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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Dog as Urban Diety

The Dog as urban deity
Weekly Press
• Wed, Jul 16, 2014
By Thom Nickels
Contributing Writer
Who let the dogs out?

Or: Here come the pit bulls, twenty in a row and howling like wolves in Germany’s Black Forest. Where to escape? Many people slip inside their houses. Moms who had been sitting on stoops reach out and take their babies out of strollers and tell their other toddlers on tricycles to stop everything and get inside.

"The pits are coming! The pits are coming!" somebody shouts.

I witness the Stephen King scenario from my second story window. "Does this explain the odd disappearance of feral cats from the neighborhood?" a friend of mine who dropped by, asks.
"How’s that?" I say.

"Feral cats slip in and out of backyard tiny spaces, the same private backyard spaces where the city’s new breed of choice, the pit, lingers and waits. It’s much like the fly going into the spider’s web. The pit eliminates the feral!"
My friend may be right. The neighborhoods used to be filled with feral cats... On my own block we used to see two or three a day. Suddenly there’s an absence.

Of course, I never did see twenty pits in a row racing down my street, but given the popularity of pits, it could happen in the future.

It’s not the breed it’s the people who raise the dogs, the pro-pit campaign posters state. We’re supposed to commit this feel good advertising to memory. We’re supposed to remember this the next time we read an awful story in the press about a pit attacking a toddler on the way home from school. We’re supposed to get it straight that pits are just like any other dog—the regal Greyhound, the cute as pie Chihuahua, the hot dog or Dachshund or the supremely benevolent Collie. Blame the awful person who taught the pit how to be an indiscriminate fighter or growler, the pro-pit campaign says. The pit, by itself-- as a blank slate—is as angelic as the lower order of angels. "Stop the persecution!"
Stop the persecution!

Let me review my experience with bad dogs.

There was the ferocious German Shepherd that would chase me on my bicycle when I was a paperboy. At 12 years of age, I avoided big dogs but this mammoth Shepherd loved to snip at my ankles whenever he saw me riding by. On Fridays, when I’d go door to door to collect the weekly newspaper subscription fees, the Shepherd would circle my bicycle, growl and then force me to bypass the house and collect when the Shepherd was out of sight. I tried my hardest to process the dog’s nasty demeanor, but couldn’t come up with an answer. I learned very early on that however endearing a pet may be, on a base level they are still beasts, and that no matter how sweet and lovely they are, every now and then a portion of that beast emerges.

Our own dog, Lucky, a tan and black Dachshund, was a good looker but he was known to growl illogically and violently whenever any of the males in the family placed a plate of dog food in front of him.
"What’s with Lucky?" my brother would ask, "Licking and loving you one moment, then ready to take your head off the next"
Lucky had a good life. He loved to roam the cornfield behind our home, run down to the creek and sniff the water’s edge for crayfish, and then explore the stacked hay bales inside a nearby barn. He was combed and brushed and given endless treats from the dinner table. One day he even brought home what looked like a monkey’s paw. Where did he find a monkey in Chester County? The paw (or claw) was a topic of conversation in our house for years.

Loveable as Lucky was, his dangerous habit of running into the street in front of our house at the approach of a car or tractor trailer truck eventually did him in. His insatiable thirst for nipping at wheels going round backfired when he miscalculated and nipped too far underneath a moving vehicle. "He was hit by a car," my mother told me the day I walked home from school and found her cuddling Lucky in her lap on the grassy embankment in front of our house. She was weeping terribly.

Because Lucky had never once growled at my mother, the family came to believe that she had a special bond with him. That afternoon on the embankment I felt bad mostly because my mother was feeling bad. I felt for Lucky although I could not bring myself to cry.

With the Lucky era over, it would be a while before we got another dog. When that happened I was already out of the house away at school or in Boston but when I heard of the dog I also heard of the new pet’s bizarre behaviors: like how she liked to "eat" her own tail.

What sort of dog is into self-cannibalism, I wondered. The tail eating got so bad that the pet’s tail had to be amputated, but instead of correcting anything the lack of a tail led to other self-eating attempts. The otherwise sweet dog just wanted to eat herself off the planet. It occurred to me then that maybe dogs had more neuroses than human beings and were often more trouble than they were worth.

Nobody had pit bulls in those days. I remember Collies, Dachshunds, Boxers and Shepherds, although the term junkyard dog (breed unknown) made the rounds from time to time, referring to ill-mannered ugly dogs who were so nasty they would attack their own shadow.

The entire time I lived in Baltimore (as a student) or Boston or Colorado I barely remember seeing anybody walk dogs, even though I’d done plenty of that with the most infamous dog in my extended family, the black French Poodle, Monsieur Faux Pas.

Monsieur Faux Pas was an indiscriminate, shameless cad. He loved legs, all sorts of legs, male, female, young and old, small children, toddlers just starting to walk, even furniture stumps. As a teenager, I would walk Monsieur Faux Pas all over the streets of West Chester. I had great fun doing this. (Of course, these were the days before the idea of bagging your dog’s poop had entered the public consciousness). Monsieur Faux Pas was well behaved during these walks but he showed his Jekyll and Hyde side at family gatherings, namely Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter, all occasions when the adults would be sipping cocktails in the living room.

That’s when he would go on a leg tear. There’s nothing in life that brings one down to earth faster than having a dog greet you with a leg humping routine. My venerable grandfather, dressed in one of his meticulous tailored suits, would suddenly be jolted forward on the sofa as Monsieur PP wrapped his beastly paws around his argyle socks.
"No, no, no!" grandmother would interject. At that, Monsieur PP would disengage as grandfather would check his trousers for marks.

Monsieur PP, undeterred, would proceed to Aunt Dora—silk stockings always made the grade—then proceed to grandmother herself, and then after that to each of my siblings, going down the line, sometimes leaving trails and sometimes not, until the group outrage turned into a kind of fascinated, guilty laugh. Monsieur PP had succeeded in breaking up the stuffy formal atmosphere.

"He needs to be locked in a room," his owner, Aunt Katherine, would offer, and so Monsieur PP would be ushered upstairs until the terrible spell that had possessed him had passed. In an hour or so he could be released into polite company.

Of course, once released, Monsieur PP would bide his time, staring sheepishly at each one of us in turn while lounging in front of the fireplace, his eyes focused on our legs as if he was just waiting for an opportune moment to begin again. Sometimes he got his wish, especially when he’d position himself under the dining room table during dinner where there would be a cacophony of legs of all types and sizes.

"Monsieur PP, please stop that," Aunt Gertie would mumble between mouthfuls of fresh fruit cocktail or shrimp.
"Is he up to his old tricks?" Aunt Katherine would snap.
"He is," Aunt Gertie replied. "Maybe if we ignored it, he will stop."

When I heard of Monsieur PP’s death when I was in my twenties, I felt a little sad. "He was a family unifier all right," I said to my sister Susanna. "He knew when to strike. At the height of a heated political discussion, or when one of the older relatives made a bitchy comment about something. He’d come in and do his thing."

Had Monsieur PP been a pit bull I cannot imagine there would have been much laughter as he went from leg to leg.
Monsieur PP may have had a sexual problem but it was a benign problem at best, a mere indiscretion. But substitute real flesh biting or the gashing of teeth for comedic humping and you have a First Aid kit nightmare. Monsieur PP was also good-natured. I don’t think I ever heard him growl in my life. He loved life, he loved people, and of course he loved legs.

I’m reluctant to comment further on pits because I don’t want the pit lobby to come after me and tell me to stop persecuting them. Live and let live, I say, even if pits in my mind are a symbol of how far the world has fallen from being a relatively civilized place into a rustic cellar filled with brutal uncertainties.

My Time as a Philly Juror

The Local Lens
• Wed, Jul 16, 2014

By Thom Nickels

When my Jury Summons notice appeared in the mail, all I could do was breathe a sigh of despair. You know how it is: the Jury in-take crowds, the lists of instructions to be followed, the canned videos, and the line formations going to the rooms of the various judges. The last time I received a Jury Summons was five years ago. Back then my name was called along with other names for a case but just as our group was about to head to the courtrooms, we were informed that the two parties involved in the case came to a settlement.

Obviously, this was not an exciting criminal case but just another lawsuit.

"You can collect your check and go home," we were told.

In prior years, it was my belief that I was never accepted as a juror because I noted on the questionnaire that I was a journalist. I assumed this was the reason because during personal questioning by the attorneys, I felt that the word journalist was a buzz word, a kind of psychic red flag. Since that time, I’ve been of the opinion that lawyers would rather not have a journalist as a juror.

Could it be because they think journalists are going to write about the case or critique their courtroom performance in some way?

This year’s Jury Summons broke the mold. When I was questioned by a court official and attorneys for both the plaintiff and the defendant, they seemed excited about the ‘J’ word. In fact, the court official immediately began telling me that he’s read a number of things I’ve written over the years. "I know who you are," he said, looking me square in the eye, but with a smile.

"I know who you are, Tommy Nickels!"

He was a tall man from South Philly and he very much reminded me of Frank Rizzo. He was almost as tall as Rizzo was, and he even spoke like Rizzo, enough to make me wonder if he had ever known the former Mayor.
I did, in fact, ask him that a little later on, to which he said: "Yes, I knew Frank. He had an appetite like no other. He once ate three entrees of mussels in front of me, and he devoured 3 long rolls of bread. "

The case I was being auditioned for called for 8 jurors out of a pool of 30 people. You can imagine my surprise when my number was called.

"You’ll be here till Friday," the court official told us. "That’s three days."

Entering and leaving City Hall is much easier as a juror. The procedure is simple: bypass security (always a pleasure), take the elevator to the appropriate floor, then head for your assigned jury room and hang out with the other jurors until the judge calls you into the courtroom.

The general jury selection process, however, is like cattle herding. Years ago, the City provided drinks, soft pretzels and donuts for all prospective jurors. These were the lush years. At that time, nobody had to stand during the selection process because there weren’t enough chairs in the main hall, but that’s no longer the case. I stood for over an hour in the massive room as various groups were called into different courtrooms. I’m not sure why the place was so packed. Are there that many cases being tried in the City of Philadelphia?

Even if there are a lot of courtroom cases going on, why book more people than the room can hold?
It was a very hot day when the selection process was going on, so people didn’t look to be in a very good mood. Having to pass through "take off your belt" security is humiliating enough, but when people discovered that there were no empty seats in the hall, the mood in the room seemed to thicken.

It took a court official, the one who calls names and takes attendance, to lighten the atmosphere. Ms. X worked the room like a high energy stand up comic although 2 hours later you could feel her spirit diminishing. She told jokes and offered antidotes like a cruise ship MC. She’d mimic being tough, then giggle and wink at the crowd. At one point, she announced that far too many faces in the room looked depressed. She tried her best to be a mood altering drug.
Her job wasn’t easy. Sitting there waiting for my name to be called, I realized how many strange names there are in the City of Philadelphia.

Names like Philomena Villanova, Myers Pumpernickel, Jesus John Peter Savior, and Sayczar Akaka Apple came rolling off her lips. Ordinary names seemed scarce. This must have been the odd name day. Some names were so weird she had to spell them out because she couldn’t pronounce them.

When she called your name you had to answer with the word "Here," a system that reminded me of my grammar school days when the nuns would take attendance. Everybody had a different way of saying "Here." Some people mumbled it; others shouted it, while others seemed to go silent when they heard their name. A woman with short black hair reading a Harry Potter book responded with an upright jerk and a loud "yep!" when she heard her name. Several jurors answered with a depressed sounding "Yes" while others, it seems, could barely speak at all. Their voices were so soft most assumed that they had fallen asleep in their chairs.

Standards have gone by the wayside when it comes to how people dress for jury selection. Many were dressed as if they were headed to a summer picnic or ball game-- shorts, t-shirts, sandals, and sneakers were not uncommon. Some even wore dirty, stained shorts. One man was in a tank top, his arm tattoos exposed like sun bleached leper sores. The women were better dressed overall. What these men in shorts didn’t count on, however, was the fact that once they were pulled into a courtroom-- where the air conditioning turned the environment into an Arctic blast--they began to freeze.

As in, really freeze.

In fact, everyone who was in extreme summer dress complained of the high air conditioning once they got into the courtroom. "Please turn the air conditioning down," they pleaded.

The attorneys, in full suits and ready to go into slick attorney mode, were comfortable. "Over our dead bodies," they must have wanted to say, but didn’t.

Tank tops may be good on hot days when you have to weed a garden or take out the garbage, but when did they take the place of real shirts?

"Remember people, no open toe shoes or sandals in the courtroom," the court official told our little group of eight. "No flip flops. Flip flops are for the beach, for those zany, Wildwood days, but not court! Dress appropriately, please. Please!"
While going through security on the morning of the first day, I noticed that a guy behind me was dressed in short Bermudas and a tie dye shirt. "You’re the first guy I’ve ever seen wear shorts to a Jury selection session," I told him.
"Well," he said, "I wear a suit every day and when they said we could dress comfortably, I thought of shorts." We laughed at this and went our separate ways but I couldn’t help but wonder at the word comfortable. One person’s comfortable is another’s inappropriate attire.

Imagine a judge in flip flops and a tight tie dye shirt tucked into ballet tight Bermuda shorts. If anybody should be comfortable, it should be a judge.

Yes, it was really good to know that it was the "naked" ones who got their just desserts when they arrived in the sub-freezing courtrooms and begged officials to turn down the air conditioning.

On day 2 of the trial, our court guide told us that the jury room where we met in the morning and where we took our 5 or 10 minute breaks was once a City Hall holding cell. The guide pointed to a row of pay phone shells, where the newly arrested could make their one constitutionally guaranteed phone call.
"Elmo Smith was in your holding cell," the official explained.

Elmo Smith was arrested and charged with the brutal death and rape of a sixteen year old Manayunk resident, Maryann Mitchell. Mitchell, a student at Cecelian Academy, had been out with girlfriends on the night of December 29, 1959 to see the movie South Pacific. After the movie and a stop at a hamburger joint, her friends left her at a bus stop so that she could make her way home. Her body was found the following day near Harts Lane in Whitmarsh Township.

Like the Center City jogger case at 21st and Pine Streets in Center City in November 1995, the Mitchell case was a gruesome one. Our guide told us that he had seen the files on the Mitchell case in the City Hall archives. I didn’t have time to tell him that when I was working on a story about the Center City jogger case, I was shown an upsetting photograph of Kimberly Ernest’s body at the base of the stairwell at 21st and Pine. The photo upset me for weeks.
The Maryann Mitchell case rocked Philadelphia like no other murder case in the 50s and 60s. Women everywhere were afraid to go outside or were constantly looking over their shoulders for "another Elmo Smith." Smith, a handyman with a long arrest record for rape and attempted abductions of young females, was the last person to die in Pennsylvania’s electric chair.
Of course, there’s not much in Jury Room 646 that still resembles a holding cell, although you might make a case for the small caboose style windows that form the base of a much larger window. There’s also an old radiator painted brown or dark green that was undoubtedly in the room when it was a jail cell. Had Elmo Smith ever reclined against the radiator and reviewed the events of December 29th?

Had he shed a tear? Or did he grip the edges of the radiator in an act of frustration over being caught?

In ways that we cannot fathom, all rooms hold memories. The fears, agony and pain of people once confined to certain rooms can seep into the walls, forming shadow impressions that a sensitive person can pick up. There have been many rooms in my life that have caused me to say, "Something went on in here."

Around the corner from Jury Room 646 is an old staircase that looks to be falling apart. It’s a narrow staircase with tattered paint and split wood; although, you can see that at one time it was a very fine staircase. In some ways it resembles a staircase that was meant to be kept secret, but here it was in full exposure, lonely, decrepit, one of City Hall’s secrets.

What had happened on those steps? Who was pushed, handcuffed or threatened?

On day 3 we deliberated in the jury room, and that’s when things got crazy.

When it came time to select a foreman I was surprised when most of the jurors said they wanted me but that was no sooner said when the one woman in the room said that the honor should go to the really, really quiet guy in the back who’s hardly said anything "since we got here."

Life is strange, and it was too hot to argue.

I gave the odd honor to the quiet guy, but soon after regretted giving in so easily.

Thank God my time as a juror is over.
                      CITY BEAT, ICON MAGAZINE    JULY 2014

We learned a lot about the human brain and violent criminal behavior at the Athenaeum recently. The featured speaker explained that a marker for psychopathic individuals who are prone to violence was small ears set low on the head. While this characterization was presented as a general predisposition rather than fact, small ears set low on the head has for us always been an indicator of trouble. We couldn’t sto
p thinking about low hanging ears a week later when we participated at the first annual East Kensington Trenton Arts Festival as a food truck vendor judge. We sampled lobster, shrimp, Asian Foo delights, sumptuous cupcakes, ice cream, tacos, cheese steaks and more. Can too much deliciousness be a bad thing? By the end of the tour we came not only to appreciate why the ancient Romans valued the vomitorium, but how many low hangers there were in the world…Of course, we’re talking ears here, not meatballs.  

Nantucket was on our travel agenda years ago when, eating in a local bistro, we noticed our dead great aunt sitting at a table across the room cutting into a breast of chicken. This was no ordinary resemblance, but a shocking ultra-Xerox copy right down to the last hair follicle and freckle. Auntie had talked about Nantucket all her life, praising it as her favorite place. We thought of auntie (and her double) at the inaugural John C. Van Horne lecture at the American Philosophical Society (the occasion: Van Horne’s retirement from his position as CEO of the Library Company of Philadelphia). Guest speaker, author Nathaniel Philbrick (Whales, Pilgrims, and Revolutionaries), who lives in Nantucket, talked about his historical non-fiction. Philbrick’s presentation was no canned sound bite but an inside look at his writing habits. While we never asked Philbrick whether he’s had any auntie ghost sightings, we did chat with PMA’s Kathy Foster at the small-plate cocktail reception afterwards. “How great was that!” Kathy exclaimed, her eyes lighting up like a New England lighthouse. “I have a full time job, but my greatest wish is to write full time…to get up in the morning and sharpen those pencils and get to it!” We know what Kathy means, even if the sharpening pencil part makes us think of math, not literature.     

We met Fergie of Fergie’s Pub fame the day before Philly Beer Week (and two weeks before Bloomsday) even though every week seems to be Philly Beer Week. Fergie’s a pleasant Irish guy who sees the humor in everything. As committed wine drinkers (beer is a food, after all), we couldn’t get into Beer Week’s rowdy axe smashing-the-keg-here-comes-the-suds antics. Beer Week, however, did bring us a plethora of sudsy emails, one of them from Sugar House Casino announcing the Philadelphia Cornhole League Tournament. Now, we remember that riotous word from adolescence when it conjured up hushed Philip Roth woodshed scenarios and when it was the banter of jokes. Can it be that people don’t know the history of that word? We added the Cornhole League ad to our list of Philly oddities alongside sidewalk hookah smoking (very popular in London), but we’re not sure why. While hookah may be the dumbest thing to do since blindfold bungee jumping, doing things with corn has no malevolent after effects.    

We tried (but failed) to imagine Jane Golden doing hookah when we saw her at the Mural Arts annual Wall Ball at Union Transfer. Jane MC’d the evening and her performance on stage (jumping up and down like a female Howard Beale in the movie Network) called to mind her limitless energy. The annual fundraiser and auction drew hundreds of people, including the mayor, Philly’s Poet Laureate, and a lot of people intent on serious partying. But nobody parties like the people at Dirty Frank’s, where getting—and staying—drunk is an obligation. We visited DF’s for the opening of “Is it Art?” even if the exhibit didn’t live up to the “Is it?” factor at all. We expected found objects like Triamcinolene Acetonide Ointment, chlorhexidine gluconate oral rinse, or used band-aids arranged like a Leger painting, but instead saw some really handsome pieces. We sat in the front of the bar with Walton, Tamara and their dog Harry so as to avoid the crush of elbows. DF’s cultish atmosphere is the polar opposite of more upscale places, like the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s 2014 Heritage Day, where Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw (the founder of India’s largest biotechnology enterprise) was awarded the Othmer Gold Medal.

Our time at CHF reminded us that there’s a proper way to behave at cocktail receptions, namely that stockpiling glasses of wine at your table for later consumption (as we witnessed one guest do) is a major transgression. Maybe what’s needed is a cool book on Philadelphia reception etiquette. Some people who frequent city receptions could care less about the play, lecture or the exhibited art. We first witnessed this phenomenon years ago at Wilma Theater receptions when we spotted elderly women opening their handbags and sliding in napkin-wrapped hors d’oeuvres. The old ladies moved fast yet the tendency was for observers to think: “Ah, the poor dears must need it, they’re on fixed incomes.” Recently, at another reception, we witnessed two sloppily dressed Dickensian types gobble up massive amounts of the hors d’oeuvres. When we pointed out the culprits to our friend Emily, she told us that one of the two was actually mentally ill and had an awful habit of pouring wine over your head if he doesn’t like what you say, or if you are talking too long to someone he really, really wants to speak with.   

Not long ago, one of the best things someone with an inquiring mind could do was listen to NPR, especially Terry Gross’ award-winning show, Fresh Air. As a second-best listening alternative, one could also listen to NPR’s Radio Times with Marty-Moss Coane. But then was then and now is now. Listening to Fresh Air today, one is struck by the preponderance of cable TV star guests, often vapid twenty- or thirty-something actors from obscure but popular cable TV shows. Add to this list Fresh Air’s repeated series of interviews with Judd Apatow, a director of the once (esoterically) popular cable show Freaks and Geeks, and you might ask: Is Terry Gross now serving a commercial purpose by supporting the careers of certain actors? When Gross’ replacement, Dave Davies is put in charge, however, Fresh Air’s heavyweight guests return like a South Pacific tsunami.  

Yes, Virginia, it is True: we did coin the line, Baby Up Talk, or BUT. “BUT” is when the sentences that come out of the speaker’s mouth have an upward tilt as if the speaker was intentionally raising the conversational pitch above normal speaking tones. BUT sentences also end with a blatant question mark. We got a big dose of BUT when we heard the son of a former colleague of ours interviewed on Radio Times. The son was being interviewed with a local filmmaker. We’ve never known him to speak in BUT, but here he was, pushing every declarative sentence into high tonal regions and ending them with a question mark. What in the name of God had happened to him, we wondered. 

  At the City Institute branch of the Free Library we chatted with the retiring Artistic Director of the Pennsylvania Ballet, Roy Kaiser, a handsome, gracious man who came to Philly 35 years ago on a Greyhound bus from Seattle intending to stay for only six months but wound up staying. Decades of dancing, however, have ruined Kaiser’s hip, so this athletic-looking man of dance is slated for a hip replacement. Kaiser said he doesn’t tell young dancers what awaits them in terms of disintegrating discs and kneecaps, even if runners have certainly heard the message by now. After the lecture we bumped into a once-vibrant 40-something acquaintance hobbling down the street in crutches, the result of years jogging on Center City sidewalks.   

We visited the Center for Emerging Visual Artists (CFEVA) reception at the Barclay and realized that it’s always the same social interaction when it comes to emerging artists (EA’s): They cluster together in a corner, identifiable by age, as the adults circle them until one of the artists (perhaps a woman in bangs, the new “artsy hairdo”) consents to a momentary commingling, laughing and chatting, until the EA’s cluster group comes to the rescue, forcing the adult to go back to his pen of spent peers.    

When we went to the Center for Architecture to hear photographer Vincent Feldman talk about his book City Abandoned, we expected to see an old man, but instead saw a buff, Van Dyke-goateed younger man with fire in his eyes. For all of Feldman’s marvelous stories on some of the city’s most neglected structures, he spoke non-stop for over an hour, which had us wondering whether he’d ever come up for air. When an air bubble finally did appear, the Center’s host, David Bender, said the audience might be able to squeeze in a question or two.                                                                                                                                                                                                             

We ended the month at the 2014 Preservation Alliance Awards, for the first time held at the Union League, a big improvement over the old days when it dragged on endlessly at the Crystal Room at Macys. The new streamlined award ceremony allowed for a lot more moving around. We met the Reading Terminal’s Paul Stanke, David Richards of The Right Angle Club, and architect Ed Barnhart of Always by Design, one of the evening’s award winners. We last saw Paul Stanke at the 1616 Walnut Street design opening, sponsored by Cashman and Associates, where we walked through sample apartments after hitting up the champagne bar. That evening, while historic in many ways, is very much off the record.