Tuesday, February 21, 2006

St. Nicholas sale pending

The sale of the landmark St. Nicholas Church in the North Side could be a done deal as early as next week.

Members of the Croatian American Cultural and Economic Alliance are negotiating the sale with lawyers for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, which owns the church. St. Nicholas Church was the first Croatian church in America. The building could be turned into a shrine and community center if CACEA buys the property, which includes an old rectory and adjacent parking lot. The organization would buy the building for $250,000, and then spend $2.5 million to refurbish the property.

The organization's 20 board members have pledged and contributed $250,000 toward the project already, said Dr. Marion Vujevich, executive director of CACEA. CACEA board members also plan to raise $4 million to use as an endowment for the shrine/community center, which would have a paid director.

The community center would be located in the basement of the church building. CACEA members are hoping to create a green strip of parkland from Germantown up along Rt. 28 to the church, creating a safe pedestrian access to the church building, which was closed in December by the Diocese.

Vujevich said his group envisions the church building being used as a shrine, but also as a place for after-school programs for kids and classes for senior citizens. “We would also like the place to serve as a support center for immigrants,” he said.

Before it closed, the church offered support services for recent Croatian and Bosnian immigrants, as well as worship services in Croatian.

If the church is sold to CACEA, the place would have about one worship service per month, meaning that St. Nicholas Day and Christmas might again be celebrated in the church building. After signing the sales agreement, the nonprofit cultural group would have 90 days to accept the sales agreement or to reject it and lose a down payment

“This historical place will be a boost for tourism, as well,” Vujevich said, adding that it could serve as part of a tour of St. Anthony Church on Troy Hill and the other St. Nicholas Church, in Millvale. St. Anthony is known for its world-famous reliquary, which includes a bone that is said to be from the Apostle Peter’s corpse, and a sliver of wood that is said to be from the True Cross. St. Nicholas in Millvale is known for its world-famous murals, which are all over the ceilings and walls and were painted by Croatian artist Maxo Vanka.

Vujevich said he thinks a park alongside Rt. 28 would allow people to take in a beautiful and seldom-seen view of the city. “It could be like Curto Park. Why not call it Sarah Heinz Park?” he said.

To contribute, send checks to CACEA, 100 North Wren Drive, Pittsburgh, Pa., 15243.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Thinktank opening set

Renovation of the second floor of the old G.C. Murphy building in Bellevue is close to finished, just in time for the planned March 1 opening of thinktank, a shared workspace for writers, designers and others. The renovations are part of the first phase of upgrades to the building, which for decades housed a G.C. Murphy store, but now is known as the 517521 building. The first floor of the building, which was most recently a dollar store, now has a vintage variety store.
Walls have been put up on the second floor, and a kitchenette/lounge area soon will be created in the back corner room that once was the ladies dressing room. Furniture also has been placed in the work space, which is meant to be a sort of study away from home for computer-using types such as writers and computer professionals. A mid-March grand opening party is planned, said Tom Buell, who is leading the effort to create the shared work/study space.
Buell, of Ben Avon, said some people have joined as members and forty people are on thinktank's mailing list. For more information on the study space, call Tom at 412-720-2218, or email him at tom@thinktankpittsburgh.com.

Oat Mealy-mouthed

I’ve been trying it for a few days now and it doesn’t seem to be getting any easier. I am talking, of course, about eating oatmeal for breakfast.

In an effort to do the right thing for myself and to live a bit healthier, I have been eating oatmeal for breakfast for the past few days. This is likely good for my heart, but it’s a strange and sad start to my day, because I hate oatmeal.

I bought the oatmeal in the little packets that include powdery stuff that’s supposed to taste like apple, cinnamon, or banana, and I suppose that helps me deal with the bowlful. But I still can’t psyche myself into believing it’s going to taste good, each time I stir in some milk before heating a bowl of the sorry-looking mush in the microwave. It looks like generic horse feed, and tastes about as good.

There’s something about the mushiness of oatmeal that makes the back of my throat tickle a bit, like I might retch. This physical reaction makes it hard for me to choke down the stuff. I blame it on a congenital fastidiousness in this one regard. But I also blame it on my early, horrific experiences with dumplings.

I’m not talking about Asian dumplings, filled with yummy meats. And I’m certainly not talking about Slavic dumplings, also known as pirohy, which I prefer slathered with an onion-butter sauce. The dumplings that had such singularly bad effects on my palate were some bland, tasteless lumps of dough that my mom regularly prepared for my family when we kids were growing up. Those wannabe “dumplings” resembled not fully cooked watery bread, and they were rudely plopped onto my plate instead of a trustworthy potato.

The dumplings always reminded me of the mess that poor Oliver was begging for more of in the movie Oliver Twist. After a meal that included my mom’s dumplings, if I watched that movie not too long afterward, I’d tear up for poor little Oliver, having to eat dumplings every day.

My mother is an excellent cook, and even when I was young she rarely would flub a meal and not get it right. She was actually preparing those evil dumplings according to the recipe, and I recall that my dad was the one who really liked them. But I couldn’t swallow them, much less stomach them. I would try to eat the dumplings, because the consequences of not eating them could be severe. But as I would try to swallow them, I’d feel like I was going to puke, put my hand over my mouth and spit the stuff back out. I started this routine probably when I was around seven or eight.

At first my dad went according to his familiar game plan, making me stay at the table after dinner until I pushed all of the dumplings down my gullet. That didn’t work, because no amount of time would make the gray lumps of dough edible, so I’d fall asleep at the table, my head in my plate of dumplings. Finally he just gave up, and on chicken and dumplings nights, I got a potato instead of dumplings, as were served to my parents and 11 siblings.

That’s how I changed the family dinner menu, basically erasing dumplings from it. When everybody saw that I got a potato on dumpling night, everybody, dad included, decided they preferred a potato. My nascent rebelliousness, at 8 years old, had helped to change family dinner policy for the better.

But I digress.

When it comes to oatmeal, I try to tasty it up with some fruit, burying the mush in bananas. It helps some, giving a consistency to the watery mash and making it a bit easier for me to swallow. The next-to-best part of the meal is the last spoonful of banana. The best part is when I finish the bowl.

Maybe oatmeal is so good for your heart partly because it gives an oatmeal-hater more patience, slowing down his heart rate at the same time. I will continue to eat my mushy oatmeal, though I doubt I’ll ever really savor it. I just wish they could make it so that it tasted like a potato.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Dread and Repugnance on the bankruptcy trail IV

The greatest irony of the recent scandals at the New York Times, which gave a new black eye to journalism, could be that a reporter doesn’t need to make up quotes or background—life seems stranger each day to many us who report it. And you obviously don’t have to be a genius or a workhorse to be a member of this not-so-esteemed profession; all you need to do is keep your eyes and ears open and the strangeness sort of washes over you, like the effects of a questionable sugar cube you impetuously gobbled at a Grateful Dead show.

That’s how it has felt at times since I’ve been covering a hearing on Swiss group ABB Ltd.’s attempt to shed billions in asbestos-related injury claims. Life is sometimes so bizarre that even without the influence of psychotropic drugs, it seems like half the world is on goofy pills. In a world where so many stories are calling out to be written, reporters making up shit and calling it fact are, thankfully, the exception, not the rule. As one of my editors put it: “You have fast-talkers in any profession who will lie and cheat to get ahead.”

But reporters, fast-talking or slow-witted, were disturbingly absent from the ABB hearing, which could set a precedent by allowing the company to limit asbestos-related injury claims against it to $1.2 billion. The settlement is expected to work to the benefit of 111,000 claimants in the case, but it will leave out thousands of other claimants who were not informed of the settlement, including thousands of victims of asbestos-related illnesses. Maybe I was the only reporter there because I was one of the only reporters to know about it, and I wouldn’t have known of it if not for the news service that gave me the assignment. Or it might have been that many publications already had done an asbestos story and didn’t need another for a while—news, like a good restaurant’s menu, must revolve, of course. We only need so many asbestos stories, the publishers say.

The fact is that the rest of the media missed the story here. This story is the proverbial one about people going to work every day trying to make an honest buck and then being screwed by the big company for doing so. Many Americans don’t need Norma Rae or any other movie to tell them these things are happening, because they’re living them. They deal with working conditions that suck or are unsafe, pay that is low, and jag-off bosses.

In the surreal world of asbestos abatement, workers build a plastic “tent” in the room in which the asbestos will be removed. The tent is equipped with large industrial-style fans that draw out the air while filtering out the microscopic asbestos fibers, which can cause lung scarring and cancer. The workers wear white nylon bodysuits (with booties and hoods) over their clothes and a two-filtered mask as they break apart the friable asbestos that must be removed to make the place safe. The work is hot, dirty and itchy. But in a long-past recession in the early 1980s, this industry got a major boost across the country when the federal government mandated that all government buildings be asbestos-free.

One local worker, though, wasn’t so well equipped when he was dealing with asbestos years ago.

Ed Biehl, a steamfitter/boiler operator from the Banksville Road area of the city, worked unprotected around asbestos for years before he knew anything was wrong. Ironically, he worked around the stuff since 1972, during a time when many people across the country were taking classes to learn how to remove the noxious cake-like substance, which has been killing people since the ancient Egyptians began to mine it. Biehl, 61, worked repairing steam lines for Mercy Hospital, where he still works. He quit smoking six years ago and a year later doctors found a spot on his lung, which they believe was caused by inhaling asbestos fibers.

Biehl obviously doesn’t like to complain, and he keeps his answers short and rather positive. “I’m short of breath, but I’m still working,” he says, laughing. He hasn’t let the blows life dealt him take away his good humor. He’s on inhalers and he takes a pill for his lung every day, but still he’s upbeat.

He laughs about how casual he and his co-workers were about working around the asbestos, which looked creepy to them as they removed it in the subterranean world of the hospital’s campus. So strange that they had to document it: “When I was working in the steam tunnels, we took pictures of the asbestos in there. I gave them to my lawyer.” Biehl has had his lawyer, attorney Greg E. Coleman of Caroselli Beechler McTiernan and Conboy, for four years.

Biehl is just one of the thousands of everyday people caught up in the high-stakes game of bankruptcy law that is played by some ruthless and greedy lawyers, many of whom make millions from it. No one really wants to admit liability in these asbestos cases, and so the buck is passed from company to company, each blaming the other for the problem. And when the settlement finally comes down, claimants receive pennies for each dollar on their claims.

ABB’s settlement, if approved by a U.S. district court in New Jersey, is expected to award victims of asbestos exposure about a quarter for every dollar in restitution they claim. In the meantime, Biehl is biding his time.

“Two more years and I’m gone—retirement. As long as I can keep breathing,” he says.

This story originally was published in Pulp.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Dread and Repugnance in Bankruptcy Court III

Author’s note: The recent nixing of legislation that would have established a national fund for victims of asbestos exposure reminded me of some stories I did a while back that touched on this issue. One of those pieces follows:

You can't accuse them all of having no sense of humor. That fact was thrust in my face as I sauntered into bankruptcy court in the U.S. Steel building last Friday. I'd become comfortable dealing with this issue, kind of like a kid who's used to playing in a snake pit, and I'd never considered that my screeds might be read by the attorneys involved in the hearing on Swiss engineering group ABB Ltd.'s proposed $1.2-billion settlement of its asbestos claims.

"I enjoyed your article in Pulp," attorney Mark Plevin said to me as he signed in before Friday's hearing. He said he'd read "Dread and Repugnance I" after being informed of it by a Pittsburgh relative, who "likes to send me articles on lawyer-bashing." He added that he'd sent the piece to his brother, "a counter-cultural type," who'd also enjoyed it.

Several other lawyers waiting to sign in commented on the piece, lightly busting my chops about it. One mild-looking barrister approached me and said jokingly, a slightly pained look on his face: "I'd say 'doughy,' but not exactly 'fat.'"

Pardon me, I thought, I meant to write fat cats.

I was both gratified and embarrassed that these Washington, D.C. and New York City attorneys had read my story, because when I wrote the piece I was infuriated by what many of those attorneys were doing and I wanted them to know. Plus, it's good for everyone to get a cold dose of reality now and again, and it seems it was my turn. I put up with their jokes with a crooked smile and a red face and tried to downplay the column. "I was just blowing off steam," I said.

But in fact I had hoped to make people think about the ramifications of allowing a huge conglomerate to pare away billions of dollars in debts and liabilities like it was shedding a coat in the dumpster. Except in this case the coat includes insurance policies that would provide for the treatment of workers with asbestos-related illnesses. Asbestos, an insulator used nearly everywhere into the 1970s, has affected thousands of workers in Pittsburgh and in the future will affect millions across the nation. ABB wants to reduce to $1.2 billion what attorneys for cancer victims say will be $4.3 billion in asbestos-related liabilities, leaving quite a small pot indeed for those who come late to the table for compensation.

The "pre-package deal," which if approved would set that financial cap on payouts, could set a precedent as the third-largest "pre-pack" deal in asbestos litigation, according to David Austern, an attorney for the Johns-Manville Trust for asbestos victims. The approval of the deal would likely mean that other large companies with subsidiaries in the asbestos industry following suit and arranging their own pre-pack deals.

ABB's Combustion Engineering subsidiary is the focus of the proposed settlement, which includes a reorganization plan meant to erase millions of dollars in asbestos-related personal injury claims. CE made asbestos-insulated industrial boilers and filed for bankruptcy in February. At issue in the hearing is whether ABB can arrange $1.2 billion into two trust funds -- a $400 million pre-petition trust and an $800 million post-petition trust -- to clear up CE's liabilities.

More than 20 insurance companies are involved in the hearing, and their attorneys have argued that their clients weren't given a say in settlement negotiations, though about $250 million of the proposed $800 million post-petition trust for victims of asbestos-related illnesses is expected to come from the insurance companies. So in case you think this issue doesn't affect you, think again: Rising insurance premiums can only be made worse if insurance companies take on more debt. Insurers involved in the case include Traveler's Insurance, AIG Companies, Continental Casualty, Allstate Insurance, Alliance Insurance, Century Insurance, Stonewall Insurance, NA Insurers and several others.

Attorneys for cancer victims repeatedly drove home the fact that they too were excluded from settlement negotiations that included 111,000 claimants. ABB could face up to 500,000 additional asbestos injury claims in the next 50 years, some of the lawyers said. New Orleans lawyer Elizabeth Magner, who represents the Select Asbestos Claimants Committee, a group of law firms that represent clients with asbestos-related illnesses, stated her group's main contention in the case: "The people who are going to suffer [from asbestos-related ailments] didn't have a vote and couldn't vote."

But on Friday, when attorneys presented their findings to Judge Judith Fitzgerald, the documents were so voluminous that it seemed the lawyers were trying to filibuster their issues. Fitzgerald didn't hide her impatience with the lawyers. "I think I'll make it easier, I won't consider any of the findings. I'll make my own findings," she said. "I asked specifically to keep it as small as possible. My idea of small is not 100 pages. A lot of these findings from everybody are argumentative. They're useless."

Fitzgerald could issue a ruling as soon as late June. Her recommendation will go to U.S. district court Judge Alfred Wolin of Newark, New Jersey, who will grant or deny confirmation of the settlement. Once an order of confirmation is entered, and it seems likely that one will be entered, attorneys for cancer victims won't be able to sue ABB or the pre-petition trust, ABB and CE officers or New Orleans attorney Joe Rice, who was paid $7 million to get the 111,000 claimants to agree to the settlement and stands to get another $13 million as the remainder of his fee once the deal is inked. A stipulation in the proposed settlement agreement would allow these parties to be protected from future liability.

The whole idea infuriated Magner: "The only people who get releases in a bankruptcy plan are those who've had an official capacity in the confirmation process," she complained.

This story was published in the May 29, 2003 issue of Pulp.

A familiar ring

Checking out some of the stories in the local newspapers recently, I have been reminded of how, just a few months ago, none of them were paying attention to the issue of lobbyists working our legislators. But now some of the local MSM clearly are working to make up for lost opportunities and capitalize on what will likely be a sure victory in the populists’ war on government--that is, the struggle to enact a lobbyist disclosure law in Pennsylvania.

The Post-Gazette had an informative piece on the subject today that had some good specifics regarding what lobbyist firms are getting some of the work being paid for by gambling interests. Those gambling interests are spending millions of dollars to influence our legislators. Regular readers of Barnestormin have known about that for a while, though.

The story also mentioned that lobbyist disclosure info now is online. That fact was reported here yesterday.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

PA lobbyist info now online

Pennsylvanians’ interest in seeing full disclosure of lobbyist spending has resulted in legislators putting all of the lobbyist information that they receive online.

The state does not have a lobbyist disclosure law, but the state Senate has a disclosure rule that requires all lobbyists dealing with the state Senate to register annually and report their spending quarterly. The rule also requires all organizations that are represented by lobbyists in dealings with the state Senate to register annually.

Until recently, the public could get just a glimpse online at the PA Senate’s web site of the scope of lobbying in the state. Organizations were listed and individual lobbyists were named. A general report of overall spending figures gathered by the PA Senate was available previously, but not online. A full accounting of spending, and a breakdown of how much each company is spending, was not readily available to the public.

Now, the lobbyist disclosure reports collected by the state Senate since the start of 2003 are available to the public online. The information can be found here.

PA Senator Robert C. Jubelirer (R-Altoona), who sponsored legislation that would require all lobbyists dealing with state officials to register annually and report expenses, thinks many people will be interested in the newly available information.

“There has been a lot of public interest in the summaries we released recently. We are now making available all the information we have received. Our Senate Rule alone cannot compel a complete picture of lobbying activity, but it does provide substantial and useful information to our citizens,” Jubelirer said.

The call for more open records on lobbying activity has been raised throughout the state, said Jubelier’s legal counsel, Drew Crompton, who wrote the lobbyist legislation.

“We have generally tried to stir up articles and interest regarding lobbying. In the past, [news stories on the issue] came very few and far between,” Crompton said. “I think that because just about every newspaper in the state has written [about lobbyist disclosure], that has given the issue more momentum than it has had for years.”

Jubelier noted that citizens would be able to see who is lobbying, who individuals are representing, and how they are spending their money. They will be able to see the number of clients each lobbyist has and what each lobbyist is spending per client.

“This is important information that every Pennsylvanian should have the opportunity to examine,” Jubelirer said. “In addition to giving Pennsylvanians a clear look at this information, it will provide a basis of comparison once we succeed in securing a new state law that will apply disclosure requirements to the activity affecting other parts of state government.”

Lobbyists are only required to report their spending as it affects the Senate, but they are allowed to report their entire spending, including all of the spending they do on other parts of state government. Some lobbying firms report all their expenses through one individual, and the other associates then show a zero on their filings. This is allowable, but the forms should indicate the connection, according to officials at Jubelier’s office.

Crompton said he is not surprised that there is a growing interest in lobbyist disclosure.

“If you asked me six months ago if there’d be a state law on lobbyist disclosure in 2006, I’d have said yes, because of the upcoming election,” Crompton said.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

A dance to remember

Planning our wedding was a bit of a struggle, but there were tender moments in the weeks leading up to the nuptials. Two weeks before our wedding, though, we had at least 10 wedding tasks to complete, including learn to dance. At first it didn’t seem that we had the time, but we decided to make time for the dance lessons, and we signed up for an introductory course at a local dance school.

Our first steps were tentative, a bit clumsy. I wanted to lead and so did she, but neither of us was entirely sure how to do so. Working on learning to dance, my betrothed and I practiced the six-step "box" movement for a waltz with our instructor, Melissa. We were getting a private lesson in a back room of the dance studio, because I had never had lessons before and though it was my idea, I was nervous. My fiancee had taken dance lessons in the past, and she didn’t seem too nervous as we began to practice our steps under Melissa’s watchful gaze.

"You need to allow him to lead. It's hard for a lot of women; they're not used to it," she told Anne, who's a half-foot shorter and 100 pounds lighter than me. We all laughed about her leading me around. Our first dance lesson had finally arrived, just days before our wedding, and we were both giddy. Burnt out from hammering down last-minute details of the nuptials, we definitely needed the break, though sandwiching it into the week of our wedding wasn't exactly the stress-free option. "I'm telling you, take some dance lessons," her sister had urged. "I wanted to take lessons before our wedding, and we didn't. And we looked like idiots during the wedding dance." I don't always agree with Sis, but somehow I knew we should take her advice. She was referring to what Melissa later termed the "Clutch and Sway" -- the preferred dance for those who don't know how. You see it all over the place, including middle school church dances and proms, so much so that people accept it as a bona fide dance, which it isn't. I remembered what a newly married friend of mine had told me several months back: "Just remember that you are performing for everyone at the wedding. That's what you've got to do." I hated hearing it; I'm rebellious by nature, and it kind of turned my stomach. But my bride-to-be was doing everything else right for the wedding, and it seemed only right to me that we should be able to perform a simple dance for the 100 or so sets of eyes that would be on us for those few moments. She'd look like a princess, and hopefully we'd pull off one royal dance.

A good ballroom dance has a gracefulness and effortlessness to it—a flowing that looks and feels romantic. But learning a simple waltz wasn’t simple for me. It took us a few half-hour private lessons before I really started to get the dance steps right, though she got them right almost immediately. I had to lead, with the left foot forward, then the right forward, slide the left foot to the right, then step back with the right, then back with the left, and slide the right foot to the left, tracing out an imaginary box on the floor with my feet. I was nervous as we danced in front of Melissa, and then after a few lessons, as we danced in the big room not far from another instructor who gracefully practiced a samba with a student. Anne and I looked over at the couple practicing and we missed a step or two. We laughed it off, and Anne’s eyes sparkled.

Now, just a few days before the wedding, I was enjoying picking up a few steps. "One-two-three, ... " Melissa counted out the cadence for us. And as we practiced the steps correctly, I looked down at my partner. She was blushing, looking sweet-as-17 again. I was back there too, back close to 20 years ago, when I first saw her across the dance floor after our boys' school's concert with her girls school. I was smitten back at the high school dance, but I was too nervous to ask her to dance. I really wanted to, but fear stopped me. She was beautiful then, but now, looking into her green eyes and seeing how her auburn hair shone as we haltingly moved across the dance floor, I felt she was even more beautiful.

After our first lesson, we were excited at the prospect of actually being able to at least half pull off our wedding dance. By our third and final lesson just a few days before the wedding, we'd learned the "box" and what I call the fast- and slow-forward steps. We were working in unison. She glowed with that schoolgirl radiance, and I glided along with the old schoolboy charm. We looked into each other's eyes, and I felt redeemed. During the drive home, we were laughing.

I said we’d make a romantic sight that wouldn’t leave a dry eye in the place. "All the women will cry even harder for our wedding dance--since we'll actually know how to dance," I joked. Anne added to the joke, suggesting that we stick with the lessons and learn several dances. "We could be one of those married couples that goes out dancing all the time," she said. "Yeah, everybody sees those people and laughs at them, but you know they're all envious,” I said.

Redemption is about getting something back, and it seemed that with our lifelong commitment to each other, we'd rediscovered a rosier optimism. The dance lessons, in the midst of chaotic last-minute wedding preparations, excited us with anticipation of the big day. And the new steps seemed to symbolize the new path she and I were taking.

Melissa turned on the CD player to a song with a bit faster tempo than those we started with during our first lesson. The contemporary song had more of the tempo of a Viennese Waltz, which we were working on for our wedding dance.

"One-two-three…" she began.

"We can start on our own," I said, blushing a bit.

"Oh that's right, I forgot, you guys hear music," she said, meaning we could pick out the beats.

"Yeah, we hear music all right," I said, marveling at my luck while staring into Anne’s eyes. We hear music, indeed, I thought.

We live our lives accepting regrets we have about our past, moving on into the future. But we don't often get an opportunity to go back and do something we failed to do in the past. Because I had been afraid, I didn’t dance with Anne when I was a teen—I missed my chance back then to make an impression on the girl I would later marry. This time, though, I got another chance. Not so long after the night I first saw her, I got the nerve to approach her. And, almost 20 years later, I took my bride-to-be in my arms and gave her the dance that the woman I love deserves.

Our plan to dance the perfect dance went slightly awry, because we had the wrong music. We’d planned to dance our waltz to John Denver’s Annie’s Song, but we ended up with a different tune, and we had to improvise. Robert the DJ had Crazy by Patsy Cline, and in the whirl of things after the ceremony, we just settled on that. Soon Robert was urging us to do our wedding dance, so everyone else could dance. As we danced our wedding dance, our feet couldn’t seem to keep time with the music, but we danced on. My wife clutched part of her long gown to keep from tripping, and I tried, stiff-legged, to lead in time with the music. Performing our first dance to the wrong tune, we were just happy to be stepping—already knowing, after four years together, that we wouldn’t always be able to stay with the beat.

This story was published in Pittsburgh Magazine.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Pittsburgh schools and their fans

Sherry Pasquarello wrote to say she liked “Back To School,” and she mentioned some of her warm memories of being educated at what was then St. Scholastica. Something I didn't say in my story is that it almost seems that they built those old public buildings 100 years ago with the intent of having a building that somehow looked like or embodied the grandiose sentiments often associated with education, or a library, or the law, etc.

Look at Woolslair School in Bloomfield, or Schenley High School, and so many other buildings in this city, and you’ll see what I mean. I think they built the buildings better back then. I can't help but feel like it's better if kids are taught in a grand old building, because when they enter it and leave it each day, they'll be reminded of the grandiosity of the place. Maybe they’ll study a bit harder.

I was in one of the last classes that made it through Grant School. I went to middle school after Grant, at the old Bellevue High School, which is a pretty cool old building. That building now is an elementary school and the middle school is long gone.

Some of my earliest memories are of going up to Bellevue Field, which is right next to the old high school, and watching the Bellevue Bulldogs kick the crap out of the opposition. I remember the Bulldogs’ mud-splattered quarterback Frankie Carmello running for the sideline in yet another fleet-footed gain. This was of course before the merger of Bellevue and Avalon school districts into Northgate.

On those cool, crisp fall nights, the lights of the field practically illuminated the main street, just a half-block away. It seemed that most of the town would make it out for the game, and it was always a festive occasion, whether the team won or lost. On the one end of the field, you could stand right up close to the End Zone and watch as a player scored, just feet away from you. If the team won, they’d ring the old Victory Bell and the tolling could be heard throughout the borough.

I remember the splintery bleachers, Dad pouring us cups of hot cocoa from his Thermos while we all munched on Ginger Snaps, warm under thick wool blankets. We would cheer with the neighbors for the Bulldogs and see them win more often than not. Dad, like many of his neighbors, didn’t have any sons playing ball when I was young. They all just went to the game to see some real live football and to support the team.

Friday night games at Bellevue Field were a community event and a meeting place. We took our football so seriously that most of us would turn out to see the local high school play, regardless of its name.

A few years ago, for a story, I went with a group of Woodland Hills Wolverines fans to the state football championship. The game was in Hershey and was played in a driving rain. The winners, whose name escapes me, mopped Woody High all over that field. But what amazed about this experience was the fact that many of the people who filled a couple of Greyhound busses to go to Hershey and see the game had no connection to the team. Some had children who had graduated years ago. Others just lived in the area, always went to home games, and wanted to go and show their support for the team.

Just like the folks in Bellevue when I was a kid and no doubt to this day, those Woody High fans were loyal and faithful to their team. This is the stuff of which Pittsburgh is made.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Back To School

I recently went back to my old elementary school in Bellevue, to do a story on the place being converted into loft condominiums. Going through the front doors of Grant School, I felt a warm rush of memories fill me, but also a bit of sadness that no other kids ever would be schooled there.

Walking up the short flight of stairs to the first floor, gazing again at the impressive staircase and the tall marble columns that flank the front hall, I felt lucky to have gone to school there. The old part of the formidable two-story neoclassical-style school was built in 1903 and faces Jefferson Avenue. A large wing in the same style and built with the same beautiful thin red Roman brick was added to the back of the school in 1933.The place was still impressive, and the developers will keep some of that look by retaining the grand double staircase.

I ran into my brother’s old neighbor from Lincoln Avenue. He was sanding some plaster, and he stopped and took a dust mask off his face and we talked. He remembered me, and I asked his if he’d gone to school there. He said he had, but only for fourth and fifth grade. He led me up to the model two-bedroom unit on the second floor, where Grant School Associates partner Casey Steiner was waiting for me.

Steiner showed me around the model unit and took me out through French doors onto the stylish wrought iron balcony that had been attached to the building. It was a clear day, and we had a good view all the way to Downtown.

“Do you remember staring out those windows, wishing you’d rather be anyplace else but here?” Steiner said, gesturing towards the windows as we walked back inside. I said I did.

I wasn’t entirely sure how to feel. Things were so different at the old school, and the changes were happening so fast that it felt almost surreal to me.

I followed Steiner around the building, which felt as familiar as tracing the back of my right hand with my left hand. As he led me through my old school, he pointed out the changes that had been made to the place. He had seen a gem in the old school. Its walls are three feet thick on the first floor and two feet thick on the second floor, he noted. Large windows flood nearly every room with light, and wood floors and old school woodwork adorn almost every room.

Those rooms had once been filled with students, many from large families of four, five, six or more children. Times had changed, and people no longer have as many kids as they used to. That fact, coupled with the depopulation of Pittsburgh that went along with the downscaling of the American steel industry, had made it so the premium put on the large old houses that line Bellevue’s streets is not what it once was. For someone who wants a lot of house for a reasonable price, Bellevue was, and still is, a good bet.

The declining number of kids in Bellevue meant they didn’t need two elementary schools, and Grant School was closed more than twenty years ago. Grant’s sister elementary school in Bellevue, Jackson School, had been closed and converted to residential use when I was a kid. Now here I am at forty, feeling like a kid coloring a picture of my past.

Before Jackson closed, as a boy I compared Jackson’s Strawberry Festival with ours over at Grant. Both of the schools held fundraisers in which an array of strawberry desserts and other foods were sold to raise money for the PTA. For the Strawberry Festival, the gym in Grant School would be edged on all sides with folding tables that drooped under the weight of the desserts. Everybody was happy, eating and talking as the sunlight streamed through the huge windows.

That old gym was also used for Saturday afternoon movies when I was young. They would show free movies on the wall of the gym on Saturday afternoons, and beforehand we kids would go across Jefferson Avenue to Jamison’s Market, which was a mom-and-pop store that was no bigger than a two-car garage. We’d buy penny candy, red licorice fish and cherry smoke bombs and snakes, both of which were incendiaries that were regularly sold into our eager little hands. We’d munch on candy as we watched the movies, and afterward we’d light off our stink bombs and snakes in the schoolyard.

As I worked on the lofts story after interviewing Steiner, one of the people I interviewed reminded me of a long-standing tradition that Grant School had.

“Remember when at Christmastime, they’d give everybody a candy-cane and line us up on the steps and have us sing Christmas carols?” Bellevue mayor George Doscher reminded me.

“Yeah,” I said, as he recounted the experience.

It occurred to me that by fifth grade we boys all thought the tradition was corny. But it was a nice tradition. A tradition, come to think of it, that reflects the complete absence of Jewish and Muslim children in our school.

Recently, in a rush of nostalgia, I called up my old elementary school art teacher, Judy Meinert. She told me how great a time she'd had teaching at Grant. She remembered there being a beautiful old chandelier that hung on the ceiling of the main hall above the staircase. It was there when she first interviewed for the job at Grant. She got the job, started in 1967, and stayed until the place closed in 1981 and she moved to the new elementary school, in the old Bellevue High School on Lincoln Avenue.

I told Mrs. Meinert how some of the things she’d said about our artwork when I was a kid, I was reminded of later in life, while I was writing.

“Do you see this detail?” I remembered her saying to our class, pointing out the leaves I had drawn on a tree during a sketching exercise. “That’s what you want—details.”

Friday, February 10, 2006

Black Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh has a rich legacy of African-American achievements, and greats such as the late playwright August Wilson and singer/guitarist George Benson are just part of the finely woven tapestry of culture that this city has helped to create.

While many people are aware of the predominance of African-Americans in Penn Hills and other neighborhoods, one doesn’t often think of the North Hills as a place where many blacks settled. But there are a few such places in the North Hills.

In Sewickley, known for its blueblood, old school families, a longstanding African-American community stays strong to this day. Sewickley was actually a stop on the Underground Railroad, and many notable black Pittsburghers have come from Sewickley. Eight men from the community went to the Tuskegee Institute, and five made it to pilot.

This proud local history has its guardians. About 60 active members of the Daniel B. Mathews Historical Society still watch over and sometimes uncover aspects of their collective history. The African-American historical group was named for Daniel B. Mathews, who was the founder of Sewickley’s 148-year-old St. Mathews AME Zion Church.

A little further south in the North Hills, a small group of Pittsburgh African-Americans found their resting place. Thankfully, the almost forgotten black cemetery soon will be refurbished.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Super Steelers, Super City

Moments after the Super Bowl ended on Sunday, the explosions began. The snapping of firecrackers and booms of M-80s and larger fireworks echoed across Blackridge, the East End community in which I live. The sounds of people honking car horns and screaming with joy out of their car windows emanated from Graham Boulevard into our neighborhood. I didn’t hear a single gunshot, though it is not a rare thing in this part of town.

I went out front and lit off some firecrackers—they were left over from July 4th a few years back, and I felt like I had to do something to celebrate. We’d spent a quiet Super Bowl with my wife’s parents at our house, so there wasn’t the usual hooting and hollering that you would get from a group of younger, more inebriated fans. More of a quiet celebration, but still all good, though different from the houses filled with family and friends that I remember from the Steelers’ four previous Super Bowl victories.

After lighting off a pack of firecrackers, I went back into the house and said goodbye to everybody. I had to do some legwork for a story.

As I drove down Penn Avenue into the heart of Wilkinsburg, the road was packed with cars whose drivers honked horns, whooped and hollered, waving Terrible Towels out of their windows as they passed. In the 300 block of Penn, a group of about 15 adolescents and teenagers edged into both sides of the street, hopping up and down and waving towels and hollering with joy to cars as they moved slowly past. Some of the kids, most of whom were black, wore shorts, while others wore Steelers jerseys. Few seemed to be wearing heavy coats, despite the chill and snow flurries. Many of the drivers happily honked back at the kids, while others hooted and flashed victory signs.

Traffic was moving slower than usual, partly because there was a lot more traffic than typical for a Sunday night. But all of the drivers seemed calm and not at all rushed. Down by the McDonalds on Penn, where several years ago Ron Taylor killed people in a racist rampage against whites, a brother with a wild hairdo sauntered down the sidewalk. He was wearing Steelers gear and every so often he would stop and place his hands on his chest, as if he would take a bow, while gazing at drivers passing by. When he got their attention, he’d raise his arms up in a “touchdown” pose, then wait to receive cheers and honks from those passing by. I saw him do this a few times, and he always got the desired response.

Every single person I saw driving by wore a pie-eating, blissful smile. Police officers in cars traveling down Penn Avenue grinned, amused by the scene.

From Wilkinsburg I headed over to Ardmore Boulevard to check out Forest Hills. As on Penn Avenue, Ardmore Boulevard was filled with cars carrying exuberant fans yelling out of their car windows and furiously waving towels to others passing by. Across the street from DeFazio’s Hair Salon a group of white kids, decked out in Steelers regalia and mostly appropriately dressed for the cold weather, cheered to passing cars, waving fists of victory and Terrible Towels. Drivers shouted back with joy and beeped their horns in frenzied staccatos.

Over in South Side and Oakland, mobs of young people flowed into the streets, some of which were closed off in anticipation of the celebration. Some of the expected idiocy of college students overturning cars and burning couches did happen, but not so much as might have occurred. Pittsburghers were pretty well behaved overall, as were our Steelers Nation comrades from outside the City of Steel who came here to celebrate with us.

Pittsburgh literally jumped for joy, long before the parade downtown yesterday that drew 250,000 fans.

The outpouring of love that the team received at yesterday’s celebration moved Steelers great Joey Porter, who wore a huge grin.

“I got chills up my back, looking at the sea of Black and Gold,” Porter said.

His teammates were just as ebullient.

“We brought one home for the thumb!” Big Ben told the crowd.

Coach Bill Cowher, who is legendary for the grimace he wears on the sidelines during games, smiled like a birthday boy.

“I was here in the Seventies when they talked about how great it was,” Cowher said to the adoring fans. “Now I can say, how great it is!”

The City of Champions had again reaffirmed its moniker and much of the Steelers Nation was here to celebrate. I realized that our town was hosting many people from out of town when I did a story on roadside vendors of Steelers regalia. I ran into a few former Pittsburghers while working on that story and other stories in the past few weeks. I also met compatriots of the Steelers Nation, such as George Woods, a truck driver and former police officer from Bloomingdale, Ohio.

He stopped by a Wilkinsburg vendor stand on Monday morning after the game, to pick up a Super Bowl T-shirt for his wife, Debbie.

Woods, 53, said he was raised a Steelers fan because his dad was from West Virginia and had always been a Steelers fan.

“Our whole block in my neighborhood is full of Steelers fans,” he said. “I stayed up for the game, though I had to get up at 3 a.m. for work. My only sad moments were when Bettis said, ‘The Bus stops here.’”

I mentioned how South Side had gotten a little crazy, which I know from experience (I lived there for a time) is liable to happen sometimes along East Carson Street.

“I would’ve liked to have been there,” Woods said with a faraway look in his eyes.

After a long drought, the Pittsburgh Steelers had again won the Super Bowl. In doing so, they reminded the world of our city’s inimitable work ethic, and of the tenacity with which Pittsburghers pursue their goals. The Super Bowl victory belongs to the team, but in a way, it belongs to all of us who consider ourselves a part of the Steelers Nation and share its ethic. We are the champions—black or white, middle-class or poor—all of us.

Monday, February 06, 2006

New Steelers Polka

Da-Da-Da-Da-Ta-Da - Charge!

We're from the town with that great football team,
We cheer the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Bill Cowher and all his friends are all on the field.
Go out and get them Steelers.

Big Ben, and Bus, Antwan and Ward,
We hail you Pittsburgh Steelers.
It's been many years in coming,
just keep that Steelers machinery humming

Defense, Defense, make them scramble, intercept that ball.
Defense, Defense, keeps the Steelers always best of all!
Porter, Porter, knock some heads on the other team,
You grin from ear to ear, we're so glad you play here,
Now join with me, and sing the Steelers cheer-er-ER!

We're from the town with that great football team,
We cheer the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Winning's a habit, not only a dream,
Go out and get them Steelers!

Troy’s Polamaniacs are hairy for the show,
and so are Jerome’s Busboys,
It's been many years in coming,
just keep that Steelers machinery humming.

Offense, Offense, take that football whole way up the field!
Offense, Offense, let's score and score and never ever yield!
Jerome, Willie, can you believe we have a running game?

The Steelers are so great, and so hard to overrate,
Good things, will come, to those who work and wait.


-With apologies to Jimmy Pol

Friday, February 03, 2006

Are Yinz from Pittsburgh

Are yinz from Pittsburgh? I ask not to annoy, but to point out that we all are framed by our experiences. I grew up around people who said such things many times, as I did. I also earned a B.A. in writing, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with such colloquial speech.

I’m sick of being pushed to apologize for the way people in Pittsburgh speak, because I like how they talk. We are all made of the experiences we’ve had, plus the experiences we make.
This might seem simplistic and goofy, but I make the point to show that something like respecting the differences of others has somehow become an unnecessary thing in this Information Age. Everything is the possible subject of a bad joke, and to hell with those who don’t think that every word or concept should be up for derision. 

We’ve seen in the anti-Muslim cartoons issue how such misunderstandings can be blown out of proportion and even used by demagogues. Regarding the attitudes that led to the worldwide controversy over the offending anti-Muslim cartoons, Stanley Fish put it well in The New York Times:

The first tenet of the liberal religion is that everything (at least in the realm of expression and ideas) is to be permitted, but nothing is to be taken seriously. This is managed by the familiar distinction — implied in the First Amendment's religion clause — between the public and private spheres. It is in the private sphere — the personal spaces of the heart, the home and the house of worship — that one's religious views are allowed full sway and dictate behavior.
But in the public sphere, the argument goes, one's religious views must be put forward with diffidence and circumspection. You can still have them and express them — that's what separates us from theocracies and tyrannies — but they should be worn lightly. Not only must there be no effort to make them into the laws of the land, but they should not be urged on others in ways that make them uncomfortable. What religious beliefs are owed — and this is a word that appears again and again in the recent debate — is "respect"; nothing less, nothing more.
The thing about respect is that it doesn't cost you anything; its generosity is barely skin-deep and is in fact a form of condescension: I respect you; now don't bother me. This was certainly the message conveyed by Rich Oppel, editor of The Austin (Tex.) American-Statesman, who explained his decision to reprint one of the cartoons thusly: "It is one thing to respect other people's faith and religion, but it goes beyond where I would go to accept their taboos."
Clearly, Mr. Oppel would think himself pressured to "accept" the taboos of the Muslim religion were he asked to alter his behavior in any way, say by refraining from publishing cartoons depicting the Prophet. Were he to do that, he would be in danger of crossing the line between "respecting" a taboo and taking it seriously, and he is not about to do that.

The Fish piece reminds me of some of my fellow bloggers and in particular, it reminds me of Mike Madison, at Pittsblog. Mike used the word “yinzer” to refer to those in a photo of fans at the Steelers victory parade. “How many Yinzers does it take…” he titled the post. After I commented on his blog that many folks in Pittsburgh think ‘yinzer” is a derogatory word, he responded:
"I'm smarter than I look; I used the word deliberately. I'll explain in another post."

Then he used my comment as a springboard to have a little “classroom discussion” on whether or not “yinzer” is a pejorative word:
Commenting on the title to my last post, Jonathan Barnes pointed out that many Pittsburghers cringe -- and worse -- at the "Yinzer" label. So in the title, I crossed it out.
Should I have done that? The question isn't respect for Jonathan's opinion; the question is whether some meaningful number of Pittsburghers cringe -- and whether that number overlaps in some relevant way with the 250,000 or so Steeler fans and others who crowded into Downtown on Tuesday for the Super Bowl parade and celebration. The title of the post and the Yinzer label, as I was using it, clearly referred to that crowd. If I was referring to 250,000 Steeler fans as Yinzers, was I being, as Jonathan suggests, "classist"? Or is it -- and I'll be provocative here for a moment -- "classist" to distance ourselves from the "Yinzer" label?
Commenters should tell me otherwise, but my non-native learning over the last several years tells me that a large, large number of people in this region are proud to refer to themselves -- and to be referred to -- as Yinzers. I'm using the term in a more general sense; I know that much of the time it has a narrower connotation -- particularly as it applies to people with a strong "Pittsburgh" accent. Borrowing a broader "people with strong emotional ties to the Pittsburgh area" meaning, I think, is fair. Pittsburgh wore its blue-collar, working class identity with pride during Super Bowl week, and to me "Yinzer" reads on that identity pretty closely, as does the exuberant and exhilarating passion that attaches to Steeler fan-dom. That passion is objectively irrational -- I like the Steelers and watch the games and get excited when they win, but it's a football team, everyone; nothing world-changing is at stake -- but you have to admire it. I'm willing to hypothesize that among any particular community, the passion is positively correlated with the strength of Pittsburgh's get-down-and-dirty self-image. We didn't have 250,000 investment bankers and neuroscientists downtown on Tuesday.

I find Mike’s way of provoking people into discussion to be less than honest. I also find it less than true to Pittsburgh, since we Pittsburghers are a blunt people. I could be wrong, but I can’t help but think that Mike has seen my Rant in the City Paper, in which I ripped on non-native journalists busting on this city and its people. Either way, I must rebut.
First of all, it is Steelers, not Steeler.

Second, if it is classist to distance ourselves from the "yinzer" pejorative, as Mike suggests, then African-Americans that don't like the n-word could legitimately be called "sellouts." And frankly, any fair person who has ever heard people use the word yinzer as a slur wouldn't like the word. So why do some people feel the need to use it?

I heard the word all of the time as a student at Carnegie Mellon. Several of my buddies from Boston and New York were in the habit of calling me yinzer when I was in college with them. They meant it as a compliment, in a way, but they also used the word as a way to judge me and bust on me for being oh-so-Pittsburgh, as in: “You’re such a yinzer!”

The y-word also sprang from my friends’ lips whenever they ran into something or someone they didn’t like here in Pittsburgh. As in, “Stupid f***in yinzers can’t do anything right!”

And even if some people think that the word yinzer is cool, that doesn't mean they have a clue. Rappers often use the n-word, and we all know how dim-witted some of those guys are.
As the n-word is with African-Americans, the y-word should be with native Pittsburghers—that is, a term that only certain people (i.e., native Pittsburghers) feel free to use. Even if it were so, many Pittsburghers are too poorly educated to recognize that the y-word has several meanings. Some here have latched onto the pejorative “yinzer” as if it means blue-collar, hardworking, tough. Maybe it does, to some people—particularly those who aren’t likely to have done any laboring jobs in their lives. I think that for such folks, their affection for the word is a superficial connection that has no basis in their own experience. They put it on for the weekend, as they would a Steelers jersey.
I worked for years in all sorts of construction and landscaping jobs, so I know a bit about that side of life. But I wonder how much others in this region know about it, or how much they care about how people who do manual work for a living get by. From most of the discussions in the Pittsburgh blogosphere, you would think that not a single person in the region is gainfully employed in a good-paying blue-collar job, when many people around here have such jobs, though obviously not as many as in the past.

Even in the print media, the pandering to the locals continues. Things like the “Yinz Blog, We Notice,” column in the Pittsburgh City Paper show a general condescension. But aren’t Pittsburghers allowed to have a word that stands for “all of you”? Why is y’all acceptable and yinz is laughable?
It sometimes seems like a whole generation of Pittsburghers came of age and insecurely began to make fun of themselves. Unless a “meaningful number” of the folks who are making this fun aren’t originally from here, which I believe is the fact.

Before you hate me for seeming to dislike you because you weren’t born here, let me say that my parents were mid-westerners before they came to Pittsburgh and raised our family here. So if not for outsiders, I wouldn’t be a Pittsburgh native. It’s not people moving into Pittsburgh that bothers me, but condescending attitudes towards Pittsburghers that gets under my skin.

The increasing prevalence of memorabilia poking fun at Pittsburgh sayings points to the growing boldness of those who love to lampoon Pittsburghers. Bumper stickers with n@ on them, for the Pittsburghese pronunciation of the phrase “and that,” are displayed brazenly by people who have no business poking fun at anyone, much less the natives. These pejorative slices of Americana illustrate a disaffiliation from Pittsburgh that supposedly is meant to be endearing, but I’m not buying it. For some folks who aren’t from here and find our ways “quaint,” these things are just a joke. But people who are from here find such things insulting.

I asked a friend who’s originally from North Hills what he thought about the word “yinzer.” I asked “C” if he would ever call a man a yinzer to his face.
“Not unless I wanted to get into a fight,” C said.

But then he went on to say that he thinks that Mike’s caption above the Steelers parade photo was pretty much on the mark. In C’s opinion, the typical fan at the gathering was a yinzer.
“Every single person that had a camera on him at that parade was ugly, fat and stupid-looking,” C said.

It reminds me of this:
“We didn't have 250,000 investment bankers and neuroscientists downtown on Tuesday.”
C, who originally is from the North Hills, said he’d laugh if anyone ever called him a yinzer.
“I’m not from Pittsburgh,” he said, echoing an elitist sentiment often repeated by people I’ve known who are from some of Pittsburgh’s “better” suburbs.

I first heard the word yinzer when I was a student at Kiski School, from friends of mine who were from Mt. Lebanon and Upper St. Clair. Growing up in Bellevue, I’d never heard the y-word before my teens.

I point this out to say that the word clearly has a class distinction to it. In the view of some people, certain places around Pittsburgh are “yinz,” and others are not. To some, Bellevue is yinz, and Mt. Lebo is not. They think that Greenfield is yinz, and Franklin Park is not, although some people in all of those places say “yinz.”

What if Northerners started moving to Raleigh and began to call the locals “Y’allers”? Would that be fine? In a way, people already are doing that in Baltimore.

Sam McDonald at AntiRust recently had a post on this issue in which he talked about “Baltimore Hons”—that city’s stereotypical old local lady, because these ladies call everyone “Hon,” short for Honey. Sam pointed out some similarities between the rioting Muslims and the disquieted Pittsburghers who feel picked on:

Let me be very clear. I am not saying that saying the word 'Yinzer" or "Hon" is the same as drawing a cartoon of a religious symbol. Or that I expect people to riot in the streets. Or even that I think use of words like "Yinz" should be restricted to "authentic" Pittsburghers, whatever the hell that means.
What I am saying is that there does appear to be some common anxieties in all these issues. Who controls the language? Who is an insider? What can insiders expect in terms of respect from outsiders? Where do we draw the line between offensive speech and oversensitive listeners?

As a native speaker of the word “yinz,” I think that people who celebrate HonFest are shameful. Whatever happened to love thy neighbor? I’m trying to like these custard-eating types, but their holier-than-thou attitude drives me nuts. Why do these yuppies have to go to Baltimore, or Pittsburgh, and make a nice life there, then bust on the locals?

There's no regard for other people's feelings anymore. All traditions and words, save the n-word, are up for grabs. Baltimore Hons are lampooned and Pittsburgh Yinzers are the laughing subject of a blog.

People called out Mike on his blog. “B” had some choice words:

Let's face it - domestic accents are not perceived well. It implies lack of education. People in the south have fought this perception forever. Not a good thing in a knowledge-based economy.
There clearly is a class divide in Pittsburgh as there is in other cities…
I once met someone who was from Mt. Lebo, who upon hearing where I was from, said, "Oh you really are a yinzer.” For what it's worth, I didn't take it as a compliment.

I think B’s point that he didn't like being called a yinzer should speak volumes to Mike (who happens to be from Mt. Lebo) and other people who are happily using condescending terms like yinzer. And clearly, the comments on Pittsblog did have an impact on Mike, who said that because of those comments, he would no longer use the word. He seemed grudging in agreeing to not use the word, like he felt he has the right to do so even if it does piss people off. And clearly, he does have that right.

But why did we need to argue about this? Everyone I know from Pittsburgh knows the y-word is a nasty word. I have found in my years of living here and having many friends from outside of Pittsburgh, that even nowadays many of these friends use the y-word to refer to Pittsburghers, knowing full well its double meaning, and meaning it in both senses.

Jill Rubinstein, who grew up in Churchill and was educated out-of-state, knows it’s a bad word.
“Yinzer definitely has a negative connotation. I wouldn’t use it,” Jill said.

But I figured I’d give Mike the benefit of the doubt, and I called the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s main branch in Oakland to talk to someone who should know about these things. I contacted Barry Chad, a senior librarian in the Pennsylvania Room, because he knows about all things Pennsylvania. I asked him if yinzer a pejorative word.

“It’s pejorative, oh yeah,” Barry said. We talked a bit about it, and I noticed from his speech that he didn’t sound like he was from Pittsburgh, and I mentioned it. He said he is originally from Philadelphia, and he noted that Pennsylvanians on the other side of the mountains say “youse.”

“[The use if yinz] is on this side of the Appalachians,” Barry said, adding that there was no question that the y-word is a bad word. “I think most people would agree that yinzer is pejorative,” he said.

The title of this story sprang into my head as I was thinking about this subject. I remembered an old friend of my brother who drunkenly sang a silly tune at my brother’s wedding. The song was so silly, and rather true, that it stuck in my head for years. So while I was working on this piece I looked up the sentence “Are yinz from Pittsburgh,” and I was glad to find the web site of the Hash House Harriers, who posted the lyrics to the song. In an effort to end this piece on a happy note, here are the lyrics:

Are yinz from Pittsburgh

Are yinz from Pittsburgh
I said from Pittsburgh
Where the emphysema rate is so high
Where streets are narrow
Like Mia Farrow
And flocks of pigeons shit in your eye
Are yinz from Baldwin or Monroeville or from Aspinwall?
Or do you come from South Side with your bowling ball?
Are yinz from Pittsburgh?
I said from Pittsburgh.
'Cause we're from Pittsburgh too.

We know our city
Is not so pretty
But so what if we've nothing unique
There's still Apollo
And Panther Hollow
And floods each year along Chartiers Creek.
When you die they put your name upon the voting list
And hashing is just fine if you're a masochist.
Are yinz from Pittsburgh?
I said from Pittsburgh.
'Cause we're from Pittsburgh too.

Author’s note:
In this story I used bolds and italics for the quotes I took from elsewhere.