A toast to …

The Pen & Pencil Club of Philadelphia.

Journalism has been taking a body blow lately, what with accusations of “fake news” and bias, but this ignores the terrific and courageous role that journalism played in much of the twentieth century and continues to play today. From Gareth Jones‘ reportage on the Ukrainian Holodomor in the 1930s to Vasily Grossman’s “The Hell of Treblinka” in 1944 and John Hersey’s Hiroshima in 1946, great journalists have been dedicated to pursuing and reporting events that governments would prefer unpursued and unreported. They do this, often, at great personal risk, and even when the physical risk is minimal, the vast majority of journalists are biased to just one thing: facts, and facts that are verifiable, not those that might be characterized as “alternative.”

I’ve been involved in various kinds of journalism since I edited my college newspaper back in the day; since then, much of this has been arts journalism, and lately here at the blog what I generously call “journalism” has been of the more personal variety. Nonetheless, I’m delighted and honored to end this week as a new, full member of Philadelphia’s Pen & Pencil Club, the oldest private club for journalists in the United States, founded in 1892. It’s going to be a rough couple years up until the 2024 election, and as a free press is the handmaiden of democracy, I raise my glass today to journalism and journalists. And though I’ll be at Cafe Katja this afternoon, I hope to raise a glass or three at the Pen & Pencil Club soon.

A toast to …

Cafe Katja.

I was originally going to raise a glass to myself for actually writing and publishing a substantive post this week, but instead my Friday toast at Cafe Katja will be to the memory of Norm Macdonald, who departed these earthly shores all too soon a few days ago. He’d been a great favorite of mine for years (even on The Norm Show, his 1999 sitcom). Rather than burden the internet with yet another heartfelt memorial, I thought I’d post one of his best talk-show appearances — and there were many — in the below clip from a 1997 Late Night with Conan O’Brien, when Macdonald hijacked an interview with Melrose Place star Courtney Thorne-Smith to offer a savage takedown of the prop comic Carrot Top in just a few well-chosen words.

So here’s to Norm. See you at Cafe Katja this afternoon.

A walk through the city

Anthony Bourdain (center) and friends at the Pen & Pencil Club in Philadelphia in 2012.

Anthony Bourdain visited Philadelphia in 2012 as part of the second season of his series The Layover (I’d never heard of it either; it lasted all of two seasons on the Travel Channel). One of these episodes was devoted to Philadelphia, where he spent 48 hours sampling food and drink, among other things, and watching the episode a few nights ago I experienced a most uncanny sense of déjà vu. I’d just come back from a five-day sojourn to my home town, and I was surprised to find Bourdain had visited and enjoyed … well, most of the places I had. He stayed in what was then the Four Seasons Hotel on Logan Square (now The Logan, a Hilton hotel, where my family and I also stayed); like Marilyn and myself, he enjoyed a tour of the Italian Market and stopped by Di Bruno Bros. on 9th Street to sample a few cheeses; he spent several hours enjoying the bizarre exhibits of the Mütter Museum; he spent several more hours at the Barnes Foundation; he threw a spotlight on City Tavern, Walter Staib’s restaurant that fell victim to the coronavirus last year; and, like any good Philadelphian, he drank at Dirty Frank’s and the Pen & Pencil Club late into the night. I have happy memories of all of these, and except for the City Tavern, I can enjoy them all again: some things don’t change, and Philadelphia is in many ways one of those things.

The engagingly irritable Bourdain concluded his visit to the city by observing that “Philadelphia is a town with a low tolerance for bullshit and a whole lotta heart.” The native Philadelphian in myself is tempted to respond with a raspberry to that “whole lotta heart” comment, but he’s not far off the mark.

As it happens, I’m writing from New York, which is where I’ve lived for about 25 years, and in writing about Philadelphia I feel a little like James Joyce writing about Dublin from Paris and Trieste (without Joyce’s talent, alas). But I was born in Philadelphia and lived there for most of the first half of my life, and perhaps what keeps me a Philadelphian is my temperament — that low tolerance for bullshit and the city as the place that served as the landscape for my maturation, if not the whole lotta heart. Philadelphians are famously stubborn and, as Bourdain’s conversations with the city’s residents prove, prone to plain-talking, humility, and the ability to reel off a few yards of conversational obscenities unparalleled in rather more upscale communities. After all, this is the city which once proudly rolled out “Philadelphia is not as bad as Philadelphians say it is” as a promotional slogan.

New York has its own unique and undoubted virtues and attractions to be sure, but a low tolerance for bullshit is not one of them, and this may also speak directly to my own temperament. New Yorkers themselves can’t be entirely to blame for this. As the self-described “greatest city in the world” and a powerful center of the financial, entertainment, publishing, advertising and marketing, and non-profit industries, much of their livelihood depends on the continued generation and distribution of this bullshit, and the concomitant need to believe in this bullshit requires them to live in a constant state of cognitive dissonance.

What is clear as I walk through Philadelphia’s neighborhoods is that the city’s greatness (if it can be called that) is a ground-level greatness. New York may be a walkable city too, but the walk is of a profoundly different nature. Manhattan is a city of skyscrapers, buildings reaching far into the air and rendering the people inside and below them insignificant atoms of a hulking concrete, steel, and glass beast. Until 1987 and Willard Rouse’s construction of the 945-foot-high One Liberty Place, a gentleman’s agreement prevented real estate developers from exceeding the 548-foot height of the William Penn statue on the top of City Hall (the construction of which itself was ridden with political corruption); additional skyscrapers were built in the following years, transforming the city’s once-unique and easily recognizable appearance into something resembling hundreds of cities around the world (although in recent years developers have been more careful to preserve at least some of City Hall’s centrality to its skyline).

A walk through Philadelphia’s streets and alleys exposes the walker to an art, history, and domesticity that validates the walker as an individual, with individual quirks, histories, and significance himself. Apart from Center City, little of Philadelphia rises above four or five stories high. As Bourdain’s visit and my own experience prove, that ground-level appeal is consequently not limited to the city’s architectural features. The Mural Art Project and Isaiah Zagar’s colorful mosaics can be experienced throughout the 142 square miles of the city limits, stopping the solitary walker in his tracks. It is a rare route through the city that fails to traverse cobblestone streets and two-century-old buildings that remind the walker of the city’s and the nation’s history. And the longer one stays in the city, the more frequently one comes across ghostly reminiscences of their own history: after drinks at Dirty Frank’s and visits to Independence Park, the walker begins to see the city as a mirror of their own experience, as an individual, as a Philadelphian, as an American. One senses one’s own paradoxically ghostly permanence as the city itself curates its own history.

This is not to say that Philadelphia is some kind of metropolitan Eden. It isn’t, and its failings are legion. The public school system is reputedly in disastrous shape and has been for decades. Gun violence plagues Philadelphia to a degree greater than in other cities. And the tragic history of racial relations in Philadelphia continues to cast a pall on the present day; the career of Frank Rizzo and the self-inflicted 1985 MOVE firestorm in West Philadelphia remain palpable scars on the city’s psychic landscape. A later Philadelphia advertising slogan, “See what people who believe in the power of each other can do” — ironically launched in 1985 as well, in conjunction with that year’s Live Aid concert — rings particularly hollow in this context.

All right, that campaign was bullshit too, but hypocrisy is a human, not a geographical, vice. Regardless, as I contemplate my 60th year (which will begin very soon), I do keep thinking back to how my temperament and character were at least in part formed by Philadelphia, for good and bad; it’s a temperament and character that was profiled pretty accurately by the late Mr. Bourdain. But maybe closer to the mark is an observation from Peter McAndrews of Philly’s La Porta Ristorante, who also appeared in the program: “New York is a place where people go to reinvent themselves; Philadelphia is a place where people discover who they are.” And no degree of reinvention, however many years you spend in New York, can ever change who you are.

Little Murders

Beginning on September 1, the Criterion Channel will be streaming Little Murders, Alan Arkin’s 1971 debut film from Jules Feiffer’s adaptation of his own play, as part of “New York Stories,” its 63-film series centered on New York City. The film has been exceedingly hard to come by both on DVD and on streaming channels, so this is a good opportunity to catch up on one of my favorite films from the 1970s. Roger Ebert liked it too upon its release in 1971:

One of the reasons it works, and is indeed a definitive reflection of America’s darker moods, is that it breaks audiences down into isolated individuals, vulnerable and uncertain. Most movies create a temporary sort of democracy, a community of strangers there in the darkened theater. Not this one. The movie seems to be saying that New York City has a similar effect on its citizens, and that it will get you if you don’t watch out. … Arkin makes Little Murders so much of a piece, so consistent on its own terms, that while you’re watching it, it doesn’t even feel like satire: just real life, a little farther down the road.

I wrote about Little Murders here about five years ago; lightly edited, that essay is below.


Rumor has it that when Elliott Gould secured the film rights to Jules Feiffer’s 1967 Broadway satire Little Murders (according to the Internet Broadway Database, it ran for all of 23 performances, including previews; Gould appeared in the play on Broadway), he tried to interest Jean-Luc Godard in directing the film; eventually Godard withdrew and the film was completed and released in 1971 in a version directed by Alan Arkin. (A 1969 theatrical revival at Circle in the Square, also directed by Arkin, had enjoyed a more successful 400 performance run and won Feiffer an Obie for the play.) The idea of Godard directing Gould in Feiffer is daunting, to say the least. But the film that resulted in the end is one of those products of Hollywood that makes you wonder how it was ever made in the first place, let alone released — and it’s very certain that it would have been neither produced nor released had it been proposed today. Little Murders is an extraordinary work that retains a profound significance for 21st century America, a family-centered meditation on the violence and social conflicts in New York City, American culture, and, perhaps, elsewhere.

The play’s lead character, Alfred Chamberlain, the son of Chicago-area intellectuals, describes himself as an “apathist.” He is frequently mugged and beaten by strangers for no discernible reason, but he never fights back; if he puts up no resistance, he observes, the muggers get bored and eventually leave him alone. One day he crosses paths with a woman named Patsy Newquist (Marcia Rodd), who becomes determined to introduce him to happiness and compassion, as well as the necessity of fighting back against whatever forces conspire to rob him of his dignity. It is an uphill battle. Late one night, Alfred reveals the source of his quietism to Patsy:

Having made this confession of his own paranoid cruelty, Alfred finally realizes the importance of fighting for what he believes in, of hope, of trust, and of love — and, in the next moment, all of these are cruelly shattered by a tragic act of random violence.

Feiffer was writing about the American culture of the late 1960s, but the violence, the surveillance state, the rapid crumbling of traditional values remain central dynamics of the 2020s. In Little Murders, he proved himself a far more observant and caustic satirist of the American scene than his status as West Village Liberal might have suggested. “It’s dangerous to challenge a system unless you’re completely at peace with the thought that you’re not going to miss it when it collapses,” Alfred says at one point — and he turns out, with terrible consequences, to be right.

Among Feiffer’s many targets in Little Murders are the upwardly-mobile middle class; the justice system; religion both old and new (the parson who marries Alfred and Patsy in a disastrous ceremony is the head of the “First Existential” church); homophobia; both apathy and idealism (obviously); the art market and photography; and, as I mentioned earlier, intellectuals. Beyond all this, though, it’s a surprisingly emotional and compassionate work. Patsy’s Upper West Side family seems oblivious and hypocritical, but it’s revealed early on that their promising first son was killed in a random, unsolved act of violence on a New York City streetcorner; the revelation undermines an easy dismissal of their defensively bourgeois perspective. In many ways, the rhythm of the plot is cruel, not only to Alfred and Patsy but to the audience as well; and though the conclusion of the play appears facile at first glance, there is a poetic rightness to it that gives the play a cohesive shape.

“And of course it’s funny” is often a phrase used to encourage audiences to see a play that presumably has a darker core — and it’s usually wrong. But in this case it’s right. Little Murders is extremely funny, with gorgeous setpieces like the first meeting of Alfred with Patsy’s parents and the wedding ceremony itself. Somewhere about three-quarters into the film, though, Little Murders splits apart explosively and powerfully. The director of photography, Gordon Willis, captures New York of the 1970s perfectly — not surprisingly; he later shot The Godfather, Annie Hall, and Manhattan.

Director Alan Arkin has a brilliant four-minute cameo towards the end of the film as an insane police detective; his performance is below.

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Down memory lane to the corner of 13th and Pine

All cities have their landmark bars — in New York they might include McSorley’s and the Cedar Tavern, for example, not to mention Pfaff’s; the latter two are with us no more — but unquestionably one of Philadelphia’s is Dirty Frank’s. We’ll be taking the kids down to Philly sometime in the next few weeks, and if we manage to swing by Frank’s, I’ll be introducing the third generation of the Hunka family to this cash-only watering hole.

My father first started going there in the 1950s, I believe, about twenty years after its opening on November 8, 1933, in the wake of Prohibition. In the 1950s, as in the 1980s when I spent countless evenings and much of my salary at Frank’s, the bar was a vibrant heterogenous mix of humanity. This was largely due to its location. Frank’s had been located just around the corner from the offices and presses of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin at 13th and Filbert Streets, though by the time I started frequenting the bar the paper had closed. (I myself worked for a Philadelphia legal newspaper at the time, but alas never managed to join the nearby private Pen & Pencil Club, an omission I’ll always regret.) But this didn’t stop the many newspaper writers from gathering regularly at Frank’s; many were the times I saw Philadelphia Daily News columnist and later acclaimed novelist Pete Dexter nursing a club soda at the end of the bar, or Clark DeLeon collecting anecdotes and stories for his regular column in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Frank’s was just around the corner as well from the University of the Arts, so in those days it also attracted its share of budget-conscious painters, sculptors, and others. In fact, it still does; the north wall of the bar is an informal “Off the Wall Gallery” featuring the work of students and local artists. A few years ago Drew Lazor described the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-everything clientele of Dirty Frank’s in Vice:

In truth, Frank’s has always had a “type,” but the profile was not built using banal criteria like sex, race, religion, education or income. It instead takes a shine to individuals who can’t be neatly filed into the natural order, and don’t wish to be — a “crossroads for errant individualists,” as the Philadelphia Inquirer put it in 1982. … “Dirty Frank’s is an American melting pot with drinks,” the Inquirer wrote in 1973. “Its clientele includes sanitation workers, lawyers, students, dropouts from virtually anything, artists, clerks, poets, reporters, straights and occasional gays, blacks and whites, adventurous post-teeny boppers from the Northeast and a beloved old man who always wears a blue beret.”

During my time there the bar was occasionally closed down by the health department; it was a dive bar, after all. Then as now there was a Pennsylvania law that all bars serving alcohol also had to serve food; Frank’s tried to get around it by keeping a can of tuna, and a can opener, behind the bar to display to any visiting liquor board inspectors. (It didn’t work.) At some point in the distant past, a sign above the bar offered “MEATBALLS” as a menu item, but more recently some wag had vandalized the sign to read “RATBALLS.” I lived just across the street from Frank’s, and on one occasion the manager asked to borrow my vacuum cleaner to tidy up before a health inspector’s visit. And, of course, the men’s room urinal was kept constantly stocked with ice cubes to keep any noxious aromas from creeping too far into the main room.

I don’t want to go more deeply into my own history; the history of the bar speaks for itself, anyway; Dennis Carlisle has a more comprehensive narrative of Dirty Frank’s at Hidden City Philadelphia.

For me, most of Frank’s appeal (apart from its low prices) was that it was a “melting pot with drinks” — Frank’s welcomed a panoply of individuals from all walks of life, urging them to relax, to drink, and to talk — especially to talk, to share anecdotes and observations, and just as importantly to listen. (And, I should note, laugh — for all the virtues of Frank’s jukebox, it came in a distant third after talk and laughter as elements of Frank’s soundscape.) Those who sat at Frank’s bar and at the tables surrounding it disdained one’s identification with one’s own cultural group and valued, more than anything else, individuals and their contributions to the communal dialogue. That it was located in Philadelphia is revealing: as Peter Thompson noted in his book Rum Punch and Revolution, Philadelphia taverns were where American democracy was first hammered out in the colonial era. Through all of Dirty Frank’s existence, its drinkers and talkers reflected the spectrum of human experience and demonstrated that, at least at the bar, it was possible for a wildly diverse community to find liberty and freedom in talk and conversation and laughter: in one small way, a dream of America itself.