I don't usually attend City Hall press conferences, but last week I was advised to check out the mayor's 12:30 announcement in Conversation Hall about a new Mormon Church construction project at 16th and Vine Streets. I had about two hours' notice, so I wrapped things up at my desk, dressed appropriately, and headed for City Hall via the 15 bus and the subway.
This was just one day prior to another big snow storm, so the mood on the subway was bleak. Winter-weary faces were everywhere, my own included. On the subway I saw the usual sights: the guy selling cookies for a dollar a pack; the ex-Marine who saw combat in Afghanistan ands wants to return to Oklahoma; the guy who announces, "I am not a drug addict. I am not an alcoholic. I just need your help -- for a simple sandwich." Then there's the guy who announces that he has AIDS and needs rent and food money, not to mention the robed guys selling scents and colognes. Taking the subway these days is a bit like going to the circus -- you never know who is going to stand up and announce what. Traveling to City Hall is almost as much fun as walking into City Hall, especially now, when the usual entrances are blocked by construction.
Before the rehab of City Hall's Dilworth Plaza, there was always a quick way to enter the building, but now that heavy construction has the west portal blocked, it is necessary to walk in the street (if you're coming from Suburban Station) to get to the north portal. No construction site is ever pleasant to look at, unless of course you are an engineer and appreciate seeing the guts of a new building. Walking to the north portal was a chance for me to observe the changes in the plaza, so I studied the new addition, a structure that somehow reminded me of a cheese grater made from white plastic like those white patio chairs one buys from Home Depot or Target. The new structure concerned me, not only because it is ugly but because it didn't look sturdy. It looks like it will age badly; in twenty years it will probably resemble a ruin. At the very least its resemblance to patio furniture put me in mind of summer.
Entering City Hall, for those of you who don't know, requires a show of ID, as well as your signature in a log book, after which you can take the stairs to the second floor (or the elevator if you hate steps). There's a security detail near Conversation Hall, where the mayor's office is also located, so you are "checked" again by security guards. Once passed "the gate," you are free to amble about or look at the grade-school art behind the glass cases in the hall. If you walk a little further, as I did, you might run into a press conference other than the one you're meaning to attend. On a heavy press day, the conferences can occur in clusters.
At any press conference, the broadcast-journalism people always set the tone with their heavy cameras, testing of lights and sounds, and the constant changing and moving of cameras to different angles in the room. Since I arrived early for the 12:30 event, I was constantly changing my seat as different broadcast cameramen (they are usually men) kept moving their cameras about, repeatedly blocking views of the podium. This became an ongoing game of musical chairs, until at last I found a safe haven towards the front, where I didn't think the cameramen would venture. Observing the other journalists assemble in the room, I found it easy to locate the talking heads with their stamped NBC 10 jackets, so reminiscent of Ralph Lauren logos at Macys. Compared with the invisible notepad-holding print journalists, who wore no logo jackets or name tags, and who, for the most part, didn't have identifiable "faces," the broadcasters seemed like First Class Titanic passengers. (Perhaps this is the reason that most journalism-school students today have their sights set on broadcast journalism.)
The big moment comes when the mayor's entourage enters the room. This is a single-file procession of bigwigs, all the usual suspects, in dark, somber suits. Like a chorus line of trained dancers, they know how to assemble themselves around the podium so that they form a "fan" around the speaker. In the mix was a Mormon official or two, although most of the Mormon officials stood off to the side.
The mayor spoke first. He's a good public speaker. I like speakers who are able to make eye contact with the audience. Standing directly beside the mayor was City Council President Darrell L. Clarke in his trademark Clark Kent glasses. Clarke's speaking style isn't as forceful as the mayor's. In fact, it has an "aw shucks" (even shy), self-effacing quality to it, as if speaking in public still pains him on some level. That's not altogether a bad thing. At the Q-and-A, the mayor's tone was politician-sharp. There's a specific style when it comes to delivering one-word answers like a "yes" or a "no." That's making the delivery of these one-word answers sound like the crack of a whip.
I call this "press-conference speak," something that most seasoned politicians have mastered. Clarke is also a very tall man, so seeing him standing beside the mayor made me think -- for the first time, actually -- about the mayor's height.
If you are a reporter at a news conference, you have to be prepared with your question before the Q-and-A is announced. The time allowed for a Q-and-A is short. I like to compare this time to watching people fire guns at a firing range. The same rapid-fire dialogue happens at presidential news conferences. He or she who hesitates is lost.
The big news at this conference was the unveiling of the Mormon Church's redevelopment of the block of 16th and Vine Streets, including the building of a meeting house and a high-rise apartment house. A mammoth project like this caused me to wonder if the LDS Church sees Philadelphia as the Salt Lake City of the east. In all the years that I've lived in the city, I don't think a Mormon missionary has ever knocked on my door.
At the press conference, I wanted to ask Mormon Church officials if there is something special about Philadelphia that appeals to them. Could it be the simple fact that so much of Mormon history happened here?
After leaving City Hall, I headed for the El and another ride home with the ex-Marine talking once more about finding his way back to Oklahoma. Like a boomerang that comes back, the $1-cookie guy was once again making his rounds, but missing were the incense canvassers, the guy with one arm, and the old guy asking for a sandwich, be it liverwurst, cheese or chicken salad.