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Filed Under: default || By jt3y

June 30, 2005 | Link to this story

30 Years Ago: A Hot Time at Kennywood

Category: default || By jt3y

It was a hot and sticky June day in the Mon-Yough area. By mid-afternoon, temperatures were in the 90s. If you were looking for relief, it was a good day to take in a good movie. Unfortunately, there weren't any.

The McKee Cinemas on Fifth Avenue (the old Memorial Theater, which had recently been chopped into two smaller movie theaters), was featuring a mediocre movie starring Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, Jerry Reed and (believe it or not) Art Carney called "W.W. and The Dixie Dance Kings." (This was post-"Deliverance" but pre-"Smokey and the Bandit.") It was also playing at the Rainbow Theatre out in White Oak. The Eastland Twin had what it billed as a great family movie --- "Benji" --- and another movie that was decidedly not for the kiddies --- the Warren Beatty-Goldie Hawn sex comedy "Shampoo."

If you weren't willing to suffer through "Benji," Burt or Beatty, it was a great day to go to Kennywood, which had just installed a new water ride called the "Log Jammer" at a cost of more than a million dollars. The ride (more than a quarter-mile long) took 10 months to build and held more than a half-million gallons of water altogether. It was Kennywood's most expensive investment since the park's owners had purchased the land from the Kenny family four years early.

If you could stand the long lines at the Log Jammer, you were virtually guaranteed a good, thorough soaking, and since the Kennywood pool had closed several years before, it was your only opportunity to get good and wet in the park.

Not surprisingly, Kennywood was packed that day; besides people looking to "beat the heat," Keystone Oaks and Mt. Lebanon school districts were both holding their annual picnics.

The Log Jammer was at the northwest end of the park. To get there from the midway, many people crossed the Kennywood lagoon and hung a right turn in front of the "Ghost Ship." To the younger kids, it was just another dark ride, but to their parents and grandparents, it was the old Kennywood dance hall.

The Kennywood dance hall --- in Kennywood parlance, the "Pavilion" --- was one of the first structures erected after the park opened in 1898. The two-story enclosed structure featured a celestory with screened windows and a ceiling of rugged, exposed beams.

But its Victorian details were looking decidedly old-hat by the 1930s, and though the Great Depression meant Kennywood couldn't buy many new rides, it could invest in its buildings. Indeed, park management credited the Pavilion with keeping Kennywood open during the Depression; people couldn't afford to play games or buy ride tickets, but they could stand around and listen to music, or dance with their sweethearts.

So, the Pavilion was substantially remodeled and updated into the current Art Deco style, just in time for the so-called "golden ages" of both big bands and network radio. During the 1930s and '40s, live dance bands did national broadcasts from the Kennywood dance hall, via the Sun-Telegraph's radio station, WCAE, and the Mutual Broadcasting System.

Dozens of nationally-known band leaders and singers played there, including Benny Goodman, Rudy Vallee, Ozzie Nelson, and Les Brown "and his band of renown." Lawrence Welk did a week there in 1938, while playing at the William Penn Hotel in Downtown Pittsburgh. (It was the same summer that someone coined the term "champagne music" to describe his bouncy, inoffensive melodies.) Bandleader Tommy Tucker, who employed a then-unknown arranger named Gerry Mulligan, was a regular at the Kennywood Pavilion.

For a long time, Kennywood refused to allow "swing music" to be played at the Pavilion, for fear that it would attract the wrong element, but that restriction was eventually relaxed. Smoking was strictly forbidden; so was alcohol. (And so, for a long time, were African-Americans.)

The war years were good years, and the Pavilion was modernized again. It hosted soldiers, sailors and Marines in town for training or home on leave, and was busy nearly every night. But with the end of the war came a new threat that would ultimately end dancing at Kennywood: Television.

Pittsburgh's first station, WDTV, signed on at Channel 3 in 1949. Soon, instead of going out to Kennywood to dance in the evening, people were staying home to watch the tube. Then, too, tastes in music were changing. The big bands were in decline, and would soon be eclipsed by rock 'n roll.

In 1954, Kennywood converted the Pavilion into a fun house called the "Enchanted Forest." A few years later, it was gutted and a "dark ride" was installed. Passengers boarded little tram cars and rode through various "spooky" attractions. It would be remodeled twice more, and in 1967, was themed as something called the "Ghost Ship" --- a sort of haunted pirate ship. A California Gold Rush themed ice cream parlor called "The Golden Nugget" was built into one end, and another ride called the "Road Runner" occupied part of the massive old dance hall.

A dark ride was another good way to get out of the sun on a hot day, and that's just what people were lining up for at 12:15 on the afternoon of June 19, 1975, when Harry Henninger Jr., assistant manager of the park, smelled smoke at the rear of the Ghost Ship.

Kennywood was always paranoid about fire, and Henninger, ride manager Sandy Kalla, and ride workers quickly evacuated a half-dozen people from the building. The park fire alarm sounded, and Kennywood workers came on the run from stands and rides all over the park, carrying fire extinguishers. They might as well have brought sno-cones and thrown them at the blaze. The dry 75-year-old wood was prime kindling, and all of the false ceilings and layers of gimcrackery gave the flames plenty of places to travel. Within minutes, the roof of the Ghost Ship was engulfed in flame.

Firefighters from Duquesne, West Mifflin, Munhall and Whitaker were soon on the scene. Then the flames jumped to two rides in Kiddieland --- the Kiddie Whip and the merry-go-round. The heat was soon blistering the Calypso and the Satellite as well. Plastic signs on nearby concession stands began melting. Black smoke bellowed above the Mon Valley and could be seen for miles around.

It quickly became apparent that there were more fire engines than there were hydrants, so Duquesne Annex firefighters began suctioning water out of the Kennywood lagoon.

Kennywood employees helped man hoses and passed out cold drinks to firemen as more than 2,000 visitors stood and watched. (Not everyone stopped to watch the fire. Many people kept riding --- because Kennywood kept the rest of the park open.) A Duquesne firefighter collapsed from the strain of the 90-degree heat and the fire, and was rushed to McKeesport Hospital. The massive firefighting effort brought the blaze under control by 3 p.m., but it couldn't save the Pavilion, which had collapsed. The fast-moving fire caused more than $400,000 in damage.

Yet no sooner had the embers cooled than Kennywood workers were on the scene, repairing the damage to the Calypso and Satellite. As soon as insurance investigators had picked through the rubble of the Pavilion, the wreckage was cleared away and the area re-opened. Within days, the area had been landscaped and grass was planted.

The following year, just in time for the American Bicentennial, the area was turned into a plaza with a fountain and a new entrance to Kiddieland. At the south end of the old Pavilion property, a cafeteria-style spaghetti restaurant was created. And the old Kennywood dance hall --- from its glamorous past to its spectacular finish --- quickly faded into memory.

(Photos: Ralph Pittner and Irv Saylor, The Daily News).

(Sources: Charles J. Jacques Jr., Kennywood: Roller Coaster Capital of the World (Natrona Heights, Pa.: Amusement Park Journal); Robert Austin, "Kennywood Begins Cleanup," The Daily News, McKeesport, Pa., June 20, 1975, p. 1; "Fire Destroys Former Dance Pavilion, Rides at Kennywood," The Daily News, McKeesport, Pa., June 20, 1975, p. 17. Various Internet sources.)

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June 29, 2005 | Link to this story

All Winchell, All The Time

Category: default || By jt3y

Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. United States, and all the ships at sea. Let's go to press.

Oops! Wrong Winchell.

Continuing our efforts to be the Mon-Yough area's leading source of Paul Winchell information, I bopped over to Mark Evanier's "Point of View" last night. Evanier is a writer who's worked on a number of animated cartoons, and he's written extensively about June Foray, Daws Butler, and a number of the other great people who provide the voices for them.

Evanier pointed to a website from Winchell's daughter, April, who as it turns out is a radio talent and a voice-over artist in Los Angeles. She has a very funny (and very cynical) website, and you could spend hours wasting time there. (If it has a flaw, it's that it's too Hollywood-centric, but you could say that about a certain McKeesport-based blog, I suppose.)

Anyway, yesterday I wrote about Paul Winchell's fascinating life. April Winchell wrote that behind the funny voices and the brilliant mind lurked a very troubled and unhappy soul:

My father was an extremely gifted man. He did amazing things with his intellect. He contributed not only to television, but to medicine, society and technology. Some of you have even said that he was infinitely more talented than I will ever be. You're probably right. But I was never in competition with him, nor am I jealous of his accomplishments. I am very, very proud of them. I can honestly say that he left this world a better place than he found it.

I sometimes wish I too, could have had the experience others had of him. If I could have known only his public persona, I'm sure I would have had nothing but warm and happy memories of him. I envy you that.

But you must be fair and understand that he was my father. And even in the best of circumstances, no one has an idyllic, uncomplicated, painless relationship with a parent.

And these were not the best of circumstances. This was a terrible situation for all concerned. Every one of my siblings suffered more than you will ever know.

I'm sorry if you're disappointed, but it was not "Winchell Mahoney Time" at my house. It was dark and frightening and very, very sad. (...)

Imagine that your father writes a book depicting your loving and generous mother as a whore. Imagine him laying waste to your entire family, under the guise of "getting well." Imagine too, that all his memories are filtered through years of self-admitted drug abuse and mental illness, and bear no relation to the real events.

What would you do with that?

Others have said this more eloquently, so I'm hardly breaking any new ground here, but the Web has democratized communications in ways that we never thought possible, for better and for worse.

Now, despite what the editors of Wired magazine may think, it still doesn't have one-tenth of the reach of network TV, and there's a lot of dross on the 'net. Yet the good stuff is 10 times deeper and more emotionally powerful than anything on television.

While reading through April Winchell's site --- particularly if you go back to her entries in June 2004, when her father's book was released --- you can practically see this woman's heart break. It's remarkable and touching, and a little bit creepily voyueristic, all at the same time.

And before the Web, April Winchell would have had to let her father's book be the last word on their family situation. Maybe she could have sold her story to the National Enquirer. But would she have had the same credibility? Particularly because in the age of instant web publishing, we have third-parties who are able to corroborate her stories, like Evanier:

I obviously don't want to get in the middle of a family matter but people are writing me to ask if what she says is true or exaggerated or wacko or what. I'll just say that I don't think anyone who knew Paul well will think that any of her comments are out of line, and some might be surprised at the amount of compassion shown. ...

A little after 7:00 Saturday evening, April posted on her site that she had just received a call from someone telling her that her father had died. So I heard about it around 21 hours before she did, and I posted it on my site more than an hour before anyone thought to call and inform the man's daughter. That ought to tell you something.

Indeed it does. Meanwhile, someone sent me a great line from a Slashdot interview with Wil Wheaton, best remembered as "Wesley Crusher" on TV's Star Trek: The Next Generation:

Q. It seems that most child actors end up growing up to be crack-heads, drug-dealers, low class porn actors/actresses, and/or dead from bullets or drugs. How did you avoid all that mess? Was it easy or hard to avoid? Was there a point in your life where you had to make a conscious choice? What would you say to other child actors to help them avoid the pitfalls of early fame?

WW: I think not being on Diff'rent Strokes had a lot to do with it.


Wait a second ... when did this turn into a celebrity site, for crying out loud? I couldn't care less about celebrities. (Although I suppose we're really stretching if Wil Wheaton and Paul Winchell are falling into the category of "celebrities.")

Well, since we're on a Hollywood/entertainment kick all of a sudden, you may recall that I mentioned the cartoon "Underdog" a while back. Several sources are reporting that our friends at Team Rodent are bringing out a movie based on "Underdog."

And they're planning to use live dogs.

With computer graphics to make the dogs "talk."

Pardon me while I go retch.

David Germain of the AP calls it "a debacle in the making." Yeah, having seen the way Hollywood destroyed "Rocky and Bullwinkle" a few years ago (turning the charming old cartoon show into a live-action box office bomb) that sounds about right.

Tomorrow, we get out of this entertainment pop-culture sewer and back to important things, like 30-year-old news you can't possibly use from Our Fair City and vicinity. Thanks for your patience.

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June 28, 2005 | Link to this story

Briefly Noted

Category: default || By jt3y

Short and sweet today, because it's still too hot to expend too much mental energy, and Lord knows, I have little enough to waste.


Paul Winchell, the voice of Jerry Mahoney, "Tigger" in the Disney adaptation of the Winnie the Pooh stories, and the man who developed the concept for the first artificial heart, died over the weekend at the age of 82. An obituary in the Washington Post has details of his truly remarkable career:

-- He overcame polio, which crippled his legs as a child, by forcing himself through grueling weight-training sessions;

-- He taught himself ventriloquism with a book that he purchased for a dime, which he had to borrow from his sister's boyfriend;

-- He went back to college at the age of 35, taking pre-med courses at Columbia in the 1950s;

-- He collaborated with Dr. Henry Heimlich (inventor of the Heimlich maneuver for people choking on food) on inventing the first artificial heart;

-- He later invented dozens of other products (some commercially successful, like the disposable razor, others not), including a variety of medical devices.

That's my definition of a true renaissance man, and it's all the more remarkable for the fact that while millions of people have heard his voice over the years, few knew his name.

Requiescat in pacem, and ta-ta for now, Mr. Winchell.


Speaking of the WaPo, One of my favorite writers, the Post's Gene Weingarten, had a column a few weeks ago about the in-house, on-staff comedian at Independence Air, the low-frills airline I took to Florida earlier this month. (You may recall that I was non-plussed to have Allison Janney doing the pre-flight safety recording. I forgot to mention that on the return flight, the recording was voiced by Richard Lewis.)

It turns out that Independence hired stand-up comedian Dave George (no, I never heard of him, either) to consult with the airline and read announcements at its Dulles airport hub. Here are some of his bon-mots, according to Weingarten:

"Independence Air is paging the passenger who valet-parked his Corvette Sting Ray ... Congratulations. Your car just won the drag race in the employee parking lot!"

"The weather in Newark is calm, 72 degrees. The weather in Syracuse is calm, 72 degrees. The weather in Hartford is calm, 72 degrees. Oh, wait, I'm sorry, I'm looking at the weather here in the terminal."

"We have an important announcement for all United and USAirways employees: Your anger management classes begin in five minutes. And, please, go this time."

I guess it beats the hell out of the normal mumble-mumble that passes for announcements at airports, but he's not going to make anyone forget Jerry Seinfeld.

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June 27, 2005 | Link to this story

We Get Letters

Category: default || By jt3y

It's too hot to think, so at least for once, I have an excuse. Instead, we'll open up the old mailbag and see what crawls out.

Judy from Tucson, Ariz., writes:

Hi ... I (like others) have stumbled onto your Tube City Website, and have enjoyed reading about my hometown too. My five sisters and I grew up on a dairy farm in Elizabeth Township ... but we claim McKeesport as home. I left the area in 1970, and now live in Tucson. I have fond memories of St Mary's German Church and school, Sam's Chili Dogs, Isaly's chipped ham and Klondikes, the windy road (was it Renzie Road?) leading to the Youghiogheny Country Club, and the big beautiful library downtown. Thanks for the memories!

The windy road is indeed Renzie Road, and thank you for writing, Judy. But I'd be surprised if they didn't have Klondikes out there in Arizona. They're not just for Pittsburgh any more!

In fact, if you visit the Good Humor website (they now own the Klondike bar, along with Breyer's ice cream and Popsicle), you'll find that Albertson's right there in Tucson carries Klondike bars. They don't give you a free one if you find one with a red center, unfortunately. In fact, if you find one with a red center, you'd better be eating one of the Whitehouse Cherry ones.


A reader who would like to remain anonymous, and who's a social conservative, wrote regarding my rant a few weeks ago about Ann Coulter's syndicated column in The Daily News:

Believe this or not, I agree. Conservative I like. Smartass I get enough of from some of my relatives.

I don't know if I ever posted a review of Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, nor do I know if anybody cares what I think. Briefly stated: I didn't expect to like it, but bought it because it was 30 percent off at a certain large, chain bookstore in Monroeville. To my pleasant surprise, it is frequently very funny (mostly because of Franken's self-deprecating humor) and relatively well-researched, although it's (what a shock!) very, very partisan.

My point (and I do have one) is that two of Franken's most devastating chapters are on my girl Annie. (One is called "Ann Coulter: Nutcase" and the other is "How to Lie with Footnotes.") He documents many, many instances in which she has deliberately manipulated facts or distorted quotes to make an argument.

Franken claims that Coulter often puts "footnotes" on her assertions, presumably to make it seem as if her books are thoroughly sourced. According to Franken, when the source material is checked, the material that she's using is nowhere to be found. Apparently, she assumes that no one will ever check up on her --- and she's right.


S.F., no address, writes that she's selling her family home in Our Fair City, and is looking for someone who would be a responsible caretaker. She asked if I wouldn't post a message here about it. I've edited a few things out to protect her privacy and for clarity's sake:

My father and his family were relocated due to the construction of the overpass to the Duquesne-McKeesport Bridge. My grandfather, a foreman at National Tube built the house on Soles Street. My father, who worked at Duquesne Works for 39 years, and my mother, who grew up on Packer Street ... literally carried the furniture from Packer to Soles to share the house with her new husband and mother & father-in-law ...

My whole family has graduated from McKeesport Senior High and I have the rings to prove it. I love the rich history of McKeesport and have visited your site for quite some time, and if I didn't work so far away would live in the house myself. I would love someone to have as rich of a life as I did living amongst those walls.

If you'd like to get in touch with S.F., who still lives in the Mon-Yough area, please email me at jt3y at dementia dot org.


Confidential to the guy who wrote to me, via U.S. Mail, to ask for information about Berarducci Brothers. For crying out loud, fella, what part of this didn't you understand? To wit: "Please do not write asking for information." And next time, if you're going to ask me something for which there's an answer already available on the website, then at least enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope.


Finally, Jeremiah Ostrosky of JereMusic and Steel Valley Radio writes to send along two restaurant reviews and to report that he recently took some last photos at Eastland Mall:

I made a few attempts to get photos of the dilapidated inside and extremely poor roof that leaked water everwhere, but was chased away by an old man asking what I was doing and saying "You can't do that! The boss is watching!" and pointing at the ceiling. Who knows why.

He was pointing at the ceiling? Maybe his boss is God.

Incidentally, the demolition of Eastland won't begin before July, informed sources tell the Almanac. Beer World is scheduled to vacant the old J.C. Penney space by June 30, and will be relocating somewhere else in North Versailles Township. (This makes me very, very happy, by the way, because I'm a big fan of Beer World.)

I'll be adding the reviews to the restaurant page and the photos to the Eastland page very shortly.

That's assuming I have any brain cells left. Did I mention it's too damned hot?

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June 24, 2005 | Link to this story

Master of My Domain

Category: default || By jt3y

It's not often that I find myself agreeing with Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia --- and believe me, I'm just sure they cry themselves to sleep at night --- but I did yesterday.

Along with Chief Justice William Rehnquist (another noted liberal) those justices were in the minority, dissenting with a ruling that local governments have a constitutional right to seize private property through eminent domain and turn it over to other private property owners.

Josef Stalin would be proud. Not to mention the fact that somewhere, Mulu Birru is smiling, since eminent domain was the Sword of Damocles that he and other Pittsburgh city officials held over property owners heads time and time again.

And Lord knows, Our Fair City had its share of "redevelopment" in the 1960s and '70s, which got us such architectural marvels as the Midtown Plaza Mall and the Executive Building.

It breaks down like this: Five years ago, the city of New London, Conn., approved a redevelopment plan for a waterfront neighborhood that would include upscale shopping, office buildings, and a hotel, along with a new U.S. Coast Guard Museum. The development would replace some abandoned industrial land along the Thames River.

But the local redevelopment authority and the city also decided to condemn a nearby neighborhood of private houses. Eminent domain laws require governments to pay fair market value for any property that's seized, but nine residents --- including one woman who has lived in the same house since she was born in 1918 --- refused to sell.

And then they sued, saying New London authorities were violating their Fifth Amendment rights. The Fifth Amendment says that private property may not be taken for public use without compensation. It doesn't say anything about taking private property for private use, which a shopping development arguably is.

The case wound its way through state courts in Connecticut before landing at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority (PDF file), cites case law back to the mid-19th century that ruled that "public use" can be interpreted very broadly: "Promoting economic development is a traditional and long accepted function of government," he writes. "There is, moreover, no principled way of distinguishing economic development from the other public purposes that we have recognized," like public transportation projects, for example.

In their dissent, the other four justices call the majority decision "troubled" and "flawed." "If it is true that incidental public benefits from new private use are enough to ensure the public purpose ... why should it matter, as far as the Fifth Amendment is concerned, what inspired the taking in the first place?" writes O'Connor.

No matter what reason is given, she writes, the effect is the same: "Private property is forcibly relinquished to new private ownership."

The beneficiaries of this ruling, O'Connor says, are likely to be "those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms." (Sandra Day O'Connor: Closet liberal and Nation reader?)

O'Connor also questions the wisdom of allowing government officials to decide the "best use" of already developed property: "Who among us can say she already makes the most productive or attractive possible use of her property? The specter of condemnation hangs over all property. Nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory."

Indeed. It's bad enough in the Mon-Yough area that the Turnpike Commission is about to take hundreds of properties in the name of building a highway that will enable people to zip more quickly Downtown from their McMansions in Washington County.

Now, we have to worry about borough council or the township commissioners coming along, looking at our '60s split-level with the Steelers flag on the porch and the dead grass in the front yard, and saying, "You know what would look good right here? A Starbucks."

The only bright spot is that Stevens and the majority leave the door open for the state legislatures to put the brakes on this kind of foolishness: "Nothing in our opinion," he writes, "precludes any State from placing further restrictions on its exercise of the takings power. Indeed, many States already impose 'public use' requirements that are stricter than the federal baseline."

There's a slim ray of hope in those comments, I guess. Personally, I can't wait for the day that the Pennsylvania General Assembly decides to voluntarily give up some of its power. I also can't wait for the Pirates to win another World Series. In either case, I'm not holding my breath.


Speaking of economic development of dubious potential, business owners in Pitcairn are planning to fight back against a proposed Wal-Mart near the intersections of Routes 48 and 130 in Monroeville, writes Bill Heltzel in the Post-Gazette.

(Pharmacist Phil Arlia) counted 29 independent drugstores from Braddock to Irwin, when he opened in 1969. Now he's the only independent left. "The largest retailer in the world moving in a half-mile up the road, how can it not hurt you?" asked Arlia. "Notice, I didn't say we'll go out of business."

He has adapted as chain stores opened. He still stocks convenience items but no longer carries entire lines of deodorant, hair coloring or Timex watches. Instead, he concentrates on personal service, quick delivery, next-day special orders and credit.

He is hopeful that PennDOT and Monroeville will not "create a monster" by giving Wal-Mart the permits it needs, but he is prepared to fight.

"This is going to be fun," he said. "It's a challenge. The big boy on the block thinks he can come into a small town and stomp them. We'll see."

I'm rooting for Phil, but once again, I think I won't hold my breath. Personal service and customer loyalty in America seems to extend right up until the point that people can save 19 cents on a bottle of generic aspirin. I hope the people of Pitcairn have a better sense of self-preservation.


Summertime, summertime, sum-sum-summertime, summertime, summertime, sum-sum-summertime ... etc. What better way to catch some rays this summer than in our new Tube City Online "Rainbow Gardens Lifeguard" T-shirt? Just please don't impersonate a real lifeguard.

On the other hand, you could put some zinc oxide on your nose and strap a silver whistle on your neck, and then go out to Oak Park Mall and yell "Everybody out of the pool!" What the heck: Annoy your friends and neighbors!


To Do This Weekend: Holy Angels Evangelical Lutheran Church, 201 Caldwell Ave., Wilmerding hosts an organ concert at 7 p.m. Saturday by Rev. Stephen Folkemer and tenor William Fisher that features the church's new organ. Admission requires a donation of a non-perishable item to the Wilmerding Food Pantry. ... Stewartsville Lions Club holds a chicken barbecue from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday at Norwin Towne Square shopping center, Route 30 at Lincoln Way, North Huntingdon Township. ... Sinatra impersonator Bo Wagner headlines a concert at the Renziehausen Park band shell, Eden Park Boulevard near Tulip Drive, called "Let's Be Frank," 7 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free.

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June 23, 2005 | Link to this story

Consarn It, I'm Grumpy

Category: default || By jt3y

I am gratified to see that, of all of the serious problems facing this great nation of ours, the U.S. House of Representatives has again taken a firm stand against burning the American flag. Don't address our crippling deficit, or the continued difficulties in Iraq, or the rising price of fuel, or the growing gap between rich people and poor people. No, get out there and tackle that flag-burning problem.

Personally, I'm tired of chasing flag-burners out of the front yard. "Get out of here, you consarned flag-burners!" I shout, shaking my fist at them. On Saturday mornings, the Giant Eagle parking lot is crammed from curb to curb with flag-burners, and you can't even enjoy a Pirates game without some clown in the row in front of you pulling out a flag and lighting it up.

Actually, you can't enjoy a Pirates game because after a brief flirtation with averageness, they have once again ascended the heights of mediocrity. Seriously, they're not even bad enough to be interesting. If they were losing games 40-0, then you might be compelled to watch, because you could at least be ensured of an interesting slaughter, much the same way that a demolition derby or a trip to an abattoir can be entertaining. These 5-4 losses are just pitiful. Guys: The games are nine innings long. You can't quit after the seventh-inning stretch.

Now that I think of it, I'd rather tour an abattoir than see a demolition derby. I've gone to exactly two demolition derbies in my life; once when I was about 8, and the other two years ago at the Washington County fair. I got dragged to the latter by a group of friends.

The first round was sort-of amusing, if you're into loud noises and car crashes. (I'd just as soon hang out on the Parkway East if I want to see that.) By the third round, I was looking at my watch, and by the fifth, I was praying that a tie rod would come off of one of the cars, fly into the stands, and puncture my skull to put me out of my misery.

It didn't help that several cars in the demolition derby were newer than mine. I'd see some old Chevrolet Impala plow into another car, and I'd say, "Damnit, you ruined the driver's side door, and I need one!"

Speaking of cars, what is it with the birds? I left work the other day to find that I no longer had a sleek, grey Mercury: I had a bird-dropping colored Mercury with a few grey spots. I washed it last night, but five will get you 10 that by tomorrow morning, I'll need a putty knife just to scrape a patch of pigeon feces off of the windshield large enough so that I can drive.

And I swear that someone in our neighborhood has been feeding the birds bran muffins and Ex-Lax. I awoke the other morning to see a strange, misshapen shadow on the bedroom wall. Upon putting on my spectacles (because I'm blind as a bat without them), I realized that a bird had decorated the entire side of the house, including the window and the screen.

The bird is long gone, but despite all of the rain, his (or her) memory lingers on my siding and the window screen. I'm going to have to take the screen down and scrub it with soap and hot water. Something's wrong with our civilization when we're reduced to cleaning up birdie bowel movements: Who, exactly, is the superior species here? But if I don't clean it up, then opening my bedroom window will continue to be a disgusting activity.

Not that I'm going to be able to open the window this weekend, because they're predicting temperatures will be up into the 90s, and I'm probably going to have to break down and turn on the A/C. I despise hot weather. Every time it's 95 degrees and I run into some clown who says, "isn't this weather beautiful," I want to beat them about the head and shoulders with a bottle of suntan lotion. Cold isn't a thrill, but I can always put on more clothes (and if you've ever seen me, you'd encourage me to put on as much clothing as possible). I can't take off skin during a heat wave.

Air conditioning can be a wonderful convenience, especially if you're in some ridiculous place like Arizona, but I much prefer letting some fresh air in. When that air isn't being filter through screens contaminated by diarrhetic birds, that is. And do I even have to say what air conditioning causes? High electric bills.

I don't need to send $100 a month to Duquesne Light. The phone company is already into me for $155 this month because I called their repair service after I didn't have a dial tone for two days. The problem was on their end --- though they deny it --- and you'd better believe the Public Utility Commission is getting a complaint. I might as well wad that complaint up into a little ball and stick it somewhere, which would save me a stamp and do about the same amount of good, but at least I'll have the satisfaction of screwing up someone else's day.

I can't complain to anyone about the refrigerator, unfortunately. I returned from Florida to find out that it had turned into a large, smelly, warm porcelain cabinet. The temperature inside was up to 57 degrees, the ice cream was dripping out of the carton, and the milk smelled like an earthquake in a graveyard.

The repairman came out and recommended that I dig a pit and push it in: The compressor is shot. The damned thing is 13 years old! My mother got 25 years out of her refrigerator. My grandmother's was 40 years old. Shouldn't technology be improving, not regressing?

I have a lot of other topics to cover --- those stupid Turkey Hill Dairy billboards with the giant cows, for example. Who wants to see a 10-foot-tall udder at 7 o'clock in the morning? Some freak who's into cow porn? Unfortunately, I see the doctor is here again. He says I'm off my meds. I'd argue with him, but I think I'll just go nighty-night for a while instead.

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June 22, 2005 | Link to this story

Bye Now, Myron

Category: default || By jt3y

About three years ago, I was assigned to review Myron Cope's book, Double Yoi! "Keep it to 200 words," the editor said.

Double yoi, indeed. Two-hundred words? Hmm-hah. That seemed hardly worth bothering Mr. Cope. So I checked with someone else: Are you interested in a profile of Myron Cope? "Sure." Length? "Whatever you need."

I called Cope, explained that I wanted to interview him for two pieces. Well, he was busy prepping for a Steelers game that weekend, he said, but he could talk when he got back into town. But he warned me that the best he could allow was about a half-hour, because he wasn't feeling well, and he knew he'd be tired. We set a date and a time. "Bye now," he said.

I literally grew up listening to Myron Cope. When I went to college, I tortured my roommate by listening to Cope's talk show as I did homework. (What a dumbkopf I was: That could explain my grades in freshman calc and physics, now that I think of it.) He was from Baltimore: "How can you listen to that guy?" he'd ask. "I can't stand that." Like so many people, he couldn't get past the voice.

But that nasal gargle, which Cope himself often mocks, masked the very civil way that Cope conducted his talk show (even idiotic callers got a fair shake). It also masked his dry wit, his trenchant analysis of the culture and business of sports, and his plain decency.

I've been blessed to interview everyone from Nobel Prize winners to convicted murderers, but for crying out loud, this was Myron Cope.

Needless to say, the day for the interview came, and I was as nervous as I've ever been. I had 30 minutes. I had to make it count. With one eye on the clock, we started.

In the end, Cope gave me an hour. And he thanked me for interviewing him. And when the stories came out, he sent me a thank you note for my interest in him. I keep it in the top drawer of my desk at home and pull it out every so often.

Out of all of the thousands of people who have talked to Cope over the years, and the hundreds of local yokels who've interviewed him, I'm sure I rank somewhere between the nacho guy at Giants Stadium and the gas station attendant who wiped his windows in 1974. But he took the time to write me a thank you note.

Too many people --- like my roommate --- have written Cope off as a clown because of his voice and his often outrageous stunts. (Remember the music videos he used to do for the WTAE-TV news?) But if you ever have some time to kill in the library, check out Cope's books, or look up some of the work he did in the '60s for True and Sports Illustrated and The Saturday Evening Post. (The "Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature" will help you find the stories.) The man could write. In fact, he still can: Double Yoi! is a warm, witty and often bittersweet memoir that's well worth your time, even if you're not interested in sports. Cope's chapters about the death of his wife and his own struggle with depression and drinking are wrenching and funny at the same time.

In my recent move, I rediscovered something that I was afraid I'd lost: It was a reel-to-reel tape I made of Cope's last talk show on the old WTAE radio. I threaded it up and listened to a few minutes, and instantly was reminded why I enjoyed Cope's talk show so much. There was warmth, humor and humanity in every word. (The only other sports talk show I ever liked as much his was Bruce Keidan's, and for the same reason.)

Western Pennsylvania has been fortunate to have had a monopoly on Cope for more than 30 years. Lord willing, I hope he gets a chance to work on the books he says he wants to write --- I'm looking forward to them --- and I hope retirement treats him well. He's a good man, a unique talent, and one of the few Pittsburgh personalities truly deserving of the title "legend."


Myron Cope Links:

An appreciation by Bob Labriola of

Joe Starkey of the Tribune-Review on Cope's writing

Bob Dvorchak of the Post-Gazette on Cope's retirement

"Everything is Cope-Aesthetic," Mark Collins, Pitt Magazine, Sept. 1996


In other business, it's the 25th anniversary of "The Blues Brothers," and the Chicago Sun-Times is running a weeklong look back at the places in Chicago that were featured in the film. The church where James Brown was preaching has fallen on hard times, and the street where John Lee Hooker was singing in an open market was demolished to make way for the expansion of the University of Chicago.

And don't tell The Penguin, but the orphanage has been torn down anyway. (Of course, it was only a false-front movie set, built in an alley.)

It's good stuff, even if you're not on a mission from God.

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June 21, 2005 | Link to this story

Through a Cloudy Crystal Ball

Category: default || By jt3y

The following is baseless speculation. Any resemblance to any real events is purely dumb luck. It is a conspiracy theory that ranks closely with the notions that commercial passenger jets are spraying middle America with mind-control potions via their exhaust trails, or that Richard Nixon was on the grassy knoll in Dallas with a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle.

It stems from a conversation that Alert Reader Officer Jim and I had the other day. I'd say that we were drunk, but he was going on duty and it was a little early in the day for me. (On the other hand, we were a little hyper-caffeinated.)

We got to talking about the ongoing federal grand jury investigations into alleged misuse of the coroner's office by Dr. Cyril Wecht, and the simultaneous federal probe into supposed fundraising irregularities by Allegheny County Sheriff Pete "The Big Ragu" DeFazio and Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy.

Like me, Officer Jim can't figure out exactly why the feds are probing Wecht. Even if he did misuse his office --- and that's only a rumor of what the allegations are, because no one is saying for the record --- we can't figure out why the feds would be involved. That sounds like a state or county matter to us.

It strikes me that the only way the federal government would have jurisdiction would be if there were allegations of income tax evasion or civil rights violations. (Or possibly mail fraud. Wecht isn't offering mail-order autopsies, is he?)

We're also not sure why Murphy is still under investigation. The allegation is that the firefighters' union endorsed him in exchange for his agreement on their new contract. But as several people have pointed out, isn't that how political dealmaking is done everywhere? Without that kind of horse-trading, government would grind to a halt. (Exhibit A, may it please the court, would be the current U.S. Senate battle over John Bolton. That's what happens when elected officials refuse to compromise and make nice.) As long as a cash bribe didn't change hands, where's the crime?

"It seems like something's going around," said Officer Jim, noting that the feds have gotten several convictions in a municipal corruption scandal in Philadelphia that has connections to that city's mayor, John Street.

Like Murphy, Wecht and DeFazio, Street is a Democrat.

And Officer Jim pointed out that Erie Mayor Rick Filippi (a Democrat) is also under federal indictment in a bribery scandal. (He also has heard reports of a grand jury probe in Scranton, but that turns out to be a state investigation into abuse at the Lackawanna County Prison.)

Isn't it curious that the Justice Department is probing all of this alleged corruption by Democrats as Pennsylvania's most prominent Democrat, Ed Rendell, prepares to run for re-election and a member of one of the state's most prominent Democratic families, Bob Casey Jr., prepares to run against Rick Santorum for the U.S. Senate?

And wouldn't it be a nice present both to Santorum and Rendell's eventual Republican opponent if a whole bunch of indictments against prominent Democrats were to come down early next year?

OK, we're dangerously close to black helicopter territory, I know. I'm sure it's all just coincidence, and one that's not that surprising, to boot, since Pennsylvania is not known as a model of good government. (Though compared to our neighbors in New Jersey and New York, Pennsylvania is cleaner than the Little Sisters of the Poor.)

Still, until something happens --- say, the feds get some indictments in Pittsburgh or drop their investigations, or some "Deep Throat" wannabe spills their guts to the news media --- speculation is all we've got. That hardly seems fair to anyone involved, but that's life in the big city, I suppose.

Coming tomorrow: A theory about how Sheetz is conspiring with The Pillsbury Co. and the Illuminati to keep the price of cinnamon rolls high. Don't miss it!


In other news, scientists at Pitt and in Russia are working on a grand unified theory of everything that can go wrong in the world. At least that's according to The Onion.

Says America's finest news source, "the list is widely believed to include hundreds of trillions of potential scenarios, from 'cement truck with soft brakes cutting swath of destruction across quiet suburban subdivision' to 'snagging shirt cuff on door latch'":

During a recent tour of the facilities at the University of Pittsburgh, the scenarios were projected onto a large screen as they were processed.

"Accidentally breaking off hand of Infant Of Prague statuette while gently trying to clean it with cotton swab and soapy water," the projection screen read. "Briefs get wedged in area between bureau drawers and base unit, making it difficult to dislodge them; sleeping with neck twisted awkwardly, resulting in headache; absent-mindedly discarding bus ticket with tissue; placing fingers too close to prongs while plugging in night-light, resulting in mild electrical shock."

How did the mainstream media miss this vital story? Is this another example of liberal/conservative bias (he said, planting his tongue firmly into his cheek)?

(My standard disclaimer --- I don't speak for Pitt and they don't speak for me --- applies here.)


Following up on yesterday's Almanac item about Frank Striffler's collection of antique cars, Dorothy Yagodich had a nice story in Sunday's Trib about a Mon-Yough area family and their love affair with a 1965 Ford Mustang. Dad bought it new and gave it to his son, who sold it to someone who promised to restore it. When that man decided to sell it, the son bought it back in time to surprise his dad on his 78th birthday.

The son, Ric Frantz, is from Rostraver and owns a car detailing shop in Monessen. The restoration, Yagodich writes, was done by Jim Musisko of Liberty Borough.

All of this reminds me that it's car show season in Almanac-land. I know that the Elks on Buttermilk Hollow Road in Lincoln Place is once again holding their Thursday night car cruise, and that attendance has been strong. If you know of any others, drop me a note, mm-kay?

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June 20, 2005 | Link to this story

The Plane Truth and Other Items

Category: default || By jt3y

Last week's leftovers and other morsels:


Did you know lap dogs are allowed on airplanes now? Once again I show my ignorance, I guess. I was surprised upon arriving at the Palm Beach airport to find people holding little yappy dogs in the departure lounge. At first, I thought they (the people, not the dogs, natch) were visitors seeing their loved ones off, but that didn't make sense --- just like Greater Pitt, you have to have a boarding pass to clear security. When our flight was called and the people (and the dogs) stood up to board, I was astonished.

I happen to like dogs, but I have a lot of questions about allowing them onto commercial flights. Peanuts are banned from most airlines because some people have allergic reactions to them --- don't some people have allergic reactions to dogs? The air inside the plane's cabin is recirculating constantly, presumably spreading allergens to all parts of the aircraft. Is the airline going to be responsible if someone claims to be having an allergic reaction to a dog? Also, what happens if the dog bites someone? And peanuts are relatively quiet, compared to a dog that's in pain because the cabin pressure is changing upon take-off or landing.

(Somebody asked me, "What happens if the dog has an accident?" I already know the answer to that. The stewardess goes up the aisle with a big roll of paper towels, which is exactly what happened when one of the dogs did have an accident.)

I'm not making a case that dogs shouldn't be allowed on airplanes --- if their owners are going somewhere on a trip, something has to be done with the pooch, too. It just surprised me, that's all.


More on airplanes: Smoking has been banned on most domestic U.S. flights since 1989. Why do airplanes still have "no smoking" lights? Since the lights are always on, wouldn't a simple "no smoking" placard at each seat be cheaper? And why do we still have to have a lecture on each flight that there is no smoking on board the airplane?

OK, I know the answer to the last question: We get the lecture because people are stupid. During the flight from Washington, D.C., to Tampa, one lady passenger refused to stay seated when told. When we were landing in Tampa, she got out of her seat despite being told specifically by the stewardess to sit down. The pilot finally stopped the airplane on the tarmac and refused to taxi to the gate until she sat down and put her seat belt on.

For crying out loud! How much time were you saving, lady? Thirty seconds? Forty-five? It's a simple concept --- when the seat belt light is turned "on," sit down and put your seat belt on.


Or perhaps people are just arrogant, including Little Miss Won't Sit Down. Before I'd ban cigarettes from airports and airplanes, I'd ban cellular phones. I'm allergic to cigarette smoke, but I'd rather spend two hours in a cloud of chain-smokers than 20 minutes listening to people yack, loudly, on their cell phones about absolutely nothing. Even listening to little yappy lap dogs for a three-hour flight would be preferable.

In Palm Beach, about 200 people in the departure lounge were treated to an ear-splitting blow-by-blow description of someone's medical problems, courtesy of an elderly Noo Yawker, tawkin' to someone back home. (Someone finally went over to tell her to pipe down, at which point she stood up and made a loud, not-quite-sincere apology.)

Inside the plane, each time the pilot announced that passengers could use their cell phones, the air quickly came alive with the sounds of electronic boops and beeps. Soon, people were having thrilling conversations like: "Guess where we are? We're on the plane. Yep. We're going to take off. Yep. So we'll see you at the airport. Yep."

Yes, and they'll be able to spot you immediately. You'll be the one with the cell phone stuck up your nose, and I'll be the one escorted from the plane in handcuffs.


On other matters: A press release from the Fantastic Sam's chain of hair salons (I hesitate to say "clip joints") alerts me that the location near the Waterfront in Munhall raised more than $2,000 to benefit a little girl from West Mifflin. Mallory Oross, age 5, is suffering from abdominal cancer.

According to the release, stylists opened the shop on Sunday, June 5, and held a "cut-a-thon" in which they contributed all of their receipts for the day to Mallory's care. She needs surgery, radiation treatments and possibly a bone marrow transplant, and the family's health insurance is not covering many of the costs.

You can contribute by sending contributions to the Mallory Oross Fund, c/o Auto Workers Credit Union, 6010 Mountain View Drive, West Mifflin, PA 15122, or visit the family's website at


On Friday, I forgot to mention the annual Greater Pittsburgh Soapbox Derby, held Sunday in Our Fair City! Mea culpa. Brian Krasman had a preview in Friday's Daily News.

The soap box derby has been held on Eden Park Boulevard since 1956. Krasman reports the original sponsor was Deveraux Chevrolet. When they dropped their sponsorship in 1972, the event was suspended for 11 years. It was brought back in 1983 and has been with us ever since, and it's one of the nice things about the Mon-Yough area. I only got to see a little bit on Sunday, but the weather was wonderful for soap box racing.

Another kind of vehicle was the topic of a story in the Post-Gazette on Thursday. Al Lowe profiled longtime city funeral director and businessman Frank S. Striffler and mentioned his collection of antique hearses.

Striffler owns an 1866 horse-drawn hearse, a 1938 LaSalle, and two Cadillacs: 1965 and 1977. All this reminds me that I just saw an '80s Cadillac hearse for sale in front of a body shop in Hazelwood. I'm sure it's been well-maintained and it probably has very few miles on it. Did you ever think when a hearse went by that you might be the next to buy?

I've met several of the Strifflers, and they've been very nice to me. They also invest money back into their communities and provide a necessary service, which makes them aces in my book. I could make a bunch of funeral home puns here, I suppose, but that would be a grave error. And besides, I'd better be shoveling off.

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June 17, 2005 | Link to this story

Florida Diary: Conclusion

Category: default || By jt3y

3,000 FEET ABOVE OUR FAIR CITY, June 9 --- It's 4:17 p.m., and from my window seat on the starboard side of the airplane, I can see Downtown, the Mansfield Bridge, the McKees Point Marina and my neighborhood in North Bittyburg. I suppose I could pull a D.B. Cooper and bail out right now using the air stairs, but I don't have a parachute and I think the landing would be a rough one. Also, since I haven't robbed any banks, they probably won't make any movies about me (though I might end up in Jay Leno's monologue).

So I guess I'll just stay seated. I doubt I could find the air stairs anyway, since I'm pretty well lubricated. The stewardesses --- excuse me, cabin crew --- have been plying us with free beer and wine since we left Dulles, about 20 minutes late. A connecting flight from the West Coast was late, which meant that a bunch of people who were supposed to be on our flight were delayed. Then, we had a rowdy passenger who got in an argument with the pilot and who was questioned by security. And in talking with the pilot later, passengers found out that we had to detour more than 100 miles around a bad storm system in western Maryland.

To make it up to us? Free hooch!

The Florida trip was interesting, if tiring. I used up a week's vacation time to do research for the book. All but one of the interviews was a success in terms of the information gathered, and a couple of the interviewees turned out to be very pleasant surprises. (In fairness, I haven't yet had a meeting with anyone in my G.C. Murphy research that hasn't been pleasant.)

There are plenty of places that I wouldn't mind living --- Boston (Massachusetts, not Elizabeth Township) and Toronto (Ontario, not Ohio) are high on the list --- but after spending five days in Florida, I've decided that's not one of them. As the week progressed, I found myself getting eager to get back to Our Fair City as the trip progressed. (Weird, eh?)

It didn't help that I kept getting reminded of the Mon Valley as I traveled. The Tampa airport has a Westinghouse-designed people mover system that is a dead ringer for the old "Skybus" at South Park. (The shuttles were recently replaced, as it turns out, with cars made at Bombardier's plant in West Mifflin.) I saw a restaurant on U.S. 1 near Palm Beach called the "Holiday House." In Sarasota, there's a street called "Toledo Blade Boulevard," which made me think of the Post-Gazette (which is owned by the Toledo Blade. And in the library in Leesburg, Fla., where I stopped to check my email, I listened as a man stopped at the reference desk to get a zip code for Carson Street on the South Side. He was from Pittsburgh; the reference clerk was from the Youngstown area.

I am grudgingly willing to admit that I can understand why someone might want to live in Florida, especially if they were tired of rainy summers and gray winters in Pennsylvania. But not me. I don't like heat, and I don't like crowds, and I don't like suburban sprawl, and Florida has all three of those in abundance. As the old saying goes, you don't have to be crazy to live there, but it probably helps.


To Do This Weekend: Meanwhile, back in the present, Billy Price and the Keystone Rhythm Band play the South Park Amphitheatre at 8 tonight. The show is free, but donations and proceeds from concessions benefit the Innocence Institute at Point Park University. ... Mon-Yough Riverfront Entertainment Council and the Caribbean and Latin American Student Association of the University of Pittsburgh host the 21st annual Caribbean Food and Music Festival from 6 to 10 p.m. Saturday at Riverfront Park, Water Street between Fifth and Ninth avenues. There will be live salsa and Latin music and food. Admission is free. (In case of rain, events will be moved to McKeesport High School, Eden Park Boulevard.) Call (412) 678-1727 or visit MYREC's web page.

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June 16, 2005 | Link to this story

Florida Diary, Day 4

Category: default || By jt3y

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla., June 8 --- There's an old joke about a bank robber who hands a note to the teller that says, "Give me all your money. This is a f--- up."

"You mean this is a stick-up," the teller says.

"No, this is a f--- up," the robber says. "I left my gun at home."

Today was a f--- up. Luckily, I didn't have a gun.

I spent the night in Ft. Myers and had to be in Delray Beach --- on the east coast of Florida --- by 10:30 a.m. My official motor-club-issued road map assured me that I could get from Ft. Myers to Palm Beach in about an hour and 12 minutes. I left Ft. Myers at 8:30 a.m., confident I'd be in Delray Beach with time to spare.

What the motor club map failed to mention was that it would take me the better part of an hour just to get out of Ft. Myers, owing mainly to a big wreck on I-75 that snarled traffic and a "short cut" that turned out to be a "long cut." I had to call my 10:30 appointment and tell him I'd be late. Then I called my 3 p.m. appointment and left a message on his answering machine, asking him if I could reschedule for 5 p.m.

A short digression here: I'm the last living American adult without a cellular phone, owing to my legendary cheapness (see the Florida Diary for June 5). That means all of my calls had to be made from pay phones. Since the deregulation of the phone industry, both the quantity and quality of pay phones has tanked. Of you can find a pay phone, in my experience, there's a better than even chance that the phone will be out of order.

When I pulled into Delray Beach, I stopped at a Hess station and tried calling my 3 p.m. again. The phone took the change and connected the call, but the person on the other end couldn't hear me. That left the two of us shouting "Hello!" at one another until he finally hung up.

I went to my noon, nee 10:30 interview, then found another pay phone. It wouldn't take change. The next pay phone I tried wouldn't dial numbers outside of its own area code. Disgusted, and looking forward to a hot shower before my next appointment, I checked into a motel and called the 3 p.m. again. "I have a 5:30 dinner engagement," he said. "We can't meet at 5. Can you get up here right now?"

It was 3:30, and he was in Hobe Sound, about 20 miles away. "I'll be there as soon as I can," I said, hanging up the phone. As I opened the door, I scanned the "fire escape" information card. After several safety tips --- fill your bathtub with water, don't use the elevators --- I saw the last line. "Above all, keep fighting. Don't quit."

What a comforting thought.

I headed for Hobe, but bad Florida driving bit me, hard, again. I got about two miles on I-95 north before running into a solid wall of traffic; three cars and a tractor-trailer had collided and were smeared across all three lanes. It took about a half-hour before the Florida Highway Patrol got traffic moving on the shoulder.

In the process, I damned near saw another tractor-trailer cream a compact car; the rig's driver leaned out the window and screamed obscenities at the woman driving the compact for a solid minute. Florida drivers put the "Sunshine" in the "Sunshine State."

By the way, if you think the Pennsylvania Turnpike is a mess, then you need to try the Florida Turnpike --- which bizarrely parallels I-95 for a lengthy stretch. The Florida Turnpike --- or excuse me, as the state bills it, "Florida's Turnpike" --- is a narrow, bumpy, and expensive mess. For that matter, I put about a thousand miles on the Monte Carlo in three days, and I can confidently state that many of Florida's interstates and state highways are just as bad as, if not worse than, Pennsylvania's.

One road that didn't seem to be in bad shape, at least for the stretch that I drove, is the legendary U.S. Route 1. I can remember reading a long National Geographic magazine story years ago that followed U.S. 1 from Key West to Maine, and as I left my truncated 3:30 p.m. appointment, I realized that I was on U.S. 1.

I decided to follow it down the coast as far as West Palm, where my hotel was. I rolled down the windows of the Monte Carlo, turned up the stereo, and moved over into the slow lane, driving along and smelling the salt air. In Juno Beach, I stopped at a little park and walked to the beach, where some people were parasailing. The weather since I arrived in Florida has been unremittingly lousy --- gray, humid, hot, drizzly --- but with the strong wind blowing off of the ocean and the colorful parasails in the sky, I found the gray clouds that had been following me around all day were finally lifting.

A little further south, reality intruded again. For several blocks on either side, the big wide boulevard was lined with boarded-up stores, ramshackle motels with peeling paint, and businesses that were damaged by long ago storms and never reopened.

Still, as well-known Floridian Dave Barry often says, I am not making this up: I spotted a rainbow in the sky at Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard. And cruising south along U.S. 1 in the twilight, looking at the palm trees and the Atlantic Ocean and the pastel-colored houses, Florida actually began to look kind of pretty. I could finally understand why someone might want to live here.

Take the advice of the motel warning placard: Keep fighting. Don't quit.

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June 15, 2005 | Link to this story

Florida Diary, Day 3

Category: default || By jt3y

FT. MYERS, Fla., June 7 --- They say good fences make good neighbors. Based on what I'm seeing, Florida's Gulf Coast must have a lot of great neighbors. I've never seen so much stockade fencing in my life. It seems like every other neighborhood is a gated community, and some of them are quite large --- one I visited this morning had 3,500 residents.

Yet not all of these gated communities are upscale. I've seen several that were primarily composed of mobile homes ... excuse me, manufactured houses. Some of the manufactured houses, in fact, are very nice, and almost indistinguishable from stick-built houses. They ought to be: Some of them are selling for $150,000.

You heard that right: Glorified trailers are running about 150 grand. Actual permanent homes are going for considerably more than $150,000, and I'm talking about little houses --- 1950s-style ranches that would fit in perfectly in Port Vue, but on tiny postage-stamp lots instead of the quarter-acres in Westwood Hills. Even the very expensive upscale houses down here are on tiny lots, in fact, and because so many of them are built on sandy soil, the lawns are
decidedly scruffy. It's kind of odd to see these $400,000 faux rancheros on little ugly weedy lawns. It's as if the builder of one of those Hempfield Township McMansions accidentally erected them in Braddock.

(Well, OK, so you don't see so many palm trees in Braddock. Also, for $400,000 you could own Braddock, and have change left over to buy Chalfant. But I digress.)

By the way, paying $400,000 for a house in the Ft. Myers-Naples corridor doesn't get you anywhere near a shoreline. But for $700,000, you can get a house on one of the local lakes, according to the local Re/Max office. It's one of what they're calling "patio" houses --- basically a flat concrete slab with a two-bedroom stucco ranch house and a two-car garage. In most cases, you're actually sharing a wall with the neighbor's house, so for three-quarters of a million dollars, you're buying half of a duplex that would set you back maybe $70,000 in Versailles Borough.

That's for a lakefront house. If you want oceanfront property, you're looking at upwards of $1 million.

Back to the gated communities. Why so many? I'm not sure, because I don't know who they're trying to keep out. People from the other gated communities? Are there rivalries? Maybe 80-year-old retired insurance salesmen from Villa Real get together and rumble against the 80-year-old retired schoolteachers from Oceanbreeze Estates. Then they drag race their Larks and Hoverrounds up and down the Tamiami Trail.

My great-aunt has lived in the Ft. Myers area for 10 years, and I stopped in to visit with her. At lunch, talk turned to the new construction that literally is going on at every intersection. I told her I was amazed to see that a new housing development was being erected on what looked like to my ignorant eyes nothing but sand.

According to her, though, there was a minor scandal in Ft. Myers a few years ago when the purchasers of a bunch of $250,000 houses found their retirement homes suddenly shifting and cracking. It turns out that the foundations which were supposed to have been shored up were, in fact, built on nothing but sand. The houses had to be torn down and rebuilt, she says.

"What do people do for work around here?" I asked.

"Mostly, they're retired," she said. The deed covenant in her community requires all residents to be at least 55. If a resident dies, she says, and their spouse remarries, they have to remarry someone at least 35, or move from the plan. Love is blind, but attorneys who write deeds are not, I guess.

In any event, she said, the biggest sector of the local labor market is in service industries --- restaurant workers, retail clerks, housekeepers.

"How can they afford to buy a house for $150,000?" I asked.

"They can't," she said. "They live in old shacks."

Indeed, after we parted I took a ride around Ft. Myers, neighboring Bonita Springs, and Naples. You don't have to look very far beyond the glitzy new shops and strip malls along U.S. 41 to find tarpaper shacks and ancient (or at least ancient-looking) aluminum mobile homes along unpaved roads.

Who's working the jobs? My aunt has an answer for that, too (admittedly unverified, though she's well-read and politically active). In the last 10 years, the number of illegal immigrants in Florida has doubled, she says. That goes a long way toward explaining why so many of the housing developments have fences around them, and guards at the gates.

I'm not going anywhere near Miami, where the clashes between Anglos and Cubans are the stuff that presidential campaigns are made of. Nevertheless, I suspect there's ethnic tension to spare in central Florida. Driving on U.S. 27 south of Orlando, I saw several businesses --- motels, garages, restaurants --- with signs that said "Owned and Operated By Americans."

There's nothing like appealing to someone's racism as a way to distinguish yourself from your competitors, I suppose. Of course, the Mon-Yough area's record of ethnic tolerance doesn't exactly make it a shining beacon of hope for humanity, either, and the reason that Western Pennsylvania doesn't have any problem with immigrants is mainly because nobody is emigrating to it.

But that's an issue for another time.

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June 14, 2005 | Link to this story

Florida Diary, Day 2

Category: default || By jt3y

LAKELAND, Fla., Monday, June 6 --- I had only been on the ground in Florida for about two hours before someone gave me a two-fisted middle-finger salute, rode the bumper of my rented Monte Carlo for 30 seconds with his high-beam headlights on, and then blew past me.

I'm used to people taking a dislike to me, but usually they don't express it so vividly for at least a day or so.

As he passed, I noticed he had a Tampa Bay Buccaneers vanity plate, so I guess he can be forgiven, considering his obvious history of mental illness.

At the time I spotted the Florida State Birds in my rear-view mirror, I was doing about 75 miles per hour in the slow lane. The speed limit was 70.

Anyway, I've been driving for something like 15 years, and I've logged something like 150,000 miles behind the wheel, but I've never, ever seen anything like Florida drivers. I'd estimate that maybe 10 percent are fully qualified to operate a motor-vehicle and are in complete command of their faculties. Of the rest, I'd say something like 25 percent are road-raging maniacs in sports cars and imported SUVs, 20 percent are punk kids and rednecks in clapped-out piece-of-krep trucks, and the remainder are nonagenarians heading for the early bird specials at Denny's at 40 miles per hour in the passing lane with their turn blinker on.

The next time I complain about Pennsylvania drivers, someone, please, slap me. I have never seen anything like this. People passing on the shoulders and medians, taking right-hand exit ramps from the far-left lane, backing up on an Interstate. I hadn't been driving for more than 20 minutes before I saw my first near-serious accident, and it didn't take long before I came across the real thing on I-75 south of Bradenton. Three vehicles were spun out and mangled along the side of the road. About a mile down the road, there was another serious crash.

I had dinner Sunday night with an ex-Pittsburgher friend and his wife, and was telling them about my experience on Florida freeways. They had some advice for me.

"If you're the first car at a red light, do not try to make a 'Pittsburgh left' when the light changes," she said. "You will get killed. Also, when the light turns green, don't pull out. Look both ways first. Nobody down here stops at red lights."

I laughed, but on the way back to the motel, I started watching at red lights. She's right. And it's not like people just get caught going through yellow lights that turn red; they don't stop even for "hard" reds. Sometimes, they pause at a red light and drive through anyway.

Driving like a bunch of maniacs is bad enough, but having four lanes of traffic in each direction, with on- and off-ramps every half-mile or so adding a fifth lane, and boosting the speed limit to 70, only adds to the potential for disaster. At any given moment, I feel like I'm in an episode of "CHiPs," at the moment right before the Pinto collides with the VW Bus and a Honda motorcycle goes spinning, in slow motion, off into an embankment.

Also, everybody tailgates. Everybody, everybody, everybody tailgates. I'm not exactly Captain Safety, but I do try to leave at least two Mississippis between my car and the car in front of me --- you know, you start counting "one Mississippi, two Mississippi" when that car passes a point, and then stop counting when your car passes the same point. In Florida, that doesn't work, because one car will immediately squeeze into that gap, while another one will change from the far left lane to the far right lane using the remaining space in front of your car.

It doesn't help that Florida has no mandatory state safety inspection. The Pennsylvania state inspection process can be a pain in the keister, but at least it usually keeps the rolling disaster scenes confined to farms, and ensures that most of the cars around you have brakes. Here, about one in 10 cars is a junkyard refugee, and they're passing you on the right, doing 85 miles with a temporary "doughnut" spare and with a garbage bag taped to the passenger side door to cover up the missing window, flapping in the wind.

And another thing: Despite the snow and salt in a typical Mon Valley winter, it's not uncommon to see '70s and '80s cars around. I don't see many old cars in Florida --- perhaps they all get destroyed in spectacular collisions before they get more than 10 years old.

Instead, the junkpiles I see are late-model cars with dents on every visible body panel, rear-bumpers dragging the pavement because of broken springs and shocks, and loud, loud, loud mufflers.

Speaking of junkpiles, that brings me to the 2005 Chevrolet Monte Carlo that I've rented. After 500 miles behind the wheel, I can safely assert that the current Monte Carlo is a perfectly despicable little car. If this is typical of the kind of krep that General Motors is forcing onto its customers, then they deserve to have their debts lowered to junk bond status, because they are, in fact, building junk.

Both outside and inside, the design is utterly graceless. I could forgive the cruddy styling if it was at least fun to drive, but this Monte Carlo wanders all over the road. The brakes have little or no pedal travel --- you don't come to a stop a little at a time; the brakes are either on or off. The arm rests are in the wrong place, it's impossible to comfortably hold the steering wheel at the time-honored 10 and 2 positions, and there aren't enough positions on the tilt-wheel to find a relaxed angle. Slam the doors, and they rattle hollowly. Try to slam the trunk, however, and you'll find you have to force it down. I'm not saying my sleek, gray Mercury is the pinnacle of the automotive builder's art, because it isn't, but this Chevy makes my six-year-old Grand Marquis look like a Rolls-Royce.

Maybe I'm letting this miserable, unloveable Chevy color my entire perception of Florida motoring, but I doubt it.

By the way, for those of you who read a lot into these kinds of symbols, I've been taking careful note of the decorations on the cars I see. If there's one common theme, it's "W'04" stickers, yellow magnetic ribbons, and Jesus fishes.

But perhaps the classiest vehicle I've seen so far in Florida was a brand-new black Ford F-150 pickup truck with a pair of pink plastic globes hanging from the trailer hitch. It took me a minute to realize they were supposed to represent testicles.

No, he didn't also have a Jesus fish. Good thing, too, because it would have opened an irony black hole that would have sucked in everything around it.

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June 13, 2005 | Link to this story

Florida Diary, Day 1

Category: default || By jt3y

TAMPA, Fla., June 5 --- I am not what you call an experienced traveler, especially when it comes to flying, and that's mainly because I throw nickels around like manhole covers. I rather enjoy traveling, actually, but airplane tickets cost money, and so do motel rooms. That means that when I go somewhere, I drive (or even better, get someone else to drive), and when I stay, it's strictly Motel 6 and Econo Lodge for me.

But I need to do some interviews for the G.C. Murphy book, and some people whom I very much want to talk to are in Florida. That's a little bit long to drive, even for my sleek, gray Mercury. And since the trip is being (generously) paid for by a grant, I don't feel right dinging the grantees for the price of an Amtrak roomette. That leaves me flying the money-losing skies.

You may recall that the Tube City Almanac, about two years ago, told U.S. Airways to go pound sand and leave the Pittsburgh International Airport. Surely, I said, other airlines would fill the empty gates. Well, they have, and one of the newcomers is something called Independence Air. I decided to take a little bit of my own advice (which serves me right, many people would say) and book my flight with them. They used to be a charter carrier called Atlantic Coast Airways, and they used to also fly as a feeder service for the big trunk lines. When the airlines decided to launch their own low-cost regional carriers, Atlantic Coast decided to strike out on its own, too.

I've got to interview seven people in three days, spread out from the Gulf Coast of Florida (Naples, Bradenton) to the Atlantic Coast (Delray Beach and Hobe Sound). I've also got to stop in two small towns near Lake Okeechobee. So, I've decided to fly into Tampa, rent a car, drive from interview to interview, and wind up my trip three days later in Palm Beach, where I'll fly back to Pittsburgh.

The first leg of the trip on Independence Air takes me from Pittsburgh to Dulles, where Independence has its hub. And here's where my lack of airline experience bites me in the rear end, hard. I made sure that all of my junk fit into two carry-on bags, and that the bags were under the maximum carry-on size. I made sure nothing sharp or even vaguely threatening was packed. I packed my hand-held amateur radio, but I disconnected the battery (to make sure it wouldn't transmit while in flight, which is a major FCC and FAA no-no) and put my amateur license in the bag with it. And as I approached the X-ray machine at Greater Pitt (sorry, I can't break that habit), I unzipped both bags before putting them onto the belt. Then I put my sportcoat into a bin and put it on the belt.

"This bag has a laptop in it," I told one of the TSA screeners. They nodded.

I walked through the metal director just as the woman running the fluoroscope began yelling at me. "SIR! DOES THIS BAG HAVE A LAPTOP IN IT?" she shouted.

"Yes, that's what I told ..."

"SECURITY! I need a pat-down on this man!" she said.

And thus I found myself in the little glass cube, taking off my belt, taking off my shoes, emptying my wallet. At least they didn't come at me with the gloves and the K-Y Jelly, and to the credit of the guy doing the pat-down, he was very apologetic. But would it have killed the first screener to say, "Sir, you need to take the laptop out of the bag?" Or for Nurse Ratched to just say, "Hey, dummy, take this laptop out of this bag and go through again?" No, we had to go through the whole rigamarole. Maybe they have a quota to meet.

As I was going through the pat-down, Nurse Ratched came over to yell at me: "Where's your boarding pass? You need to have your boarding pass!"

"It's in my sportcoat," I said. "Inside coat pocket."

"You're supposed to have it with you at all times, sir! There are signs posted, sir!"

"But you told me to take it off and put it through ... " I started to say. It didn't matter. She was gone, presumably, in the words of Arlo Guthrie, to take a bunch of 8-by-10 color glossy photos with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one.

Duly chastised, and deemed a threat to no one but myself, I was set free. I resolved to strip naked at the Palm Beach airport for the return flight. It might be the first time in history that they need the barf bags at the terminal and not in the planes.

Pittsburgh International, by the way, now has an attractive display in the airside terminal depicting the history of commercial aviation in Allegheny County, including many nice photos of Allegheny County Airport and old Greater Pitt. It made me more than a little upset all over again that the county demolished the old terminal rather than seriously trying to repurpose it.

It also made me nostalgic for the days when people used to dress up in good clothes and get into a luxurious TWA Super Constellation or United "Mainliner" DC-6. They strolled into the terminal --- no security checks necessary --- and across the tarmac, and then stepped into the airplane, where lovely stewardesses brought them pillows, hot coffee and tea, and magazines to read.

Granted, airliners in the 1940s also had the unfortunate tendency to plow into the sides of mountains, and tickets were considerably more expensive (relatively speaking) than they are today, but you take the good with the bad.

In any event, Independence Air turned out to be a pleasant experience. The flight to Dulles was in a brand new regional jet, and Dulles to Tampa was in a lovely new Airbus 317 with leather seats. The airplane safety lecture on the smaller jet was delivered (via tape, of course) by Allison Janney from "The West Wing." I suppose that's because we were flying to Washington, D.C. If we had been flying to Chicago, maybe we would have gotten Noah Wyle, and if it had been L.A., I don't know, Erik Estrada. They even gave us hot towels. If I have one complaint, it was that those leather seats were finished in a shade of electric blue never before seen in nature. Gelett Burgess never saw a purple cow, and I'll hazard that there are no bright blue ones, either.

On the flight down, I read Joel Achenbach's column in the Washington Post, and was relieved (after all, misery loves company) to find that he shared my feelings: "The security checkpoint is a bottleneck in a transportation system that is supposed to be as fluid as possible. Most people at airports are business travelers, and business travel is, at least in theory, all about efficiency. In the ideal world, you have the conversion of a solid (the businessperson) into something that can be transported through the arteries of the American marketplace. The model for this is canned cat food, which, according to my friend Mit, takes advantage of the great innovation known as pumpable meat. The industry figured out how to render meat into a fluid and pump it into the cans, which are then sealed and cooked. That's what you're supposed to be when you travel in America: Pumpable, squirtable human meat, transferred from one container to another.'"

The worst part is that I don't feel particularly any safer from terrorist attacks, and I some how doubt that if (when?) we're attacked again, that terrorists are going to skyjack airplanes. For all I know, they'll use golf carts.

Achenbach calls us "sheep" for putting up with this stuff at the airports of a supposedly free country. To which I say only, "Ba-a-a-a-h."

At Tampa, I picked up a copy of the Tribune. The big story on the "Region" page was about Weeki Wachee Springs. Apparently, the Southwest Florida Water Management District is trying to shut down the tourist attraction in an attempt to force the resort's owners to comply with new regulations. Weeki Wachee, for those of you who don't know, is a place where young women in mermaid outfits swim around for the amusement of yokels.

You might think that Weeki Wachee belongs on a planet of its own, and you'd be close enough; it turns out that it has its own municipal government, and a total population of 9 full-time residents.

And you thought Western Pennsylvania had some small towns. At least in our tiny little in-bred municipalities, the people keep their clothes on. (Although, like the Weeki Wachee mermaids, some of the locals do have webbed feet.)

Then I went downstairs to the Avis desk to pick up my car. I'd asked for a Chevrolet Monte Carlo --- I didn't want to be too ostentatious, but I also have to spend several hundred miles behind the wheel, so I didn't want some tiny little torture chamber. "We upgrade you for free to Buick Park Avenue, OK?" said the clerk.

"Well, not really," I said, "I asked for a Monte Carlo." Cripes, I thought, isn't it bad enough that I have a Mercury Grand Marquis at home? If I get a Buick Park Avenue in Florida, I might as well get the white belt and shoes to match, too. At least with a Monte Carlo, I'd get to act out my Dale Earnhardt Jr. fantasies. (Appropriate in Florida, no?)

"Si," he said. "Let me see if one is available." There was, he happily informed me. It turned out to be in arrest-me-red.

"Well, how am I going to be able to speed in a bright red car?" I asked him. He blanched.

"Sir, please, you no speed in this car ... ?"

"I'm just teasing," I interrupted, and he smiled, a little weakly, before handing over the keys.

The Monte had the two features I most wanted in Florida --- a radio and air-conditioning --- so I sat inside, fired up the ignition, and turned both on. My past experience with rental cars led me to believe that the radio would be tuned, loudly, to either a hip-hop station or a classic rock station, and I wasn't disappointed --- it was the latter.

Luckily, in preparation for spending 10 or 20 hours in the car in Florida, I had brought 10 CDs of old-time radio shows in MP3 format, along with the CD player and a cassette tape adapter. In fact, I had been patting myself on the back for the past several days for being so smart.

Until I noticed that the Monte didn't have a cassette player. It had a CD player.

Which wouldn't play MP3s.

Pride goeth, etc.

I was scheduled to meet some friends in Venice for dinner that night. On the way there, I punched through the radio dial. It seemed that I had my choice of classic rock, the drone of NPR, Spanish salsa music and about five different fundamentalist Christian stations.

Finally, I pulled off of the Interstate and stopped at a Walgreen's to buy one of those little plug-in dinguses that broadcasts your CD or MP3 player over your FM radio. Sure enough, they had one (made in China, natch).

Lucky me, they also had a sale on batteries. In fact, they were featuring a whole string of items because of a very festive upcoming occasion: "Stock up now for Hurricane Season!" said the signs.

It seems the state of Florida suspends sales taxes on emergency items for the first two weeks of June. And just as some places have President's Day sales, and other places have Back to School sales --- well they have hurricane sales in Florida. You got a problem with that?

As it would later turn out, Walgreen's and the other stores --- Advance Auto Parts, for instance, was advertising portable generators and flashlights --- had excellent timing. Florida's first major tropical storm of the year hit a few days later. You've got to know the territory.

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June 13, 2005 | Link to this story

Thank You, Officer Jim

Category: default || By jt3y

I want to begin by thanking Alert Reader Officer Jim for taking over the Almanac for a week while I was out of town. I'm sure a book deal is in the works for him, or possibly a regular panel slot on "Off Q." (He'll sit between Ruth Ann Dailey and Fred Honsberger.)

For the record, I was traveling in Florida to do some research, but I didn't really want that posted in the Almanac until I got back, for fear that it was like putting a big sign in the front yard that said, "Burglars Welcome." That presumes, of course, that some prospective burglar is reading the Almanac, which would require readership to be up into the double digits, I suppose.

Anyway, I planned to have a complete diary of my trip in the Almanac, beginning today, but due to a computer error (specificially, "Operator Error jt3y"), I forgot to post the first installment this morning. It will appear later tonight. Mea culpa. (I know, you want the new guy back. He didn't forget.)

In the meantime, I wanted to get something as a thank you present for Officer Jim that would be appropriate to his line of work. Thus, I think you'll agree that the gift pictured at right makes a lot of sense.

Before I forget: Julie Mickens does some wonderful work in City Paper. I have very much enjoyed her analyses recently of Allegheny County's patchwork transit system, particularly when she dissected various proposals of Picksberg's Democratic mayoral candidates. Her cover story last week dealt with Braddock, and the impact that the Mon-Fayette Expressway is likely to have on that borough.

The expressway, as currently planned, would wipe out much of Braddock to make it easier for people to speed from Downtown Picksberg and Monroeville. Mickens asked a variety of Braddock residents and local officials what some alternative development strategies might be.

One could argue that the Mon-Fayette Expressway has already had a negative impact on Braddock. I've been told that many of the abandoned properties below Braddock Avenue have been held as "investments" for the last 20 years by absentee landlords who are hoping to cash in when the highway comes through.

The bigger crime of the Mon-Fayette Expressway, in my opinion, will be perpetrated on Turtle Creek, which is going to turn into one big noise and dirt trap for the highway. No one seems to be saying "boo" about that. Some people would say that although Braddock has bottomed out already, Turtle Creek is still a relatively healthy community. If you've been down to Union Township (the Finleyville-Elrama area) and seen the giant stilts that the Joe Montana Bridges sit on top of, then you've got an idea what Turtle Creek can look forward to. Would you like to live under those? I sure wouldn't.

Some how, I can't imagine the Turnpike Commission trying to blast a six-lane expressway through Sewickley and Fox Chapel --- or even through Edgewood --- which leaves me with the sneaky suspicion that people in Braddock and Turtle Creek just don't have the money or the political clout to matter.

Otherwise, wouldn't the elected officials who represent the Mon-Yough area --- members of county council, state legislators, etc. --- be raising holy hell about this? For now, their silence speaks volumes.

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June 10, 2005 | Link to this story

So Long And Thanks For All The Fish

Category: default || By officerjim

According to an article by Joe Grata in Thursday’s Post-Gazette, the Port Authority of Allegheny County has received federal approval to begin construction of the proposed $400 million extension of the light rail system across the Allegheny River to serve the North Shore. While I’m a strong booster of rail transit, and generally support any initiative to move traffic off rubber tires and onto steel wheels, this seems like a limited benefit to me.

The whole “T” (if they still call it that) serves a very narrow portion of the county population on a routine basis. Instead of extending it into the areas of the county that heavily use mass transit (ie: the Mon Valley), what they essentially are proposing to build is a stadium line to serve PNC Park and Heinz Field, as well as the convention center.

While many cities have rail transit that drops riders off at major venues, I have to wonder just how much this line will get used during times when there are no events scheduled at any of the above. The route doesn’t really seem like it will touch much residential area; at least, not as much as it probably could.

Granted, there may be plans for eventual expansion once the core line is built, but given that I believe this to be the first new major leg of the “T” to be built (if and when it gets built) since the system was created, I have to wonder if there’s anyone within the Port Authority who’s that forward thinking.

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June 09, 2005 | Link to this story

Squad 51, Raving Wacko at 5th & Walnut

Category: default || By officerjim

Let me start by saying that I very much like Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, and Our Fair City. But there are many fundamental issues that need to be addressed, and those in charge refuse to address them, while those they affect refuse to get outraged and demand action. Eventually, one way or another, the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, as well as the fair-to-middling County of Allegheny, will be dragged into the 21st Century kicking and screaming, whether the powers that be like it or not (I estimate sometime around the year 2145).

The Legislative Budget and Finance Committee has released a report stating that the state’s volunteer fire companies are in poor fiscal shape, according to an article in Wednesday’s Post-Gazette. State Fire Commissioner Edward Mann put it succinctly: The state “has too many fire companies.” The article goes on to mention that Allegheny County has 197 volunteer fire companies, and that companies around the county and state have been experiencing declines in volunteers and donations since the 1970’s.

Pennsylvania has a long history of volunteer fire departments, probably because Benjamin Franklin created the first organized volunteer fire company in Philadelphia in 1736 (boy, ol’ Benny was into everything, wasn’t he?). While this exemplifies a wonderfully and uniquely American spirit of community, it also provides an estimated savings of roughly $6 billion dollars a year in salary and benefits that would otherwise have to be paid to professional firefighters.

This is not a new problem, and it’s not limited to fire companies. Allegheny County is comprised of 130 independent municipal governments (not including county government itself), which means that we have 130 city, borough, or township councils (this includes 4 political entities which call themselves “Municipality of” and one “Town of”), about 115 municipal police departments (not including the Pennsylvania State Police, the Allegheny County Sheriff, the Allegheny County Police, the Port Authority Police, Pittsburgh Housing Police, Pittsburgh School Police, and 7 or 8 college and university police departments), as well as 42 independent school districts.

Whew! That’s a lot to research and type, let alone expecting each mayor, councilman, school director, public works director, and police chief to work with their counterparts to provide effective and efficient government services to the citizenry. Now, I know this is a family blog, but I’m going to type the “C” word, so if there are any minors in the room you may wish to shield their eyes. (Boy, I hope this doesn’t get me in trouble with the FCC.)


We’ve been making some baby steps (a very small baby) what with the last election wherein voters overwhelmingly (72.8%) approved consolidating the various county record-keeping row offices into one office. In the past 10 years there has also been some informal consolidations amongst police departments, usually when one tiny borough can no longer afford to stay independent and contracts out with a neighbor for service. Municipalities with multiple fire companies have also seen mergers of the companies, painful as it may have been for the individual members.

I don’t go so far as to suggest that the city and county should merge completely. It would essentially be pointless, as every square inch of Pennsylvania land is incorporated into an independent municipality (per the state constitution, all counties are sub-divided into townships; boroughs and cities are subsequently carved out of the townships). There is no such thing as “county land” in Pennsylvania, nor is there any legal mechanism for dissolving a municipality (except through merging with another). So until the state legislature decides to rectify that situation (read: “when hell freezes over”) I can’t in good conscious advocate a Pittsburgh/Allegheny County consolidation.

What would make sense (so it’ll never happen) would be for some regional consolidation. Do we really need a Homestead, West Homestead, Munhall, and Whitaker? Why is there a Braddock, North Braddock, Braddock Hills, and Rankin? How about a Borough of Turtle Creek V alley? Instead of Glassport, Liberty, Lincoln, and Port Vue, how about South Allegheny Township? Why not let the city of Pittsburgh gobble up Mount Oliver, Bellevue, Dormont, McKees Rocks, and a host of other one-horse towns that cling to it’s periphery (or, in Mt. Oliver’s case, are completely surrounded by it)? Allegheny Valley Township, anyone?

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June 08, 2005 | Link to this story

To Air is Human

Category: default || By officerjim

This will have to be a short diatribe today, as I had a rather unpleasant day at work and came home with a pounding headache tonight. That, combined with my allergies acting up have put me in a mood to do nothing but curl up in my nice warm bed and wait for the sweet, sweet release of death (or for the aspirin and antihistamine to kick in, whichever comes first).

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June 07, 2005 | Link to this story

Extra, Extra, read all about it

Category: default || By officerjim

Over the years I’ve come to be something of a newspaper junkie. I suppose my addiction began in college. I discovered a newsstand in downtown Pastureville that carried a host of out-of-town papers, including but not limited to: The (Baltimore) Sun, The Washington Post, the (Harrisburg) Patriot-News, the major New York papers, and a variety of local papers from around this great commonwealth. This was something of a shock to me, since Pastureville was quite literally smack in the middle of nowhere. But I had developed a routine of visiting one of the downtown diners at some point either before or after my morning classes (and admittedly during a class on occasion) and since I sometimes found myself dining alone, I decided that I would rather kill some time reading as opposed to staring at traffic on College Avenue.

I came to appreciate the different views on different national subjects, and even liked reading about stories that could only be of local interest. Even if I had never been to Baltimore (I’ve since visited Charm City; kind of like Pittsburgh with a seaport) I nevertheless read the local page and the police blotter like I was a native. Upon returning to Our Fair City, I found that I could still feed my craving, even if it required a trip into that other big city in Allegheny County (no, no, not Duquesne). Since I travel there to work anyway, it’s no big deal to grab a few papers.

The problem is that I find myself spending $3 or $4 a day on newspapers, and that’s in addition to The Daily News and Post-Gazette (it’s even more on Sundays). Not that I begrudge the newsstand marking up the price; I would assume that there are shipping or mailing charges associated with delivering a Washington Post two states away from it’s intended market. What makes me scratch my head (other than dandruff) is that very often the same three papers bought at the same newsstand on consecutive days will have a different total price. Sometimes it’s even the same clerk!

I attribute this to the fact that every time I plunk my papers down on the counter, the clerk usually has to call out to someone else behind the counter. “Uh, Charlie, how much is the Philadelphia Inquirer?” I want to shout “A buck and a quarter, just like yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that!” I don’t, though, because sometimes the clerk simply looks at the “DAILY 50 CENTS” (75 cents in some locations outside the metropolitan area, according to the “Inky”) and rings up $0.50 on the register. (I make out even better on the Sunday editions, which can go for around $3 per paper, unless the clerk is lazy and only charges the $1.50 face value.)

My quandary, therefore, is this: am I being dishonest? After all, I know that the newsstand charges more for these papers. Is this not akin to “theft of services” or “theft by deception?” Should I drive myself down to Allegheny County Jail and book myself in? Or should the newsstands simply tape a notecard with the prices of the different papers next to the darn cash register?

I have one other question. Just who the heck buys all those porno mags?? I mean, geez, there’re racks and racks of ‘em! (Uh, no pun intended.)

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Posted at 03:49 am by officerjim | Click here and put your ad on Tube City Almanac!
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June 06, 2005 | Link to this story

I’d Like to Thank The Academy

Category: default || By officerjim

Okay, it’s not really an award as much as a major (if somewhat dubious) honor. I was, however, rather nervous as to my big public debut and all. It’s not every day that one gets to publish their thoughts for the world (and posterity) to read and critique. (Unless, of course, you publish a blog every, strike that last sentence.) At any rate, here I am, filling in for our illustrious webmaster. My only hope is that I live up to the standards of the Almanac (let’s face it, I couldn’t possibly lower them).

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Posted at 04:34 am by officerjim | Click here and put your ad on Tube City Almanac!
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June 03, 2005 | Link to this story

Local News Roundup

Category: default || By jt3y

First, some housekeeping: I am going to be taking a few days off from the Almanac next week. (To quote Jack Benny, "there will now be a slight pause while you say, 'who cares?'") Anyway, it's about time for me to get that trepanning job I've been putting off. The good news is that it looks like Alert Reader Officer Jim is going to step in as the guest Almanac diarist. Please, be nice. (He's a trained killer.)


Alert Reader Jeff asks if Our Fair City is "the new Connellsville." Meaning, with four fires breaking out the same night, do we have a firebug on the loose?

According to Pat Cloonan's story in the News, one of the blazes was accidental in nature. One was in a vacant house in the Sixth Ward, another was in a garage in the Third Ward, and the third was in a trash bin at Crawford Village.

All three sites are about a mile and a half apart, so it's possible someone took a stroll down Versailles and Shaw avenues and started lighting buildings up. There was also a torch job on Jenny Lind Street in May in which a house with nine people inside was set ablaze; thankfully, everyone got out OK.

It's good that people are asking questions when three suspicious fires break out the same night, though I think the Pittsburgh TV stations jumped the gun a little bit with their scary music and overwrought rhetoric.

I know, I know, TV news, overreacting? Never!


Meanwhile, it looks like Picksberg developer Barry Stein and the city are going to reach an agreement to finish rehabilitating the old Midtown Plaza Mall, according to Jonathan Barnes in the Post-Gazette. A lot of people over the last 30 years have thought the best way to rehab Midtown Plaza would be to dig a big hole and push it in, but Stein is planning about $1.5 million worth of renovations to the large enclosed part between Fifth and Sixth avenues, as well as work on the parking garage.

Eliminating the parking deck over Fifth Avenue eliminated the loafers who used to frequent that dank, dark cavern, Stein says, and I'll agree it was a major improvement. I wish him lots of luck, and it's also nice to see the city is cooperating with him.


From the Mon Valley Good Government Dept. comes word that you'll want to keep a flashlight handy if you're driving through Elrama. Scott Beveridge wrote in Thursday's Observer-Reporter that Allegheny Power is turning off the streetlights in Union Township because of unpaid utility bills. According to Scott's story, many property owners are refusing to pay the $18 streetlight tax, and Union Township is now into Allegheny Power for $2,500.

That's not the worst of Union's problems. There are $200,000 in other unpaid bills piled up at the township building, the police force is probably going to be disbanded, and there's a fraud investigation underway of the business office.

The next meeting of the township supervisors is set for June 13. It seems to me Union could make a couple of extra bucks by selling popcorn, because I have a feeling it's going to be very entertaining.


Finally, a little good news to report: North Huntingdon Township's Police Athletic League has been promised up to $25,000 by General Motors and Major League Baseball to upgrade one of the baseball diamonds in Shafton. It was damaged twice by flooding, in September and in January.

According to Sarah Norris in the Tribune-Review, one of the board members at PAL, Al Bergman, wrote an essay to the judges of GM and MLB's "Diamond in the Rough" contest and enclosed a photo of the field to bolster his case. You can read his winning essay here.


To Do This Weekend: Mon Yough Trail Council hosts its annual "Yough-N-Roll Bike Ride" tomorrow, beginning at the trail entrance in Boston, Elizabeth Township. Registration begins at 7:30 a.m. for the 40 mile ride and at 8:30 for the 20 mile ride. For more information, call (412) 754-1100. ... Animal Friends will sponsor a rabies clinic for dogs and cats, three months of age and older, at McKeesport Fire Department Station No. 2, Eden Park Boulevard near Renziehausen Park. Inoculations will be done on a first-come, first-served basis from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday. Call (412) 566-2103. ... Pianist and guitarist Matt Tichon plays Beemer's, West Fifth Avenue, at 9:30 tonight. Call (412) 678-7400.

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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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June 02, 2005 | Link to this story

Blue-Light Special

Category: default || By jt3y

In need of some essential, but essentially boring items --- a watch battery, some cassette tapes, shampoo, allergy medicine --- I faced a trip last night to any of three discount palaces. North Bittyburg is roughly equidistant from a Wal-Mart, a Target and a Kmart.

Target is fine for some things --- Michael Graves pastel-colored teapot cozies, for instance --- but I've found their selection isn't exactly deep on many staple items. Wal-Mart often has a great selection, but I've tried to cut back on purchasing items from companies that lock their employees in and force them to work overtime. I also strongly suspect, but have no evidence, that Wal-Mart executives amuse themselves between buying trips to China by torturing rats with hacksaws. That left me with Kmart.

Actually, it left me with virtually a private shopping trip to Kmart, because I was one of only a handful of customers in the entire store. It was clean, well-lit, and had everything I was looking for.

It was also mostly empty.

I'm not much of a shopper, but over the past six months, I've been in several different Kmarts and Targets as well as the North Versailles Township Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart is always crowded. Too crowded --- I actually get a little bit uneasy from the crowds at times. I'm sure Wal-Mart has the same uneasiness, thinking of ways to spend the money. (The number 1 idea? Build more Wal-Marts.)

Target doesn't build stores quite as big as the largest Wal-Marts, but they're usually pretty crowded, too. It's interesting, too, that the customers largely fit the popular stereotypes. Wal-Mart attracts a lot of customers with big hair, NASCAR jackets and glitter on their fingernails, while Target seems to attract yuppies and young urban hipsters.

I'd make some sort of snide comment about the kinds of stereotypical customers I see at Kmart, but the last half-dozen times I've been inside a Kmart, I haven't seen enough people to develop a stereotype. (The only crowded Kmart I've seen was in Elizabethtown, Pa., a few months ago, when I was doing some traveling. It was Friday night, and I popped into Kmart to grab a few small items. But Elizabethtown is a college town in the middle of nowhere, and as best I could tell, there wasn't much else to do on a cold Friday night but hang out at Kmart.)

I have no special knowledge about retailing, though I've been interested in it for a long, long time, and over the past year or so, I've obviously been doing a lot of research on retailing for my other project. So feel free to take this prediction with as much salt as you like. But I will be very surprised if there are any Kmart stores left in five years. (Surprised and impressed with Kmart's management.) I don't see how they can stay in business for much longer by operating empty stores.

Kmart's financial disclosures don't exactly paint a rosy picture, either. Sales at Kmart stores declined 4.5 percent during October, November and December of last year --- the Christmas shopping season, traditionally the biggest three months for retailers. That, according to a Kmart press release, was actually a "significant improvement": During the previous three years, sales in the fourth quarter had declined 12.8, 14.9 and 13.5 percent, respectively. Egad.

Now Kmart has merged with Sears, Roebuck & Co., though the surviving company is, effectively, Kmart. To twist an old metaphor, it's like a man swimming in shark-infested waters offering to rescue a man in a leaky lifeboat. I'm probably in Sears on a more regular basis than Kmart or Target, and the Sears stores I frequent are starting to look a lot like Montgomery Ward stores did in 1997 or '98. That's not a good sign.

I think Sears has the potential to last a few years longer than Kmart, mostly on the strength of its hardware, appliances, paint and other hard-lines. In fact, I wouldn't be terribly surprised in a few years to see Sears divest its clothing and jewelry lines altogether and turn its stores solely into hard-line outlets, in which case I also wouldn't be surprised to see whatever was left of Sears sold off to Best Buy, Circuit City or Home Depot.

It's worth noting that some Wall Street experts think I'm all wet. The "new" Sears stock --- which is Kmart's old stock --- was up to $148 per share yesterday. It was trading at less than $60 a year ago. But more than one person I've talked with thinks that the value of Sears and Kmart is solely in their real estate --- all of those prime mall and shopping center locations --- and that their stores are, to put it in technical terms, "dooky."

Time will tell if Sears Holdings, nee Kmart, can turn things around. In the meantime, if you're in a hurry, I suggest you try shopping at Kmart. You might get lonely, but at least you won't have to wait long at the check-out.

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Posted at 12:29 am by jt3y | Click here and put your ad on Tube City Almanac!
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June 01, 2005 | Link to this story

This Train is Bound for Dravosburg

Category: default || By jt3y

As promised, I added more information about the B&O crossing plan last night to Tube City Online. That takes the place of today's Almanac, except to ask whether there's something in the water over in Dravosburg.

In short, the mayor is being lambasted because he told the producers of a reality TV show to contact two families in the borough. The show pits two rival families against one another a la the Hatfields and McCoys, and it's called "Loser Leaves Town." After a series of competitions (I suppose the families have to eat bugs or mud wrestle or something), the losing family has to move away.

This is what passes for entertainment in 21st Century America. It also goes a long way toward explaining why my TV has scuff marks all over it; I keep throwing my shoes at the screen.

Anyway, one of the families that was contacted is irate, naturally: Would you want to be contacted for a show called "Loser Leaves Town"? They went to a council meeting last month to complain that their personal information was given out without their consent.

The mayor told Jennifer Vertullo of the News on May 19 that he doesn't care: "I have never seen a more bickering set of neighbors that want to blame my police department and my office as mayor for their childish problems. ... And by them taking it public, it shows how childish that situation up there is."

Several correspondents have pointed out that Eric Heyl also had a very funny take on the same topic in the Tribune-Review a few days later, and Vertullo has since followed up the story.

As I've said before, I love the Mon Valley, but we're in no danger of getting our own chapter of Mensa any time soon.

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Posted at 12:57 am by jt3y | Click here and put your ad on Tube City Almanac!
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