That Time We Seriously Flirted With Joining A Cult

On January 29, 2021, 3½ years after my wife Nell suggested in financial exasperation that I write a book, I put on “outside” clothes, sneakers and my protective mask, then walked down to our local FedEx office. There, I plugged my thumb drive into a printer…then watched in relief and wonder as it printed out a complete manuscript of my book Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own. You may find some of the book’s backstory here.

Manuscript in hand, I began the process of getting it published; any advice or assistance you have to offer will be greatly appreciated. This is easily the most terrifying thing I have ever done: I feel as though I am trying to hit a bullseye on a moving target while blindfoldedI have thus far queried 21 literary agencies. Five agencies sent immediate rejections, while I have yet to hear from the other 16.

While I wait, I have decided to increase public awareness of my work by publishing excerpts from Interrogating Memory on this site. This is the closest I can come to a “teaser trailer.

In Chapter 9 (The Dark City Beckons…On Television), I describe the often-difficult three years between my parents’ separation in March 1977 and my mother buying the small business where she had worked since October 1976. This was when “the dark city” started in earnest to beckon this curious child of the suburbs, a key marker on the road to becoming a film noir fan. Perhaps because it is the most difficult to articulate, it is the one element I left out of the essay which inspired my book.

After detailing a series of television shows which portrayed one version of the city, and the impact they had on me, I began to venture into the actual “night city” in 1978 and 1979. Some of these adventures were…unusual.

Still, these shows were merely televised versions of “the city.” It was not until 1979 that I began to spend significant time at night in the actual city of Philadelphia. Besides the Warwick, Barry’s and a Cheap Trick concert, my mother and I spent a lot of time in two areas of Society Hill, the neighborhood bounded to the north and south by Walnut and South Streets and to the east and west by S. Front and S. 7th Streets. First was S. 2nd Street between Pine and South Streets, near the original southeastern corner of the city laid out by William Penn. In 1745, a long narrow open-air market was constructed in this two-block stretch, its V-shaped roof supported by a parallel series of oblong brick columns. Called New Market to distinguish it from an existing market, the structure remains today—as do the brick houses built at either end in 1805 to store firefighting equipment, the oldest such structures in the United States. These buildings gave the area its current name: Head House Square.[i]

When I was born in nearby Metropolitan Hospital in 1966, Society Hill desperately needed revitalization. One step in this process was distinctly ironic: a deconstructed shopping mall within walking distance of local residents. Opening in 1973, the western edge of NewMarket overlooked the northern half of the original New Market on S. 2nd Street. Entering from S. Front or S. 2nd Streets brought you to a large courtyard with a central fountain, overlooked by glass-windowed shops and a maze of overhanging balconies and walkways.[ii] When I first entered NewMarket around 1978, I was riveted by its glass-and-chrome modernity and hidden nooks. We visited it during the day, but just as often at night, perhaps to eat in one of its six restaurants; going there at night, I felt like I was like getting away with something. Of the 44 shops located there in 1979, I best remember Paperback Booksmith.[iii] There, contemplating puberty, I bought a brown-covered paperback called Man’s Body: An Owner’s Manual, published in 1976 as part of the Wordsworth Body Series. Along the same lines, this may also be where I bought “Will I Like It?” Your first sexual experience, what to expect, what to avoid, and how both of you can get the most out of it, written in 1977 by Peter Mayle. Sadly, area residents were not as excited by NewMarket as we were; it officially closed in 1987. The original bronze sign, entryway and unusual architecture of the CVS Pharmacy at the corner of S. 2nd and Lombard Streets are nearly all that remain.

Just two blocks north on S. 2nd Street is Spruce Street—one block east from where I was born. Walk 100 feet to the east, and you arrive at the southern end of the short 38th Parallel Place. Its northern end is where cobblestoned Dock Street turns east after curving south and east from Walnut Street around the massive Society Hill Towers, home to luxury condominiums. This is where Herman Modell helped settle a strike in January 1947. Just north of where Dock Street turns sits the Philadelphia Marriott Old City. In 1979, though, a different building stood here—a hotel with a ballroom capable of comfortably seating 300 people; I cannot locate its name.

Rewinding a bit: John Paul Rosenberg was born in Philadelphia on September 5, 1935. In 1960, now a car salesman living in Bala Cynwyd, he left his wife and four children. By 1971, when he was selling encyclopedias in San Francisco, “Jack” Rosenberg had become “Werner Erhard” based on two names he read in Esquire magazine: physicist Werner Heisenberg and West German economics minister Ludwig Erhard.[iv] That year he had a revelation while driving over the Golden Gate Bridge: “I realized that I knew nothing.”[v] Building upon his own research into self-actualization, Erhard then founded Erhard Seminars Training, or est; est is also Latin for “it is.”

The first est training in Philadelphia took place at the City Line Holiday Inn—directly across Presidential Boulevard from the entrance to the Presidential Apartments—in December 1976; [vi]  both the Holiday Inn and the Presidential were developed by Villanova-based builder Martin W. Field.[vii] Over the next two years, my mother and her sister both paid $300 (over $1,200 in 2019) to take the training; at the time my mother only had $500 ($2,000 in 2019) to her name.

With parental permission, someone as young as 13 could take est. This is how I took the training in either October or November, at the hotel on Dock Street. The training lasted from 9 am to midnight over two consecutive weekends, with short evening seminars before, between and after the two weekends. While seated in the hotel ballroom, we were not allowed to have watches, medication (unless with a doctor’s prescription), alcohol, cigarettes or even aspirin. Bathroom and meal breaks were scheduled; there were no exceptions.[viii]

A goal of the training was to realize each of us is solely responsible for our actions, moods and thoughts: we are each God in our own universe. Deprived of our usual distractions, the trainer—a charismatic and handsome man whose name I forget—led us through a series of exercises designed to break down our mental defenses before building us back to the point where we would “get it.” “It” was simply that there was nothing to get: there is no metaphysical shortcut or externality that makes us happy or unhappy, only our own selves. British chef Robert Irvine does something very similar on his television series Restaurant: Impossible.

I had an absolute blast taking est: it allowed me to hang out in the city at night by myself—except when a group of us walked to a restaurant, where Zahav now is, for dinner one of the four nights. One of the other trainees, a youngish man whose name I forget, was my ride each morning and night; when the training was over, he wanted to take me on a vacation to the Yucatan. My mother slammed the brakes on that idea faster than a cheetah on speed; only the nocturnal city was allowed to seduce me.

One of my high school yearbook quotes is attributed to Erhard: “It is easier to ride the horse in the direction he’s going.” After our trainings, my mother, my maternal aunt and I took some “graduate seminars” at the Holiday Inn on N. 4th Street just south of Arch Street; I liked their ground floor coffee shop. There may have also been events at the Holiday Inn at S. 18th and Market Streets—at least once, my mother, one or more of her friends and I had a late-night meal at the 24-hour Midtown III Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge, a few steps south at Ranstead Street. The former Holiday Inn is now a Wyndham, the latter Holiday Inn is now a Sonesta, and the Midtown III—last of the four Midtown diners—permanently closed in August 2020.[ix] And the City Line Holiday Inn is now a Courtyard by Marriott.

Until next time…please be safe and healthy. Get vaccinated against COVID-19, and wear a mask!


[i] https://study.com/academy/lesson/history-of-head-house-square-in-philadelphia.html Accessed December 10, 2020

[ii] https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/society-hill/the-newmarket-2/ Accessed December 10, 2020

[iii] NewMarket advertisement, PI, December 9, 1979, pg. 6-L

[iv] https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/29/fashion/the-return-of-werner-erhard-father-of-self-help.html Accessed December 13, 2020

[v] Dowie, Mark, “The Transformation Game,” San Francisco Examiner (San Francisco, CA), October 12, 1986, pg. IMAGE-24

[vi] Storck, Dorothy, “Introduction to the word,” PI, January 12, 1977, pg. 1-B

[vii] Cook, Bonnie L., “Martin W. Field, 87, Philly-area builder,” PDN, March 16, 2018, pg. 18

[viii] Storck, Dorothy, “We’re all OK—probably,” PI, January 14, 1977, pg. 1-B

[ix] https://www.inquirer.com/food/midtown-iii-diner-closes-center-city-philadelphia-restaurants-coronavirus-24-hour-whatll-be-hun-20200821.html Accessed December 14, 2020

That Time A Building Completely Broke My Heart

On January 29, 2021, 3½ years after my wife Nell suggested in financial exasperation that I write a book, I put on “outside” clothes, sneakers and my protective mask, then walked down to our local FedEx office. There, I plugged my thumb drive into a printer…then watched in relief and wonder as it printed out a complete manuscript of my book Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own. You may find some of the book’s backstory here.

Manuscript in hand, I began the process of getting it published; any advice or assistance you have to offer will be greatly appreciated. This is easily the most terrifying thing I have ever done: I feel as though I am trying to hit a bullseye on a moving target while blindfoldedI compiled a list of 19 literary agents I felt were the best fit for this book, sending formal queries to 11 of them, keeping nine in reserve. Three agencies sent immediate rejections, while I have yet to hear from the other eight.

In the meantime, I have decided to increase public awareness of my work by publishing excerpts from Interrogating Memory on this site. This is the closest I can come to a “teaser trailer.

One unexpected theme which emerged while writing was “what once stood proud, now stands not at all.” That applies primarily to John Rhoads Company, the West Philadelphia landmark whose “rise and fall” narrative is woven throughout the book. Forty years after it first opened in 1886, it was taken over by my paternal grandfather and his younger brother in the 1920s then passed to my father a little over three decades later. The demise of John Rhoads in the 1970s is partly discussed here. It also applies to the homes destroyed to make way for superhighways and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, or any number of storied buildings–Metropolitan Hospital, The Gladstone Hotel/Greystone Apartments, the Philadelphia Police Department 40th District station house at 28th and Oxford–torn down and replaced for various reasons.

I first wrote about childhood summers in Atlantic City here. In Chapter 8 (Fathers and Sons Are Only Black and White in the Movies), I describe those magical summers in greater detail, lovingly recreating a motel called the Strand, which once stood between Boston and Providence Avenues just off the Boardwalk. On Newspapers.com, I found these contemporary advertisements, one from the June 25, 1972 edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer

…and one from the June 10, 1973 edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

For the full story, I urge you to read Chapter 8 when Interrogating Memory is published. Until then, please enjoy this brief excerpt from that Chapter.

My happiest memory of those summers, however, is seeing Atlantic City from the Atlantic Ocean with my maternal grandfather. Beyond the northeastern end of the Boardwalk, on what was called Inlet Pier, sat the popular Capt. Starn’s; it closed five years later.[i] Besides a seafood restaurant and bar, one could charter boats or take a ride on the speedboat “Miss Atlantic City.” It also had a white double-decker tour boat which gently carried passengers round trip to Longport and back, a safe distance from the shore. I recognized buildings as they drifted by—the Ambassador Hotel, the Convention Center (home to the Miss America pageant since 1921) and, of course, the Strand and the Warwick. As we sat contentedly in one of the 10 or so rows of white plastic seats, two on either side of a narrow aisle, a man sold beverages from a large cooler. “Pop-Pop Sam” always bought a can for me. Nothing has ever tasted as delicious as I remember that Coke or Dr. Pepper tasting.

All things come to an end, though. This is how I described leaving the Strand at the end of the summer of 1975 in a high school English essay I wrote in March 1982:

’Matthew, will you hurry up!’ cried the boy’s mother. She was standing in the parking lot of the Strand motel, by a packed Ford.

“In the motel’s lobby, the boy was frantically running from adult to adult saying breathless good-byes.

“‘Ya comin’ back next summer, Matthew?’ asked an old man who sold candy and sundry goods.

“The boy, who was seven [sic–I was actually eight] years old, with messy, brown hair and a perpetual smile, shrugged his shoulders.

“I really hope so, but I don’t think we will, because my dad said money was tight and stuff like that,’ replied Matthew, the smile fading a bit.

“’Well I hope you do, Matthew. Now you’re [sic] mother is calling you, so you’d better go. Here.’

“The man jammed a Snickers into the boy’s hand. Matthew opened it, stuffed it in his mouth and, yelling good-bye over his shoulder, jumped in the car.”

We returned one last time, in the summer of 1976 or 1977. This time we stayed for a weekend, or perhaps longer, in a room overlooking Boston Avenue; this may be when Allen Hirschbaum rented a room in the motel across the street. One night, I tried to sleep on one of the deck chairs; I eventually returned inside. But once Resorts Casino Hotel opened on May 26, 1978, the Strand’s days were numbered. On June 22, Golden Nugget Inc. president Stephen Wynn announced he had bought the Strand from Solomon for $8.5 million ($34.4 million in 2019).[ii] Wynn tore down the 23-year-old motel to build the 541-room Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino, which opened on December 9, 1980.[iii]

Later in the essay, titled “Repulsion Is Golden,” I pick up the story a few years later, likely the summer of 1981. After promising my mother I would return at 6 pm, I ran the “brief block to the bus stop.” From there a bus took me to the corner of Atlantic and Boston Avenues, steps away from where the boarding house Samuel and Irene Kohn operated during WWII had stood. Sprinting the block south to Pacific Avenue:

“’What in God’s name!’ I thought to myself. I frantically checked the street signs. I was on the corner of Boston and Pacific allright [sic]. So what was that in front of me?

“I was quite confused, because where my beloved Strand had always stood was a huge, gold-and-glass horror. The sign on it read ‘Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino.’

“I crossed the street and entered the lower lobby. Surrounding me were gold columns, fine carpeting, more glass, and shining marble. I was filled with repulsion, and was rapidly approaching actual physical illness.

“Recovering from the initial shock I walked to the main desk. In answer to my question, I was told the Strand had been torn down three years [ago] so they could build this hotel. I thanked the clerk and walked away.

“I looked around a bit, the gaudiness of the place sickening me. I kept asking myself, ‘How, how, could they have done this!’ Tears welled up in my eyes, so I sat down a minute to think. I recovered, and went into the men’s room to clean myself up.”

Melodramatic flourishes aside, this succinctly sums up my feelings not only about the replacement of the Strand by the Golden Nugget—itself sold to Bally’s Organization in November 1987[iv]—but of gambling generally. Presented as a way to revive the dying city lovingly portrayed in the bittersweet 1980 film Atlantic City, it instead cleaved the storied resort. Giant lurid casinos flanking the beach draw guests who rarely venture outside the hotels and Boardwalk, while the rest of the city seems worse off than before. Given my father’s addiction, however, it is all for the best we stopped summering in Atlantic City before the first casinos were built.

Until next time…please be safe and healthy!


[i] “Capt. Starn’s pier a sunken relic amid glitter of Atlantic City casinos,” Courier-Post (Camden, NJ), May 7, 1989, pg. 6B

[ii] “Vegas firm buys piece of Boardwalk,” The Record (Hackensack, NJ), June 23, 1978, pg. A3

[iii] “Gaming agency analyzing Golden Nugget’s trial run,” Asbury Park Press (Asbury Park, NJ), December 12, 1980, pg. B19

[iv] “Farewell and tears loom for The Grand,” Asbury Park Press (Asbury Park, NJ), September 25, 1994, pg. E9

That Time My Detective Grandfather’s Partner Was A Total Rascal

On January 29, 2021, 3½ years after my wife Nell suggested in financial exasperation that I write a book, I put on “outside” clothes, sneakers and my protective mask, then walked down to our local FedEx office. There, I plugged my thumb drive into a printer…then watched in relief and wonder as it printed out a complete manuscript of my book Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own. You may find some of the book’s backstory here.

Manuscript in hand, I began the process of getting it published; any advice or assistance you have to offer will be greatly appreciated. This is easily the most terrifying thing I have ever done: I feel as though I am trying to hit a bullseye on a moving target while blindfoldedI compiled a list of 19 literary agents I felt were the best fit for this book, sending formal queries to 10 of them, keeping nine in reserve. Two agencies sent immediate rejections, while I have yet to hear from the other eight.

In the meantime, I have decided to increase public awareness of my work by publishing excerpts from Interrogating Memory on this site. This is the closest I can come to a “teaser trailer.

I have written extensively about my maternal grandfather, born Yisrael HaCohen in Shpola in modern-day Ukraine on December 12, 1904. Or maybe it was November 22, 1905? The latter date is recorded on his father Yosef HaCohen’s Petition For Naturalization, while the former date is recorded on the Montefiore Cemetery gravestone of Samuel Joseph Kohn of Cleveland, the name and city of birth he chose to sidestep the anti-Semitism of the Philadelphia Police Department (“PPD”) he joined as Patrolman on August 14, 1931.

For more on Samuel Kohn’s 22 years on the PPD–his stint as a plain-clothes detective, his possible association with future Police Commissioner and Mayor Frank Rizzo, and his own issues with “moonlighting”– I urge you read Chapter 2 (The Dancing Rabbi, The Philly Cop and The Baker’s Daughter) as soon as Interrogating Memory is published.

Until then, please enjoy this brief excerpt from that Chapter.

Philadelphia Police Department

According to my maternal aunt, her father…

…was a plain clothes detective for a time, but his combative personality got him in trouble. His steadiest partner on the force was a blondish man named Auerbach, who had a squad car in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood where they lived.[i]

Meanwhile, my maternal aunt correctly remembered “a blondish man named Auerbach.” Born in the Pale on June 14, 1910, Jerome Jacob “Jack” Auerbach immigrated with his Yiddish-speaking family to Manhattan in 1913. By 1934, however, he had moved to Philadelphia, where he married Mildred Murlend. Within six years, they were living in a two-story rowhouse at 1935 N. Patton Street, just one block north of where Patrolman Kohn and his young family lived in 1945 and 1946. Despite later founding the PPD K9 Unit, Auerbach was a bit of a rascal.[ii] Soon after arresting the Mari brothers, he was demoted to Patrolman out of the 32nd district (65th Street and Woodland Avenue) in southwest Philadelphia. On April 28, 1949, Auerbach was suspended along with 19 other PPD policemen as part of a two-day crackdown after “Capt. Edward Fossler and Sgt. John Smith said they found Auerbach sitting in his own car with a young woman companion…when he should have been patroling [sic] his beat.”[iii] He was parked at 74th Street and Buist Avenue, one block from his beat: 74th Street and Island Avenue. When the officers approached the car, Auerbach “stepped on the gas and led them a three-mile chase through West Philadelphia” to the corner of Shields and Yocum Streets, less than two blocks from his own station house.[iv] Auerbach’s parked car was dark; the young woman hid on the floor. Curiously, Auerbach was taken to the neighboring 21st district (32nd Street and Woodland Avenue) to be suspended.[v]

While it was particularly brazen to do so with a young woman, “hiding out” was common; eight other PPD policemen were suspended that day for “resting” in such exotic places as a Penn fraternity house, a park bench and the office of a garage. Indeed:

The work of a footman was brutally monotonous. The same row houses. The same families, the same small-time businessmen. A footman was prone to hiding out, especially in rough weather, in luncheonettes and living rooms, or in the wooden boxes where the sergeants checked up on the men. If you got caught hiding out, the discipline was swift, the infraction rarely forgiven. You remained a footman.”[vi]

Auerbach was transferred to the 16th District (39th Street and Lancaster Avenue, three blocks southeast of John Rhoads Company), where his troubles got worse. On July 25, 1949, Auerbach was brought before the Civil Service Commission (“CSC”), accused of violating the City Charter by being a partner in a plumbing business launched one month before he arrested the Mari brothers; his former partner’s wife Ruth alleged he supervised and performed plumbing jobs when he should have been on duty. That same former partner, Benjamin Glazer, had himself been indicted for embezzlement and fraudulent conversion.[vii]  Two days later, CSC recommended Auerbach’s dismissal;[viii] he was suspended the following day.

The disgraced Auerbach sought reinstatement well into 1950, arguing “one private complainant against him [had] failed to appear” at two prior mandamus petition hearings.[ix] Auerbach could also have argued he was far from the only moonlighting PPD patrolman. When Samuel H. Rosenberg was sworn in as Director of Public Safety on March 10, 1949[x], he soon realized “most nights, more police officers were moonlighting than were available for duty.” [xi] On February 21, 1951, Judge James C. Crumlish agreed, ordering Jack Auerbach reinstated as of the previous October 3.[xii] That same year, Auerbach married Dorothea Bochardt, by whom he had a daughter named Denise. Chastened by two suspensions, he rose to the rank of Captain in 1960, then later Inspector. Jack Auerbach died at the of 62 on January 26, 1973 then was buried in Roosevelt Memorial Park [eds. note: my father was buried there 8 1/2 years later].

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy!


[i] E-mail dated March 11, 2013

[ii] https://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2017/03/19/philly-restaurant-holds-special-fundraiser-for-ppd-k9-unit/ Accessed March 24, 2019.

[iii] “10 More Police Are Suspended,” PI, April 29, 1949, pg.1 (continued pg. 3).

[iv] According to Google Maps, this is only about a 1.3-mile drive—if driven directly.

[v] Woodland Avenue now ends at 38th Street, as the University of Pennsylvania now occupies most of the area between 38th Street and the Schuylkill River, north to Market Street.

[vi] Paolantonio, S. A. 1993. Frank Rizzo: The Last Big Man in Big City America. Philadelphia, PA: Camino Books, pg. 38.

[vii] “3d Dismissal Ordered for Policeman,” PI, July 26, 1949, pg. 21.

[viii] “Rosenberg Asked To Fire Officer,” PI, July 28, 1949, pg. 3.

[ix] “Suspended Officer Sues for His Job,” PI, November 16, 1950, pg. 23.

[x] After serving as Acting Director since February 4. “S.H.Rosenberg, 39, Sworn by Samuel As Safety Director,” PI, March 11, 1949, pg. 1.

[xi] Paolantonio, pg. 43.

[xii] “Fired Policeman Returned to Job,” PI, February 22, 1951, pg. 25.


That Time My Great-Uncle Helped Send a Man To Prison

On January 29, 2021, 3½ years after my wife Nell suggested in financial exasperation that I write a book, I put on “outside” clothes, sneakers and my protective mask, then walked down to our local FedEx office. There, I plugged my thumb drive into a printer…then watched in relief and wonder as it printed out a complete manuscript of my book Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own. You may find some of the book’s backstory here.

Manuscript in hand, I began the process of getting it published; any advice or assistance you have to offer will be greatly appreciated. This is easily the most terrifying thing I have ever done: I feel as though I am trying to hit a bullseye on a moving target while blindfolded. I compiled a list of 19 literary agents I felt were the best fit for this book, sending formal queries to 10 of them, keeping nine in reserve. Two agencies sent immediate rejections, while I have yet to hear from the other eight.

In the meantime, I have decided to increase public awareness of my work by publishing excerpts from Interrogating Memory on this site. This is the closest I can come to a “teaser trailer.

One narrative thread I weave through the book is the story of John Rhoads Company, a successful West Philadelphia business founded by the Harrisburg-born Rhoads in 1886. On July 15, 1926, a 32-year-old Jewish immigrant from what is now Poland named Morris (Moshe bar Dahvid Layb) Berger bought the company, joined by his younger brother Jules. “Julius” had been born in a two-story Philadelphia row house in February 1904. Less than seven years earlier, the two brothers and their three sisters had lost their father under mysterious circumstances that made the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

But you must await publication for that story…and the shenanigans that transpired in the Spruce Hotel in 1937.

Instead, today I reprint this short passage from Chapter 1 (From Triumph to Tragedy…and the Tailor’s Daughter). It is the second half of the section titled “John Rhoads Company.”

Please enjoy.

It was on this land in 1886 that the former confectioner opened John Rhoads Company, a carpet cleaning, moving and storage firm whose original address was 736-42—later just 738—N. Holly Street. In 1894, this “popular” two-floor firm was the “largest in West Philadelphia.”[i] Less than two years later, on July 27, 1896, 57-year-old John Rhoads died at his home at 4003 Spring Garden Street, a few blocks southeast from his company. It passed through the hands of sons Daniel and John F., their wives and his daughter Mary A. before ultimately passing to John F.’s wife Annie L. G. Rhoads.

In the meantime, John Rhoads Company thrived, advertising “Carpet Beating, 3c Yard. Called for and returned free, also Six Months’ Storage Free”[ii] in May 1914, then “Storage, packing, shipping. Local and distant moving” and carpet cleaning in January 1919.[iii] By February 15, 1919, John Rhoads Company had changed its official address to 4157-59 Lancaster Avenue.[iv]

I do not know why Morris Berger decided to purchase John Rhoads Company, or why Annie Rhoads sold it to him. The likeliest explanation is that Annie did not want to run the family business herself and accepted a generous offer from a man who had started working at the business with his younger brother the previous year, bringing with them an excellent reputation in the used furniture business.

Five years later, on April 2, 1931, Morris Berger officially ceded ownership of the company and the land it occupied to “John Rhoads Co.” This way, according to a paternal cousin, Morris and Jules split their stake in the company 50-50, with an arrangement that if one brother died, the surviving brother would receive an additional 1% of the company, making him bare-majority owner; it is not clear how the remaining 49% control would be allocated.[v]

Jules Berger, now in his mid-20s, took the opportunity afforded by this success to travel in style, Great Depression notwithstanding. On February 1, 1931, he departed Havana, Cuba for Key West, Florida on the S.S. Northland. That summer, he spent two weeks at the Ford Hotel in Montreal, Canada, carrying $100 in cash (almost $1,700 in 2019), arriving August 6 on the S.S. Silvia after a six-day voyage from Halifax, Nova Scotia; the ship’s manifest lists his profession as “rug cleaner.” And on March 4, 1933—the same day Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated 32nd president of the United States—he departed from New York City for a cruise through the West Indies on the R.M.S. Mauretania, then nearing the end of its run as the premiere luxury liner of the Cunard line.[vi] Twelve days later, the ship returned to New York City, having sailed as far south as La Guaira, Venezuela.[vii]

Six years later, 35-year-old Jules married 30-year-old Roslyn K. Blatt, who had graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree from Temple University in 1931. While I cannot recall meeting my late great-aunt, the name “Aunt Roz” rang a loud bell when I re-discovered it researching my family history. The newlyweds settled into the house at 444 S. 49th Street, connected by a small concrete walkway to Jules’ brother’s house.

In July 1946, Jules inadvertently launched the noir “fugitive on the run” story of Harry Merrick III. The previous February, Jules had been called to Merion Gardens Apartments, on the suburban side of City Avenue, where it intersects Wynnewood Avenue. There 23-year-old Harry sold my great-uncle rugs belonging to his father, H. M. Merrick, for $200 (around $2,850 in 2019). However, since the rugs did not belong to Harry, his father and my great-uncle jointly swore out a complaint for his arrest on a charge of obtaining money under false pretenses. Sentenced by Judge Harold G. Knight in Montgomery County Court in Norristown to 11-22 months in the county jail, he was transferred in November to the Montgomery County Prison Farm. There he roomed on the honor system with 20 other inmates and a single guard. On Christmas Eve 1945, Harry escaped in a prison truck, which was found in Philadelphia a week later, its identifying panels removed and its gas tank empty. Harry spent the next six months roaming the country, working whatever jobs he could, until he could no longer bear not seeing his 23-year-old wife Dorothy; the latter now lived with her mother in the Manayunk section of Philadelphia. Arranging to meet at the city’s massive railway terminus, 30th Street Station, they spent nearly three days together, during which Dorothy convinced her husband to “face the music,” vowing to wait for him while he finished his sentence. “I’m so tired of being hunted,” he replied, and on the morning of July 26, 1946, accompanied by his wife and a lawyer named Thomas E. Waters, he turned himself in at the same courthouse where had had been sentenced the previous spring.[viii]

By the early 1940s, John Rhoads Company had expanded from a small carpet cleaning firm into a successful reseller of high-quality household furniture and goods, open every day. Advertisements in the Philadelphia Inquirer trumpeted “ANTIQUES, BRIC-A-BRIC, RUGS. Household & office furniture. Baby grand pianos, china. Best prices paid.”[ix] Similar ads over the next five years also highlighted “ORIENTAL & DOMESTIC RUGS” and “UNCLAIMED STORAGE SALE” of expensive rugs and furniture suites.[x]

In August 2019 I spoke to some current residents of N. Holly Street, who were exceedingly generous with their time and memory, and learned the giant door through which the trucks would drive in and out of the building was located on the right-hand side of the N. Holly Street end of the building, as you faced it from the sidewalk. This was also where the giant rolls of carpet were cleaned.

This is what that section of N. Holly Street looks like now.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy.

[i] “BUSINESS HOUSES AND THEIR PROGRESS.” PI, December 16, 1894, pp. 26-28. The listing of West Philadelphia businesses is on page.28.

[ii] PI, May 25, 1914, pg. 12

[iii] PI, January 14, 1919, pg. 19

[iv] Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia, PA), February 15, 1919, pg. 17

[v] Letter from Source 1 to author, September 15, 2017

[vi] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Mauretania-ship-1906-1935 Accessed October 19, 2019

[vii] “Steamship Movements,” The Ottawa Citizen (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), March 8, 1933, pg. 1

[viii] “Fugitive Returns On Wife’s Plea; Felon Persuaded to Give Up After 6 Months of Freedom,” PI, July 27, 1946, pg 11

[ix] PI, February 2, 1941, pg. 58.

[x] Per a small 1942 “For Sale” advertisement: “WANTED ORIENTAL & DOMESTIC RUGS Household and office fur., grand pianos” PI, February 8, 1942, pg. 52. They were open every day from 9 am to 5 pm (Mondays until 10 pm). Another ad on the same page announced an “UNCLAIMED STORAGE SALE” of expensive rugs and furniture suites. Similar ads had appeared in the Inquirer in 1941 (February 2, pg. 58; May 4, pg. 14) and earlier in 1942 (February 1, pg. 10), and would appear again later in 1942 (July 21, pg. 30) and in 1943 (January 4, pg. 26), 1946 (January 2, pg. 41).

That Time My Mother Was a Total Badass

On January 29, 2021, 3½ years after my wife Nell suggested in financial exasperation that I write a book, I put on “outside” clothes, sneakers and my protective mask, then walked down to our local FedEx office. There, I plugged my thumb drive into a printer…then watched in relief and wonder as it printed out a complete manuscript of my book Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own. You may find some of the book’s backstory here.

Manuscript in hand, I began the process of getting it published; any advice or assistance you have to offer will be greatly appreciated. This is easily the most terrifying thing I have ever done: I feel as though I am trying to hit a bullseye on a moving target while blindfolded.

I compiled a list of 19 literary agents I felt were the best fit for this book, sending formal queries to 10 of them, keeping nine in reserve. Two agencies sent immediate rejections, while I have yet to hear from the other eight.

In the meantime, I have decided to increase public awareness of my work by publishing excerpts from Interrogating Memory on this site. This is the closest I can come to a “teaser trailer.

One narrative thread I weave through the book is how a young Jewish couple, born and raised in West Philadelphia, chose to adopt a baby—unseen—in the summer of 1966. Elaine Kohn married David Louis Berger in January 1960; their future looked incredibly bright. However, my soon-to-be-legal mother suffered a series of reproductive tragedies over the next five years, ending her ability to bear children of her own.

By a happy coincidence, today—March 8, 2021—is both International Women’s Day and my older sister Mindy’s 59th birthday. Mindy was the only “natural” child of Elaine and Lou Berger. Unfortunately, multiple causes—including birth trauma—resulted in Mindy having what once was called “severe mental retardation.” I tell this story at the end of Chapter 3 (Golden Boy Marries Golden Girl: What Could Go Wrong?).

Today, however, I share the moment when my mother—who died from ovarian cancer at the age of 66 in 2004—proved what an utter badass she could be when necessary.

Please enjoy.

Mindy finds a permanent home.

As this photograph illustrates, Mindy and I got along reasonably well as children. Still, our playing together consisted almost entirely of me taking advantage of her echolalia to get her to repeat words like “Yugoslavia” or “Czechoslovakia.” While I was not trying to be a brat, I quickly stopped when she began to shift from patient compliance to agitation. Even as a child, she was incredibly strong. One of the few things that would calm her—besides eating—was driving around the neighborhood, singing show tunes or popular songs she knew. When she was in her 20s and 30s, it usually required the assistance of one or two strong male orderlies to get a screaming and crying Mindy out of the car after a ride. This was physically and emotionally draining for everyone involved.


Author with his sister, c. 1971. I sit in my father’s seat. I usually sat on the lower right-hand side.

My mother often quipped drive-thru restaurants were invented just so she could feed Mindy without having to get out of the car. Little has changed in 50 years: the routine when I visit my sister is to take her on a three-plus-hour-long drive through Bucks County, eating tuna fish sandwiches I purchase at a local WAWA convenience store, listening to the original 1964 cast recording of Fiddler on the Roof as well as more contemporary music, and stopping briefly for pizza and a bathroom break in the town of Buckingham. With her current medication regimen, which makes her far more placid, these visits are far less stressful than they used to be.

Indeed, my mother needed help with Mindy from the start; our childhood babysitter, the ancient-seeming Mrs. Schumann, would only come to our house if Mindy was already asleep. Reportedly, Mindy climbed naked out of the bathtub one afternoon and ran out of the house onto Sue Ellen Drive. Luckily, cars rarely drove down our quiet street. The one person to whom Mindy would listen was our father. Increasingly, however, he was staying out late playing cards with friends. One night, my mother asked her husband to stay home to help soothe their screaming daughter. My father supposedly replied, “If you’re mad, you’ll stay mad. If not, you’ll get glad” then left the house—and an enraged wife.

Left mostly to her own devices, my mother began a years-long search for a day program or residential facility which could handle Mindy’s intellectual challenges and violent outbursts. Around 1969, when Mindy was seven years old, she began to photocopy dozens of pages from official publications of listings of mental retardation facilities in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Delaware. I still have those marked-up pages.

The first schools Mindy attended, according to her annual Life Enrichment Plan (LEP), were “Robins Nursery School” for three years and “Raphael Day School” for nine months. I use quotation marks because I find no record of them in my mother’s facility listings. In November 1970, Mindy enrolled in a day program in the Douglas T. Davidson, Jr. School at the Elwyn Institute, a 20-minute drive south from Havertown. According to a progress report, she did well at Elwyn, mastering short sentences and generally keeping up physically, despite her burgeoning weight problem. The report also highlights her penchant for music and preference to withdraw in large crowds, both still true today. However, sometime after January 15, 1971—when “Mrs. D. Louis Berger” signed the 1st Period Parent’s Comments section, Mindy transferred to the Melmark School, a 20-minute drive west from Havertown in Newtown Square. The explanation: “Although a structured behavioral program was initiated, there was no implementation consistency across the home and school environment.” Put simply, my parents were not practicing what Elwyn preached.

Melmark is the first facility I remember visiting; I loved turning left off Darby-Paoli Road onto the long tree-lined road leading to it. Mindy was enrolled there until June 1973, when she was “discharged due to behaviors described as uncontrollable (i.e., tantrums and self-abuse).” Photographs taken on, or within a few days of, June 30, 1973, show Mindy frolicking in our backyard pool.

Now 11 years old, she was taken next to the Martha Lloyd Residence—now Martha Lloyd Community Services—in Troy, Pennsylvania. I recall this was “practically in New York;” Troy is about 10 miles south of the New York State line, some 187 miles north and slightly west of Havertown. Moving Mindy that far from home underscores how desperate things had become. She lasted only two months there, as “she was quickly discharged due to poor emotional control.” Mindy was then admitted to the Intermediate Unit Program at Crozier-Chester Medical Center, about 12 miles south in Chester, where she required 24-hour supervision. Residential placement was recommended, and in February 1974, Mindy was enrolled in the Van Hook-Walsh School for Retarded Children—which my mother misremembered as “Margaret Van Hook School”[i]—in Middletown, Delaware, just over 50 miles southwest of Havertown. Unfortunately, the school was in a residential area and neighbors complained about her waking up screaming during the night. Mindy “reportedly” was discharged in June 1974, according to her LEP, despite “doing well with the program.”

Once Mindy returned home from Delaware, meanwhile, “her mother became overwhelmed with the responsibility of caring for her daughter and her ailing husband and subsequently sought residential placement.” And here, the written record conflicts with my memory, making interrogation difficult. My mother and I spent the summers of 1974 and 1975 in Atlantic City, with my father driving from Philadelphia most weekends. This could only have happened if a) Mindy was living in a residential facility the entire summer, and b) my father was healthy. As I noted above, his first two heart attacks occurred before 1974.

I propose this scenario: My father has his second heart attack in June 1973, just as Mindy is discharged from Melmark. If Mindy was in fact sent home from Van-Hook Walsh in September 1974, my mother could simply have confused this with my father’s heart attack when recalling the events a few decades later—saying incorrectly Mindy returned home in June 1974. This would also mean my mother, after spending a relaxing summer in Atlantic City, returned to the news Mindy had been discharged from her seventh different school. Luckily, however, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was about to throw my mother a lifeline.

In October 1966, a Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare (“DPW”) official announced “plans to build a youth development center and a hospital for mentally retarded children”[ii] on the grounds of the Philadelphia State Hospital, which then straddled the Roosevelt Boulevard in northeast Philadelphia, just a few hundred yards south of the Bucks County line. By the following July, plans for the proposed “Southeastern State School and Hospital for Retardates” were nearly complete: it would serve 500 children of varying levels of developmental severity on a campus featuring air-conditioned “housing units, an administration building, a shop, chapel, gymnasium and pool” at a proposed cost of $10 million (over $76.5 million in 2019).[iii]

The goals were to reduce overcrowding in other state facilities and “to bring mentally retarded persons of all ages closer to their community […and] concentrate on outpatient care and vocational training when possible.”[iv] It was completed in the summer of 1972, at a final cost of $11.7 million (nearly $90 million in 2019) and scheduled to open early in 1973 on a 72-acre site on the eastern side of Roosevelt Boulevard between Southampton and Woodhaven Roads.[v] Taking a cue from its southern border, in fact, it had been renamed the Woodhaven Center (“Woodhaven”). It would be run jointly by DPW and Temple University’s School of Social Administration.

Woodhaven did not open until January 1974, though, following months tackling leaking roofs, contract negotiations with Temple and budgetary setbacks. By September 1974, when my mother had reached her breaking point, it already housed at least 83 students, far fewer than planned.[vi] Nonetheless, when my mother tried to enroll Mindy in Woodhaven, entry was delayed for…reasons.

What happened next is the stuff of legend.

As I understand the story, around lunch time one day at the end of November 1974, my mother and Mindy again sat in an office—presumably at Temple—trying to overcome bureaucratic delays. This time, however, after 13 years of caring for her increasingly-hard-to-manage daughter, 36-year-old Elaine Berger snapped. Instead of continuing to keep Mindy quiet and still, she simply let her do what she wanted. Freed from restraint, Mindy ran around the office screaming, hurling papers in the air and generally disrupting office proceedings. Then my mother, rage barely kept in check, said to the person with whom she had been discussing her daughter, “I am going to bring Mindy back here every single day until you admit her.” And, just like that, Mindy entered Woodhaven on December 3, 1974, where she remains well-cared for still. Her official reason for entry, tellingly, was a “need to reduce aggressive behaviors such as screaming, scratching and attacking others.”

With Mindy in Woodhaven, her husband healthy and John Rhoads successfully relocated, my mother could truly relax for the first time in nearly 15 years. She had apparently begun to do so illicitly in 1970; my mother would later jokingly tell me I could not smoke pot until I was 32, because that was when she started. Before Mindy exits this narrative for good, however, we will learn how she saved our lives.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…


[i] The school, which later became Boxwood Manor, apparently closed in 2014 https://www.delawareonline.com/story/news/local/2014/07/26/boxwood-manor-place-delawares-educational-history/13225435/ Accessed August 19, 2019

[ii] “2 State Centers To Be Built on Byberry Land,” PI, October 16, 1966, pg. NE 1

[iii] Eady, James, “Hospital for Retarded Youth To Be Constructed at Byberry,” PI, July 30, 1967, pg. NE 1

[iv] “School for Retarded Battles Obstacles to Opening in Spring,” PI, January 14, 1973, pg. 3 N-W

[v] Smith, Jim, “Woodhaven Offers Retarded Hope,” PDN, November 15, 1973, pg. 33

[vi] “83 Enter Meet For Retarded,” PI, September 15, 1974, pg. 8-B

The Not-So-Changing Geography of U.S. Elections

On November 3, 2020, Democrats Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were elected president and vice president, respectively, of the United States. According to data from Dave Leip’s essential Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, the Biden-Harris ticket won 51.3% of the nearly 158.6 million votes cast. Turnout shattered the previous record of 137.1 million votes cast in 2016: 15.6% more votes were cast for president in 2020 than in 2016. The incumbent Republican president and vice president, Donald Trump and Mike Pence, won 46.8% of the vote, with the remaining 2.0% going mostly to the Libertarian and Green tickets

While the 4.5 percentage point (“point”) margin for Biden-Harris over Trump-Pence—7.1 million votes—was solid, it is the Electoral College which determines the winner of presidential elections. Despite objections to the counting of the votes from individual states and an armed insurrection aimed to stop the Congressional certification of Electoral Votes (“EV”), the Biden-Harris ticket was awarded 306 EV—36 more than necessary—to 232 for Trump-Pence.

In many ways, the 2020 presidential election was a near-perfect encapsulation of recent presidential elections. Between 1992, when Democrats Bill Clinton and Al Gore were elected president and vice president, ending 40 years of Republican White House dominance, and 2016, the Democratic presidential ticket averaged a 3.6-point winning margin and 313.7 EV, very close to 4.5 points and 306 EV.

Biden-Harris improved on the 2016 Democratic margin in the national popular vote by 2.4 points, winning 16.4 million more votes than the ticket of Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine; Trump-Pence won 11.3 million more votes, while third party candidates won 5.2 million fewer votes. Moreover, across the 50 states and the District of Columbia (“DC”), the Democratic ticket improved by an average of 3.1 points! In the EC, as Table 1 shows, Biden-Harris carried five states Clinton-Kaine lost in 2016: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin; no states flipped the other direction.

Table 1: States with Presidential Election Margins <5.0 Points in 2016 and/or 2020

StateEV2016 Margin (Dem-Rep)2020 Margin (Dem-Rep)2020-2016
  %#%#%#
Florida29-1.2-112,911-3.4-371,686-2.2-258,775
North Carolina15-3.7-173,315-1.3-74,483+2.4+98,832
Arizona11-3.5-91,2340.3+10,457+3.8+101,691
Georgia16-5.1-211,1410.2+11,779+5.3+222,920
Wisconsin10-0.8-22,7480.6+20,682+1.4+43,430
Pennsylvania20-0.7-44,2841.2+82,166+1.9+127,450
Nevada62.4+27,2022.4+33,596-0.03+6,394
Michigan16-0.2-10,7042.8+154,181+3.0+164,885
Minnesota101.5+44,5937.1+233,012+5.6+188,419
New Hampshire40.4+2,7367.4+59,277+7.0+56,541
Maine43.0+22,1429.1+74,335+6.1+52,193
Colorado94.9+136,38613.5+439,745+8.6+303,359

Clinton-Kaine won Virginia by 5.3 points in 2016; four years later Biden-Harris won the state by 10.1 points, a 4.8-point jump. The shift in Texas was similar, from a 9.0-point loss to “only” a 5.6-point loss, a 3.4-point improvement. In fact, Biden-Harris did better than Clinton-Kaine in every close state except Florida, losing by 258,775 votes more than in 2016. Overall, the only other states where the Democratic margin was at least 0.1 points worse in 2020 were Arkansas (-0.7), California (-0.8), Utah (-2.4) and Hawaii (-2.7). By contrast, Biden-Harris improved by at least 6.0 points (roughly double the state average) in the close states of Maine (6.1), New Hampshire (7.0) and Colorado (8.6), as well as Massachusetts (6.3), Connecticut (6.4), Maryland (6.8), Biden’s home state of Delaware (7.7) and Vermont (9.0).

Had Clinton-Kaine flipped just 77,736 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in 2016, Democrats would have retained the White House, 278-260. By the same token, had Trump-Pence flipped just 65,009 votes in Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, and the 2nd Congressional District of Nebraska (“NE-2”), they would have been reelected, 270-268—while still losing the national popular vote by 4.5 points. Wisconsin, which shifted only 1.4 points—43,430 votes—toward the Democrats, was a key pivot state in both elections, with Pennsylvania right behind.

**********

To better understand the relative partisan leans of each state, I developed 3W-RDM, a weighted average of how much more or less Democratic than the nation as a whole a state voted in the three most recent presidential elections. Basically, it is what I estimate the state-level margin between the Democratic and Republican nominees would be if they tied in the national popular vote. Note, however, that 3W-RDM (plus national popular vote) has missed the actual state-level result by an average of 5.3 points in recent elections. Figure 1 and Table 2 show current 3W-RDM for every state, based upon data from the 2012, 2016 and 2020 elections. Table 2 also lists 3W-RDM based upon data from 1984-92 and 2008-16.

Figure 1: Current State Partisan Lean, Based Upon 2012-20 Presidential Voting

Table 2: Current and Historic State Partisan Lean (3W-RDM), Sorted Most- to Least-Democratic

State2020 EV1984-922008-162012-20Ave. Change 1992-2020
DC375.382.082.71.0
Hawaii49.834.329.02.7
Vermont36.627.728.93.2
Maryland108.022.626.22.6
Massachusetts1114.222.126.11.7
California555.623.224.92.7
New York2910.821.620.21.3
Rhode Island415.118.016.60.2
Connecticut70.712.813.91.9
Washington126.912.113.71.0
Illinois207.114.713.30.9
Delaware3-0.512.512.81.9
New Jersey14-4.012.012.02.3
Oregon77.38.710.10.4
New Mexico52.06.56.30.6
Colorado9-2.42.25.71.2
Maine4-0.55.94.50.7
Virginia13-10.41.53.92.0
Minnesota1011.01.51.8-1.3
New Hampshire4-11.60.11.21.8
Nevada6-8.52.0-0.51.1
Michigan160.72.2-0.7-0.2
Pennsylvania205.3-0.4-2.3-1.1
Wisconsin104.70.7-2.4-1.0
Florida29-10.7-3.4-5.50.7
North Carolina15-7.0-6.0-5.80.2
Arizona11-10.9-9.7-6.10.7
Georgia16-7.0-9.6-6.50.1
Iowa68.0-4.7-9.8-2.6
Ohio18-3.0-5.8-9.8-1.0
Texas38-7.7-15.3-12.0-0.6
Alaska3-15.7-19.2-15.80.0
South Carolina9-13.9-15.7-15.9-0.3
Missouri103.2-15.9-19.0-3.2
Indiana11-10.9-16.3-19.6-1.2
Mississippi6-12.6-18.5-19.7-1.0
Montana3-1.6-18.6-20.8-2.7
Kansas6-9.8-23.4-21.3-1.6
Louisiana8-2.0-22.2-22.3-2.9
Nebraska5-19.7-25.8-25.1-0.8
Tennessee11-3.0-25.8-27.2-3.5
Utah6-26.2-33.1-27.6-0.2
Alabama9-10.7-28.4-29.2-2.6
South Dakota3-5.5-25.8-29.6-3.4
Arkansas63.3-28.2-30.3-4.8
Kentucky8-2.9-28.7-30.3-3.9
Idaho4-20.3-34.2-34.8-2.1
North Dakota3-12.7-29.4-35.4-3.2
Oklahoma7-13.4-38.1-37.8-3.5
West Virginia59.2-35.5-41.4-7.2
Wyoming3-14.5-45.7-47.5-4.7
AVERAGE -1.3-4.6-5.1-0.5

The core Democratic areas are primarily where they have been for 30 years: New England (average 3W-RDM: D+15.2), the Pacific Coast minus Alaska (D+12.4), the mid-Atlantic minus Pennsylvania (D+22). These 15 states and DC contain a total of 183 EV. Add the Midwestern states of Illinois (20 EV) and Minnesota (10), and the southwestern states of New Mexico (5) and Colorado (9), and the total rises to 226 or 227, depending upon Maine’s 2nd Congressional District (“ME-2”). This is the current Democratic presidential baseline, 44 EV from 270.

The core Republican areas are also primarily where they have been for 30 years: Mountain West plus Alaska minus Colorado (R+29.2); the six states running south from North Dakota to Texas (R+26.9); the five states in the western half of the Deep South (R+25.8); the border states of Missouri, Kentucky and West Virginia (R+30.3); and the Midwestern states of Iowa, Indiana and Ohio (R+13.1). Add the southern Atlantic states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, plus Arizona, and the total is 258 or 259 EV, depending upon NE-2. Each of these 27 states is at least 5.5 points more Republican than the nation, making it the current GOP presidential baseline, just 12 EV from 270.

Two states totaling 22 EV would be balanced on a knife’s edge: Michigan and Nevada. In 2016, they split, with Republicans winning the former and Democrats winning the latter. Biden-Harris won both in 2020.

That leaves two states totaling 30 EV—Pennsylvania (R+2.3) and Wisconsin (R+2.4); they lean more Republican than the “core” Democratic states of Minnesota and New Hampshire. Add them to the “core” Republican 258 EV, and Republicans enter a presidential race tied in the national vote—or even a point behind—with a minimum of 288 EV, 18 more than necessary. Michigan, Nevada, NE-2 and ME-2 would get them to 312.

I made this same point here, when I used a simple ordinary least squares (“OLS”) regression model of EV and national popular vote margin to show that in a dead-even national election, Republicans would—on average—be favored to win the EC 283-251, with four EV going to third-party tickets. Adding data from 2020 does not materially alter this estimate, which is essentially Republicans winning their 258 EV plus Pennsylvania and Wisconsin: 288 EV. Democrats then win their core states plus Michigan, Nevada, ME-2 and NE-2: 250 EV.

Here are the updated OLS regressions:

Democrats:               Electoral Votes = 1232.9*Popular Vote Margin + 250.98

Republicans:            Electoral Votes = 1229.2*Popular Vote Margin + 283.04

Simple algebra shows Democrats need to win nationally by 1.5 points to be on track to win 270 EV, while Republicans could lose nationally by 1.1 points and be on track to win. Put another way, Republicans could theoretically lose the national popular vote by 2.3 points and still win 288 EV, given the imbalance in the Electoral College.

Paradoxically, however, Democrats have won the EC in five of the last eight presidential elections, because they win the national popular vote by large enough margins. The 3.5-point average margin in those eight elections translates to an estimated 294 EV, on average: winning their core 226, plus Michigan, Nevada, ME-2, NE-2, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania (280 EV total) plus one of North Carolina, Arizona or Georgia. As we saw, the Biden-Harris ticket won all but ME-2 while adding Arizona and Georgia, losing North Carolina by just 1.3 points.

This imbalance has been getting worse over time. In the mid-1990s, after the Republican ticket won by landslides in 1984 and 1988 and Clinton-Gore won by a slightly smaller landslide in 1992, the average state was only 1.3 points more Republican than the nation, far lower than the roughly 5.0 points of recent elections. In a dead-even national election—essentially what happened in 2000—Democrats would have had a slightly higher base, ~230 EV from 18 states plus DC at least D+2.0, with the ~30 EV of Michigan, Connecticut, Maine and Delaware within 1.0 points either way. Democrats would start closer to 250 than 230 votes in this scenario, though there would still be ~275 EV from 27 states at least R+2.0; throw in Montana (R+1.6) and the total increases to 278. Still, Democrats were far closer to parity in the EC in the mid-1990s than they are now.

What changed?

Figure 2: Average Change in State Lean Since 1984-92

As Figure 2 clearly shows, the strength of state-level partisanship sharply increased over time: Democratic states become somewhat more Democratic, while Republican states became dramatically more Republican. Not only did the average state shift 3-4 points more Republican, relative to the nation, but the variance widened. After the 1984-92, the standard deviation—a measure of how narrowly or widely values are spread around the mean—increased from 14.4 to 23.4 after the 2012-20 elections. Moreover, consider states at least 3.5 points more partisan than the nation. In the mid-1990s, those states averaged D+12.8 and R+12.0; today, those values are D+19.5 (213 EV) and R+22.4 (259 EV).

The biggest pro-Democratic shifts, based upon the average three-election-cycle change in 3W-RDM since 1984-92, occurred in Vermont (average: D+3.2), the Pacific states of California and Hawaii (each D+2.7), and the mid-Atlantic states of Maryland, New Jersey, Virginia and Delaware and New York (mean: D+2.0). Colorado, Nevada, and the remaining New England states except Maine also shifted noticeably more Democratic. At Colorado, Nevada and Virginia even switched from core Republican states to core Democratic/swing.

But these shifts are miniscule compared to two blocks of Republican states. The first block I call the “upper interior Northwest”: Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas. These five states became an average 3.2 points more Republican every cycle since the mid-1990s. The second block I loosely call “Border,” though I could also call them “White, Culturally Conservative”: Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky and, most extremely, West Virginia. These six states became an average 5.3 points more Republican every cycle since the mid-1990s. West Virginia, in fact, is almost in a category by itself. Following the 1992 presidential election, when Clinton-Gore won it by 13.0 points, it has become an astonishing 7.2 points more Republican each cycle since then; Trump-Pence won it in 2020 by 38.9 points, a 51.9-point pro-Republican shift!

In fact, seven states—Arkansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wyoming—shifted further Republican over 28 years than any state shifted Democratic over those years. West Virginia is also joined by Arkansas, Iowa, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin as states that shifted from core Democratic to core Republican/pivot states.

As for why states shifted strongly Democratic or Republican, I wrote here about the growing partisan divide between white voters with (Democratic) or without (Republican) a college degree. Other explanations include self-sorting by geography (Democrats to the coasts, Republicans to “flyover” country) and information (Democrats from traditional media, CNN and MSNBC; Republicans from right-wing media and Fox News).

**********

Thus far, I have only looked at presidential elections. Table 3 lists the percentages of United States Senators (“Senators”), Governors and Members of the United States House of Representatives (“House Members”) who are Democrats in the core Democratic, swing/pivot (Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin) and core Republican states. Data on the partisan split of each House delegation, based upon the results of the 2020 elections, may be found here.

Table 3: Democratic Percentage of Senators, Governors and House Members in Three Groups of States

GroupSenatorsGovernorsHouse Members
Core Democratic (n=19)97.4%*78.9%76.9%
Swing/Pivot (n=4)75.0%100.0%50.0%
Core Republican (n=27)13.0%14.8%27.8%
* Includes two Independents, Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who caucus with Democrats.

While not a perfect overlay, these percentages tell a simple story: states that lean Democratic at the presidential level strongly tend to elect Democrats to statewide office, while states that lean Republican at the presidential level strongly tend to elect Republicans to statewide office. Thus, only five of 57 (8.8%) Democratic-state Senators and Governors are Republicans: the indomitable Senator Susan Collins of Maine, and the governors of Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. By the same token, only 11 of 81 (13.6%) Republican-state Senators and Governors are Democrats: all four Senators from Arizona and Georgia; one Senator each from Montana, Ohio and West Virginia (political-gravity-defying Joe Manchin); and the governors of Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and North Carolina. In other words, only 16 of 138 (11.6%) Senators and Governors from these 46 states are from the “opposition” party. Curiously, in the four swing/pivot states, every governor and Senator except Senators Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin—the pivot states—are Democrats. The House percentages are a bit murkier, reflecting Republican pockets in “Democratic” states and Democratic pockets in “Republican” states, but it is still the case that roughly ¾ of the House delegations from these 46 states “match” their state’s partisan lean; swing/pivot states are split literally down the middle: 22 Democrats and 22 Republicans.

Pick your cliché. “All politics is local.” Clearly, not any more, as elections become increasingly nationalized. “I vote the person, not the party.” Apparently no longer true, given how closely voting for president/vice president, Senate, governor and House track. “Vote the bums out.” Well, voters seem to prefer bums from their party to anyone from the other party. As I noted with gerrymandering, these trends, if they continue, may be far more damaging for our two-party democracy than for either political party.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…