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Filed Under: default || By jt3y

May 31, 2005 | Link to this story

Through the Middle of the House

Category: default || By jt3y

I was asked last week, "Where were the old railroad tracks that ran through town located? Who owned them and when and why were they removed?"

Well, that reminded me that I forgot about a very important anniversary in Our Fair City's history. May 6 marked 35 years since the last Baltimore & Ohio train ran through the middle of Downtown. Starting that day, trains were detoured via the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad at Versailles, and the tracks that bisected Downtown were torn up. Since this is the last day of May, it seems appropriate to mark the 35th anniversary today.

I wrote a long screed several years ago about this very topic, but briefly stated, the Pittsburgh & Connellsville Railroad arrived in Our Fair City in the 1850s, running along what was then the far outskirts of the Borough of McKeesport. The P&C became part of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Unfortunately, before the 19th century was over, the city had grown up and over the B&O tracks, and by the middle of the 20th, the tracks had become a major nuisance.

There were 28 grade crossings in the city in 1945. Among the most aggravating were the ones at the corner of Walnut at Sixth and on Fifth Avenue near Locust; according to an engineering study, Walnut was blocked for up to three hours daily, while Fifth was blocked for up to four hours per day. Office workers and shoppers frequently tried to crawl over, under, or between stopped trains, risking life and limb.

Here's a map of Downtown, showing the location of the tracks. The B&O is outlined in blue. The Pittsburgh & Lake Erie (which ran up the middle of Fourth Avenue, and was also a nuisance) is highlighted in green, while the Pennsylvania's spur line from Duquesne is outlined in red. The B&O's passenger station was on the north side of Fifth Avenue between Locust and Sinclair.

There were a variety of schemes proposed for rerouting the B&O, and I'll be posting a larger article about that in the Tube City Online history pages in a few days. (The railroad itself proposed a tunnel running underneath Downtown from roughly near the current McKeesport-Duquesne Bridge to the 15th Avenue Bridge. Other proposals included a massive cut through present-day White Oak and North Huntingdon Township.)

What's less well-known is that there was also a scheme to erect a "union station" in McKeesport that would have served both the B&O and P&LE (which offered some commuter train service to McKeesport through the '50s) as well as the post office and Railway Express Agency (a sort-of predecessor to today's UPS and Federal Express).

"McKeesport Union Station" was contigent on the B&O tracks being elevated and rerouted through town, and would have been located along Lysle Boulevard --- near, I suspect, the current location of the Port Authority's bus terminal and former train station.

Naturally, it was never built, which in the grand scheme of things is probably a good thing. Those cities that built modern, efficient railroad terminals after World War II wound up with expensive, empty white elephants once the railroads decided they wanted out of the passenger business in 1971. McKeesport Union Station likely would have languished for a few years as a commuter terminal before being closed when Port Authority killed off its passenger train service. As it is, we have more than our share of empty buildings already, thank-you-very-much.

Speaking of which: I see that the Masonic Temple is for sale now, too. It's currently assessed at $156,000, according to the county's website. The listed owner is the Masonic Temple Association of McKeesport. A search of the Pennsylvania Grand Lodge website shows that at least two Masonic organizations are still using the Temple for meetings --- Alliquippa Lodge No. 375 and Youghiogheny Lodge No. 583.

Too many fraternal organizations have had to close over the past 20 years (people just don't join clubs and lodges any more). I hope the decision to sell the Masonic Temple in McKeesport isn't a portent of some trouble; the city long had a very active and vibrant group of Masonic organizations. Maybe it's just a sign that the commercial real estate market has picked up.


P.S. There was no Almanac yesterday, on account of me being too busy on Sunday. Your indulgence is appreciated.

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May 27, 2005 | Link to this story

19-Cent Burgers, Arthur Godfrey and PSM

Category: default || By jt3y

A little of this, a little of that. What the heck: It's Friday!

It turns out that a Mid-Mon Valley landmark is moving. Liz Zemba writes in Thursday's Tribune-Review that Pechin's is moving to the mostly vacant Laurel Mall between Uniontown and Connellsville:

Laurel Mall's relatively modern, indoor setting will be the opposite of Pechin's current zero-frills setup: individual, outdoor shops face in toward an aging, patched asphalt parking lot. Its anchor, the grocery store, is housed in a sprawling, cinder-block structure.

Older customers will recall a time when gaps in wooden floorboards afforded glimpses of a stream that flows under the grocery store.


Pechin's has long enjoyed a reputation for undercutting its competitors, with its cafeteria boasting 19-cent hamburgers and full meals for less than $1. Grocery deals also abound, with Pechin's this week offering fresh split chicken breasts for 97 cents a pound, compared with $1.59 per pound at Giant Eagle, and 20-pound bags of Kingsford charcoal for $4.99 versus Giant Eagle's sale price of $5.99.

The prices at Pechin's, Zemba reports, have made the National Enquirer three times and the front page of The Wall Street Journal. Besides groceries, Pechin's also sells cigarettes, shoes, clothing, hardware, sporting goods and beer.

I can see where Pechin's might have trouble attracting people out into the woods of Dunbar Township --- it's not all that easy to find, especially compared to Laurel Mall --- but I suspect some of its appeal over the years has been the fact that it's a little bit obscure. Whether it has the same appeal in the bland confines of Laurel Mall (whose original anchor tenant was, of course, Murphy's Mart) remains to be seen.


I've written before (probably ad nauseum) about how much I enjoy listening to recordings of old-time radio shows. A lot of them are dross, but a few hold up very well: I actually enjoy "Dragnet" more on radio than on TV, and TV's "The Twilight Zone" owes a lot to the sci-fi radio anthology "X-Minus-One," which came just a few years before.

At Hamvention last weekend, I ran into my favorite old-time radio dealer, and like any addict, spent too much money on getting another fix. I literally now have several hundred hours of programs to work through, including "Suspense," "This is Your FBI," and "The Great Gildersleeve." I also bought copies of BBC's "The Goon Show," the radio comedy series that propelled Peter Sellers to stardom and was said to be a favorite of young John Lennon.

I find old-time radio great fun for car trips, especially since there isn't much to listen to on the ride home except the soporific sounds of NPR's "All Things Considered Until Your Eyes Glaze Over," right-wing talk radio bloviators, or badly chosen "classic" rock songs interrupted by 10 minutes of commercials. Anyway, no matter how bad the traffic jam in which you're stuck, it's hard to feel road rage while listening to "Fibber McGee and Molly."

Over the past few days, I've been listening to episodes of "Arthur Godfrey Time." Godfrey is all but forgotten today, but in the 1940s and '50s, there was probably no bigger star on both radio and TV. At one point, Godfrey had three successful series going on TV, a daily 30-minute morning program on CBS radio (including McKeesport's WEDO), a recording career and was very successful as a commercial pitchman.

Unfortunately, if he's remembered for anything, it's for his legendary volcanic temper, and his occasionally callous dealings with subordinates. He notoriously fired several performers on his shows who he thought had become too popular, including one --- Julius LaRosa --- on live television. His arrogance got him in trouble with the government, as well. A proud booster of private aviation and an enthusiastic airplane buff, Godfrey was cited after he buzzed the control tower at the Teterboro, N.J., airport. (He was mad because they wouldn't give him permission to land.)

In all fairness, Godfrey could also be extraordinarily kind, especially to people just starting out in radio or TV, and was a known "soft touch" for a wide variety of charities. He also had a large, and extremely devoted, circle of friends, who saw only the kind, warm Godfrey (not the sharp edge of his tongue).

That's the Godfrey on display on these programs --- the man with the deep voice and the dry wit, full of folksy aphorisms and gentle quips. I'm currently working through a week of episodes of "Arthur Godfrey Time" from January 1964 that celebrated his 30th anniversary with CBS. (Or as Godfrey does the station break once: "You're listening to Mr. Paley's favorite network, the Columbia Broadcasting System.")

The first of these shows blew my socks off. Among a whole slew of Broadway and nightclub performers (most of them now forgotten), Godfrey had as guests Meredith Willson, Pat Buttram, Gen. Curtis LeMay and Edward R. Murrow. That may have been the first and only time that LeMay, Murrow and Buttram were ever on any broadcast together. (Murrow, already desperately ill from lung cancer, died about a year later.) One guest also read congratulatory telegrams to Godfrey from Lyndon Johnson and Dwight Eisenhower.

But upon hearing the second Godfrey anniversary program, I almost crashed my car. Among Godfrey's guests were Joan Crawford, Jackie Gleason, Richard Nixon (!), Lowell Thomas and Rosemary Clooney. Can you imagine that group of people in the same room together? On the same program were George Burns, Art Linkletter and Harry Von Zell were in Los Angeles, via long-distance telephone. (Gleason, naturally, gets off most of the best lines. How sweet it is!)

The third show's guest list was impressive, too, even if it paled in comparison to the previous day's --- Godfrey's panelists were Pat Boone, Abigail "Dear Abby" Van Buren, Johnny Nash and Steve Lawrence, among others. Admittedly, you have to be interested in 1960s pop culture to care about this stuff, but I found it pretty heavy indeed. I'm a little bit worried to hear who was on the fourth show: "My guests are Nikita Khruschev, Bob Newhart, Richard J. Daley, Keely Smith and Winston Churchill."


News from Penn State McKeesport: "Penn State McKeesport alumnus James E. Minarik, classes of '75 and '77, encouraged graduates at the campus' spring commencement ceremony to be persistent, to focus on the present and to commit to lifelong learning. 'It is very tough to see the future or to recognize change and innovation as it is actually happening, it is only when we look back like this that we can get any real perspective about how many changes we deal with year in and year out,' he said." (More here. Minarik is president and CEO of Directed Electronics, which makes among other things vehicle alarms, satellite radio receivers, and global-positioning satellite equipment.)

Also from PSM's press office: "Michelle Gordon Hough, assistant professor of business at Penn State McKeesport, has been named a Fulbright Scholar for the 2005-2006 award year. Hough will travel to Denmark this fall to fulfill the terms of her award, where she will lecture at the Niels Brock
Copenhagen College of Business." (More here.)


To Do This Weekend: Mon-Yough area parade buffs will be in high cotton on Memorial Day. West Newton's parade starts at 9 a.m. at Vine Street Park and proceeds to West Newton Cemetery. Irwin's parade starts at 10 a.m. at the corner of Second and Main, and travels up Main Street to Pennsylvania Avenue, ending at the Union Cemetery. White Oak's Memorial Day parade begins at 12:30 p.m. Monday at the corner of Willard Avenue and Lincoln Way. Versailles' parade starts at 3, and goes from Olympia Shopping Center to the Christy Park war memorial. (There's more in the Post-Gazette.)

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May 26, 2005 | Link to this story

Act 72 is Like School on Sunday

Category: default || By jt3y

As we come down to the wire, more and more Mon-Yough area school districts are deciding whether to take part in the state's Act 72 shell game ... er, I mean, property tax relief.

This week, school directors in Woodland Hills, East Allegheny, Clairton, Duquesne and Steel Valley all voted to participate. West Jefferson Hills school board tabled action --- which is as good as a "no" vote, effectively, because there isn't a snowball's chance on Route 51 in August that they're going to hold a special meeting to reconsider it before Monday.

Trying to fund anything through gambling revenue is a fool's errand. Gambling doesn't create any new money --- it just moves around some discretionary spending. Money that people spend on gambling is money they're not going to spend on a new DVD player, or Pirates tickets, or in a few cases, food and clothing. I strongly suspect that any money made by regulating slot machine gambling in Pennsylvania is going to be money that isn't collected in sales and amusement taxes.

I also firmly believe that our distinguished leadership is overestimating the appeal of slot machine gambling. I can understand the appeal of table gaming --- shooting craps, playing cards, etc., is competitive and social, even if some of the players look anti-social. But sitting in front of a metal box and plugging quarters into a slot is not my idea of a good time. You might as well go play a Coke machine --- at least you're a winner every time.

Yes, I understand that busloads of Pennsylvanians go to Wheeling Island or Atlantic City every single day and play the slots, but has anyone stopped to consider that maybe traveling somewhere else to play the one-armed bandits is fun mostly because it's a change of scenery? I somehow doubt that people from Munhall are going to plan vacation trips to play the slot machines in, say, Hays.

But because our solons lacked either the courage or the imagination to go all the way and legalize all forms of casino gambling, we're stuck with this namby-pamby slot machine legislation, which may or may not generate the $1 billion that its proponents say it will.

And yet I sense that it isn't this uncertainty that has prevented some school districts from signing onto Act 72. Instead, I suspect they're more concerned over the provision of Act 72 that would require any future property tax increases over and above a certain "index" number to be put before the voters. We all know, I think, that if you put a school tax increase to a vote, it would be almost impossible to gain passage.

The fundamental problem --- and the one Act 72 is supposed to address --- is that a district like Duquesne or Clairton doesn't have anywhere near the taxable property base of a Hempfield. In terms of real, non-inflationary dollars, property tax revenues only ever increase if there's new development, or if you raise the tax rate. With a community like Duquesne, where there is little if any new development, and where the existing properties are depreciating, the only option left is to raise taxes, which only chases people away. But Act 72 is just a patch on an already bad system.

There are a couple of real solutions, I suspect, for any politician brave enough to suggest them. Before the 1950s, practically every municipality in Pennsylvania operated its own school district. In the 1950s and '60s, the state compelled them to merge --- that's how we got East Allegheny out of East McKeesport, North Versailles Township, Wall and Wilmerding, for instance. In a few cases, there was more than one merger --- the Port Vue and Liberty school districts merged into the creatively named Port Vue-Liberty School District, and then with Glassport and Lincoln into South Allegheny.

The state needs to do that again --- offer big incentives for school districts to merge, and arrange some shotgun marriages if necessary. What would be wrong with a countywide school district, for instance? That system seems to work well in western states. A school district that encompassed all of Allegheny County would go a long way toward addressing the tax revenue inequities between Quaker Valley (Sewickley, etc.) and Steel Valley (Homestead, et al).

Or go even further. Institute a statewide uniform school tax rate, assess all properties based on their full, fair market values (not on county drive-by assessments), and have people send their school property taxes to Harrisburg. Then disperse the money to the school districts based on a standard formula, with adjustments for schools or districts that are in extremely unusual circumstances. Sure, some people would scream, "Too much bureaucracy," but how could it be any more bureaucracy than our current system in Allegheny County of 43 school districts with 43 school boards, 43 school superintendents, 43 school tax rates, 43 school tax collectors, etc., etc., ad nauseam?

Right now, Pennsylvania ranks 49 out of 50 in the share of education funding provided by the state. Survey after survey by Education Week has shown that the fairness of funding from district to district is worse in Pennsylvania than in all but a few states. (Instinctively, we already know that a kid going to school in Upper St. Clair has access to technology and opportunities that a kid in Clairton doesn't.) You can get more information from Good Schools Pennsylvania, whose executive board includes (among others) the Mon-Yough area's own Linda Croushore.

What will it take for Pennsylvanians to wake up and demand that their state legislature do something besides these Band-Aid solutions like Act 72? Do we finally have to bottom out?

In the meantime, we sit and scratch our heads and wonder, "Gee, why do young people keep moving away from Pennsylvania? Is it because of our weather? Our outdated hockey arena? Our lack of doughnuts with flavored custard?"

Boy, it's a puzzler, it is.

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May 25, 2005 | Link to this story

How Green's Was My Valley?

Category: default || By jt3y

Old photo time at Tube City Almanac! By my recollection, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the demolition of the old H.L. Green Co. store at the corner of Fifth and Walnut in Downtown Our Fair City.

Green's was a chain of variety stores --- five-and-10s --- much in the manner of G.C. Murphy Co. or F.W. Woolworth Co. Founded by former auto company executive Harold L. Green, it arrived on the dime-store scene fairly late --- 1932. (Most of its competitors had roots that went back to the 19th century.) Green's, therefore, was never one of the largest variety store companies, but it was very successful and profitable for a number of years, and it grew quickly by absorbing a number of other chains.

This made the demise of the H.L. Green Co. name all the more ironic. Green's, through a subsidiary, acquired a large share of stock in two of its competitors --- McCrory Stores and McClellan Stores. Through a complicated series of stock swaps, all three chains wound up merging, but the McCrory Stores gained control of the operation.

But Green's executives continued to rise to positions of prominence in the new organization, which for a short time was known as "McCrory-McLellan-Green." Indeed, one of the last presidents of McCrory Stores was a former H.L. Green store manager J. Philip Lux. Besides being a leading executive in the retail business for many years, Lux was also a minor footnote to major American history; he was the manager of the Green's store in Dallas, Texas, in 1964, and was subpoenaed to testify before the Warren Commission that his store had not sold Lee Harvey Oswald the rifle used to shoot President Kennedy. (Of note to McKeesporters: Lux was the man who years later engineered the purchase of the G.C. Murphy Co. five-and-10s from Ames Department Stores in 1989, which led to the final closing of the Murphy office in Our Fair City.)

In any event, I don't have any idea when H.L. Green opened its first store in Our Fair City, but I've seen reference to an earlier "Metropolitan Store" being located Downtown, which was one of the chains that Green's purchased. In the mid-1940s, the Green's store burned down. Green's then cleared several buildings on the north side of the 200 block of Fifth Avenue for one of the company's largest stores. It opened in 1949. (These photos are from a 1950 feature in the magazine Chain Store Age.)

The corner entrance was (naturally) at the corner of Fifth and Walnut. The long side of the store, with the display windows, was along Fifth Avenue, Our Fair City's main commercial thoroughfare for many years. At the time the store opened, the other corners would have been occupied by People's Union Bank, the then-closed White's Opera House, and First National Bank of McKeesport. White's was torn down in the mid-1950s to make way for Cox's, which was itself torn down 40 years later.

Green's closed their McKeesport store in the early 1980s, and the property was sold and the relatively-new building was torn down so the lot could be used as a Sheetz convenience store. Sheetz didn't last long, selling the store to Belle Vernon's Guttman Oil Co. for use as a "CrossRoads" convenience store, which was transformed into a "GetGo" a few years ago. But when it first opened, many people considered Green's to be a nicer store inside than the G.C. Murphy store and the F.W. Woolworth in the next block!

Of course, I may be biased; my maternal grandmother was a longtime sales girl, assistant manager and floorwalker at H.L. Green's, retiring a short time before the store closed.

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May 24, 2005 | Link to this story

Stories You May Have Missed

Category: default || By jt3y

Spanning the glob to bring you the constant virility of news ... the thrill of viscosity and the agony of sore feet ... we are Tube City Almanac.

Our first item comes via Peter Leo in the Post-Gazette:

In his new book, "The Flight of the Creative Class," former Carnegie Mellon professor Richard Florida calls Pittsburgh a microcosm of what could be in store for America. You remember Florida, the Pittsburgher known for most bluntly pointing out the region's faults -- until The Andy Warhol Museum's Tom Sokolowski came along and Florida had to move. If you know his work, it comes as no shock that Florida postulates that Pittsburgh is ahead of the curve in an undesirable way. He writes about how close-minded attitudes have caused Pittsburgh to lose many of its most creative, intelligent, artistic, high-valued talents in recent times: "Its great export, local residents like to say, is no longer steel, but its young people, the very talent it invests so much in creating. ... I saw firsthand what being a less open and tolerant society led by squelchers did to Pittsburgh's economy. I fear this may well be a microcosm for what is now beginning to happen to our entire country." Maybe he's right, but geez, did he have to tell everybody?

Richard Florida: How can we miss him if he won't go away?

There is more than a germ of truth in Florida's basic theories. Americans have become anti-intellectual and anti-diversity at precisely the wrong time, when those attributes are needed most to compete in the global economy. He's also correct that there's a strong class divide right now, which is being skillfully exploited by the party in power.

But Florida long ago crossed over from being a voice of reason and conscience into being an obnoxious scold. I also think he underestimates the "enemies" of the so-called creative class and fails to make any attempt to understand the culture of middle America. At times, he seems intolerant of other people because he considers them intolerant. (To quote Tom Lehrer: "And I hate people like that!")

As for his comments about Western Pennsylvania (or what we like to call the "Greater McKeesport Area"), Florida is quickly becoming a one-note song. Yes, yes, we're insular and parochial and we spend too much time watching sports and not enough time drinking latte and going to gallery openings. We get it, already. Now flake off.


In other news, I've mentioned before that I love to read the funnies, and one of my favorites is Darby Conley's "Get Fuzzy," which thankfully is finally being carried by both the Trib and the P-G. I like dogs and cats, though I'm terribly allergic, and I'm convinced that if they could talk, they'd sound like Bucky Katt and Satchel Pooch.

The setup of "Get Fuzzy," for those of you not in the know, is that struggling Massachusetts ad agency executive Rob Wilco shares an apartment with his sweet-tempered but naive dog Satchel (named for Satchel Paige) and his nasty and stand-offish cat Bucky, both of whom behave like typical cats and dogs, except for the fact that they talk. (And this being the funnies, no one seems to think this is a bit odd.)

You may remember Conley from when he cheesed off our local chattering classes a few years ago by doing a joke about how Pittsburgh "smells," and then later on rubbed the joke in by doing a strip about how Pittsburghers were hypersensitive. (Us? Hypersensitive?)

I was so offended, I bought that strip on a coffee mug. But then again, as a former boss told me, I have an "attitude problem."

It's funny that Conley (who has never lived in Pittsburgh, to the best of my knowledge) was able to make much the same point about Pittsburgh in two comic strips that it's taken Richard Florida two books and countless op-eds to make. But I digress.

Anyway, according to The Boston Globe, Conley and his syndicate are now being sued by Boston TV sportscaster Bob Lobel, who claims that he was libeled by the May 13 "Get Fuzzy":

The four-page complaint and demand for a jury trial was filed Thursday in Norfolk Superior Court in Dedham by attorney Harry Manion. The complaint charges that the May 13 version of the comic strip, by Conley, ''constitutes a false and malicious libel of and concerning Lobel. The cartoon, read in its totality, is a smear of Lobel.

''It implies and asserts that Lobel is intoxicated when appearing on television. During his entire 34-plus-year career, Lobel has never appeared on the air intoxicated or under the influence of alcohol. The statement that Lobel is a drunk is false and is intended to injure him personally and professionally, and was made at a time when it was common knowledge that Lobel was in negotiations with his employer for a contract renewal."

Since the syndicate has now yanked the comic strip in question from its website, here's a transcript. In the first panel, Satchel, Rob and Bucky are watching TV. "Is this sportscaster drunk?" Satchel asks.

In the second panel, Rob responds: "Lobel? He's like some TV outreach program or something."

Bucky and Rob then get into to argument, to which Satchel responds: "Guys, how can you fight when there's a drunk guy on TV?"

Granted, it played better in cartoon form, but it was a mild chuckle at best. A little cursory research on the Web reveals that fans have often accused Lobel of being intoxicated, apparently because of his wild, rambling commentaries on the air. I had no idea who Lobel was (I rather assumed he was an ESPN sportscaster), and if the joke fails at all, it's because it's too Boston-centric. "Lobel" could have been easily replaced by "this guy" and it would have been just as funny (or unfunny) to most Americans.

Nevertheless, this is an interesting lawsuit. Lobel is basically in the position of suing over what a cartoon dog said in a fictional setting. I am not a lawyer, but my shaky understanding of libel law indicates that the standard for libel against a public figure is very tough. He'd have to prove that the libelous material misrepresented the actual facts in such a way as to deliberately defame him.

In other words, he has to argue that people believe that there is an actual dog named Satchel who watches TV, talks to someone named "Rob Wilco" and a cat named "Bucky," and comments on what he sees. And then the jury has to believe that people reading the comic strip at home are saying, "Well, if a talking dog in a comic strip says he's a drunk, it must be true!"

On the other hand, we're talking about American jurors, who also believed that O.J. was going to go out and look for the real killer. Your mileage may vary.


Finally, it looks as if West Mifflin's James Lavelle Catholic School is going to close, as Jennifer Vertullo reported last week in The Daily News. There was more in the Trib last night, where Maggi Newhouse pointed out that James Lavelle was closed for more than a year after severe storms swept through the Mon Valley in May of 2002, tearing the roof from the building.

Enrollment at James Lavelle, which is attached to Resurrection Parish, was down to about half of what it was during the 1997-98 school year, Newhouse wrote.

There are many reasons why Catholic schools in the Pittsburgh area continue to close --- an aging and shrinking population top the list --- but I suspect that many Catholic parents no longer think it's important to send their children to Catholic school. Perhaps that's because of the expense, but then it becomes a vicious cycle --- there are fewer students, so tuition goes up, so there are fewer students. Lather, rinse, repeat.

With fewer Americans entering vocations, Catholic schools are also more dependent on lay teachers than they used to be, and that costs money as well. And finally, American Catholics are fairly stingy with donations; though Protestants are familiar with the concept of "tithing," many Catholics are still putting the same dollar-per-week into the collection plate that they always have.

There are many problems facing the Church worldwide, so perhaps the plight of Catholic schools isn't at the top of the list of concerns. On the other hand, given the old saw that "children are our future," perhaps it should be.

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May 23, 2005 | Link to this story

Up and At 'Em

Category: default || By jt3y

I was out of town for my annual geek pilgrimage to Hamvention --- the swallows return each spring to San Juan Capistrano, the buzzards to Hinckley, and the radio buffs to Dayton --- about which more in a few days, whether or not you care.

But there is something more immediate to report. Let the record show that chemical weapons were unleashed on Sunday. The first battle began at about 3:15 p.m. and lasted for 45 minutes. The second began at 8:45 p.m. and lasted a half-hour. The targets were enemy insurgents, and the place was my little quarter-acre of FHA-financed American Dream in North Bittyburg.

Yes, friends --- I've got ants. My reaction was not quite the same as that of the housewives in all of those "Tom & Jerry" cartoons --- standing on a chair and squealing --- but it was close.

I got home early Sunday morning, slept for a few hours, and then unpacked the car. At about 3 p.m., I called someone about some side work I may be doing. He told me to come out and meet with him in North Versailles right away. I said I'd be there in 30 minutes. I flipped on the bathroom light --- and there they were, dozens of giant, fanged beasts, their shiny black carapaces gleaming evilly in the harsh incandescent light.

OK, would you believe three? I stomped two by the sink. The third tried to make a break for the commode, but I got him, too, as he crawled up the side.

Ants! Eek! I'm not particularly squeamish. Show me a spider, and I'm fine. (I squash them, but they don't particularly bother me.) Even snakes and worms don't faze me. But for some reason, I don't like ants. Yes, they're supposed to be industrious, but how do we know what they're really up to? They live in colonies, for goodness sakes. Who knows what they've been plotting down there for all of these years?

If I had ants in the bathroom --- which doesn't have a window --- they had to be coming from somewhere. With great trepidation, I looked into the kitchen, and the floors were (pardon the expression) crawling. There, on my nice clean tile floor, were ants everywhere, wriggling in under the back door.

I should pause now and point out that about an hour before, my neighbor was out cutting his grass. I strongly suspect that he hit an anthill, or at the very least the noise and vibration of the mower freaked the little buggers out. I did my best Michael Flatley impression all over the kitchen floor, and then ran downstairs. Last year, I had done some preventive spraying for carpenter ants, and I had about a half-gallon of poison left. I used to dose the back porch and the ground underneath. And still they kept coming. These weren't carpenter ants --- these were demon ants from hell!

Or maybe common pavement ants. It's hard to tell.

Keep in mind I had promised to be in North Versailles within a half-hour. That was 20 minutes previous. Down the hill I went to the House of Rancid Lunchmeat for ant baits and Raid. I'm not convinced that ant baits do a darned thing. In fact, I think they're an aphrodisiac for ants. And as for the Raid, it's perfumed, for crying out loud, so how good could it work? It must be what the ants roll in when they're getting amorous.

Nevertheless, I baited the kitchen and the back porch with ant bait and sprayed a perimeter around the windows and doors, and I stomped on several more ants in the process. Then I went to my meeting.

On the way home, I did something I rarely do --- stopped at Wal-Mart --- and bought two pounds of ant powder ("guaranteed to kill ants") and some more ant baits. I salted the ground all the way around the house with powder and spiked the ant baits down everywhere I found a crack or crevice. (I also angered Mrs. Robin Red-Breast, who's built a nest on my porch. She came swooping out and chirped angrily at me for several minutes as I worked.)

As I finished my anticide, the neighbor from the other side came out with a bag of garbage to put into the trash can. "Can I ask you a question?" I said. "Are you getting any ants right now?"

"Those big black ones?" she said. "Oh, yeah, we get them every spring. I had an exterminator out. He called them concrete ants. He said just put some baits and spray down. It worked. They'll go away in a few days."

She turned to go back into the house. I had just started to relax when she said something that made shivers run up and down my spine: "Wait 'til you get the mice. We get those every year, too. I got 13 last summer."

Do you think it's possible to live year-round in a dirigible?

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May 20, 2005 | Link to this story

Almanac On Vacation

Category: default || By jt3y

The Almanac is taking a brief vacation. I suppose I should have announced that Thursday, eh? Well, you folks get what you pay for (and it's worth every cent.)

We'll be back on Monday with the usual half-witty commentary and whatnot. In the meantime, why not go see what James Lileks or Rip Rense have to say?

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May 18, 2005 | Link to this story

Correction, Not Perfection

Category: default || By jt3y

OK, because I bolloxed up the McKeesport Area School District race earlier today (the screwed up info has since been deleted), here's the correct information, courtesy the Allegheny County Division of Elections: The Democratic nominees are Wayne Washowich, Lori Spando, Dave Donato and Barbara Stevenson, while the Republican nominees are Donato, Stevenson, Spando and Washowich. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

All of the winners are incumbents. Aye, but here's the rub, according to Pat Cloonan in the News: The terms of two of the people running (Donato and Spando) weren't going to expire until 2007, but they ran anyway. In the process, they bumped two other school directors whose terms were going to expire (Harry Stratigos and Gerry Tedesco) off of the November ballot.

This is either fiendishly evil or devilishly clever. I'm not sure which yet, but I suspect it depends on whose side you were rooting for. (I don't live in the district, so I don't have a dog in the fight.) I do know that it offends my own sense of fair play, even if it's legal, and I'm sorry I missed the earlier coverage of this loophole; Cloonan writes that state Rep. Marc Gergely has introduced legislation to prevent this from happening again.

As best as I can figure, this also means that come December, the McKeesport Area school board is going to have two technically vacant seats --- the current terms of Donato and Spando. That means the seven remaining board members will have to appoint two directors to fill the remaining two years on their terms. I suspect this will set off a lovely round of political hair-pulling.

I don't understand people who say they don't care about local politics. Hell, watching local politics is more fun than cable TV, and it's free!

Well, OK, it's not free if you count the tax money you pay to subsidize this lunacy, but you get my point.

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May 18, 2005 | Link to this story

Kendrick Upset Fails to Materialize

Category: default || By jt3y

I can only describe it as stunned disbelief --- the feeling of gloom that settled over the Tube City Online Laboratories last night as the election results came in. Based on carefully calculated results from our head researcher, Dr. Pica Pole, we went out on a limb Tuesday and predicted a big upset victory in the Picksberg Democratic mayoral primary for Louis "Hop" Kendrick.

It wasn't until about 11 p.m. that Dr. Pole and his crack assistant, Spike Nutgraf, discovered what had happened --- apparently, Dr. Pole had mixed up his formula for estimating election returns with his formula for converting Celsius to Fahrenheit. That explains why he had Kendrick winning by a margin of nine-fifths plus 32 over his nearest competitor. (Frankly, we should have realized something was wrong when Dr. Pole had the row office reform referendum passing by a margin of 20 "degrees.")

On behalf of Dr. Pole, my sincerest apologies. He's taking the rest of the week off to, as he puts it, "see how I can blame this on Nutgraf."

In other news, in complete but unofficial returns from the Allegheny County Division of Elections, it looks like Our Fair City will have at least one new councilman. Democrat Paul Shelly was leading the field with 1,616 votes last night. Incumbents Dale McCall and Darryl Segina were in second and third place, respectively, while it seems as if incumbent Ann Stromberg lost her bid for the nomination. No Republicans were filed. (UPDATE: Duh. It just dawned on me that I completely screwed up the McKeesport school board results by forgetting to add in the votes from South Versailles, Versailles and White Oak. Sorry. Corrected totals will follow later today.)

Over in South Allegheny, it looks as if incumbent school directors Naomi Rosche and Doris Bailley lost their bids for re-election. Returns from the Allegheny County Division of Elections indicate that the Democratic nominees were Louis Borrelli, incumbent Dino DeFelice, Raymond Luppe and Pete Miller, while the Republican nominees are Borrelli, DeFelice, Luppe and incumbent Kurt Betzner.

In the new magisterial district that covers both the City of Clairton and the South Allegheny communities of Port Vue, Liberty and Glassport, District Judge Armand Martin of Clairton appears to have captured both the Republican and Democratic nominations. Complete but unofficial returns show Martin with 2,499 Democratic votes, followed by Gabe Pediconi, Luke Riley and George Adams, while Martin had 183 Republican votes, followed by Riley, Pediconi and Adams. Martin has been the district judge for Clairton for several years, but the three boroughs on the opposite side of the Clairton bridge were added to his district when Ed Burnett retired. Naturally, he was helped by the wide margins he ran up in his hometown of Clairton --- 3-to-1 among Republicans and 5-to-1 among Democrats --- but he also won the largest share of Democratic votes in both Port Vue and Glassport. (Riley, an SA school director and longtime police chief in Liberty, easily won in that borough, as might be expected.)

Links to election returns from all Mon-Yough area communities follow below.


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May 17, 2005 | Link to this story

Electoral Dysfunction

Category: default || By jt3y

I was voter number 10 at North Bittyburg Borough, Ward 3, Precinct 1, at 7:50 a.m. this morning. There was no one behind me. "People are just too complacent," said one of the poll watchers as I left. Indeed; I'd like to see a law passed that would require every person driving around with an American flag or a "Remember 9-11" magnetic ribbon on their car to vote in every election. I got your patriotism right here, fella.

Yeah, yeah, I know. It's only a primary, and you don't know anything about the candidates. Well, that's not much of an excuse. The Daily News has been running profiles of practically every single candidate in every single race in the Mon-Yough area. I haven't seen the Gateway papers recently, but I'd bet money that they've covered the races in the Woodland Hills and Norwin school districts. The Trib and P-G have had stories as well.

Most people pay the largest percentage of their local taxes to the school district where they live; to torture a metaphor, not being interested in your local school board is like being a chicken who's not interested in Colonel Sanders.

I'll admit that the county judge candidates baffle me. Out of the entire field, I had strong positive opinions about four people running, and a negative opinion of one. Unfortunately, I was supposed to choose seven, but I didn't --- I just voted for the four people I knew something about.

If you don't want to vote for any candidates, vote for an issue! There are two important referenda on the ballot today. The first would amend the Allegheny County charter to eliminate several row offices and replace the elected county coroner with a qualified medical examiner. (With apologies to Tim Menees, the offices being eliminated do not include "profanitary," "clerk of quartz," or "lamplighter.") The second would allow the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to borrow $625 million to create an environmental cleanup fund.

For goodness sakes, I can think of strong reasons to vote either for or against either of those issues. (How did I vote? I ain't sayin'.)

People in Tube City Almanac territory, of course, can't vote in the Democratic primary for mayor of Picksberg --- their choices, as I recall, are either Bob O'Connor or Mumbly Joe. I'm predicting a big upset victory for Hop Kendrick --- if it happens, you read about it here first!

They also can't vote in the 42nd Senatorial District special election, where voters have the thrilling choice of either Wayne Fontana, Michael Diven or Mark Rauterkus. That district encompasses most of the South Hills and several Ohio Valley boroughs. (I thought Fontana's recording of "Game of Love" was terrific, but I don't know if one hit single is enough to send him to the state Senate.)

Anyway, according to Fontana's commercials, Diven sneaks into the bedrooms of sleeping infants and smothers them, while according to Diven's commercials, Fontana pushes old ladies in wheelchairs down long flights of stairs. It's kind of a battle between who you loathe least. I haven't seen any commercials for Rauterkus, and that alone should provide some incentive to vote for him.


In other business: David Craig Simpson teed off on the President's comments about Yalta, and in my opinion, scored a hole-in-one:

According to Bush, with seven million Soviet troops in Eastern Europe, with the country, the continent and the world exhausted already from half a decade of brutal war, FDR was a big pansy for not getting into a war with Stalin. Apparently we still had too many young men who hadn't been killed off.

Seriously, does anyone think we should've turned right around and gotten into World War III before World War II had even ended? We hadn't defeated Japan yet, at the time. The very idea is stupid.

Especially considering the source. It's interesting that George W. Bush, who we're always being told is this era's Churchill, is now dissing Churchill for the Yalta agreement. But obviously Churchill is just collateral damage. FDR is the real target. This way, they can have WWII without venerating FDR.

What's more appalling is that the so-called "liberal" mainstream American media reported the President's comments without much (if any) critical commentary, despite the fact that it was considered an incredible insult by our allies. Can you imagine the reaction if Clinton had said something this idiotic?

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May 16, 2005 | Link to this story

Hodge-Podge Monday

Category: default || By jt3y

Letters! We get letters! We get ... well, actually not that many. But a few. Regarding my two-day answer to a question that no one asked --- namely, what cars would be on my wish list --- Alert Reader Officer Jim wrote in to say he has a thing (naturally) for vintage squad cars:

I'd have to say that number one on my list would be a 1969 Dodge Polara Pursuit with the 4-bbl 440, which would have to look something like this although picture it black and white with massive pushbars).

I can't image what a vehicle of that size would be like to drive at 150 mph, but I can image it would be similar to piloting a B-17 (and probably handle about as well). Equally as fun to drive might be a '67 or '68 Dodge Dart GT, but that would absolutely have to be a convertible. And since my tastes inexplicably veer towards mid to late '70s sedans, I'd have to put a 1977 or '78 Monaco/Fury on the list, which would definitely look like this.

I might even make an overture towards a similar model year Gran Fury, which I think is a sharp looking car (yeah, I'm weird).

No, but I am wondering what's in those jelly doughnuts you guys at the station are eating. Kidding! I kid, because I love. He continues:

Speaking of Dodge, it looks like the nameplate "Powerwagon" is back to being attached to a Dodge truck. I'm not sure when they stopped using "Powerwagon" (late 1970's?) or if this is the first model year of it's return, but it's good to see the name back. After all, it can be traced directly back to the light duty 4x4's that Dodge built for WWII so there's a solid heritage there. I've liked the current style of Dodge trucks (about the only Mopar I've liked in the past few years) and I think that it's notable that Ford and Chevy trucks have echoed the high nose/low fender style. Hopefully the "Ram Van" will come back too ("Sprinter?" Seriously now, what would Red Green say?) I guess a Powerwagon would be on my list too, about a mid-'70s model with the railroad tie front bumper so that whenever some moron dared to pull out in front of me or swing open his door just as I drive past, I could take out my road-rage without undue damage (to my vehicle, at least).

Now, now, now, let's stay on the right side of the law here, now. Besides, that's why you have the red 'n blue lights, right? Although I've always thought a car made of Nerf might be fun --- you can just bounce into someone and "nudge" them off the road. Either that, or a giant cowcatcher on the front. That would be awfully useful when driving in Oakland --- where undergrads tend to bolt into traffic without looking.

While it seems most of my picks would be Chrysler products, I am smitten with the new Mustangs and about a 1966 Galaxie 500 ragtop would suit me nicely.

Of course, for luxury I would have to jump back to the late 40's/early 50's Packards which hands down looked better than anything Cadillac or Lincoln was putting out.

Man, you're so right there! People tend to forget that Caddies were once thought of as sort of a fancy Buick, and didn't have nearly the prestige of the Packard. It wasn't until Packard bought Studebaker, and the whole works started to go down the drain, that Cadillac finally eclipsed Packard as the Number 1 luxury car. Then, too, Packard started making smaller, cheaper cars in the late 1940s, which really hurt their image. Lincoln was never taken seriously as a luxury car until the mid-1950s, although the early '50s "road race" Lincolns were mighty good cars for the day.

Anyway, yes, a nice '49 Packard Clipper convertible --- like the one Doc Brown drove in Back to the Future, now that I think of it --- would be sweet.


Meanwhile, here's a column in Tech Central Station from 2004 in which Ralph Kinney Bennett waxes nostalgic about Packards, and about going to the Pittsburgh Auto Show when it was still being held at the Hunt Armory.


Alert Reader Arden sends this link to a public service announcement from Mr. T: Treat Your Mother Right. I pity the fool that don't have Quicktime, because that clip is '80s-riffic.


Finally, before I forget: Duquesne police Sgt. Dan Burns has compiled a paperback book of historic photos of that fair city. It's from Arcadia Publishing. I haven't seen it yet, but if it's anything like the book they did on Wilmerding a few years ago, it's sure to be entertaining and interesting.

You can read Margie Smykla's story in the Post-Gazette, or go buy the book here. (Remember, books purchased from via Tube City Online benefit you-know-what, hint, hint.)

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May 13, 2005 | Link to this story

On Hizzoner

Category: default || By jt3y

On Thursday night, against my better judgment, I watched the televised debate on WQED between the seven candidates for mayor of Picksberg. After reading about their records, watching their commercials and now, seeing them in action, I can say confidently to all of the Pittsburghers I know that no matter what happens on Tuesday, you are hosed.

Aw, I don't mean that. Actually, it was quite entertaining --- particularly interesting were Lester Ludwig and Louis "Hop" Kendrick, who I hadn't seen on TV during this campaign before. Kendrick is one hell of a powerful speaker. I don't know if that qualifies him to be mayor --- maybe a talk-show host --- but he sure can talk, although he lost me several times. Kendrick made the point that if he were elected, the state Legislature --- controlled by Republicans --- would be more willing to cooperate with him than any other Democratic candidate. Something about his independence, despite the fact that he's running as a Democrat. I couldn't quite parse that, but maybe you can. Anyway, I think it would be great for the second-largest city in the sixth-largest state to have a mayor people call "Hop."

Lester Ludwig is an interesting bloke, too, despite his unfortunate resemblance to Christopher Lloyd in the Back to the Future movies. I kept expecting him to leap from his chair and shout, "One-point-twenty-one gigawatts! One-point-twenty-one gigawatts!" Ludwig seems like a very sincere gentleman, but he seemed to be answering questions like a kid who had crammed for the exam on the school bus. "Pittsburgh has a strong mayor type of government, not a city manager type of government," he said at one point, and then proceeded to explain what the difference was. Well, thanks for the civics lesson, Les, but what's the point? And the bad attempts at name-dropping. Oy! "I was talking just the other day to the head of transportation in Allegheny County," Les said. Allegheny County has a "head" of transportation? Who he?

That brings me to the Big 3 --- Messrs. Lamb, Peduto and O'Connor. Kendrick, bless him, nailed Bob O'Connor on several issues --- most notably on his fund-raising. The O'Connor campaign machine, it should surprise no one to learn, has raised about twice the folding green that the next nearest challenger (Lamb) has collected. And several times, when quizzed about the big cash pile in his coffers, and what his donors might expect in return, O'Connor looked like he wanted to throttle the moderators, Chris Moore and Stacy Smith. (Both of whom, incidentally, didn't allow the candidates to weasel out of answering the questions. The people who moderate the presidential debates should be as good.)

I like O'Connor, but he has the habit of finishing different sentences than he started; on the other hand, since malaprops and non sequiturs didn't disqualify Dubya from being President of the United States, I don't see that some fractured syntax should prevent O'Connor from becoming Mayor of Pittsburgh. I also happen to think that O'Connor is one hell of a politician, and in a lot of ways, what Pittsburgh needs right now is a hell of a politician to start repairing some of the severely strained relationships between different government agencies, labor unions and residents. Whether he's independent enough from the old guard that's been in power in Pittsburgh since Jesus was in kneepants is another question. I'm not sure O'Connor would be able to make the kind of politically unpopular choices that need to be made --- more about that in a minute.

Peduto is the favorite of the smart set. He's done a great deal of networking with young people, high-tech whizzes and the artsy-fartsy crowd. But I some how doubt that the babushka- and fedora-wearing senior citizens who form the biggest block of voters in Pittsburgh feel all that connected to the high-tech and arts communities. Indeed, a lot of older Pittsburghers view young newcomers with suspicion. Now, I happen to think that's one of the problems around here, but it's a political reality, and Peduto hasn't really addressed that weakness in his campaign. Peduto has mentioned the strong support that he's received in the East End of the city, but he's not running for Mayor of Forbes and Murray. Still, watching Peduto, I can't help but think, he's got a lot on the ball, and he'd make one hell of a city manager. If O'Connor wins --- and all of the "experts" seem to think he's a lock --- he could do a lot worse than choosing Peduto for that post, or as a deputy mayor.

I'm actually a little bit disappointed that Michael Lamb hasn't gotten more support. He seems to combine Peduto's best risk-taking qualities with some of O'Connor's hale-fellow-well-met political skills. It's unfortunate for Lamb that he's spent much of his political career in the prothonotary's office, which is the closest thing to a witness protection program that Allegheny County has to offer. (Quick! Name the last three prothonotaries.) Most people can't spell "prothonotary" or describe what one does, much less name who that person is. So when Lamb talks about his efforts to reform the prothonotary's office, he might as well be describing the theories of Wittgenstein.

I know next to nothing about the Republican, Joe Weinroth. Despite not being a resident of Pittsburgh, I will endeavor to find out more. From his appearance in last night's debate, he struck me as a thoughtful guy, and I won't even hold the fact that he's a Republican against him. If a Republican can't get a decent shot at becoming mayor of Pittsburgh this year, than it may never happen. And likewise, if the party doesn't throw some serious money behind this guy and give the Democratic mayoral candidate a race for once, then it doesn't deserve the office anyway.

You know what nobody said, though? And they danced all around the issue. It was alluded to, hinted at, whistled past, and crawled over, but never addressed head-on. They all talk about how the City of Pittsburgh has to protect its employees, but what about its taxpayers? Who says that city government is supposed to be a full-employment program?

They call Social Security the "third rail" of national politics? Well, that's the "third rail" of Pittsburgh politics. The candidates don't want to say "our labor costs are too high, we've got too many employees for a city of our size, and we need to cut back," because whatever union (or unions) that's about to be gored will crucify them, and I say that as a union man.

I don't want to see anyone lose their jobs, but at some point, someone has to use some common sense; the City of Pittsburgh can't keep employing the same number of employees (and politicians!) that it did when its population was twice the current number.

Anyway, I've got no dog in the fight, so whomever wins, I wish them the very best of luck. I just have to worry about the election for mayor and borough council of North Bittyburg, and I don't know who any of the candidates are.

Instead, I'm going to use the time-honored method handed down to me years ago by my grandfather: "Jason," he said, "always vote for the guy with the Hungarian name, and if there isn't anybody, vote for the Democrat."

This being a primary election, all I can do is vote for the Democrat, but if there's anyone running for office in North Bittyburg this year with a first name of Laszlo, Janos, Imre or Ferenc, he's got my vote.


To Do This Weekend: McKeesport Little Theater, corner of Coursin and Bailey streets, Our Fair City, presents Neil Simon's "Jake's Women," tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Call (412) 673-1100. ... McKeesport Symphony Orchestra presents "Golden Moments from the Silver Screen," 7:30 p.m. Saturday in the auditorium of McKeesport Area High School, 1960 Eden Park Blvd., Our Fair City. The concert will feature flautist Stephanie Miller, winner of MSO's "Young Artists Competition." Call (412) 664-2854.

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May 12, 2005 | Link to this story

There Once Was an Author of Verse

Category: default || By jt3y

As we helpfully were informed earlier this week by Peter Leo, today is National Limerick Day. As usual on these occasions, we were moved to verse:

A quite nervous bloke from Versailles,
Had the habit of biting his nails.
His wife in frustration,
Sent him out on vacation.
Now he's pulling his hair out in Wales.

A nasty young lad from Port Vue,
Had a day off with nothing to do.
So he tortured a frog,
Shaved the hair off his dog,
And flushed his poor cat down the loo.

Said an ex-steelworker named Bart:
"I'm trying hard not to lose heart,
"But when I worked in Duquesne,
"I ran a fifty-ton crane,
"Now I'm a greeter out at the Wal-Mart."

A dirty old man in West Mifflin,
Lived his days in an orgy of sin.
He'd gamble all morn,
Spend his lunchtime with porn,
And at night consume gallons of gin.

Many a Mon Valley nipper,
Feeling unusually chipper,
Has just two words spoken,
Quote: "Kennywood's open."
Which means, "Please examine your zipper."

A young girl on the Christy Park bus,
Said "I don't mean to be making a fuss,
"But on Walnut we ran over,
"A beagle named Rover,
"An old lady and a man in a truss."

This one was inspired by a recent event in the news:

The former police chief in Rankin,
Ill-gotten profits was bankin'
His defense wasn't cricket:
He tried eating the ticket,
And earned magisterial spankin'.

These limericks are public service announcements:

Next Tuesday's primary election,
Is escaping the voters' detection.
Except in Pittsburgh, alas,
Where the voters, en masse,
Await Mayor Murphy's ejection.

County Executive Dan Onorato,
Speaking in voice quite staccato,
Says "Please reject the norm,
"Vote for row-office reform!"
(Would he have better luck playing the lotto?)

And finally:

I hope that you won't get all snitty,
If these limericks don't seem that witty.
You can post your retort,
Even if you're not from the 'port.
(Also called "Our Fair City.")


P.S.: At the bottom of a page of this blog,
Was a great poem about "Underdog."
The author, no rube,
Called himself "Dr. Boob,"
But his real name's not in my log.

(Go read it here.)

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May 11, 2005 | Link to this story

A Train of Thought, Derailed

Category: default || By jt3y

I was going to go off today on a long rant about Amtrak. I have to do some traveling later this summer, and wanted to see if I could go by train instead of plane, at least on the way home.

I'm fully prepared for the fact that the trip --- which would take a few hours by plane --- will take me better than a day and a half on the train. I figured I could use the time to catch up on some work and maybe do some writing.

OK, so I'm making that up. I suspect I'd do the same thing I always do in those kinds of situations --- walk around and B.S. with strangers, stare out the window aimlessly, nap and read. But you could do worse with a day's vacation, I think.

I'd also be forced to change trains at Washington Union Station. But that's fine, too: I haven't seen Union Station since it was renovated.

Anyway, I used Amtrak's webpage to see how close I could get to the town I'll be departing from, and it looked like it wasn't very close. In fact, it looked like there was no service to that part of the state at all. Then I checked my April 1968 issue of The Official Guide of the Railways (what, doesn't everyone have one?) and looked up the same route.

There were no fewer than five daily trains between my destination and Washington, D.C. back in 1968 --- when passenger train travel in this country was in its death throes. (Amtrak, after all, was created by the Nixon administration in 1971 to relieve the railroads of the supposed burden of carrying passengers, which is why I get so amused when politicians talk about "privatizing" it --- the private sector didn't want to provide public transportation in the first place. But I digress.)

So I worked myself up into a fine, white lather of fury on Tuesday --- why, in 35 years we've gone backward! We're now getting worse service! If I can't get my choice of Amtrak trains to a major city, then what good is Amtrak? It's not providing any alternative, so it's time to kill it off altogether! Harrumph! Harrumph!

Tuesday night, I gave up on the lousy Amtrak "trip scheduler" and just downloaded a printable Amtrak timetable. It turns out there are two trains serving the metro area that I'll be visiting, and they actually both stop in the tiny town where my last appointment will be. They depart at about 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. respectively, so I wouldn't even be catching them in the middle of the night.

Um. Well, then. Maybe I can rant about the high price of an Amtrak ticket? Yes, that's it! Back to the Official Guide, where I see that the fare in 1968 was about $33, or about $182 in today's money.

The fare now is about $99.


Maybe Amtrak is running much slower than the 1968 trains --- yes, that's it! According to the Guide, the trip in 1968 took 25 hours. The trip now is scheduled at 21 hours (though I suspect that it rarely pulls into Washington on schedule).

Well. Er. See, the thing is ... yes. Um.

I suppose I could complain about the crappy web interface that Amtrak uses, but that would be like complaining to the waitress at Eat 'n Park that my pancakes weren't quite fluffy enough. It's a fine hair to split. Thus did a righteous roar of Almanac indignation die an ignoble death on Tuesday.

So, um ... never mind. See you Thursday.

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May 10, 2005 | Link to this story

Another Happy Valley Sunday

Category: default || By jt3y

I was up in State College on Sunday. Were you aware that there's a university of some sort up there? Apparently it was in all of the papers.

And cows. Lots and lots of cows. I can't imagine going to a college where you can see cows grazing out on the other side of the football stadium. Where I went to college, we had lots of bull manure, but it was produced by the faculty and the students, not by actual bovines.

(Although, now that I think of it, our college also had --- and still has --- a mania for dumping cow manure on the lawns, which can make an impromptu touch football game on the quad a bit of a stinky affair, and which gives the whole campus a certain barnyard aroma. But I digress.)

I always feel like a spy, hanging around State College, like I should be surreptitiously taking photos and bringing them back to my bosses. I walk down North Atherton Street with a feeling of dread; at any minute I expect a blue and white, windowless van to pull alongside. The door will slide open and two burly guys in trenchcoats will drag me aboard, stuffing a rag soaked in chloroform into my mouth. I'll come to in the basement of the Pattee Library, where a bright light will be shining in my eyes.

In the corner, I'll be able to dimly make out a man with a pompadour and dark prescription sunglasses. He holds a football. "We have ways of makin' you talk, wiseguy," he says in a Brooklyn accent.

Nothing of the sort happened, of course. Actually, State College last weekend looked kind of like one of those Twilight Zone episodes set in the aftermath of a neutron bomb attack --- the buildings were standing, but there were no students around. I stopped in a fast-food restaurant downtown for a quick sandwich, and was the only person in the place who didn't work there. The employees were sitting around in the dining room, reading the Sunday paper, and seemed startled to have a customer.

Normally I wouldn't eaten at a chain, but time was of the essence. I don't have to recommend the Diner to you, do I? You surely know about it? The inventors of the grilled sticky? That and a hot roast beef sandwich and some coffee will just about arm you for the rest of the day. Alas, I was stuck with a grease bomb from Arby's.

I did have time on the way out of town to stop at the Ag Arena, where the State College chapter of the American Association of University Women was holding its annual book sale. They tarp over the floor of the horse show ring (I'm assuming they shovel it out first) and sell thousands and thousands of books --- some junk, some gems, and a lot of bestsellers from five or 10 years ago. Supposedly it's one of the largest used book sales on the East Coast.

Any writer who thinks he's hot stuff ought to take a walk through a used book sale, where hardcover tomes that were labored on for a year or more are now stacked in damp cardboard boxes along with old copies of National Geographic and a bunch of Harlequin bodice-rippers. If someone happens to read this and you're within an easy drive of State College, you've got until 9 p.m. tonight to buy some books. Today you can fill a grocery bag for $5.

Among other things, I picked up Ben Hamper's Rivethead, which I had always wanted to read, but never got around to before. If you saw Roger & Me, you saw Hamper. He'll forever be remembered, for better or worse, as the guy shooting baskets and singing "Wouldn't It Be Nice" as he tells the story of having a nervous breakdown on an assembly line in Flint, Mich. When I got home, I looked up Ben Hamper. It will surprise no one at all, I suppose, to learn that he's got his own web page on Michael Moore's server where you can sample his writing.

There was also a pile of used Bibles for sale. Used Bibles are every bit as good as a new one, I guess; you don't hear about them being updated very often --- "If you liked the Book of Revelations, you'll love the new Bible's all-new ending!" But these were presentation bibles, the kind that you give to a child on their confirmation or first communion. Some of them were still inscribed --- "For Joe Smith from Pastor John Jones, May 1, 1963," etc. Nobody gives their presentation Bible away to the used book sale, do they? All I can think is that the original owners had died, and whoever cleaned out their houses gave away the books to the book sale. It's kind of depressing to think about.

The other thing that's kind of depressing is that Sheetz has completely taken over Central Pennsylvania. It is to gas stations in the Johnstown-Altoona-State College corridor what Wal-Mart is to discount stores everywhere else. You have a hard time finding a gas station that isn't a Sheetz, and it seems like every burg big enough to have at least one intersection has a 16-pump Sheetz station.

I suppose Pennsylvanians should be proud that Sheetz has grown to become such an important player in retail --- and after all, it's based in Altoona, so why wouldn't it saturate that market? The problem was that I wanted to fill up the car with gas, don't have a credit card for Sheetz, and I didn't want to put a tank of gas onto my MasterCard, but I couldn't find any stations from the three large, multinational oil companies that I do have credit cards for. As it was, I made it back to Our Fair City with gas to spare, both in me, and in the car.

Now, if someone could only tell me why this blue and white van trailed me home and keeps hanging around my neighborhood, I'd be happy.

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May 09, 2005 | Link to this story

They Feel More Secure Already

Category: default || By jt3y

I was looking for an address on Saturday afternoon, took a wrong turn, as usual, and wound up in one of the worst traffic jams I've ever seen. Couldn't go forward --- there were fire trucks and cop cars everywhere --- and couldn't go backward --- there were two tri-axle coal trucks behind me.

So I did the next best thing. I went sideways into the parking lot of the Tastee-Freez, got a cone, and walked down to see what all the fuss was about. According to the sign on the little brick post office, I was in a place called Saltpeter Borough.

Behind the barricades on the main street through town, I could see smoke, flashing lights, and water everywhere. A gaggle of people --- senior citizens, young women pushing strollers, a couple of kids on bikes --- was watching. A Dodge truck with blue flashing lights and a sign saying "FIRE POLICE" was blocking the road; on the running board sat a guy wearing a baseball cap that said "SALTPETER VFD" and a blue T-shirt with a maltese cross on it. He was sticking a pinch of Skoal in between his cheek and his gum.

"Big fire, huh?" I said.

"Mm-memprph-terrorithmm," he said, taking his fingers out of his mouth.

"Terrorism?" I cried.

"Sorry," he said. "We're simulating terrorism. It's a drill." Behind him, I could see about a dozen two and three-story brick buildings, with a Pennzoil station on one end and a Family Dollar at the other. The town appeared to have one traffic light, and that was flashing yellow.

"No offense," I said, "but that seems kind of dumb."

He squinted up at me, a little tobacco juice running down his lip. "You some kinda weirdo?" he asked. "Don't you remember 9-11? You like terrorism?"

"Hell, no!" I said. "I'm a charter member of the NRA." (I didn't tell him that I meant the Nelson Riddle Admiration society.)

He picked up a cardboard iced tea carton and spat into it. I instantly lost my appetite for soft-serve ice cream.

"Terrorism is everybody's problem," he said. "Fella came down from Harrisburg a few months ago and said we all should be drillin'."

A group of Boy Scouts carrying jugs of water crossed the street behind us. "Besides," he said, "we saw on the news where Pittsburgh was gonna hold a drill, and it was gonna cost 750 grand, and we figured we gotta get some of that money, some how. Borough council said the budget was light by about 40 grand this year."

"So how much is all this costing?" I said.

"About four thou. But we're billin' the feds for forty-four."

"How does that work?"

He spat into the tea carton again, then pointed down the street to where a group of women were standing behind a card table and an electric roasting pan. "The VFW ladies are feedin' us lunch today. Sloppy joes, ham barbecues, potato salad and orange drink. Know how much they're billin' the borough?"

"How much?"

"Fifteen bucks for a sloppy joe and 20 for a ham barbecue."

"Pretty expensive," I said, wiping some of the melting ice cream off of my hand and onto my pants.

"If the freakin' Pentagon can pay 600 bucks for a toilet seat, we can pay 15 for a Manwich," he said. "Then the kick the extra money back to the borough, and we can use it to buy WMDs."

"You mean Weapons of Mass Destruction?"

"No, 'What's More Deserving,'" he said. "The borough building needs a new boiler, the cop car needs a transmission, and there's a sewer collapse over on Elm Street. The federal government don't have no money for that stuff, but they do give out lots of money for homeland security."

"How's the drill going so far?" I asked, flipping what was left of the ice cream to a dog that was eyeing it, hungrily.

"Pretty good, I guess," he said, spitting again. "Chief of police come up a while ago, said they've secured the area and are now working to decontaminate people. We got lucky, 'cause the high school musical was last week, and they had a bunch of makeup and props left over. They're our victims. Some of them people is a little bit too eager to play dress-up, if you ask me."

"Any problems?"

"A couple of junior firefighters turned hoses on each other at lunchtime. Lieutenant went over, chewed their asses out. To punish them, he told them they hadda be dead bodies for the rest of the afternoon."

"That's too bad."

"You kiddin' me?" he said, sticking some more Skoal into his lip. "That's freakin' great. Any time you can get two 15-year-old boys to lie still and keep their fat yaps shut for a coupla hours, I got no complaints."

"So what's the scenario you're playing out?"

"Well, Stosh Zerpanski was a suicide bomber, and he was supposed to crash his truck into the high-test pump at Mittler's Pennzoil. I guess he got a bit too excited, 'cause he come flyin' up over the sidewalk and wiped out a big stack of them gallon jugs of windshield washer fluid. Old Man Mittler was screamin' and hollerin', but we promised to pay for it.

"Then we had a poison-gas attack down at Sue Ann's coffee shop, but if you ever been there when she runs the corned beef and cabbage special, you know that ain't far-fetched.

"Over at the beauty shop there, Johnny D'Amata got his deer rifle and took hostages in the back of the hair dryers, and the police auxiliaries are surrounding the building. But if one more of them jagoffs gets on the radio and says the situation is 'hairy,' I'm gonna go over and shoot 'em myself.

"At Judy's Hallmark, they got a suspicious UPS package, and there's three people in Dr. Harish's office with flesh-eatin' bacteria. We wanted to get O'Shannon's Printing to pretend a dirty bomb went off, but Bill O'Shannon and our chief had a fight, and Bill said we should go screw off, 'cause he was going fishing today.

"So other than O'Shannon's, we wiped out every business on Elm Street here except for the hardware store," he said.

"Why didn't you wipe out the hardware store?" I said.

He spat into the tea carton again. "We kinda figured that the way things were goin', we'd just let Wal-Mart do that."

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May 06, 2005 | Link to this story

Blacktop Jungle: More Auto-Eroticism

Category: default || By jt3y

After re-reading yesterday's rant last night, I kept thinking there were a number of cars I had left off of my wish list. I alluded to British sports cars --- boy, do I think they're neat. A classic MG or Sunbeam would be pretty cool, especially in "Arrest Me Red."

In fact, since I still have some money left in my fantasy bank account, I think I'll buy a:

5.) 1967 Triumph TR4A --- I'd like one in British racing green, please, with a tan leather interior. This little gem would probably fit in the back of the '74 Oldsmobile Delta 88, which is a good thing, because I'm going to need to go pick it up and drag it home on a regular basis. If you have any question why the last major British car maker --- MG Rover --- just went toes up, then you've never seen a '60s or '70s British car.

The cars being turned out by British auto industry of the '60s and '70s made the ones that Detroit was making look like the pinnacles of Quality Assurance. You've heard the old joke about British headlight switches having three positions, "dim," "flicker" and "off"? Combine that with starters that wouldn't crank on damp days, carburetors that required constant fiddling, valves that wouldn't stay in adjustment, and body panels installed apparently by nearsighted drunks on the third day of a week-long bender, and you've got a recipe for disaster.

But on those 30 or so days a year when they're in perfect running order, classic British sports cars are the epitome of cool. So purchase number 5 will be a Triumph TR4A, or better yet, two --- one to drive when the other one is out for repairs, which will be often. I'll also buy a wicker laundry basket to pick up the parts that fall off, and I'll take them to the auto parts store in the back of my:

6.) 1965 Rambler convertible --- I'm hung up on convertibles, aren't I? And yet convertibles are utterly impractical. They're hot in the summer, cold in the winter, noisy when the top's down and noisy when the top's up. They rattle and twist and they require lots of expensive maintenance. But almost any car looks better as a convertible (exceptions include the AMC Eagle and the Yugo GVX, but the latter didn't really look good in any guise).

The mid-'60s Ramblers were just about the best economy cars that had ever been produced up to that point. They were dirt-simple to repair, reliable and tough little machines, and more important for my purposes, they looked good --- trim and almost European in their looks. They could even be relatively peppy when equipped with AMC's bulletproof 290 V8 and a Borg-Warner stickshift transmission, but I'll gladly take one with the inline six-cylinder. No one wants to drag race your Rambler, anyway.

If you're going to drive around those gas hogs from yesterday's Almanac, you're going to need to balance them out with some fuel economy, I think, and if you're going to have a British sports car, you're going to need something that starts every time you turn the key.

Still, you're not going to want a convertible Rambler in a Pittsburgh winter, so you'd better get a closed car --- something that can haul a lot of salt and cinders home. Something like a:

7.) 1964 Studebaker Wagonaire --- Another damned Studebaker? Sure! I've already confessed my affection for the Duquesne Dukes basketball team, so why not a couple of loser cars, too?

Like the Studebaker GT Hawk, the Wagonaire was a product of Brooks Stevens' skilled pen. In 1959, Studebaker had taken the same 1953 body underneath the Hawk and turned it into the surprisingly successful compact Lark. Naturally, the Big 3, seeing Studebaker's success, rushed to market with Falcons, Corvairs and Valiants, putting the final nails into the coffins of the boys from South Bend.

But Studebaker made a "valiant" effort to carry on, and Stevens was able to reskin the Lark once again to make it look surprisingly modern. The Wagonaire had a very neat sliding rear roof panel that enabled to you take tall cargo aboard without resorting to a pickup truck. It would take another 40 years for the Big 3 to catch up with that idea, but GMC finally copied it with the new Envoy SUV.

And naturally, the Wagonaire went onto be a great success for Studebaker. Right --- how many Studebakers have you seen lately? The company struggled on for another two years and then bailed on the car business altogether.

When the snow gets too deep, though, the low ground clearance of the Wagonaire is going to be a pain, I suppose. So, why not finish my collection with a vehicle with a very similar-sounding name, the:

8.) 1967 Jeep Wagoneer --- Jeeps were the first real "SUVs," after all, and this was one of the last few years that Jeeps were made by the Kaiser Jeep Corporation --- successor to Willys-Overland, which made the Jeep concept such a success. (Yes, Butler's American Bantam company invented the first Jeep, but American Bantam was just barely in the car business by that time, and was in no shape to take the project over.)

I'm no big fan of SUVs, but I do like these old-timers. They remind me of a big, friendly dog --- they're sloppy, clunky, bulky, but a great pal to have when you need them, and they even look "cute" from certain angles, unlike today's SUVs, which look like Mack trucks. (If I wanted to drive a Mack truck, I'd go to the Pittsburgh Diesel Institute and get paid to drive one.)

So, that's my (mostly) environmentally unfriendly "wish list," inspired by "Jalopnik." Next week, we'll return you to your regularly scheduled Mon-Yough minutia and assorted other nonsense. Your comments are still welcome for your automotive guilty pleasures --- we've already gotten votes for '57 Chevys and "something large and pink with fins to annoy the neighbors," which is exactly in the spirit of yesterday's Almanac.


Lest you think I'm exaggerating the problem with these old beasties, by the way, take a goggle at this 1967 road test over at of several of what are now considered highly desirable, classic "muscle cars," like Pontiac GTOs, Chevy Chevelles and Oldsmobile 4-4-2s. The reviewers from Road Test magazine blast every single car --- their handling is almost uniformly bad, the brakes are worse, and the ergonomics are virtually non-existent. And the "quality" is laughable --- the Olds blows a radiator hose during testing.

The "good old days"? Haw haw haw.


To Do This Weekend: McKeesport Little Theater, corner of Coursin and Bailey streets, presents Neil Simon's "Jake's Women," tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m. A special Mother's Day brunch performance is set for 12 noon on Sunday, but reservations are necessary. Call (412) 673-1100.

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May 05, 2005 | Link to this story

Blacktop Jungle: I Wouldn't Spend it On Cars, That's For Sure

Category: default || By jt3y

"Jalopnik" has been running a contest where readers are sending in the names of cars that they'd buy if they had a million dollars. There's no prize --- though a million dollars would be appropriate, now, wouldn't it?

I know what I'd do if I had a million dollars. To paraphrase Garrison Keillor, I'd put it on the end of a forked stick and run around town showing it to everyone. Of course, he was writing about Lake Wobegon, Minn.; if I did that in most of the towns around here, someone would clonk me on the head and take the money.

But, I digress.

I wouldn't need a million dollars, I don't think. I have fairly pedestrian tastes in automobiles (although that seems like a contradiction in terms) and don't have a big desire for a Ferrari, a Lamborghini, or a Duesenberg. In fact, if you gave me a million dollars to spend on cars, my very first purchase would be:

1.) 1958 Plymouth Fury --- Preferably fuel-injected, please. I first saw one of these cars in a advertisement in an old copy of Life magazine when I was about 8 years old, and my eyes popped out of their sockets. (Which may explain why I still wear glasses to this day.) For a kid growing up in a world of cruddy looking GM X-cars like the Chevy Citation, Chrysler K-cars and over-upholstered Fords with dual opera windows and padded vinyl tops, this beige-and-gold hardtop screamer out of Virgil Exner's "Forward Look" was like something from another planet.

When I eventually read about the impact that the late '50s Chryslers had on the auto buying public, I could instantly understand what that impact must have felt like --- the rest of the overchromed, fat, wallowing, chunky '50s cars looked like the boxes that the new Chryslers, Plymouths, Dodges and DeSotos came in.

The '58 Plymouth Fury single-handedly made me fall in love with '50s cars. I was only slightly disappointed to learn later that the '57 and '58 Chrysler Corporation lineup was among the worst manufactured cars that the company ever produced --- they rusted and shook themselves apart within months --- and considering some of the krep that the Mopar boys would build over the next 30 years, that's really saying something. I was more disappointed when they made a (wretched) movie of Stephen King's "Christine" that required the destruction of dozens of '58 Plymouths. Why didn't he write a horror novel about the Renault Le Car? We could have benefited from the destruction of a few dozen of those.

Anyway, if I had a million dollars and had to spend it on cars, the '58 Plymouth Fury would be my first choice. Given the fact that the Fury was a limited-edition car then --- it was only later that Plymouth applied to name to a line of boring sedans and station wagons --- I might have to settle for a hardtop Belvedere, I suppose. I'd probably set myself back about $40,000, I suspect for a Fury, and maybe $15,000 for the Belvedere. Either way, I'd have lots of money left for my next purchase:

2.) 1958 Chrysler 300 D --- Take the '58 Fury and multiply it by two, and you get a '58 300. Better-looking (less chrome, for one thing), faster, bigger, more powerful, more luxurious. If you saw the movie "Quiz Show," it was a Chrysler 300 that Rob Morrow's character is drooling over at the beginning. The 300 was built just as lousy as the Fury, of course, but you can't eat your cake and have it, too, I suppose.

Besides the massive 300-horsepower Hemi engine that would propel one of these land-sharks up to 156 miles per hour, the Chrysler 300 D also handled exceptionally well for a car of its size, and was dragged to a stop by massive power brakes. If I had one of these --- preferably in red --- I'd take it out on the Trans-Canada Highway somewhere in the prairies, find a radio station playing Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley (hey, it's my fantasy) and mash the accelerator to the floor boards, and I wouldn't stop until the Mounties shot out my tires. Once I got out of jail, I'd go find myself a:

3.) 1964 Studebaker GT Hawk --- By now, the neighbors would be so up in arms by the smells of burning rubber and unburned gasoline on my street that they'd be organizing a petition drive to have my house rezoned for a methadone clinic or a strip bar or a rendering plant --- anything that would be an improvement over me rocketing out of the driveway every morning in a giant V-8 powered fire-breathing Chrysler monster.

So I'd have to get something that looked more sedate. I'd go before the zoning board, looking humble, and tell them that I'd bought a '64 Studebaker. In a nice, somber black color.

"A Studebaker?" they'd say, thinking of the ridiculous bullet-nosed monstrosities from the early '50s that always show up in TV commercials and movies. "How bad could that be?" The zoning board would rule in my favor, and I'd go home that night, back the Stude out of the garage, drive out to the street, wind up the McCullough supercharger and pop the clutch. Every night the good burghers of North Bittyburg would hear the squeal of tires and say, "Who was that masked Stude?"

Studebaker in the early '60s was going down for the third and final time. They were saddled with a basic body that dated back to 1953 and had a budget of about $11 to facelift it. In came industrial designer Brooks Stevens, who turned the old '53 Stude coupe into what looked like a cut-down Thunderbird with a heavy Mercedes influence. Under the hood went the reliable Studebaker 289 V-8, with an optional supercharger to beef it up.

There were only 15,000 made in the entire three years of production, so you wouldn't have to see yourself going down the street constantly. They still look pretty good --- which is an amazing testament to Stevens' work --- and in fact, most people would peg it for a '70s car, not one from 1964. The Studebaker 289 was an oil-burner, but otherwise bulletproof. And even the best, primo-condition '64 Hawk you could find would only set me back $15,000 or so.

After a few weeks, the North Bittyburg police would figure out that the narrow black stripes of burnt rubber all over the streets in our borough could have only been made by a Studebaker, and I'd be back in hot water again. They'd haul me up before the district magistrate, and I'd get my license suspended. I might also be handed some community service as a penalty, so for my last car purchase, I'd buy a:

4.) 1974 Oldsmobile Delta 88 convertible --- When I was growing up, someone in our neighborhood had a red Olds Delta 88 convertible with a white top. What a car! It wasn't fast --- 1970s smog-control regulations had taken care of that --- nor was it agile --- the car's size and weight made it tend to wallow. But it had those great early '70s GM lines that made it look graceful from virtually any angle, and it was a convertible.

The great philosopher Charlie Brown, after all, once said that the secret to happiness was to own both a lake and a convertible. That way, if it was a nice sunny day, you could drive to your lake in your convertible, but if it was raining, you could say, "Oh, well, at least the rain will fill up my lake."

I don't know about the lake, but with a Delta 88 convertible, I'd volunteer to do my community service driving in all of the town parades. There I'd go, trolling down Main Street at 5 mph behind the high school band and in front of the Port Vue Legionettes, with some cute TV news chick or beauty pageant winner sitting on top of the back seat, waving at the crowd.

Gee, a couple of months of that kind of community service, and I'd be thinking about what other vehicles I could buy to break the law with. A big old Dodge or Plymouth police interceptor from the '60s? An MG or Sunbeam sports car (I can just see myself in a tweed jacket and a racing cap, zipping around Renzie Park)? A Jaguar XJ12 drop-top?

So what cars would you buy with a million bucks?

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May 04, 2005 | Link to this story

Put Up Your Dukes

Category: default || By jt3y

Like most Americans, I've always had a thing for underdogs. That's what makes "Rocky" so endearing, after all. That, combined with my latent Catholicism, has always made me a fan of the Duquesne University basketball team.

And you won't find more of an underdog anywhere than the Dukes, who are licking their wounds after going 8 and 22 (their 11th consecutive losing season) in what Phil Axelrod of the P-G called a "clunker" of a year and the second-worst in Duquesne's history. The worst was just six years ago, when the Dukes went 7 and 23.

I have a feeling that on the Duquesne campus, the "Duquesne Duke" is starting to look about as popular as Archduke Franz Ferdnand, circa 1914. (I understand he's turned down several opportunities to ride in a motorcade around the Bluff.)

One needs only to have read the obituary last week of the great John "Red" Manning to realize what Duquesne has lost. Under Manning, the Dukes were 247 and 138 in 16 seasons. Even after Manning retired, "college basketball" in Pittsburgh for a long time meant "Duquesne University."

Over the last 20 years, the excitement has shifted east to Oakland, and the Dukes are also-rans.

I don't know very much about sports --- but then again, I don't know very much about a lot of things, and that's never stopped me from writing about them --- so it's difficult for me to diagnose what might be wrong with the Dukes. I suspect that it's extremely difficult for a small, Catholic university to recruit basketball players to a relatively parochial city like Pittsburgh, especially when it's in the shadow of a successful team at a larger Big East school.

On the other hand, you don't get much more parochial than Cincinnati, Ohio. And there you have a large university --- the University of Cincinnati --- whose men's team is coming off of a 25-win season and its 14th straight appearance in the NCAA tournament. Across town, there's Xavier, which like Duquesne is a small, Catholic university in the A-10, and their men's team went 26 and 11, and threatened in the conference tournament. I've been to Xavier, and their campus isn't any more attractive than Duquesne's, so I can't imagine there's a great recruiting advantage to working in Cincinnati.

Thus I'm at a loss to understand what Duquesne's major malfunction has been. I'm almost left to wonder if they should get out of big-time college basketball altogether and drop down to Division III, like Carnegie Mellon, but I have to imagine that their alumni would go into apoplexy (much like Carnegie's alumni did in the 1950s when it got out of big-time college athletics).

Is it the coach? Duquesne doesn't seem to think so --- the university extended Danny Nee's contract for two years, but that was before the Dukes' stinkbomb of a 2004-05 season. I do know that when former Dukes and Lakers star Norm Nixon visited the Mon Valley last week to give a talk at Woodland Hills High School, Mike White of the P-G floated the possibility that Nixon would come back to coach at Duquesne.

Nixon's name among Duquesne alumni holds the same magic that Tony Dorsett's name has for Pitt alumni, so if I'm Danny Nee, I'm looking over my shoulder nervously.

Americans like underdogs, but the thing we like about underdogs is when they occasionally triumph over adversity and emerge victorious. (It's worth noting that Duquesne has had some very successful athletic teams --- in baseball and football, for instance --- but the heart of small-college sports is basketball.)

If you never win, however, you get a reputation not as an "underdog," but merely as a "loser." And Americans don't particularly care for "losers."

Now: Don't get me started on the Pirates. There are teams that are "underdogs," and then there are others that are just "frustratingly mediocre."


By the way, not only do I like underdogs, I also like "Underdog," so I was delighted to see his cameo appearance in a TV commercial for some product the other day. (Of course, you can also buy a boxed set of "Underdog" DVDs I should have suspected as much.)

You can download the "Underdog" theme song here:

When criminals in this world appear
And break the laws that they should fear
And frighten all who see or hear
The cry goes up both far and near
For Underdog! (Underdog!) Underdog! (Underdog!)

Speed of lightning, roar of thunder
Fighting all who rob or plunder
Underdog ... Underdog!

Now that I think of it, perhaps it's Simon Bar Sinister who's behind the slide of Duquesne basketball --- someone get Sweet Polly Purebred on that story! Better yet, look around the mouth of the Armstrong Tunnels for a mild-mannered dog shining shoes. Maybe he can help.


P.S. Naturally, opinions expressed in the Almanac about college basketball or any other topic are not those of the University of Pittsburgh, or anyone else for that matter. I'm not even sure they're mine!

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May 03, 2005 | Link to this story

The Complete Variety Store

Category: default || By jt3y

A picture is worth a thousand words, eh? Well, then, here's 3,000 words for you. There is a chance that the Almanac is going to drop down to two or three times per week, because the book is sucking up a lot of my evenings right now, and is going to continue to do so for the forseeable future. I'm moving out of the "research" phase (although there's still a lot of research to do) and into the "transcribing" and "writing" phases.

One of the things I've had to do is scan some old pictures and clean them up, both for the book and the G.C. Murphy Co. historical website. So, in lieu of an Almanac, I'll share them for your entertainment. (Once again, by the way, any opinions expressed at the Almanac are not those of the G.C. Murphy Co. Foundation or any other organization.)

Here's G.C. Murphy Co. store No. 25 on Electric Avenue in East Pittsburgh, circa 1920:

Here's G.C. Murphy store No. 12 in Downtown Pittsburgh --- I think this is the Forbes Avenue side --- circa 1979-80. Mayor Murphy (no relation to G.C.) wishes Downtown was this crowded now:

Finally, here's an unidentifed Murphy's Mart, also circa 1979-80. This looks vaguely like the location on Route 51 in Pleasant Hills, between what's now Century III Mall and Southland Shopping Center, but I'm not sure:

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Posted at 12:45 am by jt3y | Click here and put your ad on Tube City Almanac!
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May 02, 2005 | Link to this story

A Man, a Plan, a Scan

Category: default || By jt3y

An intro, a correction, and some material form the basis of today's Almanac. (What, you were expecting maybe Proust?)

I recently got a new (to me) computer, and moving the old peripherals and files over has been a trip. My old computer was pushing 10 years old, and I'm surprised that anything works with the new one. All praise the Mac gods for making so many things "backward compatible." The one case where it looks like I'm going to be, to use the technical term, "S.O.L." is the printer.

Switching the scanner (an image scanner, not this kind) over has, however, been a "P.I.T.A." (that's another technical term). I'll call the scanner a Kreptronic X11 --- it wasn't a cheap one, and it's still in production --- but nevertheless, it has basically the worst user interfaces I've ever seen.

As it turns out, the software that Kreptronic supplied to run the scanner on the old computer won't run on the new computer, which is OK, because it was crummy software anyway --- It would perpetually crash the computer any time you tried to do two scans in a row, which meant you had to reboot every time you wanted to do a new scan. Needless to say, this slowed the process down to a crawl, and it explains why there are relatively few images at Tube City Online.

(Sidenote: The Kreptronic replaced a 1989-vintage black-and-white scanner which wasn't very high-resolution, but was at least reliable. So was the software, which would fit on a single floppy.)

I went to the Kreptronic website to download the most recent version of the scanner software. It was 70 MB, but the estimated download time (even over a high-speed connection) was more than an hour. That has to be a mistake, I thought. I was wrong. The Kreptronic server must be powered by constipated gerbils. Then, it took three attempts to get the software to install. And when it finally did, it didn't crash the computer if you tried to scan two things in a row --- it crashed the computer as soon as you started it.

Thanks a lot, Kreptronic.

Luckily, I found some third-party software that will run the Kreptronic. The bad news is that it set me back $49.95, but the good news it's very quick, and has a lot of features.

So that's the introduction, as a way of explaining that I was a scan, scan, scan, scan, scannin' machine (watch me get down, watch me get down) on Sunday night.

Now, the correction --- two weeks ago I mentioned that I had purchased a bag containing three 1938 copies of the Homestead Daily Messenger. It turns out I was off by two weeks, and also misquoted the headline slightly. Mea culpa.

Finally, here's the material --- this is the front page of the Messenger from Sept. 19, 1938. (Click to enlarge.)

Here's the "masthead" of the Messenger:

Dig the school board "credo" --- I'm not sure if they printed that every day, or if this related to some crusade that the Messenger was on at the time for school district reform.

I say that because the Messenger was also on a street-lighting crusade at the time --- the "ear" at the top left of the front page says "WANTED: More and better street lighting for Eighth avenue."

You know, Eighth Avenue finally got new street lights a few years back. Who says the news media doesn't get results?

And finally, for those of you who read "Nancy" every day and think, "Gee, this has really gone downhill," here's proof positive that "Nancy" (then called "Fritzi Ritz") was, in fact, never funny:

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Posted at 12:20 am by jt3y | Click here and put your ad on Tube City Almanac!
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