Saturday, May 20, 2006

From this standpoint

Two sparrows, one of them still sitting on a tree branch by my window, just met on the branch, petting each other with their beaks, their wings fluttering in apparent joy. Then the one flew off, the other fluttering his wings as if waving goodbye.

The bird flew back and began feeding the other, and I thought the one on the branch must be a baby. Because I long ago removed the curtains from my second floor study window, dramas like this play out daily on the leafy maple tree whose branches reach to within a few feet of my window. As I write this, the bird is still on the branch, and he seems to lose his feet for a second, then he recovers his balance. I can’t help but wonder if he’s injured.

Garden-variety animal dramas like this play out in front of me as I look out my window and work at my desk. Right now the little branch-bound bird is chirping, while nearby another sparrow chirps back at the little bird. They’re definitely communicating, though I have no idea what they’re saying. Probably, “Hang in there.”

It sometimes seems even the littlest things can be full of meaning. Or, maybe I’m just melodramatic, but I find it hard to ignore what I see and hear around me, because the coincidences sometimes can teach us.

I couldn’t help mentioning the sparrow, because he’s still seemingly marooned on that branch, just feet from my window. I’m hoping his kin will help him until he somehow makes it safely off that branch. Maybe I’m just naïve, but it doesn’t seem natural that he’s stuck there this long.

The little critter makes me think of Big Red, the grandest squirrel I’ve ever had the luck to see in action. This past winter, my wife Anne began to regularly put out wild birdseed and also peanuts in the shell on a patio and stone barbecue that’s in the back yard. She’d put out the food at least once, if not twice a day, and she developed quite a following. A whole herd of squirrels, a few cocksure chipmunks, and cardinals, blue jays, robins, starlings, sparrows, crows, and pigeons flocked to the backyard gravy train.

Among these multitudes was Big Red. He was an exceptionally large squirrel, with a reddish brown coat and tail, and a beautiful, rust-colored belly. Unlike the other squirrels, with their drab white bellies and brown coats, Big Red had won the luck of the genetic draw with his reddish-rust colored fur. He was much larger than the other squirrels, and they seemed to defer to him and move out of his way when he was grazing in the back yard. One of the smaller squirrels had more than a touch of Big Red’s rusty coloring, and we figured that one was Red’s child.

A couple months back I saw Big Red on the branch outside my window, where, thankfully, the sparrow no longer is perched. Despite Red’s prodigious size, he slowly traversed the seemingly too-thin branch, sure of himself as an old Walenda.

Then a while back, Anne and I realized that we hadn’t seen old Red in a while. We speculated about what might’ve become of him.

“They cut down a tree a couple yards up the other day. Maybe that was Red’s home. Maybe they had to relocate,” I said to Anne, as I watched a group of smaller, less-colorful squirrels munch on birdseed in the yard.

“I think there was a power struggle between the different groups of squirrels,” she said.

We both hoped aloud that Red hadn’t met his end.

Forgive me for what some of you may think is my indulgence—I have not bored you with the details of life in the trees outside my window before. But it appears that over the past few years, I may have bored readers with the seemingly trivial aspects of my daily life. I am reminded of this because of something a friend said a while back.

While Hilary Masters was introducing me to a group of folks at CMU before my reading a while back, my old professor said something telling that it took me a while to understand.

“He covers the ground he stands on,” Hilary said.

While he was introducing me I was flushed with embarrassment at being spoken of so kindly. Then later, after I wrote a piece that reflected back on my CMU reading, I sent him the piece for his reaction.

“You cover the ground you stand on,” he wrote.

I wrote back that it reminds me of something my grandpa used to say to me. When I did something well, or understood something, old ham-fisted Grampa would say: “You’re a man amongst men, lad.”

At first I was a little uncomfortable with Hilary’s way of describing my writing, which is probably why I made that wisecrack about Gramp. The phrase “covers the ground he stands on” reminded me of my old feelings about my weight. The ground I stand on and then some, I thought to myself. I cast a long, fat shadow, I thought.

I was a chunky kid growing up, and some of my siblings teased me mercilessly for it. I’m now a beefy adult, with a lot of the same insecurities that I had when I was young. So the phrase the ground he stands on just made me think of my girth, and I had to get used to it.

The more I consider the phrase, the more I think what Hilary said is exactly right. I do try to “cover” wherever I am. Maybe it’s an obsessive-compulsive need to report, but I’ve found stories all over. On vacation, I’ve reported on deaths at the beach and also international relations. In Seattle, I covered my own terribly draining “Terminal” experience. In the back yard, I report on the plants and animals. And from my desk, I provide eyewitness accounts of life out on a limb.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

A Few Words About Sago

These days, I keep remembering a stupid remark I made while I was at Sago Mine.

Through the first night of the Sago disaster and into the next day, we news people milled around the muddy acreage outside Sago Baptist Church, sleepless and desperate for information. Under these stressed conditions, we kept our ears perked and our noses in other people’s business, eager for any scrap of information that could be reported. We tended to hang together in small packs, as did the locals who knew the miners and their families and who avoided us notebook-clutching types.

Bored and trying to stay awake, we reporters would speak lowly together about the bleak rescue effort, tired looks on our faces. We knew that our time at this disaster had just begun.

I was reminded of this recently when I read of how a couple of the Sago Mine rescuers spoke wrongly, saying the trapped miners were alive. This miscommunication led others to believe that the miners had survived, news that seemed unbelievable when it first came out.

How easy it is to have a slip of the tongue. How simple, and how devastating it was for an exhausted person to say something other than what he meant. It happened to me when I was at Sago mine, reporting on the tragedy for Reuters.

I’ll admit I have the lousy knack of being able to put my foot in my mouth, whatever the occasion. I blame it on my impatient nature, but I don’t know if that’s all of it.

I was talking with some other reporters in one of those large tents the Red Cross put out for people to sit under, within earshot of some of the loved ones of some of the trapped miners.

“It sucks that we have to be here,” I said, shaking my head slowly at a fellow reporter. “But you’ve got to work.”

A middle-aged lady who was standing at the far end of the tent with a group of folks who were friends and/or relatives of one of the miners shot me an angry, hurt glance. She shook her head slowly, wiped her eye with the back of her hand, and turned away. I noticed she had been crying. I felt terrible.

It occurred to me a few times while I was reporting on Sago that as we reporters waited for scraps of information, at least some of the miners were likely dead, lying underground far below us. Because of that apparent fact, occasionally it felt like we were cracking jokes while standing atop a fresh grave. At those times I would feel ashamed again for a bit, shut my mouth, and be thankful that I was going to be able to get out of there alive.

In a piece I wrote about the Sago Mine disaster just a few days after the accident at the mine, I speculated on what caused the miscommunication that lead people to think that somehow, most of the miners had survived:

“I suspect that people simply couldn’t resist all of that sexiness—the come hither-looks of the broadcasters or the bold, unflinching eye of the camera. All of that attention made people want to practically get naked in front of the camera, to pour out their souls and cry, to tell a lie in the hope that saying it might make it true.”

Maybe it was the general nature of those statements, but I didn’t know how correct I would be. I was just writing from my gut. Apparently a few people were speaking from their gut during the rescue attempt.

Sometimes we say things that for the rest of our lives, we wish we could take back. Words, though, can be like missiles fired between uneasy, neighboring countries.

My maternal grandmother, who died several years back, got into an argument with her sister a quarter-century ago or so, and they never spoke to each other again. Using the wrong words sometimes leads to people being grievously hurt. Sometimes the hurt never goes away.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Coney Island of the Moneyed

Many remember the long-gone Jenkins Arcade, but does anyone remember Fifth & Wood Men’s Shop, which was at the corner of Fifth and Wood streets, where the former Lazarus building now sits? A generation ago, the men’s shop sold clothes, though not the kind Lazarus sold. The shop had appeal, and the salesmen inside were pros.

The place catered mostly to young black men, who, just like wealthy people, are a minority. Soon, some of the well-heeled will live in the “old” Lazarus department store. That’s a good thing, since the place has been empty.

But you don’t have to be black or working class to understand that for years, downtown Pittsburgh, like downtowns across the country, has been undergoing major cultural changes. The biggest of those changes is economic. Wig shops and men’s shops are being replaced with jewelers and upscale designer boutiques. Many people would say that replacing the downscale with the upscale is a good thing, and I would agree, in part.

The paradox of progress is that it can mean less diversity, and hence, fewer interesting things. I was reminded of this when I was in Richmond recently for my niece’s wedding. I’d forgotten to bring dress socks, and I asked the desk clerk at the hotel if he knew of anywhere downtown that I could walk to for dress socks.

“There is a place,” said the clerk, a young black man. “Payless Shoes, about twelve blocks away.”

It was a Saturday morning, and that part of downtown Richmond had few pedestrians on the streets. It reminded me of downtown Pittsburgh on weekends. The weather was in the sixties, the sun was rising slowly and the air had a sweet taste. I strolled a couple blocks before I saw another pedestrian.

Walking past the Colonial-era homes and impressive neoclassical stone buildings, I knew I was headed in the right direction. I figured I’d ask for directions from someone. A couple blocks later I stopped on a corner to consider an orange, Moorish-looking building. A bus stopped at the corner, and a rider disembarked.

He was a black man in his thirties, and I asked him the name of the building. He couldn’t recall, and he asked the bus driver. The driver, a black woman in her forties, thought for a second and named the place. She drove off, and the guy explained to me that the building was supposed to be redeveloped.

“It was a theater. They used to show movies there,” he said.

Halfway up the block, I noticed a large hotel that looked closed. The Hotel John Marshall, 15 stories high and 77 years old, obviously once was a grand place. I walked around it and I saw that the main entrance doors were open, and that workers were remodeling the building. I spoke with some of the bosses about the project, explaining to them that I write for a construction trade magazine. They told me that the place was being converted into condominiums, some of which would be more than 4,000 square feet.

A couple blocks up, I called over to a guy walking on the other side of the street. He was a black man in his forties, casually dressed in a t-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes. Where’s Broad Street, I asked. It’s right up here, he said, pointing.

Where are you going, he asked. I told him. Right over there, he said, pointing toward the store. You can’t miss it, he said, waving.

I headed into the shop and was waited on by one of the two employees, both of whom were black women. I quickly picked a couple pairs of socks, paid for them, and headed out. Walking onto the sidewalk, I noticed a sporting goods shop across Broad Street. That part of Broad Street, because of the mix of shops, reminded me of what some call the “Fifth-Forbes area” of downtown Pittsburgh.

I went into the store, which also was manned by black employees, and bought a baseball cap. Heading across Broad Street to go back to the hotel, I ran into the fellow who gave me directions.

“Did you find it?” he asked.

I lifted up my bag containing the socks. “Yep,” I said.

He grinned, and gave me a double high-five hand slap.

I wondered if such casualness between strangers would be common in future downtowns, devoid of stores catering to blue-collar people, where class distinctions are more disparate.

As I strolled down a side street, I passed an African-American beauty salon. It was late morning, but about a dozen ladies already were in the place, chatting it up, several with their heads appearing half-swallowed in ancient hair-dryers. The scene looked as if it could have been today or thirty years back. That place will be gone soon, I thought to myself, since I already was aware of numerous redevelopment projects in Richmond.

As in Richmond, Pittsburgh's downtown is experiencing an economic and cultural shift akin to a powerful seismic force. I know we don’t want a wig shop on every corner of downtown Pittsburgh, but wig shops aren’t being subsidized. The Lazarus building, which was heavily financed by taxpayers, soon will become the digs of some of the wealthier residents of the city, at the expense of taxpayers. The new PNC skyscraper, which will be built in part with taxpayer funding, also will be the home of some of the city’s richer folk.

Ironically, most of the folks who help to pay for the expensive abodes and corresponding high-end retail shops won’t be able to afford to shop or live there. Taxpayers must decide if the future downtown Pittsburgh will be more than just a place of work and a Coney Island of the Moneyed.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


This op-ed in the P-G reminded me of this piece and also this piece.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Barnestormin in Pittsburgh City Paper

This one I did not see coming.

I was surprised as heck today when I saw a piece from Barnestormin excerpted in the Pittsburgh City Paper. The short article excerpted my Damn Yankees story, which I recently posted.

Ironically, my story was excerpted in CP’s HTTP:// PITTSBURGH N@ section. It’s ironic because I was a bit harsh about that section of CP in a piece I wrote a while back. Frankly, I didn’t expect to ever see Barnestormin mentioned in the Pittsburgh City Paper.

Here’s the CP mention, which, kindly, didn’t make me look foolish:

We were headed home from Richmond when we saw we were low on gas, so we stopped at an exit in Staunton, Virginia …

Strangely, as soon as I walked into one of the stores I saw something I thought I might want. On a table just to the right of the door, sat a short pile of copies of "At Home in the Heart of Appalachia," a memoir by John O'Brien, who's a Philadelphia native whose dad was raised in Appalachia.

I told the woman behind the counter that I’d heard of this book, and that I’d heard it was very good. I told her I was from Pittsburgh, which isn’t too far from Appalachia. I knew as soon as I’d said it that I’d overstepped — I could tell from the disgusted look on the woman’s face.

“Pennsylvania — that’s Yankee territory,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m from Kentucky.”

I said the Appalachians stretch all the way up into New York, you know.

“Pittsburgh’s just forty-five minutes from West Virginia,” I offered.

“That’s the Yankee part of West Virginia,” she said dismissively.

What can I say but, thanks very much City Paper.

The Odds Are

I read a nice story on Monday by Bill Toland and about Tic Tac Fruit machines, which are prevalent along the Ohio-Pennsylvania border and are considered legal by their owners. The cops think otherwise, because the pseudo-poker machines pay off in cash.

But what got me was the cursory reference to poker machines in Pennsylvania:

So is Tic Tac Fruit legal or not?

Police face dueling legal rulings, and one result of the confusion is that in urban centers, the machines are being confiscated and bar owners are facing charges while in outlying rural areas, where police departments and district attorneys offices are undermanned, the games are staying put. (Unlike back-room poker machines in Pennsylvania, Tic Tac Fruit machines aren't hidden away).

I think Bill is an excellent reporter and the P-G is a great paper, but the omission in the last line of the above excerpted text speaks volumes. Many, many poker machines in western Pennsylvania are in plain sight of local cops, county cops, you name the cops, they know of these machines. I challenge Bill to go to establishments in many of the city’s neighborhoods and not find the machines. I’ve seen poker machines around Pittsburgh in Ma-Pa markets, I’ve seen them in auto repair shop waiting rooms, and I’ve seen them in small pizza joints. Of course I’ve seen the vast majority of poker machines in bars/restaurants in the area.

In fact, the county (or is it the city?) licenses the machines yearly for “entertainment” purposes. The machines aren’t supposed to pay off. They all do, unless the machine is unplugged. But you may not get your winnings if the employees don’t know you, or if they think you’re an LCB cop.

It reminds me of a piece I wrote a few years back for Pulp, which talked about gambling and some of its consequences. Here it is:

One-Armers and The Players

It was a typical Saturday night at Bumstead’s, with Jimmy and Esther playing the machines, longhaired Dave complaining about the music and Sam bitching about his drink.

“John, a drink? Can I get a drink, huh?” he said, shaking his empty glass at me. Sam was in his sixties, swarthy and rough, with that Pittsburgh-meets-New York accent you find among some locals. Rumor had it he was mobbed up and that the missing digit on his left hand wasn’t from a work accident but was the result of a bad debt. I thought it was bullshit, because he was always flush with cash and he tipped heavy. But getting those tips was a balancing act. Esther, his girlfriend, tipped better than he did and I had to watch for her cues on when to start watering Sam’s drinks in order to avoid having him fall asleep at the bar.

I’d just given Sam a fresh drink when Jimmy hit big on the poker machine. As he sprung over to my end of the bar I knew he’d hit. “John, check this out,” he said, leading me over to the machine. I checked and sure enough, he’d hit, for twelve grand.

Being the bartender on Saturdays, I had to make the payout on the hit, but we only kept a few grand in cash for payouts. So I called the boss and he told me when to arrange to get the rest of the cash to Jimmy. After paying him part of the cash, Jimmy immediately tipped me $150. He left after tipping me.

The place was abuzz and everybody was talking about the big score. A few more regulars came in and ordered drinks. Esther switched to Jimmy’s winning poker machine.

Jimmy was a nice guy who was self-contained while sipping Cokes for hours at the poker machine. Sometimes the others would talk about him when he wasn’t around and it was never a good thing when the other players discussed another’s gambling habit.

“I feel bad for him, he’s such a great guy. But he’s got a real problem,” Sally opined the week after Jimmy hit. “On payday he’s down here or somewhere else playing his check away. He makes really good money, but he gambles so much that he’s been having a lot of problems with his wife. He’s got two kids.” She shook her head.

I am reminded of all this, which happened years ago, because of the recent effort of bar owners in the state to have video poker machines legalized. Wilkins Democrat Rep. Paul Costa wants to allow up to three video poker machines at every bar or restaurant in the state and the tavern owners are right behind him. Costa thinks the machines could generate $2 billion a year in revenues and the bar owners believe they shouldn’t be left out of the loop when it comes to legalized gambling in the state. They say all of the money shouldn’t go to a few gambling parlors.

But the truth is, the bar owners already are in the loop. It’s well known by some people that every video poker machine in Allegheny County that is plugged in and in working order pays off. It’s our town’s dirty little secret. Those signs on the machines that read “For entertainment only” are a ruse to keep out the uninitiated. If the watchers of those machines know you, someone can vouch for you or they trust you, they will pay you when you hit. And there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of these machines here, in bars and restaurants, pizza shops and Ma-Pa markets, even auto shops and other unlikely places.

These machines are benefiting no one but their owners and possibly some corrupt officials. While we don’t want a Jimmy at every bar in every town, the fact is we already have him there. And with lose-win ratios heavily stacked in the machine owner’s favor, the players are being gypped out of a half-decent chance to win.

We can continue to turn our heads to the facts while simultaneously brokering licenses for these poker machines. Or we can come up with a way to profit from and sensibly regulate this underground reality, while giving people like Jimmy an even chance to get help with their addictions.