Longform Philly

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The social media king of women’s empowerment


Juliana Reyes | The Lily | November 2017

The first time I contact Just Mike the Poet, in June 2016, I’m sprawled out on my couch, feeling sorry for myself. I’d recently been ghosted by the guy I’d been dating for the last few months, and I was no longer furious, just sad and confused. How did I let this happen to me again?

But I don’t Instagram DM Mike a rundown of the situation and ask him for advice, like many women do. Instead, I ask if I can interview him. I’ve been wanting to write a story about him, the curious cultural phenomenon of his celebrity, a man who’s built a career by writing inspirational poetry for women and posting it on social media, and I decide I’m ready. Maybe he could give me some insight into my own situation.

It was a slam poet on the Philadelphia scene who told me about Mike. You have to check this guy out, he said. Here was a poet with an enormous — and near-fanatical — following. Women were posting photos of themselves reading his books and wearing his T-shirts, they were buying tickets to his shows, they were getting his logo tattooed.

His fans were a powerful army of brand ambassadors, flooding Instagram with their love and support for him. Even Halle Berry joined in when she posted a photo of herself last May, eyes shut and hair windswept, sporting a distressed version of Mike’s trademark “No more boyfriends.” T-shirt. “Summer’s coming… let’s shine up our crowns ladies! Let’s do it like @justmike_,” she wrote. Nearly 96,000 users liked it.

The slam poet pulled up Mike’s Instagram to show me.

It felt like a line from a smooth-talking “feminist” dude, a writer who was very clearly pandering to women. It was so over the top that it made me cringe. But, at the same time, I couldn’t deny that his writing spoke to me. All Mike’s poems offered pun-filled variations on the same message: Love yourself. Don’t settle. If a guy can’t see that you’re great, he just needs new glasses. These were the things I’d tell a friend when she was scorned by a man. They were lessons I had spent years learning, that I was still trying to learn, and for a guy to be advocating for them? It was powerful. Subversive, almost.

Except: was it really all that subversive if it was ultimately a man doing the empowering? No matter how much his message resonated with me, I felt skeptical of him, the way I’m skeptical of any man who speaks loudly about being a Good Man and especially one who’s selling a hoodie reminding me of the fact. Who was this guy whom so many women believed in? Was it all just a savvy marketing scheme targeting women who had lost hope in men?

I wanted to find out.

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.

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The Grate Fisherman

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Robin Clark | The Philadelphia Inquirer | October 1992

Poor as he is, Albert Reagan doesn’t rely on charity.

He counts on something more dependable: clumsiness.

Every time you fumble for change in Center City – at the bus stop, the parking meter, the newsstand – Reagan is there in spirit, hoping that a coin will slip free and go PINGing into one of those black holes in the sidewalk.

Reagan is a grate fisherman, an urban mariner. Lost coins are his catch.

On a good day, a few hours spent hunched or kneeling over utility grates may yield him $2 or $3 in nickels, dimes and quarters. He reels the coins to the surface with a gooey wad of chewing gum wrapped around a fishing weight and suspended from a long string.

It’s no fortune. But when you’re 85 years old and trying to survive in the Big City on $247 a month from Social Security, it helps.

“I call it food money. The street people who hold out their cups make more money than me. Dollar bills,” he says, raising an eyebrow. “I just don’t have it in me to ask people for money.

“I get along,” he says. “I’m not hungry. I stopped drinking and smoking years ago, and I don’t fool around with females, so I don’t get excited about anything anymore. I don’t burn up much energy. “

Reagan’s energy, which is impressive, is spent mainly on his morning rounds.

Market, Chestnut, Locust, Broad . . . Every day it isn’t raining, he follows the same early-morning route from the boarding house he calls home, shuffling along with his head bowed, shoulders hunched and hands clasped behind as he peers down the dark holes of urban architecture looking for the glint of money.

The sight of a coin lights up his leprechaun’s face, making his pale blue eyes shine like new dimes under the brim of his cap.

“It’s all in the eyes,” he says, tapping a stubby finger against his temple. And, even at his age, Reagan’s eyes are still keen enough to see down a 15-foot hole littered with bottle caps, drinking straws, cigarette butts, gum wrappers – all manner of rubbish – and spot a single coin glittering dully in the dirt.

“Other people, they can’t see it because they don’t need it enough,” Reagan says. “Me, I see everything. “

Writer bio: Robin Clark, born and raised in North Carolina, wrote for The Charlotte Observer and San Francisco Examiner before joining the Inquirer in 1983. He was the Inky’s western U.S. correspondent in 1995 when he died in a car accident during a break from the O.J. Simpson trial. He was 40.

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Quiet Resilience

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David Gambacorta | Longreads | June 2017

David Brown was a few months into his tenure as the head of the Dallas Police Department when his cell phone started to hum on a Sunday morning.

He’d been on the job long enough to know the drill: At any given moment, a phone call could be the harbinger of an administrative headache, a tactical crisis, or some gut-wrenching tragedy. But he resisted the reflexive urge to answer.

Brown was standing in a pew at the Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship Church. A low-slung building with a sharply pitched roof, the church and its weekly service was his temporary refuge from a chaotic world. He actually considered turning away from his faith once, when he was a younger man and inconsolable over the murder of a former partner, a blow that nearly drove him to quit the police force altogether.

But Brown came to understand loss, the way it coursed through and connected everyone around him like an unseen river. Such lessons had been present in his life from an early age. Brown was born at Parkland Memorial Hospital in 1960, three years before a team of trauma doctors there tried in vain to revive President John F. Kennedy after an assassin’s bullet had exploded through his skull. The very place that had given Brown life became synonymous with the death of a country’s tenuous sense of innocence.

He checked his phone when he left the Sunday service. It was hot outside; the temperature would touch 100 degrees that day. A voice message from the chief of a small-town police department 16 miles outside of Dallas was waiting. It was about Brown’s 27-year-old son, D.J., who suffered from adult-onset bipolar disorder.

D.J.’s behavior had turned erratic that morning, prompting his girlfriend to call 911. But everything was fine now, the chief calmly assured Brown. He tried to get in touch with D.J., but thought better of rushing to him; maybe his son just needed some time to cool down. A few hours later, Brown’s phone started rattling again. This time, it was a no-nonsense detective who took his breath away with just a few words: D.J. was dead.

He’d shot and killed an innocent passerby and a local police officer, the detective explained, and then engaged in a shootout with other cops. D.J. was cut down by police gunfire. The news hit Brown like a sledgehammer to the spine.

It was June 20, 2010. Father’s Day.

The grief could have broken a lesser man, could have swallowed him whole. But Brown clung to his faith, and he somehow endured. What he didn’t know then was that more sorrow was waiting for him down the road, the kind that would draw the world’s attention to Dallas like it was 1963 all over again. And Brown, a quiet, contemplative man who never imagined he’d be a police chief, would emerge from all of the darkness as the embodiment of grace—and the unlikely face of law enforcement in America.

Writer bio: David Gambacorta, a Philly native, is a writer at large at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He’s also written for Esquire, The Baffler and Philadelphia Magazine.

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America the Ugly


Joe McGinniss | The Philadelphia Inquirer | June 1968

It is hard to think of what to write while you are coming out here in an airplane because of an event which has proved that you do not live in a country anymore but in a cesspool. It does not happen anywhere the way it happens here. Not in Russia, not in China, not in North Vietnam.

Nowhere anymore does a man have to feel when he stands up to try to lead his people that he runs at least an even chance of getting his skull pierced by a bullet from someone who does not like the things he says.

Nowhere but in America.

This country does not work anymore. Maybe it stopped the day John Kennedy was killed, and only we did not know it at the time.

Now, less than five years later, with the man who killed Kennedy murdered, with Martin Luther King gone to a crazyman’s gun, and with Bob Kennedy now lying in a bed in a hospital in Los Angeles with a hole in the middle of his head from where a bullet had plowed through his brain, now we have to know it. Now we cannot hide from it anymore. This is not a country.

The richest, most powerful place in the world and all that the money and power have produced has been a bunch of people so filled with fear and hate and ugliness that when a man tries to tell them they must do more for other men, instead of listening they shoot him in the head.

This is not a country anymore. This is a vision of hell.

Writer bio: Joe McGinniss wrote for the Worcester Telegram and Philadelphia Bulletin before joining The Inquirer as a general interest columnist in 1966. He was 24. He left the Inky at the end of 1968 to write “The Selling of the President,” which explored the growing role of advertising in politics. The book was an overnight success, landing McGinniss on the New York Times bestseller list. He was 26. He went on to publish several more books, including three bestselling true crime thrillers. He died in 2014 from prostate cancer. He was 71. This column was written after the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. The following week, the newspaper printed an apology for publishing the column on its front page. Enjoy.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Will it have a happy ending?


Pete Dexter | Philadelphia Daily News | November 1981

Sometime around his 36th birthday, Shoats decided he was throwing away his life. He taught remedial English to kids who would never learn to read, and when he turned his back on the class the kids threw erasers at him. Shoats knew he wasn’t much of a teacher, but that was all he had ever done.

He said to his wife, “I think I’m going to do something else.”

She said, ” You can’t do anything, you’re a teacher. ” His wife worked at a beauty shop and had quit school in the 10th grade. He thought she ought to take him more seriously.

“I mean it,” he said. ” I spend half my life trying to teach a bunch of kids to read. They don’t care if they read and I don’t care if they can read. We’re all just putting in time. I mean, there has to be something more. . .”

His wife was sitting at the dressing table, painting her nails. ” Do you think this color is all right?” she said.

Shoats resigned from the school district and took a job driving a cab at night. During the day he sat in front of his typewriter, waiting for a novel to come out. A novel about man and the universe, about love and war and life and death. ” Is it going to have a happy ending?” his wife asked.

She also asked, ” When are you going to go back to work?” He would say, “This is work. It’s my work. “And she would say,” When you work, you get a pay check.”

Shoats came to see that the problem went deeper than the job. He was living with a woman he didn’t know, and who didn’t know him. ” We sleep together,” he said. “You cook and do the laundry, I mow the lawn, but we don’t really ever talk. We don’t say the things we mean . . . ”

“John,” she said, “What the hell are you talking about?”

Shoats moved out of the house and got an efficiency apartment on South Street. On his nights off he went to singles bars, and brought strange women home. At least they seemed strange in the morning. He would get rid of them as fast as he could and then call his wife and try to explain that he felt empty. He would ask her to understand.

“I don’t understand,” she would say. And he would say, “No, I know you don’t.”

After 10 weeks in the apartment, Shoats had written a page and a half of the novel and gained 15 pounds. The main character was a schoolteacher who quit his job and left his wife. Every day when he sat down he rewrote the first page and a half and then stalled. It seemed to him there was something missing.

And as soon as he stalled, he opened a beer. He was drinking about a case a day, and then showing up half-drunk at night to drive the cab. He kept a flask under the front seat.

In March, Shoats’ wife filed for divorce. He didn’t fight it, but he felt it. He doubled up the drinking and then one night he picked up a fare in West Philadelphia, and before he’d gone two blocks there was a gun in the back of his head.

Shoats had never been that scared before. It scared him sober. He gave the man his money and heard him cock the gun. And when the man hit him on the head with it, he thought for a second that he’d been shot.

He went to a pay phone and called his wife, even before he called the police. Blood was dripping into his face and his legs were shaking. “I don’t know what it is,” he said. “Nothing makes any sense any more.”

She said she would like to talk to him, but she had a guest. It was 3 o’clock in the morning. ” Why don’t you call me tomorrow?” she said.

Shoats went to the hospital, then he went home. There was nowhere else to go. He walked in and noticed how bare the place was. A typewriter, a cot, a lamp. He picked up the page and a half of his novel, thinking of what he’d traded in his life for.

It occurred to him that he didn’t care about love and war and life and death. He just wanted to smell his wife’s hair. He opened the refrigerator and pulled out a beer, lay down in a room as empty as Sunday’s mailbox and began to cry.

Writer bio: Pete Dexter, winner of the National Book Award for his novel “Paris Trout,” is also generally considered one of the best writers in city newspaper history. He wrote for the Daily News, mostly as a columnist, for 12 years.

Mrs. Nose Builds Her Dream Closet


Lisa DePaulo | Philadelphia Magazine | June 1988

Sandra Newman is leaning dangerously over a second-story balcony, waving her 20-carat diamond ring, and screaming, “Five!” to the auctioneer.

“But Saaaan-dra,” pleads Karl Krumholz, her decorator, “we don’t haveroomfor a brass bed.”

“I don’t care,” says Sandra Newman. “The bedding alone’s worth $500!”

It’s just another wild and crazy night with Sandra and Julius “Dr. Nose” Newman—and their decorator—this one at the March of Dimes gala furniture auction. Sandra, who’s dressed more like the March of Diamonds, simply has to buy something.

“ Six hundred!” calls the auctioneer. “Do I hear $650?”

“Six fifty!”

Karl puts his hand on his hip. “Saaaan-dra,” he whines, “where are we gonna put it?”

Karl Krumholz is Sandra’s and Julius’s date for the night. From the moment they hired him as interior designer of their new $4 million-plus home out in Gladwyne, he’s been in attendance whenever there was furniture to be bought.

“I suppose,” he says, “we could put it in the maid’s room.”

“Not a chance!” says Sandra. “I’m giving it to the kids. Jonathan and Nancy would love a brass bed. Seven fifty!” she shouts.

“Is she the cutest or what?” says her husband, as Sandra comes this close to tumbling over the balcony, champagne flute in one hand, extra-long More cigarette burning in the other. She’s wearing her usual 4-inch heels and a dress that’s half leopard miniskirt and half cleavage with black sequins. She may be 49, but all her husband, the much-hyped plastic surgeon, has ever had to fix was her nose. The rest is the original model.

“Do I hear nine?” asks the auctioneer.

“Nine!” shouts Sandra.

“Do I hear $950?”

“One thousand!” she yells.

Behind her, Dr. Nose bursts out laughing. “She just outbid herself!” he roars. “Did I tell you she was the cutest?”

“We got it!” says Sandra, dropping ashes on the floor. “Quick, honey! Call the kids! Tell them what we bought for them!”

“OK,” says Dr. Nose. “And don’t you worry, dear, a thousand sounds better than $900 anyway.”

Writer bio: Lisa DePaulo, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, is a freelance writer. DePaulo, who grew up outside Scranton, got her start at Philadelphia MagazineShe specializes in true crime stories and in-depth profiles, which have appeared in GQ, New York and Vanity Fair magazines, among many others.

Click here to continue reading “Mrs. Nose Builds Her Dream Closet”

Journey to My Father’s Holocaust


David Lee Preston | Inquirer Sunday Magazine | April 1985

“Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation.”
Joel 1:3

LAST YEAR, I PERSUADED MY FATHER to journey with me to the places of his past. He did not say much about these places while I was growing up, but our bookshelves brought me closer to some of them. They had names like Auschwitz and Buchenwald, and in the books, I saw photographs of living skeletons in prison garb with tattooed numerals on their arms, of mutilated children, of twisted bodies piled as high as mountains or strewn in vast pits, of solitary souls fastened dead against electrified barbed-wire fences. These were not like the places other fathers had come from.

If I wanted to catch a glimpse of my father in his youth, I could peer into the sound box of his mandolin and find the tiny photo portrait he had glued inside as a boy. This was his first mandolin, the one his uncle had given him in Rovno, my father’s birthplace in the Ukraine.

Our bookshelves also held an old photo album my father had compiled. Like the mandolin, it had survived the Holocaust hidden in France, and if my father had not outlived the Nazi death camps, no one would have come to retrieve it; the frayed photos of family members would have been lost to eternity.

My father was the only one in his family who survived – a French-educated engineer, a Jew whose technical training kept him alive at Auschwitz. Now, quick-witted and vigorous as ever, he was nonetheless alone and depressed after my mother’s death in 1982. The numbered arm that held me as a child was still strong, but his hair was graying. If we were to undertake such a trip, this was the time.

We traveled to the Soviet Union (which now rules the region in which my father was born and raised); to France (where he had been arrested by the Gestapo); to Poland (where he had endured two years in Auschwitz and other camps until the Soviet army approached), and to East Germany (where he had been imprisoned in Buchenwald until its liberation 40 years ago this month). During the trip, my father was both guide and interpreter, facile with the languages everywhere we went. But the trip was grueling; it taxed my father’s body and soul.

Why, then, would I ask my father to return to these places for the first time since the Holocaust? Why subject him to the painful memories after all these years? And why open the life of a private man to the scrutiny of readers?

Because the child of the survivor has a special obligation: If I am David Lee, my father’s son, it is because somehow I am also David Laeb, my father’s father. If I was born from the survivor’s seed, then somehow I also rose from the victim’s ashes.

And so I have made the journey through time and place, back to the world of my father and of his father, to a world that somehow also must be mine. I have made the journey because one day I shall transmit the seed anew, and I must know and feel. I have done so because the future holds no meaning or purpose without the past, and because the story of an entire people can be told in the retracing of my father’s steps and in the retelling of his life.

If I am a son, I must begin to understand my father. If I am a Jew, I must begin to understand my people. If I am a human being, I must begin to understand my legacy.

This was my duty.

I ALREADY KNEW GEORGE PRESTON THE suburban American, whose painting of my mother hung in their bedroom, and whose humorous blueprint for a “baby boy arrangement” announced my “specifications” as well as my birth. I knew the devoted family man, the father who didn’t spare the rod but spoiled his two children anyway, who gave the neighborhood bully a good licking after I’d been picked on. I knew the chess player who allowed me to retract my lousy moves and sometimes let me win. I knew the man who married a Jewish educator despite his own ambivalence toward organized religion, who stood in the background for 30 years while his wife, also a survivor, became Delaware’s pre-eminent public speaker on the Holocaust – and who himself began accepting invitations to speak after she died.

I knew George Preston, the faithful and industrious Du Pont Co. engineer whom they called at home from Chattanooga or Waynesboro or Seaford when the spinning machines broke down, and they needed quick advice. I knew this supremely disciplined man, this early riser, this tree planter, auto mechanic, refrigerator fixer, porch builder.

But when he sometimes would take out the old, battered, round-back mandolin that still contained a boy inside, the mournful melodies he strummed bespoke a man who had known other times in distant places, far from Wilmington, Del. – far from me.

It was this man – Grisha Priszkulnik, Georges Priszkulnik, Auschwitz No. 160581, Buchenwald No. 124049 – whom I really needed to know.

ROVNO, WHERE HE WAS BORN, WAS a bustling commercial center in the Ukraine, part of Poland at the time. Also spelled Rowne, it was a city whose 22,000 Jews constituted about 70 percent of the population. Jews had lived in the city since the 1500s, and by 1900 it was a wellspring of Jewish culture.

David Laeb Priszkulnik (pronounced prish-KUHL-nik) already had a thriving lumber business in Rovno when he and his wife, Sonia, had their first child. They named him Gersh, in memory of her grandfather, and they called him Grisha.

As soon as Grisha was old enough, he began helping out at work. Grisha even helped his father build the family a new home on the gravel road beside the railroad tracks; the duplex was the first house in Rovno with hot and cold running water.

Grisha’s artwork adorned the walls: watercolor paintings of street scenes, charcoal portraits, abstract designs, an oil painting of his grandmother. Grisha and his mother would spend many happy hours together in the dining room – Sonia embroidering at one end of the long table and Grisha at the other end hunched over the mandolin on his lap, his ear against the table, strumming melodies for his mother. Grisha also serenaded his younger brother, Yasha, a shy lad whom he loved dearly. And he and his cousin Aaron – his closest friend – enjoyed playing their mandolins together.

The Priszkulniks belonged to the smaller of the two synagogues in Rovno and traditionally sat in the first row of seats. Grisha learned Hebrew from a private tutor hired by his father.

Sometimes, the family would go for picnics to the outskirts of town, to the area called Sosenki – the Little Pines – where every year on the agricultural holiday of Lag B’Omer, the Jewish children of Rovno would celebrate with song and dance.

Jewish life was unhindered by the Polish government. But if a Jewish child ventured outside town, he risked being assaulted by Ukrainians, Poles or Russians. Grisha suffered many a beating.

When Grisha was 17, his mother became gravely ill with an undiagnosed ailment. David Laeb summoned a professor from Lvov to examine her, but her condition deteriorated. Sonia died on a Friday night, while Grisha and his father sat helplessly at her bedside. No one could come for her body on Saturday, the Sabbath day, so she remained in the house until Sunday. They buried her in the Jewish cemetery, and her photograph was inset in an enamel oval at the top of the tall tombstone.

It was his first confrontation with death, but in time, Grisha recovered, his creative zest undiminished. He hoped for a career as an artist. But David Laeb tried to steer his son toward a profession in which he could better support himself.

So Grisha went to Vilna and Warsaw to study engineering, then to France in 1935 to complete his education. Two years later, he graduated from the University of Caen with a master’s degree in electrical and mechanical engineering.

Meanwhile, the Nazis were seizing more and more power. Jews already had lost their jobs in Germany. Grisha applied for a visa to enter the United States. He was denied.

Returning to Rovno in August 1938, Grisha pleaded with his father to leave Poland. But David Laeb was not ready. Like almost everyone else he knew, he did not take Hitler seriously. “Why not stay with us?” he implored his son. ”You’ll have a business here. “

David Laeb had never ventured beyond the borders of Eastern Europe, but his son already knew a safer life in France and intended to go back there to find work. In April 1939, David Laeb drove Grisha by horse and buggy along the gravel road from the house to the railroad station.

Tears streamed down their cheeks as they stood together on the train platform – the proud father and his adult son. And even as Grisha boarded the train for Warsaw, neither man uttered the sad, inexorable truth: They would never see each other again.

FORTY-FIVE YEARS LATER, ON THE SAME RAILROAD tracks on which he had departed, my father returned to Rovno with his son, David Lee. Holding a photograph of my father’s house, it was I who recognized it from the window of the train.

After we had settled in at the modern Soviet hotel called Mir (“Peace”), my father’s curiosity got the better of him: Almost immediately, we headed for his house.

As we walked from the hotel, it was clear that Rovno had changed: We passed tall apartment buildings; a large, new opera house; a cinema; statues and posters of Lenin. We passed my father’s synagogue, now painted the same somber yellow as other public buildings in the city. Revealing no trace of its own past, the synagogue holds the city’s archives.

Finally, we reached the gravel road along the railroad tracks and approached the house. Chickens walked in the road and in trash along the railroad bed. The house was painted an earthy brown, with rickety wooden stairs. It hardly looked like the fancy home it once was.

Curious neighbors gathered around us. Two girls stood on the front stoop, giggling. They ran inside.

Then the front door opened: A peasant woman in bare feet emerged. She wore a violet garment, her hair wrapped in a shawl. She was friendly. Yes, she said, she lived there, but only for a few years.

The house had been subdivided. Three families now lived where the Priszkulniks once did. The woman took us to the rear of the house; a man came out and invited us in.

My father and I entered a kitchen that once was a bathroom. We sat in the living room; it once had been the Priszkulniks’ kitchen. It was sparsely furnished, somewhat unkempt. The man said he had lived there only a few years, the third or fourth occupant since the war.

Where is the Priszkulniks’ furniture? Where is my father’s artwork?

We didn’t bother to ask: These poor folks wouldn’t know. They didn’t know the Priszkulniks. They knew only that the Jews who once lived in the area were gone.

ON NOV. 5, 1941, THE NAZIS ANNOUNCED that all Jews in Rovno without work certificates were to gather in the main square the following day with all their belongings. The next morning, 18,000 Jews showed up. Even those with work certificates came; they did not want to be separated from their loved ones.

The Nazis chose this day for a reason: The Communist world was celebrating the anniversary of the Russian Revolution – one of many things for which the Nazis blamed the Jews.

Now, in the snow, German soldiers, helped by Ukrainians, Poles and others, herded the Jews of Rovno away from the square, telling them they were being taken to a work detail. Grisha was in France when David Laeb and his fellow Jews were taken out beyond the city. The process lasted an entire day.

Along the way, they were told to drop all their belongings. Then they were led farther, to the Sosenki, the place of so many happy Lag B’Omer celebrations. There, the Jews were confronted with three enormous ditches.

David Laeb and the others were surrounded by armed policemen with dogs. They were ordered to undress. They were lined up at each ditch – the men, the women and the children.

The police offered to spare Rabbi Maiofes, whom they saw in the crowd. But the rabbi refused. “Where my flock goes,” he said, “so goes their shepherd. “

And so the Nazis and their helpers machine-gunned David Laeb Priszkulnik and 18,000 other Jews.

ONE MUST KNOW WHERE TO LOOK FOR THE Jews of Rovno. No markers have been erected in their memory. About two miles outside the city, set off from the paved highway, Sosenki can be reached only by a dirt road so steep and rough that our taxi driver would not attempt it. A Jew who had survived the Holocaust by joining the Russian army directed us to the spot. We arrived in the rain.

So this was where they ended up, the Jews of Rovno: an area roughly 120 yards by 25 yards, unkempt, rugged, muddy, overgrown with weeds, surrounded by a rusted fence since the end of the war. In one corner, a broken shovel.

Was this perhaps a shovel that had been used to dig the massive pits? Or was it used by the Latvian man who had participated in the Rovno killings, who returned a few years ago with his son, in search of gold teeth? Working at night, they dug up the remains. Some elderly Jews who visited the spot found the disarray and notified Soviet authorities. Police staked out the area and arrested the two men while they were digging. But no effort was made to repair the disturbed ground.

We walked inside the fence, trampling over the innocent thousands, the entire families who were murdered because they were Jews. And as we walked slowly in the mud, we found human bones, jaws, teeth. This was the epitaph for the Jews of Rovno.

Hesitantly, my father and I withdrew, moving back outside the rusted fence. Together, we faced the mass grave, and, in tenuous voices, we recited the Kaddish, the ancient Jewish prayer for the dead. Then we turned and walked slowly on the gravel road, down the hill in the rain.

THE FOLLOWING DAY, WE WENT TO FIND my grandmother’s grave. Because she had died before the Holocaust, my father knew exactly where to look for it; we walked there easily from the hotel.

Alas, the grave was gone. The Russians, who themselves had suffered terribly at the hands of the Nazis, had bulldozed the Jewish cemetery of Rovno. In its place: a playground.

My father had prepared himself for what we had seen at Sosenki because he had been informed of his family’s fate after he had survived his own harrowing Holocaust. But he was not prepared for this: His mother, our lone relative in all of Europe whose grave was marked, now was left to obscurity, too, as if she never existed. My father was disgusted. “Why couldn’t they just leave the Jewish cemetery alone?” he asked. “Why did it bother them? Wasn’t it enough that the Jews were gone? “

Just beyond the playground, in the newly turned earth where bulldozers were landscaping the hillside, we found more Jewish bones. And in a wooded area on the hillside lay strewn both whole and fragmentary Jewish gravestones. I did not have to scratch too deeply into the ground to uncover still more of them – even a Star of David buried in the Soviet soil.

Again, my father and I recited the Kaddish. Again, we turned and walked down a hillside, heading for the city’s memorial to its victims of fascism – an impressive bronze monument with a sign bearing a red flame. The inscription, written boldly in Ukrainian, seemed like the final affront: ”Nothing is forgotten,” it says. “No one is forgotten. “

WHEN THE GERMANS INVADED France in 1940, Georges Priszkulnik was working for an engineering firm in Lille, near the Belgian border. The company was about to relocate to the south of France, but Georges did not want to risk waiting. In the heat of the summer, he took a bicycle and headed for the beach, hoping to board a boat carrying British troops across the English Channel and out of northern France.

The road was full of people, horses, wagons. German bombs rained down on them. Georges hid in ditches, covering his body with his bicycle. When he arrived at Dunkerque, he was barred from boarding the ships to England, which were overcrowded with British troops. It was mid-June. German soldiers soon arrived and blocked the exits to the south. Georges had no alternative but to return to Lille. The city was occupied by Germans. Georges’ company had moved south. On June 21, within days of his return, France surrendered.

After a brief stint as an interpreter for the French production crew at the Lille theater controlled by the Germans, Georges took a job in 1941 with a French engineering consulting firm. As the Nazi clampdown on Jews began in earnest, Georges ignored the announcements that Jews were to register and to wear yellow patches bearing the word Juif inside a Star of David.

On Aug. 8, 1942, as he emerged from a Lille market, Georges was arrested by the Gestapo and charged with “anti-German activities. ” He was taken to Gestapo headquarters, where he was beaten unconscious, then to a Gestapo prison guarded by French police.

Finally, he was put on a passenger train to Malines, a Belgian town north of Brussels, where he and Belgian Jews were loaded onto cattle cars and deported to Nazi-occupied Poland.

In slave labor camps, wearing the Star of David now, Georges and the other prisoners built railroads over a period of months. They also were tortured by having to carry gravel and sand at a running pace from one location to another, then to carry it back again. It was in these camps that Georges first heard that Jews were being exterminated at a place called Auschwitz.

One day, while working on the railroad, Georges watched a sealed train pass by – boxcars packed with people on their way to Auschwitz. He saw people looking out from the cars through tiny openings. And from that train came the loud cry of a youth calling to Georges and the other workmen on the track: ”Yidn, nemt rache!” – “Jews, take revenge! “

One of the prisoners approached the train; a guard shot him. Later, another prisoner, a Jewish doctor from Paris, removed the bullet, saving the man’s life.

Before long, Georges and his fellow workmen were loaded onto freight cars, too – told that they were headed for work in German factories. For days, 50 locked cattle cars, each crammed with 100 people, rolled toward an unknown destination.

On the night of Nov. 3, 1943, the train came to a stop, the seals on the cars were broken, and the doors slid slowly open. With sticks, the SS men and kapos (criminals given supervisory functions by the SS) drove Georges and the others from the boxcars in the cold night. “Raus, und schnell!” they ordered. “Out, and fast! “

Georges jumped to the ground. This was Auschwitz-Birkenau, a barbed-wire- enclosed barracks town spread over 8,000 acres in southern Poland. The main gate at Auschwitz proclaimed: “Arbeit Macht Frei” – “Work Brings Freedom.”

A young officer barked orders, dividing the new inmates into two groups. Those sent in one direction went directly to the gas chambers. The others, including Georges, were considered fit to work. The officer was chief physician of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp, the man who greeted the arrival of every transport. His name was Josef Mengele.

Georges was terrified. His possessions were taken away, and he shivered in the rags he had been given to wear. He was brought to a barracks, where his hair was clipped off. A number was tattooed onto his left forearm. No longer was he Georges Priszkulnik. Now he was 160581.

THE SLOGAN IS STILL ON THE GATE, BUT THE CAMP is a museum now. We stayed in the Auschwitz Museum Hotel, a former SS building.

Two and a half million Jews were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau. In all, four million innocent men, women and children died there – most of them in gas chambers set up to eradicate Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, political prisoners and others.

Auschwitz was the name the Germans gave the camp they established in 1940 near the Polish town of Oswiecim, 37 miles west of Krakow. It was the camp that was known to the world, the “model” camp the Red Cross visited, the camp where brick buildings still stand largely intact. The museum calls it Auschwitz I.

But it was at Birkenau – or Auschwitz II – a camp set up in 1941 near the Polish town of Brzezinka, and hidden from the Red Cross and other visiting groups, that the mass killing was accomplished.

The Auschwitz buildings now contain rooms of glass-enclosed exhibits with mountains of the victims’ eyeglasses, shoes, clothing, shaving brushes, false appendages, suitcases, hair. One building is devoted to the martyrdom of the Jews. Inside, a tape-recorded cantor wails a continuous “El Malei Rachamim” (“God, Full of Compassion”), a Jewish hymn for the dead. In a guest book, visitors from around the world scribble impressions and messages. Many speak of the inadequacy of the museum, the distortion of truth, the fact that only this single building hints at the historical purpose of the camp: to annihilate the Jews. A popular message on these pages is the Hebrew inscription “Am Yisrael Chai,” “The people of Israel live. ” In bold letters, here and there, the book reveals the phrase “Never Again. “

In a large room filled with file cabinets, the museum maintains documents that show the precision with which the Nazis recorded their deeds. In one drawer, containing information about blood tests and other records of the ”SS Hygienic Institute,” we found six index cards pertaining to “Georg Priszkulnik, No. 160,581. “

At Birkenau, only one wooden barracks remains; the others – including my father’s Block 11 – are gone, torn down after the war. The vestiges of the five gas chambers and adjoining ovens still can be visited in the woods behind the camp. My father hardly recognized the place: When he was an inmate, it was filled with people, dead and alive, and the sounds of suffering.

As we passed beneath the main watchtower on our way back to our hotel, we met five local boys, all in their early teens. My father asked whether they knew what had happened here, and they seemed eager to show what they knew.

“This was where many Poles were killed,” offered one boy.

“Jews, too?” we asked.

“Yes,” said one. “Also Jews. But mostly Poles. “

“Why did they kill Jews?” my father asked.

“Because Hitler was part Jewish,” a boy answered. “And he was jealous

because Jews were smarter than he. “

I urged my father to show the boys his tattoo, to see their reaction. He rolled up his sleeve. They gasped. One of them backed away. Slowly, the reality hit them: This man had been a prisoner here.

After we had exchanged addresses with a couple of the boys, we parted ways. My father and I agreed that they seemed friendly, mature, intelligent. We wondered how much they knew of what went on inside those barbed-wire fences, beneath that watchtower, only four decades earlier.

AT BIRKENAU, 160581 SAW SS MEN PULL children away from their mothers and throw them into trucks headed for the gas chambers. He saw an SS man thrust his walking stick down a dying man’s throat. He saw SS men set their dogs on inmates. He saw prisoners who could not take it anymore jump onto the electrified barbed wire.

He wore a small red triangular patch bearing the letter “F,” for French. Living in the wooden barracks of the quarantine section, where new inmates were temporarily housed, he still had a tiny loose-leaf booklet containing a few engineering notations and precious photos of his family. Among the few items he had brought to Birkenau, it was the only one he had managed to hold on to: a last link with his past.

One day, it was announced that technically trained people were needed. Thousands of prisoners came forward, hoping for a chance to go far away from the continuously smoking chimneys of the crematoria. Engineers from the Siemens Co. tested the prospective workers. 160581 passed an oral test. Next, he had to drill a hole in a metal plate and to file a square opening to a precision of one-one-hundreth of a millimeter through which a cube could fit.

Six workers were chosen. One was 160581. He would be housed in Block 11 at Birkenau, along with 25 other engineers. Their assignment: to transform an abandoned four-story brick building several miles away at Bobrek into a modern, one-story plant. To do this job, they were given ropes to climb up, and hammers to knock bricks down. In the bitter cold, 160581 and the others wore thin prisoner uniforms and wooden shoes.

Every evening, they were brought back to Block 11 until the plant and its barracks were completed. Block 11 was laid out like the other barracks: three tiers of wooden bunks on both sides, with an oven running down the middle for heat. 160581 slept with five other prisoners on a board, sharing a single blanket. He slept in the same clothes he wore during the day. Several times, men lying beside him died.

At Block 11, the Siemens workers were to receive better treatment than the other prisoners so they could be strong to build the plant. But the “senior inmate” in charge of Block 11 was a particularly vicious Silesian who delighted in abusing the Siemens workers. His name was Emil Bednarek, and he maintained a strict regime: If he found a speck of dust on a prisoner’s blanket, he would beat him with his walking stick. Bednarek hit 160581 over the back so often that he was almost paralyzed.

Bednarek forced his prisoners to do painful exercises, which he called ”sport. ” During one running exercise, a prisoner was unable to continue, and fell exhausted onto the ground. 160581 saw Bednarek kick his shiny boots into the man’s chest until he was dead. On another occasion, while an SS man watched, Bednarek placed his walking stick against a fallen prisoner’s throat and stood on it. Then he rocked back and forth until the prisoner was dead. The SS man offered hearty congratulations. After Bednarek killed people, he returned to his room to pray.

160581 was so hungry that at one point he sneaked away from Block 11 in the middle of the day, when he was supposed to be working, and headed for the kitchen to beg for some soup. An SS officer stopped him.

“What the hell do you have there?” the man barked.

It was the little booklet with the photos of his family. The SS man grabbed the book.

“These are pictures of my parents,” 160581 said.

The officer laughed uproariously. “You stupid bastard,” he said. “You think you’ll ever see your parents again? You see those chimneys? ” He pointed to the crematoria. “That’s where you’ll end up. “

The officer beat and kicked him. Then he walked away with the book. 160581 was left writhing on the ground.

In May 1944, after the Siemens workers had readied the Bobrek plant, they began to be housed nearby. At the plant, 160581 and his co-workers were put to work making dies to be used in fabricating electrical components for German submarines.

It was only a matter of time before 160581 became ill with typhus from the constant exposure to lice. As part of the Siemens group, he was not sent to the gas chambers despite his illness. Instead, he went to the camp ”hospital” adjacent to one of the crematoria. There he lay for several weeks without medical treatment. His fever was high, and most of the time he didn’t know what was going on around him.

Among the prisoners in the hospital, 160581 recognized a face: It was the Jewish doctor from Paris, the man who had extracted the bullet from the prisoner at the work camp. He was working in the hospital as a nurse. One day, the doctor told 160581 that no matter how sick he still was, he should get discharged from the hospital and report back to work. A new transport of inmates was expected, the doctor said, and all the sick prisoners would be sent to the gas chambers.

Summoning his last ounce of strength, 160581 willed himself to leave the hospital and return to his job.

THE SUN IS SETTING OVER BIRKENAU on the first day of June, and I am standing in the middle of the railway tracks, alone, inside the camp. To my left is the building where Mengele stayed, and beyond that the women’s camp. I stand where the selections were made. Ahead of me, the gas chambers and the ovens. At my right, the men’s camp. Behind me, along a sidewalk outside the camp, a boy in shorts is pushing a baby in a carriage. Two men in a cart are pulled by a horse. Another boy, maybe 5 years old, rides past on a tiny bicycle.

It is quiet but for the sounds of the country evening: a cow’s moo, the music of many kinds of birds, a dog’s bark, frogs’ croaks from the pit where a little more than 40 years ago, human beings were drowned. In the distance, a train. Wooden watchtowers on either side. At my back, the main gate.

I turn right and enter the men’s camp through the opening in the barbed- wire fence. Before me, two endless rows of naked concrete posts bent at the top, the rusted barbed wire stripped away.

The brush is thick, the wildflowers many and diverse. A brick chimney is all that remains of Block 11; the same is true of the other barracks. I kneel to inspect a daisy, studying it for a few minutes, marveling at its intricate beauty. Then I rise again to face the rows of chimneys and cement fence posts, stretching far into the distance on every side.

I try to imagine it as it was, the constant movement of human bodies assuring that not a blade of grass could grow, let alone a daisy. All around me in the tall grass are weeds, mushrooms, rocks, pieces of rusted metal. Somewhere toward the sunset, the call of a cuckoo pierces the air. The sun is red now, sinking farther into the woods where they burned my people.

I would like to say that I can imagine what it was like for my father in this place for 14 months – each day a new battle to remain alive, each minute an eternity of pain and fear. But I can’t; my mind is incapable of imagining such things. I cannot see my father here, clinging desperately to life, nor can I see the others who suffered and died.

As I walk back along the railway tracks toward the main gate, I stop and turn around for one last time. Standing erect, I look toward the gas chambers and crematoria at the far end. More people were murdered here than at any other single spot in history. What gives me the right to stand here now?

With the watchtower at my back, I begin to retrace my steps, moving ever closer to the gas chambers, with an irrational thought of keeping vigil nearby. I would be unafraid of the coming darkness, unfazed by the cold of the night.

But how long could I sit, before the rains would come? Eventually I would grow hungry, and what purpose would it serve? If I sing a lullaby to the one and a half million infants and children murdered during the Holocaust, would they be comforted? I could not return a single one of them to life. If I shed a tear, would it matter?

I spin round again, walking slowly along the tracks, leaving the millions of my murdered people to spend another lonely night unattended but for the crazy, mindless cuckoo bird marking time in the distance.

The sun has set on Birkenau.

ON THE NIGHT OF JAN. 17, 1945, with the Russian army approaching, the Nazis evacuated the camps. More than 14 months after he had become a number, 160581 set out with the other Siemens workers, joining thousands of prisoners from Auschwitz, Birkenau and other camps, marching northwest. Ten thousand prisoners were led on foot about 50 miles through the cold of winter. Some tried to hide in the snow. For many, it was a death march.

When the prisoners arrived in Gliwice, SS men loaded them onto flatcars. After the train was rolling, some prisoners jumped off and tried to flee. A few made it, but most were shot. 160581 did not jump; he didn’t trust the local populace to save him.

As the cars rolled slowly across the countryside, snow fell, and 160581 caught the fresh, crisp flakes in a tin container; no food ever tasted so wonderful to him. The train passed through Czechoslovakia, losing more passengers with every mile. At Prague, 160581 found himself with a loaf of bread and a container of water, among hundreds thrown into the train by kind- hearted Czechs at the risk of their lives.

More days passed, and the train came to a stop outside Weimar. 160581 looked around him. He knew that he was still alive, but he didn’t know how much longer he could last. All around him, for days on end, fellow travelers had fallen by the wayside. And now, when the SS men pulled him off the flatcar, he found himself once more in a camp with barbed-wire fences, railway tracks and watchtowers. This time, the slogan on the gate said: “Jedem das seine” – “To each, his due. ” This was Buchenwald.

THE MASSIVE MEMORIAL BELL tower, the impressive sculpture of resistance fighters, the three huge circular pits within which are buried the remains of the victims of Buchenwald – my father and I visited them all. We saw the well-preserved ovens where the dead were burned; the lampshades made from human skin; the shrunken heads; the pictorial tattoos saved from dead prisoners for the collection of the camp commandant’s wife.

But the Buchenwald museum’s only reference to the Jews is a line on the wall: “Jewish prisoners paid a high price in blood. They were special victims of the revenge, sadism and murder practiced by the SS.” As at Auschwitz, the emphasis is on documenting the socialist struggle against the barbaric fascist oppressors. The Buchenwald brochure explains that the museum “spans the period from the establishment of the fascist dictatorship by German imperialism to the self-liberation of the Buchenwald camp – a glorious chapter in the anti-fascist resistance struggle of the German people who were led in this battle by the Communist Party. “

And the brochure adds: “Many more Jews than people of other nationalities were killed by the fascist barbarians. “

IN BUCHENWALD, HE WAS issued a cloth patch bearing a new number. Although the number “160581” remained on his arm, he was now 124049.

He was assigned to help move wooden wagons filled with heavy stones from the steinbruch, the quarry. The pace was fast, and whoever fell from the strain was beaten to death by snarling SS men. On other days, while Weimar was being bombarded by Allied planes, 124049 was among the inmates whose job it was to dig through the rubble of the city for German bodies.

Although the planes passing overhead gave some hope to the inmates, large groups now were being evacuated from the camp to prevent them from falling into the hands of Allied troops. A short distance from the camp, they were machine-gunned.

124049 was determined to remain in the camp. He noticed that several inmates wore white armbands bearing numbers. These inmates were assigned to clean the barracks and to remain in the camp until the final transport. 124049 went to his barracks, tore off a piece of his shirt, and with a needle and thread, sewed a black trim around the edge. He wet the graphite of a pencil and printed some numbers on the cloth. Within minutes, he had made an armband identical to those worn by the privileged inmates.

Haggard and beyond hunger, 124049 now had survived for three long years – sometimes because of luck, sometimes because of his own wits – while those around him had perished. Now, in the waning weeks of the war, he summoned his last ounce of will to remain alive.

On April 11, 1945, before the SS could kill the last prisoners, American tanks plowed through the barbed wire and liberated Buchenwald. 124049 thought it was a mirage. SS men, caught by surprise, threw off their military uniforms and dressed themselves in prison garb. Ecstatic prisoners took over the camp, picked up guns and climbed onto American tanks. Georges Priszkulnik, a walking skeleton at 80 pounds, found a gun and helped hold the SS men in a barracks for the American troops.

MY FATHER WAS NOT THE ONLY Jew from Rovno who survived. Many fled to Russia to escape the Nazis, some joining the Russian army. They became citizens of the Soviet Union.

One was my father’s cousin, his boyhood chum, Aaron. They had corresponded since the war but had not seen each other since my father boarded the train out of Rovno in 1939. Now aging and frail, a stroke victim, Aaron lives in Kuibyshev, a city on the Volga that is closed to foreigners. Aaron obtained permission from Soviet authorities to meet us in Moscow with his daughter, Rosa.

In the parking lot of a hotel on the outskirts of Moscow, my father and his cousin were reunited after 45 years. What was there in that hug, what thoughts, what images went flying through the minds of these cousins, these two sons of Rovno, what chemistry in their tears at that instant?

From the parking lot, we all traveled to the Moscow apartment of another Rovno Jew. There, we spent an evening singing along with records of Hebrew and Yiddish songs; eating potato latkes and other traditional Jewish food lovingly prepared by the man’s wife. These Jews were very much alive. Aaron and I sat across a table from each other. We had never met before. Several times, he told his cousin that he only wished he could speak directly to me. But language prevented it. And so we sat, staring, smiling. It was a conversation in a universal language: the language of a common bond, the language of understanding.

We all raised our cups of wine, and I recited Shehecheyanu, the ancient Hebrew prayer of thanksgiving, ever so slowly to be sure these Soviet Jews – who rarely have an opportunity to hear such things – could savor every word:

“Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, who has sustained us and enabled us to reach this festive occasion. “

Everyone said, “Amen. “

And then, our cups still full and raised, we affirmed, “L’chaim” – “To life. “

AFTER WE RETURNED FROM OUR journey, I took out the old, timeworn photo album my father had compiled before the Holocaust. I saw him playing chess, table tennis, strumming his mandolin. I saw him in Paris, in Warsaw, in Brussels – a debonair cosmopolitan. I saw my father walking down a Rovno street with his cousin Aaron, both men nattily attired. I saw his younger brother, Yasha, the quiet one, smiling while he skated on the ice with a hockey stick: Murdered before he could reach adulthood, he remains the innocent, skating, smiling Jewish boy. He was my uncle.

But of all the photographs from my father’s past, the one that commanded my unwavering attention was a tiny sepia print in which my grandfather, David Laeb, is reading a newspaper. I could see him more clearly now, after our trip, and I took pity on him. Like so many of the Jews of Eastern Europe, he was blinded by naivete, relying on the past and accepting of the future, reading the news without facing reality.

And yet, when David Laeb stood on the train platform on that day in 1939 and said goodbye to his first-born offspring, he was casting out his only real hope for survival – a son who was well-educated, worldly wise, prepared to face whatever might confront him.

If David Laeb survives through his son, who came through hell intact, then surely he also survives through his grandson, who was born free and never experienced adversity or the pain of hate.

Just as I carry my grandfather’s name, my younger sister carries the Hebrew names of our two grandmothers. As children of Holocaust survivors, it is both our privilege and our obligation to go forward in a manner worthy of those for whom we are named.

WHETHER THEY DIED BY MACHINE GUN, like the Jews of Rovno, or in the gas chambers of Birkenau, whether they lie piled behind rusted fences like that at Sosenki or near elaborate, wreath-bedecked monuments like those at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, the Jews of Eastern Europe are gone.

For the survivor’s child, the omnipresence of death overcomes the imparted stories of life, the sadness inevitably destroys the joy, and the landscape of the journey becomes a vast, macabre museum of fear and despair. The people working in the fields, the peasants on the dirt road beside the tracks in Rovno, the men eating Wiener schnitzel in a Weimar restaurant – all are tainted with some measure of guilt. If they did not take the Jews to slaughter, they watched them go.

In 1965, my father flew to Frankfurt, West Germany, to testify against Emil Bednarek in the first Auschwitz war-crimes trial. Bednarek’s lawyers actually had invited him as a defense witness, believing that as a specialist, he had received less severe treatment than other inmates.

Facing Emil Bednarek and 20 other defendants, my father told how he had seen Bednarek kick an inmate to death, how he had forced inmates to take cold showers and then to stand outside until they froze to death. After a 21-month trial, Bednarek was convicted of murder in at least 14 cases, and received a life sentence.

But what about the other Emil Bednareks? What about Mengele, who reportedly is still at large? And what about the thousands of other Germans, Ukrainians, Poles, who walk the streets of Europe, South America, the United States and elsewhere – unaccused because the plaintiffs are dead, unprosecuted because the victims cannot testify?

How many German homes still use the mattresses filled with Jewish hair from Auschwitz? How many homes across Eastern Europe are furnished with the plundered possessions of the Jews? And how many people still wear the Jews’ clothing, or hoard the gold that the SS melted down from the teeth of their gassed victims?

What about the Soviets, who tear down cemeteries, who erect no monuments, who demonstrate the will to forget?

And what of the local boys we met at Birkenau – the grandchildren who inherit a world without Jews and who must be the hope for the future? What will they know of the past?

“Blessed be Jesus Christ,” one of the boys wrote to my father. “Did you and your son return home in good health? “

For the survivor, Eastern Europe is no museum but a place from a previous life, with faces and languages from the past. He carries his own guilt, knowing that those who died also deserved to live. The survivor did not need this trip, as his child did. The survivor has no use for Eastern Europe anymore.

On Hanukah, I gave my father a mandolin that was made in Montana. It is flat-backed and extremely thin, unlike traditional European models, but it has a rich, full tone, and he enjoys playing it. His boyhood mandolin hangs on the wall now, an old and trusty friend, retired, while the old melodies ring true on the new model.

Although the instruments may change, memory can touch the strings so that the melodies live on. Maybe I am David Priszkulnik, or David Preston. Give me a name or a number, it doesn’t matter. What counts, in any of us, is what is transmitted in heart and soul from one generation to the next. What survives is the ability to remember even the unimaginable, the will to learn the unspeakable, the capacity still to love.

For there remains the opportunity to stand alone beneath the setting sun at Birkenau and know that tomorrow it will rise again – to allow the realization of the enormity of the crime, of the cruelty, the pain and the suffering, to come crashing down upon one’s head and yet to summon strength from the ashes, to realize that daisies still grow there.

For all God’s children, there remains the opportunity to choose love over hatred, knowledge over ignorance, understanding over apathy, compassion over ambivalence – the chance to learn the sad melodies of the past so that we might create from them a hopeful song for the future.

I promise you, George Preston: This lesson I shall never forget.

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 second article in a trilogy that documented his parents’ experiences during the Holocaust. This piece was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 1986.

Part I: A Bird in the Wind

Part III: A Story for my Mother

Saving the Monsters


Michael Matza | The Philadelphia Inquirer | October 1997

Inside a modern 10th-floor courtroom at the Philadelphia Criminal Justice Center, Gary Heidnik is a dead man walking.

Sunlight streams through a picture window, highlighting streaks of gray in his grizzled black beard. His slate-red prison jumpsuit, stamped “AS1398” above his heart, hangs from a gaunt frame. White slip-on sneakers shuffle silently across a gray and red pin-dot carpet.

He is, certifiably, a damned monster, convicted of murder and condemned to die for enslaving and torturing two women to death 10 years ago. Shunned by a society whose only use for him now is to fill a coffin, he has spent the last decade on death row, locked in a cell 23 hours a day, transported in handcuffs, waist chain and leg irons whenever he is moved.

So detestable is the thought of touching him that the armed deputies who escort him wear latex gloves.

But attorney Billy Nolas, a razor-cut bantam in a crisp blue suit, reaches out for his hand. And now, Monday, April 14 – 24 hours before one of America’s most notorious killers is scheduled for death by lethal injection – Nolas and his law partner, Robert Dunham, embrace the chance to save a life.

Heidnik opposes the effort. What in the world is going on here?

In Pennsylvania, where 210 prisoners occupy the nation’s fourth largest death row, the work of Nolas and Dunham’s nonprofit Center for Legal Education, Advocacy & Defense Assistance, which they call LEADA, is denounced by their opponents as an abomination of justice.

Representing condemnees on the eves of their executions, these capital-case specialists seek another bite of the apple of justice for convicts who, critics charge, sit on their appellate rights until the governor signs a death warrant, then rise up to abuse the system with a barrage of last-minute appeals.

Yet defenders of these death-row lawyers say their work is vital. People sentenced to death have rarely had a clean bite of the apple at trial, they say, citing the fact that 40 percent of capital cases in America are sent back to the lower courts for resentencing or retrial after federal review. And whether the death penalty is fairly imposed is an entirely separate issue from whether there should be a death penalty at all.

Speaking to be heard in the four rows of mahogany benches that hold Heidnik’s pony-tailed, 19-year-old daughter, Maxine; 10-year-old son, Jesse; and spectators who support and oppose the death penalty, Common Pleas Judge John J. Poserina Jr., a gravel-voiced jurist with a shock of white hair, sets the rules: The unusual post-conviction hearing is not a retrial. It has a limited purpose, to assess Heidnik’s competency to waive all appeals, as he has since the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed his conviction in 1989.

Arguing that Heidnik’s execution should be halted, Nolas appears supremely relaxed. While it may appear that he and his partner stop at nothing to stop executions, they say that’s only because they take seriously their duty to examine capital cases from every angle. If relentless appeals force society to confront the thornier moral questions about state-sanctioned killing, so be it, they say, but they are driven by the law, not a cause.

“They have a deeper commitment to the concept of justice and the rule of law than most attorneys,” says Andre Dennis, a former chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association who is a founding member of LEADA’s board. “Their work is sorely needed. “

In clear, patient tones Nolas tells the court that Heidnik is “mentally ill with paranoid schizophrenia” and unable to make rational decisions about his legal rights. Federal law prohibits executing anyone who is incompetent to understand the finality of capital punishment and the reason it is being imposed.

Charles Gallagher, the square-built assistant district attorney who prosecuted Heidnik, shakes his head and purses his lips. He sees where Nolas’ argument is going. Disgust shimmers over him like heat waves off hot blacktop.

Christopher Diviny, chief of the district attorney’s post-conviction unit, is next to him, bouncing his heel up and down in an angry beat.

Heidnik, hollow-eyed and excited, clutches a Bible whose edges he has scribbled with messages for the FBI and moves quickly to the witness stand. His gait is erratic, his manner fidgety. He could be Seinfeld’s Cosmo Kramer.

“I waited eight years for this,” he says, starting low and building to a bellow. “You people think I’ve committed murders I didn’t commit! “

Yet he testifies that he wants to be executed, because “when you get done executing an innocent man, you won’t be executing any others,” he shouts.

Piling profanity atop non sequiturs, Heidnik has a lot to say. Nolas’ expression is rapt.

Heidnik testifies about “the phony FBI agents” who visited him in prison with badges that could have come “from Toys R Us. ” He talks about “bastards” in the Philadelphia Police Department who arrest people for drug dealing and never turn in the drugs. Professorial, he gives a cogent analysis of how electricity works, then uses it to support his contention that one of the women he was convicted of electrocuting was actually strangled by someone else.

“Them women were down there killing each other,” he insists.

Judge Poserina interjects to Nolas, “This person who you allege is incompetent just gave us a scientific explanation of electricity. . . . It sounds like he knows what he’s talking about. “

Gallagher, seething, looks like he wants to hit Heidnik, whom he calls “the master of manipulation. “

The fight is joined. The testimony continues.

When Nolas, phrasing a question, remarks offhandedly that Heidnik is drooling, the prosecutors are on their feet: “Objection, your honor! I didn’t see any drool! ” Spittle will not be used to prove insanity, not while the prosecutors are awake.

The inanity of this effort to protect the hearing record against another appeal settles over the courtroom as the prosecutors sit back down.

The bizarre spectacle continues for three hours. It includes the testimony of court-appointed psychiatrist John O’Brien, who testifies that Heidnik may be strange but not incompetent, and affidavits from military, private-practice and prison psychiatrists, presented by Nolas, to show that Heidnik, 53, has been plainly schizophrenic for 30 years.

Faced with a copy of his death warrant, Heidnik labels it “a fake” because it’s signed by “some guy named Tom Ridge. “

“Who is Tom Ridge? ” Nolas inquires. He gets an emphatic response. “I! don’t! know! ” Heidnik says.

Poserina, unflustered, explains that Ridge is the governor. The warrant is valid.

Nolas pinches the bridge of his nose, pushes back his steel-rimmed glasses, and pitches the next question as an adult would address a child.

“Gary,” he says softly, “do you know what’s going to happen at 10 p.m. tomorrow? “

“If this is real, I’m going to be executed – which is fine with me,” says Heidnik, gripping the warrant that has set in motion a frantic week of legal hell.

The debate about the death penalty in America has centered on whether it deters crime, is racially biased or morally indefensible.

With the national spotlight on such high-profile defendants as child-killer Jesse Timmendequas in New Jersey, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in Colorado, and alleged Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski set for trial next month in California, the focus has shifted to whether the penalty can be effectively administered.

In the 38 states where capital punishment is legal, murderers are routinely sentenced to death. Yet the machinery bogs down on the way to the death chamber, which is why the ranks of death row have grown – from about 2,100 nationally in 1988 to more than 3,000 last year.

In Pennsylvania, two people have been executed in the last 33 years.

Part of the reason for the backlog, Chief Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist has noted, is the difference between death-row inmates and ordinary prisoners.

“Non-capital defendants, serving criminal sentences in prison, file [appeals] . . . presumably as soon as possible. They have no incentive to delay,” Rehnquist wrote in an opinion in June. “In contrast, capital defendants, facing impending execution, seek to avoid being executed. Their incentive, therefore, is to utilize every means possible to delay the carrying out of their sentence. “

Passage of the federal Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which set a one-year statute of limitation on the filing of federal appeals, was designed to speed up executions.

And where death-row defense clinics once operated in 20 cities, including Philadelphia, Congress has defunded them. LEADA, which was created in 1995, today derives most of its $300,000 yearly budget from foundation grants and private donations.

In February, the American Bar Association called for a moratorium on executions, saying that the death penalty is “a haphazard maze of unfair practices” and that “efforts to forge a fair capital punishment jurisprudence have failed. “

Given the large population of Pennsylvania’s death row, and the rate at which Gov. Ridge has signed death warrants – 92 in 29 months, with more in the pipeline – Pennsylvania “could become one of the nation’s large executioners,” says Richard Dieter, director of the National Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment.

Philadelphia is the county of conviction for more than half of the state’s death-row inmates. And because Philadelphia “has a history of underfunded representation [of capital cases] at the trial level,” says Dieter, “the only way mistakes . . . are found is through aggressive appeals. “

If Billy Nolas, as litigation director, is LEADA’s swashbuckling sword, then executive director Robert Dunham is its philosophical heart.

On May 1, two weeks after Heidnik’s hearing in Poserina’s court, Dunham was a featured speaker at a Friends Center panel discussion on the ABA’s proposed moratorium.

In an unadorned meeting room, the bespectacled 39-year-old lawyer who began his career at Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis, one of Philadelphia’s largest firms, said LEADA’s critics think it is “trying to put something over on the courts. “

They “seem to believe that people who get to death row get there because they deserve to die,” Dunham said.

“But in fact, virtually every study that has ever been done has concluded that the single most persuasive predictor of whether you go to death row or just to jail is not what you did but who your lawyer was.

“I have handled cases where the lawyer who was appointed as the guardian of a defendant’s life is someone who has been out of law school for 15 months, was practicing law for three, and had never handled a homicide in his entire career – a part-time public defender with no relevant experience. And not surprisingly, he presented no relevant evidence, and his client got a death penalty.

“I’ve handled cases in which the appointed lawyer was a divorce lawyer who had never handled a homicide. She had done court-appointed family court matters. And if she did not accept this death case, she was going to lose her livelihood and not be able to continue taking the cases for which she was qualified,” Dunham said.

“What kind of sentence did her client get? I don’t have to tell you. You already know. She got death. “

Dunham said he does not relish going to court for a notorious murderer like Gary Heidnik, but when a client’s life is at stake, it’s his obligation to present the client “not as a monster, but as a person . . . a person who may have done something terrible but still, for some reason that you are able to present, deserves to live.

“Some people say the things [our clients] have done are so terrible that they must die. Well, if you believe in the death penalty, and you believe in justice, you can’t make that statement unless you have absolute assurance that the defendant has had a fair trial. . . .

“Because as soon as we don’t care, then we can start cutting corners. And then it doesn’t matter who the defendant is. Prosecutors who are prone to cheat, judges who are prone to error, jurors who are prone to bias can use all of those same improper excuses to send people to death who are innocent, or . . . maybe committed some offense but don’t deserve to die. If we are not going to be fair . . . then we do not deserve to be able to impose the ultimate sanction. “

Philadelphia deputy district attorney Ron Eisenberg, a slender man with a close-cropped beard, is passionate about the death penalty, too.

“What makes murder so horrible to me is that it affects not just the person but the memory of the person,” says Eisenberg, whose office is working to speed Heidnik’s death.

“When the victim dies, he or she recedes from people’s lives, from people’s thoughts, from people’s memories,” says Eisenberg. “You fight against that if it’s somebody that you care about. But you can’t help having that happen to some degree. Over time, as the years go by, and as the delay tactics succeed, we focus on the person who is left alive. We think about Heidnik as a person, and not about the victims of Heidnik as people. . . .

“In my job there are things that counteract that. You see a lot of really bad, really evil, acts. And a lot of them are not capital murder. You see a lot of horrible things in which people are justly and properly convicted and sentenced to jail for five years or 10 years or even life.

“And then you see some things that are just so much worse than that. That are even beyond all the other horrible things [so] that you feel there has to be some way for us, as a society, to acknowledge the true gravity of what has occurred.

“The law is all about making those distinctions. The justice system is all about assigning those degrees of recognition and culpability to what people do.

“So for me it’s not enough to say, `Hey put ’em all in jail and throw away the key,’ ” says Eisenberg. “That doesn’t account for what some of these people did. For the degree of evil and viciousness in some of these crimes. “

He chained them inside the watery basement of his North Philadelphia rowhouse as if they were his private menagerie. Six women in their 20s, nude or dressed only in tops so he could rape them at will. All vulnerable. All picked up on the streets.

Around their wrists he wrapped muffler clamps, which he cemented shut with Super Glue and attached by chains to the rafters. When he slackened the trusses, it was to spread-eagle his prisoners across a pool table for daily beatings. Music blared day and night to cover their screams. He gouged their eardrums with screwdrivers.

Four months into the ordeal, Josefina Rivera escaped and ran to police.

On March 25, 1987, officers entered the North Marshall Street house. “The stereo was going full volume and the TV in the dining room was at full volume with no picture,” Philadelphia patrolman David Savidge recalled in court testimony. “I went into the basement with a flashlight and observed two females lying on a mattress with a blanket. They were shackled . . . naked from the waist down. We said we were the police, and they started jumping up and down and hugging each other.

“They pointed to the corner, and I observed some bags of dirt over a board. I lifted the board up and a black female who was naked jumped up out of the hole. She was shackled. We uncuffed her. All three girls started hugging each other and saying, `Thank God, we’re saved. ‘ “

Lisa Thomas, Jacqueline Askins and Agnes Adams were brought out into the daylight.

Less lucky were Sandra Lindsay and Deborah Dudley.

Seven weeks before the police raid, on Feb. 7, Lindsay, a 24-year-old mentally retarded woman who worked at the Elwyn Institutes’ facility in West Philadelphia, died after Heidnik hung her by one arm from a wooden beam and stuffed bread into her mouth. Then he butchered her in a bathtub with an electric saw, packaged her limbs in white plastic bags, and put them in his freezer. He cooked her head in an aluminum pot, ground her flesh in a food processor, mixed it with dog food, and fed it to his other captives.

Six weeks later, Heidnik placed Dudley, 23, of North Philadelphia, in a water-filled pit, attached an electrical cord to her chains, plugged it in, and electrocuted her. He dumped her body at Wharton State Forest in Camden County.

Peeling out from behind the high stone walls of Graterford Prison, the motorcade carrying Gary Heidnik to the fluorescent-lit death chamber at Rockview Prison in central Pennsylvania moves quickly under state police guard.

On this morning, Tuesday, April 15, Judge Poserina has ruled that Heidnik is competent to die and that the governor’s death warrant will not be stayed.

Ten years after his conviction, 10 hours before heart-stopping poison and fast-acting barbiturates can be pumped into his veins, he is finally speeding to his appointment with a lethal injection.

In Philadelphia, Dunham and Nolas are moving behind the scenes. In a petition to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, they claim Heidnik’s waiver of appeals is invalid because he’s irrational. They ask the court to appoint his daughter, Maxine White, as his so-called “next friend” to make legal decisions for him.

At the same time, in federal district court they seek a stay of execution. Their argument: Poserina applied the legal standard concerning competency to face execution, when in fact he should have applied the distinct body of law concerning competency to waive appeals. Federal Judge Franklin S. Van Antwerpen gets the case before 10 o’clock and immediately schedules a series of teleconferences.

Heidnik’s motorcade rolls west across the Susquehanna as the lawyers he only just met, acting without his approval, battle to halt an execution he has never opposed.

For their part, prosecutors oppose any further delay. Even if the two legal standards are distinct, they say, both hinge on the same set of facts regarding Heidnik’s sanity, which lower courts have already ruled on.

Perhaps because death cases encourage caution, Judge Van Antwerpen stays the execution at 2 p.m. and schedules an evidentiary hearing for 7 that night.

Heidnik and the four troopers in gray shirts with black epaulets who are assigned to guard him learn of the delay when a cell phone jangles inside their car. “Turn around,” a state police commander orders.

For his hearing in federal court, Heidnik wears a blue-and-white seersucker jumpsuit. This courtroom is bigger, with more spectators, more media, more technology – a speakerphone to amplify the voice of a psychiatric expert in Pittsburgh who is standing by at home to testify.

Heidnik sits down beside Dunham at the defense table, nattering like a mad hatter. “

“Gary, talk to your lawyers a little more softly,” Van Antwerpen says.

Four hours into the hearing, a marathon Nolas shows no signs of stopping, he is cross-examining John O’Brien, the court-appointed psychiatrist who testified in state court, and again tonight, that Heidnik is competent, “cognitively intact. “

Nolas jousts with O’Brien about the doctor’s Heidnik-interview notes, which Nolas contends are at odds with O’Brien’s report to the court. What actually happened, Nolas wants to know. Unexpectedly, Van Antwerpen grants Nolas the extraordinary latitude to examine the notes on the spot – notes that O’Brien made to himself and that have never been introduced as an exhibit in any proceeding.

Snatching O’Brien’s brown accordion file, Nolas fishes through its pockets, gleaning abbreviations and partial phrases that he uses to frame a series of fastball questions. It’s after midnight when the strafing ceases.

More powerful even than the pounding cross-examination is the common reaction of everyone present after this long night of litigation. Federal marshals rub their eyes. Spectators are nodding. Reporters slump. Van Antwerpen is wasted. The lawyers are dead on their feet.

Seated in a leather chair, no longer making a sound, Heidnik is bone tired.

The monster is exhausted, just like everyone else.

Billy Nolas was born Vasilio Horacio Nolas in Buenos Aires to parents of Greek extraction. He came to the United States when he was 8. His parents, who are furriers, settled in the Corona section of Queens, a blue-collar, Hispanic immigrant neighborhood about 30 minutes by subway from Manhattan.

A graduate of Queens College and Georgetown Law School, he honed his skills on death penalty cases in Florida at the Collateral Capital Representative, a state-sponsored defender agency in Tallahassee.

A colleague there recalls how Nolas would travel the state, hole up in cheap motels, gobble take-out food, and rush to court to present evidence from an inmate’s background that might save his life.

“He’s very bright, with an expertise in an area of the law that very few people have,” says attorney Carlo Obligato, who worked with Nolas at CCR.

Nolas is extremely private, in part because he has received death threats for his work.

While he has spent countless hours with death-row inmates, sometimes right up to their final hours, he will not witness their executions, even when they ask. That is not his job, he insists. He is a lawyer, not a partisan.

His partner, Rob Dunham, was born and raised in Mount Airy. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, worked as an intern in the Carter White House, was executive assistant to former State Rep. Bob O’Donnell, and went to Georgetown Law School at 28. An assignment on the death penalty for a law review article was his first exposure to the legal citations that today roll off his tongue.

His grandfather Barrows Dunham was chairman of the philosophy department at Temple University in 1953 when he was called to Washington to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. A member of the American Communist Party from 1938 to 1945, the grandfather abhorred what he viewed as a witch hunt. “I don’t want to become a party to a medieval inquisition,” he said, invoking the Fifth Amendment.

When he returned to Philadelphia, his loyalty was questioned, his reputation ruined. Congress cited him for contempt. Despite 16 years of service to Temple, the university’s board accused him of taking the Fifth “to evade his duty. ” It fired him and barred him from campus.

In 1955, a federal district court in Washington overturned his contempt conviction. A year later, the American Association of University Professors censured Temple for firing him without due process. The censure was lifted in 1961. In 1981, in an effort to make amends, Temple appointed him emeritus professor of philosophy, finally enabling him to collect his pension. He died two years ago.

So if there is a principled streak in Robert Dunham, he comes by it naturally. His cluttered office at the edge of Independence Mall, across the street from the first U.S. Supreme Court, prominently displays pictures of his grandfather.

What if someone close to Dunham were brutally murdered? How would he feel? What would he want?

“I’d want to kill the son of a bitch myself,” Dunham says. “But that’s why we have laws . . . to protect society against our baser instincts. “

By 2 p.m. Wednesday, April 16, Judge Van Antwerpen has ruled that the execution can proceed.

But Nolas and Dunham have quickly appealed that ruling, and 24 hours later, on Thursday, April 17, more than 100 spectators are inside the round, wood-paneled courtroom of the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals when a three-judge panel, backed by a bronze eagle and flanked by blue velvet ropes, hears arguments in Heidnik’s case.

Now, fewer than 60 hours before Heidnik’s death warrant is to expire (taking with it the state’s authority to kill him without having to start the warrant process all over again), it is time to play Beat the Clock.

Heidnik isn’t in court this time. He doesn’t have to be.

Nolas is barely into his argument when a judge interrupts him with a query.

Why is somebody opposed to capital punishment, like Heidnik, someone who says he believes that his execution will help end it, necessarily delusional? Judge Edward Becker asks.

“If a mentally healthy person said that, your honor would be correct,” replies Nolas. But Heidnik thinks that his execution will end them all “by magic,” that taking his life will lead to abolition.

Then prosecutor Eisenberg begins and he, too, is interrupted.

“Help me,” says Judge Walter Stapleton, “because I don’t see where either [Poserina or Van Antwerpen] has answered the question. . . . What is the rational basis for a decision that `I want to die? ‘ “

It is 2 a.m. Friday, April 18 – 34 hours to the deadline on the warrant and counting – when the Third Circuit reverses the case and sends it back to Van Antwerpen, who issues a temporary stay later that morning, as instructed by the higher court. “Mr. Heidnik may be crazy,” says Van Antwerpen, “but our legal system is, too. To deal with these issues in the time limits we have been given is intolerable. “

In a petition filed immediately that asks the U.S. Supreme Court to vacate the Third Circuit decision, prosecutor Eisenberg is similarly blunt: “This case typifies much of what is wrong in the capital litigation process,” he writes. “For the last decade, this defendant has consistently maintained his desire not to appeal his death sentence. . . . Nonetheless, parties claiming next-friend status, represented by death-penalty-defense lawyers, [have] sought to block the execution at the eleventh hour. “

At 9 Friday night – 27 hours to deadline – a narrowly divided U.S. Supreme Court overturns the Third Circuit, clearing the way for Heidnik to die.

He is already in Rockview, dressed for death in a white, short-sleeved shirt with Velcro fastenings, beltless brown trousers, white socks and sneakers.

The prison is making plans for a 2 a.m. Saturday execution. In a cell 30 feet from the death chamber, Heidnik eats what he thinks is his last meal: eggs, hash browns, coffee and toast.

But at 10 p.m. Friday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court halts the execution pending further review of the next-friend issue. That stay is in effect two hours later, at 12:15 a.m. Saturday, when the U.S. Supreme Court refuses to vacate it.

Until the machinery rumbles again, the monster is spared.

Reflecting on the victory, Dunham is sanguine: “The longer you do it, the more astonished you become at how many things are wrong in death penalty cases. . . . The more you see, the less you like. . . . But when I do this, and I win, somebody is alive who might otherwise be dead.”

Writer bio: Michael Matza is an immigration writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Since joining the Inquirer in 1987, he has worked in the Metro, Features, National and Foreign news departments. Working for two years on projects about the Philadelphia Police Department, he co-authored two series about police manipulation of crime statistics, and pervasive problems with the city’s Rape Squad. Both were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

Welcome to Philly’s Robot Revolution


Sandy Hingston | Philadelphia Magazine | September 2016

“You can stop if you want to,” Katherine Kuchenbecker says, smiling a little as Graspy stretches out his metal arm to high-five me. This is problematic because I’m trying to take notes, and if I keep writing I can’t meet Graspy’s hand, or sort-of hand, which is more like a metallic claw equipped with sensor pads. I could shun him, as Kuchenbecker suggests — just let that appendage hover in mid-air as I jot down his price (about $400,000, Kuchenbecker says, “the cost of a house”) and the name of the company that made him. But Graspy is the first robot I’ve ever met, and I don’t want to hurt his feelings. Even though, of course, he doesn’t have any feelings. He’s a robot. But I’m a human being.

Graspy lives — well, exists — in the University of Pennsylvania’s GRASP (General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception) Lab, the research center where Kuchenbecker works as director of the Penn Haptics Group. He’s considered a humanoid robot, though the emphasis should be on oid. He’s big and square and doesn’t have a face, though my mind can’t help but make one out of two round holes and a wide rectangular slot where his face would be if he had one. He’s wearing a jaunty Xbox hat.

Kuchenbecker and her students have spent hundreds of hours working through complex mathematical formulas so that Graspy and I can play our little clapping game: high-five left, high-five right, high-five both hands! High-five left, high-five right, high-five both hands! I’d hate for Graspy to know it, but frankly, I’m underwhelmed. Having spent the past few weeks soaking in the dire warnings of robot alarmists like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk (who once called the development of artificial intelligence “summoning the demon”) and the giddy prognostications of robot devotees like tech guru Ray Kurzweil (“the biotechnology and nanotechnology revolutions will enable us to eliminate virtually all medical causes of death”), I was expecting … more. More natural movement, for one thing. More, I don’t know — speed? Range? Human-ity?

Writer bio: Sandy Hingston is a senior editor at Philadelphia Magazine. Hingston, a Bucks County native, joined the magazine in 1990. While she graduated from Duke University, her parents met at Temple.

Continue reading “Welcome to Philly’s Robot Revolution”

The Painful Arc


Will Bunch | The Undefeated | August 2016

All those thousands of jump shots before breakfast, all the AAU and YMCA games where he perfected his long-range game, even the national championship he won with Roy Williams at North Carolina hadn’t prepared Wayne Ellington for this moment.

The musty mausoleum-like gym at North Philadelphia’s Girard College — where the 28-year-old Miami Heat shooting guard would feel most at home — was upstairs and empty for now. Instead, he was down in this sweltering basement on a brutal August afternoon, standing up to address about 50 young men and teens who were leaning forward on their hard metal chairs to hear the soft-spoken college standout turned NBA journeyman.

He clutched a white sheet of paper in his right hand, his shooting hand, and grasped to find the word or phrase that would persuade even one of these youths to steer clear of the gun violence that is epidemic in cities like Philadelphia – where a person is shot, on average, every six hours.

“My father was taken from me and my family by a senseless act of gun violence – a tragedy that shook up me and our family to our core,” Ellington told the players taking part in the first Philadelphia Peace Games tournament on Saturday to promote nonviolence through basketball. “I want to do anything in my power to prevent this from happening to another family. Change starts with us, and I really believe that you all have a choice, to say no to violence.”

Two years ago, Ellington would have had only a shared love for the hardwood in common with these young men. That was before the afternoon of Nov. 9, 2014. That’s when 57-year-old Wayne Ellington Sr., who lived in the racially mixed, middle-class Philadelphia neighborhood of Germantown, sent a pregame good-luck text to his son (then a Los Angeles Laker), got into his red Oldsmobile, then got into a heated discussion with a 34-year-old man standing outside the car who took out a gun and shot him in the head.

Writer bio: Will Bunch is a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News and author of “Tear Down This Myth” and “The Backlash.” He shared the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Reporting with a group of New York Newsday reporters who covered a deadly Manhattan subway derailment in 1991.

Continue reading “The painful arc”

The War Against Bad Cops

APTOPIX Philadelphia Officer Shot

David Gambacorta | Philadelphia Magazine | October 2015

IT WAS TIME for Chuck Ramsey to tell everybody a story. Philadelphia’s police commissioner is an artist behind a podium, as comfortable as an old guitarist on a concert stage, shifting effortlessly between folksy charm and eloquence.

But there was no trace of Ramsey the showman on this July morning in 2014. The conference room in the Chestnut Street headquarters of the U.S. Attorney’s Office was lousy with reporters, all of us speed-reading a jaw-dropping 42-page indictment and pounding out one-sentence highlights on our cell phones. The commissioner stood quietly, looking miserable and exhausted, like a gravedigger at the end of a busy day.

Ramsey told us the case was one of the worst examples of police corruption he’d ever seen. And he’s seen plenty. In a nearly 50-year policing career that has taken him from Chicago to Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia, Ramsey has encountered just about every crooked-cop trope imaginable — the drunks, the wife-beaters, the shakedown artists and thieves. He’s kicked at least 160 cops to the curb in Philadelphia alone, but that number really doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. Each case is maddening. Each one gnaws at Ramsey.

Some of the lowlights have stood out more than others. In 2010, officer Kenneth Crockett was caught stealing $825 from a Frankford bar while responding to a burglar alarm in the wee hours. Small potatoes, maybe, except for the fact that the bar was Pat’s Café, where officer Gary Skerski took his final steps before a shotgun blasted him in the neck in 2006. A cop ripping off a bar was bad enough, but that bar?

Then there was Ron Dove, a walking, talking plot of a Lifetime movie. After his girlfriend allegedly stabbed her ex-boyfriend to death in 2013, police charge, Dove — a veteran homicide detective — went off the deep end. A grand jury found that he fed one line of bullshit after another to detectives who were investigating the murder, working overtime to cover his girlfriend’s tracks. His acts of devotion allegedly included stashing her car in a garage, secreting her away in a hotel in upstate New York, and supplying her with a burner phone from Walmart. (Dove has yet to go to trial.)

Even the bosses, the people Ramsey relied on to set a straight-and-narrow example, were the source of double-Excedrin migraines. In 2012, the Daily News uncovered a string of sexual harassment allegations that had been leveled against an array of commanding officers, including a captain and two inspectors — all of whom kept climbing the career ladder despite a litany of lawsuits and complaints.

The crime allegations and embarrassing behavior knew no boundaries, which suggested that a larger, systemic problem was plaguing the police department, eating away at its credibility. Were people acting this way because they thought they could get away with it, because they’d watched others do the same before?

That was the poisonous notion Ramsey hoped to dispel for good when he took to that podium in 2014, alongside members of the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and excommunicated six Philadelphia narcotics cops from the law-enforcement world — Thomas Liciardello, Brian Reynolds, John Speiser, Perry Betts, Michael Spicer and Linwood Norman.

According to the indictment, they weren’t just bad cops; the squad was a Martin Scorcese fever dream come to life. They were accused of beating, robbing and kidnapping suspected drug dealers across the city during a six-year reign of terror, using their badges as battering rams as they pocketed $500,000 worth of cash, drugs and loot. You wouldn’t play ball and tell them where the cash was stashed? Bang! Goodbye, teeth, the indictment alleged. Or maybe you’d be more cooperative after being dangled over the side of an 18th-floor apartment balcony.

This was way more than just a public relations dumpster fire that needed to be stamped out. The entire case shouted not only that corruption was tolerated within the police department, but that it flourished. The arrests of the six officers were supposed to represent something big, a decisive moral victory in a battle Ramsey had been fighting since he got here — a battle for the soul of the department.

Their badges, Ramsey later said. We’ll destroy them. Melt them.

Writer bio: David Gambacorta, a Philly native, wrote about crime, police corruption and politics at the Philadelphia Daily News for more than 10 years. He joined Philadelphia Magazine as a senior reporter in 2016.

Continue reading “The War Against Bad Cops”

Survival, in verse

Hit and Run Victim

Aubrey Whelan | The Philadelphia Inquirer | June 2016

As hundreds of teenagers thump into their folding seats in the cavernous downtown theater, the poets of Edison High huddle under the dim lights backstage.

Turn in a pitch-perfect performance today and make the finals. Otherwise, season’s over.

The odds are not with them.

Since February, when this citywide slam poetry competition started, the team from the North Philadelphia school has not once won. While the poets’ desire is palpable, their verses are raw, their delivery sometimes halting.

But every Friday they have showed up anyway, battling much more seasoned, more confident, poets from schools across the city — all because of a promise, made the summer before and mired in the kind of grief that has become a rite of passage where they’re from.

Zaire Douglas, a senior and one of the team’s leaders, reminds them of one thing before they go onstage at the Gershman Y.

“We are doing this,” Zaire says, “for Tyrone.”

Writer bio: Aubrey Whelan is an enterprise reporter for The Inquirer. Whelan, a Lansdale native and Penn State graduate, wrote for the Washington Examiner before joining the Inky in 2012.

Continue reading Survival, in verse

Stunned by cuts


Mike Jensen | The Philadelphia Inquirer | December 2013

Barely more than an hour after he got the news, Gavin White sat in his car in the driveway next to the Liacouras Center, blinkers flashing, rain filling his windshield. He looked at his ringing phone.

“This is my wife,” said Temple’s men’s rowing coach, in his 34th year on the job.

“Hey, Whitey,” White said, getting right to why he had left her a message to call. “They cut crew. . . . Yes, they did. They cut seven sports. They cut men and women’s crew. I think the whole boathouse thing, we cut our own throats with that. They cut baseball, softball, gymnastics.” During the call, White’s right hand began shaking but his voice stayed even.

“You plan the party,” White told his wife.

His wife had been telling him that when he finally got out she would throw the biggest party known to man.

“You hear her?” White said when he got off the phone. “She was cursing a blue streak.” White, whose Varsity 8 had won the Dad Vail Regatta 20 times, wore his Temple shirt identifying him as the crew coach. His Temple ID hung from his neck.

“I bleed Temple blood,” White said. “Yeah, I do.”

Writer bio: Among other assignments, Mike Jensen writes “Off Campus,” a regular column on college sports for the Inquirer. A staff writer with the paper since 1988, Jensen covered college basketball and football beats for 15 years, wrote about soccer from 10 countries on five continents, and was assigned to the Kentucky Derby the year of Smarty Jones. He won Eclipse Awards for his coverage of Smarty Jones and Barbaro.

Continue reading “Stunned by cuts”

Dream Derailed


Mike Sielski | Bucks County Courier Times | July 2009

“I think I came here because your time was so short. I can see you’ve done well. It would have killed some men to get so close. They’d never do anything but talk about how close they were.”
– from “Shoeless Joe” by W.P. Kinsella

DREXEL HILL – There is nothing on or near Harry O’Neill’s grave marker that hints at the full scope of his story. He is buried at Arlington Cemetery here, underneath a giant pine tree that shades his stone and softens the heat of a July afternoon. The cemetery is set amid a neighborhood of row houses, not far from the Laundromats and beer distributors that line West Chester Pike, but from Harry O’Neill’s grave, past a canopy of verdant trees, there is a clear view of a lovely little street of single-family homes.

“It’s a beautiful spot,” says one of the directors of Toppitzer Funeral Home, headquartered at the cemetery.

The words on O’Neill’s marker provide the rudimentary details of his life: that he was born on May 8, 1917; that he was a 1st lieutenant in the 4th Marine Division; that he served in World War II; that he died at age 27 on March 6, 1945. The date of his death offers a small clue about him, for it suggests that he was killed in action. And he was, at Iwo Jima.

What the marker does not mention is this: Seventy years ago, on July 23, 1939, Harry O’Neill played his only game as a major-league baseball player. More specifically, he played his only inning as a major-league baseball player, catching the bottom of the eighth for the Philadelphia Athletics in an otherwise unmemorable 16-3 loss to the Detroit Tigers. He never batted that day in Detroit, and he never played in an official major-league game again.

If that aspect of O’Neill’s story sounds familiar, it’s because another player’s similar tale has been immortalized in literature and film. In 1982, Kinsella published “Shoeless Joe” and introduced the world to Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, who played one inning of one game for the New York Giants in 1905 before retiring from baseball to become a doctor. Seven years later, Burt Lancaster played Graham in “Field of Dreams,” the now-famous screen adaptation of Kinsella’s book. Sports Illustrated recently marked the 20th anniversary of the release of “Field of Dreams” by calling it “the quintessential moving-image expression of why we love baseball.” In fact, the popularity of the film led authors Brett Friedlander and R.W. Reising to write a biography of Graham, “Chasing Moonlight,” that was published earlier this year.

Harry O’Neill hasn’t been resurrected as a character in an Academy Award-nominated movie, and he doesn’t have his own link on barnesandnoble.com. For being one of two major-league baseball players to die in combat during World War II, for his unique journey from Philadelphia to a deadly battle on a faraway island, he has a beautiful spot in a cemetery. That is all. In fact, the shards of Harry O’Neill’s story survive still in only a few sources – in dust-covered boxes of microfilm that contain blurry replicas of broadsheets and tabloids, in a Pennsylvania college’s archive, and in the fading memories of old men.

* * *

Born in South Philadelphia but raised in the Delaware County neighborhood of Darby, Harry O’Neill cut the admirable figure of the All-American athlete. He played three sports – football, basketball, baseball – at Darby High School and at Gettysburg College. By the time he was a senior at Gettysburg, he stood at least 6-foot-2 (depending on newspaper reports) and weighed 200 pounds. In his senior-year photograph in the Spectrum, the college’s yearbook, he wore a look of wariness on his oval face, his hair swept in a part from right to left and held there, presumably, by a dollop of pomade.

As he had been at Darby High, O’Neill was an excellent three-sport athlete at Gettysburg, but baseball was where he was at his best. During his junior season, 1938, he singled in a run in the ninth inning to beat Penn State, 5-4 – an upset as surprising then as it would be today – and “behind the plate, he showed himself to be a heady receiver,” according to the 1939 Spectrum. He batted .500 in his senior season with six extra-base hits, including a long home run against Lebanon Valley College. He graduated in 1939 and was immediately a major-league prospect, and the A’s signed him on June 5 for a monthly salary of $4,200.

Al Brancato, who played 21 games that season for the A’s as a third baseman and shortstop, has only a vague recollection of O’Neill. “I thought he came up at the end of the year,” says Brancato, who just turned 90 and still lives in Delaware County. “I’m surprised I don’t remember.”

At the time O’Neill joined them, the A’s were 17-24. They would finish the 1939 season with a 55-97 record, the midpoint of a horrid nine-year stretch in which they never lost fewer than 91 games in any season. O’Neill’s signing would seem to have been a nice opportunity for some good press and public relations for the A’s: Here was a local kid signing with his hometown franchise. Why not play him once or twice just for the sake of novelty? But even on a team going nowhere, O’Neill would have to wait 48 days before he caught a single pitch.

* * *

The game in which O’Neill played was the A’s season distilled into nine awful innings. Earle Mack – the son of Connie Mack and the team’s interim manager – used 19 players in the game. By the end of the fourth inning, the Tigers had a 12-1 lead, and James C. Isaminger, who covered the game for the Philadelphia Inquirer, pointed out that the 9,772 fans at Briggs Stadium were “enjoying the cool breezes” and their team’s easy victory.

Of the reporters from the four Philadelphia newspapers covering the game – the Inquirer, the Daily News, the Bulletin and the Record – Isaminger was the only one who took notice in print that Earle Mack inserted Harry O’Neill into the game to replace Frankie Hayes.

“Henry O’Neill, of Gettysburg, Pa., went behind the plate in the eighth for his major league christening,” Isaminger wrote in his game story. “He did not bat and had little to do behind the plate.”

With O’Neill catching him, pitcher Chubby Dean walked two Detroit hitters in the bottom of the eighth but did not allow a run. After the game, the A’s split into two traveling parties. One went back to Philadelphia. O’Neill was part of the second, which took a train to Cooperstown, N.Y., to help celebrate “Connie Mack Day” at the Baseball Hall of Fame by playing an exhibition game against the Penn Athletic Club, a semipro team.

The next day, as Pennsylvania Governor Arthur H. James and 3,500 other spectators at Abner Doubleday Park looked on, the A’s beat the Penn Athletic Club, 12-6. O’Neill, however, went 0-for-4. Based on that performance, apparently, Earle Mack didn’t consider O’Neill worth a second look.

* * *

The last man to see Harry O’Neill alive lives in Vineland, N.J., in a little red-brick rancher with an American flap flapping in the front yard and Marine memorabilia – caps, photos, metallic emblems – strategically placed around his living room. Private 1st Class James Kontes doesn’t like to talk much about his experience at Iwo Jima, but he has agreed to share what he remembers about the day O’Neill died.

Three weeks before his brief moment in the majors came and went, O’Neill already had begun preparing for his life after pro baseball. Upper Darby Junior High School had hired him as a history teacher and as its head football, baseball and basketball coach. After one school year there, he gave the game one last try, playing minor-league and semipro ball in Harrisburg. He then enlisted in the Marines in September 1942 – less than a year after Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor.

Once he graduated from the Marines’ Officer Candidate School at Quantico, Va., O’Neill was assigned to the 4th Marine Division, training at Camp Pendleton, near San Diego. His wife, Ethel, visited him there in January 1944, staying until her husband and the rest of the 4th Division boarded the U.S.S. Calloway, bound for the Pacific Theater.

As part of the division’s 25th Weapons Company, O’Neill followed the fighting from island to island – Kwajalein, Saipan, Tinian – returning to a San Francisco naval hospital for a month after sustaining a shell-fragment wound to his right arm.

“Everybody liked Harry,” says Kontes, 90, who adds that O’Neill didn’t often mention his short time as a major-league player. “After each operation, we’d come back to the base to get more training and get ready for the next one.”

On Feb. 19, 1945, the 4th Marine Division landed on the black, volcanic sand of Iwo Jima. The Japanese, hunkered down along the beach, were waiting for them. “At the end of the fighting, the American dead totaled 6,821,” according to Larry Smith, who authored an oral history of the battle. “It was the only campaign the Marines ever fought in which they took more casualties than the enemy.”

The 4th Division had launched an assault on the morning of March 6, and by the evening, the men had struggled to advance forward through small-arms and mortar fire from Japanese forces. Deep in a crater, as the sun began to set, Kontes found himself next to O’Neill. Neither of them knew a sniper’s sight was trained on them.

“We were standing shoulder to shoulder,” Kontes says, “Harry was on my left. We were looking out at the terrain in front of us. And this shot came out of nowhere.

“I think the guy must have been in a tree or something. That was their favorite place to shoot from. They got Harry. They took him out because he was taller. He didn’t suffer. The corpsman and a couple of guys showed up with a stretcher and picked him up and carried him away.”

* * *

On May 31, 1945, in her family’s modest home at 618 Pine St. in Darby, Harry’s mother, Susanna, took hold of a pencil and a small slip of white paper.

Henry Bream, Harry’s football coach at Gettysburg College, had contacted Susanna and her husband to offer his condolences over their son’s death. Bream’s gesture clearly had touched Susanna. In response, she wrote him a thank-you note.

Dear Mr. Bream,

Mr. O’Neill and I thank you for your kind words of sympathy.

We are trying to keep our courage up, as Harry would want us to do, but our hearts are very sad and as the days go on it seems to be getting worse. Harry was always so full of life, that it seems hard to think he is gone. But God knows best and perhaps someday, we will understand why all this sacrifice of so many fine young men.

It gives us some comfort to know you thought so well of Harry and that he had so many nice friends.


Susanna O’Neill

Gettysburg College keeps a copy of Susanna’s note to Bream on file in the special collections room of its library. Ethel O’Neill has since died, and she and Harry had no children. So aside from the note, there are only so many people and places left now where one can flush out the skeletal story of Harry O’Neill’s life with some flesh and color.

“It should be a big deal,” Al Brancato says. “You’d think I’d remember something like that.”

Some still do. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a column about O’Neill before Memorial Day. Baseball historian Gary Bedingfield is including a chapter about O’Neill in his upcoming book about professional ballplayers who fought and died in World War II. And the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society in Hatboro has a black-and-white, 8 1/2 x 11 photograph of O’Neill in its archives, though a scribble of pen across the top misidentifies him as “Henry O’Neill.”

It is perhaps the only existing photo of Harry O’Neill in his Philadelphia A’s uniform, and there is a bitter irony in the moment that the photo captures. His right foot is twisted and perched on its toes, like a ballet dancer’s. His hips have rotated counterclockwise. His right arm has jerked across his chest as if he has thrown a punch. His eyes stare straight ahead, following something in the distance. In the photograph, Harry O’Neill has just done the one thing that he never had the chance to do in the majors.

He has just swung a bat.

Writer bio: Mike Sielski, a graduate of Upper Dublin High School and LaSalle University, is a sports columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He wrote for The Allentown Morning Call, Bucks County Courier Times and The Wall Street Journal before joining the Inky in 2013.

Surviving Car 1


Jason Laughlin | The Philadelphia Inquirer | May 2016

Daniel Armyn opened his eyes and saw a train wheel spinning above him.

Smoke from an electrical fire stung his nostrils. Nearby someone cried.

“Every minute of the day I can see this,” he says a year later. “I can paint this photograph.”

Blair Berman awoke in woods lit by a half-moon. Strangers lay on her legs, screaming for help. She tried to pull herself upright by a tree and collapsed.

A year later, her New York City life has been replaced with physical therapy back home in Gwynedd Valley and slow recovery.

Days passed before Geralyn Ritter regained consciousness. Her first memory is hearing a voice, then seeing her husband, brother, and mother. She was in the hospital, with a tube in her throat that kept her from speaking. She tried to mouth, “But I’m going to be OK, right?”

A year later, she still doesn’t know the answer.

The evening of May 12, 2015, Armyn, Berman, and Ritter boarded Amtrak Train 188 to New York City. Eleven minutes after departing 30th Street Station, there was shaking, a sickening tilt, then darkness. They were all in the first car, the business car, when the train derailed rounding the Frankford Curve.

Writer bio: Jason Laughlin covers transportation for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He wrote for the Courier-Post for eight years, and served as a spokesman for the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office for seven years, before joining the Inky in 2014. He earned his undergraduate degree from The College of William and Mary, and graduate degrees from Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania.

Continue reading the “Surviving Car 1”

Hope on the Diamond


Mike Sielski | The Philadelphia Inquirer | November 2015

LAKEWOOD, N.J. — Children shuffled toward Jairo Muñoz. They knew nothing about him except what they saw: a 6-foot-5 pitcher, 24 years old, skinny as a snake and smiling at them shyly, his navy-blue-trimmed white uniform drooping off him like a limp flag from a pole. Each of them offered him a cap, or a baseball, or a sleeve of a shirt, and a pen. They said little. He said less.

They had watched Muñoz pitch for the Lakewood BlueClaws, the Phillies’ single-A affiliate in the South Atlantic League, and he had pitched well, earning the win in a 12-3 victory over the Delmarva Shorebirds: five innings, six hits, two runs, four strikeouts, his fastball reaching 96 m.p.h., his curveball sharp. It was Labor Day. It was the last game of Lakewood’s season. Fans could wander on to the field at FirstEnergy Park afterward to talk with the players, to get their autographs. It was an event made for kids, and one by one kids approached him.

Hi. Could you. Sign. This. For me?

Si. Hello there.

The boys and girls, none older than 10, might not have been mature enough to comprehend or appreciate what it had taken for Muñoz to be there, to turn each item into a child’s talisman by scribbling his signature on it, to have the chance to pitch in the major leagues someday. The nights alone in that one-room apartment in West Philadelphia, nothing around him but a mattress, some prepaid phone cards, and a Bible. The days on which his only meal had been a bag of potato chips with a lapsed expiration date. The fear that it was only a matter of time before he would have no life in this country at all, that he would return to the Dominican Republic, to the wife and daughter waiting for him there, with nothing but a dream that had turned to dust here. These were grave matters, hard things for innocent minds and hearts to process.

Still, if you were the children’s parents, you would want them to hear Muñoz’s story, because there would be something valuable they might extract from it — a small lesson, perhaps, about the choices and risks and rules and consequences that structure a society and can define a single life, about straining to see light when everything appears dark, about being brave and generous and kind, about never giving up.

“This is the best day of my life,” Muñoz said. “Not everyone gets a second chance.”

It was fitting, then, that five of the people who had helped to give him that chance, who kept steering him along his twisting, oft-treacherous road when he might have careened into despair, were there on the field with him. They were standing in a semicircle around him in the late-afternoon sunshine, looking at him with pride and love as he signed his name again and again and gently shook each child’s hand.

Every pitch I see him throw, one of them had said during the game, is a miracle.

Yes, you’d want a child to hear a story like that.

Writer bio: Mike Sielski, a graduate of Upper Dublin High School and LaSalle University, is a sports columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He wrote for The Allentown Morning Call, Bucks County Courier Times and The Wall Street Journal before joining the Inky in 2013.

Continue reading the “Hope on the Diamond” series: Parts 1, 2, 3

The Incredible Shrinking Police Commissioner


Noel Weyrich | Philadelphia Magazine | April 2004

Here’s how Sylvester Johnson remembers it.

It is March 1998, and John Timoney has just hit town as the new police commissioner. He needs a first deputy to run the police department day to day, and senior commanders are jockeying hard for the job, pulling on their political strings, putting the squeeze on the new top cop to advance them. Timoney calls in Johnson, the deputy commissioner for narcotics, who hasn’t been lobbying anyone.

“You know what?” Timoney says to him. “I don’t know you. But what I do know is that I got letters from all kinds of politicians. Not one of them was for you. Then I met with the Black Clergy. They mentioned you. But they told me not to make you.”

Politicians, including the Black Clergy, have always had a lot of pull inside Philadelphia’s police department, but Timoney doesn’t need them— he already has the job. What he needs is a capable and credible second-in-command. The neighborhood leaders want Johnson because he’s been fighting the drug trade alongside them. The police union thinks he’s fair and honest. The FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency— they all say Johnson’s the guy. The FBI tells Timoney that Johnson is the only member of the department it trusts. Johnson himself knows that Timoney needs him— he’s the one who can work with minority neighborhoods, where most violent crimes take place. The perfect, hands-on number-two man.

And so on April 9th, 1998, garrulous and theatrical John Timoney introduced quiet, unprepossessing Sylvester Johnson as the department’s only three-star deputy commissioner, first among equals on Timoney’s command staff. Before that day, most of the public had never heard of Sylvester Johnson. By the time Timoney left town less than four years later, Johnson— who had spent nearly 40 years in a department scarred by corruption and brutality scandals, race riots and rampages; who had risen through the ranks as if through the eye of a hurricane— had become his natural successor.

Johnson is a practicing Muslim, someone dismissive of politicians and ill at ease with public speaking, so he was nonetheless an unusual pick. Timoney always basked in the media’s glow, courting public favor, projecting with that flat shovel of a face that he was a guy who was going places and we were lucky to hold him while we could.

At age 61, Johnson is the Un-Timoney— quiet, impassive, oval-faced. An investigator. A listener. A sphinx. He’s a private person determined to come up with his own answers, which is what attracted him to the controversial Nation of Islam sect in the mid-’60s. As a young Philadelphia cop, he came to terms with the racism in the department— and his own place in it— through Islam’s rigorous attention to self-discipline and responsibility.

Johnson is, literally and figuratively, self-driven. Every Philadelphia police commissioner in recent memory has had a regular driver, a cop to play Sancho Panza, ride shotgun with the boss and rack up untold hours of overtime as Car One idles at the curb. Johnson, though, is so much a loner that he prefers to drive solo. “I don’t have to make small talk,” he explains as he steers Car One down 8th Street toward the Roundhouse. He drives slowly and carefully, with a wary eye on the street, as if he’s still a lowly cop on patrol.

Johnson often seems blind to how his go-it-alone style might undercut his ability to lead (his derisive nickname among disgruntled cops is “Stevie Wonder”; Timoney’s was “Broadway Tim”), and in the past year, the commissioner has been buffeted by one public-relations disaster after another: having his photograph taken with the Mayor and an ex-convict who, it turned out, still had two open drug cases pending; the discovery of the infamous City Hall bug; his outraged reaction to an independent report critical of police discipline; the Mayor holding a press conference to explain why Johnson’s second in command got a gun permit after failing a background check.

Each time, Sylvester Johnson has reacted with clumsy defensiveness or shrugged off the problem entirely. To Johnson, police work is about the work. It’s the only job, he says, where you can save a life, take a life, or give your life. What people say about it comes second. He took this job, his last job, not to burnish his image, but to set right some things in a perennially troubled department he’s belonged to for four decades. Now, as Johnson meanders down 8th Street, questions about him are looming larger— whether he can effectively lead his department, yes, but also just how long a police commissioner who avoids playing the perception game can survive. Since he’s gotten this far without massaging the media, he’s not about to start now. But he’s hardly oblivious to the media’s power. “Every police chief,” he says, “is just one headline away from losing his job.”

Writer bio: Noel Weyrich, a native of Jersey City and graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, wrote for local and national publications for more than 20 years. He currently ghostwrites and edits business books.

Continue reading “The Incredible Shrinking Police Commissioner”

4:52 on Christmas Morning


Dan P. Lee | New York Magazine | December 2012

Matt Badger believes that what happened happened for a reason. That his children were born in order to live in order to die the way they did, that out of it something meaningful must come. If at any point it becomes clear to him that he is wrong, that what happened is instead an anecdote of the universe’s brutal indifference, then he will kill himself.

This kind of faith renders all starting points equally as relevant and moot, including that early morning of December 25, 2011, in Stamford, Connecticut, where, on the peninsula of Shippan Avenue, Engine 4 was racing, sirens blaring. Inside 2267 Shippan, a 116-year-old Victorian house, three girls—Lily, 9, and her 7-year-old twin sisters, Sarah and Grace—had wanted to make a fire on Christmas Eve. Michael Borcina, the contractor working on the house for the past year, whose relationship with the owner, Madonna Badger, had recently turned romantic, placed a bundle of wood and two Dura­flame fire-starters in the fireplace in the living room. The fire was warming the newly opened-up first floor by the time Madonna’s parents, Lomer and Pauline Johnson, arrived from Lomer’s final shift playing Santa Claus at Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The artificial tree was lit; the stockings were hung. Earlier in the day, the girls had played outside, riding their bikes in the street. Grace lit electric candles. Madonna cooked a ham dinner. She was, at 47, among the most successful advertising executives in New York City; she had recently divorced her husband and had bought the house the previous December. Renovations were only now finally inching toward completion; despite wishing everything to be perfect for the holidays, Madonna had called off the painters who’d been scheduled to return that morning.

At 10 p.m., the girls were herded up the stairs to their pink-and-white bedrooms on the third floor. They believed that Santa Claus was nearing the air above Connecticut. It was difficult to get them to sleep. Borcina, who’d been staying in the three-car garage out back and was spending his first night in the house, read aloud Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas to the children. Lily was, despite being the oldest, always the most sensitive, and she made a fuss about not wanting to sleep alone; she and Sarah fell asleep together, in the twins’ turreted room. Grace ended up in bed with her grandparents.

Madonna and Borcina commenced wrapping gifts in the garage out back, where their cache was secreted. It was 3:32 a.m.—Madonna glanced at the clock—when they returned through the kitchen with their arms full of presents. They arranged them under the tree. The fire was long out. Madonna asked Borcina to prepare the fireplace, which was unkempt with spent ashes, for Christmas morning. He separated the partially burned logs, shoveling the ash into a paper shopping bag, running his hands through them to make sure they were cold, then placing the bag inside an empty plastic storage box. He deposited the bag in the mudroom, near 43 unused Duraflame logs Madonna had purchased from Stop & Shop. He washed the soot from his hands in the new, deep sink. They ate apple pie and drank milk and tea. It was late. Rounding the corner to climb the narrow butler’s stairwell off the kitchen, Madonna glanced into the mudroom. She flipped off all the lights.

She lay down in bed with Borcina in the back rear-corner bedroom and accidentally fell asleep, waking sometime after 4 a.m. to his tapping her. She made her way to the second-floor master bedroom that composed the entire front of the house and a corner facing Long Island Sound, slid the pocket doors behind her, and fell into bed.

Outside, it was 28 degrees. A breeze from the northwest blew at six to eight miles an hour. The only sound was of the sea gurgling and hissing and intermittently slapping. Inside, it was dark; near the kitchen, beside the basement stairs, the keypad for the new fire-detection-and-security system, not yet powered, was dark, too. In the mudroom, inside the brown paper bag, it had begun, the process of deterioration favored by all molecules on Earth, now accelerated by combustion, blackness spreading across the surface of the ash like oil pooling, giving way to white wisps of smoke, the suggestion of incandescence, ruddiness, finally: fire.

Writer bio: Dan P. Lee, a South Jersey native, wrote for The Press of Atlantic City and Philadelphia Magazine before joining New York Magazine as a contributing writer.

Continue reading “4:52 on Christmas Morning”

The Wreck of Train 188


The Staff of The Philadelphia Inquirer | May 2015

The train pulled out of 30th Street Station at 9:10 p.m. Tuesday, one minute late.

Pretty good, really. Less than 90 minutes to New York. On board, the new passengers settled in among the Washington crowd who two hours earlier had taken the best seats.

Rachel Jacobs, 39, phoned her husband, telling him she’d made the train. The Swarthmore grad was recently hired as CEO at an online learning start-up in University City.

David Hayes, 52, and a colleague headed straight for the cafe car. He’d just finished directing rehearsals at the Friends Center for the final concert of the Philadelphia Singers.

The Amtrak Northeast Regional train abounded with people like that – a high-IQ express of the rolling elite, educated, and accomplished.

Seat after seat held one success story after another: an olive oil entrepreneur, a college dean, a banker, a Hungarian artist, two men who’d just come from a White House-sponsored conference on Asian Heritage Month.

Two hundred thirty-eight passengers in all, plus five crew. Trenton would be next, around 9:36.

A few minutes into the run, Train 188 was rolling, with North Philly a blur outside the windows in the darkness.

In the fourth car, the club car, an assistant conductor said she heard a radio transmission. Her engineer, Brandon Bostian, was telling a SEPTA engineer a window in the Amtrak train had been “struck by something.”

Duy Nguyen, 39, an associate professor in Temple University’s School of Social Work, was riding in the seventh and last car. He didn’t notice the steady acceleration as he chatted on the phone with his wife, Amy Dwyer. They spoke about their two kids and renovations to their Teaneck, N.J., house.

Ninety miles per hour, 100 m.p.h. The couple kept talking as the train sped into a sharply curved length of track.

Then Dwyer could no longer hear her husband.

“Duy? Duy? Hello?” she said. But all she heard was a loud noise.

It was 9:21 p.m.

Continue reading “The Wreck of Train 188”

Philly’s Biggest Star


Simon Van Zuylen-Wood | Philadelphia Magazine | November 2015

There isn’t much that grates on Philadelphians more than having their city defined by a tired canard about a Santa Claus who got booed in 1968. (Or by a bell. Or a sandwich.) Which explains the citywide stomach-drop when news broke in August that a defenseless globe-trotting robot had been annihilated here. Every hard-fought reputational victory, every hint of burgeoning cosmopolitanism — put on hold for the foreseeable future. “Somebody put a lot of work into that robot,” ashamed resident Cathie McMullin told 6 ABC. “It’s been all over the world, and ‘Welcome to Philly! Let’s kill you.’”

HitchBOT, constructed by Canadian engineers, was a science experiment in human compassion. A white plastic bucket equipped with GPS plus blue pool floaties for limbs, the robot was to hitchhike across the world, relying on random humans to transport it from one city to the next. It made it across Europe but couldn’t make it from Massachusetts to San Francisco; on the morning of August 1st, hitchBOT was found, wasted and inert, on the streets of Old City. A few days later, grainy video footage emerged of a man in a throwback Randall Cunningham jersey appearing to assault poor hitchBOT.

The hitchBOT murder mystery was a case study in virality, a news item that managed to combine the Internet’s two favorite things: a heartwarming parable about generosity/resilience/gumption, and outrage at whatever the inverse of that is. It’s fitting, then, that the guy in the Eagles gear wasn’t actually a robot-beater, but a YouTube star from Northeast Philadelphia named Ed Bassmaster. And he wasn’t murdering a robot, just pretending to — as his character “Always Teste” a perennially unemployed goon with an aggro streak.

Bassmaster, 42, has two million YouTube subscribers. They watch him trot out a number of different bizarre personalities, most of which basically go out into the world and make people feel uncomfortable. This is lowbrow stuff — imagine the Jackass crew trying their hand at the Candid Camera genre. (“Farting in the Library” is one of his more popular videos.) But Bassmaster is also a talented mimic and character actor; his bits share DNA with Da Ali G Show and Comedy Central’s The Kroll Show.

After nearly a decade of glamourless toil, he’s begun to taste aboveground success, shooting bits featuring James Franco, Aaron Eckhart and Tony Hawk. Next year he’s getting a television show, on CMT, and there are discussions about a potential movie project, though on that front he remains coy.

And yet it’s hitchBOT that made him a household name in Philadelphia. “I still get called ‘robot-killer,’” Bassmaster says, bemused, sitting on his couch one morning this fall. “My stepdad, he works for SEPTA, he texted me, ‘What did you do? Everybody here is mad at you for destroying some robot.’”

Writer bio: Simon Van Zuylen-Wood is a staff writer at Philadelphia Magazine and a contributing writer at National Journal magazine. He’s also written for The New Republic and Newsweek.

Continue reading “Philly’s Biggest Star”

The Serial Swatter


Jason Fagone | The New York Times Magazine | November 2015

Early one weekend morning in January 2014, Janet was sleeping fitfully in her parents’ home in Toronto. A junior studying elementary education at a nearby college, she had gone home for the weekend in a state of nervous collapse. For months, someone going by the name ‘‘Obnoxious’’ had been harassing her online. He had called her cellphone repeatedly and sent her threatening texts. Worst of all, he had threatened to ‘‘swat’’ her at school — to make a false emergency call to the police and lure a SWAT team to her door.

Janet was afraid to go to sleep; she kept thinking that he was going to swat her in the middle of the night. He said he was going to swat her family, too. Her father owned a bar, and her mother worked at a hotel. They were from China, and their English wasn’t great. They didn’t know much about her life online, and they would never understand why someone would stalk their daughter on the Internet.

Around 6:30 a.m., her father jostled her awake and said she needed to come downstairs. When she got to the top of the steps, she saw her family’s living room ‘‘covered in cops.’’ There were at least five officers in riot gear, guns drawn. They had bulletproof vests and pads and helmets with visors. She remembers the eerie silence of the officers — they said nothing at all. She had no idea what to do with her hands. ‘‘I was scared to move,’’ she says. ‘‘I wanted to go downstairs with my hands up. I was afraid they would shoot me. I was so scared. I feel like they just didn’t really let their guard down until I told them what happened.’’

Hoax, she said finally, this is a hoax. It’s not real. I’m being stalked. It started with DDoSing. As soon as she said ‘‘DDoSing,’’ she could tell that the officers weren’t following. Then she checked her phone and saw a stream of texts from Obnoxious. They were still arriving, crawling down the screen, when she held up her phone to show the officers and ask for help.

She didn’t know how to make the harassment stop. And she was just one victim among many. Obnoxious had swatted multiple women across North America and would swat many more in the months to come, as part of one of the most disturbing crime sprees in Internet history.

Writer bio: Jason Fagone grew up in Chester County and graduated from Penn State. He wrote for Philadelphia Magazine for a decade.

Continue reading “The Serial Swatter”

Long Way Back


Michael Vitez | Philadelphia Inquirer | December 2010

COZUMEL, Mexico – Matt Miller had dreamed of this moment – nearly died, by all rights should have died, in pursuit of this moment – and now it was here.

He had come to this Mexican resort to compete in an Ironman Triathlon – 2.4 miles of swimming in the sea and 112 miles on a bicycle, followed by a full marathon on foot, 26.2 miles.

Matt, now 22, of Wayne was training for a triathlon two years ago when he lost control of his bike on the Blue Ridge Parkway and swerved into an oncoming Porsche.

He flew into the air, his face crushed, his brain injured, his body limp, landing on the pavement, his feet still clipped into the pedals.

Miraculously, the driver of the next car was an anesthesiologist. He started Matt breathing again, keeping him alive until a helicopter came.

Matt’s face was rebuilt and his brain recovered, an odyssey chronicled in The Inquirer.

But the moment Matt walked out of the hospital after 25 days, he knew that for him, the symbol of his full recovery would be to complete an Ironman Triathlon – in his mind the ultimate test of athletic endurance.

Matt’s parents and girlfriend were uneasy with this idea. He was in medical school now, at the University of Pennsylvania. What better symbol of recovery than that?

Matt was nothing if not determined. Determination and drive were the reasons he had recovered as well as he had, and now, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, his test had arrived.


The race would begin at dawn, and at his best he wouldn’t finish until after sunset.

Matt did not expect to win. He was just hoping to finish safe and strong. There were so many things to worry about. Would his bike break down? Would his body break down? The high humidity and Caribbean sun would make a mid-80s day feel in the 90s. And the special helmet he wore biking – to cover his reconstructed face and jaw – would make a hot ride hotter.

To calm himself the evening before, and for perspective, Matt read through e-mails he’d received after the first stories about him were published.

“People said that I inspired them,” Matt said. “Well, they inspired me right back. One of them had a quote from Winston Churchill, which I think is perfect for a triathlon:

” ‘Success is not final; failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.’ “


Back on Oct. 10, Matt did a sprint triathlon at the Jersey Shore as a warm-up to Cozumel. It was a baby by Ironman standards: quarter-mile swim, 10-mile ride, 3.1-mile run.

He finished in just under 55 minutes. A good day.

Driving back to Philadelphia, Matt explained why the Ironman was so important to him. He said he loved the beauty and balance of triathlons, the combination of three forms of exertion. He also loved challenges, and this was the ultimate.

When he was at the University of Virginia hospital, every bone in his face broken, his carotid artery about to rupture and needing a stent, his jaw wired shut, a tube in his throat, Matt believed he’d one day be back to running and biking and swimming, and he set no less of a goal for himself than to complete an Ironman.

Matt had trained hard all last summer but had cut back to 15 hours a week in medical school, usually getting up at 5 a.m. His attitude about Mexico, he said, was 50 percent to compete at his best, and 50 percent just to complete the race, to accomplish his goal.

During that car ride home, Matt also talked about Fran Crippen, a legend in Philadelphia and University of Virginia swimming circles. “I’m sure he’ll represent the U.S.A. in the 2012 Olympics,” Matt said.

Matt, who swam for UVa for a year before falling in love with triathlons, had met Crippen only once or twice. But Matt’s older brother, Michael, had followed Crippen as team captain.

In the car that day, Matt told this story: At the conference swim meet every year, Virginia swimmers paint a big V on their chests.

But in 2006, with Virginia in a battle for first place, swimmers painted a smaller F and C on either side of the V.

This had never happened before, or since. But Crippen was so beloved, so admired, that the swimmers did this to honor their captain in his last college race.


Thirteen days after that car ride, on Oct. 23, Fran Crippen died off the coast of Dubai in a six-mile swim in 86-degree water. The water was simply too hot. Others were hospitalized and said no safety boats were nearby when they needed help. Fran’s body was found two hours after the race.

Matt wept openly as did a thousand others at Crippen’s funeral. “So much could have been done to prevent that from happening, and I hope to heck it changes,” Matt said.

His heart went out to the Crippen family, and also to Mark Bernardino, the Virginia swim coach, who spoke at the funeral.

Mark Bernardino had come to the UVa hospital every day after Matt’s accident. He had pushed Matt to get better and walked with him in the hallways and up and down the stairwells. It upset Matt deeply to see Bernardino now feeling such grief.

Learning of Crippen’s death, Emily Privette, Matt’s girlfriend, shocked and upset, told him:

“You can’t do the Ironman. “

Emily, who graduated with Matt from UVa and was now a medical student with him at Penn, had spent nights in a chair at his bedside after his accident. If this happened to Fran, she feared, it could happen to Matt.

After the funeral, Matt acknowledged, “I am more nervous now. ” He wasn’t going to let Emily change his mind, but he did re-evaluate his goals for the triathlon.

“I’m going to be very hypersensitive to my body in Cozumel. After what happened to Fran –

“Now I’m pretty much at 100 percent just wanting to finish and finish strong. “

He began to work much harder at heat acclimating. When he ran on the treadmill at 5 a.m., he’d turn up the thermostat full blast, and wear Underarmors, hat and gloves. On the indoor bike trainer, he’d wear layers and his full-face helmet.

Matt had a long talk with Bernardino the week before Cozumel. Bernardino wanted Matt to be beyond cautious, and tried to convince Matt that during the biking and the run he should repeatedly take his temperature, to make sure he wasn’t overheating.

Matt, the first-year medical student, explained that the only way to get a reliable reading was with a rectal thermometer, and that just wasn’t going to happen. He would be careful. He promised.


By 5:30 a.m., before dawn, Matt was checking his bike, filling water bottles, stuffing protein bars in nooks and crannies.

At 6:25, he found his family and said goodbye.

“OK, gorgeous,” said his mother, Nancy, hugging him.

His father kissed Matt on the top of his crew cut – another attempt by Matt to keep cool – and gestured “I love you” in sign language. Matt started doing this when his jaw was wired shut.

His brother Michael, a law student at Stanford, zipped up Matt’s triathlon suit in the back, the finishing touch, like a husband zipping his wife’s dress before a night out.

Hidden underneath were the letters Michael had drawn on Matt’s chest that morning. A big V, with a smaller F and C on each side. Matt had asked Bernardino if it would be OK.

Standing with 2,300 other swimmers on the dock, as the Ironman was about to begin, Matt was thinking, “how incredible it is, how blessed I am just to be able to start this race. Two years ago exactly I was leaving the hospital. “

At 7 a.m., the horn sounded and he was off, lost in a crush of orange swim caps in a turquoise sea.

To avoid being kicked or clobbered, Matt’s strategy was to start near the front – swimming was his strongest leg – and get ahead of the mayhem, settle into a smooth stroke, and relax.

A man had drowned during the Philadelphia Sprint Triathlon last summer, with far fewer swimmers in the water.

Matt quickly found a pack of good swimmers and settled in behind them.

Less than an hour later, the Millers, on the beach, saw Matt emerge from the water. They could see he was among the leaders, but just how well he had done was quickly confirmed by an e-mail Matt’s father, Mike Miller, received on his BlackBerry:

“A 52:36 swim! What a start! Looks as if he was first in his age group out of the water. And 44th overall. Incredible! “

The e-mail came from Chris McIsaac, who works with Mike Miller, a managing director at Vanguard in Malvern, and was watching live streaming of the race online.

Emily was following online as well. As much as she had wanted to make the trip, Emily had felt it important to spend Thanksgiving with her ailing grandmother and family in North Carolina and posted on Facebook at 9 a.m.: “Emily Privette is SO excited for Matt Miller who is doing his FIRST IRONMAN RIGHT NOW!!


Mounting his bike, Matt expected the 112 miles to take him at least six hours. His strategy was to start out slow, to ride the second half faster than the first. A veteran had told him, “It’s going to be a race of patience,” and he kept repeating that to himself.

Nearly four hours into the bike leg, at 11:45, the Millers spotted Matt at the 75-mile mark. They screamed, but Matt didn’t acknowledge them.

“I don’t think he saw us,” said his mother.

“But he definitely heard us,” said his father.

“The main thing I was thinking about was hydration,” Matt said later.

The streets were crowded with people cheering. “I felt like it was the Tour de France,” Matt said.

Riders repeatedly passed the rider with the strange helmet on the first two laps around the island, but Matt was doing the passing on the final lap, startling one rider who later blogged, “I said out loud, ‘WTF? ‘ “

As the Millers saw Matt dismount, an e-mail came in: 5 hours, 37 minutes, 44 seconds.

He’d averaged 19.9 miles per hour.

Matt disappeared into the transition tent where he drank, and drank some more. “I’ll see you in a few hours,” he said as he trotted off to now run 26.2 miles.

This part also worried Matt’s family. Matt had finished a marathon in Virginia Beach last March, but he became dangerously dehydrated and spent 90 minutes in the medical tent.

“I was ghostly white, with an elevated heart rate well over half an hour after I had finished,” Matt recalled. “My father told them I was planning to do an Ironman Triathlon. The cardiologist in the tent working on me said, ‘You can’t do that. I know what first-year medical school is like. ‘

“I got over that pretty quickly,” Matt said. “My family didn’t.”

Matt had decided that in Cozumel he would slow to a walk for 30 to 90 seconds at every water stop – every kilometer – to eat, drink and dump ice down his shirt, down his pants, on his head.

“Mile 14 to Mile 21 was the toughest part,” he said later. “I just kept making myself run to every aid station, where I could eat and drink and walk. That was my goal. “

As the shadows lengthened that afternoon, so did Matt’s perspective.

For the whole race, he had focused on his body, his bike, on taking care of himself. Even at dusk, with his sunglasses still on, he was being very careful with every step in the growing darkness.

But a mile from the finish, he grew emotional. He started thinking about his longer journey – how far he’d come, what he was about to accomplish, and the doctors, friends and family who had healed him, cheered him, and helped him get here.

More than 50 faces, maybe 100, flashed through his brain like a slide show.

“I think the first thought that came to me was ‘Wow, Matt, you left the hospital two years and two days ago, and now you’re almost done an Ironman Triathlon, faster than you and a lot of other people ever thought you would go. “

As he turned the corner for the last 40 yards, he saw his screaming parents and then his image on the giant screen above the finish line.

As he took those last few strides, Matt heard the announcer proclaim, as he did for every finisher, “Matthew Miller of the United States, you are an IRONMAN! “

Matt crossed the line and stopped. He stood tall, arms stretched out, face skyward, and surrendered himself to the moment. He was happy, proud, grateful – and so glad it was over.

“We did it,” he told himself. “We did it. “

His time was 10 hours, 30 minutes, 12 seconds – 209th overall.

His marathon was 3:42:26.

He threw his arms around his parents in a three-way hug.

He got his cell phone and called Emily. “I can’t talk long,” he said, “I’m pretty tired. ” Then he called Bernardino. “You’re talking to an Ironman. “

“Will you ever do another one?” his father asked.

“Maybe in like 10 years,” he said.

After the race, Matt pulled down the shoulder straps of his triathlon suit. On his chest, nearly rubbed away now, was the V, with the smaller F and C on each side.

Matt spent Monday recovering in Cozumel, and Tuesday was a marathon of its own, of security checks and a missed connection, and he didn’t get into bed back in Philadelphia until after 2 a.m.

Yet still, on a rainy, miserable Wednesday morning, he was seated in an auditorium by 8 a.m., just another medical student in just another anatomy lecture.

Writer bio: Michael Vitez wrote human interest stories for The Philadelphia Inquirer for 30 years. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism in 1997 for a series titled Final Choices. Vitez, a native of Virginia, lives in Haddonfield, New Jersey. He joined the Inky in 1985.

The Ivy League Custodian


Michael Vitez | Philadelphia Inquirer | March 2000

When Dan Harrell applied to the University of Pennsylvania at age 46, he was asked to take a composition class to prove he was Ivy League material. The first assignment: write about a favorite place.

The young woman on his left chose Paris in the spring; the one on his right, the slopes of Aspen.

“I’ve never been out of Southwest Philly,” Harrell recalled, “and I’m thinking I’m in trouble.”

He decided his favorite place was the john.

“Do you know there are 50 different names for it?” he said. “It’s a great place to check out the horses for the next race. Your boss can’t find you there. I wrote four pages, and I got an A.”

On May 22, after 10 years as a part-time student, Harrell will receive his bachelor’s degree. He will graduate surrounded by people who revere him as a Penn institution – not only because of his academic achievement at age 56, but because of the love he lavishes on a fabled floor and the students who play on it.

Harrell is custodian of the Palestra.

Once a day, sometimes twice, he mops the hardwood in one of the most celebrated arenas in college hoops. He has spent, in sum, an eternity on one knee, scraping gum. And when he does his job right, the floor sings to him with the squeak of sneakers.

With a toilet brush in one hand, cleanser in the other, he scours the locker rooms. Not once in his eight years there, he brags, “has there been a case of athlete’s foot.”

Dan Harrell also is a custodian in the larger sense of the word. He looks out for the athletes, scribbles notes of support, gives them rides and good-luck charms, asks about their grandmothers, advises them on classes to take – and, through his pursuit of a dream, inspires them.

“I think he’s the greatest Penn success story,” said Cynthia Johnson Crowley, who played basketball at Penn in 1952 and has since been a fixture at the Palestra. “There isn’t anything he won’t do to make your life better. And in return, it all comes back.”

Fran Dunphy, the men’s coach, calls him “kind of a hero of mine.”

On graduation day, Harrell will dye his six-foot-wide dust mop red and blue, Penn’s colors. He will tape photographs of his mother, father, and brother Frankie, all of them gone now, to the back of the mop, and march with it down Locust Walk to collect his diploma.

“The mop,” he said, “represents where I’m from.”

At 4:55 a.m. on a March Tuesday, the day of the big Penn-Princeton doubleheader, Dan Harrell parked his 1980 Caprice Classic with the rusted roof right at the Palestra’s back door, the best spot in the lot.

Inside, everything was dark. The only sound was Big Daddy Graham talking sports on all-night radio.

“I leave it on for the spirits,” Harrell said.

Writer bio: Michael Vitez wrote human interest stories for The Philadelphia Inquirer for 30 years. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism in 1997 for a series of stories titled Final Choices. Vitez, a native of Virginia, lives in Haddonfield, New Jersey. He joined the Inky in 1985.

Continue reading “The Ivy League Custodian”

Yard by Yard


Steve Esack | The Morning Call | November 2009

In one arm, John McDowell clutches a stack of papers. On his shoulder dangles a satchel brimming with his laptop, playbooks and the high expectations he has carried from the West Coast.

McDowell, Dieruff High School’s new head football coach, follows Rich Ocelus, the quarterback coach he hired over the phone and just met face to face. They walk down an outside ramp on Washington Street to a basement door and wend their way through windowless corridors into a dingy weight room.

The football office is up five small steps, deep in the belly of Dieruff.

Ocelus flicks on the lights.

“All right, we got the dungeon,” McDowell says through chuckles.

Before him, illuminated by five dangling strobes, is a room time forgot.

Staples, chicken wire and studs hold the exterior wall together. On the gray floor is a red carpet remnant, stained black with God knows what.

A lab table, ripped aqua blue love seat and tattered beige couch hold the carpet down.

A blanket of dust pervades, like the ghosts of Dieruff’s past glory days.

“All right, all right, we’ll clean it up, we’ll clean it up,” McDowell says. “This is my desk, I’m calling it.”

In the weeks that follow this June 22 day, McDowell will throw out the carpet and the couch after discovering an animal — he hopes it was a cat — had been living inside.

It would be the easiest piece of housecleaning he would do.

The Allentown School District did not hire McDowell just to be Dieruff’s coach. It hired him to rebuild a football tradition in a school district and city weighed down by poverty and crime.

Between the school’s founding in 1959 and 1989, Dieruff was a football powerhouse, producing 20 winning seasons and five championships in the old East Penn Conference.

The school regularly turned out Division I football recruits like Ross Moore and John Smurda who went to Ohio State, and the Atiyeh brothers, George (Louisiana State) and Dennis (University of Pittsburgh).

And, of course, there is Andre Reed, who surpassed them all with a thoroughbred’s work ethic that took him from Dieruff to Kutztown University, then on to a 16-year NFL career as a wide receiver who caught passes in four Super Bowls with the Buffalo Bills in the 1990s.

But since 1990, Dieruff has won just 58 of 201 games. It’s been even worse over the last eight school years: just 17 wins and 75 losses.

The Dieruff players — the serious ones, anyway — know the lousy records have turned them into weekly jokes in their own hallways, opponents’ locker rooms, newspaper columns and near-empty stadiums.

“It’s frustrating,” said senior defensive back Lazarus “Laz” Ramos, 18. “People don’t realize we actually try.”

It’s the same story at Allen High School in the city’s West End. There, second-year coach Chris Kinane has won one game.

But Allen has always been considered a basketball school. Football belonged to Dieruff.

When the last coach quit in March and with Dieruff in the midst of a $30.7 million construction makeover that includes new athletic amenities, Principal Jim Moniz and Athletic Director Tim Geiger figured it was time to try to fix football, too.

The only way to restore Husky pride was to find a coach willing to rebuild the football program from the bottom up.

It meant linking Dieruff’s playbook and expectations to a fledgling middle school football program and a struggling freshman team.

It also meant the new coach had to be willing to make weekend inroads into the city’s independent youth football leagues, which remain a fertile ground for young athletes but, like Dieruff, suffer from a lack of parental support.

“What needs to be fixed can’t be done in Weeks 1 through 10,” Geiger says. “It’s too hard.”

But they think they’ve found that winning coach in McDowell, whose last coaching stint was at a high school in the suburbs of Sacramento, Calif., with so much panache that upperclassmen drive BMWs, and some of his students were the children of NBA Sacramento Kings basketball players.

McDowell, Dieruff’s fifth coach in a decade, thinks he can resurrect the school’s football legacy.

“I’m just a big believer in you make the big time where you’re at regardless of what you’ve got,” he says.

Writer bio: Steve Esack, a native of Northeast Philadelphia and graduate of Temple University, served as an Inquirer suburban correspondent for two years before moving to the Allentown Morning Call in 2002. For this series the Scripps Howard Foundation awarded him the prestigious Ernie Pyle Award for human interest writing in 2010.

Continue reading the “Yard by Yard” series: Parts 1 2 3 4 5

King Tutt


Steve Lopez | The Philadelphia Inquirer | July 1987

GREG TUTT IS WALKING through a neighborhood that is going nowhere and taking everybody with it.

He walks past a corner house with broken windows, where four dudes sit on a porch in front of an open door. Inside the house, trash is ankle-deep. A car rounds the corner recklessly enough to have nailed anybody who might have been crossing, and one of the occupants makes a contribution to the collection of trash on the streets. Even after the car is out of sight, the trash is still skidding along on the pavement, looking for a pothole the way a golf ball looks for the cup.

Greg Tutt plans to leave one day for Jersey, as soon as he becomes a millionaire. As he walks through the streets, everyone who sees him either waves, calls his name or comes up and shakes his hand.

Tutt is 20 years old. His thighs and forearms don’t go with the rest of his body, looking like spare parts from a tank that were slapped onto a Rabbit. His gaptoothed smile works a conspiracy with butterscotch eyes to make you feel like you know him. You probably never heard of him, but in the Strawberry Mansion section of North Philadelphia, he is Greg “King” Tutt, a celebrity.

Some days, Tutt gets one of those radios the size of a kitchen appliance and walks two blocks to 33d and Berks, a frayed edge of Fairmount Park. The kids start coming when they see that. Two kids, five kids, seven.

“Tutt’s in the park,” they say.

Tutt puts the radio on a concrete bench, pipes it up, and the song from Rocky echoes down the street, bouncing off the walls of shells and boarded-up homes in a neighborhood where the music isn’t a corny cliche, but the theme song of a recurring dream. It echoes all the way into Augie’s Gym in South Philadelphia, into Champ’s Camp in North Philadelphia, and Jimmy Toppi’s Blue Horizon on Broad Street, where boxing is what it was before it got all glitzed up in casinos – a dogfight in a dark and dingy pocket of a hard city.

Now there are 10 kids, 15, 20 watching “King” Tutt. He starts shadowboxing in time with the music, and 30 kids are watching the 155-pound junior middleweight – who averages about $750 a match and fights maybe eight times a year – on his way to becoming a millionaire.

Greg Tutt has won 12 fights and lost three. He is one of between 100 and 200 kids fighting professionally in Philadelphia, and every one wants to be the next Sugar Ray Leonard. They all have two things in common. Each knows the odds are one in a million. And each thinks he’s the one.

It’s not a bad time to take a shot at it in Philadelphia. Local promoter Russell Peltz says live boxing shows are making something of a comeback. A lot of the action had been sucked away by the casino cities, but the sport is suffering from overexposure in those places now. Peltz says Atlantic City had 153 fight shows in 1985, 80 in 1986 and, at the current rate, will have 60 this year.

Peltz has a contract with USA Cable Network to televise one fight card each month from the Blue Horizon. Kids like Tutt, some of whom live in ramshackle houses and work side jobs to cover boxing expenses – Tutt works in manager Ray Murphy’s men’s clothing store – are seen in as many as 400,000 or 500,000 living rooms.

Peltz says maybe 10 percent of Philadelphia’s fighters earn $15,000 a year. Tutt is just one of the rabbits nibbling at the pot, although boxing people think he’s above-average. He may make it, he may not.

From the comfort of a middle-class couch, you can find something socially repugnant about a kid thinking that his ticket out of hard times is to refine the art of pummeling another man. Greg Tutt and his colleagues don’t usually sit in the comfort of a middle-class couch.

“Have you ever been to the houses?” Peltz asks. “I’ve been in their living rooms and seen holes in the floor so you can see the basements. . . . Even if it gets them out of the ghetto for only two or three years, it’s still better as far as I’m concerned than not ever having the chance. . . . Are you going to tell me we have an equal education system? That kids at Ben Franklin High get the same education as the kids at Lower Merion High School?”

Elmer Smith, boxing writer for the Daily News and a local fight fan for 30 years, says you can’t generalize about boxers and where they come from.

“A lot fewer of the successful fighters these days come from backgrounds of abject poverty, and there’s little to suggest that abject poverty is a good spawning ground for athletic excellence,” Smith says. “But I agree with Russell that there is still a chance to make money. They fought for free (as amateurs), so why not” fight for money?

To hear Tutt explain his career choice, coming out of North Philly and going into professional boxing is like a kid coming out of Silicon Valley and going into computer science. “You double-park your car in this neighborhood, hot as it is these days, somebody’ll jump out and want to fight you,” Tutt says.

His family moved from the other side of Broad Street about six years ago, and Tutt, a scrawny 14, got into some fights.

“They used to punch him, and he’d come in here to tell me, and I’d send him back out there,” says his mother, Carolyn Tutt. “I told him if you don’t learn to hit back, they’ll always pick on you. ” It was the same for Tutt’s younger sister, Latonya. “She had to fight just about every girl on the block before they accepted her,” Mom says.

Carolyn Tutt was in Kiddie City one day and saw some Sugar Ray boxing gloves. She brought them home to Greg, who went to work on a punching bag in his basement. One day a neighbor saw Greg running through the streets throwing punches at the wind.

“You want to be a boxer? ” Monte Carter asked.

“Sure,” Tutt said.

“Be at Augie’s Gym this afternoon.”

“All the way cross town?”

“You want to be a fighter, be there at 3.”

Carter, a longtime respected trainer who has been Tutt’s mentor from that first day, figures that in a year or so, all the training – several hours a day – is going to pay off. Tutt had his first professional fight three years ago, but is still considered young. His father, James, would rather Greg find a job in which nobody swings at you. But he goes to his fights along with Carolyn, who holds Greg’s 3-year-old daughter, Temperance, in her lap at ringside.

Last fall there was a classic bout at the Blue Horizon, a 1,200-seat arena in which the canvas is like a microscope slide, and spectators examine the sparring specimens from a balcony that circles the ring. You can hear the punches, see the jet streams of sweat. On the first floor, you can feel the thunder of a heavy punch. On Nov. 11, the ring corralled Greg “King” Tutt and Sidney “Sinbad” Outlaw, also of North Philly. Street-wagering had gone on for weeks and continued into the arena. Tutt and Outlaw themselves had sold tickets to friends, and the house was packed with fans who were on one side or the other, nobody in the middle.

It was a brawl that put screaming spectators on their feet, shaking termites out of the rafters. When it was over, Temperance was hoisted into the ring, and Tutt strutted around with her on his shoulders. The ring announcer called them two great sportsmen and said it was the fight of the year. Everyone awaited the call.

In a close but unanimous decision – Tutt. He called his grandmother right away because he knows she doesn’t approve of this and sits at home every time he fights, praying he doesn’t get hurt.

Tutt won another unanimous decision in June, a $1,000 payday. After fees, splits for manager Ray Murphy, trainer Monte Carter and cut man Billy Haywood, Tutt cleared $650. He gave $100 to his mother, bought summer clothes for Temperance, bought himself some tennis shoes and shorts, and put the rest, what was left of it, in the bank.

There was a time when he would take money and try to double it in a street- corner game of craps. Back when he was young. “Now, I would never gamble money I got hit in the head for.”

If he makes it, Tutt wants a house in Jersey, a boxing gym in his name and a sporting goods store. Temperance would go to private school.

“I would say quite frankly that I don’t see Greg moving into the highest echelons of boxing on the strength of what I’ve seen so far,” says Elmer Smith, who thinks Tutt has good boxing skills but lacks a big punch. “But he is no different than several fighters who did not look any more promising in early stages of their careers, and later became very big.”

Tutt sees the opening. It gets wider when he drops onto the craggy pavement at the break of day for pushups, Philadelphia crumbling all around him, sunlight angling in from someplace else.

Writer bio: Steve Lopez was a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer from 1986 to 1997. Lopez, generally considered one of the best writers in city newspaper history, joined the Los Angeles Times as a columnist in 2001. He was awarded the Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists in 2004, and was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2011.

Head in a Box


Pete Dexter | Philadelphia Daily News | 1981

The boss’s name is Tony Scarduzio, and Tuesday afternoon he goes out on the job with Jose Colon. Just to keep his hand in. “To make sure that things are being done to my specifications,” he says.

Jose Colon is a parking-meter repairman. Somebody gets drunk in Camden and runs over a parking meter because he put a dime in and didn’t get any bubble gum, Jose fixes that too.

It doesn’t matter to Jose, he likes his job. “You don’t have to go to school or nothing, and it’s very enjoyable,” he said.

So Jose and Tony are out on the truck, going up Broadway, when they come to a broken parking meter. It’s broken in a way that they can only fix back at the shop, so Jose gets out a wrench to replace the head. While he is doing that, though, he happens to notice a white paper sack leaning against the stem.

“It’s a nice paper sack,” he said later, “got a label on it from some store on Germantown Avenue in Philly. It looks almost new, you know, a real nice paper sack, and somebody stapled it up. So I pick up the sack and it looks to me like there’s a coconut in there. I say, ‘Hey, Tony, we better look inside. I think we found a coconut.'”

Tony shrugs, and Jose opens it carefully, not wanting to damage a real nice paper sack, and looks inside. Tony waits, Jose just stares inside the sack. “Hey, Tony,” he says after a minute, “there’s a head inside this paper sack.”

“A what?”

“It’s not a coconut, Tony. It’s a head.” And Jose sees that his boss doesn’t believe him, so he reaches in the sack and pulls the head out. A human skull. The jaw bone is missing and so are the teeth, but outside of that it is perfect. “It’s not a coconut,” Jose says again.

Tony says, “Oh my God!” and as soon as they fix the parking meter, they take the head over to Juvenile Division, where Tony has a friend who is a detective.

Tony and Jose go into the detective’s office and put the sack in his hands. “I think I found Jimmy Hoffa,” Tony says. The detective smiles and looks inside.

Then he stops smiling.

“I can’t do anything about this,” he says. “You better take it over to the administration building.” And he hands the almost-new white paper sack with the head inside back to Tony, who gives it to Jose, and tells him to carry it over there.

On the way over, Jose stops to see his friend Kevin McKeel, who is also a supervisor for the city, and tells him to look inside the sack. Kevin does. “Surprised, huh?” Jose says.

And then he walks it the rest of the way to the police administration building, and has a short talk with the detectives’ receptionist. “I bring in the bag and say, ‘I found a head in the street,'” Jose says. “She says, ‘This is serious. Do you really want me to go get a detective and tell him you got a head?'”

“I tell her I’m not joking. I say, ‘You want to look inside?’ She don’t want to, but another woman comes out of the office and she wants to look inside. I don’t know who she was, she didn’t say nothing after she looked. She just went back where she came from.”

The receptionist, meanwhile, has located Sgt. Albert Handy, who comes out and takes the sack from Jose and checks inside, and then thanks him for bringing it over.

Sgt. Handy puts a tag on the skull and gives it to a detective to take over to the coroner’s office in Cherry Hill. “We can’t do anything about it here,” he would say later.

So the detective drives the skull over to Jerry Healy, who is an investigator, and Jerry Healy puts another tag on it and sends it to Newark. “There was nothing we could do about it here,” his wife would say later. Jerry was out collecting a body and couldn’t be reached for comment.

And so, as the day ended, Jose was back at work in the street. Tony had gone back to work in his office. The skull was on a bus for Newark, and Sgt. Handy was working on new cases. “A man brings in a skull in a paper sack,” Handy said. “It’s nothing to stop work for.” Sgt. Handy has been with the department fourteen years.

“Hey,” he said, “this is Camden.”

Writer bio: Pete Dexter, winner of the National Book Award for his novel “Paris Trout,” is also generally considered one of the best writers in city newspaper history. He wrote for the Daily News, mostly as a columnist, for 12 years.

The Face of a Fugitive


Lane DeGregory | St. Petersburg Times | April 2003

The reckoning came on a Saturday night in September, in a first-floor room of a cheap motel beside the bus station in Dover, Del.

The fugitive was slumped on the bed, chain-smoking Marlboros. As worn out as the mattress.

The lights were off. The TV was on. He was waiting in dread for the show to start. He had seen the preview. He knew he would be on this episode.

He was trying to decide what to do.

That morning, in Philadelphia, he had bought a sleeping bag and a two-man tent. He told his roommates that he was going camping. He got on a Greyhound and rode until dark. Climbed off at Dover and checked into the motel. He asked for a room around back. Paid cash. He snapped his fingers to remind himself to sign the register right: Joe Brown.

For 15 months, he had been living with a dead man’s name.

He turned up the volume on the TV. The episode opened in a parking lot: “Tonight, we’re going after bad guys who use cars to kill,” host John Walsh said. The golden logo of America’s Most Wanted swallowed the screen. “And the chase is on for our first fugitive . . .”

He saw the crumpled car. He saw his mug shot. He heard John Walsh describe him as one of the country’s worst criminals.

He sat there, smoking on the edge of the bed, with the blue TV light shooting shadows across his blank face and his image staring him down from the screen, and he saw himself as 10-million Americans were seeing him: a hunted killer.

And he knew, finally, what he had to do.

Writer bio: Lane DeGregory has written for the Tampa Bay Times, formerly the St. Petersburg Times, for the last 15 years. Among the most decorated narrative journalists of our time, DeGregory was awarded the Ernie Pyle Award from the Scripps Howard Foundation for human interest writing in 2007, and the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 2009.

Continue reading “The Face of a Fugitive”

Too Long in the City


Pete Dexter | Philadelphia Daily News | October 1980

The kid was big, but he was a kid.

He was standing beside the drive-in window at Church’s Fried Chicken on N. Broad, asking the people who came by for money.

“Did you have some change so I could get somethin’ to eat, sir?” He said it like it was memorized.

It was early last week, the weather was catching up with the season. He had taken his arms out of his shirtsleeves and put them underneath, trying to stay warm, so when he tapped on the window I figured he had at least a machete under there.

“Get the f- – – out of here,” I said.

I did that without thinking about it, the same way you check for cars before you cross the street. He looked at me, I looked at him. He took his hand off the car and put it back underneath his shirt. He began to shake, then he moved away.

I turned on the radio to put the kid out of mind. If there is anything you have to know in a city, it’s how to put things out of mind. If you can’t do it, you better not be here. I have been in Philadelphia more than six years. It took a while, but I can do that now.

The kid moved back to the corner of the building, stared at the car. I could see him in the side mirror. He looked like he was 17 or 18, but you couldn’t tell. He looked cold in every way there is to be cold. I put him out of mind again, but every time I looked in the mirror, he was standing there, black and cold and angry, and he wouldn’t move away.

I don’t know exactly when it happened, but somewhere along the line I got tired.

Tired of victims.

First I got tired of victims in groups – women, blacks, Puerto Ricans, gays, and all the self-promotional b- – – – – – – that went with it – then I got tired of victims in person.

I didn’t want to see the mother and father nodded out on heroin at the Fox Theater Sunday afternoon while their 4-year-old kid tried to wake them up anymore. I didn’t want to see old people who had been mugged, or 14-year-old alcoholics or abused children.

So, as much as you can in the city, I quit looking. At least I tried to only look once. There is too much of it to carry around with you.

And to do that, you have to forget that you have been hungry too.

The kid moved again, slowly across the parking lot to the garbage bin. He began going through it, a piece at a time.

I was a couple of years older than this kid, but I went about a week once without anything to eat. In Minneapolis, in the coldest winter I can remember. At the end of the second day I was hungry enough to go through garbage, but in the morning it had passed and what replaced it was just an empty, weak feeling, and later on a dizziness when I stood up. And much later, something inside that kept saying I was getting myself in serious trouble.

I wondered if the kid had heard that too, if he knew what it meant.

I turned around and watched him a minute. He held the garbage close to his face, then put it back in the bin. A piece of paper stuck to his hand, and suddenly he was throwing things. Picking up cans and bags out of the bin and throwing them back, over and over. A beat-up gray cat with milk in her nipples jumped out of the other end of the bin.

He stopped and sat down, exhausted. He put his face in his hands. I said it out loud, so I could hear how it sounded. “Get the f- – – out of here.”

I ordered two chicken dinners and drove back around the lot to where the kid was sitting. I don’t think he recognized me because he got up, tapped on the window and asked for a quarter to buy something to eat. There was garbage stuck to his chin.

I gave him one of the chicken dinners and said I was sorry. “I didn’t see you were hungry,” I said.

The kid was looking at a two-dollar box of chicken with something close to love.

“Thank you,” he said. ” Thank you very much, thank you . . . ”

“I’ve been in the city too long.”

He studied me a minute. “Me too,” he said.

Then he took the chicken and walked over to his spot near the garbage and sat down to eat it. The cat came out of the weeds toward him, a step at a time. The kid looked up and saw her.

He tore a piece of meat off the breast and stroked her coat while she ate.

Writer bio: Pete Dexter, winner of the National Book Award for his novel “Paris Trout,” is also generally considered one of the best writers in city newspaper history. He wrote for the Daily News, mostly as a columnist, for 12 years.

The Little Girl In Grave 1565


Gary Smith | Life | November 1991

In a housing complex for the elderly in Easthampton, Mass., lived a lady in her eighties with sharp and clear blue eyes.

The capital of Alabama is Montgomery. 

Her life was busy for a woman her age. She still worked two half days a week as a clerk at a dress shop. She edited the church newsletter and pitched in at Sunday school now and then. She helped a neighbor who had no use of his right arm to write his checks.

The capital of Alaska is Juneau. 

She drove herself to the store for groceries, to the doctor and dentist and laundromat. She did the crossword in the Daily Hampshire Gazette in the evening while she watched TV and kept a magazine open to read while she ate. She said, “It takes up your mind.”

The capital of Arkansas is Little Rock. 

But sometimes at night when Mildred Cook lay down and there was nothing, finally, to do, thoughts tried to enter her mind, and so she began reciting. The capital of Arizona is Phoenix.Half-formed thoughts, too terrible to contemplate: Why did I take them to …? The capital of California is Sacramento. If I had pushed and shoved, like others did … The capital of Colorado is Denver. I should’ve held onto her hand … The Capital of Connecticut is … But it was only a circus … The capital of Connecticut is … a circus …


The capital of Connecticut is Hartford. On the third floor of the fire department offices there, on a winter afternoon in 1990, a man with a white shirt and black tie sat in a plume of cigarette smoke. A pair of reflector sunglasses hung from his shirt pocket, to kill the light when the migraines came. A black flag with white skull and crossbones hung on his cubicle wall. It was a constant reminder that for him the rules don’t apply.

Lt. Rick Davey worked 10 or 12 hours a day, often more, investigating fires. But he slept no more than four or five, so that still left hours to fill. His right top desk drawer was open. A photograph of a beautiful little girl, her blond hair tied in ribbons, lay inside it. He stared at her. She was the one who filled his hours. “I’m coming for you, honey,” he said to her, or to himself—he wasn’t even sure anymore. But she was dead. He heard a colleague’s footsteps approaching his cubicle. Over 40 years ago dead. He stood up quickly. Dead four years before he was born. He nudged shut the desk drawer with his thigh.

What would he say if they asked him what he was doing? That an unclaimed little girl buried beneath a gravestone marked only by her morgue number, Little Miss 1565, had obsessed him? That he was on the verge of cracking open the investigation of a circus fire that killed 168 people … in 1944? 


Here come the M’s, a real nightmare. Try keeping all eight of them in alphabetical order. The capital of Maine is Augusta. The capital of … of … 

On a night that same winter, Mildred Cook took a deep breath. If she weren’t careful here, it could all come rushing back. She could be 38 again, thrilled to finally have two weeks of vacation to spend with her children, to be clutching the hands of six-year-old Edward and eight-year-old Eleanor and keeping her eye on nine-year-old Donald. They could be climbing to their seats near the top of the stands at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus that had just come to Hartford. It could be July 6, 1944, again.

It was so hot inside the big top that day, so sticky, but it really didn’t matter. It was wartime, and here was this magical tent, nearly two football fields long, that let everyone with a buck or two in his pocket walk inside and forget. The clowns came first, making everyone giggle. The parade of all the animals around the ring was next. Then came the lions and leopards, snarling and leaping through hoops. That’s when it happened. The big cats were being led through the two long caged chutes back to their wagons outside the tent, and everyone’s eyes had just lifted to the five sequined Wallendas poised on the platforms high above with their bicycles and balancing poles, when someone first noticed it, eight or nine feet off the ground, on the side of the tent behind where Mildred and her three children sat. It was a flame shaped like a horseshoe, no bigger than a basketball—a well-thrown bucket of water might have put it out.

But then a wind, blowing from the southwest, pushed it up the side wall to the big top—a twill canvas waterproofed, incredibly, by 1,800 pounds of paraffin thinned by 6,000 gallons of gasoline—and whoosh, The Greatest Show on Earth became three rings of hell. The tent top burned and fell like napalm, a hissing rain of flaming wax that ignited every blouse and sundress that it touched. People writhed on the floor to extinguish themselves, people toppled over them. The chairs, unattached to the floor, crashed and slid, tripping the mob in its rush to escape. Humans and animals screamed. The fire roared. At the far end of the tent, the circus band went on playing “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” trying to calm the frenzy, but it was hopeless. The tent was burning, one survivor recalled, like a crumpled piece of paper tossed into a fireplace. The crowd of 6,789, mostly women and children, fled toward the northeast, away from the blaze, but there many found themselves trapped by the animal chutes. Some were terrified that their hands or feet would slip between the meshing as they tried to scramble over, perhaps into the jaws or claws of some retreating beast. Some were simply not tall or nimble enough to make the climb. They paused, were pinned and trampled, found later beneath piles of bodies eight deep.

Flaming tent tops dropped from the sky, tremendous tent poles crashed. A crippled boy of 13 slashed through the canvas and hundreds escaped. A 29-year-old man hurled his child over the chute, remained and saved a score of others the same way before he was crushed to death by a falling pole. Coins fused in the terrific heat. Knuckles fused. A mother and child fused. Men passed out from the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh. The exits jammed, as people who had escaped turned back to look for loved ones. A woman ran outside screaming, “Where is my baby? Where is my baby?” was told the child had returned inside to look for her, and rushed back into the tent, where both of them perished.

Mildred and Edward and Eleanor found themselves in the middle of it all. Donald had always been the independent one; he ran to the right, hopped down from the stands and quickly escaped. But Mildred, the polite Liberty Mutual clerk, was following the crowd down the tiers, waiting for her turn, trying, somehow, to keep track of Edward and Eleanor in the stampede. She lost Eleanor, clutched Edward’s hand tighter, and then the billowing black smoke began to overcome them. Edward said he felt tired and wanted to lie down. Mildred lay down next to him. She would stay like that, clutching his hand, until someone at the hospital pulled them apart.

The whole incident took 10 minutes. And then there was nothing but an open field strewn with twisted metal and charred bodies, circled by children calling out for their mothers, by mothers staggering about and crying out for their little ones. In circus lore, it would become known as The Day The Clowns Cried. Emmett Kelly, who joined the fire fighting in full clown makeup, would paint a tear on his cheek from that day on.

The circus animals would all be retrained. But who would show the humans how to go on? Donald was picked up at the scene by a family and taken to their home, where he waited until his Uncle Ted and Aunt Marion retrieved him. Edward died the next day. Mildred lay in a coma for more than four weeks, 90 percent of her body burned. When she awoke, she was bandaged from head to foot, peering through a slit left open for her eyes.

She watched the doctor tell the woman across from her that her child had died. She watched the woman break down. The doctor walked toward Mildred. She clenched her teeth. She had been through this before. She knew how she had to act. Her brother and sister had died in infancy. Her two stepbrothers had died, one of polio at age 26. Her mother had died of cancer when Mildred was four. When she was 19, sitting in the church choir balcony, she had seen her father drop dead of a heart attack in a pew below her and not uttered a sound, not moved a muscle, not brought any shame upon herself or her family. It was weakness to cry; it was weakness.

Edward did not make it, the doctor told her. Nobody could find Eleanor; she too was likely dead. Mildred closed her eyes. “The other woman cried,” she said, “but I didn’t.”

If she didn’t think about it, she wouldn’t cry. If she was busy reciting the state capitals or doing puzzles, she couldn’t think about it. Certainly no one in her circle would be so indiscreet as to bring it up. Her husband was gone, separated from her three years before the fire—that was why she had had the children living in her hometown, Southampton, Mass., with her brother, Ted, and his wife, Marion, so the kids would have a normal life with two “parents” while Mildred worked two jobs in Hartford to help support them. Her family certainly wouldn’t mention what had occurred; they were one of those old New England families that responded to grief as they did to winter. They zipped up and stuck out their chins.

But the Dakotas could befuddle Mildred. Was Bismarck the capital of North Dakota and Pierre the capital of South Dakota … or was it the other way around? One hesitation like that and a drawer in her mind could open … Eleanor … Sometimes Mildred had to shift to a more rapid game, the counting game. One … one-two … one-two-three … How could no one have ever found Eleanor? … one-two-three-four … one-two-three-four-five … 


The drawer opened. Lieutenant Davey stared at the photograph once more. Somehow, the picture of the little girl had done it to him—first, the one of her when she was dead, and now the one of her when she was alive. The morgue photograph was the same picture that had awed him when he saw it in the newspaper when he was seven or eight. This was his first look at death, and here it was in a child about his own age who simply looked to be asleep. Her face was barely marred by the flames or the trampling; she had died of a stress fracture to her skull. How could no one have stepped forward to claim so beautiful, so clearly identifiable a child?

The question haunted his city. Every July 6, The Hartford Courant published a story about her, and often her picture as well. Every Christmas, Memorial Day and July 6, Thomas Barber and Edward Lowe, two Hartford policemen who witnessed the horror and were assigned to a makeshift morgue at the Hartford Armory, visited her grave and left flowers. Barber, who outlived Lowe, paid the tribute three times a year for 32 years before he died in 1977.

The two men kept her picture in their wallets, investigated each new rumor about her identity. Some said she was a waif the circus had picked up along the way. Others believed her whole family had been destroyed by the fire and were among the five other unidentified bodies beside her at Northwood Cemetery, a graveyard used mostly for the poor and the war dead. Some insisted she was mistakenly buried by a family who had lost a child fitting Eleanor’s description.

A cult formed around the little girl. She became the little lost angel, she became a myth. Poems and songs were written about her, notes and balloons and toy animals were left on her stone. When public contributions that paid for new flowers three times a year ran out, a convicted burglar at Massachusetts State Prison sent a $10 check and a promise to buy them every year for the rest of his life, but the local florists’ association insisted on the honor. The little girl was nobody else’s—so she could be everybody’s. It was O.K. to cry for Little Miss 1565.


But years had passed since Lt. Davey had given that photograph or the ’44 fire much thought—until one day in 1981, when the fire marshal assigned him to give a speech to a local high school group on the subject. He thought he would bluff his way through it with the few crumbs of information he had, but when he opened the floor for questions, the hotshots were waiting. What day of the week did it occur? they asked. What time? What was the temperature? How they loved holding his badge to the flame.

He had lost, and he didn’t like losing. “I don’t care if it’s checkers,” he said. “I want to win, and if I don’t win, I’m pissed. Screw second place. Second place is for people who don’t mind second place.”

He and his partner, Tommy Goodrow, once spent four days on their knees in the soaked ashes and rubble of a YWCA fire, searching for a wire six inches long that would substantiate their theory on the origin of the blaze—they found it. His department’s conviction rate was 100 percent. If his checkbook was a penny off, it made him nuts until he did it all over again. He would learn a thing or two about that circus fire. He’d schedule a rematch with the hotshots.

That’s all it was at first, a poor loser’s pout, a perfectionist’s pang. But in every story about the fire he came upon in the library, there was this little girl. She drew him. She disturbed him. He had no idea why.

He didn’t need another child. He had three sons of his own by a marriage that had ended. And no, he wasn’t the soft sort. He had grown up in the projects in Hartford, been belted by his dad at eight for getting hit and not fighting back, and ended up in gang wars with bricks and bats. He had watched from the window as the sheriff took possession of every stick of furniture in his house. His mother had cried, but he hadn’t.

At the scene of a death, he would go up the ladder, take a good long stare, and come back down looking as if he had just perused his backyard for crabgrass. He’d light up a Marlboro, go back inside and start prowling, reading flame patterns and soot, reading depth of char and progression of fire, snapping pictures, drawing sketches, his mind churning like an engine, cause and origin, cause and origin. He would interview witnesses, then light up another cigarette and start pacing, looking right through anyone in the department new or foolish enough to ask a question.

It had gotten to him in the beginning—the smells that could drop a man to his knees, the humans burned like chicken forgotten on a spit. As a rookie fire fighter in 1973, he had raced into a house and had frozen at the sight of an old lady lying sideways, toppled from her wheelchair, her hairless head so blackened and distorted so badly that at first he thought she must be a mannequin. But then one of the veterans, clenching back his grin, told him that he had to give her mouth-to-mouth, just in case. He walked to the porch and threw up.

He watched the other men. He learned. A big fire was a “10-3.” A hired arsonist was “a torch.” A death was a “10-6.” A dead person was “the victim” or even “the roast.” You had to be cold to live around fire. With a little practice, you could carry off the body of a child so burned his skin stuck to you … and nothing stuck to you at all.

There was only one he had trouble getting rid of. It was a little girl who had cowered in a closet, screaming, as he charged into her bedroom one night back in the ‘70s. Blinded by smoke, he took a step toward her. Then the ceiling over the closet collapsed, and the screaming stopped.

“I dreamed about her every night,” he said, “for two or three years.” In the dream he could see her face clearly, surrounded by flames, and all of his movements were in slow motion. He would wake up in a sweat and torture himself. If only he hadn’t paused for a half second to hitch up his boots when the fire engine pulled up, if only he had hit the ground running …

He didn’t go to the little girl’s funeral. He never told anyone about it. “I go with the old school,” he said. “You just eat it.”


He found himself staying up at night over a little girl who died in 1944 instead.

He began arriving at his office two hours early, 6:30 a.m., to devour the files he had photocopied at the city library the night before. He didn’t tell a soul what he was doing—imagine their chortles. Evenings and weekends, he would go to local television studios for old film footage, to the newspaper library for old photos and clippings. He jotted notes to himself, photographed file pictures to take home and make studies of his own. But there were so many holes, so many original police files missing. Sometimes he found himself sitting on the sofa with all the lights out at midnight, waiting for the six aspirins he had just gulped to kick in and kill the migraines brought on by his inability to give Little Miss 1565 a name, by his frustration with the investigation of the fire that killed her.

From the beginning, the case rang wrong in his head. Edward Hickey, a political appointee with no investigative training for his job as Connecticut police commissioner, had ruled six months after the fire that it was caused by a cigarette carelessly tossed onto the grass. Cigarette fires smoked for a half hour or more before they combust—wouldn’t someone have noticed? Lieutenant Davey dug up the humidity reading at two p.m. on July 6, 1944—42 percent. Modern studies had shown that it is virtually impossible for a cigarette to start a grass fire if the humidity is above 23. He began conducting backyard experiments with lighted cigarettes and canvas that increased his doubts. He came upon the picture that showed the charred spot on a two-by-four beam, still standing, where Hickey claimed the fire had begun, and had the photograph enlarged. Not only was the char mark four or five inches above the ground, but the grass at its base was still there, unburned. Stranger still, the circus had experienced two smaller fires in the week before it came to Hartford, and in 1950 a young man named Robert Segee had confessed to Ohio authorities that as a 14-year-old circus hand, he had set them and the big one in Hartford that killed 168 people, as well as dozens more. A red man with fangs and claws, riding a fiery horse, materialized before him and ordered him to set fires, Segee said, giving his account of the Hartford fire and fitting a mold for a pyromaniac right out of the psychiatrist’s textbook—but Connecticut investigators had never even interviewed him.

By 1983, at the end of his first 18 months of study, Rick Davey had a list of 26 reasons why he questioned the official cause of the fire. He had a list of 30 theories concerning the identity of Little Miss 1565. He had 10 cardboard boxes full of information. He had eight more years to go.

“It’s her face,” he said. “If you stare at her picture long enough, she becomes any child. If you stare at it long enough, she becomes alive.” 


Alive? That was the same sick trick Mildred Cook’s mind would play on her in the early years after the fire when she was alone in her apartment, crying. The same sick, beautiful, tortuous, sanity-saving trick. Maybe that’s why she didn’t want to know for certain whose unidentified bodies were in the ground at Northwood Cemetery. If she knew Eleanor was one of them, her despair would be total, she could no longer flirt with that one small possibility, that all-but-hopeless hope. She did it only in her darkest moments, when all the reciting had failed and all the walls had burst, because it scared her as much as it soothed her to believe that any day there could be a knock on the door and when she opened it, who would be standing there, her amnesia gone, her hair in ribbons, her eyes smiling, but …

For six months after the fire Mildred had lain in the hospital, swimming in and out of a morphine haze, recovering from skin grafts so painful that the nurse had to turn away. Her sister, Emily Gill, had gone to the makeshift morgue after the fire for the grisly job of identification, had walked between row after row of little dead bodies. The authorities had shown her a body that, yes, looked a little like Eleanor … well, maybe … no, not quite. Eleanor had always been so ladylike, every hair in place, that it was hard now to tell. And besides, Eleanor’s dentist, working from memory, had said she had eight permanent teeth. This little girl only had four. Emily may well have been shown the wrong body. No, she decided. That wasn’t her niece, Eleanor Cook.

What was Mildred to do when the hospital finally released her a half year later—challenge her sister Emily, demand that the unidentified bodies be dug up, wrench her family all over again? It took all of her strength just to hold her grief behind her teeth, to look at her scarred face in the mirror, to worry about the thoughts running through Donald’s mind.

Next to Edward’s grave, in Southampton’s Center Cemetery, a tombstone was placed in memory of Eleanor. For the first few years, Mildred had to go inside whenever she saw children playing, to turn the other way when she came upon them on her way home from work. She scanned the TV listings each week, to make sure she wouldn’t stumble upon any movie about children, or circuses or death.

Ted and Marion, Mildred’s brother and his wife, invited her up to the house each July 6, tucked away the pages in the newspaper that referred to the fired before Mildred could see them. Perhaps she saw the photograph of Little Miss 1565 at one time or another over the years—she doesn’t think so but isn’t sure. Even if she did see it, she didn’t see it. She couldn’t see it. Four decades passed. She advanced from file clerk to training supervisor at Liberty Mutual, was known by all for her kind heart and cheerfulness, and then retired. She became a grandmother of two, and then a great-grandmother. She was safe now. Surely she was safe.


Lieutenant Davey gave up. He had packed the little girl away in one of the cardboard boxes in his basement in 1984, hadn’t glanced at a word about the circus fire for six weeks and driven south to Virginia Beach to get away from it all. There were just too many contradictions in the records, too many dead ends. He was stretched out on the hotel room bed one evening, resenting himself for having failed to save another burned little girl. “I’m sorry, sweetheart,” he said to himself, “I just don’t know where else to go.”

He didn’t believe in an afterlife. “You hit the box and it’s over,” he said. So it couldn’t have been Eleanor’s voice that day; he’s sure he must have imagined it. “I’ll help you,” he thought he heard a little girl say. He got out of bed, checked the television, checked outside the window. He scoffed at himself, then heard himself promising, for the hundredth time, he would start all over. He returned to the archives at Hartford Hospital, the last place her body was before it was buried. He found nothing new, but the archivist there suggested he try the Connecticut State Library—bingo! What he had been searching for and hadn’t found, the files purged by the state police years ago in a housecleaning—20 more boxes of material.

In the middle of one he came upon a photograph of a blond-haired girl in ribbons. He had never seen a picture of Little Miss 1565 when she was alive, and the child in this picture was far from a dead ringer for the girl in the morgue shot. He had no way to explain this, but he knew it was her, he knew it. He got out his magnifying glass and calipers, began measuring the space between the child’s nose and upper lip, the size of her earlobes, telltale I.D. markers that police weren’t aware of in 1944. Yes. He discovered a lab report comparing samples of hair taken from Little Miss 1565’s head and Eleanor Cook’s hairbrush. Yes, they appeared to match, another lead apparently lost in the paper shuffle. He refused to settle for any of the original investigator’s summary reports; he dug until he found their initial reports, their raw data. His case must be airtight, it could have no punctures, to survive the hurricane it would raise in Hartford.

He made the library photocopier pant, the librarian’s eyebrows arch; Davey Xeroxed 20,000 pages at a quarter a pop, five grand invested in paper, easy. He discovered memos written by Police Commissioner Hickey, transcripts of phone calls that Hickey had taped, indications that Hickey was determined to torpedo the arsonist’s confession in Ohio. Slowly, it all began to make sense. Segee’s admission had occurred in 1950. The circus had already paid out $3.9 million in settlements, six circus officials had already served time in prison for involuntary manslaughter. Heads might roll in high political circles were it to come out that Hickey and the police had botched the investigation of the worst disaster in the history of the state. That might explain, he thought, why no Connecticut official had ever spoken to Segee.

One day in 1987 the mass of evidence became so overwhelming that Lieutenant Davey became certain. He looked at Miss 1565’s picture. He called her Eleanor Cook. “For two days, I floated,” he said. “I’ve never been that happy in my life.” But then he hesitated. Perhaps he had gone to far. Perhaps his discovery would tear open a family’s old wounds.

No. He owed it to her to press on. Never considering that Eleanor’s mother might still be alive, he began tracking down her brother. That would take several more years of investigation, of fruitless letters to other Donald Cooks, of climbing through the family tree limb by limb.

Late in 1990 he received a reply to a letter he had written that had been forwarded to Granger, Iowa. It was the Donald Cook. Lieutenant Davey sent him two pictures, one of a little girl very much alive and the other, the morgue photo. Yes, said Donald. That’s Eleanor.

When the news about Little Miss 1565’s identity broke last March, the TV crews and photographers converged on Mildred Cook’s tiny house as her son had warned her that they might. She looked into the cameras with dry eyes and spoke in even, measured words. “I think I’m relieved,” she said. “I’m not really sure how I feel.”

Calls and letters flooded The Hartford Courant, some praising Lieutenant Davey’s work, others expressing anger. Some had expected to see a sobbing old woman, overcome by the new disclosures and the old pain. They didn’t know about the laminated map of America in Mildred Cook’s living room with the capitals inked in on each state. They didn’t know how many ways a human being learns to live with grief.

At midnight on the eve of Eleanor’s birthday, March 17, 1991, Davey went to Little Miss 1565’s grave for the first time. He laid a black stuffed kitten on it, just like the real one he had learned she once had. He laid some flowers, and a card with a note.

“Our only gift is the thing you once had—your name! How we all wish it could have been possible to correct a more terrible wrong and bring you back … You may join other loved ones and members of your family. But you’ll never be forgotten. I’ll always love you.”

He didn’t sign his name. Just his badge number, 33.


In fire fighting, there is a phenomenon known as backdraft. It occurs when a fire has consumed all the oxygen in a room, when it becomes a confined, superheated gas smoldering in silence, invisible, waiting only for a door to open, a trace of oxygen. And then it explodes with enough force to hurl a human being 30 feet.

Fire fighters learn to stay behind doors when they open them—or not to open them at all. In a not so different way, people who have experienced unspeakable horrors do too. On June 22, 1991, at Center Cemetery in Southampton, Davey stood a few steps from a freshly dug hole. Mildred Cook was sitting. Two people who knew all about backdraft.

At their feet, there lay an angel’s coffin, tiny and white and smothered by flowers. Cameras poked from nearby bushes, microphones strained to catch the minister’s eulogy. Davey eyed them, making sure they kept their distance. A vague depression had settled over him. Robert Segee was still alive, a 61-year-old living in Columbus, Ohio, who now insists he didn’t set the fire, and the reinvestigation of the fire that FBI and state police had promised seemed to have gone nowhere.

His nine-year quest had succeeded, but it wasn’t enough. He hadn’t saved the little girl. She was still dead. He had wondered how he would feel today, watching her casket go into the ground. But he didn’t feel much of anything. He was in uniform, helping to keep the reburial private, a fire lieutenant with a job to do.

Mildred Cook stared straight ahead. Her throat trembled once, and she reached for a handkerchief when a friend of hers strummed an Autoharp and sang “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know.” But then it was over, and she was back in the church reception hall sharing punch and cookies with the others who had come. “You’ve just got to prepare yourself,” Mildred was saying. “I began preparing myself last night. I told myself, ‘I’m not going to cry … I’m not going to cry … I’m not going to cry ….’”

Writer bio: Hands off, Gary Smith is ours. We claim Smith, a four-time winner of the National Magazine Award, as our own. He grew up in Delaware, graduated from LaSalle University and covered the Eagles for the Philadelphia Daily News before spreading his wings at Sports Illustrated. He is one of the most celebrated narrative journalists of our time. And he’s ours.

An Emergency in the Snow


Pete Dexter | Philadelphia Daily News | February 1983

I was sitting at the window Friday afternoon, watching the blizzard freeze the wood off the woodpeckers in the back yard, when it suddenly hit me that I had to have a package of pinwheel cookies.

“Everything is closing,” my wife said, “and the roads are getting worse by the minute.” She was just coming out of the shower.

“I know, I know,” I said. They listen to KYW radio 15 minutes, they think they understand everything. I put on my coat and my boots and walked outside to the car. There was a coat of snow around it a foot thick, and inside it was dark and quiet. The engine turned over and started and I turned on the radio.

It said the roads were getting worse by the minute.

But when I need a package of pinwheel cookies, I need a package of pinwheel cookies.

There are, of course, two schools of thought on driving in a blizzard. One school holds that you ought to scrape the foot of snow off the windows so you can see what’s coming, and the other school is it doesn’t matter if you can see it or not—when it’s your turn, it’s your turn.

And the wind will blow most of it off anyway.

I put the car in reverse and backed out of the driveway. My wife was watching from the front door, and as soon as I was in the street she came running out of the house in boots and a blanket, flashing a little leg as the snow blew up under the blanket. She pounded on my window.

I couldn’t see much of her face, but I could tell she wanted to talk to me. It’s uncanny sometimes, the way that woman and I communicate. I rolled down the window a couple of inches and she shouted to me, over the wind. “You backed over the mailbox,” she said.

I shouted back, “Were you expecting something important? ”

And then she was running back through the snow toward the house, and the wind was blowing up the blanket, and covering her footprints in the snow as soon as she got through making them. Her legs were already a little blue.

If I am ever lonely and stuck in the trenches over in France, fighting another world war against Germany, that is what I will remember. Blue legs against the snow. I dropped the car into a forward gear and started up the road, looking for pinwheel cookies.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had a pinwheel cookie. They’re chocolate with marshmallow inside, but the thing that separates them from regular cookies is the feel. They have a solid, precise quality that is only found on these particular cookies and on the dials to combination safes.

You can control a pinwheel cookie.

I drove out to the highway, thinking of pinwheel cookies and blue legs. ”If you do not have to be out on the roads,” the radio said, “then for goodness sake stay off them. It’s serious out there now.”

The nearest store to my house is six miles away, unless you count the hardware store, which I don’t. I got there just as the manager was locking the door. I recognized him from the pictures they hang inside the store. There must be a dozen of them. Produce manager, business manager, meat manager, assistant produce manager. They go down the list of jobs until they have included the pictures of somebody black and somebody female, and I guess if you don’t have a leg up on them, you never get to see your picture on the wall.

“I know this is going to sound funny,” I said, “but I need some pinwheel cookies. ”

The manager finished locking the door. “That doesn’t sound funny at all,” he said.

I got back in the car and headed farther up the road. There were accidents every two miles, the most impressive of which involved a truck and two cars on the North-South Freeway, coming into Philly. By that time I had tried three more stores, and all of them were just closing. I had that feeling like not being able to find a motel.

Then the truck jackknifed, the car in back of it stopped, the next car didn’t. Everybody got out and looked at their back ends and front ends and shook their heads, blaming the weather. The woman driving the car that caused the accident said, “It’s their own fault, they can’t keep the snow off the highway.”

She had been grocery shopping, I could see the packages in the front seat. I said, “You wouldn’t happen to have any pinwheel cookies in there…”

The next accident I have to report occurred on Vine Street in the city. A car was coming out of a gas station, another car wasn’t going to let it in. They came together at maybe two miles an hour, looking right at each other, and then they bumped fenders.

I didn’t stop for it—nobody had any groceries—but I figured out something then that I’ve wondered about since the day I showed up in this city. Thirty inches of snow can fall on Vermillion, South Dakota, and people get around. Six inches stops everything in Philadelphia or New York. The reason isn’t that Vermillion has more snow plows or less cars.

The reason is that in Vermillion, South Dakota, people live different. They give each other a little room.

That doesn’t make South Dakota a better place than Philadelphia, of course.

What makes South Dakota better than Philadelphia is that hell or high water, at 5 o’clock Friday afternoon, you can find pinwheel cookies.

Writer bio: Pete Dexter, winner of the National Book Award for his novel “Paris Trout,” is also generally considered one of the best writers in city newspaper history. He wrote for the Daily News, mostly as a columnist, for 12 years.

Sorority on E. 63rd St.


Michael Callahan | Vanity Fair | April 2010

She sat by the window, watching the world rumble by as the train barreled toward New York City. In her purse was $60 from her father, a man of stiff Iowa breeding who worked at the family lumber company back in Des Moines. The money was intended to buy three days in Manhattan, three days that would begin shortly after her arrival at Grand Central, where she would gently disembark in her chartreuse-and-black dress with its tightly fitted houndstooth jacket, accented by a jaunty black sailor hat.

Cloris Leachman was 20 years old in 1946, and like thousands of girls before and after her, she had come to New York to find something far bigger than a holiday. She had backed into the Miss America Pageant as Miss Chicago, at one point spending hours practicing how to walk in figure eights to impress the judges. She didn’t win, but it didn’t matter, because what she was looking for couldn’t be found amid the honky-tonk of the Atlantic City Boardwalk. What she was looking for was stardom.

On a chilly December day three months later—25 years before she would float onto the stage at the Oscars (winning best supporting actress for The Last Picture Show) and declare, “I’m having an amazing life, and it isn’t over yet”—Cloris Leachman swept through the tony aisles of Bergdorf Goodman in a full-length beaver coat that covered a tailored green wool suit, with matching suede heels. Stepping out onto the sidewalk in front of the Christmas windows of the department store, she looked over at the twinkling lights of the Plaza hotel, smiled, and sighed. She was an understudy in two different Broadway plays. She was dating a worldly, handsome man. And, best of all, she was living at the most glamorous address a girl could have if she dreamed of becoming a star: the Barbizon Hotel for Women, at the corner of Lexington Avenue and 63rd Street.

Standing there in the night air, with Manhattan laid out like a magic carpet in front of her, was, 83-year-old Leachman says today, “the most exciting moment of my life.”

Writer bio: Michael Callahan, a native of Northeast Philadelphia and graduate of Temple University, served as executive editor of Philadelphia Magazine for three years before leaving for Vanity Fair, where he serves as a contributing editor. This story about the Barbizon Hotel was the impetus behind his first novel, “Searching for Grace Kelly,” which published in January.

Continue reading “Sorority on E. 63rd St.”

Watching Rocky II with Muhammad Ali


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


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.


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. )


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


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.

Continue reading “Vander Blue has 200 teammates”

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


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


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


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


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


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.

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


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


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.

Continue reading “Be the Best”

Lean on Him


Frank Rossi | Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine | March 1987

”CRAZY JOE” CLARK IS A SATISFIED MAN when he’s rolling down the hallways of Eastside High School, ready to crush the slightest suggestion of rape, violence, drug addiction, and all the other vile acts for which Eastside was famous before he came – and which don’t occur anymore because somebody had the sense to send Crazy Joe in to clean the place up, and by the end of his first day, the school was pretty much cleaned up, because that’s the way Joe Clark works – swift and clean, like the hand of the Lord.

In the hallways of his own school, he estimates he walks 22 miles a day. He meets his students, bantering, urging, insulting, encouraging and loving them, as they change classes. With him always is his trusty companion, a white bullhorn tucked into his left armpit. It is a vocal battering ram with which he opens the ears of the throng:

“OK, people, walk to the right. ”

You think walking to the right is not so important? The truth is, making students walk to the right could have been one of Joe Clark’s major achievements. In a school where everyone is already afraid of everybody else,bumping into somebody is an offense that could earn you a few inches of steel in the liver.

It got so bad that Frank Napier, superintendent of schools in Paterson, N.J., moved his office to Eastside High School so he could see what was happening. His first day on the job, a student grabbed Napier and held a knife to his throat.

“I kicked his a-,” Napier says when asked how he handled the situation. The next thing he did was to make Joe Clark principal of Eastside.

That was five years ago. Things changed immediately. The sign on Clark’s office door explains why: “One way – my way. ” It’s not meant to be cute – he’s serious. It’s part of the contradiction that is Joe Clark, and there are many. The most interesting of which is his method of human relations. He treats his $47,000-a-year administrators as though they were children, and he treats his students as adults.

Here’s another. By day the man is strung tighter than a piano wire ready to snap and take your eye out – he screams, threatens and cajoles. At night, in the safety of his own home, he is, by all accounts, content to sit back meekly, listen to classical music and let his wife and daughters take over.

Finally, it would be hard to find anyone as dedicated as Joe Clark is to helping blacks reach their potential. Yet to many blacks, Joe Clark’s mouth is a bomb that can’t be defused – he’s always saying things like “Black kids have Jordache jeans on their behinds and nothing in their minds. ”

Every morning at 5 or so, Joe Clark is up and getting ready for school. By 6 a.m., he’s at work. By 7, even though classes don’t start until 8, students begin to arrive. These are the students who take part in extracurricular activities. At Eastside, you aren’t allowed to miss class to participate in extracurricular activities. You either arrive early or stay late.

By 8 a.m., Joe Clark, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, and perhaps the most omnivorous practitioner of vocabulary since Noah Webster, is speeding down the halls, bullhorn ready. What a sight. Three-piece suit, Italian cut, trouser creases sharp enough to slice cheese. The suit does more than fit; his never-eats-lunch body is caressed by it. This is topped off by a silk tie wrapped under a shirt collar that could withstand a nuclear attack.

Tagging along with him is a breathtaking experience. But if you want to talk to Joe Clark you talk on the run or not at all.

In the halls are the greenest plants this side of the Bahamas, and sofas and chairs, lots of sofas and chairs, for students to relax in while they study. The key word is study. Joe Clark catches a boy sitting on the arm.

“All right,” Clark says. “Sit down. You can’t sit on the arm. ” Even as the young man slips down into the seat, Joe Clark has already passed.

“Annette,” Clark says to a girl a little farther along, “pick that paper up, honey. Thank you. ”

To another girl: “Where do you belong? ”

No answer.


“I’m going to the gym. ”

“Let me see your ID. ”

She shows him her identification card. He admonishes her to display it in plain view. There was an ID system before Joe Clark came, but it wasn’t enforced, so the school was open to every punk and pervert in Paterson. Now, no ID card, you’re out, even if Joe knows you by name. And there are not many students he does not know by name.

Another thing about Joe Clark is his telescopic vision. He can spot a gum wrapper on the floor at 25 yards. He stops a student. “Eva,” he says, “you come with me. See that piece of paper there, honey? Pick it up for me. OK? ” She picks it up. “Thank you,” he says. It would have been less trouble if he had picked it up himself, but in Joe Clark’s school, lessons go well beyond the three R’s.

“The kids keep the building very clean,” he says, “3,000 kids, 2,000 blacks, 1,000 Hispanics. ”

“What about us? Aren’t there any whites? ”

“Fifteen years ago, 20 years ago, the composition of the building turned from white to black and Hispanic. The whites were afraid of the black plague. The Hispanic plague. Shows you the ominous nature of our society,” he says, speeding his pace in a now-empty hallway.

“You’ll find we don’t have smoking in the corridors. Drugs? We don’t have it in the building. ”

He knocks on a door and walks into a class. Everybody in the class, including the teacher, holds their breath. Clark looks a kid in the eye: ”Chris – right? ” No answer. “What’s your name, son? ”

“George,” the kid answers.

“George,” Clark says, and you can tell he’s studying the kid, remembering his name. Next time, Clark will know George. Clark steps out. “I go into maybe 50 classes a day. Even if it’s no more than four minutes. That makes me ubiquitous, omnipresent. ”

“They’re also afraid of you – yes or no? ”

He ignores the question. “Well, you know, I run this place democratically. ”

“Yeah, but you’re the president. ”

“Yes,” he answers.

“Or maybe the king? ”

Joe Clark smiles. “Maybe the savior,” he says – only, by now, the smile is gone.

FINDING OUT WHO JOE CLARK REALLY is isn’t easy. He is not crazy, not in the way some of his colleagues refer to him anyway. CBS news described him as a drill sergeant. Others have focused solely on his controversial nature.

Joe Clark drinks at the fountain of controversy. “Controversy I’ve found to be the greatest boon to my rapid emergence as one of the outstanding and provocative educators in this nation. Controversy did that. ”

Joe Clark was born and reared in Newark. His father was home “at a point,” and his mother was home “at a point. ” When he was 14, Clark’s mother left under circumstances he does not talk about. By that time his father already was gone. Joe Clark was left to take care of five younger brothers and sisters. Somehow he did.

He did it without quitting high school. If he had a role model, he can’t remember who it was. All he knew from that time on was that he had to do well. In school Clark wasn’t the brightest, but he worked harder, graduating sixth in his class in 1958.

Right out of high school he took a job as an orderly in a Newark hospital. He was still working at the hospital when he enrolled at Upsala College that fall, so he worked the 11 p.m.-to-7 a.m. shift at the hospital and attended classes during the day. At the end of the first year, he ran out of money. What did he know? Nobody had volunteered the information that aid was available to students – work-study money, government loans. Clark transferred to William Paterson College of New Jersey, a state school, where he was a B student until his graduation.

At this point he had only vague ideas of what he could be. He thought about the FBI, or a career in criminology. Instead, he went into teaching, then enrolled in Seton Hall University’s graduate program, pulled straight A’s and earned a master’s degree in administration.

“Eventually,” he says, “I got the break that put me into administration. ” It was the active, liberal ’60s, and by now Joe Clark’s ideas were starting to form, and so was his mouth. Unfortunately, he was in his 20s and had no track record, and nobody wanted to listen to him.

His description of those events is typical Joe Clark. “I was exiled for 10 years. They said I was quite volatile and I talked too much about the ills of society, and so they exiled me. To an all-white school across town. Away from blacks. ”

What he says next provides insight into the vulnerable Joe Clark, the Joe Clark few people see even when they’re looking at it. “Valor tells me to fight ofttimes, but discretion tells me to walk away. I think this becomes part and parcel to survival in a highly complex society. You don’t trust people. Period. Once you reach that plateau in your life, you are less prone to be mortally wounded than if you take people to your heart. ”

A major step for Clark came in the 1970s, when he was appointed principal to No. 6 grade school, one of the raunchiest grade schools in Paterson. Within five years, he cleaned up the place. He was now ready to face Eastside High School. He spent the entire summer working on his plan, so when the first day of school came, he was ready for war, if that’s what it came to.

THERE’S NOT A SCHOOL IN THE NATION that doesn’t have rules against taking loaded guns to class, dealing in drugs, shooting up in the restrooms. Those rules existed at Eastside before Joe Clark showed up. The difference between Joe Clark and those who had failed before him was that he enforced the rules. The first day of school, academic records in hand, he called 300 supposed juniors and seniors to the auditorium. They’d been at Eastside for two years, and almost to a person they had no academic credit.

He kicked them out. You don’t belong here, he said; all you’re doing is distracting people who want to learn. There were complaints. What was Joe Clark trying to do – take their rights away? No, he said. He was trying to guarantee the rights of students who wanted to learn.

In Joe Clark’s school, talking back to a teacher earns you an automatic suspension. Drugs, violence, graffiti and all the rest draw suspensions. No hearings. No talking. Just get the hell out until you can co-exist.

The vile acts that occurred regularly at Eastside five years ago are practically impossible to find today.

A good many administrators are not in love with Clark’s personal style, but they have to swallow their bile for now because Clark has tremendous support in the city of Paterson, from the parents and from his students and a majority of the school board members.

He has that support because whatever he’s doing, it works. Academically, he has tried to bring his school from the ice age into the 20th century. New Jersey has something called a minimum basic skills test. When Joe Clark arrived, only 39 percent of the students could pass the reading and English part. Now, the percentage is close to 70 and rising. When he came, only 56 percent could pass the math test. Now, the math percentage is up to 91.

The MBS test is not considered a credible gauge by many, but Clark has needed some yardstick with which to measure academics. Other tests have not been as hopeful. For example, the number of students who make the honor roll today has not changed much from the number who made it when Clark first arrived. Eastside’s numbers in the Scholastic Aptitude Test, long considered the benchmark by which schools are measured, have remained almost the same in the five years Clark has been principal.

By the same token, more Eastside students are college-bound than ever before, and Clark believes the curriculum is more difficult today than it was in the past. Eastside, says Clark, has the strongest academic program in Paterson, equal to any inner-city school system in the northeastern United States. How would it stack up against a white middle-class school district?

“I think,” says Joe Clark, “that given all the nuances of society, and if we could correct the pervasive ills that surround blacks and Hispanics; and if we were able to undo decades of stagnation and prejudice and poor self- concepts – the dissipation of family – if we were able to do all those things, then eradicate racism from our society; if we were able to construct a government truly committed to justice, equality and liberty for all; if we were able to do just some of those things, there could be parity. Until such time, it’s just a figment of one’s imagination. ”

There is a philosophy among the administrators of Eastside High School, a philosophy handed down by none other than Joe Clark. It says you don’t have any rights until you practice your responsibilities. At Eastside High School, rules equal responsibility.

If Joe Clark suspects you of having smack, crack or even alcoholic apple jack in your locker, he’s going to get a hammer, knock the lock off and have a look inside.The American Civil Liberties Union would love to hit Joe Clark over the head with a law book. He couldn’t care less. “In my school,” he says seriously, “I’m the constitution. These kids deserve to get a good education in a drug-free environment, and I’m just the man to see that they get it. ”

MUZAK SPILLS SOFTLY FROM THE speakers of the third-floor corridor, which is empty, save for Joe Clark at one end and what appears to be a mother at the other end. They come together like two cars on a one-lane highway. For a minute it seems as though they’re going to squeeze by each other without notice, but he stops abruptly and looks her up and down.

“Have you been to the office for a visitor’s pass?” he says. He makes no effort to be polite. Before she can answer, he says: “You have to go to the office first and get a visitor’s pass. ”

“But,” the woman says.

“You must have a visitor’s pass. You just can’t walk through the building. ”

“They sent me . . . ”

He cuts her short. “Come with me. ” He launches that skinny bod of his into high gear; he’s going so fast by now, a kid around the bend who has been horsing around in the hall with a wig on his head gets caught in the act. The kid rips the wig off and stuffs it between his legs. Clark whizzes past, too sizzled to yell at the kid.

Behind Clark, the mother is losing ground. “Slow down,” she says, clearly ticked. “I ain’t walkin’ that fast. ” Clark pays absolutely no attention to her. Sensing that something drastic is going to happen unless she cooperates, she attempts to catch up.

Clark stops. Yanks open the door to one of the administration offices and barely steps onto the threshold. “I found this woman walking the halls without a visitor’s pass. Who did it?” he demands.

“I did,” a woman answers.

“You can’t do that,” he says.

“I know,” the administrative aide says, “but the woman was in a hurry and. . . . ”

Clark doesn’t want to hear it.

He closes the door. But his face is red and brown at the same time, and clearly he hasn’t gotten rid of all his anger. He yanks the door open again. The woman looks up. “If I’m going to have rules and regulations, you have to follow ’em or there’s no sense having them. ” He closes the door before she can respond. As quickly as his heat rose, it dies. A girl passes him.

“Hi, baby,” he says, “where are you going? ”

“To the gym. ”

“Take care, baby. ”

Then the girl turns, a kind of pseudo-hurt expression on her face. ”Where’s my teddy bear?” she whines.

“See me in the morning in my office,” he says.

“I tried to see you this morning, but you wasn’t listening,” she says.

“WEREN’T listening,” he corrects. “See me in the morning. ” Zoom! He’s off again.

“What’s a teddy bear? ”

“Well,” he says, “I get different gifts for the young ladies. Ah, corsages, teddy bears, different things to buoy their spirits. And also to gain support. ” Clark pays for the gifts out of his own pocket.

Down the hall. “Hi, girls,” he says.

“Hah! Don’t speak to me,” one of them says. “I didn’t get no teddy bear. ”

Joe Clark smiles, and he waves to a bunch of black and Hispanic boys making their way down the hall. “All these bears around here,” he laughs, “just grab one, whatever color you like, brown, black, white. ”

He moves on. “Be charismatic,” he says. “Always keep something going. ”

He opens the door to a language class. Bursts in and says, “Hola. Como esta? ”

Everyone is startled.

Finally one student answers him in Spanish. “Glad to see you’re working so hard,” Joe Clark says. “Maybe we won’t self-destruct by the year 2,000. You have to work. ”

He closes the door softly behind him and says quietly, “It’s been prognosticated that blacks and Hispanics will probably self-destruct by the year 2,000. ”

“Wha? ”

“Very formidable magazines. Crisis Magazine, the NAACP. I see it very saliently clear. I believe it’s going to happen. ” Part of it is the lack of family life. Joe Clark really believes he can make up for it, that he can give 3,000 students what they might not be getting at home.

“At home,” he says, “they lack discipline. Here, they have a different perspective. They now have an administrator who is pertinacious. An administrator who has that unswerving resolve to make amends for the deterioration that may exist in their abodes. They have an administrator who has the foresight and intuition to ameliorate those destructive forces and transform them into decency and respect. That’s the difference! ”

“Yeah, yeah, but who’s got the stronger influence. You or the home? ”

“Me, me. I’m convinced of it. I’m much more potent. There is no family structure. I don’t believe that welfare should, in fact, be as entrenched in our society as it is. I think, if anything, welfare has etched away the resilience and the viability and the vitality of a race of people . . . .

“You see, when you give people something, you take their dignity, you take their respectability. You take their pride, their decency, and you make them subservient and dependent upon an institution rather than the basic force that has made this country great – hard work and doing for self. And the bastards have got to work. You can’t give it to ’em. The same thing is applicable to white folks. . . . Half this country is receiving some type of aid. You can’t have a country that way. That’s why we’re faltering now – America. ”

PERTINACIOUS – Holding stubbornly to any opinion or design; extremely persistent. (Scribner Bantam English Dictionary)

When Joe Clark calms down, he admits he’s not necessarily the smartest man in the world, that he is not cut out to be a leader, a superintendent – a No. 1 man. “I’m a good No. 2, No. 3 man,” he says. But he can easily explain how he got to be “the best administrator in the nation. ”


Is that so. Then he ought to know what Calvin Coolidge said about persistence.

Clark hesitates, trying to call it up in his memory bank. Then his eyes burn, and he smiles widely, and punctuating his words with the baton that is his finger, he recites: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than the unsuccessful man with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not – the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination are omnipotent. The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.'”

Without waiting for applause, Joe Clark is back prowling the halls of his beloved Eastside, a school that is built on a cemetery, a school which for all intents and purposes was dead until he breathed life into it. You might say Eastside is a monument to Joe Clark’s pertinacity.

“I’ve got to be omnipresent because if I’m not, things go astray,” he says. How can Joe Clark spend all his time bouncing around the halls and still keep the school running? The answer is, he delegates authority to his administrators, people like Veronica Maus, executive vice principal, known as the “Iron Woman” – for good reason.

“I’m not ever going to stay in my office. Why do you think I know so much?” he says. “I see it. I don’t believe anything they tell me, my administrators. They don’t have the internal fortitude necessarily to be totally comprehensive. Their scope is too narrow. Some of them. Not all of them. ”

“The most powerful force in the school, then, is Joe Clark? ”

“True,” he says.

“And suppose another Joe Clark type showed up here? ”

“I would throw him out. I just got rid of one of my vice principals for doing that. THERE CAN ONLY BE ONE MR. CLARK AT EASTSIDE. I’m asking them to earn their $47,000 a year. That’s all. ”

“What does Joe Clark earn? ”

“Fifty-five thousand. Not much at all for the job I’ve got to do. ” He’s had offers. U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett thinks Joe Clark is the best thing to come out of New Jersey since tomatoes. They’ve had lunch a couple of times, during which, by all accounts, Joe Clark instructed Bennett on how to excise the cancers from American schools. It’s a good bet that Bennett would like to attract him to Washington. But Joe Clark’s too smart.

“I’m happy here,” Clark says. “You see, I never let my reach exceed my grasp. I want to do those types of things that produce instantaneous rewards. I can’t wait. ”

Quietly, a girl and a boy stop him. She needs a pass signed. They are serious, so Clark matches his mood to theirs. He asks how they are doing academically, and they say they are doing well. Clark signs the pass and smiles. “Mr. Clark,” the boy says out of the blue, “I’m just a freshman. Please stay with us for three more years. ”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Joe Clark says.

EASTSIDE HIGH SCHOOL, PATERSON, N.J., is Joe Clark’s work of art, a kind of sculpture in brick and glass and flesh and force of will. But it does not have the permanence, for instance, of a Greek statue; it is more like a sand castle threatened by the unrelenting possibility of erosion by an ocean.

There’s a good chance that if Joe Clark were suddenly replaced, Eastside would revert to its primitive state.

“Probably, probably,” he says. “I would be disappointed if it didn’t. I don’t want a lasting effect. I want them to know that Joe Clark did come through here. I want them to see the difference between a person who’s a good manager and individuals who can’t manage.

“I know I’m not indispensable. I know my place. I know my capabilities. ”

Joe Clark’s cure for Eastside’s disease is relatively simple. He believes that young people will do what they are expected to do. If you expect them to be drug addicts and rapists, that’s what they will be. From the beginning, he made it clear that his expectations went quite beyond that.

He never had to line people up against the walls and search for weapons. He never had to go through the lockers, cabinet by cabinet. He fostered pride, dignity and respect. “The reason they carried weapons was because they felt intimidated,” he says. “We removed that. And thus, no more need. They had to fight their way out of here sometimes.

“I had a security guard stabbed the year before I came, alleged rapes, guns, fights – fights in the cafeteria every lunch period. Assaults on administrators. Teachers beaten up. Sex rings. ”

“Sex rings? ”

Clark, disgusted at the question: “Of course. ”

“You mean prostitution? ”

“Yes. Teachers going with the girls. All that balderdash. That should not have existed. They’re gone. And the female teachers who went with the boys are gone. And the boys who went with the guys are gone, and the girls who went with the girls are gone.

“I made it clear that what existed would be no more, and that’s that. I put the security guards out. I don’t need security guards now. Kids know what to do. ”

The trick to Clark’s success is that he put his plan into operation with great force in one day. Then he ironed out the wrinkles later on while nobody was looking. Had he stumbled along trying to implement one rule at a time, his throat probably would be cut by now, literally and figuratively.

His results brought him community support, including the confidence of the mayor of Paterson; the parents are thrilled with his results. And the media have turned Joe Clark into a mythical figure.

Which brings us to Frank Napier, Paterson superintendent of schools. Napier and Clark came up together. They’ve known each other since 1959. For all the clout he has developed, Joe Clark serves at the convenience of Frank Napier. If Napier were replaced tomorrow by a superintendent less sympathetic to Joe Clark, Clark could find himself gone. But if there’s any close friendship between Napier and Clark, neither one admits it.

At an administrators’ meeting one day, Clark was lecturing his staff on one of his favorite topics: loyalty. The superintendent and I don’t agree on everything, he said, but I’m loyal to him.

Loyalty is a fetish with Clark. If he even suspects that one of his administrators is disloyal, he gets rid of him. It’s not easy, therefore, to find anyone on his staff who will speak against Clark.

When he says he’s harder on his administrators than he is on his students, he’s not kidding. Portions of administrative meetings can become downright unpleasant, particularly if Clark assigned somebody to do something and it didn’t get done. During most of one recent meeting, the administrators looked like people who had been told they would die in six months.

At this meeting, he bawled out Florence Lopas, one of his strongest allies, for forgetting to schedule a fire drill; he impatiently prodded a woman who had failed to learn her vocabulary words – he regularly hands out a list of new words for administrators to learn – for that day, and he castigated his black administrators for not setting a better example.

“You black administrators should be setting the example for our students. We thank the white teachers and administrators for their help, but I don’t want them setting the example here,” he told his staff. “You black administrators are not setting a strong enough example. ”

Sometimes he even screams at them. “White guys can’t take that. I tell them, ‘You can’t take it because you’re a white boy, and a nigger is screaming at you. ‘ Oh, man,” he says laughing, always delighted to shock.

Yet for all his boldness, Joe Clark understands that his power doesn’t extend beyond the front door of Eastside High School.

One of his first actions was to require teachers and administrators to wear jackets and ties. “They said, ‘You don’t tell me what to do,’ ” he remembers. “That was in my less-refined days when I took no prisoners. I demanded that they dress up or get the hell out. ” The school board backed him.

The next thing he wanted was a dress code for students. “The American Civil Liberties Union got after me, plus the businessmen. They were making too much money on the kids. Your best-dressed kids are blacks and Hispanics. So they would stop going downtown to buy clothes if they wore a uniform. The businessmen would lose millions of dollars.

“They made no bones about it. They told me. I stood there aghast. But I knew I was working with a powerful structure now: the businesses. And they could destroy me. I didn’t want to court destruction. So I backed off. I want to live. Survive. I’ve got a family to take care of, too.

“They call me Crazy Joe. But nobody ever said I was a fool. ”

Still, to this day, Clark yearns for a dress code. “I’ve found consistently that your best-dressed kids are the dumbest, because in order to be well-dressed, it takes innumerable hours trying to put these different sequences together.

“White kids are poorly dressed in comparison to black kids. I wanted everybody to be dressed the same. I got it from your prestigious schools. Those kids wear uniforms. They’re telling me something.”

Joe Clark is zooming toward the office, for no apparent reason. There is one last thing, though, before he goes in. How come Joe Clark dresses well?

“I’m well-dressed, but I’ve earned my right to be well-dressed,” he says, then he opens the door and disappears inside.

IN PATERSON, JOE CLARK’S CHIEF OPPONENT – it wouldn’t be fair to call him an enemy, because he admires many of Clark’s achievements – has to be Pete Tirri, president of the Paterson teacher’s union. Pete Tirri may be one of the few people who speak out publicly against Clark, partly because Tirri has guts, partly because it’s his job, and partly because he’s an elementary school teacher and it’s unlikely he’ll ever have to work for Joe Clark.

“It’s clear to me that the halls are quieter at Eastside,” Tirri says. ”I just cannot accept a man who prides himself on driving people out of school, a man who feels that the only way to resolve a problem is through confrontation.”

Although he says there have been dozens of abuses of teachers, Tirri focuses on three cases, those of Fran Kubian, a former music teacher; Barry Rosser, the head football coach at Eastside, and Dominick Pelosi, whose position as head basketball coach is in question as of this writing.

“Fran Kubian was considered to be one of the best music teachers we had in the district,” Tirri says. “She had some very talented kids and had contacted the Metropolitan Opera and had set up some program where members of the opera would come to Eastside High School to work with some of her kids.

“When the people from the Met wrote Clark to get permission . . . he said permission was denied. ”

Michael C. Pollak of the Record of Bergen County reported: “Clark’s reply was curt. In a letter, he informed the opera that there was nothing to discuss, because Mrs. Kubian was no longer choir director. He had suspended her himself, ordering security guards to throw her out of the building. ” She was suspended because she didn’t inform Clark in advance that the Met people were coming.

Clark and Kubian had had other disagreements, according to Pollak, mostly because Kubian didn’t keep Joe Clark informed of every detail of her program. Once, “when a news photographer arrived at Eastside to take a picture of the singing group, Clark angrily ordered the photographer ejected, complaining that Mrs. Kubian had not consulted him in advance,” Pollak wrote. He reports that Clark, discussing the situation over the school’s public address system, referred to Fran Kubian as a “dizzy broad.”

Kubian was transferred to an elementary school but refused the transfer. She is now working for a well-off school system outside Paterson. Eastside singers had to do without the Met.

Then there was the case of Barry Rosser. He was relatively lucky. He was kicked out and brought back. Rosser was the girls’ basketball coach in May of 1984 when he walked into an assembly where the school anthem was being played. One of Joe Clark’s rules is that nobody – but nobody – moves during the anthem.

Rosser bent over to pick up a piece of paper. Another one of Joe Clark’s rules is that everybody – but everybody -keeps the school clean.

When Rosser bent over, Clark stopped the music and yelled at him in front of the whole school for moving during the anthem. Later, the two had a shouting match in Clark’s office, during which Clark fired Rosser.

The school board upheld Clark. Clark eventually rehired Rosser, who is the school’s current football coach. The only thing Rosser is willing to say about Joe Clark today is that “he’s a fair man.”

The most recent hoo-ha at Eastside came in mid-January when Clark suspended Pelosi, the basketball coach. Soon afterward, Pelosi, one of the most respected basketball coaches in North Jersey, was admitted to the hospital with chest pains. For days, Clark denied publicly that he had suspended Pelosi.

At one point Clark told the Paterson News: “I repeat once again for the record, Dominick Pelosi is not suspended. ”

Pelosi said he had a letter of suspension signed by Clark. Clark denied it. ”I reiterate again without any mental reservations that he is not suspended,” Clark said.

Tirri finally made public Clark’s letter of suspension, which read: ”Please be advised that your surreptitious manners and chicaneries shall not be tolerated any longer. Furthermore you have been recalcitrant, obdurate, palliative, and contumacious. Also you have violated rules and regulations, established by the administration, the principal. Thus you are suspended, effective immediately.”

Paterson Mayor Frank Graves was glib. He said Joe Clark’s letter to Pelosi had done much to advance education in Paterson because it sent everybody running to the dictionary.

With the letter published, Clark had only this to say: “I plead the fifth.”

What is interesting about these three cases, and others, is that Joe Clark has absolutely no right to suspend a teacher. That is the right of the Paterson Board of Education. More interesting is that the board has upheld Clark almost every time.

Tirri can’t figure it out. “I assume that the board of education probably just figured that something has got to be done, and if he needs to declare martial law at Eastside High School, then they’re going to give him the authority to do that. These incidents flare up. He’s had many grievances ruled against him, a couple ruled in his favor. But they die, they go away. The board sees what’s happening. If you look at the city of Paterson, the only positive information coming out of this town about education is Joe Clark. He is the media’s darling, and what I say is that the board is unwilling to stop him from doing whatever he’s doing.

“I mean, the first year he was principal, an assistant superintendent went into that building, and he threw her out. Either because she hadn’t reported to the office or she hadn’t reported to him.

“I would submit to you that there’s not another principal in the world who would get away with that. From that point on, I think, the board had lost control of him.”

There are now signs that the board has taken steps to regain “control,” if that, in fact, is a problem. For the first time since he has been firing teachers on his own, the board has challenged him. Superintendent Napier and school board president Salviano have declared Clark’s suspension of Pelosi ”procedurally incorrect. ” He has not yet been reinstated.

Although Pelosi and Clark had been at odds on other matters, the one that triggered Pelosi’s suspension was a dispute over a dinner Pelosi planned for his team. Pelosi asked for and received permission from Clark to hold the dinner.

Then Clark told him to cancel it. By that time, according to Tirri, the dinner was paid for, and it was too late. It was at this point that Pelosi did something he should have known would blow Clark’s top – he went over Clark’s head.

Pelosi asked superintendent Napier for permission, and Napier said OK. The dinner was held, Clark suspended Pelosi, and the Paterson teachers union had another uphill battle on its hands.

The question, of course, is why Clark wanted Pelosi to cancel the dinner in the first place? And the answer is that Clark was mad because Pelosi hadn’t invited him to the dinner.

“What kind of bull- is that? ” Clark was quoted as saying. “I’m the principal of this building.”

IT IS NEAR THE END OF THE DAY, AND YOU CAN see beads of sweat on Joe Clark’s upper lip as he makes a final prowl through the gleaming hallways of Eastside High. His pants crease and collar, it should be noted, are still in mint condition.

“I tell the kids, you are treated how you are perceived. Black folk and Hispanic folk have been perceived as being non-contributors to this country. We’re treated as being insignificant.

“We’re not turning out doctors, engineers, journalists, educators. We’re not turning them out. And until that time, we will remain precariously perched. You’ve got to be assiduous. ”

In the midst of this, a bell has rung, and students have spilled out into the halls. As Joe Clark nears the main entrance, two male administrators, both of them huge, are holding two boys.

“These two started a fight in the hall, Mr. Clark,” one of the administrators volunteers.

“All right,” Joe Clark says, not in the least disturbed. “Put ’em out.

Put ’em out. No fights around here. You know the rules. Ten days. We can’t have arguments. ”

Joe Clark moves on. “You see, blacks in this building never fight one another. You have Hispanics and blacks. They used to. But I’ve told them straight up – Hi, Pamela -you’re all brothers and sisters, because every Hispanic here’s got black blood in him. So that takes care of that. ”

Eventually, he returns to the questions of race and education. “I’m going to make it,” Clark says. “Some blacks are going to make it individually. But we will never make it collectively until such time as enough blacks make it individually.

“I’m sure the Jews made it individually first, and when a lot of them began to make it, it impacted upon them collectively. We’re second-class citizens in our own land, and the only way we’re going to change that is to do what the Jews did. You don’t let me in Florida, I’ll buy the damn state. ”

Clark has been able to improve his students’ test scores through ”motivation and high expectation. Kicking a few posteriors of teachers. Being diligent. Getting rid of whomever you had to get rid of. One way or the other. You know, once a teacher gets tenure it’s hard to get rid of them. You know, I get rid of them one way or the other. Either they leave voluntarily or they leave in a straitjacket. It’s up to them.

“You see, I’m not going to permit anybody to destroy the lives of kids. That’s my first and foremost goal. To provide a viable education for these kids, who ARE inferior to white kids. Yes, they’re inferior and I gotta say it. ”

Joe Clark is yelling now.

“Black kids are inferior to white kids. Academically. Not because of innate incapacity. But because their priorities are wrong, their priorities are screwed-up.

“They’re concerned about clothes and jeans and partying, women and girls and other things they see on television, rather than becoming serious academic students. And I’m telling you, until such time as we change our priorities, we are going to be a faltered people.

“I know of no student in this school – black or Hispanic – who’s a dedicated, true academic person. Not a one.

“I’ll tell you what. I’ve watched those white kids breakin’ their butts. They’re weird, they’re odd. No question. But I’ll tell you what. They become your doctors, your engineers. All these things that become a backbone of a people and subsequently a country.

“Take your schools in Philadelphia. I wonder when was the last time you had a black valedictorian. Let me tell you something: Right here in this school, we never had – this is an all-black/Hispanic school with 15 to 20 whites – a black valedictorian. ”

Joe Clark pauses and looks you in the eye as well as any man can look you in the eye when he’s walking 20 miles an hour. His pride bursts, and he says, ”This year is going to be the first year during my tenure that I’ve had a black valedictorian. It makes me feel great! Statistically, that’s the way it should be. There should be a black every two years. Every three years, a Hispanic. Every 50 years a white.

“But our kids are not making it as a people. Our race is in the throes of e-lim-in-a-tion.

“What do we do?! Break our a-. Work like I work. ”

It might be of some interest that Joe Clark is as proud of his handful of white students as he is of his black and Hispanic kids. The whites are the children “of whites who couldn’t escape,” he says. “They just couldn’t get out. You know, I have my white assembly every year. And I welcome these whites, and I praise them for staying amongst 3,000 blacks and Hispanics.

“My God, in their own country, they’re aliens. And they have the guts to stay here. And you know what? Nobody bothers them. We love those kids. We appreciate them, and if anybody messes with one of those white kids, I’ll decapitate the guilty party myself. ”

The city of Paterson has a population of about 137,000, one-third white, one-third black and one-third Hispanic. The whites, according to Clark, are older people “who got stuck” in Paterson, so that accounts for why there are so few whites in the schools.

One of the reasons young whites got out of Paterson is bigotry; another, Clark says, is that blacks have often not been competent teachers or administrators. Black schools, he says, “are out of control. Absolutely out of control. That’s the fault of spineless, gutless managers, principals primarily, who permit things to become uncontrollable. And there’s no reason for it. This school was out of control. ”

The principal before Joe Clark was black. “And the one before that, black. And the one before him. That’s why I call them spineless, gutless bastards who destroy their own people. In your urban areas, who runs the school systems? Blacks generally. And it’s our responsibility to our kids to make sure that we give them the best.

“I tell my kids: Straighten up your back. The white man can’t ride your spine if your back is straight. Stand tall. Be proud, be dignified, and then white people won’t run away from you. ”

BY 3 P.M., THE SCHOOL DAY HAS ENDED and Eastside High School is empty save for the few who choose to stay over. You might hear faint sounds of cheerleaders practicing in the gym, or the choir rehearsing in a room somewhere. But the vibrations of 3,000 souls, so strong during the day, are gone. An empty school is a melancholy place; without students, Eastside High is a body without a soul.

Tomorrow at 8 a.m., Joe Clark’s dream will resume. But somewhere out there, his foes wait for him to stumble. They might agree that Clark tamed Eastside, but they ask: Is the medicine worse than the poison? As long as he’s on top, few people are willing to ask that question publicly.

“I think Mr. Clark is more or less like a father to every student in this school,” one girl said in class one day.

“True,” said another. “Others might not like him because of his strict rules and regulations, but when you put it all together, he’s just doing what’s right for us. ”

At the end of this day, Joe Clark is surprisingly withdrawn, as though his power is taken away with the departure of his children. He picks his coat out of the closet, then remembers something. He calls a janitor and complains that the school isn’t clean enough and that the janitor had better get on the ball, because he won’t tolerate it. He says all of this with not much force.

Then Clark opens a door and steps into the courtyard and gets in the car he uses, a no-frills driver’s ed car that belongs to the school, and heads for home.

Joe Clark and his generic car shrink into the Paterson perspective, leaving Eastside High behind. These halls have absorbed much, and if they could talk maybe they would repeat some things they’ve heard, like a boy looking up at his principal, saying, “Mr. Clark, I’m just a freshman. Please stay with us three more years.”

Writer bio: Frank Rossi, a Scranton native, served as a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer from 1980 to 1986. Prior to joining the broadsheet, the Scripps Howard Foundation awarded Rossi the prestigious Ernie Pyle Award for exceptional human interest storytelling in 1979. He died of cancer in 1992. He was 44.