The Last Days of Bill Conlin

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Illustration by Eduardo Recife

A year and a half ago, I flew down to Largo, Florida, and knocked on Bill Conlin’s door. It was early evening, and I couldn’t tell if he was home or not. Nobody came to the door. I thought I heard a TV, though. I knocked again.

Conlin had been the baseball beat writer for the Philadelphia Daily News for two decades, starting in 1966, then wrote a regular column for the DN for an even longer stretch, until the end of 2011. He was the city’s most-read sportswriter, and was nationally known via a long stint on ESPN’s The Sports Reporters as the fat guy waving his coffee cup in high-volume arguments that were often brilliant, or at least amusing. In the summer of 2011, he was inducted into the writers’ wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

But that December, the life he’d built for half a century collapsed, via a devastating article published in the Inquirer: A niece of Conlin’s and three other people (including one man) came forward to accuse him of sexually molesting them back in the 1970s, when they were children. They were speaking out after so many years, they said, because the recent allegations against Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky had reignited their pain, and because it was time to end what amounted to a conspiracy of silence among Conlin’s family and friends covering up his horrible deeds. The alleged abuse happened far too long ago for charges to be brought. But the accusers were finally determined, they said, to tell their stories.

Conlin resigned from the Daily News immediately and wasn’t heard from again. Eventually, word got out that he was holed up in his condo in Largo. Where I stood, on an October evening at dusk, almost a year later. I knocked on his door a third time. I was sure I heard a TV.

Finally, I could hear someone coming.

“Yeah?” Conlin yelled — it was unmistakably his blistering foghorn voice — on the other side of the door. He didn’t open it.

I told him who I was, that I wanted to talk. Conlin and I knew each other a bit, having emailed occasionally as fellow journalists over the years. After the allegations hit, I’d emailed asking if he’d talk to me. He’d written back that he’d had a nervous breakdown and wasn’t ready to talk. He didn’t answer subsequent emails. I decided that getting face-to-face was the only chance I’d have. Though he still didn’t open his door.

Instead he yelled, “I’m not talking to anybody!”

So that was that — or so it seemed. I went back to my motel in Largo and called him. I got voicemail, and left a message: Would you have dinner with me? Just a dinner. A conversation.

I got an email back: You took a certain liberty coming down here without a prior head’s-up …

After venting a bit on the hell he’d been through, Conlin agreed in the email to have lunch the next day. But it would be, he said, on his terms.

THERE WAS A TIME when he was no mere sportswriter, but the most important journalist in Philadelphia. If that seems like a stretch, we’re forgetting the impact of the daily missives he would deliver from all over the country, all summer long, on our baseball team, in the halcyon days pre-Internet. As king of the sporting scribes here, Conlin shared with a few hundred thousand locals not only hardball derring-do, but his take on the world at large. Here is Conlin beginning a piece on the riots in Watts in August 1965, during a Phillies road trip to play the Dodgers:

This is a city at war with itself. The looters and the rioters are holed up, guerrilla-like, in a section of Los Angeles as big as Northeast Philadelphia. They have Molotov cocktails and whiskey and whiskey-courage enough to burn and pillage and rape and plunder. …

There are 13,000 National Guard troops here and the trucks whine through the freeway night bearing puzzled-looking kids from all over the state. Yesterday they were pumping gas and growing avocados. Today they are getting shot at. It is Vietnam in Southern California.

More often, Conlin’s style exhibited a sort of grand goofiness. One of his passions was weather. On a deadly summer day at the ballpark in South Philly in 1995:

Hot town, summer in the city. … The epicenter of the heat island this town becomes in central July is the molten turf of Veterans Stadium. Heat waves shimmer in the mid-afternoon sun like a scene from Lawrence of Arabia. … Yesterday was one of those brain-poachers where any inning I expected public address announcer Dan Baker to intone, “Now pitching for the Phillies … Omar Sharif.” I didn’t know if Ahmed Ben-Fregosi was trying to win a ball game or reach Damascus before Lord Kitchener.

A learned smart-ass. Vintage Conlin. He was pretty good at the particulars of baseball, too.

The Phillies generally sucked, but no matter: Baseball, in the slow unwinding of a season, offered Conlin the perfect writer’s playground. It was personal as well. He could drink and carouse with the best of them, like, well, a ballplayer; Conlin once told a friend that he put away a quart of vodka a day. And he was full of stories that couldn’t see print. On the road back in the ’70s, a certain Phillies slugger went drinking with his teammates. They met some girls and brought them back to their hotel, and somebody got the bright idea to fill the bathtub with ice water and bet the slugger that if he got in the tub, he wouldn’t be able to perform with said girls afterward.

Conlin also developed a reputation as a bar brawler on the road. A fellow sportswriter who covered Penn State football in the late ’70s says it was a habit on Friday nights at PSU: Conlin would regularly hit the bars, get drunk, then get pummeled. “It happened in bars in National League cities all over as well,” adds Bill Lyon, the longtime Inquirer sportswriter. “We used to kid him: ‘You’re 0-and-5, Bill.’ He did not fare well in fisticuffs.” The fights would be over … baseball? Women? “Probably both,” Lyon says.

Though there was apparently at least one drunken dustup Conlin won: He got into a fight with Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas in a bar on a road trip in the ’70s — nobody remembers what it was about — and Kalas had to do his pre-game bit on TV the next day wearing sunglasses to hide a black eye and stitches. In another instance, it was rumored that Conlin made a pass at then-Phillies owner Ruly Carpenter’s brother’s wife on the team’s charter plane (in those days, sportswriters were invited on board), a move that got him permanently banned from the flights.

To read the full story, please pick up the April 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine at your local newsstand. If you would like to become a subscriber, please click here.

Vince Salandria: The JFK Conspiracy Theorist

WHODUNIT?  JFK Conspiracy Theorist Vince Salandria photographed on January 29, 2014

Vince Salandria photographed on January 29, 2014.
Photo by Gene Smirnov

THREE YEARS AGO, Vince Salandria got a phone call from Arlen Specter, a man he didn’t know. Salandria had been in the Senator’s company only once before, but that was almost a half-century earlier, at a public event. When he called, Specter wasn’t running for anything—he had recently been voted out of office. All he had was a simple request of Salandria, who was 83 years old, a retired Philadelphia school-system lawyer: Would you have lunch with me? They eventually met at the Oyster House, on Sansom Street in Philadelphia. The lunch would turn out to be one of strangest meetings of Salandria’s life.
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Who Doesn’t Like Allyson Schwartz?

Allyson Schwartz Next Governor of PA?

Photography by Ryan Collerd

In the end—my last moment with Allyson Schwartz, sitting in her office in Washington—she is about to cry. “You’re getting a little emotional, Congresswoman,” I tell her. “Yes,” she says. “So I’m done.” // I laugh—her abruptness is funny, as she intends. But she also means it, that we’re done. I thank her for all the time she’s given me, we say goodbye, and our last interview is over.

Schwartz and I have spent the past half-hour rolling through some things other people have said about her. Normally, talking to Allyson Schwartz produces a torrent of energy and initiatives and ideas. By the time of that last interview, I’d spent hours with her—at a diner in the Northeast; in Pittsburgh, where she logged a day campaigning; and then in the U.S. Capitol. Her vigor and drive, especially, are daunting. There is nothing in the world around her—or, more precisely, in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, where she is running for governor—that Schwartz doesn’t want to fix.

Judging by Tom Corbett’s popularity, which is in the toilet, many Pennsylvanians will probably like that about Schwartz. Indeed, the governorship is there for the taking, and after a decade in Congress and 14 years before that in the state Senate, Schwartz has decided to take a shot at becoming the first woman to lead our state.
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Why Did the Schaibles Let Their Children Die?

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Photo by Jonathan Barkat.

On the night of April 18th, Detective Brian Peters of the Philadelphia homicide unit saw something strange—something he’d never witnessed before—when he interviewed Herbert Schaible. Herbert’s seven-month-old son, Brandon, had died earlier that evening. Herbert and his wife, Cathy, were brought downtown for questioning from their home in the Northeast.

That was because the Schaibles were already on probation for involuntary manslaughter, following the death of another son, two-year-old Kent, in 2009.

Both boys had died of bacterial pneumonia, which most of the world treats successfully through vaccination or, in the event of an infection, antibiotics. But Herbie and Cathy Schaible are members of First Century Gospel, a nondenominational Baptist church on
G Street in Feltonville that believes strictly in divine healing—meaning no vaccinations, no medicine, no doctors. Prayer, its members believe, and believe fervently, is the path to conquering illness or injury. The members reject many other mainstays of modern life. They don’t believe in home ownership. (Everyone rents.) Or birth control. Or seatbelts. Or eyeglasses. Or college degrees.

None of that was what was strange to Detective Peters, however.

Peters likes to get to know people a bit, make human contact, before the formal interview. And Herbie Schaible, 44, a tall man dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans, with short-cropped hair, was perfectly willing to explain, calmly: Healing occurs through God’s will. Only God’s will could have saved his son. He said this several times, and would repeat it in his statement when he was asked if he regretted not taking Brandon to a doctor. “No, I don’t regret it,” Herbie said, “because we believe that the only way is the right way and that is through God. I would change places with either of my sons. But it’s God’s will. He is the healer of our bodies.”

Cathy Schaible told detective Jimmy Crone the same thing. A small, quiet, deferential woman who wholeheartedly abides by church teaching that her husband is in charge of family decisions, Cathy said, simply, “We pray and ask God to heal … the way Jesus did when He was on Earth.”

But even more surprising than the belief that only answered prayers could heal their son was the demeanor of both Herbie and Cathy. They were low-key. Calm. Very calm. Matter-of-fact, one might say. Peters and Crone have seen a lot of things in their years of talking to suspects and family members of murder victims, but never that.

There was something else Detective Peters had never witnessed: children so well-behaved. Six of the Schaibles’ seven living children—three-year-old Nolan was with his grandmother—had come to police headquarters with their parents. As Herbie and Cathy were questioned, their children sat together on a bench, quietly, and waited for two hours. Seventeen-year-old Herbert, the eldest, was in charge. Peters and Crone had never seen such polite, nice children, obviously well cared-for, brought into a police station.

Nor parents so calm in the face of the sudden death of a child. Their second child to die in four years.

There is an explanation for the attitude that befuddled the detectives. The Schaibles’ relationship with God is, far and away, the most important thing in their lives; everything springs from it. So their faith trumps even their love for their children. The night Brandon died, the outside world—through the legal system, in the questions of the detectives—was asking for an explanation, which placed Herbie and Cathy directly in the place they feel most comfortable: within the dictates of their faith. Why hadn’t they taken Brandon to a doctor even when it was apparent he was quite sick? To our ears, it sounds absurd. In their minds, it’s fundamental: Brandon could only be saved by God’s will.

Not that it has been easy. Later, alone and with family, they would break down and cry, grieving for their second dead son.

And now Herbert and Catherine Schaible face third-degree murder charges, for not getting medical help for Brandon, for letting the pneumonia he developed kill him. Their trial is months away. Herbie is in prison—the judge is worried about him fleeing. Cathy is under house arrest at her parents’ home on Roosevelt Boulevard. Some of the remaining children are being cared for by Herbie’s youngest brother, others by a cousin.

Their family has been torn apart, but the Schaibles remain steadfast in their faith—a faith that if anything, says their pastor, is now stronger. They have prayed for greater understanding. To understand what it is they were doing wrong, what it is that would lead God not to answer their prayers to save Kent, and then Brandon.

The Schaibles’ story, and that of First Century Gospel, is large. Two children are dead. They may be dead because their parents practice a brand of Christianity that seems straight out of the Dark Ages. The D.A., however justified in charging them with murder, is rubbing up against the American founding principle of religious freedom. It is a case that may, in fact, threaten the very existence of their church.

And it’s large because of its strangeness. We want to know how you get here, where Herbie and Cathy Schaible have landed. Not the legal trouble they’re now in—that path is clear enough—but rather, their brand of faith. These two things—being accused of murder and their faith—are firmly intertwined.

It is difficult not to pass judgment, to resist dismissing the Schaibles’ beliefs as flat-out stupid or crazy. But such judgment makes the Schaibles, and their church, impossible to understand.

War in the Supreme Court: Ron Castille and Seamus McCaffery Just Can’t Get Along

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Castille and Justice Seamus McCaffery can't seem to get along.

Late last year, Ron Castille, chief justice of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court, decided he couldn’t take it any longer. Seamus McCaffery—one of seven justices on the court, and the only other one from Philadelphia—had been including a certain tag line on emails he sent from his court account. Courtesy of Ernest Hemingway, the tag line read: “Certainly there is no hunting like the hunting of a man and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never generally care for anything else thereafter.”

McCaffery, a former Marine, a former Philly cop, a guy who carries a gun and rides a Harley, takes great pride in his toughness. But Castille could no longer abide the bluster, the preening. He himself lost his right leg while serving in Vietnam—on his 23rd birthday, no less—and he was once a hard-ass prosecutor in Philadelphia’s D.A.’s office before becoming D.A. himself. He knew all about toughness.

So last fall, Castille sent McCaffery an email, one on which he cc’d their fellow justices. It read, in part:

Your military service while honorable, did not involve combat action against armed enemy forces as did my service as a Rifle Platoon Commander in the Marines in Vietnam. In fact, I did “hunt” armed men and I can tell you and your email recipients that it is a nasty, dirty business and, while sometimes required by national policy, it is not an activity to be extolled, especially by anyone who does not have the personal experience in the activity.

Castille knew, of course, that sharing his email with the other justices would be highly embarrassing to McCaffery. He didn’t care. His feelings about the man had been building for some time, and their relationship had been deteriorating.

It would soon get worse.

At the end of last year, in a report Castille commissioned about Philadelphia’s corrupt Traffic Court, McCaffery was accused of using his power in an unseemly and perhaps illegal way: He had driven his wife, Lise Rapaport, to Traffic Court on Spring Garden Street for a hearing on a ticket and, while the hearing took place, summoned a top court administrator out to his car for a conversation. Rapaport was found not guilty.

With Ron Castille’s blessing, the Traffic Court report was given to the Inquirer, which did a series of front-page stories on it. Naturally, that didn’t sit well with Seamus McCaffery, who has denied any wrongdoing.

Then a second matter came up. The Inquirer wrote about fees that Rapaport, a Harvard-trained lawyer, received for referring cases to law firms while she was employed by McCaffery as his chief Supreme Court aide. Eleven of the law firms that paid Rapaport—one referral fee was $821,000—have argued cases before the Supreme Court while McCaffery has been on the bench.

When that story broke, Castille—who was first elected to the court in 1993 and has been chief justice since 2008—told reporters he was worried about “conflicts of interest and the appearance of impropriety.” His opinion wasn’t shocking, but it was an unusual slapdown; chief justices of a Supreme Court almost never publicly rebuke a fellow robesman. What’s more, there was the question of how the Inquirer suddenly landed on the Rapaport referral-fee story when those payments, which McCaffery’s lawyer said were routine and proper, had long been a matter of public record. While Castille denies alerting the paper to the story, he probably was not unhappy that McCaffery was being embarrassed.

In mid-June, McCaffery’s trouble seemed to grow worse. The Inquirer reported that the FBI had opened an investigation into those referral fees his wife received. Meanwhile, the Legal Intelligencer wrote that McCaffery had contacted a high-level Philadelphia Common Pleas administrator last year about civil cases—and that in two of the cases, a law firm that had paid a referral fee to Lise Rapaport was involved. McCaffery’s lawyer says there is no FBI investigation, but Ron Castille told WHYY that he has “no reason to believe the allegations of an FBI investigation against Justice McCaffery are not true.” He added, “So I think if I was Justice McCaffery, I’d start rethinking my position on the Supreme Court.”

We still don’t know how Seamus McCaffery’s problems will play out. But one thing is patently clear: This is war, between Ron and Seamus. It is ugly. McCaffery now actively avoids his chief justice, having as little to do with him as possible. Which is fine by Ron Castille, who seems determined to help get “Famous Seamus,” his nickname for McCaffery, into as much trouble as he can.

According to sources close to the court (more than 50 people were interviewed for this story), the feud is, in part, about power. One of the roles the state Supreme Court plays is to oversee Philadelphia’s judiciary—a job handled by a justice who’s appointed by colleagues as liaison to the First Judicial District. Given his two decades as a Philly cop and his decade on the city’s Municipal Court bench, not to mention his natural bent for schmoozing union guys and City Councilmen with equal aplomb, McCaffery has long seen himself as the perfect guy for that job. Indeed, he’s craved it ever since he was elected to the court in 2007, once telling a court insider that he didn’t run for the Supreme Court to sit in an office and write legal opinions; no, he wanted to oversee Philadelphia’s courts.

But Ron Castille kept the role of liaison for himself even when he became chief justice, though the chief was far too busy for the position. The reason he kept it, McCaffery believes, was to block him from getting it. He’s sure it’s personal.

And he may be right about that, because Ron Castille thinks that “Famous Seamus” is a poseur, a phony, a made-up person. What’s more, Castille believes that McCaffery wants to rule a political fiefdom in Philadelphia. A judge, however—by decree of the state’s ethics code—can’t be involved in politics. He must stay above the fray of raising money for elections, and ward meetings and the like. Especially a justice of the Supreme Court, which oversees all the other courts in Pennsylvania. In a way, that issue, too, is personal between the two men, because Castille the war hero believes fervently in a certain bottom line, in playing by the rules.

And then there is the reputation of the court itself. For decades the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has been something of a joke—a place known for petty squabbles and occasional outright corruption. Earlier this year, justice Joan Orie Melvin resigned after being convicted of using taxpayer resources for campaign purposes. Even Castille himself tarnished the court’s reputation with his bungled handling of the construction of a new Family Court building in Philadelphia.

In Castille’s remaining time as chief justice—he’s required by law to retire next year, when he turns 70, though a federal lawsuit has been filed that would allow him to stay on longer—he seems determined to do everything he can to protect the court’s reputation and, by extension, his own legacy. If that means going to war with Seamus McCaffery, then that’s what Ron Castille is quite willing to do.

The Real Chase Utley

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There is much we don’t know about him.

Take, for instance, an incident from the fall of 2009. Chase Utley came off the field after a workout in Philly between games of the ’09 World Series—the Series in which he hit five home runs—and came upon a spread of food for players in the clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park. Over the years, Chase has gotten seriously into nutrition; he stocks up at Whole Foods when the team goes on the road. So when he saw the unhealthy junk the team was offering post-workout—a table full of hot dogs and chili—he wasn’t having it. This is not a fucking big-league spread!

Suddenly, the greatest second baseman in franchise history was slopping the chili all over the place, dumping it on the floor, even hitting the walls. His teammates quickly pitched in. The hot dogs became footballs—it was a regular animal house, with Chase leading the way. Because that’s not how things should be done in the big leagues, especially not during the World Series.

In his decade in Philadelphia, we’ve certainly never seen that side of Chase Utley. As a matter of fact, what he’s really like off the field is a bit of a mystery, because he doesn’t want us to see it. We know how he plays—in baseball parlance, like a guy with his hair on fire. And for a long time, that was all we needed. That was him. All the way to declaring the Phillies world fucking champions.

You remember. After the parade down Broad Street on that beautiful October day five years ago, the team gathered on a podium at the ballpark. Chase went to the microphone in his ski cap and—can you believe this? It rolled right out of his mouth: “World fucking champions.”

The crowd roared. What more did we need?

But something has shifted. Utley was hurt the past two springs; he didn’t play at all the first half of last year or early the previous season because of knee trouble. He didn’t say much about it—just boilerplate stuff, when he was forced to talk, about trying to get healthy. The team was largely silent about him, too, as if mere medical updates on Utley were none of our business.

Such guardedness was fine when Chase Utley was blazing his way to becoming one of the finest second basemen ever. But here he is in the last year of his contract, 34 years old, with his future and the aging team’s in doubt. And now there’s a question that, after all this time, is so simple it’s strange:

Who is this guy?

His teammates think the mystery is funny. Chase, they say, is actually pretty amusing. He’s the guy who occasionally gives shortstop Jimmy Rollins the finger from behind his glove at second base. Though he’s also the guy who, if a teammate doesn’t hustle out a ground ball, will be waiting at his usual position along the dugout railing to lash the offender with a devastating look. Serious business, baseball, and his teammates say he’s their unquestioned leader—although they shake their heads and laugh about that, too, over just how intensely dialed-in Chase is.

When he told his parents and teammates and friends a couple years ago that he was going to be a father, there was a collective … Chase? So hard-boiled and so … ruled by the routines of baseball. A guy who hung with Aaron Rowand and Jayson Werth and man-about-town Pat Burrell, big-time dudes. As Rollins thought, “How will he balance that with tenderness? We don’t see a tender side.”

He’s a guy so consumed by playing that when his wife, Jen, asked him if he was worried that his troubled knees were putting his career in jeopardy, he just looked at her silently. “I got a death glare—a murderous glare,” she says. “I don’t want to see that again.”

Maybe opening the window—getting a peek at who Chase Utley really is—isn’t such a good idea. But he agrees to have lunch with me in San Francisco, where he and Jen and 16-month-old Ben live in the off-season. So I head west.

Is Philadelphia Going Black?

In front of me the pavement is swarming with people in dreadlocks—black people who are taking their turns screaming into an expensive-looking bullhorn and hawking T-shirts with “FREE THE FAMILY AFRICA” stenciled across the front.

But behind me, a street fight is just heating up to the bloodletting stage.

I’m standing near the Market Street East entrance to City Hall Courtyard and I don’t know where to look first. It’s MOVE vs. mayhem in downtown Philadelphia on a sweltering Thursday afternoon during the dog days of this endless summer past.

I might need eyes in the back of y head to take it all in, but the guy across from me looks like he may soon need an ambulance. He’s a middle-aged hot dog vendor, white, who may have sold his last wiener-in-a-bun.

I heard screaming a block away. Now, the shouts have turned to shoves. A short, skinny black kid in an enormous straw hat is lunging for the white guy’s windpipe.

He doesn’t quite make it because a black woman, twice his size, has him around the waist, tugging him away from the hot dog man.

When I first heard the screams, people were just walking by like it wasn’t happening, clutching their briefcases and averting their eyes. But it’s been going on for a couple of minutes now and a sizable crowd—entirely black—has surrounded the hot dog vendor and his assailant.

Between the shrieks and obscenities I can make out that the hot dog vendor is to be put to death: a) because he is a “white mother fucker,” and b) because he waited on someone else—an old, white lady, in fact—ahead of straw-hat’s girl friend.

The hot dog guy, who looked worn-out and sweaty to begin with, and who seems on the verge of a coronary, is holding his ground. But it doesn’t look good. The crowd, too, is calling for his head now.

By this point I’m frantically looking up and down the street for a cop. I notice, incidentally, that I’m the only white person on my side of the street. Damn if I don’t see a man in blue less than half a block away. I take off at full speed.

He’s a big fat highway patrolman with a gold sharpshooter’s medal pinned to his chest and I don’t need to be told any more than the MOVE people around me do, that those high-top black leather boots that he wears aren’t made for walking.

If anybody can save the hot dog vendor, this guy can. Then, as I get close to him, I stop dead. He’s just looking at the fight, too—not making a move to get involved—just leaning against the traffic light, hand-on-hip and contemptuous scowl on face. I’m waiting for him to do something but he just ignores me. The crowd has obscured the hot dog vendor from my sight now, but I can still hear them going at it. The cop looks like he’s trying to decide whether he should cross the street or not and I don’t know what the hell to do. Should I go to the cop or the vendor?

Just then, there’s a loud, shrill whistle—you know it has to be a cop’s whistle—and a beat-up blue paddy wagon comes chugging toward the crowd. Two white cops get out, walking slowly, leisurely, deliberately.

One of them slips his mahogany nightstick through the round loop at his side and looks around menacingly. The other one hikes up his black leather gun belt, just the way you’d expect Clint Eastwood to do in a similar situation.

Neither gesture is lost on the crowd. It suddenly becomes as quiet as a mime troupe, and the cops move to separate the two combatants. The hot dog vendor lets out a sigh I think I can hear all the way across the street.

Now I can concentrate on the MOVE rally in front of me. A loud lack woman in dreadlocks is tearing into Jimmy Carter: “JIMMY, BABY, I SAID TO HIM. YEAH, I SAID IT TO CARTER. Y’ALL HEAR ME. I TOLD THAT MAN. MOTHER-FUCKIN’ COPS IN PHILLY KILLED BLACK BABIES FROM THE AFRICA FAMILY—KILLED BLACK BABIES, YOU GOT THAT? I TOLD HIM, CARTER, YOU BETTER LISTEN TO JOHN AFRICA. BETTER CUT OUT THAT JIVE SHIT AND LISTEN TO THE TEACHINGS OF JOHN AFRICA. BETTER FREE THE AFRICA FAMILY. WE GET YOUR ASS NEXT, JIMMER CARTER. . . .”

Moving past the Africas, past what’s left of the MOVE cult–”a gang of murderers, brigands and thieves,” as the city solicitor of Philadelphia, Sheldon Albert, would describe them for me a week later—I enter one of the damp, clammy arched City Hall passageways that leads to the center of the courtyard.

In the humid, afternoon heat even the ever-present smell of pot is overpowered by the urine stench that rises in almost palpable waves, like the shimmering heat from the asphalt outside.

Once upon a time, Philadelphians—the parents and grandparents of the people who now use this gorgeous, ornate old passageway to relieve themselves in public, or to smoke dope, or to stalk others—used to stroll here. They used to use the courtyard the way it was intended—as the safe, secure focal point of downtown Philadelphia; as the hub of the business district.

They could sit on the benches then, the lovers could, or families headed for Billy Penn’s Tower could stand in the courtyard and gawk; or students could stare in awe at the priceless, historically certified architecture around them.

Now, the lovers have been driven out by flashers; the families, by the gang on Market Street hanging outside the pinball arcade; and the students of design have been replaced by the guys that use the courtyard as a public urinal.

City Hall Courtyard really started to turn bad a few years back when a gang of kids roaming Market Street—maybe the older brothers of the gang outside the pinball arcade—made a foray into the very passageway in which I’m standing. They robber and assaulted the blind man who has been selling soft pretzels for 20 years from a dinky little homemade booth built right into one of the old stone walls.

They still sell soft pretzels in the courtyard, but now there are also African trinkets, incense, jewelry and a whole board stocked with the kind of cosmetic equipment you need to braid your hair into dreadlocks.

But the real action this day inside the archway involves a young Black Muslim vendor and two females, also black, who seem to be haggling with him over the price of a photograph in a cardboard frame. I have no idea who is selling what to whom, but first the girls pull the picture toward themselves , and then the Muslim yanks it back.

The Muslim, a big strapping kid who looks like he could play tight end for the Eagles, is in his warm weather uniform of long black trousers, polished shoes and starched long-sleeve white shirt, tightly buttoned up to the collar. He looks mean. But money must be on the line and the women are adamant.

Since no one there was about to take on the Black Nation of Islam for these damsels in distress, this scene, too, goes virtually unnoticed. I wonder if Frank Rizzo, sitting in his paneled office up on the second floor—or perhaps taking his ease in his imported marble bathroom—realizes just how restless the native are becoming in his own front yard.

Do Rizzo and the Black Muslim vendors ever exchange glances when he leaves his office? Is he ever tempted to taunt them from within the protective phalanx of his bodyguards as Milton Street had once badgered him after a particularly heated City Council showdown?

And what of the other people here? Are they amused, too, at the thought of Rizzo holed up in his regal bunker, seething while the barbarians defile his Roman Courtyard? Had the hot dog vendor outside—the one who had almost been strangled—voted for Frank Rizzo? For the pivotal charter change?

Does the cop who failed to take action think deep down that the people of Philadelphia—this poor helpless hot dog vendor included—are getting exactly what they deserve for failing to vote white as Rizzo warned them? Will the highway patrolman never again break up a fight because the suit filed this summer by the U.S. Justice Department has labeled him a criminal?

Being White in Philly

My younger son goes to Temple, where he’s a sophomore. This year he’s living in an apartment with two friends at 19th and Diamond, just a few blocks from campus. It’s a dangerous neighborhood. Whenever I go see Nick, I get antsy and wonder what I was thinking, allowing him to rent there.

One day, before I pick him up for lunch, I stop to talk to a cop who’s parked a block away from Nick’s apartment.

“Is he already enrolled for classes?” the cop says when I point out where my son lives.

Well, given that it’s December, I think so. But his message is clear: Bad idea, this neighborhood. A lot of burglaries and robberies. Temple students are prime prey, the cop says.

Later, driving up Broad Street as I head home to Mount Airy, I stop at a light just north of Lycoming and look over at some rowhouses. One has a padlocked front door. A torn sheet covering the window in that door looks like it might be stained with sewage. I imagine not a crackhouse, but a child, maybe several children, living on the other side of that stained sheet. Plenty of children in Philadelphia live in places like that. Plenty live on Diamond, where my son rents, where there always seem to be a lot of men milling around doing absolutely nothing, where it’s clearly not a safe place to be.

I’ve shared my view of North Broad Street with people—white friends and colleagues—who see something else there: New buildings. Progress. Gentrification. They’re sunny about the area around Temple. I think they’re blind, that they’ve stopped looking. Indeed, I’ve begun to think that most white people stopped looking around at large segments of our city, at our poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods, a long time ago. One of the reasons, plainly put, is queasiness over race. Many of those neighborhoods are predominantly African-American. And if you’re white, you don’t merely avoid them—you do your best to erase them from your thoughts.

At the same time, white Philadelphians think a great deal about race. Begin to talk to people, and it’s clear it’s a dominant motif in and around our city. Everyone seems to have a story, often an uncomfortable story, about how white and black people relate.

Take a young woman I’ll call Susan, whom I met recently. She lost her BlackBerry in a biology lab at Villanova and Facebooked all the class members she could find, “wondering if you happened to pick it up or know who did.” No one had it. There was one black student in the class, whom I’ll call Carol, who responded: “Why would I just happen to pick up a BlackBerry and if this is a personal message I’m offended!”

Susan assured her that she had Facebooked the whole class. Carol wrote: “Next time be careful what type of messages you send around and what you say in them.”

After that, when their paths crossed at school, Carol would avoid eye contact with Susan, wordless. What did I do? Susan wondered. The only explanation she could think of was Vanilla-nova—the old joke about the school’s distinct lack of color, its perceived lack of welcome to African-Americans. Susan started making an effort to say hello when she saw Carol, and eventually they acted as if nothing had happened. The BlackBerry incident—it probably goes without saying—was never discussed.

Another story: Dennis, 26, teaches math in a Kensington school. His first year there, fresh out of college, one of his students, an unruly eighth grader, got into a fight with a girl. Dennis told him to stop, he got into Dennis’s face, and in the heat of the moment Dennis called the student, an African-American, “boy.”

The student went home and told his stepfather. The stepfather demanded a meeting with the principal and Dennis, and accused Dennis of being racist; the principal defended his teacher. Dennis apologized, knowing how loaded the term “boy” was and regretting that he’d used it, though he was thinking, Why would I be teaching in an inner-city school if I’m a racist? The stepfather calmed down, and that would have been the end of it, except for one thing: The student’s behavior got worse. Because now he knew that no one at the school could do anything, no matter how badly he behaved.

Confusion, misread intentions, bruised feelings—everyone has not only a race story, but a thousand examples of trying to sort through our uneasiness on levels large and trivial. I do, too. My rowhouse in Mount Airy is on a mostly African-American block; it’s middle-class and friendly—in fact, it’s the friendliest street my family has ever lived on, with block parties and a spirit of watching out for each other. Whether a neighbor is black or white seems to be of no consequence whatsoever.

Yet there’s a dance I do when I go to the Wawa on Germantown Avenue. I find myself being overly polite. Each time I hold the door a little too long for a person of color, I laugh at myself, both for being so self-consciously courteous and for knowing that I’m measuring the thank-you’s. A friend who walks to his car parked on Front Street downtown early each morning has a similar running joke with himself. As he walks, my friend says hello and makes eye contact with whoever crosses his path. If the person is white, he’s bestowing a tiny bump of friendliness. If the person is black, it’s friendliness and a bit more: He’s doing something positive for race relations.

On one level, such self-consciousness and hypersensitivity can be seen as progress when it comes to race, a sign of how much attitudes have shifted for the better, a symbol of our desire for things to be better. And yet, lately I’ve come to fear that the opposite might also be true: that our carefulness is, in fact, at the heart of the problem.

Fifty years after the height of the civil rights movement, more than 25 years after electing its first African-American mayor, Philadelphia remains a largely segregated city, with uneasy boundaries in culture and understanding. And also in well-being. There is a black middle class, certainly, and blacks are well-represented in our power structure, but there remains a vast and seemingly permanent black underclass. Thirty-one percent of Philadelphia’s more than 600,000 black residents live below the poverty line. Blacks are more likely than whites to be victims of a crime or commit one, to drop out of school and to be unemployed.

What gets examined publicly about race is generally one-dimensional, looked at almost exclusively from the perspective of people of color. Of course, it is black people who have faced generations of discrimination and who deal with it still. But our public discourse ignores the fact that race—particularly in a place like Philadelphia—is also an issue for white people. Though white people never talk about it.

Everyone might have a race story, but few whites risk the third-rail danger of speaking publicly about race, given the long, troubled history of race relations in this country and even more so in this city. Race is only talked about in a sanitized form, when it’s talked about at all, with actual thoughts and feelings buried, which only ups the ante. Race remains the elephant in the room, even on the absurd level of who holds the door to enter a convenience store.

A few months ago I began spending time in Fairmount, just north of the Art Museum. Formerly a working-class enclave of rowhomes, it’s now a gentrifying neighborhood with middle-class cachet and good restaurants. I went to the northern edge, close to Girard Avenue, generally considered the dividing line from North Philly, and began asking the mostly middle-class white people who live there, for whom race is an everyday issue, how it affects them.

Strangely enough, a number of them answered. Their stories bring home just how complicated white people’s negotiation with race and class is in this city, and how varied: Everyone does have a race story, it turns out, and every story is utterly unique.

The Charges Against District Attorney Seth Williams

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams

“You’ve got me fucking all the women in the office.”

Those are close to the first words out of Seth Williams’s mouth when I meet him in June, after paying my 50 bucks—the lowest amount that would get me in the door—to wander around incognito at his “Seth and the City” fund-raiser, in a conference room atop Two Liberty Place.

For a little while I stayed lost among the D.A.’s political friends, the swank hors d’oeuvres, a deejay’s dance offerings, beautiful women. But I knew it wouldn’t take long for someone to tell Williams there was a reporter in his midst, and sure enough, I soon saw Philly’s bow-tied, slightly rotund district attorney staring at me and the political adviser I’d just been chatting with. So I went up to Williams and introduced myself. That’s when he lets loose: “You’ve got me fucking all the women … ”

The D.A. is apparently referring to a blog post that a staffer at this magazine wrote about a party planner Williams hired to the tune of $76,000 a year, and how paying that amount for something so frivolous when first-year assistant D.A.’s make all of 48-something had the office in an uproar. In fact, the blog said nothing about Seth Williams’s sexual activities on the 18th floor of the district attorney’s office, a stone’s throw from City Hall.

So I’m silent as Billy Miller, Williams’s political adviser, stares openmouthed at the D.A., as mesmerized as I am by what he’s just proclaimed. Williams, 45 years old, is much better-looking than he appears on TV or in photos, and he doesn’t really seem all that worked up: His skin, which he calls “butterscotch” (his biological mother was white, his biological father black), fairly glows in public, as if spotlighted; his eyebrows arc in near half circles around his large brown eyes. The careful mustache that looks pasted-on from a distance is real enough. And now the D.A., nursing a Jack Daniel’s, quickly recovers. It’s natural “that some people are angry,” since he had to make changes when he came on as D.A. in January 2010 and clean out the deadwood. It gets people—there are some 300 assistant district attorneys in the office—saying things. Then Seth Williams segues:

“Abraham Lincoln,” he says. “It’s like with Abraham Lincoln.” At the end of the Civil War, Williams explains, when it was time for Robert E. Lee to surrender at Appomattox, Union general Ulysses S. Grant saluted Lee and his defeated troops. This is a somewhat grandiose way for Williams to make another point—which is that he has, in some fashion, honored his predecessor, Lynne Abraham. Although he then goes on to tell me how much he has accomplished in two and a half years fixing what was wrong under “the death-penalty D.A.,” as he calls Abraham, with her terribly low conviction rate.

Finally, after all this flows vigorously from Seth Williams, he stops, considers me for a moment, and wonders what I am doing there, what I am after.

I’m here because Williams, as district attorney and an oft-mentioned mayoral contender, is a very powerful guy. I’m also here because of the rumblings of current and former prosecutors about the way he’s running the D.A.’s office.

And when I reach out to them, over the next few weeks, they give me an earful, telling me that Williams’s leadership is so loose—or nonexistent—that the feel and function of the D.A.’s office is at risk.

“I’ve been waiting for this call,” one says. “I’m heartbroken about what has happened.”

This prosecutor—who works for Williams in a senior position—says Williams is a terrible boss: “His Achilles heel is that he needs to be liked. He’s very juvenile. He’s like a wayward two-year-old, with no thought of appearances.” The prosecutor alludes to whispers of inappropriate relationships between Williams and women who work in the office—although the D.A. has been separated from his wife for a couple of years. He claims that Williams allows friendships to affect his decisions as D.A.; that he’s hired political pals for dubious community outreach positions; that he’s so focused on his political future, he doesn’t really know what’s going on in the office. “The joke in the office is that Seth will either leave us in handcuffs or run for mayor,” says this prosecutor.

A former high-ranking assistant district attorney who retired on the heels of Williams coming in agrees to meet me in an out-of-the-way West Philly bar. “He’s an articulate black man. That’s what the machine wanted and what it got,” she says, sizing up the political atmosphere. “But he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

Other current and former prosecutors say similar things, offering a harsh indictment: that Seth Williams has upset pretty much everything Lynne Abraham built over two decades, damaging a place they grew to love. Which certainly does not bode well, they say, for the future of criminal prosecution in this city.

Yet as I probe deeper, something else becomes apparent. That maybe making big changes is not such a bad thing. That the way Lynne Abraham’s office went about prosecuting criminals in Philadelphia—one of the most violent big cities in America—wasn’t working. Not when defendants escape conviction on all charges in almost two-thirds of violent-crime cases. Or when just one in 10 charged in gun assaults is convicted of that charge. Or when two in 10 accused of armed robbery get convicted of armed robbery.

That’s what the Inquirer found, in a four-part series on the city’s judicial system published on the eve of Seth Williams taking over as D.A.

There’s a lot to be said for Abraham’s legendary toughness: Indeed, during her tenure, the rate of murder convictions in Philadelphia surpassed the national average. But even Abraham’s acolytes admit that by her last term, she was stuck in her ways, mailing it in. Change was long overdue.

Williams has come in with big ideas and a big presence, and both are a threat to the status quo. He has reorganized prosecution across the city from horizontal to vertical, which means his ADAs are assigned to one area of town instead of bouncing around all over. He has upgraded his charging unit with more-experienced prosecutors, so that lesser crimes are dealt with faster and charges are often negotiated downward, which is designed to decrease the backlog of cases—long a huge pro­blem—and to focus prosecution on serious violent crime. He has created diversionary programs to get nonviolent offenders—es­pecially drug ab­users—help instead of punishing them.

Are these changes working? We don’t yet know, in large part because the criminal justice system has been such a mess for so long that change happens slowly.

But one thing is certain: The district attorney in any big city—especially one as besieged by violent crime and as beleaguered by problems of race and poverty as
Philadelphia—sets a standard. His tone and stance and personality send an important message. Not just on who he is, but on how criminal justice will be served.

And this is the point many prosecutors make: that the district attorney’s office should be different from other city government entities. That its standards of conduct should be “untouchable,” says the senior prosecutor who is heartbroken over the current regime. “We don’t want to fall like PHA or the school district, but if our house is not in order … Good ADAs are leaving because of money, but also in disgust.”

Confessions of Philadelphia’s One Percent

One-percenters. We’ve been hearing a lot about them lately, ever since wall street became not just the seat of finance, but a place to hang out and get angry. In demonstrations and in large swaths of the American psyche, rich people have been vilified, as if the economy going SPLAT back in 2008 meant that anybody with a certain lifestyle still intact must have had a hand in the takedown.

And it seems like everybody has weighed in on what’s wrong with America these past four years—everybody, that is, except one-percenters themselves. (Warren Buffett doesn’t count; he’s got too much money.) So we thought, let’s hear from a few. How are rich people around Philly doing? What’s on their minds? And do they care what everyone else is saying about them?

We found five local one-percenters quite happy to talk, after we promised anonymity. They had a few things in common: Nobody wants to pay more taxes. Everybody has issues with the Occupy movement. Nobody’s happy with Obama. And all five are rich. That, though, might be the extent of what they agree on.

Confessions of Philadelphia’s One Percent: click here to hear from The Inheritor.

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