The must see play of Philly’s holiday season…

…is over four hundred years old. In the right hands, Shakespeare can still bring it. Twelfth Night will be playing at Pig Iron until the 22nd. You should go see it. From my piece in the Inky (Jawnts-endorsed), linked above, on the joys of a the ancient comedy (photo courtesy of Pig Iron):

The clever nuances that an Elizabethan audience would immediately appreciate sail over the heads of all but the most 20131215_inq_cu1jawnts15-awell-schooled contemporary watchers. So the near-eternal hilarities of crotch-grabbing and drunken tomfoolery must be played up, the costumes made outrageous, and the set enchanting.

Pig Iron Theater’s production of Twelfth Night effortlessly delivers on all of these levels, the play opening with a live band, paisley and fedora-clad, ambling around a huge skateboard ramp set against the wall to facilitate amusing entrances and exits. Lantern-jawed Duke Orsino (Dito van Reigersberg) struts on stage, shirt unbuttoned to the navel, his opening monologue aided by his exaggerated languidness.

Pig Iron chose wisely with Twelfth Night, a play that can be easily tailored to modern sensibilities. Not only is it full of excellent one-liners (“Many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage”), but after Shakespeare sets up the usual complex lovers’ quandaries, he clearly becomes more taken with the comic antics of the secondary plot.





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Fight Hunger in South Jersey, Rock Out

On November 1 Congress cut food stamps, and just in time for Thanksgiving. As Ned Resnikoff wrote in his essential MSNBC piece on “America’s New Hunger Crisis”:

In the aftermath of that collapse, as employment stagnated and poverty increased, food stamp use exploded: From a little over 26 million users in 2007 to almost 47 million in 2012, an increase of 77%. At the same time, the average benefits per person rose from $96.18 to $133.41.

The 2009 stimulus bill raised the cap on food stamp benefits and pumped an additional $45.2 billion into the program over the next several years. But as provisions of the law expire, the program is scheduled to receive a $5 billion cut over the next year alone. Those cuts will reduce monthly benefits for every single food stamp recipient in the country; a family of four will receive $36 less per month, on average.

Billions more in cuts are scheduled to occur in the following two years, despite the fact that food insecurity in America has not even begun to return to pre-recession levels.

No amount of food bank voluntarism can make up for such cruel political decisions, but take a break from fighting back by going to a kick ass show in Atlantic City. From my Inky mini-columnIMG_6067_950_535_80_c1 (photo from Paul Gargagliano and my Next City long read):

On Tuesday, a cadre of local acts will be playing the Boneyard’s Thanksgiving Benefit Show to raise money for the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, across the bay in Egg Harbor Township, which will receive 100 percent of the proceeds.

The fund-raiser features Esquina Rosada, which does poppy bossa nova (lyrics mostly in Spanish); Team Way of Life, with MC Equality Brown, for all your South Jersey hip-hop needs; and Lua, which plays reggae and ska. The show will probably last two to three hours, and is then projected to deteriorate into a big, sweaty dance party until everyone feels like stopping. (Gasp in awe, Philadelphians: The bar is open 5 p.m. to 7 a.m., just as it is every day of the week.)

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TONIGHT: Go See Aftermath

The International House is playing the Polish movie Aftermath tonight (as I noted in yesterday‘s  Inquirer). You should go see it, as its probably not going to get a wider release. Check out this article for a taste of the broader controversy the movie is stirring up at 20131110_inq_cu1jawnts10-ahome. (Image courtesy of  Menemsha Films.)

This should give you a rough idea of what the movie is like: Aftermath is a bit like Straw Dogs, but with anti-Semitism and guilt instead of sexual violence and Neanderthalic gender norms.

The real power of Aftermath lies in its subversion of the notion that the Shoah was the sole handiwork of black-clad SS officers. It forces the brothers, and the audience, to look at the atrocities of WWII as not just a case of ideological insanity, but years when grudges, avarice, and prejudice were encouraged to flower among everyone.

Aftermath isn’t a love note to its homeland, but it serves a higher purpose by subverting an easy narrative of universal resistance to Nazism. That wasn’t true in Poland. Or Lithuania or Denmark or France. People benefited from, and participated in, evil. The moral aftermath of the most awful span of human history is largely a German burden. But not solely.


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The Unfunding of Philly’s Public Transit

I recently wrote a piece for Pacific Standard on the never ending rail v. bus debate. As I wrote the article I ended up being overwhelmed by how pointless the conversation seemed in the shadow of the austerity pressures that constantly threaten most networks in America.

Neither the rail infrastructure, nor the bus service, is going to be improved any time soon because SEPTA’s tiny capital budget—$308 million—is not even large enough to maintain the current system. Harrisburg is run by hard right, mostly white 1388840_in_the_metro-1Republicans, while transit systems are in urban areas with majority black, solidly Democratic populations. (Pittsburgh is Philadelphia’s only other urban ally with a strong public transit system.) The likelihood that Republicans will substantially increase revenue for public transit in cities where no one votes for them is exceedingly slim. And this is a relatively common political dynamic. From the perspective of a rural or exurban Republican politician, Lind’s desire for more rail lines and Yglesias’ advocacy for upgraded bus systems look equally unpalatable.

Nationally our increasingly paralyzed government is proving just as incapable of nudging people out of their cars and into buses or trains, regardless of a continuing stream of data indicating the popularity of transportation alternatives. In an environment as gloomy as this, the bus vs. rail debate seems almost meaningless. Or maybe that’s just the way it looks from Philadelphia, where SEPTA’s doomsday scenario would replace all trolleys with buses, scrap most of the commuter rail network, and close one of the city’s two subway lines. It looks like I’d better start devoting more time to the secrets of the bus schedules.

The politically-imposed boundaries of this conversation are not acceptable. More funding is needed, preferably from a regional tax where the suburbs finally contribute more to the service that keeps traffic from getting even worse and keeps the state’s largest economic center humming. Public transit isn’t meant to turn a profit. It shouldn’t have to. That’s not its purpose. Its purpose is to get people places in a city where it often doesn’t make sense to use a car.

Buses have to be a part of that and a good chunk of their bad reputation is simply attributable to the fact that buses tend to be used by lower-income populations who tend to  crappier public services because of their lack of political power. Cities like New York, D.C., and Philly are dense enough that there is more of a cross-class ridership, at least on some routes.

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All Elmore, All the Time

I started seriously reading Elmore Leonard books this summer and proceeded to blow through- en of the 20+ novels he wrote since Glitz (1985), which my dad recommended to me because of my interest in all things Atlantic City. Elmore_Leonard

I’m about to start reading Freaky Deaky for one of my bookclubs (at my own suggestion), so the time seems right to post the op-ed I wrote for the Inquirer after his death on August 20, 2013. UPDATE: The above link no longer seems to work, and my obit has vanished from the web. So I’m re-printing it in its entirety below:

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Here’s What You Should Do This Weekend: CITYWIDE Edition

As I noted in this week’s Sunday Inquirer, Philly’s artist collectives are getting together for a big weeks long series of exhibitions. The space I personally inspected, on 41st and Haverford, was a breathtakingly huge warehouse transformed into a space where 3D tiny toolboxsculptors can do their thing. The basic idea of CITYWIDE is that the various collectives will swap spaces with each other. (Output is strongly influenced by the size of their workspace.)

Citywide is far too vast to encapsulate every contribution in one tiny column, so let’s focus on Traction Company, which operates out of a hulking brick building at 41st Street and Haverford Avenue, and Napoleon, a 225-square-foot gallery in Callowhill’s Rollins Building. Napoleon is crafting an exhibit based on a Gertrude Stein poem – “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso” – which includes repeated references to the group’s namesake. Meanwhile, Traction members’ display at Napoleon’s tiny gallery will be a dollhouse version of their own working space, complete with towering nine-foot ceiling that soars above the miniature representations of real-life studio arrangements on the floor.


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Your Boss Can Totally Fire You For Being Physically Irresistible

Another entry in my quest to post the articles I published over the summer while my blog lay fallow. You’ll probably recall seeing the headlines about this story–the dentist who shutterstock_82832608_0fired his assistant because he was afraid he might try to sleep with her–but I actually dug into the case for AlterNet and tried to highlight what all U.S. workers can learn from the case. The takeaway, as in so many labor stories, is that you don’t have any rights at work.  (The photo is courtesy of “Several businesspeople walking in the corridor.”)

The court basically decided she was asking for it because she was friendly with her employer (Dr. James Knight) and texted him about non-work related life stuff. He tried to take it beyond their paternalistic relationship and although she didn’t encourage him, she didn’t rebuke him (she didn’t respond at all).  The power dynamics here are all fucked up. Without adequate labor protections or a union, being pals with your boss is an understandable way to feel secure in the workplace. But bosses are human beings, a notoriously mercurial species, and no matter how great they are they have the power to cripple your economic livelihood, as Melissa Nelson learned. (It’s also important to note that Nelson sued Knight for gender discrimination, but not sexual harassment. As I note in the piece, she may have had a better case under the latter standard.)

Here’s the important takeaway for anyone faced with a similar situation:

So what can you do if faced with a similar situation? In theory, the best protection would probably be to immediately inform the offending superior that his comments are making you uncomfortable. This would conceivably make the wrongdoer stop, or if worst comes to worst, provide a strong basis for a sexual harassment suit. If possible, inform another manager and keep a detailed account of dates and times of the incidents. If the company is large enough to have a Human Resources department, report the unwelcome attentions to a representative or harassment hotline.

But such actions are easier typed than done. What if the creep in question is the highest authority, as Knight was? Human Resources departments, while better than nothing, are no substitute for a third party arbitrator or the option of independent action. With a power imbalance of this magnitude, it’d be nice to have someone on your side who isn’t being paid by the same employer that could potentially be legally implicated in your complaint. Mersich notes that the National Labor Relations Act protects workers engaged in “other concerted activities for the purpose of…mutual aid or protection” and that “I often advise clients to bring other employees into a complaint about lawful (but awful) behavior. When you act on behalf of others, even if they don’t ask you to, you are engaged in ‘concerted’ activity.”

But he admits that Nelson had no such option, as she was the sole object of Knight’s attentions.

“I think this employee might have been better off if the moment her boss started saying sexually oriented things to her she had objected, and objected vociferously…[instead] she understandably kind of brushed it off and didn’t really engage,” says Bagenstos. “Now that is a double-edged sword for an employee. You don’t want to rock the boat. If you complain too much your boss may not like you; most people want to make day-to-day relations go smoothly. If you complain, your boss might fire you and you might not be protected against being fired.”





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The Days of Scrapple and Free Coffee Refills

Last year the bar across my apartment burned down (photo courtesy of Monica Fanya). It was a harsh blow to the neighborhood: Elena’s not only provided a cheap and convenient bar and restaurant space, but a late night safe haven. The bartenders knew everybody, eleansand smokers outside could keep an eye on the street. Plus, their collard greens were tasty.

Things got even worse when a shitty city-hired demolition crew botched the job of dismantling the bar and collapsed its upper stories into the businesses on either side. Cedar Park Cafe was new to the neighborhood, but it filled a most desirable market niche: the greasy spoon diner. Losing both establishments was traumatic. (I never entered Gary’s Nails, but I’m sure it had its fans too.)

Less than a year later the diner, at least, is back. I wrote a little piece for Flying Kite Media on the resurrection of the diner. I basically got to ask the owners a bunch of things I’d always wanted to know. But in the end I also got to write about what the place means to the neighborhood.

The loss of Elena’s and the Café was a particularly harsh blow to a neighborhood on the fringes of the University of Pennsylvania’s influence (the school’s unarmed security personnel patrol to 50th street). In the late 1990s, Penn began pouring money into the neighborhoods on its borders; Cedar Park is the westernmost recipient of those attentions. Though the neighborhood was never uniformly African-American (as its counterparts to the west are) the demographics have certainly been shifting in recent years as more young professionals — mostly white — move in. Many of the businesses are distinctly segregated.

“There’s not a whole lot of places in the neighborhood that reflect the diversity of the neighborhood,” says Michael Froehlich, president of Cedar Park Neighbors. “I would say the two places that best did that were the Cafe and Elena’s. Especially when you look at the demographics of the neighborhood by the numbers — it is an extraordinarily diverse neighborhood — so when you go into a bar or a restaurant and you see, oh look, ten percent of the people are white people or ten percent are black people, that’s not reflective.”

On a recent Sunday, Cedar Park Cafe (which closes at 3 p.m.) is thronged with diners. Lee is busily cooking in back, while a line forms out the door. The customers range from families with roving packs of children to tables of haggard revelers, restoring themselves after Saturday’s excesses. A back-of-the-envelope estimate shows the exact diversity Froehlich praises. Hot coffee and heaps of food, for a reasonable price, appear to be a universally appreciated experience.





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Photos From the Decline of Public Education in Philadelphia

You should go see the Philadelphia School Closings Photo Collective’s work at the Scribe Video Center, 4212 Chestnut St., third floor. The opening was last week, but the pictures themselves will be up until January. They are a testament to how badly policy elites in the city and the state have failed Philly’s citizens. philadelphia_school_closings_photo_collective_20131010_1143507626.png

The photo here is of Darlene Lomax-Garrett, (until recently) Principal of Fairhill Elementary. Here she reacts to the last day of school, ever, in that building. By Harvey Finkle.

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“While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping…”

Also in last Sunday’s Inquirer, my piece on Edgar Allan Poe (a necessity for October). Upon re-reading a bunch of his short stories for the piece, I found there was more to criticize than I recalled from my teenage perusing.

Poe’s work is in near-ubiquitous circulation in American high school curricula, so there’s a temptation to be contrary and champion his lesser-known tales. But there’s a reason you were assigned “The Pit and the Pendulum” instead of “The Gold Bug.” (The latter is not only racist but profoundly boring; its only redeeming feature is that it partly inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.) Poe’s weird ideas are always the best part of his storytelling, but, in some of the longer pieces, his brilliant imaginings are bogged down by overwrought prose and repetitive characterization – all the men are tragic, mad, weirdly ill, or thoroughly debauched; the women are usually dead, or soon will be.

The most fun part of the research was re-reading all the erudite takedowns of Poe’s poetry, which I think most people agree if pretty silly stuff. (Best handled by The Simpsons, which is truly .)

Aldous Huxley’s 1930 essay “Vulgarity in Literature” is largely devoted to arguing that Poe’s poetry is so well-regarded in France because they can’t speak English. Almost exactly 29 years ago, Harold Bloom continued the attack in the New York Review of Books: “No reader who cares deeply for the best poetry written in English can care greatly for Poe’s verse.” Henry James’ slander was indiscriminate as to literary form: “An enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of an extremely primitive stage of reflection.”


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