Sheep on the stairway

It wasn’t that late, maybe 10 pm. Heading for the Penn campus sidewalk, we stepped over a chain strung between two buildings. On our right… probably one of the condemned rowhouses; on our left, the Franklin Society Building, home of the Daily Pennsylvanian student newspaper (affectionately, the “DP”). 

Bob held a wine glass. No memory where it came from. Warren was being loud and brash – Warren was always loud and brash. We were tipsy but not, for college students, drunk, just what-the-hell enjoying ourselves. 

We were stopped by a Campus Cop for… not being what we should? In a public place?

The campus police then were not what they (for good or bad) later became – ex-city cops and reasonably savvy criminal-law types. These were low-paid dimwits. They hustled us over to their office in the dorms, where impulsive, whiplash Warren called the city police to come and rescue us from their campus counterparts. A boneheaded move, to say the least, with exactly the result you’d expect. The city cops packed us off to the hoosegow.

Before I entered Penn, the DP had been the longtime captive of one particular campus fraternity – like a literary plumbers’ guild. But during my freshman year (1957) the paper was opened up to all sorts of misanthropes like… me. However, it remained a male-only refuge; the “girls” put out their own insipid weekly. (Full gender parity, gained a few years later, required a change to the DP’s written constitution.)

Our staff was divided into editorial enclaves, only one of which – News – could elevate its members to the top editorships. But I chose Features, an encapsulated mini-mob whose influence was, in theory, confined to Page 2.

But oh, did we make the most of it. By my junior year, Bob and Warren, as co-Features editors, had turned that page into a fire-breathing dragon of possibility. We wrote about centrifugal bumble puppy (try it some time), sneered at fraternities and ran ideationally rampant across the social wasteland at the beginning of the ’60s.

Bob and Warren had little in common, other than being Jewish. Bob (full name Robert Owen Marritz – how did he come to be named after an Irish patriot?) leaned forward and mumbled behind his hand when he spoke. Smart-aleck Warren, whose brother had some executive position in Hollywood, delivered brash pronouncements accompanied by a mental clipboard. Bob retired from a utility in Oregon a few years back, but Warren seems to have vanished from the earth. I liked Bob a lot.

A younger member of the Features staff, Charles, spiffily dressed and snapping rat-a-tat quips, later took a job in the Reagan administration and started drawling like William Buckley.

I became Features editor the following year and wrote a daily column, “Etc.,” which mixed stupid humor, snide commentary, uninformed snorts about architecture, and bizarre short stories. In other words, it was much like all my later newspaper columns – each of which, for no good reason, started with the letter “E” (“The Entertainer,” “Ex Cathedra,” “Epilogue”).

We stitched the DP together on solid little manual typewriters on the third floor of the Franklin Society Building, a long, narrow structure of industrial concrete beams, fronted by a later stack of yellow-brick rooms pasted onto the street side. (Downstairs, massive machinery churned away doing … something.)

The Features office was a small room dominated at the window end by an immense, defunct air conditioner that we came to worship as the god Mah-Sheene. Knowing that the building was scheduled for demolition to make way for the new university library, we began writing on the walls with magic marker. And on the ceiling. And on the floor.

A few friends who, like us, found student politics ripsnortingly ridiculous, established the United Christian Front. A few of their friends formed the Student Anarchist League. The two soon merged as UCF-SAL (pronounced “You-cef-sal”), ran a slate in the annual student election, and got enough votes to wangle the vice-presidency for the above-mentioned Charles.

Something called the Franklin Society, undoubtedly prestigious, had died when whichever fraternity lost its grip on the paper. The Franklin Society Room, in the third-floor front addition, formerly off-limits to mere mortals, had a balcony and a massive leather couch, the most comfortable napping apparatus ever left to wither. At any hour you could find one of our number snug in its exuberant folds and sags, for the DP was an all-encompassing endeavor. At a guess, I spent 50 hours a week at the paper – almost every minute not given to classes or school work. 

Each weekday evening a few of us, on rotation, made our way to the Legal Intelligencer, the ancient and still official publication of court-related doings in Philadelphia. Their night shift printed the DP. The Legal was then a hot-type operation; every line of proto-print was individually set as a lead ingot. Every word of the DP’s immortal copy was proofread by a rock-solid bald-headed guy who never missed a comma and routinely corrected our poorly aimed college-boy grammar. (Would that such wondrous beings still existed in the publishing world.)

But my most enduring memory of the DP is an odor. I always tore up the Franklin Society stairs two or three at a time, stopping only to talk to any fellow staffer cascading down. If it had been raining when I entered, following that momentary encounter I’d move upward though the aromal effusion of my hair. It smelled like a wet sheep.

I was the only journalism major at Penn who was also on the staff of The Daily Pennsylvanian – because I actually wanted to write. Among other effluvia, I wrote movie and theater reviews. This was back when Philly was a major stop for Broadway tryout companies. I reviewed the tryout casts of West Side Story, Gypsy (with Ethel Merman) and The Unsinkable Molly Brown, which featured an inspired lead by an understudy that night. I’ve lost her name; she probably went on to great things.

Still girl-shy and undating in college, I took my mother to the live performances. She’d always had an interest in theater and showed better taste than I did.

It’s odd that I mostly recall reviewing the Broadway musicals. I’m not a musical fan. I find ludicrous the idea of people hurled into goofy or dangerous situations suddenly breaking into song and dance. Weep, call the cops or shoot somebody, for crap’s sake! But West Side Story, Stephen Sondheim’s first, with music by still-emerging Leonard Bernstein, signaled a full-scale break with Broadway tradition. It hit hard.

I don’t recall which movies I reviewed. I guess I could check what was produced during my college years, but I’d rather leave it alone. The DP wasn’t invited to most press screenings (except those for United Artists, held by a local rep with the superb name of Moe Wax); we’d have to buy tickets and get reimbursed. 

Father Divine, who claimed to be God (from his Wikipedia entry: “Federal Bureau of Investigation files record his name as George Baker alias ‘God'”), was a black fundamentalist who established the International Peace Mission Movement in Harlem that advocated integration, celibacy and strict separation of the sexes.

He fled Harlem to avoid a court case in 1942 and lived the remainder of his career in Philadelphia. I’m not sure how many buildings he owned, but the most notable in the city were the Divine Lorraine on north Broad St. (now condos), along with a smaller hotel near the Penn campus. He lived most of the time at his headquarters in a donated mansion in suburban Gladwynne, with secondary headquarters in South Philly. 

At his height, in Harlem, he had followers around the world. By the late ’50s, early ’60s in Philly, he was more legend than substance. No one knew exactly when or where he was born, or (despite the “George Baker” reference) his given name. He might as well have been God. 

I don’t recall if we, as student journalists, were invited to one of his “banquets” in South Philly, but I assume so, though that seems odd. We sat at an immense rectangular table in a huge room. The “hotel’s” inhabitants – men and women lived on separate floors – filled the table and lined the walls to listen to Father Divine’s taped sermon. 

I was impressed to see these people, so many looking physically or emotionally damaged, who had been saved from the streets, given a room, meals and some meaning to their lives. Throughout his career, Father D. provided for the poor and the marginal, regardless of race. Though inflated stories shrieked of orgies and fraud – such shrieks always to be expected – he seems to have done a great deal of good. 

That evening, the taped sermon, along with exhortations from a lieutenant or two, whipped his followers into a near ecstasy of anticipation for his appearance at the table: At least two women leaning against the wall went into orgasm. But then, alas… Father would not make it down tonight.

In point of fact, he had not been seen in public for some years, though his place at the head of the table was always set. Some rumors claimed he was dead, his body kept in secret, others that he was 105 and decrepit. Officially, he died in 1965, probably in his late 80s.

Though Father could not attend the dinner physically, Mother Divine sat by his invisible side. With shouts of glory from the room, goddam! there she was – a honey blonde in her 30s from Toronto, drop-dead gorgeous. Yes – God gets the goodies. Not only beautiful, she exuded a calming charm that quieted the ecstasy and smoothed us into a fine meal.

At the hotel near Penn, perhaps 15 years later, a cafeteria off the lobby served remarkably cheap meals to anyone who entered and showed proper behavior. A photo of Mother Divine, her picture-flesh now sepia tinted, hung across from the serving counter.

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