Total Pageviews

Popular Posts

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Subways are for Sleeping

   Let’s suppose you’re at Septa’s 15th Street station running to catch the Market Street El because you’re headed to 34th and Market for an important event. You hop aboard an idling train but as soon as the doors close behind you there’s an announcement that the train is an express to 69th Street.
   There’s no choice now but to ride to 69th Street and take a return train to 34th Street.
  You wonder: why wasn’t the announcement of an express made when you were outside the train instead of inside? 
   After the long haul to Upper Darby, you discover that the 69th Street station platform is packed with disgruntled commuters. Unusually large numbers of people are waiting for return trains to West Philadelphia and Center City. Has there been a bomb scare, a suicide attempt, a breakdown of the system?  Nobody seems to know what’s going but in a sense it doesn’t matter. In a matter of seconds a train headed back to Center City opens up. You board the train with the massive crowd while casually noticing that there are several homeless people sound asleep throughout the car. 
   Then: A woman’s voice garbles some sort of information over a Septa loudspeaker. The garble is a result of poor diction and a lousy sound system. The unintelligible announcement is repeated but the fact is the speaker is too close to the public address system so the message sounds like a scolding mixed with heavy breathing.
    Why can’t Septa provide voice diction lessons to the people it puts behind loudspeakers and intercoms? 

  A collective groan rises up among the passengers as the public address garbler manages to get out six clear distinctive words: this train is out of service. 
     A working train eventually pulls up. Once inside, you notice that several seats inside the train are occupied by sleeping homeless people although it’s only 6:30 PM. One homeless guy has his legs in a garbage bag. Another man is spread out over two seats and he has a large shopping car6t stuffed with his belongings. One empty seat has been urinated on. That familiar city subway stench is in the air. A white guy in dreadlocks goes from car to car selling bags of Swedish Fish. A small wizened toothless woman, her skeletal face evoking near death experiences, does a drug induced snake dance in the middle of the crowded train.
     Adam Gopnik in a 2016 New Yorker article entitled, ‘Let Us Sleep on the Subways!’ writes that not so long ago “there were lonely cars at lonely times,” but today “the subways are packed at 4 in the morning and 5 in the afternoon.” The numbers, he says, are daunting.
    Gopnik attributes much of the growth in New York’s ridership from the rapidly growing neighborhoods of Brooklyn. “To put it in plain English, in the unending tsunami of hipsters traveling to and from what were once quaintly called the outer boroughs. A generation has mastered the trains.”
       Gopnik writes that most of the people sleeping on New York subways are the stoned or homeless. The same is true in Philadelphia, of course. How many valuable commuter seats do these chronic sleepers take up? My guess is ten to fifteen percent of each car, especially on a Sunday morning when you’ll spot more deep sleepers than at any other time. Some of the homeless are not asleep but sit and ride the El for hours in a semi-hypnotic state. It’s doubtful whether the sleepers have Sopite Syndrome (a nuero disorder where symptoms of fatigue follow short periods of activity). Most are using the trains as a temporary home. 

     The sleeping homeless exacerbate the problem of trains so overcrowded that Market-Frankford El stops like Girard have trains whizzing past and not stopping to pick up passengers because there’s no room for them.  
   In New York City, transit police go car to car to wake up the deep sleepers. Former NYC Police Commissioner Bill Bratton stated that “subways are not for sleeping.” His sentiments were seconded by Mayor Bill de Blasio who said, “I know people have gotten out of work and are tired, but we are going to start waking people up.” 
   This would include commuters who take cat naps.
     Gopnik attributes this universal tiredness to “the perpetual-motion machine that services today’s errand-driven economy.”
   Septa would be wise, perhaps, to add sleeping cars where the perpetual-motion homeless can join commuter cat nappers and the chronically stoned. Speaking of being stoned, there’s not a square inch of the city where you don’t smell that rancid odor of mind destroying marijuana, a smell that is quite different from the sweeter and far more pleasant smell of weed in the 1970s.
  Sleeping on the subways has been an urban problem for as long as there have been subways.
    The New York Times in 2018 ran the following headline: “As Homeless Take Refuge in Subway, More Officers Are Sent to Help.”
    Elle Magazine in 2016 ran the following story: Why Does the Subway Make Me So Sleepy?”

     Then there was Edmund G. Love’s Harper’s magazine feature, Subways Are for Sleeping, in 1956, where the author details the day-to-day life of a NYC vagrant, Henry Shelby, a university graduate who once held a high paying job in Manhattan. Fired from his position and locked out of his hotel room for non payment of rent, Love asked Shelby how he managed to look so clean and well dressed while being homeless. Shelby talked about the 65 cent baths at Grand Central Station, how he sleeps in libraries, how he took one change of clothes (he had two) to the cleaners every other day so he always looked presentable.
  Shelby went into detail about the tricks to sitting in train or bus stations for long periods of time. Carry a briefcase, he said, but not a ratty-looking briefcase and police will leave you alone when they do security checks. Shelby told Love that he never sleeps on the same subway train two nights in a row so as not to arouse suspicion from train security. He also maintained that police left him alone if he pulled out a book to read.  Love titles this section of the article, The Well-Kept Vagrant.
  Shelby spent days in museums and galleries where he acquired great amounts of knowledge about painting, so much so that for a time he thought about becoming a painter himself.  

New York, New York is a hell of a town....

 “Vagrants are rarely molested in New York museums and galleries,” Love wrote. “Shelby is apt to smile and say this is because the guards can never distinguish between a legitimate bum and an artistic one. They never disturb a person like him because they never know when they are trying to eject an artist who is holding a one-man show on the third floor. “
   In the 1950s there were thousands of men and women in various stages of vagrancy wandering the streets of New York. One estimate was 10,000 to I million. Many carried sandwich boards, worked as roustabouts on the waterfront or washed dishes in restaurants.
   Love’s book inspired the 1961 Broadway hit, ‘Subways Are for Sleeping,’ with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, starring Carol Lawrence.

    In cities as big as New York and Philadelphia, the homeless sleep everywhere, including Starbucks.
     A friend told me about his recent visit to the Starbucks by Macy’s.      “Usually it's crammed with customers sipping their brew and hammering on their laptops,” he said, “This time, I found the place nearly empty around noon although a covey of homeless people huddled in a few chairs in one corner.  I've heard that Starbucks has experienced this nationwide once they opened their doors after the unfounded accusation of racism here in Philadelphia broke after the two guys were removed from the Starbucks in the Rittenhouse area. “
Starbucks turns into a homeless shelter.

   “It drives home the old adage, there's a reason for rules!" he added.   

Thom Nickels
Contributing Editor

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

American Saint from the Czech Republic

      Visitors (and pilgrims) to the Saint John Neumann Shrine at St. Peter the Apostle Church at 5th and Girard Streets will find an attractive monastery like setting. Besides the chapel, resplendent in gold, marble and a Byzantine icon of the Virgin Mary in place of a statue, there’s a café that can seat 50, an atrium with piped in Georgian chant, and a gift shop with a rich selection of rosaries and unusual statues of Our Lady of Fatima. Capping the complex is a museum devoted to the life and work of St. John Neumann (1811-1860), born in the Kingdom of Bohemia, now the Czech Republic. Neumann migrated to the United States in 1836 where he became the fourth bishop of Philadelphia (1852-1860).  

The marble stoop where the saint collapsed and died. From a rowhouse at 13th and Vine Streets.

   The Neumann museum has attracted the attention of roving urban reporters who would otherwise not report on religious topics. The ‘more-hip-than-thou’ , for instance, informed its readers that the shrine is where St. John Neumann, “is dressed in a miter and vestments, and resembles a big rifle bullet inside a glass-sided gun barrel.”

   This description, despite its military industrial complex analogy, indicates that the writer was to some degree mesmerized by what he saw. The writer continues:   

“… When Neumann was exhumed in 1962 it was reported that he was remarkably well-preserved for someone who had been buried for over 100 years. His body has nevertheless been given a wax face, to remain presentable.”

    Patrick J. Hayes, Ph.D, Archivist (for the) Redemptorist Archives of the Baltimore Province, guided me on a tour of the museum. Hayes never mentioned bullets, though he did point out the hangman’s noose that was used to hang two brothers at Moyamensing Prison. The story goes that many clergy had failed to convert the two brothers prior to their execution. One clergyman did succeed, however, and that was Bishop Neumann. There’s no record of what Neumann said to the condemned although it probably had something to do with spending eternity in Dante’s Inferno. The hood that was placed over the condemned men’s heads is also prominently displayed, creating a kind of Mutter Museum chill. (The noose and hood were both presented to Neumann sometime after the executions).

The saint's body inside a glass coffin.

   As for Neumann’s “death relic,” reported that when Neumann was exhumed in 1962 he looked remarkably well preserved. That’s not quite the case, however.

     “They first brought him up out of the ground in 1902. The coffin he was in was found to be water damaged but the Bishop himself was looking pretty good close to 40 years after his death,” Hayes said, adding that he was redressed and placed in a second coffin and put back in the ground.

   In 1962 the body was exhumed again.  “The coffin was okay but Neumann was looking like he’d been dead for 100 years… in all that time you get a little leathery, kind of mummified,” he said.

    Hayes said he has the photographs of the exhumed 1962 body “in a folder.”

Pre-Vatican II Monstrance. When monstrances did not look like UFO's.  

   In 1962, the decision was made to reconstruct Bishop Neumann’s face forensically. When the old death mask was removed it was put in a vault because it is considered a second class relic by the Catholic Church. 

  In the years before the Second Vatican Council Bishop Neumann’s body was in a glass altar set back in the sanctuary under the tabernacle. After the revolution/wreck-o-vation in church architecture, Neumann was redressed in period vestments under the direction of then Cardinal Rigali and placed in front of the altar so he could be easily seen.

  “The Redemporists” Hayed noted, “decided to get him out of the 1962 apparel then prevalent, which made him look like he was covered in aluminum foil.”  

General museum view. 

   The “little bishop,” just 5’2” tall, loved to walk everywhere.  “But he had a lot of self doubt. He thought of quitting and asked a number of American bishops about the possibility of taking a smaller diocese. He wanted out of the limelight in the worst way,” Hayes said.

    As a student at the University of Prague he was known as the ultimate egghead-intellectual. Hayes recounts how as a seminarian the future Philadelphia bishop could detect the slightest bit of heresy coming from his professors. “This caused many of them to be brought down for their ideas,” Hayes added.  “But it also made him tremendously humorless.” Unlike, say, St. Philip Neri (1515-1595) commonly known as the patron saint of humor.

  But this intellectual who spoke multiple languages (which endeared him to immigrant communities), elicited a lot of laughter when he clumsily mounted a horse, his feet barely reaching the stirrups.    

      The museum contains Neumann’s books, documents, letters, prayer books and papers. A nature lover, his collection of botany books are also on display as well as a copy of the Douay Rheims Bible, printed in 1870 by Philadelphia publisher Matthew Carey. According to Hayes, the museum’s copy of the first English language Catholic Bible is the best preserved of the 40 remaining copies worldwide.

     You’ll also find a simple pale wooden altar with a small tabernacle on top where the saint used to say Mass. The paleness of the wood makes it look more like a chest of drawers than an altar. Inside the small tabernacle door, which is not easy to open, is where some leave prayer requests. Nearby is another chest of drawers, albeit of darker wood, where the saint once said Mass for a family named Kelly. A hole that looks as though it had been crudely carved by a knife mars the long counter top. Hayes said that when Neumann was celebrating Mass for the Kelly family one of the candles caught fire and burnt a hole through the wood. The hole now acts as a drop off point for more prayer petitions.
    A large monstrance reminiscent of the one used by actor Jeremy Irons in the film, ‘The Mission,’ casts a golden hue  onto the museum floor, illuminating the bishop’s encased vestments, especially his cope, which he would have used at Benediction.
   I asked Hayes if there was ever a problem with people confusing Cardinal Newman with John Neumann.

   “A classic example,” he said, “is the statue of St. John Neumann in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. When the Italian sculptor was finishing the job he had only the label to make, so he turned to a Redemporist and asked how the saint’s last name was spelled. ‘N-e-w-m-a-n-n,’ the Redemporist answered, so Saint John Neumann is mislabeled in Rome.”

    The marble stoop originally at 13th and Vine Streets where Bishop Neumann collapsed and died stands at the entranceway to the museum. Philadelphia’s Archbishop Chaput stood in front of the stoop when he blessed the museum on April 29, 2019.

   The story of Neumann’s death has become the stuff of legends, but how many know that he had just left the post office to check on the whereabouts of a chalice he had restored for another priest. Thinking he had mailed the restored chalice to the priest some time ago, he was surprised when a Post Office clerk told him it was not mailed but had been placed on a shelf for insufficient postage.

    After paying the additional postage, the little bishop continued on his rounds but collapsed from a stroke in front of a house owned by a Jewish couple who were the first to discover his body.

    A glass stained window in the museum shows an idealized image of the bishop in spotless clerical garb after his fall.

Thom Nickels
Contributing Editor

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Remnants of Justice in the Center City Jogger Case

   The Philadelphia Free Press, January 22, 2020, City Safari  

   While rummaging through my archive of old documents, I came across a legal deposition (interview) I did with attorney Fred Ambrose and a detective associated with his law firm. The date of the two part interview was February 1, 1999. The script was published by the Esquire Deposition Services. The topic: what I saw and knew of the Kimberly Ernest murder of November 2, 1995, also known as the Center City jogger case.

 21st and Pine Streets, Philadelphia. Decades & decades before the jogger murder. 

   In 1995, two suspects were arrested for that murder, Richard Wise and Herbert Haak, both known for their attacks on blacks and gays in Center City.  While Wise and Haak were arrested for Ernest’s murder, a DNA mismatch led to a not guilty verdict in court. 
   Richard Wise and Herbert Haak then sued the city for 75 million, causing their lawyer (Ambrose) to charge a Center City drug dealer, John Lambert, with the murder. Ambrose’s contention was that the city was protecting John Lambert because his father was a powerful Center City attorney.
   Fred Ambrose contacted me for information related to Lambert, a tall long haired habitué of 17th and Pine Streets. I knew Lambert in passing. He seemed a gentle giant of a guy, soft spoken and intelligent despite a chronic heroin problem. I’d often run into him while on my way to my apartment at 21st and Pine.

   After being contacted by Ambrose, I received an impromptu visit from two detectives from the Ambrose firm. Both men were aware that I had written of my experiences with the jogger case. Not only had I known Lambert but I had become acquainted with one of Ernest’s boyfriends. The fact that I lived at 21st and Pine, where Ernest’s body was discovered in a stairwell, was also an inducement.
    Ambrose and his staff dug deeply into what I had written about the case, especially when they put forth the claim that John Lambert was the real killer of Ernest.

John Lambert

  Ambrose invited me to his office in Bala Cynwyd where he shared some intimate details of the case not reported in the press. He also showed me the horrific photograph of Ernest’s body propped up in the stairwell. I filed my report for a newsmagazine I was writing for at the time, and thought that was the end of it.
   But Ambrose’s detectives wouldn’t stop hanging around my apartment. One day I found them waiting for me on my stoop. Thinking I was helping the cause of justice, I invited them inside although once inside they ceased to behave professionally. “What do you know that you’re not telling us?” they demanded, their manner turning gruff.

   They assumed that because I knew Lambert that I was somehow intimately connected with him and knew secret details of the murder. Initially, of course, Ambrose and his staff were polite. They did not let on that they suspected me of hiding facts.

17th and Pine Street Hustler witness

   From the audio tape, February 1, 1999:  
   Ambrose: “Sir, what do you remember about the morning of November 2nd? Do you remember hearing or seeing or whatever?
   Nickels: “In the wee hours before dawn I remember being jolted wide awake by some screams in the street, sharp and piercing screams.”
   Ambrose: “Could you make out any of the words that were being spoken?”
   Nickels: “No words, just jolting screams…”
    Ambrose: “A combination of male and female screams?”
    Nickels: “It could have been.”
    Ambrose: “Kimberly had a checkered sort of background. She, like all young people I guess, got involved with the drug scene. Just before her death she was trying to get herself straightened out.  We think that while she was in her wild phase she encountered John Lambert and people like him who hang out at 17th and Pine. Kimberly went through a heavy clubbing phase where these people hang out, some of the shadier bars like Dirty Frank’s and Westbury.”
      Nickels: “So you’re accusing Lambert of this crime?”
    Ambrose: “We’re trying to gather evidence for Municipal Court.”
   Ambrose stated that he believed the city would reopen the case and charge John Lambert with murder. He then asked if John wore a ponytail and if I ever saw him wearing jogging outfits or hooded shirts. “Somehow his clothing stood out,” I responded. “Hack and Wise were framed,” Ambrose offered. “The confessions were either a combination of coercion and fabrication. “
     Ambrose stated that an eyewitness saw Lambert at 17th and Pine about the time that Ernest was out jogging shortly before her murder. “We believe that John encountered Earnest at 17th and continued the encounter, touting her, all the way to 21st and Pine.” Ambrose then asked me if I ever saw Ernest jog past my apartment at 21st and Pine. “I saw her from my kitchen window a few times,” I said. “She jogged in the afternoon. She would jog down to the river on my side of the street and return on the other side of the street past the same stairwell where her body would be later found.”
   He asked me what kind of clothing she was wearing when she was jogging. “The first time I saw her she wasn’t wearing much clothing at all: A black tank top, very form fitting and skimpy.”
   “What about her pants?”  
     “I don’t recall. The top was very low cut and she had this great head of hair flying every which way.”
       Ambrose: “Would her hair normally have been in one of those things you put on the ponytail?”
      “Her hair was down. It was massive. It was Amazon curls.”
        “How tall would you say she was?”
        “As tall or taller than I am. I’m 5’11”. Her head phones may have added some height.”
          I asked Ambrose if he thought that John Lambert hid in the stairwell for Ernest to pass so he could attack her.
       “The stairwell where the body was found was really the only hiding place on that block.”
          We then spoke about Lambert’s father, a partner in the firm of Duane, Morris & Heckscher. I asked Ambrose if he thought that Lambert’s father was trying to thwart his investigation of his son. Ambrose said no. Ambrose returned to the eyewitness, a male street prostitute, who says he saw Ernest with Lambert and that the two of them got into an altercation, after which certain things happened. 
   While Ambrose was in pursuit of me, John Lambert was in custody for unrelated charges. Ambrose told me that he visited John in jail. “He has the good sense to listen to his lawyers and not say anything,” he said. “I think the fact that she was sexually molested by her attacker is a given fact but the DNA did not match Haak and Wise.” (According to a City Paper article after John Lambert’s death in jail of an overdose, Lambert’s DNA was also a mismatch). While Lambert was alive, Ambrose was unable to get his DNA. “I’ve spoken to his father and his mother as well but absolutely nothing.”
    Ambrose was quick to point out that John Lambert once beat his sister so badly that she had permanent brain damage. The assumption was that if he could beat his sister, he could beat Kimberly Ernest.
   When I couldn’t give Ambrose any more information, he charged me with withholding crucial evidence.
   I felt as if I was being charged with being an accessory to a murder. It was an odd feeling. “I wish I knew more,” I said, “but I don’t.”  
   The detectives turned so hostile I had to ask them to leave the apartment.    
   Ambrose’s case went up in smoke after John Lambert died in jail. Yet not long after John’s death I received a call from his attorney father. The father said he was embarking on his own legal battle, the defense of his son’s name, and asked if I would testify in court. I said I would.  We had several meetings prior to the court date.
   Under the senior Lambert’s direction, Ambrose’s absurd claim that John Lambert was a murderer was crashed like recyclable perishables. The able patrician attorney thanked me profusely.       
  Little did I realize that one year later I would need the attorney’s help when two Philly bike cops sued me for describing them too accurately in a story about police harassment.
   The elder Lambert squashed the bike cops’ case as if he had stomped out bugs crawling on an Ambrosia carpet.  

Thom Nickels
Contributing Editor   



Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Los Angeles Death of My Youngest Sister

    This past weekend was spent saying good-bye to my youngest sister Carolyn. Carolyn, the youngest of six (I’m the eldest), spent the last five years of her life in Los Angeles. She moved to LA because of a job opportunity after having experienced a severe bout with breast cancer that led to a single mastectomy. I always felt there were other reasons for the move but these reasons were never addressed.  Carolyn made it a point to visit her family back east on at least two occasions, and her daughter, Alyssa, who lives in Manayunk, certainly made frequent trips out west to be with her mom.

   Carolyn’s closest age related sibling was my brother David, born just a year before her. David and Carolyn grew up as a set; they were toddlers together while we, the older siblings, were pretty much in a different orbit. David was diagnosed with severe mental retardation before his first birthday. Mental retardation was the term they used then. Today’s term is developmentally disabled, which really doesn’t explain a whole lot. Developmentally disabled is a cumbersome word and does not explain the depth of the “disablement.” David’s classification was ‘severe-profound,’ meaning that he would always have the mentality of a 3 or 4 year old.

   The news of David’s disability hit the family like an atom bomb. My mother was especially affected. David’s childhood was rough on everyone. He’d throw his dinner around the kitchen, run and scream and bang his head against the wall. Other times he would fight my mother as she changed his diapers. These spells or tantrums were part of his mental malfunction, and they were horrific. It finally got so bad that he had to be sent to a private school for MR children.  

  David spent several years at home before he was sent away to school. This meant that he and Carolyn grew up as proxy twins. Carolyn’s childhood can then be classified as unique. Because of David’s condition—he had to be watched all the time—Carolyn probably experienced those early years as a time when she received less attention than David. It’s also probably true that she felt the trauma connected with David in a more direct way than anyone else in the family.

Alyssa, Carolyn's daughter

    Carolyn married twice, her first marriage resulting in a boy child, my godson. Her second marriage produced a girl. Her second marriage lasted 23 years; she and her husband lived in a large house in Pottstown, a country house next to a vast cornfield. After that marriage ended, she began life as a single woman in an apartment complex in Roxborough just off Henry Avenue.

Christopher, my godson, aka The Joker 

   She hated being a single woman. Like my mother before her the prospect of going through life as a single woman without a man just wasn’t tenable. My mother remarried a crazy Welshman. That marriage lasted until my mother’s death, after which the Welshman did his best to traumatize the family.   

   Carolyn acquired a boyfriend, a Korean-Hawaiian-English mixed heritage guy with a love for guns, extreme right wing politics, and 24/7 weed obsession. I liked him at first despite certain eccentric behaviors like showing off his stash of guns, some of them assault weapons that he kept hidden in the bedroom. The boyfriend, or G, loved talking about the coming New World Order, an apocalyptic time when globalist police forces would confiscate all guns and implant chips in American citizens. The signs and symbols were all over, G said, beginning with the fact that Michelle Obama is really a man. One of G’s favorite obsessions was looking for photos of Michelle Obama in form fitting dresses that seemed to show a penile bulge.

Christopher, my godson, aka The Joker

    “It’s coming, it’s coming,” he’d say when I’d dine with the two of them.   Carolyn went along with G’s exhortations to keep the peace but during the process she couldn’t help but believe some of G’s pronouncements.
   While dining in Carolyn’s apartment, G would show us the new guns he purchased. Some were rifles, some handguns, some assault weapons. G stashed them in beautiful boxes as if they were valuable jewelry. Watching G display his many guns often made me wonder what pleasure he derived from keeping so many of them, especially since he could never fire them because he didn’t belong to a shooting range. I had to remind myself that he was preparing for the coming Apocalyptic war.   

Michelle Obama is a man!

  Lonliness in life is a terrible thing. All of us want to be loved and most of us want a special someone, a “we,” to complete the singular isolation of the stand alone “I.” But this human need sometimes causes many mismatched unions, and getting out of a mismatched union is often one of the hardest things to do in life.

 Good times

   As G kept getting weirder and weirder, I kept trying to see what Carolyn saw in him but I eventually gave up because I reminded myself that Carolyn’s needs were not my needs. Having crazy beliefs is not a crime, after all.    

   Carolyn’s death was not an easy one. At the time of her death she was living with G in LA. She’d been quite sick for a couple of months before G realized that he had to contact her daughter.  The family knew that Carolyn wanted nothing to do with costly hospital treatments and operations that wreck the body just to extend life by six months. When she had breast cancer five years ago she refused chemo and radiation but opted for a Canadian drug which worked to keep her healthy until just recently. She liked to say that her refusal to go the chemo route kept her brain and intelligence intact. “Chemo brain” was often the subject of her jokes.

   Something happened between Carolyn and G during the last year or so. At one point they stopped being partners. G’s endtimes obsession had eaten into his brain. He became one of those crazy psychotic hermit types who have lost touch with reality. 
   With Carolyn’s cancer now resurfacing as lung cancer, G let the days and weeks pass so that her sickbed came close to being her deathbed. At the 11th hour G told Carolyn’s children: “If you want to see your mother alive, you had better come to the apartment now…”

   The children arrived in a flash and convinced Carolyn to go to the hospital. G opted not to accompany Carolyn to the hospital although he found the energy to remind her children that he was taking Carolyn’s car once the inevitable happened.

   Carolyn died the following day at Harbor UCLA. Her children were in the room with her when she died.  G was home alone, preparing to ward off the children when they came around for a few of their mother’s belongings. When that happened, G finally had a chance to use his guns. Holding a gun to my godson’s head, he warned him not to take anything out of the house, or else. The police were called, a SWAT team arrived, and there was even a helicopter that swooped down over Carolyn’s house. G was apprehended but  no shots were fired. 

   The Apocalypse that G had been waiting for had finally arrived, only in a way that he did not expect. 

Thom Nickels
Contributing Editor
         From The Philadelphia Free Press, City Safari Column, January 16, 2020


Monday, January 13, 2020

Rock Ministries Kensington Macho

City Safari: Rock My Soul In The Bosom Of Kensington

                       Philadelphia Free Press   *   Thom Nickels
Book, Rock of Kensington
By Thom Nickels
Wed, Jan 08, 2020
Walk down Kensington Avenue to 1755 and you’ll see a storefront church/enterprise known as Rock Ministries. Rock Ministries was founded in 2004 by an ex-boxer champion, Mark “Buddy” Osborn, as a way to help poor, disadvantaged teens attain focus and direction in their lives. Osborn’s way to attract the teens was to offer free boxing lessons provided the teens agreed to participate in a Bible study.

Osborn, who is upfront when he says that when he was younger he ran afoul of the law, found Jesus and his life changed. Judging by the growth of Rock Ministries, one might call Pastor Osborn (as he is now called) a wildly successful man. Acting as both pastor and boxing instructor, the combination has worked to attract heretofore ‘churchless’ youths who might otherwise be a danger to themselves and to other people if left free to run wild in the streets. Over the years, Rock Ministries has grown into a mega Church enterprise, hosting services and multiple programs at the Rock Calvary Chapel, like Adult Bible Study, Sunday services at 11 a.m., Wednesday Prayer Night, Women’s Breakfast, Men’s Night and a program called Firm Foundations Addictions Study. Rock Ministries also sponsors an annual Rock the Block festival that includes sporting spectacles like boxing, body grappling (or wrestling) exhibitions, free food, preaching and more Bible study.

The mixture of brawn and macho with Jesus Saves Bible messages is appealing to youths who would otherwise never attend a conventional church. The Ministries website, for instance, showcases Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Submission Grappling, sports definitely not for fey guys, budding pianists, poets, skinny soy vegan guys with beards or ballet dancers. Boxing is manly stuff, even if it often means a broken nose and an occasional missing tooth, but when you combine boxing and wrestling with Bible verses what you get is a muscular Christianity, befitting the rugged war-torn streets of Kensington where one’s manhood has to be defended or proven again and again. Rock Ministries YouTube videos show boys as young as six or seven in boxing helmets moving about the ring like Joe Frazier at the height of his career. In one video Pastor Osborn is seen leading group callisthenic exercises while an instant later he puts on his preacher’s hat and sermonizes about Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. It’s an odd juxtaposition, but is it a dangerous one?

Rock Ministries has grown so big that its evangelical arm has been expanded to include missionaries or missionary families. The missionaries move into dilapidated houses Rock Ministries is able to purchase or that the city is able to donate. The goal is to have a Rock Ministries missionary family living on every block in Kensington to win hearts for “The King.” Or, as one Rock Ministries spokesperson on YouTube explained, “Where new converts can be discipled,” after “moving in, spanning out and evangelizing and discipling.”

“The Mission Field in Kensington is ready for workers,” another video proclaims.

While much of the work of Rock Ministries appears to be good—Rock Ministries puts up a massive heated tent for those (especially veterans) wanting to detox in a supervisory environment—something about the group’s un bridled enthusiasm and eagerness to expand causes me to pause or at least move my hand near a sound alarm labeled: Could this be the beginning of a cult?

I’m afraid it could be the beginning of a cult. For one thing, some of the attributes of a cult are there, such as an insatiable eagerness to expand and win over the whole of Kensington and beyond. Missionary work is very big with Rock Ministries. Certainly, these missionary disciples have an eye out for many of Kensington’s homeless, addicted males. Getting them drug treatment is one thing, but is combining drug treatment with the tenets of fundamentalist Christianity--fundamentalist as in taking the Bible literally—a good thing for Kensington and society? I’m thinking of the combination of extreme macho, brawn and a love for fighting laced with the strict judgmental views of fundamentalism: could this produce fanatical street hotheads ready to “box” people into their version of “righteous living?” Could it produce a kind of Christian fundamentalist Sharia mentality?

Unlike Kensington’s Roman Catholic-run Saint Francis Inn that offers free daily hot meals for the homeless, Rock Ministries central focus seems to be proselytizing for new members. The Franciscan brothers at Saint Francis Inn do not proselytize or try to win souls for Catholicism; they fed the hungry, allow the hungry to take away leftovers and leave the rest to God.

Boxing may be a way for some to relieve the stresses of life, but boxing too well can also lead to the human hands, a boxer’s hands, becoming lethal weapons.

I met one such boxer a couple of years ago. This former local boxing star who fought professionally and had his name on hundreds of prize fight posters, ended up with a drug problem and homeless on the streets of Kensington. Many homeless males carry hidden knives or clubs to protect themselves against violent predators, but this man needed no weapons. His fists proved to be a stellar defense against the most horrendous assaults, so much so that when he told me that the city had classified his hands as lethal weapons, I believed him, despite the fact that the registration of body parts as ‘lethal weapons’ is pure urban legend. His hands were lethal weapons in every other sense because, when I witnessed this man in action outside a local Wawa, I thought I had stepped into a Marvel comic book. The guy was nothing less than a superman; his opponents fell like chess pieces.

Since very few men make it as professional boxers, once the first flush of youth has passed where will all of these Rock Ministries heavily trained boxers go, especially if their hands become as good as lethal weapons?

The mixing of fighting with Christianity is perplexing and seems to go against the peaceful message of the Gospel. As the Book of Isaiah says, “…. And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

Cults do not spring into action overnight but can take a long time to form. Jim Jones of Jonestown infamy began as an altruistic preacher. Hopefully Rock Ministries can avoid this deadly trap although there are many accounts of just invented contemporary churches going down the cult sliding board.

In an article entitled The Punk Rock Church That Could Be a Cult, Ryan Katz writes in Topic Magazine:

“The punk-rock church, with its charming leader and its willingness to accept outcasts, became an obsession for some followers, many of whom were looking for guidance. Daniel Cathey started attending DBC while couch-surfing with friends in high school. “I was just a poor kid with a skateboard and a Mohawk,” he says. Another former member, Clay Warren, had battled a predilection for angel dust until he found DBC. For years he crashed with four DBC dudes in a hideous, neon-pink one-bedroom apartment a mile from the church. Warren ate, slept, and breathed DBC. “I would have done anything for Cletus [the pastor] Warren says. “And I mean anything.”

An article on San Diego YELP, titled The Rock Church Attracts Morons, cited the Rock Church with “preachers hate and intolerance (and a large congregation of haters). “

Let’s hope that Philadelphia’s Rock Ministries does better.

Friday, January 3, 2020

The Art of the Memoir at the Kelly Family House

      There’s no better place to celebrate 40 years of Irish Studies at Villanova University than at the Kelly House in East Falls. There, amid the still-intact (and still beautiful) examples of Kelly for Brick Work—John B. Kelly, father of Grace Kelly who became Princess Grace of Monaco, was a brick layer—Irish literature aficionados of all ages gathered in celebration: Grad students, writers, College Deans, two bona fide Kelly family relatives, Susan Kelly Von Medicus and John B. Kelly, III, as well as former Villanova professor of theology and religious studies, Rodger Van Allen.

    The upbeat mood in the Kelly House was contagious, outstripping the  solemnities you might expect at an anniversary event featuring a symposium that focuses on Irish writing from a diasporic perspective.

Dylan Thomas

   At the reception following the afternoon panel discussion, live Irish music helped guests circulate and chat with one or all of the evening’s four presenters, such as James Silas Rogers, editor of the New Hibernia Review and Director of Irish Studies at the University of St. Thomas, who looked every bit the poet in his Irish Fisherman’s Crewneck sweater which had the added effect of making him look like Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas.

    The word ‘Welsh’ isn’t too far off the mark because presenter David Lloyd, a Welshman, Fulbright Scholar, professor of English at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, and the author of ten books, read about his Welsh roots while Dr. James J. Murphy, the son of two Irish immigrants who grew up in Brooklyn and who later became a professor at Villanova as well as the founder and first director of the Irish Studies Program at the school, went on to mesmerize the audience with his dry humored, over-the-top hilarious essay, “A Child’s Christmas in Brooklyn,” a story of the early Christmas’ he knew as a child with his immigrant parents. The memoir brought Dr. Murphy close to tears several times but he was saved from the precipice of sorrow by his wife Kathy, effervescent as a cheerleader, who urged him on from the audience:  “Go on. You can do it!” she said.

  Later, Dr. Murphy would tell me how Kathy Murphy accompanies him on all his lectures, sitting in the front row and urging him on in a similar manner.  
    Christine Cusick, Ph.D, an Associate Professor of English at Seton Hall University, shared her memories and thoughts about growing up Irish and Polish.

     Among the guests was Adele Lenbenmeyr, PhD, Villanova Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, an accomplished author herself whose books include studies of Imperial and Revolutionary Russia. Had any one of the featured memoirists fallen ill and a speaker’s space needed to be filled, Lenbenmeyr as well as the evening’s MC, the affable Joseph Lennon, current Villanova Director of Irish Studies, could have easily stepped up to the podium   

     James Silas Rogers told an audience at a lecture delivered at the San Francisco Library, that the Irish are still distinctive. “You might think that the Irish came off the boat and assimilated immediately,” he explained, adding that in Irish literature there’s “a sense of reticence and a great deal of silencing.” An example of this “silencing,” he said, could be found in the photographs one often seen in Irish history books. “They tend to be all the same, something that’s due to the fact that if you’re Irish you should not call attention to yourself.” Rogers believes that respectability is an obsession with Irish Americans, and that on a deep level the Irish believe that they are not the same as other people. He explained that the dancing Irish nun pictured on the cover of his latest book, Irish-American Autobiography: The Divided Hearts of Athletes, Priests, Pilgrims, and More, is Sister Justine from Saint Louis who is not doing an Irish jig at all but dancing the Scottish Highland Fling.

James Joyce

        The six-bedroom Kelly house was built in 1928 by John B. Kelly. John and his wife Margaret raised six children in the home, which was sold by the family in 1973. The house had a number of owners after that, including a deranged cat woman who turned the home into a feral animal farm.  In 2016, Albert II, Prince of Monaco, Princess Grace’s son, bought the house for $755,000 and had it remodeled to look like it did in the 1950s. Many of the original features can still be seen including the famous linen closet door with Grace’s height recorded over the years. 

      In 2017, John B. Kelly, III told CBSNews that, The whole house, from a brick construction point of view, is amazing, and there’s not a crack in it. He used this great mortar that doesn’t need repointing, and it’s almost a hundred years old.”

     Guests were encouraged to take self guided tours of the home. In the upstairs bedrooms there were freshly painted icons in the Byzantine tradition. The icons are not part of the original Kelly family décor but were painted by Grace’s niece, Susan Kelly Von Medicus, an icon writer and teacher at the Center for Irish Studies and the Department of Theatre and Studio Art at Villanova University. Von Medicus acted as the volunteer bartender during the event, along with her brother John B. Kelly, III or JB.   
     Old Kelly family films ran continuously on a wide screen TV in the Kelly House den. Featured were sunburned children playing leap frog in the backyard, vintage 1950s cars and shots of the news media crowding the Kelly brick walled den as Prince Rainer and Grace Kelly gave a television interview after the announcement of their engagement.  

   Adjacent to the den was the old ‘Kelly Tavern,’ the bar that Jack Kelly built to offset the absurdities of Prohibition. The bar in those days was stocked with large kegs of beer. Kelly Tavern was alive with every strand of Irish imaginable:  Blue eyes, red heads, gingers, black Irish, a smart smattering of over 65 white haired gentlemen. Many chatted up Dr. Murphy (who showed them old photos of his family in front of a Christmas tree) while others asked Rogers questions about the New Hibernia Review.

    As the lone reporter on the premises, I did a mental comparison of the predominately Irish crowd to the mainly ‘English’ crowds I had observed at English Speaking Union of Philadelphia receptions. The vibes were similar, yes, only with the Irish everything seems to move at a faster pace. The musicians playing Irish music near the Kelly family video screen helped to accelerate the tempo that at times reached a fever pitch. The melodies even caused Dr. Murphy’s wife, Kathy, to dance a little jig.  

  The Kelly House houses the headquarters of the Prince Albert II Foundation as well as the Princess Grace Foundation USA.   

Thom Nickels