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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Trans Issues: The hot news of the Day

The transgender issue is the hot news of the day. From the one formerly known as Bruce Jenner to the trans person next door, stories about trans people seem to be everywhere. For many it is a controversial issue. Many people, for instance, admit that they still struggle with understanding how someone can feel that they were born into the wrong body.  Gay people also struggle with understanding this concept. In fact, there’s a small movement currently within the LGBT community working to take the ‘T’ off the label LGBT so that it will read LGB, meaning lesbian, gay and bisexual.  Sexual orientation, they say, is not gender identity. They are really two very different issues.  

     I met my first trans person in the late 1970s while living in Germantown. “Bruce” was a fellow writer who I bumped into at a book event at the Germantown Free library. Over a cup of coffee after the event he asked me if I would call him “Becky.” I did a double take. Bruce had a masculine demeanor. There was nothing about him that called attention to himself. He was quiet and looked rather like a bookworm. While I had no problem calling him Becky if that’s what he wanted, I was naturally curious about what was happening to him. So he told me about the hormone shots he was taking and even indicated, by removing his sweater, his emerging breasts.

   I had never seen that before and I was shocked. I had seen drag queens in Denver perform in cowboy bars but they all had tissue stuffed in their bras.  
   As it happened, I never saw “Becky” again after that coffee but not because I disapproved of him or what was happening to him but because, as people, we had nothing in common. I wished Becky well, and that was that. But down deep I felt sorry for him. It was bad enough that in the 1970s—despite the popularity of “cross sexers” like David Bowie and Lou Reed— being gay was still a dicey proposition, but to be trans or even a transvestite from Translyvania, could be downright dangerous when you weren’t in Rocky Horror territory. 

    Twenty years later one of my good gay friends published a personal dating ad. He was hopping to meet a fellow student so when Milo, a twenty-four year old music student, answered his ad, my friend made arrangements to meet him. Milo, who described himself as being slight of build and kind of nerdy looking, expressed a similar desire to meet, and so the two met at Front and Girard because Milo would be traveling into Fishtown on the El. “At that first meeting,” my friend said, “I got the distinct impression that Milo was a ultra nerd—black glasses, spotty beard, plaid shirt, knapsack, and very pale looking. Yet there was something a little different about him that I couldn’t place, something odd but I liked him all the same.  So we headed back to my place where we watched a movie and ate popcorn and drank a little white wine. Things were going well until I got the itch to become intimate and that’s when Milo turned to me and said, “’I have to tell you something.’”

   My friend said that he thought that Milo was going to announce that he was already involved, or that he wasn’t attracted to him, but what he heard was this:
“I am a female to male trans person. I wanted to tell you earlier but I couldn’t. I’m sorry if I misled you.”

    “If you want me to leave, I will,” Milo added. “I won’t hold it against you.” My friend told Milo to stay because he wanted to hear his/her story. In fact, the two remained together for a couple of hours talking about Milo’s transition, although the hand holding had stopped. Milo, as it turned out, had worn a tight belt under her plaid shirt to flatten her breasts but the beard was real because she had already begun treatments. She was, in fact, a straight female who wanted to become a gay male. In the spirit of openness, the two of them talked about everything, including why a heterosexual female would want to become a gay male when she could meet more men as a woman since (theoretically) the majority of men are not gay despite occasional slip-ups when too many sixpacks are consumed.  Milo would tell my friend that her transition had nothing to do with sexual attraction or desire or “meeting lots of men,” but that it was an internal, gender identity thing, and that’s why it was important.  

  When it came time to say good-bye, conventional gender roles took over when my friend said he felt obligated to walk Milo to the bus stop, something he may or may not have done had Milo been a biological male.

   When I published the two stories above in a gay periodical a couple of years ago, all hell broke loose. The transgender community attacked me because I “wasn’t using the right pronouns.” The attacks weren’t gentle editorial reprimands but violent rhetorical outbursts that bordered on lunacy. Real lunacy. I was called every name in the book, as one trans person after another stood in line to throw a poisoned dart. In a matter of days I was the most transphobic person on the planet because I was identifying both “Becky” and Milo by their biological gender and not the gender they identified with. As I told the editor of the publication, “Hey, who knew…. I thought I was being emphatic and sympathic and honest as well. I thought trans people officially became the gender they identify with only after their complete physical transformation.”

    I opted not to answer my critics but remain silent, which my editor admired, but it wasn’t easy. Unfortunately, overwrought political attacks because of incorrect terminology or views are a problem inherent in some leftist circles. Intolerance takes many forms but this experience taught me just how isolated the trans community is and how much pain trans individuals experience. Sometimes when people are in pain they aim at the wrong target or they throw out arrows blindly, missing their real enemies. While I admit I still don’t completely understand the concept of being trapped in the body of the opposite sex, this doesn’t mean I cannot show empathy while dismissing any impulse to judge. I may not understand how a Hindu can worship a cow, but that doesn’t mean I am going to put Hindus on my personal enemies list.   

 An interesting fact that I’ve discovered is that the trans “legacy” is essentially a very American story. Many early Native American tribes had a special place for men who identified as women. In Walter Williams’ classic overview of Native American sexuality, The Spirit and the Flesh, we learn of the existence of the berdache, or the Two Spirited-third gendered male, usually a gay man, who would often dress as a member of the opposite sex, take a husband or wife (Two Spirited persons were male or female) and live among the tribe as a shaman or holy person. Not only were they considered holy people with special powers but they were believed to be able to tap into mystical realms. In many cases the berdache was considered the most important person of a tribe outside of the chief.  

  So there you have it. Being trans is not all glamour and posing for the cover of People magazine. Sometimes it’s just an ordinary “next door” kind of thing.





Tuesday, November 24, 2015



    When the French poet Arthur Rimbaud wrote, “You must change your life,” he set the tone for future poets, including 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.
   He met the man who was to be his spiritual guide, Shaykh Muhammad ibn al-Habib. “The man looked like an eccentric Englishman,” Moore writes. “He too had only recently come out of the English version of the Hippie Wave. He was older, refined in his manners spectacularly witty and intellectual, but of that kind prevalent then who had hobnobbed with the Beatles and knew the Tantric Art collection of Brian Jones firsthand. He had been on all the classic drug quests-peyote in the Yucatan, mescaline with Luara Huxley-but with the kif quest in Morocco he had stumbled on Islam, and then the Sufis, and the game was up. A profound change had taken place in his life that went far beyond the psychedelic experience.”
    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 his discovery of the wisdom of the early 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 gay Irish Catholic poet whom Allen Ginsberg once referred to as “a pure poet” and who was really the Walt Whitman of New England.

     Moore told me that he met Weiners in 1965 when Weiners was working at Filene’s Basement in Boston. He was in a “circle” of poets with David Rattray, Steve Jolas, etc. and we meet a few times at a poetry afternoon at Jola’s place… … I walked with John and [the famous poet] Denise Levertov to the train station where John took a train back home, and probably to be institutionalized for a while… I didn’t know him well, but he came to our apartment in the North End a few times and said little, wrote a poem once, and left… Once he came when we had a little room with Christmas lights on the ceiling, and he went in there, lay down, and we forgot he was there until an hour later he appeared in our little kitchen and left… He was a wraithlike soul… He died alone in the snow after a New Years party….on his way home.”

    The Milton, Massachusetts-born Weiners, who studied at Black Mountain College with Robert Creely and Robert Duncan, was part of the Beat poetry renaissance in San Francisco but always called himself a Boston poet. Boston, an elder sister city to Philadelphia (by 50 years) with many historic similarities, was dear to Weiners.     
Boston, sooty in memory, alive with a
thousand murky dreams of adolescence
still calls to youth; the wide streets, chimney tops over 
Charles River’s broad sweep to seahood buoy;
            the harbor
With dreams, too...

Slumbering city, what makes men think you sleep,
but breathe, what chants or paeans needed
            at this end, except
you stand as first town, first bank of hopes, 
            first envisioned

     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.”  

 In his poem Great cruelty and Heartlessness, Moore writes:

We’re living in a time of great cruelty and heartlessness
where instead of a sun they’re throwing up
Instead of sunlight there’s the sound of
hammers beating
Instead of walking there’s kicking
Instead of thinking there’s talking
It’s almost as if there’ve never been times like
these before
Even shadows thrown by cartwheels on dirt roads
resemble the grimaces of armies as they
slide across rocks
In the palaces of power clocks go off but no one
Decisions are made by pouring acid down drains
or waiting for nightfall in a room lit by
neon tubes
If anyone speaks all eyes are upon them
I saw a sparrow fly over a fence
An ant stop and not go on
But laughter has turned to pebbles
falling on zinc
And children have been torn from their futures
 One might say the line “torn from their futures” refers to destroyed lives through drugs. This poem reminds me of a talented musician acquaintance of mine, “T,” who threw away a lucrative career as a Hollywood filmmaker when he turned to heroin. “T” left Philadelphia for a post-rehab life in Austin, Texas with his recovering girlfriend, but the swearing off of drugs didn’t last long. After just one month of bathing in frothy Texas streams, strumming guitars and playing with an adopted ferret, the drug demon returned to haunt “T” with a vengeance. When this happened, the girlfriend took off for parts unknown (ferret in tow), leaving my friend desolate and, as his Facebook page indicated, in a major depression. He has since dropped out of sight after a posting a disturbing October 11 Facebook message. Since then his distraught mother has contacted me and asked me to pray for him. I’m not good at praying for people, much less myself, but I will give it a try at my local Orthodox parish.  
    I profile Moore’s poetry extensively in my new book, Literary Philadelphia (The History Press).  As a believer in something beyond himself, you might say that Moore is not a poet of empty things and ideas like some modern poets. Instead, aspects of the spiritual and the divine seem to invade every word he writes. He also finds a way to say  the unsayable.  Moore, it is said, was viewed as a legend in the California of the 1960s, in part because he was able to be “spiritual” without losing his sense of humor. One could almost say that he is the spiritual poet with the comedic wink.   Others call him a surrealist of the sacred.

    In this age of ongoing dialogue among Muslims, Christians and Jews, the sacred personage known as the Virgin Mary, mentioned some thirty-four times in the Koran, stands out as important on the historical and the dogmatic plane. 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.
    Maybe my friend “T” will meet a mysterious woman wearing small and tattered shoes during his lost travels in Texas.

Rizzo on Stage in Philadelphia

When I attended the premier of "Rizzo" -- a play by Bruce Graham based on the best-selling book The Last Big Man in Big City America by S. A. Paolantonio -- at Christ Church in Old City, the first thing I noticed were all the politicians in attendance. This was not your regular theater crowd, but more like a formal gathering of politicos at Famous Deli on Election Day. The men and women in the lobby of the Neighborhood House of Christ Church greeted one another in that political way you sometimes see people doing inside City Hall.
I got the feeling that a fair portion of the people lingering in the foyer of the Christ Church Neighborhood House had been friends or colleagues of Mayor Rizzo. It was at this point that I asked myself: Will this play be a whitewash? Did the playwright denude or tone down the truth about Rizzo? I mentioned to my theater companion, Xena, "Do we need to get set for some revisionist history?"
As we moved into the seating area it became even more obvious how much of a City Hall crowd this was. Much more than the premier of a play, this was a display of City Hall power, the roaring up of politico engines for a peacock power strut. There was even a line of politicos standing along the edge of the stage getting ready to make a lengthy introduction. Some of them also appeared to have a buzz on. Had there been a pregame party somewhere, one of those private booze affairs usually reserved for donors and A-listers?
"I think I smell a political pep rally," I said to Xena.
The Christ Church Neighborhood House is about as small a theater as you can get. Ticket holders kept piling in until it got so crowded that it looked as if some people would have to sit on the floor. I was glad that Xena and I had found decent seats in the middle of the theater beside an apparently boozed-up redhead who was there with her two sons.
I knew this gregarious redhead has been drinking -- when she turned to me after mentioning to Xena that I was shaky about the integrity of this play (I used the word "whitewash" again), I was hit with a breath storm of alcoholic stench as the extroverted woman assured me that wouldn't be the case.
"I read the thing," she emphasized, slurring her words just a little, "and it's no whitewash."
Encouraged by the apparent ring of truth ensconced in a bourbon haze, I felt better about what I was about to see despite the pandemonium in the seating area rising to intolerable levels. People were switching seats, talking to ushers about switching seats, walking up and down the center aisle or reaching over ten heads in one row to wave to somebody they knew in City Hall twenty years ago in another row. It's called networking, that horrible 21st century disease that rarely has as its impetus something like true friendship.
The networking went on forever. The interminable wait for its conclusion reminded me of the Rizzo years when good citizens thought that the tyranny would never end -- the police raids, the police wagons roaming the streets picking up anyone and everyone who looked suspicious or out of the ordinary, the untoward behavior of cops (especially undercovers) who would order pedestrians into unmarked cars or stand at urinals in the old Greyhound Bus station hoping to entrap a "pervert."
Suddenly, things quieted down as the chorus line of politicos along the edge of the stage began to gear up like the Rockettes in Radio City Music Hall.
In the speakers' lineup was one man who left most in the audience scratching their head when he began his Rizzo-rich monologue. Perhaps this politico had tipped the drinking scales himself because his talk went on and on... and on. So long, in fact, that I began to feel sorry for the actors waiting in the wings. The audience, after all, was dying to see Rizzo. You could feel the tension and the excitement. But the speaker kept at it until, finally, his verbal motors expired -- he actually ran out of things to say -- and so the play began.
Scott Greer finally appeared on stage as Rizzo. But Greer, as great an actor as he is, didn't remind me of Frank Rizzo at all. I think part of this is because his facial features are too fine -- the real Rizzo had a Mt. Rushmore nose, not one of those miniature noses especially popular among female celebrities. The on-stage Rizzo didn't have the bricks and mortar physicality that the real Rizzo had, but then who among us could ever match that? In life, Rizzo was a giant, a Redwood tree of Frankenstein proportions with hands so large one could easily image him crushing two men together to make hasty pudding.
After the play, I admit that I embarrassed myself when I saw Greer at the bar and asked him, seriously, if he was a radio personality at WXPN. The fact is, I didn't recognize him off stage because he was no longer wearing his fat suit.
While Paolantonio's book presented the good and bad side of the former mayor, the play attempted to do the same, but succeeded only superficially. What was missing, as one friend of mine commented, was a very real sense of menace. Playgoers saw Rizzo as a hooligan bully, but one who carried a rubber stick instead of a wooden stick and possibly a gun. Rizzo's battles with the city's black community were detailed to an extent, as were his "problems" with the city's gay community. But his conflicts with other groups, like hippies and the countercultural scene of the 1970s, were left pretty much untouched. Perhaps if an Ira Einhorn character had been added (Einhorn fit right in with the schmoozing power brokers at Famous), the play would have expanded into a broader canvass not so steeped in the race relations issue.
At the post-production reception I was shocked to see how many people in attendence had never met Rizzo. While reaching over the food table for slices of this or that, I heard people talk about "The Bambino" as if they'd actually met him. It was one of those moments when my memory of meeting and talking with Rizzo flooded my mind like water from a broken Holland dike.
"Well, you know, I sat down with him once and we talked. He slapped me on the back. He called me by my first name. He invited me to lunch. And he told me that he had a good policeman friend who was dying of AIDS and that he visited him frequently," I told at least two people. By that point, though, people had heard too many Rizzo stories from the stage and really didn't want to get into it.
Most of the comments I overheard indicated that history will not judge the ex-mayor kindly. Rizzo had so much drive, force and willpower that if this energy had been directed towards more enlightened views, his accomplishments would have been stellar.
When the wife of an ex-museum curator, for instance, heard that I had once met the former mayor, she wanted to know what he was like. I said he was a gentle giant-type with a dangerous-yet-soothing charisma that sought to win everybody over. "He really did have a very good side," I said, "But..."
Again, it struck me as odd that so many of the playgoers knew so little about Rizzo. This was certainly the case with the curator's wife who did not know the details of his death, although she knew from the play that he had died in his Republican reelection headquarters in Center City.
"He died in the washroom, the men's room," I told her, not meaning to suggest something dirty or low level but she took it as such.
"Appropriate," she said.
And then I felt bad that I had mentioned that.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Key West: Class and Boardwalk Honky Tonk

For years now I have heard stories about Key West. Key West, after all, is the land of Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway, in fact, called Key West "the St. Tropez of the Poor."
I finally made it to Key West and saw for myself the mythic party land under the palms.
I was struck, first of all, how in Key West one can drink alcohol openly in the streets, and that Key West's sidewalk open counter bars have the easy accessibility of a Rita's Water Ice stand. Buying a drink at one of these open sidewalk bars is easy. The more standardized bars have large parking lot-sized patios dotted with tables and umbrellas. Most of these places are crowded by 10 in the morning. While walking along Duval Street at that time I saw seasoned well coiffed women in large sunglasses downing tropical drinks with their ham and eggs, and unkempt looking biker babes (with whisky voices) laughing it up with their kerchief-headed biker men.
Key West is really a Puritan's nightmare where six foot tall drag queens mix with party-hardy straight couples and their children. At one drag show I attended a family sat in the front row. The MC, a drag queen with a beehive shaped white wig, asked for a male volunteer and guess who went up on stage? A (presumably) straight 18 year old guy visiting with his Mom and Dad and sister and who by the end of the night had become the brunt of the raunchy drag queen's bathroom humor. After the onstage antics were over, his family had to pull him out of the bar.
"It's time to go Kevin," his sister pleaded, yanking his arm. "We can't stay here all night."
I had just come from Latitudes, in my view the best restaurant in Key West, located on the tiny island of Sunset Key. Diners at Latitudes take a ten minute ferry ride from the Westin Hotel docks to Latitudes' reservation desk. The pleasant experience of bobbing over Gulf of Mexico waters was over before it began although there's nothing like a little boating to increase your appetite. My table was on the water's edge beneath two palm trees and a towering torch. The experience (and the food) was so grand I didn't mind that my dinner companion had spilled red wine all over my "Tennessee Williams" suit. By the time I took the return ferry, generous applications of soda water had effectively erased the stains, so I was plenty dry when I took in that raunchy drag show.
At night Key West's street scene intensifies, especially at Sloppy Joe's, Hemingway's old hangout, although the bar was moved from its original location across the street in 1937. Hemingway hung out at Sloppy Joe's with his drinking "mob,"which sometimes included writer John Dos Passos. The design of Sloppy Joe's enables passerby to peek in at the crowd and live bands (and buy drinks) from a horse stall shaped window that meets the sidewalk. The place is filled with Hemingway memorabilia, including portraits of the old master framed like icons in an Orthodox church. While there's definitely something of a honky tonk atmosphere in Key West, it never plunges to the cotton candy level of say, the Wildwood, New Jersey boardwalk.
During my four day stay here last month, just a few short weeks before Key West's most notorious street festival, Fantasy Fest, in which festival goers walk the sidewalks naked or nearly naked, I didn't see police cars patrolling the streets or even parked off to the side waiting for something to happen. Police presence here seems minimal although I did spot two squad cars at the scene of an auto accident. Later I encountered two officers when the street where my hotel was located was closed off due to construction. The officers rerouting traffic resembled movie extras with their gelled hair, buff bodies and glittering dental veneers. In a glamorous town, even the police have to look the part. I was reminded of the standard look that most UPS drivers had in the 1970s: dark haired, slender and good looking.
But even intense party towns have drawbacks. Talking to the dining room manager at the luxurious Amara Cay hotel in neighboring Islamorada, I was interested to learn that the Keys, and especially Key West, attracts the beautiful and the young who can get quick jobs as bartenders or servers. As servers, they can work their good looks to their advantage in Key West's sensual circuit of weekend hookups and serial dating opportunities while also keeping an eye out for a sugar daddy or a sugar momma. While not all of those who flock to Key West live for pleasure, those that do can at least ride the "ecstasy" wave for several years. But when their beauty fades and the party fizzles, many find that they have nothing to fall back on. They are left without a career or even authentic friendships because they allowed the island's party cult to become their cult. For some in this situation, suicide is a common option. "They jump into the sea, sometimes from bridges," the manager told me. And of course the entire time they're jumping, new waves of naive good lookers are being initiated into Key West's party cult, hoping for an eternity of bliss.
The Amara Cay manager had other colorful stories. When I asked if Key West had a homeless population, she told me that most of the homeless gather on Higgs Beach, where in 1860 three ships carrying Africans to be sold into slavery in Cuba were diverted from their path by the U.S. Navy and then sent to Key West. Of the 1,432 Africans aboard these ships, 269 died at sea, but shortly after the landing an additional 294 others died from diseases and malnutrition as a result of the voyage and were buried in a mass grave on the beach. As for the homeless, they congregate near the beach's Mango Groves where they often build tents or hide from the authorities. Compared to what Philadelphia's homeless go through during the ruthless winter months, Key West's Mangrove hideaway has an idyllic feel right out of that Daniel Defoe classic, Robinson Crusoe.
As the most southern point in the nation and just 90 miles from Cuba, Key West in many ways doesn't seem like a part of the United States. But getting there can be a challenge. Unless you fly directly in from Miami on a small jet, most visitors wind up flying to Miami and then renting a car or taking a shuttle bus over the immense 150 mile causeway.
The Overseas Highway or "the Highway that Goes to Sea," follows the path of a railroad that was built in 1912 by Henry Flagler. Flagler's idea was to extend his Florida East Coast Railroad from Miami to Key West. The railroad's opening was world news but the year 1935 saw its demise. Hurricane level weather and high winds destroyed much of the track, but since the cost of rebuilding the railroad during the Great Depression was prohibitive, 113 miles of roadway was constructed instead. Forty-two overseas bridges connecting the various Florida Keys were also built. Driving the 113 mile stretch from Miami can take 3 hours, but on a dark and stormy night, expect the unexpected.
Immediately upon arriving at Miami International, I headed to the Dollar Car Rental counter where I waited for over an hour with forty other people. Only two processing clerks were on duty at the time which did not make for a very good line vibe.
Out of town drivers in Miami have to be careful of unmarked or discreetly marked toll roads that have nothing in common with the human staffed toll booths of yesteryear. As a Dollar Car customer I had the option of purchasing a general toll pass sticker or paying up later in case I inadvertently drove onto a toll road. Toll road cameras record the license plates of all drivers who enter a toll zone, but the problem is that you usually don't know you are driving onto a toll road. Many toll road markings are small; in some cases there are no markings or warnings at all. For a newcomer to Miami, the stress of looking out for toll roads while navigating unfamiliar roads in Miami and dealing with impatient drivers has all the ingredients of a Halloween nightmare. And should your eye not catch those small lettered toll road warnings, watch for a notice and a fine to arrive two weeks later in the mail. Those hidden Orwellian cameras that record your license plate number do their job!
In my little red Mazda, I screeched to sudden stops and did fast U-turns to avoid suspected toll roads before finally finding Route 1, the "no toll" straight-away that traverses the Keys via all those concrete and steel sea bridges.
Friends warned me about driving Route 1. "Yes, the views are spectacular, there's all that open sea, but the monotonous 'straight ahead' driving can put you in a trance. People have been known to fall asleep on Route 1."
But you won't fall asleep if there's a rainstorm. I know because somewhere before my traveling companion and I hit Key Largo, the first Key on the long chain, the skies opened up, thunder roared and lightning reminded us of our mortality. We discovered that driving over the 42 sea bridges is much like piloting a boat at sea. The streak lightning that hit the water in violent Olympic jolts slowed our speed to twenty five miles an hour. At one point we could not even see the road in front of us. For a moment we wondered if we would ever make it to Key West.
In my mind's eye, I kept seeing the following newspaper headline:
We pulled into Key West's Chelsea House Hotel on Truman Street well past 9 p.m., two hours behind schedule. We were shown our rooms, a fantastic junior suite with a kitchen with a private outdoor staircase to the pool and the pavilion breakfast area where in the coming days we would chat with travelers from France and Germany, a fisherman from Oklahoma, an IT computer tech guy from Brooklyn, and a retired government official who would not tell us what branch of the government he retired from. "I can't tell you that," he said, smiling a Cheshire cat grin. Naturally I wondered if he had ever killed anyone. In the trees surrounding the breakfast patio we spotted many different sizes of iguanas. An iguana as large as a small alligator caused one Chelsea House guest to scream but generally the ones we saw were much smaller. They would circle our breakfast table as we munched on muffins and fresh fruit. Iguanas are not native to Key West but were brought to the island as pets from Puerto Rico. Key West inhabitants hate them because they eat vegetation and destroy the trees. 

On our first night in Key West, we headed over to the local CVS where we bought a bottle of cold chardonnay, a jar of Salsa, chips and a bag of organic popcorn and called it dinner.
The fact that you could buy wine in an ordinary Key West CVS made those Philly CVS' with their Arctic Splash and diet soda coolers seem pretty dull, indeed.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Philadelphia Elections 2015

   It took the world premier of RIZZO by playwright Bruce Graham to get me interested in the city’s November elections. The timing, as they say, couldn’t have been better. In this excellent although somewhat one dimensional play, where the focus is mainly on Rizzo’s relationship with the African American community, I could see that the city has come a long way since Lincoln Steffens made the following observation in his 1903 essay, Philadelphia: Corrupt and Contented: “…But many Philadelphians do not try to vote. They leave everything to the machine, and the machine casts their ballots for them…”   
    Most voters, if they are honest, would agree that there’s something off-putting about ballot questions. Consider the placement of ballot questions: they are listed last or on the margins alongside the printed slate of candidates. Voters usually vote for ballot questions after voting for the candidates. The ‘post script’ placement of ballot questions after the so called regular voting is not always conducive to making a thoughtful decision, especially if a voter is reading the ballot questions in the voting booth for the first time.  Adequate preparation is key to making a good decision when it comes to these ‘yes’ or ‘no’ votes. 

    As a voter I have bypassed some ballot questions in the past. My rationalizations for doing so were not always good. A few supercilious examples: Not wanting to spend too much time in the voting booth, or feeling that the ballot question that needed an up or down vote just didn’t seem important enough to consider. This apathetic feeling is sometimes enhanced during mid-term elections when there are no dramatic issues or candidates that offer inspiration. When you consider that ‘off season’ elections rarely even inspire people to vote, much less vote on ballot questions, you have an additional problem. Even the so called big elections, such as November 3rd, do not generate a standing room only situation at most polling places.
      I have noticed, for instance, that the polling places in the Riverwards never seem to be overrun with voters. I vote at the firehouse at Huntingdon and Aramingo, and can report with some accuracy that for the last several years the firehouse is pretty much empty when I go there to vote. There may be one or two fire personnel hanging around but other than the poll watchers the place is pretty much empty. Even after I say hello to the poll watchers (who are often neighbors), sign in and vote, I usually leave without seeing any other voter checking in. The last time I saw a line at any polling place was sometime in the 1990s. 
   Unlike political candidates, ballot questions have no flair and zero personality, but they do have one thing: lasting implications that extend far beyond the political life of any one candidate.

     Let’s consider the year in the city’s history where one ballot question drove people to the polls in drives.  The year was 1978 when City Council, under pressure by then Mayor Frank Rizzo, placed a Home Charter Change referendum on the ballot that would give the green light for Rizzo to run for a third term in 1979. Philadelphians voted almost two to one against the change, and the mayor was forced to consider another career (he went to work for PGW and then he entered talk radio).  Rizzo would have to wait until 1989 before running for mayor again as a Republican. In 1989, Rizzo was slightly more liberal than he was in 1978. Experts, in fact, agree that he probably would have won that election had he not died of a massive stroke in the washroom of his campaign headquarters.

   The best way to understand ballot questions is to take a look at the Home Charter Rule.  

   The Home Charter Rule was adopted on April 17, 1951 as a way to break with the city’s corrupt past. It’s hard to imagine today but for 36 years (1916 to 1952) the city was controlled by a strong Republican machine. This was broken by the election of Joseph Clark as mayor in 1952. Only a siematic earthquake or an as yet unforeseen political event will ever return the city to the Republican Party.   

    As the Committee of Seventy explains it, the Home Charter Rule was an attempt to break with patterns of chronic misgovernment.  “The framers of that document carefully sought to reverse the systemic political corruption and repeated failure of then-existing financial controls to promote economic stability,” the Committee stated. 
   Many ballot questions of the recent past have more to do with bureaucratic shuffles than the implementation of something new and radical. In 2014, for instance, one ballot question concerned whether or not the Home Rule Charter should be amended to “establish and define the functions of the Office of Sustainability, headed by a Director of Sustainability.”

      A second 2014 ballot question proposed that the city’s prison system be streamlined with the creation of a new Department of Prisons headed by a Prisons Commissioner who could appoint his/her own deputies. The idea was to replace the cumbersome two-prong leadership of the Board of Trustees of Philadelphia’s Prisons and the Department of Public Welfare. This proposal was not about building new prisons but about the economy of streamlining. The current Prisons Commissioner is Lou Gioria.

   In the May 2015 election all four ballot questions were approved by voters. Perhaps the most important May ballot approved by voters then was the transfer of control of the city’s public schools from the state and turning it over to the city, where most feel it belongs. Pennsylvania’s control of Philadelphia public schools has proven to be disastrous. When voters approved this measure they also approved to abolish the School Reform Commission. 

    But like everything in politics, the vote against the SRC doesn’t necessarily mean the end of it anytime soon. As City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell told the The Inquirer in May, “The vote to abolish the SRC won't elicit any immediate action,…This gives us a chance to talk about it with the governor," Blackwell also added that," People feel they need a more-connected board, possibly including relatives of students in the district.”
   I’m uncertain as to the wisdom of “including relatives of students in the district.” Anyone who knows a public school teacher knows how parents can meddle in school affairs. Some hornet’s nests should be avoided.
      One question on the November 3rd ballot is whether the Home Rule Charter should be amended “to establish and define the functions of the Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) affairs. Currently, this is a temporary office in City Hall, first created by Mayor Michael Nutter in 2008 when he appointed Gloria Casarez Director of LGBT Affairs. Ms. Casarez’s death in 2014 led to the appointment of Nellie Fitzpatrick. The Office will not become permanent if voters do not approve the ballot question although the next mayor, most certainly Jim Kenney, will reinstate the Office once again as a temporary one during the run of his term(s). An interesting fact about this ballot question is that it is the first time that a public vote or referendum on a gay rights related topic has ever been presented to the voters of the City of Philadelphia. This one will be very interesting to watch.
  The second ballot question asks whether the Home Rule Charter should be amended to create a new Department of Planning and Development, headed by a Cabinet-level Director. If approved, the measure would also put the Historical Commission in the Charter and create a new Housing Advisory Board. The  City Planning Commission, Historical Commission, Art Commission,Zoning Board of Adjustment and the Housing Advisory Board would be added to the newDepartment.
   Here we have bureaucratic shuffling at its most complicated, yet it seems like intelligent streamlining.
   Some thoughts on this ballot question:
·         If approved the new Director of Planning and Development would be a member of the Mayor’s Cabinet. The Department would have three divisions: Development Services, Planning and Zoning, and Housing and Community Development  
·          There would also be changes to several city boards and commissions, namely, two new members added to the Planning Commission, and the Historical Commission would be included in the Home Rule Charter. The Director of Planning and Development would replace the Director of Housing as a member of the Historical Commission. The Housing Advisory Board would be created, consisting of 12 members.
 The last question on the ballot: Should the City of Philadelphia borrow $155, 965,000 for capital purposes? Capital purposes include the purchase of new real estate, construction, improvement to buildings, property or streets. One major caveat here: City Council would have the power to change “the intended allocation of these proceeds.” What is this if not a major red flag? The city is already in debt because of overspending on the papal visit. Yes, the city, in its exuberance to be a good papal host, assumed that visitors to the World Conference of Families would spend lots of money on hotels and restaurants but the reality was far different. The visitors turned out to be thrift-minded religious pilgrims who packed their lunch rather than opt for that new Stephen Starr eatery.   Vote no on this one, folks.      .