Monday, August 29, 2005

Bellevue is buzzing

I wrote the following story for the Aug 25, 2005, North zone edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Andy Rubacky was stunned when the tenant of the former G.C. Murphy building in Bellevue renovated the place a couple years ago and tore out the antique wrought-iron banister that surrounded the first-floor stairwell.

"They threw it into a dumpster," he said recently while standing in the old building, shaking his head in disbelief.

While Rubacky was unable to save that piece of the old variety store's past, he's looking forward to saving what's left.

Rubacky, a manager at Affogato cafe a few blocks away on Lincoln Avenue, will help his boss, Sam DiBattista, the building's new owner, convert the structure into a retail center and business incubator. The basement level in the future could house small businesses and artisans selling their wares from rented spaces.

Walking around the dusty third floor of the building on a recent afternoon, Rubacky pointed out the dais, projector equipment and other features that indicate the space was used for board meetings or community gatherings.

"We're hoping [the renovated building] will add some buzz to Bellevue and make it more of a happening place," said Rubacky, 29, a McCandless native and five-year resident of Bellevue. "Bellevue has the infrastructure, it just needs some help."

As in many of Allegheny County's smaller municipalities, residents and merchants of Bellevue have been struggling to remake the borough into a livelier place.

The Lincoln Avenue business district once boasted several clothing stores, two hardware stores, a movie theater, a butcher and other long-gone merchants. During the past several years, the types of stores along the street have evolved, with more restaurants, antique stores and gift shops occupying storefronts. On warm evenings, diners sip coffee and eat dessert at bistro tables lining the sidewalk.

Much of the change has been generated by the community itself, and Bob Gradeck, an analyst for Carnegie Mellon University's Center for Economic Development, said such community efforts are not new in the Pittsburgh region.

"I think a lot of the communities outside the inner-ring suburbs are seeing the need to do something. Each town has to find a niche in the market," Gradeck said. "The ones that have found a niche aren't trying to compete with Wal-Mart."

"Bellevue has some advantages," he added. "They have a good housing market, and the business district has no direct local competition."

DiBattista, who owns Vivo restaurant and Affogato, which is a few blocks from his home, recognized the potential in the G.C Murphy building, which once anchored the town's retail district. He recently bought the building for $250,000 from the estate of Andy Sutton, of Wisconsin, who had inherited it through his family.

The building was built about 1900, and G. C. Murphy leased and occupied it in 1929 until it closed in the mid-1980s. Until last fall, the building had been occupied by D & K Stores, a dollar store. The 26,500-square-foot building has a second and third floor that the shopping public hasn't seen in decades --long before G.C. Murphy closed.

Many old-timers in the borough will recall the basement pet store or the first-floor record section toward the rear with the manager's office above it. Others might remember the first-floor soda fountain or the popcorn machine by the cash register -- a G.C. Murphy Co. trademark. Few, however, can dredge up a memory of the second or third floors.

But for the first time in many years, much of the old building may once again be accessible to the public.

The large plate glass window display spaces on the first floor will be retained and could by next year be filled with cafe patrons browsing books and sipping drinks.

As part of his plan for the building, DiBattista, 47, will move Affogato, currently at 613 Lincoln Ave. -- the former Matous Opticians -- into a portion of the first floor. The G.C. Murphy building, which occupies 517 and 521 Lincoln Ave., will be known as the "517521" building.

A large sign with that number will replace the old red and white G.C. Murphy sign, which will be remounted and hung on one of the first-floor interior walls, Rubacky said.

"We're doing that to bring back the idea of G.C. Murphy in Bellevue," he said.

Metanoia Development, a corporation led by DiBattista and Rubacky, will develop the building. Since the space is zoned for retail use, Metanoia will use the first floor for a "vintage department store, with a mix of the old and new," including furniture, hardware, art and other items, DiBattista said. A small bookstore that occupies the back room of Affogato also will move into the first-floor space.

Affogato co-manager Victoria Green, 22, will own the bookstore. Green, a Washington, D.C., native who moved to Bellevue a year ago, has had some success with her used book store since she opened it a year ago.

"I started it with my personal collection, about 80 books. I've got over 3,000 books now," she said, adding that she'd bought many of the books at yard sales and estate sales.

"We found World War I ration certificates in one of them," Rubacky said.

Indeed, the nine-month process of acquiring the G.C. Murphy building has been a string of discoveries for DiBattista, Rubacky, Green and the other North Boroughs residents who have supported the redevelopment plan and offered to help with it. Rubacky and Green did some research to understand how to effectively use the old building.

They recently distributed a survey that reached 60 Bellevue business owners and 100 business patrons and asked what stores were needed in Bellevue. Among the businesses suggested were a CD shop, a comic book shop and a movie theater, all of which are planned for the G.C. Murphy building, Rubacky said. "Basically, everything we've been talking about since the beginning," he said.

In the second phase of DiBattista's development plan for the building, the comic book shop and CD shop are planned as well as a used clothing store. The third phase will feature a movie theater, possibly on the first floor, DiBattista said.

As potential patrons and renters check out the space in the building, they may get a chance to see some of the more hidden parts of the structure.

The old two-room manager's office, up a small flight of stairs halfway between the first and second floor, is still furnished with its original desks and woodwork. The rooms might once again be used for office space.

The second floor sports an old dressing room, complete with old coat hooks, where the female employees of the variety store once prepared for work. A wide back staircase that shoppers and employees once used to get to the building's upper floors gives access to a large second-floor display room.

The empty room, lined with large windows on three walls, once showcased wares. Long pull cords still hang from dozens of old ceiling light fixtures. The summer sunlight poured into the airless room on a recent Saturday afternoon, making it stiflingly hot.

Rubacky didn't seem to mind. He wore a grin and an intense look as he glanced around the room. "I think the main point of this is to help Bellevue," he said. "It's a small town, but everything's here."



Saturday, August 27, 2005

A Death at the Beach

Virginia Beach and Outer Banks residents are bailing out their homes and cleaning up now, and despite the shots of TV reporters being blow down streets, the devastation is not as bad as some feared. In Pittsburgh, the hurricane hype ended in a soft rain all day Friday. No big deal for us, since it's been a rainy summer. Pittsburghers' fear of Hurricane Isabel was overblown, despite school closings announced the day before. The media's monitoring of Hurricane Isabel, and the criticism of that minute-to-minute "fear factor," raises the question: How much of the blame for the hyperbole should we put on the viewers?

After all, many of us spend too much time worrying about the next storm or the next terrorist attack -- so much so that it seems that much of America is half-paralyzed with fear nearly all the time. We're constantly on the watch for something final and fatal to shake us out of our lethargy. Maybe it's that we want to feel the immediacy of life and tragedy is a quick way to get there. Or maybe deep down we fear that something bad is going to happen to us or to someone we love. Something is going to happen, but what? And when?

The irony is that you don't need a hurricane to witness the final and the fatal. It's all around, even at the beach. You need only open your eyes.

About two weeks ago I was in Virginia Beach with my wife, in town for a wedding. The weather seemed windier than it should have been, and the sun poked through the clouds just enough to make lying out in the sun barely worthwhile during most of the week we were visiting. But on the Monday before last, the sun seemed to reassert itself for most of the day, allowing for some quality sun-baking. We headed to lunch in early afternoon, down in the hotel's beachfront restaurant.

The floor-to-ceiling windows in the restaurant gave us a great view of the beach, where the waves seemed to crash harder and frothier. The restaurant was half empty and quiet, and we enjoyed a clean bite to eat.

After I'd finished eating and was waiting for Anne to finish, I saw a police officer make a beeline by the window, over the deck and down across the beach, heading south toward the surf. My reporter's instinct kicked in, and I knew something serious had happened.

"Did you see that cop? Did you see how he was walking?" I asked Anne.

She nodded, knowing what was next.

"Something's up. I'm going down there to check it out," I said.

As I made my way south across the beach, I encountered groups of people in twos and threes picking up their chairs and towels and heading off the beach. I saw an emergency vehicle down by the water, and a cluster of EMS workers and police standing by the vehicle. The group was standing around a man's body, laying lifeless on the beach, the surf washing up around his feet. I walked up to a couple of women who'd been sunbathing and now were standing together talking, as were others on the beach, glancing nervously toward the dead man.

"What's up? Did somebody drown?" I asked them.

"A body washed up on the beach," one of the shocked-looking women answered. "We were just sitting there and we saw this thing in the waves, bobbing up and down, and then he washed right up there onto the beach," she said, shaking her head in disbelief.

A female employee of a hotel headed past us toward the hotel. "Don't worry, it's only our second one," she said, shaking her head and laughing. The officers down at the water's edge pulled the dead man out of the surf and covered him with a yellow tarp.

The three of us glanced at each other, then looked away. Then the sunbather answered my question: "No, he wasn't a swimmer. He had clothes on and a cell phone." She turned to her friend. "Well, the reporters will be here in a minute. We should go."

Initial reports on the dead man stated that he may have fallen off of the pier or off of a ship. Coincidentally, on the same day, much farther down the beach at Cape Hatteras, another fatal tragedy occurred that I read about the next morning in the paper. A 26-year-old man, married just two days before, paid for his ticket and walked the nearly 300 steps of Hatteras Lighthouse, smiling and saying hello to people as he made his way up. When he got to the top, he went to the back of the lighthouse and without a word he jumped off. Though EMTs happened to be at the scene and tried to resuscitate him, he was gone. Just after two lives had joined together in marriage, two more were lost, I remember thinking.

The day after the deaths the winds had kicked up, scattering even some of the surfers off of the North End of Virginia Beach. We ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant, watching the foamy waves pound the beach. The restaurant was nearly empty, and quiet, with the servers standing around chatting. "Look at how beautiful the ocean is," one waitress said to another as she stared out the window.

The storm trackers working from their storm centers, keeping the weather watch for us, are not entirely to blame for our fear fixation. We invite it, with our desire to be informed up to the minute. It's as if half of America is waiting for the other shoe to drop. "What's the next calamity?" we wonder. Perhaps our fear of the inevitable tragedy sometimes is worse than the thing we fear. Sitting around and stewing, we miss out on life. We spend so much time worrying about what could happen that we miss what is happening. We can't avoid the winds. They blow in without regard for our preparations.

This story originally was published in the September 25, 2003 issue of Pulp newsweekly.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Dancing Kundalini

As I write this my Kundalini is in an uproar, the uncoiled snake is dancing, blood courses through my veins in a rush and I feel a euphoria I couldn't have expected before entering my first Yoga class. Just getting there turned out to be an ordeal, though I'd planned to be at the 11:30 a.m Saturday beginner's class at Schoolhouse Yoga in Lawrenceville. But I looked at the wrong note and got the wrong address, which gave the school's old location in the Strip District, and I went there. I arrived at the class fifteen minutes late.

I guess I didn't really think Yoga would be tough, though I'd recenty talked with my younger brother about it. He's been taking Yoga for a while and met his wife in his Yoga class. My brother is not the most placid person, so when I heard that he'd been taking Yoga for some time, I had to kid him.

"What is it, stretching?" I asked.

"Stretching and balance, and breathing," he said.

"So you do Yoga regularly but you don't lift weights?"

"I swim, but no, I don't really lift any more. Yoga's tough, man," he said.

I had no idea how correct he was.

It was 60 degrees outside with a drizzling rain, and I soon found out that the classroom, on the third floor of the old schoolhouse, was well over 70 degrees. My heart was thumping from running up the three flights of stairs to the Yoga school and back to a small corner classroom. I barged into the class and tossed my shoes and coat to the side. The instructor graciously rolled out an exercise mat for me a few feet in front of her, at the front of the class. I felt self-conscious that I was late, and also by the fact that we all were packed into the room just a few feet apart from each other. But I did my best to jump right into the unfamiliar routine of the class.

No doubt it had something to do with the fact that I'd lifted weights earlier in the morning and topped that with a couple of espressos, but I got hot quick. Regardless of whether I was in Downward Dog or any other position, I felt like I was in Sweating Hog. Sweat dripped off of me like rain during Noah's Flood, and I'd been in such a hurry that I'd left the towel I brought in the car. It was a purifying sweat, and a heavy one, because I've got a lot to purify. The instructor must have noticed the swamping I was creating and asked the class if it was warm in the room. Several people responded yes, and I couldn't help saying "It's warm outside, too," trying to hint at opening the window.

"Warm is good for Yoga," she said. Then she went over to the thermostat and turned off the heat. The thing read 72 degrees.

The workout was intense, and the two instructors went around the room adjusting people to help them get into the right positions. I pushed myself too hard on one position and pulled a muscle in the back of my left leg, feeling it as it popped a bit, but it was fine, because I knew it wasn't the hamstring.

It's been a long time since I was the athelete I was when I was in high school and college, but the workouts I endured as a high school wrestler and a college football player were nothing compared to my first Yoga class. I felt so out of balance, almost vertigo-like, that I felt like a Weeble about ready to wobble over. I know my perspective is often out of whack, but I had no idea that my sense of balance was so off-kilter. I had some trouble with the breathing--one of the school's areas of expertise is vinyasa (the linkage of breath and movement). After a while I started to get the hang of it, inhaling rhythmically through the nose and out the mouth. Most of the fifteen students in the class were women, but a few men were hanging in there.

If I had to describe Yoga to the average guy I'd say it's a workout and a stretch packed into one intensive practice session, plus some other mind-body-soul stuff I'm not going to pretend to understand. Not all Yoga schools teach the discipline in the traditional way that Schoolhouse Yoga does. For example, the instructor finished the beginners class I attended with chanting "Ohm-Ohm-Ohm," which I knew from Grateful Dead shows, where tourheads would chant it while trying to mooch a beer or a ticket. Seriously though, the chanting was relaxing and was followed by a period of relaxation, during which the main instructor read aloud to the class words of the Buddha and during which she also chanted in what sounded like Hindi.

Yoga is an excellent way to develop strength, flexibility, balance, posture, controlled breathing, or just a strong sense of well being. I've never before had a workout as invigorating in such a whole-body way. The rush I got from Yoga I could only compare to my experiences with martial arts. I think both Yoga and martial arts involve getting the blood pumping all over in similar ways.

After the session, I asked an acquaintance who also had taken his first class, what he thought of it.

"It was relaxing," he said.

I wondered what room he'd been in, if the workout was relaxing. Or maybe I'm just in terrible shape, I don't know. It seems to me that the intensity of the workout that you get in Yoga depends upon how much you put into it. You can take it easy and not push yourself, or you can go for it. But even if you just go through the motions without pushing yourself, you're likely to get a workout.

A week later, I still felt that muscle that had popped, but I ignored it.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

I want to know why

I want to know why Pittsburgh Organizing Group members think they ought to be able to deny others the right to kill themselves in a stupid war.

I want to know why many of the brave protesters of POG cover their faces with bandanas like outlaws. And I want to know why so many of them wear all black clothing.

I want to know why high school students are going to my old school, Carnegie Mellon, and protesting military recruiting there.

I’d like to hear how protesting recruiting will do a damn bit of good in bringing a reasonable end to this stupid Iraq War.

I’d like to know what the average age of a POG member is, and how they recruit high school students into their group.

I’d find it interesting to know how many POG members feel that they are “anarchist.” Judging from the POG web site, which has no contact names or phone numbers, anarchists are the New Liberals.

It seems to me that recent protests by POG have gotten increasingly violent, and now POG members are saying Pittsburgh Police officers brutalized them in their most recent protest of a closed recruiting station in Oakland. From the TV footage, it’s clear that the protestors were attacked by police officers with tasers and dogs. But police said the incident escalated after a protestor blindsided a freelance cameraman working for Fox news. The cameraman plans to press charges against the assaulting protestor.

Since I also am a freelance journalist, I want to know if POG members think that they should be able to push around freelancers.

The following excerpt is from a note calling for participation in the August 20 protest. It is on POG’s web site:

“POG calls for a non-violent day of direct action on August 20th to shutdown military recruitment in Pittsburgh. We support a diversity of tactics for this day of action. By this we mean we encourage and support any and all non-violent actions (whether symbolic, direct, passive, confrontational, etc.) taken to expose, confront, and disrupt the war machine and military recruitment in Pittsburgh.”

I would like to know, what is direct nonviolence? And what is confrontational nonviolence?

Besides Alex Bradley, Brian Dipippa, James Knopf, David Meieran, Nathan Shaffer, T.J. Hicks and Marie Skoczylas, who else is a member of POG?

I want to know how much direction and how much funding, if any, POG is receiving from the Thomas Merton Center.

I would ask a member of POG these questions, but they don’t have contact names and numbers on their web site. Maybe they don’t want us all to know why they protest, or who they are.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Quit Fuming

I’ve been angry so long I can’t remember when it started, but I know the effect—I’ve beaten up my teeth and gums in a self-directed rage. One of my molars has worn down some and hurts a bit at times, and some of my teeth are sensitive to cold drinks at times. The problems with my teeth and gums, ironically, are the motivators now for me to stop smoking.

“You know you’re brushing away your gums,” my dentist said to me the other day. I’ve known this for years, yet I’ve unwittingly continued to brush too hard, too fast, as if brushing my teeth were a chore I had to rush through.

Dr. F is my new dentist, and in his checkup he noted that I obviously was grinding my teeth, from the look of the polished surfaces of some of them. But what was different about the pattern of wear on my teeth was that at least one of them was worn down on the side. I know why—for years I have been chewing on my anger, voluntarily grinding my teeth while awake. I have burned hot inside over things I hated, and I’ve choked down my rage in lungfuls of smoke.

But at 39, I am ready to give up all of those good times. I’m working on putting aside the rage, getting a better handle on my anger. The first step in this process of self-improvement is quitting smoking.

So instead of quitting smoking because of the risk of death from heart disease, which runs in my family and which killed my father, I am quitting out of vanity. Apparently I care more about my teeth than I do about my life. But if quitting has the same effect of increasing my longevity and overall health, who cares why I do it, so long as I do?

My love affair with cigarettes is a long and sordid one. At a young age, the bright colors of the packs of Marlboros, Winstons, Salems and Kools beckoned me to Chuck’s Smoke Shop up along Bellevue’s Lincoln Avenue. I remember when most brands were available at the shop for about 65 cents a pack, and now they are over four bucks a pack. Because I have been in denial about my nicotine addiction for years, I have continued to buy cigarettes by the pack. On the rare occasions when I’ve bought cigarettes in cartoons, I’ve almost found it vulgar to do so, because it seemed to involve the recognition of a long-term plan for addiction.

It dawned on me the other day that between my wife and I, we’re spending about three grand a year on smokes. That’s enough for a nice vacation; but instead of getting sunburned, we’re burning our insides with toxins.

Ever since I first started smoking cigarettes when I was 13, it’s been tough to pull away from the addiction. I think that when I was younger, I viewed smoking as something of a calling—a way to show my rebelliousness and devil-may-care attitude, and also a way to show how “adult” I was. For years now, I’ve found to my chagrin that the addiction has made me appear older—literally. And when you’re over 30 years old, you don’t really want to look older.

One of the worst effects of the addiction has been to increase my anger. I now view this burning rage as a direct result of my intake of toxins through smoking. On the rare occasions when I quit smoking in the past, I’ve found that my mood dramatically improved. I was allowing my body a chance to purge itself of the poison.

But now I am through with all of the starting and stopping. I’m through with the hacking, and the jonesing for a smoke first thing in the morning. I’ll admit that it might take me a bit of time to truly kick the habit and not relapse ever again, but I am looking forward to that day when I’ll be smoke-free for good.

In the meantime, I'll work on quitting fuming.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Say it again

One evening last August, we were all sitting in the Maritime Pacific brewery pub in Seattle, a stop on our barhopping tour for my brother Sean’s bachelor party. I’d just come in from the street after having a smoke, and I sat down at the bar and ordered a beer. The place was loud with the conversations of my brothers and their friends at a couple of tables in the back corner, closest to the bar. That din was added to by the conversations of a couple of other wedding parties at two large tables in the front of the pub.

The bartender with the Prince Valiant haircut looked at me like I was goofy earlier when I’d asked him if he had any matches—“This is a smoke-free bar,” he said with a horrified expression.

My brother Duane sat down next to me. At six feet five inches tall, and at least 250 pounds, Duane is obviously a former college football player. He played for West Virginia’s Mountaineers for three bowl appearances.

He was sitting on the bar stool next to me and he leaned toward me, wearing a slack-jawed, simpleton look:

“So how ‘bout them Stillers?”

He was trying to start conversation, and he said it seems that the team could be pretty good this year. I said that’s what I’ve heard, but we’ll see. We talked on, and somewhere along the way, the old saying came up. I don’t know who said it first, but whoever uttered the words did so in a guttural Pittburghese:

“Here we go Steelers, here we go!”

I repeated it a bit louder, in a more Pittsburghese voice:

Ear we go Stillers, ear we go!

Duane picked it up again, and he and I called out the words in unison, louder, and clearer: “Here we go Steelers, here we go!”

By that time, my brothers and Sean’s other Pittsburgh friends had picked up the chorus, and our voices overwhelmed the others in the room as we half-sang and half-yelled out the saying, with many of us following the second “here we go” with two taps of our beer glasses on the tables and bar. After the twenty or so of us repeated the phrase a few times at the top of our lungs, we all broke into cheers and toasts and drinks. I looked around at the few dozen others in the small bar, people not from Pittsburgh, and they’d all gotten quiet and were staring at us with stunned looks, like they weren’t even quite sure what we’d been chanting. I shook my head and laughed, feeling a Pittsburgh superiority because these Seattleites didn’t recognize the chant of the fans of the Super Bowl Steelers.

It was a chant that we’d all said in Three Rivers Stadium during the games, and on our way out of the stadium after another win. The saying was a prayer that we’d go to the Super Bowl. It also was meant to be something of a threat to the teams that would play the Steelers in upcoming game. It was Pittsburgh’s unofficial anthem.

When the Super Bowl Steelers had preeminence on the gridiron, many people in the area were losing jobs in the industry that had built up western Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl victories were like a gift from above when we needed it the most. Back in those days, even tea-totaling fans had parties with black-and-gold streamers and three or four television sets blaring the game in different rooms, and plenty of beer and food for the neighbors and friends. These wins momentarily took our parents’ minds off of worrying about their jobs, and our future.

Through it all, that old prayer never lost its hope.

Coming off of last year’s spectacular season with a nice win over the Eagles, any hardened Steelers fan is liable to start humming the phrase again.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Dead Tribute

Today it has been ten years since Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia died of hard living. Young deadheads who’ve seen the band many times and think they know what it’s about are, in my opinion, a bit smug if they didn’t see Garcia. I first saw him in 1985.

It was at the old Civic Arena, now the Mellon Arena. I was 19 years old, had been listening to the band for years, and they’d finally come back to visit Pittsburgh after a several-year absence from Western Pennsylvania. I wasn’t one of these kids who grew up in North Allegheny or Mt. Lebanon, where the Dead had been popular with high school kids for years, and so it wasn’t like my friends had been touring out-of-state to see shows. The Civic Arena show was my first opportunity.

I went down to the show with my younger brother Chris, and two of my older brothers and a bunch of their friends, including the late Frank Connell, the wild-man of the bunch who’d seen the Dead in Europe with his lady, and Frank’s tall, long-haired lumberjack-looking friend Preacher, who actually was a preacher. We packed into the cab and bed of a small pickup truck and passed the booze and other goodies around as we headed into town for the show.

America was different place back then. The demilitarized zone in the War On Drugs had not yet been established, and the Pittsburgh Police officers working crowd control outside the show openly laughed at the Deadheads’ sometimes-illegal antics. The Dead village was set up in the upper parking lots of the arena, and hippies walked around holding foot-long kind buds, with both hands in front of them, chalice-like, softy chanting “Kind buds for sale.” Cops twenty feet away weren’t intimidated and actually laughed while watching the scene. I don’t remember anyone being wantonly busted.

I don’t know if Tea Cake the Rainbow Tribe dude was there, passing out his aromatic brews, but I wouldn’t be surprised. The Scene was clean back then – people didn’t have to tell each other to keep it clean. It was a much smaller gathering, because the Dead were still under the peak of their fame. The scalpers wore desperate expressions as they tried to unload their tickets just before the show. The Arena might have only been half-full. It was July 2, 1985 – a Tuesday night.

Chris and I had seats separate from the rest of the crew, so we headed down to them, on the floor of the Civic Arena. We were probably about twenty rows back at the beginning of the show. Of course we dosed on Acid, a once-popular drug that wasn’t known to kill teens at the drop of a dose. We were both familiar with just a couple of the band’s albums, so we didn’t know many of the tunes that were played that night. And what a night it was – it tie-dyed my perspective of the world from then on. Crazy idealistic daydreams I had of a place where people were cool and kind and where you could party with impunity were realized that night. Later I would read many of the works of the Beats and the New Journalists, partly because of the Dead. They pointed the way in their songs.

Opening up with Jack Straw’s refrain, “We can share the women, we can share the wine,” the Dead set the tone for an otherworldly show that would go down in the Dead Annals as one of the band’s legendary nights. Moving on with the mellow “Must Have Been The Roses,” and into “Minglewood Blues,” the band barely stopped for a breath as they segued into “Friend of the Devil” and then into “Cassidy” -- which was written about Jack Kerouac’s hero and friend, Neil Cassidy. Then came “Big Railroad Blues,” after which the band closed the first set with the almost hymn-like “Promised Land.”

It seemed all of the good old tunes were played that night, and as they rolled over Chris and I, we drew closer to the stage, until we’d got up to the section of seats where many of the Heads had folded up some of the chairs and set them to the side. We were about a dozen or so rows back, and we had to stand on our chairs to see the band, because it seemed that everyone else in front of was standing on their chairs.

The Dead opened the second set with the always-popular-with-your-folks “Women are Smarter,” (“I know this, Harry Belafonte sang it, the folks would say later,”) and tickled our brains with the trippy “Crazy Fingers,” the music bouncing off the walls and ceiling of the Arena dome, playing with our heads. Mellowing out for a bit next with “Lost Sailor,” the band gave the fans a chance to cool down before launching into the archetypal “St. Stephen.” Next they took us all far out to the utopia of “Terrapin,” followed by a rolling “Drums” and way-out “Space.”

The bittersweet “Wharf Rat” followed, then the band threw out a bit of commentary with “Throwing Stones:” “Now the kids they dance and shake their bones, and the politicians, throwing stones, singing ashes-ashes all fall down, ashes-ashes all fall down.” And out of their back pockets they pulled “Turn on your Lovelight,” stealing all of our hearts for good. After that came their famous false-start attempt at the Beatles’ “Revolution,” where the late Garcia said, “Aw, fuck it,” before they gave that up and sent us on our way with Brokedown Palace:” “Listen to the river sing sweet songs, to rock my soul.”

When the lights came on, Chris and I looked around, completely astonished and transformed. I had a hurting inside, wishing it would never end. I remember turning around and seeing a couple of dudes in ankle-length hippie dresses, blissfully hugging each other.

Back in the parking lot, we all piled into the back of the truck, stoked beyond measure. Frank raved about the show, calling it the quintessential show, the classic old Dead show, blurting out the names of the tunes the band had played with an amazed look on his face. “You guys are young Deadheads, so you might not know some of those songs, or how lucky you were to see that show,” I remember him saying. He was right – no other show I saw later really compared.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

R.I.P., Elsie

Pittsburgh recently lost one of the strongest defenders of our collective heritage—Elsie Yuratovich.

She died recently after a brief illness.

Post-Gazette staff writer Patricia Lowry wrote a moving obituary on Elsie. When I spoke with Elsie in the past about her church and those who believed in it, she had always spoken very lovingly about Patricia, who obviously was as charmed by the wisp of a woman as I was. Elsie had many charms, and her love and dedication to her church was often the focus of those charms. The place might have been destroyed years ago, if not for her and others at her church.

A lifelong resident of the North side, Elsie was the highest profile member of the St. Nicholas church, a Croatian Roman Catholic parish that was just doors from her home. She successfully lobbied PennDOT to alter its plans for reconfiguring Route 28, which runs beside her church. The place was the first Croatian church in America, but it was to meet the wrecker. Initial plans for the road reconstruction had wiped the historic church from the map, but PennDOT officials changed those plans, largely because of Elsie’s efforts.

Despite those efforts, which effectively blocked a potential multi-million-dollar sale of the church to PennDOT, St. Nicholas church was closed last year, after the Pittsburgh Diocese said its dwindling membership and the costs associated with running the historic church no longer justified its existence. Members of the parish again were grouped with the members of St. Nicholas church in Millvale, whose congregation split from the North Side church in the early part of the last century.

“That place is strange, it’s scary,” Elsie said to me about the Millvale church, after her church was closed. “They think we’re going to go up there, but many of us won’t. I’m not going there.”

So after 82 years of faithful churchgoing, Elsie intentionally removed herself from the church.

It is tempting to say that losing her church broke her heart, and eventually killed her. Maybe it was just her time. Maybe it was meant to be.

Some Pittsburghers might have noticed early this week that there were flowers on the steps of the closed church. They were put there in remembrance of Elsie.

I’ll always remember her as one of Pittsburgh’s most stubborn guardians of our heritage. She couldn’t bear the thought of the North Side skyline without her beloved St. Nicholas. She even took on her own church leadership to save a place that she knew in her heart was sacred.

The Pittsburgh Diocese appointed a group of the former church’s members and others who are influential in the local Croatian-American community to serve on a panel that is considering whether the church can be saved for use as a shrine or cultural center. Maybe Elsie’s passing will give a greater urgency to this task. Perhaps it will be the breaking point that will lead the Diocese to declare her church a sacred place.

Pittsburgh is a bit poorer without this super stara baba. To know this lady truly was to love her.

Following are a couple of stories, which Elsie helped to inspire, that I wrote for Pulp:

The Salvation of St. Nicholas

The old Croatian immigrant neighborhood of Mala Jaska runs along East Ohio Street and is anchored by the first St. Nicholas Church and its hillside grotto. Down at Javor Hall, the Croatian Fraternal Union chapter off of East Ohio Street, they still polka every week. And up in Millvale, where the second St. Nicholas Church stands, parishioners and others are working to restore the world-famous murals adorning the walls and ceiling of that church. The dark hues of those surrealistic murals, painted on nearly every inch of wall and ceiling in the church, draw the gaze of visitors who wonder at their creation. The murals were painted by Croatian artist Maximillian Vanka in 1937 and 1941, and have been designated as both a city and national historic landmark.

The first St. Nicholas and what's left of the old neighborhood, including the house just doors down where the Croatian Fraternal Union of America was founded in 1894, evoke a picturesque memory of Old Pittsburgh, particularly for those viewing the church's onion domes from across the Allegheny River.

The old ethnic neighborhood and some of its landmarks will be gouged out, along with the hillside above them, if a plan to widen Route 28 proceeds according to a strategy designed by PennDOT with the cooperation of diocesan officials, who want to consolidate St. Nicholas parish in the Millvale church. With both church and state seemingly aligned against them, the St. Nicholas faithful might appear to be without a prayer, but so far they continue to hold their own.

In the ornate sanctuary of St. Nicholas, parishioners worship on Sundays as they have for the past century, oblivious to the traffic rumbling just feet from the open front doors. The beautiful sanctuary is replete with seven kinds of Italian marble, shades of red, pink, white and gray, as well as four altars and several statues of saints. The main altar is adorned with candles and flowers, and on the wall above is a large mural depicting Christ the King on his throne, keeping watch over the church.

When St. Nicholas parish was formed more than 100 years ago, the parishioners were mostly working-class immigrants, laboring hard at their jobs at nearby industrial sites -- in the steel mills, the wool works, the meat processing plants, the railroads. Today their task is the preservation of the church through the Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation, which solicits donations to maintain and restore St. Nicholas and spreads the word about it historicity and its plight.

At nine a.m. on a recent Sunday, despite hot weather, the church is about half full for Mass. The parishioner-singers in the choir loft at the back of the church sound as good, if not better, than any professional choir employed by the richer churches in Pittsburgh. The choir seems to have conviction in their voices, a heartfelt melody coming from within, like a song shared with a loved one. They sing in perfect three-part harmony: "Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us."

After the service, Scott Township resident Tom Cummins approaches lifelong parishioner Elsie Yuratovich. Cummins, a retired minister who once served Dormont Presbyterian Church, asks Yuratovich for a tour of the church -- her duty as the matriarch of the congregation. "They are wonderful!" Cummins says of the choir while touring the choir loft. "I came in and I immediately felt at home with that music."

The choir's song was in fact rich and sonorous as it echoed off the marble walls; it seemed to take on a visual aspect and shine off the walls, drawing in sunlight through the tall, stained-glass windows. "Let us be one in the Lord," the choir sang with fullness at once heavenly and of this world.

One in the Lord, indeed. It's hard not to question the faith of the Catholic Church when it would pursue the demolition of a place as culturally important and beautiful as St. Nicholas to make way for something as banal as a highway. But with congregations shrinking, the diocese claims that it needs to count every dime -- including the $10 million the diocese reportedly will receive for allowing PennDOT to raze the church in order to widen Route 28.

Tagging along behind the Cummins and Yuratovich after the service, I couldn't resist asking Cummins, "What is the church?"

"For practical purposes, it's the believers in Christ," he says as we make our way out of the church and up to the hillside grotto. The grotto, built in 1944 to celebrate the church's Golden Jubilee and in honor of Our Lady of Lourdes, towers on the hillside almost as high as the steeples of the church itself.

The steep concrete steps appear to have been repaired recently, and the railings seem new as well. "A few years ago we raised $4,000 to fix this," Yuratovich says, placing a hand on my arm, as if to relay a confidence. "Just two women, and we did it!"

Despite the pressure from PennDOT and the Pittsburgh diocese, Yuratovich and other members of the parish labor as if the church's preservation is inevitable. "I have a lot of hope. I've been working on this for 10 years," Yuratovich says. "St. Nicholas is a monument to us."

It's hard to know how to react to such overwhelming odds, but the parishioners do what comes naturally, given the environment. "We can continue to pray for it," says Josephine Crame, of Reserve Township, while cleaning up in the church kitchen after the service. She notes that the church hosts activities every week and that the parish teaches catechism in Croatian and English to 27 Bosnian Croatian children here in Pittsburgh.

Josephine's daughter, Megan Crame, 19, leans back on one of the counters in the kitchen with an indignant look and says, "Nothing's written in stone."

"The engineers say the building could be moved," Josephine says.

In fact, the entire church was moved up the hillside once before, in 1922 -- an achievement dubbed "the Ascension of St. Nicholas" by parishioners -- to accommodate expansion of the road that runs so close to the church's front doors. But a great deal of decorative work has been added to the church since then; moving St. Nicholas, even if it were economically feasible, might do irreparable harm to much of what makes the interior unique.

Immaculately dressed in a green suit, Elsie's brown eyes flash at the notion of St. Nicholas being destroyed or altered in any way. "I hope it stays right here," she says with a quick nod. Then in a minute her mood is lighter, and reminded of PennDOT spokesman Dick Skrinjar, she laughs at the smallness of the city. "It's Skringar-ich," she says. "I used to dance with his father and his uncle down at the Cro Hall."

Contacted later, Skrinjar says the issue of what to do with the church has hit home for him personally. He was baptized at St. Nicholas in Millvale. "I'm Croatian, I'm Catholic and I work for PennDOT. So it's tough," he says. "But faith endures regardless of buildings.

"The state has been respectful of the church's position on things regarding that piece of property," he adds. "On a temporal level, it's a property transaction. People made that parish. They also make the church, and they make the state."

Asked whether he thinks there is much hope of saving the church, Skrinjar is noncommittal, or perhaps tongue-in-cheek: "Where's there's faith, there's always hope," he says.

Elsie stops a train

Elsie Yuratovich has a little trick she pulls on anyone she thinks needs to be convinced that St. Nicholas Croatian Church in the North Side must be saved: She sends the person a large glossy photo of the interior of the church. Sometimes the tactic works, sometimes it doesn't.

It worked in a big way recently when the photo tugged on Pennsylvania Department of Transportation engineer Tom Fox's conscience. Fox said so at a recent open house on alternate plans for upgrading Route 28, asking Yuratovich to stand up and be recognized for her efforts to save the church and bring a fresh look at ways to upgrade the road.

The concerns of the St. Nicholas parishioners are the main reason that PennDOT officials chose to draft new plans for reconstructing the dangerous, four-lane road, according to Fox. "Elsie sent me a photo of the interior of this church," he says, remarking that he then realized the beauty of the church, which was to be razed in the original plan for the road. "Here I am with this picture of this church, wondering if I'm going to burn in hell or what."

Chalk one up for the power of conscience and the wiles of one super stara baba. At about five feet, five inches tall and not much more than 100 pounds, Yuratovich isn't exactly intimidating. But there's an energy in her frame, an earnestness in her voice that compels people to listen to her story. Always impeccably dressed, she wore a blue-and-white flower print jumpsuit at the public hearing on Washington's Landing, looking much more youthful than her 80 years. Despite her meek appearance, Elsie is a fighter, and she's too stubborn to take no for an answer.

"I know all of those guys," she says casually of the local PennDOT employees. "I've been talking to them about this for 10 years." She fondly recalls the days when what most of us think of as Route 28 -- East Ohio Street to her -- was just a set of trolley tracks running past her front door. She had neighbors across from her that lived on the riverside of the road, the backs of their homes facing the railroad tracks. Things were simpler then, and Mala Jaska, Pittsburgh's Little Croatia, was full of families who kept up the community and kept up the church.

Nearly two years back, Elsie fought an attacker who tied her up after robbing her in the home she's been in nearly all her life. The dirtbag left her tied up and she was rescued by a neighbor. "As God is my witness, he didn't touch me indecently in any way," she says, referring to her attacker as "scum."

You'd never know all of this if you just spoke briefly with this wisp of a woman, soft-voiced and beguilingly persuasive. Elsie's modesty would stop her from divulging it all -- indeed, she'd rather just concentrate on the church. Which, thanks to Elsie, other parishioners, members of Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, Preservation Pittsburgh and other preservationists, might well be saved.

Two alternative plans of the six plans presented to the public at the open house seemed to be most popular, Fox says. Both of the alternative plans save the church. Fox, PennDOT district engineer Ray Hack and others now will consider the various plans before putting out a draft environmental impact statement within the next year. The statement will include PennDOT's recommended plan for the Route 28 work and will be followed by a public opinion period that likely will involve more public hearings on the plan.

Sandy Brown, president of Preservation Pittsburgh, which has lobbied hard to save the church, says the alternate plans for Route 28 are a heartening result. "Not only the creativity [of the plans], but the fact that they allowed for public comment," she says. "It's the last church to be historically protected in Pittsburgh. They changed the law."

Preservation Pittsburgh has sponsored tours of some of the city's historic churches in the past and is working to schedule more events in the churches, including concerts, Brown says. "It's a way to get people into the churches to see what it's like inside."

George R. White, a board member of Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, is another player in the struggle to save the century-old church. He helped to devise some of the alternative plans that PennDOT is considering. He says even if parishioners no longer can support some of the old churches, the buildings at least should be saved and put to adaptive reuse. "What does a city which is blessed with precious assets that were born in another era do with those assets? You can convert them to other uses," he says.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Missing Pulp

Thirteen months ago, the final issue of Pulp, a 2-year-old South Side newsweekly, hit the newspaper racks. And while there is rumor circulating that some of the staff of the defunct newspaper might start a new publication, former editor Geoff Kelly said such speculation is simply rumor.

Since the loss of Pulp, the “Avis” (they tried harder) of Pittsburgh’s alt newsweekly scene, no paper or magazine has filled the gap, though some have tried. This city desperately needs another weekly like Pulp, to shake up things a bit. So I believe that some comments on the successes of the “failed” newspaper are in order.

I was a regular contributor to Pulp, not a staff writer, and I sympathize with those who lost their jobs as a result of the paper folding. But they aren’t the only people who’ve been hurt by this loss. In addition to the talented Pulp staffers, there were dozens of freelance writers, photographers and college interns who helped to create a publication that gained a steady readership and many loyal (if too few) advertisers. The newsweekly gave another alternative source of news and arts reporting in Pittsburgh, offering pages that were filled with stories and news briefs on issues and topics that the other newspapers here don’t always cover. Community groups, non-profits and residents responded to the coverage, making greater contact with Pulp’s reporters as the paper grew older.

The positive responses of readers, echoed by many working in the local mainstream press, was expected. Pittsburgh may have lost a lot of residents, but it’s still among the more educated cities in the nation and Pulp offered a new forum for emerging journalists in the region. While many organizations here give lip service to stopping the “brain drain” of young, educated people leaving the city, Pulp worked against that exodus by giving aspiring journalists, seasoned professionals and part-timers the chance to tell the stories that they found to be important. It also gave young people here the opportunity to read another publication that focused more on their interests. These positive effects helped to make the publication successful, despite its final end.

While others talked about helping young Pittsburghers, Pulp’s owner Michael Donnelly provided jobs and a voice to younger people. These days, newspapers are cutting expenses and using fewer and fewer freelancers, so providing work opportunities for aspiring journalists is becoming something rare and precious. And providing those opportunities is crucial if we are to ensure a good future for the media and a more informed electorate.

I first inked my fingers in journalism years ago while working as a freelancer for some of the local newspapers. One of them was Pittsburgh City Paper, which now is the sole “alternative” weekly newspaper in the city. City Paper was a new publication when I freelanced for it. The paper’s editor at the time, John Hayes (now a Post-Gazette staff writer), was open to new material and not opposed to working with new writers, and he gave me a shot. A similar attitude characterized Pulp editor Geoff Kelly’s dealings with freelancers. And while City Paper is a worthy publication that provides a needed product, it has become so “established” that it has a dozen editors and writers on staff, all of whom contribute stories to the newspaper. That situation affords far less space for stories written by freelancers.

And editors often prefer to work with writers whom they know, or at least those with a proven track record. But young people starting out in the business aren’t established, which is why they are willing to work for very little or even no compensation. Having clips of published stories will lead to their future paying jobs, but these young journalists need editors to give them a chance. Pulp gave many of these young people that precious opportunity.

Newspapers and magazines come and go, but the beauty of the news business is the action that is the focus of that business. True journalists crave that news action, and Pulp attracted a lot of true reporters who enjoyed the journey of chasing down the news, story by story. For some of those part-timers or fledgling journalists, that publication was the only place where they were being published

“News is history shot on the wing,” journalist Gene Fowler said. And though Pulp is history now, for a time it bagged quite a few stories. For those who read Pulp and for those who helped make the paper known here in Pittsburgh, it still is missed.