Saturday, June 25, 2005

Joining The Conversation

Under the influence of too much coffee in the morning, I sometimes say or write things I wish I hadn’t. The other day it wasn’t the coffee that had me out-of-sorts—I think the late dinner I’d eaten the night before had made me fuzzy.

So while tuning into Fred Honsberger Live, which is my favorite television show to hate, I acted a bit impulsively and called up “The Honsman.” I called despite my better judgment, and despite the fact that I never call talk shows.

While I disagree with mostly everything Honsberger says on-air, and I have been known to pitch a liberal’s fit while listening to him talk, for some time I have taken a perverse joy in occasionally watching his show. I can only attribute that enjoyment to a desire to hear people yell at each other in argument, which brings back warm memories for me, because that’s how I grew up eating dinner with my family.

Also, I had covered Lynn Swann’s press conference the day before, and I wondered what Republicans thought about the possibility of Swann becoming a gubernatorial candidate. Not having a Republican sibling handy to ask about a Super Steeler governor, I called Honsberger. Perhaps it’s not surprising, since I recently started my own weblog.

* * *

I capitulated. I got tired of all the attention bloggers have been getting, so I started my own.

A couple weeks back I joined the blogosphere by getting my own punk pulpit. I now am a member of the dorky world of webloggers, and I can’t say I’m exactly comfortable with my new affiliation.

My friend Geoff confirmed my discomfiting suspicions when he responded to my e-mail announcing the launch of my blog.

“You e-writing weenie!” he wrote.

As a journalist, I have learned to check out blogs to look for news tidbits, but I have been wary of joining the blogosphere. I will admit that I have been thinking about it for a long time, though. I just didn’t like the idea of being part of the world that enables people to make unfair personal attacks on individuals. I didn’t want be considered like one of those nerds who lambastes others on his blog, using the medium against those he hates.

Leaping into the blogosphere was an act of faith, because over the years I’ve developed a mistrust of blogging. I have been insulted online by at least one blogger who personally attacked me in a few instances.

Full disclsure: I was attacked for having been in public relations at one time, and also for supporting the plan that built two sports stadiums on the North Side. Some people in Pittsburgh can’t get over the fact that those stadiums were built. Because of my stance on the issue, I have been called everything from a “hack” to “unethical.”

Still, I figured a blog would give me a place to publish essays that I have been writing that wouldn’t fit into other publications. I felt that a blog also hopefully would, to some degree, bring me into the ongoing conversation happening in the blogosphere.

While I was commenting indiscreetly on a blog titled “The Conversation,” an anonymous poster attacked me. This pusillanimous poster tried to smear me with the same lies that another blogger once had employed. The right-winger Honsberger treated me more respectfully than I was treated by a fellow blogger who also is opposed to the Drug War, but afraid to sign his name to the statement.

* * *

Maybe it was the mind-addling effect of too many pasta calories still dumbing me down from the prior evening that made me call. I can’t really explain it, except to say that for some strange reason, I couldn’t resist jumping into the argument.

My call was patched through almost immediately.

“I’m from the left side of the world…” I began, in a voice softer and more timid than I expected, realizing suddenly that I was out of my element. I asked Honsberger what he thought of Swann, an “incredible athlete,” possibly running for governor, and if he thought the former Steeler had much of a chance of becoming governor.

Honsberger responded sneeringly that he also thought Swann was an “incredible athlete” and that Swann stood a good chance of winning if he decided to run for governor.

“What do you think of him running?” Honsberger asked me.

“I think it’s interesting,” I said in an uncharacteristically soft voice. He went on to complain about how lousy the governor had been performing, and about how many people Rendell has pardoned since he took office.

I realized Hons wanted a fight, but though I am pugnacious by nature, I didn’t feel so confident, since television and radio are his “neighborhood,” so to speak. I let him talk, without adding much, and I thanked him for his thoughts and hung up.

I had joined the conversation and become one of those “cranks” that you hear on the radio or television. It was a natural step, after starting my blog.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Swann's song

Backed by attractive women, former Steeler great Lynn Swann yesterday was coy with reporters at a press briefing prior to his $1,000-a-plate fundraiser at Heinz Field.

“This is our first fundraising event… in establishing the possibility of running for governor,” Swann told a scrum of cameramen, photographers and reporters. “I’m excited because of the potential that it provides for making a change in Pennsylvania.”

It seems that Swann already talks like a politician.

But he was resplendent in a dark blue business suit, all smiles and charm and powerfully good looks that seemed undiminished by age. The former receiver wasted little time in the briefing, quickly lobbing a few “ducks” at Governor Rendell.

“Enough is not being done [by] the administration in Harrisburg,” Swann said. “Indeed, we’re all standing in the same place we’ve been since 2002. We haven’t made progress.”

From what I’ve seen, people such as Barry Stein, a Pittsburgh developer who is investing in McKeesport’s Midtown Plaza mall, or Cris Zuback, who is transforming an old Studebaker shop in Forest Hills into a bistro, might disagree. But what do I know?

“The folks upstairs are kind enough to be supportive,” Swann said of the attendees to his first major fundraiser. He added that he expected to raise more than $600,000 from the fundraiser.

Among a Swann entourage of about 15 people were several good-looking women, and also former Allegheny County chief executive Jim Roddey.

Swann smiled confidently amidst the low clatter of photographers working to “capture” him. A few of the reporters tried to catch the former football player-turned-belle of the Republican ball, but he eluded their grasp.

Asked when he would announce his candidacy for governor, Swann dodged.

“I’m not planning on making the announcement anytime in the near future. We’re still in the process of gathering information. I probably won’t make that announcement for quite some time,” he said.

Swann touched on the much-discussed loss of college-educated students that leave the state after graduating from college here. “Our greatest import in the last few years has been college students,” he said.

What’s it going to take to convince you to announce your candidacy for governor, another reporter asked.

“I think that the realities are that you have to get out and you have to talk to Pennsylvanians. You have to talk to people to get an understanding of what it is that they want. I’m getting a lot of encouragement everywhere I go,” he said. “[Pennsylvanians] seem to be highly motivated for change.”

Is it fair for Democrats to say that you are a great football player but not a good candidate for governor, another reporter questioned.

“I think most Americans have two or three different careers over their lifetime. If you can’t learn from one career and transfer those skills to the next career, then you’re not going to have the success you want to have. I believe… as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, we were disciplined, we were well trained, we had a great game plan, and we worked as a team. We gave our best effort and we won four Super Bowls.”

Swann chided the governor a few times during the press conference for not being a “team player,” which he said he is. “Ed Rendell hasn’t built the best team. You have to be a team player,” he said.

Property taxes, education and health care are some of the issues that Pennsylvanians are talking to him about, Swann said. “[Rendell] said give us gambling, and you’ll have property tax relief. We got gambling, but we don’t have property tax relief,” he said. "The policies that I put forward will be those things that Pennsylvanians find important.”

Regrettably, neither I nor any other reporter at the event asked Swann how his race might figure into a run for governor. I also failed to ask him why he’s a Republican, though I’m sure he has his reasons.

Rendell had better hit the political treadmill, and fast. I have covered him in person and Swann as well, and while Rendell has the sort of charm that goes over well with the old boys in the Mon Valley and elsewhere, Swan has the movie-star good looks that could land him in the governor’s seat. All one must do is look to California to see how celebrities can rule.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Sleepless in Sea-Tac

It's 3:05 a.m. and a goateed stranger strums chords on his guitar -- not particular songs, just chords -- amid the low humming of a vacuum being run by an airport terminal employee over the carpeted sitting area. I wonder why the player can't let the people sprawled on the floor and on chairs have a moment's rest. The truth is that I want him to stop so I can read my book in peace. Finally he quits and lies down on the floor, using his rucksack as a pillow.

We're all sleep-deprived in Sea-Tac Airport. Several of us are stranded here in the middle of the night, waiting for rides from a variety of sources. The guitar player is waiting for a bus to Bellingham. The 30-something Native American, by himself in the far end of the seating area, is crashing on the floor while he waits for relatives to make the 150-mile drive to pick him up. Eva, a midriff-baring, tattooed 20-something who missed her flight, is trying to get to Ithaca, N.Y., to visit her sister. Several others crash here in these wee hours, including a businessman who nonchalantly puts his briefcase by the windows and lies down, cradling his suitcase as a pillow.

My wife, Anne, and I are here because I'm too apt to question reality. Trying to leave Seattle after visiting for my brother's wedding, we missed our flight to Pittsburgh earlier in the day. It was hard saying goodbye to my relatives and I didn't give us enough time to drop off the rental car and check in. When at 1:20 p.m. we failed to check in through the computer screen at the airlines' counter, we asked the employee at a nearby counter what was up.

"You're trying to check in now for the 1:55 flight?" the man asked. We said we were.

The employee, a middle-aged Asian guy, gave us a look that conveyed the message that we were pitifully stupid.

"You're not going to make it," he said, looking down at his computer to find us another flight.

We gambled for standby seats on the other non-stop flight at 11:20 p.m. We waited there, like high-stakes bingo players, hoping our names would be called. But the flight was filled out by all of its passengers, who arrived down to the wire.

"Sorry guys, we tried," one of the pilots said to us as we walked away from the gate.

This is what you get when you ignore popular movies such as "Terminal" and then disregard warnings to be early for your flight, I said to myself.

On the way back to the seating area, now the sleeping area, Anne and I stopped by the airlines' courtesy booth, to speak with a woman working there. We told her of our predicament and I asked her how long we might be waiting for another flight.

"I've seen people wait as long as five days," she said, filling me with despair. Seeing my horrified expression, she softened the blow: "What can I say, it's August in Seattle."

So here we are, Anne sleeping hunched over in a chair and me reading a popular new book, which I paid $28 for in a terminal bookstore. The other waylaid folks are trying to get some shuteye. But I'm determined to be back home as soon as I can, so I'm staying awake to be at the US Airways counter well before its 4:30 a.m. opening time. It doesn't bother me that if we get tickets, Eva could be deprived of them.

I quietly wake Anne and whisper to her that I'm going up to the airlines' desk early, to beat the others who will be heading there.

"I'm not telling Eva, because it's every man for himself," I whispered to Anne. I headed to the counter and leaned on it, opening up my portable Mark Twain, which is a lifesaver for any bookish traveler. When I turned around a while later, there were about a dozen people waiting behind me. Eva was one of the first few, looking bedraggled and tired.

I found out later that five minutes after I left, Anne woke Eva. So by arriving at the counter at roughly 3:50 a.m., I had beat about a dozen people there. Somehow that thought was comforting.

We made it onto a non-stop flight to Philadelphia. Eva did, too. From Philly we took the shuttle route to Pittsburgh, arriving outside our hometown around 5:30 p.m. EST, a full 20 hours later than we'd expected.

When we left Seattle, a supposedly rainy city, it was 85 degrees and sunny. When we made it home to Pittsburgh, a town also known for its gloomy precipitation, it was 62 degrees and rainy. That rain fell like a blessing, calming me with each drop.

(This story originally was published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.)

Monday, June 20, 2005

No conversion needed

The presidential election trash-talking still reeks to heaven and efforts to convert liberals continue, making me sometimes feel like a pagan in a house of The Elect.

I was amazed by how people acted before the election, and
even now I'm amazed at how they continue to behave. A left-leaning friend who is married to a conservative Republican recently helped me realize that I am not alone.

“When we talk about politics, it can get ugly, so we try not to,” she said, referring to her husband. “But these ‘red’ folks tend to want to try to convert you.”

Many Republicans can’t see that we Lefties don’t want to be converted. I received a note recently from a reader who was concerned with a screed I had written. Her tone was holier-than-thou:

“Christians know the savior, but liberals have not found salvation. They need government to depend on because they can't count on themselves and they won’t turn to God since they don't believe He exists. How very sad, because history has proven that socialism, which is what the Democratic Party wants, does not work.”

Being the son of a born-again Presbyterian elder who was also a Republican, I take offense when people condescend to me regarding politics or religion. I don’t like the disdain from family or strangers, because comments like, “She is so nice and a Christian, hard to believe she’s a Democrat,” have stung my ears too long.

While my wife Anne and I were looking for a wedding gift last fall, we were considering a fancy tea set, and I made a sarcastic comment about how it would go unused if we bought it for Brooke, my brother Sean’s wife.

“What’s she going to use it for, the Young Republican Women teas?” I said to Anne, who shushed me. But it was too late. An older woman shopper who was nearby had overheard.

“You better not be talking bad about Republicans,” the woman warned in a rough Pittsburgh accent. “I’m a Republican. Who are you going to vote for, Kerry?” She lectured us about how Bush was keeping the country safe from terrorists with the Iraq war. Before she left, she issued a half-threat: “I ought to make you carry my package, since you’re voting for Kerry,” she said, shaking her head at me.

At the red carpet opening of the renovated Pittsburgh Carnegie Library main branch, I told a guy behind me in the coffee line that I’m a reporter.

“I’ve got a story for you,” said the barrel-chested, retirement-age man, as if he were handing me my Pulitzer. He asked if I was a Bush supporter, and I said I wasn’t, but he went on.

“The President’s gotten a bad rap about his military service,” he said. “I’m a former Air Force pilot, and I know how much training President Bush had to do. I asked him myself, and he told me… You should interview former pilots and ask them how difficult it is to fly an F-16, and how much training you have to do…”

It was another attempted conversion of me, a nonpartisan liberal and son of a Goldwater campaigner. The man went on about how great he thinks Bush is, and why I should pursue his “story.” I wasn’t buying it, like I don’t buy the excuses that Republican apologists spam at me through my Uncle Holyman, a retired minister. Though Holyman knows I don’t like his right-wing e-mails, he continues to send them--a tireless missionary preaching to the natives.

A half a world away, things are, in a way, similar. The walls of some of Iraq’s cities are encircled by troops that are called “crusaders” by their Muslim opponents, who fear that the U.S. is trying to Christianize their country. Similarly, non-Republicans in America’s cities are feeling under attack by Christian Republicans, who boorishly try to win them over. But like most of the Muslims in Iraq, we American liberals will not be converted.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Don’t say the C-word

I’m sitting here in my America, quiet behind my computer and more-or-less oblivious to the other Americas beyond my study window. Every once in a while at night when I’m here at work, I’ll hear the sound of gunshots echoing up the hill. I live in Wilkinsburg, a suburb of Pittsburgh, but not in Wilkinsburg proper, which is down the hill and is the place that many know from the shootings. My suburb gained nationwide press four years back when a deranged black man, Ronald Taylor, went on a racially charged shooting spree and shot and killed several people. 

Folks on my side of the neighborhood shyly reveal their municipality to friends.

“This is Wilkinsburg? I can’t believe it, it’s so nice,” the friends always say.

“Well, Churchill is just a block that way,” we say.

To look around my neighborhood, you wouldn’t know people were being shot a mile away. You wouldn’t even know it’s the same community, since Wilkinsburg is 66 percent black and my neighborhood, which extends from Wilkinsburg into the bordering suburb of Churchill, has a white majority. Up here on the other side of Graham Boulevard, there are no sidewalks and the bushes seem to grow thicker.

Like many Americans, I tend to focus on my family and home. This disaffection of Americans is evidenced by the fact that many voters view a candidate’s recognition of the variety of social classes in America as a ridiculous sentiment. We’ve all heard the joke: “John Kerry believes there are ‘two Americas.’ He has to go through the other America to get to his America.”

The joke, though mean, points to the nagging question of class in our supposedly egalitarian society. Partly due to de-industrialization and other factors, there seems to be a widening gap between the working poor and the middle class. But pointing this out is perceived by many people to be un-American. In polite middle-class society, it seems that a person does not say the “C-word.” Social class is considered a vulgar topic, and proper folks just don’t mention it.

But most of us have to go through the other America to get to our middle-class Americas. So we turn up the car radio, race against the red light and get through the “depressed” neighborhoods as fast as possible.

Occasionally the gunshots jar us back to reality. The other day I was talking with a friend from McKeesport, a formerly bustling steel mill town outside Pittsburgh that once was home to 50,000 people but is now half that size. My friend lives “up the hill” in the “better part” of McKeesport, a city that in recent years has had many shootings and much violence. I told the friend how I felt so close, yet so removed, from the violence in my borough.

“Tell me about it, I’m up here in Haler Heights, barbecuing. And they’re down the hill, shooting each other,” she said.

People often mistake my friend’s neighborhood for being part of Whitehall. People tend to think my community is in Churchill. These are examples of the psychological disconnect that occurs when middle-class people try to comprehend street violence in high-crime areas that are so close to well-maintained, middle-class areas. But we’re only human—as long as it’s not in our neighborhoods, we tend to forget about the street war that’s raging blocks away. Unless people are regularly murdered in our neighborhoods, we don’t seem to get the message that we are all part of the larger, interconnected American neighborhood, whether or not we like to think so. The problem of social class in America is defined by the fact that we are one prosperous nation, with many islands of poverty and crime that give the lie to the American Dream.

Until we begin to recognize that class is not a dirty word, we’ll have to avert our eyes when heading uphill to our suburban homes. Crime and fear of the “other America” don’t have to be facts of life, but many of us act as if they do. And as long as we think so, there will always be at least two Americas, side by side.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Beware of the blogworms

Because I use a computer for my work, the recent spate of electronic viruses and worms has freaked me out a bit. As I’m sitting at my computer, those pop-up screens tell me I need to download new virus software, but I’m afraid the pop-up itself could be a virus, so I blow off the download. Every time I get a large email from a new contact, I cross my fingers and say three Hail Marys before downloading the file, and I'm not even Catholic. The truth is, about half the time I simply forward the file to someone else without taking any responsibility for what’s in it. I really don’t want to know what’s in the file.

I’ve never been the creepy-crawly type and I’ve considered myself to be fairly immune to electronic parasites. And then I was discovered by a blogworm. You may have heard of blogworms—the soft-bodied invertebrate parasites that feed on the work of professional writers. Blogworms are the best dirty secret since the legend of Iraqi WMDs, and it is said in Democratic circles that Republicans are behind the spread of the invasive crawlers. These worms, which literally are microscopic parasites, infect the personal computers of unwitting computer users. Problem is, they don’t make their presence known until after they’ve created a nest, called a weblog or blog, and have laid several eggs.

After they settle in, blogworms infect the e-waves with their excrement, choking up servers with mounds of shit that are enlarged by the shit of other blogworms. Like ants, blogworms usually work together, preferring to act in unison or in a relay fashion, with one taking up the load of another who’s tiring. Naturalists do know, however, that blogworms prefer to feed on the work of established writers. They eat good stories and out comes shit, in the form of blog “entries,” which might more appropriately be called “excretions.”

Not being an etymologist, an entomologist or any other scientific authority, I am probably as confused as you are about these new parasites. How does one distinguish a blogworm from a tapeworm, roundworm, threadworm, bloodworm, or plain old earthworm, you might ask. And if blogworms are anything like pinworms, will your ass get itchy, like a horse’s ass does when it gets pinworms? Are you in danger of scratching your booty on a neighbor’s fence?

Take heart, squeamish reader—this worm won’t attack your body, but it will try to infect your soul. Its attempt will come through the quickest entrance to your soul—your personal computer. And the more things you write that have the ring of truth to them, the faster the offending blogworm’s shit will pile up. The problem has become so widespread that in some New York literary circles, the number of blogs excreted about a writer is taken as proof positive of his success. I know one struggling poet who got a four-course meal, plus two bottles of expensive wine, given to him as a complimentary offering by the restaurant owner, based simply on a handful of nasty blogs the poet showed the guy.

I want to point out that, contrary to popular misconception, blogworms are not the same as chatworms, which occupy nests called chatrooms. Chatworms generally are thought to be rather innocuous and are known to be good bait for fly-fishing. Blogworms, on the other hand, serve no useful purpose, at least not yet. But I hear a couple of hippies in the Northwest are planning to start a blogworm farm, where they’ll recycle newspaper by feeding it to the worms, who will then provide the shit for organic compost. It could be the new Mother Nature taking over.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Making Sense of Tragedy

It’s me again, sorry.

I’m the jagoff you saw the other day at your sister’s funeral, scribbling in my notebook across the street. Though it might have seemed I was heartlessly documenting things, like some nature writer in a small-town wilderness, I was hardly doing that. I was waiting for you to tell me what it all meant.

You wanted to punch my face in. I can’t say I blame you—I’d also likely be frustrated and angry if I were in your place. But that’s not what I, or any of the newspeople covering the funeral, wanted. We just wanted to make some sense of it all.

We journalists write what people are compelled to read. “If it bleeds, it leads,” a trade magazine editor of mine says with chagrin. He doesn’t like it and neither do I. But there is finality to a death, coupled with an urgency to it, which interests readers. It’s something that we can all relate to, in some way, because we all will experience it some day.

I sometimes feel guilty knowing that people’s personal losses are “stories” for me. The detached perspective and feigned objectivity that we journalists attempt to bring to these tragedies also seems to jar with the reality of the death of the person.

But with every untimely death that I cover, I take a jab at achieving some brief immortality for myself in print. The death of a former Steeler was the subject of my first Reuters story, and the tragic death of your sister was my first story for Newsday.

I didn’t choose the assignment, but I didn’t refuse it, either.

The murder several years ago of John, a local tradesman, was my first page one story in a newspaper where I once worked. My editor at the time, Tony, hollered over that he was going to need me to cover John’s viewing.

“Man, that is not right,” I said. “You’re asking me to capitalize on this guy’s death, and on his family’s pain.”

Tony looked over at me and shook his head. “I know, it stinks. But we need you to go up there and cover his viewing today, and we’re probably going to need you to cover the funeral tomorrow.”

“I don’t think it’s right,” I said. “What purpose will it serve, besides increasing the pain of the relatives?”

“The public wants to know. And maybe you can help the family get some closure,” he said. “Maybe you can help bring some meaning to his death.”

I was doubtful. But I tried to wrench some “meaning” from the viewing and the funeral. I think I did an OK job on the funeral story, but I know I still failed. There aren’t enough words, or enough time, to really explain a person’s life, after that person is gone.

But we journalists must to try to explain these lives, and it often pains us to do so. We telephone for interviews with the grieving parents of 17-year-olds killed in car crashes, and the children of parents gone too soon. Sometimes, we ask for quotes in person, and we can enrage relatives for asking questions so soon after their loved one’s death.

Please forgive our bad manners.

While I was standing in the sun across the street from your sister’s funeral, I talked with a photographer who said he wouldn’t mind if someone took a picture of him grieving for his mother.

“If they were ever going to take my picture, that would be the time I’d care the least about it,” he said. “In a way, it’s sort of a compliment that we’re here. Thousands of people want to know about this person’s death.”

Often when we journalists cover a person’s death, it is the one moment in that person’s time on earth when he or she is simultaneously affecting thousands of people. Because of that, it’s important for relatives and friends of the deceased to seize the moment to tell us reporters and photographers what their loved one meant to them, and what that person’s death means to the world.

We are all, in our own ways, searching for a greater meaning to our lives. And sad as it can be, losing a loved one can sometimes help us to find those deeper truths.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Another casualty in America's Drug War

Before he died, Billy had relatives and friends and people who grew up with him, people who knew his face, who knew his easy smile. People who knew him.

Now, some of those who didn’t know him have boxed him out of their sympathy and categorized him derelict. To them, he is just another casualty in America’s Drug War.

Billy recently became known to the Pittsburgh newspaper reading public more for his crimes than his personality, because he was shot in the face and killed on Feb. 21, while sitting in a vehicle in the lower North Side. At first blush, it appeared to be another drug deal gone wrong. It’s hard to say what happened, since whoever did it has not been caught.

People who knew Billy knew he had drug problems, but they also knew his character.

“He was a good guy,” some have said to me. “He didn’t deserve to go that way.”

Folks in the media who didn’t know Billy have recited his crimes, which included commonplace violations such as driving while intoxicated, possession of drugs and receiving stolen property, and they have, intentionally or not, judged him guilty.

He deserved what came to him, people say to themselves. He was in The Drug Life.

In America’s grinding obsession with its Drug War, cops are elevated and drug users are dehumanized by the focus of Drugs As Evil Personified. Those who use or deal drugs are viewed as less than human, in the eyes of many people. Sometimes the Druggies just get what’s coming to them, people reason.

I no longer live in Bellevue, where Billy and the rest of us grew up, but I made it back there the other day and I ran into an old friend on the street. Billy’s death came up pretty quickly.

“They say it was over drugs, and it was done by somebody pretty close to him,” he said. “I hope they get whoever did it, because if they don’t, he’ll be out there doing it again.” I hear he was shot in the back of the head, execution-style, and it blew off his face, my friend added.

“’Wait here, I’ll be right back,’ he illustrated with a hand shaped like a gun, reciting a common ruse used by drug thieves. “Bang.”

I told my friend that whoever killed Billy obviously believed his life wasn’t worth squat, and also likely thought he would get away with it, no doubt because of Billy’s drug use.

“The cops don’t give a damn. They don’t care about finding who did this,” my friend said. “They figure that’s one less criminal on the street.”

After literally being defaced by some scum, his visage shot off so that newspaper reports said he was shot in the face—though the street word is it was an execution-style shooting—Billy again is being rendered nameless, and faceless.

In contrast to a ninth-grader who recently was shot to death while sitting in a car outside Carrick High School, Billy, who only lived to see age 44, seems to some people to be just another drug user with bad luck.

Nameless. Faceless. Some addicted person not really worth attention, much less compassion.

As we continue to stereotype drug users and drug dealers as enemies that must be beaten and, if necessary, killed, we should expect that someday we all will know someone who will be killed as a result of the illegal drug trade. And when that happens, that person will have a name that we will remember.

And that person might, like Billy, have a smile that we won’t be able to forget.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Making New Connections

I was munching on fries and sipping a pop at the nearly full bar in Regent Square on a recent afternoon when an older gent sat on the stool next to me and ordered a beer, four hot dogs and a six-pack.

He was smoking a cigarette, which he perched in an ashtray as he drank. This was just before I got my hot dog, and the smoke was annoying to me. I felt self-conscious at my annoyance, because in November I quit smoking cigarettes, and I thought of how many times I had been around smoke while I ate. I didn’t want to become one of those self-righteous former smokers, so I was determined to enjoy my hotdog and not let the smoke bother me.

Halfway through my hotdog, it occurred to me how new it was that I was not smoking, which I always had done in the past while I was at the bar. I thought of my connection to cigarette smoking, and I remembered how earlier in the week I had been digging in the garden and the spring air was so fresh and the temperature was so perfect that I had a craving for a cigarette. It occurred to me that certain actions remind us of connections—sometimes old and broken, but connections still—that inform our behavior. After a nearly 20-year habit, I reflexively wanted to reach for a cigarette while laboring in the yard.

At D’s, I wasn’t even drinking a beer, because I planned to work out that evening. I was one of few people in the bar who weren’t imbibing. I realized it was the first time I’d had a hotdog at D’s without a beer.

I gazed around the place, taking a quick inventory of how few others weren’t drinking. I caught the older fellow’s gaze, and he said ‘Hi.’

“It just occurred to me that I am not having a beer, which feels kind of strange,” I said.

He sipped his beer and laughed. “I drove six hours to get here,” he said. “Do you know where Primanti Brothers is?”

I told him about Primanti’s and he said he wanted to go to the one in the Strip District. He was in the neighborhood to visit his daughter and son-in-law, who works at Kiski School in Saltsburg, he explained.

“No kidding? I went to Kiski,” I said, considering again how small a town Pittsburgh is.

“Then you probably had his dad, my buddy Tamas, for class,” he said.

“Mr. Szilagyi! I had him for Russian History!” I said. I thought of Szilagyi, a Hungarian who escaped the Soviet system, and I recalled his unorthodox style of teaching that we students loved. Upon entering his classroom we would find him scribbling notes madly on all of the chalkboards, after which he would give his lesson as we students scribbled furiously. During the discussion part of class, Szilagyi would often remark on how he loved the American style of teaching—the “anarchy of the classroom”—that was so foreign to the Soviet educational system in which he was educated. He regularly would wake a sleeping student by threatening to cut off a certain member and mail it to the student’s mother.

“Are you laughing at my high, Mongolian forehead?” he would say to us, which would make us laugh more.

He kept class interesting, as did Mr. Botti. Botti taught Math IV, also known as “Math For Jocks,” to we students who didn’t take Calculus.

“I feel sorry for you poor S.O.B.s, you’re not going to make it in college without math skills,” the Jesuit-trained Botti would say to us.

During Botti’s class, I conspired with all of the other students to get him off-track and talking about how he helped liberate the concentration camps during World War II.

“Cappy-tan! Cappy-tan!” he would sneeringly mimic a burgermeister who tried to patronize him when he and his men liberated one German camp.

“I spat in that Burgermeister’s face!” he’d say disgustedly.

Through their actions and words, our best high school teachers taught us how to be individuals, and they taught us how to live.

We learned that “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist” in Mr. Pidgeon’s English class, where we were drilled on Ralph Waldo Emerson. When I consider the good and bad associations that we make in our lives, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” has new relevance.

Life, of course, is all about making associations and connections. Not just the business connections, but also the seemingly less significant connections we make with the people and things around us, as well as the ties that bind us to our habits. Good teachers help students to question their assumptions and to make truer associations.

A new group of high school seniors soon will graduate and move on with “real life,” but they would do well to remember some of the new connections that they’ve made. Because it is what they know, not with whom they are acquainted, that will truly separate them from the pack.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Spring Jam Sessions

I wrote the following essay a while back, when Pittsburgh was in the midst of its springtime wet season. Nowadays, with the hot, humid weather, it's nice to think about the beauty of rain.

After a Saturday morning Spring rain-shower, the urban songbirds call each other in jazz-like, unrehearsed harmony. Their improvisation seems to muffle the sounds of nearby traffic, allowing a listener to concentrate on the birds’ own riffs. Their songs help to create stillness in the air that can catch us off-guard, if we let it.

The half-clouded light of spring days give a lush appearance to the foliage in the city and the country. For a moment after a rain, the grass is greener, and the small, lace-like Sweet Woodruff blossoms seem to be more striking against the rough bark of a Maple tree. The immature leaves of trees appear to be tenderer. And the perennial flowers begin to show how they’ve grown.

Spring is like an early harvest-time for perennial flower gardeners. In spring we begin to see how our hostas, ferns, sedum and other groundcovers have fared. We notice again how the perennials seem to give back each year a bit more than they offered us the year before. So it’s sort of like a mini-Thanksgiving for some of us, as we watch the fruits of our gardening labors rewarded beyond any measure of the work that we put in the year prior.

While gardeners have their own reasons for loving the flowery abundance of spring, they are not alone in their admiration. The vibrancy of this “fresh start” of a season is obvious to any who will stop for a moment to listen, or pause for a second to look. And more folks around Pittsburgh stop and look in this season—you see them hesitate before walking closer to inspect the blossoms of a flowering crabapple tree, or squinting their eyes as they scrutinize the blaze of flowers on a blooming forsythia. Looks of wonder transform their faces as they consider the competition between some “Chubby Fingers” sedum and a patch of "Red Dragon" sedum, each plant trying to be the fastest to engulf a pile of sandstone rocks.

The rain and overcast half-light of spring days brings the colors and sounds and the fecund, sweet smells of nature into sharper focus. Few people have to be told to pay attention to nature at this time of year; because nature’s daily drama is so compelling that it seems to grab us by the shirtsleeves. The almost Day-Glo-looking apricots, pinks, whites and lavenders of many ornamental trees grab our attention, and we rubberneck them as we drive by slowly.

But that’s nature’s way—always conspiring to have us focus a bit on her splendor.

During this time of year, we gardeners often are amazed by how a plant seeds smaller “volunteers,” or how a groundcover or tree perpetuates itself as if it had something to prove. We admire azaleas and rhododendrons that muscle each other for dominance of a hillside, while at their feet the moss is patiently working to carpet the ground and creep up the trees.

Above it all, the birds see lots to eat. They congregate in the branches and call each other. They ignore the traffic and the buzzing lawnmower next door, and they concentrate on themselves.

The birds are so oblivious to other noises that they might as well be singing to themselves. Their “jam sessions,” while delighting to those hearing them for what seems like the first time, are common background music to many gardeners.

But on cool spring mornings, those harmonious songs seem to have a more recognizable refrain.