Thursday, December 01, 2005

Letter from Philadelphia

First off, Happy December to one and all. Just one month left to make good on your 2005 New Year's resolutions....

Taking a brief break from the ecclesiastical frou-frou, a couple curious stories have been in the news in the City of Brotherly Love these last few days.

First off, an Eagles fan ran across Lincoln Financial Field in the middle of Sunday's (victorious) home game against the Green Bay Packers spewing what appeared to be some kind of powder on the Kentucky bluegrass. It wasn't anthrax -- but it was his mother's ashes. (This has gotten a lot of buzz going at Amy's, where the debate immediately (and predictably) turned to the salvific merits, or lack thereof, of cremation.)

What you have to realize is that, in the sociology of this city, the biggest religion is Football. Period. Just like Texas, just without the concealed weapons permits and idolatry of George Bush. In Philadelphia, spreading the ashes of a die-hard fan on the field at the Linc (as the Eagles' stadium is known in these parts) is the highest form of love, and it now seems that a million copycats will bloom in its wake.

Good, bad, ugly (and, given the expectations, this year it's just been ugly), the team the local accent renders as the "Iggles" inspire the absolute faith and devotion of this city and its diaspora extended far and wide. I've written about this before, that Jesus has not a damn thing to do with The Vaunted Second Coming our people are looking for. The Birds have taken the NFL title but once -- in 1960, seven years before the start of the Super Bowl era. (For that matter, no professional sports trophy has been carried down Broad Street here since June, 1983, when the 76ers swept the NBA Finals.) Only when the Tiffany hardware arrives in early February will this city consider itself, at long last, delivered.

After a long day of homosems on Tuesday, I was relieved to wind down with friends in a luxe suite at the Wachovia Center, watching the Sixers beat the Portland Trailblazers, albeit before a less than impressive crowd. We were talking amongst ourselves about this very topic: why and how the Philly teams always manage to come so close, yet remain so far away....

And they ask me why I'm a Cowboys fan.

Second, a tragedy and its aftereffects.... In June, Kayla Peter, a 15 year-old student in one of our Catholic high schools, was killed in a hit-and-run accident as she was getting off a city bus near her home. The culpable car was tracked back to a woman from the neighborhood who owned a restaurant on South Street, Philly's longtime bar-and-shop drag. A grand jury found that the accused killer, Susanna Goihman, was inebriated at the time of the accident.

In the words of one columnist, Goihman "sure likes the sauce," and for some reason she keeps making no bones about it in public. The gossip colums here have made a cottage industry out of reporting her frequent trips to local bars -- in one week, Goihman was twice spotted on the booze trail, at one point heading into an establishment during an Eagles' game and downing two whole glasses of tequila in 15 minutes flat. (The other time was just two shots of Cuervo, seems she was downgrading.) All this on top of sneaking off to the bar at an Applebee's during a meal with her mother to pound two shots of vodka.

And she wonders why she gets accosted by friends of the victim at dollar stores....

Lastly, the word around my alma mater is that, indeed, the scent of Water Buffalo has returned to campus at Penn. This is not a good thing.

To bring everyone up to speed, "Water Buffalo" is shorthand for an on-campus incident which served as a flashpoint in the Culture Wars of the last decade regarding the often-touchy issue of free speech on college campuses. One night in 1993, African-American sorority sisters singing outside a dorm were heckled by a white occupant of the building, who screamed "Shut up, you water buffalo -- if you want to party go to the zoo" from his window.

Bad taste? Absolutely. Hate crime? Well, that's what the university thought.

The sorority sisters claimed racial harassment, and the university initiated a judicial process against the screamer, Eden Jacobowicz, in line with the Penn policy of that era on policing hate speech. The case became a national cause celebre among conservatives livid at what they saw as political correctness gone haywire and spurred almost daily editorials in the Wall Street Journal defending Jacobowicz and demonising the administration, led by Sheldon Hackney -- who, coincidentally, had been nominated to head the National Endowment for the Humanities in the then-new Clinton administration. Charges against Jacobowicz were eventually dropped, and it was one of those rare cases when conservatives and the ACLU found common cause, but the incident heightened racial tensions on campus and required a lot of rebuilding in the period that followed.

With that primer out of the way, the specter of "Water Buffalo" has returned to Penn after an undergrad in another building shot a photo of a couple having sex against a dorm window in broad daylight. (Warning: Explicit photos in linked story.)

Bad taste? Absolutely. Freaky, quasi-stalkerlike behavior? Sure thing. Sexual harassment? Well, that's what the photographer's being charged with.

Yet again, campus is abuzz. Yet again, the student in trouble is being represented by Alan Kors -- the Penn history prof (and legendary advocate for the speech rights of pro-life students nationwide) who successfully handled the Jacobowicz case. And yet again, the issue of free speech on campuses is having its mega-watt moment in the halls and streets of Ivy in West Philadelphia.

It's like deja vu all over again. And I'm not there to get into any fisticuffs. How sad.