Longform Philly

Month: May, 2015

Watching Rocky II with Muhammad Ali

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Roger Ebert | Chicago Sun-Times | July 1979

Right here in the middle of Muhammad Ali’s mansion, right here in the middle of the mahogany and the stained glass and the rare Turkish rug, there was this large insect buzzing near my ear. I gave it a slap and missed. Then it made a swipe at my other ear. I batted at the air but nothing seemed to be there, and Muhammad Ali was smiling to himself and studying the curve of his staircase.

I turned toward the door and the insect attacked again, a close pass this time, almost in my hair, and I whirled and Ali was grinning wickedly.

He explained how it was done. “You gotta make sure your hand is good and dry and then you rub your thumb hard across the side of your index finger, like this, see, making a vibrating noise, and hold it behind somebody’s ear, sneak up on ’em, and they think it’s killer bees.”

He grinned like a kid “I catch people all the time,” he said. “It never fails.”

A long black limousine from NBC was gliding up the driveway, and Ali was ready to go to work. This was going to be Diana Ross’ first night as guest host of the “Tonight” show, and Ali was going to be her first guest. And then, after the taping, Ali had a treat for his wife, Veronica, and their little girl, Hana. They were going to the movies. What movie were they going to see? Rocky II, of course. A special screening had been arranged, and Ali was going to play movie critic.

“Rocky Part Two,” Ali intoned, “starring Apollo Creed as Muhammad Ali.”

The taping went smoothly, with Ali working Diana Ross like a good fight. He kidded her about her age, leaned over to read her notes, got in a plug for his official retirement benefit, and made her promise to sing at the party.

And then the heavyweight champion of the world was back in another limousine, a blue and beige Rolls-Royce this time, heading back home to a private enclave off Wilshire Boulevard. It was a strange and wonderful trip, because during the entire length of the seven-mile journey, not one person who saw Ali in the car failed to recognize him, to wave at him, to shout something. Ali says he is the most famous person in the world. He may be right.

He gave his fame, to be sure, a certain assistance. He sat in the front seat, next to the driver, and watched as drivers in the next lane or pedestrians on the sidewalk did their double takes. First, they’d see the Rolls, a massive, classic model. Then they’d look in the back seat. no famous faces there. Idly, they’d glance in the front seat, and Ali would already be regarding them, and then their faces would break into grins of astonishment, and Ali would clench his fist and give them a victory sign. This was not a drive from Burbank to Wilshire Boulevard – it was a hero’s parade.

Back home, waiting for Veronica to come downstairs so they could go to the movies, Ali sat close to a television set in his study. His longtime administrative assistant, Jeremiah Shabazz, talked about crowds and recognition. “The biggest single crowd was in South Korea. I think the whole country turned out. Manila was almost a riot; they almost tore the airport down. All over Russia, they knew him But Korea was amazing.”

Ali ignored the conversation. He is a man who chooses the times when he will acknowledge the presence of others, and the times when he will not. There are moments when he seems so intensely self-absorbed, even in a roomful of people, that he seems lonely and withdrawn. He was like that now, until his daughter, Hana, walked in and demanded to be taken into his lap, and then he spoke to her softly.

“What’s Veronica say?” he asked Cleve Walker, an old Chicago friend who was visiting.

“She’s coming right down,” Walker said.

“Then let’s go.”

Writer bio: Roger Ebert is, well, you know Roger Ebert. Not only is he the most influential movie critic of all time, Ebert is one of the most influential critics of all time. The Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, who not only excelled as a newspaper writer but also as a television personality, public speaker, author and businessman, went to a private screening of Rocky II with Muhammad Ali and wrote about the experience. It’s a Philly movie, so it counts.

Continue reading “Watching Rocky II with Muhammad Ali”

Envisioning A Face

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Michael E. Ruane | The Philadelphia Inquirer | November 1987

“The big one,” investigators call her – a tall, thin woman, about 5 feet, 9 inches in height, between the ages of 20 and 30, with a narrow, graceful skull and two simple earrings.

In the death room of Harrison “Marty” Graham’s fetid North Philadelphia apartment, they hadn’t found her right away, though her skeleton was right under another decaying human body.

No, like some archaeological excavation, the investigators had found her face-up at a lower level in the debris-choked room, her body withered away inside khaki slacks and two long-sleeve shirts.

She had been killed – strangled or suffocated – months before. Most likely not the first victim, she may have died within feet of unseen others already killed and left hidden in the room.

Like the six others, she was probably lured from the street with the promise of a “high.” But Graham, 28, who is charged with killing her and the others, later told detectives he didn’t remember who she was.

Now, 13 weeks after police first pulled the nails from the door in that foul, sealed room, after all the other victims have been mourned and buried, she remains behind: stored in a freezer at the Medical Examiner’s Office, her tiny earrings wrapped in gauze inside a manila envelope, her case file marked ”unknown.”

*

The human skull on the artist’s table is a vision from a horror tale. The dark recesses contrast sharply with the shiny bleached bone. The face of the skull is pocked with tiny pink rubber posts.

Red plastic orbs rest in each vacant eye socket, and there are several back molars missing from the lower jaw. A magnifying glass, stainless steel calipers and X-acto knife rest beside the skull.

Nearby, also, is the body tag from the morgue, number 3760. Written there in pencil is the spare biography of the skull’s owner: “1631 N. 19th St.,” the address of Graham’s apartment where the body was found, and “unk F.B.,” unknown female, black.

Circling the skull and peering intently from under thick blond eyebrows is forensic sculptor Frank Bender, an impish-looking man with a goatee who sports blue jeans, black turtleneck and white sneakers.

From the stark skull before him, Bender, 46, is seeking a face, trying to envision the mobile features of a living human being, studying what each ridge and hollow in the bone might tell him.

As he has often done before, Frank Bender has been called in on this case as a last resort, after all other avenues of identification have been exhausted. Using scientific techniques and artistic intuition, Bender will sculpt a clay face over the lifeless skull that he hopes will be a good likeness of the unknown woman.

SOMEONE MAY KNOW

And perhaps, someone, somewhere, will recognize that face as a sister, daughter, mother or friend.

This day, Thursday, Bender already has begun. He has retrieved the skull from the Medical Examiner’s Office. In his bright but cavernous studio, he has applied with glue 21 rubber posts to the surface of the skull.

These are markers for facial tissue thickness, he explains. Based on scientific formulas, they mark the average thickness of facial skin at 21 different points, ranging from about 4.5 millimeters to 14.5 millimeters.

“But they’re only averages,” he warned. “If you go by the charts exclusively . . . you wind up with an average, rather than an individual. So there’s a part where art supplements science. ”

“You constantly have to play between the two,” he said. “You have to keep that balance going. You can’t go too much toward the art of it because then you’ll wind up with an artist’s interpretation of the person. ”

Bender also has placed the two red orbs in the eye sockets. Each is 24 millimeters in diameter, the precise size of eyeballs, and will later be meticulously painted.

Bender has been doing this work for about 10 years, sculpting more than a dozen faces, many of which have led to identifications of unknown persons, many of them murder victims. He says he got into the work one day when he was being shown around the Medical Examiner’s Office by a friend.

During the tour, a pathologist indicated the decomposed body of a woman, noting that her identity was unknown.

“I can tell you what she looked like,” Bender said. He made a sculpture of the woman and it led to her identification.

He is paid $1,200 for each work.

His sculptures are frighteningly lifelike, looking as if they were about to speak. He sometimes adds clothing – in one case re-creating a distinctive, pink V-neck blouse on one murder victim – and unique hair styles to his sculptures.

But it is the skull itself that tells him the most about the person whose face he is seeking.

In this case, he has already noted the elongated face, a pointed chin, a slightly unsymmetrical look to the nose aperture and a deep lower jaw bone.

They are thin clues, really, but matched with the two small earrings found by the woman’s head in the debris where she died . . .

*

Charles G. Johnson had just come from church that fine Sunday of Aug. 9 when he was called to Harrison Graham’s apartment.

Trudging up to the third floor through the overpowering odor, Johnson, a forensic investigator with the Medical Examiner’s Office, waded through the debris of the outer room of the two-room apartment and stood outside the inner room.

As Johnson, 49, peered through a crack in the door, he could see at least two bodies amid one “grand mess.”

A policeman pulled the nails from the door and Johnson went inside. It was a little before 2 p.m.

Before him, in the center of a room choked with trash, shreds of clothing and hunks of broken furniture, a woman’s nude body lay sprawled across a rotting mattress.

Nearby, along the west wall, lay the body of another woman, dressed in a gray denim miniskirt and a light-colored shirt with the French words Pour Toi – for you – and a red rose printed on the front.

Both women had been dead a matter of days. Johnson immediately suspected homicide. The scene was photographed. The body on the mattress was designated number 1, the other, number 2, then both corpses were taken to the city morgue.

Johnson turned his attention back to the room. “We’ve got to . . . move some of this stuff around,” he thought. “We got two; I just want to make sure we don’t have any more.”

Two hours had passed since the first bodies were found.

As Johnson and the two morgue technicians began moving around the debris, they lifted some clothing and blankets and there, directly underneath where body number 2 was, they uncovered a fully clothed human skeleton.

“Johnson!” one of the technicians called out. “You’ve got another one.”

The body was also photographed, carefully lifted so that no associated debris was lost, and also taken to the morgue. This was designated body number 3 – the one that today remains unidentified.

Johnson ordered that acting Chief Medical Examiner Robert Catherman, who was being kept abreast of developments, be contacted again: “Tell him we got another one, (and) we’re going to look and see if we’ve got any more,” Johnson instructed.

A little over an hour later, a fourth body – another skeleton, clad in shreds of clothing – was found under some old blankets and sheets. Designated body number 4, it was also removed. A short time later, Catherman arrived at the scene and joined the search.

About 30 minutes after body number 4 was discovered, searchers lifted the mattress on which body number 1 had been found. There, lying on a second mattress underneath, was body number 5, another skeleton wearing shreds of clothing.

Shortly before 8 that night, it seemed as if they were finally finished. The room had been scoured, and nothing else had been found. Catherman, though, remembered the small closet in the southeast corner of the room.

The door was opened and inside the six-inch-deep closet was body number 6 – yet another skeleton, placed in a sitting position, knees up, wrapped in a sheet and bound with white electrical cord. A crude ring was still on the right ring finger and a small earring dangled from the left earlobe.

Several hours’ more work that night revealed nothing more. (Parts of a seventh body would be found over succeeding days on a rear roof of the building and buried in the basement of a house down the street.)

Now, the often time-consuming process of identifying the dead and probing the cause of death began.

Examining each body and sifting through its associated debris, Catherman doggedly searched for tiny hyoid throat bones that he knew could be major clues to how the women were killed.

Catherman knew that all too often in cases where a woman’s body has been discovered in such circumstances, it can be the result of a sexual attack. And he knew that such attacks often involve strangulation, in which the fragile hyoid bone at the top of the throat is broken. Therefore, recovery of the small U-shaped hyoid can be critical.

After hours of work, Catherman found all seven hyoid bones – including two that were broken. (Graham, who was arrested after an eight-day manhunt, would subsequently admit, according to police, that he had strangled his victims while having sex with them. )

WHO THEY WERE

Meanwhile, the task of identification was going well. Johnson scrambled among medical centers, hospitals and clinics throughout North Philadelphia gathering medical records of women who had been reported missing. Medical and dental X-rays were then compared against X-rays taken of the seven bodies at the morgue.

Within days, positive identifications began to emerge.

The first to be identified – body number 2 – was that of Mary Jeter Mathis, of the 2100 block of North Corlies Street. She had been wearing the Pour Toi shirt. She was 36, the mother of several children, and, dead about 72 hours, had been the most recently murdered.

Information on the others flowed in. Eventually all but one had been identified.

That was number 3 – the big one. Clues about her were skimpy. Her khaki pants had a 29-inch waist and a metal label on the back that said “Lap Ferrat. ” She wore two long-sleeve cotton shirts – one khaki, the other tomato red – and a size 30-B bra.

There were two other clues. Tiny earrings had been detected in nearby debris when the body was X-rayed. One was a small silver post with a heart on the end. The other was a hook-type earring from which a small, corroded bowl dangled. Johnson believes they were probably worn in the same ear.

Armed with what he knew of number 3, Johnson pursued several leads – including the missing sister of a clerk in his office. She was found alive and well.

Finally, it was time to call Frank Bender.

*

By Friday, Bender was almost finished. He had crafted with five pounds of sticky brown clay the living features of a young black woman over the skull. She had a longish face, close-set brown eyes and a look as if she had just been asked a question.

“The essence should be there,” Bender said. “That is basically the way she’s going to look. . . . I feel (the identity) there. ”

Yet he was not quite through.

“A face, whether beautiful or ugly, there’s always this harmony,” he said. “What I do when I finish it, is, I look at it and where the harmony is broken I correct it to go with the rest of the harmony that’s working.”

Still, there already was a personality to it. He had made her come alive. He had thought a lot about her, about her death and the difficult life that she probably had led. And he had come, in a sense, to care about her.

“When you work on them, and you put all that time into it,” he said, ”you become part of them.

“You care.”

Writer bio: Michael E. Ruane is a general assignment reporter at The Washington Post. Ruane, a graduate of Villanova University, wrote for The Philadelphia Inquirer for 15 years before leaving for The Post in 1997. He shared the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News with a group of Washington Post reporters who covered the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007.

Vander Blue has 200 teammates

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Eli Saslow | ESPN The Magazine | May 2014

THE LAST ROAD trip of the season is an eight-hour bus ride through the night on an aging charter. Vander Blue sinks into the worn upholstery and tries to sleep. At his feet sits a small duffel bag stuffed with the few belongings he has left: an Xbox, stereo headphones, three pairs of luxury sneakers and a few changes of clothes. At some point during the blur of the past nine months, he had grown tired of lugging a large suitcase from one city to another, from one efficiency apartment to the next. “Easier to move light and then buy a new wardrobe,” he had decided, and by now he has left behind clothes at Goodwill drops across the country, marking the long trail of his rookie year.

He has played 49 games in 27 cities; for 10 head coaches on eight different teams; in four professional leagues on three continents. “Helter-skelter crazy” is how he describes the year, and lately his mind has become scattered too.

On this April evening, Blue looks out the window of the bus and tries to determine his location. San Antonio? McAllen? Somewhere in Texas; that much he knows. He is a top guard prospect for the Idaho Stampede in the NBA Development League, but he wears socks from a stint with the Boston Celtics and a T-shirt from the Israeli Super League. He tries to remember which team he is playing against next. In what arena? And what is the name of his teammate sitting near the front of the bus, the backup center he has been referring to as Big Lanky?

“I’ve probably had like 200 teammates this year,” he says. “It gets hard keeping track.”

In moments like this one on the bus, Blue feels as if he is always in transit — always on the way somewhere but never quite arriving. He was almost an NBA regular, but not quite. He is almost getting paid what he calls “silly money” but still being lectured by his mother for spending $600 on sneakers. He is almost a top-tier professional, but he still occasionally answers to the nickname Kid.

The beginning of his career has unfolded in an endless string of transactions — not in blockbuster deals but in agate small print, the place where most professional careers quietly live, then die. Acquired and released. Acquired and released. He spent nine days on the Boston Celtics, then a day and a half on the Maine Red Claws; a month as a Philadelphia 76er, then a week as a Delaware 87er.

“I’m pretty good at keeping optimistic,” he says. “But I’m just so damn tired.”

The Stampede’s bus finally pulls into a budget hotel on the outskirts of Dallas, and Blue checks into a room he has been assigned to share with a teammate. They are both hungry, so Blue volunteers to order a pizza. He calls to place the order and gives the clerk his credit card number.

“Sorry,” the clerk says. “That card was denied.”

“Again?” Blue says. The credit card company had blocked his account for suspicious activity at least half a dozen times in the past year; his moves are so incessant that the company often believes his card has been stolen. He had been declined when trying to buy dinner for a date at an Applebee’s in Delaware. He had been declined again while buying shoes at a mall in Israel.

“Hello,” he says, when a representative from the credit card company finally answers. “You all blocked my card again.”

Writer bio: Eli Saslow is a feature writer and reporter for The Washington Post who regularly contributes to ESPN The Magazine. Saslow, a graduate of Syracuse University, won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for his year-long series about food stamps in America. He was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing.

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This Immortal Coil

Slinky's Mom Betty James

Jeanne Marie Laskas | Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine | July 1993

BETTY JAMES, 75, COMES TO WORK every morning here at the Slinky factory at the end of Beaver Street.

It isn’t a fancy place; no big neon signs announcing The Home of the Slinky or anything. There is a junkyard next door, honeysuckle invading the parking lot, and outside her office window Betty has a bird feeder set up. Thirty six thousand original metal Slinkys a day are made, boxed, wrapped and shipped out of this factory to toy stores on every continent in the world except Antarctica. And that’s not counting all the Slinky juniors, the plastic Slinkys, the plastic Slinky juniors, the Slinky pull toys, and the Slinky glasses with the eyeballs that pop out.

Slinky is definitely the most famous thing to ever come out of Hollidaysburg, a tiny blip of a town tucked within one deep fold of the Allegheny Mountains where James Industries, maker of the Slinky for all of Slinky’s 48 years of life, is located. Technically speaking, the first Slinky was made in Philadelphia, but Betty moved the company out here to central Pennsylvania in 1961. Betty is the one who made the Slinky what it is today, although this was not exactly what she originally set out to do with her time here on earth.

“Life is so uncertain,” Betty will tell you, “at its best.” There you have one of life’s deceptively simple certainties with which Betty James is extremely well acquainted.

Betty stands just over 5 feet tall, gets her hair done once a week, dresses in dresses every day and walks with so much dignity she reminds you of Queen Elizabeth except with a more relaxed sense of humor. If you are looking to find the essence of Slinky, you really can’t get any closer than by just being with Betty.

She is, after all, the one who came up with the name Slinky. Her husband, Richard James, invented the Slinky, but he’s long gone by now. Richard was the love of Betty’s life, but in 1960 he up and moved to Bolivia to join a religious cult. Betty has definitely seen a lot in her lifetime that no human being could ever in her wildest dreams predict.

“Oh, I have had an exciting life,” says Betty, sitting behind her desk in a big olive-colored swivel chair. The walls are paneled and covered with plaques honoring Betty for things like Excellence in Packaging and Shipping Punctuality/Fill Rate. These plaques are interspersed among pictures of Betty’s six children and 16 grandchildren. Betty raised her kids without Richard, just as she raised the Slinky without Richard.

Just one set of double doors away from Betty’s office are the whir, clank, cha-ching and other industrial music put out by the six Slinky machines in action. These are the exact same machines that always made Slinkys, and Number One, as it is called, is still notoriously slow. There are barrels of water under the Slinky machines, each stenciled with a request: “No Spitting In Barrels. ” One hundred twenty people work round the clock in shifts making Slinky after Slinky after Slinky, plus the lesser items Betty has acquired over the years – pinwheels, pickup sticks, I’m A Cheerleader pompoms and Moli Q’s play shapes.

This is a quirky place. It is odd, first of all, to even find a toy still being made in the United States. Something like 150,000 items can be found on the shelves of America’s toy stores on any given day, and a full 75 percent of them are imported. Toy manufacturing is extremely labor intensive and most American toys long ago headed off-shore in search of cheap labor. But not Slinky. Another strange thing is that the Slinky company remained so small. You’ll find no R&D department here at James Industries, no PR office and not a single MBA walking these halls. You want a Slinky press kit? There isn’t one. But Betty will happily let you see a scrapbook with some brittle newspaper clippings from the 1950s in it. If you’d like you can even use the photocopier.

“We’re not big-time,” says Betty. “We like it the way it is. Slinky is like a child, and you don’t exploit your child.”

People with advanced degrees and calculators in their pockets become utterly dumbfounded when they hear that Betty James didn’t sell Slinky to some giant toy conglomerate years ago. Wouldn’t that, after all, be the American way? Betty could sign a few papers, make zillions, and go sit poolside at some lovely condo off the coast of Florida for the rest of her life instead of coming in here to this old factory five days a week. It’s not as if she hasn’t had offers. “Oh, I have been wooed by some of the best,” says Betty, pointing out that once a week someone will breeze through here and try to buy her out. But Betty just says no, no, a thousand times no.

The closest she ever got was when CBS, the TV network, was into toys and put in a bid for Slinky.

“They were offering me, you know, everything,” says Betty. “And I almost did it. I went to a meeting up in their tower, in their dining room, the executive dining room, you know, real classy, and they said, ‘Well, you ought to go down to our showroom and look our toys over. ‘ So I went down, I looked, and then I called the man with whom I had been working. I said, ‘I’m not going to sell to you. ‘ And he said, ‘What’s the matter? ‘ And I said, ‘I don’t like your toys. ‘ I said, ‘I think they look cheap. And I don’t want to put my toy in there with yours.’

“It was like one of your children. You’re putting it up for adoption and you don’t like the family so you don’t let it go.”

Betty James is definitely not what you’d call a business tycoon. People might say she lets her heart make too many of her decisions. People might, for instance, wonder why Betty still makes the Slinky the same size as the original, with the same fine American steel; she could have used cheaper steel, or made it smaller, and, really, who would notice? Also, people wonder why in tarnation Betty doesn’t raise prices. When Slinky first came out it retailed for $1. Now, nearly a half-century later, you can still get one for about $1.89. People say that’s a pretty pathetic rate of inflation.

“No, we haven’t done too badly by the public,” admits Betty. “I think a lot of people think, hey, everyone else is increasing prices, we’ll increase prices too. But no, I don’t go by that. See, my theory is, if it’s a child’s toy, make it affordable. That’s just what I go by.”

Betty defies the conventional wisdom of just about anybody you’ll talk to in the business world. Betty goes her own way. But this is nothing new. Betty will tell you her whole life she has felt like an island, just one person out here all alone trying to survive in a crazy world. Well, she was an orphan so that might have something to do with it. Her mother died when she was 8 and that’s when her father took off.

You’d think she’d be bitter, given some of the nasty twists of fate life has thrown her way. But Betty will just sit back, shake her head and grin, as if she is privy to some God-given insider’s tip about human nature. Betty embodies the spirit of the Slinky, rolling through life according to the way life, like gravity, pushes and pulls. She learned long ago to give up the notion of control. Betty’s life story is completely intertwined with Slinky’s life story, and that is why the two are so much alike they could be sisters, although Betty insists it’s more a mother-daughter type thing.

THE ESSENCE OF SLINKY LIES somewhere in its ordinariness. Slinky is not pretentious. This gives it a dignified quality that attracts people.

“Everyone,” said the old TV commercial, “loves the Slinky. You ought to have a Slinky.” That direct little jingle was written in 1961 and it’s still being used today, although modified somewhat. In the 1970s they took out the xylophone and added guitar.

The truth is that everyone probably does love the Slinky. Slinky has a 87 percent recognition rate among the public. Slinky is a toy for regular people. You don’t have to be smart, athletic, rich or clever to appreciate Slinky. Slinky is a toy that does not discriminate. Boys love Slinkys just like girls love Slinkys just like men love Slinkys just like women do. Slinky is universal. You pick up a Slinky and the metal feels cold against your hands. Instinctively, you know to part those coils into two halves and rock the Slinky back and forth. This is just a human drive we all have. What happens next is a completely individualized experience. Maybe you are the visual type and you become transfixed by the sight of the Slinky undulations, the geometric designs formed by a coil in motion. Maybe you are more the musical type and you like to listen to the ping-ping percussion of metal landing on metal, the dim echo of Slinky in song. Maybe you are the engineer type so you will push Slinky to its physical limits trying to see how far apart you can put your hands and still keep the Slinky in motion.

Maybe you are the imaginative type and you will look at the Slinky going back and forth and you will see stories.

No matter what type you are, you will, of course, one day be faced with the problem of a tangled Slinky; one coil will bend and you will try everything in your power to bend it back perfectly but you will fail. This is a fundamental Slinky truth. Slinkys don’t recuperate. A sick Slinky is a dead Slinky. When your Slinky dies you will feel totally lost for a brief period of time but then you will snap out of it. But all of this is just if you are an ordinary person.

Extraordinary people have found other uses for Slinky. A fellow in Tuscumbia, Ala., invented The Better Pecan Picker, out of a Slinky. “No more sore hands! No more sore back! Just roll it around and watch it pick up all the pecans with the greatest of ease. ” A lady in Maine buys thousands of Slinkys a year to use in her drapery business. Slinky is in the Smithsonian Institution as a piece of genuine Americana. Slinky was taken on the space shuttle Discovery to see if it would slink in zero gravity. After much experimentation, astronauts Rhea Seddon and Jeffrey Hoffman found out that Slinky in space was a total dud.

Physicists have long been fascinated with Slinky’s usefulness in demonstrating the physics of waves. One journal article points out that “the speed of propagation of expansion waves (c), with respect to the coils of the unextended Slinky, is described by the formula c = (kl/M) 1/2” – in case you’re interested. For further reading, try “The Slinky as a Model for Transverse Waves in a Tenuous Plasma,” “Slinky Oscillations and the Notion of Effective Mass,” “On Slinky: The Dynamics of a Loose, Heavy Spring,” and the ever popular “Slinky Zum 40 Geburtstag – Das Spizzichino-Problem.”

As you have probably guessed by now, Slinky is also popular with biologists in demonstrating the primary structure of polypeptides.

Betty James doesn’t understand too much about polypeptides – or pecan pickers, for that matter. And, anyway, today she has more pressing concerns.

“Where shall we sit?” says Betty. Space is such a problem here at the Slinky factory. Sometimes it seems you don’t have room to turn around. The insurance people have come for a meeting and Betty has given her office over to them. Well, that was better than having to sit in on the boring meeting. ”Let’s go to the lunchroom,” Betty says. Pushing open the doors to the factory, turning right and, settling in near the candy machine, she tells the story of how Slinky came to be.

It began as the perfect American Dream:

Betty Mattas met Richard James at Penn State, where both attended college. He was a handsome and brilliant engineer, Class of 1939. They fell madly in love, got married and moved to Philadelphia, where Richard worked as an engineer at the Cramp shipyard for $50 a week. One of his jobs was to test the horsepower on the mighty naval battleships. To do this, he would use a torsion meter, and a torsion meter required the use of a torsion spring.

One day, Richard saw one one of these springs fall off his desk. It rolled over itself in the most fascinating way. He brought it home to Betty and said, ”I think I can make a toy out of this.”

Betty recalls: “And he said, ‘We have to name this toy. ‘ Well, I didn’t know anything about toys. I really didn’t. But he said find a name for it. So I was thinking and I couldn’t think of anything. So I got the dictionary and I said, ‘I’ll try to find a word that depicts the slithering action of it. ‘ So that’s how slinky came. It just seemed to depict everything.”

Slinky didn’t sell at first. “A Slinky just sitting there on a shelf isn’t awfully inspiring if you think about it,” says Betty. “It’s kind of like a blob.”

Then the Gimbels department store gave Richard and Betty the use of a counter where they could demonstrate the Slinky. This was in 1945. “And it was a terrible night,” recalls Betty. “It was snowing and raining, oh, it was horrible. So my husband, we had 400 Slinkys made, so he took them in and I said to him, ‘Now you go ahead and I’ll come in, I’ll get a friend of mine, and if nobody’s buying we’ll come over and buy some Slinkys. ‘ To stimulate people, you know. We thought we would have to get some enthusiasm going.

“So we got off the elevator and I can see it now, I’m looking around the toy department and I didn’t see anybody, but over in one corner there’s this mob of people, people everywhere, and they all had dollars in their hands, and it was, Wow! Go for it! So we went over, I didn’t even have to spend my dollar. We sold 400 Slinkys in 90 minutes. And that’s how we started.”

Richard and Betty went on to make Slinkys out of a factory on Portico Street in Germantown. Richard would bring the Slinkys home and Betty would wrap the Slinkys with yellow paper, roll them and fold the ends in. “That was what we called packaging,” Betty will tell you now. Oh, Betty laughs about some of those old days. Soon they were opening a new, larger factory in Clifton Heights with 20 employees. By 1951 they had moved the company to an even larger factory in Paoli.

Richard and Betty were happy. In particular, Betty was happy having babies. That was the main thing. Betty had what she had always dreamed of as an orphaned child: a family. And Richard was happy being rich and famous. Maybe too happy. Betty didn’t like what was happening to him.

“The man I married was a delight,” says Betty. “He really was. But he didn’t handle success well. I don’t think. The way I look at it he didn’t handle it well.

“Money corrupted him,” says Betty. “And power. And publicity. He liked it all. It came too fast. It was overwhelming. That’s what happened. He got real important way too suddenly. And that’s when he got religious.”

And that’s when Betty’s life fell to pieces.

“These people from England, that was his first step into it,” she says. ”They were parasites. I don’t know how he met them. They came to the house and settled in. That was horrible. That was the introduction, and that just dissolved everything.

“And then he announced one night, he called my son Tom and my daughter Libby and I to the downstairs and he said, ‘I’m going to leave. I’m going to South America. Do you want to run the company or sell it? ‘ And I said, ‘I’ll run it.'”

And Richard left. He moved to Cochabamba, Bolivia, to be a part of a religious cult that to this day Betty knows almost nothing about. “I don’t even know what they believed in,” says Betty. “They were perfect. And I was not. That’s all I knew.”

Richard wrote to her a lot at first. “He kept writing and writing and telling me that I was damned and I should come join him in South America and he was the head of the family and I should do what he said. He wanted me to join the cult and leave the children here. And he said if I didn’t I was going to hell.

“And so I stayed here and sinned, I guess.”

Betty soon learned that Richard had donated an awful big hunk of the family fortune to that cult. And he had been ignoring the business. “We were really for all practical purposes bankrupt,” says Betty. “But I was too dumb to know it. ” And Betty knew nothing about business, much less anything about bringing a bankrupt business back to life, much less about how a woman survives in a man’s world. And Betty had a broken heart to mend. And Betty had a whole huge lump of philosophical and spiritual madness to sort through, not to mention six kids to raise.

“I had to do something to take care of my family,” says Betty. “I had to make the company work. I just had to. But it was stupid. If I had known what I was getting into I wouldn’t have tried. I would not have.

“Fools walk in where angels fear to tread, you know. That is so true.”

NOW LOOK WHAT IS happening. The first shift is coming in with their lunch pails and Big Gulp sodas and it looks as if Betty will have to relocate once again. “That’s my only real problem here at the factory is space,” Betty reasserts. She’s taken to moving trailers into the parking lot and using them to hold the Slinky inventory. At this point there are so many trailers out there that the neighbors down Beaver Street seriously wonder if Betty hasn’t gotten into the trailer business.

Space wouldn’t be a problem if Betty could just build on the rest of the land she owns behind the factory. But the government has stepped in and declared this land part of a wetlands zone and so Betty is stuck. “It’s kind of ridiculous,” says Betty, standing now out on the loading dock. She looks down. The land in question is a narrow strip that separates her factory from a Conrail line. “I mean, no self-respecting animal would even come back here.”

But Betty is not one to complain. Betty has no illusions. Betty knows life is full of problems and chaos. Here is how she got out of the mess Richard left her with:

The first thing she did was protect the children. She bought a big, old, empty house in Hollidaysburg where she had, at least, some aunts and uncles who might help out. She fixed the house up and had the children’s bedrooms all done up exactly to match their bedrooms in the old house, right down to every piece of furniture and every stuffed animal. “The children had had enough trauma,” says Betty. She remembers crying every single Sunday night for a year when she would have to leave those children. She’d get in the car and make the four-hour trek to Philadelphia, where she would stay through Thursday trying to revive the Slinky factory there. It seemed so hopeless. Richard had left her with a stack of unpaid bills sky high. She became determined to pay those bills.

A short time later, she rented a factory in Bellwood, near Hollidaysburg, a building so small she also needed a barn and a garage for storage. Four years later, the Slinky company finally made some money. And Betty not only paid every bill, but she included a thank-you note with each.

“Any one person could have said, ‘Pay me now,'” says Betty. “And I would have been finished. And they didn’t. They waited. And I was so thankful so I told them so.”

With the company springing back, Betty needed her own factory. But she had no land. The townspeople of Hollidaysburg came to the rescue. They wanted the factory. They needed jobs. A local pharmacist and town father called Betty and said, “Meet me tomorrow morning down by the Conrail line on Beaver Street. ” She went. He said, “How much do you need?”

“Well,” Betty recalls, “I didn’t know an acre from a half acre, I mean I had no conception. So I looked and I said, ‘Well, I have six kids, how about six acres? ‘ And he said, ‘Fine. Will a dollar be too much? ‘ And I handed him a dollar.”

James Industries is still a private company and does not release sales figures, but the Standard & Poor’s Registry shows an estimate of $5 million to $10 million.

“See,” says Betty “I was fortunate. I wasn’t clever. I was just lucky. I mean really and truly. Cleverness didn’t enter into it. It was all a lot of dumb luck.”

BETTY TAKES ALMOST no credit for turning the Slinky company around. She says it was the people who helped her that did it, her creditors, the townspeople and most notably her controller, Bob Lestochi, whom she hired 32 years ago. He took it as a temporary job. He is still with the company today. Bob knows that if Betty sells the Slinky company to some toy industry giant, he’ll probably be out of a job, a pension, a future. And Betty knows this, too. Betty’s sense of loyalty to her workers and to the town is what keeps the Slinky out here in the middle of, relatively speaking, nowhere.

“Over the years I could have just sold it, and I would have been better off, much better off,” she admits. “But you know, these people that are here working, some of them have been with me, oh, I think the average is probably around 20 years. And a lot of them for 25, 28 years. Well, you can’t turn your back on that. They’re good people. And we’re their livelihood. You know, and I have to think of them. And I do think of them. Because I like them. Not all of them, you know, but most of them.

“And I don’t care for greed,” says Betty. “I have everything I need. Me and my dogs. Oh, you’ll die – their names are Mork and Mindy, isn’t that original? You know, I had heard of that TV show, but I had never even seen it. It was just one of those things.

“So, I am happy. I live alone in the big house I raised my kids in. People say, ‘Why do you live there alone? ‘ It is a big place, you know. But I say, ‘It’s home.'”

Betty’s feelings for her home run especially deep considering the fact that the whole place burned down in 1974. She mentions this fact as if she were referring to a day of grocery shopping. “Oh, yes, the house was completely gutted. I was out of it for 11 months, living in a hotel. I had it all done over again. ” She put it back exactly as it was before, same layout, same wall coverings, same furniture in the children’s rooms.

Just another one of life’s little bowling balls that rolled over Betty. Betty doesn’t understand why in the world she should be angry at life for asking her to participate in this sort of sport.

“You know, you fall and you land on your feet,” she says. “You hope you do. ” And you don’t count on standing up for very long. Because life, as Betty says, is at its best uncertain. Happy people, she says, are people who embrace that notion, people who surrender control. Happy people, she says, are people who stop being gluttonous with the world’s riches and stop feeling all big and entitled. Happy people are people who focus on what’s important: other people. In fact, that might be the secret to happiness in old age right there. “Being loving,” Betty says. “And being loved. I think. I can’t think of anything else that is more important. Being content. That’s it. Just being satisfied with your lot. You’re not envious. You’re not greedy. You don’t want the unattainable. You’re not striving to prove something.

“People now think they deserve some individual flattery. You know, ‘I am wonderful, I have done this, I am doing my own thing. ‘ I think so, don’t you? I think people are greedier, or they’re more just out for themselves. I think everyone’s afraid that they’re going to give up something for somebody else. And you know the funny thing is, if people would just know how much pleasure they would get out of just giving something up for somebody else. Not always. But I mean basically.”

In the end, Betty gets her office back. Tom, her oldest son and sales manager, tells her the insurance meeting was just as thrilling as always. Tom, a Shakespeare scholar, is keeping the tradition of his mother’s soul intact in this place. The rest of Betty’s children are off doing other things, and the family remains very close.

Richard James died 19 years ago in Bolivia, and no one knows how.

The essence of Slinky is in its history. Slinky is resilient. Slinky is a survivor. Slinky is loyal. Slinky is honest. Slinky never got a big head. Slinky never had to do anything tricky to win hearts. Slinky just is Slinky. The thing about being ordinary is that there is so much dignity in it.

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. She was a finalist for the National Magazine Award in 2007.

A Comedian’s Climb

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Jennifer Weiner | The Philadelphia Inquirer | October 1996

Terry Gillespie almost died the other day.

His agent called him at 2 p.m. and told him to be in New York City for a 5 o’clock audition for an Eggo Waffle commercial. “I’ll be there,” the 46-year-old comedian said.

He took off, driving on a drizzly afternoon, 65 miles an hour on threadbare tires, when his car started hydroplaning across the New Jersey Turnpike. He crossed four lanes of traffic, slammed backward into a guard rail, flipped around, skidded back across the highway and came to a halt, perfectly centered in the breakdown lane with only a bent wheel well to show for it.

Gillespie got out of the car. He studied the damage. He realized he could still steer, so he got back in and kept driving. Went to New York and didn’t say a word about what had happened. “I didn’t want to play the sympathy card,” he said. Auditioned. Didn’t get the part. Again.

So far, his 15 years of struggle haven’t netted him much – a carpetless basement apartment in Northeast Philadelphia furnished in Thrift Shop Modern. A case full of books, a heart full of hope, an unquenchable optimism that he’s been blessed with something special, and that his hard work will be rewarded.

Writer bio: Jennifer Weiner, a Princeton University graduate, worked as a general assignment reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. She is the author of several books, which spent more than a combined five years on the New York Times bestsellers list. She wrote several of her books while living in Philadelphia.

Continue reading “A Comedian’s Climb”

How a Hero Cop Fell

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Steve Volk | Philadelphia Magazine | May 2015

Richard DeCoatsworth anticipated another great day. The 21-year-old rookie cop was six months into a new job he loved, and the sun shone bright that morning in 2007, through a cloudless September sky. He left his partner off at the courthouse and drove his patrol car west on Market Street toward the wilds of his district, where street vendors and drug dealers work in the open air.

Around 51st Street, he passed a battered blue Buick going the opposite direction. Everyone inside seemed to stiffen. DeCoatsworth had seen experienced police make arrests — for drugs, illegal guns, stolen cars — by acting on such subtle cues. He pulled a U-turn. The driver accelerated and turned out of sight. DeCoatsworth hunted for maybe a minute till he saw the car, parked on Farson Street.

Ideally, he’d call for backup before anything happened. But when he pulled alongside the Buick, blocking it in, three school-age kids emerged and started walking away. DeCoatsworth hopped out of his car and ordered them back, while glancing at the driver. As the kids returned, he felt secure enough to turn toward the police radio mounted on his right shoulder. A sudden blast struck him like a sledgehammer to the face.

Reeling, he scrambled sideways and over the hood of a parked car. He drew his gun and peeked back across the street. The Buick’s driver, shotgun waving wildly in his right hand, ran north. By now, the left side of DeCoatsworth’s face felt like it was on fire. Blood pumped from his wounds and down his throat, forcing him to drink. He touched his jaw, assessing the damage. He found craters in his skin, but there was enough structure that he felt whole. He realized he could run.

Writer bio: Steve Volk is a writer-at-large for Philadelphia Magazine. Volk, a University of Florida graduate, wrote for alt-weeklies in both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia for 20 years. He is one of the city’s foremost narrative journalists.

Continue reading: “How a Hero Cop Fell”

Where Crack is King

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Rick Lyman | The Philadelphia Inquirer | August 1988

NEW YORK – Summer’s vapors hold the old apartment block in a muggy embrace as Larry Cain, a tour guide of sorts, scans the figures clustered on the crack-house doorstep. “Here it comes,” he says.

“Ta-te! . . . Ta-te! . . . Ta-te! ”

Larry laughs. “You’ll hear that a lot up here,” he says.

It’s a street signal. It means watch out, someone’s coming. Cops, social workers, any unknown white person – it doesn’t matter.

“Ta-te! ”

A young, plump woman, sitting in a battered lawn chair, shrills the warning into the dark building and makes a barely perceptible gesture to those around her – a pair of scruffy teenagers, a man pretending to wash his car, a young mother slouching in the gutter.

The mock pageant suddenly gains tempo; the teenagers swagger with more brio, the man swathes his rusty wreck in virtual torrents of suds, the scrawny mother begins to move her lips in a voiceless lullaby.

“Ta-te,” (pronounced TAH-tay) the woman bellows again, and high overhead, a dozen stories above the hot streets, tiny heads appear along the roofline.

“Lookouts,” Larry says. They lean over the edge, fierce and motionless, like ghetto gargoyles.

Larry pulls the blue denim skirt over his long legs and fiddles nervously with his seashell earrings. Fresh from the methadone clinic, all dosed up, Larry feels none too bad.

“To them, life means nothing,” he says. “They will take you out so quick.”

So greetings, of a sort, from Larry’s World: A place where 14-year-olds sport Rolex watches and jumbo gold jewelry, where every neighborhood has its own “brand” of heroin, where virtually naked teenagers sell roadside gratification, where homeless addicts with full-time jobs routinely blow their monthly paychecks on a three-day crack binge and where everyone waits, with a spectator’s detached amusement, for the inevitable blood bath between rival Jamaican and Dominican crack gangs.

In other words, it’s the South Bronx – that hilly, desolate corner of New York just across the Harlem River from Manhattan, caught in crack’s hammerlock and bubbling with the sounds and aromas of Africa and the Caribbean.

A place where a guy such as Larry – a 32-year-old transvestite methadone addict – can still dream of transforming the abandoned, half-burnt wreck in which he squats into a hospice for AIDS patients but who can’t stop chasing ”that euphoria high that gets you to a point where you don’t have to deal with reality. ”

It’s the urban American nightmare in the hot, foreboding summer of 1988.

“I’m drinking methadone every day like a zombie,” Larry said one recent afternoon, one of a dozen bored faces in the waiting room at a South Bronx drug clinic. Something stands out about Larry, though. It’s the lucidity peeking out from the methadone haze.

Sure, Larry said, he’d be glad to lead a tour through the borough’s drug- infested neighborhoods, talk a little bit about the local customs, point out all relevant points of interest and, who knows, maybe even explain something of his own story along the way.

*

Larry slides into the passenger seat and rolls down the window. “Head on up Third Avenue and turn right on 165th.”

He scans the street corners for signs of action. “The city men’s shelter is up there in that big building that looks like a castle. The heroin around this neighborhood is called ‘Obsession.’ See that empty lot? Way in the back – you can’t see it now – is a place you can go to smoke called the ‘Sugar Shack.'”

The people on the sidewalk glare at the passing car, but no one says a word. A half-block ahead, a man with a long, broken stick is chasing another man down the middle of the road. “I didn’t do nothin’! I didn’t do nothin’!” the man screams, disappearing into the Romanesque archway of the men’s shelter.

The car cuts across 179th Street (“the heroin here is called ‘Leo Power’ “) and back down Washington Avenue, among the busiest and most brutal of Bronx drug strips.

“Here’s where you cop your crack. See them guys over there, lined up along the building? They’re waiting to cop. Sometimes, people think you in a cheese line, they so many people.”

Instead of carrying nicknames, as heroin does, crack is sold by color. It comes in tiny vials with plastic lids – yellow, red, blue, whatever. “That way, you can go along the street and ask people what’s kickin’ that day,” Larry says.

*

Since the highly addictive cocaine derivative first appeared in the Bronx about three years ago, it has easily become the dominant drug of choice, particularly among the young. The price has steadily decreased, as has the purity of the pellets, now cut with everything from tranquilizers to kerosene.

“You can buy a vial for, oh, $5 or $10, depending on if they know you. Or you can buy ‘woolies’ – that’s reefer and crack mixed together in a joint. Or ‘blunts’ – giant crack cigars,” he says.

The young dealers who preside over Washington Avenue – “they can make $5,000, $6,000 a day, and they will kill you without a thought” – often drive custom-made Mercedeses or, the latest rage, four wheel-drive Jeeps with so much high-tech gear “the inside is like a computer.” And they all wear ”them chains, them thick chains.”

Why? “I don’t know – it’s so gaudy. But you know, gold is status. ”

The other status symbol is a beeper. “Some kids wear broken beepers on their belt, just for the status. To have a beeper shows that you’ve moved up in status, that you got your own customers and you doing enough business that you need a beeper to keep it all straight. ”

The car glides past a red-brick schoolhouse, iron grating criss-crossing the dirty windows.

“This is the meanest school in the Bronx. These kids, I’m tellin’ you, are mean. This is where the drug dealers recruit a lot. You see, the youngest kids are the ones who actually hold the drug. That way, if there’s a bust, the only ones holding go into the juvenile system, which ain’t nothing.”

*

Born in Fort Bragg, N.C., to a black father (an Army officer) and a white mother (brought back from Italy at the end of World War II), Larry was one of 10 children. After a short stint at the University of North Carolina, Larry came north, joining his twin sister in Newark, N.J.

“But I became fascinated with the fast life in New York. Here, you could be or do what you want to do, somewhat. Or so it seemed to me. ”

For the first time, Larry found a community of sympathetic friends, where he didn’t have to hide his homosexuality. Gay bars, clubs, guys just talking on the street corner. And drugs.

“I started living a different life. I never shot up drugs. I started right off with methadone, because it was cheaper. ”

He transferred to the New School in Greenwich Village, but his attendance was spotty. In 1975, his mother died, and that sent him reeling.

“I just got disinterested. I decided I was going to collect unemployment. I’d see these guys hanging around the street corners all day and think, ‘Why should I go to class? Why should I work?'”

His family tried to nudge him back toward school and enrolled him in a couple of detoxification programs. The first was in a faceless office building in the mid-Bronx.

“It was like a prison; there was criminals there. I’d never been to jail. I couldn’t deal with it.” He stayed the minimum-required 48 hours and then fled.

A guard at another center told him about a methadone clinic a few blocks away. “My position, at first, was that I was going to be here only two years. But it’s extremely addictive. ”

That was 10 years ago.

*

The car moves along 163d Street – “Crack Alley” – a concrete canyon between desolate blocks of public-housing complexes.

“Not many kids out on the street now,” Larry says. “Too early in the day. Come here at night and the girls be coming right out to the car, reaching through the window, talking about sex and trying to reach into your pocket. The boys, they sit around in clusters, like over on that park bench. You can buy whatever you want. ”

Over on Third Avenue, he peers expectantly into a narrow, weedy lot. “I hear they moved the ‘Enterprise,’ ” he says, and sure enough, the lot is empty.

The “Starship Enterprise” was an abandoned bus in which crack users could, for the price of a portion of their stash, sit and smoke and use the ”owner’s” collection of pipes. The bus became known as the “Enterprise” because, in street slang referring to the old Star Trek TV show, one “beams up to see Scotty” when smoking crack.

“I wonder where that bus got to?” Larry says. “I wonder where it beamed down?”

*

Along Prospect Avenue, following the borough’s rocky, north-south moraine (“the heroin here is ‘Dom Perignon'”), lookouts perch on the stoop of what appears to be an empty building, except that behind them is a tiny hole through which a pair of hands can be seen, waiting for a customer.

“Hurricane! Get it right here, all you want. Hurricane!” the lookouts shout into the passing car.

Hurricane means cocaine.

The Colombians, who control virtually all of the shipments of cocaine from South America, are “the big money men,” Larry says, “but you don’t see them on the streets. Down here it’s all Dominicans and Jamaicans.”

As the car passes through the neighborhoods, past dozens of crack houses and countless congregations of street toughs and adolescent desperadoes, Larry delineates the invisible boundaries.

“This neighborhood is controlled by the Dominicans. . . . This one is controlled by the Jamaicans. . . . This one is Dominican. . . .” And so on.

Except that a lot of the neighborhoods are controlled, uneasily, by both.

“They are both a very cruel element,” he says. “A lot of them are illegal, just off the plane, and they haven’t been exposed to American jails. They’re used to chopping up people who give them trouble.

“And they have no respect for American blacks. They tell us that black Americans are very ignorant and cowardly. They’re real macho men, and they talk in that Rasta language. You can hear the little kids mimicking them now.

“But everybody knows: It can’t last much longer. There’s too much turf at stake. They’re going to have to fight it out. ”

Larry stares out over the ragged skyline. “There’s gonna be a blood bath here.” It sounds as if he thinks that might not be a bad idea.

And what about Larry? Where is his life going, he is asked as the car pulls up outside the decaying, two-story house at which he is a squatter.

“What I’d really like to do is raise the money to buy it and then fix it up,” he says. “And, after that, I can turn it into a place for AIDS patients to live so, at least in their last hours, they’ll have a nice place to stay.”

He rummages distractedly through boxes of trinkets and gadgets.

“Then, at least, I’d know that my life was not a waste.”

Writer bio: Rick Lyman wrote for The Philadelphia Inquirer for 15 years. Prior to joining the broadsheet in 1982, he shared the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting with a group of Kansas City Star reporters who covered the deadly collapse of hotel skywalks. He left the Inky in 1997 for The New York Times, where he currently serves as the Central and Eastern European Bureau Chief.

The End of Something

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Gene Weingarten | The Washington Post | September 1999

Some people get all weepy when their children leave home for college, but not me. Children are supposed to grow up and move away. It’s no big deal.

So I shed no tears on the final week of summer vacation when I drove my daughter Molly to the University of Pennsylvania, where she and a roommate will live. Their dorm room would fit two Volkswagens and a wheelbarrow. The air inside is suffocating. The decor is Kmart. The carpet is septic. The place reminds you of those hotel rooms in the movies where stubbled gangsters in ribbed undershirts and fedoras hide from the fuzz while a neon sign blinks outside. Molly’s walls are a shade of paint that Sherwin-Williams could market as “Dingy Yellow.” Or “You’ll-Never-Take-Me-Alive Copper.”

Molly took one look around and was giddily happy.

So I am happy. That is the way it is supposed to work, and it is working fine, in my case.

Molly’s roommate is from Chicago. Within minutes of meeting, the two women were bouncing around campus, their lives already jubilantly intertwined. It seems odd to use this term, women. I know it is the accepted designation for 18-year-old human females, the legally correct word, a word sanctioned by the restroom doors at some of the nation’s finest institutions of higher education. But until a few days ago, or so it seems, I was wiping strained prunes off this woman’s chin.

Writer bio: The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten, the only two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing, is a native New Yorker. He has never worked or lived in our area and frankly, we can’t tell if he even likes our area. However, he sent his daughter to our finest university, and wrote about the experience. So it counts. And, let’s be honest: we wanted an excuse to feature the work of the best narrative journalist of our time.

Continue reading “The End of Something.”

Split Image

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Kate Fagan | ESPN The Magazine | May 2015

ON THE MORNING of Jan. 17, 2014, Madison Holleran awoke in her dorm room at the University of Pennsylvania. She had spent the previous night watching the movie The Parent Trap with her good friend Ingrid Hung. Madison went to class. She took a test. She told a few friends she would meet them later that night at the dining hall. She went to the Penn bookstore and bought gifts for her family.

While she was there, her dad called. “Maddy, have you found a therapist down there yet?” he asked.

“No, but don’t worry, Daddy, I’ll find one,” she told him.

But she had no intention of finding one. In fact, she was, at that exact moment, buying the items she would leave for her family at the top of a parking garage. Godiva chocolates for her dad. Two necklaces for her mom. Gingersnaps for her grandparents, who always had those cookies in their home. Outfits for her nephew, Hayes, who had been born two weeks earlier. The Happiness Project for Ingrid, with a note scribbled inside. And a picture of herself as a young kid, holding a tennis racket. Over winter break she had told her dad that she was borrowing that picture, that she needed it for something.

She didn’t say what.

Then, on the evening of Jan. 17, just after dusk settled on the city, Madison took a running leap off the ninth level of a parking garage in downtown Philadelphia.

She was 19 years old.

Writer bio: Kate Fagan is a columnist and feature writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Fagan, a New York native (forgive her), spent three seasons covering the 76ers for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her work was cited in the anthology of Best American Sports Writing 2013.

Continue reading “Split Image.”

A Son of Football Calls His Mother

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Dan Barry | The New York Times | April 2015

DOYLESTOWN, Pa. — A mother sat at the edge of her bed. Angel figurines gazed down from a shelf, and a wooden sign on the wall offered inspirational words about life and love. They provided no comfort. She was on the edge, cellphone pressed to her ear.

This fraught conversation with her son had started as a quarrel over his scatterbrain ways. A Dartmouth graduate, a decade out of college, should be able to balance his checkbook. But not Patrick, whose troubles in navigating everyday life frustrated everyone. Especially Patrick.

His mother, Karen Kinzle Zegel, sent him a maternal text message to calm down, all will be well. He sent a quick response that, if you knew Patrick Risha at this stage, reflected either bristling anger or unnerving apathy: I am calm.

Now her son was on the phone again, saying disturbing things in a casual tone.

As she looks back on that late night last September, their conversation wasn’t just about a measly $400 bank overdraft. It was about football. The word was never uttered, but that’s what this was really about.
Football.

Writer bio: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dan Barry, who lives in Maplewood, N.J., writes the “This Land” column for The New York Times.

Continue reading “A Son of Football Calls His Mother”

Good Sheppard

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Barbara Laker | Philadelphia Daily News | December 1994

Albert Perez stands on the littered sidewalk outside his elementary school where a man fired a gun five times the day before, narrowly missing several people.

It’s 2:45 p.m. on a Tuesday, and Albert and his schoolmates have just been let out of the graffiti-scarred Isaac A. Sheppard Elementary on Cambria Street in West Kensington.

Amid the normal after-school commotion, a dozen parents huddle on Cambria, gazing down Waterloo Street. Four young thugs surround a man and drag him to the end of the block. They push him onto the blacktop and kick him repeatedly in the head.

Seven-year-old Albert doesn’t notice.

“Just another day,” shrugs crossing guard Rosa Mateo, as children reach up to give her a hug while she helps them cross the bustling intersection at Howard Street.

Mateo has heard it all from the children of Sheppard School. Parents battling AIDS. Brothers selling drugs. Sisters who were shot to death. Last summer Sheppard first-grader Felicia Colon was killed by a bullet to the head.

Mateo helps the children survive these crossroads too. She fills a void left by parents who don’t parent and a government which is unable to heal a growing urban cancer.

Teachers, staffers, neighbors, parents and friends form an informal army to defend these children of chaos. They show that even in the poorest, most violent neighborhoods, people can raise a fortress around their young.

They walk the children home when corners are roped off after a shooting. They comfort kids like the 8-year-old girl whose drug-addicted mom pushes her down the stairs. They try to explain why gun-toting drug dealers rule the neighborhood.

But it’s hard for children like Albert to understand.

With a black Power Rangers knapsack slung over his back, Albert walks the four blocks home to Palethorp Street, empty crack vials and syringes crunching under his feet.

He walks quickly, his eyes locked to the sidewalk. Cars screech past him, escaping the neighborhood after making corner drug buys.

Sometimes Albert breaks into a jog.

“If they shoot you and you’re a little kid, you can get killed,” he says.

Albert has seen three people bleeding on the sidewalk from gunshot wounds. The last time was in September, when a 21-year-old man was killed one block from Sheppard.

“I saw the blood. He was shot in the arm, chest and leg. I saw the bullets on the floor,” Albert says. “Sometimes when my mom goes to sleep, they start shooting outside. My mom goes to the window.

“Then she tells us to go hide under the bed.”

It’s 7:30 a.m. on a Wednesday, and John Riddick is preparing Sheppard School for the day. He steps outside the 1897 stone building to a bare concrete yard surrounded by a wrought-iron fence, and starts to pick up the trash from the night before.

“We find everything out here,” the custodian says. “Old TVs, bottles, crack vials, syringes, condoms. It’s so regular that I don’t pay no attention. I just try to sweep. ”

Riddick works all day to keep the school clean. But before it’s over, trash and crack vials lie by the front steps.

A few weeks ago, he was held up at gunpoint in the schoolyard at 6:20 in the evening.

Riddick tires of the trash, the violence, the drug dealers, and the addicts who use the schoolyard after dark as a bathroom and a bordello. “But I look at it this way,” he says, sweeping the sidewalk, “I’ve got my life.”

By 8:45 a.m., dozens of children pour through Sheppard’s steel front doors.

Most of the 550 children come from homes where life is a struggle. The neighborhood’s median household income is $8,333, according to the latest U.S. census figures, and nearly 64 percent of the residents live below the poverty level. Seventy-one percent of adults 25 and older didn’t graduate high school.

Sheppard’s leaders want something better for the children.

“We don’t want these children to grow up and fight the same things – abandoned buildings, gunfire, trash – that their parents fought,” said Principal Joyce Kail.”If they think this is what all neighborhoods look like, it gives them a skewed view. …We have to give them motivation, vision and options for the future. ”

In Room 102, Marilyn Holmes commands 27 kids in her first grade. This year, all but one are repeating.

Holmes, who has taught at Sheppard for 28 years, moves around the classroom with the grace of a dancer and the energy of a marathon runner. She grins and gestures broadly to capture the children’s attention. She vigilantly keeps it.

Her students have reason to lose concentration. One girl visits her mother in prison. Another girl’s mother has died of AIDS. Two other students are adjusting to foster care.

“The children here have to face so much,” Holmes says. “Coming to school is a relief . . . I often ask myself how they learn their ABC’s when they have to deal with survival.”

While Holmes teaches her students the phonetic difference between the words ”jam” and “jab,” Olga Pomales and Nancy Negron, Sheppard’s community coordinators, go out to talk with parents whose children don’t show up for school.

“This is a family of eight kids,” Pomales says, approaching a rowhouse on Silver Street. “The ninth child, a little baby, she gave to some friend. That’s what she says. Who knows? ”

Four of the children go to Sheppard. None attends regularly. The woman’s 8- year-old son had 62 absences last year.

Pomales has visited the 29-year-old mother numerous times and has heard numerous excuses – the kids woke up late, the child’s sick, they have no clothes to wear.

This time, Pomales repeatedly knocks on the dirty front door. “If the children come to school, they can learn. But not if they never come,” Pomales says.

There’s no answer. Pomales leaves a note and moves on.

“I keep trying because sooner or later I figure, the moms will get tired of seeing me around and the kids will come to school,” she says.

“They know we don’t give up easily. If everyone throws up their hands, where are these kids going to end up?” she asks. “These kids are our future.”

Back at Sheppard, Holmes agrees. “If we lose that hope, then these children in here can become statistics of what’s going on out there. ”

It’s 2:45 p.m on a Wednesday and time for Holmes to step into the auditorium, where 30 kids wait for her to teach them to dance. She formed the dance club four years ago because she thought it would be something they’d enjoy.

The music blares as the children step side to side, turn around and lift their arms and legs in perfect unison.

The tension leaves their faces. For now, they are carefree.

One of the dance-club regulars is 8-year-old Steven Grimes.

His grandmother, Catherine Glover, sits watching. She volunteers at the school practically every day, tutoring kids in reading, helping them write.

Glover has cared for Steven since she found him on a pile of rags in the corner of a crack house. He was 6 weeks old.

“The cops called me to come get him. . . . There were so many people in there. No walls, just beams and wires hanging down. It was filthy in there,” says Glover, 54.

Glover says her 29-year-old daughter, Steven’s mother, has been addicted to crack since age 17.

She’s pregnant with her fourth child. Glover doesn’t know where she is.

Steven makes straight A’s and has perfect attendance. The crack that made his body shake when he was born plays out in different ways today.

“He fights at school. He swings on the pipes in the bathrooms. Instead of coming home, he wanders off,” Glover says.

Steven sees his mother every three months or so.

“He wants to go home with her, but she doesn’t want to be bothered by him,” Glover says.

More than once, he has run away to find his mother. Each time, she turns him away.

Jeremy Viejegas, a first-grader in Holmes’ class, doesn’t live with his mother, either.

In September and early October, 7-year-old Jeremy showed up at Sheppard to eat breakfast, then left, only to return for lunch. The rest of the day, he walked the littered streets nearby.

Many days he ended up at Safe Haven, a federally funded program with a storefront on Front Street near Seltzer, where kids can do homework, and learn things like nutrition, street safety and their Latino heritage.

He often stayed until it closed at 9 p.m.

“He had a million different stories why he wasn’t in school,” says Tainoel Araraya, a Safe Haven staffer who befriended Jeremy. “He was a kid who obviously had a lot of problems.”

Jeremy lived with his mother in a dilapidated rowhouse a few houses from Safe Haven.

In October, city social workers came to investigate. “They told his mom they had to remove him from the home,” Araraya says.

Araraya was outside when Jeremy’s mom was crying that her son was being taken. The social workers, Araraya says, asked if he’d be willing to care for Jeremy as his foster dad.

Araraya, an Indian-rights and peace activist, quickly said yes. He’s 21 and has six other children, two of whom live with him. He supports them with $294 he gets paid every two weeks as an Americorps volunteer. But he wanted to see that Jeremy had a chance.

He’d been a foster child himself after his parents were killed in a 1979 massacre on the Indian reservation they lived on in Brazil.

Now he takes Jeremy to Sheppard every day and waits for him every afternoon at Safe Haven.

Jeremy started to call Araraya “dad” after two days.

“I love my mom a lot, but I want to live with my dad because I love him,” Jeremy says. “I have fun now. I feel happy. ”

The gleam in his deep brown eyes disappears only when he talks about the everyday violence he can’t escape.

“When I hear shooting, it makes me get a headache,” he murmurs, fidgeting with a quarter. “My heart starts to beep a lot. It looks like someone could get killed. ”

It’s 3:20 p.m. on a Thursday and in the modest living room of her two-story rowhouse, Angelina Rivera is making four of her children do their homework in the kitchen while she manages their active 2-year-old brother.

Rivera, 27, lives on Lee Street in the same block that Felicia Colon called home.

A stray bullet fatally wounded Felicia outside her grandmother’s house, two miles away, on July 21. It was Felicia’s sixth birthday.

More than 125 children live on this block. Many have parents trying desperately to protect them. But a few parents have lost hope because their teen-age sons deal drugs and keep guns, crack and heroin at home.

“There are parents on this block who pray every day that their kids get arrested,” Rivera says. “They’re better off in jail than on the corner.”

One wall of Rivera’s dining room is covered with her children’s academic awards. When they’re not in school, she’s at their side.

“Children don’t run as free since Felicia was killed,” says Rivera, a leader for Sheppard’s Parents Association. “My kids can’t leave the front of the house.”

Two years ago Rivera and dozens of other parents decided they’d had enough. An undercover cop and a drug dealer wrestled to the ground in the schoolyard at dismissal time. They went for their guns until they saw children surrounded them screaming in terror.

Five hundred parents gathered the children to perform a play for the Police Department so officers could see what the kids confront every day.

Within weeks, a cop was stationed at the school. He’s been there ever since.

The parents’ group also secured a full-day kindergarten.

Rosa Mateo, the crossing guard, started a Girl Scout troop and secured chain-link fences to enclose two vacant lots bordering the school.

“It may not sound like a lot, but it’s something,” says Mateo, a grandmother of four. “I just want people to realize there are children here. They deserve respect, and we need to give them a chance.”

She claims all 550 children of Sheppard. “When they come in this direction, they’re mine.”

Mateo was there one morning to comfort the children when fire rescuers recently pulled an unconscious man from an abandoned house across the street. Dozens saw the man who had overdosed on drugs before their school day even began.

She was there when the gunshot victim lay bleeding a block away while kids were walking home.

Mateo can almost always be found when gunfire erupts during school. If kids are outside, officials announce a “Code Purple,” and the teachers quickly move everyone inside to safety.

“I’m just tired of seeing this,” Mateo says. “I see it through the children’s eyes. And if they see this every day, how can their hopes not go down the drain? ”

One of the children Mateo watches over, Ray Ortiz, says the same prayer every night.

“I pray I’ll never be shot, that nothing bad will happen to me,” the fourth-grader says.

He stands in his bedroom where he keeps rosary beads on his pillow.

He narrowly escaped a bullet a few weeks ago when he was playing football outside his house on Lippincott Street at 5:30 in the afternoon.

“People just started shooting at the corner. I had my keys and we were trying to go inside, but we didn’t have the time. ”

One bullet hit the window of a car parked in front of him. Another whizzed by his right ear. “I heard it go by. It was like a strong wind.”

When his mother, Sonia Gonzalez, remembers that day, she puts her arms around Ray, cradles him and cries softly.

She sits on her living room sofa, tiny and frail from more than 20 surgeries she’s undergone to correct hips that have been dislocated since birth.

A 30-year-old single mother, she survives on disability payments and talks with Ray every day about why he should work hard and not hang out with kids who make drug money on street corners.

They have become friends, not just a mother and son, because Gonzalez says she has to make sure Ray doesn’t get swept into the drug world.

“We can’t close the doors to reality,” she says. “No kid is safe around here.”

Ray, a B student with closely cropped hair, kind gray eyes and a cross around his neck, dreams of becoming a narcotics officer and taking his mother out of the neighborhood.

“Puerto Rico, Los Angeles, wherever she wants to go,” he boasts, putting his arm around her. “As long as we’re out of this, we’ll be fine.”

She smiles as tears roll down her face.

She wants all his dreams to come true. But dreams are often shattered for the children of Sheppard School.

“It’s really hard competition,” Gonzalez says.

She looks toward her living room window where the mini-blinds shut out the streets.

Sirens wail blocks away.

“This is a war right now,” she says softly. “And it’s me. It’s me against an army.”

Albert Perez meets his mother, Elizabeth Rodriguez, on their concrete front steps after school. Drug dealers continue a booming business at the corner.

Rodriguez, 26, has placed cement slabs at the curb in front of her house so drugged drivers don’t hit the children.

Pregnant with her fourth child, she has had to tell the dealers to move when they sell in front of her house. “Keep it on the corner,” she yells.

“You see people buy drugs with kids in the car,” Albert says. “They get that white stuff. It changes their brain. They get a little crazy. ”

Asked what scares him, Albert doesn’t hesitate. “I’m scared when they start shooting. They may hit you. They may hit your house. ”

A police van pulls up at the end of his block. “They’re going to lock someone up,” Albert says nonchalantly. “But when they lock people up, they get out. Nothing happens. ”

He looks away from the van, and like most 7-year-olds in his neighborhood, says he wants to fix it someday. “I want to be a police officer, so when this stuff happens, I could take care of it.”

Suddenly, a billow of smoke from the next block clouds the sky and moves down the street.

A white shell of a car has been set on fire. Flames shoot everywhere.

And like most 7-year-olds in his neighborhood, Albert doesn’t look up.

Writer bio: Barbara Laker won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting along with her partner Wendy Ruderman for the “Tainted Justice” series, which exposed police corruption. Laker, a native of Kent, England, joined The People Paper in 1993.

Be the Best

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Aaron Moselle | WHYY Newsworks | May 2015

It’s Tuesday — a workout day at Joe Hand Boxing Gym in Northern Liberties. No sparring for super middleweight Jesse Hart. Just sweat.

Assistant trainer Danny Davis wraps Hart’s hands in white cloth. Behind them, a black punching bag and a collage of fight posters.

Things are getting under way a bit later than usual. The 25-year-old boxer from North Philly had yet another on-camera interview to do.

He’s got a pretty big fight coming up.

“We’re going to get in pads, heavy bag, double in and do ab work today,” says Davis, tearing a piece of tape.

Hart nods, though he’s a bit tired from yesterday’s sparring session, when he went up against two fighters each looking to best the rising star.

“Them guys was rough. I had some real rough customers in there,” says Hart.

It’s hard to see any wear and tear on Hart. For over an hour, the sculpted boxer bounces from one exercise to the next.

Hart doesn’t know any other way.

A demanding dad laid that circuitry long ago. A shared dream and a tragic loss hard-wired it.

Writer bio: Aaron Moselle, a Mount Airy native, is a Web and radio reporter for WHYY/NewsWorks.org.

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