Emily Guendelsberger Emily is senior staff writer at Philadelphia City Paper. She enjoys writing about feminism, opera, television, arts ecosystems, music theory, people with weird jobs and pretty much everything involving money. You can also find her writing at the A.V. Club, the Guardian and other fine publications.
If you’re searching for an answer, books are pretty trustworthy, but less likely to answer your question. The Internet makes answers easy to find, but they’re of dubious quality. Actual human interaction — asking someone who knows — is a happy medium from the oldest of schools, but who has time for human interaction? The Free Library is making time this Wednesday, June 20, with Living Library. They’ve recruited dozens of experts on various topics who will be making themselves available for 15-minute “checkout” slots during the free evening.
We spoke to some of the available “living books,” including a homicide detective, a nontheist activist, a master homebrewer, a musician and teacher, a photographer and a scientist who studies smell and taste. Each was so much more interesting than fits in this space, but here are a few excerpts, along with a book recommendation for someone who wants to know what each person’s job is really like. Or you could just go check them out yourself.
What do you do, Nancy Rigberg?
I own Home Sweet Homebrew and I teach people to make beer.
Where does that skunky taste come from?
You know when you go to a bottle shop and you see those big cases with the fluorescent lighting and the clear glass? (The bottle shops are going to hate me for this.) When you’re buying takeout beer from a case, don’t ever take the front six-pack. Take the ones that aren’t directly exposed to the light, because light is the enemy — light and heat. Beer, while sturdy, is not indestructible.
Is it gauche to bring a nice bottle of beer to an expensive BYO?
There are a lot of food pairings that don’t match up with wine at all where beer marries beautifully! Salads, anything with acidity, asparagus, chocolate — beer goes better with chocolate than red wine does.
Read: Brewing Up a Business: Adventures in Entrepreneurship from the Founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery by Sam Calagione
We remember Sam when he was just a little Dogfish, not the big Dogfish he is now! [Laughs.] Otherwise, Where the Wild Things Are! It’s kind of like herding cats, herding brewers.
What do you do, Margaret Downey?
I’m a social activist representing the nontheist community [atheists, agnostics and more] and the founder of the Freethought Society.
You had a near-death experience that didn’t affect your lack of belief in a higher power?
Yes — I was deprived of oxygen after a surgical procedure. I floated above the bed and saw the nurse’s station and looked back and I was there, choking. I started walking toward a bright light, and at the end of the tunnel was my dear departed Uncle Floyd. He died when I was 16; he had been my mentor through my teenage years and taught me to ask a lot of questions about the world. [He was also an atheist.] As I was walking toward him, I was revived.
Rather than thinking of it as super-natural, I started researching and it boiled down to this: We are human animals that all experience the same thing when we are deprived of oxygen. That sense of floating is a symptom of what’s happening to your brain. When you see someone you’ve missed, who has died … your brain has a memory, and of course you want to see that person again. I never had any mystical attachment to it; I knew science could — and did — explain it.
Read: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
I’d also recommend One Woman’s Fight by Vashti McCollum, who fought to get the reading of the Bible stopped in schools all the way to the Supreme Court. The book was written in the 1940s, but it’s still compelling and wonderful.
What do you do, Tim Scally?
I’m a detective in the Philadelphia Police Department assigned to the homicide unit.
Is the “CSI effect” real?
We deal with it all the time with juries. All the time. They want to see it projected on a big screen, they want fingerprints, they want DNA, they want the smoking gun — most of the time, we don’t have that. We have a lot of witness testimony, and we don’t get our witnesses out of central casting.
Does any show get some details right?
The First 48 is the closest to what we do. But they have their own desk, their own car — that’s a reality show, but we’re a bigger department, we don’t have the same things. Another is The Wire, when two [detectives] get a car key and go out to the car lot, and the car’s not there. And that is so true.
Why do you think some people talk to you instead of a lawyer after you’ve read them their rights?
[Deadpan.] I think it’s my bubbly personality. No, I think it’s conscience.
I don’t think there is a book. I don’t think anybody could write this stuff.
What do you do, Sarah Stolfa?
I’m the executive director of the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center.
You won a New York Times contest with a series of portraits of customers you had bartending at McGlinchey’s. What’s the best way to ask if you can take someone’s picture?
Nicely! [Laughs.] Just be direct, and respect when somebody says no.
Did many people say no?
Oh, yeah. [Laughs.] There was one woman I really wanted to photograph — I mostly worked and photographed at nights, but I’d sometimes go in during the day, and there’s a different cast of characters during the day at McGlinchey’s. There was one woman I wanted to photograph, but she said no, that her husband would know where she went for lunch.
Read: The Americans by Robert Frank
Between 1954 and 1956, Robert Frank drove around on a Guggenheim fellowship and photographed the country: the people, the landscape, icons of the culture. We were coming off an Ansel Adams understanding of what black-and-white photography was; these pictures were dark and gritty, showing banal moments of life and major cultural tensions. At the time, it was a major shift; it challenged not just how pictures looked, but what we took pictures of.
What do you do, Beverly Cowart?
I study the chemical senses of humans at the Monell Center.
Can babies taste everything adults can?
Babies can taste sweet, sour and bitter at birth; they have an innate rejection of bitter and sour and preference for sweetness. Newborns don’t appear to respond to salt, though; if you drop some in their mouths, there’s no reaction. After about three months, they start to exhibit a preference for salt.
Do you know why yet?
We don’t, actually. The field has made tremendous progress in the past 10 or 12 years in understanding sweet and bitter, but the salt receptor has not been specifically identified.
Read: What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life by Avery Gilbert
What do you do, Stanford Thompson?
I’m the CEO of Play On, Philly!, which is an after-school music program inspired by El Sistema [the highly respected music-education program for Venezuelan children of all economic classes]. We currently engage 110 kids in West Philadelphia for three hours of music instruction after school five days a week, 40 weeks a year.
How do you talk kids into choosing less-popular instruments?
More kids want to play violin and trumpet; they aren’t as interested in things like French horn and viola. But it’s not that hard. Most of the time, we just hold up a French horn and say how handsome and noble it looks: “We really need responsible people on an instrument like that.” It’s kind of reverse psychology.
Read: Evenings With the Orchestra by Hector Berlioz
It’s hilarious. Berlioz has all these stories of what would really go on in the pit of an opera orchestra. They would come in without any pants on, because everyone could only see them from the chest up; or they would be taking shots while counting rests, or playing poker. I wish more people realized classical musicians are pretty normal people.
Wed., June 20, 7-8:30 p.m., free, Free Library, Central Branch, 1901 Vine St., Room 108, 215-686-5415, freelibrary.org/livinglibrary.
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