Longform Philly

Month: April, 2017

A story for my mother


David Lee Preston | Inquirer Sunday Magazine | May 1995

ONE RADIANT SUMMER OF MY childhood, on the sands of a Delaware beach, my mother extracted a promise:

Someday you will write my story, won’t you?

Why did she place this obligation on the shoulders of her 10-year-old son? After all, she had mastered English, although it was not her native tongue; her writing was fluid, and she spoke eloquently about her life’s experiences.

And why did we always vacation at the beach? My mother didn’t care for the beach, but longed for the mountains. We went to the mountains just once.

My mother died in December 1982 – and only after that did I begin to look at her life, trying to find her in her letters and papers, looking for her voice, her laugh, her touch, who she had been, what had enabled her to survive after she lost her parents.

During the Nazi occupation of Poland, my mother, barely in her 20s, had hidden in a sewer for 14 months. That, of course, was the essence of my mother’s extraordinary story.

But at my mother’s core – before her parents sent her away so she might survive; before three Poles risked their lives to hide her; before she married an engineer whose numbered arm bespoke his own suffering at Auschwitz- Birkenau; before she taught two generations of Jews in my hometown of Wilmington and became a noted speaker on the horror that befell the Jews of Europe – in the far reaches where old memories would startle her awake from deepest sleep, in Halina Wind Preston’s soul was the Carpathian Mountains town of Turka.

Writer bio: David Lee Preston is an assistant city editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com. Preston, who wrote for the Inquirer for 17 years, is a native of Wilmington, Delaware. This is the third article in a trilogy that documented his parents’ experiences during the Holocaust. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 1986 for the second installment, about a trip with his father to the places of his father’s past. 

Continue reading “A story for my mother”

Part I: A Bird in the Wind

Part II: Journey to My Father’s Holocaust

The Last Piney


Jason Nark | Philadelphia Daily News | September 2012

THE WOODCUTTER lives alone in the land of legends, in the Jersey pines, where moonshiners and pirates once hid among the ghosts and ghouls, where ruddy creeks and empty roads still twist on for miles.

On this September morning, lizards skitter over the sweet-smelling pine logs that Bill Wasiowich split and stacked on the lot where he lives. It’s down a narrow, dirt driveway, just before a bend in the road, in Woodland Township, Burlington County.

Tools are scattered about the moss-covered workbench where he prunes his pickings from the forest. On the front porch of the Crooked Barrel Gun Club, where Wasiowich lives rent-free, hummingbirds and bees hover above jars of sugar water he hung.

In his “sixty-something” years, the Trenton native has been an orphan, a high-school dropout, a wanderer, a shrimper, a worker waist-deep in a sea of bobbing cranberries, and mostly a loner who’s earned his keep deep into New Jersey’s rare, untouched places.

Today, he’s the last true “Piney” of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, a piece of folklore in the flesh with bushy eyebrows and sap-covered pants.

“I’m a worker. I’m just a guy who gets the job done. I’ll be doing that right to the bitter end, I guess,” he says, looking down at the faded floorboards on the hunting club’s back porch.

Wasiowich doesn’t romanticize the impossibly rural life he lives in New Jersey, the nation’s most densely populated state. It’s not an experiment, or fodder for a book or reality-TV program, and frankly, not something he’s interested in going on and on about all morning. He’s never been sick, he says, but doesn’t owe it to anything particular. In a lifetime in the woods, he’s seen one timber rattlesnake, and he threw a stick at it.

Legends? Folklore? Ghosts? Wasiowich just wishes he had a pick-up truck again.

“I got my license revoked. I had no insurance, no registration. You name it, I didn’t have it,” he says, walking across his yard. “I always had a pickup truck, though, either quarter-ton or three-quarter-ton, sometimes with the four-wheel drive and big tires. “

Wasiowich, according to his own account, pays no taxes or rent. The gun club has let him live there, as its caretaker, for decades.

He cobbles together enough cash for groceries – and hitches a ride to the nearest supermarket – by chopping firewood, harvesting the “minisweetheart” and “hog’s bush” in the forest for florists, and other odd jobs.

“There’s no sense in making more than you need,” he says of money, bundling the ornamental twigs on his workbench.

Raised around the Pine Barrens by foster families, Wasiowich says early travels taught him a few lessons. For one, he doesn’t like cities or having a boss, and alcohol, he says, is nothing but poison that takes “all the work out of a man. ” Work took him to Georgia and Key West for a spell, but he didn’t enjoy pulling the heads off shrimp or picking limes, so he kept on moving and came back to the cedar swamps and sugar sand.

Nowadays, the nameless rooster that roams the yard is his alarm clock, the sunset his punch clock.

“I guess I’ve had a lot of good days and a lot of bad days, like anybody else,” he says, toeing the grass beneath the workbench with his boots. “But you do have to enjoy the work. I’m out here and I do what I want. I’m a completely free person. “

Wasiowich wouldn’t be answering these questions if it weren’t for The Pine Barrens, the 1967 book written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author John McPhee. Many credit McPhee, a Princeton native, for first painting the pines as a place worth preserving, and for dispelling myths about”pineys” like Wasiowich. He appears throughout the book with other pineys now long gone.

“I just thought he was the real article, a person native to the woodlands, and he was a real loner,” McPhee says in a telephone interview. “He was a straightforward individual. I hope he’s doing well out there. “

At the time McPhee’s book was written, the Pine Barrens were being scouted as the location for a major airport, where a bustling city would rise up between Philly and New York. The airport would have been the largest in the nation, says Mike Hunninghake, a spokesman for the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, but after then-governor Brendan T. Byrne read McPhee’s book, the scales tipped in favor of preservation.

“The publication of that book started a nationwide conversation on this place,” Hunninghake says.

Today, the Pinelands National Preserve covers about 1.1 million acres, the largest body of open space on the East Coast between Boston and Richmond. It seems impossible that Wasiowich’s home is roughly 50 miles from Philadelphia or Atlantic City or the house where MTV filmed “Jersey Shore. “

A state forest in the Pine Barrens was named after Byrne and he continues to champion the area. McPhee, who teaches at Princeton University, remains modest about his book’s impact.

“I didn’t go there on a mission. I went to find interesting people in interesting places and tell some stories,” he said. “I feel good about it, but it wasn’t my purpose for being there. “

Back at the Crooked Barrel Gun Club, Wasiowich has mixed feelings about preservation in the pines. He laments losing certain freedoms, the ability to wander about with his pitchfork and wheelbarrow, raking sphagnum moss or picking pinecones without running into fences and forest rangers.

“You can’t hardly make a move anymore without breaking some environmental law,” he says, gesturing to the forest beyond the yard.

But he also hates to hear dirt bikes ripping through the fire cuts, or see pines felled for a few new houses, and wants no part of the “suburban life” he says is closing in around him.

“I’ve seen whole places wiped off the map, gone like they never existed,” he says, his voice rising.

Hunninghake says the landmark efforts that saved the Pine Barrens are all that stand between Wasiowich and the “march of Walmarts. ” Without them, Wasiowich may have packed up and left a long time ago.

“I wish there were more people out there like him,” said Hunninghake. “The fact that somebody can still live their own life, and not get sucked into the technological world, is a marvel. He’s a true anachronism. “

When McPhee met Wasiowich, the author described him as being “as shy a person as I have ever had a chance to know” but also said he aspired to marry and raise a family. Wasiowich told McPhee how he once scared off a reporter looking to tell the piney tale, with a Winchester rifle.

Now, he’s content to feed the hummingbirds, the cats he doesn’t bother to name, and the raccoon that ambles up to his front porch at night. He doesn’t regret never marrying. He’s not religious and doesn’t vote, he says, “because it doesn’t really matter who you vote for, does it? “

“I’m just going about my business out here, cutting wood and selling it, that’s about all I’m doing,” he says.

Like that reclusive rattlesnake he threw a stick at as a boy, Wasiowich just wants to be left alone, to live life on his terms out in the pines. Being called a “piney” doesn’t offend him, he says, or fill him with pride. A rattlesnake wouldn’t mind being called a rattlesnake.

“I guess a piney is something that gives a place identity. I guess it makes a place different from another place,” he says when asked to explain why reporters amble down his driveway every now and then. “The way I see it, I’m no different than the pines, or the animals and plants out here. “

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.

The Truth About Thome


Jim Salisbury | Inquirer Sunday Magazine | March 2003

They told us Jim Thome was different. They told us he wasn’t your ordinary big-league baseball player, circa 2003. They told us he was this ego-free, no-pretense throwback, on the field and off.

The on-the-field part we believed. We’d seen the brush cut, the Bunyanesque physique, the high socks, the eye black, and the dirty batting helmet. We’d seen his fist-pumping emotion and heard the testaments to how, in this increasingly me-first era of pro sports, he was team-first all the time.

It was the off-the-field part we weren’t so sure about.

Thome, 32, had just signed an $85 million contract – the largest deal of baseball’s off-season – and been proclaimed the slugging savior of the Philadelphia Phillies, a potential giant of a franchise that had turned off its fans by sleeping too long.

Just how regular a dude could Jim Thome be with all this heady stuff – money and adulation – floating around?

The answer came sooner than I could have imagined – in the first telephone conversation I’d ever had with the guy one night in January, not long after his wife, Andrea, delivered the couple’s first child, a daughter named Lila.

“Let me ask you,” Thome said, as if he was talking to an old high-school buddy over a Bud Light. “Did your wife breast-feed? “

How’s that, Philadelphia? Regular enough for you?

“That’s Jim,” said Andrea, laughing when she heard the question her husband had posed. “He’s reading a book about fatherhood. He wants to know everything. “

Thome’s passion for fatherhood can even be seen in the way he responds when it’s time for a diaper change.

“Want me to do that? ” Joyce Thome, doting grandmother of 15, asked her son during a visit to his Cleveland home not long after Lila was born.

“No way,” he said. “I’ll do it. “

Jim and Lila traipsed off to the nursery, the tiny baby wrapped up in the behemoth’s loving arms.

“A few minutes later he called me upstairs,” Joyce said. “He just wanted to show off. “

Unless you count deer mounts on the walls at Lodge Two-Five, his beloved Illinois hunting haven, showing off a perfect diaper change is about as close as this grounded, almost too-good-to-be-true $85 million man will come to calling attention to himself.

Until the home runs start.

Writer bio: Jim Salisbury, a New England native (forgive him), covers the Phillies for CSNPhilly.com and appears regularly on Comcast SportsNet. He spent 13 years with The Inquirer before leaving for CSN in 2009. He lives in West Chester.

Continue reading “The Truth About Thome”

When the Taliban Takes the Girl Next Door


Holly Otterbein | Philadelphia Magazine | October 2016

In the early morning of July 4, 2012, Caitlan Coleman sent a short email to her friends.

“Our flight leaves at 4 p.m.,” she wrote. “Only God knows exactly where it will lead or what all can be accomplished, seen, experienced or learned while we travel. So we put ourselves in His hands.”

Caitlan had grown up in Stewartstown, Pennsylvania, a place without a single stoplight, with a population of 2,130. Now, at the age of 26, she was hours away from leaving it behind to embark on a journey to the other side of the planet. Caitlan, who has long chestnut-colored hair, big brown eyes and fashionably strong eyebrows, and her husband, a burly Canadian named Joshua Boyle, had decided to hike across the steppes of Central Asia. They dreamed of eating exotic foods, meeting the locals and doing aid work.

The people close to Caitlan had long ago gotten used to how her wanderlust dragged her to faraway places, and she always penned long letters from the road that helped keep their anxiety at bay. Still, a few of her loved ones thought this trip was a bad idea. But she vowed she would only go to the “safe ’stans”: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. “They weren’t supposed to go to Afghanistan,” says Caitlan’s mother, Lyn Coleman. “They promised us they wouldn’t go.”

Caitlan said she had return tickets for December.

At first, Caitlan sent emails to her tight-knit group of friends in York County every couple of weeks, from Internet cafes in Asia. She told stories about hanging out with dogsledders, befriending cats at hostels, eating freshly slaughtered goat in the countryside.

But by late September, the notes dried up. Even when Julia Newberger-Johnson sent Caitlan photos of her newborn son — the two had been friends since high school, when they met at a Catholic church in town — Caitlan didn’t write back.

Later that fall, Julia finally got an email. But it was from Caitlan’s sister. “She asked me if I’d heard anything,” Julia says. “She told me she was afraid they’d been kidnapped. It didn’t feel real.”

All of Caitlan’s friends and family have a story like this — of the moment when they realized she might not be coming home. They tell them the way people talk about where they were the morning of 9/11. Julia’s sister-in-law, Lindsay McAdam, got word that Caitlan was missing when she was on her way to see the latest Hobbit movie. “I froze mid-step and stood there, right in the middle of the sidewalk,” she says. “I didn’t want to believe it.”

In 2013, the Coleman family learned something far worse than anyone could have imagined: Caitlan and Joshua had been kidnapped in Afghanistan by the Taliban.

None of the words in that sentence made any sense to people who knew Caitlan. The Taliban kidnapped soldiers and journalists. It didn’t kidnap women from the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania. And what the hell had Caitlan been doing in Afghanistan?

Even now — even after four years have passed, and the Associated Press and CBS and Serial have covered bits and pieces of what happened to Caitlan — it’s hard for her friends and family to accept. Today, Julia is sitting in a diner in New Freedom, Pennsylvania, sporting a brunette bob and an emerald green blouse. She pokes at Breakfast No. 1, a $3.79 plate of eggs, home fries and toast. “At first, it didn’t really hit me,” she says. “It just didn’t feel real, so I kind of put it to the back of my mind. But for some reason, when they put out the last video, it just felt a lot more real. Seeing her like that is really hard.”

She’s talking about a video of Caitlan that surfaced online this August — the third clip of the couple that’s emerged. In it, Julia’s friend is in a hijab, pleading for her life. She begs the United States to do something the Taliban wants — otherwise, her captors will kill her. “I know that this must be very terrifying and horrifying for my family to hear that these men are willing to go to these lengths,” she says, “but they are.”

Caitlan lived 10 minutes down the road from where Julia and I are eating breakfast on this overcast day in August. If you saw this town, you’d understand why it’s hard for Caitlan’s friends to believe what’s happened. It’s a land of cornfields and 4-H clubs and high-school football. It’s a land where bad things aren’t supposed to happen.

I know. I grew up here. Caitlan and I actually share many of the same friends, including Julia and Lindsay. In fact, I saw Caitlan at a baby shower for Julia just four days before she left for Asia. I’ve tried to remember something substantial about her from that day — a real, genuine anecdote — but I can’t. All I recall is that she was unusually quiet. What I didn’t know, what none of her friends knew, was that Caitlan was also pregnant at Julia’s shower. She would go on to have her baby boy after being kidnapped by the Taliban. She would then give birth to a second son, while still in captivity, in 2015.

Writer bio: Holly Otterbein, a Temple University graduate, is a senior writer at Philadelphia Magazine. She wrote for the City Paper, Daily News, and WHYY before joining Philly Mag in 2015.

Continue reading “When the Taliban Takes the Girl Next Door”

The Perks Are Great. Just Don’t Ask Us What We Do.

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Juliana Reyes | Backchannel | May 2016

The company seemed like the perfect place for Tyler. After working in the agency world, Tyler (not his real name) wanted to try a startup. He wanted a place where he wouldn’t be beholden to clients, where people would value his expertise. As he went through the interview process with 50onRed, a Philadelphia adtech firm, his excitement grew. The whole place just seemed cool.

“Like, man, this is a really nice office,” he recalls thinking. “Open floor plan, lots of really cool perks, the food. It just felt really modern. It felt like that startup kinda vibe I was looking for.”

He joined 50onRed, and the company more than delivered: not just weekly free lunches but also quarterly parties, all expenses paid, at trendy restaurants. He could set his own work pace. His teammates were talented.

But there was one thing he didn’t know about the company. Months after joining, he was shocked to learn exactly how 50onRed made money.

At first glance, it seemed like just another digital advertising company. It had built a platform for advertisers to buy ad space. Simple. But what wasn’t standard was how 50onRed got those ads onto websites. It used a controversial practice called “ad injection,” inserting ads onto websites without those sites’ permission.

The way 50onRed did that was through downloadable software, usually browser extensions, known as adware. “Adware companies resort to trickery to push their software to users,” explains Ben Edelman, a Harvard Business School professor and ad injection expert. Download a free Flash player, for example, and it might come bundled with adware. Suddenly, you’d see ads on sites like Wikipedia or Target.com — ads those websites never agreed to display and weren’t making money from.

If ad injection sounds duplicitous and unethical, Edelman said that’s because it is. And that’s being charitable: “Some people say it’s highway robbery,” he says. Ad injection hurts many players in the advertising industry, chief among them publishers, who miss out on ad revenue while ad injection companies make money off their content. “Adware reaps where it didn’t sow,” Edelman says. At the same time, advertisers feel duped when they pay top dollar for what they believe to be “genuine, legitimate, honest ads” and instead get injected ads, he said.

Adtech companies like OpenX and AppNexus see it as a quality control issue and have vowed to keep ad injectors off their platforms (OpenX told AdAgein May 2014 that it no longer works with 50onRed, and AppNexus spokesman Josh Zeitz told me the same in April). Google and Mozilla suffer because users associate the problem with their browsers. “Deceptive ad injection is a significant problem on the web today,” a 2015 Google reportreads. The company pledged to rid its browser and advertising platform of ad injectors.

And, of course, consumers hate adware because it slows down their browser, Edelman says. For the digitally illiterate, he said it can be torturous because it’s not always obvious what’s causing the problem.

50onRed says that its practices are above board. “50onRed has always been proud of our strict partner vetting process, and compliance guidelines such as those set forth by Google and Microsoft, appropriately labeled ads, and the ease with which users can opt-out of seeing ads,” the company said.

Regardless, Tyler was not pleased when a colleague finally explained the business model to him.

“Wait, really? That’s what we do?” he remembers thinking. “We’re that skeezy toolbar company that your grandmother installs that she can’t get out and she’s got seven of ’em and her computer doesn’t work anymore?”


Writer bio: Juliana Reyes, a Bryn Mawr College graduate, became Technical.ly’s associate editor in 2016 after reporting on the Philadelphia tech scene for four years. Between 2011 and 2012 she wrote about Philadelphians’ neighborhood problems as part of a grant-funded project between WHYY and the Daily News.

Continue reading “The Perks Are Great. Just Don’t Ask Us What We Do.”

Dead October


Matt Gelb | Philadelphia Inquirer | October 2011

Ryan Howard collapsed 30 feet from home plate when a season of high expectations came crashing down on his balky Achilles. The fans threw white towels onto the field as the Cardinals formed a pile on the right side of the infield at Citizens Bank Park Friday night. Here it was, the nightmare scenario, and it was worse than anyone could have imagined.

Howard lay on the ground as the final out of Game 5 was made to end the Phillies’ season with a 1-0 St. Louis victory that clinched the National League division series for the Cards. He had bounced meekly to second, and in one final hope to avoid making the final out for the second straight year, Howard pushed too much.

He was carried off the field by third-base coach Juan Samuel, assistant athletic trainer Mark Andersen, and Shane Victorino. It was a fitting image of another ruined season caused by a limp offense. Last year, Howard took strike three. This time, he barely made it further out of the box.

An entire city paused in shock. This was supposed to be Roy Halladay’s day – and it was, after navigating eight innings with 126 high-stress pitches. But the bats ruined it.

Howard will be the poster boy for failure. He was 0 for his final 15 in this series, his final at-bats before a five-year, $125 million contract commences in 2012. But there were plenty of other offenders.

The painful realization is that the Phillies have improved their regular-season record each year since the 2008 championship, yet each season has ended sooner in October. First it was an admirable defeat in the World Series to the Yankees. Then, an offensive coma befell them in the National League Championship Series against the Giants. And now, utter disappointment.

Each time his team came to bat Friday, Charlie Manuel moved from his trademark spot in the corner of the Phillies dugout to the steps. In the fourth inning, he was halfway up the stairs. By the sixth inning, his right foot rested on the top step. The manager had arrived at Citizens Bank Park at 10:30 a.m. and he, like the entire city, was restless.

Carpenter finished off the season with eight pitches in the ninth inning. Chase Utley drove a ball to the wall in center that was caught. Hunter Pence bounced one to third. Then Howard ended the season.

It was the first 1-0 shutout in a decisive Game 5 or 7 since 1991, when the Twins outlasted the Braves, 1-0, in Game 7 of the World Series, but Halladay played the role of John Smoltz, not Jack Morris.

The strength of the Four Aces was not enough this season, but the obituary for the 2011 Phillies will hardly show them as the culprits. They were derailed by an aging offense, one that swung at pitches out of the strike zone and failed to drive the ball.

Nervous energy filled the ballpark before the first pitch. When Halladay began his walk to the bullpen at 7:59 p.m., the smattering of fans in their seats cheered. Thirty-one minutes later, he was introduced as the starting pitcher, and it was impossible to hear his name above the yelling.

But just 11 minutes after that, there was silence. Halladay sauntered behind the mound, bounced the rosin bag off his right hand twice, and could merely watch as the Cardinals jumped ahead, two batters into the game.

They scored quickly because Halladay yet again stumbled in the first inning. Of his 34 starts this season, the first batter he faced reached 17 times. This time, Rafael Furcal tripled. The St. Louis shortstop got to third perhaps only because Victorino missed the cutoff man on his throw from center. The ball bounced past Utley and Jimmy Rollins fired it to third for a close play.

Furcal scored on a Skip Schumaker double. He hit a curveball on the 10th pitch of an epic at-bat in which he fouled off six pitches.

And that was the only criticism possible for Halladay on what was a spectacular night wasted by the offense. The list of crimes is lengthy. Placido Polanco and Carlos Ruiz were a combined 3 for 36 in the series, creating a veritable black hole at the bottom of the lineup. Pence grounded out in his final seven at-bats of the series.

Rollins and Utley were about the only ones with success – but no one was on base ahead of them or clutch enough behind them.

And once Howard crumbled to the grass, everyone was left speechless.

Writer bio: Matt Gelb, a Chalfont native, covers the Phillies for The Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com. He graduated from Central Bucks High School – West, and Syracuse University, before joining the Inquirer in 2009.