The Best Newspaper Columnist Philly Ever Had

It was Steve Lopez—and we could use him back here right about now

We need someone to put our whole gloomy mess into perspective. Someone who can take on the schools and Ackerman and Nutter and the Street brothers and City Council and the Catholic gangsters and the two-bit mobsters and all the other badda-boobs that assault our sensibilities daily.

Someone who can crawl under their skins, prick their helium-bloated egos, get them to throw tantrums and make us spit out our coffee every morning reading about it.

That someone … Steve Lopez.

If I were the editor of the Inquirer, or the boss man at philly.com, or whoever it is that coughs up the tightly-guarded rubies over there, I’d be thinking back to the future, babycakes. I’d be dialing up the LA Times right now, saying put me through to that guy Lopez, and then offering that guy Lopez the stars and the moon and his own reserved table at Vetri (though he’d prefer Little Pete’s) to come back home and fire up the computer one more time for the home team.

Like, even for a year. Just to get the damn phone ringing.

If you were in Philly in the ‘80s and the ‘90s, I don’t have to make much of a case for why Lopez is worth all that. I see you nodding your heads.

If you weren’t, you may know Steve Lopez as the guy who wrote The Soloist, the book about the Julliard-trained homeless guy he discovered on LA’s Skid Row. It became a big movie.

Here in Philly, though, Lopez will always be a newspaper columnist first—and not just any newspaper columnist, but the best newspaper columnist this city ever had. He made you laugh. He made you cry. Best, though, were the laughs.

His columns read like little stories, and his stories were filled with real life characters. He liked nailing City Hall and City Council guys, and the dopey mobsters, and especially guys who made money on the public’s back. He’d find those kind of guys lurking around today. In fact, he’d find some of those same guys lurking around today.

A bunch of years back, Rich Rys, who writes for this magazine and web site, asked Lopez to remember one of his favorite Inquirer columns.

Lopez: “… people always want to talk to me about, like the time I rounded up Council members to snatch the Councilmobile that president Joe Coleman wasn’t letting anyone use. We circled City Hall, and I was yelling at Coleman to come go for a ride. This was the kind of highbrow journalism that people remember me for.”

Right. And the time he hung with a $40K Water Department supervisor who went to work every day and did exactly what his boss told him to do: nothing.

Lopez could change it up, too. He wrote poignantly about life at Third and Indiana, the Badlands, a neighborhood nobody knew existed. Or wanted to know existed. He wrote a novel about it.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some good columnists in the city. Real good. They report, tackle issues, hit the streets and deliver the goods. Bless them. The job’s a ball buster.

But nobody in the city’s giving us the big picture in Technicolor. No one’s capturing the guys who make the city tick, and make it sick, with a unique and slightly twisted vision. No one’s turning our favorite clowns into the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.

Bissinger? A great writer. He may just be the premiere writer in the city. Long form—no equal. But the rants he passes off as columns for the Inquirer and the Daily News? Mendte? Defending Alycia Lane? Is he on crack?

Funny thing about Lopez, he’s a California native. Crazy. You’re not supposed to get Philly if you’re from California; it’s supposed to get you.

Tough as Lopez could be, he never stripped people of their dignity. Not entirely. He’d pull up just short. He was a nice guy.

Once, a long time back, we were both having a beer someplace, talking about writing, and Lopez got to musing about Pete Dexter, another great columnist who once worked here. “I could never be as good as Dexter,” he said, real matter of fact like.

Dexter was something else. He lived life on the edge and he wrote viscerally. He was the real deal. He could be frightening.

But as a city columnist, Lopez was better. He knew us, and he liked us.

Tim Whitaker ([email protected]) is the executive director of Mighty Writers, a nonprofit program that inspires city kids to write.