Binge Watching Is Over. Get Ready for Speed Watching.

Illustration by Rob Dobi

Illustration by Rob Dobi

For most of my life, I was above average. Or, rather, below average, at least when it came to sleep. I was one of those people who manage to get by on very little, a freak biological trait that in America we equate with virtuousness, for some reason — as if those who have it are expending all that extra time curing cancer or writing Great Novels, when in fact we’re probably doing laundry or watching one more Law & Order rerun. But I bought into the party line, mentioning my scanty sleep habits in the offhanded yet boastful way in which some people talk about their inability to gain weight or their regrettably thick hair.

Then I turned 55. And suddenly — almost, it seemed, overnight — I went from coasting along on five or six hours of sleep to requiring seven, and feeling rather peaked with that. Where once I sprang from my bed at the first hint of the alarm, now I lingered, burrowing into the pillows, acquainting myself with the button on the clock marked SNOOZE.

This presented a dilemma. There are only 24 hours in a day, and if you’re normallyawake for 18 of those and then abruptly aren’t, something has to give. Long-standing habits — say, staying up to watch West Coast Phillies games — require adjustment. Which is why I was so intrigued when I heard about the phenomenon of “speed watching” — utilizing technology to view TV shows at faster speeds than normal. Consider, if you will, The Wire. Binge-watching all 60 episodes will take you two and a half days. Speed that up to 1.5x, though, and you can cut that to a cool 40 hours — saving nearly a day! Clearly, this was something I needed in my life. The laundry piles were getting pretty high.

You’ll notice how blithely I said you “utilize technology” to speed-watch. The fact is, I can barely use the remote to turn the TV on. I know there are little arrows that make shows play faster, so you can zip through commercials. But there’s no sound when you do, and usually when I try this, I whoosh past the end of the commercials and toggle back and forth, trying to stick my landing. Speed watching wasn’t something I’d be able to handle on my own. Luckily, I have a millennial child still living at home. I explained to my 24-year-old son Jake what I wanted to do, and via the magic of apps and the Internet and something I suspect is illegal, he downloaded the series Mr. Robot for us — well, him — to manipulate at will. I was impressed. Worth every penny of his student loans!

Popular lore has it that speed watching was invented in 2009 by a law student in Seattle named Alexander Theoharis when he accidentally bumped a button on his laptop. “I wanted to watch things but felt guilty about watching them,” Theoharis recalled to the Seattle Times in 2014. He was watching a show on VLC, an open-source media player; the laptop button bumped the show up to 1.1 times normal speed. Each subsequent push of the button nudged it up another notch. Theoharis’s preferred velocity, he eventually determined, was 1.6x, though he could watch The Office at as much as 2.4x, which says something I always thought about The Office anyway.

If you’re thinking speed watching makes everybody on-screen talk like Alvin and the Chipmunks, you’re living in the past. In our digital age, speed watching simply — hell, I don’t have any idea what it does. But voices sound natural, just speeded up. Jake and I sat through half the first episode of Mr. Robot — chosen mostly because neither of us had seen it, but also because it’s about a cyber hacker and everyone in it is obsessed with screens — at normal speed. Then he looked at me and grinned: “Ready for 1.2?” I nodded, he clicked, and we settled in.

The only difference was a slight jerkiness. “He’s twitchier,” Jake said of the lead character played by Rami Malek. And he was, but mostly in his eyes; he blinked more often, more quickly. We finished out the episode, then moved on to Episode 2 at 1.4x.

There’s a moment after you kick the program up a notch in which your senses adjust to what’s happening on-screen. This lapse makes you marvel at how the brain manages to coordinate it all, and also makes you feel like you’re doing methamphetamines. Jake startled me out of these thoughts by laughing as the actors walked across an empty plaza. “What?” I asked.

“Look at how they’re moving!” To me, their jerky steps and hyper arm swings harked back to old Charlie Chaplin films — familiar territory. To Jake, they looked bizarre. And what should have been a haunting Neil Diamond rendition of “If You Go Away” sounded awful at hyper-speed. (To be fair, I went back and listened to it in 1.0x, and that wasn’t so hot, either.) But we didn’t have any trouble following what was going on — at least, any more than normal for Mr. Robot.

By the end of the episode, we were at 1.6x. The scene in which Malek’s character trashes his apartment was a whirlwind of chaotic violence reminiscent of the most appalling parts of Grand Theft Auto. I found myself thinking of how my mom would wag her head as she passed my sister and me perched in front of our TV in Glenside back in the ’60s. “Vulgar,” she’d declare of Batman or My Favorite Martian or, most of all, Carol Burnett. “TV is just so vulgar. I don’t know how you can bear to watch.”

At least she let us watch. Jessa Lingel’s parents very often didn’t. They still only watch news; they think TV’s a waste of time. “I don’t know that they’re wrong,” laughs Lingel, who today is an assistant professor at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication. “Back when I was finishing my PhD in New York City, I was so broke that I didn’t have Internet. People would say, ‘How do you do it?’ And then they’d say, ‘You must get so much work done.’”

Lingel, 33, who studies digital media, grew up to be a regular, if not an avid, TV viewer. “Some people try to see everything,” she notes. “I’m not that way. I watch some shows I’m really devoted to. I can always get behind Game of Thrones, for sure.”

How we feel about TV, Lingel says, is inevitably shaped by our parents — “even if we just react against their disapproval.” Remember how speed watching’s inventor was motivated by guilt? Lingel adds, though, that big TV corporations no longer need to fight a widespread belief that their medium is lowbrow. A few years back, the streaming service Hulu ran a series of ads with the proud tagline “For the love of TV.” The cultural conversations we have about television today are far different from those we had in the past: “We really are in a golden age of TV,” says Lingel. “The quality of the shows, the scriptwriting, the acting — it’s much better than in the latest blockbuster movies, which are so predictable.”

How we watch TV has also changed, shifting from networks to cable to, now, the Internet brands — Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, Hulu. Before Lingel was a professor, she was a librarian at MTV. In that job, she could chart the differences in how shows were archived, constructed, edited around commercials — even, she says, how they had been conceived of for so long. The major changes really started with binge watching, the popular practice of consuming multiple episodes of a show in one sitting. (How popular? At January’s “Binge TV — Media and the Hollywood Connection” conference in Las Vegas, attendees learned that 70 percent of us indulge in it.) “If you binge-watch old shows that have commercial breaks,” Lingel says, “it’s jarring. Whereas if you watch Stranger Things all the way through, you can tell the whole season is meant to be consumed in one or two sittings.”

Speed watching is a natural outgrowth of binge watching; how else can you cram a whole season of Fuller House into a single sick day? Lingel has observed the development of two interesting narratives when it comes to speed watching. The first is about efficiency: “It’s a form of life hacking, right? You adjust your life to new technology and time management.” The other narrative, she says, is, “Why should I be beholden to how a media company imagines this show?” That question arises within a cultural reframing that sees the individual asserting more control over all sorts of media — think fan fiction, music remixes, even GIFs. You engage with a TV show differently when you adjust its timing. In a recent story for New York magazine, writer Molly Fitzpatrick noted that watching the Netflix series The Crown at twice the normal speed gave her “the intoxicating sense that I can control the unraveling of history as we know it with the tap of a key.”

Late in his life, my dad got pretty deaf. When you watched TV at his place, the closed-captioning was on. Those black strips across the screen were annoying, but not as annoying as a Phillies game at 180 decibels. And the captions were worth it for the occasional hilarious descriptions of the action on-screen, like Star Trek’s Mr. Spock famously “sobbing mathematically.”

When Jake bumps Mr. Robot up to 1.6x, he accidentally activates the closed-captioning, which sparks a debate. “Leave it on!” I tell him, happy to be able to follow what the characters are doing.

But he shakes his head: “With captions, you’re just speed-reading.” He leaves them on for a minute, and I see his point; I stare at the words to the exclusion of anything else. I’m not really watching TV at all.

In a recent piece on speed watching in the New York Times, Jeff Cannata, of the podcast Slashfilmcast, declared that speed watching “cheapens your entertainment,” while his colleague Devindra Hardawar opined, “I feel like you’re not even actually watching it. You’re consuming it. You’re not actually like absorbing it or letting it work on you in a creative way.”

I mention this to Lingel. “You can have an aesthetic conversation where you say you’re not having the same response to a show at two times the speed,” she allows, before adding that no two people ever really have the same experience while watching a show anyway, because of all the baggage we bring with us. But isn’t there an argument to be made, I ask, for honoring the creators’ intentions — maybe even for allowing yourself time to digest a show by watching an episode, letting it stew in your thoughts for a week, and then watching the next one?

“I subscribe to the Paris Review,” Lingel says. “Every once in a while, they’ll run a serial novel across multiple issues. At first, it was hard. Every three months I had to try to remember who was who and what was going on. And I’d find myself thinking: This is how everyone was reading Dickens.” We’ve pretty much moved on from that stop-and-start mentality; there are even speed-watching snobs, Lingel says, who, when you say you like a show, will say, “Oh, you have to watch it at 1.6x,” or, “I just can’t watch normal TV now — it seems so slow.” “Technology always seems to be speeding things up,” she muses. “But it could slow things down.” She mentions Douglas Gordon’s art installation 24 Hour Psycho, which stretched Hitchcock’s famous movie frame by frame from 109 minutes to an entire day. “Maybe what we need is a slow-watching movement,” she says.

Alexander Theoharis’s wife used to leave the room when he wanted to speed-watch. Jake’s in her corner. “I don’t want to do this,” he tells me before bumping our last episode of Mr. Robot up to 2.0x. “I don’t think I’ll be able to follow it.” When the episode ends, he says he has a headache and is done experimenting: “I watch TV for entertainment. This isn’t entertainment.” He’s right. Speed-watching is really hard work. There’s no time to take in how Rami Malek’s facial planes shift in the light, or the jumbles of junk in FSociety’s Coney Island headquarters. Jake and I are hanging by our fingertips, just trying to understand what’s going on.

We also aren’t getting anything else done. I watch TV while I’m multi-tasking: folding all that laundry, checking Twitter, mixing up cookie dough. To follow Mr. Robot at 2.0x, I had to do nothing but stare at the screen. Jake and I shushed my husband, Doug, when he got home from work mid-episode, then had to rewind to catch the dialogue he’d obliterated — one of several points, I confess, where we had to go back and watch a scene again. Even allowing for a learning curve, between the rewinding and the chores I couldn’t do while I watched, it didn’t feel like I was saving any time at all.

What I was doing was participating in a particularly first-world indulgence. Speed watching is “a very Western, rich-people way” of approaching TV, Lingel points out. Around the globe, entire villages of human beings gather at a single TV to catch the Olympics, or a soccer game. “To watch what you want how you want, by yourself, on a tiny screen,” Lingel says, “makes TV more and more private. There’s something to be said for a collaborative approach.”

There’s also something to be said, it seems to me, for commercials. Doug can’t abide them; the instant one appears, he jams the fast-forward on the remote. I consider them welcome pauses, a chance to get more wine or feed the cat. Doug obliterates them for the same reason speed-watchers accelerate — as a means of asserting control.

Or, rather, so he can think he is. “It’s been part of the intent of tech for a long time to provide us with that illusion,” notes Lingel. “You’re still consuming. You’re still watching one of their shows.” And paying for it, one way or another. At that conference in Vegas, one session was on how to integrate ads into the binge-watching process more effectively. Speed watching won’t, you’ll pardon the expression, be far behind.

Published as “Crankcase: The Need for Speed” in the March 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Off the Cuff: March 2017

While I never supported Donald Trump in the last election, I felt strongly that once he was in office, he should be given a chance. The American people had elected him, and I assumed it would take some time — perhaps as much as a year — to understand just what kind of president Trump might be. Maybe he would surprise us — would grow into being presidential and, more to the point, would get some important things done. But I can’t wait a year, because Donald Trump — in the unilateral, crude and utterly disastrous way he has started his presidency — has already flunked out. And my great fear is that he will take the country down with him.

What I’m trying to do at this point is put my finger on just what’s wrong with Trump. It’s clear that his worst sides, on full display when he was running, are showing up in spades now. And I’m beginning to understand just how wrong it was to think that Trump might change when he assumed the Oval Office.

In The Making of Donald Trump, published in August, David Cay Johnston paints a brutal picture of Trump’s character. Johnston met him in 1988, as an Inquirer reporter covering Atlantic City; he quickly baited the casino mogul by saying something erroneous about craps to test Trump’s knowledge. The future president immediately embraced Johnston’s false fact, which taught the writer something fundamental, he told an interviewer: “Donald doesn’t know anything.”

And he doesn’t care to learn. At one of the presidential debates during the campaign, Trump responded to a question about the nuclear triad — which refers to our ability to launch a nuclear bomb in one of three ways, from a submarine missile, a land-based missile or a plane — with such gobbledygook that it was obvious he had no idea what the nuclear triad is. But here’s what’s really frightening about that: Trump had botched that very same question four months earlier, yet clearly saw no need to get up to speed on an elementary understanding of our national defense.

Nothing has changed. Trump reads little, has no real interest in policy, and can’t be bothered with the silly nuances of how the world, or even his own country, operates. Those things — which other world leaders might believe are crucial to doing their jobs — are just a waste of his time.

What rules the President’s mind, then? It’s simple. Winning, taken to the nth degree. That’s what all the bombast is about, and the late-night tweets, and the demeaning of the press and judges and women and anyone else who he believes stands in his way. Donald has to beat everyone. He views the world as a zero-sum game with him on top.

Suddenly it becomes pretty easy to understand Trump in a truly frightening way, and to see why he has already made a mess of his presidency. Author Johnston has cut to the bottom line: “[Trump] is a bully. He is someone who believes that whatever he thinks is in his interest in the moment is in the national interest.” What’s more, Trump sees no need to follow anybody’s advice. “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain,” he likes to brag.

So here we are. I was hoping, at least, that the importance of becoming president — the weight of the office itself — would have a sobering effect on Mr. Trump. I was wrong!

Mike Rossi’s Endless Marathon

Photograph by Clint Blowers

Photograph by Clint Blowers

It’s come to this, for Mike Rossi.

He’s a karaoke DJ at a bar on Old York Road in Abington. At first glance, the Kitchen Bar is all plate-glass windows and jaunty lines, something plucked out of The Jetsons. Inside, though — inside, it feels much more like a too-tired-to-go-home, off-the-highway stop to refuel, to get a drink. Or to sate a last-gasp bit of hope, in the form of singing karaoke on Thursday nights, with Mike Rossi DJ-ing.

Once upon a time, Rossi was a fast-rising local star. At 18, he hosted Dancin’ On Air, a local American Bandstand knockoff that lured some big-time guests back in the ’80s, including Madonna and Will Smith. That segued into radio gigs as Nancy Glass’s sidekick on Star 104.5 and stints on WIP and country station ’XTU; then, for many years, Rossi had a $200,000-a-year job as one of the area’s most sought-after wedding DJs. Not big fame, exactly, but a sweet local niche.

That’s all gone. Pushing 50 now, Rossi did hit the jackpot of fame two years ago, though in a couple of strange ways. He qualified to run in the 2015 Boston Marathon — the most prestigious long-distance race in the country — and decided to pull his nine-year-old twins out of school for three days to come to Boston with him. It would be fun; it would be educational. After the marathon, the principal at their school, Rydal Elementary in Montgomery County, sent Rossi a letter telling him the twins’ absences were unexcused. Rossi posted that letter, and his bristling response, on his Facebook page, and the dustup quickly went viral: He became an immediate sensation, his story appearing on the Today Show and local TV. The online reaction was largely along the lines of How dare they tell you what you can’t do with your kids and You go, Mike!

But things quickly turned in a different direction for Rossi when a local marathon runner smelled something fishy about how he’d gotten into the Boston Marathon. On a popular running website, the runner questioned the legitimacy of Rossi’s qualifying race in Lehigh Valley — essentially challenging whether he left the course and then sneaked back on — sparking an argument that quickly exploded across the running world. Suddenly, only a few days after he was the sterling dad taking on a bullying principal, Rossi became an online hit all over again, in the opposite direction — now he was a big-time liar and cheat. Mike Rossi has been adamant that it’s not true, but the running world seems sure: Rossi cheated his way into the granddaddy of all marathons.

Now, at the Kitchen Bar on Thursday nights — the sort of hopeful nights that were invented long before the Internet — Rossi is surprisingly game. It’s easy to make fun of karaoke singers, of course, and very hard to do what Rossi somehow manages: “We know we’re always going to get a good performance out of Sue,” he says enthusiastically to the crowd. Sue has just murdered Stevie Nicks. She’ll come back to lay the wood to Patsy Cline, too. Rossi, in tight jeans and a t-shirt — showing off a runner’s body — bops and claps and smiles and sings along. This is his job now. He embraces it, and perhaps it’s his escape. For a couple hours, Sue’s and Leo’s and Mark’s little fantasies of stardom are Rossi’s, too.

Because he’s got a problem that won’t go away. The cyberworld judgment of Rossi reaches everywhere, including the Kitchen Bar.

Not long ago, a group of guys rolled in late on a Friday night, the night Rossi is a straight DJ there, playing music. One of them had a question for him, about the Boston Marathon.

Boom! Things quickly got ugly.

Before the cops got there, Rossi had rolled around on the floor with a couple different guys. He ended up with a torn shirt and a bit of a shiner beneath one eye.

No charges were filed, because, the cops say, it was impossible to sort out exactly what had happened — whether Rossi was to blame or the guys had baited him and started the whole thing. Rossi did tell police that he knew some of the guys, in a manner. That he’d had Facebook and Twitter exchanges with them about the marathon.

A couple years ago, a writer named Jon Ronson published a book called So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, about social media’s power to pass judgment on a whole host of behaviors that once would likely have remained private. “Every day,” Ronson wrote, “a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or sickening villain.” Over a few days, Mike Rossi managed to become both, though it’s the second that has stuck.

Which means Rossi might remain a karaoke DJ at the Kitchen Bar for a long time.

Mike Rossi had been running for a few years — it was a natural way to chew up some of his Type A edge, to “tame him a little,” as one former co-worker puts it. He started getting obsessed; in 2014, the year before he ran Boston, Rossi entered 13 races, both marathons and shorter events. For any long-distance American runner, the Boston Marathon is the holy grail. It’s the world’s oldest continuously running marathon — dating back to 1897, the year after the modern event’s debut in the Olympics — and it’s tough to get into; in Rossi’s age group, the qualifying time of 3:25 isn’t elite, but it eliminates all but a tiny percentage of recreational runners. That means they’ll run with top marathoners from all over the world, on a day the city of Boston has made into something of a holiday. The Boston Marathon is the biggest single-day annual sporting event in America except for the Super Bowl.

Mike Rossi qualified for Boston by recording a time of 3:11 at Lehigh Valley’s Via Marathon in 2014. That was an hour and 15 minutes faster than his previous marathon. Which, experienced runners say, is an astounding — and unbelievable — improvement. But there were no questions then about his time’s validity.

When he went to Boston, Mike Rossi took a cameraman to film his run, and his wife and twins came along to take it all in. He ran the course in 4:01. When they got home, the Rydal Elementary principal, Rochelle Marbury, sent Rossi the letter:

I understand that your family recently took a family vacation. I want you to be aware that the Abington School District does not recognize family trips as an excused absence, regardless of the activities involved in the trip. The school district is not in the position of overseeing family vacations or evaluating the educational nature of a family trip. The dates that your children were absent were recorded as unexcused. An accumulation of unexcused absences can result in referral to our attendance officer and a subsequent notice of a violation of the compulsory school attendance law.

Rossi posted that letter, and his response, on his Facebook page:

Dear Madam Principal,

While I appreciate your concern for our children’s education, I can promise you they learned as much in the five days we were in Boston as they would in an entire year in school.

Our children had a once-in-a-lifetime experience, one that can’t be duplicated in a classroom or read in a book.

In the 3 days of school they missed (which consisted of standardized testing that they could take any time) they learned about dedication, commitment, love, perseverance, overcoming adversity, civic pride, patriotism, American history, culinary arts and physical education.

They watched their father overcome injury, bad weather, the death of a loved one and many other obstacles to achieve an important personal goal.

Rossi went on in this self-congratulatory, put-upon tone for seven more paragraphs, then wound up with:

But I wouldn’t hesitate to pull them out of school again for an experience like the one they had this past week.

Thank you for your time.

The morning after he posted his letter, Rossi and his wife, Cindy, had a meeting with Marbury, the district superintendent and Raymond McGarry, the school-board head. McGarry couldn’t understand what the big deal was; he’d pulled his own kids out of school for family trips, received the same letter — a form letter — and tossed it in the trash. The state allows each district to set its own policy on excusing absences. The letter was essentially meaningless.

Not to Rossi. He was angry. And he was determined, McGarry says, “to see that this became a story.”

It already had, going viral on Facebook the night before. Marbury was getting nasty emails — she would quickly get hundreds, as well as calls at home — including threats that she would share with police. Rossi would do TV interviews and instantly become an Internet darling for a sort of libertarian stance against a bullying principal; at his day job at East Coast Event Group, Rossi strutted and preened. The natural showman was having his moment.

But something about Rossi didn’t sit right with a local runner named Ross Felice. Actually, Felice had had that feeling a year earlier, in 2014, after he saw the results of the Lehigh Valley Via Marathon. Runners are a finicky, proud, protective lot, especially long-distance runners. For almost all of them, running a marathon is the most demanding physical challenge they’ll ever endure. And for anyone to stoop so low as to disrespect that challenge by cheating …

Rossi lives near Felice, in Abington, but Felice had no idea who he was. High-end amateur runners also tend to be extremely competitive — it goes with pushing themselves to their absolute limits. So who was this guy? Felice wondered. He researched Rossi after the Via Marathon, checking his racing history at athlinks.com, and saw that the pace of his earlier races was slower than his 3:11 at Via. Way slower. Something wasn’t right.

But that was the end of it. For the moment.

Now, though, when the brouhaha with Rossi and the principal hit, in April 2015, Felice emailed a local runner friend: That’s the guy, the guy that cheated in Lehigh.

The two running buddies spent the next day and a half — such was the level of their obsession — going through the tens of thousands of photos taken over the entire Via race. Every runner who finished had been captured during the race — except Mike Rossi, who, Felice and his friend surmised, must have left the course and then sneaked back on close to the finish line.

Ross Felice was the first to post, on runnersworld.com, that Mike Rossi had cheated.

Two years ago, there was a horrific train derailment in Philadelphia; eight people were killed. One woman who survived intact made a serious mistake. She tweeted: “Thanks a lot for derailing my train. Can I please get my violin back from the 2nd car of train?”

The response on Twitter went like this: “Some spoiled asshole is whining about her violin being on that Amtrak that derailed. People died on that train.” And: “Fuck that little bitch and her goddamned violin. I would slap the fuckin’ taste out of her mouth if she was in reach.” Also: “Self-absorbed cunt.” And … much more.

Of course, this tone — direct and nasty — isn’t unusual in reaction to all kinds of things online. But it’s hard to understand how we got here — why the free and open exchange of thoughts and feelings is often so ugly. Which is why Jon Ronson traipsed the country researching So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. He went to Washington to talk to Texas Congressman Ted Poe, because Poe was a former judge infamous for giving sentences that publicly shamed the guilty. In theory, this method of punishment disappeared with the abolition of stocks and whippings in the early 19th century. Poe, however, once ordered a man to carry a sign once a month for 10 years that read I KILLED TWO PEOPLE WHILE DRIVING DRUNK; he would walk with that sign in front of bars and high schools.

When Ronson met with Poe, he thought he’d find some dark character out of Dickens. But something else entirely dawned on him, which Ronson shared with the former judge: “Social media shamings are worse than your shamings.”

Poe was surprised, because the point was so obvious. “They are worse,” he said. “They’re anonymous.” Poe pointed out that the justice system at least affords the accused certain rights: “You don’t have any rights when you’re accused on the Internet. And the consequences are worse. It’s worldwide forever.”

Of course, that doesn’t explain the nastiness of so many online judgments, and when Ross Felice first raised a flag on Mike Rossi, the reaction was harsh. Letsrun.com, a website created almost two decades ago to promote running as a legitimate sport, fielded thousands of comments on a blog about Rossi — its biggest response ever. For example:

This man is an attention whore and anyone who writes that their child learned more at the Boston Marathon than they did in “an entire year of school” is delusional and arrogant.

Let’s get this cheating scum and take away his kids to boot!

Nothing better than watching a hobby jogger get REAMED for his own stupidity.

Not all the comments about Rossi on letsrun.com and elsewhere were ugly. Many runners went on something of a mission to analyze his qualifying race, digging into the numbers of his previous runs to determine whether the huge improvement in his qualifier at Lehigh was possible. Few thought it was. But runners kept looking, kept trying to figure him out, as if they were examining — as in this reaction to a shot of him at the finish line at Lehigh — crime photos:

I see a bit of a smirk and not a drip of sweat. Plus he looks like he just sat around at a coffee shop for an hour, not like somebody would look after running a 30 min. marathon [personal record].

There was plenty of advice as well:

I feel badly because I got a first impression he was so happy celebrating that Boston medal. It means nothing now, even less than zero. A sincere apology and the acceptance of it is the only way, the right way. When his kids grow up they need to see this is what happened. Send the medal back. …

And, occasionally, a rousing bit of support:

Mike Rossi may not be YOUR definition of a hero. And frankly I don’t agree with all his actions and past. That 80’s haircut on his site is not cool (LOL). But to many of us, he is our definition of the everyman who conquers something bigger than all of us!

The first response to that one was:

Such poetic garbage. I just threw up a little in the back of my mouth! Mike, you at Starbucks where you could use a different IP address?

There is no evidence that Rossi was coming to his own defense, but if he was, it was a shift in tone for him. Because his go-to attitude online is generally not so sunny.

It turns out Rossi, too, can’t keep his fingers off the keys of fury. He keeps popping up on Twitter and Facebook. It’s like Bad Mikey appears. When he’s called out, he doubles down. Which only fuels the viral war.

Local TV meteorologist Cecily Tynan, a devoted long-distance runner, found it odd after the Boston controversy that Rossi wouldn’t jump at the chance to collect $100,000 he was offered by the letsrun.com founder to replicate his Lehigh time of 3:11. She and Rossi spoke directly — and calmly, at first — through Twitter about the Lehigh race:

Tynan: @mikerossi22 trying my best to give you the benefit of the doubt, you didn’t talk to anyone along the course? About pace? At a water stop?

Rossi: @CecilyTynan I’m sure I did. But not more than a “thanks” to the volunteers. I don’t typically get into conversations when I’m trying to BQ [Boston qualify].

Then Tynan edged closer to an accusation:

@mikerossi22 I’ve been running for years and your story is certainly an original, to say the least. But, if that’s your story, go for it.

That’s when things got weird. Rossi tweeted:

I wish I had a job where I only had to be right 50% of the time. And in case I wasn’t clear before, I didn’t cheat. Now go stare @ the sky.

His tone then got nastier, not so much to Tynan as about her:

It’s amazing how someone with ZERO integrity can be so loud … #homewrecker

That was apparently a not-so-veiled reference to Tynan being on marriage number two. There were more tweets from Rossi’s account:

#whosekidsaretheyanyway
mommypage.com/2015/12/single

You don’t know a damn thing about me. But we know about you. #ho

Tynan, like Rossi, has a vacation home in the Poconos, which one Rossi tweet seemed to reference (along with her house number in the place where his profile photo would be):

Can’t wait 2 spend some time at our Pocono home this winter. Do some skiing (hopefully). You never know who u may run into on the slopes!

And then, a posting on letsrun.com, within the long run of comments concerning Rossi:

Cecily will not know what hit her. Literally.

There’s no evidence that comment came from Mike Rossi, but it was the one that got Cecily Tynan alerting 6 ABC management that Rossi may have threatened her.

Mike Rossi was apparently not going to take his online lambasting lying down. But unleashing his fury — especially at Tynan, who is TV royalty in Philly — makes social media a double whammy of trouble for Rossi: It’s a place for his critics to attack him, and then for his own worst impulses to come boiling through.

When I hit the Kitchen Bar on a third Thursday in early January and settle in at my high-top just off the bar for a chicken Caesar, he waves and smiles, as if we’re buddies. Mike Rossi and I had lunch a few days earlier, at an Iron Hill in Huntingdon Valley. I told him I wanted to know what it’s like to be him — that is, so vilified online, his character indicted publicly. But Rossi, polite and distant at lunch, brushed off that notion — what has he done to feel ashamed about?

Tonight, while a singer named Dexter is pounding New Edition’s “Can You Stand the Rain,” Mike comes over. I ask how he’s feeling; at Iron Hill, he came in wearing a baseball cap and wrap-around shades, his face blotchy with a winter cold.

“Better,” he says. “I was sick for 10 days. I gave the cold to my mother, though.”

“That’s too bad. How old is your mother?”

“Seventy-three.”

“Mine’s 91. Still doing pretty well.”

“God bless her. I had an uncle who lived to 104” — suddenly he breaks back toward Dexter, who’s hitting the final “I know I’ll be right there, baby yeah … ”

“That was beautiful, Dexter,” Rossi tells some 25 drinkers and singers.

A hail-fellow-well-met is Mike Rossi, giving the wannabes and drunks and tone-deaf their moment. He’s good at it, which is something colleagues who’ve worked with him on the DJ circuit over the past three decades verify. But a pretty dismal picture of what Rossi is like behind the scenes emerges from half a dozen former co-workers, especially those who had to deal with him regularly at his day job at East Coast Event Group. (Rossi declined to comment about specific allegations.)

“You never knew which guy you would get when he walked through the door,” Andrew Johnson says. Johnson, who worked directly under Rossi for six years, says as a boss he was demanding and driven; you never questioned his authority. Sometimes he was generous: Rossi gave Johnson boxes of books for his kids that Rossi’s twins were done with. Sometimes not so much: Once he sold Johnson an ink cartridge from a printer he was throwing away and then kept bugging Johnson to give him the full $75 for it. Johnson said Rossi would demean him, scream at him, call him a moron; the next morning, he’d be calm.

One day Rossi came into the East Coast office in Philly and started screaming at DJ Josiah Gassanja, kicking his chair. “Get out of the office or I’ll call the cops!” Rossi railed. Gassanja knew it was a respect thing — that Rossi sensed he didn’t buy Rossi’s own opinion of himself — and he rolled his eyes and stayed calm even as Rossi lost it: “Go on, hit me! Hit me! I’m going to call the cops.” Gassanja says he didn’t bite. Rossi called the cops anyway. They seemed unimpressed. The next morning, when Gassanja came to work, Rossi was calm.

He comes across as almost scarily mercurial, though he does have his fans. In the late ’90s, Rossi was Nancy Glass’s news guy on her morning show on Star 104.5. “He was a fun character,” she remembers. “I liked him. He’d make us all breakfast at 5 a.m. Later I had him DJ at my wedding.”

We may be on the trail of something here in understanding Rossi. He’s a natural performer, certainly, one who seems quite capable of being a jerk in the nitty-gritty of the workplace, or of attacking someone like Cecily Tynan online. Yet the viral roar against Rossi was based on something simpler, a single accusation: that he cheated to get into the Boston Marathon. For the online masses, no more was required for the pummeling to begin.

That night at the Kitchen Bar, as Rossi and I exchange bon mots about the oldsters in our families, he tells me that his stepfather died at 62; Rossi’s parents, I know, split up when he was quite young. “It was four months after the twins were born when he died,” Rossi says. Those twins — a boy and a girl, the ones he took to Boston with him when he ran the marathon — are 11 now.

Right about the age, one would think, of fooling around online, of Googling this and that, maybe their dad’s name. If they type “Mike Rossi,” they’ll immediately be greeted by “Questions Arise Over How a Pennsylvania Dad Qualified for Boston … ”

It wasn’t just with Cecily Tynan. Mike Rossi appears to have picked a lot of fights online.

Tony Rigdon is a triathlete in Missouri who was laid up with a herniated disk in 2015. He first heard about Rossi’s stand against his kids’ school principal on talk radio; he thought Rossi’s letter was awesome. Then, trolling through letsrun.com, he discovered Rossi again and was immediately hooked.

“What do runners do when they don’t run?” Rigdon posits. “They think about running.” Like Ross Felice, Rigdon gets fired up over the purity of competition, as if somebody cheating is a personal affront to him, and he quickly used the Internet to right the injustice, converting all the Lehigh race photos — with Rossi not in any of them — into a YouTube video. Which is when Rossi apparently went off on him.

Rossi’s account on Twitter showed a picture of Rigdon from his hospital bed after he’d been hit by a van in ’06 — “Rossi had to really dig through my Facebook page to find it,” Rigdon says — with a cut-up face and broken teeth. And then there was this: a clip from the film Taken of Liam Neeson on the phone with the man who has abducted his daughter, along with Neeson’s threat: “I will find you and I will kill you.”

Mike Rossi seems to make the assumption and mistake a lot of people do: He lets it rip online as if he’s having an argument in a bar. Where nobody gives a shit. Where he can just wing it and see what happens.

Craig Sumsky, who owns Cutting Edge Entertainment, another events company, used to work with Rossi at East Coast back in the ’90s. “I’ve watched him overreact on social media for a long time,” Sumsky says. “If somebody doesn’t like the Phillies, it’s ‘You’re a fucking moron.’ Whoa! Put down the sledgehammer!”

But Rossi can’t, Sumsky says. He can’t resist the urge to react, to go on night patrol to vanquish dimwits or enemies. As if something comes over him that he can’t stop.

The ugliness being so public does bother Tony Rigdon: “At a certain point, you hate to see his family have to put up with his shenanigans.” He says he’d happily have a beer with Rossi — if, that is, he’d admit to his marathon cheating. Runners and non-runners alike keep going back to that bottom line — that Rossi is reaping what he’s sown. “If not for his cheating, anger and vindictiveness,” Rigdon says, “he’s probably a pretty decent guy.”

Last summer, Rossi was arrested for defiant trespass in a parking lot outside the Linc before a Kenny Chesney concert. According to police, he’d been asked to move several times by stadium staff and refused to. After Rossi’s court hearing in July — in which he opted for a summary diversion program that would expunge the arrest — a Philly Mag reporter asked him if he was Mike Rossi. “No,” Rossi said.

That’s absurd enough to make you feel sorry for him. (A court officer confirmed that he was, indeed, Mike Rossi.) It’s as if he doesn’t understand that now, every time he messes up, there will be questions.

In September, Rossi was fired by East Coast Event Group, which has led him, naturally, to attack the company on his Facebook page: “I can’t tell you how happy I am to be free from slimy people and a toxic environment.” And some of his old colleagues have been hammering him in response.

All this ugly back-and-forth on social media really begins to make you wonder: What is it that we’re after? What, in other words, is the endgame here? It’s clear that Rossi is a difficult guy. And that makes it all the more likely that his fate is sealed as cyber roadkill — if he’s a jerk who refuses to come clean, doesn’t he deserve whatever happens to him in the judgment of social media?

But let’s back up to the original crime: He’s a guy who may have cheated his way into a marathon. What’s the appropriate punishment for that?

A couple months ago, Rossi emailed Robert Johnson, the co-founder of letsrun.com, with an offer: He’d grant Johnson — who had been so sure Rossi cheated his way into the Boston Marathon that he’d offered that $100,000 to replicate his low qualifying time — an interview if Johnson would take down the endless thread against Rossi on the website.

Johnson can’t decide what to do. Would Rossi confess in an interview, or just keep denying? What, he wonders, would be the point of an interview if Rossi still refuses to come clean?

So here we are. The running crusaders are as stuck as Rossi, because they can’t let go. And they’re much more powerful. The vigilantes have gotten their pound of flesh in the form of moral righteousness, and Rossi is left hanging in the public forum they chose.

Which is sad. Given how the Internet has grown into a sort of ubiquitous judgment machine, we might give some thought to how ultimately limited it can be. Villains and heroes. Black and white. It’s awfully simple, in the stark lines of those judgments we render. How, I wonder, does someone like Mike Rossi ever manage to get past that?

I go to the Kitchen Bar one more time, in mid-January, to see whether Rossi got fired for the late-night fight the previous Friday. But there he is, still DJ-ing, and still going at it with brio: “LIN-da! Linda’s gonna do a little Bonnie Raitt.” (Rossi recently got hired by VIP DJ Entertainment in Coatesville.)

This night, as I down a tasteless shrimp cocktail at a high-top, when Rossi comes near me to schmooze the crowd — near enough to touch me — he won’t even look my way. As if I don’t exist.

I know why. We’ve had a couple email exchanges after our lunch, and he thinks I’m with all of them. The online lynch mob. That I want to ruin his life.

Or perhaps it’s that this tactic, of silence, of simply carrying on, is all he’s got left.

At least for this moment, he doesn’t seem to need anything. Big Bear, who is six feet, eight inches tall and well north of 300 pounds, is singing Kenny Rogers’s “Lady” — singing it well, in fact — and Mike Rossi’s eyes are closed as he smiles and sways, oblivious.

Published as “Marathon Man” in the March 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Sex in Philadelphia: A Peek at What Really Goes On Behind Closed Doors

philadelphia-sex-opener

Credit: Kevin Burzynski

In a Philly campus apartment, a student is selling her worn underwear online for weekend spending money. In Center City, a gay man is shaving everything to keep up with the onslaught of hairless, six-packed sex gods on Grindr. And all over the city, people are meeting for steamy sessions of Orgasmic Meditation. (Don’t know what this is? You’re in for a treat.) Welcome to sex in Philly in 2017.

Our always-connected, anything-goes world is changing the way we do it, taking formerly fringe practices mainstream and making it easier than ever for us to get busy. This is what sex in Philly looks like now: how we’re having it, where we’re finding it, and what’s turning us on — and getting us off. Read on. (You know you’re curious.) — Edited by Emily Goulet Read more »

Sex in the City: Philly’s Juiciest Public Sex Stories

“The men’s locker room at a certain ritzy Philly fitness center is infamous. There is so much sex that goes on that male employees won’t even go in there. I’ve heard stories of guys servicing each other in the steam room.” — Center City personal trainer

“When Continental Midtown opened, a couple didn’t realize the mirrors were double-sided, and a gent had a lady bent over the sink looking into the mirror at herself, not realizing the crowd that had formed to see her.” — Former GM at Starr Restaurants

“Two chicks recently jumped in the back in the pouring rain and told me to just drive around. One asked for a paper towel, and then she dried off the chest of the other one and did coke off her breasts. Stuff like that happens all the time. I don’t want no one actually having sex, but if two girls wanna go at it, I’m not gonna say no.” — Cabdriver, Quaker City Cab Company

“Oh, I hear plenty of stories. Especially the Trenton line and Norristown line, the late-night rides. Lots of BJs.” — SEPTA Regional Rail conductor

“When I would sit at the front desk, I could sometimes hear people having sex in the first-floor guest rooms. In training, we were told that we weren’t allowed to call a guest to tell them they’d left something in the room because someone once called and told a man’s wife that she left behind lingerie and it turns out he hadn’t been there with the wife.” — Former GM of a Center City hotel

» See More from Our Sex in Philly Package

Philadelphia Sex Diaries: I’m a Sugar Baby

Collage by Kevin Burzynski

Collage by Kevin Burzynski

I’ve been on seekingarrangements.com for a little over a year. I can decide what type of relationship I want to have and how much money I want out of it each month. What I wanted was a very casual thing where we see each other a couple times a month and I get benefits.

Usually, it’s older men. The last one was about 15 years older than me, a very discreet married businessman. Most of them are married. But some are just so busy with their jobs that they don’t have time to invest in a real relationship, and I’m exactly what they’re looking for. It’s a very easy way to make money. My usual range is $1,000 to $3,000 each month, depending on the level of commitment of a relationship. The ideal situation is a monthly allowance, but my last one usually worked out to being gifts, or he would take me shopping and out to a nice restaurant. One time we went to a tea shop and he spent $200 on tea that I wanted.

For me, the sex has been primarily straight stuff. I try to talk to them a lot beforehand, and then we have a face-to-face meeting in a public place. Depending on the guy, I’d be open to doing fetish, but for the most part, it’s all very normal.

I know some people consider this prostitution, and I guess that’s okay. I am a sex-positive person, and this is a mutually beneficial relationship between two adults. The fact that they’re married doesn’t come into it for me. They’re on this site, they’re going to do it anyway, so why don’t I get something out of it? — As told to Victor Fiorillo

» See All of Our Philadelphia Sex Diaries

Philadelphia Sex Diaries: I Am a Reformed Hookup King

“I lost count. Maybe 20?”

I was standing in Transit, the long-departed Spring Garden Street nightclub, talking to a woman I ended up going home with that night. It was late. We were drinking. I can’t remember who asked first, but I ended up telling her I couldn’t remember how many people I’d slept with.

We dated for two years, but after we broke up, my unknown number ballooned. Not bad for a guy who didn’t have his first kiss until age 15 (in a movie theater, during Godzilla). Perhaps in a subconscious effort to make up for lost time, I tore through Philadelphia in my 20s. I had a few short-lived relationships. But mainly, I just hooked up with people.

I went on more than 100 dates over a two-year period, but I was never able to nail the door shut on a long relationship. I often did the reverse, ghosting on women who liked me more than I liked them. I didn’t plan on getting laid as often as possible, but it ended up that way.

My sex life took on a mind of its own: Post-coitus, I drunkenly passed out on a woman who left in the middle of the night and then awkwardly returned the next day to claim the stuff she’d left at my place. I went home with a woman who’d repeatedly insulted me during our date. I had sex in the Gallery (my greatest triumph). I had sex 14 times with a woman as we watched the Wimbledon final one year. (Roger Federer beat Andy Murray. It went four sets and was delayed by rain.) I took a lot of women to Atlantic City, eventually realizing that things went better when I checked into nicer hotels. I briefly hooked up with someone who worked for Philadelphia’s Licenses and Inspections division. It went about as well as dealing with L&I.

I didn’t plan to stop. Things were empty but fine. But after 103 first dates, I met the right woman; we’re still together. I still don’t know my number. But I no longer care what it is.

» See All of Our Philadelphia Sex Diaries

Philadelphia Sex Diaries: I’m Crushing the College Sex Scene

Start with the bar. Beer and sweat splotching my shirt, seeping through my push-up bra. A plastic cup of vodka-soda I crinkle with my teeth, my boots tapping the beat to Sweet Caroline, BUM BUM BUM. We throw our hands up, a circle of girls I know from class and student groups, crammed into tight black shirts, jeans that leave marks on our thighs, and makeshift chokers (ribbons, shoelaces) that loop around our necks. I check my phone — 1:30 a.m., half an hour until last call. Only 30 minutes to find someone, or the hair-straightening and winged eyeliner and overpriced shots will be wasted. Good times never seemed so good, we sing. I glance around. I look for a guy.

Maybe I’ll meet his eye in line for another drink. Or maybe he’ll come up behind me in the center of the dance floor, palm my hips, thread his fingers through my belt loops. As the clock ticks closer to last call, I’ll search for him in the booths with checkered tablecloths, in the row of international students smoking cigarettes outside. He can be anyone: a frat boy from the Main Line, an English major with poems tattooed on his wrist, an exchange student winking beneath a backwards hat. The details don’t matter. What matters is, he’s there.

We’ll bend our heads together and kiss as “Closing Time” plays. Around us, the crowd pairs off. We’re a collective force: making out, groping, exchanging numbers. The template for these nights never changes. I’ll giggle my name, and when he asks, “Do you want to get out of here?,” I’ll nod and wave ’bye to my friends. The sex will be fervent or fast or awkward or loud — it all blends together. In the morning I’ll leave with his number in my phone (“Kappa Sig boy,” “Guy from Cape Cod”), plus a few details. His major. His favorite song. I’ll pride myself on not thinking about him emotionally — “I don’t catch feelings,” I’ll tell my friends. I’ll see him around, won’t make eye contact but will add him to the list of boys I text when the tequila hits me next weekend. Or the weekend after.

Lather, rinse, repeat. As for so many college kids, sex is an extracurricular activity, baked into my routine like going to the gym or looking over my poli-sci notes. It doesn’t matter who I’m having it with. What matters is that I’m having it at all.

» See All of Our Philadelphia Sex Diaries

Philadelphia Sex Diaries: I Was a Sex-Party Devotee

Collage by Kevin Burzynski

Collage by Kevin Burzynski

There was a time in my life when all my sexual adventures and misadventures originated in one way or another at the Rittenhouse Square outpost of La Colombe. Such was the case with my descent into the world of swingers parties.

My girlfriend at the time had the hots for one of the baristas, a real femme-fatale type who suggested we all go to a Halloween party together. But this wasn’t just any Halloween party. It was a full-fledged swingers party, the first of many we attended as the “throuple” we became.

Swinging may seem like some bearskin-rugged, lotioned-up practice from a bygone era, part of Uncle Ned and Aunt Myra’s past that you’d rather not know about. But the truth is, the scene is still going strong. From South Philly to the Main Line to Center City, there are swingers parties, sex parties and all-out orgies happening in warehouses, private homes and suburban motels. You don’t have to look very hard to find one.

And it’s not just older men with mustaches populating these things — although there’s always a guy sporting a big ol’ Burt Reynolds. At the parties in the city, which skew younger, there are plenty of experimental millennials you’d swear just waited on you at Standard Tap.

It’s common for a young couple to show up — the woman obviously dragged there by her boyfriend — and after 30 minutes of total abandon, he’s suddenly jealous of all the attention she’s getting but she can’t be pried away.

When we were at these parties, it was mostly voyeuristic. Oh, the three of us would have sex with each other, sometimes right next to other people engaged in other libidinous activities. But we weren’t into just randomly having sex with whoever walked into the room, although there were plenty of people more than willing to do just that.

Take, for instance, this one Eastern European woman in her late 40s, a married suburban schoolteacher with three kids — and the most enormous, snow-white breasts I’d ever seen. While her super-suave husband was getting a seemingly endless blow job on a couch (and man, what he had between his legs would make almost any guy feel inferior), we watched as on all fours, she went to town with six men (six) at the same time. Outside of porn, I had never seen anything like it before.

As our throuple dissolved — they always do — so did my excursion into that world. And I was happy to leave it. It’s difficult enough to sexually gratify one partner at a time, and relationships between just two people are plenty complicated. I’ll take the good old traditional one-on-one. But thanks for the memories.

*Some names in this essay have been changed. 

» See All of Our Philadelphia Sex Diaries

Philadelphia Gay Sex Diaries: I Have to Shave What?!

Collage by Kevin Burzynski

Collage by Kevin Burzynski

Like most gay men, I discovered the real truth about myself the first time I had sex with another guy. Consider it this way: Imagine you spent your entire teen years (and, in my case, up to the ripe old age of 30) eating vanilla ice cream. It was nice, it was pleasant, but you never really craved it and sometimes even felt you could do very well without it. And then one day you have a triple hot fudge sundae with nuts and whipped cream and cherries, and you think, Holy shit! This stuff is amazing! Why haven’t I been having this all of these years?

So you’re finally on the right side of the menu. But relief is quickly replaced by panic, because it turns out that when it comes to sleeping with other men, there are all sorts of rules, norms, and strongly warranted hygiene rituals that can take years to master. And, it feels, just as long to maintain.

My hetero brethren, you have no idea. You can skip the gym, dismiss the belly as “dad bod,” have sex without showering, never think about your body hair — where it is, how it looks or feels or smells. As I soon discovered, switching sides meant signing up for a full-time job of keeping up appearances. I had never even heard of a body groomer. (In case you haven’t, it’s a special battery-operated clipper for men that trims body and pubic hair.) There are special straight (ha!) razors for scraping and smoothing genitalia. There are entire websites devoted to explaining how to properly shave one’s butt, how to prepare oneself to avoid pain (or get more of it — vive la différence!), and what lubricants are best for which scenarios. And there is a virtual ocean of foams, gels, cleansers, balms, moisturizers and body powders to ensure that you are sparkling, smooth, and, most of all, fresh fresh fresh all over, so that when it’s time to get busy you both smell appropriately like Snuggle fabric softener. Ask any gay man and he’ll tell you that his weekly (yes, weekly) body-grooming routine can easily take two hours — more if it’s going to be the “first time” with someone. Half the guys I know at least trim, if not downright shave, their torsos and legs, especially if they have nice muscle tone and want to show it off. (In gay world, marketing is everything.) For the truly committed (and, in my view, satanic), there’s waxing for the chest and ass.

All of which makes spontaneity impossible. If you haven’t been, ahem, randy in a bit and have let your routine languish, a sudden opportunity quickly becomes a lost one. (I can’t let him see me like this, you think.) It all looks so easy in gay porn, where the two mechanics take the guy who can’t pay for his car repairs and toss him over the hood. In real life, not so much. For one thing, no mechanics actually look like that.

Every straight man I know looks at gays with at least some modicum of envy, in large measure because of the easy availability of casual sex; a tap of a phone app can have Mr. Right Now at your door in 20 minutes (10 if you offer to pay for the Uber). But it turns out being part of a culture that objectifies men like, well, women isn’t all no-strings fun and games. It’s work. And it’s certainly not an easy culture to age in.

But still, hot fudge beats vanilla every time.

» See All of Our Philadelphia Sex Diaries

« Older Posts