Thursday, December 28, 2006

Don't Mess With Texas

* Final verdict on Santa Fe: if you're a wealthy 55-year-old woman with an interest in art collection, than this is the town for you.

* We drove from Santa Fe into Texas. The landscape changes from mountain-ish nothingness to flat nothingness with farms and a few more towns.

* Nothing smells worse than a large beef farm. It smells like ammonia dipped in a tampon held about 10 feet from your nose. A lot of West Texas smells like this.

* Got lunch/dinner in Amarillo, TX. We drove through Amarillo... this place is very visually frightening. The outskirts of town looked like a sprawl suburb place... a big mall, a few strip mall places, townhouse developments. Then the closer one gets to downtown, the shadier it got. Downtown Amarillo had nothing in it except for empty office buildings and bail bonds sales places. Route 66 (the famous road which we've been on a bunch) looks like any other highway strip anywhere else in 1978 America.

* Ate at a place called "Beans'n'Stuff" which was written about in Road Food, this book my brother got for me for our trip. My BBQ stuff was absolutely delicious. Ilana, a strident vegetarian, hasn't been getting along with Texas so much.

* Everyone in the place was staring at us like we were in a people zoo. Real life conversation with another Beans'n'stuff patron who overheard us being from Philly: "You know how we all grow cotton or beef out here? What do ya'll grow in Philadelphia?" I told him it was a city and we didn't grow too much other than the Liberty Bell. Not sure if he got the joke.

* Drove to Lubbock, TX from Amarillo. Two hours of beef farms. That cliche about the sky in Texas being absolutely enormous is 100% true.

* Went to the Texas Tech basketball game. Bobby Knight did not break the all-time coaching record. Kind of dissapointing. I love Bobby Knight. One of my all time favorite personalities. The Texas Tech arena is absolutely beautiful. The fans were really into this game -- definitely on part with the Phillies in September this year.

* Sat next to a middle ages Lubbock couple. Told them about us on the honeymoon, etc. They talked to us about life in Philly, food, etc. All kinds of stuff. At the end of the game, they GAVE US $20! Serious! What the fuck? They just give you money in Texas for no reason? Huh?

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

More on the Road Trip

We made the long drive today from the Grand Canyon to Santa Fe. I think the largeness, openness, bleakness and emptiness of America is something that I'm really going to take away from this trip and appreciate a lot more. Out here, there are counties the size of Pennsylvania and they have the total population of my neighborhood growing up.

We stopped in Gallup, NM to grab a quick snack/bathroom break. After doing some research on Gallup tonight, it's apparently one of the crummier towns in the entire SW of America. I didn't get that vibe going through the place -- downtown Gallup didn't have much to it, but it wasn't petrifying to drive through like America's inner city neighborhoods are. Crap, I've been through at least 15 small towns a lot more frightening than Gallup. I don't know if I've ever actually have met any true blue Native Americans in my life. But in Gallup, we were the only caucasoids.

We ended up getting a snack at a Sonic Drive-In. I pooped there. My phone ran out of gas, so I couldn't call my brother from a Sonic, which is a tradition he started a few years back when he was driving back east from LA.

The only things breaking up the New Mexico moonscape is an occassional Indian casino. Then, about 10 miles outside of town, a sign on I-40 reads "Albuquerque: Next 17 Exits" and in the shadow of a large mountain is non-stop sprawl as far as the eye can see. Just everywhere you turn, there are houses and buildings dotting the landscape.

We went to ABQ to see their Old City. Old City is a few blocks of a couple of tourist trap shops and restaurants. The type of place my mom and mother-in-law would love to go to. I didn't just poop here, but had a major IBS outbreak which caused me to get to experience a tourist trap bathroom better than I had planned. From there, we drove to downtown at around 7 p.m. A complete and total ghost town and then eventually found the University of New Mexico neighborhood. This was your typical college neighborhood, except it was lined up along the side of one main strip of road in a series of strip malls.

By all accounts, the entire city of Albuquerque -- the 62nd biggest in America, and one of the fastest growing cities and metropolitan areas in the country, by all accounts I read online -- is just a never ending series of hodgepodge development without much thought being given as to what goes where. But then it hit me... a decent (and possible majority) of American residents live in places like this. The Sun Belt has grown exponentially over the past few decades and all kinds of cities -- from Jacksonville, Florida to Phoenix -- are all built in this same kind of pattern, where things just exploded onto an area which became a city overnight. Mesa, Arizona has more residents than a place like St. Louis or Atlanta and three decades ago it had less residents than my high school. Things like planning and zoning, we really don't appreciate or think about those things and how they shape the lives of where we chose to live. (I only say that from having covered planning board meetings. Especially when I was reporting for the paper in Plymouth, Mass., which despite being one of the oldest established towns on this continent has the growth patterns of a place like Glendale, AZ.)

After Ilana ate a burrito, we made the drive up to Santa Fe, which is where we are now. Downtown Santa Fe is really nice with a lot of high-end shops and restaurants. This is apparently the rich asshole capital of the American Southwest. One of the in-room magazines in our hotel is dedicated to houses for sale in Santa Fe, all of which sell for a few million. But it's still a really walkable place. Didn't get to see too much of anything yet, but it seems like a really nice town, although one that seems a bit pretentious.

See ya'll later.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Road Trip So Far

* The plane ride over sucked. We left late and hit a lot of turbulence, so much so that I spent the entire flight trying not to vomit. I did manage to read "King Dork" by Frank Portman (the lead singer of the Mr. T Experience) and I give it a solid B+. Then we finally landed where I threw up in a plastic bag. I had no idea what to do in this situation -- do I bring the bag with me, do I leave it there, do I give it to a stewardess? I just threw it under a seat.

* I did not like Las Vegas at first. I don't like gambling (more accurately, I don't like giving my money away and not getting a tangible product or service in return) and my stomach wasn't in the mood to drink a lot of alcohol. We stayed at the Luxor, which has posters of Carrot Top up everywhere. I did gamble $10 on La Salle to cover and $10 for their game against Villanova to go over. Got creamed on the over and the spread was right on the money, thanks largely due to some dubious calls. We ended up seeing the Second City Las Vegas comedy show, which was one of the best things I've ever seen live. Overall, Vegas grew on me and I want to go back for a bachelor party.

* I pooped at the Hoover Dam.

* The drive from Vegas to the Grand Canyon area was breathtaking. It doesn't hit you until you actually drive in a place like the American southwest how big and empty our country is. Especially if you've spent probably 98% of every waking moment in your life in the megapolis between D.C. and Boston. I couldn't believe the landscapes, the barrenness, the never-ending horizon. And this was in a desert and wasn't in a national park. I couldn't imagine how the Grand Canyon was going to look like if this was just throwaway land.

* Had dinner in Flagstaff, Arizona. Flagstaff is one rather cool small city/college town located near the Grand Canyon -- Steve Malkmus is playing there shortly, there's a bunch of cool things downtown, etc.

* The Grand Canyon... there's nothing that can be said about it in our language to accurately describe it. I couldn't believe it was real when I was there. I hope I get another chance to come back at some point in my life. Spending one day at The Grand Canyon isn't nearly enough.

* I also pooped at The Grand Canyon.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Road Trip

Hey everyone. Me and the missus are flying out today for our honeymoon. We're flying into Vegas and then from there are driving to the Grand Canyon, Santa Fe, Lubbock and then to Austin/San Antonio. It should rule. I've never been to any of these places.

We'll have a camera and a laptop with us, so I'm going to try and put up some stuff when I can.

Also, you may look at the above destinations and say "Lubbock?" There a good reasons for this. 1) Santa Fe to Austin is a far fucking drive. 2) Lubbock is Buddy Holly's hometown. 3) Lubbock is also home to Texas Tech University, and their head basketball coach is Bobby Knight, and we have tickets to see the game against UNLV where he will most likely break the all-time coaching record. I'm trying to see if I can sneak into the press conference after the game somehow just to see the spectacle of it all. And, yes, I did have to fib a little bit to convince my wife to set this into motion.

See ya'll on the flip side.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Doing Stuff: Day 17, A Event for Japanese Rock Afficianados, FINAL CHAPTER

I admit that I was initially interested in attending the J-Rock event for the potential of ridiculousness. My familiarity of Japanese rock music is limited largely to the one time my friends dragged me to see Melt Banana a few years ago. The profiles of the people going to the meeting had a lot of potential -- many said they enjoyed "cosplay," a popular hobby for Japanese teens who enjoy dressing up in elaborate costumes based off of anime or other Japanese pop figures.

The meeting group was scheduled for 2 p.m. at the Starbucks tucked away inside The Phoenix, a mixed-use apartment/office complex located at 16th and Market, right across the street from city hall. I arrived expecting to see a few girls dressed in neon colors and spiky hair and guys who looked like the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers.

Instead, I found Tim, an ordinary looking 18-year-old whose fashion sense combined the comic book shop with a skate rat and Lisa, a Tina Fey-ish 25-year-old dressed in a normal T-shirt and jeans.

The two of them were drinking coffee, sitting on a couch outside the Starbucks, with a big laptop computer in front of them. They told me to sit down next to them, I did. And then we watched Japanese rock videos.

I could probably say a lot about how interesting Japanese rock music is -- how it takes an American art form and transforms it into its own, with a greater importance of a visual aesthetic, how a lot of the stuff sounded exactly like the pop-punk I listened to in high school and college, and how much The Pillows rocked. Tim and Lisa both had dressed up in cosplay before ("because it's what you do at concerts," Lisa said) and both had hundreds of J-Rock MP3's.

And why did the group start?

"Because it's hard to find people who like it," Tim said.

This makes sense -- you can't casually be into something like J-Rock or swordfighting or chasing ghosts. You either embrace it fully or you don't embrace it at all. And if you embrace it fully, it becomes a large part of your life, but it's not something you can easily share with your friends and family. There's lonliness to being into something like this, but there's also optimist that you can find others who are into these things just as much as you are.

I've never had an obsessive hobby with this sense of ennui to it. I've also spent my years being a cynical, heartless person willing to cut down anything and everyone. I've never had something like this in my life, something that I could completely call my own, without caring what anyone else thinks about it.

So the three of just sat down on a couch, watched these videos, drank Starbucks and talked.During this whole project, I met plenty of people who were trying to be someone else, at least for a little bit of time. But with Tim and Lisa, I met people who knew who they were.

Top 75 Albums of 2006

1) The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America. This is good rock music made perfect by a lead singer who incorporates things like "imagery" and "rhythm" in his lyrics. Great stuff.

That's the only album I bought in 2006 that came out in 2006.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Doing Stuff: Day 16, Soul Line

"Okay, step forward, then back. Then bigforward, then bigback. Now cross. Then shake for three counts and then woooooooo," said one woman guiding me and two other newcomers through a brief introduction on the dance step done to Marvin Gaye songs.

Soul Line is one of those low-budget, locally-produced television shows that you somehow inexplicably watch for hours at a time.

The show's premise steals from classic music shows like Soul Train or Solid Gold, except it focuses on line dancing, where hundreds of people take to the dance floor and perform the same steps all at once.

The Soul Line's Christmas episode was taped at the ballroom of the Radisson Hotel near the Philadelphia International Airport. The crowd was festive, with nearly everyone decked out in red. After the MC/host of the TV show sermonized ("Philadelphia is the line dancing capital, but nwo we're bringing it to places like Vineland, Bridgeton, Reading!"), the music geared up and the Soul Line fans took to the dance floor.

Everyone knows every dance step, everyone knows every turn and everyone knows every word to every song. It's very hypnotic to watch -- like watching video footage of Kim Jong Il's birthday celebration at a Pyongyang soccer stadium.

"It's almost like a cult, but a good cult," said Carlos, a Delaware resident who started taking line dancing lessons four months ago. "You meet so many people and go to so many different locations. It's exhilarating."

The exhilaration and exuberance at Soul Line was made evident in the handful of interviews I performed. On three separate occasions, my interviews were cut off by the change of a song.

"Oooooh, this is my jam," or "ohhh, I love this song" would be the closing line, while the person I was talking to would head to the dance floor.

Most of the people in attendance at Soul Line came into the world of line dancing in a similar fashion -- by seeing the show on TV and then pursuing lessons.

"I saw it on TV about three years ago and I taught myself the dances by watching the TV shows, " said Susie Kirkland, a resident of Chester in attendance at Soul Line. "Then I started taking lessons. Then I started teaching the lessons a few months later."

The actual dancing reminded me a bit of the Germantown Country Dancers whom I met I when I started this project. Each section of the dance floor had a "den mother" of sorts who was guiding the routine for the newconers, everyone's eyes belied strong intensity and everyone was having a good time despite the pure intensity of the moment. The only difference was that this music was more 70's Tape Collection and had less harpsichord. And there were a few more black people.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Doing Stuff: Day 15, Trapeze Lessons by Matt Holmes

The website said to work out for a few days before the class, push-ups and sit-ups and stretching. I did not do that, and I really wish I had. I also, unwisely, had some heavy soup for lunch and dinner that day, and I probably should've brought some bottled water. I could've drunk a whole gallon after the full-body workout in the hour and a half that seemed like a full day.

My experience with taking a trapeze class was unusual, fun, challenging, and a little intimidating. Most of the class was cute, little young women who could apparently bench press a linebacker. These women were up and down ropes, hanging and flipping around, and doing complicated maneuvers with names like Back Angel Pose and Schwarzenneger Descend. Their upper-body strength was impressive, as was the coordination to do all the cool-looking tricks. One older woman, who reminded me of a friend's mom, was half my size and had biceps bigger than I think I'll ever achieve. Everyone was so welcoming and supportive, though, which really was necessary for me to last more than ten minutes.

The first thing they had me do was climb the rope, a la gym class. I'm pretty sure I was never able to do that in gym class, and I surprised myself by struggling and getting about three-quarters of the way to the ceiling. Not only do you have to hold yourself up on the rope, you have to wrap it around your foot and stand on it. As it got more advanced, you have to do more and more complicated things with the rope, so it's like climbing a rope and then tying knots with your feet, something I couldn't do with my hands in cub scouts.

I think I used up all my strength in the first attempt to climb, so I sort of just rested and breathed heavily until it was time to start the trapeze, which was thankfully easier. I learned how to hold onto a bar hanging from ropes from the ceiling, flip my legs up, hang from my knees, climb up and sit on the bar, stand on it, lean into a one-legged pose, wrap my ankles around each side, and hang upside-down flipped around. I really can't believe I did it. It was really cool, and I wish I could've seen it.

Everyone who I mentioned this project to immediately had concern about me falling or breaking my back. I was never more than maybe ten feet off the ground, I was always over a big mat, and I never felt unsafe, even hanging upside-down just from my legs.

We ended with the hardest part of the whole thing, strength and conditioning training. This was to work the elbows and knees, and they were worked! I got back up on the trapeze and hanged from my knees while someone held one leg down and I lifted the other knee up. I was essentially hanging from one knee, and it hurt so bad that I literally was almost crying. For time constraints, we didn't do the elbows; thank God. Then we did pull-ups, with someone helping by pushing your legs up a little. I couldn't do any without help at this point. Then we did hanging-upside-down-from-your-legs-sit-ups. I can't believe I did ten.

At the end of the class, I was exhausted and sore. Everyone else chipperly left as I sweatily yearned to lie down. I left the place with my whole body twitching and a rush of endorphins or adrenaline or something in my head. I guess I'd never really ever exercised enough to get that before. Afterwards, my hands were red and burned. I went home and held cold things for a while. I slept like a log, except when I woke up in the middle of the night and peed for ten minutes. I was so thirsty afterwards.

It was pretty emasculating, but I'm used to that, and they were very accommodating to my astonishing inferiority. My foot got pretty scratched up from the rope, my pants got tugged down as I climbed and shimmied, and my shirt kept falling down as I was flipping or hanging upside-down. They recommend wearing "long leggings" but I think some kind of footie pajama outfit would be best. I guess that's why guys in Cirque du Soleil wear those tights with suspenders.

I also kind of feel like I accomplished something. Maybe next I'll find a club for running a mile in less than fourteen minutes or a peg-board association.

I got an amazing work-out and did some pretty cool tricks. I'd consider going back and maybe also trying some of the unicycle and juggling stuff that they also do there. It was pretty cool and a very professional place.

Now I'm going to go lie down.

Doing Stuff: Rittenhouse Square Allen Iverson Interlude

A couple of days ago, I was strolling around Rittenhouse Square area. A guy with rusty teeth in a Starter jacket ran across the street yelling at me.

"Yo my man. Yo my man. You like a Sixers fan." The drifter then started in with his spiel about Sixers tickets.

I nodded. At one point, I was a huge Sixers fan. The night before, Allen Iverson was sent home from the team after he asked for a trade request, effectively putting the final nail in professional basketball in one of the best hoops towns in the world for a while. Woman's roller derby has more buzz about the Sixers at this point, even though it was only a half-decade ago when the Sixers and AI owned this town like Jabba the Hut ruled Tatooine.

"I'd be interested, by they're getting rid of AI," I said about the tickets.

"Aww, AI's a punk-ass man."

Nearly everyone I know has a AI run-in story: from seeing his Bentley parked across four handicapped parking lanes outside the TGI Friday's on City Line Avenue (where he has apparently eaten every meal for the past 11 years) to watching posse members of his roll up blunts in downtown parking garages. It's not every decade an athlete that outrageously talented plays for one of your teams. It's even rarer when a player that good makes news headlines for flashing his handgun in a ghetto West Philly apartment complex to drag his wife back to their house after a domestic.

I can't believe this era is coming to an end.

"I got $40 tickets but I'm selling them for $20, man. You want in? You want in?"

I inquired as to the game he was selling the tickets for.

"The Knicks. "

I just shook my head. As much morbid curiosity as I have to see a Knicks/76ers basketball game, there is no way I would pay to see something like that. In fact, I don't think I would go even if I was paid. And I let the guy know that.

He started following me down Walnut Street, telling everyone within earshot that I was a punk-ass, too.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Doing Stuff: Day 15, Trapeze Lessons

Tucked away in a strip mall in a not-very busy section of Germantown is a world where everyday people can soar to the air with the greatest of... well, what's the opposite of ease? Difficulty? Strenuous exertion?

Welcome to Air Play, a self-described training center for circus aerial skills, arguably the most unique fitness center anywhere in Philadelphia. (

When I started this project, this was one of the things I was looking forward to doing the most. But when I started reading up about what this would entail -- some semblance of physical strength, body coordination and mild athletic ability -- I immediately said "fuck no."

Stepping up to the plate for the actual participation part of this project was Matt Holmes, an all-around good dude who spends his nights as one of the members of Philadelphia's improv institution Rare Bird Show (

We were both intimidated when we walked into Air Play. A bearded man was doing a split on a wooden bar suspended about eight feet in the air, doing flip after flip after flip. Ballerina-sized women were dangling from ropes, upside down while slightly spinning, maneuvering using only one arm as John Tesh-type music blared in the background. Imagine it as a cross between a jungle gym for adults (not in that way) mixed in with your worst memories of middle school gym class, with ropes dangling from floor-to-cieling.

Matt began warming up as I began cackling at him in the background. Even his stretches looked unbearable -- these weird bending moves that looked like something one would see in a human pyramid at Abu Ghirab.

But while the stretches looked painful to me, the people scaling the ropes and the swings looked very average. Almost all of the participants were girls in their 20's*, except for one extremely Mom-ish looking middle-aged woman. None looked super athletic, but all of them were able to do all of the movements, spins and what-not without any noticeable difficulty. How hard could it be?

The first thing Matt had to do was climb a rope. It sounded simple enough, and he managed to do so the first time without too much struggle. But then he was told to do this repeatedly, while also trying to master how to do this weird foot-knot trick with his one foot, enabling him to do more involved tricks later on. Matt had difficulty with the repeated climbing.

"I have lost all the strength in my arms," he said. "But coordination is more of an issue than strength. Figuring out where your feet are while hanging from a rope is really hard."

Meanwhile, the women in the class were working on something called the "Schwarzenegger Decent," which involves scaling a rope, wrapping it around a foot, turning upside down by going backwards and slowly decending the rope using only one leg to control your body.

This sounds dangerous, but at no point during any of this was anyone even close to getting hurt (unless you count me, when I stood on a chair to take pictures.) Shana Kennedy, the operator of Air Play, said that there have been no injuries from falls at her studio -- protective mats are everywhere, all of the participants are incredibly helpful and the instruction is so tight and detailed that noone came close to losing control at any point.

(Shana did add, however, that people have recieved some minor injuries from the repetitions of certain exercises -- stuff similar to carpal tunnel syndrome or a muscle strain. Also, rope burns and callouses can also be expected. Matt's feet and hands were bright red before too long.)

The ropes were soon replaced with trapeze swings. Matt was shown the first trick he was to do -- pulling himself up on to the swing, flipping backwards into a tuck position, and eventually configuring his body so he was hanging upside down by his knees. At one point, I thought Matt's arms were about to rip off, as he was hanging with his face towards the mat by his arms going the complete opposite direction. But by the end, he was really starting to -- and I'm honestly searching for any other phrase/cliche that fits here, but I'm stuck and I need to get to sleep -- get the hang of things.

"People can bend that way," said Marie, one of the regulars at Air Play.

The class member who seemed to be doing the best job was Alice, the aforementioned 50-ish woman. Alice had previously taken a juggling class ("They have one on Monday nights! You should look into doing that!") while also teaching and practicing painting. While involved in juggling, she saw a woman on the trapeze and was inspired.

"She was so strong and so capable," Alice said. "So I painted her. I told a friend about my painting, and then she told me about Air Play. It looked like so much fun, and I had to give up judo, so I gave it a try. And I've been here since."

Matt thought it was a blast, as sore as he was afterwards.

"I've heard that after you exercize, you get energized from the adrenaline. I am very awake right now," Matt said.

Kennedy -- who attended a circus training school in England when she was 19 (originally, she too was a juggler, but she, in her words, "fell into" doing trapeze) -- said most people come to AirPlay seeking a different but intense workout. But a lot of other people also come for bragging rights.

"People like to tell their friends that they're taking trapeze classes," she said. "I hear all the time from my students that this is what they look forward to doing all week long, that this is their therapy."

* -- Not to be a jerk, but the girls at Air Play were all on the high end of the attraction scale. Wouldn't be fair for me to write about Air Play without noting that for the article.

(EDIT: Pictures of Matt in action and Air Play in general are coming tomorrow.)

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Doing Stuff; Day 14: The Social Security Admnistration Office

I'm a little bit under-the-weather, so I decided to not head out to an event tonight. But this does not mean I did not find sublime entertainment elswhere in my travels.

I had to get a social security card today in order to get my driver's license renewed. The closest SS office is about five minutes down the road from me in a federal office complex guarded with alarming ferocity, as if it's the place where Dick Cheney will receive May-December oral sex during the next time we face a national crisis.

For some reason, I never expect long lines when I head out to a large bureacratic enterprise like the Social Security Administration. Modern convenience has spoiled me, but then I do something dumb like nearly let my driver's license expire and it all comes back to me that human beings are meant to live in lines and kiosks.

Luckily, the Social Security office provided its guests with a video broadcasting information about the history of the program and its many benefits. The tape loop of quotes from FDR, Reagan and Clinton eventually faded into a blue screen.

Thus began one of the great unknown movies of our lifetime, entitled "Social Security and You," featuring the turbulent tale of a high school rock band (in the vein of Glass Tiger or Lou Gramm) as they investigate the pros and cons of Social Security.

The band (Takoma) was hoping to make a demo tape, but were unable to pay for the costs. They blamed their penury on money being taken out of their paychecks due to Social Security. In response, they decided to stage a rock concert in protest of Social Security.

Band members walked around their community and high school holding up flyers and posterboard with a big red no slash over the word FICA. Along the way, they talked with many other community members. Outraged senior citizens yelled at them about social security. A kindly political sceince teacher told them the benefits. In the emotional triumph, the lead singer/ringleader of this rag-tag group of protesters had a heart-to-heart discussion with his grandfather about social security.

"It's a great system, kiddo," grandpa said. "It's actually very flexible. I can't say that about some private programs."

In one sub-plot, the band's drummer (portrayed by a bearded 40-year-old who may have been the same actor who played basketball legend Hank Gathers in Final Shot: The Hank Gathers Story) has a crush on a classmate. He gives her a flyer about social security and asks her to come to the concert. She tells him to buzz off and rips the flyer and throws the remains to the ground. The reason? Her father died and she recieves his social security benefits.

The band was now wondering if they truly were against Social Security. But despite this internal debate, they still played their rock concert.


EDIT: The band kind of sounded like this.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Doing Stuff: Day 12, Latkepalooza/Philadelphia Paranormal and Ghost Hunters Meet-Up Group

Who doesn't enjoy fried potato pancakes?

The first day began with Ilana and I headed to the Gershwin Y, the de facto headquarters of Philadelphia's Jewish community for their annual LATKEPALOOZA. Latkepalooza is an all-afternoon event where some of Philly's best restaurants line up to cook latkes in the most creative and delicious ways. I never thought that I could have a vegetarian Chinese style latke until today, but I did.

But Latkepalooza isn't just about enjoying fried pancakes dipped in sour cream, it's also about love. When I was standing in line, I noticed an older couple wearing odd matching buttons which read "I met my bashert at the 2003 Latkepalooza." I inquired as to what a "bashert" was, never hearing that term before.

"It's Hebrew for soulmate," the woman said, with her partner next to her. The couple wasn't married, nor did they live together, but both were completely, totally and pathetically in love with each other.

"We met here in 2003. I came with my friend Al. She knew Al. Al and I were in line together and she came up and started talking to him. And then we started talking. And talking. And talking. I got her number at the end of the event, I called her the next day and we hooked up. It's been that way ever since. We were just meant to be, and we come to every Latkepalooza to celebrate," the guy said.

Latkepalooza also had its annoying side. The lines were long and the event was crowded. Ilana was waiting in line behind a guy who was doing an impromptu stand up comedy routine about latkes and divorce. The woman behind Ilana kept on sighing. "You have no idea how bad this guy is," the woman told me.

After Latkepalooza, I went on a solo mission to a meeting of area paranormal and metaphysical dabblers, held in the rear space of a low-rent grocery store on South Fourth Street.

I have tried hard so far to be nice and not condescending in my escapades. Some things deserve mockery -- the delusional vapidity of movie extras, the sheer lack of perspective of rich people -- but I have gone into this whole project with an open mind and an attempt to understand people and their interests. Hell, I was even pretty nice the evening I wore a suit of armor and went sword fighting with people who pretend to be knights.

But this event? I can't pretend to be nice. This was a whole new level of social retardation.

This event was planned by, an online service where people from various interests use the Internet as a conduit for folks to get together in real life. I was one of the first to arrive to the meeting place. One guy, who closely resembled a fat, sweaty version of Hitler, was sitting next to me. On the other side of the room was a quiet woman who was also a first-timer. Conversation started talking, with fettesverschwitztes Hitler leading us into a rambling discussion about the interpersonal relationships at play in the world of Philadelphia's paranormal experts.

"Did you read our forum at all? This one woman doesn't think we do anything. But Rich, he's the leader, he doesn't do anything unless it's based in scientific fact," this guy told me.

The guy continued to tell me about how a separate paranormal group broke off from the original group, but various metaphysical-subgroups have merged. Including one where he was the "assistant leader."

The room eventually filled to about 10. Joining us next was a mustachioed 20-something guy with a hooked up laptop, who was there representing the Philadelphia-area UFO hunters.

"My girlfriend owns a pug, so she found an online pug meeting group. I then decided to check to see if there was a UFO group. There was, so I started going to their meetings. Three months leader, I was running it."

A few other maniac-looking types came in, especially this one backwoods-looking family from South Jersey who claim their house has similarities to a vortex. Also joining us was a girl who ran the reiki online group, and they just finished a meeting, so she wanted to "show support" to the community.

Rich eventually showed up, with a 1987-style Megadeth fan haircut and a tight T-shirt with some lightning on it and the phrase "Memento Te Esse Mortalium," with a matching coffee mug.

Rich drew a spiral on a blackboard and then began a rambling lecture about wormholes, timeloops amidst references to various sci-fi television shows, throwing in every now and then a quantum physics reference that I'm sure he didn't quite grasp. During his lecture, he claimed his girlfriend was telekinetic and that she lived in a house filled with glowing orbs and other visions signifying the dead. Every so often someone, usually the UFO guy, would chime in on some sort of sci-fi type of thing and a few people would crack up laughing about something for a few minutes at a time.

My favorite bizarre comment came about the discussion about a couple who disappeared off of South Street last year, a really big news story in Philly since these people left a popular bar and were never seen nor heard from again. Most people assume it's some sort of rape/robbery thing and it ended up with these people hacked up and thrown into the ocean. These people think there could be a possibility of a vortex opening up with these two unfortunately going to The Great Beyond.

This meeting would have been interesting if the people weren't so irritating and long-winded. I've never really put too much time into thinking about ghosts or spirits from the other world, and it's not because I'm scared to believe, but it's mostly because I'm not seven. I left abruptly at the 90 minute mark of the evening.

If I disappear anytime soon, it's probably because some apparition from beyond grabbed me.

EDIT: Pictures from Latkepalooza will be up tomorrow. As will at some point the essay about Day 13, which has already been done. Day 13 is going to be terrific. Just trust me on that.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Doing Stuff: Day 11, A Grafitti Exhibit And A Trip To The DMV

I returned to the Hawthorne Rec Center today (the place were two nights earlier I waged battle against fellow knights) to see a scheduled exhibit on the art of grafitti. This intrigued me because how much art remains in grafiti? A lot of grafitti does look really cool, but it doesn't look like an artform that has changed much over the years -- tags on buildings, bridges and trains still all look exactly as they did 10 years ago twhen I was briefly into all those old grafitti magazines. Is graffiti the art world's version of ska or is ska the music world's version of grafitti?

Alas, this exhibit was nowhere to be found. The Hawthorne Rec Center today was filled with parents watching some sort of dance recital while in another room young kids were making crafts. I probably seemed rather I Know My Name Is Steven-ish, hanging out by myself in such an atmosphere. I asked a custodian if he knew where the grafitti exhibit was -- he said he never heard of such a thing, but the kids inside one of the rooms were busted for vandalism and were doing some sort of community service. Then he said that every weekend afternoon, a group of folks head to the vacant lot across the street and spraypaint on the walls.

I didn't have much else to do, so I wandered into this vacant lot to take see what I could dig up. No one was over there when I was there, but I took some pictures. And now I can brag to my friends that I walked into a vacant lot at 12th and Carpenter -- not one of the better neighborhoods in the City of Brotherly Love. I know have street cred! And maybe lyme disease! The tags were pretty cool, not anything I haven't seen before, but it did make me wistful when I was 19 and would spend my money at Vintage Vinyl on TwoTone Records albums and various fanzines. Hood kids are still bombing buildings just as suburban kids are still going to see the Bouncing Souls and Mephiskaphales. I wonder of Trubo and Ozone ever had to save the rec center across the street?

I wanted to do something that wouldn't take a lot of effort because afterwards, I had to go to the DMV to get my license renewed and I prepared for this to be a draining experience. Naturally, things didn't go so well -- I can't find my social security card and in the Keystone State, this is required for a license, even though their website and printed literature at least indicates otherwise. The DMV clerk told me to take it up with a supervisor if I wanted to. I did, thinking that maybe I could convince some cold bureaucrat in a god-awful state-appointed position to see otherwise.

Needless to say, I didn't. But I did meet the most warm-hearted, fatherly Pennsylvania Department of Transit License/Photo ID Center employee in all of the state. Ken took me into his office and showed me the help desk prompt which all PennDOT customer service folks read from. Then he looked online and saw where the confusion lies and made a note to contact his superior to have that changed. Then he showed me a picture of his daughter. After that, a crooked-toothed degenerate in oversized, outdated FUBU ran into the office.

"Heeeey, Ken my man, how you doing? You remember me? I was in her a while back, you helped me out with a license question."

Ken said that he did but obviously didn't.

"I'm here with my ex-wife today. She needs help getting her license."

The man left. Ken stared at me.

"Did he just say ex-wife? Man, I loooove this job."

I asked Ken how crazy his work gets, tossing him a softball hoping for a good story. Ken said folks have stormed into his office and have knocked the belongings off his desk, have thrown his office furniture around and have made some very dire threats. Luckily, Ken and other DMV employees have access to a panic button which notifies the police, like a bank being robbed.

Do people ever get arrested and handcuffed at his place of employment?

"I'm surprised when a day goes by when someone doesn't get dragged out of here in cuffs," he said. "Best job I ever had."

Friday, December 08, 2006

Doing Stuff: Day 10, Elfreth's Alley

It's not every night you get to see how people better than you live.

Elfreth's Alley is the nation's oldest residential street, housing residents since the early 1700's. In modern times, this block of road serves as both tourist attraction and as a group of houses in Old City, the only neighborhood in Philly which approaches Manhattan's rent levels. And tonight was one of two nights a year that residents of Elfreth's Alley open their houses to the general public for tours.

Ilana and I went down for their annual winter open house. This was a welcome change-of-pace for me on my project, since tonight I got to see how people actually lived as opposed to how people live in their fantasy lives. And not just any people, but the lives of rather wealthy people who live in a neighborhood literally stuck in time.

Things started off on the right foot. I paid for two tickets with my debit card. The girl at the table asked me for the expiration date of my card. I told her the date -- sometime in the next decade -- and she excitedly screamed "OH, WOW!"

The front of these houses look like ancient, colonial rowhomes. The insides are decorated with the flashy style of a "freelance designer" who married a young bank executive. Us visitors would oooh and ahh at these houses in front of their proud owners, tossing out comments like "this is a great use of space" and "I love the color scheme and angles in here." I really wish I could have a time machine so I could garrote the executive producers of Trading Spaces sometimes.

Some of the comments weren't interior design cliches. Others expressed "this debit card won't expire for a really long time"-level amazement at the religious diversity amongst wealthy residents of a block in the heart of a downtown neighborhood in a major American city.

"Wow, look! There's a Christmas tree AND a menorah AND even some dradles," one old woman said in front of everyone.

Whenever we wandered into a new house, I would immediately scan any available bookshelves or CD racks. Nearly all of the bookshelves contained various money management advice guides. And nearly all of the homeowners owned a Harry Connick, Jr. album.

Most of the residents of Elfreth's Alley were very pleasant. But some people made me wish they lived on Osage Avenue around the time of the 1985 MOVE Bombing. The two nicest houses, in fact, had the most cock/box-punch worthy habitants.

One house ws a rental property divided by six college age guys who might as well have had "ROOFIES" tatooed on their foreheads. One guest asked how much the house cost. "I dunno, man. Probably around $1 million or so," the host said, before cracking open the bottle of a high-end microbrew.

The second was a 4-story building so narrow Plastic Man would have had trouble entering. But the first-floor living room had a flat-screen wall TV with huge speakers. This was the one house where guests could go up to another floor. Up there, we met the property owners -- a man and wife with thick Long Island accents not heard since Billy Joel sang about Brenda and Eddie in "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant."

Ilana asked them how they moved into the second floor of this apartment, which had a big couch and more top-notch electronics equipment. Captain Jack started talking about how he had to remove a second floor railing and hoist the couch up.

"A place like this is a lot of work, but this place is worth it. Hell, we even have a parking space in the back. That's worth like $50,000 alone probably," he said.

Someone else asked him how long he lived in the place.

"Oh, I don't live here. We just own the place. My daughter lives here," he said, pointing to a girl who looked barely old enough to drink a microbrew with the guys around the corner.

All but one of the houses on Elfreth's Alley are currently lived in. The one that isn't serves as the official Elfreth's Alley museum. A large tent was set up behind the museum, where guests could drink hot cider and have a cookie. We went back to enjoy our snack and realized we were surrounded by historic reenactment actors, the folks hired for the evening to dress around in colonial garb and recite fun-facts about the history of each property. But instead of discussing local history, they were now debating the quality of the heating pads located inside their shoes.

This museum is open all year. The private houses are not. But that doesn't stop tourists from trying to see them anyway. Every resident I asked had a story about tourists trying to invade their property -- bringing in groceries, one guy said, was a total event since tourists just walk in. Another woman said that she learned to keep her door locked after someone just barged in while she was sitting in her living room eating her dinner.

"This woman just came right in. I told her that this was a private home. She started feeling the walls around my fireplace, asking me if this was the original wood. I kept on telling her it was a private home, but she didn't get it," she said.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Day 9 Pictures

After you get done reading my adventure from Thursday night, you are probably going to ask me why there aren't any pictures, since at one point I was wearing a suit of armor.

There ARE pictures for this. It's just that I'm an idiot and I forgot a memory card and I use a card reader to upload my pictures. The pictures are stored on the hard drive of my digital camera, so I can't put them up until I find or purchase the cord to do so.

Doing Stuff: Day 9, Society for Creative Anachronism Sword Fighting Night

GUY WHO LOOKS LIKE LATE 80's-ERA GEORGE CARLIN: "Are you here for the fighting?"
ME: "Yes."
GUY WHO LOOKS LIKE LATE 80's-ERA GEORGE CARLIN: "Great. What's your name?"
ME: "Lord Littlepants. You?"
GUY WHO LOOKS LIKE LATE 80's-ERA GEORGE CARLIN: "Darmon. But my mundane name is Paul."
ME: "Oh, cool. My... uhm, real name is Gregg. Good to meet you."

It's not every night that you can have this dialogue, and it's not every night you can wear a purple shroud and not stand out so much. But for most of us, it's not every night you get to hang out with the members of the Society for Creative Anachronism.

The SCA, as it is better known, is a group boasting 30,000 members internationally (if Wikipedia is to be believed), all of whom share a love of all-things Middle Ages. The members of this group dress in period costume and also give themselves and their regions names straight out of a Dungeons and Dragons fieldbook. For example, Philadelphia is referred to as The Barony of Bhakil under the leadership of Master Lorcan Dracontius.

Googling the Society for Creative Anachronism and their related sub-groups is a fantastic way to spend a day at work. I am sure the people of this group understand that their hobby and interest is a lot more intense than most people. This leads to some very interesting juxtapositions on their webpage biographies. For example, Lady Lilia de Vaux is a member of the Tadcaster Militia, a "rapier academy" located in Northeast Philadelphia which specializes in fencing. He in-character biography follows first: I am a 14th Century Frenchwoman from the Loire Valley who had to relocate to the Paris area in a hurry when my merchant father got caught reselling stolen goods... I dabble in herbcraft/gardening, archery, and brewing, and am pretty good at embroidery... I am a member of House Gryphonhaven & House Black Dog (that last is based around The Sin Pit, my Pennsic home).

And now, her real-life biography:
I've been married since 1997 to William Neale , a.k.a. the Rent-a-Spouse. We produced a beautiful Pennsic baby in May 2004. I'm currently working for a pharmaceutical company as the supervisor for the report coordination group & archives in a preclinical research department.

Most of the people I've encountered in this project have been escapists -- people looking to forget about their lives for a while and trying to be something they're not. Most of this has been a lot of fun and totally relatable -- social dancing, ping-pong. Some people have been vapid and delusional in their misplaced dream of stardom and fame via being an anonymous face-in-the-crowd in a movie no one will see.

But these people tonight were something else entirely.

They're creating their own version of reality.

And tonight, for a few hours, at the Hawthorne Cultural Center in South Philly, I got to be a part of it.

The SCA literature I read online made it seem like everyone who attends these events gets decked out in capes, wizard's hats and robes. So, when I got home from work, I scurried through my closet and found a purple shroud I had owned from a few Halloween parties ago, where Ilana and I went as Siegrifed and Montecore, The White Tiger That Ate Roy.

When I arrived, Darmon was there in a black jacket, regular button down shirt and jeans. We chatted for a while, and then two other people came in -- an attractive, normal looking brunette in her 20's and her boyfriend, a bearded guy roughly around the same age, carrying a ton of equipment. I again introduced myself as "Lord Littlepants." They introduced themselves to me as Josh and Laura (and Josh tried to suppress a laugh when I told him my name.)

Josh asked me to come to his car with him. There, I grabbed a green duffle bag, the kind serial killers use to dispose of headless prostitutes, which weighed about 30 pounds and lugged it inside.

I went through the bag, pulling out metal object after metal object, like I was at a car parts store. Josh started going through his belongings, pulling out large, black rods with large silver acoutrements attached.

"Here, put these on. This is your armor."

I started to get dressed. It certainly takes a lot of commitment to get involved in an organization like this -- the leg armor alone weighed 15 pounds, which caused my chronically stiff right knee to start to ache. The last piece of equipment to strap on was the head gear -- a cast iron piece which looked stolen from an antiques dealer.

I looked at myself in the mirror, now dressed like a Knight of the Roundtable.

And I looked completely ridiculous.

I'm someone who has done a lot of strange and inappropriate things in public. I've written dozens of stories here on my blog about really personal and embarrassing moments. I have a thick skin when it comes to potential public ridicule at my expense. But now I know the limits of my self-consciousness.

Because at the exact moment I had on the entire gear but had my face exposed, if someone came in and recognized me, my face probably would have melted off.

But Josh and Darman? They put on their gear with no care about any of that. They're either delusionally obsessed with their hobby or they really and truly do not give a fuck what anyone else thinks about them and how they spend their spare time.

And now we were joined by two more people. The Russians.

If a movie was going to be made about Ukranian cigarette smugglers, Sergei and Greg would be two lurking henchmen standing outside the limosine door of their silver-haired mafioso patron. Sergei came in carrying a bag of equipment which included chainmail.

The Russians had apparently asked to fight in a previous week. Darmon (who carries some sort of rank in the world of Middle Ages-era re-enactment fighting) was apparently wary of doing so -- not knowing if The Russians were familiar with the fighting style of the SCA. But tonight, Sergei came equiped in proper and safe equipment.

I inquired if he had ever done this before. Greg said that they did, claiming that this time of activity is very popular in Russia.

"It's huge. It's like sport," he said.

(My MA degree is in Central and Eastern European Studies. I am now wondering how it is that this aspect of Russian life escaped me. I would have done my thesis on Middle Ages-era Russian re-enactment fighting if I had known this.)

Before the fighting began, I expressed my worries about getting hurt to Darmon and Josh. I had never seen this type of fighting before and, also, I am a huge pussy. They told me it wouldn't hurt and everyone would take it easy on me. Then Darmon decided to show me what to expect.


Darmon swung at me with his "sword" -- a heavy plastic stick -- and struck me over the head several times with me. It didn't hurt at all, but this was still absolutely terrifying. There is no way on earth to adequately prepare for this -- someone swinging a fucking sword, plastic or not, repeatedly at your head while you're wearing a mask which looks like someone ripped apart from a broken down furnace.

Josh, nice as can be, started talking to me about his experiences as a fighter. (He's been doing this for one year.) The SCA has big festivals with tournaments and battles, some of which see two teams of 300 knights each doing battle all at once in some big field. He assured me that he's never seen an injury, except for the time someone accidentally tripped over fencing and sprained an ankle.

I managed to get him to elaborate about the battles. He started to quickly go through the hierarchy of the SCA -- there are sorts of rankings and codes in this group. He's at a low level of warrior, and two levels above him is a knight who oversees this region.

"My knight has won several tournaments," he said.

The SCA websites are filled with information on tournaments. In fact, information about any aspect of life as a SCA member -- ranging from a highly-structured list of duties for regional officers to details about how formally file a challenge in fight tournaments -- can be found. Fully understanding all of their bylaws is the equivalent of obtaining a law degree.

Fighting began with Josh and Darmon in their armor, both holding shields and swords. The object of a battle is to "kill" your opponent by striking him in the head. These two spent about five minutes whacking each other around until they had to take a breather.

Next, Sergei was up to go against Josh.

Russian fake swordfighting is a lot different than American fake swordfighting. Josh and Darmon parrying and going back and forth, like a slightly more physical form of Olympic fencing. Russian fake swordfighting involves a lot of attempted tackling and violently swinging the fist holding your sword at your opponents face, all while your friend screams advice in Russian in between fits of diabolical cackling.

Even more insane, at one point Sergei attempted to deliver a karate kick to Darmon during their battle. This caused an understandable uproar from Darmon, who started reading the SCA riot act to the confused Russian.

After the battle, Sergei threw off his helmet. His face was beat red and he was huffing and puffing like he had just ran a marathon.

And now it was my turn.

Well, I wasn't going to be doing battle. Darmon and Josh just wanted to show me the basics of what fighting is like. I held a shield and had my sword hand behind my head, just so I could practice blocking another person's attack.

"The key thing to do is to stay alive," Darmon said. "Everyone forgets that. Just stay alive. Do what you can to don't die."

Darmon had me hold a shield, which in the back had a hockey glove for needed hand protection. He then showed me the basic move of swordfighting -- a forward attack with the sword, spinning at the wrist, hand above the shoulder, striking your opponents head. He then instructed me on how to properly block, by moving the shield upwards, at about eye level.

He swung. I blocked. He swung. I blocked again. He swong, and then clobbered me in the face with his sword. And again. And again.

Lifting the shield up was very hard, even though it probably weighed about 10 pounds. I felt my left shoulder tightening up. It felt like I had gone for 100 pitches in a baseball game. Trying to lift this shield up repeatedly, while trying to get used to wearing this heavy gear, which makes your normal body movements completely impossible to make, beat the hell out of me.

After about 5 minutes of training, I was done. My whole body was stiff.

"You know what to do," Josh said. "Get a gallon of water or milk a night and flex with that and hold that. That's what I did when I first started."

I nodded.

"Or maybe you can check out the SCA's archery section. if you don't like getting his in the head," he added. "You can shoot arrows at people instead."

After my first training session, the Russians left. I decided to also call it a night.

When I left, Josh asked me eagerly if I was going to be coming back again. I told him that I was. Obviously, I'm not. I just tell this to people at their events for politeness. At the events I can join in, I'm doing my damndest to not tell people I'm actually writing about their world. Identifying myself as a reporter would put people on guard and make them not as honest. This Quantum Leap-style of participatory journalism undercuts that, but it puts me in the awkward situation every night of telling people how much I enjoyed it and how I'm definitely coming back for more.

"Are you DEFINITELY coming back next week," he asked me.

I told him that I most likely would be.

"Do you want to borrow my shield? You can practice with it," he said.

I then had to call an audible. I told him I'd rather not, because I might not be able to make it and then after that I was going away and I didn't want to have his shield for too long a period of time.

Obviously, I'm not going back. I've told people at every one of these types of events that I would be coming back, with no intention of doing so. I'm doing this to cover my bases here. I want to honestly go to these things and meet these people and see what their lives are like. If I tell people that I'm writing about what they do, then I'm afraid I won't get an accurate portaryal of what it is I'm looking for.

I felt really bad for telling Josh that I was coming back. Josh was so earnest in asking me this question. I'm sure there's not a lot of regular newcomers in the world of SCA. I'm sue there's not a lot of people who share this interest with him. And he was hoping that Lord Littlepants was somebody who did.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Doing Stuff: Day 8, Elite Level Scrabble

Ilana and I have been particularly fond of Scrabble ever since we both read Stephen Fatsis' magnificent "Word Freak," which detailed the quirky world of professional Scrabble players and his own obsessive-compulsive impulses to play against the best the world has to offer in ensuring q tiles get played.

We found out about a Scrabble night in Chestnut Hill, not so far from our apartment. This event was held at the Atrios Senior Center, so I figured a few folks from the area got together to play in their rec room or something like that.

It turns out the Atrios Senior Center is actually an assisted living center, complete with its own "neighborhood" for the "memory challenged." We went to the entrance, equipped with a wheelchair lift, and rang the doorbell and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

No one came, so we put the kibosh on the plans to play elite level Scrabble. I didn't have a solid backup plan lined up because I was hoping for something low-key tonight since I'm really tired from a pretty busy day at work and I didn't feel like didn't driving all the way downtown to do something that wasn't as interesting as elite-level Scrabble. And, plus, I think more than filled my quota of giving you free entertainment with the awesomeness of God's Prayer last night.

So this night crapped out. But an honest-to-goodness good faith effort at some board game fun with my wife was made. That's all I can promise.

Ilana also made with the funny after we decided to leave. Can you imagine playing Scrabble with the memory challenged? "Mrs. R, let me see what tiles you have!"

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Doing Stuff: Day 7, Being An Extra In An Independent Film

PROLOGUE: My friend Mike works for one of the local TV affiliates and has been sending me press releases for my project. One that came my way was from the producers of a movie entitled God's Prayer (, which was looking for extras. After going to the website for the movie, which revealed its ridiculous premise and tagline ("If you die with your eyes open, you probably deserved it."), I decided I had to take part in this.

DISCLOSURE: This is not the first time Mike has promped me to become an extra in a movie. Mike, a huge fan of Lloyd Kaufman's cult films, found out about a casting for extras for Lloyd Kaufman's opus "Terra Firmer." I might be in a background scene.

1) Casting was scheduled for 6:30 at a place called "The New Z Bar," located on Spring Garden and Delaware Avenue. I've never spent much time in this part of Philly. There's a reason for this -- I'm not a 21-year-old bodybuilding afficianado from South Jersey who likes to drink Red Bull with Vodka whose idea of a good night is to break his girlfriend's fingers in a car door. I finally find The New Z Bar. It's located next to Delilah's Den, Philly's most infamous strip club. I start wondering about the type of movie I'm trying to be a part of.

2) A New Z Bar bouncer -- a giant ex-Arena Football defensive tackle looking dude -- tells me that my shoes (brown New Balance sneakers) aren't good enough for casting in the movie. I am now guessing that I am about to stumble into a foot fetish porm shoot. I have a pair of dressier shoes in my car. I put these on and try to head into the club. I am again told my shoes aren't dressy enough. A man introduced to me as the film's executive producer for financing -- a bald meathead wearing a suit jacket with an unbuttoned and untucked white dress shirt (which I am guessing is the unofficial dress attire for strip club Champagne Room supervisors) -- tells me to "Go to Payless or don't be in our movie" upon complaint.

3) I am starting to wonder about this project and am thinking about calling it a night. How pathetic do you have to be to get dress shoes to be an extra in a movie that will never, ever see the light of day? I then realize that these are the type of people that I need to meet. And, quickly thinking things over... I'm not too far off from being one of them. I find a Famous Footwear outlet and buy a pair of dress shoes.

4) I head back to the New Z bar. After signing some paperwork I am told to find a seat inside. The furniture is plush, the cielings and walls are at these odd obtuse angles and there are all sorts of odd lights. It looks a bit like the Peach Pit After Dark but also gives off the vibe, particularly with Delilah's next door, that I am about to watch a visiting NBA player get shot at.

5) I look at the other extras. I realize that not only is my footwear not adequate, but I am also not dressed for the occassion. My sweater/slacks "nerdy guy who doesn't know or care to know how to dress" look doesn't quite mesh well with the "girls dressed like they are about to have group sex in a Miami booty rap video" or the "guys who get their fashion advice from the Gotti Boys" style.

6) Two other extras join me on the couch. Next to me is another fish-out-of-water. She's a 55-year-old woman with a Jewfro and fingernails painted firetruck red. I am trying to figure out my way to get her talking, since there has to be a story about this woman. Luckily, I don't have to strategize much, as she just starts talking to me.

"There's a lot of waiting at these things," she volunteers.

"Oh, you've been to these things before?" I ask?

Of course she has.

7) The woman is a secretary at an elementary school in Delaware. But she's always dreamed of being an actress. She's done stand-up comedy at The Spaghetti Warehouse open mic night (which sounds like something I have to take part in, stand-up comedy night at Philly's ass version of Olive Garden) as well as a hotel bar's comedy room in the far suburbs. I ask her about if she does comedy about her job. She says no.

"My comedy is about my life. Just about... some... interesting parts of my life."

She leaves it hanging like that. I figure it's best to leave it to my imagination.

8) The woman later volunteers that she has had a non-speaking role on Forensic Files and has been an extra in a few other movies, including Invincible, the football movie starring Mark Wahlberg which came out a few months ago. I haven't watched it yet.

"If you see the scene where Vince and his wife are getting a hoagie together, they cut to a football practice right after that. I'm in the bleachers. For about one second."

The guy across from us, in his 30's and well dressed, pipes in.

"Oh, you were in Invincible... too?"

9) These two start swapping war stories from being extras in Invincible. Filming was at Franklin Field at UPenn, where the extras would sit in the stands for hours at a time sitting in between lifelike dummies which were set up to look like fans. Filming for Invincible was very arduous -- some nights, extras would be on set from 6:30 p.m. until 3 a.m. She took vacation days from work to have one second of background screen time. And, of course, you don't get paid for this kind of stuff.

"I wanted to kill the director that night," the woman said. "He kept on messing everything up."

10) The guy who was also in Invincible makes a phone call.

"Yeah, I'm at the shoot. I got here a little late. I know the drill with these things by now."

11) He again starts talking to the woman next to me.

"Were you an extra in Invincible or were you a featured extra," he asks her.

"I was an extra."

"Oh... I was a featured extra."

"Really? Wow!"

"Yeah. There's a scene where his wife holds up a sign. I was right behind his wife at the time."

"How did you become a featured extra?"

"I don't know. I guess someone must have really liked me."

12) More of their dialogue.

HER: "It's just very interesting to see how a movie gets made."
HIM: "Sure."
HER: "And it's also a very motivational story."
HIM: "Sure."
HER: "And... you never know. All it takes is someone to see you once. All it takes is one glimpse. And then if they see something in you, then you could really become a star."
HIM: "Sure."

13) Throughout the conversation, people involving in the making of the film were coming down and picking amongst the extras. The women who looked most likely to blow a camera guy were chosen first. Everyone else was told to remain seated.

14) Finally, we were called upstairs to the lounge area. A few cameras, sound equipment and frantic directors were in the middle of the lounge, dictating where everyone was to stand. I was told to stand next to the bar. We were given further instructions -- during the filming, we were to be absolutely silent unless we were told to talk. Then we could talk all we want. But no mater what, we were to just act like we were at a bar.

15) Standing next to me was a very attractive blonde woman who looked like Clarissa Flockheart. Did you ever meet someone who was a complete stranger to you who started talking about her friends as if you knew them? This was that person.

"I was with Sara and Roxanne and we heard about this and decided to come."

16) I asked her if she's done any film work before. She hasn't, but she did appear in an infomercial for a horse racing track based in Louisiana.

17) Within 15 seconds of talking to this woman, I realize that she is both the dumbest and most vapid human being I have ever met in my life. Anyone with a clipboard or equipment she approaches and introduces herself. I've watched the BBC show Extras. I've watched Entourage. Take the exaggerations of those movies -- anonymous figures clawing their way to the top of film -- but put it in Philadelphia for a low-budget independent film which looks as if it's being made on the fly. This is that.

18) One of the actors is standing next to me. He's a young black guy who looks oddly familiar. All of a sudden it hits me.


The *ONE* thing in terms of meeting someone that could actually generate honest emotion from me is if I cuold meet someone from The Wire. And I'm meeting someone who had a fairly important role. In Season 3, he gets set up by Councilman Carcetti to run against Mayor Royce to split the black vote. He's in a few scenes in Season 4 doing campaign stuff. His character was the main plot device in the election story which allowed The Wire's version of Baltimore to have a white mayor.

19) I ask the guy -- his first name is Chris -- if he played Tony Gray on The Wire. He confirms that this is indeed him. He's about to shoot something. So real quickly I add, "Fuck Carcetti." He laughs.

20) During a break, I now completely fawn over this guy. I'm pretty sure no one has recognized him ever before, since he seems so genuinely happy at my pathetic fanboyishness. I tell him how The Wire is my favorite show of all time, that he had some great scenes, etc. He thanked me like 5,000 times. I asked him if he was back for Season 5 -- he said that he was told he'd have a few scenes, but that "other than death and taxes, nothing's guaranteed." He also, upon my questioning, told me that the girl who plays Snoop is "cool as shit" but is a thuggish on screen as she is on TV, that the dude who plays Omar is a super nice guy, and that Ed Burns and David Simon are really awesome to work for. I also told him I hope the show wins every Emmy there is to win this year, particularly for the young group of kids the show focuses on this season, who are just outstanding. He then told me the dude who played Proposition Joe is their real-life acting coach.

21) A few people ask me where he's from. I tell them The Wire. Not one person has never heard of the show. This is a human travesty that no one knows this show. For real, if you're reading this and haven't watched, get the DVD's ASAP. I can't stress that enough. I fucking love The Wire.

22) The hot blonde next to me keeps on bragging to everyone within earshot about her role as an extra. She will be walking from one side of the room to the other and will get in clear view of the camera. I decide I have to mess with this woman.

23) 3..2....1, ACTION! Filming begins. I am pretending to talk to the hot blonde. Slowly, my hand goes up and down her arm as I have a lecherous look in my eyes. I lean over into her ear and whisper to her, "I want to take you to my mom's house because that's where I live." She is trying hard not to laugh, because the big scene of her walking is coming up in 5 seconds, and walking can be difficult for a blonde this stereotypical.

24) The scene ends, and we're told to go back to her original spot. She now asks me if I've done any extra work.

"No, not before. I've been in rehab the past three months. For Sudafed."
"Yeah. I was really congested one night, so I popped a Sudafed. One became two and then two became 43. I was snorting that shit and everything. My doctor said it was because I feel empty inside, so I've been looking for a family. I think I finally found one here."
"Wow. That's great."

25) More of our conversation:
HER: "You see how chaotic this is? Can you imagine doing a scene with children?"
ME: "I... I can't work with children."
HER: "Why not?"
ME: "I don't want to go into the details."
HER: "Okay, you're really scaring me now."
ME: "It was with a younger cousin! We were drunk!"

26) Speaking of alcohol, the bartenders at the bar behind me can't serve real alcohol. Their drinks are mostly water, orange juice or orange juice diluted with water. It's a fun night! Everyone keeps on saying the same drink when they come to the bar for their drink.

"I wish I had a drink. A real drink."

I hear this about 75 times. One of the blondes friends -- Sara or Roxanne, I'm not sure which -- came up to us and told me this joke.

I then gave her a hug.

"I wish I had cocaine. Real cocaine."

I then started rubbing my nose. She walked away from me.

27) During another take, two other girls ended up standing next to me for a scene we had to do while whispering.

GIRL: "Hi!"
ME: "Hi! Why did we come to a bar called Whispers? You know, the bar where you can only whisper?"
GIRL: "That's a good one!"
ME: "I think I like Laryngitis better. I like their jukebox."
GIRL: "Yeah. It's sexier there."
(I pause. How is laryngitis sexy?)
ME: "I like Whispers because my wife shuts up."
GIRL: "Oh, that's nice."
ME: "I still hit her when we get home, though."
DUDE STANDING NEXT TO ME: "Yo... don't joke about that."
ME: "I'm not. I hit her all the time. She'll learn though."

28) After a scene, those of us at the bar were told to go back downstairs for a few minutes. On our way down, I saw the guy from the couch. I slapped him on the back.

"Oh man, I saw what you were doing. GREAT work, man. GREAT work. I really loved it."

29) I am nearly caught taking notes while trying to evesdrop on someone's conversation. When asked what I'm doing, I come up with a rather lame excuse.

"I'm a lyricist, so whenever I think about a song I'm writing... or some kind of meditation... I write it down right away so I don't lose it, you know?"

He doesn't believe me.

30) We are asked to go back upstairs. I do, and am again placed next to the blonde. This time, my sexual harrassment of her becomes more blatant. I am now grabbing her arm.

"One day, I will have you returned to me."
"Uhm, okay, whatever."

31) Two new girls are next to me. They look like girls you'd see in the background of a Ludacris video. I walk up to them to start hitting on them.

"Hey, ladies, let me get the pin number on your ATM card?"
"What you sayin' to me fool?"
"Let me get your pin number. I got a bad credit rating. I need help."
"Get yo ass away from me now."
"Come on, let me hold a $20."
"I ain't lettin' you hold shit."

32) We were pretty much done filming, when an interesting conversation took place between a guy and a girl.

GUY: "Y'see, I know how to tell if I can get a lady when I'm out. I like to study people."
LADY: "What you mean you study people?"
GUY: "I look at them and try to figure them out, so I can see if I can find and in."
LADY: "That sounds like you be stalking people."

(The guy then opens his eyes extremely wide open, like he's looking at naked breasts for the first time.)


After that, we were told to leave.

Doing Stuff: Day 6, The Shrine of the Miraculous Medal

Chelten Avenue isn't exactly a place where you'd expect hundreds of people to flock to. It's an ugly, beat-up area of town, tucked away in a hard-to-reach corner of the city where there isn't much but Chinese restaurants, 40 stores and blight.

But every Monday, literally thousands of people flock to the Shrine of the Miraculous Medal, a large church which is one of the most visited sites for Catholics in Philadelphia.

The Miraculous Medal dates back to 1830, when a young woman studying as part of the Sisters of Charity witnessed several appearances from the Vrign Mary, the last of which ordered her to make a medal in her image which would provide blessings for those who wore it around their neck.

The church in Philadelphia is a shrine to the power of the Miraculous Medal. It's a beautiful cathedral-type of building, one of the most stunning churches I've ever been in. And inside, the atmosphere is extremely solemn and a bit intense. During the church service, folks line up for a confessional, people openly weep in the pews and kneel before the various statues dedicated to Mary, many gripping their copy of the medal like a rosary.

I'm a somewhat practicing Catholic. I've always been skeptical of this kind of True Believer stuff. But who am I to doubt it when a priest starts running down the list of miracles which people subscribe to the power of a medal? My friend George whom I work with, his aunt from Minnesota came to town after she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and only given a few weeks to live. She prayed for nine consecutive Mondays at this church and now, 12 years later, she's still alive.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Doing Stuff: Day 5, Philadelphia Phantoms Hockey

A Philadelphia Phantoms minor league hockey game must feel exactly like watching a sporting event in a labor camp. The few people who actually want to be at this event are frighteningly into it. The concussive non-stop jock jams, outdated metal and sound effects drained me to the point of submission. And the only point the mostly board crowd was into it came when a Phantom and a member of the Manitoba Moose got into a fistfight -- much as how I imagine prisoners enjoy watching fellow inmates brawl over phone cards in a cafeteria.

Doing Stuff: An Update

* Pictures from the previous events have been added.

* I was supposed to go on a treasure hunt today with this company called RavenChase. However, they cancelled the event. The backup plan will see me attending a minor league hockey game in Philly. A little dissapointing.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Doing Stuff: Day 4, Paul Green School of Rock Music


"Take a look to the sky just before you die
It is the last time you will
Blackened roar massive roar fills the crumbling sky
Shattered goal fills his soul with a ruthless cry"
-- Lyrics to Mettalica's "For Whom The Bell Tolls", as sung by a Harry Potter looking kid wearing a cape with black make-up painted on his face.

This article won't be very long, because there isn't so much to say about the Paul Green School of Rock. I'll keep it simple: it rules.

The Paul Green School of Rock Music is a noted music school that teaches kids music, with their lessons culminating in a full-fledged rock extravaganza. Tonight, Ilana and I saw their "Classic Metal 101" performance held in a church hall on the University of Pennsylvania Campus.

(And, yes, it predates the movie.)

The show had the perfect blend of irony and pure awesomeness. The kids seemed to embrace the ridiculousness of being clad in evil capes and in 1989 burnout gear, playing amongst a sea of headbanging and dry ice. But something like this has legs only if the kids surprise you with their ability. That, they did. All of their songs were tight and some blew the roof off the joint. The only way their cover of Pantera's "Walk" could have been more accurate is if a crazed gunman stormed the stage. They were as good as any of the myriad of metal cover bands floating around the area, except they still have hope and dignity.

I'm not breaking new ground here when I say that rock music, especially metal, was made for teenagers. Metal made BY teenagers reminded me of why I loved going to punk shows in high school and college, before I gave up going to shows due to the hipster posturing associated with the music I like.

"It's all about the music for us," said Michael DiCarlo, a 15-year-old drummer in the Paul Green School of Rock Music.

DiCarlo, who has been playing drums since the age of 5, listed Metallica, Slayer, Lamb of God and Mastodon amongst his favorite bands. And tonight, he got to not just play the part of a rock star, but he actually was one.

"Not everyone gets to do something like this," he said.

Ilana and I are definitely going to go to more Paul Green shows. The one I think that has the most potential is their "Killer Queen" night scheduled in January.

EDIT: Changed the spelling of Michael's last name. It's been a few while since I've interviewed people at a spot story. I forgot the general rule of asking for EVERYONE'S last name when I do an interview. Sorry about that.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Plugging Something

I wanted to plug something for the kids I interviewed at the wrestling show this weekend for graciously taking themselves away from watching the action to talk to a stranger. The crew of them are wrestling soon with the Pro Wrestling Unplugged group. Here goes:

PWU/ACPW, Dec. 7th, Cabrini College in suburban Philly

PWU VS. JCW (some sort of Insane Clown Possee thing) Dec. 16th at the New Alhambra Arena

PWU Dec. 30th (they didn't write down where it was)

Doing Stuff; Day 3, Women's Extreme Wrestling

"Kill that bitch! Yeah! Fuck that bitch up! Yeah!" -- some guy in a Terrell Owens jersey, tonight at the New Alhambra Area in South Philadelphia.

The pro wrestling capital of America is Philadelphia.

In the 1980's, Philadelphia was one of the only cities in the country that could draw huge shows for the two national rivals, the WWF and the NWA. In the early 90's, the Tri-State Wrestling Federation hosted shows for the nation's most hardcore wrestling fans. This audience soon became obsessed with Eastern Championship Wrestling, which becme Extreme Championship Wrestling, one of the most beloved and influential wrestling promotions of all time. And today, Philadelphia is home to both the Ring of Honor and Combat Zone Wrestling promotions, two of the most succesful independent wrestling companies in the nation.

Tonight, I attended the Woman's Extreme Wrestling card at the New Alhambra Arena (formerly a bingo hall which gained infamy as the ECW Arena) with my friends Steffan and Sean. Steffan is 28 and is a doctor who works at a large hospital in Center City. Sean has a Ph.D. in developmental psychology and is a professor at an area college. Neither had seen professional wrestling in person before. I, of course, have seen professional wrestling live and in person a few dozen times.

Pro wrestling was easily my favorite thing in the world from when I was a child until my mid-20's. (Not coincidentally, this is when I started to have sex regularly.) I'd be lying if the allure of going to see ECW live and in person didn't factor in my decision to go to La Salle University. I'd also be lying if I told you that, at the age of 17, I didn't harbor dreams of becoming the next Bobby "The Brain" Heenan or James E. Cornette, the two dominant bad guy wrestling managers of the era.

Steffan had at least watched wrestling in college during the industry's big boom period, mostly following the local (and truly insane) ECW. Sean had never watched wrestling and had no idea what to expect.

We arrived to the New Alhambra Arena (marvelously located underneath the I-95 trestle next to a discounted clothing store known as Forman Mills, the last store in the world where one can purchase off-the-rack Zubaz pants) a little after the show started. When we arrived, we were let right in. We didn't have to buy any tickets. A security guard just let us walk in without a second thought.

The atmosphere was magnificent. The ECW Arena, in the promotion's peak, was known for its rabid, rowdy and violent atmosphere. This crowd saw attendees largely talking amongst themselves, drinking beer, only to occasionally yell out a comment like "U-S-A! U-S-A! GO HOME YOU DUMB JAPANESE BITCH!" or "PUNCH HER TITS!"

Being a longtime wrestling fan, I can tell who is a good wrestler and who is a bad wrestler. Most of the women wrestling in this thing? They were obviously strippers, most likely from Cheerleaders located down the street. Pro wrestling is usually a combination of athleticism and really low-brow theater; this event was largely tanned girls with back tattoos rolling around on a mat, ripping at each other's clothes in front of a crowd of drunk men celebrating the violence.

This was a perfect opportunity for me to quote dialogue from the movie The Accused, an opportunity I did not let go to waste.

For one match, the WEW ring announcer told us that "Chief Jane Strong-ho" (a play off legendary Native American wrestler Cheif Jay Strongbow) would be coming to the ring to show her new rain dance. Some young looking girl then came running out in an Indian headdress obviously purchased on discount from the Halloween costume superstore up the street as the Florida State University/Atlanta Braves "Tomohawk Chop" song played. Then some big biker woman came out and beat the shit out of her. I believe this was an allegory for white Europeans stealing the land of the Native American. Only instead of using corrupt treaties or a smallpox blanket, the conquerer rubbed her vagina in her enemies face.

One match did have a very intriguing storyline. Before the match began, some woman came out flanked by two other women in matching "Sexy Cop" outfits, grinding their asses against the steel railing. The woman, wearing a homemade t-shirt which read "Bigger is Better", then told the crowd that she "changed a lot since the last time you saw me. I graduated college AND law school! And now I'm a judge!"

Right after that, some other woman clad in bondage leather came running into the ring (after possibly inhaling a Len Bias-sized amount of cocaine backstage) holding a microphone and a car air freshener.


Another match pitted some goth-ish type girl (and her manager) against a Christian rock chick. How was the audience informed of her religious belief? Simply because she had ROMANS 3:05 written in tasteful magic marker down the left pant leg of her stylishly ripped jeans. The goth girl's manager grabbed the Christian chick's Bible to distract her, but -- SHOCK! -- the referee got accidentally hit and someone beat the other person.

I got bored watching the wrestling and wandered off to talk to some folks. The first guy I met looked like an extra from an AC/DC video -- jeff cap and a sleeveless jean jacket. His name was Chris Sixx, a resident of Landsdowne, located right outside the city. And he, too, was a lifelong fan of pro wrestling who estimated he has attended over a hundred shows live.

Chris said he thought about being a wrestler at one point, but didn't because of how notoriously cut-throat the wrestling industry is.

"I used to live for this," Chris said.

(Many wrestling fans today are down on the industry. The WWE, a company publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange, is the only bigtime promotion around, succesfully purchasing or destroying any legitimate competition. Two decades ago, there were many succesful wrestling promotions which were regional based. But with the advent of cable television and the like, there's only one game in town. I'm not one to really get up in arms about the corporatization of America ruining our culture but, fuck, it absolutely destroyed something I grew up obsessing over.)

I told him a little bit about my project -- events away from the mainstream that Philadelphians attend -- and asked him why he thought pro wrestling was so popular in our city.

"Because it's such a gritty city. It's so hardcore man. That's what we're about in Philly," he said. "Wrestlers will put their body on their lines to please the fans here. And we like that."

I then wandered to another part of the arena, where I came across a group of 20-ish guys who looked a lot like I did at that age: a bit nerdy and out-of-place amongst the more blue-collar (to be politically correct) crowd in attendance. I talked to them about my project and they told me about how they were training to become professional wrestlers themselves.

This dream of becoming a wrestler has been with Ian Clair, a 22-year-old resident of Maple Shade over the river in South Jersey, since he was a kid.

"We have a sick bloodlust here," he told me. "Even the Wings (Philadelphia's fairly popular indoor lacrosse team)... ECW. CZW. ROH. We like to see people beat the crap out of each other here."

Clair knows full-well that pro wrestling is "fake." But he still wants to do it.

"It's a big act. But I want to be the guy that gets cheered. Or I want to be the guy that gets booed. I like being the guy who comes off the stage and gets cheers. I want to hold the belt that says I am the best of the best," he said.

How many people in the arena did he think had the same dream he had to become a pro wrestler?

"About 99%."

Right then, I started to think about my project. The two events I've attended previously -- one where people try to live life in a previous, simpler time by dancing in the style of the colonial era, another where grown men take a kid's game seriously -- all saw people trying to escape the here and now to be someone else, even if just for a few minutes out of the week.

Why do Philadelphians want to be someone else? Why do Americans want to be someone else?

"Life in Philly is hard," Clair said. "Life in general is hard. We're all looking for an outlet. No one wants to get stuck in the same place. They want to find something hot and stay there. They don't want to be back like Joe Schmoe, selling lunch meat at the store in the corner. They want to say that they made it."

After the show ended, the ring announcer informed the crowd that the wrestlers of the night would be performing at a bar down the street. Naturally, Steffan, Sean and I went.

While there, I asked Sean what he thought of the night, being a pro wrestling neophyte.

"I don't know how to process this yet. Or when I'm going to start processing this," he said. "It was a theatrical performance but it was like an amateur night at a strip club or a comedy club. How does someone go from being born to performing at Women's Extreme Wrestling? It's kind of sad. There's something really degrading about seeing someone have yell 'Fuck you , you crackwhore' at them. In what world is this your world?"

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