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Saturday, March 19, 2016

La Salle Television Interview: Literary Philadelphia

Philly Factor # 1003 Literary Philadelphia - YouTube
Feb 25, 2016 - Uploaded by LaSalleTV Philly
Host Paul Perrello interviews author Thom Nickels about his latest book, Literary Philadelphia. Recorded 2-24-16.

The House on Hancock Street on Beacon Hill

   When I was twenty-one I lived for a while at 20 Hancock Street on Boston’s Beacon Hill. The house was a four story unostentatious brownstone built in 1805 by Ebenezer Farley. It was purchased by the father of famous abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner in 1830. Sumner advocated the complete elimination of slavery at a time when most politicians hedged or compromised on the subject. Educated at Harvard, he joined the Abolition Free Soil Party in 1848, from which he was elected to the Senate in 1851. His reputation as an orator was legion. He once gave a five hour speech on the floor of the Senate on the immorality of extending slavery into the new United States territory of Kansas, and in so doing he lashed out at Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina. The speech enraged Rep. Preston Brooks, also from South Carolina, who then assaulted Sumner with a heavy cane. The brutal attack, which took place on May 22, 1856, caused Sumner to return to Boston where he spent several months recuperating at 20 Hancock Street.
    Sumner went on to champion civil rights for free slaves during the Reconstruction era. He was a close friend of Frederick Douglas, and knew Abraham Lincoln intimately but with whom he often disagreed. Sumner was a fiery radical; Lincoln more circumspect.

     This famous house at 20 Hancock Street was not yet a National Historic Landmark. That would happen in 1973, very shortly after I moved out.

     Sumner grew up in the house and lived there until 1867 when not away on business in Washington.  Five Sumner family members died in the house, beginning with Charles’ father, with whom he did not get along, three of his sisters and finally his mother, who earned her living as a seamstress.  As a young man in his early twenties, Charles was confined to his bedroom because of a long, serious illness that almost took his life. The house was sold after his mother’s death in 1867.
    As Sumner biographer Elias Nason writes:    “… [The house] was well located in one of the higher and better parts of Boston, not far from the State House. No effort had been made to change it to correspond to a larger life. It continued the same comfortable and substantial home that had sheltered him in his boyhood. There peace and happiness, the usual accompaniments of good sense and good habits, prevailed.” Nason writes that after Senator Sumner mother’s death, “from no particular illness…Charles was summoned at last by telegraph and reached her bed several days before her death and remained with her to the end, the only one of her once large family present to pay this debt.”
    When I agreed to rent the room at 20 Hancock I had no idea who Charles Sumner was. My first impression of the house was that it had remained perfectly intact from the 19th Century.  The dark parlor was filled with old furniture and rugs. There was an old mahogany desk off to the side, which I later discovered was where the famous senator wrote his speeches. From the front door you could see a series of doorways leading into a number of rooms, one of which was the kitchen. A sense of mystery penetrated these rooms. The landlady’s general demeanor added to the feeling that this was no ordinary abode.  Friendly but distant, the landlady’s overall manner was that of someone who belonged to a religious cult. She appeared old to me at the time although when you are twenty-one, everyone over 30 appears old. At the time I had the sense then that she did not leave the house much. She and her daughter, a young adolescent dark haired girl, occupied the first floor.
       When I first went to see about the room, I noticed the daughter peering at me behind a door.  She would then walk quickly walk from room to room.  I remember leaving the house then feeling that both mother and daughter were hiding something, but what?
   The room I agreed to rent was on the second floor front, which meant that I had a view of the Boston State House further up Hancock. (Senator Sumner would walk to the State House everyday from 20 Hancock). Since the room was furnished, I noted with curiosity the washstand in one corner with built-in tiles to prevent splashing. There was also a four poster bed, an antique wardrobe closet that looked as though it was from the Sumner family, and an out of commission fireplace topped with a vase holding artificial flowers. The room was a page out of the past. I knew of no other roomers in the house, at least I don’t remember any other tenants coming or going. The bathroom in the hallway with its antique sink and tub, and long chains to open the window and flush the toilet had a large window with a view of the oldest part of Boston.  I remember shaving in the morning and looking out the window at an old water tower and thinking, “I am no longer in the 20th Century.” 
    During my time at 20 Hancock the landlady’s daughter would still peer at me without ever saying hello. Sometimes when I’d come home from work I’d see her retreat quickly into a room. There was no TV in my room but I did have a radio. At night I never heard a peep from the first floor. Mother and daughter were abnormally quiet. My room, however, seemed to grow on me. I would lie in bed at night and stare at the ceiling and begin thinking about my own family’s history. Thoughts of death would sometimes intrude. I was agnostic then and not especially interested in the topic but in this room I couldn’t shake these new thoughts away. A new and different world seemed to be opening up.  I then began to see and hear things, some of them unsettling and frightening.

    By a stroke of good fortune, I had escaped the crazy drug intoxication of the early 1970s. I knew people on acid trips who had jumped out of windows because they thought they could fly. My Harvard professor friends were on a campaign to get me to try LSD, but I always said no. I was stone cold sober when the nearly haunted room opened up its hidden world: There, on the mantelpiece, I “saw” (or hallucinated) one of the artificial flowers in the vase bend over as if it were sick as the other flowers bent in the hurt flower’s direction and picked it up to health with the force of a collective “love” vibration.
    The room seemed to hold me captive, and other revelations were in store.
     1. I heard President Nixon’s voice on the radio and knew there was going to be an oncoming national scandal (Watergate).
      2. Shadows on the ceiling played out how the earth’s polar ice caps would melt. I saw tropical plants where there had once been ice. Remember, this was 1972.
       3. In an even freakier revelation, I saw images of the past lives of my great aunt. I did not believe in reincarnation, much less God, and yet all this seemed abundantly clear—and true.
       4. The most startling images that presented themselves on the ‘Sumner ceiling,’ had to do with something serious that would happen to gay men in the future, something involving intimate, physical contact. These images were of gay men in shroud like coverings. When AIDS hit in the early 1980s, I understood this prediction.
    Since I’m reluctant to alienate my readers or make anyone question my sanity, I will end the list of ‘Sumner ceiling’ predictions right here. And yet, in this room, where possibly Senator Sumner’s father or mother died, or perhaps one or all of his three sisters, I was also prompted to destroy my first book by submerging it in water in the antique basin, so that the script bled and the manuscript broke apart. The book was an autobiography of my life up till then, a merciless reenactment of every childhood memory in the unforgiving manner and style of a young adult male. Men and women in their early twenties rarely have a forgiving spirit.   
   Through the years, whenever I visit Boston I make it a point to walk to 20 Hancock Street in Beacon Hill. I have not been inside the house since my dramatic experiences there but were I to return I wonder if I’d see any of the old 19th century furniture. Most likely it has all been cleared away, the old Sumner vibes whitewashed in rehabbed upscale respectability.

   But what happened there in 1972…I will never forget.  

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Local Lens: Philly's Mayor Kenney on a Roll

If Mayor Kenney gets his way, Philadelphia may have the most expensive soda tax in the world.

   Forget former Mayor Nutter’s conservative 2 cents to an ounce soda tax proposal that went nowhere a few years ago. Mayor Kenney wants to raise the tax to an unprecedented 3 cents per ounce in order to fund that ambiguous money sucking vortex known as “the schools,” namely his pre-K plan for low income students.

            To date, the only other city in the nation with an active soda tax is Berkley, California

    The impetus behind the mayor’s financial assault on financially-strapped Philadelphians is the city’s new health commissioner, Dr. Thomas A. Farley, a 6’2” skinny-as-a-rail marathon running addict with, according to The New York Times, “grasshopper like legs.”   

     Dr. Farley, who likes to exercise 7 days a week and who says he has never smoked a cigarette in his life, also proudly states that he is a lover of veggies. New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg hired Farley as New York’s Health Commissioner some years ago and at that time  Farley began mapping out a health reform program for sloppy, obese New Yorkers.  While most health reform programs are voluntary, Farley’s program came down on the city populace like Judge Judy’s gavel. 

    For starters, the good doctor strongly advised that New Yorkers stop smoking in parks and beaches, take the stairs instead of elevators, cut out all salt, lose weight and swear off all soft drinks. This is good advice to be sure, but problems surfaced when he sought legislation to help curtail or reshape the public’s love affair with soft drinks. He got Bloomberg to impose a 1 cent tax on soft drinks and then he wanted to ban sodas larger than 16 ounces. New York City went ahead with the new legislation but, thankfully, a New York State appellate court overturned the law. The soda tax was sent packing.

   As New York City’s Health Commissioner, the no-nonsense Farley also mandated that photographs of cancer ridden brains and lungs be posted next to cash registers where cigarettes were sold. 
    Farley was recruited by Mayor Kenney in February, so now it’s Philadelphia’s turn to experience the Farley shenanigans show.

    Farley and his health reform lieutenants call this forced reshaping of human behavior “curve shifting.” How’s that for radical doublethink Berkley talk! Philadelphia’s tax on sugary drinks, if approved by City Council, would be the most expensive soda tax in the nation, raising the cost of some larger bottles by three dollars. Sweetened iced tea will also be affected as well as those popular mixed fruit drinks, which after Kenney’s tax would cost almost 4 dollars a bottle.

   The new prices will affect Philadelphia’s poor as they constitute the bulk of sugary drink consumers.  Of course, Kenney’s reasoning for the tax is his firm belief in pre-K, a program that has been called a scam by many critics and that was even the subject of a John Tossell on ABC News. It is obvious that Kenney’s mayoral idol is New York’s Bill de Blasio, who implemented New York City’s Pre-K plan shortly after his election in 2013. There’s one difference though. Mayor de Blasio funded NYC’s Pre-K with a so called “millionaire’s tax,” so poor people were left out of the mix.

     While Mayor Nutter’s proposed soda tax was easily defeated, the fight won’t be so easy this time. City Hall is on a major brainwashing campaign to convince the public that Pre-K is essential and worth all those extra tax dollars. The Mayor’s Office of Communications is on a roll and sent out a recent missive announcing 20 or so endorsements of the sugary drink tax. I was not impressed by the names on that list, so it may be that the Office of Communications is scrambling for small potatoes.

   In other political developments, there’s news from the office of Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez.

      Sanchez, apparently, is on a mission to provide municipal ID cards for illegal immigrants. These ID cards would provide access to city services; they would allow illegal immigrants to file police and fire reports and to open bank accounts. They would also provide gym discounts and museum memberships.
   Cross the border illegally and you are rewarded a gym membership! I guess I will have to break a law to finally get my Planet Fitness membership.

   Naturally, the Councilwoman’s bill has the support of the mayor, who sponsored a similar bill in 2013. The bill’s enthusiastic supporters maintain that the bill would help immigrants who are not yet legal participate more fully in society. In the end, it’s all about feeling good.

    The Councilwoman’s bill makes me think of my sister C who now resides in southern California
   C tells me that southern California is overflowing with illegal immigrants and that the situation there is getting dire. The situation is worse than bad, she says, because illegal immigrants are getting all the entry level jobs because the people doing the hiring want cheap labor.  

   The cheap labor epidemic is not so bad in Philadelphia, although an article published by caught recently caught my eye. The headline read: 30 Vetri Employees Lose Job after Immigration and Background Checks. Marc Vetri sold his Vetri Family business to Urban Outfitters, Inc. in November of 2015, never suspecting that the new owners would discover something that he took for granted: that 30 of his employees had entered the country illegally and were working for his company.  Apparently he was not too worried that Urban Outfitters would discover this clink in the Vetri armor. Vetri’s nonchalance proves that hiring illegals over or under the table is as s commonplace as processing job applications. Today it is taken for granted, especially in the restaurant and fast food industry, that many employees are not citizens. Vetri, while expressing shock at the purge, issued this statement: "We wish all these workers could continue to work for us.  They're so loyal, and they're hard workers. Some of them have been over to my house, and I bring my kids to their houses for play dates. It's very sad."

It just sucks,” Marc Vetri told Philadelphia Magazine. He then went on to say, "But this is what America is. My grandfather left Italy when he was 17 years old, stowed away on a ship. He got here illegally. But the war was happening, so they said, 'You can fight for us! You're an American now. We'll waive that whole citizenship thing. Now go to war!”

    Let me tell you what Mr. Ventri was really thinking: “But this is what restaurant life is all about! These play date friends of our family left their home country. Maybe they snuck past the border patrols and got here illegally, but so what! They wanted work, any kind of work, and we wanted cheap labor, so we said to them. ‘You can fight for the life of this restaurant. You’re an American kitchen worker now. We’ll waive that whole citizenship thing. Now go to work!”  

 The Vetri food establishment is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to restaurants that profit from the labor of illegal immigrants.

      I witnessed this myself several years ago when I used to frequent a South Philly restaurant that employed many Mexican and South American kitchen workers. While the wait staff jobs went to “educated neighborhood young people,” the grungy kitchen area was reserved for the cheap labor pool. Mexicans generally are hard working, dedicated employees; food industry managers know this but they take advantage of it.  At this South Philly restaurant the ‘Mexican cheap labor pit’ was an underground, overheated kitchen only slightly larger than a walk-in closet. Customers rarely saw them although near closing time a drenched-in-sweat cook would sometimes make a random appearance. Still, every kitchen worker here was Mexican. Why no Italians, Irish, Polish or black Americans?  Don’t have proper ID, or proof of US citizenship when filling out that job application? That’s okay amigo; have we got a slave labor kitchen for you!  Now get to work!  

   According to an article in The Philadelphia Business Journal, 8 million Americans are out of work today while there are 8.1 million unauthorized immigrants working in the country. “A growing number of unemployed American citizens don’t want to be gardeners, dishwashers or hotel housekeepers,” the article’s author, Arthur Schwartz, writes. “They would rather keep drawing unemployment while looking for a job that pays better, offers a health plan or is closer to home. Scores of the unemployed are simply rejecting the age-old adage that a “dead-end job is better than no job.”
   And cheap, slave labor is the best thing of all,