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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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 YorkState 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
Farley was recruited by Mayor Kenney in
February, so now it’s Philadelphia’s turn to experience
the Farley shenanigans show.
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.
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
In other political developments, there’s news
from the office of Councilwoman Maria Quinones 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
The Councilwoman’s bill makes me think of
my sister C who now resides in southern California.
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 philly.com 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."
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
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.”