Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Bellevue’s Thinktank

Some are calling it the Shadyside of Pittsburgh’s north suburbs, but for Bellevue natives, the phrase just doesn’t quite ring true. Walnut Street could be considered a little snooty by some, and it is much more upscale than Bellevue. But the little borough perched on a plateau above the Ohio River has a down-to-earth, Mayberry-like feel to it that is only underscored by its green grocer, its two bakeries, and Jesse The Tailor, who will mend your jacket for your while you wait.

Folks in Bellevue know that their dry town, without a single bar or beer distributor, has its own intoxicating charm. From Roberto’s, to Luigi’s in the center of town, to the more upscale Vivo a few doors down, or Affogato coffee house, Dietz’s Floral and Gifts, the Rusty Nail, homey Frankfurters hot dog shop and other boutiques, the 1-square-mile borough seems to have a bit of nearly everything.

Except for the movies, that is. The Bellevue Cinemas closed a few years back, but the dream of Bellevue didn’t die for many of those who are remaking the small borough. Sam DiBattista, a Coraopolis native, pushed forward with his recipe for revitalization—starting his own businesses (Vivo and Affogato) in the town he’s grown to love. His sister, Mary, and brother-in-law, Marty Armstrong, followed Marty’s dream and turned a small storefront into Frankfurters. Ed Dietz, a second-generation Bellevue merchant, continued to expand his business, and it is now the largest gift shop in the area. Luigi Della Ragione, a longtime staple of the borough’s restaurant community, recently moved and expanded his shop, after being in the same spot by the old movie theater for 20 years.

Bellevue has several places that foodies love, but increasingly, the borough is providing intellectual sustenance for the creativity-deprived. Project Bellevue is showcasing local artwork in various stores in the Bellevue business district. And now Bellevue has a workplace for creative minds. Thinktank, a shared workspace for computer types such as writers, designers and programmers, recently opened in the second floor of the old G.C. Murphy building, now known as the 517521 Building.

Thinktank will be celebrating its grand opening at 8 p.m. on Saturday, April 1. The bash will include food, drink, music spun by several DJs, performances and a live graffiti artist as well as a dissident Chinese poet. Huang Xiang is here as part of the City of Asylum project at the Mattress Factory. Founding member Tom Buell, of Ben Avon, is organizing the party. More than 100 guests are expected, he said. Those interested in attending the shindig should contact Buell to get on the guest by sending a note to

Thanks, Allentown Morning Call

Somebody on the other side of the state, who is in the media, apparently likes Barnestormin. This encourages me because it seems the Pittsburgh media completely ignores my blog. Or maybe they just scan my blog for story ideas and news tips, with no intention of giving me any publicity--check the news and be the judge, critical reader. Does mainstream media fear competition from online news sources? You bet they do.

I’ve found in my ego-trip Google searches that the Allentown Morning Call newspaper has mentioned and linked my blog stories a handful of times. The Morning Call has a circulation of 130,000 daily newspapers and 170,000 Sunday newspapers sold, which is about the same size as the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. The most recent mention and link to my work came in the same place all of the others did, in the newspaper’s online section titled “In The Blogosphere.” This time, they linked my story “Luck of the Somewhat Irish”:

March 21, 2006

In The Blogosphere:
Keystone Politics on the POTUS fund-raising for Our Rick; GrassrootsPA on a pending NOW endorsement in the U.S. Senate race; Row House Logic on the neuroses of Philly Democrats; A Smoke-Filled Room scrapes up the bits and pieces from Monday; Above Average Jane interviews Demorat Paul Lang, who's running for the 6th State Senate District seat in Bucks County against Republican Sen. Robert M. Tomlinson; Fables of the Reconstruction rues an earlier prediction about the War on Terror; An amusing link from Bill Bostic; PennPatriot has his own property tax plan; Barnestormin' had a fine St. Patrick's Day; PATown Hall on the vagaries of land development; Lefty 'Blogs provides a quick round-up of what PA's progressives are talking about; It's Cheers n' Jeers Tuesday over at DailyKos; Red State reminds us that it's still the economy, stupid; Wonkette's daily briefing; DCist once again provides us with our photo of the day; Andrew Sullivan on the war's third anniversary; Powerline inadvertently proves the old adage about the nastiness of academic debates; Political Animal is skeptical of the Bushies; Josh Marshall wonders whether Bush 43 might be our Worst President Ever; If you're still optimistic about Iraq, Arianna Huffington thinks you might be deluded, and Culture Vulture reminds us of why we used to love The Happy Mondays so much.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Think In Themes

People tend to dumb down print journalism, even suggesting that a reporter should "not write anything above the sixth grade level.” I put the phrase in quotes because I’ve actually had editors tell me it, and I completely disagree. As a writer, a reporter has a chance to connect with others on a level that’s a bit deeper than normal. The way the writer does this is by making things, in a way, more complex.

If a writer dumbs down a story, he may lose sight of the larger themes that can come to play in a story. Themes that speak to our way of thinking about love, friendship, loyalty, and courage can be missed altogether for the foolish writer that attempts to make all of his stories as simple as possible.

I recently noticed one of those themes when I read an obituary story by Gary Rotstein, of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Writing about his brother, who died unexpectedly, Rotstein composed “Lives lived: A brother lost in life and found in death,” which began with the words:

“Wayne Rotstein was a kid from Oakland who struggled at school, rebelled at home and never backed down from a fistfight on the streets.

Vishwamitra was a young man searching for spiritual enlightenment while wrestling with the pull of gambling, drinking and pot-smoking.

Banyan was a serene, self-taught, self-sufficient Hawaiian who shunned material goods. His plantings made the earth more nourishing and beautiful than those around him imagined possible.

My brother went by all three names, in a half-century of evolution, until his freakish death 10 days ago. A dam broke that morning at 6, and he was swept away, apparently to disappear into the Pacific Ocean forever. Six acquaintances lost their lives with him on Kauai, a tropical Hawaiian island nearly 5,000 miles from the asphalt Oakland neighborhood which he and I roamed as youths.”

The beautifully written piece, penned by a man who’d lost touch with his older brother, was nonetheless moving and enlightening all at once. In the story, the writer shows a mastery of journalism that enables him to give a wonderful tribute to his brother, while informing and, in a sad way, entertaining readers. Gary Rotstein uses the stuff of his life and of everyone’s life to create a narrative that helps us all to connect with each other. He does it, in part, through his use of theme.

For example, Gary’s piece states that Wayne Rotstein “never backed down from a fistfight on the streets.” That’s a big theme there, especially in Pittsburgh, which is a place where people pride themselves on their toughness as much as on their smarts. The universality of the statement made me think of many other things, including my childhood. The phrase also reminded me on an obituary story that I wrote for the Post-Gazette on Vincent R. Restagno, “Clairton's feisty city solicitor,” which began:

“Vincent R. Restagno took up boxing as a youth in Clairton as a way to defend himself. Later, he learned martial arts. Twice opponents broke his nose during his sparring days, but he never backed down.

That characteristic served him equally well as city solicitor in the mill town's rough-and-tumble politics.

‘Clairton people fight amongst themselves, just like in the pool hall,’ he said in a Jan. 16 Post-Gazette story on an ongoing lawsuit between Mayor Dominic Serapiglia and city council members.”

Can you see the theme here?

Use themes to your advantage, for yourself, for the story, and most importantly, for the reader. The reader is looking to connect with you, which is why she is reading your story. But you have to give her something to go on, and one of the ways that you do is that is by using themes in your stories, because themes capture the reader’s attention. Themes allow us to connect through our common experiences.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

It's Slavic, no matter how you spell it

Up in Ambridge, a melting pot town that boomed with the steel industry, people stick with the old recipes, like making fresh pirohy.

Church members volunteered making the stuffed dumplings every week for St. John the Baptist Church until just a few years ago. On Fridays, the line of patrons would stretch out the door. The faithful group of about 15 volunteers still makes pirohy, but only a few times a year---for Easter, Christmas and the church's Rusyn Festival in August. Two types of the dumpling are offered for sale: potato (filled with a cheese and potato mix), and kraut. Sold for just five dollars per dozen, the pirohy go fast, with the church members selling 800 dozen or more during each of the periods when they are sold.

The love of food transcends borders and religions, customs and beliefs, which is no doubt partly why the sales are so successful. And the smell of a steaming pot of halupki (stuffed cabbage, which the church sells at its Rusyn Festival) or the first sweet bite of a holiday nut roll can conjure up powerful memories and associations, such as grandma rolling out the dough for the nut rolls to paper thinness on the diningroom table. But these pirohy-pinching volunteers aren't patting each other on the backs or waxing poetic. Asked about her part in the group's pirohy production line, Theresa Semonik shrugged it off. "I've been raised on the stuff," she says. "I've been making pirohy since I was six or seven." Like Semonik, church member and pirohy volunteer Caroline Willgruber grew up with the food. "I remember my grandmother making it back when I was young," she says.

Church member Harry Coe notes that the sales of pirohy and halusky have been a financial mainstay for the church. "The pirohy helped pay for the church, and it also helped pay for the church hall I teach pysanky in. We built the hall in 1976, and paid it off in just a handful of years from making pirohy and halusky," he says. Halusky is a flat, broad noodle boiled and sauted with butter, onions, cabbage and sometimes other ingredients such as kielbasa and peppers. Pysanky is the Rusyn art of dyeing Easter eggs with different colors, designs and motifs.

Some of the volunteers tend to do different tasks involved in making the dough, cooking the ingredients and stuffing and pinching the pirohy. "Usually, John Youhas and I do the dough," explains Caroline's husband, Robert Willgruber, who married into the pirohy tradition. "A lot of the women do the pinching. I can't keep up with them, they're fast."

Caroline says that those who do the pinching each has her own style. "It's interesting because everyone has their own way of pinching. We tease each other and say, 'If it comes apart in the [boiling] water, we know who to blame.'"

The number of pirohy that are made, cooked and frozen before each sale tends to be 800 dozen, though it's not a written rule. More important to those involved is the fact that the seasonal gatherings nourish their hunger for time with each other, benefiting them perhaps as much as the obvious benefit that the sales bring to the church. "We have a good group of people, it's like a family. We enjoy being there," Semonik says. Youhas agrees: "The group that we have working together, we just enjoy being there. We make what we make."

This story was published in Pittsburgh Magazine's Beaver County magazine.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Luck of the Somewhat Irish

I’d confess that it was the beer, if that were the case. But my falling in love with a girl on the most Irish of American holidays had little to do with the libations.

Not so long ago, I found out that St. Patrick's Day isn't only for the full-blooded Irish -- it's a celebration open to all, especially the lovelorn. Those looking for love come out in droves for a pint on the holiday, many of them thinking, "Maybe I'll get lucky."

Judging from my experience, I'd say that a nip of Irish luck is in the air on St. Paddy's Day. In the lilting giggle of gal, you might find a sweetheart, as I did. And you'll never be as young as you will be this St. Patrick's Day.

On this rather irreligious religious holiday, the Irish people's love of a good laugh is evidenced by the peals of enjoyment ringing through pubs across America. It's a day when people let their guards down and sing, a day when they toast strangers as well as friends. It's a perfect day for a love-match -- even if you're not planning on it.

Six years ago on the holiday, which is my brother Sean's birthday, he and I went to Fatheads, a bar in the South Side of Pittsburgh, to have a few pints of Guinness for his birthday and for the holiday, and to munch on some of the locally famous chicken wings. I wasn't through my first glass when in walked a rare flower. I saw her about two seconds before she walked up to me. She smiled confidently, almost smirking, and the flash in her eye gave me a nervous queasiness.

I'd met her a month before, but I had been too self-conscious to call her. Being part Irish -- a willowy branch of the King Clan -- Anne felt at home on this holiday. It turned out that she was meeting her good friend, who is Jewish, to have a few drinks for the holiday.

Anne leaned over and tested me: "So where's your girlfriend?" she said with a smirk.

"I don't have a girlfriend," I said, speechless, as I pondered the nest of curls of her long, reddish-brown hair.

It wasn't the single beer I'd had that made me think that her lips were redder, and her skin, fairer. Maybe it was simply the luck of realizing that the best gift I might ever have was staring at me. I was done, and vaguely scared as hell at the prospect. I thought Anne was Jewish because of her last name, and I asked her about it. She shook her head.

"I'm Presbyterian," she said.

"But are you Irish?" I asked.

"I'm Irish enough," she said, flashing her hazel eyes and winking at me.

That holiday worked its charm on Anne and me, and we've been together ever since. Two years ago when we were planning our wedding, we were checking out the church in which I was raised -- First Presbyterian, in downtown Pittsburgh. At the end of the sermon, the Irish minister gave the Irish Blessing along with the Benediction.

"And now, may the road rise to meet you, and may the wind always be at your back," the preacher said in his subtle brogue. "May the sun shine warm upon your face, and the rains fall softly on your fields. And until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand."

I had always considered this blessing to be the best part of the service, and I had been away from the church for so long that I forgot about how good it felt to hear those words.

Anne and I were touched -- the blessing reminded me of growing up in "First Church," as we called it, where Irish ministers seemed to have always been a part of the church family. Rev. Logan and other Irish ministers would give that blessing when I was young, and it always gave me a warm feeling. Anne liked the blessing simply because it is beautiful. That day we decided to include it as part of our wedding ceremony.

My Uncle Holyman, who is a Lutheran minister, officiated at the ceremony and recited the blessing at the end of our wedding. I always felt that those words would bring Anne and me good fortune, and they have.

In this age of three-minute-dating, Internet hook-ups and pricey matchmakers, remember that love might be yours for free. Or it might cost you the price of one beer. So if you take a chance this St. Patrick's Day, smile confidently, and the Luck of the Irish be yours.

This essay originally was published in 2004 in TPQ Online.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

With my little eye

I spy with my little eye... The Thomas Merton Center and Pittsburgh Organizing Group?
That's what folks at the Merton Center, POG and the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia ACLU are saying.
Those anti-war groups say they are not surprised by the unwanted attention. Are you, gentle reader?

Monday, March 13, 2006

Dodge City Saloons

The shootings are happening OK Corral-style, with tavern “doormen” blazing it up outside of and in establishments around Pittsburgh. People are ending up dead, but so what?

There doesn’t seem to be much outrage over these shootings, which more often than not happen when a group of rowdy patrons or would-be patrons get into a confrontation with a “bouncer” at a bar. A while back, in December, it happened again, this time in Penn Hills at a bar called A-4 Place. One person was killed in the shooting.

Who are these doormen who are shooting it up and not taking names? It’s practically anybody’s guess, because the City of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, and local municipalities do not regulate such armed bar employees. Many police think the local governments needn’t be worried about doormen packing guns, because the state regulates the employees. Others want to see a more cautious approach.

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala recently addressed the issue of gun-toting bouncers.

“The District Attorney has asked the legislature to debate whether it’s wise to allow armed guards in drinking establishments. This came up at a news conference,” said Mike Manko, the D.A.’s spokesman.

Manko added that the issue arose after the shooting at J&K's Place, in which two people were killed.

“We don’t police who can be a bouncer,” Manko said.

Should the state more strictly control who’s playing Wyatt Earp at the local watering hole? Some say yes, because not even the owner of the bar is safe from a bouncer shooting wildly in a small bar.

The state regulates armed guards, but it doesn’t keep an eye on where such guards are employed. A bar owner that employs such a doorman must be sure that the place is properly insured and that the doorman is properly trained in the use of firearms. A background check of the potential employee is the bar owner’s—not the police’s—obligation. The legitimate doorman’s gun training is done through the state’s Act 235 program.

The Act 235 training program does not teach conflict resolution or other mediation skills that police officers are taught. Act 235 was enacted in 1974 and is taught through the Municipal Police Officers’ Education and Training Commission. The law requires the lethal weapons training, an eligibility screen, physical and psychological screens, and a criminal history check.

Act 235 has not been changed since it was made law 32 years ago. It does not specifically address doormen at bars, but it does mention watch-guards, those employed in protective control, and those working as detectives. People with Act 235 training alone have no powers of arrest.

“The intent of the lethal weapons training law was to establish an eligibility requirement for allowing people to use a lethal weapon,” said Beverly Young, an administrative officer with the Municipal Police Officers’ Education and Training Commission. “The law has not been amended, but things can change.”

Penn Hills Police chief Howard Burton sees no real problem with the way things are.

“I don’t have concerns, because [the incidents involving guns] are few and far between,” he said. “With A-4 Place, that was the first time there was a situation there.”

Chief Burton added that who works as a doorman is not under the control of the local police. “If they have Act 235, they’re able to work as a bouncer,” he said.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Rah Rah Pittsburgh

I had a rah-rah pro-Pittsburgh story in ENR magazine recently. I write this despite the fact that some of my fellow bloggers might consider such a piece to be un-American, if not at least anti-Pittsburgh.
But Pittsburgh needs all the good press it can get, and ENR, which is a weekly, is the best-known construction magazine in the nation.
The magazine is distributed to most of the construction, engineering and design frims in the U.S. I hooked up with ENR to begin with to cover the inquest into the convention center construction death of ironworker Paul Corsi Jr. Like that sad story, some Pittsburgh stories have no silver lining, so it's nice to do the positive ones on occassion.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

A Death In The Family


I realize now that we were lucky that he made it through the night. It was a blessing that we had a little more time before we had to say goodbye.

Our dog, Max, had a fatal heart problem that put tremendous stress on his heart, and the vet who saw him at the 24-hour clinic gave him hours to a day to live. We’d taken him to the vet Monday evening, after he’d been panting excessively after a walk with Anne and his back legs gave out on him while he was trying to stand up.

“I would recommend that you put him down tonight,” the vet said.

Anne and I were in shock, and we broke down weeping in front of the vet. We agreed that we’d take Max home that night and stay with him. She was not ready to accept the inevitable, that our boy likely would have to be put to sleep. It was dawning on me that was the case, and I was heartbroken.

After the vet left us sobbing in the room, I walked out into the hallway, about ready to burst into a forbidden room where they were keeping our dog. “Where’s our pup?” I said angrily. “Why are they keeping him from us?”

Then we heard his piercing bark, like he knew we were out there trying to get to him. Somehow, it felt slightly reassuring, but not really.

I had thought of this possible inevitability many times before. You see, after falling for my wife Anne several years ago, I then fell for her dog Max. I fell so completely for him that occasionally when I would think of the probability that he would die before us, I’d feel sick inside at the thought of not having him as one of the family.

Everybody’s favorite pet is the best pet in the world, but I am not exaggerating a hair when I say that Max was the best dog ever born. He was a gentle 75 pounds of love, very mannerly and respectful of the cats, conscientious to a fault. Many times when I walked him in the neighborhood, someone would stop us and say, “That’s a pretty dog.”

“I just married into the family,” I’d tell them. “He’s my wife’s boy.”

Anne and Max found each other in 1999, when she was modeling in a fashion show benefit for Animal Rescue League. Some of the models were walking down the runway with a dog, and Anne saw Max, and asked to walk with him.

“He took off down the runway and I was in heels and almost fell,” she told me laughingly many times. Of course he’d stolen her heart on that runway, and she came back the next day and adopted him.

In the end, his heart had become grossly enlarged and fluid filled the sack around it, making it impossible for his heart and the rest of his system to function properly. He might’ve had the condition very shortly, the vet told us. “If you’d x-rayed him a month ago, you might’ve found nothing,” she said.

It all happened so fast. Maybe not, but it seemed that way.

Now I wonder why I didn’t recognize the signs that he was declining—how he sometimes was reluctant to go up the stairs, or why he slept so late or kept sleeping after Anne and I had left the room, or how he’d pant excessively sometimes after a walk. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, and there’s no way to say that if we’d known and been gingerly with him, he might’ve lasted much longer.

It would happen that we would have to put him down on the kind of day on which he would’ve loved to romp on a walk with us—one of those clear, cool sunny days just right for a pup with his kind of coat. We called him a Snow Dog, because when it was snowy out, he’d run out into the snow and bury his face in it and roll around in it, like he was born for the snow.

I wrote a story about walking him in the snow that was published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and I actually met a neighbor because of it this past summer. One sunny day as I was working in one of our front yard flowerbeds, a woman who was new to the neighborhood walked up to me and said she’d read the story I wrote about walking Max.

“I liked the story, it had a nice feel to it,” she said, introducing herself. I thanked her, and she noticed Max in the front yard with me. “This must be Max,” she said, petting him a bit. A few days later, we saw her while we were on a walk, and I realized she lived about ten doors down.

I was raised in a dog-loving family, though my dad was the dog-loving king.

“He never met a dog he didn’t like,” my mom said many times. I feel much the same love for pups as my dad did. And I cried much harder after losing Max than I did after my dad died.

Franklin said beer is proof that God loves us. True, but pets are living, breathing, loving playmates that remind us of the simpler good things in life, like a sunny day, playtime at the park, a belly rub and a snack. They also remind us of our mortality, and of how important it is to enjoy that sunny day on a walk with a friend.

This story originally was published in Gist Blackridge.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Frankfurters in Bellevue

I walked into Frankfurters in Bellevue the other afternoon because I was hungry and I can’t pass that place when I’m hungry without stopping in to get a bite to eat. Decorated in a quasi-Bavarian ratskellar sort of way, the small shop along Lincoln Avenue felt warm and familiar, and smelled of freshly grilled onions and green peppers. I went up to the counter to order something.

“What have you been cooking?” I asked Mary, who owns the place with her husband, Marty Armstrong.

“Oh, I was just cooking some onions and green peppers for the hot sausage,” Mary said.

Of course I ordered the hot sausage, which does not come with a red sauce, but only the grilled onions and peppers. “That’s the way it comes because that’s the way I like it,” Mary said.

It was excellent, and as I was eating it, I witnessed Marty answering questions posed by a bunch of adolescent girls on a field trip to learn about owning your own business.

“How’d you come up with the name for the place,” one of the girls asked Marty.

“When I was a kid, on the lunch menu at school, for hotdogs they called it 'frankfurter on a bun,' and that’s where I got it,” he said.

I mention all of this because I’ve never mentioned Frankfurters in Barnestormin before, and I feel that I should because the Armstrongs are great people who do a great service for the North Boroughs. Their hotdogs are wonderful and they serve old-style soda pop, and you can get a genuine root beer or cream soda, as well as several other flavors.

Marty is something of a hotdog aficionado, and he and Mary know just the right ingredients to use to make their hearty food stick with you, in every good sense of the phrase. I also enjoy D’s Hot Dogs in Regent Square, but Frankfurters has its own flavor, and to my knowledge it cannot be beat in the north Pittsburgh suburbs, at the very least.

I also am writing about Frankfurters because the place will be featured on a WQED television special on hotdog shops that will air tonight at 7:30 p.m. I am not surprised that WQED has done such a special, given that Oakland’s Original Hot Dog Shop, but not its name, is for sale. Who knows how long these types of businesses will survive? You’ve got to patronize them while you have the chance.

So have yourself a dog at Frankfurters, if you’re up North Boroughs, or at D’s, if you’re down Regent Square. And check out the hot dog shop special on WQED tonight.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Project Bellevue brings art closer to home

Project Bellevue has nothing to do with building nuclear warheads, feeding the hungry, comforting the grieving or curing the sick. Then again, it could have something to do with all of these things, and maybe more. It depends upon your creativity.

The effort, led by Andy Rubacky of the 517521 building in Bellevue (known to old-timers as the former G.C. Murphy building), is meant to bring a greater awareness and appreciation of art to the many storefronts of Bellevue's business district.

Project Bellevue also is meant to engage local artists by giving them different themes from which to create and contribute art that is then displayed locally.

Rubacky, a graphic designer by training who now is recognizable at his post in the 517521 building, said the other day that he’s been encouraged by the response so far. He waved an arm at a couple of paintings that flanked the right side of the 517521 vintage store counter.

“I want to incorporate the art projects into different businesses throughout the business district,” Rubacky said.

He started the project on Feb. 1. Each month, Rubacky posts a call for entries on the web site, asking people to create art in a particular medium on a particular theme, such as “sorrow.” Entries are posted on the web site on the 15th of each month.