While wrapping up my book, Legendary Philadelphians of Center City (to be published this spring), I decided that I had to include the story of my friend, Arlene Ostapowicz. While there are "name brand" famous people in the book, the idea is also to include unconventional personalities, even notable eccentrics who are famous via "word of mouth." After all, I don't want the book to be the written version of a tacky TMZ celebrity show. There are many fine people in the "word of mouth fame" category. This brings me to Arlene, who is far less eccentric than she is... talented.
Though not an attorney, singer, artist or writer, Arlene has been a guest on many television and radio shows. In fact, she was once offered a guest spot on Bill Maher's show, Politically Incorrect, but had to decline because the live show was on too late at night. For several years she worked at The Courier Post of New Jersey and as a monthly commentator on an Atlantic City cable TV station. In the 1980s, she was in high demand with City Hall politicians and judges.
Her life as a City Hall consultant started when Councilwoman Joan Krajewski (now deceased) stopped at Arlene's place one day for a session. Krajewski had heard about Arlene's talents via "word of mouth," the most powerful advertising tool there is, and decided it was time for a reading. After the session, Krajewski became a fan and wanted to see Arlene on a regular basis. She liked what Arlene told her, not because it was what she wanted to hear, but because it was accurate stuff. Very soon, word of Arlene's talents, thanks to Krajewski, spread among the vast network inside City Hall, especially among the judges, some of whom contacted Arlene and asked for appointments.
The judges were so eager to see Arlene that they sent limos to her humble house in the city's Wissinoming section to pick her up and drive her back to their chambers. For the judges, the process must have been like ordering a delicious take-out lunch. Once delivered to their chambers, Arlene did her thing, after which she was quietly chauffeured home again. After a few months of this, Krajewski came up with an idea. She asked Arlene if she would see former mayor Frank Rizzo, who was then set on running for a new term as mayor. This was in the 1980s, when Rizzo had his famous radio show. Arlene agreed, and met Rizzo and Krajewski in a South Philadelphia house where the consultations began.
A little segue here: I met Rizzo in the 1980s and remember being awed by the size of the man. The guy was a giant, with hands the size of waffle irons and shoulders as wide as a Broad Street intersection. I was there to interview the man for a Center City newspaper, and was seated in a waiting area at the radio station when Rizzo walked in the room. When I first saw him I assumed he was part of the in-house security team because what I saw resembled a WWE wrestler. The face was unmistakable; however, it was Rizzo. After we shook hands, he led me to a sofa where we sat for the interview. Within minutes we were eyeball-to-eyeball, with the ex-mayor slapping my shoulder and calling me by my first name.
"So this is that magic charisma I've always heard about," I said to myself. The interview was a success.
Arlene never told me what Rizzo asked her, or even what she said to him (it's unprofessional to break confidences), but what went down must have impressed him because the next time he saw her, he said, "If I get elected, I'm going to get you an office in City Hall and put you on the payroll."
How's that for instant enthronement? Arlene was worth it, however. When she was on TV during the Goode administration and the city was on the verge of bankruptcy, she was asked by a reporter if the city would sink or swim, and she said swim, meaning that the federal government would come to the city's rescue at the last minute. She provided other details, of course, and when the prediction came true, there were more limos at her door.
Naturally, you'd think that a woman this talented would charge the moon for consultations, or if not that, then she'd certainly move into an exotic penthouse with busts of Egyptian gods and goddesses, get her hair done every few minutes, and start to strut like a diva. She'd also have to have a press agent who screened calls and booked customers, and then she'd have to hit the lecture circuit, all for a very big fee of course. Our culture, up to its ears in gross materialism, overflows with corruption, whether it is how Philly (house) Sheriff Sales are conducted, how local firehouses are funded, or how "important" people put on airs. Had Arlene allowed her head to swell, she might even have started her own religion, a la Sylvia Brown (RIP). But no, here she was, still in her almost cold water flat in the Northeast with its ramshackle porch doing consultations for the high and mighty, but also for so called "little people," who she says are just as valuable to her.
"I never wanted to be famous," she told me. This was true even when she studied metaphysics in England in 1972 and became an organizer of the Atlantean Society, and then came back to the U.S. to start a chapter here. The chapter studied things like auras and everything related to the paranormal, even possession and exorcisms.
A good many people equate people with a natural gift of prophecy (like Arlene), with the dark side. I don't know where this comes from. Instead of something good, they see sinister shades of Aleister Crowley, Anton Lavey, black magic or Satanic stars. Rather than these monsters, Arlene honors a number of Catholic saints, like Saint Therese of Lisieux. Or you may hear her exclaim how she has a special devotion to the Sacred Heart. She also says the rosary -- she believes in angels, and she sometimes makes believers out of skeptics. She will tell you that St. Thomas was the medium for the 12 apostles, and that the gift of prophecy has always been with the world, from Moses on, and didn't suddenly disappear with the death and resurrection of Christ. This is why she is able to attract people who wouldn't otherwise venture into these realms. Like Jeanne Dixon, who was also a devote Catholic.
Arlene sees no spiritual danger in her work. She wants to exercise her gift for the good of people, even if she wants to get paid, but not too much, for a lot of money inevitably attracts corruption.
All types come to her: real estate agents, crusty businessmen who battle out ugly deals, worried moms and dads, nurses and physicians, judges, politicians and even other talented people who see the future. They all come and want to know. Some ask how she can stand to be so humble and charge so little when she could be sitting on Easy Street.
The Philadelphia Police Department has also come to her, usually in the form of a detective knocking on her door, asking for help to solve a murder or a missing person case. She has worked with the police on many crimes, such as the Dolores Della Penna murder in 1972, the Candace Clothier killing in 1968, as well as far more recent cases.
She told me about her experiences in a possessed house in Bridesburg near All Saints parish. The malevolent presence was so bad that when the home owner tried to get the pastor of All Saints to come by to do some prayers, the poor priest couldn't get up the steps. A force kept pushing him back. With her Atlantean Society friends, Arlene says that she then went into the house and to the troubled room in question where her group formed a circle, held hands and began some prayers when something unbelievable happened. She says that she was pushed all the way across the floor, as if gliding on ice, to the very edge of the stairs.
While there's no way to prove to skeptics who laugh or sneer at the paranormal, those of us who've had a "Ostapowizc" moment, know better.