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Monday, September 28, 2015

Some Philadelphia Poets

                      THE LOCAL LENS

   The City of Philadelphia is currently looking for a new Poet Laureate. Sonia Sanchez, the city's first poet laureate (Philadelphia’s current poet laureate is Frank Sherlock) had an exceptional ability to work with mainstream audiences through the city’s Mural Arts Project. ''The black artist is dangerous,” Sanchez has written. “Black art controls the "Negro's" reality, negates negative influences, and creates positive images.''  Born in Alabama in 1934 as Wilsonia Benita Driver, she graduated from New York’s Hunter College after moving to Harlem as a young girl, then studied for a while at New York University under Louise Bogan. She married Albert Sanchez but kept his surname after her divorce and remarriage to poet Etheridge Knight. Well known as an activist for racial equality, Sanchez began her years as a teacher at San Francisco State in 1965 and joined the Nation of Islam in 1972 because of then burgeoning views on Black separatism but left the organization in 1975 because of that group’s views on women’s rights. Her more than 12 published poetry volumes include Morning Haiku (2010) and Does your house have lions? (1995).
   In 2011, the 77 year old poet, teacher and activist Philadelphia was named the city's first poet laureate by Mayor Michael Nutter in a ceremony in City Hall. Since that time she has appeared in many poetry readings throughout the city, along with other local poets who have begun to establish national reputations, like Philadelphia’s CAConrad, who writes that his childhood consisted of “selling cut flowers along the highway for his mother and helping her shoplift.” 69 Conrad continues to stun audiences with his Deviant Propulsion word missiles (e.g., "It's True I Tell Ya My Father is a 50 cent Party Balloon"). The award winning poet is the author of many books and chapbooks, including The Frank Poems, advanced ELVIS, and end-begin w/chants, a collaboration with Philadelphia’s current Poet Laureate, Frank Sherlock. Attending a CAConrad reading can be an unforgettable experience. Part stand up comic, slam theater experience, Conrad dazzles with oversized rhinestone glasses, feathers, or even bathtub recitations.  
   With poem titles like “I Still Have Keys to the Apartment,” “Bran Muffins Have Nothing to Do With it! So There!” and “Leaving the Only Bed in America That Keeps Me Satisfied,” Conrad’s irreverent style might not go over at the city’s Union League but his cult following is symbolic of poetry’s status in the city. The “new style” Philadelphia poet is often cantankerously unique and sports some sort of physical signature like a big hat, a monocle or the wearing of several scarves. These styles have given poetry an urban  mystique.  The poetic signature look is an apt description that can be applied to poet Lamont Steptoe, who grew up in Pittsburgh and who found his wings as a poet while serving in the Republic of South Vietnam from 1969 to 1970 as a Scout Dog Handler, meaning someone whose job it was to walk point element for combat patrols.  Assigned to the 25th Infantry at Cu Chi, the accomplished poet, photographer and founder of Whirlwind Press, has published many volumes of poetry, including Crimson River and American Morning/Mourning. Conrad and Steptoe could be a future Philadelphia Poet Laureate, despite Steptoe’s antiwar polemic. For years, Steptoe could be seen walking around town in army fatigues, heavy back gear, a large Miraculous Medal and other talismans as if the gritty streets of the city were the jungles of Indo-China.
         Another great Philadelphia poet is the Rev. John P. McNamee, Pastor Emeritus of Saint Malachy Church in North Philadelphia, who was ordained a priest by John Cardinal O’Hara in 1959. Fr. McNamee, who has spent most of his priesthood serving the poor and disadvantaged, is credited with bringing Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement to Philadelphia. An award winning poet, his books, “Clay Vessels” and “Endurance—The Rhythm of Faith,” have been popular spiritual bestsellers. His autobiography, “Diary of a City Priest,” won the Catholic Press Association Book Award, and was made into a movie for television starring actor David Morse in 2001. An international speaker, Fr. McNamee received a Doctor of Humanities honorary degree from Villanova University in 2001. In 2006, he published Donegal Suite, a collection of contemplative and mystical poems which derives from a summer of solitude he spent in Northern Ireland. The second half of the book concentrates more on the pathos of daily life in Philadelphia.
            While the mystical poems of a priest might not be ideal to represent the City of Philadelphia, a secular mystic poet like Leonard Gontarek, the recipient of five Pushcart Prize nominations. Like the Philly poet Jim Cory, author of a number of books and chapbooks and editor of the 1997 Black Sparrow Press edition of James Broughton’s poems, Packing Up For Paradise, Gontarek’s Wallace Stevens insurance salesman look means that neither he nor Cory would be “recognized” as poets in the street, at least if one is going by the “uniform” of younger urban poets which tends towards affectation, such as the arrangement of neck scarves.  This style can range from the minimalist placement of one scarf to the piling on of two or three so that one thinks of café habitués in Paris or of certain Middle Eastern revolutionaries. While the poetic uniform is usually relegated to the young—consider prose writer George Lippard’s flamboyant dress—other poets seem happier to blend with the scenery much the same way that Walt Whitman, who dressed as if he was a farmer, blended in with his Camden townsfolk.    

   Jim Cory believes that poetry can be different things to different people at different times, and he told me that when he was 12 he stumbled on The Mentor Book of Major American Poets on the paperback rack at the Stamford Museum and Nature Center (in CT). “It was sacred text. It explained everything. I still have it. Five years later it was all about the Beats and Bohemian rebellion. Fast forward ten years and a lot of what I was writing was gay poetry. In my 60s, I write in different modes to satisfy different ends. Short poems appeal because of the challenge of getting something complicated into 7 lines, cut-ups and collage because they’re fun and with any luck can be fun for the reader too.”  He also believes that it is important for poets to take poetry—“not their poetry but poetry in the broad sense—more seriously than they take themselves.”  

      Philadelphia’s most famous modern poet, who almost always wore a suit and tie, was the 1973-1974 Poet Laureate of the United States, Daniel Hoffman. Hoffman’s poetry is almost always just a little sad, but it is also noted for its joy in the small things of life. As he once told an interviewer, “Even when a poet writes about something negative the fact that he puts it into a form controls it, makes it positive.”  The author of more than 25 books moved to Philadelphia in 1948 with his wife, the poet Elizabeth MacFarland. At this time Philadelphia was on the verge of a rebirth, just a few years before architect Vincent Kling and City Planner Edmund Bacon would change the face of downtown. It was also the era of Mayor Richardson Dilworth, the first Democratic mayor after decades of “corrupt and contented” Republican politics. Change was in the air, and Hoffman, feeling the pulse, felt no leftover homesickness for New York City, which he once labeled “a city that cannibalizes its own past.” Hoffman, who in school had been a classmate of poet Allen Ginsberg’s, went on to teach English and Poetry at the University of Pennsylvania.  By all accounts, he became a good teacher yet admitted that he’d be the first to castigate a student if he heard that the student did not read poetry by other poets because of the fear of influence.

    Blunt to a fault, Hoffman said that he wouldn’t want students like this in his class, even though he expressed sensitivity towards the pitfalls of being a 17 year old beginning poet, for whom all poetry generally means,   “my love affair.” Young poets of this caliber, Hoffman explains, all write “the same verbal spaghetti without any control or form,” all the more reason to make them “read good poetry. ”One teaching method he used to cure the “my love affair” view of poetry was to copy out police reports and have the students choose one and then write a poem about why the culprit was arrested. This exercise was important, he says, to get the students “out of themselves.”
    Born in 1923, Hoffman died on March 30, 2013 in Haverford, Pennsylvania.
   French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s line, “You must change your life,” set the tone for Philadelphia’s Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore. Born in 1940 in Oakland, California, Moore’s first book of poems, Dawn Visions, was published in 1964 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Books. This was the Beat Generation era, when Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, also published by City Lights, was changing the poetic landscape. In 1972, Moore followed up with another City Lights volume, Burnt Heart/Ode to the War Dead, about the human carnage in Vietnam. In the late 1960s he founded and directed The Floating Lotus Magic Opera Company in Berkeley, California, and later presented two major productions, The Walls Are Running Blood, and Bliss Apocalypse.  The world was changing, and for some meant a reinvention of the Self. Moore, who was then a self described Zen Buddhist whose normal routine was to get up early every morning, “sit zazen, smoke a joint, do half an hour of yoga, then read the Mathnawi of Rumi, the long mystical poem of that great Persian Sufi of the thirteenth century,” life was about to change. 7
    Moore converted to Sufi Islam in 1970, riding a wave of spiritual self transformation that affected other writers and poets in the Bay area, most notably Eugene Rose, an atheist and Marxist whose devotion to Nietzcshe nearly drove him mad before he read the writings of the Desert Fathers. Rose, who would go on to become an Orthodox priest and co-founder of Holy Trinity monastery near Redding, California, is now considered by many to be a future saint of the Russian Orthodox Church. As for Moore, his spiritual transformation inspired him to travel to Morocco, Spain, Algeria and Nigeria, but finally back to California where he would publish The Desert is the Only Way Out.  
      In many ways, Philadelphia would prove to be Moore’s desert, although he did not become a Philadelphian until 1990. Before that date he lived for a while in Boston’s North End, where he remembers meeting the poet John Weiners, the shy Irish Catholic poet whom Allen Ginsberg once referred to as “a pure poet” and who was really the Walt Whitman of New England.
     While living in Philadelphia, Moore published The Ramadan Sonnets (Jusoor/City Lights), and in 2002, The Blind Beekeeper (Jusoor/Syracuse University Press).  San Francisco poet, playwright and novelist Michael McClure has written that Moore’s poems are like Frank O’Hara’s, where “there are no boundaries or limits to possible subject matter,” and where “imagination runs rampant and it glides.” 

      Moore is not a poet of empty things and ideas but aspects of the spiritual as the divine seem to invade every word he writes.  He was viewed as legendary in the California of the 1960s, in part because he was able to be “spiritual” without losing his sense of humor.  He is the spiritual poet with a comedic wink. 
   Moore works with Larry Robin at Philadelphia’s Moonstone Arts Center where he helps coordinate Moonstone’s annual Poetry Ink readings of 100 Poets. In 2011, 2012 and 2014 he was awarded the Nazim Hikmet Prize for Poetry, and in 2013 he won an American Book Award.
    In this age of ongoing dialogue among Muslims, Christians and Jews, the sacred person known as the Virgin Mary, mentioned some thirty-four times in the Koran. The sacred person concept is not lost on Moore, who writes in Five Short Meditations on the Virgin Mary:

I saw Mary board a bus at Broad and State
her head covered and her face radiant
small and held within herself
careful and preoccupied

a heaven seeming to be wrapped around her
her cheeks red her lips dry her eyes lowered
interior moisture her preferred cloister
the bus passengers sudden ghosts before her
her shoes small and tattered
her hands carrying a book
If any had spoken to her she might have become lost
If she had spoken to anyone
they might have become saved


Writing for the Philadelphia Gay News

                                    THE LOCAL LENS

        At The Spirit Newspaper's first anniversary party a group of us began telling war stories about our time as writers and reporters for other newspapers. As the oldest person in this august assembly, I was not short on stories.  As I used to say to friends, “Just name the newspaper, and I’ll tell you a story.” When you’ve written for nearly every publication in the city (except Philadelphia Magazine), stories come easily.
               I wrote for the Philadelphia Gay News (PGN) for a number of years sometime after its founding in 1976. It made sense to me to write for PGN. I wanted to do something to combat the hostility and discrimination I saw in society regarding gay people. As a PGN writer I could write about gay lives, interview gay artists, and talk to politicians about gay issues. In those days, mainstream press outlets such as The Philadelphia Inquirer did not always report so called gay news. In some of these mainstream news stories one could sometimes detect outright prejudice. This is why PGN became a valuable, priceless asset. This was the era, after all, when Philadelphia Magazine had a ban on gay dating classifieds in their personal ad section. Censorship like this is hard to conceive of today.

      I’m sure I wasn’t the only PGN writer who experienced negativity from editors of other newspapers. When applying for a reporter’s job at The Germantown Courier in 1980 (I had sent them my resume beforehand with my connection to PGN clearly visible), I thought I had a fair interview until I stepped out of the editor’s office and heard a staffer remark, “You know, I half suspected he was going to walk in here with a purse.” This comment, I think, was based on the stories about gay issues that I had published in The Distant Drummer and in PGN. Needless to say, I didn’t get the reporter’s job although The Courier was willing to allow me to freelance.

      Prior to writing for PGN, I wrote for the radical gay press in Boston.  One newspaper was called Lavender Vision and in my stories there I castigated straight radicals for their disparaging views on gay liberation and their use of the word fag, which was very common then.  I would hawk Lavender Vision in Harvard Square, shouting to one and all, “Get your Gay Liberation newspaper!” I had a scruffy beard, long hair, and I wore wide lens German aviator glasses. Passersby seemed oblivious; nobody blinked—this was bohemian, sophisticated Cambridge, after all.

    When I joined the staff of PGN, I started writing features, then went on to write a weekly column entitled Profiles in which I interviewed prominent members of the community.

    I became acquainted with PGN publisher (Mark Segal) and other writers on the staff.  PGN’s editor had been a friend of mine in Boston so I felt very much at home.  As reporters and columnists, we had our work cut out for us because it was a highly politicized and dramatic time when gay men were getting arrested in Center City late at night just for walking or talking together in so called gay areas. A police wagon would pull up and ten men gathered around a stoop would be ordered inside. When the city’s first Gay Rights Bill was introduced in City Council (this bill sought protection from employment discrimination), antigay protest groups held vigils and petition rallies outside City Hall Annex. During City Council meetings the level of ignorance sunk so low that protestors shouted how homosexuals all had rotten teeth. An outspoken homophobic preacher, Germantown’s Rev. Melvin Floyd, was probably the most famous homophobe in the city then.  Floyd would ride through Center City and the neighborhoods in a truck with a dummy’s head protruding from roof while he screamed Bible verses at passersby through a megaphone.  

   All of these stories, however unpleasant, had to be recorded. These were among the best years of PGN, I think, because the hostility of the outside world drew us (the staff) towards one another in a way that soldiers in a war are bonded and look out for one another in times of trouble. PGN was needed in those days, but I’m not so sure that’s the case today when most publications report gay news.   

   Still, when I’d visit my parents in those days my mother would always ask me when I was going to get off the gay thing. “You’re limiting yourself as a writer,” she said. “Can’t you branch out? It’s all you write about. Gay. Gay. Gay!”
       Mother was right, of course.  I told her I’d stop writing about gay issues when society stopped making being gay an issue.  Then I’d drop it like a hot potato.  
   With the PGN staff I wrote features on gays and alcoholism, religion, the AIDS crises, and for Profiles I interviewed gay Catholic priests, gay Wiccans and pagans, motorcyclists, athletes, lesbian disc jockeys, AIDS researchers, bar owners, bartenders, authors and activists.
    But no columnist’s or reporter’s life is without major hurdles.

      After one Profiles column, in which I interviewed a popular lesbian disc jockey, the woman telephoned me in a rage and insisted that I had portrayed her as “a slut.” I had no idea what she was getting at but read and reread the column for covert slut references.  I showed the column to friends. “Do you think I make her out to be a slut?” I asked.  After rereading the column a number of times I came to the conclusion that she took objection to my calling her an attractive woman and then by quoting what she had told me during the interview, namely that she was tired of men whistling at her when she walked the streets of Philly.  “But I only wrote what you told me during the interview,” I said. But I might as well have been speaking to my bathroom wall. 
   For extra money, I took a Friday job driving the PGN company car while another staff member distributed papers to all of the vending boxes and distribution points in the city. I’d drive for five minutes, stop at a box as my co-worker got out and filled it and got back in the car before somebody behind us honked or rammed into us. It was much like driving a taxi with constant stops and three minute ‘parks,’ while dodging mid-city traffic and lights. Some Fridays the traffic stress was so great that my co-worker would scream when I missed a box or took a wrong turn. One minute we’d be laughing together, but then a kind of road rage would take over. Whenever I see images of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” I think back to this little driving job.    
   It was a sad day when my Boston friend (Stanley Ward) left the editorship of PGN, but things seemed to work out for a while under the leadership of Al Patrick, who had stellar Ward-like qualities. I was now writing a PGN column about famous gay men, bisexuals and lesbians in history, which later formed the genesis of my book, Out in History. I wasn’t quite so cozy with PGN’s publisher at this point but we were still on good terms.
   Then a prolific lesbian PGN writer charged me with anti-Semitism because in my column on Dame Edith Sitwell I wrote that children all over England would race to their TV sets whenever Dame Sitwell appeared on TV. I had quoted another writer when I wrote that the children of England loved Dame Sitwell because she looked like a witch with her hooked nose. Blame it on the English children, I said, the hooked nose part was not my doing but a quote. Happily, the “attack” journalist and I later reconciled.  

    In the life of every newspaper journalist there comes a time when a Darth Vader editor takes over.  This is the type of editor that likes to clean house and hire a new staff just to put his/her signature on things. Darth Vader editors can also mean “death” for certain reporters and columnists. The reasons for this can be varied, and may be only partially articulated within the editor’s head. I saw the Darth Vader effect post PGN when I wrote a biweekly column called Different Strokes for the Center City Welcomat. When Editor Dan Rottenberg left The Welcomat, he was replaced by a New York editor who quickly alienated a number of long time staffers. This eventually led to a revolution of sorts when a new publisher organized a silent coup and fired the New York guy very soon after he was hired. Here we had two editorial Darth Vaders in mortal combat, and it was ugly.   

   When a Ms. Darth Vader became PGN’s next editor suddenly newspaper life for me became foreboding.

   For years I had been writing for PGN with comparable ease but now suddenly every word I wrote was called into question. Ms. Vader would call me and go over my columns like a dentist going over tooth x-rays that show hidden decay and gum disease. Sometimes she’d want a sentence that was buried in the column to be the lead sentence, or she’d tell me to rewrite two paragraphs, or use a period instead of a semicolon, or open the column with the sentence I chose to end it with. Sometimes she’d request that I turn a column inside out and start from the middle. Other times she wanted the middle extracted and new editorial stuffing inserted. When I would do as instructed, she’d call or send a note in the mail and state that I was still not listening to her.   
   Ms. Vader was making life so difficult for me that I began to dread writing my weekly column because with every word I wrote I kept seeing her red pencil and hearing her angry voice on the phone. She had succeeded in freezing up my creativity. I began to hate my column, Out in History.

      Today I read PGN only because it comes to me online and because I occasionally like to bathe in nostalgia. When I read PGN there are rarely any “news” surprises because more often than not gay news is available elsewhere in the bigger papers like The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Times or the Huffington Post. Gay news is now a mainstream affair because it is no longer the taboo subject it once was; the age of the gay ghetto is over.

      Just writing these words reminds me of what Barbara Gittings once said when she talked about gay people joining all- gay churches, namely that one day something like this will be unnecessary because liberation and freedom will have been achieved.
   With churches or newspapers, the same logic applies. PGN has done its job, and it has done its job magnificently. It is a tribute to its success that gay news is now…everywhere.

    The fat lady, in all her glory, is getting ready to sing.




Friday, September 11, 2015

Philadelphia and the Pope

There’s been an a lot of talk about the upcoming papal visit: incessant talk about bridge closures, security checkpoints, surprise dead end streets, no car zones, closed businesses, and more. It is no wonder that many people feel a sense of dread at the coming of Pope Francis despite the well intentioned papal cheerleaders who constantly remind us that we should be happy and honored that such an important person is spending two days in Philadelphia.

   Most of us might feel honored that the pope is visiting but too many of us are beginning to feel pope saturated. The impending visit is becoming like the slow approach of a great hurricane, so much so that many are planning to be elsewhere on September 26 and 27, the dates of Pope Francis’ visit. The saturation point hit bulls eye status with the onslaught of pope merchandise like Eagles and Phillies t-shirts, pope dolls with “turnaround” heads, buttons and posters but also with comparisons to some kind of Catholic Woodstock, sans Janis Joplin and Hendrix, of course. The Woodstock comparison implies shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, makeshift tents erected in the mud and rain, and endless lines of people lined up near blue porta potties. Even with all this, it is still an opportunity to see Francis in the distance, a tiny figure in white being ushered here and there while the thunderous crowd waxes and wanes.

  Be it a rock concert or a 4th of July Parkway gala, there will always be some who don’t “do” crowds well. For people who feel this way it doesn’t matter who might be appearing on stage, be it a “resurrected” Eleanor Roosevelt or Amy Winehouse. They simply will not join a massive crowd that resembles a rolling ocean during a storm. Huge crowds on the Parkway remind me of the Odessa steps scene in the Sergi Eisenstein film, Battleship Potemkin, where a baby pram is pushed through the crowd and goes running down the steps. In crowds like this you never know when the ‘beserk’ factor is going to kick in.  Crowd expectations are so high for the pope’s visit that many Catholic parishes are advising parishioners to stay home or visit the church hall and watch the pope on TV with other parish members rather than attend in person. Here we have proof that the negative build up around the pope’s visit has had an effect. What else can we expect from warnings like: Be prepared to walk miles; be prepared to make personal sacrifices; be prepared for mammoth closures. These are not words used to describe a great festival or fiesta. They are flashing red light warnings that do little to inspire celebratory feelings.

  Recently, there’s been a change in the public relations language around the pope’s visit.  City officials and Donna Crilley Farrell, Executive Director of the World Meeting of Families, upped the ante from negative to positive. Ms. Farrell announced, “This event is not about what you can’t do, but all about what you can do in our great city.” While a comment like this deserves a round of applause, one can only hope that this positive turnaround isn’t coming too late in the day. 

    While the daily wrangling out of papal visit details by the city has been a painful spectacle to observe, my thoughts often turn to Rome and what might be happening behind the walls of Vatican City. What are the pope’s advisors and the pope himself saying, or worrying about, regarding the trip to the United States, and specifically Philadelphia? Almost certainly, the conversations in Vatican City regarding the papal visit are lively, and maybe even a little contentious.

  Here’s one scenario. Imagine Pope Francis in a conference room with a number of high Church clerics.
A favorite aide-de-camp rises to speak.

    “Your Holiness, we are happy you decided not to visit the city of William Penn the same time that Diner en Blanc was held in Philadelphia’s Navy Yard. If you had visited then you would have been lost in a sea of white, a papal-like sea of white table cloths, napkins, umbrellas and hats. We are so thankful you opted to wait for some background color, but now it seems that the so called color is too much. Philadelphia seems to be losing control, and we are seeing red, We are getting reports of bridge closures and security checkpoints which makes us think of old East Berlin/communist Russia empires. There’s a sense of fear and apprehension in Philadelphia. A papal visit should not inspire apprehension.”

   “Perhaps if we made the world a little less enchanted with you,” another Vatican official offered, “Your Holiness, why not Issue a fast track encyclical where you do nothing but quote the old Baltimore Catechism. Throw in quotes by Donald Trump and Ann Coulter. We can think of other rhetorical techniques for crowd thinning.  The successor to Saint Peter is not supposed to be a rock star. That is for people of David Bowie’s ilk.”

  “The Dali Lama has informed us that his position as the world’s most generic acceptable “all inclusive” religious leader has been trumped by the Bishop of Rome. Your Holiness, the Dali Lama says that you no longer speak only for Catholics but that you have taken on a wider, universal cast. You are the ‘new’ him, he says. You have moved outside Catholicism and into transcendental realms. He says he accepts this change with grace and is willing to slide into second place but that he still feels a sense of displacement. In his message to us he says he expects to see only low level bureaucrats and crowds when he arrives in Philadelphia after Your Holiness’ departure.” The Cardinal who said this held up a picture of the Dali Lama while alternately grabbing hold of a Smurf Pope doll with a tassel on the end of its too pointy miter. “This is an example of what’s out there,” he said, shaking the doll. “You have become a talking point for low end merchandisers. And look at this,” the Cardinal added, reaching inside a brown bag for a tin foil wrapped sandwich which turned out to be a cheese steak with the pope’s profile embedded into the Amorsio’s roll. “Now they can eat you after they play with you and comb your hair, but will they pay attention to you when you speak? Or will they forget your message and stay lost in all these toys?” He placed the cheese steak on an end table but it was quickly removed and consumed by a Swiss Guard.

  “The serious import of Your Holiness’ recent messages to the world is not the stuff of comedy,” another prelate suggested. “Most of us don’t think anything of a serious note will be accomplished in Philadelphia. Your Holiness has fallen victim to the worldwide celebrity culture or the cult of personality. People look at you but they do not see the Church and its teachings. All they see is celebrity—and possible revolution. We are very concerned. Some among us say that we should capitalize on your celebrity. “From paparazzi glitter many will be led to the Church,” they insist.  

   Another Cardinal who had heretofore remained silent spoke up. “What is that look on Your Holiness’ face? Your placid reaction suggests that you might have an alternate plan. Of course you do realize that there should not be any deviations in the itinerary. That would cause additional mayhem and public unrest. Can you imagine a squadron of Philly police cars following Your Holiness as you bolt from the proscribed course? Stay the course while in Philadelphia, Your Holiness.  There’s even talk of you escaping from the private ticketed Basilica Mass and getting a taxi to Northern Liberties to visit the Russian Orthodox community. We’ve seen you scribbling in your notebook with that look in your eye. One informant insists you are looking to change into layman’s clothes so that you can ride the subways. That’s an old Jesuit trick, and totally unnecessary. You rode the rails ad infinitum in Argentina, so you know there’s nothing new to see. The poor will always be with us. If you want to see the Philly homeless we’ll drive you to a shelter; there’s no reason to hop a cab and head to Aramingo Avenue to see freelance guys carrying signs in traffic. These guys don’t want your blessing anyway Holy Father, all they want is heroin.  Will you bring them heroin? Forgive me, Holy Father, I did not mean to say that.”

   “As your dietician,” yet another prelate chimed in, “I’d have to say that you need to be on your guard when it comes to food. Nobody knows about your soft pretzel allergy except us. One bite and it is all over. You don’t want to be rushed to Hahnemann, the worst hospital in Philly. A hoagie sampler might be okay but definitely no Arctic Splash or Mountain Dew. Keep it classy, Holy Father. And don’t let them cover you with Eagles or Phillies paraphernalia. Would the Queen of England let them do that to her? Maintain your dignity and remember, please, your secondary allergy to Hops; no pope beer when you plan your second escape near Front and Girard. Yes, you didn’t know we knew about that, did you? Johnny Brenda’s is no place for a pope. You’ll never find a seat anyway. I don’t think I need to say this, but please… no washing the feet of methadone clinic patients under the El near Front Street. Or anybody else’s feet for that matter!”

   “One more thing….What about the Saint Laurentius problem?” the Cardinal who unwrapped the cheese steak asked. “That old Polish parish is slated for demolition. No getting mixed up in that, Holy Father. If you segue and visit that church it’s all over for Archbishop Chaput. He’s already upset that he’s not a candidate for the red hat, but this would be a public relations disaster for him. Let condemned churches, like sleeping dogs, lie. Please, Holy Father.”




Pennsylvania's Bondage to Prohibition Era Liquor Laws

The announcement of a proposed 14,000 square foot Fine Wine and Good Spirits Shop at 11th and Chestnut Streets got me thinking once again how Pennsylvania needs to get out of the liquor selling business. The proposed mega store is good news to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) because the site will be in the heart of the booming Center City restaurant industry. PLCB planners are optimistic that the new store, which will straddle a mega Target store, will attract bulk beverage orders from surrounding restaurants.
   A heavy bulk beverage business is already happening at the current, smaller PLCB store at 12th and Chestnut, which the mega store will replace when it opens in the spring of 2016.  At the 12th Street store, it is not unusual to find empty shelves of Chairman Selection and other wines of relatively high or medium quality because restaurant scouts seem to buy them in bulk the minute they go on sale. This means that individual customers are forced to purchase less desirable or list price brands  
    PLCB officials anticipate the additions of loading docks at the new 11th Street mega store, so that restaurant scouts in SUV’s can back up and take out even larger quantities of ‘on sale’ wine and spirits. This means more empty shelves for the individual consumer. Quite clearly the emphasis is not on the individual PLCB customer but on bulk purchases.
  When I moved to the Riverwards in 2002, I was within walking distance of a small wine and spirits shop on Richmond Street. This mini-store, despite its size, had a fairly good selection, as did another mini store on Girard Avenue near the 26th Police District Headquarters. Mini state stores like this existed throughout many city neighborhoods so that, like a drop off Post Office letter box, nobody was too far from the nearest booze outlet. This changed when the PLCB began to think in bulk. The PLCB then began to consolidate the mini stores into fancy mega stores that promised a better selection of merchandise, regular wine and liquor tasting events and longer hours of operation. While the mega store advocates tried to make these large booze palaces sound as stylish as possible, the end result was that with the loss of the mini stores most customers now had to travel greater distances to make a purchase.  
    The presence of PLCB-trained wine experts in French looking aprons does not alleviate the pain of inconvenience when you need a bottle of something at the last minute and have to travel across town to get it. While the mini stores may have been ugly architecturally, at least they made a bad system somewhat tolerable. 
   The sad fact is that Pennsylvania is no further along in eliminating state control of liquor sales then it was in 1936 after the Johnstown Flood. Eliminating state control of wine and spirits is not specifically a Republican or Democratic issue, although generally it is conservative Republicans who want everything privatized, from the U.S. Post Office to Social Security. State store privatization is the one privatization that has been given the green light by many political progressives. The genesis of the state store system, after all, is an outgrowth of Prohibition and it is based on the principal that drinking is evil and sinful and needs government regulation to keep it in check.
       Frequent liquor buyer Philadelphians often travel to Delaware and New Jersey when they shop for wine and spirits because the prices are cheaper there, despite PLCB propaganda that Pennsylvania prices are competitive. In New Jersey’s ‘Total Wine’ store, for instance, you can buy fine wine for $3.99 a bottle. Generally, vodka, spirits and wine are 19% cheaper in New Jersey and 27% cheaper in Delaware. Pennsylvanians are also subject to the outdated Johnstown Tax. The Johnstown Tax began as an altruistic measure in 1936 after the infamous Johnstown flood. At that time the Pennsylvania General Assembly put an emergency tax on all alcohol, sans beer, sold in the state. Initially, the tax was conceived as temporary and was scheduled to be eliminated after the flood damage was cleaned up and after flood victims received adequate compensation.  Six years after the flood, when Johnstown was in full recovery, the tax was never repealed. In fact, politicians raised the tax to 15% in 1963 and to 18% in 1968, where it remains today.
    Where does the Johnstown Tax money go today? It goes into a general “discretionary” fund for Pennsylvania lawmakers. How’s that for an ambiguous cookie jar. 
   Why has no Pennsylvania governor, even the so called grassroots ‘people’s governor,” Ed Rendell, worked to repeal the Johnstown Tax?
   Of course, whenever there’s a state monopoly on something there’s bound to be trouble. Recently an ex-PLCB official, a marketing director who had the power of determining which wine and spirits products should be shelved, and which ones should be discontinued, was charged with accepting bribes of golf outings, all-expense paid trips, cash, meals, and sports tickets from distillers and wholesalers who wished to boost their products or keep them shelved in PLCB stores.
   The idea that one person in the state has the power to decide which brands of wine and spirits will stay put on store shelves is a little daunting to me.
   When it comes to the sale of beer, Pennsylvania is far more liberal. The state does not run the beer business but it does control the number of licenses for these stores. In fact, the Pennsylvania beer tax is the 3rd lowest in the nation.
  Why does beer get a free ride? And why does wine, whose properties are extolled by scientists and medical personnel as having amazing health benefits (sans abuse), put in the same category as gin and vodka? Wine in many states is sold in convenience stores, 7-11’s, at the local CVS, Target, and in nearly all supermarkets.
    After Governor Wolf’s veto of the most recent liquor privatization bill, Representative Dayle Heffley had this to say:  “… Pennsylvania is one of only two states in the nation (the other being Utah) that maintains full control of the wholesale and retail sales of wine and spirits. If moving away from our current government monopoly makes “bad business sense” as the governor claims, why are other states not modeling their liquor sales after Pennsylvania?” Heffley also pointed out that in Pennsylvania, “public opinion polls continually show that Pennsylvanians want to move away from our current Prohibition-era system.”

    In the old days, when you walked into a Philadelphia state store you had to ask a guy behind the counter what you wanted. They had state store catalogs with numbers; the customer would give the guy a number, he'd disappear into the back and come back with the bottle. The operation was run like a pawn shop. Not only that, but by law the guy behind the counter couldn't give you any recommendations.

  Pennsylvania has come a little way since then, but it still has miles to go. 

Thursday, September 3, 2015


September City Beat 2015


    When we visited Pittsburgh recently we found the restaurant world there to our liking. Popular are pubs with the kind of bar food you’d find at Standard Tap in Northern Liberties, only you won’t find breaded smelt — the most awful dish in the western hemisphere –– in the “steel city.” In Pittsburgh, as in Center City, popular restaurants mean long lines at places that do not take reservations. At one French eatery the lines were so long patrons lingered outside with drinks or sat at the bar until called. Our wait was so long the bartender offered a heartfelt apology.  “I don’t know why people aren’t moving. They got their checks but they won’t go home.”  The obsessive sitters didn’t care that other people had been waiting for more than an hour. We made the suggestion that the restaurant adopt a policy that customers not occupy a table for more than two and a half hours. One upscale Korean restaurant in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood already has this policy in place:  Please do not allow your dining experience to exceed two and one half hours was printed on the back of the menu although the service was so slow we came to see the time limit as a game in reverse psychology. The food at the French eatery with the long wait was mediocre, while the no-name, walk-in lunchtime Pittsburgh pubs we visited provided extraordinary dining experiences.


Photojournalist Neil Benson has been working in the city since 1970. His photographs have appeared in The Drummer, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Rolling Stone, Time, People and The New York Times. The opening of his current show at The History Museum attracted about 100 people. Benson talked about the early days of his career, when The Drummer paid him ten dollars a snap. He said that when he photographed Mike Schmidt of the Phillies, Schmidt rolled on the floor and pretended to make love to his baseball bat while repeating the line, This is what you want; I’m giving you what you want. From the thousands of negatives, contact sheets and photos that Besnon donated to the museum, about 140 images were selected for the exhibit. Faces on the wall include: Judge Lisa Richette at the typewriter; Mayor Rizzo and Queen Elizabeth; a young Anne d’Harnoncourt in an antebellum style dress chatting with two Social Register types who had no idea that the woman in front of them would become one of the museum’s greatest directors. We liked the photo of KYW-TV’s award winning 1970s news team just before Jessica Savitch’s went national but we’re sorry that Benson didn’t have his camera handy to capture PMA’s Joseph J. Rishel and Kathleen Foster, who were among those present.      

We hung out with beefy parking valet types at the opening party for Luxe Valet, an on demand valet parking service. The event took place at Benjamin’s Desk (BD), or the former offices of Philadelphia Weekly. BD doesn’t have the best vibe in the city. Maybe it’s the utilitarian rectangular shaped room that recalls a Cub Scout Den or a Lion’s Club hunting lodge sans mounted Cecil heads, but something’s amiss here. Mayor Nutter joined the happy beer and white wine drinking crowd that munched on Italian hoagies and soft pretzels. Though we didn’t recognize a single face, at least we figured out that the reason why parking valet guys don’t make eye contact is because they’re trained to look for moving vehicles. 

 The Dell Music Center packs them in. With 600 lawn seats and 5,284 reserved seats you wouldn’t think there’d be much of a tailgating spillover. At Historic Strawberry Mansion, the city’s largest historic house museum (looking good after a recent 2 million dollar restoration) when there’s a Dell concert it means the museum gets trashed. Cars drive and park illegally all over the museum’s lawn, leaving trenches from tires, injured shrubs and violated flowerbeds. After an August 6th concert a car backed into a fire hydrant, upending and un- rooting it.  Other tailgaters set up grills and tents along the edges of the museum’s lawn. The lawn becomes the ‘go to’ deposit spot for human defacation, garbage, feces stained napkins, beer bottles, diapers, chicken bones and Styrofoam food containers.  The museum has made several complaints to the Mayor and to Susan Slawson, First Deputy Commissioner of Recreation and Programs, but to no avail. We think the city should at least send out cleaning crews and hire parking enforcers on the night of the big concerts. 

  An end-of-summer Friends of the Avenue of the Arts event took place in Macy’s Greek Hall where we chatted with FAA’s Tim Moore and met two Manhattan transplants who are finding Center City to their liking. Philadelphia is less expensive, and there are seldom lines at restaurants. It is a city overflowing with arts and culture. These ex New Yorkers love the Barnes, especially the coffee in the Barnes café and say they don’t miss overcrowded Manhattan at all. The Avenue of the Arts was named one of America’s “Great Streets” by the American Panning Association in 2008.