Longform Philly

Month: December, 2014

No Man’s Land, Atlantic City

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Brian X. McCrone | Philly.com | November 2014

Tucked into northeast Atlantic City, where ocean meets inlet, is a two-by-six block expanse of undeveloped land that in other shore towns would be carved up by wealthy outsiders to build $2 million homes.

Instead, the few surviving, decades-old houses dot hundreds of empty lots like jagged teeth at the mouth of a yawning ocean in this sleepy part of town. Some call it North Beach; others South Inlet. Bill Terrigino, 69, lives at one end, his home one of those visible teeth.

An empty Revel casino shimmers in the background, emblematic of the mirage Atlantic City has become. Terrigino, a laid-off casino banquet server who resembles a Jersey Shore version of Hemingway, has a two-story home on South Metropolitan Avenue.

His house boasts an unobstructed waterfront view – but not by design. It’s just that nothing stands between it and the Atlantic Ocean.

“There’s a lot of things in Atlantic City that we’ve neglected, badly, especially around this way,” Terrigino said, sipping from a can of beer, sitting on his second-floor porch across the street from Revel.

The hitch? Even if you wanted to build a nice home in North Beach next to Terrigino’s you can’t. Restrictive zoning prohibits it.

Atlantic City is once again in a bind: People can’t build single-family houses on prime seaside property because it’s reserved partially for hotels and casinos – but no one is building any more casinos or hotels there. Multi-unit residential construction is permitted, such as condominiums, but any new structures would have to house three or more units.

Rezoning the neighborhood is being discussed by the state authority in charge of Atlantic City’s waterfront, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA), according to a spokeswoman. She did not give a timeframe for such a change.

So Terrigino seems destined to live without neighbors — at least for a while — in the no-man’s-land that spans north from Revel to Absecon Inlet, and west from the Atlantic Ocean through to Oriental Avenue.

Terrigino once bought into the promise of Revel’s success.

“I was hoping the best for them. I mean, naturally, because they’re my closest neighbor,” he said wistfully.

Writer bio: Brian X. McCrone is a news writer, editor and producer for Philly.com. McCrone, a graduate of The College of New Jersey, previously served as a reporter for the Times of Trenton and City Editor for Metro Philadelphia before joining the local news website in 2012.

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Have You Heard the One About President Joe Biden?

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Jeanne Marie Laskas | GQ | July 2013

“Keep going straight here,” Joe Biden says. We’ve been at this for hours, climbing in and out of the SUV to look at stuff, a water tower, a stone wall, the house where the most beautiful girl in the world lived, hoagies, Herman the German’s gas station, Meyers-eats-tires tire shop, the house where another most beautiful girl in the world lived, and he’s holding up better than the rest of us. He never winces, has no achy knees, no lower-back anything, neck, joints; for the guy rockin’ the Ray-Ban aviators, 70 is the new 60. “Wait, there’s Little Italy down there,” he says, peering out the window. “A lot of great Italian restaurants. If there’s anybody down there who doesn’t vote for me, I haven’t found them yet. But I will. I will.

“Okay, in the interest of time, we’ll stop here. Let’s get out here.”

It’s his old street. His house. Small white brick. Black shutters. Cement path. A perfectly average 1950s American neighborhood in Wilmington, Delaware, now with a motorcade parked along Wilson Road and Secret Service guys swarming and the vice president of the United States wandering, leading fast. “Hi there,” he says to a guy with a leaf blower. “I lived here for twenty years. Mack? Hey, Mack. I’m Joe. You’re living in a house a guy named Kenny Horn used to live in. Kenny Horn.

“Okay, the driveway, watch yourself. So this is the house. That was my bedroom. I lived there with my brothers Jimmy, Frankie, and my Uncle Ed. One bureau, four drawers, everybody got a drawer. My sister, the princess Valerie, had her own room. Which was ten by twelve. But she deserved it. And my dad took great pride in having that barbecue pit.” He circles the house, heads to the back door. “I wish I knew who lived here, because I would show you my room.”

Uncle Ed, they called him Uncle Boo-Boo. Brilliant guy. Sprawling intellect. He stuttered. Way worse than Biden stuttered as a boy, which was bad enough. Uncle Boo-Boo never got past it. Never married. Dud job. Drank. Drank a lot. He served as an example of what could happen if you didn’t rehearse, didn’t practice getting your mouth unstuck. Biden has never had a drink.

“Oh, what the hell.” He charges up to the back door, knocks. “Hello? Hello?” We stand on the back deck, waiting. Two Secret Service guys have their backs to us, stationed like owls by the picket fence.

Writer bio: Jeanne Marie Laskas was born in Philadelphia, raised in our suburbs and earned her bachelors degree from Saint Joseph’s University. She has written for national publications for more than 20 years, including GQ, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine and the now-defunct Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine. From 1994 to 2008 she wrote a syndicated column, “Significant Others,” for The Washington Post Magazine. She was a finalist for the National Magazine Award in 2007.

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What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?

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Richard Ben Cramer | Esquire | June 1986

Few men try for best ever, and Ted Williams is one of those. There’s a story about him I think of now. This is not about baseball but fishing. He meant to be the best there, too. One day he says to a Boston writer: “Ain’t no one in heaven or earth ever knew more about fishing.”

“Sure there is,” says the scribe.

“Oh, yeah? Who?”

“Well, God made the fish.”

“Yeah, awright,” Ted says. “But you have to go pretty far back.”

IT WAS FORTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, when achievements with a bat first brought him to the nation’s notice, that Ted Williams began work on his defense. He wanted fame, and wanted it with a pure, hot eagerness that would have been embarrassing in a smaller man. But he could not stand celebrity. This is a bitch of a line to draw in America’s dust.

Ted was never the kind to quail. In this epic battle, as in the million smaller face-offs that are his history, his instinct called for exertion, for a show of force that would shut those bastards up. That was always his method as he fought opposing pitchers, and fielders who bunched up on him, eight on one half of the field; as he fought off the few fans who booed him and thousands who thought he ought to love them, too; as he fought through, alas, three marriages; as he fought to a bloody standoff a Boston press that covered, with comment, his every sneeze and snort. He meant to dominate, and to an amazing extent, he did. But he came to know, better than most men, the value of his time. So over the years, Ted Williams learned to avoid annoyance. Now in his seventh decade, he had girded his penchants for privacy and ease with a bristle of dos and don’ts that defeat casual intrusion. He is a hard man to meet.

This is not to paint him as a hermit or a shrinking flower, Garbo with a baseball bat. No, in his hometown of Islamorada, on the Florida Keys, Ted is not hard to see. He’s out every day, out early and out loud. You might spot him at a coffee bar where the guides breakfast, quizzing them on their catches and telling them what he thinks of fishing here lately, which is “IT’S HORSESHIT.” Or you might notice him in a crowded but quiet tackle shop, poking at a reel that he’s seen before, opining that it’s not been sold because “THE PRICE IS TOO DAMN HIGH,” after which Ted advises his friend, the proprietor, across the room: “YOU MIGHT AS WELL QUIT USING THAT HAIR DYE. YOU’RE GOING BALD ANYWAY.”

He’s always first, 8:00 A.M., at the tennis club. He’s been up for hours, he’s ready. He fidgets, awaiting appearance by some other, any other, man with a racket, where upon Ted bellows, before the newcomer can say hello: “WELL, YOU WANNA PLAY?” Ted’s voice normally emanates with gale and force, even at close range. Apologists attribute this to the ear injury that sent him home from Korea and ended his combat flying career. But Ted can speak softly and hear himself fine, if it’s only one friend around. The roar with which he speaks in a public place, or to anyone else, has nothing to do with his hearing. It’s your hearing he’s worried about.

Ted Williams can hush a room just by entering. There is a force that boils up from him and commands attention. This he has come to accept as his destiny and his due, just as he came to accept the maddening, if respectful, way his opponents pitched around him (he always seemed to be leading the league in bases on balls), or the way every fan in the ball park seemed always to watch (and comment upon) T. Williams’s every move. It was often said Ted would rather play ball in a lab, where fans couldn’t see. But he never blamed fans for watching him. His hate was for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t feel with him, his effort, his exultation, pride, rage, or sorrow. If they wouldn’t share those, then there was his scorn, and he’s make them feel that, by God. These days, there are no crowds, but Ted is watched, and why not? What other match could draw a kibitzer’s eye when Ted, on the near court, pounds toward the net, slashing the air with his big racket, laughing in triumphant derision as he scores with his killer drop shot, or smacking the ball twenty feet long and roaring, “SYPHILITIC SON OF A BITCH!” as he hurls his racket to the clay at his feet?

And who could say Ted does not mean it be seen when he stops in front of the kibitzers as he and his opponent change sides? “YOU OKAY?” Ted wheezes as he yells as his foe. “HOW D’YA FEEL?…HOW OLD ARE YOU?…JUST WORRIED ABOUT YOUR HEART HA HA HAW.” Ted turns and winks, mops his face. A kibitzer says mildly: “How are you, Ted?” And Ted drops the towel, swells with Florida air, grins gloriously, and booms back:

“WELL, HOW DO I LOOK?…HUH?…WHAT DO YOU THINK OF TED WILLIAMS NOW?”

Writer bio: Richard Ben Cramer, who died in January 2013, won the Pulitzer Prize for The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1979 for his coverage of the Middle East. He is the author of the American classic, “What it Takes.”

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The Undefeated Champions of Defeat City

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Kathy Dobie | GQ | May 2014

When you leave the baseball fields at Pyne Poynt Park in Camden, New Jersey, you can stroll two blocks south or one block west, and there, under a power line hung with sneakers, or here, next to a giant stuffed tiger tied to a telephone pole, you can most definitely buy dope and maybe powdered or crack cocaine, though that’s not the flavor of the month, hasn’t been for a decade. You could walk another few blocks and buy prescription drugs or weed. It’s all right out in the open, nothing shy or taboo about it. Just the glassy-eyed tiger looking a bit rain-scraggy but also slightly menacing, and the roads are potholed and cracked, unlike those in Cherry Hill or Mount Laurel or any of the surrounding suburbs where most of the buyers live. Those customers usually grab what they need and get the hell out, but some get waylaid, dope-snagged, hook, line, and sinker, and move into one of the tent cities that have mushroomed along the edge of the neighborhood. The homeless addicts sport farmer’s tans and use the neighborhood parks as shooting galleries. And the children of North Camden—a ten-by-twelve-block neighborhood, bounded by rivers on three sides and on the fourth by a freeway—have their own ghost stories to tell: We seen this dope fiend on the bridge making noises, going cack, cack, cack! and I yelled to my friend: Run, Ronald, run, the fiend’s gonna get you!

Here, on the tiger’s block, you’ll come to the spot where a 24-year-old was gunned down last May, a newbie to the drug trade. That’s why he was killed, people say: He just hadn’t learned the ropes. Walk a bit farther west and you’ll come to the John Wesley apartments, where the paved courtyard is almost always filled with kids in the warm weather and where two men were shot on June 3, one taking eight bullets but surviving. People say it was his fat that saved him; he was a big man.

Three years ago, Camden ranked as one of the poorest cities in the country and the single deadliest, with a murder rate twelve times the national average. That was also the year that Camden, faced with a mounting deficit, decided to lay off almost half its police force. Ah shit,everyone was thinking, this is when all bloody hell breaks loose. Some drug dealers printed up T-shirts proclaiming January 2011: It’s Our Time.

And Bryan Morton? He had an idea: “Let’s start a Little League.”

Writer bio: Despite a lack of affiliations with South Jersey, Kathy Dobie beautifully captured the spirit of Camden. Dobie, whose work has appeared in Harper’s, The Village Voice, Vibe, and Salon (among many others), was raised in Hamden, Connecticut. She now lives in Brooklyn. Her first book, “The Only Girl in the Car,” was published in March.

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Death by ‘Excited Delirium’

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Grotesquely swollen and bloodied, Alphie Herrera had about two hours to live by the time his family was allowed into his hospital room.

He was taken there from Lehigh County Jail, where he had lost consciousness after a 17-minute struggle in which guards sprayed him with pepper foam, strapped him to a chair and put a hood over his head.

A few months earlier, Herrera, the father of three sons and three stepdaughters, was working at a warehouse to support his family. Then, in January 2013, he went to prison for breaking the terms of his probation for stealing video games from Kmart more than a year earlier.

Two months into the sentence, Herrera was convulsing on a cell floor and his roommate was shouting for help. Herrera emerged from the seizure disoriented, confused and combative, fighting corrections officers who were trying to keep him on the floor, according to an account of the incident in an autopsy report.

The kicking, flailing, biting and spitting continued after Herrera was handcuffed and sprayed with pepper foam, prompting as many as seven guards to intervene. Using their hands and knees as well as headlocks, wristlocks and stepping on his right arm, the guards struggled to subdue Herrera and strap him into a restraint chair, the autopsy report says.

There he sat for a short time with a hood covering his face until he lost consciousness in the prison infirmary, where he was taken after being restrained, according to the report. At Lehigh Valley Hospital, he would languish in a coma-like state for nearly a day before his family was let in to say their goodbyes, relatives said.

His ex-wife, Carmen Rivera, was among the three relatives in the room Feb. 28, 2013, as Herrera, 39, of Bethlehem, took his last breaths.

“They didn’t want us to see him the way he looked,” said Rivera, who took cellphone photos of Herrera connected to life support machines, his eyes blackened and blood caked around his nose and mouth.

He didn’t resemble the man she had married 13 years earlier.

“It was a zombie,” Rivera said.

Herrera, the Lehigh County coroner’s office ruled in August 2013, died of a condition called excited delirium in association with a seizure disorder he had for years. The manner of death — accidental, natural or homicide — remains listed as undetermined.

Writer bios: Peter Hall, who was raised in the Philadelphia suburbs, covers federal courts and legal issues for The Morning Call. He wrote for the Easton Express-Times and Caulkins Media before joining the Allentown-based daily newspaper in 2011. Kevin Amerman, a graduate of Archbishop Wood High School, worked at the Pocono Record and Wilkes-Barre Times Leader before joining The Call in 2007. Amerman currently serves as City Editor for The Citizens’ Voice.

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The Ballad of Jamison Smoothdog

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Jason Nark | Philadelphia Daily News | December 2014

THE BALLAD OF Jamison Smoothdog began in a South Philly housing project, where a wiry scrapper took that name and cut through the city’s streets like a switchblade with nothing more than a guitar and a voice honed hard by Winston reds.

Stories about the Dog’s days as the alpha male of the South Street music scene have stuck around far longer than his songs. Records were stuffed away in attic corners, melted in his family’s house fire, or lost by people who’d already forgotten them. On the Web, where a sliver of something can be found on just about anyone, there are no Smoothdog songs to be heard nor vintage performances from the J.C. Dobbs roadhouse to watch.

What remains is a fog of fact and fiction, an urban legend about an enigmatic, fiery frontman who was hard on his guitars, his friends, lovers and lyrics, and on many nights way too hard on his liver.

“He wasn’t great but he was too good to be forgotten,” said Bob Fuentes, who was once Smoothdog’s unofficial manager.

When his life’s coda played out on Sept. 20, 2001, on his living-room couch in Northeast Philly, Jamison Smoothdog was mostly just James J. Hendrick again, a 53-year-old antiques-and-collectibles dealer, a former Marine debilitated by a stroke and type 1 diabetes, still loving music more than anything or anyone besides his beloved mom, Millie.

But Smoothdog himself once said he didn’t “believe a song should ever be finished,” and he has experienced a strange encore online, a steady push for recognition by some who believe he wrote the Southern rock anthem “Can’t You See,” a hit for the Marshall Tucker Band and Waylon Jennings in the 1970s and a tune you might hear on “American Idol” on any given night or onstage at Tootsie’s in Nashville.

Can’t you see, oh, can’t you see 

What that woman, Lord, she been doin’ to me 

Can’t you see, can’t you see 

What that woman, she been doin’ to me

Writer bio: Jason Nark, a South Jersey native and graduate of Rutgers-Camden University, wrote for the Camden Courier-Post before joining the Philadelphia Daily News in 2008.

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