#MurderMystery #NakedCheesesteak It’s been awhile since I’ve published fiction alongside poems, but the fine folks at Philadelphia Stories approached me last spring with a sweet project: collaborate with twelve other Philly writers on a comical murder mystery called NAKED CAME THE CHEESESTEAK. My new chapter is out this week. Read the chapter online here at the link and find out #whodunnit and who gets whacked.
#ShelterInPlace #GunViolence #CampusShooting
Earlier during the fall 2015 term, my students and I were in lockdown at the college where I teach due to a suspected gunman. The multiple mass shootings endured by the country recently have me revisiting what it felt like that day. This essay originally appeared in Think Tank at Philly.com (Oct. 15, 2015) and later in The Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday paper.
Think Tank: At CCP, students and teacher endure lockdown
“Shelter in place,” came the texts and the robocalls on Oct. 6 when I was teaching my morning English class. Someone with a gun had been reported on campus.
I didn’t know that at first. The guard who first stopped by my door to tell me to keep my students in place seemed subdued. He made no mention of a gun, and from his demeanor I imagined whatever was happening might just as easily be a medical emergency. I’ve had students have seizures in class; I know it’s important to keep people out of the way when help is needed.
Our class had about a half-hour left. I wanted to keep rolling. Run-ons and comma splices don’t teach themselves.
I called on a young woman in back by the window, a student whose attention I usually have to reel in. “I can’t concentrate,” she told me. “There’s all these helicopters outside!” I glanced out our second-floor window but couldn’t see for the trees.
That’s when text messages started arriving on my students’ phones via our campus alert system. A few also received messages from concerned family members who were watching what was happening on TV. It was through these outside sources that we learned of a possible gunman. I felt out of the loop.
Luckily, I teach in a smart classroom. I logged on to a local news station and we watched the drama live-stream via computer projector. My students were getting anxious, and I wanted them quiet and focused. I shuttered the blinds. I turned off the lights. I told them they could stand by the wall where they couldn’t be seen from the door. Most did. At some point two SWAT officers with rifles came by and did a head check but told us nothing.
Our lockdown came a day after the FBI and ATF warned of a threat at “an unspecified university near Philadelphia.” That threat was posted on 4chan, an anonymous Internet board also used for lesser malfeasances — like uploading celebrity nude photos. More dire was the recent news of shootings in Oregon at Umpqua Community College, which left nine people and the gunman dead — and there would be two more shootings later that week, at Northern Arizona University and Texas Southern University.
For many of my students, guns are a regular part of their lives. I’ve read countless personal narratives of how gun violence affects them: the drive-by casualties, the friends jailed. A beloved cousin who was shot on the sidewalk as a former student watched helplessly from her front steps.
“Can’t you lock the door?” asked the young woman who sits in back. She was in a tight cluster of her peers now.
“The door doesn’t lock,” I told her, feeling helpless.
“Can’t we barricade it?”
I’d already checked. “The door opens into the hall,” I said. “We can’t barricade it from inside.”
In my head I was wryly thinking #ThingsTheyNeverTaughtYouInGradSchool.
I urged my students again to be quiet, to stay away from the door and windows. But crowd-controlling anxious freshmen is like herding cats. I finally received official word about the emergency via a campus robocall to my cellphone a few minutes before 11 a.m.
We waited in our classroom roughly an hour and a half more. I spent that time talking to my students and fielding email messages. One student in my afternoon class wrote: “Is today’s class canceled because of the gunman? I just want to be sure before I don’t show up.” On our projector, my students and I watched a handcuffed suspect being led out of another building. Finally, amid complaints of bursting bladders, I watched my students go.
The class I teach on Tuesdays combines composition with reading across academic disciplines. It’s also a course in acquiring college survival skills. Students are trained in comprehension and learning strategies. We talk about theories of metacognition and how the brain processes and stores data, all in hopes my students apply more effective practices to their studies.
In an age when our very thoughts are increasingly winnowed into hashtags and tweets, I struggle to get my students to become deep thinkers capable of focused, sustained inquiry. I try to keep their attention off cellphones and onto the task at hand. But clearly social media has its place in classroom safety.
Later I learned colleagues in other classrooms had begun text-message chains, comparing notes about what was going on. In conversations since, some instructors say they’d like to see metal detectors at every door. Others groan at the thought of reminding our students there’s one less place they can feel secure.
On Thursday, when my students and I next met, we discussed what happened. We’d read that no gun had been found, that charges had been dropped. The scare seemed to have bonded them.
Our college’s new president held open forums the day after the incident to discuss security. I followed suit, asking my students what they would like to see happen. Already the college is beefing up security, which includes checking IDs at building entryways all day as opposed to after 5 p.m. and on Saturdays, which was the previous standard.
“We need guards with actual guns,” one young man suggested.
Temple and Penn have armed police, I told him, but in all my years at the college I couldn’t recall seeing an armed security guard. “Hiring better security costs money,” I said. “A third of our budget is supposed to come from the city, another third from the state — but that hasn’t been the case. Tuition has to make up the rest. How do we pay for it?”
The young man shrugged. Someone again suggested metal detectors, but others said that would only bottleneck entryways. A couple suggested searching bags and backpacks. It became clear to me that what millennials are willing to concede is different than what I am as a Generation Xer.
To be clear, I am not an institutional spokesperson. I’ll look to the wisdom of my college’s administration about how best to revise policies as threats change in the 21st century. But as a taxpayer and citizen, I want my students to feel secure. One way to help offset budget deficiencies from the city and state might be to dedicate local or state police to cover college security.
Eventually another commotion outside the window caught my students’ attention. Great, I thought. Another interruption.
But it was only a hyperactive squirrel, busy building its winter nest. For a moment, I wondered whether I should call physical plant to see if they could knock the distraction away.
Or should I let the squirrel shelter in place?
Winter’s coming. I hope it stays.
The Community College of Philadelphia was on lockdown on Oct. 6 after a report of a man entering a building with a gun. Philadelphia police later said a suspect was taken into custody but no gun was recovered.
Kelly McQuain is a poet who teaches English and communication arts at Community College of Philadelphia.
NAKED CAME THE CHEESESTEAK is a serial murder mystery written by 13 Philadelphians for Philadelphia Stories magazine. While the novel is designed to be a fun romp, poking fun at the sacrilege of such things as vegan cheesesteaks, it also touches on more serious themes. These include the exploitation of adjunct instructors that college towns like Philly use to staff various campuses. NAKED CAME THE CHEESESTEAK is a wry portrait of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, cuisines, educational institutions and legal systems, all wrapped up in greasy wax paper and shiny aluminum foil.
The idea was cooked up last winter by a handful of writers meeting over wine and chili in a Society Hill townhouse. The story centers on an intrepid Philadelphia detective trying to solve the puzzle of who is poisoning college students at campuses across the city. The novel features a huge cast of flamboyant Philadelphians: an African-American police detective named Chelsea Simon; her bad boy restaurateur husband, Arturo; a crusty, trench coat-wearing news blogger named Ben Travers; the Nicholettis, a sprawling South Philly family with ties throughout the city; and a host of college skate boarders and scullers who get caught up in the malfeasance of the unknown serial killer.
It’s also a portrait of Philadelphia neighborhoods and college campuses. The action takes place in locales as varied as Strawberry Mansion, Allegheny Avenue, Boathouse Row, the Italian Market, Passyunk Avenue and Rittenhouse Square. Murder, mayhem and mystery-solving also takes place at Kelly Writers House at Penn, the Temple University Bell Tower, the Drexel Dragon and more.
The 13-chapter serial novel was written by Philadelphia area writers Diane Ayres, Randall Brown, Mary Anna Evans, Gregory Frost, Shaun Haurin, Victoria Janssen, Merry Jones, Tony Knighton, Don Lafferty, Warren Longmire, Kelly McQuain, Nathaniel Popkin and Kelly Simmons. Edited by Mitch Sommers and Tori Bond.
The novel will be published by the magazine’s books division, PS Books.
That next bite is MURDER! Philly friends, join me and a host of other Philly writers for the kick-off of NAKED CAME THE CHEESESTEAK, a serial murder mystery written by 13 Philadelphians for Philadelphia Stories. The novel will be serialized at their website starting in November. It’s definitely the freakiest fiction project I’ve ever been a part of.
Thursday, November 5 from 7:00pm – 9:00pm
Tattooed Mom, 530 South St, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19147
Join us at the launch party for “Naked Came the Cheesesteak,” a 13-chapter serial novel written by Philadelphia area writers
NAKED CAME THE CHEESESTEAK is a serial murder mystery written by 13 Philadelphians for Philadelphia Stories magazine. The idea was cooked up last winter by a handful of writers meeting over wine and chili in a Society Hill townhouse. The story centers on an intrepid Philadelphia detective trying to solve the puzzle of who is poisoning college students at campuses across the city. The novel features a huge cast of flamboyant Philadelphians: an African-American police detective named Chelsea Simon; her bad boy restaurateur husband, Arturo; a crusty, trench coat-wearing news blogger named Ben Travers; the Nicholettis, a sprawling South Philly family with ties throughout the city; and a host of college skate boarders and scullers who get caught up in the malfeasance of the unknown serial killer. The 13-chapter serial novel was written by Philadelphia area writers Diane Ayres, Randall Brown, Mary Anna Evans, Gregory Frost, Shaun Haurin, Victoria Janssen, Merry Jones, Tony Knighton, Don Lafferty, Warren Longmire, Kelly McQuain, Nathaniel Popkin and Kelly Simmons!
The novel will be published by the magazine’s books division, PS Books.
“How good this week to be reminded how beautiful and alive Philadelphia becomes this time of year.”
Yesterday, driving home from Jersey, John and I stopped by the neighborhood where the Amtrak wreck happened here in Philadelphia. Naturally the cops wouldn’t let us close, but we could see a huge crane arriving on the rail line to move away the damaged cars. Such a sad, neglected area of the city that is. Everyone in the media calls it Port Richmond, but John tells me that little neighborhood is really Harrowgate, centered on the church there, St. Joan of Arc, now closed (that’s how Catholics measure boundaries in this city–by its churches). Harrowgate’s cut off on its own by the El and the NE corridor, sort of like Devil’s Pocket in South Philly. (See the pic below; Harrowgate is circled in yellow). Harrowgate isn’t just weeds and cracked sidewalks, it’s also roofs falling down, houses boarded up–more than the usual grit and grim. But it’s about community, too. Poor blacks and whites and hispanics talking on stoops, their kids playing in streets still roped off by yellow Do Not Enter tape. I understand many of the people in Harrowgate helped the victims right after the wreck. National media didn’t report this, but local media did. The city should use this moment to do something good for that little neighborhood. I think the people deserve it. If you read the Inquirer story, below, you’ll find their lives are in stark contrast to the more-monied people on the train.
This afternoon John and I went two blocks over to the Italian Market to buy food for dinner. That didn’t quite happen. The Italian Market Festival was going on. Every year there’s a Procession of the Saints and the streets fill up with Italians welcoming home relatives, as well as big crowds of the Mexicans and Asians who have arrived here more recently. Black folks, too. And Indians, and foreign tourists. Friendly hipsters with lumbersexual beards and serious neck tattoos. Lesbian couples groovin’ to the DJ playing The Electric Slide. Where else but the Italian Market Festival can you get an old-fashioned sausage and peppers alongside new culinary mashup like a chicken tikka quesadilla? Or rum drinks sipped from real pineapples? Or artisanal honey flavored with chocolate and habaneros?
The Festival is huge this year, larger than I think I’ve ever seen it, stretching up to Fitzwater and down to Federal, with dancing areas and music stages at the intersection of each block. I’d expected to see political candidates glad-handing the crowd in advance of Tuesday’s primaries, but no. Started in ’71, the Festival predates Rocky Balboa and ties in with First Holy Communion at St. Mary Magdalen De Pazzi, where the Procession of the Saints begins after church on Sunday. There’s no longer il palo della cuccagna, the climbing of the greased pole, which once stood 25 feet and was topped with prizes of money and slabs of meat. Yet still the festival is about food, food, food. And music. And laughter. And drinking with friends.
As the rain held off, everything seemed an extra delight. Who cared about the oppressive humidity in the air? In Molly’s Books & Records I watched a family of French audiophiles delight in snapping up a hundred bucks of vintage American vinyl. In the bar John and I sometimes frequent for Bloody-Mary-and-eggs-Benedict brunches, I talked to a young Bucks county blonde about which Philly neighborhood she should move into now that she’s considering her first big city apartment. Down past Washington Avenue, where cheese shops and fruit stands give way to taquerias, John and I dodged cellphone marketers and wobbling beer drinkers. A Mexican woman mixing tequila drinks in the heat shot me a drowsy smile when our eyes caught.
John made me laugh and he made me dance. How good this week to be reminded how beautiful and alive Philadelphia becomes this time of year. I love this city even when it breaks my heart.
For many Europeans, the first week of December is when the holidays truly begin. Today is Dec. 6th, St. NIcholas’s Feast Day in many Catholic and Christian traditions. You probably know St. Nicholas is the saint who inspired Santa Claus–but who is Krampus, you ask? He’s a character from European folklore who accompanies St. Nicholas on Dec. 5th, the night before St. Nicholas’s Feast Day. Sort of a bad cop to St. Nick’s good cop. You can see him in old postcards (greeting cards called Krampuskarten) from Germany and the Swiss Alpine region, where the character can be found frightening bad children the first week of December. Today’s celebrations include parades of schnapps-swilling men in horrific beastly costumes and hordes of partiers snapping pictures on their iPhones. In some countries, the version of the character is accompanied by an angel and a saintly man wearing a mitre hat, as in the pic here.
This was taken on my trip to Prague in 2010, where their version of Krampus is known as Čert, or simply “the devil”. He’s far more tame than his kinsmen in the Alps. You even find him on candy wrappers and puppets there–the Czechs love their puppets!
On Dec. 5th, if you wander through the twinkling lights of Old Town Square–or any other busy throughway in Prague–you are bound to see a strange triumvirate: St. Nicholas (Mikuláš), the Angel (Anděl) who represents Good, and the Devil (Čert) representing Evil, naturally. The devil, or Krampus as he’s known more widely throughout Europe, is often depicted in chains to symbolize Christianity’s conquering of evil (evil generally symbolized as the “other”: various pagan tribes, the Moors–you can take your pick. The Catholic Church has a long history of putting a scary face on anything it sees as “the other”). In fact, the image of a wild, demon-man figure is iterated again and again throughout European folklore, albeit with local variations. For example, here in Pennsylvania, the Amish have a wildman called Belsnickel who is used to frighten children at the holidays (Dwight played him hilariously on The Office TV show a few years ago). I’m convinced these figures share a common source, are manifestations of the same archetype.
In the Czech Republic, these three characters–the angel, the devil and the saint–parade the streets, stopping children and asking them if they were good in the past year. Kids sing a song or recite a short poem and are rewarded with sweets handed out by the angel. As in the Krampus legend, bad kids are to be whipped with birch twigs, put in a sack and carried off to hell. (Don’t worry. That doesn’t happen anymore. Mostly.) I’ve not made it to Germany to meet the actual Krampus, but I feel I’ve gotten to know him a little thanks to his Czech cousin.
Here in Philadelphia, a city that loves to party, to dress up in costumes at Halloween and at New Year’s, the Krampus tradition has been adopted in a celebration of Old World folklore held in Northern Liberties.
Philly’s fourth Krampus parade, or Krampuslauf (Krampus run) is next Saturday. Come for the seasonal food, bonfires, fire dancers, wild costumes, and even wilder Alpine traditions. Bring your cowbells and jingle bells and make some noise. Dress as an angel, St. Nicholas, or your favorite holiday character and get in on the grassroots parade, which is specifically designed to be family-friendly–ie, not too scary. A food truck will be on hand with seasonally themed delicacies. And, of course, Krampus will be there. It’a called the Krampuslauf Parade of Spirits after all, and it will be held at Liberty Lands park at dusk (4:30) on Sat. Dec. 13th, 2014 in Philadelphia. https://www.facebook.com/events/ 1494848880779514/?ref=ts&fref=ts
Philly also has a Santa Claus bar crawl, and–occassionally–a Krampus bar krawl. City Hall is home to a new ice skating rink at Dilworth Plaza, and LOVE Park is home to a holiday village featuring sellers of traditional Christmas ornaments and other handcrafted items. A Dickens Christmas Village draws crowds to Macy’s in Center City, and local choirs and churches have plenty of concerts and services in observance of Christmas. Pay the city a visit! And if you know of other fun holiday traditions in the city, add a comment below.