Fishtown (As Seen Through Max’s Eyes)

I’m back! Not that I was gone for long. I wasn’t. I was on the road, for only a handful of days, with the Tingling Brothers Traveling Circus, with whom, on a whim, I’d taken a job as an apprentice elephant-dung shoveler. But the elephants ran into visa problems, what with Trump’s new, stringent guidelines, and had to be shipped back to India. End of job.

I apologize for not writing a story last week, and I totally understand the frustrations that my editor Edgar Reewright expressed in the piece that he posted concerning my absence (click here). Seeing that he’s not well-endowed (financially-speaking), he badly missed the paycheck that I neglected to issue to him. I’ve rectified my wrong. Edgar now is back on the books and once again is as happy as a poorly-adjusted, angry middle-aged guy might be expected to be.

With circus life behind me, for today’s sermon I shall turn my attention to the post-Tingling visit that our nephews (20-something Jesse and 30-something Max) paid to me and my wife Sandy. They were with us for a number of days, and we did so many enjoyable things together I’d have to write a 20,000-word opus to cover them. I’m not up to that, being very much low on gas. The circus gig took a lot out of me, you see. I had no idea how heavy elephant crap is. So, in order not to interfere with my current regimen of napping and thumb-twiddling, I’ll focus on merely one highlight — the time that Max and I spent in Philadelphia’s Fishtown section the day before he returned to his home in Texas. Jesse had, by then, gone back to his abode in the Big Apple. And Sandy sat out the Fishtown adventure. “Have fun, boys,” she told us. “I’m staying put. Did I mention that George Clooney will be stopping by the house this afternoon to show me how to operate that needlessly complicated Nespresso coffee- brewing machine he peddles on the boob tube?” She hadn’t.

But, f*ck Clooney. Fishtown was calling, and Max and I headed its way, arriving there around 12:30 in the PM. We wandered for close to two hours, checking out this, that and the other thing, and had a low-key kind of blast. Not everyone, I’ve discovered over the years, is into open-ended strolling such as this, which is why my meanderings often are done by my lonesome. But Max is. Which proves, I’d say, that sometimes a great mind (Max’s) and a middling one think alike.

Fishtown, for sure, isn’t a knock-your-socks-off kind of neighborhood, but it has its charms. Unlike downtown Philadelphia, which is only two miles away, there are no tall buildings or crowds of workers and tourists to gaze at. But I’m a sucker for narrow, twisting streets and for houses, churches and factories that went up between the mid-1800s and early 1900s, and for calm, gracious neighborhood parks. Fishtown’s got plenty of those items. Not to mention a supply of new housing and restaurants and taverns and music venues to accommodate the millennials who discovered Fishtown earlier this century and have been changing it for the better. But none of the newer stuff is overdone, at least not yet, which is why you don’t see all that many people on Fishtown’s streets in the afternoon. The neighborhood hasn’t lost its small-town feel, and that’s a good thing.

We began our expedition at the corner of Frankford and Girard Avenues, in front of Johnny Brenda’s, the tavern cum rock music club that set Fishtown’s rebirth in motion after Brenda’s opened in 2003. At that corner I had a brainstorm. I asked Max if he’d like to use my iPhone to take photos of whatever caught his eye as we made our way around the neighborhood. And that, if he did, I’d use some of them to illustrate a story I’d write about our day together. “Great idea,” he said, ripping the phone out of my hand. I’m going to sue him for bruising my pinky. Little had I known that Max is a photo-taking fiend. He, with his pix-snapping right index finger in tow, bopped through Fishtown happily and giddily. Dozens and dozens of shots were added to the phone’s memory that afternoon.

I culled through the images a few days later. What you see, then, on this page is Fishtown as Max saw it. He peered at lots of things, big and small, and framed them well in his photos. Store signs, well-aged streets, new home construction, a house one side of which is covered with an astonishing mass of ivy,  . . .

Max was drawn to hip color arrangements, to the nifty contrasts formed by buildings near to one another, and to the unexpected. And he asked me to make sure I included the selfie he snapped of us and Homer Simpson outside a store on Frankford Avenue. I don’t look all that good in said picture, but what the hell. Candid photography is where it’s sometimes at.

When Max next visits us, he and I probably will scout out another section of Philadelphia that’s off the touristy trail. Maybe an area that I, who despite having lived in or near Philadelphia for 40+ years of my adult life, barely know. Such as Port Richmond or Kensington. It’ll be fun. And, no doubt, will be documented by he and I.

(Photos by Max Scheinin. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open in a separate window)

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My Amazing Interview With Julia Roberts And George Clooney (Money Monster Is Their Latest Movie)

Charlie Rose, you’ve got company. You’re not the only one who can get big name celebs to sit around a table and gab. You’re not the only one who hopes to ask probing questions. For sure, I’m not even remotely in your league. Still, last week there I sat at my dining room table. And sitting across from me were none other than the mega-stars of a cracker jack new movie, Money Monster. That’s right, Julia Roberts and George Clooney were in my house.

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An hour before they arrived I took a look at my notes about Money Monster. My wife Sandy and I had seen the flick a couple of weeks before, and it needed to be fresh in my mind. Wow, it’s a good one, a tight thriller. Jodie Foster directed. Clooney plays Lee Gates, the star of a full-throttle television show about finances called Money Monster. Gates’ show is a glitzy production, with bells and whistles and bright lights up the wazoo, dancing girls, and sometimes-party-hatted Gates making stock picks and handing out financial advice as he prances around the stage.

Doing her best to orchestrate the semi-madness is the show’s director, Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts). Good thing that someone with steel nerves and observant eyes is behind the scene, because one day a young, armed guy named Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), who lost all of his money on a Gates stock tip that went bad, finds his way onto the studio set while the show is in progress and takes Gates hostage. The cameras remain on. The whole world is watching.

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“George,” I said out loud, rehearsing a question I planned to ask. “Money Monster takes a hard look at corporate greed and dishonesty and how hard it is for the little guy to stay afloat. Did you agree to do the movie because of empathy you have for the average Jill and Joe?” I knew that he’d like that query.

“Julia,” I then said to the air. “The hostage situation in Money Monster forces some of its characters to drop their facades and take deeper looks at themselves than they have in ages. Have there been circumstances in your personal life that caused you to do the same?” I imagined Julia thinking deeply before giving me an eye-opening response.

I was ready.

The doorbell rang at 1:00 PM. George Clooney and Julia Roberts smiled at me from my doorstep. Their limo, with its driver, was parked in my driveway. Who’d ever have thunk that a day like this might arrive? Here’s how it happened:

Not long after seeing Money Monster I’d read that Clooney would be in Philadelphia the following week to promote MM on a few of the city’s television and radio shows. A lightbulb went off in my head. I did some Googling and uncovered the phone number of George’s manager, Doris Do-right. I called her and, to my astonishment, she picked up. “Doris, my name is Neil. Rhymes with schlemiel, which is kind of what I am. I’m getting deep into my retirement years. Spend half my life intertwining my fingers in interesting patterns and binge-watching old episodes of Wheel Of Fortune and The Match Game on Netflix. And when I’m not doing that I bang away on a computer keyboard, writing articles for my blog. Anyway, one of the things I write about is movies. I loved Money Monster. Is there any chance that George Clooney would want to step outside the normal public relations box while he’s in Philadelphia and do an interview with an online publication — mine — whose readership is so low it’s pathetic?”

Amazingly, Doris didn’t hang up. I gave her the name of my blog. She said she’d get back to me. And she did, only 40 minutes later. “Schlemiel, I mean Neil, George is a go. He loves the idea. You live just outside Philadelphia, right? And is it okay if he brings Julia Roberts along? The girl doesn’t get out enough. George thinks that a visit to the Philly suburbs might be just the ticket for her. How about next Tuesday at 1:00 PM?”

As I mentioned, the doorbell rang. “Hello, Schlemiel, I mean Neil,” George Clooney said, extending his right hand to shake mine. Starstruck, I barely could raise my hand to meet his. He stepped in, and Julia Roberts did likewise. She gave me a peck on the cheek. “Humma . . . humma . . . humma,” I elegantly stammered. Luckily, Sandy was there to save the day. She greeted our guests perfectly, made small talk with them and then led them to the dining room table where a spread of cheeses, breads, olives, beer and wine awaited. We all sat down, began to nibble and sip, and then I flipped the switch to record the conversation.

My composure more or less had returned. “Guys,” I said. “Your new movie is terrific, and it’s an honor having you here. You’re doing me a big favor. My blog needs a shot in the arm. I’d be correct in saying that readership is down, except for the fact that it never was up in the first place. But a meaty interview with George Clooney and Julia Roberts no doubt will turn the tide! George, I’ll start with you.” I gazed into his luminous brown eyes and said: “Money Monster takes a hard look at corporate — ”

“Hold it, Schlemiel, I mean Neil,” George exclaimed, his eyes twinkling as he gave Sandy a sly wink. “We’ll get to the movie in a few minutes, but there’s something important I want to say. When Doris Do-right told me about the conversation she had with you last week, I got the feeling that I might be able to help you out a whole, whole lot. And I don’t mean in terms of your blog. I mean you.”

He reached into the left pocket of his sport jacket and pulled out a bottle filled with a truly dark liquid. “Neil, if you’re tired of  being a schlemiel, the contents of this bottle are all you need.” He turned its label to face me. It read I Don’t Wanna Be A Doofus No More.

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“I started taking this wonderful stuff, one teaspoon each morning, about 30 years ago. It’s a life saver. You think that I was always a dapper, sharp guy? Uh uh, pal. I was a stumblebum. Just like you’ve been all these years. Girls couldn’t have cared less about me. My career was in Nowhereville. Forget it man, I was lost. Then I saw an ad for I Don’t Wanna Be A Doofus No More in the back of Cool Dude Magazine, and I ordered a bottle. It’s expensive, but it works. The company gets the ingredients from Amazonian jungles. They boil rare orchid petals in river water to extract their essence and add dried dung from giant bats and pulverized teeth particles from crazed boars. I turned Pitt, Damon and Affleck onto I Don’t Wanna in their struggling days. If I hadn’t, they’d be flipping burgers at Mickey D’s right now. Those guys used to be useless.”

My jaw had dropped so low I had to push it back into place. I started to speak, but Julia cut me off.

“What he says is true, Neil. He forgot to take his morning dose one day when we were filming Money Monster, and nobody could believe the change in him. George was shy, listless. The makeup and hair styling girls on the set were worried. They came to me and told me he’d had almost nothing to say to them, wouldn’t make eye contact. And when filming began later that day he couldn’t remember half of his lines. George and I are old friends, and he had told me about I Don’t Wanna a long time ago. So, finally I figured out what the problem was. Back to his dressing room we headed, and down the hatch a teaspoon of the magic potion slid. Minutes later, all was well.”

“Holy crap,” I said. “It’s a miracle that the two of you are here with me.” My eyes were misting. I stood up and walked to the opposite side of the table and embraced these people who had gone out of their way to do a good deed.

George and Julia were choked up, too. “I’m sorry Neil, but we gotta go,” George said, reluctantly, a few moments later. “I’m taping an interview at 3:30 at one of Philadelphia’s TV stations. And Julia needs to get back to her home in Manhattan. Schlemiel, I mean Neil, it really has been a pleasure.” He gave me a knowing tap on the shoulder, planted a big kiss on Sandy’s forehead, and left the bottle of I Don’t Wanna Be A Doofus No More on the dining room table. Julia, after hugging me and Sandy, led the way out the door.

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