Monica Yant Kinney: Catching up with their stories

Monica Yant Kinney writes about Ben Harowitz, 13, an 8th grader at Strath Haven middle school in Wallingford, who with some extraordinary help made 30 second public service announcement on bullying which was shown at the school this morning. IN THIS PHOTO Ben Harowitz, left, and his friend Joey Selfrit, who played a part in the film, watch as classmates file into the auditorium to view the PSA on bullying. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer) Jan 27, 2012 yant29 126889

I'm a quick study, but it took a few years of writing columns to realize that I often leave readers with more questions than answers. I flit from subject to subject, but you're stuck at home wondering "Hey, whatever happened to" a person whose story touched you months earlier.

I seek amends each December with a pair of columns slowing down and catching up. I give top billing today to Ben Harowitz because, well, he earned it.

One year ago, the Swarthmore middle-schooler was a bullying victim sick of suffering in silence. A few weeks ago, he debuted on the Disney Channel in a short-form documentary called  "Make Your Mark."

I shadowed Harowitz at Strath Haven Middle School the day the young filmmaker debuted his public-service announcement, "STOP" (http://ph.ly/stop), in sobering student assemblies.

The slick, unsparing commercial - conceived and directed by the teenager, produced with the help of family friends in the industry - led to invitations to speak at a bullying conference at the University of Pennsylvania. When "STOP" was nominated for a local advertising award, Harowitz's parents had to sign a permission slip allowing him to attend the adult gala.

Over the summer, a Los Angeles film crew spent two days filming Harowitz for the Disney Channel series spotlighting inspirational young people.

In the nearly two-minute segment - watch at http://ph.ly/ben - he discusses filmmaking as therapy. "This is the way I see my world," he says, "and I want to share it with everyone."

Line producer Jaycen Armstrong felt honored to document Harowitz's resilience.

"Ben's an extraordinary kid," he says, "especially given all the garbage he had to put up with."

Harowitz, now a 14-year-old freshman tenor sax player marching for Strath Haven High School, says he's still hearing from classmates and strangers who want to talk about being bullied or to apologize for being a bully. That's empowering, but he'd rather stay behind the camera, not in front of one.

"It's really weird to see myself," he admits. "It's kind of hard to watch."

 

Still fighting for privacy

Shirley Sobel is happy to stop crunching numbers when I call. The 74-year-old Center City retiree is planning next year's budget. She's hoping it won't involve rent increases or a forced move.

Sobel has dwelled in apartments longer than I've been alive, spending the last 25 years in the Sterling, a high-rise owned by a corporate outfit called AIMCO. We met in May, when she alerted me to an alarming nationwide development: direct debit policies in which landlords demand access to renters' bank accounts. Those who refuse can be fined or ousted.

Call her a Luddite, but Sobel likes writing checks and cherishes her privacy. "To be forced to let a third party take money out of your account every month?" Sobel fretted. "That's scary."

Sobel was elated when State Rep. Babette Josephs introduced legislation that would have prohibited landlords from requiring direct debit, but the bill died and Josephs lost reelection. Tenant groups hope another politician will take up the case next year.

Sobel suspects she paid a price for speaking out after a plan to replace her carpet never materialized. She won a one-year reprieve to keep paying by paper, but suspects she'll face a tough decision when her lease comes up for renewal next summer.

"There was a slot in our mail room where we put our checks," she reports. "Just this week, they covered it up with duct tape. I saw the guy doing it."

 

Lincoln lives

In September 2011, I wrote about an odd act of diplomatic disrespect: Philadelphia's refusal to accept an 800-pound, 8-foot Abraham Lincoln as imagined by a renowned Chinese sculptor.

The strangely swashbuckling statue by contemporary artist Yuan Xikun was a surprise gift to the city during the 2009 celebration of Lincoln's 200th birthday. After brief display in City Hall, Lincoln wound up on a loading dock at Freeman's, where auction experts doubted his selling power. They remained cool on the piece's potential value even after learning that in 2010, a bronze tiger by Yuan set a Chinese record, selling for $483,000.

In February, I sat through the sale at which Lincoln was the last lot among 309 paintings and prints. Across the room, Matthew E. Schwartz had also been waiting patiently.

The international art dealer from Cherry Hill was prepared to spend up to $25,000. The bidding began and ended at $550. Schwartz was the only taker.

"He's in an undisclosed location in South Jersey," Schwartz tells me when I seek Lincoln's current coordinates. "He's sitting in the dark in storage. He's perfectly fine."

Schwartz hired a team of 10 to relocate Abe from Center City across the Ben Franklin Bridge into the Garden State. The intensely private dealer never put the piece on the market yet has still fielded "splendid offers" from businesses wanting to buy the president rendered in fiberglass and wrought iron.

None yet have felt right, even though he knows he could ship Lincoln to Hong Kong and command upward of $1 million from rabid Yuan fans.

"It's a master work honoring Lincoln and his foresight and vision," Schwartz insists. "Imagine this on a six-foot granite pedestal. It's public art meant for a lobby. It needs to be seen in a significant home."

 


Contact Monica Yant Kinney

at 215-854-4670, myant@phillynews.com,

or @myantkinney on Twitter.