Wednesday, November 30, 2005

A hungry husband’s menu

My wife didn’t want me to write this story. I could tell she didn’t like the idea by the disapproving glances I got when I mentioned it. But I’ve learned a thing or two in a couple years of marriage, and I must pass on some of this wisdom to my brethren who are newly married or on the edge of the grand canyon of matrimony.

Learn how to cook, guys. If you want to make a good husband of yourself, learn some dishes to cook in the event that your lady needs help. In my case, that’s fairly regularly, because my wife Anne and I have worked out an arrangement, where it’s agreed that I’m not big on cleaning and she’s not wild on cooking. So we’ve largely separated the duties, although she’s been known to pull out many fantastic meals, and I’ve on occasion tackled the dishes without her.

I tend to get hungry before Anne because I’m a bit fat and she’s not. So I’ve gravitated toward making many of the dinners and sometimes breakfast, as well. Lunch is a free-for-all.

Our arrangement is more common than I thought, I’ve found from talking with several of my married friends. These guys do a fair share or a majority of the cooking in their families and their wives tend toward housework. Most of these friends have 9 to 5 jobs, as do their wives, but these men still do much of the cooking. One of them is actually married to a professional chef, and he still cooks at least half the meals. When I’ve asked these friends if they feel funny about doing much of the cooking, they look at me like I’m silly.

“Why would I?” they all say.

They might for the same stupid reasons that I did—traditionally, the kitchen is considered the woman’s territory, and I never thought I would ultimately become a husband who did most of the cooking. It’s an old-fashioned concept, I know, but every so often I am reminded that others have the same view. While out to dinner with Anne’s parents and a friend of theirs one night, Anne offered that I did most of the cooking in the household.

“You don’t want to know what I think about that,” said Polly, an older lady who is a friend of my in-laws. She looked askance at me, then at Anne, and softened. “Well, I guess whatever works for you is just fine,” she said.

I’ve been interested in cooking since I was a kid. I would hang around my mom in the kitchen while she was cooking or baking, particularly when she was baking, because I have numerous sweet teeth that are always looking for a fix.

“Cooking is an act of love,” Mom would say back then. I’ve remembered the saying and thought of it when I was making a somewhat difficult supper, like chicken cordon bleu.

Some of my buddies are practically gourmet chefs, while others use gourmet ingredients, and others are practical chefs. I’m in the last category. I generally stick with a regular menu of easy-to-cook meals to keep my woman filled. And since there is no Emmett Post for men, I’ve included the following menu tips for the culinary-challenged man who is starting a new life with his better half. Following are some “survival” dinners you can cook for your wives:

  • Pasta. Spaghetti with meat sauce is simply browning ground beef, adding some onions, mushrooms and other vegetables, mixing it with a jar of sauce and boiling the pasta. You can brown slices of sweet Italian sausage for the meat part, as an alternate recipe.
  • Fish. I like salmon baked, swimming in the juice of a couple lemons and some butter, lightly spiced with fresh herbs. Or poached in orange juice, smothered in fresh dill and lemon juice.
  • Steak. Dust cracked black pepper on the steak and grill it. Topping the steak with fresh herbs and baking it is another way to go.
  • Chicken. You can get pre-roasted chickens at most, if not all of the supermarkets in the area. Mash up some peeled and boiled potatoes with some warmed milk and butter. Make some gravy from the powdered package stuff and add sliced mushrooms to it to liven it up. Boil some fresh green beans or broccoli or another green veggie—the little lady will be impressed with your health-consciousness. For another chicken meal, simply take some skinned chicken breasts and saut√© them in some Campbell’s mushroom soup, and add a little sliced onion, fresh sliced mushrooms and some black pepper.
  • Filet mignon. Get some thick filets and crumbled bleu cheese at the grocery and slice the filets lengthwise, then stuff the filets with the bleu cheese. Bake filets to preference.
  • Pork chops. Make some scalloped potatoes from any recipe book, throw some thick pork chops into the mix and bake. Or get a package of Shake-N-Bake and follow the directions. Round out that meal with some potatoes or rice, a salad and some cauliflower.
  • Pork roast. Get a pork roast and some sauerkraut at the store. Put the roast in a pan or dish, fat side up. Dump the kraut on top of and around the roast and cover. Place in the oven at 325 degrees for three hours.
  • Chili. Get some cans of Bush’s chili beans, spaghetti sauce, crushed tomatoes, a couple pounds of ground beef or ground sirloin, an onion and fresh mushrooms, green peppers and red and or yellow peppers. Slice up the veggies and follow the directions on the can. Top the bowls of chili with shredded cheddar and Fritos, if you like.
  • Lasagna. Lasagna is just a bit more difficult then making spaghetti. Follow the directions on the pasta package and add other cheeses or veggies too taste. Hint: Too many cheeses could make the lasagna unbearably heavy and salty.
  • Hamburgers. Get some lean ground beef or ground sirloin and a package of Lipton Onion Soup and follow the directions for burgers. Slice up some potatoes into French fries and bake them on a cookie sheet after dashing with a bit of pepper and salt. Toast some English muffins and butter them, put the cooked burger on the muffin and garnish with sliced tomato and lettuce. Add the cheese of your liking to the burger.
  • Beef roast. Get a nice beef roast and a box of herb recipes for cooking the roast. Follow the directions and put the roast in the bag with the herbs and water. Chop up some carrots, celery and onions and add them to the bag before cooking. Bake or mash some potatoes and make a salad to round out the meal.

All this food talk is making me hungry. I’ve got to go.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The cost of war

I never was in favor of the Iraq War. Like most people who oppose the war, I haven’t attended a war protest rally. But because of the news and the wonder of the Internet, I am often reminded of the real cost of war.

Spc. Jonathan P. Barnes of Coweta, Oklahoma, was killed on July 23, 2003. He was 21 years old. He left behind a wife and young daughter.

Barnes is not a relative of mine, but I feel for his family.

While Pennsylvania Burns

Pennsylvanians, where is your outrage? Have the flames of your anger been doused by the pay raise repeal?

If I told you that your pants were on fire and you saw the flames, you’d run for water. But I tell you how Pennsylvania state legislators are regularly influenced by corporate interests, and almost nobody comments. None of my three readers commented, and with the exception of blogger Mark Rauterkus, none of the local media picked up on it. Almost none of the local blogging community mentioned this problem, perhaps because local bloggers prefer to complain about the money spent on stadiums and they prefer to tout local websites, but they don’t want “hard” news. Or maybe they like having their legislators answer to special interests.

It’s a familiar Catch-22: If the “news” doesn’t report on it, it’s not news.

Regardless of whether you pay attention or not, Pennsylvania’s soul is on fire. Politicians are burning the taxpayers, and they think people don’t care who’s buying them dinner, giving them plane tickets, or picking up the tab for their vacations. From what I can tell, state politicos are right to not worry, because people don’t care if their legislators are crooked.

Maybe Pennsylvanians are slower than the average American, or maybe we suffer inordinately from the American ill of being dumb, fat and happy. Even if these suppositions were true, I’d still find it maddening that nobody but a handful of activists across the state are angry about the more than $200 million being spent yearly to influence our state legislators.

Two hundred million dollars, and that’s not all that is spent on lobbying efforts in this state. I can’t tell you exactly how much more is spent by lobbyists in this state, because our state is so slack in its governance of lobbyists that all lobbyists dealing with state legislators aren’t even required to register with the state. If you don’t think the lack of regulation of lobbyists in Pennsylvania is a problem, consider that every other state in the nation has a law requiring registration and disclosure by lobbyists. Either they are all fools, or we are.

Maybe you don’t care who is lobbying your legislators. Maybe you don’t have time to care that lobbying is an accepted practice, or that in this state lobbying is as open as the wild west, with lobbyists acting as hired guns for special interests.

We citizens are outgunned and out-manned and the state is consumed with greed. But what’s really important are some penny ante pay raises by legislators, or some stadiums that were paid for with taxpayers’ dollars.

I disagree, because I don’t think that anyone should have unequal access to legislators, as lobbyists do. The system is corrupt and unworkable, unless you are one of the rich or connected who can have your voice heard in order to win contracts, have legislation passed, or win favor with state officials. In that case, it works for you.

People don’t seem to mind that their legislators are being led around by the nose, doing the bidding of special interests. But I don’t think that any of us likes to be considered a chump.

While I was researching the story “Lobbyists open doors,” I spoke with a few people who were openly disdainful of my view that lobbyists should be more closely watched. One legislator’s employee who I spoke with didn’t try to hide her disdain, responding with a nearly mocking attitude to my questions. During part of the phone interview, she had the unnerving habit of snickering at me as I questioned her.

It probably doesn’t matter to you, Pennsylvania reader, that many of your representatives don’t think your state needs a law to keep an eye on who is trying to influence them. Is it really possible to regulate lobbyists, you wonder. Then you forget about the issue. After all, it probably doesn’t matter much if you’re not paying attention to it.

But you don’t have to accept that Pennsylvania politics have turned into a controlled burn of your tax dollars. Tell your legislators that you want them to pass state Senate Bill 1, also known as the Lobbying Accountability Act. Tell them they’d better pass the law if they want to keep their jobs. Then hold them to it.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Ohio fights influence peddling

To put Pennsylvania’s problems with lobbyists in perspective, it’s interesting to consider the problems that Ohio faces because of what some say is influence peddling. Ohio is in the throes of three investigations of possible corruption by state officials. Some of the charges brought against state officials include accusations of "fixing" of state contracts.

A former lobbyist in Ohio is leading the charge against what he believes is a rigged bidding system in Ohio state government. Paul Tipps, former chairman of the Ohio Democratic party, became so disgusted with what he calls his state's "pay-to-play" politics that he recently resigned from the lobbyist firm that he started.

Tipps, 69, in 1983 co-founded Columbus-based State Street Consultants. The company now is the largest government affairs firm in Ohio. Several months ago Tipps resigned from State Street and founded the Braddock Organization, "an independent committee that's looking into the relationship between non-bid contracts and campaign contributions," Tipps says.

Currently there are three major investigations of influence peddling in Ohio. The U.S. Justice Department's Public Integrity department is investigating state officials, as are grand juries for two U.S. District Attorneys. Tipps believes the problems in Ohio are not simply a Republican issue. "This is not a Republican thing, this is a majority thing. Whenever a majority is in total control, this is what happens. It's the system that's bad; the people rationalize it as good politics, which isn't always good public policy," he says.

Tipps is intimately familiar with state politics, having served as state Democratic Chairman from 1975-1983 and as Montgomery County Democratic committee chairman from 1970-1977. He says the state's system of awarding bids for work is inherently political because of legal contributions and illegal contributions.

"Under state law, contractors are limited to contributing no more than $1,000 in the two years prior to receiving a non-bid contract," Tipps says, adding that non-bid contracts lead to companies illegally funneling more money to political action committees. "It's rife to be influenced by political contributions. Two billion dollars in school [construction] contracts have been awarded this way in the past five years."

Tipps says that over the course of his career he has seen state politics influenced by more and more money. "When I got into the business, [contracts] were up for bid, and were until 1990. Now they tell you you've got to contribute. Now they make a decision based on how much money you've given," he says.

Ohio Department of Transportation mostly uses a competitive bidding process to award contracts, says Brian Moore, letting manager for ODOT. “It’s almost always the low bid [that is selected], unless there are mistakes on the bid. A contractor must be pre-qualified, and be able to show that they are qualified to do 50 percent of the work required in the project,” Moore says.

Some of the department’s projects are emergency projects, in which bids are limited, according to Moore. Type A emergency contracts are awarded by district managers for jobs such as landslides. Type B emergency contracts are bid on only by contractors that specialize in a certain type of work, says Moore, noting that districts are required to try to equally divvy out Type A emergency projects to contracts throughout the district. Usually, the state awards only about 20 Type A jobs each year, but heavy rain resulting in flooding and landslides throughout the state resulted in 300 such projects being awarded by ODOT in the past three years, Moore says. Type A projects may account for up to $100 million of this year’s ODOT construction projects.

Some industry insiders say Tipps is off the mark with his notions of how the industry works. Clark Street, president of Ohio Contractors Association and a former assistant director of ODOT, said the state’s bidding process for construction projects is fair and open. “But there’s a difference between highway and building projects. With highway contracts, the lowest bidder gets the job. For building projects, consultants such as engineers and architects have their bids graded on the company’s expertise, and on the price of the bid,” Street says.

What Tipps calls "non-bid" contracts are contracts that are awarded to a company without a bid based on a set of specs that include price. More than $1 billion in such contracts have been awarded to contractors, consultants and other firms by the state of Ohio in the past year, Tipps says. "The corruption here is campaign contributions for non-bid contracts. It's not money under the table," he says.

Donn Ellerbrock, vice president of government affairs for Associated General Contractors of Ohio, says that “pay-to-play” is not the way things work in Ohio. “The political season started early here. A lot of it is rhetoric the Democrats are putting out,” he says. Ellerbrock, who is a full-time lobbyist for AGC of Ohio, says lobbyists can help out with issues that affect contractors across the industry. “For example, I helped rewrite the state’s lien law. I also worked on creating the provisions governing Construction Managers doing public work,” he says.

Such examples are part of the problem with state government, says Leah Rush, director of state projects for the Washington, D.C-based Center for Public Integrity. “Lobbyists are hired guns--hired to influence the legislative process,” she says.

Tipps disagrees with the characterization. He says lobbyists are a legitimate way for people to have their concerns heard by their legislators.

"When you talk about lobbyists, you're talking about people representing a lot of different groups. And yes, certain people have more access to legislators than other people. That's the representative form of government we have," Tipps says.

No conflict here

You don’t have to be a genius to recognize that special interests are affecting the legislative process in Pennsylvania, because the signs are everywhere. Like in this Post-Gazette story, in which it was reported that a gambling company in Pennsylvania could own an interest in every casino in the state if it wants. Harrah’s is one company that is mentioned in the story as potentially benefiting from this rule.

The potential for conflicts of interest that are enabled by such lax rules makes you wonder why they even have a state Gaming Control Board. As I reported recently, lobbyists are doing their business with very little oversight in this state. Out of all the gaming companies that had lobbyists working for them in 2003-2004 in Pennsylvania, Harrah’s had the most lobbyists on the payroll. Harrah’s Entertainment, Inc., and Harrah’s Operating Co. had (and presumably still have) a combined force of twenty registered lobbyists working for them. Is it any wonder that Harrah’s might benefit from a Gaming Control Board ruling that is favorable to gaming companies, but which could hurt thoroughbred racetracks?

Here are some telling figures from the aforementioned lobbyist story:

“In 2003-2004, lobbyists in Pennsylvania were representing at least 14 different companies that may have an interest in gambling, including Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts, which has one lobbyist working on its behalf; Ameristar, which has three lobbyists registered; and Harrah’s Entertainment, Inc., and Harrah’s Operating Co., which have 19 lobbyists, and one lobbyist, respectively. Other gaming interests with lobbyists in Pennsylvania include WMS Gaming, with six lobbyists; Sands Pa., Inc., and The Venetian Resort Hotel (both now under the Sands name, with 13 lobbyists in total); Oberthur Gaming Technologies, a Canadian lottery ticket company with seven lobbyists; and Isle of Capri Casinos, Inc., which has six lobbyists. Twelve lobbyists in Pennsylvania represent Forest City Development, which hopes to build a casino in the South Side of Pittsburgh. MTR Gaming, which also wants to build a casino in western Pennsylvania, employs 19 lobbyists to deal with the state Senate. The Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team, which would like to re-establish itself as a sports-gaming company by owning and operating a Pittsburgh-area casino, employs ten lobbyists.

Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, which wants to build a casino in the Hays section of Pittsburgh, has five lobbyists. Philadelphia Park Racetrack, which is vying for a Philadelphia-area slots license, has seven lobbyists. Boyd Gaming Corporation, a Las Vegas-based company that owns casinos, employs 17 lobbyists dealing with the Pennsylvania Senate.”

Sunday, November 27, 2005

The best slogan

With all of this talk about creating a new image for Pittsburgh, such as in this Post-Gazette story, I am reminded of the numerous failed past attempts to “re-brand” Pittsburgh. I also remember how I came up with what may well be the best slogan yet for this region, but few people seemed to notice.
The slogan came about as I was writing about Mister Fred Rogers, shortly after his death. The Rogers story, which ran in Pulp, follows:
Where Neighbors Meet
Past age 30, memories sometimes come back like water seeping into an old well. One memory I'd nearly forgotten recently poured back after I learned of the death last week of America's favorite neighbor, Fred Rogers.

Years ago when I was in college, I was lucky to meet Mister Rogers. It was one of those crisp, early spring days when the weather is turning and the sun seems brighter than usual. I was with a couple of college friends from Carnegie Mellon and we were taking a break from our studies to have some early afternoon beers down in Oakland.
While heading back to campus, walking up Fifth Avenue, my buddy Sweeney started singing, "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood." At six feet and 215 pounds, barrel-chested and gruff-voiced, Sweeney was a sight, all beery and belting out the kid's song as we walked up the street. As we closed in on the WQED building, he finished the song:
"Please won't you be," he sang, punctuating the word with a punch to my chest. "Please won't you be" -- another punch -- "please won't you be my neighbor."
Sweeney, Goon and I laughed. And then we realized we were standing in front of the WQED building.
"We should go in there now and say hi to Mr. Rogers," Sweeney said, giving us a wild look.
Goon and I laughed. "Yeah, go in there half-drunk," Goon said.
"Why not? We're in the neighborhood," Sweeney said. "How are you going to feel if you leave Pittsburgh and you never met Mr. Rogers? We'll tell them we're old fans of his and they'll let us in."
We all laughed again, then Sweeney turned and headed toward the WQED building. We followed behind. At the reception desk, Sweeney explained that we were Carnegie Mellon students and old fans of Mister Rogers, and we were hoping we could stop in and say hello. We must not have been in beer-smelling range, because the nice reception desk lady said, "Hold on, I'll check. I don't think he's taping." She picked up her phone and called to check on his whereabouts. "He's a really nice man," she said as she waited to connect.
Surprising the heck out of us because we thought there was no way we'd see Rogers -- the request was kind of a prank -- the receptionist got off the phone and told us to head upstairs, that we could see him. The three of us looked at each other, flabbergasted, and headed up to his office.
We found his office and he wasn't there. So we looked around, puzzled, and started to amble down the hall, not quite knowing what to do next.
Then Rogers came around a corner and Sweeney said loudly, "How ya doin', neighbor?" stretching out his hand to Rogers and giving him a huge grin.
Rogers graciously shook his hand, smiling at us as we smiled dumbfounded at him, and Sweeney explained that we were old fans and Carnegie Mellon students, and that he was from Philly, Goon was from Virginia and I was from Pittsburgh. "We were just having some beers and we were walking by and we thought we'd stop in and say hi. I just wanted to thank you, you were a great influence," Sweeney said, shaking Rogers' hand again.
Goon and I followed suit, saying something similar, feeling at a loss for words.
"CMU's a good school," Rogers said and he asked us what we were majoring in. As I studied his face I couldn't believe I was actually standing there talking to him. He was wearing one of his trademark red sweaters and his tennis shoes, and I almost felt giggly. Though he seemed smaller than I remembered him, I felt like a little kid again, and part of me was thrown back to sitting at my little airplane-style desk in front of the TV in the morning, eating and watching his show.
He was as warm and personable that day in the WQED offices as he always seemed to be on TV. He noticed Goon's fraternity sweatshirt and asked us if we were fraternity brothers. We told him we were.
"CMU's a tough school," Rogers said, as we parted. "Take it easy on the beer."
As we stepped out of the WQED building and onto the sidewalk, we couldn't believe that we'd actually pulled it off. We were euphoric.
But why not? Fred Rogers was the quintessential friend, the adopted grandfather of 150 million grandchildren. On Mister Rogers' Neighborhood someone was always stopping by to say hello to him. His door was always open.
Rogers lived just up the hill from the neighborhood in which he worked, and he taught many of us to be tolerant, patient and kind. He filled our hearts with joy with songs like "It's such a good feeling" and "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood." And he worked nearly to the end of his life, spreading the good word.
Rogers typified the kindness, patience and generosity that is good to find in people everywhere. But Western Pennsylvanians can take some pride in the fact that he chose to live here. Those who are looking to brand the region might have saved a lot of money on studies and focus groups if they'd watched a little more TV as kids. Perhaps our new catchphrase ought to be "Where Neighbors Meet.”

Thursday, November 24, 2005

A writer's room

I’d always thought that writing was a solitary pursuit. Time was when a writer needed only a clean, well-lighted place in which to write.

When I was growing up, I found many places to write. One of my favorites was Andrew Bayne Memorial Library, in Bayne Park in Bellevue. Back then, when the place was rarely used by patrons, I would be on the front porch on a breezy day, or hanging out by the stacks on the first floor back room, or out in the park under the sprawling branches of The Lone Sentinel . Sometimes I would hang out in a museum just a couple blocks from my house that was nearly always empty.

Bayne Library had not been renovated when I was a teen, and its red brick exterior wore years of white paint that always seemed to be peeling. Kids would hang out on the front porch and smoke when the place was closed, carving their nicknames into the wooden banister. The library was always a place where I could find quiet, and space, to read or write.

So when I heard of a writers room that is planned for Bellevue, I was skeptical at first. Members of the room will pay a monthly fee for 24-hour access to a workspace with partitioned desks where writers or anyone who uses a laptop or notepad can work. The place will have wireless internet, a small kitchen and lounge area.

But don’t writers need to be alone with their thoughts to write? Why is there a need for such a space?

A New York Times story on New York writers rooms nailed it:

“Hominess is part of the appeal at Paragraph; writers, after all, notoriously crave nurturing. But those who use this space have a practical reason to show up as well: to overcome the temptation to procrastinate, and to get down to the hard work of writing.”

“Writing is solitary,” says Tom Buell, a Ben Avon resident who is leading the writers room project. “But there are other times when I can think of every reason to not do the writing. For me, there are times when you want to be with people to feed off of their energy.”

I guess I can understand that thinking. In college, I had writing classes known as “workshops,” where we young writers learned from each other. We read each other’s work aloud, critiqued it and learned what worked in the writing. We gained confidence in our ability to say what we meant. Who would begrudge a fellow writer the opportunity to have similar experiences?

Still, one of my favorite places to write in college didn’t require registration, or an entrance fee. It was the second floor of the old Oakland Beehive Coffee House.

Buell has advertisements in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the City Paper to spread the word about the room. Access to the place seems pricey, though it’s nothing compared to the cost of a college education. At $450 for six months, or $95 a month, it would seem that membership in a coffee house or the local library would be more economical for a poor young writer. Such writers aren’t the target market for this space.

People who are making a living and are able to afford renting such a shared space are the target market, Buell says. “I would prefer professionals, but I won’t turn anybody down.”

Buell says he’ll be using the 5,000 square feet of space in Bellevue to work on a book and a screenplay that he is finishing. The public affairs pro and former Pittsburgh Press reporter says he has received a lot of positive response about the room. The place is scheduled to open in January in the old G.C. Murphy building’s second floor.

For some, a clean well-lighted place in which to write is key to productivity. Then again, others say such places are just for lonely old men.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Dearer by the dozen

Hearing about the remake of "Cheaper by the Dozen," the 1950 film that tells the story of a family with 12 children, I was reminded of how art often bears little resemblance to life. The remake stars Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt, no doubt the film's saving grace. But I'm not rushing to see it, because even the original movie never quite rang true for those in my family -- a brood of 12 children from the same two parents. We found it a bit hokey compared to reality.

It seemed the old film was always on television during the holidays, and even now, more than 20 years later, I can remember Mom's comment when she would hear the movie promoted on television: "Cheaper by the dozen, my foot! They ought to call it 'More Expensive by the Dozen.' "

In the remake of the film, Martin is a football coach who tries to run his family like his football team. I can understand that approach. Having grown up in Bellevue in a big old Victorian house, one of eight boys and four girls spread 16 years apart from oldest to youngest, I know something about families that are as big as sports teams.

My scoutmaster father tried to manage us by acting as coach, judge, Y Indian Guide pal and chief petty officer. He was a former Navy man and Army man, and, since he was a Depression-era person, his definition of hardship would make today's generation squirm with discomfort. So when the hot water ran out (as it frequently did) before one of us was going to take a shower, he'd say: "We used to shower with cold water in the Navy. You just get yourself wet, lather up and rinse, and you're done before you know it."

We didn't appreciate the simplicity of his solution, when all we wanted was hot water.

But sometimes getting even cold water was an ordeal. For a time in my youth, all 14 of us survived with just 1 1/2 bathrooms -- that is, one full bathroom and one half-bath. Weekday mornings, there would be a line of kids wearing towels and impatient looks extending down the long second-floor hallway. And of course my sisters, being girls, seemed to have a sixth sense for getting into the bathroom just before we boys wanted to get in.

Emotionally, being one of 12 could at times be pretty trying. Though the new film makes much of the fact that Martin's character, Tom, has to handle the whole bunch of kids on his own while Hunt's character, Kate, is on the road promoting her book, the film didn't need to go to such an extreme to create enough conflict for a sustainable narrative.

In fact, Tom's predicament was similar to my mom's situation, except that she didn't have the fear-based respect of her children that many fathers enjoy. When we boys were little, we would misbehave relentlessly, compelling Mom to chase us around the house with a wooden spoon, and, when we got bigger, with a broom. We boys became pretty quick on our feet, no doubt partly because of the chases. Sometimes Mom would just break down crying and give up, telling on us to Dad as he came in the door after work.

I remember feeling pity when I was 8 or 10 when Dad, tired from a long day's work, had to spank me for being bad. I could see in his stone-gray-blue eyes that he didn't want to be the heavy, and I felt lousy for putting him in that position.

"This will hurt me more than it hurts you," he'd say sometimes. Now I understand what he meant.

But the emotional cost of having a family of 12 kids was nothing compared to the cost of feeding the family. With just my civil engineer father's income to support us throughout my youth, we had fun and never truly wanted for anything. My parents found creative ways to economize on food, though. Looking back, I now see how tricky my parents were about saving a buck.

When I was young, Dad would wake me or one or more of my brothers at 4:30 or 5 in the morning and have us accompany him on a shopping trip to the Strip District. He had to make the trip early in order to get it done before he went to work for U.S. Steel in the "Steel Building," as we knew it, and also because the produce, cheese and meat markets down in the Strip weren't open on Saturdays.

We'd drive to town and into the Strip, bumping over the Belgium block streets, and park near one of the loading docks. Barrel-chested Dad would lift me onto his shoulders and head into the dark confines of the produce or cheese or meat wholesalers, searching out one of the old-timers for a deal.

My brothers and I would marvel as he schmoozed tough-looking types named Mario or Joe to talk them down on some hams, crates of fruit or logs of cheese. He'd proudly introduce us kids to the old wholesaler and remind him that we were just a few of the 12.

Afterward, Dad would take us down to Primanti Brothers and buy us breakfast. We loved to be able to eat in the bar, sitting next to dockworkers and others getting a bite to eat after their morning shifts, smoking their cigarettes and salting their language with curses as heavily as they salted their bacon and eggs.

Cheaper by the dozen, it wasn't. But my memories of growing up with 11 brothers and sisters I now find to be of inestimable value.

This story originally was published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Lobbyists open doors

How many lobbyists does it take to pass a gambling law? In Pennsylvania, there’s no way to really tell, because they can’t be fully counted. Pennsylvania has no law requiring registration of lobbyists dealing with state legislators, unlike the other states. Under a Pennsylvania Senate rule, lobbyists and companies dealing with the Pennsylvania Senate are required to register with the state Senate, while lobbyists dealing only with the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and the Governor’s office are not required to register. But a bill working its way through the state Congress could bring registration and disclosure to the $200 million a year Pennsylvania lobbying industry.

If made law, Senate Bill 1 would require all lobbyists to register and report their expenses with the state. Introduced by state Sen. Robert Jubelier (R-Altoona) at the start of the 2005-2006 legislative session, S.B.1, known as the Lobbying Accountability Act, has passed the Senate and is awaiting action in the state House of Representatives.

Leave the office equipment

Some say this first bill of the session is last on the list of the state House’s priorities. Others say it’s not on the list. Judging from the response of Rep. John Perzel (R- Philadelphia), speaker of the state House, he isn’t losing sleep over the bill, as he might have over the pay raise issue.

“You need to see if the support is there among the members [of the General Assembly],” says Beth Williams, Perzel’s press secretary. “When the members talk to their constituents, the question of lobbyist disclosure doesn’t come up.” State representatives are required to fill out annual ethics forms with the state Ethics Commission, adds Williams.

Voters don’t think they have to tell their legislators not to steal the computers from their offices, and similarly, voters don’t think of calling for ethical behavior or lobbyist disclosure laws, says Barry Kauffman, executive director of Harrisburg-based Common Cause of Pennsylvania. “Every other state has requirements for lobbyists to report how much they’re spending, and what they’re trying to influence. This is the most basic of good government regulation,” he says.

Perhaps the issue isn’t being addressed because voters have been fixated on the legislative pay raise. Or maybe most people don’t know how the lobbyist side of government works. Many voters have no idea how much lobbyist money is being spent to influence their own state legislators.

We’ve all heard of how lobbyists wine and dine legislators, and give them free tickets to sporting events or for vacations. If you don’t think about it much, such relationships don’t seem to be a big thing. In fact, the amount of money involved in lobbying in Pennsylvania makes the legislative pay raise look like chump change.

Lobbyists working with the Pennsylvania Senate reported spending $200 million in 2003-2004 (the most recent figures available), according to state Senate figures provided by Jubelier’s counsel, Drew Crompton, who wrote S.B.1.

It is unclear how much lobbying money is being spent to influence members of the state House and the Rendell administration.

Pennsylvania’s disclosure rule requires disclosure to the state Senate, and the restriction is a rule, not a law. The rule allows lobbyists, at their own discretion, to list all of the money they spend on all efforts to influence legislators, not just state Senate lobbying.

The $200 million figure cited here covers the gamut of expenses of the registered lobbyists, including direct communication, indirect communication, and personal/office expenses.

Personal/office expenses include all salaries and any expenses associated with running the lobbying business. Direct communication includes costs associated with letters or conversations with members of the state Senate. Indirect communication includes direct mailings to legislators that are meant to affect legislation. Indirect communication also could be a billboard urging people to call their legislators to vote a certain way on a particular bill.

State House majority leader Sam Smith (R-Punxsutawney) seems to be using discretion to avoid addressing the lobbyist issue. Smith’s press secretary, Steve Miskin, said legislators aren’t concentrating on S.B.1. “There’s not a consensus of what to do. Right now our focus is on property tax relief,” Miskin says.

Pennsylvania legislators found consensus to vote for a raise, and they found it to repeal the raise. But they are too busy, or they simply can’t find a consensus to pass a law that would publicly disclose who is buying them dinner, getting them tickets, or tugging their ears about legislation.

In plain language

State senator John Pippy (R-Moon), a co-sponsor of S.B.1, says the bill is about public trust. “People need to know what issues are being lobbied, and what organizations are lobbying. It comes down to the transparency issue. This is a mechanism for [government] accountability,” Pippy says.

Other state legislators don’t think that voters are interested in knowing who is lobbying them. State House minority leader William DeWeese (D-Waynesburg) commented on S.B.1 through his press secretary, Tom Andrews. He says legislators have been working on other issues, such as Act 72 and increasing the minimum wage. “Senate Bill 1 doesn’t appear to be one of the top issues of concern in Harrisburg,” Andrews says.

Perhaps lobbyist registration should be the top issue, given the cash involved in this side of government.

“For us, lobbyist disclosure is a pressing issue,” Crompton says. “A strong disclosure bill is the way to show the public what is spent on state government.”

The wording of S.B.1 explains why citizens should know who is trying to influence their legislators:

“The Constitution of Pennsylvania recognizes that all free governments are founded upon the authority of the people…The Constitution also guarantees the people the right to petition those invested with the powers of government for redress of grievances. The ability of the people to exercise their fundamental authority and to have confidence in the integrity of the processes by which laws are made and enforced in this Commonwealth demands that the identity and scope of activity of those who are paid to influence the actions of the General Assembly and the Executive Department be publicly and regularly disclosed.”

In other words, the people can’t have authority over their representatives when they don’t know with whom those legislators are meeting. Lobbyist disclosure laws allow citizens to see the devil in the machine of state government, something that most voters don’t often think about.

So few lunch hours

Pennsylvania has 579 senate-registered lobbyists who work for 1,111 employers, including construction and engineering firms, hospitals, insurance companies, universities, other branches of government and many other groups, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity. Pennsylvania is ranked last on a state-by-state comparison list of lobbyist regulations compiled by the watchdog nonprofit. It’s clear that a lot of money is being spent on lobbying in Pennsylvania, but what do lobbyists really do?

Some companies hire a lobbyist to deal with problems they are having with an agency or individual in the government, one industry insider said. In such a scenario, a lobbyist works as a liaison between company and government officials. Lobbyists often keep tabs on legislation affecting a company; keep an eye on upcoming capital projects on which a company might bid; and keep tabs on legislation that could affect the company’s industry. Lobbyists also help to research and write legislation that later is voted on by legislators.

Larger companies might hire more than a dozen lobbyists, while smaller companies use lobbyists-for-hire, who bill hourly to work on the company’s behalf. In Pennsylvania, pretty much anyone can be a lobbyist, though most lobbyists have backgrounds in government and have worked in local politics and state government.

Some are scrutinizing gambling interests because of the legalization of slots machines here. But the $1.16 million spent by lobbyists dealing with the Pennsylvania Senate from 2003-2004 on behalf of gambling interests is a fraction of the amount spent by construction/manufacturing lobbyists, who spent $4.52 million on lobbying efforts during that period. Those amounts are dwarfed by the $9.2 million spent during that period by lobbyists representing the health care industry.

Now you know one of the reasons why your health care premiums continue to increase.

Stakeholders in the game

The public’s lack of awareness of the scope of lobbying in Pennsylvania is enabling special interests to have their way with legislators, critics say. Whether they are representing gaming, insurance, education, or health care companies, lobbyists in the Keystone State are spending a lot of time beating legislators’ ears. S.B.1, if approved by legislators, would allow voters to know exactly who was spending what time with whom.

“This law helps people understand who the big players are,” says Kaufman. “It’s just basic openness. If you don’t know what’s going on [in state government], you can’t defend your interests.”

In 2003-2004, lobbyists in Pennsylvania were representing at least 14 different companies that may have an interest in gambling, including Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts, which has one lobbyist working on its behalf; Ameristar, which has three lobbyists registered; and Harrah’s Entertainment, Inc., and Harrah’s Operating Co., which have 19 lobbyists, and one lobbyist, respectively. Other gaming interests with lobbyists in Pennsylvania include WMS Gaming, with six lobbyists; Sands Pa., Inc., and The Venetian Resort Hotel (both now under the Sands name, with 13 lobbyists in total); Oberthur Gaming Technologies, a Canadian lottery ticket company with seven lobbyists; and Isle of Capri Casinos, Inc., which has six lobbyists. Twelve lobbyists in Pennsylvania represent Forest City Development, which hopes to build a casino in the South Side of Pittsburgh. MTR Gaming, which also wants to build a casino in western Pennsylvania, employs 19 lobbyists to deal with the state Senate. The Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team, which would like to re-establish itself as a sports-gaming company by owning and operating a Pittsburgh-area casino, employs ten lobbyists.

Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, which wants to build a casino in the Hays section of Pittsburgh, has five lobbyists. Philadelphia Park Racetrack, which is vying for a Philadelphia-area slots license, has seven lobbyists. Boyd Gaming Corporation, a Las Vegas-based company that owns casinos, employs 17 lobbyists dealing with the Pennsylvania Senate.

Apparently you need at least 126 lobbyists to pass a gambling bill in Pennsylvania. It’s impossible to know if that figure is right, since it is impossible to determine exactly what lobbyists have worked to influence politicians in the state House and the Rendell administration. Many Pennsylvanians would raise an eyebrow if they were told that 126 people were lobbying state legislators on behalf of gambling interests prior to the approval of a law legalizing slots machines in the state.

Just free speech

Most members of the lobbyist industry in Pennsylvania would likely say lobbying is above board. Some say they are simply working within the bounds of the representative democracy of our country. Brian Barno, president of the Pennsylvania Association for Government Relations, a Harrisburg-based lobbyist industry organization, noted that more than 2,000 bills have been introduced in the 2005-2006 legislative session. “For a legislator to be an expert on all of those issues is impossible. Part of the legislative research process is reaching out to the individuals and organizations directly impacted by the legislation,” Barno says.

PAGR has long been in favor of lobbyist disclosure laws. The organization would prefer that S.B.1 had a campaign finance reform clause, Barno said. “I think there’s a need for people to look at how the process works. Lobbying is an integral part of the process. We provide information on specific issues for the legislators and help the legislative process,” he said.

If such interpersonal relationships are to be allowed, citizens need to be able to scrutinize these relationships, good government advocates say. The question of lobbying in state government comes down to the issues of openness and fairness, says Leah Rush, director of state projects for the Center for Public Integrity. Lobbyists have much greater access to legislators than the average citizen, she notes.

“In a way, lobbyists are un-elected officials; writing legislation, and working as legislative research assistants. We often call them the Fourth Branch, because they are such a big part of the process,” Rush says.

She says she is shocked that S.B.1 hasn’t received more attention from the media, since Pennsylvania is last in lobbying disclosure laws. She notes that the state Senate was less than forthcoming in releasing documents to her group, requiring one of their employees to physically go to Harrisburg to get the lobbyist disclosure documents.

Telling, isn't it? Of course state legislators don't want the gravy train to end. But their protection of a broken lobbyist system is indefensible. Perhaps the only way to get politicians to realize the system is broken is to muster the sort of outrage that people voiced about the legislative pay raise.

"Everyone should be really ticked off that lobbyists are getting paid to monopolize their legislators' time," Rush says. "Citizens are the employer of the legislators."

Friday, November 18, 2005

Welcome, Pittsburgh ex-pats

Give me your homeowners tired of high costs, your newly equity-rich west coasters yearning to breath freer in western Pennsylvania… We’ve certainly got lost of reasonably priced property around here.

Maybe Pittsburgh should be billing itself as the place for expatriates to retire early. Certainly some of them are considering the prospect.

The other day I was reminded of this when I received an email from a reader in California that had stumbled on Gist Blackridge while looking for information on Blackridge, the community in which I live. The reader has been thinking of moving back to Pittsburgh, where he grew up. After all the years he’s been gone, Pittsburgh still feels like home, he wrote.

The reader said he’d visited Pittsburgh recently on a scouting trip and liked the Blackridge area, but he wanted my take on it.

“Does the Parkway serve as any sort of north-south line of demarcation or psychological barrier? And just how often do you hear the sound of gunfire wafting up the hill from downtown Wilkinsburg,” he asked, referring to a story that I wrote about living in the Wilkinsburg section of Blackridge.

I responded that Blackridge is a small community of about 600 homes, covering parts of Wilkinsburg, Churchill and Penn Hills. I walk the dog three blocks down the street to a 10-acre park that includes some woods, Blackridge Civic Association community center, a ball-field and a playground. On the other side of the park is Churchill Country Club.

I've heard gunfire in the summer, mostly. A mile or so down the hill is the Wilkinsburg hood, but even down there, many beautiful houses and commercial buildings are being rehabbed. I know some young professionals who live down there, and I know other people that are taking an active part in Wilkinsburg's revitalization. Wilkinsburg used to be one of the premier suburbs in Pittsburgh. It's coming back, slowly.

Is it dangerous here? Not for the average person who isn't dealing drugs and getting into gunplay. The Parkway doesn’t serve as any sort of demarcation or psychological barrier. I walk my dog along Greensburg Pike, over the Parkway and further into Forest Hills from time to time. Sometimes I'm walking him in the morning, while folks are backed up in rush hour on the Parkway. As I walk across the bridge over them I think how nice it is to be a freelance writer, and not have to sit in traffic to go five miles in thirty minutes.

The reader responded that my observations matched his impression of the area. I wrote back that I also like Blackridge because of its proximity to Squirrel Hill, Shadyside, Oakland and downtown. The Parkway and the Turnpike are close, too.

What makes Blackridge more interesting is that the neighborhood has a diverse group of people: singles, married couples, folks with kids, a majority white but a fair amount of blacks, and a substantial number of gay and lesbian couples. There are a lot of friendly dog-walkers, too, I added.

Part of what makes this community so quiet and comfortable is the trees. There are many large oaks and maples, as well as many mature ornamental and fruit trees (some of which may have come from the Black farm, for which Blackridge was named) that give this place an almost park-like feel. The trees are the structure that many gardeners here use to landscape their yards. The roots of those trees are firmly dug in.

The roots of former Pittsburghers still lay dormant in this region. We should encourage those roots and bring back those former residents, to bloom again where they originally were planted.

This story was first published in Gist Blackridge.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

A class act

Sometimes in my work as a reporter, I get to write about a person who really deserves some recognition. I won’t say that I am always up to the task, or that I always do justice to the person about whom I’m writing. Still, It’s nice to meet a person who sort of re-inspires my faith in people.

I have a story in the Post-Gazette today about just such an individual. Regardless of what you think of the story, the man about whom it was written is a class act.

Sometimes my line of work can be reaffirming.

Silence is holy



It’s been a month since I reported on the impending sale of St. Nicholas Church in the North Side A Landmark Sale. The deal is not yet done, and those involved in the negotiations are remaining silent.

Judging from the little news that has trickled out about the church, signs are encouraging that the landmark building could be saved as a shrine/cultural center. Under terms of a sale agreement being considered by the Diocese of Pittsburgh, one worship service per month would be permitted in the church, which was closed in early December.

A lot of people think that too much attention has been paid to this old onion-domed building, which some say has stood in the way of progress by being an impediment to the reconstruction of Route 28. Others say that this first Croatian church in the United States should be saved, at least as a testament to our collective local history, as well as our national history. I agree with the preservationists.

I must admit that I have personal reasons for wanting St. Nicholas to be saved. I am a quarter Croatian, and I grew up going to the Croatian Fraternal Union lodge in Clairton. The C.F.U. actually was organized in what was known as Mala Jaska—the Croatian area of what is now Rt. 28 in the North Side. St. Nicholas Church was the center of that community, much of which moved up to Millvale to start a separate St. Nicholas church a century ago. That church is adorned with the famous surrealistic murals of painter Maxo Vanka.

The C.F.U. began just doors down from St. Nicholas North Side. The organization, which now has lodges around the world including in the U.S., Canada, and most recently, Croatia, was started in one of those little row houses that seem to open right onto Rt. 28. Elsie, defender of St. Nicholas Church, lived in one of those houses, just doors away from her beloved church. RIP, Elsie

I was not raised Catholic. I grew up attending a Presbyterian church. But I have ridden down and driven down Rt. 28 countless times, at many different hours of the day. Long ago I cemented that church into my notion of the Pittsburgh landscape. Removing that building would be akin to cutting a gash out of Mt. Washington. Pittsburgh simply wouldn’t be the same without this church, so I am glad that negotiations for its sale to preservationists look promising.

I was so intrigued by the place that many years ago while driving by I stopped to check it out. That was before I was a reporter, when I was pretty young. I was amazed by the beauty of the interior of the church, and I also found the hillside shrine compelling.

The sale of St. Nicholas could be a win for all Pittsburghers.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Creative Partnership

A couple of friends from my alma mater, Carnegie Mellon, have collaborated together on a book. “STREET: Poems by Jim Daniels/ Photographs by Charlee Brodsky” is their first work together. The book has received nice reviews.
Stuart Dybek said the book "reflects a natural interplay between the documentary and lyrical that is a solo, signature quality in Jim Daniels' work."
Alan Trachtenberg wrote:
"Jim Daniels’ poems in conversation with Charlee Brodsky’s photographs make for a remarkable collective work… This is a street that goes nowhere in particular, not a thoroughfare but a place to see and be seen, an invention that just might keep this world from sliding into utter inconsequence."

For samples from the book, go to: http://www.detroitfocus.org

Monday, November 14, 2005

He's no slacker

A twelfth-year college student in Wisconsin has made the news with a story profiling him in The New York Times.

I can’t help but think that this guy’s potential book deals, the media hype he’s attracted and the very fact that he has a functioning web site make him less than truly slack.

Who am I to question his slack credibility? If you have to ask, you don’t know.

The guy’s story reminds me of a piece I did some time back, which appeared in Pulp. It follows:

He's No Slacker

Today's increasingly sophisticated marketplace has put a premium on diversely educated college students, so much so that students are feeling extra burdens in their course-work. It's no longer acceptable for a college graduate to have had just one major area of study; two majors is the bare minimum for an industrious student, educators warn. This trend, coupled with poorer job prospects in the less-than-robust economy, has led many students to put off entering the job market. And the tendency of students to turn a four-year degree into a five-year jaunt has been replaced by the seven- to 10-year course, creating a new generation of highly educated anti-slackers.

I figured it might be fun to hear what local students have to say about their studies. I wondered if they noticed that more was expected of them or if they were too busy partying or studying to know the difference. So I stopped by a local college to interview a random student and get his thoughts on education.

Arriving on campus, I naturally made my way over to the humanities building, knowing that I'd likely find some talkative types there. I happened to arrive right as some summer classes let out, and serious-looking students walked quickly by me. At the entrance of the humanities building, I found a student who looked like he might have time to talk. The guy was standing atop a stone bench, staring up into the sky, his eyes half-closed and wearing a half-grin. He exuded a Zen-like calm, a feeling of nowhere-to-go, and he didn't notice me until I'd been standing there looking at him for a full minute. I thought maybe he was stoned, and I didn't want to be a buzz-killer, but I could see he wasn't a round-faced freshman and I wanted to interview him.

Finally he snapped out of his reverie.

"Hey, man, what's up?" he said, looking a bit startled.

"I'm looking to interview a student for a newspaper article I'm doing," I said.

He took his hands out of his pockets, shook his dreadlocked head and looked sheepishly at his bare feet.

"Why do you want to interview me?"

"You're a student, right?" I asked.

He reluctantly agreed.

"What's your major?" I began.

He smiled, half shrugged and chuckled lowly. "Well, I started out studying engineering, but after two years I got out of that and got into information systems, which might not have been the best idea, given the dot-com bust and all."

"But that ought to give you a good entree into this high-tech business world," I said.

"Well, yes, but since I quit engineering, I was down to just one major, and you can't have that."

"Of course not," I said. "What else did you take up?"

"I started in sociology, but after a year I transferred to psychology. But that started to mess with my mind, so I transferred to applied history."

"So you'll be graduating soon?"

"After I finish up my communications degree."

"Sounds like in a year or so you'll be one well rounded graduate."

"Actually it's two-and-a-half years, including the computer core classes that I've blown off until now."

"All this education must be costing you a fortune," I said.

"A full $117,000, not counting student loans, according to my dad. He says he may have to quit retirement and go back to work." He frowned. "Of course that doesn't count rent and party money, and cash to take out girls, all of which I now pay for myself after my dad cut me off last year."

"Did you ever think of just chucking it all and getting a job?"

"I have thought of it, and it's very tempting sometimes. But if I did get a job, I'd have to give up the deferment status that I have on my student loans. And even if I got an excellent job, the monthly payments on those loans wouldn't leave me enough to live on."

"It seems you're in a Catch-22. It must be tough on you."

"It's not all books and babes, you know," he said.

I looked into his face and I saw, under a fresh layer of city grime, that he had crow's feet. The guy started to look very familiar to me. Then it came to me -- it was Soupbone McDowell, a fraternity guy I remembered from my college days, who even back then was much older than the rest of us.

"Soupbone, is that you?" I said, astonished to see him after all these years.

"Barnes?"

"You look great," I said, slapping him on the shoulder. "But I've got to ask: How old are you now?"

"I'm 42," he said with a simple grin, "but I feel 24."

"So you'll be hitting the workaday world soon?"

"Hopefully. I'll have my master's degree," he said with a shrug. "But the way the economy's going, I may have to go to graduate school and get my Ph.D."

With apologies to Art Buchwald.

American Nightmare

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staff writer Rich Lord will be speaking about predatory lending at ACORN’s annual banquet, on Dec. 7 at 6:30 p.m. at Duquesne University. He is the author of “American Nightmare: Predatory Lending and the Foreclosure of the American Dream.” He will be signing his book at the event.

Lord wrote the book after writing stories on the subject for Pittsburgh City Paper, where he was working while researching the book.

For more info, check out: www.americannightmare.us

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Pressures and Temptations

A lot of people don’t know about the extent of influence being garnered through campaign contributions and lobbying. Sometimes we get to shed some light on these issues.

I had a part in the following story, which was in ENR:

Pressures and Temptations Have Industry Walking A Fine Line - McGraw-Hill Construction | ENR

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Homecoming

I noticed all of the yellow ribbons many months back, but it didn’t occur to me to ask anyone about them as I walked my dog down the tree-lined street in my neighborhood. The ribbons were on trees in front yards in about a dozen homes on this particular street—far out of the ordinary for my neighborhood. Then one day this past summer I was walking the pup and a couple of the neighbors on this particular street were talking, and the one lady had her dogs running around freely so that they almost accosted my dog.

The lady reined them in with shouts and then leashes. As we passed by, I asked her why so many of the trees on this street had yellow ribbons wrapped around them.

“They’re for my son. He’s in Iraq, he’s a marine in Anbar province. He’s a jarhead,” she said.

I said I hope he is safe and comes home healthy.

She looked away for a moment, and took a drag from her cigarette.

“If I live that long,” she said ruefully.

I’ve often thought of that conversation as I’ve walked the pup past that lady’s house. I’ve wondered whether her son ever made it back, and if he was OK.

Several weeks ago, a Marine flag and a U.S. flag replaced the large ribbon around the tree in the lady’s front yard. The ribbons remained on the other trees in the neighborhood. I wondered if the flags meant that the young Marine had made it home safely. The other day, I found out.

As I was walking Max past the lady’s house, her dogs escaped through her front door and they both set on Max, with the getting very aggressive and almost biting him. She ran out after them, and the little baby pup of the two came out and comically chased my 75-pound pup and me down the street. As we were walking away, I called out to lady: ”Is your son back? Is he O.K?”

She got a big smile on her face. “He’s back and he’s fine,” she said.

I believe the ribbons are still on the neighbors’ trees. It could be some time before they are removed.

This story was previously published in Gist Blackridge.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Fashion Backwards

One of the nice things about getting older is being able to recognize when fashions of decades ago have come back. I can imagine how some older folks must’ve rolled their eyes years ago when swing dancing became momentarily popular among young people, who acted like they’d invented it.

Recognizing when fashion cycles are repeating is like being in on some old joke.

“Every twenty to thirty years, it repeats,” my wife explains to me, but I still don’t understand it.

I don’t know much about fashion—I’m not sure what kind of white one is supposed to wear after Thanksgiving, or how much linen is allowable in a proper Christmas outfit. I try to keep in fashion by more-or-less obeying my wife. Still, I can’t help but laugh a bit when I see some of the old styles coming back.

I had a tough time containing my joy a while ago when I started seeing more women wearing gauchos. I was in Shadyside the other day, leaving a coffee shop, when I passed by a fellow who was probably in his early forties and was sitting on a park bench on the sidewalk. As I was passing him an attractive woman in her late forties passed by, walking down Walnut Street. We both glanced at the woman, who was wearing tight herringbone pattern wool gauchos and knee-high heeled leather boots.

“Gauchos are back,” I said lowly to the guy as I walked past.

The stranger burst out laughing, because he was old enough to get the joke.

“Yeah, baby!” he said in his best Austin Powers accent.

I don’t think that fashion gets more ironic than gauchos. If somebody told me tomorrow that cow-neck sweaters are back, it still wouldn’t be as funny as people falling for something as silly as gauchos, twice in a lifetime. My wife, being fashion-forward, has some new gauchos, which look disturbingly like the back pocket is inside out. But the pocket is actually meant to look like that. Go figure.

Over the past few years as the pants have gotten wider, the halter-tops tighter and the concert t-shirts blacker, I’ve been flashing back to different times in my childhood. From top to bottom, it seems that the fashions these days are reminding me of one thing or another. The men’s shoes that have been in style for the past few years, which have wide, rounded fronts, remind me of being a kid. They are much more comfortable than other types of shoes, but I still can’t shake the notion that they are all vaguely reminiscent of what we called “Earth Shoes” back in the day.

Back in the 1970s and early Eighties, so many of the fashions seemed to give the impression that the wearer was so earthy that at any moment he might become rooted like a tree. T-shirts, bell-bottoms, braided belts, earth shoes. Just add water and sunlight, and watch them grow!

I’ve even flashed back to close to twenty years ago. Back in eighth grade I had the fashion sense of what we called a “Head.” I let my jeans drag over the back of my square-toed cowboy boots, and I wore a chain wallet that I bought from Harley Davidson, though I didn’t own a motorcycle. My hair was long and curly on my shoulder, and my black t-shirts made me a walking advertisement for various rock bands.

“When in doubt about what to listen to, just look at Jon’s shirt,” Mr. Patrica, one of my middle school teachers, once kidded me.

It’s funny what you remember when people start wearing fashions that were popular when you were thirteen.

Thing was, even back then I was a bit ashamed to admit that I’d bought those t-shirts at the mall. I’d never seen those bands that I wore around on my shirts. I didn’t start seeing concerts until I was a bit older. And when I did start seeing shows, black concert tees were mostly out. I’d missed my chance to get an authentic black concert t-shirt.

Thanks to the cyclical nature of fashion, I recently got a second chance to get one of those shirts. I was at the Rolling Stones concert at PNC Park, and before we left, my wife insisted that we get some t-shirts while were there. We picked out a couple of cute ones for her. Then we looked around for me.

I spied the t-shirt for me—it had no offensive or suggestive words, nothing to anger any women or minorities or pious folks. Its simplicity was both beautiful and tasteful. The tee had the Stones’ stuck-out tongue logo, printed on a plain old black shirt. So of course I bought it.

And for the second time in a lifetime, I’d gotten myself a black concert t-shirt. But really, it was the first time.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

One long election

I just finished up my last story on an election race in the North Boroughs that probably was the most exciting race there in years. The story ran in the Post-Gazette today:

ElectionNorth 2005: Smith defeats Rankin in North Boroughs district judge race

Six candidates began the race for the district judgeship in Bellevue. The race involved a lawsuit against one candidate and that candidate being thrown off the ballot, then being reinstated. The candidate, Constance Rankin, won the Democratic nomination and faced off against Tara Smith, who is a Democrat who ran as a Republican, then narrowly won the election.
I wrote six stories on this race before writing the seventh, and final, piece the other day. The story links follow (most recent to oldest):

CampaignNorth 2005: Two women face off for Bellevue magisterial district judge

Primary 2005: Rankin takes nomination in Bellevue

Bellevue magisterial candidate back on ballot

Primary 2005: Bellevue candidate returns to magisterial race

Court disqualifies Bellevue district judicial candidate

Campaign 2005 / Bellevue: Six try for magisterial seat

The Good News

If you judged Wilkinsburg from the police reports you read in the newspaper, nothing good is happening there. But many people don’t know that the 2-square-mile community has a lot happening, including historic home restorations, redevelopment going on along Penn Avenue, and diverse and unique neighborhoods where people know each other and enjoy living next to one another.

I just moved to Wilkinsburg several years ago, so I’ve probably been a little slow in recognizing things that are happening here. Sometimes, though, I get lucky with a story in this town. I felt lucky recently to have met Rev. Marcus Harvey, who runs a nonprofit in the heart of Wilkinsburg. I wrote a story on him for the Post-Gazette that ran today:

The Rev. Harvey serves a church without walls

When I interviewed him, he said it was good that I was doing a story on his organization. He said people need to know that things are being done, and that progress is being made.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Separate Worlds

I was fortunate to interview a gentleman the other day that has spent his professional life serving the public by working with young people. We talked about racism, the income gap between the poor and middle class, and other societal problems.

Early in our conversation we found we had common ground on some of these issues. He leaned toward me with his hands held together by the fingertips, almost prayer-like. The first thing they need to do is to get rid of these places where they congregate the poor together, he said.

Of course, he was talking about housing projects. As an “outsider” to housing projects (I grew up in Bellevue), I’ve only been to a couple of them a few times. I’ve been to St. Clair Village, where I once received a hostile reaction by some I passed (but no violence, I was with a guy from there); and I’ve also been to bad old Northview Heights.

I call it “bad old” because of its history. Perched on an isolated patch of land on the hillside behind Troy Hill, Northview Heights has been the scene of numerous shootings over the years. About a decade back, five or six guys formed a firing line with their guns and murdered several men in front of a crowd of people who were waiting for a baseball game to start. That was a short time before I went there to cover a speaker for a feature story for the Tribune-Review.

Those few visits to housing projects made a bad impression on me. For years I have viewed the projects as death camps. Some of the people who live in them also feel this way. The Post-Gazette recently had a story on it: City plans to demolish most of St. Clair Village.

This whole issue, and especially the comment my friend recently made, reminded me of a conversation I had with one of my neighbors a while back. Karen lives a few doors up from me. She’s a light-skinned black lady, with pretty blue eyes. She’s also a retired schoolteacher who can’t resist teaching me a thing or two from time to time. Several weeks back she came over and leaned on the fence and chatted with me as I worked in the back yard.

We got deep into the conversation, as we do sometimes, and somehow the subject of housing projects came up. I mentioned how I found it troubling that housing projects seem to always be located on the least desirable land, in out-of-the-way places.

“I’m glad you said that, because I’ve always thought that, too. They give you the view, but you’re out of view,” she said, shaking her head.

I wonder what percentage of people in the suburbs of Pittsburgh have ever stepped foot in a housing project. Probably fewer than we’d all care to consider. Most of us probably would rather not consider this issue of American apatheid. I touched on it in Don’t say the C-word.

St. Clair, Northview and most of the rest of these inner-city camps for the poor have long been dysfunctional places, rife with too much violence. As I have said for years, I believe that all of the housing projects in Pittsburgh should be torn down, and new dwellings should be built throughout the city for the displaced residents of those projects. After minority contractors tear down the projects, the land where the razed projects once stood should be turned into parks, and memorials to those who died in the projects should be erected in those parks.

The new public housing units should be placed all over the city and suburbs, in dribs and drabs, distributed everywhere from Squirrel Hill to Upper St. Clair. Poorer communities should have fewer of the dwellings built in them, and wealthier neighborhoods should have more of them built there. That way, we will all have some understanding of how the other half lives. And more importantly, the urban poor will have the chance to raise their families in neighborhoods that provide a culture of hope, rather than a cycle of despair.