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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Philadelphia's Plastic Club and Sketch Club Take a Nose Dive

     Some time ago I wrote a column about Philadelphia’s whacky reception groupies, or people who seem to spend a lot of time trying to find art receptions in the city that offer free food and drink. While everyone enjoys the delights of an opening reception, I was writing about a core group of serious food “hunters and gatherers” who make it a point to go from reception to reception and gather up as much as free stuff as possible.
     Well, there’s another side to that coin and it’s this: what about the various art venues in the city that have traditionally always offered food and drink during their opening receptions. How are they holding up?
   They are not holding up well, according to the latest reports.
   Many of the city’s art galleries and other cultural venues have cut back drastically on giveaway food and booze during their opening receptions and in some cases the contrast to a few years ago is shocking.
   Consider The Plastic Club at 247 S. Camac Street. The Club has always been famous for its monthly Sunday afternoon group exhibitions.  For years club members would contribute various food dishes to this monthly event so that on that one Sunday a month patrons could expect a little something to eat while viewing the new exhibition. Every month was different depending on the food flow, but thick or thin there was always something to nibble on. There was also inexpensive but ample boxed wine, beer and soda. These famous Sunday art parties continued for hours, often spilling out onto club’s fantastic backyard patio.
    But just a few months ago a new administration decided that the old Plastic Club Sunday parties were too lavish and that people were coming just for the food, booze and ambience. It was also reported to me that the new president didn’t think it was appropriate that people were drinking wine or beer in the late afternoons, never mind that this had been the custom at the Club for years—and years. The Plastic Club’s new Board pulled the plug in a radical way because now the monthly events are down to stick pretzels and Donny and Marie Osmond lemonade, if that. Welcome to Salt Lake City!
   The DaVinci Art Galley at 7th and Catherine Streets used to have bountiful opening receptions but when a new and younger board took over the receptions were paired down like an onion on the chopping block. Today, the galley might offer a chip or two and maybe even a sip of wine but not much else.  Can a big bowl of Lay’s potato chips really cost that much money? And why not spring for a cheap generic red jug of red wine?
   Sometimes the most successful art galleries are the cheapest in terms of what they give back to patrons who come to their events. These big name galleries will often advertise their huge opening exhibitions, in many cases even calling these exhibitions a “party,” but without the usual party accruements.
  They are more like Mennonite picnics.
1.     Cheese is too expensive so they opt for pretzel sticks
2.     They may offer wine but if they do there will no food, not even a potato chip. The new Spartan philosophy says you can’t have both.
3.     So where’s the party? There is no party.

      The Philadelphia Sketch Club at 235 S. Camac also had Sunday afternoon opening exhibitions that included a zany variety of food and drink offerings. Like the Plastic Club, the Sketch Club was always consistent in its food and drink offerings until there was a change. Needless to say, the Sunday crowds now at both Camac institutions are much smaller. If the new boards of these two iconic Philadelphia institutions wanted a more Spartan environment, they certainly got it. 
    Theater press receptions have remained largely intact although financial difficulties have impacted the scope of receptions offered by the Philadelphia Theatre Company.   In years past PTC receptions were lavish banquets and the talk of the town. Today they are Salvation Army “thin” by comparison. Throughout the years, the Wilma Theater has remained amazingly constant in its press reception offerings, as has the Arden and Lantern Theatre. In many instances, smaller and newer theaters like the two theaters at The Drake Towers provide some of the best theater and receptions in the city.
    There have been cut backs at this year’s Arts Unleashed, the University of the Art’s annual fundraiser for student scholarships. Traditionally press was always permitted to invite a guest to this mega event but that has changed under a new administration. The Spartan new arrangement even called for tighter security measures to clamp down on student party crashers. In years past, serious party crashers could wait until Art Unleashed was almost over and then enter the building and join the party but this year the ticket process was more TSA than semi- open borders. Many of the city’s infamous party crashers were missing from this year’s Arts Unleashed, thanks to tightened security.
   What all of these art galleries and massive public fundraising events like Arts Unleashed that have cut back have in common is this: they are now being run by people in their late twenties or thirties. One could draw some interesting conclusions here perhaps.
   The Fabric Workshop is an iconic city institution that garners an intense loyalty throughout the city. Blessed with money and prestige, you’d think that opening receptions there would be occasions to remember. Well, they used to be occasions to remember but all too often success can spoil. These days a Fabric Workshop opening Reception is often a non-reception.
     The two art galleries that still offer art patrons decent or ample reception fare are CFEVA at The Barclay, 237 S. 18th Street, Suite 3A, and E-Moderne Gallerie at 2nd and Arch Streets. With their great opening receptions that usually feature great art, these two galleries are to be commended because they have not gone the way of The Plastic Club.  
     I get press releases on a weekly basis from PR firms publicizing music, jazz and Sugar House Casino events.  Sugar House Casino press events are rarely noteworthy. There might be a cash bar and some free pretzel sticks but most of what they offer are speeches, ribbon cuttings and a few words spoken by a “celebrity.” And then it’s over.  Not even a free cup of coffee. You’d think that this huge money palace on the Delaware would be far more generous when it comes to things like this.
   Sugar House is cheap. 
    Recently I went to a great event with a fellow writer and afterwards we headed off to the much talked about after party.
  After parties are usually bad if the main party has been spectacular. This after party was held at Voyeur, a Center City after hour’s gay club where a glass of red wine goes for ten dollars. There was no food at this after party but you did get a wrist band which enabled you to avoid paying the cover charge to get into the place. The experience was a total headache as the brassy chaotic and very monochromic, pounding music suggested that the only way to deal with the place was by taking some kind of drug.
   A better way to describe this so called ‘after party’ would have been something along the lines of: If you want to hang out later at Voyeur, then join us, but please bring your own party supplies


Monday, March 27, 2017

Bedbugs, a Modern Plague

     Bedbugs have invaded thousands of Philadelphia homes and institutions
 and the situation is serious. Philadelphia, in fact, is one of the worst cities in
 the nation for bedbugs. Don’t ask me why our fair city is plagued with these
 creatures. Is there something in the water here, or do Philadelphians have a
 special problem that people in other cities do not have?

  The pest-control company, Orkin, compiled a list of the 50 worst American cities for bed bugs and Philadelphia has been ranked as number nine. Orkin based its ranking on the number of bed bug treatments they performed on residences and businesses in urban areas between 2015 and 2016.
   “We have more people affected by bed bugs in the United States now than ever before. They were virtually unheard of in the U.S. 10 years ago,” Orkin’s Entomologist Ron Harrison told CBS3.  
      Bedbugs begin life as microscopic entities and then, depending on how
 much human blood they consume, they increase in size and weight until,
 in some instances, they become as large as a small or medium sized cockroach.
 Bedbugs do not fly but they climb or jump onto things, mainly wooden and
cloth surfaces where they then take great delight in laying their despicable eggs.

      If they happen to find a home in your mattress, they will bite you during
 the night. They bite in clusters of three, meaning you will notice three little
 dots or bruise like blemishes on your skin. One bite is never enough for
 these creatures although they can live off their first 3-bite meal for a long
 time before their blood lust returns. It doesn’t take all that long for them
 to grow from micro hard to see bugs into significant creepy crawlers.
   Welcome to my nightmare, as a famous rocker once intoned.  

      These athletic pests can even jump on you and hitch a ride on your
 jacket or sweater and then jump off later when you enter a new house
 or residence. More spaces to colonize, after all. When they park themselves
 in a new place they begin their cycle of destruction all over again, laying
 eggs and hiding in mattresses, woodwork, sofas and curtains until something
 or someone exposes them. Then you’re likely to see them exit en masse, often
 in large shocking streams that rival the congestion of ant farms.

      One does not have to be dirty or a lowlife sleaze to get bedbugs. Bedbugs
were common in colonial America and throughout Europe. In many cases
 people learned to live with them. Growing up, I had elderly aunts tell me
 before going to bed, “Don’t let the bedbugs bite,” as if bedbugs were sweet
 little things with smiley faces and antennas made of chocolate that helped
 you sleep.  I had never seen a bedbug as a kid so I had no idea what my
 aunts were talking about. Ticks, bees, spiders and moths I knew, but
 bedbugs seemed to be a Grimm’s Fairy Tale concoction. 
   Until I moved to the city…

   When my friend Sean showed me a bedbug for the first time I could
 barely make out its shape it was so small. We were moving furniture
into his new house when he went to move his bed headboard and a bed
 bug crawled out. A swarm of bugs followed, much larger in size. 
 Sean was so disgusted he went into the bathroom to wash his
 hands and exclaim loudly before the mirror: “Oh no, not bed bugs!”

  Sean is such a clean fanatic that people entering his house 

are required to take off their shoes and put on special booties 
so that they won’t dirty up his floors.  When he had a 
number of contractors working on his kitchen last spring he
 made them all take off their boots and put on these wrap
 around booties that tie up in fancy bows. 

      Shockingly, the contractors complied like little children.  
Half of Sean’s living room furniture is covered up in plastic so 
every time you sit down in his house you hear a series of crinkles.
Generally he hates having people into his house because he
 equates people with dirt. 

   So how did someone this clean get bedbugs?

       He got them from living in Philadelphia, of course, because at any point
during his travels about the city he could have touched a railing or
 banister or even brushed up against someone’s curtains or coat when
 an eager to jump bed bug leaped on him and hitched a ride back to
 his house where it then deposited its eggs.

    Sean, of course, had to throw out the bed’s headboard but this was
 only the beginning. He did a thorough house check and found small
colonies of bugs in some uncovered pieces of furniture. He waged
 an expensive, never ending war: he sprayed, vacuumed, washed and
 rewashed and then he wrapped the as yet uncontaminated pieces of
furniture in air tight plastic wrap so the bedbugs couldn’t claim it as
 their own. Some of his good furniture had to be thrown away.

    Bedbugs have only recently become a city plague 
because over a decade ago there was an effective killer spray
 that killed them in aPhiladelphia minute. This powerful spray
 nicked the problem in the bud and saved countless valuable
 pieces of furniture from the trash heap. Then there was the
 "awful" discovery that the killer componentin this spray
 was DDT, a cancer causing agent.  The effective, miracle
spray was then banned with nothing of any value to replace it despite
the rash of so called sprays that promise to do the job just as effectively.

   All lies, of course.

       As The Daily Caller reported, “…Why are bed bugs back?
Though they’ve been sucking humans’ blood since at least ancient
 Greece, bed bugs became virtually extinct in America following the
 invention of pesticide DDT. There were almost no bed bugs in the
United States between World War II and the mid-1990s. Around
when bed bugs started their resurgence, Congress passed a major
pesticides law in 1996 and the Clinton EPA banned several classes
of chemicals that had been effective bed bug killers.”

  Thank you, Bill Clinton.

 The new sprays, as Sean discovered, do little or nothing because
 they simply aren’t strong enough. It also doesn’t help that bedbugs
 go into winter/cold weather hibernation, a despicable deep coma
sleep in which they dream of sucking blood once the warm weather
 approaches. In the hot weather, they reemerge unless you do the heat 
ventilation route. Heat remediation requires only one treatment. It 
utilizes fans and heaters to raise the temperature of the infested 
area to 120 degrees. The temperature is maintained for hours to
 ensure that the bed bugs and the eggs are killed. This is a cumbersome 
and expensive process.
        Homeless shelters are notorious for bed bugs despite the fact that they
 undergo periodic exterminations.  The constant influx of new people
 in shelters all but guarantees new incarnations of jumping bugs eager
 to inhabit a fresh piece of wood in which to build their nasty nation of
 blood sucking bottom feeder vampires.
       The most troubling part of this story is that there’s no solution to the
 bedbug problem unless we bring back the all powerful DDT spray.
Some cities and municipalities are considering doing this because their
 bed bug problems are that great. It’s sad to think that  DDT may be
 the only real answer, especially in our hometown where bed bugs
seem to be everywhere, most notably on the coat of the person
sitting next to you on the Frankford-Market El. 

      Today, Sean is bedbug free but the experience has made him
even more of a clean fanatic. Visitors to his home, even those
 contractors I mentioned, have to go through a doubled up vetting
 process. While Sean hasn’t gone to the extreme length of asking
 people to remove their clothing or demand that they put on double
 booties and gloves, I fully expect that this will be the case if he ever
 gets bed bugs again.

Mother Divine

       On March 14 of this year, The New York Times ran the following headline: Mother Divine Who Took Over Her Husband’s Cult, Dies at 71. Mother Divine actually died on March 4 but it took The Times a while to print an obit.   
       I met Mother Divine some years ago when I visited her estate at Woodmont in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania. At that time I teamed up with an artist friend who wanted to set up his easel and paintbrush and paint the Woodmont mansion for a possible book project.   Mother was gracious during that visit. We were not only invited to dinner—Mother’s followers called it a Holy Communion service—but we were told that we could have a special interview with Mother after the meal.
              The mansion is a multi-room French Gothic masterpiece, designed by Quaker architect William Price for Philadelphia industrialist Alan J, Wood, Jr., in 1892. After the demise of the Gilded Age and the selling off of many of Philadelphia’s old mansions, it was sold to Father Divine for a relatively humble $75,000.
            Woodmont then became the headquarters for the Peace Mission Movement.
       The Peace Mission Movement began as a force for peace and goodwill between the races. The movement, as Mother Divine noted, was to make people “industrious, independent, tax-paying citizens instead of consumers of tax dollars on the welfare rolls.” 
             Since the passing of Father Divine in 1965, the Peace Mission Movement has been under the direction of Father Divine’s second wife, Edna Rose Ritchings, a white Canadian woman he met in 1946.  
            Father Divine’s greatest contributions are probably in the area of Civil Rights. As early as 1951, he advocated for reparations for the descendents of slaves and for integrated neighborhoods. Decades before the Civil Rights Act, before the NAACP, Stokley Carmichael, Angela Davis and the Black Panthers, Father Divine preached peaceful non-violent social change.   Unfortunately, Father Divine’s “preaching” work on behalf of Civil Rights is a mostly understated fact.
 Father Divine’s marriage to the second Mother Divine (the first was an African American woman named Peninniah, who died shortly after the Woodmont purchase) was a celibate affair, as members, both married and unmarried, are prohibited from having sex, or using alcohol and tobacco. 

        When I first saw Mother Divine she was descending the grand staircase in the mansion. She was dressed in a full blown white 19th Century ball gown while being escorted by a sentry dressed in red who also wore a small red beret tilted to the side in the style of Che Guevara. The sentry was a thin black woman and Mother was white--- she had Arctic snow hair and skin much paler than the color of Dove soap. She carried herself with a confident elegance, her head erect and her eyes focused on some invisible point on the horizon. Her walk down the staircase was so slow it called to mind the walking styles of European aristocracy, namely Queen Elizabeth II of England
        Emblems of royalty were very evident in the mansion, not only in the grandiose architecture and design of the place but in the studied attentiveness and seriousness of Mother’s other sentries, who also wore cocked berets. The sentries were stationed throughout the house like Swiss Guards in the Vatican. The atmosphere definitely evoked the formality of a royal court because it was obvious that the sentries would not tolerate any foolish action, like presupposing it was okay to sit on the furniture, which of course we did not do. 
     In situations like this, the human tendency is to be formal yourself even though I longed to see just one of the sentries smile or show some warmth. ‘Feel good’ camaraderie is not in the Woodmont style book, however. The sentries, when they did smile, did it in a fixed way as if they were ready to retract it and turn it upside down at a moment’s notice. I knew this to be the case when I asked one of them, a Miss something-or-other, if I could take a photograph. My request was met with a stern “No, you may not take photographs,” as if I should have known better. I replied with a somewhat stunned “Oh… okay,” the ‘Oh’ in my reply signaling my dismay at such a silly rule, since what could possibly be wrong with taking a snapshot?
     Often the ‘secondary’ people around any high ranking leader have an inflated sense of self importance and behave in a manner that may “out-formalize” the personal style of the big boss, the very person one would expect to flaunt attitude. Mother Divine had an easy and light spirit and it was easy to see a mischievous glint in her eyes. She was quick to smile and laugh but yet she was surrounded by stiff wooden Cigar Store Indian types who were quick to scold. .

         Dinner began when Mother rang a large hand bell. A female cook in a white uniform produced the platters from a small kitchen directly behind Mother. Numerous platters of salad items, including a wide assortment of vegetables, condiments and sauces, set the pace for more complicated platters offering meats and fish, rice, potatoes, breads, more vegetables and meats until at last diners could devote their attention to the business at hand, eating, rather than the elaborate ritual of passing platters.
            When platters were passed from one diner to another, they never touched the table. Diners were not allowed to hold two platters at the same time, so the synchronization of the plates had the movements of a dance. While this was going on, diners listened to old audio tapes of Father Divine sermons. The mostly elderly crowd, men in suits and women in Peace Mission uniforms, combined eating with the singing of hymns. A few elderly white women, European by birth, clapped their hands in sing song fashion in between mouthfuls, reminding me of the antics of patients in a mental institution.

       After dinner, Mother invited my artist friend and me into her private office where she showed us old photographs of Father Divine. A sentry stood beside her as the four of us chatted. I found myself occasionally looking out of Mother’s office window at the tomb of Father, believed by followers to be God incarnate. The conversation was not profound but filled with cursory pleasantries. There were even several photo ops in which Mother snuggled up against my artist friend and I. Photographs were no longer an issue because the sentry who greeted us in the foyer was not the one standing by Mother’s side.
    By the time my friend and I left Woodmont we had the feeling that the sentries around Mother were much like a covert army. It was like the feeling you get when you visit a couple who are in a bad marriage but who put on a happy face when company comes. You can somehow feel the tension and repressed emotion coming from the couple but there’s no way you can prove that it exists.  Mother, after all, was sitting on a vast fortune and a huge empire. She was elderly and had to be helped around the mansion on her daily walks around the estate.
       While in a cab leaving the estate, we passed Mother as she began her daily walk, escorted by several dour looking sentries. During our chat with Mother she appeared strong but seeing her outdoors was a profound change. She not only looked weak and vulnerable but she seemed to be almost totally under the care and direction of the women propping her up.  
        The word ‘care’ in this sense can also be a code word for power and control. We have all heard stories of what happens to some elderly mothers when their care is relinquished to their children, and how one child can claim power of attorney and have the mother committed to a nursing home while her assets are funneled into other family bank accounts.  
      My friend and I were certain that Mother liked us and so we were very surprised when we were turned down by a secretarial sentry when we called later to schedule a follow up interview. The sentry told us that we were not permitted to visit. No reason was given but it was obvious that we were no longer welcome at Woodmont.  
        Since that time we have both felt that Mother was really a prisoner behind pearly gates and that she was not acting as a free agent.
       This is why I think it is a good thing that The New York Times called the Peace Mission a cult.


Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Mother Divine: The Real Philadelphia Story


By Thom Nickels
       Contributing Editor

Woodmont is not only a world set apart, it is a world with a history. Located in Montgomery County, this 72-acre estate is the home base of The Peace Mission Movement, started by Father Divine in 1919 in Sayville, New York.
 The mansion itself is a multi-room French Gothic masterpiece, designed by Quaker architect William Price for Philadelphia industrialist Alan J, Wood, Jr., in 1892. After the demise of the Gilded Age and the selling off of many of Philadelphia’s old mansions, it was sold to Father Divine for a relatively humble $75,000.
                Woodmont then became the headquarters for the Peace Mission Movement.
                As the rush of 21st century events seems to pummel the world towards some kind of catastrophe, Woodmont has remained outside the fray. Since the passing of Father Divine in 1965, the Peace Mission Movement has been under the direction of Father Divine’s second wife, Edna Rose Ritchings, a white Canadian woman he met in 1946. 
                The Peace Mission Movement began as a force for peace and goodwill between the races, as an incentive to make-- as Mother Divine notes in her small book, “The Peace Mission Movement”-- people “industrious, independent, tax-paying citizens instead of consumers of tax dollars on the welfare rolls.” In the area of theology, many of Father Divine’s followers believe that he was/is God. In the past, this fact has annoyed many members of the press and resulted in bad publicity for the Movement.
                Father Divine’s greatest contributions are probably in the area of Civil Rights. As early as 1951, he advocated for reparations for the descendents of slaves and for integrated neighborhoods. Decades before the Civil Rights Act, before the NAACP, before Stokley Carmichael, Angela Davis or the Black Panthers, Father Divine preached peaceful non-violent social change.   Unfortunately, Father Divine’s “preaching” work on behalf of Civil Rights is a mostly understated fact.
 Father Divine’s marriage to the second Mother Divine (the first was an African American woman named Peninniah, who died shortly after the Woodmont purchase) was a celibate affair, as members, both married and unmarried, are prohibited from having sex, or using alcohol and tobacco. 
                An invitation to attend the monthly Sunday banquet at Woodmont, which the Peace Mission Movement considers a Holy Communion service, was extended to me and Philadelphia artist Noel Miles because of a book we are working on.  Miles had gone to Woodmont before, with brush and canvass, to capture the marvelous interiors for our project when Mother Divine extended the invitation.
                When the day of the pilgrimage arrived, we boarded the R-7 for Bryn Mawr, and then hailed a cab to Gladwyne, where Woodmont is located. Our cabbie, a rather youngish urban type who seemed more suited for a city taxi than navigating the lost vistas of Montgomery County, had no idea where Woodmont was, but, like a true shyster, he tried to hide this fact by driving fast.
                When it became apparent that he was winging it, Miles made him get his bearings. By happenstance or miracle, we happened to notice the Woodmont address etched simply and unobtrusively on a stone wall. The taxi then took the long rustic driveway through a corridor of trees. Along the road to the mansion I noticed a few clumsily etched hand carved road signs, the kind you’d see in a Boy Scout camp circa 1960.
 A wide clearing in the brush brought the mansion into view.
At this point, the cabbie could barely suppress an “Ahhhhh!”
Holy Royal Family Highgate! Or was this some unnamed palace on the Thames transferred via UFO to fairly predictable Montgomery County where the only queen had been Hope Montgomery Scott? I spotted an elderly white man sitting on a chair—or was it a tree stump?—near what looked to be a shed. A watchman of some sort, very polite. Did he sleep in the shed? I was full of questions.
The cabbie let us off in the middle of the massive semi circular drive.
                 A small black woman in a beret and white gloves with a “V” embossed on her blouse, waved to us as we approached the mansion. She was perched several heads above us, sentry-like, on the portico landing. Shades of Buckingham Palace formality. Her smile was beatific but steely; her thin body conjuring images of self denial. Introductions were made and up the steps we went, the cab idling as if the cabbie wanted a longer glimpse. 
                “Call if you want a pick up,” he shouted from the cab.
                We were not banking on a pickup but a ride home, or at least a ride to the station from one of the dinner guests.
 Inside the grand reception room, we saw museum quality gilt framed paintings, lush carpets and oak woodwork. Miss Faith, the sentry of the steps, explained the history of the house.
                We noticed a mammoth framed portrait of Mother and Father Divine hanging over the reception area like an iconostasis in a cathedral.
                “My one aim is to live a virtuous life under the Personal jurisdiction of FATHER DIVINE,” Mother Divine wrote in 1952. “My Marriage to FATHER has brought the fulfillment of this desire and I can most assuredly say that in these past four or more happy years that I have been married, FATHER’S Virginity has been more firmly established in my consideration, for I have not seen anything about Him that reflects that of a man.”

                “May I tape our conversation?” I asked Miss Faith.
                “Oh no, you may not,” Miss Faith said, looking at me in disbelief.
                This was a perfectly natural question for a journalist, but Miss Faith’s reaction somehow made me feel thoroughly ashamed of myself. Was I now a besmirched house guest who had to be watched?
                 I would later discover that in years past journalists delighted in taking advantage of Mother Divine’s generosity and then went on to butcher her in print. It’s the way journalism is these days, where stories about suburban teachers having sex with seventeen year olds is considered breaking news.
                Without any sort of announcement, namely the ringing of chimes or a small hand bell, my eyes were drawn to the top of the magnificent central staircase.
A woman in a long white beaded dress who was being escorted down the central staircase by an elderly woman in a beret. It was one of those cinematic moments, half Royal Family, half an exciting ‘new’ story that has yet to be told.
 “Who are these people?” I heard Mother Divine whisper to the aide. When she was reminded who we were, Mother approached Miles first, extending a hand.
When Mother turned to me, I took her hand and said that it was an honor to meet her.
 After all, this was the brave woman who, in 1972, issued the Rev. Jim Jones and his followers, his marching orders. Mother Divine ordered Jones to leave the Woodmont estate after he attempted to take over the Peace Mission Movement, claiming that he was the reincarnation of Father Divine.  Some 200 of Jones’ followers had arrived from California, “pretending,” as Mother states, “a sincere desire to fellowship with members of the Movement.”
                Mother asked them to leave when “his distaste for the government of the United States and the establishment, and the prosperity of the followers in general began to be expressed in casual, then more deliberate remarks he made to Mother Divine and others.”
                Several years later would come the insanity of the People’s Temple in Guyana.

                In my quest to find out more about the Mission, I asked Miss Faith “where the chapel was, the place where you have services.” My question was met with puzzlement. “The banquet is the holy communion service,” Miss Faith said.
                I would understand the mechanics of this very soon, once the banquet got underway.
                The lush, white banquet table sat about 60 people. A swan on a “lake” of glass was the centerpiece, in addition to fresh flowers. Women outnumbered men about 10 to one. Mother sat at the head of the table; beside her was a setting for Father Divine. An attendant stood behind my chair and Miles’ ready to assist us during the meal.
                Dinner began when Mother rang a large hand bell. A female cook in a white uniform produced the platters from a small kitchen directly behind Mother. Numerous platters of salad items, including a wide assortment of vegetables, condiments and sauces, set the pace for more complicated platters offering meats and fish, rice, potatoes, breads, more vegetables and meats until at last diners could devote their entire attention to the business at hand, eating, rather than the elaborate ritual of passing platters.
                When platters are passed from one diner to another, they must never touch the table. Diners must also not hold two platters at the same time, so the entire synchronization of the plates had the movements of a dance. While this was going on, diners listened to an old audio tape of a Father Divine sermon. The mostly elderly crowd—men in suits and women in Peace Mission uniforms—beret, and a jacket embossed with a V—combined eating with the singing of hymns. A few elderly white women, European by birth, clapped their hands in sing song fashion in between mouthfuls.
                The plate passing started up again when dessert was served: huge cakes, pies, jello molds and ice cream were passed in the same fashion, all homemade, all luscious, and yet not a single person at the table looked to be overweight.
With synchronization worthy of the Rockettes, additional platters kept being delivered to both sides of the table. Diners were expected to take only what they could eat. I ate all of what I put on my plate except for a little bit of Salmon skin. The food was marvelous, the vegetables among the best I’ve ever tasted.
                After dinner, Miles and I were asked if we wanted to say a few words to the assembly. I mentioned that the dining experience reminded me of the time I spent in Catholic monasteries, when you would eat in silence while listening to a monk read from scripture or the lives of the saints.
The Catholic connection, as it turned out, was not that far fetched. A woman from Saint Paul’s parish in South Philadelphia told me to look out for a lineup of Catholic saint statues around the parameter of the Peace Mission dining room.
I counted ten or more Catholic saints positioned some ten feet above the heads of the diners.            
                For me, the hymns and hand clapping that occurred during the banquet raised a red flag: “Here’s where biting journalist types like Christopher Hitchens have a really wicked time ripping into Mother and all things Divine,” I thought.  
                But Woodmont, in rapidly deteriorating world, is actually more of a treasure than not. It’s quiet, isolated, beautiful, a mansion with many rooms and good food, an empire with its own benevolent queen, a masterful lady with a piercing glance.
                After dinner, Miles and I were told that Mother wanted to see us alone, in Father Divine’s office.
                The office, as it turned out, is a dead ringer for the oval office in the White House. Miles and I stood with Mother by Father’s desk, an aide not far away.  Directly in front of the window was Father Divine’s shrine and tomb. For a few moments things were very quiet, then sunlight hit Mother Divine’s face.

                We both agreed, on the train ride home, that here was the real Philadelphia story.  

Saturday, February 18, 2017

    My Review of the film 'Jackie' for Philadelphia's Irish Edition

  Look at photographs of the grassy knoll at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, where President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade sped away after an assassin’s bullets in 1963 changed the course of history, and you may find yourself imagining the pain the First Lady felt as she held her dying husband in her arms.  

   That horrific moment still lives in grainy newsreel footage, but it comes alive for us again in the form of Natalie Portman who plays Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy in Pablo Larrain’s “Jackie,” an intense psychological biopic about the life of the First Lady immediately after the assassination. Those dark days put the nation in mourning even as Jackie processed the shock alone, as the scene of Portman as Jackie scrubbing her face of her husband’s blood in the bathroom of Air Force One so chillingly details. 

    “Jackie” opens with the former First Lady being interviewed in the Kennedy Hyannis Port compound by Theodore H. White for Life magazine. White is played by Billy Crudup who captures the writer’s suave and erudite manner. Eager to make a name for himself in journalism, his engagement with Jackie has all the elements of a verbal fencing match. Jackie isn’t going to let him have her story without a struggle. More therapist than journalist, Crudup’s White is patient to a fault but he’s not afraid to dig deep. He wants Jackie to spill her guts and relive what she saw and felt that day near the grassy knoll.  Jackie acquiesces in small doses and gives White an occasional Big Feeling Moment, but then states, “Of course this is off the record.” Portman is so believable as the First Lady that we begin to realize that this is much more than a film but, as has been stated, “The scariest history lesson ever.”

    The nearly flawless script by Noah Oppenheim makes this 95-minute film seem much shorter. It also makes us not care so much that JFK (Caspar Phillipson) appears only a few times in quick juxtaposed flash backs. 

    Portman’s Jackie opens a world heretofore unseen: We are with her as she walks through the rooms of the White House like a numb, disembodied spirit. On her first night in Washington after the assassination we see her taking off her blood stained clothes and breaking down in the shower. Then she puts on a chiffon night gown and in a radiant gesture, crawls into bed in a lounging position and lights a cigarette to life.

   Alone with her children, who can’t understand where daddy is and why he won’t be coming home, Jackie’s sense of alienation grows. The viewer feels her growing displacement and the fact that the White House is now alien territory, a morgue of memories filled with mementos that she must wrap up and put into boxes for her new home in New York City. If there is one flaw in the film it is the odd choice of actors portraying Caroline (Sunnie Pelant) and young John John (Brody and Aiden Weinberg). Their odd physical features are far removed from the standard Kennedy and Bouvier good looks.  
     A decidedly unhappy moment in the film occurs when Jackie’s walks in on Lyndon Johnson and Lady Byrd as they pick out new White House wall paper; in an instant we see what the widow sees: her famous remodeling of the White House going up in smoke. But all is not perfect ladylike composure, especially when she loses her temper with brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) and with the Secret Service over arrangements for the presidential funeral.

      Priests are rarely portrayed well in Hollywood, but John Hurt as Father Richard McSorley displays the seasoned wisdom of a long suffering philosopher. When he walks with Jackie in a tree lined Washington park on cold gray winter afternoons, he does his best to answer her questions concerning the mystery and (possible) futility of life.  

       Happily, Jackie feels little futility when she decides to promote the legacy of Camelot after replaying the music that she and Jack had so enjoyed in happier days.  If she cannot have her husband back, she can at least extract ‘revenge’ in the form of an historic legacy that will live well into the ages.



The New Civil War


    Some people say that the political polarization in the country is worse now than it’s been since the American Civil War. It has even been predicted that the country is on the verge of another civil war. That seems a bit of a stretch although it is true that during the Vietnam War many protesters believed that the antiwar movement was the second American Revolution.

     But what if the current unrest in the country does lead to a second American Civil War? How would that play out in the modern era? Granted, there wouldn’t be battles like those that were fought in Gettysburg or Vicksburg, but it’s very conceivable that each side would come up with their own flag design. Signs and symbols, after all, are important. The President’s people might construct an orange flag, which would stand in stark contrast to the flag of the Resistance: a pair of big furry pussy ears fixed to a raised fist.

   The first shot of the new civil war will not be fired at Fort Sumter but will ring out during one of the many demonstrations being held throughout the nation. Lulled into a false sense of security by the relative liberality and “ease” of the Obama years, the Resistance will have little sense of limits when it comes to protesting President Trump and the GOP, which they will happily refer to as Grab Our Pussies. The false sense of security that former President Obama’s policies would last forever will mislead those in the Resistance to believe that a slap on the wrist or squirts of pepper spray will be the highest price to pay for blocking highways and traffic at rush hour. They will have forgotten about history, namely the May 4, 1970 killing of Kent State antiwar student protesters by the National Guard. The Resistance will be taken by surprise when after months of engaging in property destruction, government building invasions and street mayhem, President Trump declares Marshal Law.

      The Resistance’s worst fears will materialize but only because they worked to push the protest limits into the stratosphere. One might compare this ‘every action has a reaction’ mindset to the closing of Cione Field to the general public because of the irresponsible habits of a few dog walkers who don’t clean up after their animals poop. The Resistance will have created a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Like Mary Shelley who created the novel Frankenstein, they will have created Dictator President Trump.  The Resistance will pretend to be scandalized at the turn of events but down deep they will be happy because life for them has no purpose if one cannot ...resist.   

         Driven underground, the Resistance will form collective huddles in basements and community centers. Formerly benign groups like Nuns on the Bus will be renamed Nuns with Guns and the streets of the city will become like an armed camp.  At night, armies of pussy eared fem soldiers and their Lone Ranger masked boyfriends will scurry from one back alley to another in defiance of the new curfew laws. The Marshals will catch many of the curfew breakers, remove their knitted hats and then put the ears on the top of stakes that will line major thoroughfares.

     Citizens not involved in the new civil war will stay put in their houses after sundown, where they will load up on popcorn and NetFliks. These people will be called ‘The Middles’ because they admire some things about President Trump although they cannot buy his entire agenda. The Middles will support some Resistance ideas although they will continue to have issues with abortion or dressing up their two year old daughters as “walking vaginas” who scream “fuck you” at supporters of the President. The Middles will call for peace and compromise but the nation will have become so polarized that The Middles will be seen as even greater enemies than the enemy that each side is supposed to hate.  

   Violent skirmishes in the streets of the city will be common, such as gunshots, home made explosions, screams and the sounds of large groups as they charge into buildings or attack limos in the vicinity of the Union League. These will be intensely dark times for the nation, and especially for Philadelphia, which will see brother against brother, mother against son, and neighbor against neighbor. The agreed upon boundaries of civil tolerance will disappear. There will be no discussion, no dialogue. Speakers with an “incorrect” point of view will be dragged from podiums, hog tied and gagged. It will make the humble beginnings of political discord and intolerance on Facebook, when friend “unfriended” friend, seem like innocent child’s play. 

    Philadelphia City Hall, because of its prime reputation as a major Resistance city, will become a nerve center in the new civil war, even under Marshal Law.  Mayor Kenney will lead the charge, continuing to defy a federal ban on Sanctuary cities to the bitter end, even as the stoppage of federal funds from Washington hurls the city into dire poverty and forces many public schools to close. The mayor will ask citizens to accept the suffering as a sacrifice for the noble ideals of The Resistance. Many will come to see him as the American male version of Joan of Arc and join in chants like, “death is better than capitulation.” Indeed for some it will be death because many will even not be able to afford a block of Velveeta cheese. The end of federal funding will spiral outward and affect all areas of city life. Outdoor restaurants and cafes will close sidewalk service and theaters will close or choose not to offer frivolous plays about millennials in love or esoteric love stories that have ties to quantum physics. Every play will have a Resistance theme.  
   Civil War, after all, is serious business!

    Ideological frenzy will be the order of the day. The Resistance will demand the resignation of President Trump and demand that “reality” return to the way it was under President Obama.  The Orange Brigade, on the other hand, will be just as immovable, having long ago repealed Obamacare without replacing it with anything except a promise to come up with something better “very soon.” But even President Trump, with all of his mighty Executive Orders, will not be able to slay three giants, the American Medical Association, Big Pharm and the insurance industry when it comes to implementing a sensible health care program for all Americans.   

     Without national health insurance and with the new Congress’ dismantling of many programs for the poor, like Medicaid, long standing institutions like Health Care Six on Girard Avenue will close its doors. The poor will now have no medical care even in hospital emergency rooms where it was once possible to apply as a charity case patient. Those who cannot pay for hospital treatment upfront on a credit card, check or cash will be sent back into the streets or to their homes to die.   

   The lovely, free Obama phone will disappear from view. Methadone clinics will disappear or be taken over by for profit companies that will demand hours of work in exchange for counseling and treatment. Social Security will not be affected for those already retired but the scale of future benefits will be radically marked down for millennials so that by the time they retire the benefits will be down to almost nothing. 

   Conversely, there will be plenty of jobs. Factories will make reappearance so that if a new hire doesn’t like one job they can quit and literally walk down the street to another factory and be hired on the spot.

       America will be a mixed bag of opportunities and devastation.  

   The new Civil War will be long and protracted. It will mostly be a war of banishment and shunning more than a violent conventional war. In the end, it will be The Middles who will work to negotiate a peace treaty. They will find a way to get both sides to sit down and talk and come up with a comprehensive Middle Way to Restore the Nation.  Ideological fanatics on both extremes will fight this but in the end they will lose.

      The nation, exhausted by strife and unrest, will finally realize that the extreme ideologues on the Right and the Left have to go.  



   The death of a loved one or family member is for most people a traumatic experience.   That’s because most of us assume that our lives will go on for a long time and that death won’t happen today or even the day after tomorrow but sometime in the distant future.
   Death is never a pleasant topic. There are no “nice” deaths, either. One can die instantly of a heart attack, stroke or in an automobile accident, or one can die slowly over a period of months or years. In the case of the latter, at least there’s a chance for the one who is about to die to say good-bye. In the case of the former, there are no such options. In the Orthodox Church there are prayers asking God to save us from an instant death. It is always better to be prepared for this important transition from life to after life.     
   My sister in law recently reposed. We were not extremely close but we still had a closeness made palpable by decades of family dinners and reunions. When I say we were not extremely close I don’t mean to imply a distance caused by alienation. Like most people, we were caught up in our own lives which led us to assume that there would be plenty of time to see one another again.
      Fioerlla came into my brother’s life at a point when he really needed change and a life partner. One day my mother called me up and said, “You’ll be meeting Fiorella this Sunday. I think your brother has met his match.”
   Fiorella had long straight hair, a winning smile, a keen intelligence and an acute sense of humor. Her Italian family roots could be traced to the area by the Adriatic Sea. She was born in Italy but migrated to the United States as a toddler with her parents. She married my brother in Saint Patrick’s church in Malvern, an old gothic structure with enormous glass stained windows. I attended the wedding. It was the 1970s and all the men in the wedding party had long hair and mustaches. The reception was a rollicking party along the lines of Saturday Night Fever.

     Fiorella’s mother was a gifted seer who provided her daughter with advice and counseling. Her father had a talent for winemaking; his wine was famous for its smooth medicinal properties and it rarely if ever caused a morning hangover. We all asked one another, “how does he make this stuff?’
     My brother often spoke of his mother-in-law’s intuitive talents. Like the mystic and saint, Padre Pio, it was claimed that Fiorella’s mother could be in two places at once. This is called bi-location. My brother once told me that his father-in-law would often see his wife in the garden and then half a second later at the kitchen stove. It was just one of life’s unexplained mysteries. Still, Fiorella’s mom’s excellent “intuitions” were sometimes not what her daughter or my brother wanted to hear.
     I remember the time when she warned them to travel by plane rather than take the train when planning a cross country trip. The advice seemed backwards because conventional wisdom suggests that flying would be more dangerous than traveling by Amtrak. Fiorella was afraid of flying and she tried to avoid it whenever possible, so it took all her strength to muster up the courage to fly with my brother when they embarked on their honeymoon to Acapulco.
   But Fiorella’s mother was persistent: “Do not take the train! Take the plane!”
      Fiorella’s fear of flying was just too great, so she and my brother decided to take the train, despite the warning. Once on board Amtrak in the train’s sleeping compartment, there was a crash and a sort of explosion that sent the two of them flying off their bunks. Smoke entered their compartment and a lot of panic ensued. Fortunately they escaped without injury: the train had derailed or had crashed into something, I’m not sure which, but those uncertain moments were very scary for them.  
    Fiorella and my brother settled in a house in a development in Exton, Pennsylvania   where they raised three children. The years advanced and as often happens with families there were times when we Nickels siblings would drift apart only to come together during the holidays or a 4th of July picnic. On one 4th of July Fiorella and my brother hosted a massive reunion for my mother’s side of the family. The ‘Muldoon-Kelly’ reunion covered the waterfront in terms of disparate personalities and incomes. Fiorella and my brother had also managed to obtain old photos of distant relatives in Tyrone County, Ireland, men with long black beards covering their chest and women carrying parasols.  
   Fiorella contracted breast cancer a few years ago. She had a single mastectomy and routine chemo and radiation treatments. After that she and my brother went on an extreme health regime. Life was fine for a while but then two or three days after Christmas it was discovered that the cancer had returned, only now it was in her liver.
    In no time at all it seemed the cancer got worse and spread to other parts of Fiorella’s body. She was admitted to Bryn Mawr Hospital. When the truth of her incurable cancer became an undisputable fact, her youngest daughter, Amanda came up with a plan.
     Scheduled to be married to her fiancĂ© Mark in September 2017, the couple organized a wedding in the hospital chapel before their big September church wedding. All of my brother’s children pitched in to create what became a miniature but full extravanza in just 24 hours. That included getting the wedding rings, hiring musicians, a priest, ordering food and champagne and negotiating with a tailor to alter Fiorella’s old wedding gown for Amanda to wear.
   Fiorella was informed of the impromptu chapel wedding and was given an extra treatment of radiation so she could attend. The morning of the wedding she woke up and said, “I feel great!”
   The small ceremony turned the hospital upside down when nurses and physicians, and even the hospital’s president and CEO, crowded into the small chapel, many of them in tear.
    My last visit with Fiorella was Tuesday January 31 when I entered her hospital room around 5:20 PM. She was alone and she looked to be sleeping. The room was empty except for the sounds of a nurse running water in the bathroom. When the nurse asked me who I was, I told her that I was a brother in law. In the few seconds that it took me to say this I thought I saw a smile cross Fiorella's face. Was I imaging this? My brother had told me earlier that his wife was comatose but that she could hear what was being said. The nurse said I could spend as much time with her as I wanted, and so I sat with Fiorella until the chaplain walked in and told me that Fiorella had actually died hours before, at 3:20.
    Hearing this was disconcerting because all along I had thought that she was asleep. I spent 30 minutes sitting with Fiorella, meditating, thinking of times past.
   Then I thought of the words of St. John Chryosotom who wrote that although death is terrible and frightening—yes, even its name is devastating-- that for those who know the higher philosophy there should be no shuddering,
      That’s because death is merely a passing over when we leave this corruptible life and go on to another, which is unending and incomparably better.