Sunday, July 24, 2005

Dread and Repugnance in Bankruptcy Court II

Of the 60 or so lawyers in the hot, yet well-appointed courtroom, most were wearing blue suits, except for those who wore gray or charcoal suits. They were like a grouping of walking bruises, casting shadows on an uneasy situation. Strangely, though, by Tuesday, when the lawyers gave their closing arguments, the effortlessness with which I fired stupid questions at the lawyers involved in the pre-bankruptcy hearing of Swiss engineering group ABB Ltd.'s proposed $1.2 billion settlement of its asbestos claims astounded even me. It occurred to me then that I love to be paid to unnerve people with stupid questions.

Overall, the hearing was a greed-bath. ABB's lawyers argued that nearly all of the 111,000 consent forms submitted to plaintiffs were in favor of the settlement deal, which will cap asbestos claims against ABB at $1.2 billion and set up a pre-negotiated reorganization, in an effort to restore the financial health of the company. Lawyers of the numerous insurance companies involved argued that the insurance companies weren't consulted on the deal and none of them consented to it.

The settlement involves ABB's Combustion Engineering subsidiary, which made industrial boilers insulated with asbestos and filed for bankruptcy in February. Asbestos was used for insulation and fireproofing into the 1970s. It has been shown to cause asbestosis, mesothelioma, lung cancer and other ailments.

In the end, U.S. Judge Judith Fitzgerald delayed a decision on ABB's proposed deal for two weeks, to allow attorneys time to present additional findings. Lawyers for ABB, cancer victims and insurance companies will present revised findings to Fitzgerald on May 23.

Part of the $1.2 billion settlement would be comprised of a $655 million trust for asbestos injury victims, to be funded by millions of shares of ABB stock. In exchange for the settlement, the company would be off the hook for asbestos injury cases that might be rightfully lodged against them in the future. The whole issue is related, but not linked, to a proposed $100 billion national trust for asbestos victims that would help out such hurting companies as Halliburton.

But this high-stakes lawyer's game also involves real people with health problems that they got by working honestly for a living. Their attorneys are working to get them what compensation they can. Pittsburgh attorney Ted Goldberg, of Goldberg, Persky, Jennings and White, has an interest in the ABB case and declined to comment on it. He did wonder about the plan for the national trust, though. "I think it's very vague as to what is being proposed. It's impossible to comment on it until it's clear what's being proposed," he said.

Similar questions abounded in Fitzgerald's courtroom. Some of the attorneys questioned whether ABB had clearly spelled out who would be in charge of CE after the settlement deal is done. CE has not been an operating company for some time and basically just owns some real estate. The fear of some lawyers and claimants is that CE will go bankrupt without leaving them a way to retrieve their compensation.

Not everyone in the courtroom had a serious grudge or contention -- a fact I was reminded of toward the end of closing arguments on Tuesday afternoon, by a broad-shouldered 50ish guy with an oilman moustache and a Southern drawl. He had a bemused look as he stopped me as I was heading out the courtroom doors during a recess.

"So what do you think of all this?" he said without a trace of guile. "You're about the only one in this courtroom without an axe to grind."

I checked him out; he looked like he'd busted his back to make it up the ladder. He smiled a genuine smile at me, and I remembered I'd chatted briefly with him a week back during a recess in the hearing. He'd been hanging with lawyer Elizabeth Magner, who represents the Select Asbestos Claimants Committee, a group of law firms that represent asbestos victims. So I asked him if he wanted to be quoted.

"No, no, I have no interest in this case. I'm just here to watch it," he said with a laugh. "But I'm curious -- what do you think of all this?"

"He's on our side," Magner said with a knowing look.

"Well, I went to a liberal school," I replied, half-joking. "But no, my opinion doesn't matter. I'll write an objective story. That's my job."

I didn't tell them about "Dread and Repugnance I." Or about the fact that I'd be doing "Dread and Repugnance II," which might feature candid quotes from them.

Never trust a reporter.

(This story originally was published in Pulp newsweekly.)

Dread and Repugnance in Bankruptcy Court

Sitting there in the bankruptcy court, I felt like a spy in a house of collusion, an interloper in a band of thieves. Going into the place I had a gut feeling that what was going on in the courtroom would be considered by a lot of rank-and-file folks to be evil, and as I listened to the testimony, I had trouble fighting the notion. The recognition was so disturbing to me--maybe it was the bad cologne, sweat and malarkey of the lawyers in that hot room--that I began to think strangely. While fighting the urge to pass out, I remember thinking: We're on the 54th floor of the tallest building in Pittsburgh and a terrorist plane could hit us at any moment. I'll die, but so will all of these lawyers.

This is the kind of thinking that goes through the mind of a peace-loving, low-paid scribe when confronted with a scenario that seems at once evil and innocuous. In a strange turn of fate, on Thursday and Friday I had the opportunity to report on settlement negotiations for the Swiss engineering group ABB Ltd. I was called in by a news service to cover the proceedings, which could decide whether the large company survives. ABB wants to "pre-package" and limit asbestos victims compensation awards with its various insurance companies affected by what in recent years has become a deluge of asbestos claims. The settlement would limit the claims to $1.2 billion, depriving a lot of lawyers of some easy future cash.

The hearing was held in federal bankruptcy court, on the 54th floor of the U.S. Steel Building in downtown Pittsburgh. I was the only reporter who attended Thursday and Friday's testimony, perhaps because other reporters knew better than to go so near to Hades as to risk catching a glimpse. I was the only man, among 60 or so male lawyers, who was not wearing a coat and tie. No doubt I also was the most comfortable, since the temperature exceeded 80 degrees for most of the two days, what with the cheap building maintenance and the fat suits and all their hot air. At the end of testimony Friday night, Judge Judith Fitzgerald continued the hearing until May 12.

The hearing effectively would decide which people in the future would receive compensation for injuries that won't be their fault -- in effect, a trial deciding who will live or die in a bit more comfort than other victims of the same injuries. The $1.2 billion proposed settlement of ABB's asbestos claims is considered a linchpin to the company's return to prosperity. The proposed settlement involves ABB's Combustion Engineering (CE) unit, which made industrial boilers insulated with asbestos. CE filed for bankruptcy in February and CE's bankruptcy plan included a reorganization deal packaging millions of dollars in asbestos-related personal injury claims. ABB bought CE in 1990 during an acquisition spree that has left the Swiss company trying to cut its debt drastically.

Asbestos was used for insulation and fireproofing until about 30 years ago, when scientists found that inhaled asbestos fibers could be linked to lung scarring, cancer and other ailments.

ABB wants to complete the settlement quickly to calm its investors' fears. But the examination of witnesses during the two days of testimony was, well, litigious, with lawyers representing insurance carriers and cancer victims fighting over rules of order and whether or not certain witnesses should be considered "expert" witnesses.

Particularly enlightening testimony came in the interview of Charleston, South Carolina attorney and witness Joe Rice. Rice was able to get several groups of plaintiffs to agree to the $1.2 billion settlement agreement, and once he helps to get the whole deal sealed, he'll get $20 million as his fee. Rice was paid a $1 million retainer and has been paid a $6.3 million installment of his "success fee."

Under examination by attorney Mark Plevin, whose firm represents several insurance companies, Rice's fee was questioned. Plevin noted that Rice's law firm does not keep time records. "Do you think that you put 500 hours into this case?" he asked Rice.

"It'd be a guess," Rice said.

"Would you agree that 500 hours divided by $20 million would be $40,000 an hour?" Plevin asked.

Rice agreed, but through part of his testimony he had the unnerving habit of smiling a cat-that-ate-the-canary smile -- and in my direction, or to someone sitting near me. The thing is, I initially sat down next to him in the courtroom and asked him some questions about what was going on prior to him taking the stand. I wasn't sure if he was messing with me or what he was trying to prove.

This is the world of some of these attorneys, who waddle up to the trough as if it's their due and then smile cockily about it. During one recess in the trial, I went out into the hallway outside the courtroom and was chatting with a lawyer, who asked me early on: "How are they paying you?" Meaning was the news service paying me enough.

"They're paying me okay," I said, "but not enough."

He got a self-satisfied smile on his face and chuckled lightly.

"But I like to write," I added. "And I don't want to be a lawyer. No offense."

(This story originally was published in Pulp newsweekly.)

Recalling a change of season

Overnight before the big move, the leaves started to change colors. As I looked out the window into the back yard the next morning, the visible reminder of the season’s change seemed appropriate.

I was late arriving at 38 South Bryant, the old homestead in Bellevue. A few of my siblings who hadn’t been expected showed up to move Mom. They were busily packing her stuff into a large U-Haul when I arrived.

Past noon, Mom was nowhere in sight, having left hours before to open up her new house in the country. Some of my sisters and brothers were agitated, not knowing what to do with certain items that could be handed down or thrown out. Several frantic calls to Mom later, she called back.

“Hi! How are you doing?” she said cheerily.

“Mom, what are you doing? Everybody’s been trying to call you,” I said. “You’ve pulled the final Houdini at 38!”

Mom had pulled the last Houdini, laughing about it when I told her so. “Pulling a Houdini” was a term the kids in the family had for the trick of escaping just before chores began. By the time Mom had called, of course, we’d decided what to do with the items. The U-Haul was nearly full.

In all fairness, Mom did need to prepare the new house. But I also think she needed to remove herself from the chaotic, bittersweet process.

“Just don’t drive down this street anymore,” she said to me months before, when the house’s sale was imminent. “If you don’t drive down and look at the house, you won’t be reminded so much.”

The old brick Victorian, re-painted seven colors by us several years ago at Mom’s direction, had seen some living. Our family moved there in 1969, 10 years after settling in Bellevue after coming from Michigan. It was our third and final home in the borough. We moved in after my youngest sister was born, and my parents had three more kids, rounding out the bunch to an even dozen.

The old three-story, six-bedroom house worked well for us, despite the fact that for some time in my youth we had only one bathroom. Bellevue welcomed us, and Mom and Dad made a lot of friends and played bridge. Dad joined local politics, serving as a school board member for Bellevue and Northgate. Mom owned a daycare center in neighboring Avalon.

Mom also had her hands full, dealing with eight rowdy boys and four girls. She toughened up some over the years, though.

Going through some old books with her on the third floor of the old house prior to the move, I noticed a box with a chain-link escape ladder in it. I remarked casually that some of the other boys and I used the ladder to escape out the bedroom window when we were grounded. We’d climb down the ladder to the back porch roof, and hang-jump from there to the ground.

She stared away in disbelief. “Dad got that to help you,” she said.

“Oh, he helped us all right,” I joked.

Despite my parents’ patient teaching of Christian values while we were growing up, we boys raised Cain. We’d occasionally get into fistfights with each other in the front yard, or have raucous parties while my parents were gone. The front porch, which we restored several years ago after Dad died, was the scene of countless photos and reunions, goodbye tears and homecoming smiles. The cut-glass windows flanking the oak front door were restored years ago after we’d abused them as kids. Though those windows and the large stained-glass window above a landing on the stairs were brought back to full glory a while ago, I always liked the streams of rainbow-colored light they sprayed on the house even when they were beat-up looking.

Years ago, Dad lovingly stripped and restored the woodwork in the entryway, living room and dining room. At Christmas time, the rooms boasted two or three large Christmas trees, under which presents multiplied until they covered most of the floor on Christmas morning. Dozens of grandchildren tore open presents on the hardwood floor that Dad uncovered and restored.

My parents finished the house with Victorian-style wallpaper and handsome furniture after most of the kids had left home. It gave the place a stately look -- it was the kind of home grandparents were supposed to live in, filled with years of good memories and love.

We kids got to know the place from bottom to top -- from the old coal chute (our escape hatch) to the roof of the house. We got comfortable with the roof while re-shingling part of it when we were young. Mom insisted that Dad tether us with ropes to the chimneys while we worked, just in case. After that, we played freeze-tag on the roof, running in the old box gutters and hiding behind dormers or one of the four tall chimneys. In our teens, several of us boys took turns sitting and smoking on the roof behind the chimney in the back of the house.

Pausing for a moment during the move, my brother-in-law, a gentle bull of a man from the North Side, let out a sigh. “I feel like crying,” Joe said. I knew how he felt and I felt the same way, but I couldn’t cry then and I still can’t.

Of course it was time for the old place to go. A large 100-year-old house is usually too much for two people. Mom had knee problems, and she wanted to avoid stairs and live in a ranch-style house. And being remarried, she was ready for the change.

At the time of the move, one of my younger sisters lived with her family just blocks from the old house, but they left Bellevue soon after. After Leah and her family left, for the first time in 42 years, none of my family was living in the borough. Now it’s been a few years since the move, but even the grandchildren still fondly recall old “Thirty-eight.”

Our time in the borough was short, compared to the town’s history. But Bellevue’s effect on us lives on.

The many good times, like tearing down the dilapidated garage in the back yard with my Dad and brothers, and Dad insisting on giving the final whacks with a sledgehammer to the corner of the garage before it went crashing down. The basketball games, parties, camp-outs and picnics in that back yard that we all enjoyed are now the stuff of our own legends. For me, kissing The Beauty on the back porch many years ago was a high point.

There were tough times, too. Like when one or another family member was ill, or the lean times after Dad lost his job as an engineer for U.S. Steel. Or the nights when the cops would pay a visit regarding some trouble by, well, I won’t mention any names.

Despite our sometimes crazy ways, all eight of us boys graduated from college and are doing fine. The girls, who had to be saints compared to us, also graduated and remain the glue of the family.

While we packed the truck that day years ago, a lifelong neighbor who grew up the street over from us stopped by. He watched the scene and shook his head in amazement. “I can’t believe there aren’t going to be Barneses living here,” he said.

Neither could I. But while the season of my family’s residence in Bellevue was short, it was good. And for one family, the end of that season marked a new one beginning.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Stealing the lion

In terms of fraternity pranks, swiping another frat’s treasured item is the pinnacle of achievement. The trick is to get away with it.

While we ATOs weren’t so slick that we could get away with it in college, we tried our best. So I was psyched when I successfully “pinched” a lion the other day. It was easy, since it had a broken foot and was being tossed out by a neighbor.
Of course I’m not talking about a real lion, but one of those concrete ones that people put in their yards. My wife alerted me to the find, and I jumped right on it.

Since I was a kid I have been an admirer of those lions, which some people in my old hometown of Bellevue would place at the front of their yards, or atop piers that edged their front porch steps. I never knew why they had those statues, until an Italian-American friend in high school informed me of their meaning.

“They’re to keep off the whammy, the evil eye,” Dave said. “All the old Italians have them. They keep the curse off,” he said matter-of-factly, seeming surprised I didn’t know.

I mention this because I’m still a bit amazed that I got my own lion, without having to dodge a bunch of angry frat boys. It was as easy as lifting a cumbersome 100-pound statue into the back of a hatchback, which is to say that it was a bit of a pain. But it was definitely worth the effort.

I tried to snag a lion about 18 years ago. It was back when I was in a fraternity at Carnegie Mellon. The prank went off OK, but the whole thing didn’t work out so well in the end.

It was one of those thick, humid summer evenings when many of us could not sleep, so we drank cheap beer until we were sloppy drunk on the front porch of our fraternity house. Set at the corner of Morewood and Forbes avenues, ATO had the most prominent location of all of the fraternities, and was, in fact, located across the street from the location of its former house—on which sits Morewood Gardens “E” Tower, a drab, looming dormitory wing.

We shared a common wall with Sigma Alpha Epsilon—our back wall was their windowless side wall. That wall was about all we shared.

Both fraternities did have one thing in common—an attraction to the two lions flanking each side of SAE’s Morewood Avenue entrance. The large statues, sitting lions with mouths closed, have for years been painted a clean white. SAE pledges have been known to polish the large statues, especially during that frat’s “Hell Week.”

A bunch of us were sitting around on the front porch, drinking beer, and stoned on weed. Some of us were tripping on mushrooms and full of more energy then we knew how to handle. We were all pretty much completely faced, and we wanted something to do.

Jumping up and standing on the front porch’s brick wall, Rowdy looked over in the direction of SAE, spat, and shook his head.

“Shit… I hate those damned lions,” he said, looking wild-eyed at us. ”I’d like to knock one of them right off its pedestal.”

We all laughed, looking at the lions and back at Rowdy. The heavy concrete statues were set on brick pedestals, about two feet off of the ground.

“I’d like to see you do it,” somebody yelled at Rowdy. Then another one agreed, and that’s all it took for Rowdy. He jumped off of the wall, sprinted over to the front of SAE, and took a running dive at one of the statues. He landed shoulder-first with a thud, barely moving the large statue. But we did notice movement.

Rowdy shook his head like he’d just run up against a 300-pound tackle that felt like a wall. He stretched his arms for a second, then he got down in a three-point stance. He again made a running block at the lion. When he hit it this time, the lion moved a bit more.

A crowd of a half-dozen ATOs had gathered around, watching and cheering him on. Surprisingly, no SAEs came outside to stop us. Maybe it was because it was past four in the morning, or that we all were crazed looking, I don’t know. But after I saw Rowdy move that statue, I had to get into the act.

I got down into my three-point stance, and I ran and laid into that statue. It wobbled a bit on its pedestal, drawing cheers from the guys. Then Rowdy would take a hit on the statue, and I would hit it, each time jostling it a bit more. It was like we were in Tartan football practice again, except that what we were doing was against fraternity and school rules, which made it more fun.

Finally we knocked the statue off of its pedestal, and the reinforced hunk of concrete landed on the sidewalk with a loud thump. Then we realized that the thing had about two feet of concrete that was buried in the pedestal, which is what had kept us from knocking it over for so long.

Standing there looking at the thing, we couldn’t believe we’d actually knocked it over. We all tried to get a hand on the long, cumbersome statue, to carry it into our fraternity house. But we were so drunk, and the thing was so heavy and long, we had a tough time carrying it and we kept dropping it.

We decided to just drag it into the house. Scraping our front sidewalk as we went, we pulled the hunk of stone through our front door, down the stairs into the basement and into the buggy room, where we stored the ATO racing carts.

It being so late, we all drank a bit more, congratulating ourselves, and then we all headed off to our rooms to pass out.

A few hours later our fraternity president had me by the foot, shaking me out of my stupor.

“Barnesy! Barnesy get up! You have to get up!” Dan said.

“What! What the hell is it?” I barked, crabby and still drunk.

“CMU police are downstairs and they want to talk to you about SAE’s lion,” he said, giving me that older brother look that made me feel guilty. “And there are about a hundred SAEs outside who want to kick your ass. They want their lion back.”

We all went down to talk to the cops, who also were serving as a buffer between the angry SAEs and some equally indignant ATOs.

“We said, ‘No, it wasn’t us,’” my friend Eric recalled the other day. “But the cops had us outside, and they pointed to that white line that was left after we dragged the lion.”

We fessed up, and a few of us went down to the buggy room and carried the lion up to the front door. It was banged up a bit, but in pretty good shape.

The SAEs looked at us like we were holding the broken body of some next of kin, and they jealously grabbed the thing and carried it reverently back to their house.

The lion I snagged from my neighbor, though, is sweeter than that old SAE hunk of junk. Its mouth is open in a roar. It is not painted a pretty-boy white. It has a weathered, slightly greenish patina.

After I hauled my new statue out of the car, I lugged it into a new flowerbed I recently put in the front yard. Because the statue’s feet were knocked off and also to keep it solidly in place, I buried it a foot or so in the ground, facing the street. Then I planted a bunch of ornamental grasses around it, so that the lion will be somewhat hidden as the grasses grow tall. That’ll keep those evil-doing SAEs away, I thought.

The SAE lions are still there along Morewood, still perfectly painted. And ATO, the victim of too many of its own pranks over the years, is long gone.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Time for a New Gender Treaty

I’ve been to a few weddings recently and I have more ahead, but I don’t know if I should get ready for a night out with the boys, or get tissues for the bridal shower, or both.

“I’ll bring the tissues. And we’re going,” my wife says helpfully to me after I begin to complain.

I’m all for celebrations, but when did bridal showers and baby showers become a coed thing? How has it happened that men these days are expected to attend such events, which once were women-only gatherings? This is a bad trend that is only creating more tension between the sexes.

I received another invitation to a bride/groom bridal shower a while back, and a brief polling of friends proves I’m not the only man who thinks men don’t belong at such events. When I saw the invitation, I immediately got mad at the groom-to-be. Just because he’s getting married doesn’t mean that he’s got to give in to every silly idea his girl thinks up, I thought. Or maybe some men just don’t realize that most guys don’t want to get dressed up and Ooh and Aah over presents on a perfectly good weekend afternoon.

Even Grandma Barnes, grandma of 32, agrees. “Men don’t belong there,” she says.

In truth, this phenomenon can’t be blamed completely on women. Walt Whitman would spin in his grave if he knew how self-indulgently people now celebrate themselves. Weeklong camping trips now are required for a bachelor party, which once was a one-night affair, and the abundance of pre-nuptial parties is challenging to those of average means.

“With all of the parties they now have, it‘s starting to look like a gift-grab,” a friend of mine with the same gripe said.

Things are upside down these days and men are expected to express their feelings and women are expected to be self-starting breadwinners. Maybe that’s partly why men are being forced to endure these new coed occasions—with a greater role in the marketplace and in household finances, women are becoming used to calling most of the shots and men are getting used to listening to them. Or maybe the men who agree to such events are going along with the idea of being “inclusive,” being afraid to leave anyone out. It’s a sort of Doublethink process that’s encouraged by our politically correct era.

Regardless of why these new coed functions are occurring more frequently, I’m calling for a stop to the trend. We need a return to the days when men never worried about a shower gift or whether they should wear a tie to such a gathering. We need to go back to the basics, back to the time when each gender respected the other’s need for space.

We shouldn’t forget that to some men, Sunday afternoon football is more sacred than church—forcing them to give up the game, even for one Sunday, could have a bad effect on a relationship.

We need a new treaty between the sexes, redrawing boundaries that once were unquestioned. The agreement could stipulate that women won’t push their men to attend coed showers, and in return, men won’t regale women with gross stories from the bachelor parties. This could be done on a couple-by-couple basis, with lots of wiggle room, depending on the couple’s preference.

It sounds pie-in-the-sky to some, but it may be our only hope. If we don’t come up with a solution soon, these silly coed showers and other superfluous gatherings could become the norm, rather than the exception. Women, read: You will have to buy more and more presents. Men, read: Forget about the playoffs and the Super Bowl, they all are subject to scheduling conflicts that you will be last to know about.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

To Live and Die in Pittsburgh, PA

We’re all here in Pittsburgh, where it’s currently raining. Against great odds, we’re hanging in there as we have through the years, despite the loss of jobs and prospects. Too stubborn or stupid to give up, we’ve rooted ourselves to our spots, even as our families fled the vicinity. Newcomers move in and act like they discovered the place, calling us xenophobic if we don’t agree with their trivializations of our historic misery. We shrug it off and ignore them.

Pittsburghers have been through some tough times, and we can’t be blamed if we are a bit depressed. Coupled with the rain and less-than-stellar job growth, those rolling western Pennsylvania hills don’t always seem so nostalgic to those of us who live on them. But for many of us, there’s too much of the hillbilly, too much of the Whiskey Rebellion hell-raiser, in our blood to allow us to leave. If the rest of the world can’t understand that, we figure the hell with them.

Even as our friends and relatives have left, we’ve stayed. I am one of twelve children, most of who were born here and all of whom were reared here. Just one brother and me now live in the Pittsburgh area.

Those of us who’ve stayed here read almost daily about the exodus of people who’ve left the city and we can’t help but sometimes think of our relatives, who are a part of that migration. We get an invitation to a wedding on the West Coast and we sullenly wonder why the relative’s birthplace was not good enough for them to stay. If we act pig-headed, even our siblings call us Yinzers. They now are the ones who are remaking an old city that is new to them. They’ve become a Pittsburgh statistic, and now those of us who stayed are a statistic.

Some of my siblings justify their detachment from Pittsburgh by saying that our parents weren’t from here, which is why we are not the typical large Pittsburgh family that has so many roots in the city. But I don’t know if that family exists anymore—economics and the relentless push of the human spirit toward sunnier skies and better job prospects has decimated our ranks. I can’t think of one large family I knew growing up who hasn’t lost at least a person or two to a different town. I suppose this is all natural. But the struggle of Pittsburghers to stay in their city is not exactly natural.

Sure, some have stayed due to lack of ambition, but many more have stayed here because they can’t bear to leave. Whether native or not, this place gets in your blood. Maybe it’s the rivers constantly running by, or the mills—rusting relics of our fiery industrial history—or the way many here have worked to remake a place that often is the butt of jokes across the nation. Perhaps it is all of these things and more. It could be that the very nature I describe is part of the fiber of Pittsburghers, whose family line or predilections led them here or kept them in this city.

My dad was a Detroit native. And now, years after he died, it occurs to me that he was more Pittsburgher than he knew. He didn’t spoil for a fight, but he never shrunk from a confrontation. It wasn’t in his nature, just like it’s not in the nature of most Pittsburghers. In the town where labor rebelled so many times, it shouldn’t be news that Pittsburghers like to meet the fight head-on. And it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Pittsburghers are taking prominence in Reality Television shows. People from Pittsburgh have long been the ultimate survivors.

We’ve earned the right to be a bit salty or even rather brusque. It’s part of the way we are and sometimes newcomers don’t understand that. “They don’t realize that Pittsburgh’s a small town, but it’s a big city, and that’s the way people sometimes act,” said a friend of mine who was born here and then moved back for college 26 years ago and never left. That cantankerousness which is part of the style of Pittsburghers is one reason why people who come here love this place. We’ve got style and an alluring grittiness—"Like a Polish kid with a homemade haircut," comedian Lenny Bruce wrote.

Our relatives and friends can have Seattle, San Diego, Washington, D.C. or London. Those places can’t compare to our home, with its quirky neighborhoods and green hills, because the old Steel City will always be our home. Despite the rain, to Pittsburgh’s original survivors, our corner of the world is a garden spot.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Let Freedom Wrangle

If you hanker to see culture clashes while on vacation, then you should visit Virginia Beach on our nation’s birthday. My wife and I made the trip there for the July 4 festivities, and I saw a few things that reminded me of the wonderfully chaotic disunity of our land.

Traffic barely crawled past groups of tough-looking Mexican guys sauntering down the sidewalks lining Atlantic Avenue, the beach’s closest road. They shared the sidewalks with New York “gangstuhs” yelling across the street to their friends: “Phone check for Brooklyn!”

Groups of young white girls, trailed by suburban white boys, meandered down the street, stopping to flirt, eat and shop. The madness was controlled, pinned down by groups of police at many of the intersections.

It was easy to see why the city’s leaders passed a “No cursing” ordinance, and it was obvious that the police directing traffic were also necessary to keep an eye on things. Through their efforts and those of others, plus the general goodwill of the visitors, culture clashes leading to serious violence were avoided.

But I foolishly walked into a clash while visiting the town recently. I’d never thought of myself as an “ugly American” type, but all I had to do was go to the beach to see my colors.

I’d just left my wife sunbathing on the beach, telling her I’d be back in a while after I did some bicycling. I’d wanted to rent a bike and ride down the beach, so I went to one of those bike rental vendors that set up beside the boardwalk. I walked up to the bespectacled guy who was leaning against one of those two-seater, four-wheeled bike-carts that families and kids like to race down the bike path.

“Twenty-seven dollars an hour,” I thought I heard the guy say with an accent. That was too much for me to pay, though I didn’t realize at the time that he was talking about the carts. I noticed his accent, and he seemed friendly, so I asked him where he was from. He said he was from Turkey.

“What do you know about Turkey?” he asked in an accusatory tone.

I responded that it was the home of the former Ottoman Empire, which stretched into Europe and up into Spain. I said I also knew about Turkey joining the European Union, and about the struggles between the Turks and Greeks in Cypress.

Then the bike rental guy’s co-worker and friend rolled up on a large bike laden with tools for repairing bikes. The second guy looked more serious than the first, and he wore an intense, angry expression on his face. The first guy told him I knew a little bit about Turkey, and then he said something lower to him in Turkish, which of course I didn’t understand.

The second guy, who’ll I’ll call Yeter, had a pointed face and severe, sharp features. He was darker than the first guy and he stunk of body odor. He immediately began to debate me, picking up the discussion where it left off. As he quizzed me about politics, it began to dawn on me that I was in over my head.

The first guy, who I’ll call Yagmur, had a more limited command of English than Yeter, but he still seemed to enjoy arguing with me. Apparently arguing about politics is a national pastime in Turkey. These guys could argue in English almost as well as they could in their native tongue.

Yagmur began to hammer at me: “In America, I think the police officer is God,” he said, laughing with his face to the cloudless sky, then glancing back at me with a disbelieving look.

“From what you see on TV, it’s the cops and the doctors who rule,” I agreed. I’d also say now that the lawyers have a bit of an advantage over “commoners,” who don’t have special protections enjoyed by the aforementioned.

Then Yeter came at me: “What do you think of the Iraqian War?” he asked.

I said I felt it never should have been fought in the first place.

“See, I think Bush was right to invade. He did it for America’s interests, so he was right,” Yeter said.

We went on to discuss the reasons stated for the war, and those reasons that seemed implied, such as America’s need for a cheap oil supply. Yeter still felt that Bush was right to invade, even if it was just for oil. Here these guys were working 15-hour days to be in America at the beach for a month, from a predominately Muslim nation, and one of them sounded something like a Republican to me. It was surreal.

I explained to them that half of America’s voters didn’t vote for Bush, and many were against the war. They looked at each other and shook their heads and laughed.

“We in Turkey were reading in the newspaper stories about who will win, Bush or Kerry,” Yeter said. “And Americans I ask who they vote for, they can’t even remember the guy’s name.”

He stopped for a second to point a finger at me, saying: “And that is the thing that makes you, America, corrupt.”

Thankfully, a countryman of mine walked up to inquire about renting a cart, and I told the guys that it was nice meeting them and that I’d come back later and we’d talk more. I was relieved. During our conversation, Yeter had repeatedly prefaced his statements by saying, “I know you are American and I don’t want to offend, but…” I felt beaten up by the end of it, and glad to quit the scene.

I walked up the boardwalk for a dozen blocks, then I doubled back to check on my wife, who was still on the beach. We decided to go back to the room, clean up, and go out for an early dinner.

After cleaning up we walked along Atlantic Avenue, then we cut into a park, where a band was playing. I had told Anne about meeting the Turks, and how they had told me about Americans who were taking advantage of them, which made me feel guilty. Then it occurred to me that my argument with the Turks was one of the most American of activities. Americans love to fight about politics, and those Turks were acting more American than they could possibly guess.

A we walked into the park, I was so hungry I’d already forgotten about the Turks, but as we were walking by them, just thirty or so away from them, they were staring at Anne and me and talking to each other. Anne smiled and waved at them, saying: “How are you?”

Honey, it’s those guys you were talking to, she said in a low voice to me.

“I’m not talking to those guys now, I’m hungry,” I said to her. I waved quickly at the Turks and said “Follow me” to her, walking quickly for the restaurant.

I was about ten yards ahead of Anne, and she finally caught up with me at the restaurant.

“Great,” I said to her. “Now because of me, they’re going to think all Americans are two-faced.”

Monday, July 11, 2005

Blue Demons

“Jonathan,” said the unfamiliar sounding voice on the other end of the phone, startling me at around 2 a.m. on a Thursday night. The man’s voice was shaky and hollow, muted in a way that sounded as if he was talking down the end of a hallway. Then I recognized it as my friend Damon.

“It’s Damon… What’s up, man?” he said, sounding as if he was drunk and probably a bit high. “I’m on a bender.” He laughed loudly, a hollow drunken laugh.

“Damon! How are you? I was just thinking of you,” I said, amazed at the timing of his call.
I had been thinking of him off and on the few weeks prior, because I recognized that he was in a bad state. But I hadn’t gotten in touch with him, though I should have. This was our last conversation, but I didn’t know it at the time.

Being caught up in my own life, planning on a wedding and trying to make a living as a freelancer, I didn’t find a lot of time to hang with Damon before he went out. And he went out the way he used to say he wanted to—on his own terms, in his own time.

One day a few years before, after he and his wife—his childhood sweetheart who he married the day after graduating from high school—had broken up, we were hanging out getting high at his apartment in Bellevue. We were listening to some fine recordings of the Grateful Dead, and Damon piped up with a segue to the song which was about to play, saying, “When I die, I want them to play this at my funeral.” He had a blissful smile on his face as he turned up the song so that it was deafeningly loud. “We Bid You Goodnight” played:

Lay down, my dear brother
Lay down and take your rest
Won’t you lay your head upon you savior’s breast
I love you, but Jesus loves you the best
And I bid you goodnight, goodnight, goodnight.

I ruined the quiet after the end of the song by scolding him for mentioning dying at such a young age. I mean the guy was all of 29 or something, for Pete’s sake. I knew he was going through a rough time, being divorced from his wife, but I felt, in my optimist’s way, that things would get better for him.

“I don’t know…” he said, shaking his head in that philosophical way that seemed too morose at the time. His light blue eyes seemed a deeper blue, and there was the hint of a grin on the corner of his full, Irish lips—like he knew the answer to a riddle I couldn’t comprehend. He looked me dead in the eyes. “I think it’s cool to be able to pick your time, to go out on your own terms, when you want,” he said.

I foolishly chalked it up to him needing to get himself a girl. I also argued angrily against suicide.
“You have to fight to the end, you can’t give up,” I said.

I knew nothing then of the upcoming personal hell that he would go through, chasing demons of addiction and suicide, staving off the bitter end ‘till he couldn’t anymore. The end for me might be a lot further down the road then his end, I realize now, but I didn’t know then. Being in love and lucky with a beautiful woman who inspired me and made me feel good about myself, it was easy for me to give glib advice. I was like a rich guy telling a poor guy all he has to do is invest well, and he’ll be comfortable for good. The problem is, when you have nothing emotionally to invest anymore, when you’re psychologically bankrupt, how do you rebound?

We all knew, or at least he’d told all of us who were lucky to call Damon friend, that he planned to kill himself some day. We just didn’t believe it, or wouldn’t allow ourselves to believe it. We would try to talk him out of the notion, halfheartedly joking our way out of the subject, or changing the conversation altogether. After Damon’s death, I called my Uncle Bob, who is a Lutheran minister. Uncle Bob said he’d done a number of funerals of young people who’d committed suicide. I told him that all of Damon’s friends had been told by him that he was considering suicide, but we didn’t listen, and we didn’t intervene and get Damon help before he did himself in.
“I think sometimes family and friends are in denial about the person’s condition,” Uncle Bob said.

Because Born Again Christian parents raised me, I have a strong Catholic sense of guilt. After his death, part of me was concerned that Damon would be denied entry through the Pearly Gates because he killed himself. Wasn’t grace removed from a Christian, if he killed himself, I’d asked Uncle Bob.

“Luther had a way of putting it,” Bob began. “He said, ‘We wouldn’t ask if a person was going to heaven if he was attacked and killed by robbers in the forest.’ It’s the same thing with your friend. The Devil just got a hold of your friend, and he couldn’t shake him loose.”

I know I was in denial about Damon’s mental decay, and also his drug use. We all grew up smoking pot and drinking underage in Bellevue, our little working class borough outside Pittsburgh. And many of us turned on to the Grateful Dead and tripped, while others coked themselves up and others became remorseless crackheads. But Damon was different. He had been cool, and he had quit doing drugs for most of the seven years of his marriage, until the last couple years, which his ex-wife says is what was their undoing.

“He was beating the shit out of me,” she said at his wake. I didn’t really believe her then and part of me still doesn’t. She went to the funeral and the wake, on the arm of her minor rock star boyfriend, whose music she had the audacity to send to Damon after they divorced. She wrongly allowed him to stay in touch with her after their breakup, and I think it kept some small flame of hope alive in him. Maybe I am still in denial, or maybe she is.

During that last phone call, Damon and I talked about nothing much, then it got heavy. He explained how he’d screwed up and wrecked his stepfather’s car. Then he told me about how he had gone to the Hill District and he’d been trying to hook with some dope, and he was waiting at this young guy’s house, and the kid got clipped by the cops while trying to get him some dope. When the kid’s brother found out, he beat the shit out of Damon with a few friends, robbed him, and told him to never come back around there if he wanted to live.

“So I was walking across this bridge, because of the car,” he said. “And I had this note.”

I didn’t take the clue, I guess I couldn’t handle it, and he didn’t really explain it and brushed it off soon after mentioning it. We talked a bit more, saying we had to get together soon. We’d definitely get together soon, we agreed.

Just a few days before his death, I had a disturbing premonition. I was in the kitchen, making phone calls, and I thought to myself, I should call Damon. Then I stopped and thought about one of the last times I’d seen him, when he was nodding off during much of his visit. I didn’t fully realize then that he was nodding off because he was on heroin, and I shuddered and shook my head. No, he’s too depressed, I said to myself.

But what if he kills himself, a voice inside me said.
I told myself: He’ll be fine, he’ll be O.K. God, please keep him safe.

He was like a brother to me. At 29, he was the same age as my youngest brother, Harvey, who he hung around with from a very young age. Damon always had his own fashion sense, and back when he and Harve were still sleeping out on the front porch and delivering papers in the morning, they were wearing Kangol hats, looking like a couple of fresh-faced young white wannabe homeys.

Damon was one of just a handful of guys who were so tight with my brothers that they were like surplus brothers in our huge family of 12 kids, eight of which were boys. He would sleep over Saturdays and go to church on Sunday mornings with the family. He went on outings with us and was included like kin while we were growing up. Half Italian, half Irish, and taking after his Irish-American mother with the fair skin and full lips, he could’ve passed for one of my brothers.

And as I think about him now, when I think of that fat puss of his, I think of him smiling. He loved to smile and he loved to laugh, and that’s partly why he did drugs. By the end, it was heroin he was binging on, spending his whole paycheck in a night or two, and going for the body-numbing stoned bliss of the junk. I didn’t know half of this when he was alive.

After the wake while we were partying at a friend’s, Dean, an old buddy of Damon and Harve, said he’d also received a call from Damon a week or so before his death.
“It was like he called all of us to check in, one last time,” Dean said, shaking his head. “He was deep. A lot deeper than we knew.”

Harry, a good friend of Damon, and Damon’s brother Joe, had found him after his death. He was hanging by a belt from a rafter in the attic of his second-floor apartment. Harry tried to keep Joe from seeing, closing the door to the attic quickly and telling him not to look in there. Damon was hanging there, barefoot, and his head was bright blue.

Like all of the kids in our neighborhood, Damon hadn’t been brought up to kill himself. And like most Bellevue kids, he had been raised Roman Catholic, which specifically forbade suicide, and inculcated guilt for even thinking about it. He had been an altar boy and he’d had his confirmation on time. And in the end, the priest who gave the homily at Damon’s funeral had been in the same Confirmation Class as him.

“I never thought that my first funeral would be for someone so young,” said the pink-faced, boyish-looking priest. “And I never thought it would be Damon.”

The priest went on to explain how Damon’s death was more than just the end of the life of a well-loved person here on earth. It could be a message to all of us to live right and well, the priest explained.
I started to feel a little better about his death, thinking that maybe some day I’d learn something from it and be able to do better because of it. Then I was stunned by the priest’s comment:
“He might’ve been a prophet,” the priest said.

Friday, July 01, 2005

New neighbors, old times

The droning whir of the scooter is relentless—up and down the street, over and over, as if caught in a loop. Through my study window I hear the kid approaching on his annoyance-mobile, sounding like he’s riding a lawnmower, and I remember that things weren’t that way when we were kids. We had alleys for that sort of thing.

Not that it was any less of a bother to our neighbors who were seeking a respite from the seemingly omnipresent sounds of chain saws, weed whackers and lawnmowers. But at least we kids made our own go-carts, without having our parents buy them in a store.

Dave Wisnieski was the whiz at that sort of thing, and he always seemed to be putting together some sort of dangerous vehicle to test in the alley behind South Euclid Avenue in Bellevue. Dave and other kids would race their carts in the alley, dodging the cops and hiding their buggies when neighbors complained.

How times do change. But not really.

I now am in a neighborhood on the opposite side of town from my hometown of Bellevue, and I am more than a quarter-century removed from those go-cart days, yet somehow I managed to forget what it was like to be a bored kid during summertime. Remembering this, I feel like a 39-year-old old fogy, and I am ashamed that I would begrudge the neighbor kid some fun. He’s a good kid, and he never causes any trouble (unlike me and some of my cohorts when we were growing up). It occurs to me that I am a jagoff.

Neighborhoods are somewhat strange, arbitrary constructs, depending upon their residents to ensure their survival. Without residents, a neighborhood ceases to exist. Yet, when people move in who are new or different from most of the residents in a neighborhood, some of the longstanding residents might give the new folks mixed messages. This happened recently with some of our neighbors.

They moved in up the street about a year back, and in some ways, they’re not like the rest of us. But to claim that my neighborhood, mixed liberally with Blacks, Whites, gay and lesbian couples, singles and married people, has an “average” household would be a gross misrepresentation. The new folks are nice, and the parents say “hi,” but the kids seem standoffish. If only they were always standoffish, some of their neighbors wouldn’t get freaked out.

The other evening around nine I was tending to some shaggy privet hedges in the front yard, and I heard a lot of yelling from the house several doors down, and I was sure it was the new folks. After all, nobody else in this neighborhood yells outdoors like that, and this family is known to hang out on the street, working on or washing their cars. They’re also loud-talkers. I wasn’t sure what all of the noise was about, and I couldn’t see past the seven-feet-tall hedge on the other side of our yard, so I assumed they were just up their loudly jagging each other.

But the noise went on for a while, and the arguing seemed to crescendo at times, making me wonder. I tried to ignore it. Then a neighbor, a longtime resident of the neighborhood, came out of her house and walked up to me. She stood in the street and peered down toward the new neighbors.

“What’s going on?” she said to me.

“I don’t know if they’re fighting, drinking, or playing basketball,” I said, continuing to work.

“I feel bad for Camille,” she said of the new folks’ next-door-neighbor. “She’s terrified of them.” My neighbor looked me straight in the eye: “They’re scary,” she said, shaking her head.

“What are you gonna do,” I said.

I thought to myself that while I was growing up in Bellevue, my large family might have been considered loud, coarse and scary to some of our neighbors. With 12 kids, eight of whom were boys who sometimes had fistfights in the front yard, we might’ve spooked some of our neighbors. To some of our neighbors, we might’ve seemed like some crazy gang.

Things sometimes stay pretty much the same, but we fogies forget.