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Filed Under: default || By jt3y

December 26, 2005 | Link to this story

Christmas Time, Happy Time

Category: default || By jt3y

Those of you of a certain age who are natives of the Mon Valley will remember when we didn't have GetGo or Sheetz, or even 7-Eleven in most of the area. (I can think of only a handful until recently, when 7-Eleven took over a bunch of locations from other companies.) We had "Stop-N-Go," "Open Pantry," "Spee-D Mart," "Clover Farm Stores" and even a few "Li'l General" stores.

The Clover Farms were little full-service supermarkets. I can remember two --- one on Scene Ridge Road in Liberty Borough, now a machine shop; the other in Port Vue just off Washington Boulevard, adjacent to the Spotlight Lounge. The Clover Farm Stores were out of Cleveland, and I don't know why they closed, except that operating a small supermarket probably wasn't much more cost effective in the '70s than it is today. I assume the A&Ps, Krogers and Giant Eagles drove the Clover Farms out, just as Wal-Mart is now squeezing the Foodlands, Shop 'n Saves and Giant Eagles.

The other stores were convenience stores. If I remember correctly, most of the Stop-N-Gos in the Pittsburgh area disappeared in the mid-1980s in a corporate ownership dispute with the owners of the Colteryahn Dairy, who took most of the Stop-N-Go stores and turned them into "CoGo's" stores. (There are still Stop-N-Go stores in other parts of the country, but I have no idea if they're related to the stores we had around here.)

Li'l General (because it was a "little general store," get it?) was a New England based company, I think, and even had a Paul Revere-type colonial soldier as its mascot. Google seems to indicate there are still a few around north of Boston. I remember two in the Mon-Yough area ... one on Romine Avenue in Port Vue and another on Monongahela Avenue in Glassport.

I have no idea how many Spee-D Marts there were. I remember five --- on Lysle Boulevard in the Midtown Plaza Mall, Center Highway in North Huntingdon, Richland Avenue in Dravosburg, Greensburg near Westmoreland Hospital and Ardmore Boulevard in Forest Hills. They were originally operated by McKeesport's Potter-McCune Co. (which also operated Super Dollar Markets), and two are still around. so far as I know: Forest Hills and Dravosburg. I have no idea who owns them now.

And then there was "Open Pantry," which I know almost nothing about, and I don't even remember ever being inside one of them. It seems to me that most of them disappeared from our area in the late 1970s, though at least two survived until fairly recently. I'm told there was one in Norvelt, Westmoreland County, and it may still be there. I got a phone number and tried calling it today; it's been disconnected.

Apparently there was also one in the Lincoln-Lemington part of Picksberg until 2003, when it burned to the ground. There's an "Open Pantry Food Marts" chain north of Chicago, but it doesn't appear to be the one that operated in Western Pennsylvania.

Anyway, we seemed to have a bunch of these in the Mon-Yough area in the '70s --- Patterson Avenue aka 30th Avenue, and Versailles Avenue in Our Fair City (both torn down now), Route 30 in East McKeesport (I think in the old motel --- can't remember the name --- at the intersection of Lincoln Highway and Broadway), and a couple of others. (Click here to view a map of locations that was included in the album.)

In 1967, the redoubtable Harold "Mr. Trombone" Betters of South Connellsville, Pennsylvania, then riding high on the jazz club circuit in the Pittsburgh area, cut a Christmas album that was sold through Open Pantry. Others on the session included John Thomas on piano, Russ Lewellen on drums, Chuck Ramsey on bass and Charles Head on organ.

It was recorded at the old Gateway Recording Studio on Forbes Avenue, which was a spinoff from National Record Mart, I think. You can still find the LP floating around at flea markets, if you hunt for it. I dig Betters anyway, so I find it to be a real treat.

Betters' group really swings hard, and by Dec. 24, when I'm burned out on the whole sappy parade of Christmas dross, listening to Harold Betters blow his horn on a song like "Go Tell It On The Mountain" is like getting a breath of fresh, clean air after walking through a garbage dump. (MP3 clip.)

I find the album art (credited to "Patrick Trusio," about whom the Internet knows nothing) interesting. It has the look of the Open Pantry stores down pat ...

... but it's clear that like many people, the artist has an easier time painting buildings than people:

Either he's trying to avoid painting Betters' face, or his model for the art was Claude Rains.

Incidentally, the first track on side two is an original song written by Ray J. Maffei and recorded (in a wild coincidence) by his daughter, Sandra. If you think that Mr. Maffei might have been the advertising executive responsible for the album, go to the head of the class. The liner notes say that the song, "Christmas Time, Happy Time," "has the potential of becoming a Christmas classic."

Yes, and I have the "potential" of becoming the Archbishop of Canterbury. Listen for yourself to this excerpt. It's sincerely sung, but falls considerably short of being a "classic." (A cursory search of the Internet turns up nothing on the Maffeis; the liner notes say only that she's "a music student at Mt. Mercy College," which became Carlow two years later.)

Harold Betters shortly thereafter got a national recording contract and turned out bigger and better albums, notably for Reprise, but never made it really "big," despite working with the likes of Ramsey Lewis, Al "He's the King" Hirt, Louis Armstrong, and others. But he still works the clubs around Pittsburgh, still commands a following, and still sounds great.

Open Pantry faded away, though not before commissioning another Christmas album from another Pittsburgh jazz legend ...

... but that, as they say, is a story for another time.

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Posted at 3:42 pm by jt3y | Click here and put your ad on Tube City Almanac!
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December 22, 2005 | Link to this story

A Sincere Wish For a Silent Night

Category: default || By jt3y

An Alert Reader asks, "Is it just me, or has the rhetoric level really increased this year. Here's an E-mail I just got. One of many."

Here's a sample of what Alert sent me:

Merry Christmas. The other day, there was an article on AOL talking about "calming down" this debate about being able to say those most Christian of words. Why? Because finally, in the Yuletide of 2005, Christian spokesmen and spokeswomen stood and said a different word: "Enough."

However, many of these spokespersons have called these attacks "Secularist." That is simply incorrect. These vehement Anti-Americans certainly stand up for the rights and sensibilities of Satanists, Pagans, Secular Humanists, and yes, even Frisbeetarians at the drop of a hat. But they absolutely stand against Christians. Why? Because they're simply hypocrites and political opportunists. ...

Do these same people say, "Hey relax on that Gay-Pride propaganda on Nickelodeon!" "Take it easy on that Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony!"

And it continues in that vein for several hundred additional words.

This year's phony-baloney campaign (whipped up primarily by John Gibson and Bill O'Reilly of Fox News, aided and abetted by the chattering classes on talk radio) against the so-called "War on Christmas" has long outlasted the 15 minutes of fame it deserved.

"War on Christmas" my Aunt Fannie. You can't swing a dead reindeer in my neighborhood without hitting a light-up Nativity scene. (And the dueling animated light-up choo-choo trains I wrote about last year are back, and have been joined by a third choo-choo at another house, but that's another story.) The Hallmark stores at Olympia and Oak Park shopping centers are selling enough Christmas cards every day to give your mailman (or mail woman) a rupture, and there's an ample selection of ones decorated with religious themes. (Heck, even The House of Rancid Lunchmeat has religious cards, I noticed the other day.)

Yes, we have (and always will have) a few cement-heads who, in their misguided efforts at "not offending anyone," wind up offending everyone. That's why we get some public school vice principal in East Overshoe, Maine, telling the third-graders they can't sing "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," or the nitwit mayor in Bumblebee Creek, Idaho, renaming the Christmas tree a "holiday tree."

But as a Christian (admittedly, hardly a poster child for religion) the idea that Christians are some how being persecuted is laughable. You want persecution? My grandmother grew up Catholic in southern Indiana in the 1920s, when prominent citizens boasted of belonging to the Ku Klux Klan and railed against the "papists" and "the whore of Rome." Or ask some of your Jewish neighbors about restricted country clubs in western Pennsylvania. (Fun fact: The recently-closed Lincoln Hills Country Club in North Huntingdon Township was founded because Jews couldn't join the other clubs around the Mon-Yough area. You could, as they say, look it up.) Or ask your African-American friends about being followed around certain stores.

Persecuted Christians? The mind reels.

So, why do businesses say "happy holidays" to customers instead of "Merry Christmas"? Because they don't know who's approaching the counter, that's why. About 83 percent of Pennsylvanians consider themselves "Christian." That means if you're running a store, one of every five customers may or may not be celebrating Christmas, because they may or may not believe in Christ.

Now, I have no problem telling people who I know are Christian "Merry Christmas," and I do, but only a real clod would insist on telling, say Jews, Moslems or atheists "Merry Christmas," and I have friends in all three groups. (No Hindus or Buddhists that I'm aware of, yet.)

That's why we say "Happy Holidays." It isn't anti-Christian bias. It's called common decency. It's called being polite. My mama raised me to have manners. Whatever happened to just being courteous?

What's the real motivation behind this trumped-up fight against "The War on Christmas"? In the case of Fox News, I'm sure it's to pump up ratings and flog the sales of John Gibson's screed of the same name, copies of which are still in abundant supply at the bookstores I frequent. (No doubt the ACLU and roving groups of secular humanists are suppressing sales. Alert Rush Limbaugh.)

And the Fox News campaign taps into a strong and vocal movement to try to interject Christianity into as many public venues as possible. Now, I seem to remember Jesus saying, in Matthew Chapter 6, "And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you." How does that square with forcing prayer upon people who may or may not want to pray?

(Then again, we used Revised Standard bibles in high school. Maybe the ones sold on Channel 40 are different. Maybe they're the same model that Don Imus, as the Rev. Billy Sol Hargis, used to sell on the radio: "It's the one with the blank pages in the back, so you can write your own verses, but He won't mind, 'cause He knows you're only foolin'.")

Some of these self-appointed religion police, and their instigators, like Bill O'Reilly, note that Christians are a clear majority in the United States. And I'll accept that. But in Pennsylvania, Catholics are the largest Christian denomination, so if we put prayer back into public schools, surely these fundamentalists won't care if there's a statue of the Virgin Mary and a crucifix on the wall. Nor will they mind if the kids say a few decades of the rosary in the morning, right?

I didn't think so. One of the great things about the United States is that, traditionally, our Constitution has protected minorities from the tyranny of the majority. (True, the great-grandchildren of slaves, native Americans, and those Japanese interned in camps during World War II might beg to differ, but it's a principle that is more often than not honored in the breach.)

The most complete story of the birth of Christ comes from the first two chapters of Luke, in which Zechariah, father of John the Baptist (and Jesus' mortal uncle), talks of God bringing "light to those who sit in darkness" and guiding "our feet into the way of peace." The angel that appears to the shepherds in chapter 2, verses 8 to 16, talks of the savior bringing "great joy" and "peace to His people on Earth."

It's not too much to ask in this Christmas season for all of the hot-headed TV and radio talkers to bring a little light to their discussions, and not just heat and noise.

It's also not too much to ask fundamentalist right-wing Christians to leave those who don't share their beliefs in peace.

And if they'd grant me those Christmas wishes, it would certainly bring me great joy.

True, I might just as well sit on the lawn Saturday night and watch the skies for eight tiny reindeer and a man in a sled, but a guy can dream, can't he?

By the way: Merry Christmas.

Update: Want to see John Gibson, Christmas defender par excellence, as he puts his message of Christian peace, love and brotherhood into action? Just watch. I should be lectured about Christmas spirit by this guy? Please.

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Posted at 07:11 am by jt3y | Click here and put your ad on Tube City Almanac!
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December 21, 2005 | Link to this story

Thank You, And Other Stuff

Category: default || By jt3y

I checked on the Tube City Online store the other day and noticed that a good number of people bought things during November and December ... presumably as Christmas presents for ex-patriate McKeesporters.

My first thought was: Gee, aren't they going to be disappointed Christmas morning, or during Hanukkah, when they open up a box to find something from Tube City Online under the tree?

But my second thought was to be very flattered and happy that readers find the stuff amusing, useful and/or interesting. There are some expenses to running the site --- thankfully, no webhosting costs, since I've been very fortunate to have server space donated for all of these years --- so the couple of extra bucks is most welcome.

(Incidentally, I'd like to know if the items are good quality. Is the printing legible? Is it blurred at all? Do the colors seem OK? I've tried to make the images that they print as high resolution as possible, and size them properly, but I don't have any control over what gets sent out. If you've bought something, let me know if you're happy or not.)

Admittedly, CafePress's overhead is fairly pricey (you are, after all, getting them to print one or two T-shirts at a time), so I've tried to keep the retail prices as low as possible. That means I only make a dollar or so per item, so the sales over November and December netted me enough for, perhaps, a pizza.

But more likely, in the spirit of the season, I'll give the money to people who are truly needy and unfortunate ... like my creditors.

That includes the poor blighters at Equitable Gas (motto: "Blowing it up your pipe since 1888"), who, despite their usual feelings of generosity, peace, love, and understanding during the holidays, were recently forced to hike the budget payments at Tube City Omnimedia World Headquarters by about $35 a month.

From what I hear from other people around the Mon-Yough area, I got off fairly easily, so I'm not complaining. And I'm sure that the decision to yank up the prices was made only with great reluctance on behalf of Equitable's executives. I can envision them sitting in their wood-paneled offices on the 33rd floor of One Oxford Center, weeping into their $15 linen Brooks Brothers handkerchiefs, thinking, "Oh, Lord, what have we done?" I'm sure the extra 10 cents a share they made last quarter is being used for raises for their employees and to buy crutches for crippled children.

Naturally, coping with this budgetary pressure has required some adaptation at Tube City Omnimedia headquarters. So if there's been a lack of Almanacs the last few days, it's because I've got the thermostat set very low, and it's very difficult to type with mittens on. And when I say my computer has "frozen up," I mean frozen up. (I keep a little ice scraper on my desk to take the frost off of the monitor. I also may have the only disk drive in the world with studded tires.)

Seriously: Thank yinz from the bottom of my heart. I do appreciate your kind emails, your comments, your putting up with this drivel, and now, your support of my tiny, little e-commerce effort. A merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, and happy new year to you and yours.

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Posted at 8:40 pm by jt3y | Click here and put your ad on Tube City Almanac!
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December 13, 2005 | Link to this story

Short and To The Point

Category: default || By jt3y

The point on my head, that is.

Just a brief Almanac to mention two items of interest. The House of Rancid Lunchmeat has recently begun appending the following onto their cash-register receipts:

At first I thought this was meant to say, "God Bless U.S.," as in the United States, but you wouldn't write that ... you'd write either "God Bless the US" or "God Bless USA."

So I'm not sure of what to make of this: Is the owner of the store asking us to pray for him? Is he saying that God has already blessed him? Or is this a Christmakwanukah tie-in, a la Tiny Tim in "A Christmas Carol"? (Maybe they were trying to write "God Bless Us Everyone," but the last word wouldn't fit.)

It's been on the receipts the last three times I shopped there, so it wasn't a mistake. Maybe no one else has noticed.

In other business, if you don't read the weekly chats held by Gene Weingarten, a humor columnist for The Washington Post and author of the disturbingly funny The Hypochondriac's Guide to Life. And Death, you should. You're missing off-the-cuff exchanges like these:

Dear Mr. Weingarten: I am eight years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, "If you see it in Mr. Weingarten's chat, it's so." Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?

Gene Weingarten: You blew it. Your place name should have been "Virginia."

However, I shall answer your question.

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. Why, there is a Santa as surely as there is a Virginia! Go to any shopping mall, and behold him. True, he may often look like some homeless guy with a false beard earning a few bucks for booze by forfeiting his self-respect for the further enrichment pf corporate bloodsuckers trying to trick customers into overspending money they don't have on presents they can't afford for people they think they love.

It's love that doesn't exist, Virginia. We all die alone.

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Posted at 07:12 am by jt3y | Click here and put your ad on Tube City Almanac!
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December 12, 2005 | Link to this story

Correction, Not Perfection

Category: default || By jt3y

After reading my reference Friday to our sheriff, who I called "Shirley's dad," an Alert Reader wrote: "Excuse me, but you're blogging to a confirmed couch potato here. DeFazio was Laverne's name ... not Shirley's. Watch more WBGN."

You mean you're not familiar with Sheriff Feeney?

You know, that was truly an idiotic mistake. I swear on my autographed picture of David L. Lander that I was thinking "Laverne DeFazio," and yet I typed "Shirley" anyway. Blame it on the fermented egg nog I drank Thursday night. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Originally, I was going to call him "Pizza Bowl Pete," but I thought that was a bit of an obscure reference for most people, and it also seemed to be a little disrespectful toward one of our elected officials.

In a related topic, in Sunday's Post-Gazette, Torsten Ove wrote a lengthy story about Pizza Bowl Pete ... er, Sheriff DeFazio ... which raised as a serious possibility that the sheriff is honest, but out of touch:

(Many) deputies and others close to the sheriff's office portrayed Chief Skosnik as the true head of the department and Sheriff DeFazio as a figurehead who was somewhat detached, perhaps a touch naive, and presiding over a staff where loyalty and "chain of command" was everything.

So while the sheriff often talked and joked with deputies, he also was insulated from what they were doing by a layer of "white shirt" command staffers. ...

Another example of the sheriff's detachment is the allegation in the federal indictment of Chief Skosnik that the chief stole some of the money that he had collected for Sheriff DeFazio's campaigns. To the extent this was taking place, some deputies said, the sheriff could be seen as a victim of his own staff.

Writes Ove: "Ego aside, many said Sheriff DeFazio is an honest straight-shooter. In addition to being extremely religious, he is devoted to his parents in an old-world Italian way, to the point where he would never want to dishonor their name. ... One sergeant who has known him for decades agreed. 'He's a fine and decent man,' he said. 'He wants to be a good, honest cop.'"

I suppose being oblivious is better than being dishonest by a wide margin, and I have to admit that I've always admired DeFazio's panache, so I'm almost willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But if he was truly unaware of the muck and slime that was spreading around him (even as he was insisting that the department's squad cars stayed squeaky clean), then it speaks poorly of his judgement, I fear.

Alert Reader and erstwhile blogger Officer Jim (no fan of Pizza Bowl Pete's) notes there was a nice article in the Easton Express-Times about the new state champion McKeesport Tigers.

Writes Jim: "The articles on Duquesne-South Columbia also were positive towards the Dukes' chances. Too bad they couldn't keep the momentum going in the second half. (I hope you saw the score already. If not, they lost 50-19. Which is deceiving, because the score was 20-19 at halftime.)"

(How about them Tigers, by the way? Do I need to mention that they're the state high school football champions, or does everyone know by now that they had a decisive 49-10 victory over Bethlehem Liberty High School? The Harrisburg Patriot-News called it a "rout." Nice work, guys, especially considering that the season got off to a rocky start ... fighting back to win the state championship took a lot of heart!)

Officer Jim also agrees with Bob Braughler of Subdivided We Stand that I tend to ... erm ... prattle on a bit, as the Brits would say: "To be fair, though, you can go on and on about subjects. Particularly in relation to 'Fibber McGee and Molly' and other such archaic things."

As Jack Benny would say: "Hmmmmm."

Finally, a tip of the Tube City hard hat to three new (newish?) blogs: Karen Hoffman's K-Blog, Jonathan Barnes' Barnstormin', and McKeesport Candy Co.'s Candyblog. As a proud consumer of their products, that one gets my personal, if somewhat saccharin, seal of approval, though it makes my teeth sore just to think about it.

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December 09, 2005 | Link to this story

A Potpourri of Schadenfreude and Kvetching

Category: default || By jt3y

Who are the brain surgeons that decided to restrict the Homestead High-Level Bridge (yes, I know they changed the name, but no one calls it the "Homestead Grays Bridge" yet) during the Christmas shopping season? Ryan Kish of the News talked to merchants about it the other day.

Ironically ... or maybe not ... ones on Eighth Avenue are less worried about it than ones at The Waterfront. Because while it's very difficult to get to The Waterfront without using the bridge, it's easy to get to the Avenue from any number of different directions.

I find this funny, because when The Waterfront was being planned, the developers didn't try to hide their contempt for the shopping districts in the three boroughs it traverses. That's why there are only three entrances --- the bridge, the ramp near the Rankin Bridge, and the Amity Street railroad crossing --- and why The Waterfront turns its back to the community. You'll also notice that it's easier to get to The Waterfront in a car than on foot.

As many people who live and work in the Steel Valley will tell you, that's because the developers don't particularly want Steel Valley residents shopping there. They want people from Squirrel Hill, Shadyside and Oakland shopping there. I guess the people buying $300,000 riverfront condos, shopping at Talbot's and eating at P.F. Chang's don't want to mingle with retired steelworkers, babushka-wearing grandmothers, and single mothers working at Wal-Mart.

So, allow me a little schadenfreude at The Waterfront's expense. And if you can't get in there, there's plenty of parking on the Avenue, and the cookies at Mantsch's bakery are mighty good. Main Street in Munhall has lots of spaces, too (and they're free).


In other news, it's time for an old Tube City Almanac feature we haven't done recently ... Good Government Marches On!

Allegheny County's ethics commission plans to ask embattled Sheriff Pete DeFazio whether it should investigate campaign fundraising abuses in his office.

An ongoing federal grand jury investigation has revealed that sheriff's deputies were forced to contribute to political fundraisers for DeFazio and other Democrats. The county ethics code prohibits officials from soliciting campaign contributions from employees.

Michael Louik, chairman of the county Accountability, Conduct and Ethics Commission, said Thursday he would write a letter asking DeFazio: "Although we're aware of the ongoing investigation, are there matters that should be referred to us?"
(Dave Conti, Tribune-Review)

It's a little known fact that this is how the FBI began investigating Dillinger: "Dear Sir: It has come to our attention that $3 million in bank deposits are missing. We have reason to believe that this money may be stuffed in satchels in the back of your car. Please advise. Sincerely, Melvin H. Purvis."

The commission, according to Conti, "claims it cannot launch an investigation without a formal complaint. Members said they decided to write the letter to remind DeFazio -- and other public officials -- that the ethics code exists."

I'll try to suppress my laughter at the thought of Allegheny County's political apparatchiks investigating the "accountability, conduct and ethics" of one of their own.

We already have a sheriff who gives all of the appearance of being a law-enforcement officer although under the state constitution and county charter, he actually doesn't have any responsibility for enforcing laws.

Now, it seems that we also have an ethics commission that gives the appearance of investigating ethics, but no actual responsibility (or desire) for doing so. This all makes sense, in a sick, twisted way.

Thanks, by the way, to the 55.8 percent of Allegheny County voters who voted to return Laverne's dad to office next year. (That includes almost 76 percent of voters in Our Fair City, 66.5 percent in West Mifflin, 63 percent in Munhall and nearly 70 percent in North Versailles Township, to name just a few Mon-Yough area communities. As I've said before, and I'll say again, we're in no danger of having our own chapter of Mensa any time soon.)

And thanks, too, to the muddle-headed Allegheny County Republican Party, which couldn't seem to muster up the energy or interest to support their own candidate. Fine work, fellows. Take a couple of extra golf balls out of petty cash.


Local News You May Have Missed: A group of alumni from Turtle Creek High School are trying to save the building, currently used as Woodland Hills East Junior High School. Although many people of note attended TCHS, the best-known alumni may be Bill Burkette, Don Miller, Hugh Geyer, and Chuck Blasko. You know them better as the original Vogues.

Ready or not, North Huntingdon is getting a Wal-Mart Supercenter. It'll be built on the so-called "Mills Tract" adjacent to the former Lincoln Hills Country Club, itself slated to disappear for a housing development.


By the way: The Wal-Mart at Mills Pointe Shopping Center will serve those customers who are not already within five minutes' driving distance of the Wal-Mart in neighboring North Versailles (9.4 miles away) or the Wal-Mart in Hempfield Township (5.9 miles away).

Experts now say that by the year 2020, it will be possible to drive the entire length of Route 30 merely by going from Wal-Mart parking lot to Wal-Mart parking lot.


To Do This Weekend: McKeesport Symphony Orchestra presents its annual holiday show, entitled "I'll Be Home For Christmas," at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in the auditorium of McKeesport Area High School, 1960 Eden Park Boulevard. Call (412) 664-2854. ... Also, speaking of McKeesport Area High School, there's a football game of some sort going on Saturday in Hershey. I seem to remember seeing a thing or two about it here. (Good luck!)


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December 08, 2005 | Link to this story

By The Way ...

Category: default || By jt3y

Run for your lives! A big storm's a-brewin'! Granny got the rheumatiz bad today! Also, the Action News Accu Doppler Severe 24 WeatherWatch Storm Center has swung into high gear! At KDKA, they're already collating the school closing lists for tomorrow! Hunker down! Only the strong will survive!

Look, people ... they're calling for four to six inches, not feet. If you were snowed in, you'd be stuck for ... what? An hour? "Oh, save me from these five inch snow drifts! Help! My shoes are getting wet!"

Calm down, people, for crying out loud. It's December. It's Pittsburgh. It snows.

And now if you'll excuse me, I have to run to the store and buy bread, toilet paper and milk by the case.

Also, gas prices jumped 10 cents this week in the Mon-Yough area. Hurricanes, terrorism and summer travel season I can understand, but what's caused this sudden spike? Please don't tell me it's the threat of snow. Details at the Gas Gauge.

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December 08, 2005 | Link to this story

Duke of Churl

Category: default || By jt3y

Pat Cloonan of the Daily News had some fun the other day at the expense of "Froggy 98," which is technically licensed to "Duquesne," but which plays country music. If you're thinking that Duquesne --- 47.7 percent African-American, according to the last U.S. Census --- is not a bastion of Brooks and Dunn fans, you're right.

The "city of license" of a radio station used to be important. The FCC used to require radio stations to actually serve the communities to which they were licensed. Ever since the broadcasting industry was deregulated, it's become a little bit of fiction.

In this case, the "Froggy" conglomerate (which is actually a tightly-knitted clump of interlocking corporations) got to move Charleroi's only FM radio station to Duquesne several years ago --- on the grounds that Duquesne didn't have a radio station of its own. In reality, they wanted a Pittsburgh radio station, and Duquesne was as close as they could get with the former WESA-FM, Charleroi.

At the time, I wrote in the Trib that I was willing to lead a parade down West Grant Avenue to welcome Froggy to Duquesne, if they put their studios and offices there. I still haven't been taken up on that offer. But I digress.

Anyway, since the Duquesne High School Dukes are playing for the state championship this weekend, but no one in Pittsburgh is broadcasting the game, Cloonan called Froggy's VP of programming and asked if they'd carry it ... since, after all, they are serving "Duquesne."

You could almost hear the guy sniff in disgust: Froggy, he said, "will not abandon its country audience to broadcast" high school football. One is very tempted to ask why they're abandoning Duquesne ... since that city's apparently appalling lack of a radio station was the justification for moving WESA-FM.

I read their application. To paraphrase Arlo Guthrie, it was full of 8-by-10 color glossy photos, with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one, all sung in four-part harmony, explaining why the FCC just had to put a radio station in Duquesne:

In support of its proposal, petitioner (states) that Duquesne is incorporated and has a 1990 U.S. Census population of 8,225 persons. The city is governed by a mayor and a four-member city council. Duquesne provides police and volunteer fire and sewage services. It has its own public school system, churches (19), a public park, restaurants, shopping, and its own post office. Duquesne has social and charitable organizations such as the Moose and the American Croatian Club.

Yes, I hear the top executives of Keymarket Licenses LLC are regulars down at the Croatian Club. And if you believe that one, I have a bridge to sell you.

Pat's article raised another interesting point: McKeesport Area High School, which is playing for the Quad-A championship, has gotten a fair amount of Pittsburgh broadcast media attention. (And deservedly so, in the Almanac's view.)

But Duquesne, right across the river, has gotten relatively little coverage, the article implies.

That seems strange to me. If there was a triple homicide on Crawford Avenue, a fatal house fire on Second Street or a big drug bust in Burns Heights, the TV news yakkers would be all over it. Yet here's something positive happening in Duquesne, that residents are legitimately excited about ... and no radio or TV can even be bothered to broadcast the game. It will be available on the Internet and on cable's PCN channel (motto: "Yes, we're that public-affairs thing that no one is watching.").

Sure, it's class A high school football. But it would mean a lot to people in Duquesne, and displaced former residents, if it was on the air, I'll wager.

For that matter, South Park High School's game will be live on the radio. That's only class AA football. Is South Park Township, population 14,340, really that much more important than Duquesne, population 7,332? Or is it just more ... well, I'll say "affluent." I think you get my drift.

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December 06, 2005 | Link to this story

One Tow Over The Line

Category: default || By jt3y

Since I'm basically a Mon Valley yinzer at heart, it should surprise no one to hear that I once thought about becoming a tow-truck driver. It may be surprising, however, that I wasn't 6 years old when I entertained this thought; I was more like 22.

OK, so I didn't give it serious thought. I was working as the night police reporter and part-time photographer at the Observer-Reporter then, covering what seemed to be a endless parade of two-car accidents ("10-45's" in state police parlance, or what the medics called "MVAs") in Washington and Greene counties, and I got to meet a lot of tow truck drivers.

I found them to be, on the whole, a very funny (if sick) group of people, and most of them liked the fact that I bothered to get their names, and the names of their companies, when I shot photos of car wreck scenes. Once I arrived at a crash scene to find that the accident was already clear, and the tow truck driver was already winching the last car onto the flatbed truck. He offered to put it back down on the road so I could take a picture. I explained that I wasn't allowed to do that, but I appreciated the offer.

Some of these guys were talented, too. I once arrived at an accident scene on Route 136 between Eighty-Four and Mon City to find that a tri-axle coal truck had rolled several hundred feet down a steep embankment. The volunteer fire department and paramedics climbed down to find the wreck empty, and then scoured the woods: no one was around. The driver had fled the scene. (He turned up later, if I recall correctly, at a bar, and I can't say I blame him.)

A tri-axle coal truck, empty, weighs about 10 tons, and this one had wedged itself into a thick grove of trees fairly tightly. Two guys from (I think, this was almost 10 years ago) Interstate Wrecker Service in Washington showed up, sized up the situation quickly, and went to work.

They grabbed some power saws from their trucks, cut a path through the woods, and attached steel cables to each end of the coal truck. Then, working the winches on their wreckers in tandem, they wiggled the coal truck up the embankment, back onto the road, and tipped it onto its wheels.

Two PhDs in mechanical engineering from MIT and a team of NASA payload specialists couldn't have done it better. Even the firefighters and cops were impressed. I felt like applauding. When I arrived back at the office, people asked why I was smiling: "I think I missed my calling. I want to drive a tow truck."


Naturally, I thought for a time that all tow truck drivers were jolly, happy souls (with a corn-cob pipe and a button-nose and two eyes made out of coals ... sorry). That was until I started working full-time in that larger city somewhat to the north of Our Fair City (no, not Duquesne, Picksberg), where I was introduced to a whole new class of tow truck drivers --- predators.

That's not to say there aren't professional wrecker drivers in Picksberg. There are many. I'm not talking about the guys who tow for AAA or work for service stations. I'm talking about the guys with the clapped-out Chevy pickups, their names sloppily stenciled onto the doors, with a rusty hoist in the back. The industry and the cops call these guys "bandit tow trucks."

Some of these guys sit in vacant lots, listening to their police scanners, waiting to hear about wrecks. When a call goes out, they pounce. I speak from personal experience, having watched them in action as a reporter. I also know of a case involving a relative who was involved in a wreck on the Rankin Bridge. She called the cops, and then called the AAA.

No sooner had she got off the phone with the motor club than two of these fly-by-night tow truck operators showed up. They promptly got into a fight over who was going to tow the wrecks. As the cops tried to mediate, a third yokel with a tow truck (we'll call him "Hubert") showed up and hooked her car, asked her where she wanted it towed, then invited her along for the ride.

She was riding along in the truck and almost at her body shop when her cell phone rang: It was the motor club. Their tow truck driver couldn't find the wreck. She looked at Hubert. "Aren't you from the AAA?"

"Nope." And it gets better: Hubert wanted cash. Some gentle persuasion on the part of the body shop owner, backed up by a couple of ornery-looking mechanics holding blunt objects persuaded "Hubert" to send his bill to the AAA.

I was sitting at a red light not long ago when one of these dingbats pulled up behind me. Obviously he was trying to get to a wreck somewhere. First, he started blowing his horn at me --- even though the light was red --- and when I wouldn't move (a certain finger may or may not have been raised by me), he drove over the sidewalk and roared off through the intersection, against the light.

Park At Your Peril

The other thing these turkeys are involved with is "policing" private parking lots in the city. You've seen those signs, right? "Unauthorized Vehicles Will Be Towed"?

I didn't know, but I've learned, that if they have an agreement with the property owner to tow cars, they can tow 'em without a complaint, on sight. Apparently, our friends in Congress --- you remember the "Contract With America," right? --- deregulated the towing industry several years ago, voiding local and state laws governing tow truck operation.

Mark Evanier of News From Me did some investigation after he had a run-in with one of these fly-by-night clowns in California, and he's written about it at his website:

A lot of the companies that tow cars off private property are now operating under what they call "blanket authorizations," meaning that the property owner has authorized them to patrol the area and remove any vehicle they find parked in violation of the posted signs without a specific call. This is contrary to the Vehicle Code but several towing companies are still fighting in court, on matters ongoing, claiming that that provision has been voided by the federal deregulation and that blanket authorizations are now legal. In fact, the tow truck company for which our friend works is one of the main firms fighting for that interpretation.

Naturally, these shade-tree truck operators prowl around Oakland, South Side, Shadyside, Squirrel Hill, Downtown, the Strip District and other Picksberg neighborhoods, looking for any cars that might be illegally parked. Then they hook 'em and haul 'em to their private impound lots.

You say you were legally parked? It's your word against the truck driver's. Want your car back? Be prepared to pay their towing and "storage" fees, which are just this side of extortion. Don't like it? Sue 'em. The federal law limits your damages to four times their towing fee. As Evanier writes, "It sounds to me like the odds are wildly in the towing company's favor: Tow 100 cars @ $125 each. An average of one will drag you to court and you may have to pay $600. Total profit: $11,900."

The city of Picksberg went after these jaboneys a few years ago, but as far as I can tell, they got nowhere.

Ready, Fire, Aim!

Then, just last week, I left work one night and got behind a beat-up tow truck with its owner's name in tiny stick-on letters on the door. It had a battery-powered orange light on its roof, blinking anemically, and was towing a late-model Japanese sedan; the car was being towed backwards, with no lights on, at night, in light snow.

Worse yet, it was half-on, half-off the hook, meaning that every time this clown went around a curve, the car swung out into oncoming traffic, forcing other motorists to swerve.

Since I couldn't read the name on the door, and there wasn't any phone number visible, I tried to get the truck's license number, but I lost it on Second Avenue in Hazelwood.

The next morning, I got to work to find out that a colleague was going to be out of the office. It seems his car --- legally parked in a lot where he pays for a permit --- had been towed the night before. To a back-alley tow truck operation in Hazelwood. And it was a late-model Japanese sedan.

Oops. The driver "didn't see" the permit on the dashboard. Tow first, ask questions later. The owner of the lot pressured him into releasing the car without a charge.

Having owned a string of clunkers and junkers over the years, I've met several tow truck drivers in Our Fair City, and universally found them to be pros. (And funny with a warped sense of humor, like the guys I knew years ago in Washington County.) I wouldn't hesitate to call any of the major companies.

Heck, when I broke down in Coraopolis a couple of years ago and had to have my car towed to OFC, the motor club sent some poor guy down from Baden who had never been to McKeesport before (never been to McKeesport? An outrage!). But he was a trouper, too, accepted my hastily-sketched map, and drove the crippled car to my mechanic without a complaint.

But if I ever break down in Pittsburgh, I'm tempted to push the car home. Sore shoulders seem like a small price to pay compared with a sore something-else.

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December 02, 2005 | Link to this story

It's The Festival of Trees, Charlie Brown!

Category: default || By jt3y

Why is Charlie Brown unhappy? Maybe he missed Western Pennsylvania's largest and original display of themed Christmas trees of all sizes and shapes ... the Festival of Trees at Renziehausen Park in Our Fair City:

McKeesport's 20th Annual Festival of Trees
12 noon to 9 p.m., Dec. 2 to 4, 2005

Area businesses and organizations display trees in the holiday spirit. Entertainment, music and programs scheduled throughout the event. Pictures with Santa, bake sale, food concessions, "sleighay" rides through a decorated Renziehausen Park. The McKeesport Heritage Center, the Little Red School House, and the Garden Clubhouse will also be open to the public with holiday decor and crafts.

Donation $2 at the door. Kids under 12 admitted free with canned good(s). Call 412-675-5068 for more information or visit the McKeesport Recreation Board's website.

So don't be a blockhead this weekend! The Festival of Trees is held in the Jacob Wall Pavilion at Renzie Park, located on Sycamore Drive about 1/10 of a mile from University Drive. (Need directions? Go here.)

Westinghouse TV picture from Charlie Brown and Peanuts characters copyright United Feature Syndicate.

Incidentally, that's a 1968-vintage "Instant-On" television. Those of you old enough to remember when you had to wait for the TV to warm up before you could watch it will remember what a marvel "Instant-On" was.

Those of you old enough to have been in the volunteer fire department will remember what a fire hazard it was.

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