How the Penn Working Dog Center Turns Puppies Into Saviors

Logan (German shepherd), Felony (Dutch shepherd), and Quest (German shepherd). Photography by Joseph Balestra

Logan (German shepherd), Felony (Dutch shepherd), and Quest (German shepherd). Photography by Joseph Balestra

There’s a golden retriever in the ladies’ room.

It’s my first visit to the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, and traffic was tied up on the Expressway, and I had a large latte on the way here, and pretty much the first thing I said to Ashley Berke, the PR woman who greeted me, was, “Ladies’ room?” She led me through a vast concrete-floored space lined with metal crates full of dogs who yapped and barked as we passed them. Even so, I’m not expecting another dog, in a crate, in the ladies’ room.

The dog stands there, looking at me. I look back. It seems … rude not to address her — him? So I say, “Hey there! How are you?”

The dog doesn’t answer. Doesn’t even wag. Just stands and looks at me.

“’Scuse me,” I say, and duck into a stall.

The dog is still standing there when I come out. There’s something unnerving about its silent vigilance. But there’s also a need in me to try to make a connection. You can’t ignore a dog, you know? So I offer my hand, up against the metal crate. The dog sniffs it, with the merest swish of its tail.
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Which Philadelphia Colleges Will Survive?

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Last spring, a week before commencement at Saint Joseph’s University, faculty in the business school voted 27 to one in favor of a resolution rebuffing St. Joe’s president, the Reverend C. Kevin Gillespie. He was the third member of the administration to be hit with a “no confidence” vote in just four months, a gambit by faculty to reshape the financial future of the Catholic college that straddles City Avenue.

In some ways, it was hard to blame the professors. Gillespie had announced a budget shortfall of more than $8 million for the second year in a row, followed by across-the-board budget cuts and a freeze on faculty retirement contributions. It wasn’t exactly financial doomsday — a senior vice president says the school’s money troubles have been exaggerated — but if this wasn’t a monetary bottoming-out, the administration’s actions were signs of a moral bankruptcy to many on campus. “We no longer trust these administrators to lead us through the terrible circumstances they are responsible for creating,” read an editorial in The Hawk, the student newspaper.

In the wake of this, Gillespie announced that he will resign at the end of the upcoming school year. Still, compared to many private colleges in the Philly area, St. Joe’s is actually facing much less austerity. As of May, 13 other local schools still had space available for the new school year, including Widener, La Salle, Arcadia and Immaculata. And last year, to offset financial pressures, Holy Family University reduced its faculty by 19 percent, trimmed 40 staff positions, and began selling some of its real estate.
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Ladies and Gentlemen … Martha Graham Cracker!

Photograph by Chris Crisman

“Sometimes I feel like Martha’s more well-known than I am — she’s eclipsed me.” Photograph by Chris Crisman

Hard to say what Martha Graham Cracker noticed a few seconds ago as she left the band and the stage and slinked through the crowd. Hard to say why she picked out from the 100 people packed into this blackened room a certain middle-aged white guy in a white button-up shirt, but right now Martha has her legs wrapped around this guy’s neck.

The guy is standing next to a rectangular bar at the back of L’Étage, a nightclub and cabaret off South Street. Martha’s sitting on the bar and leaning back into the bartenders’ space, legs up in the air so that her calves are balanced on the guy’s shoulders, wireless microphone in her right hand. She’s singing Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing” — like, really singing it, powerfully, seriously, an emotionally naked song about desperation and fear, singing it in her strong, lovely voice, a spotlight piercing the dark and illuminating her face.

And part of the comedy here, part of the reason that all 100 people are laughing and clapping in surprise and delight, is that Martha’s not even looking at the guy who is struggling between her legs. Smiling but struggling as a friend or partner films it on her smartphone. Almost certainly a new experience for the guy, being this close to a drag queen, much less a drag queen like Martha: six-foot-two and hairy-chested, hairy-armed, hairy-legged; not a man trying to pass as a woman but a defiantly unmown lawn of a man in a blond pixie wig and a blue dress and six-inch heels that are now crossed behind the dude’s neck in a hammerlock as Martha’s guitarist and bassist and keyboardist and drummer play the Whitney Houston song and Martha sings:
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Tom Wolf: Perfect Stranger

The candidate in his home in Mt. Wolf. Photograph by Colin Lenton

The candidate in his home in Mt. Wolf. Photograph by Colin Lenton

In 1957, Tom Wolf and his father attended a baseball game at Connie Mack Stadium.

Wolf’s team, the Phillies, faced the St. Louis Cardinals, including Stan Musial, the player who broke Babe Ruth’s extra-base-hits record. The stadium announcer’s voice crackled through the loudspeakers, informing the crowd that anyone from Donora, Pennsylvania, Musial’s hometown, could get the slugger’s autograph when the game ended.

After the last out, Bill Wolf led his son to the visiting locker room.

“What do you think?” his father asked. “You want to go in?”

Fifty-seven years later, Tom Wolf would be the presumptive next governor of Pennsylvania. But that night, he was just an eight-year-old baseball-crazed kid standing mere feet from one of his heroes.

“No,” Tom replied. “We’re not from Donora.”

“They won’t know that,” his father said.

“No,” Tom repeated. “It wouldn’t be right.”

I hear this story from Wolf’s parents, Bill and Cornelia, at their rambling old country house in the borough of Mount Wolf, about eight miles north of York. The couple is in their 90s, dignified-old-money in every way, but the tale feels as though it hails from an even earlier time, reminiscent of apocrypha and legends like the one about George Washington and the cherry tree. There are other family fables about Honest Tom, and the Wolfs eagerly share them, delighted that their son’s virtue outdoes even their own.

The stories also echo Tom Wolf’s campaign narrative. A virtual unknown when the year began, Wolf blitzed the state with ads that declared him “not your ordinary candidate” and defined him in broadly likeable terms: South Central Pennsylvania kid. Highly educated, with a stint in the Peace Corps. Married to the same gal for 38 years. Two daughters. Started off driving a forklift in the family business, then took over, making it America’s largest supplier of kitchen cabinets.

He shared 20 to 30 percent of the profits with his employees, the ads tell us — and yes, that does sound virtuous. In 2006, he and his partners sold their majority stake in the company, and Wolf resigned and accepted a position as secretary of revenue under Governor Ed Rendell. He donated his government salary to charity and refused a state car, driving a dorky Jeep instead. He explored a run for governor in 2009, but he got a call from his old management team telling him the business he’d led for 20 years faced foreclosure. So Wolf tabled his political dream for a time and manned his old post, saving the family business and hundreds of jobs.

“I’m Tom Wolf,” he says, “and I’ll be a different kind of governor.”
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Why Am I Paying $110,000 a Year in College Tuition?

The author in one of his more desperate moments. Photograph by Adam Jones

The author in one of his more desperate moments. Photograph by Adam Jones

There are some jobs I would love to have. Professional baseball player. Writer for Saturday Night Live. U.S. Congressman. With the exception of baseball (I’m only five-foot-six, unfortunately), I think I’d be pretty good at those jobs. But you know what job I’d be really good at? Running a university or college.

I’ve navigated my 10-person company profitably through the economy’s ups and downs over the past 20 years. And now I have the “pleasure” of paying my kids’ college tuitions as all three of them enter their sophomore year. Yes, all three at once. Two go to state colleges (one in-state, the other out-of-state), and one goes to a private university. Total tab: $110,000 a year.

My kids love their schools. They’re happy. I’m happy that they’re happy. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. And from what I’ve seen over the past year, as both a parent and a business owner, there is lots of room for improvement. A university president? Me? Here’s what I’d do if given the chance.
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How to Skip College — and Thrive

Grace at her South Philly home. Photograph by Adam Jones

Grace at her South Philly home. Photograph by Adam Jones

The lecture hall is packed. The elephant-gray room is set up like a mini-arena to allow for maximum capacity and good acoustics. It’s new but generic — there are probably a million of these very same tank-like spaces in universities around the world. The concrete step I’m sitting on cuts into my back as I shuffle my feet to make room for the other kids and parents who are streaming in. My mom — in her usual chic all-black attire — is perched above me; my friend Carlo and his mom are on a step right below. We are at McGill University in Montréal, the first stop on our college tour — a high-school student’s version of online dating, where we pick out some colleges we think we would like, schedule a visit, and see if sparks fly.

We look toward the middle-aged speaker, one of McGill’s top faculty members. As he rattles on about the perks of being a student here, I feel myself pull away, hearing only background noise — the audience laughing at a joke, someone standing up to ask a question. I can focus only on my quickening breath, attempting to slow it down. None of this feels right.

The program ends, and the crowd surges out of the room, chatty and eager to attend the next lecture. We make our way out the front door, and I’m blasted with a gush of arctic air. Thank God it’s cold here, I think; I can bury my face in my scarf and my hands in my pockets — no one can see that my lips are pursed tightly together, that my jaw is clenched, that my hands are in fists, that I’m doing everything I can to not cry.

We go to a French bistro for lunch, and I excuse myself to the bathroom. The lock on the heavy wooden stall door clicks, and the battle is over: My face is soaked with tears, and my mind is racing. This is supposed to be my time, the first chapter of my adult life. This isn’t nervous energy I’m feeling; it’s just plain dread. People are always reminiscing about their college days — the adventure, the possibilities, the freedom, the emotional evolution. All I can see is a socially acceptable prison.

I fake my way through lunch. We talk about junior-year exams, about which summer jobs would improve our college applications. All I want to do is something real, something meaningful, something new. As the waiter brings our check, I wonder how much he makes a year, and if it’s enough to live on. I try to figure out a way to tell my mom that all of this isn’t right for me. That college isn’t the answer to my dissatisfaction about high school. I had imagined college would be different — challenging classes, worldly people, professors who are passionate about teaching. But today had been a profound first date: I couldn’t sit in another classroom. I wanted to really learn.

This overwhelming stream of emotions was the inception of a clear and sudden reality: I wasn’t going to college.
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Bonus Slideshow: The Working Dog Center

Enjoy these behind-the-scenes shots from the Working Dog Center, featured in “This Puppy Could Save Your Life” in the September 2014 Philadelphia magazine.



Philadelphia Pop-Ups Are Why We Can’t Keep Nice Things

Illustration by Nick Massarelli

Illustration by Nick Massarelli

If any one thing cinched Spruce Street Harbor Park as the summer’s best pop-up, it was probably the hammocks — dozens of them scattered in the shade, cocooning people reading or napping or making out. The sprawling swatch of riverfront, complete with swan boats and floating barges and water lily gardens, was so picturesque that it felt more like the Hollywood set of a park than it did an actual park nestled on the southeastern edge of Philadelphia, within spitting distance of the I-95 on-ramp.

If this were a movie set, it would be for one of those cheery rom-coms, the type where the city is all twinkle and no grit. (In essence: More Nora Ephron than Woody Allen.) Just look! Down the river there’s a boardwalk lined with shipping crates that hold hot-dog vendors and games like air hockey; behind that, children play with four-foot-high chess pieces and venture barefoot into a wading fountain. Around them, dozens of park-goers are sprawled out on beach chairs or waiting in line for a Jose Garces truffle-and-cheddar burger, while park employees hand out maps and greet newcomers: “Hi there, welcome to Spruce Street Harbor Park.”

That this place appeared to draw and delight every possible demographic is no wonder, really. The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, collaborating with David Fierabend from Groundswell Design Group, did such an amazing job creating this $600,000 shaded Shangri-la that upon entering, you forgot it was very recently a boring swath of nothingness sandwiched between the Independence Seaport Museum and the USS Olympia. You forgot that behind those greeters is the rest of the city, where people sit in airless cabs, where planters are dead-bolted to front porches. And you forgot, until too late, not to fall in love with this place that will eventually vanish as quickly as it popped up, like a vaguely hipster Brigadoon. (Update, 8/27: You now have a one-month reprieve — the new closing date is September 28th.)

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Killer Wasps

killer-wasps-cover-amy-korman-400x602When antiques store owner Kristin Clark stumbles upon Barclay Shields, Bryn Mawr’s newest real estate developer, lying unconscious beneath the hydrangea bushes lining the driveway of one of the area’s most distinguished estates, the entire town is abuzz with intrigue and gossip.

In this excerpt from Amy Korman’s new novel, Killer Wasps, Kristin and her three best friends — Holly, a glamorous chicken nugget heiress with a penchant for high fashion; Joe, a decorator who’s determined to land his own HGTV show; and Bootsie, a preppy but nosy newspaper reporter — have joined forces to solve the crime. And since they’ve been invited to a cocktail party at the home of Barclay’s soon-to-be-ex-wife Sophie Shields — well, what can they do but go to the soiree, drink, and snoop?

The debut novel by Korman, a former Philly Mag senior editor, is available from Witness Impulse on September 16th.

“THESE ARE MY FRIENDS, Holly Jones and Joe Delafield,” I said to Sophie. “Sophie Shields,” I added unnecessarily to Holly and Joe. “And you know Bootsie.”

“Good to meet you. And nice to see you, Beebee,” Sophie added to Bootsie, who nodded and then rudely took off, making a beeline for the house with a determined look.

“I think she’s hungry,” I explained, embarrassed. I knew exactly what Bootsie was up to. It had nothing to do with the buffet, and everything to do with rummaging through Sophie’s belongings.

“Your friend with the flowered outfits doesn’t waste any time!” giggled Sophie good-naturedly, watching Bootsie dash past the loaded hors d’oeuvres table and up a flight of stairs into the house. “I guess she must need to use the little girls’ room! ’Cause the party’s outside, not inside. But that’s okay!” The only thing Bootsie was interested by in the bathroom were the contents of Sophie’s medicine chest, and that would be only the first stop on a full forensic snooping tour of the house. Hopefully Sophie didn’t mind Bootsie rifling through her shoe cabinets and flinging open the drawers of her nightstands.

“This is so nice,” I said to Sophie, gesturing to the pool, where more guests had arrived, including Honey Potts, in a Bermuda-shorts ensemble, and Mariellen Merriwether, in her usual tasteful linen dress accessorized with opera-length pearls. The Colketts were there, too, futzing around with some potted boxwoods.

“You look amazing!” I added to Sophie, not sure what else to say about her appearance. She looked attractive enough, to be sure, but amazing was the best I could muster up at the moment.

“It’s Versace!” blinked Sophie. “Listen, I gotta go mingle, but I’m so glad you came over to my humble abode!”

“Speaking of which,” said Joe smoothly, “Sophie, who’s your decorator on this, um, fabulous place? Let’s get a drink.” He took her arm and guided her down to the pool as he started his pitch.

“Sophie’s husband has mafia ties!” I hissed to Holly as soon as Sophie was out of earshot. “That is, he probably does.” I gave her a quick update as we made our way along a slate walkway flanked by Colkett-installed peonies.

“I love it,” said Holly happily. “This town is seriously lacking in organized crime. Just think of how great it would be to have an occasional drive-by shooting!” I was about to remind her that we weren’t exactly Drea de Matteo and Edie Falco, but she’d lost interest already.
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The Fall of the Main Line Drug Ring

Montco D.A. Risa Ferman with an AR-15 rifle and drugs seized by the police.  / Associated Press

Montco D.A. Risa Ferman with an AR-15 rifle and drugs seized by the police. / Associated Press

On the afternoon of April 21st, 18-year-old Timothy Brooks arrived at a courthouse in Ardmore, a mile east of his alma mater, the Haverford School. His appearance — khaki pants, blue blazer, square jaw — suggested good breeding. Walking alone, in handcuffs, he lifted his head and smiled at the assorted cameras before him. “Why are you smiling?” a reporter asked. Brooks said nothing and marched forward into the courthouse.

Twenty-five-year-old Neil Scott, Brooks’s alleged co-conspirator and fellow Haverford graduate, showed up looking less composed. Escorted by police, he covered his face with his blood-orange prison jumpsuit — his bail was set higher than Brooks’s, and his parents had declined to pay it — and told the assembled media to “get the fuck out of my face.” Then he popped out two middle fingers and concluded his remarks with a drawn-out “Fuuu-uck you.”

The perp walk was a fittingly theatrical start to the day’s proceedings. Scott and Brooks, along with nine suspected sub-dealers, were being charged with running a drug ring that aimed to supply marijuana, cocaine and Ecstasy to some of the finest high schools, colleges and weekend house parties in Greater Philadelphia. (The prosecutors’ allegations were outlined in painstaking detail in a 77-page affidavit.) Brooks called the operation the Main Line Takeover Project, and soon, so would everyone else. “Every Nug on the mainline is about to come from you and me,” he’d texted Scott last fall. “We will crush it,” Scott echoed in a separate text-message conversation. “Once you go tax free it’s hard to go back.”
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