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Filed Under: default || By jt3y

August 31, 2004 | Link to this story

Hamsters Steel Themselves for Election Battle

Category: default || By jt3y

As a big fan of "Bloom County" back during the late paleozoic era, I've been faithfully reading Berke Breathed's new Sunday-only comic strip, "Opus" (it runs in the Post-Gazette locally), in the hope that it would eventually be funny. I had almost given up until this week's episode, when Pittsburgh's favorite press critic made an appearance, along with Dick Cheney ... in a hamster suit, no less. I actually laughed out loud.

Give Breathed credit; unlike Garry Trudeau, he actually draws caricatures of the people he's lampooning, and not waffles or feathers. In this case, by the way, it wasn't so much a caricature of Teresa Kerry as it was character assassination.

There's more on Yawn Kerry and his daughter's hamster at the Hamsters for Kerry Web site.

A tip of the Tube City Online hard hat for the Hamsters for Kerry info to StuntViolist, who asks, "What if rodents were involved in American politics?"

What do you mean, if?


Speaking of hard hats, I respect Professor Pittsblog, but he's talking out of his hat. He was piqued recently when a guest speaker at a professional association was given a Steeler hard hat as a token of gratitude:

Here's what I see when I look at the Steeler hard hat ... I see a tribute to two industries --- steel and mining --- which have their best days behind them. I see an idealization of Pittsburgh's history. Does it hold Pittsburgh back to say that this is still a steel town, even metaphorically? Ask your friends around the country and around the world about their impressions of Pittsburgh. Are they good ones? I hope so. Are those positive associations based on the history (and continuing presence) of steel? I'd like to know the answer, but I'd wager that the answer is no.

Well, here's what I see when people tell Pittsburghers to "put steel behind them": "Yes, steelworkers and all that, look, that was a long time ago, and really, who wants to associate with such a group of lower-class ruffians like steelworkers, much less commemorate them?"

That's one small step up from "Those steelworkers were a bunch of blue-collar greedy buffoons," which I heard a lot when I was growing up. And that's just one short step removed from, "Those dumb ignorant hunkies, who do they think they are?"

Sorry. Maybe I'm over-reacting. But it gets my Irish (or is that Hungarian?) up. You're telling me that what my grandfathers and father did to build America wasn't worthwhile, and that they didn't do anything to make this country great, and that I should forget about it. I take that very personally. Setting aside the obvious --- that Pennsylvania steel built the great buildings, bridges and ships of the world for nearly a century --- the leadership of steelworkers and coal miners made possible such "radical" concepts as overtime pay, paid vacations and holidays, and health insurance. Those didn't exist until men and women struck for their rights, often at great personal risk to themselves. And don't forget the impact that Big Steel had on the northern migration of African-Americans to Pennsylvania in search of a better life; the steel companies pitted whites and blacks against one another, hiring blacks to break strikes by white steelworkers and helping to solidify racist attitudes that still exist to this day.

We're supposed to get past that? We're still living with the consequences of decisions that happened 50, 75 or 100 years ago. How can we expect to move forward without understanding what happened in the past?

Remembering history, and understanding it, is not the same as "idealizing" it. I'd agree that too many Pittsburghers live in the past --- the continued success of classic rock radio stations is evidence enough of that --- but too few of them remember their history. That history includes steel and coal, just as the history of New England includes the American Revolution (or should we rename the New England "Patriots," too?), and we should be doing a better job of teaching it to our young people. Right now, most young Pittsburghers have little more than a vague awareness that there was such a thing called the steel industry, but no real memories of what life was like in the days of Big Steel. Maybe they think the decaying buildings on the riverfronts in Duquesne and Our Fair City were built as ruins.

Good on the Rivers of Steel Heritage Project for what it's doing in Homestead to teach people about the impact of the steel industry. It's a shame that the Carnegie Museums have been so busy over the years building monuments to their wealthy patrons that they never thought to build a museum explaining how the patrons got wealthy in the first place. Instead, they built a museum for Andy Warhol --- whose most creative and groundbreaking period lasted about 15 years, and whose art will be all but forgotten 100 years from now, when Pittsburgh steel is still holding up bridges and buildings around the world.

That doesn't mean "idealizing" the steel industry; just because I think the era of big steel was crucial to Western Pennsylvania and American history doesn't mean that I'm pining for the days of choking smog and rivers that ran thick with pollution.

But without steel and coal, Western Pennsylvania would still be wilderness. Telling us to "get past" that is like trying to conceal the unpleasant parts of history because they're inconvenient, and frankly, I find it a little snobbish.

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August 30, 2004 | Link to this story

Bumping and Grinding (My Teeth) To The News

Category: default || By jt3y

(More of my tedious, namby-pamby, couch-potato views on national politics here; skip to the end for local stuff.)

I swore I wasn't going to become the kind of whiny liberal who works himself or herself into a foaming, teeth-gnashing frenzy every time Dubya shows up on television. (For one thing, I'm not that liberal ... although I am plenty whiny.) But lately, I've noticed myself tensing whenever the President begins to speak on radio or TV.

I used to root for him: "Come on! You can do it! You can finish that sentence!" Now, I just want to yell at him: "Stop smirking! What's so funny, anyway! Stop it!" This morning, I woke up to AP Radio News on WMBS; they were playing excerpts of the President making a campaign speech in West Virginia. I almost fell out of bed, diving for the off switch.

As I got dressed, my reaction started to bother me, and I couldn't figure out what quality of his voice was annoying me so much. We've had Southerners in the White House before --- Carter and Clinton, for instance --- and their accents didn't bother me like this. It isn't necessarily the content of what he says, either; I can listen to Cheney and Wolfy and Rummy and Condi (good Lord, I don't remember who pointed this out first, but it does sound like the cast of the Little Rascals), saying the same things as Dubya, and not get aggravated. And I can read excerpts of the President's speeches without grinding my teeth (usually).

So what about the sound of Dubya drives me to the brink?

A friend finally put his finger on it for me this morning: "His tone is condescending."

Eureka. That's it. He speaks with the cadences of an impatient Sunday school teacher trying to explain the story of Noah and the ark to a roomful of fidgety, slightly-stupid fourth-graders. He speaks in short, declarative sentences, and he bites them off at the end abruptly, as if to say, "This is so simple, if only you weren't too thick to understand."

You can tell me almost anything, but don't talk down to me. Nothing brings me out of my cage snarling and clawing like someone talking to me as if I'm daft.

Aw, maybe I'm reading too much into this. I probably am. I know this much: I usually like to listen to KQV and NPR during the day, but with this being the week of the Republican National Convention, I'm sticking to music at work, and CDs in the car and at home. I don't know if I can take a week full of smugness.

My dental work will thank me.


Update: I made the mistake of listening to the 1 p.m. news, which had a soundbite from the President saying that we can't win the war on terrorism. Here's the quote, courtesy of NBC News, which aired an interview with the President on the "Today" show: "I don't think you can win it. ... But I think you can create conditions so that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world."

Now, who was it going around saying that the war on terror could be won with "decisive action"?

Oh, yes. It was the President of the United States, during the 2004 State of the Union Address.

Flip-flop what?

Now you see why I'm trying to avoid the news this week.


While we're on the subject: The second headline today on the official White House home page is "President George W. Bush's Record of Achievement: President George W. Bush's first term has been among the most consequential and successful in modern times."

Pardon the heck out of me, but should my tax dollars be spent to promote the re-election of incumbent office holders? There's not much about that headline or the qualifiers "most consequential and successful" that's value-neutral.

Of course, I'm also not sure that the official White House home page should have a photo every day of the President's dog, Barney, but it does.

At least Barney doesn't talk down to the audience. Oh, he may whiz on a few trees now and then, but don't we all?


Dave Copeland is trying to drum up traffic and interest in his new project, Freelance Daily, a spot for tips and leads about freelance writing.

Nice try, Copeland, but Tube City Almanac doesn't dish out links quite so easily! Ha ha!


Also via Copeland: Do you have your Halloween costume yet? How about sending you child out dressed as a pimp or a prostitute? (Maybe the Prez has something after all when he talks about promoting "family values.")

The one I found truly amusing was the costume described as "nutty tourist." It apparently consists of a Hawaiian shirt, baggy shorts, straw hat, and a plastic lei.

No offense, but if you can't scrounge those items up without paying $31.99 for a Halloween costume, you shouldn't be allowed to operate a toaster without supervision, much less a computer.


Fallowfield Township supervisors have voted 2-to-1 against continuing negotiations with Charleroi and other communities about a Mon Valley regional police department, reports Scott Beveridge in Friday's Observer-Reporter. (The O-R's links expire quickly, so you'll have to search for the story if you want to read it yourself.)


Thursday's edition of The Valley Mirror had a story about the history of Chiodo's Bar in Homestead, and its predecessors. The building, according to Linda and John Asmonga, dates to 1895, and the original owner was Frederick Trautman, who operated a bar and hotel there. Trautman's Hotel had a reputation as one of the best on Eighth Avenue (there were 45 hotels in Homestead in 1906, the article says.)

During Prohibition, the building operated as a speak-easy, the Asmongas write. With 57 years of service, Chiodo's Tavern is the longest operating business in the building ... and it looks as if it will be the last.

(The Mirror doesn't put stories online; you'll have to go get a "DTE" --- "dead tree edition" --- in one of the Woodland Hills or Steel Valley communities to see for yourself.)

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August 27, 2004 | Link to this story

DVDs Fuel a Nostalgia Trip

Category: default || By jt3y

I want to apologize to everyone this week on whom I've been inflicting references to Guy Caballero, Count Floyd, Johnny La Rue, Edith Prickley, Lola Heatherington and others. In fact, I'd just like to say that I apologize to everyone who ever knew me, or met me, or wanted to meet me.

Whoops! There I go again. Well, I'm sorry about that, but what would you rather have, this Web page or soccer? Hours and hours of soccer? Liverpool versus Hampshire. Some guy bouncing a ball off of his head.

Darn! I did it again.

Well, I have an explanation. Recently, I did something I swore I'd never do: I bought a DVD set of an old television show. My feeling is, why buy a box set of "M*A*S*H" or "I Love Lucy" or "The Simpsons" when those shows air for free over and over and over again?

But in this case, the show I bought hasn't been seen on TV much at all since its original run ended 20 years ago ... and wasn't seen that much, frankly, in the first place. It's "SCTV," the low-budget syndicated parody of network television, filmed in Canada by some very talented comedians from The Second City improv troupe in Toronto. It had a brief run on NBC and Cinemax before sinking beneath the waves.

My love of "SCTV" is such that I bought the box set --- nine episodes from the start of the NBC run, plus interviews with the cast --- even though I gave away my DVD player some time ago. Last week, as a reward to myself for getting the new house settled (somewhat), I went to Sears and bought a no-frills DVD player, and I've been working my way through the box set, trying to pace myself, one episode at a time.

It hasn't been easy. I first saw "SCTV" during a family vacation to Niagara Falls. I had to be about 9 years old. It was a episode in which the ghosts of old television shows haunt SCTV, a fictional, low-budget television network somewhere out in the prairies of Canada (in reality, the series was mostly filmed at an independent station in Edmonton, Alberta). I didn't even get many of the references in the episode, but it was just bizarre, compelling, and funny.

I remember being particularly a little chilled by the closing scene, in which the voice of Jackie Gleason --- played by John Candy --- emanates from a discarded TV tube in a garbage can. A quick search of one of the many, many Web sites devoted to "SCTV" reveals that this episode was called "Sweeps Week," and originally aired in 1983. It also won an Emmy for best writing, and was nominated for two others.

For several years after, I would sneak out at 2 or 3 a.m. to catch SCTV reruns that aired on WPGH. I had to watch with the volume turned down really, really low to keep from waking my parents. (Note to any of my elementary school and junior high teachers who might read this: Now you know why I seemed so tired Tuesday through Friday mornings.)

Anyway, I was reluctant to order the DVDs in part because I was worried that the show wouldn't hold up. I used to like a lot of things when I was 12 years old ... BMX bikes, Chevy Monte Carlos, classic rock ... what if "SCTV" turned out to be not as good as I remembered?

I shouldn't have worried. If anything, it's better, because I understand the cultural references now.

Don't be mistaken: "SCTV" is an acquired taste, its ratings were abysmally low, and it had difficulty getting distribution. The sets are cheap and flimsy, and the makeup is nearly amateurish in some cases --- it's nowhere near the productions standards that even "Saturday Night Live" had during the late '70s.

But if you can stick with "SCTV," you'll find it much more nuanced than "SNL," and it takes on much more obscure targets --- Swedish films, Canadian quiz shows and O. Henry short stories were all subjects of "SCTV" parodies, for cripes sakes! --- and trusts the audience to be smart enough to get the jokes (or at least tolerant enough to play along).

The fictional SCTV network depended heavily on cheap made-for-TV knockoffs of popular movies; thus "Chinatown" became "Polynesiantown" (remember when Polynesian and Hawaiian cuisine was popular?) and the Jason Robards comedy "Melvin and Howard" became "Melvin and Howards" --- in which besides Howard Hughes, milkman Melvin Dummar also gives a ride to Howard Cosell, Howard Baker and Curly Howard of the Three Stooges.

Some of the stuff requires a heavy knowledge of '70s and '80s pop culture: Rick Moranis' running character of Gerry Todd, the music video disc jockey, is much funnier when you know that music videos barely existed then, and that MTV wouldn't go on the air for another three years. You have to remember smarmy '70s talk shows like those hosted by Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas to appreciate the swingin' hipsters on SCTV's "The Sammy Maudlin Show."

Perhaps because the budget was so tight, unlike "SNL," "SCTV" didn't specialize in celebrity impersonations, though the ones that did appear were dynamite. Dave Thomas' Bob Hope is incredible, and Moranis' Woody Allen is frighteningly accurate. (The two team up for an "SCTV" take off of Allen's "Play it Again, Sam" in "Play it Again, Bob," which also features Joe Flaherty as Bing Crosby.) This DVD doesn't include Eugene Levy's deadpan Perry Como, singing the hits while lying on a couch, barely conscious. But it does have John Candy's Orson Welles, doing a Christmas special with Dave Thomas' Liberace. It has to be seen to be believed.

For Pittsburghers, an added treat is watching for the Western Pennsylvania references that Joe Flaherty and his brother, Paul, were constantly sneaking into the scripts, like this station ID: "This is the SCTV Television Network ... Channel 3 in Pittsburgh, Cable 102 in Blawnox." At one point, horror movie host Count Floyd introduces a movie called "Blood-Sucking Monkeys from West Mifflin, Pennsylvania," only to find out that SCTV doesn't have the film.

In fact, Flaherty has freely admitted that the Count Floyd character and his show, "Monster Chiller Horror Theater," were spoofs of erstwhile Channel 11 weatherman and announcer "Chilly" Bill Cardille, and his late-night horror movie show, "Chiller Theater." (Like Cardille in real life, the fictional Count Floyd had to pull other shifts around the station; he was the co-anchor of the SCTV News.)

Watching "SCTV" is a little bittersweet, too. These are talented folks, but for some of them, "SCTV" was the highlight of their careers. Dave Thomas hasn't done much other than a recurring role on the so-so sitcom "Grace Under Fire." Catherine O'Hara --- now 50 but still a knockout --- is doing bit parts and voices for cartoons. (Her biggest role post-"SCTV" was probably as the mother in "Beetlejuice.") Rick Moranis seems to be typecast as a nebbish in family films.

Others have done better; Gene Levy is in demand for character roles. Andrea Martin is doing voiceovers and stage work. Only two "SCTV" stars went on to have big careers, by Hollywood standards --- Martin Short and John Candy --- and Candy's career was very uneven. For every light classic that he did, like "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," "Only the Lonely" and the under-appreciated "Delirious," he turned out an execrable piece of garbage like "Wagons East," his last film. It's also sad to watch Candy knowing that he's now been dead for 10 years.

But over all, I have to say that the first "SCTV" box set was a good five dollars' worth of entertainment for me and my whole family, eh? I can barely wait for Volume 2, even if no one gets blowed up real good.


In other stories, demolition derby is all fun and games until someone gets T-boned in a Plymouth Horizon, reports Rebekah Scott in the Post-Gazette:

Ambulances stand by at each event, and officials stop all action when a driver is hurt. If he's knocked unconscious, they summon a medical helicopter, said Chairman Chuck Sheffler. Each car is inspected before the race to ensure it's reinforced or cut apart at appropriate spots for fire-dousing and driver safety. Harnesses, seat belts and helmets are required at each race, but injuries aren't unheard of.

At a late July race in New Alexandria, as firefighters cut drivers out of their smashed-together pickups, the track announcer reassured the crowd that the injuries are "nothing out of the ordinary. We Life Flight somebody out of here every few weeks, and they're back up and out here again in time for the championships."

Olson said regulating the sport might spoil the fun, or even eliminate the races altogether.

If people want to smash into one another in a muddy field for the amusement of the locals, that's their business. But having attended several demolition derbies, I can't think of any more useless way to spend my time (other than writing free essays about the Mon Valley on the Internet). If I want to see rattletrap cars banging into each other, I'll hang out in the parking lot of the North Versailles Wal-Mart.

And I'm too much of a car buff not to cringe when I see some old '70s Chrysler Imperial or '60s Lincoln Continental getting smashed into smithereens.

"I hope the guy is OK," writes my Washington County correspondent (and demolition derby fan) Tom S. "But quite honestly, driving a Horizon on the road is dangerous. Driving one in a demolition derby is pure insanity."


Sick of the Swift Boat Veterans yet? Washington Monthly has the scoop on who these "veterans" really are ... and questions why the same people who are criticizing Yawn Kerry, the senator from Monotonous, were praising him as recently as 1996. (Link via Eric Zorn.)


To do this weekend: McKeesport Little Theater, 1614 Coursin Street, presents "Clue: The Musical," running Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Sept. 12. Call (412) 673-1100 for ticket prices and times.

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August 26, 2004 | Link to this story

Pun For All as Borough Celebrates 100 Years

Category: default || By jt3y

I used to cover Wall (population 727) for The Daily News and the Trib. When I started to attend borough council meetings, some of the officials were taken aback --- no one had paid any attention to them for years --- but very friendly and accommodating. (One official in a neighboring community complained because I was writing stories about Wall. "Who cares about them?" he asked me. "People who live there," I said. "Besides, they pay 35 cents for their paper, just like you do.")

Anyway, Susan Schmeichel of the Trib has been paying attention, too: She reports that Wall is about to celebrate its centennial with a street fair Sept. 25.

I guess that will include events at the Wall Municipal Building, also known as the Wall Hall. There's going to be a musical guest at the Wall Centennial; sadly, it isn't Diana Krall, although Diana Krall at the Wall Hall in the Fall would be a ball (I think Krall is a doll, even in Wall), because Wall Hall is nice in the Fall, though if it's cold, wear a shawl.

Now, if they ever build a mall behind the Wall Hall, it would be the Wall Hall Mall. Unfortunately, traffic would stall to a crawl.

If Wall ever got into a war with Wilmerding, they'd have to build a protective barrier: Would it be the Great Wall of Wall?

OK, I'll stop.


Except that I always wondered what would have happened if Wall and Wilmerding had merged. Would the new town be "Wallmerding"?

I was partial to "Wilmerwall," myself.


Yesterday, I wrote about how Our Fair City has traditionally gone to great lengths to distance itself from Pittsburgh.

According to a visitor to the Pittsburgh Radio Nostalgia message board, known only as "KW," the anti-Pittsburgh sentiment even extended to one of Our Fair City's two radio stations, WMCK (which later became WIXZ and is now known as WPTT).

Despite a relatively poor signal, KW contends that WMCK had a chance (in those days before FM radio was prominent) to compete with Pittsburgh's Top 40 stations, especially KQV:

The 1958 version of the "Mighty 1360" did 'needle' KQV. It was programed by Legendary Dick Lawrence, and featured on-air talent including Jim White (KMOX), Lou Janis (KQV), Bill Lynch, Jay Morton, Herb Allen and ex-vaudavillian Pat Haley, who'd been the Program Manager at KDKA long before any of us were born. In addition, the station also boasted Cathy Milton. Overnights, the station used an 'automated' Seburg Juke Box, operated by the transmitter engineer, who would 'insert' jingles, spots etc. The overnight program had it's own jingle, "Nightwatch." The jocks at the stations used to promote it as "The Mechanical Monster." This "Mighty 1360" automated overnight far preceeded WHOT's automated "Big Al Knight Show."

According to what was related to me by Haley and Morton, orginally, Lawrence wanted to use the call letters WPGH, which having been abandoned by WILY/WEEP, were available. The local McKeesport merchants who, in 1958, owned the station would have none of that. So, Lawrence just called it "Mighty 1360," and used the "MCK" call letters, buried only in a legal ID jingle.

The primary "merchant" who owned WMCK in those days was the late Robert M. Cox, owner of Cox's Department Stores, who was one of the Mon-Yough area's greatest boosters in the 1950s.

WMCK went on to boast the legendary (some say notorious) record promoter and host Terry Lee, and later (as WIXZ), a DJ named Rush Limbaugh (he called himself "Jeff Christie" in those days).


I regularly drive through the thick chemical stink that settles over West Elizabeth, and wonder how residents tolerate it. Apparently, they aren't. Beth Hope-Cushey writes in the Post-Gazette that they're going to form a "bucket brigade" this weekend to sample the air quality.


Speaking of Elizabeth, fellow CMU grad (though he graduated later than I did) and Mon Valley denizen Brad Grantz, who's running for the state house against David Levdansky, is blogging his campaign.

Of course, the "Son of Sam" killer, David Berkowitz, also has a blog. Eeek.


It had nothing to do with the Mon-Yough area, but I really enjoyed this story by Al Lowe in the Post-Gazette:

Alice Giles had always told her relatives, which include one surviving child, 17 grandchildren, 31 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild, that the one thing she wanted to do before she died was to ride on the back of a firetruck.

"They don't even let us do that anymore," said Chuck Cook, acting fire company president.

So riding in the front with driver Jim Smith was the next best thing.

It's no Pulitzer candidate, but it is well-written, and it left me happy.


Forecasters are predicting snow in hell, while pigs will fly and hail will fall from a clear blue sky and burn as fire upon the ground.

Or something like that. In any event, former New Yorker editor Tina Brown has finally written something witty and trenchant in her column for The Washington Post:

Bob Dole's nasty swipe at John Kerry's war wounds this week made you understand why Viagra has been losing market share to Cialis. The sight of that bitter old face piling on to protest that Kerry did not bleed enough is instant detumescence.

For another take on the same topic, see Ann Telnaes' syndicated editorial cartoon.


Speaking of editorial cartoons, Alert Reader Jonathan passed along this L.A. Times story about the decline of newspaper cartoons nationally. Some newspapers are dropping their cartoonists to save money.

In addition, some cartoonists have taken the edge off of their cartoons to keep from offending readers. Rather than the rock-'em-sock-'em hard-edged style of Pat Oliphant and Paul Conrad, more and more editorial cartoonists are doing "gag" cartoons with easy punchlines. I'd call that the Jay Leno school of political humor: Make fun of Bush's speech patterns or Kerry being "boring," but don't do substantive jokes based on their avowed policies.

It's not a new trend; left-leaning cartoonists Mike Konopacki and Gary Huck (who lives in Pittsburgh) made the same points in a forum at the old pump house in Homestead last year.

Pittsburgh is lucky to have three editorial cartoonists: Tim Menees and Rob Rogers at the Post-Gazette and Randy Bish at the Tribune-Review. I like all three, though Rogers and Bish often reach for easy gags --- too often for my taste. But they're also widely-reprinted --- Rogers regularly turns up in Newsweek, while Bish's toons often appear in The Christian Science Monitor, whose own cartoonist won the Pulitzer recently --- so the gags must be popular. Menees' cartoons have become very iconoclastic over the years; I find his occasional exercises in visual storytelling (his trip a few years ago on a riverboat, for instance) even better than his daily cartoons.

In the suburbs, the Observer-Reporter and other papers sometimes print Tim Hartman's cartoons, which are usually local and frequently very biting. He's also a good caricaturist (his Ed Rendell is particularly strong).

Lee Adam Herold used to do cartoons for the Valley Independent in Monessen, but lately he seems to be concentrating his efforts on his very gruesome and dark comic, "Chopping Block".

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August 25, 2004 | Link to this story

The Best of Towns, The Worst of Towns, Part 2

Category: default || By jt3y

Utne Reader, for the uninitiated, is the liberal analogue to Reader's Digest (an appropriate analogy, given RD's sometime penchant for right-wing pulpit pounding articles between "Laughter is the Best Medicine" and "Quotable Quotes"). It collects, digests and reprints articles from progressive, alternative and leftist magazines and newspapers about the environment, politics and culture. I buy Utne occasionally, but I get too darned many magazines --- from U.S. News and World Report to Cars & Parts --- so I've been trying to cut back to save money.

Consequently, I missed it when Utne excerpted an article about Eastland Mall from a magazine called Clamor.

I had never heard of Clamor; it turns out it's a bimonthly about politics and culture, published in Toledo. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in Oakland receives Clamor, so I went over on my lunch hour to check it out; naturally, the issue with the Eastland story (March-April 2004) was never received. And Clamor doesn't put their stories online.

Thus, I'm left to report on the Utne version of the story. I'm hoping the condensed version is accurate.

The article was written by Andy Cornell, who I can find next to nothing about through the normal database searches; I did find at least one other article on which he collaborated with a writer from Western Pennsylvania, so I'm assuming he might be a local guy.

Utne stories aren't available on the 'net to non-subscribers, so you'll have to take my word when I present these excerpts of Cornell's story. Here's his description of the Mon-Yough area:

This was coal country once. Working men and immigrant families, many having just stepped off the boat from Eastern Europe, flocked to southwestern Pennsylvania to blow the tops off of its wooded hills and scrape out the black gold inside. After that, it was steel country --- one of the most productive industrial areas in the United States for the first three-quarters of the 20th century. Now, in large part, this is retirement country. Temping country. SSI country, salesclerk country, flea market country.

Well, I find it hard to argue that the Mon Valley is not retirement and SSI country --- take a walk through Foodland on the morning after the Social Security checks come out and you'll see for yourself. As for the flea markets, I've long argued that the Mon Valley has gone right past the "market-based economy" and become a "flea-market based economy."

Anyway, here's what he has to say about Eastland:

Officially, the North Versailles mall is open for business, but visitors won't find much to buy. A Christian stationery store offers a variety of embossed birth and death announcements as well as some enameled plaques decorated with proverbs about walking on the beach with God. Further down the mall, it seems like the storefronts have been rented as warehouse rather than retail space.

True, this. Xerox stores a whole bunch of used duplicators and printers at Eastland. The only retail outlets that are open during the week --- Cornell obviously wasn't there for the flea market, or he would have written about it --- are the PennDOT driver's license center and Tony Macchiaroli's shoe repair shop. District Justice Barner's courtroom doesn't count as a "retail" business (though he doesn't lack for customers).

Then there's a passage about The Glitter Shoppe, which sells custom-engraved and custom-embroidered merchandise that was never picked up, or which has misspellings or other mistakes. Cornell has a bit of sport at the store's expense, before closing the article (at least the Utne version) with a standard jab at capitalism: "Like 'must-have' items that suddenly look like a whole lot of junk, malls minus their designer jeans and lusty-eyed teens come to be seen in a less flattering light. ... Suburban sparkle quickly dies when there's nothing left to buy."

I'm starting to see a pattern in national and regional coverage of the Mon-Yough area. It used to be the poster child for deindustrialization: William Serrin, in his book Homestead, writes how Chiodo's Tavern in the 1980s sometimes was populated by more sociologists and writers looking for "local color" than it had locals.

Lately, the Mon-Yough area has become a poster child for urban decline. OK, Detroit still has us beat by a country mile, but Detroit is too scary for freelance writers. We Mon-Youghers are too nice, by and large, to be scary. (Even if we're "depressing low-income" people.) And we're close to New York and Washington, unlike Detroit, so when they need some reliably run-down areas to gawk out, we're convenient.

We need to stop giving them stuff to gawk at by clearing out some of the decline. Now, unlike some people, I don't think we should erase evidence of our heritage. The marketing gurus running around trying to "brand Pittsburgh" keep saying that we should "downplay" steel and coal because it's outdated, and we "don't make steel here any more." Bull. People know Pittsburgh for its steel industry (Pittsburgh "Steelers" anyone?). What does Los Angeles make? Movies. What about Michigan? Cars. Texas? Oil. Pittsburgh? Steel. A hell of lot less than we used to, but we still make it. We shouldn't be ashamed.

Yes, robotics and computers and biotech are all important, too, but bring someone from out of town and show them Edgar Thomson Works at night. Then show them the outside of a robotics lab. Which one will they find more interesting?

But abandoned buildings are not our heritage. Nor are structures, like Eastland, which are long past their prime, and weren't that good to begin with. It's time to save the ones that are worth saving, and ditch the rest. Crummy roads aren't our heritage, either, though it seems like it at times.

Who can appreciate the attractiveness of the McKees Point Marina when they have to drive over the rust-stained Mansfield Bridge to get there? Who wants to attend one of the summer "lunches on the lawn" in Our Fair City when they have to walk past the crumbling Lysle Boulevard parking garage to get there?

We need some leaders with some vision for the future, instead of merely fond, misty memories of the past. The late mayor of Our Fair City, Joe Bendel, had vision; I'm not sure if the current mayor has it, but he seems to be trying.

Unfortunately, once you get outside of McKeesport, the opportunities for a leader to unite the area seem mighty slim. The boroughs and townships that ring the city are too small, frankly, to be able to take a leadership role. Our county council rep is former West Mifflin councilman Jay Jabbour, a decent fellow whose only real claim to fame, unfortunately, seems to have been his long-running feud with former state representative Richard Olasz. Our clout in the U.S. Congress evaporated when Joe Gaydos retired. State Rep. Sean Logan seems to be a firecracker, but he's more focused on statewide issues than the Mon Valley; plus, his district also includes New Kensington, Lower Burrell and Tarentum, which have problems of their own.

I don't expect factories to suddenly want to move back to the Mon Valley --- not when they can build and operate in China so much cheaper. I don't want malls and franchised restaurants and stores on every corner. I don't want to hang onto every shred of the past and wax nostalgic about Cox's and Balsamo's and the Memorial; dwelling on what's lost doesn't allow us to move forward.

But I do want someone in the Mon Valley to stick his or her neck out and say we should move forward, and offer some suggestions for doing so. In 20 years, I'd like to see people writing about a Mon Valley rebirth.

Or even not writing about the Mon Valley at all --- that would mean there was nothing remarkable about it: Just a stable group of communities, and a nice place to live, and after all, the media doesn't write or film nice, stable things, now, do they?

By the way, with all of its faults, I happen to think it's a nice place to live right now. I just wish we could convince outsiders. Is that too much to ask?


OK, three days of this serious thumbsucking is too much for Tube City Almanac to take. Tomorrow: Mindless goofiness, or at least I hope so, with another scheduled installment of Things I Found On the Internet While I Was Looking For Other Things.

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August 24, 2004 | Link to this story

The Best of Towns, The Worst of Towns

Category: default || By jt3y

Yesterday afternoon, I had to explain to a Picksberger what Renziehausen Park was. Is it like a conservation district? he asked.

No, I said. It's a big regional park in Our Fair City. It's got a bandshell, a fishing lake, softball and baseball fields, tennis courts, hiking and biking trails, the Heritage Center museum, and picnic groves. (I forgot to mention the Jacob Woll Pavilion, where the McKeesport Art Group holds its shows and where the Festival of Trees is held at Christmastime; I also forgot about the rose garden, maintained by the McKeesport Garden Club.)

It's kind of like a cut-down version of South Park (the park, not the TV show), I said.

Wow, he said. He didn't know anything like that existed.

I always enjoy bragging on Our Fair City, so it was nice to tell someone about one of its highlights.

Last night, while cleaning around the house, I heard a call come across the police scanner: Three people had just been wounded in a shooting in the Third Ward. Yikes.

Our Fair City has always fancied itself as a little version of Pittsburgh --- it was McKeesport politician and Daily News publisher W.D. Mansfield, after all, who helped block metropolitan government in the 1920s for fear that Our Fair City would lose its autonomy to Pittsburgh --- and has often duplicated things that were being done by its larger neighbor to the north. You have a symphony? We have a symphony. You have a housing authority? We have a housing authority.

McKeesport never went into Allegheny County Sanitary Authority, choosing to build its own water and sewerage treatment plants; until fairly recently, Carnegie Free Library of McKeesport patrons couldn't borrow books from Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, and vice versa.

The merits of this feisty independence can be debated, of course. It was easy enough to make the books balance when 7,000 people worked at National Tube and thousands more worked for Firth-Sterling, Kelsey-Hayes, Peters Packing, G.C. Murphy Co. and all of the other companies that called Our Fair City home. If maintaining a separate sewer system was a little more expensive, well, it's only money. (And it kept lots of political operatives on the government payroll, too.)

In at least one way, Our Fair City is a lot like Picksberg. They have debt? We have debt. They have pockets of violent crime? We have pockets of violent crime. They have a population drain? We have a population drain.

Pittsburgh has some very nice neighborhoods, and some very bad ones. McKeesport has some very nice neighborhoods, and some very bad ones. And they're bad for the same reasons: Absentee landlords, too many social-service agencies concentrated in a small area, poverty and crime.

The problem is that Pittsburgh is a whole lot bigger than Our Fair City, so the decay is less evident. Someone who visited only Dahntahn Picksberg or Oakland or Shadyside wouldn't see the back side of East Liberty, for instance. This explains all of the glowing out-of-town press coverage that Pittsburgh has received recently; sure, if you only visited the Golden Triangle, you'd have no idea that people living out in the neighborhoods were frustrated and angry about abandoned buildings and lack of city services.

Whereas in McKeesport, you can't help but see the decline. I've become inured to it, I guess, but when I see it through someone else's eyes, I flinch. I stumbled onto a diary by a couple who rode their bikes from Washington, D.C., to the upper Midwest, passing through the Mon-Yough valley. If this doesn't make you cringe, you're not a McKeesporter:

McKeesport is a horribly dilapidated suburb of Pittsburgh --- when steel left and the malls were built in other towns, this place curled up and died. All it has now is a huge aging population who can't leave and a depressing low-income population.

I could get really defensive here --- gee, I'm sorry that people who have low incomes depress you, jerk! --- but unfortunately, I have to concede that the poor and the elderly represent two large demographics in the Mon-Yough valley.

It gets worse. Here's the next day's entry:

Well, I have to admit that the world did not come to an end. It's so amazing how much better everything is with just a night's sleep. But there is no way in McKeesport (that's my new swear word --- "Go to McKeesport, you jerk. What the McKeesport? Oh, McKeesport!") that I am biking anywhere today.

Uh, ouch.

Keep in mind that they entered Our Fair City via the worst possible route: After arriving in "little Boston," instead of going into McKeesport on Route 48, they came up the old P&LE tracks, through the scrap yard behind Dura-Bond in Port Vue, and then made a wrong turn that took them up the abandoned section of River Ridge Road in Liberty Borough. No place --- not Fox Chapel, not Sewickley Heights --- would look good after that detour.

But even if they had come up Walnut Street, what would they have noticed first? Not the marina or the Palisades. They'd see the abandoned boarded-up buildings at Fort Pitt Steel Casting, PB&S Chemical and Hubbard Mine.

They're not the only visitors whose negative opinions of the Mon-Yough valley I've read recently. Alert Reader Tim last week told me that Utne Reader had done a story recently about Eastland Mall. The story, reprinted from a magazine called Clamor, is frustrating in many ways, but it's hard to think anyone could come away with a positive impression of the area after seeing Eastland.

More on this subject tomorrow.

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August 23, 2004 | Link to this story

Grudge Match in the Land of 1,000 Lakes

Category: default || By jt3y

(Editor's Note: There's something local at the end. Otherwise, this is another dispatch from the Tube City Almanac National Affairs Desk. If you're not interested in my tedious, namby-pamby politics, jump to the bottom.)

Still waters run deep out in Minnesota (get it? Stillwater? Ha ha), where the Gopher State's two best known humorists are taking shots at the current political climate.

In this corner, in the blue trunks, originally from Anoka, Minn., it's Garrison Keillor, the "Lake Wobegon Kid"! And in this corner, in the red trunks, from Fargo, N.D., but now hanging his hat in Minneapolis, it's "Boy Bleat," James Lileks!

OK, fellas, you know the drill: droll phrases; solemn profundities; dry, acerbic wit; and self-deprecation are all allowed. No hitting below the belt, and no clutching. Now, go back into your corners and come out writing!


And Lileks comes out swinging that mean right cross, and he steadily pounds away at the big, fleshy middle in his syndicated column for Newhouse News Service:

Do you suffer from Sudden Bush Hatred Fatigue Syndrome? It's easy to diagnose. It often strikes at a bookstore. You walk in looking for a breezy summer read, and piled near the door are stacks and stacks of angry tomes about the perfidy of Usurper Bush. ....

It's hard to tell how SBHFS will affect the vote. This group could go either way. They could so weary of the incessant hysteria that they'll be willing to reward the frothers, if only to shut them up. If I vote for John Kerry, will you be happy? Will that do it? The answer would be Yes! That'll do it!

Well, that, and nationalized health care, tax hikes on small businesses, the Kyoto treaty, fealty to the United Nations, shipping nuclear fuel to the Iranians to make them act nice, leaving Iraq ASAP and ushering in what Kerry calls a more "sensitive" war on terrorism. (We will use marshmallow bullets, perhaps.) All that plus vast federally funded embryo farms, and they'll be happy. For a while. Then we'll have to do something about that "In God We Trust" nonsense on the coins.

Ooh! Look at the way he comes in for the attack ... right jab! Upper-cut! Sarcastic putdown! Right jab! That Boy Bleat is good!

But wait, here comes Keillor, that wiley old veteran, pounding back in Salon, and he leads with a jab toward the middle, and then he swings back around with a vicious left cross:

Richard Nixon was a good deal responsible for the Environmental Protection Agency and the push to clean up the Great Lakes. The conservation movement that paved the way, so to speak, for the whole Green agenda was very much a Republican thing. The Americans With Disabilities Act, which gave us Handi-vans and wheelchair-accessible facilities and those little ramps carved into the curbs, was brought about by Republicans (and Democrats). Republicans have been good critics of government, and good satirists at times. Republican libertarianism is a useful antidote to our Democratic/neurotic tendency to want to put up a warning sign on uneven terrain and make cowboys do their whooping in designated whooping areas. Republicans used to contribute a lot, back before they let the fanatics and teeth grinders take over and turn their party into the Leave Me Alone party, intent on proving that government is inherently inept, and they've done such damage to America in the past decade that will take a century of saints to fix.

Oof! But Lileks can take this kind of punishment from the Wobegon Kid:

You wander over to periodicals and flip open the current Esquire. There's a story on stem-cell research. The author's subtitle: "How the president is trying to kill my daughter."

Yes, of course, you think. (How weary your inner voice sounds.) That's precisely what he is trying to do. That is the president's specific objective in life: Kill sick people. It makes him happy. Every night he puts his cloven hooves up on the desk and thinks of the people he's offed today. Ahh. Life is good.

And Keillor comes back, he's just boring in, like a public radio fundraiser in full pledge-drive mode:

President Bush was campaigning on Wednesday here in St. Paul and he sounded awfully loopy, like an old camp counselor who's done too many campfires. According to him, we're bringing democracy to the Middle East and the economy is turning the corner. He said it about 10 times, in those tiny mincing sentences of his, and there isn't anybody over the age of 12 who really believes him.

Oh, for the love of God, isn't someone going to stop this fight! Ladies and gentlemen, I can't bear to watch!

Ahem. I also can't bear to keep up the 1940s boxing shtick.

I like and admire both Keillor --- who I've been reading since junior high school --- and Lileks, who I discovered a few years ago via the Web. They actually have a fair amount in common; they both write non-fiction and fiction, and they both do radio. They're not perfect: Keillor's radio show is a little too precious and self-indulgent at times --- please, no more singing, Garrison --- and Lileks' sometimes knee-jerk conservatism can be tiresome.

I'm also enough of a mushy-headed simp to be able to agree with both of them. The foaming-at-the-mouth anti-Bush crowd is doing more harm than good to their own cause. Lileks has nailed the display at your local chain bookstores: On one side are books aimed at the baby-killing, gun-toting, fascist, theocratic mouth-breathers; and the other side are books for French-loving, godless communistic Saddam-appeasing terrorism lovers. Or maybe it's the other way around. I browsed through some of these books the other day at the Barnes & Noble in Homestead, and it almost put me off of my feed. If it wasn't Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter's smug mugs leering out at me, it was a half-dozen "humorous" compilations of the President's malaprops ("Look! Here, he mispronounces the name of the president of Turkmenistan!"). I read through a few of them before my hands became too grubby to hold them any longer; after 15 minutes of scrubbing under hot water, the slime still wouldn't come off.

But I agree with Keillor, too: Many of the Republicans on the national stage have gone right past Reagan's pragmatic conservatism and become members of the Know-Nothing Party. They make appeals to blue-collar populism, and then go around kicking working men and women in the slats. If you're one of the 6.5 million people who lost your overtime today, including many of my friends in the newspaper business, you can thank the President, who pushed through a revision of the Fair Wage Standards Act over the objections of both Democrats and Republicans. They wrap themselves in the flag and stand in front of military installations to show how tough they are on terrorism, but don't mention that many Army, Navy and Air Force careerists are living on food stamps, or that they've kicked thousands of veterans out of the VA medical system.

I'm not going to go as far as some people, and say there's no difference between the parties, or the candidates. There are very clear differences, now more than ever. (On the other hand, I don't agree with the pundits and partisans who are running around calling this "the most important election of our lifetimes" --- the 1976 election, coming two years after a president had resigned in disgrace, was pretty important, too.)

Somewhere along the line, the extremists on both sides hijacked the parties. I'm a pro-life Catholic, but I'm also a supporter of organized labor. I believe that people should be allowed to own handguns, but I also believe in civil rights and civil liberties. I like big V-8 powered cars that go fast, but I also think more money should be spent on mass transit. I believe in free markets, with sensible regulations to protect the public. Where does that leave me?

Put another way: Where would John F. Kennedy fit if he were alive today? He cut taxes on the wealthy and built up the military, and he would have been solidly against abortion. There's no way in hell that big Democratic donors would have supported him --- look at the way they abandoned Ron Klink when he ran against Rick Santorum.

As for Richard Nixon, he was an internationalist who implemented wage and price controls and (as Keillor pointed out) created the EPA --- and Amtrak. Dubya would rather swallow a bag of pretzels whole than support mass transit or consumer protection. As for the neo-cons, Grover Norquist Jr. and Ralph Reed would be working on dirty trick campaigns against Nixon, not for him.

When Nixon starts to look like a liberal, you have to admit that something is seriously wrong with national politics.


Now, as promised, it's time for the quick brief from the local news desk, as we learn from Karen Ferrick-Roman in the Beaver County Times that US Airways executives speak with forked tongues:

Without concessions from its employees within the next month, the airline's chairman said last week, the company could be liquidated and its assets sold. A couple of days later, the airline's chief executive officer said bankruptcy is a possibility, but not "an imminent shutdown, a disruption of service or impending liquidation."

And today, the airline is expected to announce its expansion in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

"One minute we're going out of business. The next minute we're expanding in Fort Lauderdale," said Teddy Xidas, president of the Pittsburgh local of the Association of Flight Attendants. ...

"If you're looking to terminate pension plans and freeze pension payments, where do you get the money to expand? I don't understand it. It's so confusing to the employees."

Maybe we've all been underestimating US Airways' managers. Maybe when people call them craven and incompetent, they're wholly misjudging them.

Perhaps they just think outside the box! Perhaps, just like the protagonists in a bad movie, they're doing things that are so crazy, they just might work!

I believe it could be true!

On the other hand, I wouldn't discard the craven and incompetent thing just yet.

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August 20, 2004 | Link to this story

‘But We Were Winning! Come Back!’

Category: default || By jt3y

On Tuesday, I had to pull a late shift at the radio station. On Wednesday, I had to get some laundry done, lest I be forced to borrow Bob Braughler's lucky underwear. So Thursday night, I resolved to go to International Village as soon as I left work.

I got out of the car in Renzie Park at 6:20 p.m., just as the skies opened up. It was like stepping into Niagara Falls.

It wouldn't be International Village --- Western Pennsylvania's original ethnic food and music festival, held for 45 consecutive years in Our Fair City --- without some rain. It's almost a beneficial thing; it washes away some of the stink and keeps the bugs down. I've also been to some Villages during oppressive heat waves, when you couldn't walk two feet without pooping out and your skin was blistering like kolbassi links on a hot griddle. Some rain would have been most welcome then.

But this was ridiculous. There were massive lightning strikes and torrential downpours. I had an umbrella, but it didn't matter --- the rain was coming sideways, under my bumbershoot.

I made it to the doorway of a garage near the old Renzie swimming pool, and stood on a dry patch of ground, but pretty soon, I started to feel like Charlie Brown on his pitcher's mound as the water came up, up, up around me. Before I floated away, I stepped back out into the rain, which let up for a while --- just long enough for people to dash to their cars, as it turned out, because then it started to rain again.

Well, at least it kept the lines short.

The inclement weather makes it impossible for me to properly review this year's Village; the rain forced the entertainment and fireworks to be cancelled for the evening (holding a metal microphone stand in an electrical storm is not a good idea). I know most people go to the Village to eat, but to me, the singing and dancing are just as important. All of those junior Tammies, polka bands and folk ensembles are keeping alive great cultural traditions that, in many cases, are fading away, even in the old country. Not being able to see any of the performers was a major disappointment --- though an unavoidable one.

To his credit, Marco Caroccia ("Bravo Marco") kept cranking out Italian music on his keyboard in the Jakomas Blue Top Pavilion. At one point, he had a sing-along going of "Funiculi, Funicula,."

On the other hand, I don't recall his next sing-along number --- "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" --- being a traditional Italian song. Maybe it was the version by that famous crooner, Giacomino Crocetti.

(Actually, I just looked it up; Jim Croce was Italian! Mi dispiace.)

Onto the food: The arrival several years ago of commercial food vendors at International Village was a setback, in my opinion. I realize that church and non-profit groups are unable to provide some of the food choices that visitors expect, like kettle corn, lemonade and funnel cakes, but why would you go to International Village to eat the same mass-produced stuff you can get at any carnival?

Besides, the independent booths raise money for local ethnic social clubs and churches; for some of them, the Village is their major fundraiser of the year.

So, I started at the German booth (Christ Lutheran Church) with a plateful of potato pancakes and a piece of bratwurst, worked my way over to the Hungarian booth (Free Magyar Reformed Church) for a kolbassi sandwich, and topped it off with a dish of fried ice cream from the Mexican booth (Christ United Methodist Church).

Sure, it was the express bus to Heartburn City, but I only do this once a year, and it was all great going down.

I didn't get any good souvenirs this year; maybe the rain chased the souvenir stand away. McKeesport Little Theater had a nice display, including a raffle for free tickets, and Penn State and McKeesport High School alumni both made an appearance. Allegheny County Sheriff Pete DeFazio and city police had exhibits as well.

Kudos to all of those vendors and city employees who stuck it out in the rain last night, and who begin preparations for the Village months in advance. All I can say is that you did your best, as usual, and better luck next year.


Deepest sympathies for the family of Mary Newton Bruder --- aka "The Grammar Lady" --- who passed away suddenly on Monday, according to Adrian McCoy's obituary in the Post-Gazette. She was 64.

Bruder was best known for her appearances on local and national radio and TV talk shows, and for her syndicated newspaper column about the English language. I worked with Bruder once, about a year ago, when I hired her to proofread a publication I edited. Adrian refers to Bruder's "keen eye for the fine points of the English language and grammar," and I would agree.

Requiescat in pace, Grammar Lady.

(Link via Subdivided We Stand.)


In other news, at least 60 newspapers nationwide --- including One of America's Great Newspapers --- have been suckered into running a form "letter-to-the-editor" produced by the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign.

The Post-Gazette ran the letter, signed "Dick Bondi, Mt. Lebanon," on June 4, according to a database search of the newspaper's archives.

The (very) partisan Daily Kos reports that the letters are virtually identical in each of the newspapers that have printed them. The technique of planting form letters in local papers, which is not new, is called "Astroturfing," because it's an artificial advertising campaign designed to create the appearance of a grass-roots movement.

Ironically, the P-G's Dennis Roddy was one of the first political writers to warn about "Astroturfing," back in January 2003.

And just two weeks ago, P-G editorial writer Michael McGough wrote about Astroturfing, saying that he and other editors "have been on elevated alert lately for 'Astroturf.'" Apparently, he didn't realize that some has already been laid down on the paper's own letters page.

The Post-Gazette is one of the largest papers in the country to get stung, according to a Lexis-Nexis search of the biggest news outlets in the U.S. In Pennsylvania, a rudimentary Google search reveals that the Williamsport, Wilkes-Barre and Lock Haven papers received nearly identical letters. None of these cookie-cutter Bush-boosting letters have hit any other local newspapers --- yet.

In fairness --- and as McGough correctly points out --- the Kerry-Edwards campaign is also encouraging supporters to contact local media to boost their candidate. Nothing wrong with that, of course; but signing your name to someone else's opinions and passing them off as your own is, at best, lazy. (At worst, it's plagiarism, though in this case, the Bush campaign is encouraging supporters to "steal" the suggested language.)


Alert Reader Tim points out that this month's issue of Utne Reader has an article about Eastland Mall in North Versailles. The article, unfortunately, isn't available online unless you're a subscriber. Further updates next week.


Things to Do: The Ypapanti Greek Food Festival continues through Sunday at Olympia Hall on Electric Avenue in East Pittsburgh. Proceeds benefit Presentation of Christ Greek Orthodox Church. Live music and folk dancing continues daily. If you can't stay, take something home: Wouldn't some baklava or spanakopita be a good snack as you watch the Summer Olympics in Athens? Call (412) 824-9188 for details.

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August 19, 2004 | Link to this story

Special Almanac Gross-Out Edition

Category: default || By jt3y

Things I found on the Internet while looking for other things:


Jim Romenesko, maintainer of the Obscure Store (a Web site of bizarre headlines) and the Poynter Institute's media gossip page, has launched a Starbucks gossip Web site.


When I first saw Jimmy Johnson's "Arlo and Janis" comic strip (in the New Yawk Daily News, I think), I didn't like it, but the more I see of it, the more it grows on me. Johnson eschews obvious comic strip gags and goes for more subtle, situational humor. It takes some time to understand where he's coming from, but when you do, the whole strip clicks.

I recently discovered that Johnson maintains an online journal and archive of his favorite cartoons.


Former WDVE-FM (102.5) morning man and current night-time host Scott Paulsen has a Web site, where he reports that he's working on his second novel. His first is available for purchase at the site. His wife, Kit, is a rather accomplished watercolorist and is accepting commissions.


There was a rather run-of-the-mill letter in Pitt's student newspaper, The Pitt News, from a Florida undergrad who says he refuses to attend the university because of its policy against granting fringe benefits to same-sex unmarried couples. (In the interest of full disclosure, I not only draw a paycheck from Pitt, I'm also a student, but opinions expressed here are not those of the University of Pittsburgh.)

But while the letter is only average, there's been a nasty battle of words raging on the Pitt News Web site among the paper's readers and the letter writer. Flame wars can be very, very funny --- so long as you're not the target, of course.


Before I go any further, keep in mind that I try to keep this feature suitable for children, or at least clean enough for a family newspaper. However, some things are too good to pass up. If you're easily offended, now is the time to leave and look at something less edgy.

You're still here? Cool. And a-a-a-away we go!


Alert Reader Jeff passed along a link to this report from The Smoking Gun about a group of people in Ohio who attacked a peeping Tom who apparently was spying on a little girl. The police found the perpetrator with a tree branch stuck in a place where you wouldn't normally expect a tree to be growing.

An account from the Lorain, Ohio, Morning Journal is available online. The peeper/victim is in the hospital in fair condition; the people who are attacked him are charged with rape, assault and related offenses.

Boy, talk about not knowing whose side to root for ...


Speaking of perversions, consensual and otherwise, Dan Savage had a great line in his syndicated "Savage Love" column this week, which runs in Pittsburgh City Paper and elsewhere. (And don't try to tell me you don't read it, you big faker, you know you do, right after "News of the Weird.")

I'll clean it up slightly, and you'll have to go read the column to understand the context (this should be obvious, but there's adult content there, in case you didn't know). Anyway, Savage wrote this response to a reader's letter (and the last sentence is priceless):

(B)estiality is one of the "big three" perversions that I'm simply never going to budge on. I will always disapprove of f---ing animals, molesting children, and eating poop. (A scat scene with a lamb would hit the trifecta of my disapproval.) Yes, yes, I know: A mind is like an umbrella --- it only works when it's open. But if you're going to have a closed mind about just three things, f---ing animals, molesting children, and eating poop are good picks, don't you think?

Well, you'll get no argument from me.


Now, if you really want to see something sick, twisted and disgusting, feast your eyes on this (tip of the Tube City hard-hat to Lileks):

Steven Seagal was the first Westerner to open a school of martial arts in Japan. The general public knew through his many films of action but it is another facet of his personality which emerges in 2004! This enthusiastic follower of Buddhism delivers an awesome album already bubbling on the charts in France!

Ingredients: Steven Seagal delivers titles to the American ultra consonances (blues, folk) but also of more directed songs world (ragga, Arab musics). Surrounded by prestigious guests (B.B. King, Stevie Wonder...), the actor adds a new cord to his arc!

Excuse me, I think I'm going to be sick. I mean, I could stomach Savage's discussion of coprophilia and bestiality, but the thought of Steven Seagal singing is too much for my weak constitution.

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August 18, 2004 | Link to this story

Unfortunately, Still Allegheny In Reality

Category: default || By jt3y

The bastard agglomeration of Allegheny, Mohawk, Piedmont, PSA and Lord-knows-how-many-others-I've-forgotten that now calls itself US Airways is coming apart at the seams, reports Dan Fitzpatrick in the Post-Gazette:

If US Airways files for bankruptcy in less than a month, airline chairman David Bronner predicts that no one, including himself, will be willing to rescue the nation's seventh-largest carrier from oblivion.

In the last 30 days, Bronner said only one investor has contacted him about a bankrupt US Airways -- and that was a foreign player interested only in the leftover piece of an airline that employs 28,000 people, including about 8,000 in the Pittsburgh area. "They don't want the whole thing," he said.

And what would save US Airways? More concessions, according to Bronner: About $800 million this time.

We've heard this song before. So have the employees, who have been granting concessions for years. The airline is leaking great, big gobs of red ink all over tarmacs from here to Orlando, and the employees have to keep giving up salaries, benefits and pensions, the management insists.

But that hasn't stopped several generations of US Airways executives from mucking around, screwing things up, and then leaving with generous, multi-million dollar golden parachutes after a year or two --- most recently, David Siegel and Neal Cohen.

I hate to see anyone lose a job --- particularly a good job, like the jobs that airlines can provide. It's easy to conclude, however, that US Airways is hopelessly screwed up, and that it's time to take it out behind the hangar and do the merciful thing, to save everyone --- creditors, passengers and employees --- any more suffering. The sooner that happens, the sooner we all can get on with our lives.

The Post-Gazette has come to the same conclusion: "US Airways is a loser. We aren't. Let's stop wasting our time pretending we need them."

I couldn't have said it better myself.


I didn't make it to the Village last night, because I was otherwise engaged until after 8 p.m. My mouth is watering for bacon bread and baklava, however, and I haven't heard a good csardas since this time last year.

Alert Reader John met WDUQ's Len Hendry at the Village last night (not surprising, because Hendry lives in White Oak):

I spied him in the crowd after he was introduced on stage, and after I had some sweet potato pie, my wife and I walked to where he and his wife were sitting. I introduced us, and he was honestly shocked to see "such young fans." He's really a likeable guy. ...

"Let's Dance" is quite possibly the best radio show EVER, certainly a local treasure that doesn't get nearly enough attention. If he ever mentions the encounter on his next show, I'd be thrilled.

"Let's Dance," a program of big-band and light jazz music that Hendry conducts on Saturday evenings, is wonderful. Musically, I prefer Mike Plaskett and Ken Crawford's "Rhythm, Sweet and Hot," which follows Hendry's show, but I like "Let's Dance," too. It's happy music that never fails to put me in a good mood.

Also, I agree with John's assessment of Hendry. I've met him once and talked to him on the phone, and I found him to be friendly and charming.


To find the anti-thesis of Len Hendry, we need look no further than Craig Kilborn.

Kilborn has walked off of CBS' "Late, Late Show" in an apparent salary dispute, reports Long Island Newsday, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Philadelphia Inquirer, among other outlets.

Oh, no! Whatever shall I do? Where will I get my daily supply of crappy self-indulgent preening and unfunny hipster in-jokes?

Feh. Good riddance. Don't let the door hit you in the butt.

Phil Rosenthal's take in the Sun-Times is truly a hoot:

Even by the standards of TV vanity, Kilborn was considered a standout in his five-plus years at CBS. Besides mirrors on the wall, there were hand mirrors always at the ready, and a swivel mirror on Kilborn's office desk he was said to have tilted -- not subtly enough -- to catch his own reflection whenever bored with whatever blah, blah, blah he was being told.

Alert Reader Dan attended a Kilborn taping in L.A. last year (mainly because tickets to the better shows were all snapped up). He says the studio audience sat in stony silence for much of the show, except when they were told to respond.

I know I've sat in stony silence while watching Kilborn, right up until the point I've changed the channel (my record at watching Kilborn is about three minutes) or fallen asleep.


Anarchists and self-centered leftist misanthropes make my rear-end tired. Salon reports on worries by Democrats that far-left groups who want to disrupt the Republican National Convention this month will play into the hands of the Republican Party:

Such thinking makes sense only to those who are worried about alienating American voters. Liberals are, but many anti-RNC activists defiantly are not. Ironically, despite being motivated by a ferocious hatred of George Bush, some of those planning direct-action protests against the convention have grown so disillusioned with electoral politics that they barely seem to care whether he's defeated in November.

Getting Bush out of the White House "is an aesthetic thing -- I won't have to look at him anymore," says the A31 Coalition's David Graeber, explaining his mild preference for Kerry. A 43-year-old anthropology instructor at Yale, Graeber, who lives in Chelsea, says, "Maybe I'll vote for Kerry, maybe I won't."

Maybe I'm glad I didn't go to Yale. Not that there was a lot of chance of that, admittedly, but if that's what passes for logical thought up in New Haven, then it was no big loss.

Meanwhile, Alert Reader Jonathan pointed out this story from the New York Times about discounts being offered to "peaceful protesters" who agree not to riot. As if $2 off of an ice cream cone is going to keep some self-styled nihilist from tossing a brick through the windows of a Starbucks.

Didn't anyone in New York's tourism office think this through? They're offering consumer discounts to people whose major pet peeve is the influence of "big corporations" and "consumerism" on society.

On the other hand, it's oddly appropriate; for the past 20 years, pop culture has taught us that the only thing important is our own personal gratification. When terrorists launch a brutal attack on our country, the President of the United States doesn't call on us to sacrifice; he urges us to go shopping. We want what we want, now, and to hell with anyone else.

Why should we be surprised when some nitwit professor from Yale doesn't care who gets elected, as long as he has a right to act like a brain-dead yobbo?

Gee, I turned into Mike Royko there for a minute. Sorry about that.

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August 17, 2004 | Link to this story

That's Where the Tall Corn Grows

Category: default || By jt3y

The Tube City Almanac today is going to make one of its relatively rare forays into national politics, except to remind you that International Village opens this afternoon and runs through Thursday at Renzie Park.

Now, from the Almanac National Affairs Desk comes the following question: If you heard someone say the Pentagon is "evil," you'd immediately suspect them of being a rabid left-winger, right? And if a publication came out endorsing that statement, you'd assume it was one of those indy-media Web sites --- or at least something like AlterNet.

What if I told you it was the police chief of Des Moines, Iowa, and the editors of the Des Moines Register were supporting him?

Unless I miss my guess, Iowa's in the "heartland" of America. It should reasonably be expected to be full of patriotic citizens who love America, baseball, apple pie and their President, though not necessarily in that order.

In fairness, Iowa's voted for a lot of Democrats; the state narrowly went for Gore in 2000, and went for Clinton twice; but Iowans also voted for Nixon three times (1960, '68 and '72), for Reagan twice, and for Gerry Ford in 1976. The governor is a Democrat (Pittsburgh native Tom Vilsack).

Still, these should be Dubya's kind of people. Both houses of the Iowa Legislature are Republican, as is one of Iowa's U.S. senators, and four of Iowa's five members of the House. Although I wasn't able to easily get statistics on how many Iowans are churchgoers, I have a sneaky suspicion that a clear majority are; according to one survey I found at the American Religion Data Archive, 58 percent of Iowans claim to be a member of an organized religion.

Anyway, here are the details from a Register editorial (slightly edited for space and clarity):

(It) turned some heads when Des Moines Police Chief William McCarthy used the e-word to describe the U.S. military for calling a local police officer back to duty in Iraq. Rodell D. Nydam, a member of the Iowa National Guard, completed his military obligation. He's already served in Iraq and now must go back due to a "stop-loss" order that extends tours of duty beyond a soldier's commitment.

"This military is lying and manipulating its troops," said McCarthy, a Vietnam veteran. "When the military gave its word, it used to mean something." He said today's military "can't be trusted."

Stop-loss orders are a broken promise. They fly in the face of the idea of a "voluntary" military. They have prevented tens of thousands of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan from going home or retiring. Soldiers hold up their end of the bargain; the government doesn't. ...

The blame doesn't lie with an "evil" military, however. The Pentagon is just trying to do a job with the resources available to it. The blame lies higher up, with those who sent the military to war without adequate planning.

When the police chief of Iowa's capital city calls the Pentagon "evil," one suspects that distaste for the current administration isn't confined to a handful of rabid, foaming leftists. It's worth noting that Chief McCarthy isn't some hippie peacenik; last month, in fact, he urged the Des Moines city council not to pass a resolution condemning the PATRIOT Act.

There are still almost three months until Election Day, and the Republicans haven't held their convention yet, but it would appear that the Bush-Cheney re-election machine had better start coming up with a way to pull out of this nosedive, and fast. Otherwise, their boy Dubya is about to find himself with lots of time to clear brush on his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

The real question, in my mind: If people in Iowa --- not known as a bastion of liberalism --- are this dissatisfied with the President's performance, might not other socially-conservative states also be dissatisfied? Say, the southeastern U.S.? Why aren't the Dems trying harder to win back some of those "solid South" states they lost during the civil-rights era?

Texas is presumably a lost cause (in more ways than one), but what about Georgia, which now has more than twice as many urban residents as rural ones? How about North Carolina, which has added about 1.6 million new residents in urban areas since 2000, mostly around the universities in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill?

I hate to play into stereotypes, but surely all of those Yankees who've moved down to Atlanta and Raleigh to become college professors and investment bankers haven't suddenly turned into gun-totin', pickup-drivin' Charlie Daniels fans. I have to think that a lot of them are Democrats.


In other business, Alert Reader Arden points out that Brian Lundmark, creator of "Rockwood" (which ran on this page until the computer problems began in May), is blogging a very funny critique of NBC's Olympics coverage. Lundmark is even timing the amount of event coverage versus the "fluff" and commercials.

("Rockwood" will return to the Almanac soon; for now, you'll have to manually download new strips on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.)

Meanwhile, over at, Chris Livingston has a great spoof that combines the upcoming fall TV season with those painfully-detailed football notebooks that run in the papers right before the trade deadlines. At the very least, it's a better pop culture riff than anything The Onion has done recently.

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August 16, 2004 | Link to this story

Airline Business Took Off From McKeesport

Category: default || By jt3y

From the "Methinks They Doth Protest Too Much" Department at the Tube City Almanac Regional Affairs Desk comes this Associated Press story (via the Observer-Reporter):

Although no airline will fly nonstop to Europe from Pittsburgh as of Nov. 7, the airport still will be considered an international one, officials said.

Pittsburgh International Airport still will offer nonstop flights to Mexico, the Caribbean and Canada, which qualify as international destinations. Plus, the "international" distinction means the airport has customs and immigration services, Allegheny County Airport Authority officials said.

Wait a minute ... they mean Canada is another country? Hmm. Well, OK, if they say so. At least it explains those funny pictures on the money.

Besides, having something called an "international" airport isn't such a big distinction; for Pete's sake, Harrisburg has an international airport.

Anyway, I can't get past calling it "Greater Pitt," so I'm glad they didn't change the name again.

Speaking of aviation history, this week marks an important milestone for the Mon-Yough area.

It was 75 years ago this week that the first scheduled airline passenger service to Washington, D.C., from the west began, and the men behind it were from Our Fair City.

In August 1929, Clifford Ball Airlines began service from Cleveland to Washington via Bettis Field in Mifflin Township, just over the border from Dravosburg --- today the site of Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory in West Mifflin --- using six-passenger, single-engine Fairchild 71s.

Ball, a McKeesport car dealer, started airline operations in 1926 by carrying mail between Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Akron and Youngstown with three single-engine biplanes: Miss Pittsburgh, Miss Youngstown and Mss McKeesport. (Miss Pittsburgh, now restored, hangs in the landside terminal of Pittsburgh International Airport.)

Carrying mail by airplane wasn't as logical as it sounds today. In fact, there was a great deal of resistance at first. Airplanes were rickety affairs and crashes were a frequent occurrence. (In fact, the very week that Clifford Ball Airlines began scheduled passenger service to Washington, D.C., a airplane --- not one of Ball's --- crashed on Lebanon Church Road, according to the McKeesport Heritage Center's newsletter.)

But after early experiments (many of them performed in North Huntingdon Township) proved airmail could be successful, the Post Office Department relented. The first air mail pilots were members of the U.S. Army Air Corps; the post office later took over the air mail service.

Still, the postmaster general didn't want to authorize private carriers to deliver the mail; he insisted that government pilots be used. (Come to think of it, it may have been the first example of resistance by the government to privatizing services!)

That irritated U.S. Representative Clyde Kelly, a Republican from Our Fair City, who was known as the "voice of the railway postal clerk." Kelly, who pointed out that the railroads were already carrying mail under private contract without apparent problems, introduced the Kelly Air Mail Act of 1925.

It passed through Congress and was signed by President Coolidge; soon after, the first private air mail contracts were released. The very first contract, not surprisingly, perhaps, was awarded to Kelly's fellow McKeesporter, Cliff Ball. Ball started carrying passengers between McKeesport and Cleveland from Bettis Field in 1927, according to the Mifflin Township Historical Society; the fare was $15 one-way or $25 round trip, and the flight took about 80 minutes.

In 1930, Ball sold his airline to a company called Pittsburgh Aviation Industries, which changed the name to Pennsylvania Airlines. Pennsylvania Airlines merged in 1936 with Central Airlines to become Pennsylvania-Central (no relation to the failed railroad of the same name).

Based at Allegheny County Airport for many years, Pennsylvania-Central Airlines (or "PCA") called itself "the Capital Airline" because of its service to Washington, D.C, and several eastern state capitals.

The present-day Allegheny County police station at the intersection of Lebanon Church Road and Camp Hollow Road, near the entrance to Allegheny County Airport, was once the headquarters of PCA. The building was quickly outgrown, and PCA moved its headquarters to Washington National Airport in 1941. By 1948, PCA had changed its name to Capital Airlines and was among the larger regional airlines in the company.

Over-expansion in the 1950s, including the purchase of a large fleet of British-made turbo-prop Vickers Viscounts, pushed the airline into debt. In 1961, it merged into United Airlines.

Bettis Field was relegated to secondary status once commercial air traffic moved to Allegheny County Airport in 1931 and '32. It passed into ownership by aircraft builder Curtiss-Wright Corp., which sold the airport to Westinghouse Electric Corp. in 1949 for use as Bettis Labs.

United Airlines claims to trace its history to a West Coast air mail route flown by Walter Varney, but the evidence is pretty clear that United's roots are in Our Fair City. Without Cliff Ball (and Clyde Kelly), United Airlines' "friendly skies" would have remained a lot smaller.


From the Politics Desk, Sunday's Washington Post offered this insight into our vice president, who makes Don Rickles look like Mr. Warmth by comparison:

Cheney says he likes to campaign, to meet people. But his manner on the stump often betrays all the joy of someone cleaning an oven. After speaking to a rally at a high school in Battle Creek, the vice president grimaced forth and worked a ropeline, the back of his bald head now covered in red, white and blue confetti. ... Cheney approaches handshakes as if trying to pick mosquitoes out of the air with one hand. He makes quick and minimal contact. ...

When a woman in Battle Creek handed Cheney her baby, he carried the kid for a few seconds and then handed him back, no kiss. In the next three minutes, he would quick-pinch about 100 more hands.

As he walked out a back door, the vice president vigorously rubbed his hands with sanitizing lotion provided by an aide.

Do you have the feeling that Lynne Cheney was the one who changed the dirty diapers in that house?

It could have been worse; he could have demanded that the babies be coated with the sanitizer. Or at least spritzed with Lysol.


In local political news, state Rep. Jim Casorio of North Huntingdon has a message for his challenger, Jeannette attorney Scott Avolio: Drop dead.

Well, not in those words, but as Craig Smith writes in the Tribune-Review, the effect is much the same:

Avolio wants a public debate in the race for the 56th District House seat Casorio has held for eight years. He said he probably has a better chance of winning the state lottery. Democrat Casorio considers the debate a non-issue because he "hasn't said no."

A war of words heated up between the candidates last week, when Avolio said his deadline for a response from Casorio's camp had passed. "Your high-pressure tactics may be effective for a trial lawyer, but they do not serve any purpose in this campaign," Casorio said in a terse, one-page response to Avolio's demand.

Those mean, nasty trial lawyers! I wonder if Casorio is taking the same blunt approach toward that nasty trial lawyer who's running for vice president ... or the guy running for president on that same ticket, who's a former prosecuting attorney (speaking of high-pressure tactics!).

Quick guess? No, probably not.


Finally, Pittsburgh Crime Stoppers is offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of the person involved in a fatal shooting Aug. 7 on Ohio and Brownlee streets in the city. Details via the Post-Gazette.

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August 13, 2004 | Link to this story

Breaking News: Homestead Council OK's Chiodo's Demolition

Category: default || By jt3y

Pat Cloonan has the full story in tonight's Daily News:

"Now, there is a chance that we can make a few bucks so my wife can go to a rest home. I don't give a damn about myself."

With those words, an 86-year-old Italian immigrant capped a brief forum last night before Homestead council took over the fate of the bar he bought in 1947. ....

By a 9-0 vote, council accepted Historic Architectural Review Board's recommendation that Anchor Properties receive a certificate of appropriateness to demolish Chiodo's, as well as a Subway sandwich shop and a Shell service station along W. Eighth Avenue and Hays Street.

The vote was not one of approval for what will replace the three businesses --- a Walgreens pharmacy, a new Subway and a parking lot. That will require another round, beginning next month with Homestead Planning Commission and ending, possibly Oct. 14, back before council.

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August 13, 2004 | Link to this story

That Toddlin' Town

Category: default || By jt3y

More Chicago media news, because after all, what else would a McKeesport-based Web site focus on?

After several weeks of seemingly liking everything (three stars for "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle"?), the irascible Roger Ebert that we all know and love is back, and he's out for revenge:

"The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement" offers the prudent critic with a choice. He can say what he really thinks about the movie, or he can play safe by writing that it's sure to be loved by lots of young girls. But I avoid saying that anything is sure to be loved by anybody.

In this case, I am not a young girl, nor have I ever been, and so how would I know if one would like it? Of course, that's exactly the objection I get in e-mails from young readers, who complain that no one like me can possibly like a movie like this. They are correct. I have spent a long time, starting at birth and continuing until this very moment, evolving into the kind of person who could not possibly like a movie like this, and I like to think the effort was not in vain.

Alert Reader Jonathan passes along an excerpt from Ebert's vicious review of the M. Night Shyamalan melodrama "The Village":

Eventually the secret of Those, etc., is revealed. To call it an anticlimax would be an insult not only to climaxes but to prefixes. It's a crummy secret, about one step up the ladder of narrative originality from It Was All a Dream. It's so witless, in fact, that when we do discover the secret, we want to rewind the film so we don't know the secret anymore.

And then keep on rewinding, and rewinding, until we're back at the beginning, and can get up from our seats and walk backward out of the theater and go down the up escalator and watch the money spring from the cash register into our pockets.

Now, by crackey, that's what I calls some movie reviewin'!


There's something fairly fascinating about sneaking around in abandoned buildings --- maybe because it brings out the voyeur in all of us. We get to snoop around, peeking into other people's lives, and without real consequence; the victims of our spying are usually long-departed.

Urban explorers are gradually sneaking out of the shadows, thanks to the Internet. Copeland, for instance, has written about exploring the old Dixmont State Hospital in Kilbuck Township, which is solely being torn down to make way for a Wal-Mart (which is just what the Sewickley area has been sorely lacking).

I don't explore abandoned buildings very often, myself, probably because I'm a timid, law-abiding goody-goody at heart. Oh, I've been inside a few --- mostly buildings that were being demolished and were open to the elements (Cox's in 1994, parts of National Tube in the early '90s) --- or which had no pretense of being sealed up. (Old abandoned farmhouses, left to the elements, for instance.) But I don't make a habit of it.

Some people do; I stumbled onto Detroitblog this week. The writer is apparently an editor at a Detroit-area newspaper (it doesn't appear to be the Detroit Free Press or the Detroit Gannett Product ... I mean, Detroit News ... because he slags them off fairly regularly), and his pieces are sharp and full of feeling.

He also shares my distaste for people who trash empty structures, ruining any remaining historical value and any reason for preserving them. Detroitblog features many good photos inside and outside of many of Detroit's abandoned buildings.

I've never been to Detroit, but based on what I've read at Detroitblog and, the devastation of the downtown area must be pretty thorough --- they paint it as a city of abandoned skyscrapers of all ages and sizes, ringed with urban blight. The Mon Valley has some pretty rough areas, and most of the urban areas are studded with abandoned buildings, but I guess it's nothing like Detroit, where the corporate inhabitants just picked up and left 30- and 40-story buildings behind to rot.

You can blast Mayor Smurphy for proposing one after another redevelopment scheme for Dahntahn Picksberg, some of them fairly outlandish, but having a shiny new convention facility, two stadiums and new skyscrapers like the Mellon Client Service Center seems to be a damn sight better than having several square miles of squalor and decay.

We can argue about Hizzoner's methods --- which have buried the city with decades of debt and allowed the other neighborhoods to go to seed --- but the results are fairly impressive. At least to outsiders, who aren't stuck paying the bill.


To do this weekend: Tune into WEDO (810) at 3 p.m. Sunday and hear "Tradition Bearers," a new program launched by the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Center that focuses on the history and ethnic diversity of the Mon-Yough area and surrounding region.

The debut program, called "Pierogi, Paczki, and Paska: The Three Ps of Lent," features St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish Lenten Kitchen in Homestead; Good Samaritan Parish in Ambridge talks about its paczki sale; and Becky Bobich of Jacobs Creek.


Also on WEDO, next Tuesday through Thursday: Live coverage of International Village, from 6 p.m. until signoff at 8:15 p.m., anchored by longtime local broadcaster George Bowes.

Which reminds me: Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! Four days until the Village opens! See ya there.

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August 12, 2004 | Link to this story

Under the Tour Bus and Heaving

Category: default || By jt3y

Did the Dave Matthews Band slime a boatload of Chicago tourists? The band says no.

But this much is certain: This past Sunday, two tour buses, while crossing an open-grate bridge over the Chicago River, dumped (no pun intended) the contents of their septic tanks.

Directly underneath that bridge? A ferry boat carrying people on a tour of architectural landmarks.

Mike Thomas of the Chicago Sun-Times apparently couldn't resist writing this, but he should have: "Sightseers trying to enjoy a Chicago Architecture Foundation river tour Sunday afternoon discovered the true meaning of poop deck when they were splattered by raw sewage."

Hey, let's leave the smarty-pants one-liners to the blogs, mm-kay?

According to the Sun-Times, at least five people went to the hospital, and the owner of the cruise line has had to replace clothing for dozens of people. Now the police are investigating.

A first-person account in the Chicago Tribune paints a more vivid picture:

People wiped off their glasses, took off their coats, and sat in stunned anger. What could you do? I was on the boat with my girlfriend and a friend of hers visiting from out of town. They, too, managed to avoid the worst of it and we hustled down into the boat's main cabin. There we could avoid the stench up top but could clearly hear people puking in the nearby bathrooms.

Don't drink the water, indeed. (Tip o' the Tube City Online hard hat to Obscure Store.)


Speaking of Chicago ...

I realize I'm easily aggravated, but this recent tendency of (very) conservative pundits and some Republican politicians to refer to the "Democrat Party" is obnoxious. I'm hearing it frequently on talk radio and the Fox News Channel.

I assume it's meant as a slam on Democrats --- "Look, we hold you in such contempt that we won't even use your real name" --- but it just makes the speaker sound illiterate. My dictionary (Merriam-Webster's New Ideal Dictionary, 7th edition, copyright 1973) shows "democrat" as a noun and "democratic" as an adjective.

In fact, the second definition of the word "democratic" is "of or relating to one of the two major political parties in the U.S., associated in modern times with policies of broad social reform and internationalism." (Look! Liberal bias in the dictionary!)

I bring this up because it turns out that Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune is also aggravated. He says he first heard "Democrat Party" back in 1996:

I wrote that my ear had latched onto "Democrat Party," and I recognized it as an expression that immediately identifies the speaker as a whiny, partisan Republican.

The conceit is that the party "is not democratic," as Republican vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp said during his 1996 convention acceptance speech. "They don't have faith in people," Kemp went on. "They have faith in government."

Hence "Democrat Party" in speeches by Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey, in Republican radio ads and in the foamings of every third caller to what I tautologically call conservative talk radio.

Bob Dole's famous snarl about "Democrat wars" goes back 25 years, and published sources variously first attribute "Democrat Party" to Thomas Dewey in the 1940s and Sen. Joe McCarthy in the 1950s.

Oh, great --- Joe McCarthy. So, Republican National Committee, that's who you're taking as your inspiration now? "Tailgunner Joe"? (Although, in truth, there's been an effort by the right to "rehabilitate" McCarthy's image. "Yeah, he may have been a drunken, lying, bullying, misogynistic racist who blew his nose with the Bill of Rights and ruined the lives of dozens of innocent people, but he meant well," is basically what they say.)

But then Zorn goes off and starts his own namecalling: "(Those) D's who wish to fight back with a childish taunt of their own ought to refuse henceforth to say GOP (the abbreviation for Grand Old Party, an appellation long claimed by the R's) and, instead, refer to the MOP --- Mediocre Old Party," he writes.

Haw. Haw. Haw.

I liked the "poop deck" joke in the Sun-Times better.


Younger co-workers don't believe me, but back in the old days, when Target and Wal-Mart weren't the main employers in the Mon-Yough area, people didn't actually own their telephones.

It's true. You rented your telephone from the phone company. If it broke, you called 611 and a nice man came out and replaced it. When AT&T was forced to divest itself of local Bell System companies in 1984, just about everyone either purchased their phones from Bell (remember the "Bell Phone Centers" in downtown McKeesport and at Century III Mall?) or bought off-brand phones from Murphy's Mart or Rat Shack.

But not everyone, according to The Associated Press. About 1 million Americans --- mostly the elderly --- are still leasing their phones from an AT&T subsidiary at a minimum of about $5 per month:

(Consumer) advocates say the program takes advantage of consumers, particularly elderly people, who may be easily confused over what their options are. According to an AARP survey from 1998, the latest year for which figures are available, 6 percent of people 75 or older leased their phone, compared with 2 percent under 65.

The AT&T Web site touts these benefits to leasing a phone:

Obtain convenient same or similar model replacement of the leased product for any reason ... Trade-in or exchange the leased product for a different color or for a telephone with more or fewer features ... Plus, if you move take the leased product with you anywhere in the continental US. ... Receive the leased product at your home or office the next business day at no charge.

Prices start at $4.45 for a old-fashioned plastic rotary-dial desk set.

I think I'm gonna be sick. Hey, anyone currently getting that "convenient" deal from AT&T, I've got a special offer for you: I'll lease you a rotary-dial desk set for half that price. Your choice of white or black. I throw in all 10 digits for free.

The AP story quotes Chris Baker of AARP as saying that the phone leases are "such a rip-off. It's one of the things older people really depend on, and the fact they get abused is pathetic."

"Rip-off" doesn't begin to describe it. It's obscene. Foul. Disgusting. Not quite as bad as having Dave Matthews' effluent dumped on your head, but it's pretty gross.

At least we know one thing for sure: Obviously, AT&T has learned to suppress its corporate gag reflex.

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August 11, 2004 | Link to this story

If I Could Save Time in a Junk Box

Category: default || By jt3y

One of the nice things about moving (actually, the only thing) has been finding a boatload of stuff that I forgot I had. Living in tiny spaces means that a lot of my things have been packed away in storage, and sitting in my new dining room, opening the boxes, is like opening time capsules.

Let me be clear: There has been nothing of value in any of the boxes so far. (Well, OK, so I did find some pennies in the bottom of one of the boxes, and some 34-cent stamps.)

Anyway, it's truly a mishmash of stuff, and much of it is composed of newspaper clippings and photocopies of items related to local history. There's information about the volunteer fire companies in North Versailles Township. A story about the Army Corps of Engineers rerouting the channel of Turtle Creek as part of a flood control project.

There are several folders of clips about radio broadcasting; the oldest is a photocopy of an announcement that Joseph Horne department store placed in the Pittsburgh Sun in 1920. It advertises "Wireless Sets for Sale" that readers could use to pick up the "air concerts" from the amateur radio station that was about to become KDKA.

I pulled that off of the microfilm at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh years ago, and forgot that I had it until this week.

Of course, there's all kinds of memorabilia from Our Fair City, including credit card statements from Jaison's and Cox's (recovered from an old file cabinet I found years ago), cancelled checks from the First National Bank of McKeesport (merged into Western Pennsylvania National Bank in 1959 or '60) and other detritus.

Once I get the scanner plugged in, I'll have all kinds of new stuff for the Web page. It's odd to think that I was collecting this stuff years ago, without ever realizing there would be such a thing as the "Internet" that I could use to inflict it on other people.

There is also a fair amount of wreckage from my newspaper career: Memos to and from editors, letters of praise from readers (and some hate mail), and a bunch of newsroom phone lists that are now useless, because 90 percent of the people named no longer work for the papers in question. I also found a sheaf of company newsletters, which are amusing in a sick way.

Besides newsletters from the companies for which I've worked, I also have some old company newsletters from the failed Penn Central railroad, Westinghouse Air Brake Co., and U.S. Steel. I'm convinced that company newsletters can serve the same purpose to students of corporate politics as Pravda and Izvestia served to Kremlinologists during the Cold War. By studying who gets praised, who gets slammed and who just gets ignored, you start to see patterns in who is about to get promoted --- and who's about to be transferred to the Level Green office. (The people who get ignored are probably going to stay in their positions forever.)

Ironically, I'll probably keep the railroad and steel company newsletters, but not the ones that I received personally. Why? Eh. I lived it. I don't need to read about it.

Have I mentioned there's a built-in barbecue grill at the side of the new house? No? Well, except for a few mementos, I think I'm gonna pile all of the newspaper leftovers --- including the newsletters --- into the grill and set a torch to them. Maybe I'll invite all of the other newsroom refugees I know over, and we can all drink beer and complain as we watch this stuff burn.


It's always nice to see a local institution in the news, but this is not the kind of publicity that UPMC McKeesport hospital needed:

Investigators are again trying to solve the mystery of who was behind the deadly anthrax attacks following 9-11; and their latest efforts are focusing on a doctor with ties to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Dr. Ken Berry works in the emergency room at UPMC McKeesport. He was arrested Thursday, accused of assaulting four family members in New Jersey just hours after authorities raided his parents' summer home.

Berry's Website hasn't been updated since 1998, but includes a testimonial that claims to be signed by former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn. According to a transcript on the Georgia Tech Web site, Berry apparently testified at a hearing Nunn held on biosecurity back in 1997.

He's been a licensed physician since 1986, according to the New York State Education Department.


In happier news, International Village starts next Tuesday, Carol Frazier reports in The Daily News. My arteries are hardening just thinking about it.

Carol's story also has a complete schedule of entertainment events, beginning at 3 p.m. Tuesday and running through fireworks and polka dancing Thursday night.


More road work is underway at the Hays end of the Glenwood Bridge, reports Joe Grata in the Post-Gazette, in a story that's most notable because Joe was able to work the word "umpteen" into it.


Slate is running profiles of the so-called crucial "swing" states in the upcoming presidential election. So far Western Pennsylvania's neighbors West Virginia and Ohio have been covered, but Slate hasn't come to Pennsylvania yet.


Finally, who's the funniest U.S. senator? The Website set out to find out. A prankster posing as a 10-year-old boy wrote to all 100 senators and asked them to respond with their favorite joke.

Of Pennsylvania's senators, Rick Santorum responded, but Arlen Specter (who rates as "one of America's unfunniest senators") didn't.

Both U.S. Senator John McCain, R-Arizona, who's recently been in the news stumping for President Bush, and Bush's rival, U.S. Senator Yawn Kerry, D-Monotonous, also responded.

None of the jokes are laugh riots, and some are just laughably bad, but at least they took the time to write back, right?

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August 10, 2004 | Link to this story

Rolling Deathtrap is a Moving Experience

Category: default || By jt3y

Someone get me the address of the Ford Foundation. I've developed a scientific theory that, based on empirical evidence, speculates a object exists even though it can't be seen. I need a grant to further my research.

It isn't a black hole, or even a healthy food item at Denny's; though those are both mysterious objects that have never been seen.

Basically, my theory is this: I've never seen a new rental truck, and every time I've ever rented a truck, it's been a nearly useless piece of worn-out junk. Yet it seems unlikely that rental companies would set out to buy completely useless pieces of junk, so at some point in the past, all rental trucks were new; therefore, even though we can't see new rental trucks, they do exist. QED. I'm calling it Jason's First Theorem of Rental Trucks.

Jason's Corollary of Rental Truck Visibility dictates, however, that rental trucks remain invisible until they reach a certain number called "X," which is a mathematical function of time, the cost of repairing the various mechanical problems, and the number of safety violations; though the exact relationship between those numbers isn't yet known, X can be expressed in dollars per second.

Admittedly, my sample hasn't been that broad. I've only ever rented trucks from a company that shall remain nameless. Perhaps rental trucks from other companies aren't rattling deathtraps. Further study is needed; once the grant money comes through, I'll rent some of those yellow trucks, and the white trucks with the blue and orange logos.

Anyway, I had to move some things from the Old Place to the New House on Monday, so I called Nameless Truck Rentals.

For $19.95 plus mileage plus tax, I was told, a 14-foot truck with a loading ramp would be waiting for me. The brother of me drove me to the rental truck place bright and early Monday morning. I forked over the credit card and the clerk rang up the sale, then stepped into the back room.

A few minutes later, I hit the dirt, thinking from the noise and smell that there had been an explosion at a diesel-fuel refinery. Nope: It was only the clerk, pulling up to the building in the truck. The front of the truck had tangled with a low wall at some point; with its bumper stove in, the truck looked as if it was grimacing. The tachometer bumped back and forth between 0 and 200 RPM as the motor coughed, caught and ran, coughed, caught and ran; and there was a large chunk of padding torn from the dashboard on the passenger side.

When I drove off of Nameless Truck Rental Co.'s lot and hit the brakes at the first intersection, I learned how the padding had been torn; obviously, a frightened passenger had yanked a piece of the dashboard loose while bracing for impact. After Brother parked his car, I picked him up so that he could help with the move. He quickly learned to assume the crash position whenever a red light loomed, and I noticed his clenched fingers neatly fit the divots on the dash.

Once the truck warmed up, we learned of another charming feature: The built-in smoke screen that came from beneath the truck (in the general vicinity of the exhaust system) that kept other cars up to 50 feet away from us. That was a good thing, too, because turning the steering wheel didn't issue demands to the truck's front tires so much as recommendations: "In the future, you may wish to veer towards port." That made foolish maneuvers (say, going around a bend, or pulling into traffic) exercises in blind faith.

I'm glad I couldn't see anything in the mirrors (which were stuck and couldn't be adjusted), because I don't think I would have liked seeing all of the frightened faces around me.

If I can digress, there is a section of pavement at the very top of Dravosburg Hill that's been a lumpy, bumpy washboard for as long as I can remember. Occasionally the county makes a half-hearted stab at repaving it, but the blacktop buckles the first time a dump truck stops there during a hot day.

I rented the truck in the South Hills, which means I had to traverse that section of pavement twice on my way to and from Our Fair City. Vikings on long boats in heavy gales have braved smoother seas. In fact, on every pavement joint, the truck jounced and bounced like a pogo stick. No doubt we would have gotten nauseous after a while; luckily, we were soon light-headed from the clouds of unburned, vaporized diesel fuel that were spraying out from under the hood.

We soon found out where the diesel vapors were coming from; a cracked fuel line was leaving puddles of fuel on the ground whenever we stopped. Basically, it wasn't a moving van so much as a rolling EPA Superfund site.

If you rent a truck, make sure you return it with the same amount of fuel with which you left. Otherwise, the rental company charges you $2 per gallon to refill the tank. That's one of the thousands of interesting items in a thick booklet that you're given when they present you with the keys. "WARNING: MAKE SURE YOU READ THIS INSTRUCTION MANUAL THOROUGHLY AND UNDERSTAND IT BEFORE USING THIS TRUCK," it says in big, threatening letters on the cover. Nuclear submarines come with less detailed manuals. I decided to save the manual for later, so I'd have something to read at the emergency room.

Speaking of diesel fuel, did you know that there's no place to purchase it in Our Fair City, except at the Buy 'n Fly on Walnut Street? Neither did I.

Between the smoke coming from the back of the truck and the diesel fuel spraying from the front, you might wonder if we worried about a fire. At first I was worried that it might burst into flame while my stuff was loaded inside. Then, after seeing my wretched life in the sunlight, I was worried that the truck wouldn't burst into flame until after it was unloaded.

Perhaps you wonder if the truck was noisy. No more so than a battleship going over Niagara Falls. After a while, your eardrums go numb and you don't notice.

When I coaxed the van back to the rental agency at the end of the day, I pointed out to the rental clerk that the truck was leaking fuel. "Huh, how about that," he said, looking at the puddle on the ground. I suppose I should have considered myself lucky: Another clerk was on the phone with a lady who had broken down on a highway somewhere. Her truck had been towed by the police impound driver --- with her stuff inside.

In conclusion, the upside of renting trucks: The chance to bounce down the street in a smelly, smoky, noisy vehicle, ignoring traffic etiquette and endangering the people around you, without having to go through the trouble of building a street rod in your backyard. Also, they're cheap.

The downside? The combination of noise, vibration and pollution exposure probably takes years off of your life.

However, as some wag once pointed out, those are the years at the end of your life, and they usually stink anyway.

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August 09, 2004 | Link to this story

Worthy of Western Pennsylvania, Indeed!

Category: default || By jt3y

Short entry for today; I was moving things and couldn't get to a computer.

All in all, it was an excellent weekend for Sunday newspapers in Pittsburgh. The Tribune-Review has had one of the lamest funnies pages in the market for a long time. So imagine my surprise on Sunday when the Trib added 13 --- count 'em --- 13 new comic strips, including two of my favorites, Get Fuzzy and Pearls Before Swine.

Bill Loeffler's story also includes a great capsule history of American newspaper comic strips, and quotes from several cartoonists.

I'd call that a powerful shot across the bow of the guys on the Boulevard of the Allies, and the capture of funnies supremacy in Pittsburgh in one fell swoop (or is that one swell foop?) by the Trib.

(Well, at least I'd call it that, but I'm a dimwit.)

Combine that with Gerry DeFlitch's downright excellent article on local, small-town radio in Western Pennsylvania (it ran in the Greensburg edition of the Trib; I don't know if it made the Pittsburgh editions) and a big "huzzah" is in order for the Tribune-Review.

The Post-Gazette, meanwhile, had a good historical overview of why Allegheny County ended up with 130 municipalities, including capsule histories of the towns. Some highlights from the Mon-Yough area:

--- East McKeesport was originally known by the native American name "Scanderoon" when the first settlers purchased the property there in 1804.

--- To give you an idea of how big Allegheny County's original townships were, West Elizabeth was originally part of Mifflin Township (which became West Mifflin Borough). The town was first established in 1833.

--- The first post office in Western Pennsylvania was established in 1832 at Turtle Creek.

--- Munhall was named for early settler John Munhall, who owned a farm in the area; he came from Ireland, however, with the name Mulhall.

--- One of the plainest municipal names in the Mon-Yough area --- Forward Township --- also has one of the strangest backgrounds. The township was named for Walter Forward, a prominent Pittsburgh judge and politician. In 1869, the state General Assembly approved the sectioning of Elizabeth Township into four smaller townships, including what eventually became Forward. When residents couldn't agree on a name, the courts named the township for Forward --- who had no known connection to the municipality.

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August 06, 2004 | Link to this story

Ready Or Not, Progress Rolls On

Category: default || By jt3y

I remember attending a North Huntingdon Township zoning hearing when Redstone Presbytery was first proposing to build a senior citizen community on the site of the old Menzie Dairy farm.

As with any large proposed development, a couple of dozen people had turned out to cry, "not in my backyard!" Never mind that Redstone was planning to build a self-contained community for people who, for the most part, don't drive and would never put kids into the school system; or that Redstone was planning to leave most of the farm to grow wild. (As Redstone rightly pointed out, the Menzie farm could have been turned into McMansions or a few hundred tract houses or even a shopping center, with the associated traffic and water runoff problems those would bring.)

No, these folks just didn't want to see anything change. Ever. Chalk them up as part of the BANANA brigade: "Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone."

One lady stood up to tell the zoning board that she liked to get up in the morning and watch the sun rise over the old Menzie barn. If Redstone Highlands was built, she wouldn't get to see the sun rise over the barn any more, she said, and that was wrong.

I sat in the audience silently, but thought: If you like to watch the sun rise over the barn so much, buy it. The property owner has the right to do with the property whatever they want, so long as it's legal, and so long as it doesn't adversely affect the other property owners.

In the end, Redstone Highlands was built. Lincoln Way didn't descend into anarchy and chaos, most of the Menzie Farm is still covered in trees and fields, and the view of the sunrises from the surrounding housing plans hasn't been impacted. (By the way, I was just up at Redstone Highlands last week to visit an old friend: It's quite nice --- better than many of the hotels I've stayed in. And the apartments are larger than the house I just bought.)

I've been thinking of that hearing since word leaked that Joe Chiodo was selling his bar in Homestead. At a meeting this week of the Steel Valley Historical Review Commission, many residents turned out to urge the board to reject Chiodo's plans to sell the property to Walgreen's so that they can build a new drugstore.

Look, the last thing the Mon Valley needs is another mega-pharmacy. You know, the kind where you can buy chocolate chip cookies, alarm clocks and 47 different kinds of suntan lotion, but the prescription counter is hidden way at the back of the store. Personally, I like a drugstore that looks like a drugstore, preferably run by a kindly druggist who wears a white coat and closes the store early on Wednesday so he can go golfing.

I'm an unabashed nostalgia buff. I've hated to watch the five-and-dime stores close, one after the other. I also hate to see small, independent businesses close and be replaced by chains --- and I put my money where my mouth is. I patronize local stores, even if I have to drive out of my way or pay a few pennies more than I'd pay to Wal-Mart. The unique character of Eighth Avenue in Homestead and West Homestead will die a little when Chiodo's is gone --- just as the character of the avenue died a little when the Levine Brothers closed their hardware store, or when Isaly's closed.

But if Joe Chiodo wants to sell his bar to Walgreen's, or whomever, let the man sell it, and wish him the best of luck and good health. According to Jen Vertullo in The Daily News, Chiodo told the Historical Review Commission: "I want to retire from that bar. I have to retire from that bar. I'm tired. I need a rest. I don't care if I sell it; I'm closing the doors."

In the end, the plans were approved by the commission, but not without a fight, and not without two people voting against them: Walter Haglund and David Gilland.

I don't doubt that their objections are sincere and reasonable, but what do they propose? That Joe Chiodo, at age 86, be forced to run a tavern that he doesn't want? That the borough of Homestead take it over as a public utility? That it be turned into the museum of dusty beer mugs?

If they like Chiodo's Tavern so much, then they should take out a small business loan and make a counter-offer for the property. Otherwise, they have to give into progress. Nothing stays the same, and it probably shouldn't.

After all, something was on the property before Joe Chiodo opened his bar. If someone had prevented him from opening the tavern back in the 1940s, then the valley would have never had the chance to accumulate all of the wonderful memories of Chiodo's Tavern and its mystery sandwiches.

And something eventually will replace Walgreen's. At least we can only hope so.


Speaking of Eighth Avenue, here's another Tube City Almanac speedtrap alert: West Homestead police have set up a speedtrap at the intersection of West Eighth Avenue and West Seventh Avenue (Route 837). That's about a half-mile east of the Glenwood Bridge.

Also, North Versailles Township police are clocking traffic on East Pittsburgh McKeesport Boulevard, just past the McKeesport city limits near Allmor Towing. You have been warned, so obey the speed limits and get the lead out of your feet. And keep sending your speedtrap alerts to jt3y at dementia dot org.


Alert Reader Rich takes issue with my assertion that only physical products add real money to the economy:

Only those creating a physical product add real money to the economy? What, were you born in the Mon Valley or something? Try telling it to the thousands employed at PNC, Mellon, or even US Airways or UPMC. None create physical products as their main business. Are these companies not employing us and adding to the local economy? If PNC does a better job than a other financial services companies, they get more customers and may hire more people here, no?

Yeah, that was sloppy thinking on my part, but my understanding of economics stopped in Mr. Cleary's 11th-grade social studies class. Not that it's his fault; I spent my time thinking about girls and staring out of the windows. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. (Actually, I think that was the school motto.)

Industries that provide necessary services are obviously a part of the economy, whether those services are pilots flying planes, mechanics fixing cars, doctors treating injuries or trash collectors hauling garbage. I still say gambling doesn't add real value to the economy, because it just moves money around --- it doesn't create anything new.

Manufacturing, agriculture and extraction create something new --- and the support industries that keep those industries going (healthcare, maintenance, financing and the rest) are necessary services. If hard goods, oil, produce and the like weren't the engines that drive the world economy, then why else would economists spend so much time tracking the commodities markets and durable goods orders?

All right, so it's arguable. I'm basically advocating a return to the gold standard, which has been thoroughly discredited, and I'm talking out of my hat. But cut me some slack. If I wasn't able to make sweeping generalizations unsupported by logic or facts, then this wouldn't be the Internet, would it?


P.S. Please, fellow Serra High graduates, I know the motto isn't "mea culpa." It's "Amor a Dios," which means "Love God" in Spanish. (Some people think the motto was "Un sacerdote está esquiando a través del césped," which means, roughly, "a monk is skiing across the lawn," but that's just a nasty rumor.)

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August 05, 2004 | Link to this story

Selected Short Subjects

Category: default || By jt3y

State Sen. Sean Logan, a man whom I generally respect and admire, is waxing grandiose about the prospect of slot machine parlors in Western Pennsylvania, as Pat Cloonan reports in The Daily News:

"When we hear estimates of the slots parlor in the city of Pittsburgh, we hear about $125 million to build it," state Sen. Sean Logan, D-Monroeville, said. "That's a lot of construction jobs, that's a lot of material, and that is even before you throw in if Mario Lemieux gets awarded the slots parlor."

But while Logan has expressed support in the past for 1935 Inc.'s plan for a racetrack that could include electronic gaming or slots, he doubts the Biros family's South Versailles Twp. effort will bear fruit.

"I appreciate their desire to get a license and to compete for a slots parlor," he said. "The language (in the bill recently signed by Gov. Ed Rendell) prohibits that, though."

Let me just add, "phooey."

Anyone expecting a giant windfall from slot machine parlors had better not hold their breath. I'm hopeful that the taxes generated will help offset school property taxes, but I question whether the revenues will be enough to make any appreciable dent. As amply demonstrated over and over again, gambling doesn't produce any real revenue because it doesn't create anything of value. It just moves money around: People who use their discretionary income to play slot machines won't spend that money at the golf course or the movie theater, so the sales taxes that might have been generated by those purchases will instead become slot machine taxes.

Only industries that actually create a physical product --- manufacturing, extraction and agriculture come to mind --- add real money to the economy. What's the physical product created by gambling? OTB slips?

As for construction jobs, by their very nature, they're fleeting. People working on construction of slot parlors will have work for 18 or 24 months, and then they'll be off to the next job, which may or may not be in Western Pennsylvania. In fact, the construction workers and contracting firms may or may not be from Western Pennsylvania, and the state might not see any of that $125 million. The best we can count on is a slight increase in motel and hotel taxes, and perhaps some occupational privilege or wage tax benefits.

Finally, as for the prospect of slot machines saving the Penguins: What exactly are we saving? A hockey team that may or may not collapse with the rest of the National Hockey League during the strike or lockout that appears to be imminent? Besides, why should I care about saving a hockey team whose tickets I can't afford?

Eh. If those are the best arguments for legalizing slot machines, Sen. Logan, they're not very persuasive.


Pittsburgh City Paper weighs in on what columnist John McIntire calls "Shoveitgate," while Managing Editor Chris Potter says the national press corps got "Kerry-ed away" by the story.

I'm not going to comment on these pieces. Just pardon me while I wipe some of the foam off of my mouth; that happens when you're biting your tongue and laughing at the same time.


By the way: In my never humble opinion, it was an anonymous editorialist at a small newspaper in Henderson, N.C., who best summed up the real moral of Teresa Kerry's "shove it" remark:

Heinz Kerry denied using both the term "activity" and the word "un-American." She was half right. It was only when a persistent McNickle informed her she definitely had said "un-American," that Mrs. Kerry --- also realizing McNickle was the editorial page editor at one of the region's more conservative papers --- flew off the handle.

Thus the style or lack thereof with which Mrs. Kerry delivered her message became the focal point, rather than her message's substance.

In a campaign where the Democrats have staked out the position that --- among other things --- George W. Bush is a liar, they'd be well-advised to do their level best at being truthful. And denying your own words scarcely an instant after you've uttered them, and had them recorded for posterity on videotape, falls short of the bar.

Granted, Heinz Kerry's dishonest response hardly measures up to the accusations opponents have leveled against Bush regarding Iraq. But the truth is the truth, and both sides ought to be sticking to it.


You may have heard that workers at a Wal-Mart in Quebec have earned the right to unionize. What you may not know is that workers at the Wal-Mart up in New Castle, Lawrence County, have been trying to organize for several years, despite what the NLRB called a pattern of harassing employees, spying on them and transferring them to other departments.

Read the complaint and you'll see how Wal-Mart keeps its prices are so low: Employees allege that departments are understaffed, that equipment is broken or absent, and that they're forced to work after-hours or on their lunch hours without compensation. More details from the United Food and Commercial Workers' union.


Things to do in August:

St. Mark's Parish festival starts tonight on the grounds of the former St. Eugene's Church, 3210 Liberty Way, Liberty Borough, and runs through Saturday. In addition to games of chance and ethnic food, a flea market and car show will be held. Call (412) 678-6275.

St. Martin De Porres Parish festival runs Aug. 13 to 15 at the corner of Eighth & Market Streets in Our Fair City. There will be a Polka Mass at the St. Peter worship site on Market Street at 5 p.m. Aug. 14 featuring the Larry Placek Combo. Call (412) 672-9763 or visit

American Cancer Society, Greater Pittsburgh Unit, will hold a 24-hour "Relay for Life" beginning at 9 a.m. Aug. 14 at McKeesport High School on Eden Park Boulevard. Call (888) 227-5445 or email for more information (be sure to specify you're looking for info about the "Mon-Yough Relay For Life").

Last, but certainly not least, the 44th annual International Village ethnic food and music festival will be held Aug. 17 to 19 at Renziehausen Park in Our Fair City. For more information, call (412) 675-5020, extension 60.

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August 04, 2004 | Link to this story

Driven to Madness in a Super-Stretch Hummer

Category: default || By jt3y

When you spend a lot of time in the car, you start to get irritated by the little things you see over and over again. Especially when you have no life, like me.

Take super-stretch limos. Who decided that a super-stretch limo was classy? Certainly not people who actually have class. The Mellons aren't riding around in 40-foot-long Cadillac Escalades, nor are members of the British royal family. (For what it's worth, Queen Elizabeth 2 has a Bentley Arnage limousine, and it's only 32 inches longer than the stock sedan.)

If you want to look classy on your way to a wedding or party, rent something restrained from one of those "black car" services --- a steel gray four-door with discretely-tinted windows. That's what the corporate CEOs and hoi polloi prefer. Riding around in a super-stretch limo only marks you as a nimrod with no taste, or a 16-year-old on your way to the junior prom. (Not that those two things are mutually exclusive.)

Cars are proportioned a certain way for a reason; years of study and hard lessons learned on the showroom floor have taught designers that certain ratios and angles are pleasing to the eye, as well as functional. Stretching those designs a few inches here and there doesn't ruin them, but adding 20 feet of length does. Especially when the car is made up of aerodynamic complex curves, but the panels that are inserted for the stretch are flat.

Besides being ponderous, traffic-clogging eyesores, many of the super-stretches are hacked-together messes when examined closely. PennDOT crews tacking steel plates together over holes in the road do a better job of welding than some of the companies that cobble together super-stretch limos. There's a reason that the insides of those things are filled with overstuffed upholstery, and the outsides are decorated with chrome doodads --- they're trying to hide the sloppy seams.

As if regular Hummers weren't bad enough, the latest trend is toward stretched Hummers --- wouldn't a nice Greyhound bus be more practical (and economical)? But it gets worse: Someone recently sent me a link to an eBay sale of what's advertised as the "first-ever" 2004 Chrysler 300 super-stretch limo. It's being sold by an outfit in Orange County, Calif., called DC Motors.

Gee, and here I thought the new Chrysler 300s were already as ugly as a car could get; thanks, DC Motors, for setting me straight! You've definitely raised the bar for awful auto design. Why not chrome-plate a toilet bowl and bolt that to the hood as the final coup de grace?

The one thing that really sets off a super-stretch limo, in my opinion, is a set of those spinning momentum rims, which are all the rage in the Mon-Yough area right now. (For all I know, they were the rage in California 10 years ago; keep in mind that most trends hit the Mon-Yough area about a decade behind the rest of the world.)

In fairness, although I've seen a few limos with momentum rims, most of the cars I see with them are absolute junk heaps --- clapped-out Pontiac Bonnevilles with strips of paint falling from their fenders, rusty Buick LeSabres blowing blue smoke, and Nissan Maximas with black plastic garbage bags taped over their busted rear windows.

Since momentum rims cost a few hundred dollars a piece, it seems to me that some of these folks would be better off investing their money in an Earl Scheib paint job, or an engine rebuild. Or maybe a bus pass.

(Man, I've really slipped into full-blown Andy Rooney rant mode. But don't stop me now, I'm on a roll.)

Even better than momentum rims is a nice, oversized vinyl top, especially one that's designed to look like a convertible roof. Sure, I believe that your 2003 Lincoln Town Car is actually a four-door convertible! Boy, you really fooled me!

Maybe vinyl roofs look OK on some older cars --- '69 Ford LTDs or Mercury Montereys --- but they make today's aerodynamic cars look like they've swelled up from a rash. According to the Detroit News, the big 3 automakers have asked their dealers to stop installing them on luxury cars like Cadillacs and Lincolns, because they make the cars look cheap and declasse. The dealers have told the companies to go take a long walk off of a short trunk lid.

Those dealers know that the customer is always right! It's a shame that they haven't noticed that Mercedes-Benz or Lexus dealers don't install fake convertible tops on their high-zoot models.

That may explain why the German and Japanese luxury car makers have been clobbering the snot out of Cadillac and Lincoln for the past 10 years. Who said there's no accounting for taste?

I was about to comment on the way drivers in Western Pennsylvania behave when they get to a four-way stop sign --- everyone sitting there, waving each other through the intersection, so that nobody moves for 10 seconds --- but the nice folks in the white coats have arrived to give me my injection, and I can already feel the Thorazine taking effect.

It's a good thing, too, because a Honda Civic with neon lights just went past my window; it was sporting a tailpipe the size of a manhole and fake Japanese writing all over it. You don't even want to get me started on that subject.

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August 03, 2004 | Link to this story

Zoned Out

Category: default || By jt3y

Wow. Do you think the phrase "stop the presses!" echoed through the tiled corridors of the Post-Gazette when this little tidbit of breaking news cleared the wires?

A little-noticed provision in the state's new slot machines bill prevents cities that host casinos from enforcing their own, local guidelines on traffic control, building design and other traditional zoning and planning matters.

The main reason for the zoning prohibition is money.

The purpose of the slots bill is to make as much dough as quickly as possible for both state and local government coffers, said Gary Tuma, spokesman for Sen. Vincent Fumo, D-Philadelphia, a key slots supporter. Haggling over zoning and planning requirements takes time and could put a speed bump in the way of collecting gambling revenues.

Of course, Alert Readers of the Almanac knew about this two weeks ago, thanks to Jonathan Potts and Fester, who picked it up from the Philly Inquirer.

Not that we're braggin' or nothin'.


Elsewhere in the news, I haven't been there yet, but the opening of a new restaurant in the Palisades down at the McKee's Point Marina provides a glimmer of hope. Jonathan Barnes had the story in the Post-Gazette:

The restaurant will feature a sandwich menu with hot fare and daily specials, said co-owner Janet Menarcheck, of Pittsburgh, who is partnering with her son, Bill, and her brother, John Stefaniak and his wife, Iva ... "My son wanted to start a business, and my sister, brother and I all have business and restaurant backgrounds. It just seemed like the way to go."

The restaurant will serve as an anchor for further development of the marina and the adjacent riverside Gergely Park, city administrator Dennis Pittman said.

It's worth noting that another restaurant in the Palisades (operated, I think, by the Antonellis of Woody's Little Italy fame) was unable to make a go of it. (I'd welcome more information on that if anyone remembers for sure; I want to say the restaurant was called "Water Street Cafe" and was open from roughly 1996 to 1997.) And a proposal to bring a brew pub to the marina has been dormant for several years.

In fairness, however, Echostar's call center has brought a lot of new people Downtown since 1997, and they need someplace to eat and entertain clients. As much as they may like smiley cookies, they can't go to Eat'n Park every day.

So, I wish the best of luck to the Menarchecks; I intend to visit their new restaurant as soon as possible, and I'd hope other Mon-Youghers will do the same.


As they say, perceptions are reality for most people, and the perception of Our Fair City has been pretty bad over the years. In the 1950s and '60s, it was regarded as a wide-open town for prostitution and the rackets (mention "Brick Alley" to any current or former McKeesporter over 40 and watch their reaction); in the '80s, decline and unemployment were the watchwords.

If outsiders have any perception of Our Fair City right now, it's of crime and abandoned buildings. That's not fair --- I don't see too many abandoned buildings in Haler Heights or near the Voke, and the crime problem is much exaggerated --- but it is the perception.

Maybe the shabby appearance of Downtown, which is where most people enter the city, contributes to the negative impression. Coming into the city from Versailles, you pass a bunch of old, dirty warehouses and poorly-tended houses. Walnut Street was never a good-looking thoroughfare, but at least it used to be busier.

(Kudos, by the way, to whoever has purchased the old Menzie Dairy Co. garage on Walnut. The ground floor has been remodeled and it has a nice, fresh paint job. Let's hope they keep up the good work.)

From Dravosburg, visitors get to see the rundown West Fifth Avenue corridor. What part is the scenic highlight? The junkyard at the end of the Mansfield Bridge --- which has spread to include an old gas station where cars are being dismantled --- or the seedy stretch between Beemer's Restaurant and Edward L. Kemp Co.?

Approaching from North Versailles Township on East Fifth Avenue, it's not too bad --- Bloom's Cut Rate and East End Cafe are colorful punctuation marks at the city limits --- but the street quickly goes downhill once you pass the cluster of rundown garages under the approaches to the McKeesport-Duquesne Bridge.

Though UPMC has invested a lot of money into upgrades to the facade and entrances to McKeesport Hospital, frankly, I don't know if it's doing them any good. The first thing visitors see are the beat-up buildings and failed businesses at the corner of Lysle Boulevard and Fifth Avenue.

If I thought shame would work, I'd start posting the names of the people who own some of the ugliest buildings in Our Fair City. It's public information, after all, available from the county's Recorder of Deeds. Of course, I'd probably get sued.

In a free country, the government can't really force private property owners to take care of their buildings, and perhaps it's unfair to ask property owners to invest money in structures that have marginal rates of return.

On the other hand, one would have hoped that civic pride and a sense of moral obligation would compel them to at least maintain their buildings. What would they say if the people who live in their neighborhoods didn't cut their grass, or threw garbage into the street?

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August 02, 2004 | Link to this story

Things I Learned From the Internet

Category: default || By jt3y

Things I found on the Internet while looking for other things:


DaimlerChrysler, German-based parent of the old Chrysler Corp., is planning to create a cheap entry level brand to attract younger car buyers, according to the Detroit News:

A Chrysler source familiar with the matter said the vehicles would be sold in Chrysler Group dealerships, but marketed separately, similar to what Toyota Motor Corp. has done with its youth-centric Scion brand. Chrysler has been exploring the new brand for more than a year and likely will decide whether or not it will launch it by year’s end, the source said.

Hmm. A youth-oriented brand sold separately but marketed through Chrysler dealerships ... wasn't that called Plymouth? And didn't DaimlerChrysler kill it a few years ago, after years of neglect?

Where does one get a job in a corporate planning department? It seems like you can screw up with impunity and not suffer any consequences.


I thought all of the old radios and TV that I own were just junk. It turns out that they're examples of highly valuable antiques, and some people have made a living off of them, at least according to The New York Times (free registration required):

Mr. Arnold and many of his clients have been connoisseurs of vintage appliances for decades, long before the current craze. They found them in junkyards, at auctions and in the kitchens of dearly departed old ladies down the street. In 1995, eBay arrived with its vast inventory of consumer-society castoffs. The demand for almost-antique appliances hasn't slowed since.

Make sure to check out the vintage Westinghouse electric roaster in one of the photos. I think every family in Western Pennsylvania had one of those in the 1960s and '70s; I still see them at church potlucks and carnivals.


Speaking of Westinghouse, did you know that there was a Canadian Westinghouse Company, based in the steelmaking town of Hamilton, Ontario? (If you've ever driven from Niagara Falls to Toronto on the QEW, you've gone past the massive Dofasco steel plant in Hamilton, which will bring back fond memories to any Mon Valley resident).

A subsidiary of Westinghouse in Pittsburgh, Canadian Westinghouse built both electrical appliances and until 1953 also controlled the Canadian interests of Wilmerding's Westinghouse Air Brake Company.

According to the Hamilton Public Library, Hamilton was stung by the same series of Westinghouse mergers, spinoffs and shutdowns as Pittsburgh in the 1980s and '90s:

Westinghouse Electric (now CBS Corporation) moved its headquarters from Pittsburgh to New York City, amid protests from disappointed Pittsburghers. The two Steeltowns, Pittsburgh and Hamilton, had yet another thing in common: the loss of a company that helped make the cities what they are ...

The "Westinghouse" of current days bears little resemblance to the comparatively small air brake manufacturing company started by George Westinghouse in Pittsburgh in 1869. Only the name of the Hamilton turbine plants serves to remind us of the company that helped build Hamilton into a powerhouse of industry.


What are the 50 best English-language magazines, in the opinion of the Chicago Tribune? The answers may surprise you.

The top 10 include Wired; Real Simple; The Economist; Cook's Illustrated; Esquire; The New Yorker; American Demographics; Men's Health; Jane; and Consumer Reports.

I don't get any of them regularly except the last, and the only others I occasionally read are Wired and The New Yorker.

Not surprisingly, Chicago Tribune readers found the newspaper's list a little, shall we say, pretentious, and compiled their own list. Their top 10 is more prosaic, and includes National Geographic, ESPN, Discover and Christian Century. Popular Science and Reader's Digest also made their top 20.


Ever wonder how Camp-Hill Corp. in Our Fair City --- the last remaining open part of U.S. Steel National Works --- makes steel pipe? Here's your answer, from the USS Tubular Web site.

There seems to have been a crime wave down in Masontown, according to the Uniontown Herald-Standard (subscription required):

While Masontown officers were attempting to aid a raccoon that had a jar wedged on its head early Friday, John Dominick, 24, of 163 Penn Ave., McClellandtown approached them and began to kick the animal repeatedly, police said. Dominick was arrested for disorderly conduct and public drunkenness and was placed in the holding cell at the Masontown police station. He was later released. Officers then successfully removed the jar from the raccoon's head, and it was released without injury.


Garry Trudeau talks to Rolling Stone about knowing George W. Bush in college:

Even then he had clearly awesome social skills. Legend has it that he knew the names of all forty-five of his fellow pledges when he rushed Deke. He ater became rush chairman of Deke -- I do believe he has the soul of a rush chairman. He has that ability to connect with people. Not in the empathetic way that Clinton was so good at, but in the way of making people feel comfortable.

He could also make you feel extremely uncomfortable. He was very good at all the tools for survival that people developed in prep school -- sarcasm, and the giving of nicknames. He was extremely skilled at controlling people and outcomes in that way. Little bits of perfectly placed humiliation.


Bob of Subdivided We Stand recently outed me for being a comic strip buff, and hanging out around the newsgroup rec.arts.comics.strips.

You may be interested to know that you can build your own custom page of comic strips at the Houston Chronicle's Web site.

Here's mine. I'm not sure what it says about me; I'll let you judge for yourself.

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