Oliver Twist, One of Dickens’ Worst Creations, Found Strangled

Next weekend the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion in Germantown–Philly’s only Victorian house museum–is having its annual game of live action Clue. This year it involves the death of Oliver Twist, that obnoxious nub who steals the limelight from the Artful Dodger.

From my Inquirer piece, which my editors titled (delightfully): “Mr. Dickens in the study 20131020_inq_cu1jawnts20-awith a rope”:

The problem with Charles Dickens’ novels is that the good guys are almost always terribly dull, but persist in winning in the end anyway. Wouldn’t it be more fun if, say, Oliver Twist met a grisly end and the reader had to figure out who was on the right end of the bludgeon (or pistol)?

The folks who run the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion have embraced the general concept with “Twisted: A Dickensian Mystery.” It’s a sort of live game of Clue, in which the audience must figure out who murdered everyone’s favorite orphan (and with what).

The suspects include a rogue’s gallery of Dickens’ creations, ranging from Fagin and Uriah Heep to the moldering Miss Havisham, complete with cobwebbed, mouse-bitten wedding cake. The action takes place in a Victorian house museum, amid a collection showing what life in the tree-lined “suburb” of Germantown was once like. The house boasts servants’ quarters, a hand-crank coffee grinder, and an original stone outhouse. (Creepiest accoutrement: “hair art,” which consists of a lock of curly tresses snipped from the head of a terminally ailing child and then framed.) After a tour of the murder scene, guests retire to the kitchen to nibble on refreshments and identify the killer.

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Tonight: Theater In Deepest Kensington

My latest Jawnts column, from last Sunday’s Inquirer. But the event in question begins tonight!

[This] Saturday, in a dilapidated warehouse in Kensington, three young people will pretend to be three other young people in a dilapidated warehouse in San Francisco.

John Rosenberg’s Hannah is set in 1995, but the main characters’ conversations, barring the odd mid-’90s pop-cudrugzlture reference, wouldn’t sound out of place today: Hip young white people discussing which inebriants to ingest, what it really means to be from a city, and what the appropriate term is for the impoverished African American neighborhood they live in.

The three characters are in their early 20s, as, it appears, is the cast. Laura Sukonick and Francesca Piccioni play two new apartment-mates, Christina and Hannah, one a spaced-out partyer, the other a former sorority girl. They quickly bond over past relationships with abusive men and a shared passion for chemicals. Ben Grinberg plays Anders, a former flame and drug buddy of Christina’s, just back from Thailand bearing the kind of wisdom gained from going to too many parties before age 25.

The play isn’t particularly plot-heavy: It’s all how the three characters bounce off each other, old relationships fraying, new ones developing with a rapidity borne of desperation. About midway, the three take ecstasy and the lights dim, resulting in the awkward, dazed, intimate scenes that seem to naturally occur after 1 a.m.

Rosenberg founded Kensington’s Hella Fresh Theater in 2011. Its stage, the Papermill Proving Ground, 2825 Ormes St., is just north of Lehigh Avenue and west of the Somerset stop on the Market-Frankford Line. “If you want a ride, we will come pick you up,” their website promises.


“Hannah” runs Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. from Saturday through Nov. 3. Tickets are $10.

The first three weekends are in Kensington, the final one at Papermill Theater Center City, 1714 Sansom St.

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Can social services-oriented anti-violence programs work in a drug war context?

My most recent article for Next City is about an innovative new anti-violence strategy in Trenton (which suffered the most murders its ever experienced this year). It seeks to scare offenders into putting down their guns and then offer wraparound social services. (Image via bearclau, on flickr.) Here’s the basic idea:

TVRS will use a scared-straight model, too, but Tuthill says it will be accompanied by robust social services for the offenders and their families. He anticipates that those targeted will have 23149655_02f3285aec_olived outside the legal job market for a long time and probably lack basic skills needed to seek employment and navigate bureaucracies. Without help, they could easily flounder and end up in prison. So TVRS will provide each individual with a mentor — Tuthill hopes to recruit Trenton residents with street credibility — to guide them through applying for and maintaining jobs. There will also be a social worker assigned to manage the offender’s family and help them access safety net programs.

“We are looking for a more sustained effect,” Tuthill says. “Getting people to feel an ownership of their communities, getting those who may have been engaged in illicit activity into jobs, into counseling, community college, whatever the resources are that they need. Returning ownership to the community — that’s how you create lasting change.”

It’s difficult to imagine, in the state’s current environment of austerity, where sufficient social services can be found to address a surge of fresh need. But Tuthill insists that it isn’t a matter of creating new programs or massively expanding existing ones. He argues that the families who now receive social services are struggling, but generally have the social capital and educational wherewithal to navigate the bureaucracy. The families he anticipates TVRS interacting with probably do not have those resources. The intervention will strive to allow them access.

However, when I asked social worker Jeff Deeney–my go to guy on crime, violence, and drugs in the region–he was skeptical.

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Take him to Detroit

Detroit has been a byword for urban decline for far longer than I’ve been alive. Earlier this year, before the bankruptcy announcement, I wrote about the emergency manager situation for Next City. I recommend reading it (toots own trumpet) if you need a primer on who, exactly, is running the city right now. It was an enlightening and exceedingly grim assignment. 9117383678_1fcabf5ce5Local democracy wrenched away from a populace, largely for macroeconomic reasons beyond their control (although local elected officials made many, many blunders as well–just not Coleman Young). The picture is from the Overpass Light Brigade, in protest of what I describe below.

In April a state-appointed emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, signed an order effectively relegating city officials to the sidelines and placing himself in full control of Detroit’s policy apparatus. Nothing can be enacted without his approval.

The negation of local democratic control is stunning. But it isn’t anything new in Michigan, home to four other cities and three school districts under full emergency managerial control. State intervention in crisis-ridden municipalities has happened before — New York in 1975, Philadelphia in 1991, Camden, N.J. for most of the early 21st century — but no other state has a law as powerful or all encompassing as Michigan’s Public Act 436. And other states are closely watching Michigan’s experiment. In March 2012 Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels signed a similar law into effect with little fanfare.

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No One Uses Condoms for Oral Sex

Another entry in my continuing quest to re-post most of my backlog of articles from the summer.  I was reminded of this one when I ran into a friend of mine yesterday who I informally interviewed for the piece. The article is my first for Pacific Standard, and its about condom use and oral sex and just how rare that combination is outside of sex work.  Happy_condoms

My inquiry—“Have you ever used a condom or dental dam during oral sex?”—was met with a resounding negative. Responses ranged from “Haha, I don’t think anyone actually ever does that” to “Well, no, but it’s not so dangerous as other kinds of sex” to “Blech. Rubber.”

According to scientists, my friends aren’t necessarily a pack of deviant outliers. Unprotected oral sex is inarguably safer than unsheathed anal or vaginal sex, especially in regards to HIV, and it has no reproductive repercussions. But as Tracy Clark-Flory reported in Salon last year, we’ve become complacent because it’s so much less-scary than other common forms of raw carnality. Sure, even the vast majority of 9th graders admit that while oral sex is safer it still includes some risk of contracting chlamydia and HIV. (Only 14 and 13 percent, respectively, thought that there was zero chance of infection.) But while we claim to know there is danger, we’ve shown our priorities with our genitalia: Everyone from U.S. teens (70 percent) to adults (82 percent) to British teens (80 percent) forgoes condoms every time they have oral sex.

Side note: The first sentence of that second paragraph is one of my favorite sentences I’ve ever written.

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Terrible, Terrible Republican Ideas for Immigration Reform

Remember immigration reform? It doesn’t look like that will be happening in the foreseeable future because, at this point, our political institutions are struggling to simply keep the government funded. This current crisis can be blamed on the arch-reactionary Republicans in the House, but it must be admitted that they are acting rationally in terms farmworkerof political calculus. Our system of government isn’t made for ideological coherent parties, which we didn’t used to have. Now that we do there is almost no room for compromise between the parties. But still the levers of power are divided between them. Its a recipe for (repeated) disaster, as Matt Yglesias and Alex Pareene make clear in the two best pieces I’ve read on the current government shutdown.

But back to immigration reform. A bill did make it out of the Senate. It contained some good stuff, but also some policies so terrible that organized labor and other supporters of reform were conflicted about whether they should support it at all.  Those blisters in the House kicked some predictably horrific ideas around, which didn’t get nearly as much scorn as they deserved. (Photo credit above goes to CIAT, on flickr.)   Here are some:

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Locust Moon Comix Fest is Tomorrow!

My favorite Philadelphia comic shop, Locust Moon (34 40th Street), is hosting a big indie comics festival tomorrow. Here are the deets, as laid out in my Jawnts mini-column for the Inquirer last Sunday:
The main event will run from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday at the Rotunda, 4014 Walnut. Donations of $5 to $10 are suggested; kids under 13 are free. Panels will be held from noon to 6 p.m. at 20130929_inq_cu1jawnts29-aLocust Moon, 34 S. 40th St. The shop will also host a party for Woods on Saturday night.
And the actual content of the fest:
A small army of artists, authors, and publishers will be displaying their work, including Jim Steranko, who designed Indiana Jones for George Lucas (among other feats), and Farel Dalrymple, whose Pop Gun War won the Society of Illustrators’ Gold Medal, not often awarded to cartoonists. Other notables include Jay Lynch and Kim Deitch, contemporaries of R. Crumb in the underground comix scene, and Chrissie Zullo, who was discovered at the 2008 Comic Con, and now regularly works for D.C.’s adult-oriented Vertigo lab.
This year’s Locust Moon Festival will also feature the debut of local author Rob Woods’ debut graphic novel, 36 Lessons in Self-Destruction. He used to sell his DIY comic series Depressed Punx to passersby downtown, but after Locust Moon started selling his work he began working with them on a variety of projects, including their first publication, Once Upon A Time Machine which I profiled for the Inquirer last year. (Word of warning: Woods’ comics are extremely dark, and this profile of him run in this week’s City Paper explains why.)
And that’s a big part of the reason that i love Locust Moon: They aren’t interested in just being a comic shop. They want to build a scene. They want to turn this city into a hub for independent comics. God bless ’em.
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Union Made Beer

On July 4th I wrote a piece for AlterNet about union made beer and why its more complicated than you might think because of all the beer companies have been swallowing NCI_Visuals_Food_Beereach other up. I’m re-posting it now because its Friday, which makes articles about alcohol relevant (no matter how old they are).

The bewildering array of beers mentioned earlier are actually something of a mirage. As Tim Heffernan expertly lays out in the November/December 2012 Washington Monthly, over the course of the aughts the world’s “seven giant brewing conglomerates”—four domestic, three foreign—consolidated into two mega-corporations, Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors (only Miller products are produced in organized breweries, Coors busted their unions before the joint venture). Both of these giants own a multitude of brands, including big domestics, craft brews, and international brands like Stella Artois, which was owned by the InBev company that purchased Anheuser-Busch for $52 billion in 2008. Combined these two companies sell between 80-90 percent of U.S. beer. (Sam Adams is one of the few well known companies to exist outside their purview, along with a multitude of craft breweries, most of them non-union.)

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Pennsylvania Plans To Protect Nutrition Assistance, Despite Federal Idiocy

The federal government’s non-essential services are currently shut down. For me this means a lot of exceedingly useful tools are inaccessible. Data from both the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census are much harder to use now (which will cause some problems for nextcity_logo_newa longform piece I’m working on later this week).

But as stupid and obnoxious as this action is from my perspective, it has the potentially to be really awful for lower-income Americans–specifically pregnant women, mothers with kids under the age of five, and their children.

The program that may be in danger is the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC):

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, research shows that the program is proven to ensure better health, nutrition and care services: “It is widely regarded as one of the most effective of all social programs.”

WIC serves 9 million Americans, including 250,000 Pennsylvanians, according to the state Department of Health. Of those, more than a fourth are Philadelphians. (DoH reports 70,000 city residents on WIC rolls, although the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger — using data from August 2012 — lists 61,659.)

“We are getting calls from people, everybody is in shock, and no one knows what to expect from local services,” said Carol Goertzel, president and CEO of Pathways PA, an advocacy group for low-income women and children. “We have not heard anything [from the city or the state]. So many of the moms we work with depend on WIC for their infants.”

Thankfully, when I got in touch with Harrisburg, it looks like the Corbett administration will try to act to save WIC.

“The Pennsylvania Department of Health does not foresee any direct, immediate impacts to the Pennsylvania WIC program due to the federal government shut down,” Aimee Tysarczyk, press secretary for the Department of Health, wrote in an email. “Our WIC offices are open and vital services are continuing.”

When asked about the Department of Health’s plans for a protracted shutdown, Tysarczyk emailed: “We are working closely with the governor’s office and the USDA to determine any potential long-term impacts and next steps. We recognize that WIC is a vital program to many in Pennsylvania and our focus is and will continue to be on protecting the health and well-being of our citizens and trying to minimize disruptions to the extent possible.”


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Two Cheers for the Affordable Care Act

…which went into effect today (well, yesterday at this point). Of course, if it weren’t for our awful political system, a relic of a compromise to rope together slave-holding and free states, the law would be much better. The Affordable Care Act is only impressive in the context of a “democratic” nation home to the obscenely un-democratic Senate. (I’m working my way through Robert Caro’s Master of the Senate, the first tent of which is devoted to a detailed history of the awfulness of that institution.) Alex Pareene wrote in Salon today, the United States has the riches to “‘bend the cost curve’ in healthcare simply by expanding our existing single-payer system and just paying less for healthcare.” One of the reasons we don’t have a welfare state comparable to that of the western European or east Asian nations (or our northern neighbor) is that the Senate staunchly refused to pass any of the social democratic policies President Truman advanced after World War 2. While the House is the villain today, lets not forget that we wouldn’t be having this foolish government shutdown if we’d enacted a universal health care system half a century ago.

Anyway: In my continuing quest to post more of my backlog of articles from the summer, here’s my piece on companies that threatened to cut their employees back to part time because of the Affordable Care Act. Some of them walked it back. Others, not so much. As if you needed another reason to avoid Jimmy Johns:

But a Jimmy John’s employee in a major Midwestern city reports that the company, or at least the owner of this franchise, is following through on Liautaud’s threats.

“My manager has told all of us several times that they are going to cut our hours down to 28 or 25 hours a week, specifically because of that law,” says one Jimmy John’s employee, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “I work most of the time over 30 [hours a week], as do more than 50 percent of my co-workers.”

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