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Posts Tagged ‘Philadelphia’

Mad, Etc.

August 5, 2014 | by

A panda painting, small-claims court, and the perils of communal living.

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From a 1937 advertisement.

Of the many collectives in West Philadelphia, the Mitten was widely held to be the ideal model. Founded by six young progressives from the Inter-cooperative Council in Michigan, it hosted workshops on social justice and fundraised for local nonprofits. And it was a staple of the queer-arts scene: punk bands played in the basement and drag shows filled the living room, with performers grinding on audience members and audience members grinding on banisters. In the adjacent lot they had grown a lush garden with six raised beds and a chicken coop.

When I first moved to Philadelphia, I was eager to join a house like this one—but brimming with collaborative energy, they were in high demand, and the ones I found lacked the character and spirit that’d drawn me to communal living in the first place.

I was impatient, though, and took a room in Cedar Park, aka “University City,” at an A-frame Victorian with a huge mulberry tree. The quaint facade hardly matched its sterile interior: overhead lighting reflected off marble countertops, the white walls were bare, and there was La-Z-Boy furniture in suburban quantities. This collective included five members, young professionals who, surprisingly, spent the majority of time away from the house, staying often with their partners. A math teacher, a product engineer, a classical vocalist and a software designer—they were mild and even a little shy. But one of the members, Jeff, maintained a particular enthusiasm for the house. He spoke in an affectedly deep voice, noticeably straining as he described the order of things: regular meals “kept costs down”; adherence to the chore wheel “kept everything running smoothly.” He appeared to be the oldest by a significant difference; his skin had a jaundiced tint, and his goatee was visibly grayed. A baseball cap covered his bald head, and in his beige clothing he nearly blended with the plush chairs in the living room. Read More »

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Clitics

May 8, 2014 | by

Life in the linguistics lab.

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Image via Giphy

In August 2009, I took a job as a “confederate” at the “MIXER” project, run by the linguistics lab of a university in the Philadelphia area. The goal of the MIXER project was to gather recorded interviews for a database of conversational American speech. Over the previous five years, the lab had recorded thousands of speakers; having secured a grant from an undisclosed sponsor, they were gearing up for another year. For three hundred dollars a week, my only responsibility was to receive the participants that came to the lab and to get them to speak.

The interviews were conducted in a recording booth known as the Mermaid Lounge, so named for the amphibian girl and paint-by-numbers fish characters painted on the far wall. Inside the Lounge was a single desk where two computer monitors sat head-to-head, surrounded by cameras and all kinds of microphones: clip-ons, standalones, condensers. At the other end of the hallway was the HIVE, a seminar room that served as base of operations for the MIXER-6 team—me, a secretary, and the lead confederate, who liaised with the sponsors. The lead confederate on MIXER-6 had participated in every study so far except MIXER-4, which she’d missed due to dental surgery. Now, after several complicated adjustments, she wore an elaborate dental fixture that rendered her effectively mute. She typically relayed messages through the secretary, Stabler, a burly little man with golden-blond hair and a bushy beard. Stabler was responsible for outreach; that meant flyering, Craigslist ads, and organizing participant data. Unfortunately, he was hamstrung by his terrible stammer, which was particularly pronounced whenever he spoke on the phone: “Hello, thank you for c-c-calling the l-l-ab … Are you r-r-responding to the a-a-ad?”

As a confederate, my responsibilities consisted of escorting the participants to the Mermaid Lounge, fitting them with a small, sensitive mic, and seeing them through three “sessions.” The first, the Prompt Session, was scripted. Participants read through a series of warm-up phrases as they scrolled across a monitor. These were mostly binomials like riff raff, hip-hop, flim flam, willy nilly, etc. Once the articulatory mechanisms were sufficiently exercised, I moved onto the Natural Session, during which I conversed with the participant on a topic of his or her choice. If necessary, we could discuss the algorithmically generated topic of the day, which might be Netflix, or terrorism, or gun control. Finally, after fifteen minutes, the participant put on a pair of headphones for the Noisy Session. An automated voiced counted down to zero, and then a steady stream of white noise came through the soft earpieces while I continued to converse with the participant. Read More »

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See You There: The Paris Review in Philadelphia

October 18, 2013 | by

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Philly friends! This Sunday, I, Sadie Stein, and our editor, the estimable (and still not related) Lorin Stein will be in town as part of the 215 Festival. Great things will be taking place all weekend; we will be at the closing event at the Philadelphia Arts Alliance, answering your questions, talking shop, and hosting cocktails! Looking forward to meeting you!

RSVP to the event here.

 

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Girls Together

July 9, 2013 | by

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Courtesy of the Haug family.

It’s a gray day in April and after nine hours on a crowded BoltBus I arrive in Philadelphia to see my old friend from college, Nicole, a fellow writer and veritable one-woman repository of Philadelphian history. I’m here to celebrate her birthday, to drink wine, and to comb through the detritus of a difficult past year for both of us. Really, I’m not here for research.

So, of course it makes perfect sense that within five minutes of picking me up she turns her car toward 4100 Pine Street, an address I’ve seen scrawled on the front of numerous letters, in nineteenth-century directories, in the chicken-scratch handwriting of an 1870 Philadelphian census worker, and in journal after journal of Amy Ella Blanchard.

I first encountered Blanchard’s work as a sullen adolescent, forced to go to an island in Maine every other weekend with my father and soon-to-be stepmother. The house where we stayed was built by Blanchard in the early twentieth century and her books lined the shelves, but I was too busy reading classics like Salem’s Lot to be bothered with these dusty old tomes. The fact that she was a relative of my father’s girlfriend made Blanchard’s novels even less attractive to me.

Not many readers these days know who Blanchard was, but just barely a century ago she published at least a book a year, sometimes more, for girls and about girls. During her lifetime she wrote over eighty books, a play in 1896 about the importance of exercise for women, and even a couple of small booklets flouting such morals as “fritterings” and being “pound foolish.” A self-described late bloomer, Blanchard’s writing career started, and sputtered, with a story she published in a Salem, Massachusetts newspaper when she was in her teens, but it wasn’t until she was well into her thirties that her novels became an indispensable part of every young girl’s library.

4100 Pine Street is where Amy Ella Blanchard met her writerly fate, personally and professionally. In 1871, when she was fifteen years old, the Waugh family of Philadelphia hired her to be a tutor for their young son, future marine artist and camouflage designer Frederick Judd Waugh. Patriarch Samuel Bell Waugh was a renowned Philadelphian painter of portraits, including at least two of President Lincoln; his wife, Mary, specialized in miniatures; and Frederick’s older half sister, Ida, was hard at work pursuing her own painting career. A family of artists, the Waughs quickly took young Amy under their wing. They kept inspired company in their time and introduced Amy to a creative world that was far removed from her hometown of Baltimore in more ways than one. Read More »

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Tender Spirits: A Conversation with Marie-Helene Bertino

January 16, 2013 | by

In October, Marie-Helene Bertino published her debut collection of short stories, Safe as Houses. Her writing often involves fantastical elements—an embodied idea of an ex-boyfriend, an alien who faxes observations about human beings to her home planet, a woman who brings Bob Dylan home for Thanksgiving dinner—that advance painful story lines. Her language is spare, direct, and hilarious, which makes the characters’ losses that much more deeply felt. Bertino is now at work on a novel centering on a jazz club in Philadelphia called the Cat’s Pajamas.

We spoke for two hours in a Brooklyn coffee shop, which was flooded with girls on their lunch break from school.

Reading Safe as Houses, I was struck by the number of characters who aren’t really seen by others. By the last few stories, the characters start to become more visible. Does that theme ring true to you?

I would totally agree with that, though I was not conscious of it. I was aware that a lot of characters were on the outskirts of something—of their towns, their groups of friends, their families, their societies. And at the risk of sounding cliché, I think that’s a metaphor for being a writer. I mean literally and figuratively—you have to stand on the outside to watch a group of people and then be able to write about them, but in practice, it’s also a solitary art, as they say. And I think that those characters definitely are a reflection of that kind of observer quality in me.

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Reading the Viaduct

December 4, 2012 | by

Starting out for the southern end of the Reading Viaduct means walking alongside a live railroad track, vigilant for the sound of a CSX freight train approaching from behind. Your destination is the mouth of an abandoned tunnel, which will pull you into stretches of almost total darkness thirty feet below ground. You aren’t headed for the tunnel because you love tunnels, but to glimpse the diversity of landscapes that makes up Philadelphia’s Reading Viaduct before it becomes the city’s answer to New York City’s Highline. You are there for the tunnel as much as for what’s on the other side: the promise of meadowland and prairie hiding in plain sight.

The Reading Viaduct may one day become a linear park transecting downtown Philadelphia. Should that happen, the Viaduct would be like no other park in the world. The three-mile stretch runs thirty feet underground at one end and emerges as an elevated line thirty feet above street level on the other. Since the 1980s, it has been abandoned. Sections of the Viaduct may undergo development as early as next year. Read More »

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