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 wear a mask as necessary to protect yourself and others – and if you have not already done so, get vaccinated against COVID-19! And if you like what you read on this website, please consider making a donation. Thank you.


[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, Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), 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,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), January 12, 1977, pg. 1-B

[vii] Cook, Bonnie L., “Martin W. Field, 87, Philly-area builder,” Philadelphia Daily News (Philadelphia, PA), March 16, 2018, pg. 18

[viii] Storck, Dorothy, “We’re all OK—probably,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), 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

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