“My man, can we get an escort? I got VIPs,” Big Penny tells the cops in the lanenext to us on Broad Street. Seconds later, his white stretch limo is speeding through South Philly directly behind a police cruiser whose red and blue lights are flashing as though it’s chasing a suspect.
It’s just like in the Led Zeppelin movie The Song Remains the Same, where the band is being ushered down the highway toward a concert at Madison Square Garden. Only this isn’t the biggest rock group in the world getting the star treatment. It’s Mary Carey, porn actress turned reality TV star, who’s late for an evening appearance at Chickie’s & Pete’s. She’s coming for the weigh-ins for Wing Bowl.
Riding with her are the owner of the Center City strip joint where Mary’s dancing over Wing Bowl weekend (Mary is nothing if not a multi-tasker), and a few other dancers. And me. When you’re the gossip columnist for the Daily News, you end up doing this stuff—accompanying a porn star to a Wing Bowl event like you’re a White House reporter flying on Air Force One.
Chickie’s & Pete’s is multi-hour mayhem, and I’m tired by the time I say my goodbyes and head out to find a cab; I’ve got to be up at 4 a.m. to get back to the Wells Fargo Center for the actual event. On my way out, I see my friend Rori from high school, who introduces me to her husband. They’re waiting for a table, unsure what all the commotion is. As I explain with utmost authority about the Wing Bowl weigh-in, a realization sweeps over me: My job is ridiculous.
I have always been interested in celebrities. I grew up reading my mom’s People magazines; in high school, a friend and I published a punk fanzine called Scenester! I got my picture taken with singer Brandy at my prom. (She was the date of my classmate, one Kobe Bryant.) In college, I published a magazine called Deal With It and profiled Todd Bridges of Diff’rent Strokes; I tried to interview Anthony Michael Hall of Breakfast Club fame, but he demanded to be paid and we ended up arguing over it. I ran the transcript of him being a dick instead. My first gotcha.
I started working at the Daily News when I was 20 and still studying at Temple. My first job was as an editorial assistant, doing mostly administrative work. A year or so later, I persuaded the features editor to let me write about entertainment and events.
I got my big break working as Stu Bykofsky’s assistant. Stu wrote the gossip column and was a local legend. With his six-foot-three frame, loud Hawaiian shirts and big glasses, Stu’s physical presence could be felt almost as much as his dominance at the paper. Stu’s column was a must-read for everybody who perused the Daily News; it was Philly’s version of the New York Post’s Page Six. With one small difference. Instead of chronicling the foibles of the titans of entertainment, style, politics and business, Stu covered, well, Philly. I worked 10 hours a week helping Stu uncover the comings, goings and secrets of Philly’s movers and shakers.
In early 2003, he asked me if I wanted to take over the column. After 17 years, he was ready to move on to a general-interest column, so he started bringing me out to events and parties and introducing me to influential people around town: attorneys, politicians, restaurant owners. I remember meeting Vince Fumo at an HBO party at Buddakan. Not wanting to play the part of Stu’s puppy, I introduced myself. I’m not sure he even made eye contact; he said something like “Okay,” then walked off. Drunk on red wine, I told Cynthia Nixon she was the hottest one on Sex and the City. Mercifully, she took it well.
My first solo column appeared on February 10, 2004. With a mistake, of course. Somehow, the first line, in an item about Eagles wide receiver Freddie Mitchell’s car getting dented during a fight while he was inside a West Philly bar, got printed twice. It was a sign.
It took no time at all for me to get my first threat from Dick Sprague, a legal legend in Philly for suing media outlets who were going after him or his clients. My first or second week on the job, I reached out to Stephen Starr and his then-wife about a rumor they were divorcing; some 18 hours later, I got a messengered letter from Sprague about the couple’s privacy, children, etc. The item never ran.
Now, you might be thinking: Who cares if Stephen Starr gets divorced? You’re full of shit. Tell me you don’t know who he is, and that you don’t eat at his restaurants or don’t want to. Because you do, you do, and you want to. It is precisely these facts that allowed me to spend years penning a gossip column about people no one farther away than Bucks County had ever heard of.
A year later, Starr’s second wife, January Bartle, hid from me in the back room of her
Old City boutique so I wouldn’t be able to see that she was pregnant. Which was pointless. Because I already knew.
By then, I knew how to do gossip in Philly.