Visiting Philadelphia: …very few answers

The first indication of the nature of my recent trip to Philadelphia was the absence of SD’s and my favorite server at the Westgate Pub my first night there (the night before a Thor-like thunderbolt short-circuited the air conditioning in my hotel room for four nights). As I detailed here, I shoehorned seeking answers to a series of questions arising from my “interrogating memory” project into this trip—and I hit investigative walls as early as Connecticut.

The day before I left Brookline, I sought help from a friend (let’s call him “ST”) who serves as an Assistant District Attorney (DA) in Philadelphia regarding sources of information on my maternal grandfather’s service with the Philadelphia Police Department and the fire that destroyed the original John Rhoads Company site in West Philadelphia; in the case of the fire, I could find nothing online. That same month, David Baugh, an archivist at the Philadelphia City Archives, told me he could not locate my grandfather’s “roster card,” meaning he could access no information about him.

As I settled at the counter of the Sherwood Diner to eat lunch on Thursday, August 9, 2018, I read an e-mail from ST which confirmed the Department’s inability to locate any information on Patrolman (later Detective) Samuel Joseph Kohn. Prior to 1960, such information was kept on cards, many of which have been misplaced (or outright lost) since then. This is consistent, unfortunately, with the experience of an investigative journalist friend who has decried Philadelphia’s lack of quality record-keeping more than once.

ST directed me to visit the Archives in person, but…they are in the process of moving locations and will not reopen until September 4, 2018. At least ST and I had a terrific time catching up over lunch here Tuesday afternoon.

**********

I began my investigation at Roosevelt Memorial Park, where my father is buried adjacent to his parents, sister, paternal aunt and uncle, and paternal aunt-by-marriage. Roosevelt is less than a five-minute drive from my sister’s residence, so I went there before I picked up Mindy Friday afternoon.

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Beyond paying respects to these family members, I sought information about a relative named “Nathan Berger,” who died on August 14, 1944; what I particularly wanted was the Hebrew name of his father, which traditionally appears on the headstones of Jews (my father’s father’s Hebrew name, like mine, was Moshe—or Moses). “Nathan Berger” appears on a list of “Bergers / death dates” I compiled as a boy. Invaluable information on Ancestry.com allowed me to determine my relation to each of them (two great-grandparents, a great-great-uncle and aunt, three of the latter’s sons)—except Nathan. I had found a Nathan Berger who served in the Navy (Yeoman, 3rd class) during World War I with the same death date; his death was reported by a woman named Miriam, but it was not clear what her relationship to him was. While these precise relationships are not necessary for my book, they do reveal the Berger presence in West Philadelphia over the last century-plus was far larger than I realized. Plus, I dislike investigative loose ends.

In the main office at Roosevelt, a very helpful woman named Dawn told me the location of Nathan Berger’s (“He was 46 when he died”) gravestone. In that section, I immediately found this (NOV. 17 1900 – AUG. 3, 1999):

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Next to it was a light-brown indentation in the ground. I dug around for a few moments but could find nothing else. Nor could I find a gravestone for “Nathan Berger” anywhere else in that section. Back at the office, Dawn confirmed that “Miriam Berger” was “Nathan Berger’s” wife and their graves should be adjacent.

“Perhaps it sunk into the ground,” she offered, before promising to investigate for me (I need to follow up with her).

This new information enabled me to pin down the elusive Nathan Berger a bit more; I now suspect he and my grandfather were second cousins.

Progress is more often measured in inches than miles.

I then located this gravestone:

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It is a curious fact that this seminal noir writer, a Philadelphia native, is buried (along with his brother and parents) a few hundred feet from my father—and both had the Hebrew names David Laib.

**********

The thunderstorms began that night and continued into early Saturday afternoon, threatening “cemetery day.” However, the skies cleared enough that I chanced a drive to Mt. Sharon Cemetery where Herman Modell, the attorney who arranged my adoption, is buried.

In no rush, I first drove by the office building where I saw my first psychologist (at 11, I ineffectually attempted suicide). I also visited nearby Paxon Hollow Country Club; once the White Marsh Country Club, Modell had served as club president multiple times between 1949 and 1962. Other than an impending wedding (the bride looked radiant), there was little of interest to see there (perhaps because, as I now read in my Chapter 5 draft, the White Marsh CC moved to Malvern in the mid-1960s).

Twenty or so minutes later, I turned onto Bishop Avenue from Baltimore Pike (after making a U-turn in a still-active Denny’s), passing a WAWA I frequented when I lived in the area in 2002-03.

Just bear with me while I share a memory of that WAWA.

At around 11:30 pm on the night of February 13, 2002, I was turning right onto Bishop Road from the WAWA parking lot when my 1995 Buick Century was struck from behind (right rear quarter panel) by a Pontiac. The Pontiac contained three young women, though the car’s owner was a passenger, not the driver. As we exchanged information, there appeared some urgency on the part of the car’s driver and owner that our insurance companies not be informed. During this exchange, the third young woman interjected this question to me:

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

“No,” I replied.

I should have asked “Why do you want to know?” but I was more focused on the matter at hand.

Five days later, the four of us met at a nearby McDonald’s to sign an agreement that they would reimburse the cost of my repairs, which they ultimately did. In fact, the entire affair was remarkably civil.

I still have a copy of the signed agreement. As for the Buick—my then-stepfather acquired it for me (79,000 miles already on it) when I returned to Philadelphia in February 2001, and it gave up the ghost two days after I moved back to the Boston area in September 2005. Talk about perfect timing.

I remembered these incidents as I turned left off Bishop to East Springfield Road then drove the short distance to Mt. Sharon. This being Shabbat, the office was closed, so I faced the daunting prospect of finding a single grave among 20,000+. It was a muggy day with a steady drizzle falling.

And so I began systematically to walk up and down the rows of gravestones scanning the names as rapidly as I could. Up and down, up and down, up and down…at one point a curious deer stared briefly at me before wandering off. The ground was often uneven, meaning I had to watch my feet and the gravestones at the same time.

Some two-and-a-half-hours later, after having searched maybe one-third of the vast space, I was ready to call it a day when I turned around…and saw this:

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I was transfixed…and, despite never having met him, a little weepy. Exploring the nearby gravestones, I found those of his parents and sister, as well as 10 other persons with the surname Modell.

As I noted in my previous post, I spent nearly three hours searching for the gravestone of the man who arranged my adoption out of my genetic family while “forgetting” to seek out actual genetic relatives living in the area. While my therapist had a field day with this (after I brought it up myself), I ascribe no deeper meaning other than I have been investigating Modell for more than a year but I am still processing finally identifying my genetic mother. Plus, standing in a cemetery for a few moments (OK, 150 or so minutes) requires far less mental and emotional preparation than meeting a genetic relative for the first time.

Pulling out of Mt. Sharon, I attempted to drive the “back route” to my old Drexel Hill apartment, but I made a wrong turn (or three) somewhere. As I drove by the “car repair agreement” McDonalds, though, I realized that I was close to a direct route to here:

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Driving east on State Street, I crossed West Chester Pike in Upper Darby, intending to turn north to City Avenue (dividing line between Philadelphia and suburban Lower Merion Township). However, curiosity overtook my gnawing hunger as I realized that I was not that far from 4157-59 Lancaster Avenue—longtime home of the John Rhoads Company.

Parking on Lancaster Avenue, just northwest of 41st Street, I pulled out my iPhone and started taking photographs:

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Finding a gap in the chain-link fencing, I explored the lot (empty since sometime between December 1976 and 1988—I will check city property records next):

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As I walked back onto Lancaster Avenue, a reasonably-well-dressed African-American man (West Philadelphia is predominantly African-American) walked over to the western edge of the fencing and began to urinate.

That was my cue to drive to Dallesandro’s. There, as I awaited an excellent cheesesteak with provolone, mushrooms and pizza sauce (a combination I first invented at the long-defunct Boardwalk Pizza in Ardmore, PA in the spring of 1984), I chatted amiably with a young man from Philly and a young man from Somerville, MA (where I lived for 11+ years) about the need to “respect the line” that continually snakes out of Dallesandro’s.

**********

Sunday afternoon, after brunching in Collingswood, NJ here with my former work colleague JJ, I drove back over the Benjamin Franklin Bridge into Philadelphia. And, despite the blazing sun and heat, I decided to try my luck finding gravestones at historic Har Nebo Cemetery (opened 1890).

Other than my great-grandfather David Louis Berger and his wife Ida (Rugowitz), I did not know who else was buried there…making the search that much more daunting. It did not help that the first thing I noticed when I turned into Har Nebo shortly after 2 pm was a sign informing me the gates close at 4:30 pm.

And, of course, after about an hour of walking up and down the even-more-treacherous rows between gravestones (many of which had toppled over), I could no longer ignore the fact that I REALLY HAD TO PEE.

Answering nature’s call required driving back to the Roosevelt Boulevard, the main artery of Northeast Philadelphia. The first gas station I tried did not have a public restroom, and I was directed around the Oxford Road traffic circle to a combination gas station/Dunkin Donuts—which also had no public restroom. However, the two bored young ladies behind the Dunkin counter (one with admirably-blue hair) took pity and provided me the “secret” rest room key.

That was as successful as the afternoon was, as two fruitless sweaty hours exploring Har Nebo revealed a number of “Berger” and “Rugowitz” and “Caesar” (paternal grandmother’s maiden name) gravestones, but no great-grandparents. Looking through the photos I took just now, however, I discovered two of the names on the “Bergers  / death dates” list, so that is something.

After a delicious supper of spinach salad (my body was craving greens) and salmon here, I made arrangements to meet a high school friend for drinks (let’s call him “OW”). As we caught up over Chianti (me) and bourbon (him) here, I mentioned my discovery my father had allegedly hired Eddie “Psycho” Klayman to set fire to the John Rhoads Company.

OW wryly repeated “Eddie Klayman” before telling me that he used to babysit his children on Long Beach Island, NJ, less than an hour’s drive north of Atlantic City. I thought he was pulling my leg until he added he knew that Klayman was a front man for the Philadelphia mob, buying properties in his name for them. He added that his late wife Bernice (Kligman) was the “fattest woman I ever saw” and unhappy to boot.

Once again, the world really is that small.

**********

Monday was when I began to investigate in earnest—which is how I found myself sitting in the main Philadelphia branch of Santander Bank (1500 Market Street, directly southwest of City Hall), just past noon.

The young man I queried about my mother’s old safety deposit box keys tried to be helpful, but he was at a total loss. He called someone else about them, but she was equally flummoxed. About all they could tell me was that after 10 years of non-payment, boxes are drilled open and the contents sent…somewhere. I thanked him, gave him my card and asked him to contact me if he learned anything. I have not heard back from him.

After that, I walked around City Hall to the Masonic Temple.

Which, I learned, is closed on Mondays.

Had there been an appropriate wall, I may well have banged my head against it.

Realizing, however, that I was only two blocks west of the must-visit Reading Terminal Market, I walked there to have lunch at the Down Home Diner.

Thus fortified, I decided to walk here (I took this photograph as part of a text message to our avid-reader eldest daughter):

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My friend ST, the Assistant DA, had suggested that I explore their newspaper archives for information about the John Rhoads fire: while Newspapers.com appears to have every issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News for the relevant time period (March 29, 1972 to October 31, 1974) they do not have, say, the Philadelphia Bulletin (defunct since January 1982, its slogan used to be “Nearly everybody reads the Bulletin”).

In the newspaper archives room on the second floor, I was greeted by a row of modern-looking (if anachronistic) microfilm readers. It quickly became apparent I would have to skim each individual issue of the Bulletin over a 30-month span; two hours after I began, I had not even reviewed every issue from September 1974, so I called it a day.

Well, not entirely, because as I walked the 11 blocks to the parking garage at 15th and Sansom, I decided to drive to the Philadelphia Fire Department (PFD) Administration Building at 240 Spring Garden Street. Happily, I made the drive to arrive there well before 5 pm.

Just inside the grim gray building, I was greeted by three imposing, albeit friendly, men in navy firefighter’s uniforms. One of them was seated behind a small desk, and he asked me what I wanted. I explained that I sought information on a fire that had taken place in West Philadelphia in the early 1970s. After a brief conversation between the three men (implying I may as well have been asking about the 1770s), I was told that as of such-and-such a date, PFD records were stored in Room 168 of City Hall.

Yes, the same City Hall I had circled some three hours earlier.

I thanked them, walked up Spring Garden Street to my parked car, and drove out of the city towards my hotel. Hungry, I stopped here for a veggie stromboli; it was delicious, but not nearly as delicious as I remembered it being in the early 2000s.

Had it been open, I would also have walked a few blocks east on Lancaster Avenue to Gold Million Records—especially had I known its husband-and-wife owners, Harold Gold and Max I. Million, would announce the closing of this Main Line institution a few days later. When I was in high school, the store was called Plastic Fantastic, and its Bryn Mawr location was a haven for music buffs like me (I still have records I purchased there). It was also the playground of two of the most beautiful and gentle Afghan hounds you will ever see. One afternoon, I stood at the counter seeking to make my purchase with a personal check, which the cashier was hesitant to accept; standing just behind the cashier, with his back to us, was Mr. Gold. Overhearing the cashier’s and my conversation, Mr. Gold turned slowly around, pointed to me, and said, “He’s OK.”

Thank you, Mr. Gold (and Ms. Million) for slaking the musical thirst of generations of Philadelphia-area music fans.

**********

At around 2:20 pm the next day (Tuesday, April 14, 2018), after lunch with ST, I entered the interior court of Philadelphia’s imposing City Hall.

Philadelphia City Hall

After traversing one incorrect hallway, I located Room 168: Police/Fire Records Unit…

…which closes at 2 pm daily.

Unwilling to concede defeat, I entered the room across the hall (most likely Room 156: Records). There, a helpful young man behind a clear partition told me he did not believe the PFD kept records that far back then wrote down a phone number to call BEFORE returning to City Hall. This was terrific advice, actually, given how much I was paying to park in Center City.

Leaving City Hall, I walked across East Penn Street then turned north to N. Broad Street where—huzzah!—the Masonic Temple was open to the public.

Masonic Ticket

Walking into the Library, I saw an older woman sitting at a desk just outside what looked like the Librarian’s office; the sign on her desk read “Cathy Giaimo, Assistant Librarian.” The inner office was empty. I asked Ms. Giaimo where I could find Glenys Waldman (the Librarian with whom I had been corresponding by e-mail through November 2017—with an unanswered follow-up e-mail in March 2018).

“Oh, she retired a few months ago.”

At this point, I was ready to scream at the universe, “ENOUGH ALREADY!!” but I instead thanked her and decided to investigate the inner office.

And here I caught a break.

While I wanted to thank Ms. Waldman in person for her amiable and carefully-researched responses to my questions, I also wanted to know just how many Masonic Lodges Philadelphia housed—and what their relative memberships were—in 1925, 1938 and 1957 (when my great-uncle Jules, Modell and my father, respectively, were initiated). Scanning the bookshelves, I noticed a series of annual “Abstract of the Proceedings” volumes. Pulling out the one for 1938, I was thrilled to discover a table listing every Masonic Lodge in Pennsylvania, along with its city and membership for that year and the preceding one.

By 5 pm, I had taken relevant iPhone photographs of all relevant pages in the 1925, 1938 and 1957 annuals. I also photographed a few dozen pages in this historic publication:

1946 Lafayette Lodge

Here is a photograph I found of the 1943 Worshipful Master of LaFayette Lodge No. 71:

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Soon after, my friend SD met me outside, where I took these photographs for our history-loving daughters.

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The Bond

After dining at Reading Terminal Market (of COURSE I had another mushroom-provolone-pizza steak), we drove here.

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The listless Philadelphia Phillies may have lost 2-1 to the otherworldly Boston Red Sox, but it was still a blast being in my “home” ballpark for the first time since 2014 (also with SD, plus one other friend).

**********

SD had a good suggestion for where I might obtain information about the fire that destroyed the downstairs playroom of my childhood house in Havertown, PA in, I surmise, March or April 1973: the Haverford Township Administration Building. That is where I drove after checking out of my hotel the following morning.

At the window of what I took to be the police and fire records department, I told a man about my age what I was seeking. Just behind me, two uniformed male officers were questioning a middle-aged woman seated on a vinyl-topped bench about what sounded like ongoing physical abuse by a man she knew (“Do you have somewhere you can go, ma’am?”).

“A fire in Havertown in 1973?”

“Yes.”

He turned to confer quietly with some women in the office behind him, then turned back to ask:

“Did anybody die?”

“No.”

“Yeah, sorry, we would not have a record of that here.”

“Oh, OK. Thank you.”

I walked by the woman and the officers, up the stairs and out to my car. Driving over to City Avenue I made the decision NOT to go back to City Hall, Room 168. Instead, I pulled into the parking lot of what used to be a terrific bowling alley (Center Lanes, if memory serves), a short walk from where I saw Manhattan with my father in 1979.

There, I called the number I had been given the day before. In response to my query, I was directed to call the Fire Marshal’s office (which, I just learned, is located in the PFD Administration Building I had visited two days earlier. Oy.). A harassed-sounding woman named Michelle listened to my request, clarified my return phone number and promised to get back to me. Much to my (delighted) surprise, she left me a voice mail the next day—she could find no record of a fire at 4157 Lancaster Avenue during that time period.

Thus do the emotions of a researcher rise and fall.

I then made one last stop—back to Har Nebo Cemetery (making sure to find a restroom first). I was somehow not surprised the office sign said “Closed.” On a whim, however, I rang the doorbell—and was immediately buzzed in.

Behind a low wooden counter, a balding man sat at a computer amidst a blizzard of paper. When I explained that I was searching for my great-grandparents, he said:

“Must be something in the air, because you are the second person today looking for relatives” then described that previous conversation in detail.

At first he could not find a “David Berger” who died in 1919, but he did find him under “Louis Berger.”

He scanned his screen a moment then exclaimed, “He was shot!”

While this was not news to me, I was fascinated it was part of the official burial record. I then told him the story—which I refrain from sharing here (I have to leave at least one untold tale for my book).

A few moments later (and with gratitude to Richard Levy), I was standing here:

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I had forgotten my widowed great-grandmother had married Benjamin Leopold in 1933, at the age of 63, making it all the more touching she was buried next to her first husband.

After photographing a few nearby gravestones containing familiar surnames, I returned to the office to ask Mr. Levy if he could locate other “Berger” gravestones of a similar generation. I withdrew the question after learning there were, I believe, 67 of them. At least I learned my great-grandfather’s father’s Hebrew name was Shmuel Mayer.

Baby steps—and I will be better prepared next time.

I also learned that the Vernon Diner makes an excellent spanakopita, though their cherry pie is meh.

Oh, and if you merge onto the Massachusetts Turnpike heading eastbound at night, you should take advantage of the Charlton rest area, because you never know when two lanes will be closed between Worcester and I-495 when OHMYGODIHAVETOPEERIGHTNOW.

At 11:35 pm that night (having answered nature’s call just in the nick of time), after driving 1,246.4 miles in just over six-and-a-half days, I pulled into our new driveway.

Until next time…

Visiting Philadelphia: Many questions, but…

My “interrogating memory” project began as a July 2017 conversation with my wife Nell about writing a book in lieu of finding a new position in my two-decade-long career as a health-related data analyst. In my head, I translated her intended meaning (write a mystery—something that would sell many copies) to “I could easily expand this into an entertaining full-length book.”

That simple idea (trace the childhood and early-adult roots of my passion for film noir), however, quickly entwined with two simultaneous personal investigations: 1) the results of my genetic testing—which disproved everything I thought I knew about my paternal heritage and 2) my decision to learn the truth about my adoption, arranged prior to my birth and enacted five days after I was born, and genetic forebears.

But this “simple idea” proved more complicated, once I set my over-educated brain to the task of collating the details of those film-noir-formative events: my profound respect for investigative journalism and my doctoral work in epidemiology (to me, a branch of epistemology) led me to question EVERYTHING.

The investigations fall into two broad categories:

  1. Family history (I cannot understand my childhood without understanding the emigration of Bergers, Caesars, Gurmankins and Koslenkows from the Pale of Settlement to the Jewish “city-within-a-city” of West Philadelphia between 1890 and 1920)
  2. Childhood memories (including some I begin to investigate here).

Linking those two investigations, again, is the overriding fact of my adoption, arranged by a powerful Philadelphia attorney named Herman Modell. And the link between Modell and my (legal) father, D. Louis “Lou” Berger, is their overlapping membership in LaFayette Lodge No. 71, Free and Accepted Masons.

These entwined strands found me performing these tasks, often at the same time, over much of the ensuing 13 months:

  • Using Ancestry.com, supplemented by carefully-archived personal documents, Newspapers.com and other online research tools, to construct increasingly-elaborate trees for my legal family.
    • Contacting “newly discovered” relatives on the Berger/Ceasar side of my family (Lou Berger self-alienated from his family later in his life, meaning I knew very little about his branch of my family). These contacts were mostly successful.
  • Supplementing requests to the Orphans Court of Delaware County for information about my genetic parents with names appearing in the 23andMe “DNA Relatives” tool to construct increasingly-elaborate, if necessarily speculative, trees for my genetic family.
  • Picking the brains of friends and relatives to confirm/clarify/deny stories I “recalled” from my childhood. In the process, I learned new things; for example, I first learned about Modell from my maternal aunt.
  • Using public records (primarily newspaper accounts and advertisements) to confim/clarify deny these same stories.
  • Corresponding with a wide range of sources—my childhood synagogue (where, in my final year of Hebrew School, I wore one of my mother’s white blouses to portray a hyperkinetic Cossack in an all-Hebrew production of Fiddler on the Roof), the Masonic Temple in Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Police Department, the Philadelphia Fire Department—to ask them a wide range of questions about my legal family.

Just bear with me while I acknowledge two exceptionally helpful people affiliated with the Masonic Temple: Librarian Glenys Waldman, who patiently and carefully answered all of my e-mailed queries, and LaFayette Lodge Past Master Perry Ecksel, who sold me (for an outrageously low price) one of his two copies of a history of LaFayette Lodge published in 1971. When I mentioned to a college friend that I would be incorporating the Freemasons into my book, he quipped that that would mean an additional 10,000 copies sold. I honestly believe that if that is true, it will be less because of any Dan-Brown-style conspiracy and more because these gracious individuals made the chapter on Modell and the Freemasons that much more interesting.

Because the world really is that small, when I mentioned to one of my newly-discovered paternal cousins that I had spoken with Perry Ecksel, she noted that he was the uncle of a man her close friend had dated (or something).

*********

Almost from the start, one thought animated my investigations:

“I will need to spend significant time in Philadelphia visiting cemeteries, tracking down records and questioning folks in person.”

However, every time I thought about making this trip, life intervened. Most recently, we discovered that we needed to move from our home of nearly 11 years, meaning that I did not have sufficient time to incorporate the research aspect into my regular summer trip to Philadelphia.

The best I could do was rapidly compile an annotated one-page (front and back) list of research questions, throw some papers into a folder and, essentially, wing it. My questions fell into these broad categories:

Cemeteries. When I was a boy, I created a list of “Berger death dates” that I archived along with other genealogical materials I collected. In the process of building my Ancestry family trees, I was able to place every name on the list into the tree except for a “Nathan Berger” who died on August 14, 1944. I was able to locate the veteran death record of a Nathan Berger (Navy, Yeoman third class in World War I) who was buried in Roosevelt Memorial Park, as is my father; his birthdate was listed as November 23, 1887. His death was reported by “Miriam,” though I could not discern whether she was a wife, sister, daughter or other female relative. Presumably, I thought, the information on his gravestone (his father’s name especially) would link him to the rest of my father’s father’s family.

I also wanted to view the gravestones of family members from older generations of the male Berger line, especially my great-grandfather David Louis and his wife Ida, many of whom were buried in historic Har Nebo Cemetery. Unfortunately, without time to generate a list of every relative buried there, I was relying upon my memory.

Finally, I wanted to view the graves of two non-relatives (and their families): Modell (Mt. Sharon Cemetery) and the seminal noir writer David Goodis—also buried in Roosevelt Cemetery.

Masonic Temple. While I desired to know the number (and membership totals) of Philadelphia’s Masonic Lodges in 1925 (when Jules Berger, younger brother of my paternal grandfather Morris, was initiated), 1938 (Modell) and 1957 (my father), I primarily wanted to thank Ms. Waldman in person for her gracious assistance.

Samuel Joseph Kohn. My mother’s father was a member of the Philadelphia Police Department, rising for a few years to the rank of Detective before (as his surviving daughter put it in an e-mail) his “combative personality” interfered, from around 1935 to around 1952. That is, he was a big city police officer at the height of the classic American film noir era; in my mind, Broderick Crawford plays him in the movie.

Unfortunately, my attempts to locate his police records (outside of two brief mentions of him in Philadelphia newspapers) have proven fruitless: David Baugh of the Philadelphia Police Archives was unable to locate his roster card. Still, I thought that if I went to “The Roundhouse” (the unusually-curved Philadelphia Police Headquarters) in person, I could dislodge “misplaced” information about my grandfather.

John Rhoads Company. Founded in 1886 by a sugar merchant from Harrisburg, PA, this warehouse/storage facility specializing in used carpeting, furniture and valuable bric-a-brac was a West Philadelphia fixture (if the tenor of newspaper advertisements is to be believed) until the early 1970s. Brothers Morris and Jules Berger assumed control of John Rhoads around 1926, operating it jointly until Morris’ death in 1954, after which Jules ran it until his own death in 1958. By 1960, my father had assumed the presidency of John Rhoads, co-running it with his mother Rae.

Rae Caesar Berger died on January 3, 1972. At some point between March 29, 1972 (last newspaper advertisement I can locate) and October 29, 1974 (first newspaper advertisement for its new Upper Darby, PA location I can locate), John Rhoads burned; family stories suggested my father was responsible for the fire (perhaps to pay off rapidly-growing gambling debts). Still, it was rather a shock when my maternal aunt not only confirmed my father committed arson, but that she knew he had “hired” to set the fire: Edward “Psycho” Klayman, who died (I believe) in 1984. A quick search of Newspapers.com revealed numerous accounts of Klayman in the 1950s and 1960s, when he was arrested for selling heroin and, yes, his participation in an arson ring.

It speaks volumes about my gregarious and lovable father that he knew both Modell (state representative, Assistant City Solicitor, chair of numerous Boards) and Klayman (convicted heroin dealer and arsonist).

Curiously, for what presumably was a major fire, I cannot find a single online record of it. A December 2017 call to the records division of the Philadelphia Fire Department was never returned, though neither did I follow up as a I should.

As with my maternal grandfather’s police department files, I hoped that inquiring about the John Rhoads fire in person would make a difference.

Miscellaneous. I also sought answers to three less-key questions:

Safety Deposit Box keys

  1. After my mother died in March 2004, my then-stepfather and I engaged in a legal battle over her estate for more than a year (in her infinite wisdom, she had named us co-executor in her will), finally settling in August 2005. It is inconceivable that any of her property was left unaccounted after all of the legal maneuvering. But when I was cleaning out files and papers to prepare for our move, I came across two safe deposit box keys from Sovereign Bank (now Santander).

Question(s): Do the safety box(es) still exist, and, if so, what was in them?

  1. One night, most likely in March or April 1973, a fire broke out in the playroom of my childhood house in Havertown, PA; a few years later, a friend would nudge me during a fire safety film in our elementary school then say, “That’s your house!” It is surprising that my sister Mindy woke me up, and not my mother (I do not know where my father was)…though I am obviously grateful that she did. As for the cause of the fire, my mother’s claim she left a sit-down hair dryer on for my father to turn off is…odd.

Question(s): On what day and time did this fire take place, and what does the official fire report say about it?

Morris Berger late 1940s early 1950s

  1. According to his obituary, Morris Berger was Vice President of Beth El Synagogue, 58th and Walnut Streets in Philadelphia. Allen Meyers has called Beth El “the largest edifice” in the area, presenting in first in his chapter on West Philadelphia synagogues. Beth El merged with Beth Hillel in 1967 to form Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in suburban Wynnewood, PA. It was here that a charmingly awkward almost-13-year Moshe ben David Layb Berger was called to Bar Mitzvah on September 17, 1979.

Matthew Berger Bar Mitzvah Sept 1979

Seriously, check out the brown velvet three-piece suit, with the Eton-collared eggshell-colored shirt, as I stand proudly with my father.

Lou and Matthew Berger Bar Mitzvah Sept 1979

When I queried a helpful gentleman at Temple Beth Hillel about my paternal grandfather, I was told that his name should appear on a “brick” outside the chapel. So my last “question” was to see if I could locate this brick.

*********

It is notable that the one family research area I was NOT planning to pursue was tracking down the surviving members of my genetic mother’s family in Philadelphia.

Let me back up a second.

As I implied earlier, by May 2018 I had identified the man (dead) and woman (living) who were most likely my genetic father and mother. And having exhausted everything I could learn from the Orphans Court of Delaware County, late that month I sent my check for $20 to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Division of Vital Records along with an application for a non-certified copy of my original pre-adoption birth record. I had deduced the existence of this record from my interactions with the always-helpful Latifah Jones of the Office of Children and Youth Services of Delaware County.

On June 19, 2018, the non-certified copy of my original pre-adoption birth record arrived in the mail. And, for the first time in my life, I officially knew the name of my genetic mother.

My reaction when I read the name, sitting at my desk in the downstairs walk-in closet I had converted into an office, was to shout, “Ha, I was right!”

If I accepted the Jungian notion of synchronicity, I would have been far less surprised that on the very same day, I was contacted by a genetic relative, a woman (call her “AC”) whose daughter was the first link to my genetic maternal family on 23andMe. As I had learned a few months earlier, AC herself had been given up for adoption (along with her older sister—to the same family—a few years earlier), and she was about to meet her genetic sister and brother for the first time.

The woman listed as my mother on the pre-adoption birth record is—officially—AC’s older sister. I write “officially,” because there is compelling, if circumstantial, evidence that my genetic mother was actually raised by her half-sister and her husband, after she was illegitimately conceived by her “official” maternal grandmother via the latter’s fourth husband—while still married to her third husband. I cannot PROVE any of this, mind you, but the genetic evidence is strongly suggestive.

As you can imagine, when AC quietly revealed to her sister not only my existence, but everything I had already learned (and surmised), the sister’s eyes nearly popped out of her head. My existence has been a closely-held secret (three or four people) for nearly 52 years, and the sister was not certain how my genetic mother would react to my discoveries.

Incidentally, I assume this is the sister accompanying my genetic mother and maternal grandmother when I was handed by a nurse to Modell (who then handed me to Lou and Elaine Berger) outside Metropolitan Hospital on October 5, 1966.

AC shared a lot of information with me from that meeting, which I have largely delayed processing because of the move, including that the sister (who still lives just north of Philadelphia) would “very much like to meet” me.

I did not deliberately avoid her on this last trip to Philadelphia so much as I sort of forgot to think about it. Still, it is telling that I neglected to look up my actual genetic aunt/cousin but I spent hours tracking down the gravestone of the man who arranged my adoption OUT of her family.

To be continued…

Two worlds collided…

(with apologies to INXS).

One of the unanticipated pleasures of writing my book is that I get to spend hours reading old newspapers.  This is an amateur historian’s idea of heaven.

Last August, I introduced a key character in my book: a powerful Philadelphia attorney named Herman M. Modell. Modell, who knew my father and his uncle through their membership in LaFayette Lodge No. 71, Free and Accepted Masons (of course the Freemasons are part of my saga), privately arranged my adoption by David Louis and Elaine (Kohn) Berger in 1966.

In a recent post, I described the ups and downs of learning more about the circumstances of my adoption, observing that a “packet” from investigators appointed by the Orphans’ Court of Delaware County had been mailed to me.

That slender, typed, two-page packet arrived on April 21, 2018.

Given the twists and turns my search had already taken, I should not have been surprised that it contained very little information. Basically, because my adoption was private, the only information the Court had was testimony Modell had provided in a follow-up hearing in April 1967. My genetic mother did not attend that hearing, so she is not named, and my genetic father’s name did not even appear on the official birth certificate filed upon my birth. This would have been before October 5, when Lou and Elaine took five-day-old me home from Metropolitan Hospital and filed a superseding birth certificate.

Wait…what?

The story I had always heard (or told myself—this is why I “interrogate” memory) was that I was born in Pennsylvania Hospital. In fact, I was born in Metropolitan Hospital at 10:29 am on September 30, 1966 (with my adoptive parents paying my genetic mother’s hospital bills).

Oh. OK.

Off to Google and Newspapers.com I went. The first thing I learned was that Metropolitan Hospital had closed in 1992. The building was sold in 1997 and turned into condominiums in 2004. So who knows where their 1966 birth records are now (note: when I called Pennsylvania Hospital last year, a less-than-helpful informed me they had destroyed all the analogous records. Good, great, thank you.)

Seriously, this search has had more dead ends than the Minotaur’s labyrinth.

A little more digging turned up this curious tidbit.

One Herman M. Modell served as Metropolitan Hospital’s chief counsel (and occasionally as either President or Secretary of the hospital’s board of directors) from 1944, when it was converted into an “osteopathic hospital,” until his death in 1973.

Modell Metropolitan 1947

Check out the bowtie. As the 11th Doctor says, bowties are cool.

I thought that fact was significant until I checked three other adoptions he had arranged between 1960 and 1970[1]: the three other mothers gave birth at three different hospitals, none of which was Metropolitan. Most likely, it was simply the hospital nearest where my 19-year-old, unmarried, white Catholic genetic mother lived with her parents (and possibly the sister with my genetic mother and their mother when she handed me to Modell outside the hospital. I suspect my adoptive parents were watching from a discrete distance away on Spruce Street; Elaine Berger would have been that curious).

What this association with Metropolitan Hospital did do, however, was send me back onto Newspapers.com to learn more about the hospital and Modell’s association with it.

As a result, I found many more mentions of Modell than in my first search last summer; Newspapers.com continually adds to its collection (or its search algorithm improved). Once I read through all of the Metropolitan stories, I started working my way through other stories (after all, I am devoting most of a book chapter to the man…well, him AND the Freemasons).

One story I was able to flesh out concerned Modell’s representation of 125 (or 150, or 200, depending on the article) women clerks who worked for the Dock Street produce markets in 1947.

These women were the proximate cause of a 90% shutdown of these markets in January and February 1947. Teamsters Local 929, Produce, Poultry, Fish and Oystermen’s Drivers and Helpers had negotiated a new contract with the management associations on January 2. They also wanted the clerks, already members of the independent Wholesale Fruit and Produce Employees’ Association (sometimes called the Wholesale Produce Office Employees Association), to join Teamsters Local 929.

The women refused and staged a seven-hour walkout. This led Teamsters Local 929 to issue their bosses, 57 carlot receivers, an ultimatum: get their clerks into the union by January 4, or they would shut down the markets on January 6.

Guess what happened on January 6.

Modell ultimately got a Circuit Court judge to issue an injunction against Teamsters Local 929, preventing them from coercing the clerks into joining the union (the dispute then moved into other areas, ending Modell’s role here).

By the way, if you think this sounds like racketeering (say, violation of the Wagner and Hobbs Acts), give yourself a gold star. Three men and Teamsters Local 929 were convicted in federal court in October 1948 of violation of the Hobbs Act.

But let me return to January 1947, as I found myself reading the unfolding sage of the “Dock St. rackets,” while thinking about the excellent 1949 film noir Thieves’ Highway.

I found this story in the upper right-hand corner of page 3 of the January 21, 1947 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Dock Street 1-21-1947

As I was reading it, my eye was drawn to a captioned photograph immediately to the right.

I recognized it immediately.  “Oh, right,” I thought…or said (to no one there), “January 1947!”

**********

Just bear with me as I take us 2,721 miles west and six days into the past.

On the morning of January 15, 1947, at approximately 10:30 am PST, a woman named Bette Bersinger was pushing a stroller along a sidewalk bordering an empty grass-and-weed-covered lot on Norton Street, between 39th and Coliseum. She saw what she thought was a broken doll lying a few feet off the sidewalk. Upon closer inspection, she discovered…well, I spare you the fairly gruesome details. If you want to know more, I recommend starting here; this video is also excellent.

The body was soon identified as a 22-year-old aspiring actress named Elizabeth Short, who grew up in Medford, MA (a 20 minute drive northeast of our Brookline apartment).

IMG_3314

History, as you can see, knows Ms. Short better as “The Black Dahlia.” The flowers are mine. I place them there every year because I want to remember “Betty” Short as an actual human being, not a true-crime caricature with a macabre sobriquet.

I have been fascinated by the still-unsolved death of Ms. Short for nearly 20 years. So much so that I write the following from memory (interrogate it, by all means):

Elizabeth Short was last seen alive leaving the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles around 9 pm PST on the night of January 9. She had been dropped off there by a name named Robert “Red” Manley. Manley, who was married, had just driven Ms. Short north from San Diego, where the peripatetic young woman had been living for a month or so. They had spent the night at a motel, where nothing exciting happened according to Manley; Manley was sorely disappointed, if memory serves. We know all of this because shortly after the identification of Ms. Short, Manley came forward to tell his story to the police, insisting that the last time he ever saw Ms. Short was at the Biltmore Hotel.

The police, lacking substantive leads, grilled Manley mercilessly, eventually submitting him to a polygraph test. I do not recall how many times I saw the newspaper photograph of the exhausted Manley strapped into the machine, police detectives hovering over him.

**********

You guessed it.

This was the photograph that caught my eye at the top of page 3 of the January 21, 1947 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Red Manley

The full caption reads:

(AP Wirephoto)

‘PASSING’ THE LIE DETECTOR TEST

Robert Manley, 25, submitting to a lie detector test in Los Angeles yesterday as police questioned him in connection with the mutilation-slaying of Elizabeth Short, 22-year-old Hollywood hopeful. The tests proved, detectives said, Manley had nothing to do with the slaying. He has been released. Checking results of the test are Detective F. A. Brown (left) and Ray Pinker, police chemist.

Here is the full newspaper page:

The_Philadelphia_Inquirer_Tue__Jan_21__1947.

Just to make this serendipitous juxtaposition of interests even better, the actress Laraine Day (see divorce story) is the female lead in one of my five favorite films, Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant Foreign Correspondent.

Until next time…

[1] These are only the ones I currently know about.

Questions of identity

Since my previous post (March 31), I have been singularly focused (perhaps even obsessed) with on-line detective work: constructing family trees for my genetic family.

As I explained last July, I was adopted in utero; my “legal” parents, David Louis and Elaine Berger, brought me home to Havertown, PA when I was four days old. I was raised in a “Russian”[1] Jewish family of liberal Democrats in the Philadelphia suburbs, ultimately attending Ivy League schools, and earning two Master’s Degrees and a PhD. I now live in the largely Jewish and (mostly) liberal Boston suburb of Brookline, MA.

Still, my life had its share of speedbumps. For example, my father’s gambling addiction (fueled by the death of his iron-willed mother) led him to lose the successful West Philadelphia business his father and uncle had acquired and nurtured for decades. That in turn led my mother to divorce him when I was in high school. Less than a year later, he would suffer a massive, fatal heart attack at the age of 46 (in the summer before my junior year of high school).

Each of these influences combined within my psyche to produce my current sense of identity—my internal answer to the question “Who am I?”

In no particular order, here are ways I would fill in the blank after “I am a ______”:

  1. Husband and father (albeit after 40 years of processing my parents’ issues)
  2. Data geek (“math whiz;” inveterate puzzle solver)
  3. Critical-thinking skeptic (liberal education, particularly in epistemological aspects of epidemiology)
  4. Liberal (sub)urbanite
  5. Jewish-raised atheist (see #3 above)
  6. Gambling opponent (my father’s experience; studying probability)

In that same July 2017 post,, I described how Nell had convinced me to do genetic testing through 23andMe, despite my considerable hesitation.

One reason for hesitating was this very question of identity.

For not only did I have 50-plus years of innate abilities, family history, education and geography filtering through my psyche, I also had the life-long capacity—due to the unknown story of my conception, as opposed to my adoption—to be both a part of my family and separate from it.

The details of my conception (beyond basic physiology) remain a bit murky. The story I had always heard (likely embellished along the way) went something like this:

An attractive unmarried Philadelphia woman, 18 years of age and of Scots-Irish ancestry, has an adulterous sexual liaison with a married older man of 28 who already has three children. Given that I was born on September 30, 1966, the act resulting in my conception most likely occurred in late December 1965. Who seduced whom is unknown. The man with whom she has these illicit relations came from Colombia. The timing of my conception suggests a “holiday party accident” fueled by alcohol and/or other illicit substances. One of my genetic parents (my guess would be my mother) has a Native American grandparent or great-grandparent. Unable and/or unwilling to raise the child herself (and this being nearly seven years prior to the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide), she chooses to place her baby for adoption. The adoption itself was arranged by the young woman’s older, savvier, even more attractive sister, who somebody in my legal family met or saw in the corridors or maternity ward of Pennsylvania Hospital, where I was born. All records of my adoption were then destroyed in a fire at the adoption agency my legal parents used.

I have since learned from a maternal aunt that my adoption was arranged by a private lawyer named Herman Modell and that my genetic father was a graduate student/teacher at what was then called Drexel Institute of Technology. My working hypothesis remains that my genetic mother was a freshman at Drexel, as this is the least complicated way they could have met.

For all I know, one or both of my genetic parents is somewhere in this photograph (which I found here).

1965 Homecoming from 1966 Lexerd copy

When I wrote that July 2017 post, I had not yet received my 23andMe test results. They landed like a missile in my Inbox on August 26, 2017.

I have not written about them before now because I am writing a book, in which I use the roots of my passion for film noir to explore my own backstory/ies and identity/ies, again seeking to answer the question “Who am I?”

But I do not want to give too much away in advance of hoped-for publication.

All of which brings me back to the last two-plus weeks.

Among the things I learned last August is that the “fact” that my father was Colombian is almost certainly not true[2]. With 50% confidence, 23andMe believes that I am 0.1% Iberian (Spain and Portugal) with a fully Iberian ancestor sometime in the 18th century; an additional 0.4% is “Broadly Southern European.” Moreover, I am 0.0% East Asian and Native American[3].

So…no Colombian and no Native American[4].

Pfui.

On the other hand, I am 51% British/Irish, heavy on the Irish. The rest is about half French/German (very likely Neanderthal—meaning from the Neander region of Germany) with a smattering of Scandinavian and that barely-perceptible (one strand of one piece of one chromosome pair) Iberian—with the remainder “Broadly Northwestern European.”

Basically, I am like the whitest white man ever. Or, at least, that is how I continue to process this information. I grew up loving the fact that I was a “walking United Nations”: of mixed Scots-Irish, Colombian, Native American ancestry, raised by a “Russian” Jewish family with a Greek first name, Anglo-Saxon middle name and German last name.

While all but two of those aspects remain, the loss of the Colombian and Native American aspects was profoundly disappointing.

Fun fact: while I was raised by Ashkenazi Jews, I am 0.0% Ashkenazi Jewish. My old-New-England-family (on her mother’s side), Episcopalian-raised wife, however, is 0.2% Ashkenazi Jewish.

She is having a (gentle) field day with this bit of irony.

Mitigating my disappointment was that my health reports were neutral (in a good way): no increased genetic predisposition to incurable diseases like Late Onset Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.

And an unexpected fringe benefit of 23andMe genetic testing is the “DNA Relatives” report. Currently, there are 1,034 members of the 23andMe community with whom I share more than 0.25% of my DNA. Every one of these people is “predicted” to be no more than a 5th cousin (meaning we share a common genetic great-great-great-great-grandparent).

Last summer, as I was taking the genetic testing plunge, I was also starting to learn whatever I legally can about my genetic parents. On September 18, 2017, in response to my requests for identifying and non-identifying information about my genetic parents (along with $200—a savings of $100 over two separate requests), the Orphans’ Court of Delaware County (the venue in which my adoption was litigated) officially asked Delaware County’s Office of Children & Youth Services (CYS) to locate the records of my adoption and take the necessary steps to send me whatever information they have and can get consent to release.

According to my CYS contact, a “packet” was mailed to me today (April 16, 2018). This packet was supposed to arrive in mid-January (120 days after September 18, 2017), but I waited until mid-March to call CYS.

Basically, in the rush of late year holidays and my epic trip to NOIR CITY 16 (start here and read forward, if you are interested), I put the matter out of my mind. Plus, I had more than enough other bits of book-related history (Freemasons! West Philadelphia’s Jewish community! Times Square!!) to keep me occupied.

Then a wicked cool thing happened.

At the same time that I realized that my requested information was more than 60 days overdue, the first genetic relative closer than “2nd cousin” appeared on my 23andMe DNA Relatives list.

Since last August, I had the notion in the back of my mind that if the Orphans’ Court would/could not reveal the names of one or both genetic parents to me, I could very likely reverse engineer my genetic family through my DNA Relatives. Especially because I can also see, for each DNA Relative, any other listed surnames (read: female ancestor maiden names) and every relative with whom we both share genes.

But not only did a number of “1st cousins” debut on my DNA Relatives list, I shared a maternal haplogroup with one and a paternal haplogroup with another.

In other words, I knew that the first one and I had (genetic) mothers who were sisters[5] and the second one and I had (genetic) fathers who were brothers.[6]

More to the point, given American nomenclature traditions, I knew the last name my genetic father had (or, at least, HIS father’s last name).

Huzzah!

This, then, is the detective work—a whirlwind of Ancestry.com, Newspapers.com (so much information in obituaries), Google (WhitePages, Spokeo, PeopleFinder, etc.) and Facebook (“Friends” lists are powerful research tools), plus simple inexorable logic—I have been conducting since I last posted.

And in these two weeks, I have learned nearly everything I can about my genetic families—except the names of either genetic parent. Based on the family trees I have carefully constructed (and confirmed), I know to a near-certainty the names of my genetic maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather, as well as the names of their other offspring.

But I cannot find the relevant offspring, who I suspect were themselves placed for adoption (or, in at least one case—if not both—raised by other family members).

Are you freaking kidding me?

It is as though I can tell you every last detail of a house…except the names of the couple that actually lives there.

This house—my ancestry—mostly consists of rural white Christians (lots of Baptists, from what I can see) from the southern United States (Georgia, Florida and Kentucky, especially), a handful of whom fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.

It is funny. I identify strongly as a “Northerner,” primarily due to my years spent in Connecticut and Massachusetts. But my native Philadelphia is not THAT far north and east of the beginning of the Mason-Dixon Line, separating “free” and “slave” states.

Nonetheless, I am struggling to reconcile my “Northern” identity with my “Southern” genetic ancestry, even if that ancestry plays about as much role in my current identity as a toy factory assembly line worker does for a doll from that factory.

The book is one reason I have refrained from discussing what I have learned. Another reason—perhaps a better reason—is my wish to protect the privacy of newly-discovered genetic relatives. My direct communications with some of them have been remarkably pleasant, even welcoming; I do not want to jeopardize these nascent connections.[7]

So I will share one piece of craziness with you, while still maintaining my genetic relatives’ privacy.

When I realized that I almost certainly knew my genetic father’s last name, I began to search for someone with that name who was a graduate student at Drexel in 1965/66.

Almost immediately, I stumbled upon a male “Firstname Y. Lastname” who submitted a MS thesis (applying advanced statistics to engineering, no less) in 1965. A man of the same name (with a middle name fitting the initial on the Drexel record) was born in April 1938, making him the exact age as in my “origin story.” He had won a scholarship to a prestigious northeastern university, graduating at about the right time, while his younger would brother would attend Yale University (as would I less than 20 years later).

He had also divorced his first wife sometime between 1964 and 1969 (she become a renowned academic in her own right), which just added fuel to the speculative fire.

However, when I stepped back to look at the bigger picture…connecting the dots of other also-related DNA Relatives (and looking more closely at where he would have been living in 1965-66—only a 90 minute or so drive away, but still), it became apparent that this was not the correct man. At least, not if his ascribed parents were also his legal parents (I remain open to the possibility that he was a “love child” raised by distant cousins).

In other words, “Firstname Y. Lastname” is either the greatest red herring I have ever seen, or he IS my genetic father, but was actually raised by his fifth cousin, once removed.

That “packet” from CYS cannot get here quickly enough.

Until next time…

[1] Meaning “from the Pale of Settlement region of the late 19th/early 20th century Russian Empire,” as my forebears actually hailed from modern-day Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine.

[2] Perhaps he had come from Columbia University or Columbia, MD, and my mother misunderstood?

[3] At 90% confidence: 13.8% British/Irish, 2.4% French/German, 62.9% Broadly Northwestern European, 18.9% Broadly European, 1.9% Unassigned.

[4] I would observe that all of the nations listed in “Native American” are south of the United States. There is still, then, the tiniest glimmer of hope for some Native “United States/Canada”

[5] Or a mother and maternal grandmother who were sisters

[6] Or a father and paternal grandfather who were brothers

[7] Moreover, there is always the very small chance that 23andMe, despite every precaution, made a mistake somewhere. That situation would not be helped by me acting like a blabbermouth.

Interrogating memories of the LAST Eagles-Patriots Super Bowl

Sometimes, when my psychotherapist and I are interrogating (my) memories, she brings up the Freudian concept of “screen memories,” in which we essentially replace a traumatic childhood memory with a more innocuous memory.  In her telling, a screen memory could be any set of memories which have become jumbled together, with the affect from an unpleasant event displaced onto a more pleasant event.

I will be making my way to San Francisco wicked early Thursday morning to attend my fifth consecutive NOIR CITY. As a result, I will not be updating this blog for up to three weeks, though I plan to write a comprehensive account of my time there when I return.

In the meantime, I thought I would present a possible “screen” memory for interrogation.

Let me preface by stating that while I vaguely root for all four major Philadelphia sports teams—the 76ers (basketball), Eagles (football), Flyers (hockey) and my beloved Philadelphia Phillies (baseball)—the only time I really follow any team other than the Phillies is when that team is in the playoffs, or on the verge of making the playoffs.

So it was with the 2017-18 Philadelphia Eagles, who on February 4, 2018 (the last day of NOIR CITY 16) at 6:30 PM EST (3:30 PM in San Francisco) will face the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII.

super-bowl-lii-4k-new-england-patriots-vs-philadelphia-eagles-madden-nfl-18-2018

Source

I knew that the Eagles were playing well last fall, and I learned that they were being led by a phenomenal young quarterback named Carson Wentz. And, like the rest of Philadelphia, I thought their Super Bowl hopes were dashed when Wentz suffered a season-ending leg injury against the Los Angeles Rams on December 10, 2017; the Eagles had already won the National Football Conference (NFC) East.

But then Nick Foles stepped in as quarterback and played well enough to garner the Eagles a first-round bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. That did not stop the Eagles from being slight underdogs to the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons. Foles and the Eagles looked shaky early before pulling out a nail-biting 15-10 win.

This past Sunday, January 20, 2018, the Eagles were again slight underdogs to the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC championship game, although FiveThirtyEight.com gave the Eagles a 57% chance to win the game.

On their very first possession, Minnesota scored a touchdown (and extra point) to give them a quick 7-0 lead.

But then Foles and the Eagles’ defense took complete command of the game, leading them to a 38-7 victory and putting them in their first Super Bowl since 2005 (also against the Patriots) and third overall (1981 vs. the Oakland Raiders).

The Eagles lost to the Patriots 24-21 in 2005[1], having lost 27-10 to the Raiders in 1981.

So, the Eagles are still looking for their first Super Bowl victory, against possibly the greatest quarterback of all time, Tom Brady (as dangerous at 40 as he was at 27).

**********

Readers of this blog will know that, while I grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs (NOT the city proper, as a cousin rarely fails to point out to me) I have lived in the Boston area for the last 12+ years (and for all but four years since September 1989). You would think that would lead to some deeply divided loyalties.

Umm…no, even considering the fact that my wife, a former elementary school teacher, has a personal connection to the team (I am respecting privacy here).

You can take the boy out of the Philly suburbs, but you can’t take the Philly suburbs out of the boy.

FLY, EAGLES, FLY!

**********

Shortly after the Eagles beat the Falcons, one of my closest friends wrote a touching blog post linking the success of the Eagles to his late father, who had passed in March 2016.

For the record, David’s extended family has been an alma familia to me for decades—at his wedding, his mother introduced me “as her third son” (which meant the world to me), perhaps channeling the middle school teacher who one day saw David and me sitting together in the cafeteria and asked if we were brothers.

But when David wrote that the Eagles had last been in the Super Bowl in 2005, I thought that was a typo or a simple mistake of memory.

I have a very clear memory of watching the Eagles lose to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX with my mother and stepfather in the living room of the house in which they lived until January 2004, collectively ruing the Eagles’ missed chances to win that game.

The thing is, though, my mother died in March 2004, and by January 2005, my stepfather and I were locked in a fierce legal battle over my mother’s estate; not anticipating how recalcitrant my stepfather would become, she had made us co-executors of her modest estate in her will.

So that Super Bowl had to have been in 2002 or 2003, right?

Wrong, as I have already noted.

**********

Confirming that the Super Bowl I had been picturing enjoying with my mother and stepfather (for three-plus quarters, at any rate) was in 2005, not in 2002 or 2003, was surprisingly rattling, akin to straining to determine whether a newly-hazy memory was of an actual event or of an exceptionally vivid dream[2]. It was as though a bank of thick fog had poured into my head, unnerving me and causing me literally to shake my head in frustration.

Just bear with me while I try to clear up this confusion to myself (I am literally researching this question as I write).

The simplest explanation is that I am remembering watching some other Eagles playoff loss with my mother and stepfather in that living room in Haverford. A little digging on line reminds me that the Eagles had also won the NFC East in 2002, 2003 and 2004, only to lose the NFC championship game all three years (29-24 to St. Louis, 27-10 to Tampa Bay and 14-3 to Carolina, respectively).

It could not have been the 2004 game, because by that point, my mother’s ovarian cancer had come back with a fatal vengeance, even as she and my stepfather were moving into a new house in Penn Valley.

So that leaves the 2002 and 2003 NFC championship games.

Looking at the scores of those games, something about the loss to Tampa Bay in 2003 rings a bell.

And a whole set of tumblers fall into place.

My mother’s ovarian cancer was first diagnosed in late 2002/early 2003. The Phillies were two years into a rebuilding phase that had begun in earnest when Jimmy Rollins became the Phillies regular shortstop in 2001 (becoming an All-Star as a rookie), leading them to a 16 win improvement (86-76) from 2000, though they missed winning the National League East or Wild Card by 2 games each.

Following the 2002 season, the Phillies opened their wallets and signed free agent third baseman David Bell (December 2, 2002) to a four-year, $17.0 million deal and first baseman Jim Thome (December 6, 2002) to a six-year, $81.2 million deal.

Those moves were exciting enough—especially acquiring Thome, a near-lock to be voted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot on January 24—but then on December 20, the Phillies traded an unproven minor-league catcher named Johnny Estrada to the Atlanta Braves for right-handed starting pitcher Kevin Millwood (a former All-Star who had won 18 games in both 1999 and 2002[3]).

This felt like the final piece to the playoff puzzle for my long-suffering Phillies (one winning season between 1987 and 2000: 1993, when they lost the World Series in six games to the Toronto Blue Jays).

I was ecstatic.

So much so that the very next day, I was prattling on about it to my mother, somewhere in the Poconos, a resort mountain area about a two-hour drive north of Philadelphia, where she and my stepfather would rent a place for a weeks every winter.

I had also just been promoted in September, with a substantial increase in salary (on top of some data analytic consulting). This increase in income enabled me (in late January 2003) to move into a much nicer apartment, complete with schmancy new furniture I bought with my consulting earnings, than the one in which I had been living the past year.

Making that day-trip to the Poconos even more joyous was that it was one full year since my mother’s ovarian cancer diagnosis, and it seemed to be fully in remission. Her illness had prevented her from helping me find a new apartment the previous year[4], and she was throwing herself into this round with gusto.

In the middle of all of this excitement, on Sunday, January 19, 2003, the Eagles lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 27-10.

**********

There is no doubt in my mind (for now, anyway) that THAT was the galling playoff loss I watched with my mother and stepfather in that Haverford living room. For some reason, over time I superimposed the positive affect, derived from the upbeat circumstances of my life, attached to the memory of a “tough Eagles playoff loss” in January 2003 onto the memory of a different “tough Eagles playoff loss” in a far-less-happy February 2005.

On February 6, 2005, my mother had been dead for almost one year (and I was still wrapping my head around the loss), my stepfather and I were bitterly speaking only through lawyers, my interest in my current position was waning, and mentally I already had one foot out the door to Boston (where I would move in September to pursue graduate degrees in biostatistics and epidemiology). Another very close friend, who lived in the area, was a few weeks away from becoming a father for the first time, which I knew would radically curtail his “let’s go do something” availability.

I do not think this is a “screen memory,” as Herr Freud envisioned it—no traumatic childhood memory I sought to repress—but it does show once again the need to interrogate memories carefully. Memories are remarkably fluid, with details often sacrificed to emotion to create the most positive possible affect.

And, yes, that was a very pretentious sentence, to which the only valid response is…

GO EAGLES!

Until next time…

[1] Coincidentally, the Eagles also beat the Vikings and Falcons to advance to the Super Bowl in 2005, though in reverse order.

[2] Or perhaps it is like waking up with snatches of memory together with long gaps and asking, “Just how much DID I drink last night?!?”

[3] And, ironically, is also on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this year. In the first 234 (out of a projected 424) ballots publicly-released, Millwood has received 0 votes.

[4] Basically, the third time was the charm in terms of finding the right apartment after I moved back to Philadelphia.

 

Querying the impossible once again….

As readers of this blog know (and I am grateful to each of you, especially as the one-year anniversary of this blog arrives tomorrow), I am writing a book tentatively titled Interrogating Memory: How a Love of Film Noir Led Me to Investigate My Own Identity. The impetus for the book came from a career-related conversation with my ever-supportive wife.

The notion of “interrogating memory” emerged when I began to research and write this book. My initial plan was simply to trace my path to becoming a film noir aficionado: from the still-hazy circumstances of my adoption through being a precocious child reader of mysteries through my discovery of the 20th Century Fox Charlie Chan films through my widened exposure to films and hardboiled detective fiction at Yale through the perpetual lure of “night and the city” through my ongoing embrace of the Film Noir Foundation and its annual NOIR CITY film festival (about which I have written here).

But as I began to think more critically about relevant childhood memories—stories I had refined to a high gloss after decades of retelling—I realized they did not always neatly align with verifiable facts from independent sources (e.g., newspaper accounts, contemporaneous records, diaries, photographs).

For example, the story of my in utero adoption always included my Colombian genetic father and Native-American great-grandparent (or was it great-great-?). Only this past summer did I learn through 23andMe genetic testing that I am, at best, 0.5% Iberian and not at all Native American.

Sometimes meticulous investigation raises more questions than answers, as when the ages listed on an old photograph of my sister and me could not possibly both be correct.

And in still other instances, I discovered that memories I had convinced myself were false (or, at best, completely mangled through the mnemonic equivalent of a game of Telephone) turned out to be almost entirely true, like the story of the early childhood friend I never saw again after he severely burned himself.

I still adhere to the last sentence in that post: “It is remarkable what you can learn (good and bad) when you interrogate your memory.”

Thus, “Why do I love film noir so much?” morphed quickly into “Who am I?” (driven externally by ongoing conversations with my psychotherapist) leading inexorably to the epistemological exercise of memory interrogation—and the resultant traveling of unexpected and unusual research paths: from an influential Masonic lodge to a mid-20th-century “Crime Prevention Squad” to a seaside motel that was demolished in 1978.

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The latest bit of memory interrogation is the direct result of setting the historic stage (in what I expect will be Chapter 7: “Chinatown”) for that Saturday night in July 1976 when a bored nine-year-old version of me stumbled across a Sherlock Holmes/Charlie Chan double-feature on Philadelphia’s Channel 48.

If it had been either of the previous two summers, I would have missed these movies entirely, because my mother, father and I would have been at the Strand Motel in Atlantic City, New Jersey (seedily nestled in the square lot bordered to the east and west by the Boardwalk and Pacific Avenue and to the north and south by Boston and Providence Avenues)…or strolling the Boardwalk…or visiting my maternal grandfather at the Warwick Apartments on Raleigh Avenue (which look exactly the same as they did 40 years ago).

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I am still interrogating memories of why our family finances did not allow us to spend the summer of 1976 in Atlantic City (with my father driving back-and-forth the 84 or so miles every weekend), as we had the previous two summers.

But those two blissful summers on the Jersey shore were particularly liberating for reasons that had nothing to do with finances.

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My legal parents married in January 1960. Over the next four years, as they sought to have children, my mother had two miscarriages before being diagnosed with cervical cancer (or uterine cancer, depending on the report[1]) in 1964, when she was just 26 years old. As a result, she had a full hysterectomy, limiting her natural childbearing to a girl—who she and my father named Mindy Joy—born in March 1962.

Unfortunately, Mindy’s birth followed an extremely painful, 18-hour-long labor. In the process, Mindy’s head kept emerging in and out of my mother’s vagina, possibly restricting oxygen flow to Mindy’s still-developing brain.

Perhaps this is why Mindy had delayed developmental milestones, leading to a 1960s-vintage diagnosis of “Severe Mental Retardation” (along with Seizure Disorder—although she has not had a seizure since June 1993), which is now “Depressive Disorder due to another medical condition w/Mixed Features and Pervasive Developmental Disorder.” This disorder may (though medications now greatly reduce their frequency) result in “[u]npredictable changes in mood states, which can lead to tantrum behaviors. Mindy can scratch, bite, hit, pinch and pull others’ hair.”

My parents, of course, loved my older sister absolutely (my father was the one person who could adequately control Mindy—who was inordinately impulsive and strong—when he was around to do so).

Still, in the late summer/early fall of 1966, they arranged through a private attorney they knew to adopt a second child. This is how a four-day-old version of me got driven away from Pennsylvania Hospital to a three-bedroom home on a quiet Havertown street in October 1966.

But that is a story for another day.

As difficult and uncommunicative as she could be, I generally got along well with my older sister, as this 1971 photograph shows.

Mindy and I 1971

It helped the impish younger version of me that Mindy often exhibits echolalia, parroting back words and phrases just spoken to her. Attempting to play with her, I would sit Mindy down and have her repeat words like “Czechoslovakia” and “Yugoslavia.” This would only last a short time, until she began to get agitated. That was my cue to move on to a less potentially destructive activity.

Younger siblings may be a bit cruel at times, but they ain’t stupid.

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As of last year, Mindy’s annual progress reports are now being prepared by a non-profit advocacy agency called The Arc Alliance.

These reports have incorporated more detail about a process I vividly recall from my early childhood: the ceaseless search for a long-term care and education facility that would accommodate Mindy for more than a few months.

Between 1970 and 1974, alone, Mindy attended the…

  • Elwyn Institute (Media, PA; 1970-71),
  • Melmark School (Berwyn, PA; February 1971-73),
  • Martha Lloyd Residence (Troy, PA—a 3-4 hour drive north, nearly to the New York state line; July-August 1973),
  • Crozer-Chester Medical Center Intermediate Unit Program (Chester, PA; fall 1973)
  • Van Hook-Walsh School (Middletown, Delaware—an hour-plus drive south; February-June 1974) and
  • NHS School Woodhaven (Philadelphia, PA; since December 3, 1974)

It was not atypical for Mindy to have been “terminated” from the Van Hook-Walsh School after “the neighbors complained.”

Mindy’s requirement for 24-hour care and supervision made it next-to-impossible to do much in the summertime (or in the evenings, as babysitters who could accommodate Mindy were scarce, to say the least).

So when I look at that June 1974 termination date in Mindy’s Arc Alliance annual report, I feel like my memory is playing tricks on me.

There is simply no way we could have spent one night in Atlantic City, let alone an entire summer, if Mindy were not in a residential care facility in July and August 1974.

But if Mindy really was “terminated” from the now-defunct Van Hook-Walsh School in June 1974 and did not move into the brand new, Temple-University-operated Woodhaven campus[2] (where she has been a resident for 43 years and counting) until that December…then where was she that summer?

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Just bear with me while I tell a quick story (which I may never be able to interrogate):

By the fall of 1974 my mother had finally tired of finding a permanent program for Mindy, and she wanted to get her enrolled into the newly-opened Woodhaven facility as quickly as possible. However, she was getting nothing but delays and “be patient” from Woodhaven administrators. One afternoon, she and Mindy were in “the offices” [I have no idea where these would have been], and she was getting the same “be patient” message. My mother finally snapped…and she stopped trying to keep Mindy from being disruptive. Mindy promptly ran around the office throwing papers, yelling and generally wreaking havoc. My mother then vowed she would bring Mindy back there every afternoon until she was enrolled. Within a few days, Mindy was accepted into Woodhaven, where she remains to this day.

I am certain there is more than a kernel of truth to this story (I would not have invented it, and my mother certainly had her badass moments), but I may never know how much.

**********

As you would expect, I will now interrogate the memory that my mother and I spent the summer of 1974 living at the Strand Motel in Atlantic City.

As evidence, I submit three photographs with the same developer’s code stamped on the back of each one, two of which have also have “Aug 1974” written on their backs in my mother’s handwriting.

Luvey in Atlantic City August 1974 2

Luvey in Atlantic City August 1974

Strand motel August 1974

The first two photographs are of Luvey, the keeshond we acquired in January 1973. In the second photograph, he is clearly sitting in the doorway that led to the patio we shared with the “B” penthouse (we stayed in the “A” penthouse—a slightly larger motel room with a walk-in closet) overlooking the outdoor pool and, across the adjacent Boardwalk, the Atlantic Ocean.

Incidentally, the resident of the “B” penthouse both years was this interesting man. I used to walk his beautiful golden retriever Whiskey with Luvey, and I once asked him (he would have been 32 or 33 years old) what he wanted to be when he grew up.

I do not remember his answer.

The third photograph shows my mother sitting on the motel room patio of family friends (cropped out to protect privacy) who also spent that summer at the Strand Motel. The second photo of Luvey was taken in their motel room.

If my mother looks, umm, blissed out in this photograph, well…she used to buy her grass from the Strand Motel’s handsome young male lifeguards.

(My mother once told that I was not allowed to start smoking weed until I was 32, because that was how old she was when she started. No comment on whether or not I heeded her advice.)

The bottom line, though is that my memory is correct: my mother and I spent the summer of 1974 staying at the Strand Motel in Atlantic City.

So where was Mindy?

I see two possibilities:

  1. Mindy left Van Hook-Walsh in June 1974 then went into a different facility for the summer, and whoever provided Arc Alliance the list of schools forgot to list it (or someone forgot to include it).
  2. The “6/74” written in the 2017 report is simply a typo. Perhaps somebody inverted a “9” into a “6?

The second possibility makes the most sense to me given the scramble to get Mindy into Woodhaven a month or two later.

When my mother died in March 2004, I acquired all of her paperwork relating to Mindy. It is sitting in a folder in the filing cabinet just to my left as I type.

The answer may lie somewhere in those papers.

Now THAT would be a fascinating interrogation of memory.

For now, though, I leave you with this photograph taken in December 1979, almost three years after my parents separated (they would divorce two years later, seven months before my father’s untimely death at 46), the only photograph I have showing all four of us together.

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Until next time…

[1] Much of the information in this and ensuing paragraphs is taken from Mindy’s Individualized Support Plan (ISP), which I receive annually as her plenary legal guardian. I was made co-legal guardian in 2002, when my mother was first diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer, in what may have been the shortest legal proceeding in history. In my memory, the presiding judge from the Orphans Court of Delaware County took one look at Mindy and said “You’re her legal guardian. Next!”

[2] According to a June 27, 1974 (pg. 10) Philadelphia Inquirer story titled “Woodhaven program is working,” the facility was new as of April 1974.

Final thoughts from what is almost certainly my final APHA meeting

I debuted this blog 11 months ago yesterday as a place to tell what I hoped would be entertaining and informative data-driven stories. Given my proclivity for, and advanced academic training in, quantitative data analysis, the vast majority of my 47 prior posts have involved the rigorous and systematic manipulation of numbers.

But not all data are quantitative. Sometimes they are “qualitative,” or simply impressionistic.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about my impending trip to Atlanta to attend the American Public Health Association (APHA) Annual Meeting and Expo. This post served two purposes:

  1. To allow me to archive online:
    1. The full text (minus Acknowledgments and CV) of my doctoral thesis (Epidemiology, Boston University School of Public Health, May 2015)
    2. The PowerPoint presentation I delivered in defense of that thesis (minus some Acknowledgment slides) in December 2014
    3. Both oral presentations I delivered at the APHA Meeting
  1. To explore the idea that the decision to change careers (which I detail here) actually began two years earlier than I thought, with the completion of this doctorate.

I submitted three abstracts to APHA (one for each dissertation study) when I was still looking for ways to jumpstart my health-data-analyst job search (and my flagging interest in the endeavor). I was shocked that any of my abstracts were accepted for oral presentation (if only because I had no institutional affiliation) and quite humbled that two were accepted.

Once they were accepted, though, I felt an obligation to prepare and deliver the two oral presentations, despite the fact that I had decided to embark on a different career path.

(I did, however, truncate the length of my attendance from all four days to only the final two days, the days on which I was scheduled to give my presentations.)

I also recalled how much I used to enjoy attending APHA Meetings with my work colleagues. My first APHA Meeting—Atlanta, October 2001—was also the place I delivered an oral presentation to a large scientific conference for the first time.

APHA 2001

                 **********

There are two interesting coincidences related to this presentation.

One, I gave this presentation at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis, the same hotel in which I just stayed for the 2017 APHA Meeting[1].

Two, the presentation itself—GIS Mapping: A Unique Approach to Surveillance of Teen Pregnancy Prevention Efforts (coauthored with my then-supervisor)—drew upon a long-term interest of mine: what you might call “geographical determinism,” which is a pretentious way of saying that “place matters.”

To explain, just bear with me while I stroll down a slightly bumpy memory lane.

I have always loved maps—street maps, maps of historical events, atlases, you name it. As a political science major at Yale, I discovered “electoral geography.” At one point while I was working as a research assistant for Professor David Mayhew, I mentioned the field to him.

Hmm, he responded. I should teach a course about that next semester.

He did.

I still have the syllabus.

As a doctoral student at Harvard (the doctorate I did NOT finish), I formulated a theory for my dissertation about why some areas tended to vote reliably Democratic while others tended to vote reliably Republican that was based on the way demographic traits (e.g., race, socioceconomic status [SES], religion) were distributed among an area’s population. The idea was that because everyone has a race AND an age AND a gender AND a SES level AND a religion AND so on, the areal distribution of these traits makes some more politically salient than others in that area.

Well…it all made perfect sense to me back in the early 1990s.

Because this was not already complicated enough to model and measure, I originally chose to test this theory using data from presidential primary elections, with all of their attendant flukiness. I even spent a pleasant afternoon in Concord, New Hampshire collecting (hand-written) town-level data on their 1976 presidential primary elections.

Did I mention that New Hampshire has 10 counties, 13 cities, 221 towns, and 25 unincorporated places?

From the start, however, it was an uphill battle getting this work taken seriously[2]. One of the four components of my oral exams in May 1991 was a grilling on the electoral geography literature review I had recently completed.

Rather than ask me questions about (for example) J. Clark Archer’s work on the geography of presidential elections, however, the professor who would soon chair my doctoral committee peppered me with questions about why we should study political/electoral geography when academic geography departments were closing or what James Madison’ antipathy to faction said about viewing elections through the lens of geography.

I have no recollection of how I answered those questions, but I know that I passed those exams by the skin of my teeth[3].

(Ironically, just nine years later, the nation would be riveted by Republican “red states” and Democratic “blue states” during the Florida recount that decided the 2000 presidential election between Texas Governor George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore).

The real kicker, though, came a year later.

Harvard at the time had a program with a name like “sophomore seminars.” These small-group classes were a chance for doctoral students to prepare and teach a semester-length seminar of their own design to undergraduate political science majors.

I eagerly jumped at the chance and applied to teach one in American electoral geography, drafting a syllabus in the process. Once it was accepted, I organized the first class, including getting permission to copy a Scientific American article, which I then made copied.

Towards the end of the summer, they posted (I do not remember where, but it was 1992, so it was literally a piece of paper tacked to a bulletin board) the names of the students who would be taking each seminar.

I looked for my class.

I could not find it.

I soon discovered why. Only one student had signed up (and it was not even her/his first choice), so the seminar had been cancelled.

That was one of the most crushingly disappointing moments of my life.

In retrospect, this was most likely when my interest in completing this doctoral program began to seriously wane—even though I stuck it out for three more years.

(In a bittersweet bit of irony, five years after I walked away from that doctoral program came the 2000 U.S. presidential election. Because of the month-long Florida recount, the “red state-blue state” map of the election burned into the public consciousness. Electoral geography, at least at this very basic level, suddenly became a “thing.” To this day, there is talk of “red,” “blue” and even “purple” states.)

The good news was that the idea of looking at data geographically still appealed to me tremendously, and I was lucky enough to be able to learn and use ArcGIS mapping software in my first professional job as a health-related data analyst. The best moment in this regard there came when I produced a town-level map of alcohol and substance use problems in Massachusetts. The towns with the most severe issues were colored in red, and I noticed that they followed two parallel east-west lines emanating from Boston, and that they were crossed by a north-south line in the western part of the state.

Oh, I exclaimed. The northern east-west line is Route 2, the southern east-west line is I-90 (the Massachusetts Turnpike) and the intersecting north-south line is I-91. Of course, these are state-wide drug distribution routes.

Three professional positions later, temporarily living in Philadelphia, I was doing similar work, but now in the area of teen pregnancy–which brings us back to the oral presentation I delivered late on the afternoon of November 7, 2017 and to the second coincidence.

Its title was “Challenges in measuring neighborhood walkability: A comparison of disparate approaches,” and it was the second presentation (of six) in a 90-minute-long session titled Geo-Spatial Epidemiology in Public Health Research.

In other words, 16 years after my first APHA oral presentation, in the same city, I was once again talking about ways to organize and analyze data geographically.

And while the five-speaker session in which I spoke the following morning (Social Determinants in Health and Disease) was not “geo-spatial,” per sé, the study I discussed (“Neighborhood walkability and depressive symptoms in black women: A prospective cohort study”) did feature a geographic exposure.

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I again coauthored and delivered oral presentations at the APHA Meetings in 2002[4] (Philadelphia) and 2003 (San Francisco); for the 2004 Meeting (Washington, DC) I prepared a poster which I displayed along with a woman I supervised.

That talented young woman—now one of my closest friends—was a huge reason why the 2003 APHA Meeting in San Francisco was so memorable. Other, of course, than the fact that it was IN SAN FRANCISCO!

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As much as fun as it was to wander through the exhibit halls and chat with the folks from schools of public health, research organizations, public health advocacy groups, medical device firms and so forth; to amass a full bag of free goodies (“swag,” I prefer to call it) in the process; to read and ask questions about scientific posters; and to sit in a wide range of scientific sessions…

(no, I am serious. I really used to enjoy that stuff, especially in the company (during the day and/or over dinner and drinks in the evenings) of friendly work colleagues)

…after about two days, my colleague and I had had enough.

So we literally played hooky from the Meeting one day.

First, I dragged the poor woman on a “Dashiell Hammett” tour, which took place only a few blocks from our Union Square hotel.

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Then, we meandered through Chinatown (whose entrance was mere steps away)—stopping for bubble teas along the way—all the way to Fishermen’s Wharf.

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Our ultimate destination was the ferry to Alcatraz. The Alcatraz tour may have been the highlight of that trip. That place is eerie, creepy and endlessly fascinating.

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Someday I will take my wife and daughters there.

That Meeting was also the apex of my APHA experiences. After three years of them, the 2004 version in DC felt stale. I skipped the 2005 APHA Meeting in Philadelphia, as I had just returned to Boston to start my master’s program in biostatistics at Boston University, though I did briefly attend the 2006 APHA Meeting since it was in Boston, and it was a chance to see former work colleagues.

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Ultimately, then, attending the 2017 APHA Meeting in Atlanta was a life experiment, a way to gather qualitative “data” to assess the notion that I had put a health-related data analysis career behind for good.

I arrived in Atlanta on the evening of November 6 and took a taxi to the Marriott Marquis.

Holy moley, is this place huge…and it had those internal glass elevators which allow passengers to watch the lobby recede or approach at great speed.

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It was both liberating and lonely not to have work colleagues attending with me. As great as it was not to have to report to anybody, it also meant my time was far more unstructured (other than attending the sessions in which I was presenting).

On Tuesday morning, I dressed in my “presentation” clothes and made my way to the Georgia World Congress Center. This meant taking a mile-long walk in drenching humidity carrying a fully-packed satchel because the APHA chose to reduce its carbon footprint by eliminating shuttle buses.

So I was a sweaty mess when I arrived at the heart of the action. Still, I soldiered on, registering and then checking the location of my session room (luckily, both of the my sessions were in the same room—if only because it allowed me, on Wednesday morning, to retrieve the reading glasses I had left on the podium Tuesday evening).

This place was also massive and labyrinthine. It took me a good 30 minutes just to locate the Exhibit Halls.

I wandered through them for an hour or so, talking to some interesting folks and reading a couple of posters. The swag was wholly uninspiring, I am sorry to say.

And I felt…nothing.

No pangs of regret.

No overwhelming desire to return to this field of work.

No longing for work colleagues (other than a general loneliness).

In fact, I mostly felt like a ghost, the way one sometimes does walking around an old alma mater or place you used to live.

This was my past, and I was perfectly fine with that[5].

That is not to say I did not enjoy giving my talks (which were very well received—I am usually nervous before giving oral presentations…until I open my mouth, and the performer in me takes charge). I did, very much. I also enjoyed listening to the nine other speakers with whom I shared a dais. I picked up terms like “geographic-weighted regression” I plan to explore further. I even took the opportunity to distribute dozens of my new business cards (the ones that describe me, tongue somewhat in cheek, as “Writer * Blogger * Film Noir Researcher * Data Analyst”).

But none of that altered my conviction that I have made the right career path decision. I have no idea where the writing path will ultimately lead (although the research for my book has already taken me down some unexpected and vaguely disturbing alleys), professionally or financially, but I remain glad I chose that path.

One final thing…or perspective.

Tuesday, November 7 was also the day that governor’s races were held in New Jersey and Virginia, along with a mayor’s race in New York City and a wide range of state and local elections nationwide.

I had expected to settle in for a long night of room service and MSNBC viewing, but the key races were called so early that I decided to take quick advantage of the hotel swimming pool.

Yes, I waited at least 30 minutes after eating to enter the water.

The pool at the Atlanta Marquis Marriott is primarily indoors (and includes a VERT hot hot tub, almost—but not quite—too hot for me), but a small segment of it is outside; you can swim between the two pool segments through a narrow opening.

If you look directly up from the three shallow steps descending into the outdoor segment of the pool, you see this (if you can find the 27th floor, one of those windows was my room):

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I literally carried my iPhone into the pool to take this photograph, leaning as far back as I could. Thankfully, I did not drop my iPhone in the pool.

Until next time…

[1] The coincidence is not perfect, though, as I do not think we STAYED at the Marriott Marquis in 2001.

[2] Other than the fact that I was awarded a Mellon Dissertation Completion Fellowship in 1994. It was kind of a last-ditch spur to completion. It did not work.

[3] This was the same professor who proclaimed as an aside in a graduate American politics seminar that if you really want to do something hard, get a PhD in epidemiology. Which, of course, I did…25 years later.

[4] Where the Keynote Address was delivered—passionately and to great applause—by an obscure Democratic governor of Vermont named Howard Dean, whose presidential campaign I supported from that moment.

[5] The one caveat to this blanket page-turning is my ongoing interest in the geographic determinism, which I am indulging through state- and county-level analyses of the 2016 presidential elections. This may be the one successful way to lure me back into the professional data-analytic world.