January 28, 2008
Hey Mister, Can You Spare A Column Idea?
Because the fresh start of the week means a blank sheet of paper for me. I've got two columns due and no plan.
Do I follow up on the Inaccessible City, the piece that's in today about Clifford Roberts trying to get into South Philly restaurants and shops with his wheelchair? Inky shooter Michael Wirtz made a cool video from my second interview with the violin-maker last week.
When I asked for reader help with that one, I got an e-mail from a blogger who writes about having a similar muscle-atrophying illness. You might want to check out Josh Winheld's World.
Josh wrote me in a note:
As much as I love Philadelphia, it is an old city, so a lot of places in Center City are inaccessible. That certainly doesn’t please me, but I’m not sure what can be done because not every business owner can afford the necessary renovations. I also love trying new restaurants and was disappointed several weeks ago when, after visiting the new Perelman museum, I couldn’t find any accessible restaurants nearby, except for a pizza shop. But hey, it’s their loss because people with disabilities are known to be loyal customers, as the hotel industry has learned. As for cobblestones, they look nice, but I hate them! Uneven curb cuts are a bigger problem. Interestingly enough, a friend from England visiting New York with her boyfriend who was in a chair could not believe how awful the curb cuts and sidewalks were. As for banking, I now do that mostly online.
I picked up a few tips during the reporting that make me want to take a bigger bite of the issue.
Then there's another piece I'm considering, about a bunch of old fishermen who have been shut out of their favorite spot. That's out of the city, which is good, as I've been scuffing up my feet lately.
And later in the week, I'm going to help someone I wrote about move into a new home. Well, hopefully she's got some real help, too.
See you in the funny papers.
January 23, 2008
Report This Column
I haven't seen him in about a decade. The piece I wrote in November, 1998 was headlined 'Working the Wood While He Can." It was about this master violin maker in South Philadelphia whose muscular distrophy made each movement successively harder. He was doing painstaking work against the clock.
This time we're going to talk about what it is like to move about this region in a wheelchair.
Got any ideas?
Do you know of any places where this is particularly challenging? Public places? Restaurants? SEPTA?
Where should I have Clifford take me? What would you be curious to know?
He's got his own ideas. When I called today, he said, "This is something I've been thinking about for years. I see many people of all ages who have disabilities -- and not just people in wheelchairs. It's a disgrace that no one gives a ---. There are all these ADA laws in this city and they're ridiculous."
So, another experiment launches. (note to self: inform editor some time)
What if this space made room for a little writing about writing?
A blog about a column about a place.
But I'm not talking about shining the light in -- go rent a Charlie Kaufman movie for that. I'm talking about shining the light outward. I'm going to try to use this space to chronicle what it is like to try to take the pulse of the place.
Basically, it means I can finally find an outlet for all the bizarro phone calls, all the wild goose chases, all the little moments that can't quite make it into full-length columns, but are noteworthy nonetheless.
November 20, 2007
Hy Lit & The $100 Hot Dog
Obits for the speed-talking Philly radio pioneer made reference to his legendary generosity.
Clark emailed a tale from the service that gives a taste of the Lit way:
One of the highlights ... was when Hy's best friend for 50 years, Steve Schulman (who owns a local advertising firm) spoke about the time they went to New York to pitch a rock and roll TV show idea, which the New York suits liked. Steve would have been Ed McMahon to Hy's Johnny. An offer was made, but on the way home on the train, Hy kept saying, "I don't know. I'd have to leave Philadelphia." And Steve is saying, "Schmuck! We're talking New York! Are you out of your mind?" (Steve didn't say Schmuck at the funeral.). They arrive at 30th Street Station a little before midnight and they're starved. But nothing is open. No restaurants, no vendors. "And if you know anything about Hy you know how important food is," Steve says.
October 25, 2007
We're Not So Ugly After All
We had found it beneath us to comment on the Travel & Leisure "survey" that voted Philadelphians to be the ugliest Americans -- as if our radiance can be divined by mere appearances. Clearly they've never stopped by The Trestle Inn.
Besides, Philadelphia Will Do already came up with a Mad Libs to lampoon the latest affrontery, and how can we beat that?
But when The Numbers Guy in the Wall Street Journal rode to our civic rescue today, I felt attention had to be paid.
Carl Bialik dug into the "methodology" of Travel & Leisure, concluding that the ranking -- we were last of 25 cities -- was "far from a scientific comparison of the bone structure and facial symmetry of urban dwellers."
Why? Let him enumerate the ways.
First, a pretty shallow sample, and we're talking statistically. Instead of doing the representative thing, T & L relied on clicks on its Web site. Duh. For two months, the mag polled it's readers. Nothing kept them from voting repeatedly. The voters were asked to rank 55 separate attributes for U.S. cities. Few hung with the survey long enough to rate all the cities. So a Santa Fe won it's rating through 428 votes, where NYC attracted 3,059 respondents.
A T & L spokeswoman told The Journal's numbers dude:
“We’re confident in our methodology.” She noted that completing the survey for any one city took seven to ten minutes, so it was unlikely many people stuffed the ballot boxes. “We didn’t do it to shame any city," she said. "We asked people to rate positive attributes.”
Philly’s attractiveness rating was 3.75, and every other city came in at 3.95 or higher, which suggested to the number's dude "that either urban Americans all have roots in Lake Wobegon, or they’re being graded on a curve."
They did say that our restaurants rocked.
The Journal mentioned that Philadelphia City Council was outraged by the survey.
A locally owned tab wrote:
"This is the city of Fabian and Frankie Avalon and Grace Kelly," said City Councilman Frank DiCicco. "Are they saying we've morphed into ugly people over the last few decades? Somebody's drinking something out there."
I see a Travel & Leisure ban to go with the trans-fat and indoor smoking.
September 24, 2007
Props For Poindexter
The caller, an African American woman in her 80th year, wanted to know just what I meant when I used the word "Poindexter" in today's column. "I'm not familiar with that term," she said on her phone message.
She had a lovely voice. I called Thelma A. back, and did my best to explain that Prof. Elijah Anderson says the label is used in the black community to describe a kid with thick-glasses, pocket protector and heavy bag of books. It is not a term of endearment.
This got me Googling. I forgot exactly who Poindexter was.
Wikipedia refreshed my memory:
Poindexter is a fictional character in the cartoon Felix the Cat. First introduced in 1958, he is the young nephew of the Professor, the arch-nemesis of Felix. ...
Poindexter is depicted as a stereotypical scientist; he is very intelligent and always wears thick glasses, a lab coat, and a mortarboard. A button on the chest of his lab coat acts as a control for whatever device the plot calls for. He helps his bumbling uncle concoct elaborate schemes to get Felix and capture his Magic Bag, though at times both are depicted as Felix's friends. Poindexter always refers to the protagonist as "Mr. Felix".
Apparently, it's been working its way into the language since the early 1980s.
With the Philadelphia Parking Authority now working longer hours for the good of the people, here's one of those shiny geegaws to show just where the cheapest and handiest places are to stow your wheels.
Best Parking.com looks pretty bare bones, but it's got its charms.
You tell it the general vicinity where you want to park your car -- by the hour or by the month -- and then it shows you the closest lots and garages, and let's you compare prices.
One of the niftier aspects is that it lets you click various attractions, like the University of Pennsylvania, where I've got to drive today, and then up comes a map that asks me to tell it what times I'll be parking. It then shows my best bet to be a $15 garage at Market and 38th.
Ok, that is a bad demonstration. It doesn't show the closer lot by the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and why wouldn't I just load $3 into meters for three hours?
It does better when searching monthly parking.
Let's say I work at Broad and Callowhill (what a stretch) and want to stash the mini van in a lot while I type away.
Here it really shines. I could pay $180 at that lot across the street, but why not walk another block to 12th & Callowhill and save $80 a month?
In addition to showing the Center City lots and garages on an interactive map, it lists the nearest garages by cost. Which shows I could be parting with $325-a-month if I wanted to put it at 18th & Cherry.
The site started in New York, and had spread to Philly and Boston. A Wall Street Journal article from this summer reports that those with mobile phones and PDAs can visit the site for daily specials, real time.
August 09, 2007
Then it's showtime: A crack addict fires up an L-shaped tube, proclaiming “L is for losers,” and gets deeply lost himself. Nail-tough neighborhood girls brag about roughing up hookers. “Nice quiet neighborhood,” says a father of ten, “if they stop finding bodies.”
Each vignette is short -- between two and three minutes -- composed with a painter's eye, and populated with a carnival of characters who David Kessler somehow gets to tell their stories.
Since January the 32-year-old filmmaker has been setting up his tripod under the El, and turning out these dark gems, which he posts to his blog, called Shadow World:
The El called to Kessler the moment he saw it; he'd been a student at the University of the Arts in the mid-‘90s. He chose it as a location for a feature film then again for his documentary on Zoe Strauss, the Philadelphia artist.
Then in January he moved into a $450-a-month studio, utilities included, seven doors down from the tracks, in a grim apartment building that bears the hand-written sign “Please knock like a human. Don't break the door.”
He hated living there, but he knew the location would offer great material — the sharp contrasts, the constant rattle, the beat-up buildings.
He had no idea he'd fall so hard for the people.
The woman wobbles down Front Street in a bright red T-shirt, worn around her midriff, and dungaree Daisy Dukes. She sees Kessler, and waves excitedly, “How are you, honey?”
“Nice to see you again,” he calls across the street.
He’s skinny, unshaven and bespectacled, wearing mud-toned slacks and shirt and a small gray fedora. The full hipster.
She launches into her woe of the moment.
“I was trying to get into the bar," she says. “But they wouldn't serve me because I had a bra top on.”
Kessler smiles empathetically. She tells him to take care.
“She's a prostitute,” he says as we walk. “I interviewed her yesterday. I was walking out here with my camera. She invited me to sit down next to her. She said she's been out here nine years, since her husband was killed. She walks with a limp. She was in a serious car accident. We talked about that. She has a deep scar on her leg.”
I ask whether the people he shoots ever see his work, and so far only one has that he knows of -- a man at Bada Bargains whose hobby is collecting buttons. “He loved it.”
Kessler says he often edits out things he thinks might get his subjects in trouble, and only features people he feels some connection to. “I think about this a lot,” he says. “I don't want to be seen as exploiting these people.”
At Front & Emerald a woman nearly staggers into us, staring someplace far away. Working girls idle on corners. A man hollers at a woman as they push their groceries down the street.
“It's unfortunate," Kessler says, “that I can't capture all of the smells.”
He talks how each block is a different world, one Spanish, the next one Vietnamese. When the El passes, the ground shakes. He says he no longer hears it.
His recorder, a tiny Sony Handycam, is always at the ready. He's found material at the laundry. Outside the methadone clinic. At the soup kitchen. On his doorstep.
“I want to find more joyous moments,” he says, as the El rumbles overhead. “It is getting progressively darker, with the crack and people talking about the bodies being found in the walls. It’s not what I set out to do. But that is hard to ignore.”
July 27, 2007
Reasons to be Cheerful
When you count yourself the sum of 11 counties, you can find lots to cheer about. The heart of the Phillies may have just broken, but Greater Philadelphia still can celebrate the region's latest rankings in Forbes, Money, US News & World Report and the Places Rated Almanac.
I'm still trying to figure out what's so hot about Horsham, having spent two years working in a faceless industrial park in that Athens of the norther suburbs.
November 26, 2006
Motoring in Philadelphia
And no one should forget A Thousand Times No, Jennifer Yuan's account of the many times in her life someone has closed one sort of door or another on her hopes. She also has a podcast where she talks with people who have been turned down for one thing or another. She's working toward 1,000 rejections. She has a ways to go.On Thanksgiving, she posted No. 17.
I was riding to dinner in a friend’s car, relieved not to be walking in the chilly, drizzling rain. We came to a stop behind several other cars at a busy lighted intersection. When the cars in front of us failed to move after the light turned green, my friend peered forward into traffic.
“There’s somebody down in the intersection,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “There’s a stalled car up ahead?”
“No,” he said slowly. “I think there’s a person lying in the street.”
A crowd formed. Samaritans stepped forward. Jen stripped off her dark coat and began directing cars around the woman who'd been struck by a hit-and-run driver, so the tragedy would not compound. Her friend helped divert traffic. A heart-warming response, except, this story involved Philadelphia drivers:
One car decided it would be a smart move to cut off two lanes of traffic while running a red light. Another thought it was a good idea to come to a complete halt while driving past the accident scene, nearly getting T-boned by oncoming cars. The worst was a woman who actually veered towards the accident scene, gawking at the fallen body while narrowly missing a bystander by a few hapless inches.
This being Philly, we even had to work to keep some of the cars from jumping (and blocking) the intersection as the ambulance approached. By then, a young doctor, still in her scrubs, was tending to the conscious, coherent victim. There was hope for the woman who had been struck.
But there’s no cure in sight for the idiot drivers.
I'm thinking this wouldn't be the time to introduce the Dutch experiment where we do away with all traffic signals.
September 11, 2006
Please Pass The Swiss
They didn't even ask me who the Roosevelt is named for? (Not so fast.)
This "you know you're from Philly when ..." is better (especially if you've caught one of those sweeps week investigations of pretzel vendors).
This one is a little baseball-centric, but good. (J.D. is Nancy Drew's sister? Bwa-ha-ha-ha!)
This one is the 'hood version. (I flunked.)
This one is good, though it's written by someone upstate. Narberth.