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Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Challenge for Philadelphia City Candidate, Paul Steinke.'

The Local Lens

• Wed, Jan 21, 2015

By Thom Nickels

I don’t like to hang out in places where politicians and their friends rule the roost. When there are too many political-types in a room the atmosphere gets thick and tense.

Politicians can be genuinely insincere despite the face they like to wear. A casual conversation with a politician can be stilted because the things they say are usually carefully measured and controlled. What you wind up with during conversations like this are approved sound bites. To get raw, unadulterated feelings and opinions from a politician you’d first have to have those opinions sanctioned by their public relations machine and staff. This is necessary because the politician has to be sure that what he or she is saying is the right thing. On a human scale, this makes for a lot of insincerity.

Despite feeling this way, when I received an invitation to hear former Reading Terminal head Paul Steinke announce his intention to run for City Council-at-Large, I headed over to the Field House on Filbert Street to be a part of the event.
While on my way to the Steinke kick-off, I happened to fall alongside a young family walking with their young children near 11th and Market Streets. The family seemed to be rushing as if they were late for something. The mother, in fact, paced out ahead of her husband with one of the children running on her heels.

"Where’s the fire, lady?" I said to myself as we all crossed an intersection at the same time. But when I heard the mother say, "Here’s the Field House!" I knew they were going to the Steinke event. What I didn’t know (but would discover later) was that the father of the family was one of Steinke’s brothers. When this fact came to light I thought how lucky Paul was to have the total support of his family.

When I attended Nutter-for-Mayor events years ago it always amazed me that there were still so many people around who believed that "our" candidate— the "right" candidate– will change the world and that Utopia would be right around the corner when he or she wins. People keep holding on to this myth despite the fact that once these politicians get elected they inevitably fall short as their Utopian dreams come crashing down to earth. Still, we like to delude ourselves with the fanfare of political campaigns: the shiny candidate buttons or colorful placards to put in our windows.

At the Field House sign-in table there were Steinke candidate buttons and placards galore. Political-types in suits and name tags smiled like morticians. The room was crowded so it was hard to move about easily. I recognized a number of people— political faces I’d seen in years past at rallies or at City Hall events. I watched their lips move as they talked to others in attendance. TV crews readied their big cameras as some in the swelling crowd bought beer at the bar. A small table off to the side (but hidden by a portion of the crowd) offered pizza and pretzels. Unfortunately, I didn’t see the small table until the end of the rally, so my evening was a mix of politics and a growling stomach.

Anyone who has ever met Paul Steinke knows that he’s a "go to" nice guy. The Northeast-born Philadelphian is smart and accomplished. People like Steinke because he seems to be a genuinely humble man despite his accomplishments. He was the Finance Director of the Central Philadelphia Development Corporation as well as the first Executive Director of the University City District. He was also the head of the Reading Terminal Market from 2001 until 2014 when he resigned to run for City Council. At the Reading Terminal Market, Steinke’s tenure has been nothing short of phenomenal. He brought the market into the 21st Century and out of the doldrums of leaky ceilings and the smell of mildew to its current status as one of the top city markets in the country. Steinke also seems to have the ability to talk and listen to many different types of people. He’s not a business-only-type of candidate. If there are traces of arrogance in his personality, he keeps them well hidden.

At the event’s start, Representative Brian Sims of Philadelphia County addressed the crowd in his confident, humorously prickly style. He mentioned Steinke’s accomplishments while advising those in the crowd to pick up a placard and applaud vigorously at the right moment.

Sims had commented that introducing Steinke was like introducing a movie star and as Steinke came on stage he looked like a Kennedy clone or an actor in a Christopher Isherwood drama. The crowd applauded when the candidate took the mic and then listened attentively as he began his speech.

Kool-Aid was not passed around.

Steinke talked about the historic importance of Philadelphia, Independence Hall, the Constitution and all of the fine historic events that happened here.He then enumerated his positions on a number of issues, both local and national.
As the first openly LGBT candidate for City Council, Steinke had yet to play the sexual orientation card although this fact was (appropriately) mentioned by Sims during his introduction. It is doubtful whether anyone in the room had not been aware of this fact but it came out like fireworks at the end of Steinke’s speech when he thanked a number of LGBT activists for making his candidacy possible. He even mentioned the name of Frank Kameny, a Los Angeles based activist who left an important legacy in the area of LGBT civil rights.

At this point during the proceedings I was thinking a number of things.

My first thought was to send a message to Steinke and suggest that he "up" the volume and amplification in his public talks. After all, when making a speech, it is perfectly okay to speak up and show some passion and let your voice rise and fall like ocean waves meeting the shore.

Then I might suggest to him that if his talents are to grace the corridors of City Hall, perhaps he should first concentrate on winning the hearts and minds of Mr. and Mrs. Average Philadelphia and not focus too heavily on obscure (from a mainstream point of view) ideological personalities like Frank Kameny.

"After all, Paul," I might say. "As composer Ned Rorem once said, ‘It’s not Walt Whitman’s sexuality, but his universality that made him beloved throughout the globe.’"

We Are All Shane Montgomery

COMMENTARY: We are all Shane Montgomery

Weekly Press
• Wed, Jan 14, 2015

By Thom Nickels
Contributing Writer
We are all… Shane Montgomery.

Why am I saying this? Let’s start at the beginning.

Shane Montgomery disappeared after a night out with friends that included a stop at one of Manayunk’s most popular hangouts, Kildare’s Irish Pub on Main Street.

While I’ve never been to Kildare’s, I know that there are scores of places like Kildare’s all over the city.
At 21, Shane Montgomery was still a kid, a boy with some "man growth" but essentially still in adult formation mode. At age 21, few of us have a firm grip on reality, even if many 21 year olds pretend that the opposite is true.

Being 21 is not easy. For most 21 year olds, for instance, the tendency is to judge the world, our friends and family, harshly.

I’m not saying that Shane Montgomery judged anybody, but at 21 he undoubtedly found himself in that "almost mature" formation space described above.

When I was Shane’s age I was often in hyper critical overdrive. When I look back on those days I sometimes feel a little embarrassed. Was I really so critical and arrogant?

The twenties is a time when emotions and mental attitudes go up and down like an erratic seismograph. At that age we are on the hunt for what mature philosophers call a centered personal equilibrium.

Shane Montgomery lived in Roxborough, Manayunk’s next door neighbor, so Kildare’s on Main Street probably had a home turf feel for him. When Shane’s friends (and cousin) left him alone at Kildare’s, they probably thought nothing of it. Being alone in a bar is not necessarily a bad thing. People sometimes go to bars alone to meet a special someone because that’s harder to do in a group situation.

Quite a number of people, upon hearing the news that Shane had drowned in the Schuylkill River, offered theories as to what they thought may have happened to him.

Some suggested that he may have accidentally fallen into the river because he was drunk, while others offered the bizarre theory that he was a victim of a so called Smiley Face serial killer.

One off-the-wall theory even suggested suicide.

Shane, the rumor went, had drowned himself in the river because his family was unhappy after he told them that he was gay. This rumor is obviously bogus because had it been true a friend or two of Shane’s would have known this fact long before his parents did. Nothing like this ever came up in the investigation.

What is significant for me is the love and loyalty shown by Shane Montgomery’s family as divers spent almost 2 months searching for his body.

The television news reports were painful to watch, especially the clip of his mother speaking to reporters after his body was found near the Manayunk Brewery.

The magnitude of his parents’ sorrow indicates that they felt only unconditional love for their 21 year old son.
Most of us have encountered risky life situations where we could have wound up as a fatality.

Whether this means stopping your car on the side of a busy highway to change a flat tire, and then getting hit by a passing car; or waiting for the 15 bus outside the Gold Coast bar on West Girard Avenue in Fishtown as that January 3rd shooter fired a gun, wounding two men, and then (for the purposes of this column) innocent bystanders—you or I-- who happened to be standing nearby.

Or how about narrowly escaping (or not escaping) getting hit by a car while crossing Aramingo Avenue?
In some ways, we are all Shane Montgomery because unusual coincidences, like being at the wrong place at the wrong time, can alter our lives forever.

This is true even for those of us who take great pains in avoiding possible mishaps and disaster.
Consider the following family story I heard over the holidays.

My sister-in-law recounted how her fear of flying got her to talk my brother into taking the train, and not the plane, to Florida for a family trip. For my sister-in-law the train appeared to be a much safer mode of transportation despite the fact that the train ticket cost three times what it cost to fly.

Feeling confident that she had life’s unexpected disasters minimized, she packed her husband and two kids into a southern bound Amtrak train, not in the least minding the fact that the sleeping berths for the four of them were very small.

While the first leg of their journey went smoothly, something happened after the train left Baltimore and Washington and headed further south.

As the train crossed a highway, the road toll gates stopping traffic failed to go down and the train hit a car or two, killing one of the drivers. My brother’s wife and kids were thrown out of their berths as smoke poured into the train. For a time they had no idea what would happen to them.

Would they live? Would they die?

By avoiding the "dangerous" airplane, my sister-in-law had experienced a possible loss of life by taking the safer ("I’m being extra cautious") train.

People say about poor Shane: Why didn’t he go straight home? Why didn’t he leave Kildare’s with his friends? Why this and why that, but when we’re really living life or in the throes of a party with favorite friends, we rarely think that one inconsequential choice made along the way will lead to tragedy and death.

I remember the time I hitchhiked near Paoli when I was Shane’s age. With my thumb out standing on the side of the road, I was happy when a Volkswagen stopped to pick me up. But no sooner was I inside the car when the driver looked at me and growled, "We’re going straight to hell!"

What a relief it was when I discovered that the threat was a joke, but what if it had been real?

Suppose the driver had driven me to an isolated part of Chester County and disposed of me in serial killer fashion?

Would my family and friends have asked why I went into a strange car? Why I couldn’t see that the driver was dangerous? And why I just didn’t walk home?

When you’re 21 you don’t think of death as something that could really happen to you. Death is an abstract idea, more remote than watching a Good Year blimp flying out over the ocean and into the horizon.

Any number of things could have happened to Shane Montgomery that night-- small inconsequential events, like taking the train instead of a plane, that somehow put him along the river’s edge and led to his untimely demise.

Monday, January 5, 2015

ICON City Beat Column January 2015

                ICON January City Beat 2015

  Is Philadelphia the City of Kleptomaniacs? Consider historic Strawberry Mansion, which has seen a lot of foot traffic since 1789, when it was built by Judge William Lewis.  Since 1930, The Committee of 1926 has safeguarded the mansion’s antiques and fine art, including the collection of dolls from the 1926 Sesquecennitial. But where there are collectibles, there are thieves. During one Philadelphia Museum of Art-sponsored tour an antique sugar snipper went missing from the dining room (some say this happened because the tour guide neglected to walk behind exiting visitors). On another tour, somebody pocketed a sterling silver soup latel after which the mansion got smart and fish-wired all the silverware to the dining room table. Earlier this year after a local preservation group held an event there a number of items came up missing: a brass letter holder with a shell design that had been used as a paper towel holder in the bathroom, extra rolls of toilet paper and a bowl filled with artificial strawberries.  Is there a link between historic preservation, a love for old buildings and the kleptomania gene?         

Growing up in an Irish family is not for the weak of heart. In John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar at the Suzanne Roberts Theater we found ourselves in rural Ireland watching the Muldoon’s and Reilly’s duke it out. Shanley, the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning author of 23 plays performed in 17 countries, grew up with a mother who claimed that she was “not affectionate.”  (In interviews, Shanley often refers to his mother as “a pill”). Many of Shanley’s plays are from family experiences, most notably “Doubt,” inspired by a relative’s experience with a priest convicted of child molestation. Outside Mullingar is the story of a man and woman who need years of prep time before declaring their love for one another. ‘Slow recognition’ like this was evident when we attended a recent Irish themed panel discussion at the Pennsylvania Historical Society. When many in the lecture hall grumbled because they couldn’t hear the panelists, rather than complain they left the hall early (and politely) for the post-talk reception. Perhaps shy Irish of this caliber need a high voltage shot of Jewish Yenta Forwardness, a Dame Edna shouting, “We can’t hear in the back! Speak up!”        

When we met celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck several years ago in Atlantic City, there was so much fanfare you’d have thought that an ex-President was in the room. As fellow journalists clamored to devour Mr. Puck’s latest creation—Flat Iron Steak with Peppercorn Sauce and Blue Cheese Butter—we found little difference between Puck’s creation and a “normal” Beef Kebob found in many Asian eateries. An equal comparison, in fact, might be how blogging has come to be seen as its own profession on an equal par with serious journalism, rather than as a sideline or adjunct pursuit. The city’s celebrity diva chef of the moment is Jose Garces. Garces has taken dining out to new heights: the pre-paid ticketed meal and so-called beverage-pairing, even though the latter seems nothing more than an excuse to raise prices. We prefer the classic standby: red with meat; white with fowl or fish or, better yet, whatever is affordable. An ex-chef once gave us his reasons to be wary about artsy food presentations: “The fancier the dish, the more hands and fingers have prodded, massaged, sculpted, squished, felt up, poked holes in, infused or otherwise violated your dinner. Hand and fingers, after all, have a history of (going in and out of) the darnedest places.”

We chatted with our friend Regina who went to Greensgrow Farms in Fishtown to shop for a Christmas tree. Greensgrow started out as a simple lettuce farm but has since grown into a multi-tiered organic food and farm industry with “mobile markets,” a nursery, and gift shop with T-shirts. Traditional no frills Lancaster County or even Iowa Farming is light years away from Greensgrove’s “transubstantiated” world where farming is an Agri-religion with esoteric antecedents like medicinal herbs, cultish followers and hydroponic lettuce machines. “I always felt a lot of snobbery there,” Regina confesses. “Their Christmas trees were $45.00, which seemed unusually high to me but I thought, well, maybe they are hydrophonic miracle trees with medicinal benefits.” In the end, Regina went into Port Richmond and bought an even better, forest grown (traditional) tree for twenty-two dollars.  


CafĂ© Twelve’s new ownership has much of its old gay clientele going to other cafes. Maybe it’s the influx of droll Drexel students who seem to be turning the place into a school cafeteria, or the “lap top” 12th Street gym bunnies who text for hours there that’s chasing away the former occupants.  
Growing Up Irish is Not for the Weak of Heart