Jersey Shore Haters Unite!

Photograph by Clint Blowers

Photograph by Clint Blowers

Two weeks before we left, I started to get so excited that I staged our supplies on the front porch. They fit into one pile: beach chairs, beach towels, sunscreen and tequila. I thought to myself, “What else could one family possibly need during a week at the Shore?”

This was our first-ever vacation to the Jersey Shore.


This “Shore thing” was new to my husband and me. We’d moved to Philly five years earlier, in 2001. We were only aware of “the Shore” — not the existence of the physical beach, of course, but the proper terminology for it — because we’d both gone to Penn State and met lots of people who talked about “the Shore.” In fact, I remember the very first time I heard the phrase “down the Shore.” It was move-in weekend during freshman year, and I stood outside my dorm room on the fourth floor of Runkle Hall, waiting for another girl so we could head to the dining hall. She emerged from her room wearing a hot pink string bikini top and a floral sarong.

“How long will it take you to get dressed?” I asked.

“What?” she replied, then gazed down at her ensemble. “Is this bad? This is what I wear all the time down the Shore.” Instantly, I formed my first impression of “the Shore” — “a place where strippers gather.”

Once we moved here, Thad and I discovered that every year, on or around January 1st, most Philadelphians (not just strippers) began talking about how they couldn’t wait to go “down the Shore.” Then, on or around December 31st, they stopped sulking about the end of that awesome summer they had “down the Shore.” These people were so fixated, so evangelical about this tract of sand, that I began referring to them as “Shore-agains.”

I won’t lie — it scared me a little. Of all the beach vacation spots in all the world, what was so special about this one? Was everyone who went there hot? Did the seaweed eliminate both cellulite and communicable diseases? Were the funnel cakes dusted with cocaine? I had to find out.

WHEN I ASKED a Philly-born-and-bred colleague to explain how one went about renting a house at the Shore, he looked at me, incredulous, as if I’d just asked him how to use a stapler.

“Where do you want to go?” he asked.

“To the Shore,” I said.

Where at the Shore?”

“To the beach at the Shore.”

“What town?”

“I don’t care.”

“What?” he said.

Apparently there were many towns at the Shore, and Philadelphians were very loyal to the Shore towns where they’d vacationed since they were, give or take, in utero. This guy went to Ocean City. Our boss went to Margate. The woman in the next office went with her entire extended family to Long Beach Island, which she described as “great for little kids” since there were calm beaches on the bay.

Coincidentally, Thad and I had a little kid — a daughter who would be 16 months old that July. That was precisely why we found a quaint four-bedroom in Ship Bottom that was three blocks from the beach and three blocks from the bay for the weekly rate of $1,850, which was several hundred dollars more than our monthly mortgage payment. But hey. We lived in Philly now. And this was what people who lived in Philly did.

Then my mother called.

“What size sheets do we need?” she asked. She and my dad were coming with us, driving all the way from their home by Lake Erie, where we could swim in a sizeable body of water for free.

“Sheets?” I asked her. “We have to bring sheets?” I reread the lease and realized that we needed to, in essence, pack our entire house. King sheets. Double sheets. Single sheets. Bath towels. Kitchen towels. Washcloths. Dish detergent. Laundry detergent. Dryer sheets. Shout. Bar soap. Paper towels. Toilet paper. Tissues. Napkins. Paper plates. Plastic silverware. Sponges. Baggies. Foil. Charcoal. Matches. Dynamite. Valium.

With all that stuff, and all the food for the menus I planned (because who can afford to dine out when you’re paying almost $2,000 to sleep on your own sheets on someone else’s mattress?), we barely fit into our minivan, leaving us crushed and cramped for the 5.3-hour ride to travel 55 miles.

There had better be a buttload of coke on those funnel cakes.

AS IT TURNED OUT, the house was delightful. Ship Bottom was delightful. The weather, the bay beach, the real beach — all delightful. But at the end of the week, I felt like I’d been run over by a surrey … just like I felt at the end of every week up the city, or whatever Philadelphians called the 51 other weeks of the year at home.

I’d done all the same stuff — cooked three meals a day, washed loads and loads of laundry, shopped for groceries — except with much more sand. In the last hour before we had to move out, as I frantically swept and Windexed another person’s house more thoroughly than I’d ever cleaned my own, glaring into that packed minivan and picturing myself having to unpack it, I caught my husband’s eye and stated aloud what we both were thinking:

“Vacationing at the Shore sucks.”

IF THERE IS a statement one should never utter to anyone who grew up in the Philadelphia region, it’s this: “Vacationing at the Shore sucks.”

“Disagree!” scolded a colleague.

“How dare you talk doo-doo about the Shore! It was like my second home growing up,” reprimanded a college friend. “Tsk, transplant, tsk!”

“I would die — wither, shrivel, go fetal and just fade away — without Memorial Day through Chowderfest,” explained Christa, one of my neighborhood friends. “I can’t even breathe in Camden County in the summer; it’s like having my face in an armpit. But the second I drive over the bridge and suck in the salt air … it’s my heaven.” Christa blamed my poor opinion of the Shore on me: “You must be doing it wrong.”

Unfortunately, I couldn’t do it how Christa did it. She and her family stayed in a tiny little cottage behind her parents’ house in Beach Haven, that she’d stocked with everything they needed, including floss and a paring knife that was actually sharp.

Same thing with another mom-pal. Her parents had a home in Avalon, so she went down with her two kids whenever she wanted. “It’s a pleasure and a joy,” she announced. Well, of course it was. She didn’t have to BYO ketchup, or figure out how to fasten a beach cart, a cooler, five boogie boards and a grandmother to the roof of her car. More importantly, she didn’t have to pay to sleep there.

Still, the consensus of every Shore-again we knew was that we weren’t “doing” the Shore properly. They’d say, “If you just rented a big house with your whole family, you’d get it.” Or, “If you just found a group of friends and got smashed after the kids went to bed, you’d get it.” Or, “If you just went to Wildwood/Sea Isle/Stone Harbor/Cape May, you’d get it.” No one could define for us exactly what this “it” was that we weren’t getting. But the more I didn’t get “it,” the more I wanted “it,” whatever “it” was.

So we tried again. Four years later, we rented the same house (for $200 more!) in the same town (start a tradition!), and this time, we brought our first daughter, our second daughter, my parents, our 17-year-old niece, and her friend (family bonding!). At the end of the week, in the last hour before we had to move out, as I sped down Bay Boulevard to B&B Department Store to buy a coffee pot to replace the one that crashed to the floor while I was moving the butcher-block island to clean under it for a second time, I screamed out: “Vacationing at the Shore sucks!”

“Agreed. Waste of money,” wrote my friend Dan after I dared to complain about “the Shore” on Facebook. Did this mean I wasn’t the only one who didn’t get “it”? Dan was supposed to get “it.” He grew up in the Northeast, worked in Center City, lived in Lafayette Hill. He had three kids and a big family who all lived nearby. He could afford the Shore, no problem. It was almost sacrilege for a guy like Dan to admit such truths in public. I assumed that immediately after he hit POST, his Shore-again neighbors stoned him to death, then dumped his body in the Pine Barrens to be consumed by those ravenous late-July black flies. But no. Minutes later, Dan posted again: “By the time you’re done, the ‘all-in’ costs of a week down the Shore rival a trip to Disney. Not quite as much, but close enough to piss me off while I’m doing laundry and cooking.”

Other Shore Haters — a.k.a. “Shaters” — weighed in: “It’s not really ‘getting away’ if I can zip back home in an hour to pick up my son’s retainer.” “When I was a kid, we went every summer. My mom never went to the beach. She folded laundry and made breakfast and dinner and watched her soaps. I recognized then … this is not a vacation.”

No, it wasn’t. It WASN’T!

Yet even when I read an online article in April about overrated summer destinations that listed the Jersey Shore at the top of its “where to avoid” list, I still couldn’t embrace my Shater self. The writer was spot-on: It’s “hot,” “humid,” “crammed” and “in-your-face,” and it has “toxic” prices. If you vacation down the Shore in the summer, the writer advised you to do one thing: “Get out of there.”

So why had we just signed another lease for a summer rental?

VERY GOOD FRIENDS of ours were total Shore-agains. Like, went to Cape May on their first date. Like, painted the trim on their South Jersey house in bright Victorian colors. Two years ago, Shore-again Sherri had an idea: Let’s get three families together and rent a house at the Shore! We said, “That would be awesome!” even though we were 97.2 percent sure it was not going to be awesome.

I argued hard for LBI (since, you know, we’d had such good experiences there). But when Sherri found the three-story on North Street in Cape May with a giant farm table that would seat every person in our families — 13 in all, including our baby girl — I was sold. Splitting it three ways wasn’t a huge bargain; it still cost us $1,300 for the week. But Sherri had a brilliant idea: Each family would cook two dinners, and each couple would get one kid-free date night. That would be five fewer dinners a week than I usually cook, and one additional date night a week than we usually have. It sounded … a little bit … like … a vacation.

I wasn’t surprised that Cape May was delightful. But the most delightful part was listening to Sherri’s three- and five-year-olds beg to do their Shore rituals — “When can we go to the lighthouse and pick diamonds?” “When can we eat crabs?” They totally got “it.” And since we did exactly what the Shore-agains did, our kids started to get “it,” too. Maybe the right way for us to do the Shore was “Cape May; with friends; get the hell away from the children for one night.”

This was “it.”

I won’t lie — it scared me a little. While I liked this newfound liking of the Shore, I didn’t want us to suddenly go all Joel Osteen about it. We would not become one of those insane Philadelphia families that have EXIT 0 bumper stickers on their minivans and a plaque above the kitchen sink that announces, “The Shore is My Happy Place.” Our kids had to understand that while, yes, Cape May is “the best ever,” and while, yes, it’s nice to live in a “big rich-people house” for a week, there would be no string bikinis in the dining hall. Not ever. Our girls would not walk around in too-small short-shorts emblazoned with the names of Shore towns across their butts, dammit. And thus, after we returned home and spent nine days unpacking our car, we consciously did not mention that we’d be going back to Cape May next summer.

Then we went to the Shore-agains’ house for New Year’s. It had to be that — being with the other family we Shore-d with, seeing the purple and lime green window trim and the lighthouse sun catcher in the window. It had to. Right? Because after we woke up on January 1st, our eight-year-old said to me, zealously:

“I can’t wait to go to the Shore this summer.”

Originally published as “Beach Bummed” in the July 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Michael Nutter’s Incorruptible Administration

Illustration by Michele Melcher

Illustration by Michele Melcher

This is the Golden Age of ethics for the City of Philadelphia.

But I’ll grant that it might not seem that way.

Philadelphia’s Traffic Court devolved into such a stronghold of petty corruption that it was given a mercy killing last year by the state. It’s also true that four lawmakers representing Philadelphia in Harrisburg were caught on tape taking envelopes stuffed with cash from a lowlife lobbyist-turned-informant. And yes, there was that business with State Senator LeAnna Washington a few months back, and before that, charges against State Rep J.P. Miranda for allegedly creating a taxpayer-funded no-show job to funnel money to his sister.

The FBI raided the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office last year. The feds are also poking around the Fattah organization, with a particular interest in Chaka Fattah Jr., the son of the Congressman.

But all of that is outside the orbit of City Hall. Neither Mayor Nutter nor City Council controls the behavior of state representatives or members of Congress, nor do they have meaningful say over the courts or sheriff’s office. Within City Hall, government is working more ethically and with far more transparency than it has in a long, long time.

It’s been nearly nine years since a City Council member was indicted, and the chamber is haltingly making more of its business open to the public. There hasn’t been so much as a whiff of public corruption to taint either Mayor Nutter or his inner circle. There is anecdotal evidence that a more ethical mind-set is taking root in the city’s rank-and-file workforce. Whistleblowers are tipping off city investigators at a prodigious pace, and behavior that was once nearly the department-wide norm — inspectors accepting tips or free lunch, for instance — has been drastically reduced.

The city’s campaign finance and ethics laws have grown far more robust than the state’s, and the city’s ethics enforcement agencies have more teeth and gumption than their Commonwealth counterparts. Whatever his other flaws, Michael Nutter’s leadership on ethics has been exemplary, and his success in cleaning up City Hall will arguably rank as his greatest accomplishment.

But will any of it last?

Outside the confines of City Hall — past Nutter’s reach — Philadelphia’s political culture appears just as corrupt as it’s ever been, if the recent flurry of investigations and charges is any indication. Next year’s mayoral field so far is a collection of political lifers with no particular interest in or special commitment to honest and open government (with the possible exception of City Controller Alan Butkovitz). And Philadelphia voters seem not to care about public corruption nearly as much as they did in the last mayoral election, when the indictment of State Senator Vince Fumo was still fresh in the public mind, as was the federal probe of Mayor Street’s confidants.

More pernicious is the idea, popular in some business and political circles, that Nutter’s shortcomings as mayor — his failures with Council, his struggles with city unions — owe in part to his distaste for cutting deals and his reluctance to grease the wheels of government and politics, lest doing so besmirch his sterling ethical reputation.

Put it all together, and one wonders how much longer the Golden Age will carry on.

“The most likely thing,” says Zack Stalberg, outgoing president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy, “is it all goes to hell very quickly.”

You don’t have to look very far to see what City Hall could become.

IN EARLY OCTOBER 2012, chief of staff Sean McCray confronted his boss, State Senator LeAnna Washington. He later told state investigators that he was concerned about Washington’s use of taxpayer resources — office equipment and staff time — to organize her annual birthday party, which doubled as a political fund-raiser. It was the same sort of abuse of power, on a smaller scale, that did in former House Speakers John Perzel and Bill DeWeese (among many others) in Pennsylvania’s Bonusgate investigations.

But if McCray had absorbed the lessons of that scandal, Washington apparently did not.

“I am the f___ing senator, I do what the f___ I want, how I want, and ain’t nobody going to change me,” Washington said, according to McCray’s testimony in the state Attorney General’s grand jury report.

Within that outburst are all the basic building blocks of public corruption. Observe the self-aggrandizement (“I am the f___ing senator”), the profound entitlement (“I do what the f___ I want”), and the naked contempt at the suggestion that one conform with campaign laws and ethical guidelines (“ain’t nobody going to change me”).

The grand jury report was damning enough, and Washington’s city-suburb-straddling district competitive enough, that the “fucking senator” will be out of a job at the end of the year, having lost her primary election in May.

Washington’s guilt or innocence is an open question. But what is clear, and has been for decades, is that Philadelphia’s political culture is full to bursting with small, venal characters — most of whom you’ve never heard of — who imagine that they are somehow owed money, respect and even a little power in compensation for their long years of service at Democratic Party chicken dinners.

The Philadelphia Democratic City Committee is a clanky, stripped-down shell of the machine it was in decades past. But most of the candidates for public office in the city, high and low, still enter politics through the party systems. And in those systems, political support is still routinely bought and sold, and considerations like policy views and credentials distantly trail factional considerations, party loyalty and bald transactional politics.

And so some city pols, schooled in ward politics, too often conclude that there is nothing particularly wrong with taking a check from a donor and acting on his behalf, or accepting a handsome gift or wad of cash from a lobbyist and listening closely to her recommendations. It’s just politics, see?

But the party’s influence doesn’t explain everything, and really, it isn’t necessary to understand the existential source of corruption in the city. It’s good enough to know and accept that corrupt impulses are probably a permanent part of Philadelphia’s political culture. “There’s no way to legislate morality. We’re never going to completely get rid of the stuffed envelope,” says Michael A. Schwartz, the former head of the U.S. Attorney’s public corruption unit and now a partner at Pepper Hamilton.

And that’s fine. The great, encouraging lesson of the past six years is that with vigilance, an ethically minded administration can keep a reasonably tight lid on corruption.

But that’s not the lesson a lot of prominent Philadelphians have taken from the Nutter administration. I spoke with numerous leaders in labor and business, with politicians and developers, and found many who think that Nutter’s emphasis on ethics has worked to make him a less effective mayor, and to gum up the works of city government.

None advocate corruption, of course, not knowingly. But they do talk about Nutter’s rigidity. And they speak fondly of Mayor Rendell’s flexibility, his fast-tracking of favored projects, his ability to get what he wanted from City Council. You hear this a lot: “At least with Rendell or Street you could make a phone call and get something done.” Nutter, they say, is too enamored of process, too ethically high-and-mighty to roll around in the muck with Council, too mindful of his image to do business with other players who favor a more transactional approach to politics.

This is a dangerous and damaging line of thinking, a classic case of false correlation. Running an ethical government doesn’t preclude adept politics. But there’s no getting around the fact that too many influential Philadelphians have conflated this administration’s emphasis on ethics with Nutter’s inability to enact much of his agenda. “I hear this argument a good deal, and I think it’s wrong, but I see how people make the connection,” says Stalberg. “In a bizarre way, the administration is giving honest government a bad name.”

Early impressions are lasting ones, and the early days of the Nutter administration were a trial, for a lot of different reasons. For instance, Nutter upended the development process — one of the most corruption-prone points in city government — shortly after taking office, and it was a long time before the new system was churning at a reasonable pace. The economic calamity of 2008 and 2009 didn’t help, further cementing the impression for a lot of elites that Nutter’s government just didn’t work.

That was true enough in the first years of the administration. But what about now? It’s better. Not perfect, but better. “It’s not like we’re pondering the creation of the universe. We’re not slowing anything down,” Nutter says when asked if it’s possible that his emphasis on ethics has made it more difficult to get business done. “We’ve got tons of cranes in the sky. Stuff is happening. The government is not in the way, or slow.”

Actually, government is still pretty slow, but Nutter has the right of this. Indeed, some of the difficult reforms that choked government most in the Nutter years — planning and zoning, a decades-overdue property tax overhaul, the creation of a land bank — have the potential to make City Hall work both more quickly and more ethically in the years to come. So does Philly311, the call-center service that, as Nutter puts it, “means that everyone has access to city services, not just people who happen to know people.”

The problem is that much of the Nutter administration’s other work to create a more honest city government can be undone all too easily by whoever comes next.

BACK IN 2007, a few weeks after winning the general election, Nutter announced he was hiring a pair of former federal prosecutors who specialized in City Hall corruption cases as his internal watchdogs. Until her retirement earlier this year, Joan Markman was the city’s Chief Integrity Officer. Before that, she was best known as the lawyer who tried former city treasurer Corey Kemp (and sent him away for a decade). Nutter gave her an office next to his own, and the authority to check in on pretty much anyone at any time. In essence, Markman — and her successor, Hope Caldwell — have been there to act as internal checks on unethical behavior before it happens.

The Inspector General, Amy Kurland, is more about catching the bad guys, both in and out of government. Kurland made her rep in the U.S. Attorney’s office taking down 13 corrupt plumbing inspectors in Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections, and she’s been just as tough working for the city. Between 2008 and 2013, the work of Kurland and her investigators led to 54 arrests, the firing or resignation of 193 city workers, and a total savings to taxpayers of about $46 million.

Together, Nutter’s Chief Integrity Officer and Inspector General have been one hell of a deterrent to bad behavior.

But it could all go away with the next mayor, and some of it almost certainly will. I’d be shocked if Nutter’s successor hires a Chief Integrity Officer. The position of Inspector General will likely survive — the office has its origins in the Goode administration — but City Council has previously questioned Kurland’s budget and resisted Nutter’s calls to make the office permanent with a City Charter amendment. The next mayor would have plenty of cover to neuter the Inspector General by cutting the staff or budget.

Nutter’s other ethics-oriented reforms are just as vulnerable: the broader release of government data (including corruption-prone contracting records), the prohibitions on nepotism and taking of gifts by members of his administration, and the regulations on outside employment, among others. All are executive orders, not law.

Optimists — and there are some — point to the legal changes that have been made, and to an ethics movement that predates Nutter. The city’s strong campaign finance law was created, not by Nutter, but by Councilman Wilson Goode Jr., and it faces no serious local opposition. (The U.S. Supreme Court’s views on campaign finance may be a different matter.) And this year, Council approved a new policy banning any non-cash gifts worth more than $99. That’s not perfect, perhaps, but it’s an improvement.

What’s ultimately most important, though, is the tone from the top. Mayor Street was never indicted in the City Hall investigation that dogged his tenure, and there’s never been any evidence that he corrupted his office to enrich himself. But too­ many of his associates were unethical; too­ many felt they had a green light — or perhaps just a yellow one — to better their own lots while in positions of trust and influence.

On Nutter’s watch, there’s only a red light. The Mayor has fallen short in plenty of areas, but he’s been a leader on ethics, and it shows. “It’s a daily focus,” Nutter says. “It’s a mind-set. It’s the question you always ask before any decision: What’s the right thing to do?”

That’s the right question. Will the next mayor ask it?

Originally published as “Incorruptible” in the July 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Don Tollefson’s Last Stand

Photography by Wesley Mann

Photography by Wesley Mann

She kept Don inside. His mother wanted him to study. She wouldn’t let him be like them, those other kids who got into trouble. Don rarely saw his father — his parents had separated. So the boy would spend hours in his bedroom in San Francisco, playing endless games with his baseball cards: Dodgers-Giants, over and over. He’d go out into the tiny backyard of their small house near Lake Merced and re-create the ’60 Olympics. With string, he’d make a high jump. A broad jump. A track around the perimeter. That’s how he spent his childhood. In fantasy. Alone.

He did what he was told, and he earned the A’s his mother demanded. She taught piano, at the Conservatory. Sometimes, on her days off, they’d go for drives down the Peninsula together. His brother Arthur was 10 years older, and had gotten into Stanford. Arthur was gone, just like Don’s father. Don was student body president of his high school. He was accepted at Stanford, just like his brother, at 16. He was sure he could make his mother proud.

Then his mother got sick. It was pancreatic cancer, and it was quick. She died just before he graduated from high school. She’d fought Stanford to allow Don to live at home instead of on campus once he started there, and she won. But now Don was going to stay with his father, a man he barely knew, while he went to college.

By the end of that month — May of 1969 — everything was different. Don had started drinking. He hung out with another boy — something his mother would never have let him do — and they sipped beer under a bridge off El Camino Real. His father, a paper pusher for the telephone company in San Francisco, ignored Don most of the time. He could do whatever he wanted.

It was a beginning that had no middle and seemed to go on forever, because from that moment forward — from the time he was 16 years old until last October, when he was 61 and everything changed once again — Don got drunk every night.

Often, that’s how he delivered the sports, either at Channel 6 or Fox 29 — half shot, or worse. He’d go to dinner or a bar or some event after the six o’clock news and drink. He’d pop back at 11 and deliver the sports with the same Tolly awesomeness. He had no home life, even when he was married. But he was still Don Tollefson. And then it all fell apart.

HE WAS THE MOST unlikely guy in Philadelphia to get into the sort of trouble he did.

Not very long ago, Tollefson had this city at his beck and call. In his prime, he was the go-to sports newscaster in Philly, and a fixture on the local scene for almost all of the past 40 years. Tolly practically leaped out of the tube every night over some Julius or Randall or Chase act of wizardry, landing in our living rooms on raw energy alone; on a “cold, cold, cold” day against the Giants, he declared the Eagles defense “hot, hot, hot!” He talked up his charity work with the same over-the-top vigor, every chance he got, and showed up all over town to emcee events, especially for underprivileged kids. “Good guy” was practically stamped on his forehead.

Or maybe we had been utterly snookered.

Tollefson was arrested in February, accused of selling ticket packages and trips — Eagles games, the World Cup, the U.S. Open and other events, with some of the proceeds destined for charity — without delivering on them. The deputy Bucks County district attorney claims he’s scammed at least 150 people out of more than $250,000. He’s been charged with theft by deception and other crimes. Suddenly, there was a question, both profound and simple: Who is this guy?

After his arrest, he disappeared into jail. Tollefson had to stay there for a month because he couldn’t come up with the 10 grand to get out. A measly 10 grand! That used to be walking-around money for Tolly. But he was broke, and no one was willing to bail him out.

He left jail in late March, but the silence continued. Now, after a month at a treatment center for an addiction to alcohol and painkillers, Tollefson is under house arrest in an apartment in North Philadelphia. The legal trouble continues — he’ll stand trial later this year on charges stemming from that quarter-million dollars he allegedly swindled. But Don has decided that it’s time to talk. It’s a matter of survival.

IN HIS LAWYER’S OFFICE one afternoon in mid-May, Don looks considerably better than he did in his mug shot back in February, when he appeared ghostly. Tollefson admits he was scared; now he’s tan and friendly. He’s also far too thin — his jeans dangle off him in scarecrow folds, hiding an ankle bracelet that monitors his movements. Don lives, post-rehab, in a small, messy apartment in North Philadelphia near Temple University — one room is stuffed with sports memorabilia that he’s trying to sell. He looks every bit of 61, with sparse, spiky gray hair. But he’s zeroed in, now, on his new story, one that’s emerged in intense therapy.

“I wasn’t making clear-thinking decisions,” Don says. “Whether it was with women or going on the air inebriated or whatever it was, I think back to my childhood when I created that make-believe world. Addicts create make-believe worlds — not just the denial, but the delusion that they’re functioning adults, and they’re not. They’re addicts.”

Going back to that 16-year-old about to enter Stanford, he can barely remember a day when he didn’t get drunk — first it was beer, then, as he got older, beer and wine and mixed drinks. Over the past few years, he added painkillers that had been prescribed for shoulder injuries following a bad car wreck in 2008. From late 2012 until he first went into treatment a year later, he was mixing booze with Percocets and Oxycontin and other drugs. “You take enough codeine three’s,” he says, “in combination with alcohol, you’re on the way to dying.” He doesn’t have any doubt about where he was headed.

Prior to that — all those years on the air, the charity work and mentoring and hosting fund-raisers for good causes — he somehow functioned despite drinking heavily every day. But Don hates the phrase “functional alcoholic.” He wasn’t functioning. He was a mess.

“Relationships with women were alcohol-based and drug-based,” he says. “And very immature, as a result. I was still being a high-school kid in my adult relationships with women.” The day he went into rehab last October is also when he and his second wife, Marilyn, separated; they have a four-year-old daughter. “I cannot remember in my marriages or my relationships outside of marriage having many serious, sober conversations,” Don says. “Because I just preferred to isolate myself.” And that meant getting drunk.

His openness is riveting, as if he’s still the old Tolly you couldn’t stop watching, though far different from the guy ­enthusing wildly from his nightly-news perch. He is intense, straightforward: an addict all his adult life now fighting hard to get healthy, to make amends.

Yet there is much that is not straightforward, when you take a look at the path he went down. Some of it is marvelous. Some of it is not. And some of the trouble he’s gotten into doesn’t seem to have much to do with addiction.

LET’S START WITH the marvelous.

Don still had his life ahead of him when he entered Stanford. He immediately started writing for the student paper, and was blessed with a certain radar for the big story.

One day in 1971, Tollefson walked into the Stanford Daily offices and a cop was standing there with a search warrant. Police were looking for photographers’ negatives that might bolster their case against demonstrators who had turned violent during a protest over a mistreated black university hospital worker. “It has been our policy since last spring’s demonstrations to destroy negatives in order to protect our photographers from harassment,” a very serious Tolly, the Daily’s news editor, said at the time; the story made the CBS Evening News. The Daily would go on to win a judgment against the police that was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, sparking national debate on freedom of the press and leading Congress to pass legislation giving greater protection to the notes and files of journalists.

National news take two: When Patty Hearst was kidnapped in early 1974, Don just happened to be driving near the Hearst mansion in Hillsborough. He camped out on the mansion grounds and covered the story for the Associated Press for weeks.

In the fall of that same year, Don and Jim Lampley were picked by ABC Sports, after a nationwide search, to be the first football sideline reporters. The idea was to add a little color about college life, supplied by two college-age guys. Tollefson attacked the new assignment as a serious journalist. For a University of Mississippi game, he brought James Meredith, the school’s first black graduate, back to the very steps where Governor Ross Barnett had turned him away in 1962, when he first tried to enter Ole Miss

After the Meredith interview garnered death threats for ABC executives, Don says, he was forced to start interviewing cheerleaders for his halftime bits. There was another price to paving the way to the pretty-girl celebrity gig that sideline reporting would become — Don and Jim could walk into any college bar in America and drink for free, hang with the hottest coeds, get feted as big stars. “There was no possible way we’d live an unspoiled life again,” Lampley says. “Any person would be altered in some way, that autumn.”

Tollefson, still only 22 and still a student because of all his time away for work, suddenly had myriad options. When he’d flown to New York to interview for the ABC job, he ran into William Randolph Hearst in an elevator. “Don, what are you doing here?” wondered Hearst, who remembered the kid camped outside his mansion when Patty was kidnapped. Don told him. “We’ll still have a job for you,” Hearst said, meaning in newspapers. But the next year, in 1975 — enamored of the money and trappings of TV over print — Don left Stanford without a degree and joined Channel 6 in Philly. He would also be close to New York, where his girlfriend of the moment, the secretary of ABC Sports president Roone Arledge, lived.

Within a year, Don was sports director at Action News, and the city was his. The troika of Jim Gardner, Jim O’Brien and Tolly was the most-watched local newscast for years. When Lampley would come through Philly, he and Tolly would have dinner at Bookbinder’s, where Don could barely eat for all the attention and autograph-seekers. He wouldn’t pay or enjoy a private moment in public ever again.

Tollefson lapped up the fame and women. He was always out at charity functions, too, as if he couldn’t ever go home. Circa 1980, Don was showing up at better than 400 events a year: Special Olympics, PAL, toy drives with firemen. His best friend at WPVI, sports reporter Jack Brayboy, points out the obvious: “Don never met a microphone he didn’t like.” Endless motivational speeches at schools. Little League dinners. Even part-time teaching at William Penn High School.

Lampley was right: Fame changed them, especially someone as needy as Don. In 1984, when local TV news was much bigger than it is now, ’PVI sent about a dozen staffers to L.A. for the entire Summer Olympics. Every night, there was lobster and serious drinking. The crew got invited to the ABC Sports wrap party with Lionel Richie. Tolly, with ABC and now ’PVI, had hit the fast lane of TV sports.

And then, in 1990, after 15 years at Channel 6, he quit. Tollefson ditched his TV career for North Carolina, to devote himself full-time to charity work. A lot of people in the broadcast news industry assume Tollefson got fired. He was 38, making $300,000 a year at Action News, a big star in a city that has so few, and he decided to give all that up to … move to Greensboro?

But that’s where his brother lived — Arthur Tollefson was a dean at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and a concert pianist — and Don says he moved down in part to be near him. Other reasons for his leaving TV news made the rounds: There was talk of him showing up just a few minutes before he went on the air, being more committed to outside events than to his job. Management was getting frustrated; they pushed him to change. Tollefson says that yes, there were a lot of discussions with management, but that he decided it was time to go.

Alan Nesbitt, who was president and general manager of ’PVI when Don left, is adamant that he wasn’t fired. Now retired in Florida, Nesbitt remembers questioning Tolly on whether he was really sure about doing charity work full-time. “It sounded a little nebulous,” Nesbitt recalls.

Don admits now that leaving television to create his own charity wasn’t the whole story. The constant drinking and out-and-about life had started to overwhelm him; he was living as if he needed a constant audience. Don had to get away. “At least subconsciously, I knew,” he says, “that I was feeding my addiction, in a number of different ways.”

So he escaped to a higher calling. And his story got really strange.

TOLLEFSON DID MAKE a go of it in Greensboro. He registered his first charity, Winning Ways, with the state. He traveled all over the co­untry — Don claimed early on that he had gone to hundreds of school districts and after-school programs in nine states to give talks, especially to disadvantaged kids. Sometimes he charged nothing, or a few thousand dollars, depending on what a school could pitch in. Corporations and individuals donated some money; he says he paid himself nothing.

But he needed more. Tollefson had gotten married in 1992, to a 30-year-old named Monica Vasquez, whom he’d met in Philadelphia 12 years earlier at a fashion show. They bought a spacious house with a pool in Jamestown, the next town over from Greensboro. Her parents had some money, and soon after the wedding, Don convinced his in-laws to give him $200,000 to invest in Israeli bonds, according to their financial adviser.

It didn’t take long for his new in-laws, who lived in South Jersey, to get nervous; they went to the adviser, George Richardson, who’s now retired in Florida. Richardson made calls to Israeli financial markets. He called management at Channel 6 to see what he could learn about Tollefson (not much). But he did enough digging to be convinced that Tollefson hadn’t put his clients’ money into Israeli bonds, and he tracked down Don, who was on a golf outing in California. Richardson remembers their conversation vividly. He told Tollefson he knew he hadn’t invested the money. Don was silent.

“What in the hell are you doing, Don?” Richardson said to him.

“They had this money they wanted to invest,” Tollefson said. “I needed that money.”

Richardson was stunned — Tollefson was admitting that he stole it. “Why?” Richardson demanded. “You were making a fortune at Channel 6.”

“I needed it to live on.”

Richardson gave Tollefson a week to get the $200,000 back to his in-laws. If he didn’t, Richardson told him, he’d file charges.

“No, no,” Don said, “don’t do that. I’ll get it back to them.”

Though the money — all 200 grand — was returned, Tollefson’s marriage didn’t last long. Richardson’s only regret now is not going to the D.A. anyway, in order to stop the trouble that would come later.

Around that same time, Tollefson got caught up in something as strange as those Israeli bonds. His brother, Arthur, and his wife, Brenda, say they began getting calls from banks around the country about credit-card applications they’d been making. This was odd — they hadn’t applied for any credit cards. They went to the police, who couldn’t figure out what was going on. Arthur was able to convince a bank that called to send him one of the applications. It was in Don’s handwriting, filled with Arthur’s financial information.

Arthur and Brenda are convinced that Don was setting up a scheme to rip off his own brother, by applying for credit cards in Arthur’s name and having them sent to a post office box in Greensboro.

Why would Don do that? “We’ve tried to figure that out for decades,” Brenda says. Arthur and Brenda still have no clue. They don’t even know why Don came to North Carolina in the first place; he’d hardly been in touch with them much before moving down.

“He said he wanted a change,” Brenda remembers. At the time, Arthur talked glowingly of Don’s shift from newscaster to charity head, telling the Greensboro paper that “it takes a great deal of courage and dedication when you’re on top of a career and making a substantial salary to say, ‘There is more to life than this.’” But Arthur didn’t see much of his brother in North Carolina.

When they learned that Don was preparing to scam them, “It was the end of a friendship and a family,” Brenda says. They say they’ve rarely talked to Don since.

“He’s called here a few times and left a message — happy Father’s Day or birthday,” Brenda says. “We haven’t returned the call. He’s never admitted what he did.” Don’s current legal troubles don’t surprise her. “Once this happens to you,” she says, “he becomes a different person in your mind. In that case, he’s capable of anything.”

Don was supposed to file a report with the state every year on how much money Winning Ways took in and where it went. He never bothered with that.

DON TOLLEFSON WON’T address the Israeli bond deal or scamming his own brother — mere allegations, to be sure, but troubling ones — because of his ongoing legal battle.

That presents a problem for him. Tollefson talks a great deal now about coming clean: “You can’t be in recovery without being totally honest,” he says. Which means that he runs a risk — perhaps with himself, and certainly with the rest of us — if he’s open about abusing alcohol and drugs but buttons up when it comes to other misdeeds. Tollefson was still drinking dangerously in North Carolina, he says. But would that lead him to try to steal from his own brother? And why was he so desperate for money — did he have a gambling problem?

Tollefson says he didn’t have a gambling problem, and that he wants to explain everything. He does admit that going to North Carolina “was just running away, and you can’t run away from your addiction. I need to make amends with people for things that happened while I was in North Carolina.” That’s all he’ll say about that period.

When he returned to Philadelphia and to television, working for Fox 29 in 1995, his life would continue to veer off the rails. The station took him on because he was still a big name here, and he was willing to start as a general assignment reporter. Tolly was shifted into sports, his natural groove. That’s when the same issues that had annoyed management at ’PVI emerged: showing up 15 minutes before a telecast, not doing the nuts-and-bolts reporting on stories.

And something had changed in Don. A colleague who knew Tollefson at both stations could feel the difference more than define it: “There was a sense of him being there but not really being there,” she says. “I never read it as arrogance — I read it as ephemeral. Don just kind of floated, in and out of stuff. At ’PVI, he’d gather himself and be totally present in the moment.”

This colleague liked Tollefson; she thought he was complicated and sensitive, but his strangeness drove her a little crazy. “I couldn’t put a finger on what the hell was happening to him. I went to him a few times: ‘Are you okay, Don? Is everything okay?’ He would always say he was fine.”

Tollefson says that he was just as engaged in doing TV as always, but that his life was still a mess. Once, after a big Eagles game, a manager pulled him off the air because he was drunk. Yet he hadn’t admitted to himself that he drank far too much. Don was older, and despite marrying his second wife, Marilyn, he still didn’t really have a life, beyond the public persona. And the bottle.

“I got the sense,” the colleague says, “that something was terribly wrong, and that the facade was cracking.”

Over the years Don was at Fox, the sports department started to get wind of a more concrete problem — his charity work was beginning to draw suspicions. A different co-worker saw him come into the office one night a couple days before the Super Bowl in 2000 and try to book hotel accommodations on ticket packages he’d sold — it seemed awfully late for that. In 2001, Philadelphia Charge soccer star and Olympic silver medalist Lorrie Fair asked the same co-worker to come to a fund-raiser for multiple sclerosis at Tiki Bob’s Cantina in Northern Liberties, and suggested that he invite Tollefson as well.

Two weeks later, when the co-worker arrived at Tiki Bob’s, there was Tollefson, now emceeing the event — typical Tolly, never missing a chance to worm his way in and get before an audience. After he auctioned off sports memorabilia, Don told everyone to make out the checks to Winning Ways, his charity. The Fox co-worker made the winning bid on a golf outing.

After the event, Fair says, she called Tollefson about the money raised: Where was it? He said it was taking time to collect; she didn’t even know how much it was supposed to be.

The co-worker says the golf outing never materialized. But his check wasn’t cashed, either; he figures that’s because Don had to keep working with him.

Lorrie Fair gave up pestering Tollefson and never got any word from the MS Society that they received anything. “I was naive,” says Fair, who now lives in California. Though she can’t prove anything, she admits, “I probably got duped.”

Tollefson’s co-worker began watching him. Calls started to come into the office, people wanting to speak to Don: I’m supposed to get tickets from Tolly. Where are they? The co-worker sent a note to the Daily News about his suspicions; he never heard back. But the complaints started coming faster, according to another newsroom source, near the end of Tollefson’s time at Fox.

Meanwhile, his obsession to put himself front and center seemed stronger. In 2007, when the Phillies clinched the division title, a Fox broadcaster and a producer were up in the Citizens Bank Park press box, planning their coverage of the team’s celebration, when they saw Tollefson down on the edge of the field. What? Don never came to games. He hadn’t done any of the legwork for the Fox coverage that night, but sure enough, there was Tolly, on-air, having convinced hitting coach Milt Thompson to spray him with champagne.

A Fox broadcaster says in that same year, news director Kingsley Smith called him into his office and asked, “What do you know about Tollefson?”

“What do you mean?” the broadcaster said.

“I think he’s running a pyramid scheme,” Smith told him.

Tollefson says now that Kingsley Smith never said a word to him, and that he never got the sense he was in trouble. (Smith didn’t respond to interview requests for this story.) But by 2008, when he had a bad car accident and went on medical leave for shoulder injuries, his career was crumbling. He was seen during his leave at charity events, even as he was still claiming he couldn’t get behind a microphone. Two days after he came back to work, Don was fired.

The calls kept coming in to Fox, from people who wanted to know where their Eagles ticket packages were. As Don’s life unraveled, he did some TV work with the Eagles, continued mentoring kids, and spent a lot of time at home, getting drunk, and then drunk and high on painkillers — a combination that was killing him, he knows now. Until he finally went to rehab.

And then he was arrested.

DON TOLLEFSON HAS a gift. Once, it was the Tolly we saw every night on TV, the maniacal finger-pointer, the guy who found everyone “absolutely awesome.” Those who worked with Don attest to his back-slapping sunniness. But he admits now that he was hiding.

“I was trying to convince myself that my life wasn’t as depressing as I found it to be, because I had no real home life, even in marriage,” he says. Don seems thankful now that his estranged wife, Marilyn, lets him see their daughter, Gabriella, a couple times a week. “I was very lonely and depressed, because I couldn’t have adult relationships.”

Tollefson’s real gift is in how he can move people. Practically all the way up to the end, before rehab and jail, he could still perform. One of the charities he’s accused of ripping off was created for the family of Brad Fox, a Plymouth Township policeman killed in the line of duty in 2012. Tollefson was asked to make an appearance at the charity’s 5K. When the volunteers went to Kenney’s Madison Tavern in Warminster, he asked to speak briefly on the importance of police and first responders. But Don gave a much broader speech on the nature of heroism, on how a hero isn’t someone making millions a year playing football; a true hero protects our communities, or ventures overseas to make our country safe. That day in Kenney’s, many people listening to Tollefson grew emotional.

Was it real? Did Don believe what he was saying, or was he ingratiating himself and working the crowd for other reasons?

In a sense, those are questions he’s trying to answer for himself. From the time he started at Channel 6 in 1975 and was showing up at several hundred charity events a year, Don was hooked. “Hopefully,” he says, “the reason for doing them was in some large part for the charitable nature. But I now know that it fed the addiction of being a public figure. Certainly it was a combination — I only hope it was a balanced combination.”

His need for fame and good deeds is a toxic mix, especially considering that the Bucks County D.A.’s office is chasing him now for ripping off his own and other charities. That, in turn, produces the most daunting question of all, with the curtain on his addictions to fame and alcohol and painkillers ripped back: Did Tollefson really care?

Don wants us to know that he cares deeply. In his lawyer’s office in May, on the heels of discussing his interview with James Meredith back in 1974, he goes on to talk for several minutes about the evil of racism, on how Eagles receiver Riley Cooper using the word “nigger” last year drove him nuts, on how we would not believe how many people in the Philadelphia sports world spout racial epithets and how despicable that is. Hatred of any kind, he says, makes him crazy. And that’s the driving motivation of his work with inner-city kids, especially. All this from Tollefson can come across as too much, or simply self-serving. But it seems to be equal parts what Tollefson does believe and what he would like to believe, about himself. He wants to help other addicts, once his legal problems are behind him — to become the sort of man Gabriella can be proud of. He is a 61-year-old in recovery, trying to re-form himself.

But when it comes to those Israeli bonds or credit-card scams or whether he hustled people through ticket packages or convinced people to trust him just because he was Tolly, Don turns silent. These allegations seem to have nothing to do with addiction; they’re all weird money-grabbing gambits. And when he’s confronted with them, one by one, Tollefson appears to go somewhere, as if he is leaving his lawyer’s office for a moment. Then, barely above a whisper:

“I can’t answer that.”

There are still many questions he hasn’t answered, for legal reasons, he says. But Tollefson knows the stakes go beyond a possible jail sentence. “I firmly believe that if you relapse, after as much addiction as I had for as long as I had,” he says, “you are kind of signing a death sentence. You’re headed in that direction pretty quickly.”

On that level — a man’s very survival at stake — you root for him. Don Tollefson knows he must come clean; he says that in therapy he’s totally open, about everything. But for us, he won’t go very deep into the story of what he has done wrong. His passion for mentoring inner-city kids pushed him to go too far, he does admit: “Sometimes my ambitions overcame my resources.” In the end, though, we need much more than that. Don Tollefson must come fully clean for us, too.

Originally published as “Tolly’s Last Stand” in the July 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

How Did Michael Strange Really Die in Afghanistan?

Charlie Strange holds the flag given to him by the military after his son's death. Photography by Neal Santos

Charlie Strange holds the flag given to him by the military after his son’s death. Photography by Neal Santos

Charlie Strange in a rest-stop parking lot at dawn, trying not to cry. Charlie somewhere in Maryland, a few hundred feet from I-95, lighting a cigarette, thinking of Michael.

Charlie is a big guy, six-foot-two and 270 pounds, and when he cries, every inch of him puffs and stiffens. He grits his teeth and seems to stop breathing. People see him suffering and try to comfort him. They say they understand his pain because they’ve also had loved ones die, and Charlie thinks, okay, but it probably wasn’t like this. It wasn’t your kid falling from the sky in a war 7,000 miles away and no one can give you a good answer why.

Charlie’s friends say his name without the “r” and linger on the “a.” Chaaaaaalie. He sometimes writes it that way, too: Chalie. He has a low, serrated voice and a color tattoo of the American flag on his left forearm, designed so that it looks like the flag is bursting through his skin. He dealt blackjack for a while at the SugarHouse Casino on Delaware Avenue, but now he’s on leave. One day not too long ago, he let out a cry so loud at his table that a gambler thought he needed medical attention and shouted to the pit boss, “There’s something wrong with your dealer!” The boss told Charlie, 50, to take the rest of the shift off; he was scaring the customers. Before he worked at the casino, Charlie was in the laborers union for 12 years, breaking things apart at job sites with jackhammers, torches.

Here at the rest stop, he takes a drag on his cigarette. I ask him what brand it is. He grins and says he doesn’t know. “It doesn’t cost $7.40 a pack. These cost five and a quarter, and Marlboros cost $7.40, and they taste the same.” Then he veers back into Michael. Michael was 25 when he died. Sometimes, Charlie says, people start talking about his son and then they stop and recoil and tell him they’re sorry to bring it up, and Charlie’s like, what, you think I forgot? “It’s every day, man.” He pokes my chest above the heart and traces a path down to my stomach. “Your heart goes like this.”

He gets back in his car, taking the shotgun seat. His second wife, Mary, a tall, thin woman with straight blond hair, steers onto I-95 south, heading toward Washington, D.C. Charlie addresses Mary as “Shnookums” and asks how she’s doing, and she playfully pretends to hit him. Michael wasn’t Mary’s son, but she has joined Charlie on his journey to find answers about him. And today is a big day for both of them. Over the past three years, they’ve been pressing journalists and politicians to investigate the nighttime raid into Taliban territory that killed 30 Americans, including Michael, and eight Afghans on August 6, 2011. It was the largest loss of American life in a single incident in the War in Afghanistan. Of the American dead, 22 were soldiers in elite Special Operations units; 17 were Navy SEALs, including members of SEAL Team Six, the same unit that had killed Osama bin Laden 96 days before that. Michael was a Navy cryptologist who worked with the SEALs. They were all crammed inside a low-flying Chinook helicopter when a rocket-propelled grenade flew up from below and destroyed it.

The military later told Charlie and Mary and the other families that it was a lucky shot. Charlie doesn’t believe this. “I just want to know what happened, so it doesn’t happen to somebody else’s son or daughter.” On national talk radio, Charlie has blasted the military and the Obama administration, and he has met with sympathetic legislators, raising questions about the official account of the raid. He has publicly criticized and even sued the government at a time when Americans trust the government less and less. And he has been effective: Today, thanks in part to his efforts, Congress will hold a hearing on his son’s mission, and military staff will answer questions under oath.

As the Stranges draw closer to D.C., traffic thickens, and they start to worry about time. They’re stressed and tired. Charlie only slept for two hours last night, he says, which is normal these days. He took a long walk in the freezing cold, then a warm shower. Mary got 45 minutes of sleep. Now her phone rings. It’s Larry Klayman, their lawyer, a conservative political activist who’s helping the families of four dead soldiers. Klayman wants to know how they’re doing on time. Mary says they’re going as fast as they can.

Half an hour later, they finally thread their way into D.C. They pull over near the Rayburn Building on Capitol Hill, where the hearing will take place. Charlie pops the trunk and switches his leather jacket for a blazer, and Mary helps him tie a tie. A friend who has tagged along in the backseat stays with the car to park it, and Charlie and Mary walk to Rayburn. They proceed through a metal detector and into a cafeteria, where Klayman, a sandy-haired man of 62 in an olive suit and an orange-and-blue-striped tie, is sitting at a circular table along with members of two other families who lost loved ones on the helicopter. They talk strategy for a second. Klayman has scheduled a press conference after the hearing. If the families don’t get the answers they want today, they’ll say so. “In a very dignified way,” Klayman says, “we’ll make sure your voice gets heard.” Then Klayman and the families stand and walk into the hearing room together.

WHEN MICHAEL DIED, his aunt, Maggie O’Brien, kept hearing the word “warrior.” Warrior, warrior, our brave warriors. “That’s not my Michael,” she says. “In our lives, he was kind and funny. Oh God, funny funny funny funny.”

Michael was the kid everyone wanted to hang out with. He grew up in the Northeast with his brother, Chas, and his sister, Katelyn. He went to Catholic grade school, then North Catholic High, where he played rugby. He dated a woman named Santina Mairone. “Probably the funniest person I’ll ever meet,” Santina says. “I mean, I’ll never laugh like that again.” You’d be at a party, nothing would be happening, then you’d see a flash of skin and Michael would be naked, grinning, streaking the room. There are a lot of crazy drinking stories. Michael liked beer and, especially after enlisting, Jameson Irish whiskey. He liked to get a cheesesteak and a milkshake on Torresdale Avenue. You always think of guys in spy work driving black SUVs, but Michael drove a blue Mini Cooper. He worked at Byrne’s Tavern for a while, making sandwiches. He was a handsome kid with short brown hair and two percent body fat.

He went off to boot camp at 18. “He wasn’t sure about college,” Charlie says. “He’d seen other people that were working and getting laid off in the trades, and he said, ‘I’m gonna try this.’” Before long, the military sent Michael to train for five months as a cryptologist in Pensacola, Florida, so he could learn how to decode encrypted messages between terrorist cells. “We didn’t know he was that smart,” Charlie says. “That’s some bad shit, you know?” After Florida, in 2005, the Navy sent Michael to its Naval Information Operations Command in Hawaii, which works closely with the 2,700 Hawaii employees of the National Security Agency. He deployed to Afghanistan for the first time later that year, and then to Iraq in 2006, where he spent nine months embedded with SEAL Team Two, providing crypto support. He’d go into battle with a kind of laptop that could pick up enemy signals and locate snipers and “squirters” — military lingo for people who flee a target area.

Michael eventually left Hawaii for a coveted spot in Virginia Beach, Virginia, home to the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, better known as SEAL Team Six. Michael bought a house in Virginia, had a girlfriend and a dog named Schmayze. All that time, he never let on to his family that what he was doing was dangerous or special. He told Santina he had a “dorky” job. He told his Aunt Maggie he worked in an office. “He said, ‘You don’t have to worry, I’m in the office,’” Maggie recalls. He almost never talked with friends about life in the military. One time, he emailed Santina to say that Afghanistan was a “hell-hole. This place is fucking ridiculous. The people are savages.” Otherwise, all Michael said about fighting was that “he couldn’t wait for his time to be up,” his friend Danny Clayton says. He told friends he wanted to be a firefighter, or maybe a nurse.

Charlie kept in touch with Michael by phone when he was away. Michael never made it seem like he was in any danger. In June 2011, though, something changed.

This is the story Charlie tells more than any other. Often, when he’s talking about Michael and Afghanistan, it can be hard to follow what he’s saying. There are so many strands of the story, so many questions Charlie has about each strand. But he always comes back to June 6, 2011 — a simple moment between a father and a son. Charlie tells it to me for the first time when I visit his apartment in the Northeast. “Michael was sitting right there,” he says, pointing to a spot on a black couch. “We’re talking. And he grabs me by the arm and he talks about a will. I’m like, what? He’s like, ‘Dad, I’m not messing around.’” According to Charlie, Michael also told him, “You wouldn’t believe what goes on in this country,” meaning America.

Michael left for the base in Virginia four days before the end of his leave, en route to Afghanistan. “He never left Philadelphia four days early,” Charlie says. “So something was up, something was different.”

In late June, right before he left for Afghanistan, Michael called Charlie and left a voicemail. Charlie has kept it all these years: “I love you, Dad. I’m taking off. If you get up on email, send me an email, and I’ll see you for Thanksgiving at Aunt Maggie’s house.”

CHARLIE GOT THE NEWS in a phone call from his daughter. August 6, 2011. He dropped the phone, screamed, and doubled over.

He drove to Michael’s mother’s house, where everyone in the family was gathering. Four uniformed guys from the Navy were there. They didn’t say much, just that Michael had died, that they were so sorry. Someone turned the TV to a news channel. Charlie couldn’t take it. He walked outside. He was pacing, banging his forearm on the metal railing on the steps. Mary came running out. She’d just seen on TV that a helicopter with the call sign Extortion One-Seven had been hit by an RPG, killing 30 Americans, including many members of SEAL Team Six.

Charlie learned a few additional details over the next few days. He saw on the news that Extortion 17 had been called in to rescue some Army Rangers who were in danger; that’s what the military had said to reporters. And he heard from his Casualty Assistance Calls Officer, or CACO, that the helicopter had burned up. Charlie says his CACO told him there were no remains. Michael had essentially been cremated.

He didn’t discover much more until October 2011, two months after the crash, when the military invited all the families to Little Creek, a naval base in Virginia, where Brigadier General Jeffrey Colt presented the results of the military’s investigation into the tragic mission. They were all in a big theater, with two projector screens. The military handed each family a folder containing a summary of the findings and a CD that held the full 1,364-page investigative report.

Here’s the official account of what happened, according to military documents. On the night of August 5th, an assault force of Army Rangers flew into the Tangi Valley, in a mountainous region south of Kabul, to locate and kill a powerful Taliban commander named Qari Tahir, code name “Lefty Grove.” Supported by two Apache attack helicopters, an AC-130 gunship and multiple surveillance aircraft, the Rangers searched a compound where Tahir was thought to be hiding. He wasn’t there. A number of suspected Taliban fled the compound. A gunner on one of the Apaches shot and killed six, but others got away.

The Rangers weren’t in danger. They didn’t require a rescue mission, as the military had initially told the press. Instead, what the Rangers needed was an “Immediate Reactionary Force” to catch the squirters.

Extortion 17 was that force. It was a CH-47D Chinook, a workhorse the military has used since Vietnam. Loaded with 30 American soldiers, eight Afghan soldiers and one military search canine, it lifted off at 2:22 a.m., piloted by an experienced National Guardsman. Sixteen minutes after takeoff, as it descended toward its preselected landing zone, a small group of Taliban fighters in a tower atop a mud-brick building fired multiple rocket-propelled grenades at the helicopter. One RPG hit a rotor blade. As a commander told General Colt, “My assessment is that this was a lucky shot of a low-level fighter that happened to be living there. He heard all the activity and he happened to be in the right spot.” The helicopter went into a spin and crashed within five seconds into a creek bed. A subsequent flash flood complicated recovery efforts, washing away some parts of the helicopter.

The military believed the mission was done by the book, General Colt told the families in Little Creek. As a Pentagon official would later testify: “We believe our forces employed sound tactics in planning and executing their fateful mission.”

After Charlie and Mary went home, they opened up the printed report they’d been given. There was no ink on most of the pages. Then Charlie put the CD into his computer and printed out the report. His computer crashed. A friend who works in computer security inspected the computer and told him it had been infected with a virus; the CD had been full of spyware.

Charlie was grieving, of course, as he struggled to process all of this. He was going to AA meetings, as he had for the previous 22 years, and often spoke about Michael there. He was working to build a nonprofit foundation in his son’s name, the Michael J. Strange Foundation, which organizes periodic retreat weekends at which families of fallen soldiers can find healing. He was also seeing a therapist, along with Mary; talking to her was “like taking a Xanax, bro. She’s good.” But he still carried Michael around with him. He requested Michael’s autopsy report, and in December 2011, the Navy sent it to him on a disk. He was expecting to see pictures of a horribly burned body, but instead, Michael seemed mostly intact, except for a badly mangled right ankle. (According to a Defense official, there was “a lot of chaos” in those first days after the tragedy. “I think there was speculation by some people that the bodies would be in really bad shape. Now, whoever said something did not have authority to say that.”)

Charlie started having nightmares about Michael getting ejected from the helicopter, falling to the ground, in pain, calling out. It was hard for Mary, too. “When your spouse loses a child, it changes him,” Mary says. “So I’m mourning part of my husband also.”

Some families who have lost their children in America’s wars have found clarity and some comfort in protesting the wars themselves. This route wasn’t available to Charlie. His son had told him that if the troops weren’t over there holding the terrorists at bay, the terrorists would come to America. “I do believe we have to let our men fight,” Charlie says. Mary adds, “With both hands.”

BY EARLY 2012, though, Charlie was discovering a new way to channel his grief. He was reading through the partially redacted 1,364-page report from the military, often at night, when he couldn’t sleep. The length of the report would come to have a kind of talismanic power for him: the 1,300 pages. It included transcripts of more than 60 interviews with commanders and soldiers, identified only by their job titles. Charlie made notes on what he read, copying down quotes and bits of military argot, asking questions, writing “Bull-Shit” in the margins more than once. He kept in touch with a few other parents of Extortion 17 victims, including Doug Hamburger, father of Patrick Hamburger, an Army staff sergeant, and Tracy and Alan Litman, parents of Nicholas Null, a Navy explosive ordnance disposal technician. And it turned out that the Hamburgers and the Litmans were doing the same thing he was — reading the report, looking for answers. Although the main thrust was that the mission was sound, 1,300 pages is a lot of material. The families found pieces to grab onto, areas of dispute. They started sharing information, and pretty soon they felt like they were getting somewhere.

They had a whole long list of concerns, but most of them can be boiled down to one word: vulnerability. In reading about how the helicopter went in and went down, the families saw how vulnerable their loved ones had been. They were vulnerable, it seemed, because of the choice of helicopter, a bloated Chinook instead of a more nimble Black Hawk. They were vulnerable because the helo had no countermeasures for RPGs — no military helos do. They were vulnerable, the families believed, because of the military’s rules of engagement — rules that, according to Charlie, protect civilians at the expense of soldiers. In the report, one soldier, an aircraft navigator, spoke of seeing two “squirters” and asking to shoot them “or even provide containment fires to try to slow their movement,” and his commander told him no, “just maintain eyes-on.” (It’s not clear from the documents why the commander denied permission to engage.)

There was more. The soldiers were vulnerable because the Tangi Valley was a dangerous area, a “historical hotspot” for Taliban activity, according to one soldier in the report. They were vulnerable because the Rangers on the ground had already been searching houses for three hours, eliminating the element of surprise, and because the Apache escorts, distracted by their search for Taliban fighters, didn’t check Extortion 17’s landing zone for enemy activity until the last minute — facts that unsettled the commander, navigator and sensor operator on the AC-130 that was flying overhead at the time, as they later told General Colt. And the soldiers were vulnerable because they were pursuing a target, Tahir, the Taliban commander, who wasn’t there.

There also seemed to be no way for the families to learn why their loved ones had been so helpless, because the black box was nowhere to be found. In the report, one commander said the black box had washed away in the flash flood. Charlie found that unlikely: How often did it rain in Afghanistan?

To Charlie, all roads seemed to be leading to the same place. He’d been reading about Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, and the rampant corruption in his government. He’d also read about the numerous deadly “green on blue” attacks by Afghan soldiers against American troops: The Afghans were our partners in the War on Terror, but from time to time, an Afghan soldier would open fire on a U.S. base; insider attacks killed more than 50 in 2012. No Afghan commanders had been questioned in the report, only U.S. commanders. Charlie thought he knew why: The Afghan soldiers, in some kind of suicide mission, had leaked the helicopter’s route and position to the Taliban. If this was true, though, I once asked Charlie, why would the U.S. military try to cover it up? He replied, “They don’t want to show weakness.”

BY EARLY 2013, Charlie and a few of the other families had come to agreement on a set of suspicions. But they didn’t really know what to do next. None of them had any experience with political activism. That changed when they started talking to Larry Klayman.

Klayman is a famous anti-government litigant. Starting in the ’90s, while heading a group called Judicial Watch, Klayman repeatedly sued the Clinton administration — 80 times, he says — and he doesn’t seem any fonder of President Obama. Klayman believes, in the face of all evidence, that Obama was born outside of the U.S. and is a Muslim. In a column last September, Klayman called for Americans to tell Obama, “Mr. President (to use the term loosely), put the Quran down, get up off your knees and come out with your hands up!”

All of which is to say: Klayman is a fringe character. But the Stranges took a liking to him. He was a fighter, an underdog with local ties (he’s from Narberth), and they identified with that. More than anything, what galled them about dealing with the military was their sense that all these educated generals thought they were stupid. “They weren’t betting on he and I fighting for what’s right,” Mary says. “They thought we were just a couple of schlubs from Philly.” It was also undeniable that Klayman had a lot of connections in Washington — something the Stranges lacked. And while some of Klayman’s crusades were kind of “off the wall” (Charlie’s words), Klayman and the Stranges basically got along. Charlie says, “I’m not a big fan of the President.” Adds Mary, “Larry says what everybody else thinks but they’re afraid to say. He’s not afraid to say it.”

In May 2013, Klayman called a press conference at the National Press Club to push for a Congressional hearing and to introduce the families to lawmakers and the media. Several prominent Republicans showed up, including former Florida Representative Allen West and Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. Charlie spoke for 16 minutes. He said a lot of stuff. He said the Obama administration had broken the sacred silence of SEAL Team Six by mentioning the SEALs’ role in killing bin Laden: “Where did it all start? Joe Biden in Delaware, in a tuxedo, with half a load on, telling everybody it was an elite Navy SEAL team.” (One day after bin Laden’s death, on May 3, 2011, at an awards dinner in Washington, Biden twice praised the SEALs, and then-CIA director Leon Panetta confirmed the SEALs’ involvement in an interview that same day. Then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates criticized these disclosures at the time, saying he was worried about the SEALs’ safety.)

Charlie went on. He said that a drone should have taken out the squirters in the Tangi Valley, and that the only reason a drone wasn’t used was to “win the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people. “To win the hearts and minds of them people? They hate us. My son told me they hate us.” A few minutes later, he broke down crying.

He wasn’t done putting pressure on the government. As Charlie continued to push for answers about Extortion 17, he opened a battle on a new front. Last June, after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden disclosed to the world that the U.S. government was gathering “metadata” on the phone calls of millions of Verizon customers, Klayman called Charlie and talked to him about it. Was Charlie a Verizon customer? Charlie said he was. Would he like to sue the government to stop this kind of data collection in the future? He said he would. “So we don’t become an Orwellian society,” Charlie says.

The suit was a long shot. Klayman made himself a plaintiff, along with Charlie and Mary. In his complaint, he listed the following as defendants: “Barack Hussein Obama II,” Attorney General Eric Holder, director of the NSA Keith Alexander, the CEO of Verizon, a judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Verizon, the NSA and the Department of Justice. The complaint seemed more than a bit grandiose, especially given that no judge had ever rebuked the NSA the way Klayman and the Stranges were demanding. And Klayman’s style attracted some ridicule. In oral argument, he told the court about some unusual text messages the Stranges had gotten, texts from Michael’s old number that contained only ones and zeroes, and said he’d gotten some bizarre messages himself; he also talked about the disk that Charlie thought contained spyware. The government, Klayman said, was “messing with me.”

Klayman won, though. In a 68-page opinion, a federal judge wrote that while the Klayman/Strange claims about being “messed with” were irrelevant, the plaintiffs did have standing to sue as Americans, given that “everyone’s metadata” in this country “is analyzed, manually or automatically.” The judge called the NSA’s technology “almost Orwellian.” The decision was a crucial victory for civil libertarians, opening the door to future legal challenges against the surveillance state. Says Klayman, “Not to toot our own horn, but it’s the biggest decision in the history of government litigation.” Charlie puts it a little differently: The government “got their socks whacked.”

CHARLIE WAS CHANGING. He wasn’t just some Philly guy anymore. A union dude, a blackjack dealer. Chaaaaalie. Now he was Charles Strange, plaintiff. Charles Strange, the guy who took on the freaking NSA — and won. He was a public figure now, and getting more public all the time, because even as the NSA case was winding its way through the courts, Charlie was acting as a kind of unofficial spokesman for the families of the soldiers killed on Extortion 17. And this was becoming an important role, because the right-wing media was chasing the story.

The first to pick up on it were talk-show hosts and bloggers, mere hours after the helicopter went down. On August 7, 2011, blogger Pamela Geller suggested that the loss of Extortion 17 was related to the Obama administration’s earlier naming of the SEAL team involved in the bin Laden raid, and that it had been done as some kind of unspecified “payback.” The next day, Michael Savage, famous for once telling a caller that he should “get AIDS and die, you pig,” said on his radio show, The Savage Nation, “Did somebody in the Defense Department tip off the Taliban that it was SEAL Team 6 in that helicopter? Not exactly the same men who killed Osama bin Laden, but their brothers in arms. Who tipped off the Taliban?” In other words: Not only were the American soldiers betrayed by the Afghans; they were betrayed by their own government. By the Obama administration.

There was, and is, zero evidence to support this absurd claim. But inflammatory words like these established the tone for what would follow. And if Charlie was sympathetic to the narrative of enemies within, you can understand why. Through 2012 and 2013, his world was becoming more and more bizarre. He was in regular communication with a lawyer who didn’t think Obama was born here. He was reading documents produced by a military that had been caught lying more than once in recent years, most prominently in the sad case of Pat Tillman. (Tillman was the former NFL player and Army Ranger killed in Afghanistan in 2004. At first, the military said he was hit by Taliban fire; officials promoted that heroic story for a month before finally admitting that Tillman was killed by friendly fire from his own buddies.) He was mourning a cryptographer son who had worked closely with the NSA, the agency that had secretly been gathering data on all of our phone calls. And all the time, people in the media, people who seemed to matter, were amplifying some of Charlie’s deepest suspicions. He didn’t know what to believe, but it seemed safest, somehow, in weird surveillance America, to believe the worst.

Charlie did The Savage Nation last July. The show reaches five million people on hundreds of stations. Charlie told the story of how his son grabbed his arm in June 2011 and spoke about a will. Savage asked him, “Your son knew he was being sent to his death?” Charlie said yes, all the soldiers knew. Savage said, “So, you’re saying they” — meaning the Obama administration — “planned to execute your son and the others on purpose?” Charlie said, “One hundred percent, sir.” Charlie said much the same thing on The Alex Jones Show.

When I ask Charlie about his interactions with the media, he turns out to be conflicted and decently self-aware. He says he wasn’t sure what to make of these radio hosts a lot of the time. They were willing to give him a microphone to get Michael’s story out, so he was willing to take it. He once asked me what I thought of Michael Savage and Alex Jones, genuinely wanting to know. He disliked Sean Hannity of Fox News, who was always bashing unions; after a while, Charlie stopped responding to Fox News interview requests.

At the same time, it was tough for him to keep any interested party at arm’s length. People were fast becoming invested in the story of Extortion 17, hoping to use it as a crowbar to pry loose damaging facts about their political enemies. Since those first gusts of speculation on blogs and talk shows in August 2011, the establishment arm of the right-wing media had picked up the story and done actual reporting, particularly the Washington Times, which published a long investigation last October. The Times concluded, “The helicopter’s landing zone was not properly vetted for threats nor protected by gunships, while commanders criticized the mission as too rushed and the conventional Chinook chopper as ill-suited for a dangerous troop infiltration.” However, the newspaper did not conclude that Extortion 17 was the victim of a green-on-blue attack, or that the military had covered anything up.

The more stories Charlie read, the more he soured on journalists. They didn’t seem able to get deep enough. But maybe politicians could, with their subpoena power and their ability to view classified material.

Last year, Klayman helped Charlie set up meetings with two House Republicans, Darrell Issa and Jason Chaffetz. Issa, 60, from California, is a conservative who prides himself on irritating the Obama administration. He runs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which he has shaped into a kind of catapult for launching anti-Obama narratives over the castle walls of the media, particularly regarding the killing of four Americans by Islamic militants in Benghazi in 2012. Benghazi has since become a favorite topic of Obama critics, shorthand for broader concerns about America’s ability to fight terrorists, and Issa, from his committee perch, has driven the debate. As for Jason Chaffetz, he’s an up-and-comer on Issa’s committee, a 47-year-old Utahan with a cherubic face.

Issa and Chaffetz sat together with Charlie and listened to his story. Chaffetz floated in and out of the room, but Issa stayed for an hour and a half. They said they’d try to help. Charlie pinned his hopes on Congress.

HERE WE GO. February 27, 2014. A hushed hearing room in the Rayburn Building. Big-ass paintings of former committee chairmen on the walls. Video screens that say “Afghanistan: Honoring the Heroes of Extortion 17.” A large wooden dais, security guards at the door.

Charlie’s sitting stiff-backed in a long row of seats facing the dais. Mary is next to him, and Klayman, and Hamburger and the Litmans. Chaffetz is running the show today, as head of the national security subcommittee. Issa isn’t here.

Up on the dais, Chaffetz introduces himself and begins his opening remarks. He says he’s not going to air any classified information, as much as the families might want that. He says the purpose of the hearing is to “dispel potential myths and to learn from the events so we can ensure that proper reforms are implemented.” He thanks the five witnesses. The highest-ranking witness is Garry Reid, a middle-aged guy in a dark suit. He’s a deputy assistant secretary of defense. The four other witnesses handle casualty and mortuary services for different branches of the military.

After his statement, Chaffetz yields to the ranking Democrat, John Tierney of Massachusetts, who says that “there are other families and their representatives who have contacted the subcommittee and expressed grave concern about today’s hearing. They’ve asked for privacy and they seek closure.” It’s true that the four Klayman families are only a subset of the families who lost loved ones. The rest would rather let it be, and grieve in private.

After this initial skirmish, the hearing settles into a long gray stretch of calm questions and even calmer explanations. The exchanges don’t feel partisan, or for the most part even all that adversarial.

Reid takes point. On the issue of the black box, he says there was no black box. “The aircraft is not a digital — it does not have a suite of digital electronics. It has gauges — analog gauges.” Why, then, does it say in the military’s report that one commander thought the black box had washed away in a flood? Reid says the forces were trying to recover bodies and wreckage in a “hostile environment,” and the commander was confused. And what about that flood? Did it really occur? Yes, Reid says; he studied the climate data. Off to the side of the room, a large photo is mounted on an easel, showing a wide expanse of mud — the flood’s aftermath.

Reid continues to address criticisms and discrepancies. Was the Chinook the appropriate aircraft for the mission? Yes; a Black Hawk couldn’t have been used, he says, because it’s not designed for high elevation, in the mountains, where Extortion 17 was flying. What about the Afghan soldiers? Did they leak the flight route or landing-zone location to the enemy? Reid says they were all highly vetted and had trained with the Americans for seven months, and there was no possibility of a leak, because no one outside of the U.S. command was even told about the mission. “We do not believe the mission was compromised,” he says. (In his prepared statement, Reid also addressed concern about the rules of engagement, denying that the rules “restricted our forces” and arguing that the Apache teams tracking the fleeing Taliban exercised “sound judgment.”)

It’s easy to see why Extortion 17 hasn’t become as politically salient as Benghazi, even with its much greater loss of life. The picture Reid is painting here is of a legitimate mission in a difficult war. Commanders may have made judgment errors, but only because they were operating in the heat of battle with imperfect information. Classic fog-of-war stuff. Which may be why Chaffetz and the other Republicans aren’t making any sharp accusations about green-on-blue attacks, or the black box, or the military’s choice to use a Chinook. Instead they’re mainly asking about ancillary issues, like the logistics of the soldiers’ burial. It turns out that when the bodies were flown from Afghanistan to Dover, some were draped with American flags and some were draped with Afghan flags, but the military didn’t know which bodies were which, raising the possibility that some American dead were draped with Afghan flags. Also, at a brief ceremony for the dead on the base in Afghanistan, a Muslim colonel had said a prayer for all the dead. Chaffetz tells the witnesses there should have been two different ceremonies, one for the American dead and one for the Afghans. “I don’t want some Afghan saying something about my son,” he says. Charlie and a few other parents let out an approving whoop.

A little before the two-hour mark, Chaffetz goes on a brief riff about soldiers and war. Through sniffles, visibly weeping, he says he hopes the families of the dead soldiers “feel the love of this nation.” Then he turns off his mic and adjourns the meeting.

Charlie and the families stand. Chaffetz walks over to thank them. Klayman asks Chaffetz for another hearing where the families can speak; Chaffetz smiles and shakes his head no.

The families file into the hallway and huddle with Klayman, deciding what they’ll say at their press conference. After 10 minutes of private discussion, they walk out together onto the Rayburn steps, where five or six reporters are waiting. Klayman introduces Doug Hamburger, who says, with restraint, that he still has questions the committee didn’t answer. Then it’s Charlie’s turn, and the mood changes. “The panel was horrible,” Charlie says. “Is there a difference between a Chinook helicopter and a Black Hawk? Well, I’m going in the Black Hawk.”

After answering some questions from reporters, Klayman and the families hop in taxis and ride to a nearby lunch spot, and as they eat and talk about the hearing, they grow more and more disappointed. Klayman says he thinks the hearing was “an orchestrated attempt to placate the families,” a “disgrace” and a “cover-up,” and that the witnesses were some of the military’s “most ignorant people.” He adds, “Look, 95 percent of the American people do not trust the government. So we’re not way off here.”

The day is over for Klayman and the others. They had their shot, and it didn’t go the way they wanted it to. But Charlie has another meeting today, another chance at satisfaction.

BOB BRADY LEANS BACK behind his desk, hands clasped around his belly, and invites Charlie and Mary to sit down.

Brady: nine-term Congressman. Head of the Philly Democratic Party. Friends out the wazoo. Former union carpenter, with silver hair and a thick Philly accent. He first met Charlie two years ago, at a ceremony honoring Michael, and has spoken with him multiple times, but they’ve never gone into detail about Extortion 17. Brady’s office is a large room with purple carpet and two brown leather couches. A pair of boxing gloves that say BRADY hang from a bookcase, and a Louisville Slugger rests against another.

As three aides look on, ready to take notes, Charlie starts telling Brady the story of his son, but it’s like he tries to tell the whole thing all at once. A 1960 helicopter, he says. Refurbished in 1985. Somebody leaked something out. It was a green-on-blue. “I’ve got the proof. Just want to show you a few pages real quick.”

“Sure, show me anything,” Brady says.

Next, Charlie talks about his son’s body, and being told his son was cremated, and then getting the pictures of his body intact. He talks about the black box, and being told that a flash flood washed it away, and then being told there was no black box. “It was an ambush, it was a setup,” Charlie says. “Where’s my papers at?” He puts on his glasses and riffles through a blue Modell’s bag.

“You still down at the casino anymore?” Brady says.

“No, I’m out.”

“I was down to see you at the casino. You weren’t there.” Brady grins. “Good excuse to go to the casino.”

“They knew,” Charlie says. “It’s in the paperwork.”

“How would … ” Brady says, uncertain. “How would they know?”

“Who told Karzai, who told the Taliban?” Charlie says. He hands his handwritten notes to the aide on the couch, then starts listing a number of generals who left the military or retired after the Extortion 17 disaster; Charlie thinks they’re part of the cover-up.

“Ten months later, Benghazi happened,” Mary says.

“Who are these people?” Brady says, frowning. “People investigating?”

“There’s so many questions,” Charlie says.

“They’re not giving you any answers,” Brady says softly. “What was the result of the hearing?”

“It wasn’t nothing. It wasn’t even a hearing, I don’t think. They said a Chinook didn’t have a recording device. Chinook has three kinds of recording devices … three different, you can Google it … 1,300 pages. My son’s dead. Fought for this country. Loved Philadelphia … after the bin Laden raid, he came home, he said, ‘Yo Dad, I got a will. … ’

“This is bullshit, man,” Charlie says, his voice growing louder, the anger starting to lift him out of his chair. “Thirty guys. Twenty-two of the best guys in the world. And you tell me it’s a lucky shot? You’re lucky I — ”

Brady cuts him off with a quick question on an unrelated topic, and Charlie puts his papers back in the Modell’s bag.

“I’m going to shut up,” Charlie says. “I know it’s getting late.”

Brady is the first guy to interact with Charlie today who seems to understand that what he’s dealing with here is a political activist and a dutiful military parent but also a human being who is suffering. “You need some closure,” Brady tells Charlie. He says getting another hearing might be tough — he understands secrecy and clearances, understands why the hearing had to go the way it did — but he might be able to set up a private meeting with some folks in the Pentagon. “If you can’t find out what happened, at least you can get in front of some people and speak your piece,” he says. “You’re not just doing it for your kid, you’re doing it for all the kids who come after. And there are a lot of kids who come after. Too many kids.”

Charlie thanks him, shakes his hand, and goes outside to get some air. Mary stays behind in Brady’s office for a minute. She tells Brady her husband is “a good fucking man” and he doesn’t sleep.

Out on the sidewalk, Charlie is sobbing. Brady emerges and sees. Mary takes a couple of pictures of Brady and Charlie together. Charlie seems boosted by this, and regains his composure. “If you have a bad night, call me,” Brady tells Charlie. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 2 a.m. I don’t sleep.” Then he gives Charlie his cell number and his AOL email address.

Charlie and Mary walk back to their car and steer it into the thick late-afternoon traffic. Mary puts on a Kid Rock CD, rolls down the window, turns up the volume.

BRADY MOVES QUICKLY. By the time I see Charlie and Mary next, three weeks later, at Tony Luke’s in South Philly, the Congressman has already reached out to the Pentagon. Charlie and Mary are just waiting on a date and a time for their meeting.

They order steaks and fries. Charlie says he lost a tooth two or three weeks ago. He grinds his teeth from stress, and a tooth fell out.

Now he mentions a conversation we had a few weeks ago, on the car ride home from D.C. That afternoon, I asked him if he ever thought, even fleetingly, that maybe it really was a lucky shot that killed Michael. What if there are innocent explanations for some of this stuff? For instance, what if Michael talked to Charlie about a will in June 2011 simply because he realized Afghanistan was a dangerous place, not because he feared betrayal? What if the moments Charlie finds so ominous — hearing that Extortion 17 was a rescue mission when it wasn’t, being told his son’s body was cremated when it wasn’t, receiving a report with no toner — were simple human errors and miscommunications, not evidence of conspiracy?

In the car at the time, Charlie had good-naturedly told me no, he never considered that it might have been a lucky shot. There were too many odd things about the official story, too many red flags. Now he shoots me a look. There’s confusion and hurt in it.

“Do you really think it was a lucky shot?” he says.

I tell him I don’t know. I think the military miscalculated, exposing his son to great danger without adequately supporting or protecting him. That much is clear from the documents and from the tragic result of the mission. As for the other stuff Charlie talks about, I can’t say. The truth may be hanging out there beyond my ability to reach it.

Charlie leans back in his chair and scowls. He seems baffled and a little wounded, so I change the subject and ask to see the tattoo on his back. Charlie says sure. He pulls up his shirt, revealing a black-and-white picture of Michael drawn by Mary’s son, a tattoo artist. Michael is wearing a headset, holding a rifle, smiling. “So Michael’s always looking over Charlie’s shoulder,” Mary says.

Their meeting at the Pentagon comes three and a half weeks later, on April 30th. Charlie and Mary get up early, drive down to D.C., park near the Pentagon. Two aides meet them there and lead them through the building’s elaborate security system. Charlie carries a bunch of exhibits from the 1,300 pages in his black-and-red SugarHouse Casino duffel bag. They enter an office where four defense personnel are waiting for them.

Charlie asks the defense folks if they read the 1,300 pages. According to Charlie, one official tells him no, he read the executive summary and watched Charlie’s appearance at the National Press Club. Charlie stands up. You didn’t read the 1,300 fucking pages? He walks out of the room. “Had to get some air. Had to breathe, you know?”

After a few minutes, he returns, sits, and starts asking questions from a list he’s brought. The official answers as best he can. “He was honest,” Charlie says. “He said, ‘I don’t know, I didn’t hear that.’” It goes on like this for at least three hours, Charlie pulling exhibits out of the bag, the official parrying, until Charlie and Mary have had a chance to ask every question on their list. Finally, Charlie makes his demand: He wants a new investigation.

“Somebody should be held accountable,” Charlie says. “Tell me it was a lucky shot, maybe bad planning? Whoa whoa whoa whoa. My son, my 25-year-old son, isn’t here. I don’t want to hear that. I want to hear a guy got fired.”

The official who led the meeting with Charlie and Mary agreed to speak to me on background. He said his goal for the meeting was to bring the Stranges “some additional comfort” and “to help them understand the info they have been given.” In preparation, he said, he did read the full classified investigation, not just the summary, though Charlie was frustrated that he couldn’t cite chapter and verse of specific exhibits; the official also spoke with a number of key military personnel. He told me he had trouble following Charlie’s argument about how the deaths of his son and the SEALs on Extortion 17 were linked to the earlier SEAL raid on bin Laden — Charlie and Mary’s theory of betrayal. “I don’t quite understand the logic: Somehow we accommodated Karzai by serving up the helicopter in a valley … but in their mind, it’s true.” No amount of explanation could convince the Stranges otherwise. “They are obviously having a very difficult time,” the official said, “and — completely understandable. Look, and I understand the more I say, I have the potential to make it worse.”

I asked him how the military could say that Extortion 17’s mission was tactically sound, given that some of the people involved in the fight that day — the AC-130 crew, for instance — were clearly uncomfortable with it. He said, “If the procedures were wrong that night, they were wrong quite a bit, because [commanders on the ground] followed the templates. … Units in command learn from every operation. We’re not saying we would do it identically the same next time.” The military, he said, did ask one of its task forces to study new technologies for protecting helicopters from RPGs, but the task force concluded that the technologies weren’t ready yet. He added, “The enemy prevailed in that piece of battle. That happens in war.”

Charlie’s journey has hardly been futile; by forcing the military to testify before Congress, he added important facts to the record, and along the way he spawned a legal decision, in the NSA case, that impacted the whole country. But here’s my sense of it: Even if the Pentagon did fire all the commanders responsible, even if some official did come out and say in plain language what seems obvious from the mere fact that America in 2011 dispatched 30 young humans into the sky in a faraway country and failed to bring them back alive — look, we fucked up — there would still be no answer to Charlie’s fundamental question. Michael was fit and full of life. He was 25 years old. He was Charlie’s son. Where is he now? Where is Michael Strange?

Originally published as “Grief in the Age of Paranoia” in the July 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

The Best Jersey Shore Boardwalks for 2014

The Great White coaster in Wildwood. Photography by Trevor Dixon

The Great White coaster in Wildwood. Photography by Trevor Dixon


Keep in mind it’s a carnival town. Its Boardwalk is sprawling, loud, tacky, a little bawdy and a little seedy. And, if you go with the right mind-set, a hell of a good time.

The Morey family runs three mammoth amusement piers, a collective riot of rides, arcades, water parks and coasters. In this latter category, Great White is one of the best wooden coasters in the nation. The Moreys continue to invest in blue-ribbon rides; new this season is a higher, glitzier Wave Swinger (a.k.a. the flying swings).

In recent years the Boardwalk has seen new restaurants with outdoor seating, complete with netting above your head to keep the seagulls at bay. (Our pick: Jumbo’s, which makes a decent chicken sandwich and stocks Dogfish Head.) On Mariner’s Landing, look for a new taco shack with on-trend fillings like Korean barbecue beef, or stick with the tried-and-true — an order of Curley’s Fries.

While the Mack’s Pizza “stop” sign is a Boardwalk fixture, for nostalgic boomers, Douglass Fudge, with its pine paneling and elegant tartan boxes, is one of the few old Wildwood landmarks left, and worthy of a visit.

Cape May

No one goes to Cape May for stimulation. So it’s no surprise its beachfront promenade is a quiet repository of a few stores, two arcades and not much else. Surf Side Delights is a small grill serving perhaps the best pork roll sandwich at the Shore (732 Beach Avenue); for a diner-style breakfast, try Oceanview Restaurant — it faces the water, a rarity for a Shore eatery.

Of the two aforementioned arcades, the northern one (at 732 Beach Avenue) is your standard-issue Tween Central, but the southernmost (at 406 Beach Avenue) boasts a beach volleyball court and shady seating for watching the games.

The real lure here? Bikes, bikes, bikes. Get up early (you can’t ride after 10 a.m.), rent wheels from the friendly folks at Cape Island Bike Rentals, take a spin, then squeeze in a round of mini golf across the street at Stockton Golf, which has hydrangeas throughout. There are worse ways to spend a day at the Shore.

Stone Harbor

Just briefly — yes, we know Stone Harbor doesn’t have a Boardwalk, or a promenade. But its 96th Street shopping district serves the same purpose. Our picks for best retail: the Bread and Cheese Cupboard (baked goods extraordinaire); Seashore ACE (the nicest hardware store you’ll ever visit); Island Art Stone Harbor (a bit tacky in spots, but some of the old photos and signage are awesome); Skirt (the down-the-Shore version of the stalwart Main Line boutique); and Shades (sunglasses galore, including Chanel; 261 96th Street).

Sea Isle

You need to know that the Sea Isle stretch is not — absolutely, positively not — a Boardwalk. The locals are sort of fanatical about this. It is a beachside promenade, a name they hope will conjure strolls rather than 20-somethings stumbling home from too many beers at the Springfield.

Because said promenade is made of concrete, bicycling and running are wonderful here. There’s also ample seating, including a shady octagonal pavilion at the mouth of John F. Kennedy Boulevard perfect for imbibing frozen treats. (Our pick: the “Skinny Minnie” from Goldie’s Dips Ahoy, a nonfat frozen yogurt topped with a scoop of sorbet.)

Shopping is mainly concentrated at the Spinnaker Seaside Shops, located on the ground floor of a massive condo building, where Sessoms’ Nautical Gifts sells authentic coconut heads worthy of Gilligan’s Island. The Book Nook is one of the last remaining independent bookstores at the Shore. Get there, because Kindle screens do not mix with sun and sand (3500 Boardwalk).

Ocean City

The draw of the Ocean City Boardwalk can be summed up in one word: constancy. And so the hit parade remains, year after year: Manco & Manco (now under a bit of duress with its owners indicted for tax evasion) for pizza, Ove’s for doughnuts, the Old Salt for tchotchkes, the Pirates of the Golden Galleon for mini golf, Shriver’s for candy, Johnson’s for popcorn, Henry’s for sweatshirts (and the best throw blankets at the Shore).

The venerable Music Pier serves as the walkway’s anchor, each year hosting events like the Miss New Jersey Pageant and doo-wop concerts by acts you thought were dead. The fact that the town is booze-free is reinforced by its amusement attractions: Gillian’s Wonderland Pier (owned by the mayor, the son of the former mayor) almost exclusively caters to the under-10 set; Adventure Island Waterpark (formerly Gillian’s Island Water Park), a few blocks north, has new owners who made a half-million-dollar investment in upgrades.

Shopping in Ocean City is more miss than hit, but one exception is Ocean Treasures, which sells some terrific retro signage perfect for gazing at during the long, hard winter as a reminder that the sun will eventually come out tomorrow (966 Boardwalk).

Atlantic City

While the A.C. Boardwalk may be the most famous along the entire Shore, it isn’t the reason people show up here. (That would be gambling.) That said, if you can embrace Atlantic City’s general gritty schizophrenia, there are a few worthwhile stops along the boards.

The Pier Shops at Caesars offer some of the Shore’s best high-end shopping (Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany), and some nice city restaurant branches to boot (Buddakan, Continental). The legendary Steel Pier is going through yet another overhaul trying to reclaim the old magic, but its centerpiece, the new, luxe observation Ferris wheel with climate-controlled cabins, won’t open till early 2015.

Down the boards a bit, the best show in town isn’t on a casino stage, but outside Boardwalk Hall, where Duality, the free nightly light show that celebrates the city’s architectural history, will leave you downright mesmerized.

As for the rest, a rolling chair ride ($5 for a short trip) is still a worthwhile throwback spin, but the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, while a fitting monument to absurdity, isn’t really worth the $17 price of admission. Parades are a constant, including the recently revived Miss America Parade, at which, each September, competing divas try to outdo one another in ridiculous footwear as the crowd roars “Show us your shoes!” (They do.)

Read more from our Summer 2014 Jersey Shore Guide.

Jersey Shore 2014: The Shore, Your Way


Photography by Trevor Dixon

Going to the Shore is a ritual that almost all Philadelphians share. Together, we feel that rush each summer to get on the road, to wear the same shorts for a week, to start cocktail hour an hour earlier. Once we’re there, we all get a little happier, a little nicer, a little more relaxed.

Of course, there are also those experiences that make the Shore completely our own. Who you are determines how you vacation: Maybe you look forward most to the break-of-dawn bike ride to get doughnuts; maybe you take pride in knowing where to secure the best square of sand; maybe it’s showing your kids the fine art of pulling an extra ticket out of the Skeeball machine.

With that in mind, we’ve created a Shore guide that will give you more of what you want — whether you spent all winter dreaming about the seafood, the surf or walking the boards. Click on to make this your most special summer yet.

The Best Jersey Shore Boardwalks

The Best Food and Drink at the Jersey Shore

The Best Family Fun at the Jersey Shore

The Best Beaches at the Jersey Shore

The Best Gambling at the Jersey Shore

To see our picks for the best the Shore has to offer this year for food and drink, family fun, beach and water activities, and gambling, buy the June 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine, on newsstands now, or subscribe today.

Pool Boys: The Summer Gay Scene at the Raven Pool in New Hope

"The Pool" in full swing. Photograph by Jeff Fusco

“The Pool” in full swing.

“Are you drawing my PIC-TCHA?”

From my lounge chair, I look up to see an older, slightly stocky gentleman hovering over me. He’s wearing blue shorty-shorts, and spitting his words with a particularly nasal Long Island drawl. He’s also staring at me. Attentively. Waking up to the obvious, I realize his gaze is fixated on my notepad.

“No,” I start, “I’m actually here to write about — ”

He’s not listening. Instead, he starts to pose. He positions his hand to the back of his head like a Roman god, gives me his best Marilyn-Monroe-seducing-the-camera eyes, then breaks at the knee like a schoolgirl about to curtsy. His gaze quickly moves on to the next focus of his (easily diverted) attention: an olive-skinned, firm-chested man whose nipples, he boisterously marvels, are extraordinarily hard and pointy.

Welcome to the Pool at the Raven.

If you don’t know the Pool, it’s probably because you’re not gay, boozy or particularly randy, or preferably all three. But it’s been a summertime staple for gay men from Philly, New York, New Jersey and parts of what is commonly called “Pennsyltucky” for decades — New Hope’s crown jewel when it comes to summer gay tourism. When a gay man texts “I’m going to the pool,” it’s no mystery which one — it’s not his pool, or a pool, but the Pool. There are alternatives, of course: Lombard Swim Club (too exclusive), Overbrook Golf Club (too many kids), and North Shore Beach Club (too “douchey” — others’ word, not mine). But if you’re gay and not sipping mojitos at the Chelsea in Atlantic City or whiffing poppers in Rehoboth, you’re at the Pool — part of a combined gay bar/motel operation — basking in its glistening bawdiness. “If you’re in Philly and have your own transportation, it’s not long before friends start whispering in your ear about bringing a group to New Hope for an afternoon,” says 40-year-old Freddy Shelley, a writer and accountant from Drexel Hill who’s been going to New Hope since he was 21. “Places like North Shore, they can get a little too ‘bro’ for my taste.”

At a glance, the Pool’s dynamics this sunny afternoon can be outlined in Doppler waves. Behold, Wave No. 1: a Speedo-clad brigade of 50-plusers (the older crowd here is, shall we say, European in this sense: There’s no body shame, even when there should be) in the outer circles of the 150 sprawling chaise lounges, minding their own business as they flip over like pancakes to tan their leathery rumps (one of which pokes through a jock strap). Wave No. 2 is comprised of the “beach readers,” who put down their novels and tip their sunglasses every so often to ogle an Adonis version of Mr. Clean dousing himself in oil and playing the starring role of flytrap for his many, many worshippers. And then there’s Wave No. 3, which is everyone else — a loose collection of sociable gays summoned to the water as if by gravitational pull, neon pool noodles pointing skyward. It’s like circle time at gay summer camp.

Look, gays are assimilating at a faster pace than ever before. They’re having weddings (and not Wiccan commitment ceremonies, but actual weddings, with orchestras and tuxedos and Chateaubriand), adopting kids, buying in the ’burbs and driving SUVs. Their vacations range far beyond Key West and Provincetown. They lead companies, run for office, pose with their partners in family portraits. We’ve come a long way in a relatively short period of time. When a gay couple moves into the house next door, the neighborhood … shrugs.

But boys will be boys, and this will never change: At certain times, the tribe wants to cavort in its own playpen. Which brings us back to the Pool, which is ground zero for heat-stricken gay men in Philadelphia and surrounding counties who lack access to a beach house. And if only for the afternoon, I’m now one of them.

RECALL, IF YOU WILL, Jersey Shore’s cringe-worthy, beach-tee-ubiquitous “GTL” (translation: “Gym, Tan, Laundry”) motto for Shore-goers. It has always applied to gay men. While everyone else spends winter hibernating with Ben & Jerry’s and Netflix, we spend it working the gym circuit with our trainers, getting creative with kale recipes and force-feeding our bodies protein so as to be pool-ready when we hit the doorstep on Memorial Day. And those who don’t (typically men of, ahem, “a certain age”) have anchored their pockets with enough cash to spoil those who have — the young guys who, whether they blew their allowance on chia seeds or view their muscles as one giant bar investment, are pretty much broke.

The same social dynamic that has existed for centuries among wealthy older men and nubile young women plays out every weekend here, a vainglorious one-gender play. The “daddies” soak up the young studs and open their hefty wallets to buy them cocktails (and on occasion, it’s rumored, their company, wink wink). The “twinks,” as they’re called — young, smooth, slender, all variations of Justin Bieber — treat the rim of the pool as a runway, laughing at all the old-guy attention but accepting each and every drink.

New Hope is the perfect playground in which to indulge in this sort of idolatry. The abbreviated story of how the Bucks County burg became a sort of gay-and-glittered Plymouth Rock goes something like this: First came the canvas artists in the 1930s and ’40s; soon after, retail shops pitched their tents to piggyback off the scene’s growing (and marketable) diversity. This was followed by an influx of hippies who infiltrated downtown with their psychedelic tie-dye shirts and rock-record stores in the 1970s. Meanwhile, a flourishing theater scene emerged, forged by Bucks County Playhouse darlings like Angela Lansbury, Grace Kelly and Liza Minnelli (as icons, gay, gayer and gayest). “From there, people began buying summer homes, and with that came the community from New York and Philly, who found their way to New Hope,” says Daniel Brooks, founder of the gay-tourism organization New Hope Celebrates. “It was a place where they could walk freely down the street in drag to church and no one would care.” By the 1980s, thanks to the so-called “Golden Triangle” of gay nightclubs — the Raven, the Cartwheel and the Prelude — New Hope had established itself as a “Gayborhood” well before the term was coined for 13th and Locust. Today, the Raven is an only child on the bar scene: The Prelude boarded up in the late ’80s and was turned into a bank; the Cartwheel caught fire in 2005 and was torn down.

From a business perspective, those closures, combined with pool, dance floor, and hotel face-lifts completed in the mid-to-late-2000s, have made the Raven even more of a destination. It’s sustained in the off-season by its Oak Room piano bar, which draws both locals and devoted regulars from New Hope’s glory days, all belting out show tunes amid a sea of vodka tonics. “They keep the place going in the winter; they’ve been coming for forever,” says owner Scott DeWitt. “It’s like a community center.” DeWitt, a former bartender and manager, took over the Raven after it closed in 2008 following previous owner Rand Skolnick’s death from pancreatic cancer. “The dynamic changed very quickly in this town when [Rand] died and the Raven closed,” says Brooks. “The day that pool reopened was like a national holiday.”

The Pool isn’t just the shtick — the heart, if I may be so clichéd — of the Raven; it’s the moneymaker. “In the off-season, the pool people don’t come up,” DeWitt says. “The summer is definitely busier, because the Pool has its own bar, grill and everything. On the weekends, we bring 150 to 180 people down there on a really good day.” Beyond providing juicy burgers (a scene that defies credulity — gay men eating carbs? In swimwear?), the Pool’s waitstaff of hunky and mostly straight college guys keeps the older gents entertained, since they’re ready to sass back patrons who know their way around a sexual innuendo or two. And though hotel rooms are footsteps away, price hikes over the years have supplied a cabin-in-the-woods, Florida-chic feel, rather than the “Glory Hole of New Hope” past reputation one patron tactlessly described to me.

“It’s a summer ritual,” says Philly gay-event producer Josh Schonewolf, who goes every season. “It’s an out-of-Philly experience. You go for the day, you get drinks, and you bring ’em to the Pool.

“And then,” he says, “you people-watch.”


“Oh, they’re not a couple.”

“Well they’re a couple-a-somethin’!”

I’m cross-legged on my lounger, watching a scene unfold before me. Two doughy Speedo-clad seniors, drinks in hand, are firing off zings as they walk by a pair of bald men snogging in the corner of the Pool. Shortly after, a trio of fit, furry fresh-bait youngsters — at noon, they’re the only ones here under 40, aside from me — strolls over to the Pool and dives in. Their presence is like blood in the water; all eyes instantly divert to them.

I do a mental eye-roll and mosey over to the cabana bar for a drink. Here, I meet 58-year-old Dan Schaffer, who’s best explained as a gay Rolodex with a pulse — the go-to guy if you want to know someone, or just want the latest dish on who’s doing what (and to whom).

I ask if he knows the raucous aspirational sketch model I encountered earlier.

“OHHHHHHHHHH, MALCOLM!?” It’s not really a question, but rather a screeching realization. Because everyone knows Malcolm.

In a flash, we do a beeline through the crowd, back out to the loungers to meet 58-year-old New Yorker Malcolm Blecher, who motions me with a pat-pat on his chair — “Come sit on my thing, I don’t mind. We might have sex later. God, I’m horny!” (Subtlety’s not the Pool’s strong suit.) He offers me a bite of his chicken sandwich and introduces me to goateed, James Gandolfini-reminiscent Tommy (pronounced TAW-MIE). He then rolls right into a long-winded tale of the “worst trick of his life.” I have yet to say a word.

“Do you meet many men here?” I finally ask, keeping my distance at the edge of the lounger.

“Where else am I gonna meet ’em?” he says. Malcolm says Rehoboth is mostly a D.C. crowd, and everyone there is a snob.

“I try to stay away from some of the [younger] people,” he explains when I tell him I’m 22. “There are all types of people here. It’s like going to a buffet: You go to a buffet, and nobody has a fight, because everybody’s there to eat. People go here to have a good time. So when you’re mixing the heat, the sun, the liquor, the men — it’s like a buffet.”

“It’s like a big Golden Girls,” chimes in Tommy, his Jersey accent shining through.

“Are there any regulars here who are young?” I inquire.

“Oh, don’t we hope!” says a wide-eyed Malcolm, longing plastered all over his face.

“The young ones aren’t as friendly,” Tommy moans.

“Well, look at what they see!” Malcolm retorts. “They see us altacockers!”

Just then, T.J., one of two impossibly handsome pool boys — this one a broad-shouldered Temple biology student in an unbuttoned (duh) sky-blue shirt and board shorts — swings by to take our drink orders.

“We’ll take the same thing. You want the same thing, right, Malcolm?” says Tommy.

“Oh, yes. He knows me,” Malcolm smirks. T.J., clearly accustomed to this sort of banter, plays along.

Malcolm adds a drink to the order — for me, of course. He then formally introduces me to T.J. As his lover. Unsolicited, Malcolm begins to rub my shoulders — which, alarmingly, seems surprisingly normal in this environment. I’m not being objectified; I’m being admired.

Midday, I find the best verbal summation of what makes the Pool a “thing.” Bob and Lynn are married, middle-aged token straight folks who show up to sunbathe and chain-smoke Virginia Slims on Saturdays. They exemplify the choreographed open-to-anyone spiel I’ve been hearing from patrons and staff all afternoon. But from them, the sales pitch feels sincere. “This place, it’s very colorful, but it’s not pretentious,” says Bob, who’s brazen and straight-shooting. “Everybody here, they can laugh at themselves.”

He adds, as I turn away: “Just don’t tell anyone about it. I don’t want it too crowded.”

By 6 p.m., feeling more and more like “one of the boys,” I’m wrapping up my Pool-time experience on the deck with Malcolm and four more members of his crew. Of particular note: Chrissy Hobson, the self- proclaimed “Queen of the Deck” of the Pool’s core regulars. Chrissy, who wears gold hoop earrings and has her more-salt-than-pepper hair in a pouf, is the Pool’s unofficial mother hen, the arbiter of who’s (socially) welcome here. She sits perched on her teal-and-gray pillow (which she personally brings every day), smokes a cigarette, and overlooks the crowd with a hawkish gaze, her posse on all sides. She’s expressionless and eerily quiet for a mama bear, but her presence is unmistakable. Her mark of acceptance, one man whispers to me, is a nod or knowing smile — literal signals of approval. In a sea of queens, she’s the Queen.

“It’s a cast of characters here,” she says, dabbing her cigarette butt into an ashtray. “I call it a sandbox. And sometimes, the kids aren’t well-behaved.” I wait for a jovial grin, an elbow jab, something. Instead, she stays stone-faced. “But if you survive an afternoon,” she adds as I prepare to leave, “then you’re in.”

THE NEXT MORNING, I PACK my things and head to checkout, where I greet Tommy (already back … at 11 a.m.) with a simultaneous “Good morning” and “Goodbye.” I lug my baggage through the bar to the parking lot, past the prominent rainbow umbrellas that sprout like daisies, beckoning potential patrons on Route 202.

I decide to stop for a bite at the nearby Eagle Diner, where I see Chrissy approaching. A little nervous, I swallow and hold the door for her, staring her in the face, dreading her reaction.

She smiles.

I could barrage you with warm-and-fuzzies about what makes the Pool so special, and every one of them would be totally warranted: The staff is like family, the patrons are welcoming (okay, maybe a little too welcoming), and all pretenses are checked at the door. It’s Cheers for queers. And that this still exists in 2014, when kooky oases like the Raven aren’t all that necessary, is to be … well, cherished. Preserved, even.

But spots like the Pool are an endangered species; gay meccas like New Hope and Key West are in decline (or, perhaps more accurately, “going straight”). And if my afternoon here is any indication, fledgling gays like myself aren’t turning up in the numbers needed to sustain this place two decades from now, when all the geriatrics check into the John C. Anderson apartments and are listening to their cardiac monitors instead of ABBA and Cher. What happens when characters like Malcolm and Tommy — the men who make the Pool what it is — are gone, and all that’s left is a swimming hole with a black raven etched into its bottom? What happens when millennials are left to choose between Grindr and a by-then-forlorn symbol of once-upon-a-time gay culture? The Pool may be a summer “ritual” for young gays, but it’s a routine for everyone else. Whether New Hope’s pastoral allure will be enough to draw my generation is a question that remains as much a mystery as Joan Rivers’s real face.

At the diner, after I scarf down my omelet, I approach Chrissy’s table to wish her well.

“Another day at the Raven?” I ask.

She hesitates for a moment, and looks up at me as if I’ve just asked the stupidest question she’s ever heard.

“Of course,” she says.

Originally published as “Pool Boys” in the June 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Frank Rizzo Jr. Profile: Franny Takes a Lie-Detector Test

Franny at the Rizzo family home in Chestnut Hill. Photography by Adam Jones

Franny at the Rizzo family home in Chestnut Hill. Photography by Adam Jones

Across his chest and abdomen, two corrugated rubber tubes. Pneumographs — to detect breathing irregularities. Wrapped around his upper arm, a Velcro cuff. ­A sphygmomanometer — to measure blood pressure. Beneath him, a motion-sensitive seat pad; wrapped around his ring and index fingers, black adhesive electrodes. He’s in a small room on the second floor of the Academy for Scientific Investigative Training, just off Rittenhouse Square, biting the nail on his left pinkie. Frank Rizzo is taking a lie-detector test.

The immediate stakes of the test are somewhat beside the point. The historical echoes, however, are not. In 1973, Frank’s father and namesake, the mayor, was accused of giving a city contract to the chairman of the Democratic City Committee in exchange for political support. To prove his innocence, he agreed to a polygraph test. He failed. The Daily News printed its immortal headline, and RIZZO LIED became the two most infamous words in Philadelphia political lore. Now the mayor’s son — Franny — says he’s running for mayor, too. And the fact that this 71-year-old snowbird retiree is hooked up to a series of wires at 11 a.m. on an April morning is an early indication that his own political identity cannot be disentangled from his father’s.

Perhaps any son of Rizzo’s would have had a difficult time emerging from the Bambino’s massive shadow. Little old ladies in black dresses used to drop to their knees and weep when the city’s first Italian-American mayor walked down South 9th Street, where his mural is now plastered. Liberals, African-Americans, good-government types — they abhorred him with similar passion. But he had a legacy.

For the first 32 years of his adult life, Frank Rizzo Jr. worked for the city’s electric utility. For a decade and a half after that, he served as an undistinguished Republican city councilman. Since being booted out of office in 2011, he’s been cloistered in the old family home with his wife, Debbie, and his mother, Carmella, living the dull, blissful life of an out-of-work politician. He flies south for the winter. He cruises around Chestnut Hill in his Corvette. He emails the CNN tip line to correct errors about their missing- Malaysian-airplane coverage.

Several months ago, he got restless and decided he wanted back in. Perhaps the surest sign of this transition came a couple weeks before the polygraph test, when he told me he’d be flying to his longtime vacation home in Aruba — not for R&R, but to put it on the market. “If everything goes well for me,” he said, “I won’t have time to use it.”

(Plus: “Things are pretty hot down there when it comes to sales. The Venezuelans are leaving Venezuela, and Aruba’s only two hours away.”)

There have been more official indicators. He switched his party registration from Republican to Democrat. He began consulting with advisers whose names he won’t reveal. He underwent an extensive physical. He ordered up red, white and blue campaign buttons that read THINK RIZZO FOR MAYOR.

Unfortunately for him, nobody else in Philadelphia politics seems to be thinking RIZZO FOR MAYOR. There are several reasons for the deep skepticism, none of them flattering. Even in his eighth decade, Franny is seen as a legacy kid without a real record to run on, while the “Rizzocrat” constituency that elected him to City Council, and his father as mayor, has long since disintegrated.

Which brings us to the second floor of the Academy for Scientific Investigative Training. One morning several days earlier, I called up roving Democratic über-consultant Neil Oxman, who engineered Rizzo Sr.’s first-ever defeat, in 1983. Oxman was so incredulous at the idea that Franny could be running for legitimate reasons — like many others who roam the corridors of City Hall, he thinks Franny’s a political pawn, being used by an old adviser of his father’s — that he wanted him to reveal his true motives by taking a polygraph test, wagering $10,000 that he’d fail.

Franny, in a surprise move, accepted the challenge without hesitation. “One thing I’ll tell you, I don’t lie,” he said. “I would love to take $10,000 of Neil Oxman’s money.” With one caveat: “I don’t want it to be perceived as some kind of stunt.”

Stunt or not, the bet isn’t simply a no-confidence vote in Rizzo’s mayoral potential. The request for him to take the same test his father did 40 years ago — to prove he’s not a tool of his father’s former right-hand man — reflects a widespread inability to see Franny Rizzo as anything other than his father’s son. To a certain extent, Rizzo is confirming that impression simply by strapping himself to a polygraph machine, by exhuming the old ghost. But in doing so, he’s also placing a bet of his own: If he passes the test, if the headlines don’t read RIZZO LIED, maybe then, at last, he’ll have become his own man.

The exam is being administered by Nathan Gordon, a solidly built man of impassive temperament and sterling reputation. Gordon walks into the little room, sits down at a desk next to Franny’s chair, and asks him to close his eyes. Franny, sitting perfectly still, does as instructed.

“Is today Sunday?” Gordon asks. “No,” Franny says. Today is Friday.

One for one.

THERE IS SURELY SOME STATUTE in this city’s charter that requires prominent political figures to name their firstborn sons after themselves, thereby burdening them with a lifetime of anxiety over their unfulfilled potential. Meet Wilson Goode. Meet Bill Green. Meet Frank Rizzo. Meet their boys.

Early on, though, as if everybody recognized it was ludicrous for him and his mythic dad to share the same first name, Frank Jr. became Franny, and Franny he would remain, long after Rizzo Sr. died of a heart attack in 1991. Frank the cop with the skull-busting rep and the nightstick in the cummerbund was six-foot-three and wide, with a size 20 collar. Franny is slighter and about a half-foot shorter, closer in stature to his paternal grandfather Raffaele, who emigrated from Calabria to South Philadelphia in 1908.

By the time Franny was born, Frank Sr. had moved the family from South Philly to Germantown, and Franny went to a series of nearby Catholic schools. His 1961 yearbook at Bishop McDevitt High in Wyncote, just across the city line, contains only one identifiable photo of him: a melancholic senior portrait, all baby fat and high cheekbones, deep-set eyes and a tentative smile. Franny wasn’t a particularly good student, and after high school, at 18, he went to work for the Philadelphia Electric Company as a lineman, eventually wending his way up to the front office, where he worked as a spokesman until the early 1990s.

Franny says that when he graduated from high school, there was a good financial incentive not to follow his father, soon to be police commissioner, into the force: Back then, a beat cop made significantly less than a utility grunt working the poles. But according to his sister, Joanna Mastronardo, Franny yearned to join the state police and was discouraged from doing so by their dad, who worried his many foes would take out their enmity toward him on Franny. “My father would not hear tell of it,” she says.

Growing up Rizzo, according to Sal Paolantonio’s 1993 biography of the former mayor, was a gentler experience than one would expect. “He doted over his firstborn son, perhaps trying to make up for how his father treated him,” Paolantonio wrote. Once Joanna was born, though, Frank’s attention shifted away from his son. “Frank Jr. was a little jealous of all the attention Joanna got from their father. Joanna was the princess of the family, proper and proud, tutored by the Sisters of St. Joseph’s, pampered by her father, whenever he was around,” Paolantonio reported.

So Franny did what he could to get closer to his dad. In his 20s, like his father, he enlisted in the Naval Reserve. And when he was back home in Philly, he preferred riding along in his father’s cruiser to hitting the bars. On a Friday or Saturday night, when Franny might have had plans to tool around town with his buddies in his souped-up 1962 Plymouth Fury, his father would call him from the station. “He’d say, ‘Do you want to ride with me?’” his son recalls. “And I’d say, ‘Police Commissioner, are you kidding?’ I’d blow anything off to be able to be with him and just see the respect that he got from the men and women that worked with him.”

Frank Rizzo’s record in the 1960s reads like a parody blotter of a tough-on-crime cop sending coded racial messages. He raided the Black Panthers. He raided the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. He reportedly ordered his men to beat the “black asses” of high-school students demonstrating for black history courses, to break up the black activists protesting segregated Girard College, and to intimidate the black looters destroying white properties along Columbia Avenue. His brutal tactics ended up defining not just his electoral strategy — “Forget about the niggers,” he reportedly instructed an adviser during his 1974 reelection campaign — but his public image. “He’s certainly a Hitler,” former Philadelphia mayor Joseph Clark told the Philadelphia Bulletin in 1975. “He’s a typical dictator demagogue. He makes George Wallace look like an amateur.”

Franny, who like his father was a Nixon supporter, took such criticism personally. The first time he met TV newsman Larry Kane, in 1967, he asked him, “What do you think of this Rizzo guy?” without revealing his identity. Kane apparently passed the test, and the two became friendly, even going on a double date together. In Franny’s romantic life, Kane says, that same hair-trigger defensiveness persisted: “He had this horrible habit of meeting a woman and then saying, ‘What do you think of Frank Rizzo?’ And if he didn’t like the answer, I think he would basically leave the room.”

Apparently he didn’t find an acceptable answer until the summer of 1991, when he met his eventual wife, Debbie Altemus, a then-40-year-old divorcée from Upper Providence Township who barely knew who Franny’s father was. Frank Sr. had died just before they met, and the timing doesn’t seem entirely coincidental. “You know he didn’t get married until he was 63,” says his sister Joanna, “and I think that the closeness to the family is one of the reasons.” Even once Franny and Debbie began dating, it took them 15 years to get married — and they waited until then to live together. Again, Rizzo family pathology helps explain the delay. Debbie had children from her previous marriage, and Carmella Rizzo, an old-school Roman Catholic, didn’t entirely approve of her.

Once they did wed, in 2006, the Rizzos moved to that breeding ground of the Philadelphia B-List, the Residences at Dockside, on the Delaware River. Two years later, they moved back home. Carmella, now 97, took a bad spill, and Franny told Debbie he needed to be there for her. “I worry about the day something happens to my mother,” Joanna says. “I think my brother’s going to take it very, very hard.” Today, Franny, Debbie and his mother all inhabit the familiar Crefeld Street abode, which Frank Sr. bought in 1971. (Joanna moved away from home long ago, marrying Joseph “Joe Vito” Mastronardo Jr., a well-known gambler. In January, Mastronardo and his son, Franny’s nephew, pleaded guilty to multiple charges related to a multimillion-dollar illegal gambling and money-laundering scheme. Joanna escaped racketeering conspiracy charges but has been charged with evading income-reporting requirements.)

It wasn’t until his father died, in the midst of his 1991 mayoral campaign, that Franny even contemplated entering politics. In his 30s and 40s, living at home, he served as a sort of all-purpose fixer for Team Rizzo. “Franny played a behind-the-scenes, critically important role of just keeping the whole Rizzo campaign together. He was the infrastructure,” says Michael Smerconish, then a close adviser and a surrogate son to Rizzo during his failed ’87 mayoral campaign.

In 1995, having left PECO for a gig in Ed Rendell’s Commerce Department, Franny finally got the itch and one night planned a visit to a Democratic City Committee meeting to seek its endorsement for an at-large Council seat. On his way there, as he tells it, he was apprehended by GOP mayoral candidate Joe Rocks, who asked him to run as a Republican instead. Apparently, that’s all it took. Rizzo ran, ousted incumbent Joan Specter, and would serve as a Republican for the next 16 years.

When I ask Franny what his father would have thought of his running for mayor, he jams up and freezes, like some ’90s-model desktop computer. “If he were alive, I don’t think I’d have a chance to run, ’cause he’d be running,” he says, finally. It was out of the question, in other words, for both of them to share the same turf. “He would not want me to be in the same arena as he was in.”

AT 3:45 P.M. ON A TUESDAY in April, I walk into the Walnut Street office of Frank Rizzo’s ophthalmologist and sit down next to some people with actual eye problems. Franny arrives five minutes after I do, hustling across the waiting room to greet me. Just back from his jaunt to Aruba, he’s wearing a Creamsicle-orange Tommy Bahama sweatshirt, with a tan to match.

The plan is for us to meet here and head back to Chestnut Hill after his 4 p.m. appointment, to catch a glimpse of his post-political life. But first, there’s this business with the ophthalmologist. “There’s someone I want you to meet,” he says when the doctor, Robert Wortman, appears. “He’s been my doc for a long time. But the interesting thing is: I didn’t know it, the Mayor didn’t know it, but he takes care of the Mayor and me.”

These days, the similarities between Rizzo and Mayor Michael Nutter pretty much end at their mutual trust of Dr. Robert Wortman. Though everything about Franny’s present lifestyle suggests retirement, in reality he’s a political exile. In 2011 he lost his Council seat in the primary, accumulating an impressively pathetic total of 5,000 votes citywide. The fall from grace can be explained simply. In 2011, Rizzo did in fact “retire,” so he could collect $194,000 in cash from the much-maligned DROP program, a.k.a. Monopoly Free Parking for Philly Pols. The problem? His plan was to then “unretire” and continue to serve on Council.

The bad publicity around DROP, along with some feudal bickering between Rizzo and the (two) other Republicans on Council, gave the city GOP a couple good excuses to wash its hands of him. So they refused to endorse his candidacy — one ward leader sued to have his name omitted from sample ballots — and his ties to the party were severed for good. “In the past, I can tell you [the party was] in such dire straits for [mayoral] candidates that he would have been welcomed,” says State Representative John Taylor, the chairman of the Republican City Committee. “Would he be an attractive [mayoral] candidate to us now? No.” (Rizzo agrees his frosty relationship with the current GOP party leaders explains his party switch.)

Another reason Rizzo was never truly welcomed into the Republican fold is that he didn’t really stand for anything they did. Councilman Wilson Goode Jr. told me a story about the time the Republicans on Council opposed a campaign finance bill Goode had sponsored and instructed Rizzo not to vote for it. “That sort of pissed him off,” Goode says. “So he came to me and told me he was going to vote for it, because he didn’t like being dictated to.” As the anecdote suggests, however, he didn’t really stand for anything on the Democratic side of the aisle, either. “It was like a game,” says a staffer who worked for him in the mid-2000s. “It wasn’t about what was right or what wasn’t right. He would treat his vote like a chip.”

Rizzo’s lack of interest in governing, however, shouldn’t be confused with a lack of interest in the job writ large. He simply viewed his position in a very specific way: as a vehicle for doing thousands of tiny favors for anyone who asked. “He had the greatest constituent service in the history of City Council,” Kane tells me with Cronkite-level gravitas. And the bills he did champion reflected his passion for the most pedestrian issues. The legislative accomplishment he cites most frequently, for instance, was the establishment of a cell-phone lot at the airport.

Again, this instinct has much to do with his father. While Frank Rizzo the mayor has by now become something of an avatar for Philadelphia’s Nixon-era racial strife, his son remembers him in a different way. “We both always wanted to help people,” Franny says, nursing a glass of white wine and a liverwurst-and-onion sandwich during an early dinner in the back booth at McNally’s, in Chestnut Hill. “My father, my God, Simon, I could tell you. One morning, he was on the way to work. This is how kind he was. There was a loose dog, got away from its owner. My father being a smart guy, he opened the [car] door.” Dog jumps in. Dog shakes all over the notoriously immaculate Rizzo. Dog saved. Moral of the story: “I mean, what mayor would think about picking up a stray dog?”

This may sound like a whitewash — boiling down his father’s controversial record to an Aw, shucks yarn about a stray dog. That said, one oft-forgotten part of Rizzo Sr.’s legacy was his messianic belief in getting favors done for proverbial little guys. Even after he had been booted from office, Rizzo would patrol the city from the passenger seat of his sedan, taking calls on the car phone and dispatching foot soldiers to take care of odd jobs around town for loyal Rizzocrat grannies.

Frank Jr. fills a similar role as a perpetually on-call Mr. Fix-It for thousands of Philadelphians suffering from annoying but non- life-threatening issues. For them, it doesn’t matter that he’s not a councilman anymore. “I have spoken to him recently,” Smerconish says when I ask about their relationship. “Frankly, it was because I needed advice on a generator. There’s nobody better for something like that.”

Indeed, when (if) Rizzo makes a campaign announcement, the word “pothole” will almost certainly be invoked. “Steering around all these craters in the road, I’m saying to myself, ‘Why are we dealing with this? We’re almost at Easter, these things should be taken care of,’” he tells me, in what amounts to an early stump speech. “Potholes are not new,” he rails. “Why can’t we fix this?”

But where Rizzo Sr. supplemented the customer-service shtick with an otherworldly force of personality and politically shrewd law-and-order tactics, all Franny’s got is the potholes. When I ask him which political figures he’s been impressed by lately, he takes a long pause. Perhaps forgetting that he’s running for mayor as a Democrat, he eventually tells me he was impressed by Rick Santorum’s 2012 presidential campaign, before recovering somewhat and praising the deceased Arlen Specter.

Franny is sensitive to the charge that he’s a lightweight. “They’re going to beat me up and say I’m not college-educated,” he predicts. On the other hand, after a couple glasses of Clos du Bois, a little swagger breaks through. “You hafta understand. A lot of these guys are jealous of me. And I know they are, because they don’t have the ability to do what I do. They don’t understand it. Their way of resolving a problem is picking up the phone and telling a commissioner to take care of this. And hopefully it gets done, and most times it never gets done. I don’t operate that way. It ain’t a done deal till I know it’s done.”

Chip on shoulder, Franny invites me to his old stomping grounds, to pay a visit to some old friends and enemies.

ON THE FOURTH FLOOR of City Hall is a large, cavernous chamber upholstered with portraits of former Council presidents. In the middle of the room is a round table in the style of Dr. Strangeloveat which Council members sit before their Thursday-morning sessions and avail themselves to the mere mortals of Philadelphia.

Here in the Caucus Room is where Frank Rizzo and I meet on one such Thursday morning. While the reunion tour is being staged in part for my benefit — I had expressed hope that we could do something campaign-ish together — Franny is also eager to glad-hand his way back into political consciousness. Of course, it’s a little early for all this, and Franny hasn’t yet made a formal announcement. Still, he gamely marches up to everyone he sees, telling them about his mayoral plans.

Bill Greenlee, the at-large councilman, walks into the room with his head buried in a sheaf of papers. “Councilman!” Franny shouts, sticking out his hand. Greenlee looks up and smiles: “Frank, how you been?” Franny explains my presence, rubbing his hands together: “He’s hanging out with me for a couple days before I do my thing.” “Oh, okay,” Greenlee says. “What’s your thing?”

Franny seems pleased when Council president Darrell Clarke later acknowledges his presence formally. But in truth, none of these guys — or any other Philadelphia political players — are taking his mayoral ambitions seriously. When I call Sam Katz and tell him I’m writing a story about Rizzo, the first thing he says is, “Why?” When I return to City Hall a week later, one councilman goes off the record just to laugh at the prospect of Franny running for mayor.

Ex-councilman and current son-of-former-mayor Bill Green, now chairman of the School Reform Commission, is less inhibited. “I’ll laugh on the record,” he says. “If you have a name and you can get somewhere to do some good because of that, that’s fine, I can respect that. If you have a name and you spend your time in Aruba and show up on Thursdays in Council, that’s something I don’t have a lot of respect for.” There’s more: “If he has a vision, it would be a vision of him being mayor, not to accomplish any particular end.”

Considering the lack of respect Rizzo got as a councilman — and now as a mayoral candidate — he might seem a hapless, ultimately benign legislator. But there’s a less sympathetic side to him that complicates the picture. Though it’s an open secret in City Hall, the public record contains but one examination of it — a 2001 Daily News article that began with the line: “This is a tale of two Rizzos, Frank and Franny, a kind of Jekyll and Hyde.” Jekyll was Franny the constituent-service master, the guy with the Rizzo to the Rescue call-in radio show. Hyde was the petty micromanager whose staff members were so traumatized by working for him that to this day they organize happy hours to collectively lament the experience.

The central issue was that Franny would ride them all day long — often from his Shore house or from Aruba — to make sure they had completed largely meaningless tasks. “What he would do is [leave] us these messages,” says one former staffer who sounds genuinely scarred by his tenure. “It would be like, ‘Call the guy in Chestnut Hill to make sure the trash is collected on Thursday.’” Then two minutes later, he’d call back. And so on until the detail was confirmed. “He’s just such a weak, small little man who needed to [exert] power over other people. Goofy stuff. Really, really goofy stuff.”

Former Rizzo chief of staff Stewart Graham, who now works for Councilman David Oh and was widely acknowledged as the brains of the Rizzo office, suggests that much of this is rumor and sour grapes. But he does confirm the broad outlines of the control-freak impression: Rizzo, he says, once called him 137 times in a single day. (He checked.)

“He was always fine-tuning every detail, so that made him a real taskmaster,” adds Fred Hess, Rizzo’s longtime campaign manager. “As long as you stayed on track with that, you didn’t have a lot of trouble with Frank. But if you made a mistake … Frank would come down on you.”

Rizzo acknowledges that he was hard on his employees, though he rejects the word “tough.” “When people like my constituents need assistance and help, there are some times when you got to give direction or make sure that there’s follow-through,” he says.

To a certain extent, the attention to detail may have been inherited from his father, who abhorred a car or a pair of shoes or a nightstick that wasn’t properly polished. But Franny’s need to exert control over the minutiae of office life may have also been a reaction to the discrepancy in influence between him and his father. “Frank was always proud of his father, always supportive of his father,” says Hess. “But you know, when the first thing out of someone’s mouth isn’t ‘How you doing today, Frank?’ — it’s ‘I remember your father, what a great man, he’s the greatest man I ever met’ — maybe that’s why Frank tries so hard to hit every detail. And I think his father would have respected that.”

While the Greek-tragedy element surely doesn’t explain every facet of Franny Rizzo’s personality, politically speaking, at least, it’s hard to discount. When he would visit his father in City Hall in the ’70s, he says, his father insisted on kissing him goodbye in front of his staff. “If my father wants to kiss me,” he says with something bordering on defiance, “I kiss him back.” “He was my hero,” Franny adds. “I mean, at 40 years old, it was corny to love your father the way I did. But I idolized him.”

Even so, Franny isn’t blind to the uglier parts of his father’s legacy. “My whole life, people have been forming opinions of me based on my dad,” he says, and makes a concerted effort to convince me not to do the same. One of the mini-wars being fought in municipal politics right now concerns Mayor Nutter’s proposed privatization of the city’s gas utility, a move Franny says merits consideration. This is notable, since it was his father who first took the Gas Works out of private hands, turning it into a poorly run patronage den. With respect to black voters, Franny makes an even greater attempt to distance himself from Frank Sr. When we visit City Council, he repeatedly introduces me to African-American staffers, telling me later that he wanted them to tell me firsthand what a good relationship they had.

Franny, in other words, wants to be recognized as his own man, but also doesn’t want to stray too far from the family name, knowing it’s his surest political meal ticket. “It was nice to not meet someone and they’d have to tell me 10 stories about my father,” Franny says of his early relationship with Debbie. “But listen. I never, ever cut someone short who wanted to tell me a story about my dad.”

THE PUREST MANIFESTATION of Franny’s unwillingness to carve out an entirely distinct identity for himself is, of course, the house. With its classic Chestnut Hill stone masonry and slate-tile roofing, the Crefeld Street home has remained virtually unchanged since Rizzo Sr. refurbished it (not entirely with his own money, as it turned out, in another Rizzo mini-scandal) in the early 1970s. The mantels are populated by little porcelain figurines Carmella has collected over the years. The kitchen, with its cheery yellow wallpaper, hasn’t graduated from the Technicolor era.

When Carmella’s husband was mayor, media were generally barred from coming into the house. Franny, who was nervous about letting me visit, eventually convinced his mother that I wasn’t simply a newspaper “reporter” but rather a magazine “journalist.” Though I’m not entirely clear on the significance of the distinction, even the light vetting process speaks to his self-styled role as the house’s new protector.

I walk in around 5:30 p.m., while Carmella is eating dinner with her two aides. As she finishes, Franny and Debbie take me on a tour of the house that culminates with his father’s old office. Mostly unused even when he was alive, the room now serves as a shrine to Rizzo. I see a copy of Paolantonio’s book on a shelf and ask Franny if he liked it. “I went into it saying to Sal, ‘I’ll give you all the help you need to do this, but I don’t want my mom embarrassed,’” he says, leaning in. “I said, ‘Please, if there’s anything about hookers or any women, you know, that you might stumble upon, I’d appreciate you being courteous.’” (There wasn’t.)

After we finish, Carmella is sitting in the living room in a reclining chair, her legs propped up. Franny motions for me to sit down on a couch next to her and gets her to start telling me stories. Her hearing isn’t great, but her mind is sharp. Among her reminiscences: the time her husband saw Mother Teresa’s ratty sandals and offered to buy her a new pair; the dinner party with Frank Sinatra and Henry Kissinger; those handsome embroidered white suits Elvis Presley used to wear. Franny paces around the room, sitting down and standing up, egging her on.

Eventually I ask her what she thinks of her son’s mayoral ambitions. “I think he would make a good mayor,” she says, speaking slowly. “He’s had a lot of experience. He knows his city inside out.”

Franny is standing on the other side of the room. “Thanks for the nice words. I’ll never forget them,” he says, looking at her. “I told you, I never expected you to be wanting me to do that. I thought you were going to say, ‘Don’t do it.’”

“No, if that’s what you want, that’s it,” Carmella says, as Franny walks over and gently taps the tops of her feet. “You’ll be a good mayor. Good, good mayor.”

BUT BEFORE WE FIND OUT if he’ll make a good mayor, we must find out if he can win the mayoralty. And before we find out if he can win the mayoralty, we must find out if he even wants to win the mayoralty. And to do that, he must take a polygraph test.

Back in the little room on the second floor of the Academy for Scientific Investigative Training, Nate Gordon sits before a black laptop that will reveal to him any unusually seismic patterns in Rizzo’s responses. I watch the interview on a closed-circuit TV.

Oxman’s theory of mayoral subterfuge — forgive the petty tribalism of it all — goes like this: Rizzo is getting into the race only to help the candidacy of the presumptive favorite, State Senator Anthony Hardy Williams, who is black, by peeling away white votes from more serious contenders. Why? Because he struck a deal with the guy backing Williams’s campaign, his father’s longtime friend and adviser Marty Weinberg.

“Has anyone encouraged you to run for mayor in order to aid the Williams campaign?” Gordon asks.

“No,” Franny says.

“Has Marty Weinberg asked you to run for mayor to aid the election of anyone besides yourself?”


“Are you running for mayor to influence the election of anyone besides yourself?”


Gordon repeats these same questions for the next hour, interspersing them with occasional placebos: Can you remember lying to protect someone else? No. Right now, are you in Switzerland? No. Is today Sunday? No.

When he’s done, a printer spits out a three-foot-long piece of fax paper blanketed with an incomprehensible jumble of numbers and decimal points. Gordon walks it over to Franny and shows it to him. At the top, in bold letters, are the words No Deception Indicated — Probability of Deception Is Less Than .01. “So that’s good?” Franny confirms. Gordon nods.

Rizzo passed.

Frank Rizzo walks out of the room and pumps my hand triumphantly. He says he wants Oxman’s $10,000 check made out to the Frank L. Rizzo Monument Committee. “My dad’s statue could use a little polish.”

Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

The Tragedy of Madison Holleran and Suicides at Penn


Family, friends and scenes from Madison Holleran’s Instagram feed.

Doors were beginning to open for Madison Holleran. She racked up straight As, ran track, and pushed her Northern Highlands Regional High School soccer team to two New Jersey state championships. As she entered her junior year in 2011, Lehigh University soccer coach Eric Lambinus became a regular at her matches. Lambinus hoped to recruit Holleran as his center-midfielder, the most physically taxing and important position in his system. “What impressed me about Maddy,” he says, “is that she was exceptionally skilled in the fundamentals. She was very good, and she made the players around her better.”

At home, Holleran mothered her siblings. On the field, she led without seeming to try: first downfield to hug a teammate who scored, chattering to keep everyone’s energy up. Lambinus admired Holleran’s easy charisma, watching as even his Lehigh squad — college students — gravitated toward the younger girl when she arrived from Allendale, New Jersey, on visits. He also noticed something else: “You could just see, in social situations, her being very aware of the other girls’ reactions,” he says. “She seemed to need approval. But you figure that’s something to work on.”

Lambinus thought he had a good shot at recruiting Holleran. But during her senior year, competition emerged. Holleran was also a standout middle-distance runner, and Harvard’s track program flew her to Boston, took her to dinner and gave her a tour of the campus.

“What would you think about my playing soccer, too?” she asked.

These were words no track coach longs to hear. Harvard never made an offer. But the University of Pennsylvania called.

Lambinus says Holleran seemed particularly troubled by selecting a school. Though she offered Lambinus a verbal commitment — “I think she was very comfortable with Lehigh,” he says — she still appeared “unsteady” about the choice.

Lehigh offered the small, bucolic environment she enjoyed in high school, and soccer, the sport she loved most. But what kid knows herself so well that she can announce, at 18, to parents, relatives and friends, that she’s choosing personal happiness, the safer option, over a shot at big-time Ivy League success?

“Could you stop with the drama?” Holleran would say every time her little sister acted like the sky was falling. She was always the mature one, the young girl with an adult’s capacity to plan. So whatever pressure she felt along the way, when Holleran pulled out of Lambinus’s program and chose Penn, the moment looked like a triumph. Holleran went Ivy, accepting a reward commensurate with her young life’s achievement.

What shocked everyone is what happened next. On January 17, 2014, just as her second semester got under way, Madison Holleran trekked about a mile and a half from Penn’s campus to Center City and killed herself. Her death was one of five among the Penn student body in six months’ time, including four confirmed suicides. The tragedies cast a sudden pall over Penn’s image as a dream destination for every high-achieving kid and his or her parents. Criticism centered on Penn’s notoriously competitive student culture and understaffed mental health services. But the question raised by the Penn suicides is broader and more fundamental than any campus policy, reaching into every home where parents send their sons and daughters off to college with big dreams and bright futures:

Why would these kids — top of their class, the elite, bound for success — choose to kill themselves?

The search for answers, and potential remedies, suggests a radical shift — a new way of looking at suicide, our children and ourselves; a more honest way of handling a problem we usually treat with silence.

WE SPEAK SO LITTLE OF SUICIDE that the issue might seem esoteric. But according to survey data by suicide experts, about 10 percent of the country’s college students think about killing themselves (what health professionals call “suicidal ideation”) at some point in their college careers. Almost one percent make an attempt. If these numbers sound small, do the math: Penn has about 24,000 students, meaning that roughly 2,400 of them will suffer so profoundly from a sense of pain or depression that they’ll consider killing themselves; within that group, 240 students will make an attempt.

The biggest dangers are neurobiological: The human brain isn’t fully developed until we are about 25 years old, particularly in regions associated with impulsivity and emotional regulation. In this context, even a healthy kid is likely to struggle with transitioning from the childhood home to whatever comes next. Now consider that mental illness often first manifests itself between ages 16 and 25.

The risk is clear. But what happened at Penn recently still surprises:

Last August, the death of 24-year-old Wendy Shung, a popular graduate student and resident adviser whose kids called themselves “Wendy’s Wolf Pack,” was declared a suicide.

Pulkit “Josh” Singh, a 20-year-old engineering and Wharton business-school junior, was found dead on January 12th in an apartment he rented off campus. Speculation over his cause of death continued until a city health department official deemed it an accidental drug overdose in April.

Holleran took her own life five days later. Over Thanksgiving break, she told her parents she had contemplated suicide. Her father told the New York Post that she’d been happy in high school but that after going to Penn she had “worries and stress.”

• Sophomore Elvis Hatcher, 18, hung himself in his fraternity house on February 3rd, and later died in the hospital. He first confessed suicidal thoughts to his parents at age 15, and had been in treatment ever since.

• Almost two months after Hatcher’s suicide, the public learned of a fourth — Alice Wiley, a graduate student in social policy who died over winter break, just before the New Year.

Mental health experts say suicide never results from one fight, one conversation, one lost job. More likely, a person struggles against some preceding, often untreated mental illness, like depression. Then a series of stressors adds weight until the inexplicable happens. In this formula, no one burden — be it college, Ivy League or otherwise; family and relationship problems; drug and alcohol use — is to blame any more than others. “I think one of the things we struggle against in the world of suicide prevention,” says Christine Moutier, chief medical officer with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, “is that we’re always trying to explain it. We’re always asking, ‘Why? How could someone do this?’ But there’s not one explanation.”

Moutier and other experts maintain, however, that despite suicide’s myriad causes, prevention is possible. Between 1990 and 2010, suicide rates dropped slightly among adolescents, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control. And in a sense, academic success is protective — kids who don’t attend college are twice as likely to die by suicide as those who do. Still, the four suicides at Penn in just six months are cause for reflection on the pressure today’s highest achievers are under: to ace the toughest available courses; excel at sports; join extracurricular clubs; and then find time on the weekends to volunteer.

These overscheduled kids strive for perfection, spending their adolescence collecting medals, first-place finishes and congratulatory handshakes. But when they arrive at Locust Walk, they are suddenly surrounded by thousands of peers who were also the smartest and best. They experience failure, perhaps for the first time in their lives. They feel like they are letting down their families. And just as they are beginning to gather power in the world, they might be at their most vulnerable.

MADISON HOLLERAN’S FIRST SEMESTER at Penn was tough, despite her 3.5 GPA. She had a big, close social circle in high school, a support system built from childhood. That chapter of Holleran’s life can still be seen online — playing sports, singing with friends, dancing with her old teammates on a hotel bed.

Those bonds aren’t forged overnight at a new school. But Holleran was probably a lot more popular in college than she believed. The new friends she made remember her stopping, repeatedly, anywhere she walked, to say hello to people she knew. Later, media coverage would fixate on her looks — her thin frame, delicate features and joy-bomb smile. Her track teammates simply thought she was relaxed and confident.

“She was just one of those people who had an effortless glow about her,” says Lauren Murphy, a fellow runner. “She did everything with elegance and grace.”

Holleran did confide in a couple of new friends. She told Ashley Montgomery, another freshman on the track team, that Penn wasn’t what she’d hoped. Running track wore on her. She missed her pals back home. She talked, a lot, about what she wanted from life — a home in California, maybe, and plenty of outdoor time. “It sounds funny to say, but she was very serious about being happy,” says Montgomery. “She’d try to figure out what happiness is, like a formula, and she’d get really analytical.”

Holleran and Montgomery ran together, frequently, through the city. Holleran often paused to take pictures of pretty views. On a fall evening, after track, Holleran hauled Montgomery to the top of Franklin Field. The sunset cascaded before them, swirls of orange and pink decorating the sky. At the time, Montgomery considered the constant picture-taking an eccentricity. Later, Montgomery came to believe that for Holleran, happiness was “more a thought than a feeling” — something she caught sight of, outside herself, and tried to capture before it disappeared.

LIZZY HATCHER REGISTERED the sound, buzzing through her sleep.

The phone.

She could feel her husband, Kevin, rouse beside her. And as the world around her came into focus — still dark, phone ringing — she could feel fear, like a flatworm, twitch and curl in her stomach.

She remembers only the key words the doctor told her husband: “Son. Elvis. Attempted suicide. Critical.” From there, her every act — sitting up in bed, putting her feet to the floor, standing — felt unreal. The university arranged travel from Florida, but snow in Philadelphia forced an agonizing series of delays at the airport. “It was just an awful, awful day,” she says. “Such a helpless feeling.”

By the time the Hatchers landed, it was after 9 p.m. Someone from Penn — Hatcher doesn’t remember who — picked them up and drove them straight to the hospital. Elvis was already on life support. “The next morning,” says Hatcher, “he passed away.”

Hatcher posts on Facebook regularly, intermixing fond remembrances of Elvis with exhortations on treating depression. She speaks proudly of her son — a multi- instrumentalist and dancer with a furious wave of curly hair who loved wearing bow ties. He’d made friends at Penn and joined a fraternity. But over the course of multiple phone conversations, her voice weakens. “Life is just … so different now,” she says. “We just try to get through the day.”

Two days after Hatcher’s death, Penn acted swiftly, announcing the hiring of three new mental health counselors at Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS, and, weeks later, the formation of a Task Force on Student Psychological Health and Welfare. Penn president Amy Gutmann wrote about the changes in a university-wide email, simultaneously touting the expansion of services and denying any connection between the counseling center and the suicides.

“While all evidence indicates that the recent student deaths are unrelated to each other,” she wrote, “and certainly unrelated to the work done at CAPS, we know that the needs of the community are placing greater than ever demand on our valuable student support teams.”

In the same memo, Gutmann noted that in the past eight years, CAPS had grown its senior staff by 10. The message struck some as cold politicking when a tender hand was needed; in one line, Gutmann used the acronym “FTE” to denote the hiring of “Full Time Employees.”

“I think the whole response just reflected a kind of corporate mind-set,” says Toorjo Ghose, a member of Penn’s faculty senate and an assistant professor in the School of Social Policy & Practice. “She wrote as if she was responding to shareholders — not to young people who might be grieving and in pain.”

In terms of mental health, Penn students face a unique challenge. The school culture is notoriously competitive, a battle among valedictorian-level intellects where a Work harder, play harder mentality runs from the Wharton Business School to the humanities and sciences. Last year, 34th Street Magazine published a survey that found 71 percent of Penn students got blackout drunk at least once in college. For close to 25 percent, blacking out was the goal. Some kids also talk about a phenomenon called “Penn Face,” in which students express how stressful their lives are without ever showing any strain.

This culture may not be responsible for Hatcher’s death, or Holleran’s. But should it change in some way so that the next Hatcher or Holleran might be helped?

University spokesman Ron Ozio didn’t make any Penn administrators or professors available for interviews. Late in February, however, Penn’s silence was broken: The dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice, Richard Gelles, told me one of his students — later identified as Alice Wiley — had died by suicide over break, prior to Holleran and Hatcher.

Penn can’t exactly be accused of hiding Wiley’s death; the school says it wasn’t aware of it until January. No law requires universities to track or disclose suicides among their student bodies. Experts also present strong data demonstrating that publicizing a suicide can encourage further suicides — a phenomenon known as the “contagion” effect. And out of respect for privacy or liability concerns, universities usually defer to the deceased student’s parents, rendering a campus suicide a secret.

History suggests, however, that a cluster of suicides brings change. Drexel University responded to a pair of suicides last year by forming a task force, which is still making recommendations. Penn’s fellow Ivy League school Cornell suffered a cluster of suicides from 2009 to 2011 and moved swiftly to upgrade its mental health services. And momentum is developing for changes at Penn and beyond.

An online petition promoting “The Madison Holleran Law,” to be presented in the New Jersey state legislature, is gathering thousands of signatures, seeking to force universities to publicly report suicides. CAPS also faces pressure to further increase its staff size. A scoop by Penn’s student newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian, turned up documents that revealed students often endure three-to-four-week waits for an initial visit — an eternity for someone struggling with the sudden onset of a mental illness. Those documents lent support to similar reports Penn students gave me. CAPS’s 38 full-time staff members are a mix of psychiatrists, social workers and interns. Cornell, in the wake of its own spate of suicides, has roughly 3,000 fewer students than Penn but an equal number of staffers. Even the most progressive aspect of Penn’s response — the mental health task force — seemed inadequate, given that no student representatives were invited to participate.

There are few if any clear lines between the recent deaths and failures in Penn’s mental health services. Little is known about the suicides of Alice Wiley and Wendy Shung. Hatcher fought depression for years, and preferred to see his longtime doctor in Miami Beach via Skype. “Penn had nothing to do with his suicide,” says Lizzy Hatcher. “I think he just got tired of the fight. He enjoyed his classes and friends. He loved Philadelphia.”

Madison Holleran did seek help from CAPS after telling her family over Thanksgiving break that she was stressed and having suicidal thoughts. But Holleran didn’t stay long at CAPS. She attended one or two sessions, with an intern; seeing a senior staff member would have required her to wait several weeks. She ultimately saw a counselor closer to her home in New Jersey.

Holleran’s father doesn’t blame the university for his daughter’s death. But in response to their losses, Penn’s students took to the school paper’s opinion pages, social media and message boards. Wharton sophomore Erica Ligenza wrote of being afraid to confess that she has anxiety issues in such a high-achieving environment. Hilary Barlowe complained that CAPS dismissed her suicidal feelings as a “normal adjustment” to college. Barlowe had been on psychiatric leave.

Sophomore Alexandra Sternlicht wrote an article in the DP, “Left to Grieve Alone, Together,” decrying how Penn, unlike Yale, Brown, Dartmouth and Harvard, does not automatically send student-wide emails after anyone dies. Further, students must notify professors themselves when a friend in the student body passes away.

“Not only is Penn’s neglectful response to death an exception amongst peer institutions,” wrote Sternlicht. “[I]t is also unhealthy. And even Penn knows it. According to Penn’s Behavioral Corporate Services, when the subject of death is ‘avoided, ignored or denied,’ the grieving process is compromised. … Penn is compromising students’ mental health.”

Ghose, probably the most outspoken of Penn’s faculty members on the recent suicides, agrees that more action — and honest reflection — is needed. “It would be irresponsible to blame the university for these deaths,” says Ghose. “But it is also true that this is an occasion for the university to look at itself, and our culture, and improve our mental health services. Because this is an elite university. But our mental health on campus is not elite. … And I think the administration should just acknowledge that.”

One student on a Penn-based mental health website dubbed “Pennsive” wrote that after she survived a second suicide attempt in two years, she received a hospital visit from a Penn administrator.

“Are we going to make this an annual pattern?” the administrator asked.

“No,” the student said.

The administrator left then, handing her a business card.

MADISON HOLLERAN AND INGRID HUNG met on campus, maybe three weeks into the fall semester. The two shared at least one meal together per day, and every so often, Holleran declared a “movie night,” meaning snacks — she had a peanut butter obsession — and romantic comedies.

Dressed in a crew jacket and jeans, her black hair covering her shoulders, Hung sits in a Starbucks near the Penn campus. She recalls their last movie date, watching The Parent Trap the night before Holleran died, and their friendship. “Maddy and I bonded around feeling homesick,” Hung says of their usual conversations. “And we talked a lot about just getting through it. ‘Freshman year!’ We would say to each other, ‘We are going to make it at Penn. We will make friends. We will join a sorority. And we will be happy.’”

Hung says Holleran admitted that she missed her family, friends and soccer. She also feared that turning down Lehigh’s soccer scholarship was a mistake. Hung doesn’t cite the pressure of Penn, specifically, for Holleran’s troubles. She says that leaving home and attending any college would have been tough for Madison. Hung also saw her struggle with the burden particular to their generation — to have a great time, always, and post pictures of her revels on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

“I’m not sure how I’m even going to talk to my friends back home,” Holleran told Hung. “I look at my friends on Facebook, and they all seem so happy. They are all having these great college experiences, and I’m not.”

Today, Hung commiserates.

“On social media, everyone presents a false picture of their life,” she says. “No one ever posts a picture of themselves looking sad. Everyone is at the coolest party. And I think all of us wonder, sometimes, ‘Why isn’t my life like that? Why don’t I feel like smiling like them?’”

The version of herself that Holleran projected to the world online offered no clues to the turmoil she held inside. Her Instagram stream is rife with pretty pictures. And any stress she expressed on Twitter reads like typical schoolgirl patter.

“FREEEEEDiOM!!!!!!!!!!!! Spendin my last day in Philly with my gf before headin home,” she wrote on December 20th.

“VS fashion show is on and I’m in the damn library,” she wrote on December 10th. “Something here is not right.”

There is also a cell-phone video of a November Penn track meet that captures Holleran running a race. She rounds a corner and pulls a muscle, maybe 10 yards from the finish line. She seizes up, then jerks along, fighting, till she can finally throw herself across the finish line.

“That’s my Maddy,” says a family friend. “Tough as ever.”

“I AM VERY LUCKY to be alive,” says Jack Park. He is tall, slim and well-dressed, with dark eyes, a gentle demeanor and a soft speaking voice. A junior at Penn, Park announced in February, through social media, that he had attempted suicide in his dorm room — twice. Park has attained a kind of celebrity in recent months, a fact about which he seems humble, even bemused. “I am very pleased that you are interested in my story,” he says.

Alerting the world to his battle with mental illness was brave enough. But Park also publicly listed his phone number and email address. “My operating hours are 24/7, 365,” he wrote in a Tumblr post, taking what reads like a slap at CAPS, which only added evening hours after the recent suicides. “To make time for these calls, I dropped courses to take only the four minimum credits legally required for international kids to attend Penn. Please, please, do not attempt to kill yourself and call this number if you want to hear me out. Life is so much more beautiful than death. I taught myself this the hard way. … ”

Park took a semester off from school, returned to Penn, and completed his sophomore year before the Holleran and Hatcher suicides convinced him to go public.

“I take medication now,” he says, without a trace of shyness, “for depression and bipolar disorder, and I feel good.”

Traditionally, people who survive suicide attempts keep the topic secret. But these days, Park isn’t alone. Drexel business student Drew Bergman gives lectures about his own suicide attempts. Online, the website Live Through This has gathered more than three dozen testimonials from suicide survivors — teachers, health-care professionals, moms and dads. In April, the New York Times chronicled this new openness among suicide prevention experts in talking about suicide attempts.

In part, these initiatives spring from a growing understanding that mental health should be addressed in the same terms as our physical health. No young adult would hesitate to tell her parents that her knee hurts. But admitting that thoughts of suicide keep popping up, or that feelings of anxiousness and depression are all-consuming, still carries a stigma. The reason is easy to see: A bum knee is just something we have. We believe our thoughts reveal who we are.

Mental health, however, relates to physical workings in our brain. Researchers at Columbia who study suicide have published data showing that abnormalities in brain chemistry and structure are present in the suicidal — including deficiencies in pleasure-dealing serotonin. “These things are treatable,” says Columbia researcher J. John Mann, “with therapy and medication, and that’s what people need to understand.”

Capitalizing on this knowledge requires a bold cultural shift in which parents teach their kids to talk about their mental health as freely as they would a headache. “It’s a new and very hopeful time,” says Christine Moutier, from the AFSP. “All of these people who used to stay in the dark are coming out now, despite the stigma, and putting a face on this issue.”

For now, however, mental illness and suicide remain stigmatized, in part because of advice coming from the very same experts. The “contagion effect” is real: Publicity surrounding suicides can increase the suicide rate, and suicides often occur in geographical clusters, like one from 2000 to 2003 in which six Cherry Hill teenagers took their own lives.

Mental health experts endorse strict guidelines for publicizing suicide: Don’t mention the location or method; avoid depicting the mourning of family members; and resist stories that might make anyone who died by suicide appear attractive or celebrated.

“We struggle with this,” says Alison Malmon, “throughout the community of people working on the issue of suicide prevention.” Malmon was a student at Penn 10 years ago when her brother, a senior at Columbia, killed himself. She founded a nonprofit, Active Minds, to combat mental illness and prevent suicide on college campuses.

“There is already such a huge stigma around suicide and mental illness in general,” she says. “And some of us fear that if we’re too strict about what we should or shouldn’t say, we’re actually adding to that stigma and keeping the subject in the dark.”

People who attempt suicide are usually convinced that all of their distorted thinking is true. They have often spent a long time formulating a plan and display incredible calm, despite the pain they’re in, because they believe they’ve found the only way out. Many are saved, even then, by reaching what could be called a “bend” moment — some unexpected turn of events that makes them rethink the plan they spent so long crafting.

Sometimes a restriction on the means they intend to use is enough: Cornell put barriers around bridges on campus to discourage jumpers, and some hospitals install break-away shower rods to prevent hangings. Penn spokesman Ron Ozio responded to an email asking if the university employs any of these methods by saying, “University buildings are built to existing state and local codes.” But what, exactly, will divert someone from a suicide plan is difficult to calculate.

“Often,” says Moutier, “you’ll hear some story, after the fact, and think, ‘This was the moment’ that might have saved them. But sometimes the person suffering has adopted a kind of tunnel vision. What looks like a rational way out to the rest of us doesn’t look that way to them at all.”

Holleran may have believed that quitting Penn would comprise such a heavy blow that everyone would be better off if she died. In this sense, people like Park and Bergman can be a tremendous resource, not only because they can speak about what they thought and felt while suicidal, but because they’re the figures often missing from stories like this — those who provide, in this dark space, a sense of hope. The fact is, most who suffer from depression or suicidal thoughts survive. Go back to the math: Out of the projected 2,400 Penn kids who will consider suicide, nearly 90 percent will choose to go on.

The answer to reducing suicide — or part of it — might be to simply tell more stories, particularly of people who’ve survived their suicidal thoughts, so that tales like those of Holleran and Hatcher are placed in context. And so we can understand the real depth of the tragedy here: These lives are over when they might yet have been transformed.

OVER THE HOLIDAYS, at Thanksgiving, Madison Holleran told her parents how she was suffering. She felt unhappy at Penn. The academics were demanding. Worse, her track coach required two-a-day practices, even with classes in session. She was overtaxed. She’d thought of suicide.

The Hollerans, in response, took all the expected steps. They got her help — a counselor who told her to call if she ever formulated a suicide plan. When she didn’t feel comfortable at CAPS, they looked for a private psychologist. On the drive from North Jersey to Penn after the semester break, Holleran said, “Dad, I don’t want to go back.”

“I understand,” her father, Jim, replied. “You should look at transferring.”

But she declined. She wanted to make Penn work.

Holleran and her friend, Ingrid Hung, arrived on campus the Saturday before spring classes began. They attended a Penn women’s basketball game. That evening, Holleran told Hung she’d been thinking of transferring.

“Oh, no,” Hung replied. “I knew you were sad, but I had no idea you were this sad. …”

Holleran, seeing her friend’s reaction, stopped the transfer talk right there. “No,” Holleran said, “it’s fine.”

Over the next couple of days, she peppered Hung with text messages: “We’re going to have so much fun,” Holleran wrote. “We’re going to love it here.”

“I don’t think she fully wanted me to know how bad it was for her,” Hung says now.

On Friday, January 17th, Holleran went into Center City. She stopped at various stores and bought gifts for her family. Her dad called around noon. He wanted to visit her. But she told him not to worry. She had sorority rush events, and the Penn track team was scheduled to run at Lehigh that weekend.

She sent pleasant text messages throughout the day. At 5 p.m., she texted a friend who’d been trying to reach her. “I just got back from a run,” she wrote. “Whatcha doing?”

Around 6 p.m., she walked to Rittenhouse Square. The park was still decorated for Christmas. Holleran took a cell phone picture: Big balls of light glow in the trees, capturing an idyll Holleran was unable to preserve or nurture in her own heart.

At 6:27 p.m., she walked south along 15th Street across Locust and felt a hand grasp her arm. She turned and saw Eric Lambinus, the Lehigh soccer coach.

Of course, this was it — the moment when the arc of Holleran’s story might have bent toward life. Symbolically, Lambinus was an ideal candidate to play this role. Decades ago, his sister, a nursing student, died by suicide at roughly the same age as Holleran. “She was unhappy,” he says. “And she was convinced that if she quit school she’d be letting everyone down, and she couldn’t go on.”

That evening, though, he was just glad to see Madison. He wanted her to know he bore no hard feelings over her choosing Penn.

“Madison,” he said, “how are you?”

“Things aren’t going great for me here,” she said. “I’m not so happy, running track.”

Lambinus had to be careful. NCAA regulations prohibit tampering. But he tried to let her know the door was open. “There is a process you have to follow,” he told her. “But talk to your parents. Talk to your coach. … You should be happy.”

Lambinus was in town for an NCAA athletics convention and scheduled to meet friends at Fadó for dinner. He needed to get back to them. But before he left Madison, he gave voice to something that bothered him.

“What are you doing by yourself on a Friday night?” he asked.

In all his time recruiting her, he didn’t think he’d ever seen Madison Holleran alone.

“I was just doing some shopping,” she said. “But I’m meeting some friends for dinner.”

They parted. About 15 minutes later, Holleran reached 15th and Spruce. She climbed the stairs to the fifth floor of a parking garage. She didn’t have to do it. But at the moment, she couldn’t see how to do anything else.

For confidential support if you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Learn about the warning signs of suicide at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Originally published as “The Penn Suicides” in the June 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

One of Us: Marty Moss-Coane of WHYY’s Radio Times


Illustration by Andy Friedman

My name is … Marty Moss-Coane, with a hyphen. I was a Marjorie, named for my grandmother. And I was a Marge or Margie until I was 10, when I said I was not going to be called that for the rest of my life. People went along with Marty. I was a bit of a tomboy, so that helped.

I grew up … in rural Massachusetts and rural Delaware in the ’50s and ’60s. I’m that old. And I grew up on boarding-school campuses, because my father was a teacher and then headmaster of a boarding school. You’ve seen Dead Poets Society, right? That was the campus I grew up on.

I came to Philadelphia … in 1969, when I dropped out of George Washington University. I had some friends in West Philadelphia who had an extra room.

If I weren’t doing this … I would be an elementary-school teacher in a Philadelphia public school with a good principal.

I live … in Bucks County, in a little Victorian with a wraparound porch.

One song I always turn up as loud as I can … is Gogol Bordello’s “Start Wearing Purple.” I love the gypsy punk sound. There’s just something about it. I saw them live, and I now have tinnitus. I blame it on them.

The thing most people don’t understand about my job … is how much homework is involved. Two hours live every day, five days a week — 10 hours a week. There’s a lot of preparation for what happens on the air. Since I never did my homework in high school, it’s my lot in life to do it now, as an adult.

My parents taught me … different things. My mom was an incredible listener. She had what we called “excessive attention disorder.” She paid hyper-attention to everything. And my dad had a great love for life.

If you come to my house for dinner … we will probably start the meal with soup. I’m a really good soup maker.

My first concert ever … was in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1970. It was Carole King and James Taylor. I was in Atlanta because as part of my dropping-out-of-college years, some friends and I had started a cooperatively run macrobiotic vegetarian restaurant. These days, I’m mostly vegetarian, although I sneak a piece of steak a few times a year. And fish. And hot dogs, because it’s not really meat. God knows what a hot dog really is.

One habit I cannot break is … biting my fingernails. It’s embarrassing. But I think I secretly enjoy it.

I think that Facebook … is losing its luster. Seemed like it was going to be more fun than it is.

When I arrived in Philadelphia, the city was … so drab. It is so much more colorful, younger, hipper and more fun now. I don’t even know what we did on the weekends back then.

If you really want to piss me off … run a red light when I’m trying to cross the street. It happens every day.

My favorite interviews on Radio Times have been … Christopher Hitchens, Salman Rushdie, James McBride, Maurice Sendak, and an Indian writer named Sherman Alexie. Interesting that they’re all men.

This summer, I hope to … play more tennis. My game is pretty good. I play a few times a week. But not nearly enough for my taste.

My secret talent … is that I’m a really good liar. I don’t do it every day, but I can use it very strategically.

I will do this until … I can’t remember important, everyday things.

Originally published as “One of Us: Marty Moss-Coane” in the June 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

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