return the love but to me this only indicated that he might have been bisexual. I was taken aback when she then quoted Whitman’s infamous line to John Addington Symonds when Symonds confronted the poet on the homoerotic content of the Calamus poems in Leaves of Grass.
"…I am fain to hope that the pages themselves are not to be even mentioned for such gratuitous and quite at the time undreamed and unwished possibility of morbid influences—which are disavowed by me and seem damnable."
Wow, spoken like Billy Sunday in a preacher’s tent.

On the surface, these words seem pretty clear, even if Edward Carpenter, a contemporary of Symonds’, knew that Whitman was telling a bold face lie. Carpenter blamed Whitman’s cowardice on the social atmosphere of 1891. Carpenter actually came out and said that he slept with Whitman and he gave details of the encounter to a writer named Arthur Gavin. As for the poet’s off-putting letter to Symonds, Charley Shively in his book about Whitman, Calamus Lovers: Walt Whitman’s Working Class Comerados, states that, "Whitman wasn’t ready to join Symonds in a crusade for gay rights," although he was quick to praise Symonds’ poem, Love and Death, which honored two Athenian male lovers "who sacrificed themselves in the war against Sparta."

"Comrade love," Shively continues, "was thus presented as less selfish than family love, which was concerned with procreation more than community….Whitman’s problem with Symonds was that the Englishman wasn’t enough of a democrat."

Whitman was being smart and discreet. He also didn’t like labels. Had he come out and joined Symonds’ crusade, it’s unlikely that his poetry would have maintained its broad based appeal.

Whitman had special male friends like ex-Confederate soldier Peter Boyle [a thin Irishman who was the poet’s primary companion in Camden for 15 years]; Warren Fritzenger [the male nurse who took Whitman along the Camden waterfront in his wheelchair]; William Sydnor [a guy who drove a Pittsburgh streetcar]; David Fender—"a redhaired young man," Whitman wrote; John Ferguson, "tall and slender," and Willy Hayes, "a drummer in a marine band." There was also Walter Dean, whom Whitman met in Philadelphia’s John Wanamaker’s Department store (John Wanamaker, the so-called King of Merchants, banned Leaves of Grass from Wanamaker’s bookstore). But I have only scratched the surface.

I left the small, Mickel Street house that day not having convinced the housekeeper that Whitman was gay, even though thousands of other visitors—famous academicians, poets, critics, writers—had all heard the same talk from this [otherwise gracious] elderly lady who went out of her way to insist that the old bard was as heterosexual as John Wayne. Unfortunately, I did not ask the guide if she had any comments on Oscar Wilde’s famous remark when Wilde was asked by George Ives in London whether the American poet was "one of the Greek Lovers." Ives asked the big question after Wilde’s visit to the poet’s brother’s house at 431 Stevens Street in Camden (now demolished), where Whitman lived from 1873 to 1884.

Wilde at that time told Ives, "Of course, I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips," but he didn’t say any more. The "Of course" speaks volumes.

Literary history is full of stories about how Whitman dealt with women who wrote him love letters, including unflattering and shocking descriptions of Mary Davies (the woman praised by the tour guide) as a woman who preyed on widowers for their inheritances. Poet Allen Ginsberg, when I interviewed him by phone in the early 1990s, was full of Whitman lore, of how he had slept with someone who slept with someone who slept with someone who slept with Whitman, and so on and on. While I’ve never been a fan of sexual bragging rights, investigating a "chain link fence" like this can be fun.
If Whitman were alive and well today, there’s little doubt that he would have been one of the first in line at Philadelphia City Hall to apply for a marriage license. Whitman loved City Hall and I’m sure he would have made the trek via high speed line with Peter Doyle to tie the knot. I don’t think the Good Gray Poet, as he was called, would have wanted a lot of congratulatory marriage fanfare either. His poetry indicates that he knows the ups and downs of relationships, so he would harbor no illusions about marriage. "Perpetual honeymoons exist only in dreams," he might even suggest. While he would have been proud of Pennsylvania’s new openness, at the same time, I’m sure he would urge everyone to move on and begin to concentrate on the world’s real problems, which have nothing to do about how or "who" we love.