I blog about it every year at this time. It’s always the last weekend in April. But it is truly a phenomenon in our Pittsburgh neighborhood of Lawrenceville.
It was birthed 16 years ago when a handful of local residents and artists dreamed up an event that would show off urban, post-industrial community and prove that you could come here at night and not only live to tell the tale, but you’d also see some pretty cool art. They only had three rules… no fees (we ain’t in this to make money)… no juries (nobody judging the art)… and no censorship (anything goes). Anyone could submit one (and only one) piece of art. Those hardy urban pioneers half expected to just sit around by themselves drinking beer all night, but they had one hundred artists participate and several hundred people attend.
This weekend is Art All Night’s sweet sixteen party, which will be held at the same warehouse as last year, under the 40th Street bridge. More than 1,200 artists will submit and more than 12,000 people will be wandering around our neighborhood, looking for a place to park.
I love this event because it’s all volunteer. I love it because it is militantly non-commercial. I love it because of the way it juxtaposes artwork against a gritty urban backdrop. I love that the place will never be empty from Saturday afternoon to Sunday afternoon. (There are always people up for an art show at 4:30 a.m. Amazing!) And I love, love, love the people watching. If past years are any indication, there will be hipsters, yuppies, punks, and blue hairs. There will be pirates (arg!), transvestites, Latex man (don’t ask), and lots of buskers. You will see people that make you wonder, What do these people do with the rest of their time, because I never see them anywhere by here!?
Mrs. Bagger has been on the planning committee for several years now. It’s right in her wheelhouse. She loves it. Once again this year, we will be heading up the graveyard shift: midnight to 8 a.m. She has garnered quite a reputation for policing the shady elements that you get during those hours. She has fearlessly confronted drunk/high hippies and beer guzzling punk bands. (No outside alcohol is allowed in, so things don’t get out of control.) Two years ago, she rousted a group of kids who crashed in the middle of the event in their sleeping bags. Then, she protected them when a known pedophile showed up and began to bother the young lads. After escorting the creep out, the young waifs proclaimed her “Tiger Momma,” and the phrase has stuck. In many cases, if a guy tried to confront these situations, the offending parties would power up and the situation could get ugly. But, as an attractive but forceful woman in her fifties, Mrs. Bagger can confront people in a way that makes them back down and comply. It must be the former high school Spanish teacher in her. It’s pretty amazing. We men just stand behind her to let people know that we’ve got her back. And it works.
So, if you’re in Pittsburgh this weekend, you really need to stop by at some point. Bring the kids in the first few hours, when there will be lots of children’s art activities. Come late night to see Mrs. Bagger in all of her authoritative glory. (Just don’t sneak in beer, because she will take you down!) Or submit some art yourself — and have your kids submit art, for there is no age limit. My tip, come on Sunday morning when things are quiet — and there is plenty of parking — and take a leisurely stroll around, soaking up all of the inspiring and thoughtful art. See if it doesn’t inspire the artist in you.
It’s free. It’s unique. It’s all Pittsburgh. Here’s the Web site if you have any questions: www.artallnight.org.
I’ve recently become cognizant of the fact that we are about 6 weeks away from the May 21 Pittsburgh mayoral primary (let’s face it, this is the election), and I have no idea what any of the candidates stand for, and therefore, I have no idea who I’m supporting. All I know is that every day, another candidate seems to be heading for the hills.
Most famously, it was current mayor Lukey “Snoop Lion” Ravenstahl who bowed out with the Feds knocking on doors throughout his administration. Then, it was State Senator Jim Ferlo who read the unfavorable tea leaves. Next, City Council President Darlene Harris stuck her toe in the water and thought better of it. Last week, city comptroller Michael Lamb backed out, calling the race “blurry and difficult.”
Like a late-season episode of Survivor or American Idol, that leaves us with four. And speaking of “blurry and difficult,” mayoral candidate and current school bus monitor (Really? School bus monitor?) A. J. Richardson is AWOL at two speeches this morning due to the fact that he is currently in the Allegheny County Jail after being found unresponsive and smelling of alcohol behind the wheel of his minivan on West End Circle at 3 o’clock this morning. If that’s not a cry for help (as in “Help! I don’t want to be mayor! I just monitor school buses, for cryin’ out loud!”), I don’t know what is. Come on, how else does a candidate for mayor end up drunk and asleep behind the wheel at 3 a.m.? That does not happen! And even without the DUI, I’m just not sure the yinzer voting block is ready for a mayor with face tattoos. I’m just sayin’.
And then there were three. (But really, just two.)
First is State Representative Jake Wheatley, who is barely registering in the three polls that have been conducted (4 percent).
Jack Wagner is right out of central casting if you were filming a movie that needed a mayor in it. He is the former State Auditor General, and he also served in the state senate and the Pittsburgh City Council. He ran for mayor in back in 1993 and was trounced (72-28) by Tom Murphy. Although he trails in the latest poll, he has picked up the endorsements of most of the labor unions, including the police and fire fighters. He also was endorsed by Michael Lamb when he dropped out of the race. Wagner strikes me as Mr. Fiscal Discipline. If Wagner wins, it will be because Pittsburghers are tired of the spoiled child in office and desperately want Dad to take over and get our financial house in order with a bit of austerity.
Pittsburgh City Councilman Bill Peduto strikes me as the visionary in the race. He wants to invest in the improvement of the city’s infrastructure and in a better public transit system. He wants to improve the efficiency of the city through better technology in order to save money.
Some guy named Josh Wander will run in November as a Republican. And I think that’s just adorable.
That’s it. That is the sum total of my knowledge on the race for mayor, and I’m not even sure if that is entirely accurate. In the latest polling (March 14-18), Peduto led the race with 30 percent to Wagner’s 21 percent. What’s unclear is whether Lamb’s 21 percent support will all go to Wagner along with Lamb’s endorsement. I imagine a good percentage will, which probably makes Wagner the new frontrunner. But then there are the 28 percent who, like me, are still undecided.
Thus, Pittsburgh, we “undecideds” — the proud 28 percent — have some homework to do in the next 6 weeks. Spring has arrived and it is time to start paying attention. Ultimately, we will decide this thing. And with Lukey-Luke out of the race, all bets (and patronage support) are off. A part of me strongly believes that either Peduto or Wagner would be a vast improvement over the administration we’ve been subjected to for the past seven years. But I’d still like make an educated selection on May 21. Something more than “Boy, I sure do like the artwork on those Peduto yard signs!”
So sue me, I do.
This is Peggy Noonan. She is a conservative columnist with the Wall Street Journal. She is probably best known as one of Ronald Reagan’s chief speech writers. She wrote some of his best stuff. Her speech following the Challenger disaster made artful use of a poem by John Magee, which said that they “slipped the surly bonds of earth… and touched the face of God.” That speech is considered to be one of the top ten political speeches in U.S. history.
Later, she worked for George H. W. Bush, for whom she coined the phrases “a kinder, gentler nation” and “a thousand points of light.” Dana Carvey should be endorsing his SNL royalty checks over to her. But then she also wrote a speech for Bush with the memorable phrase “read my lips: no new taxes,” a moment that is credited for him becoming a one-term president. Today, besides her WSJ column, she mainly just appears on cable news programs to spout conservative attacks on Obama.
Well, Internet, last week, Ms. Noonan was in Pittsburgh for some reason, and, according to her column, she wasn’t impressed. Granted, it doesn’t seem as though she ever ventured beyond the airport hotel, but that was enough for Peggy to conclude that the Obama administration has made Pittsburgh sad.
I’m in Pittsburgh, making my way to the airport hotel. The people movers are broken and we pull our bags along the dingy carpet. There’s an increasing sense in America now that the facades are intact but the machinery inside is broken.
Now, apparently, it is Obama’s fault that the Pittsburgh Airport carpets are dingy. Can he get on that? Oh, and Lord Almighty, a people-mover was not working, meaning that Peggy Noonan had to walk her fat arse all the way to baggage claim with the great unwashed.
(**Sidebar: Peggy Noonan is not “fat.” But come on, about half of those things seem to be in operation at every airport in America, not to mention the finest Las Vegas hotel/casinos. Deal with it. Grab your roller and hoof it, like we all used to do during the Reagan years!**)
And besides, has she ever been to JFK Airport in her fair city? I have. That worn-out Petri dish of filth makes the Pittsburgh Airport look like the freakin’ Taj Mahal.
When she finally arrived at the Hyatt Regency, she seemed put out that there was…
…no information desk, no doorman, no bellman or concierge, just two harried-looking workers at a front desk on the second level.
Now, admittedly, I’m just a carpetbagger in this fair city. I’m wasn’t here for the glory days of the Reagan administration when the Pittsburgh airport hotel was bustling with eager young bellmen in their crisp uniforms, a helpful concierge who could get you into any club in the greater Moon area, or the regal doorman who stood dutifully between the airport and the hotel, ready with white-gloved hands to save you from having to sully your hands on the brass handled doors.
Ah, once you hit the breathtaking lobby, your feet would never hit the floor as they gently swept you to your room while singing several choruses of “Be Our Guest.” Or, there were the days when Andy Warhol and Andrew Carnegie could both be spotted in the hotel lobby, drinking cognac and smoking fine cigars with the fashionable crowd as they all waited for their American Eagle flight to Louisville. Ah, the salad days of Pittsburgh in the mind of an elite conservative.
How far Obama has let us fall. Dingy airport carpets. Broken moving sidewalks. No doorman or bellmen. For God’s sake, no concierge! Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Obama’s America.
But Peggy’s long, harried nightmare was nowhere near over.
The man who checked me in put his phones on hold when I asked for someone to accompany me upstairs. As we walked to the room I felt I should explain. I told him a trial attorney had told me a while back that there are more lawsuits involving hotels than is generally known, and more crime, so always try to have someone with you when you first go to your room. I thought the hotel clerk would pooh-pooh this. Instead he said, “That’s why we just put up mirrors at each end of the hall, so you can see if someone’s coming.”
A national treasure like Peggy Noonan has needs! There has to be 24/7 security because of all the, you know, crime happening at the airport Hyatt Regency. The roving gangs of Montour thugs have forced the hotel to put up crime mirrors, for God’s sake. Not to make the place look bigger. Not to reflect light down the hallways. Not to provide business travelers with a quick glance to make sure they are looking their best. No, it’s because of the stalking hoards of Hyatt Regency muggers, out to get Peggy Noonan.
What that hotel looked like is America without its muscle, its efficiency, its old confidence.
Well, I’d say that if our hotels need crime mirrors, we’re obviously not lacking for muscle. But I’m not sure that airport hotels have ever been America’s model of efficiency and confidence. I always thought them to be a place for weary business layovers, Amway conventions, drunken flight crew affairs, and readily available prostitution. Peggy remembers them as the Great Gatsby meets Monte Carlo. Tomato, tomahto.
She claims that Obama is the reason that the Pittsburgh Airport Hyatt Regency isn’t hiring all the hotel staff that would make Peggy’s stay more accommodating. Then, she says this….
Meanwhile, the president is stuck in his games and his history. He should have seen unemployment entering a crisis stage four years ago, and he did not. At that time I was certain he’d go for public-works projects, which could give training to the young and jobs to the experienced underemployed, would create jobs in the private sector and, in the end, yield up something needed—a bridge, a strengthened power grid. He instead gave his first term to health care. And now ObamaCare is being cited as a reason employers are laying people off and not hiring, according to a report from the Federal Reserve.
She is really disappointed that President Obama has not done some sort of government spending jobs program to get her the hotel attention she deserves. Big, mean ObamaCare is keeping all those bellmen, doormen, and concierges out of work. Stupid people who want to see doctors!
And! How about her admission that an Obama job training program would “create jobs in the private sector”!? Pundit say what?! Government? Creates jobs? Somewhere, Rush Limbaugh’s beeper just went off as William F. Buckley rolled over in his grave.
Okay, I’m not gonna say that this is just another limousine elite conservative with caviar tastes and both selective and creative memories of the past… wait, hell yeah, that’s what I’m saying. Hey, Peggy. I hope you enjoyed speaking at that Amway Convention. Next time, feel free to venture beyond the Robinson Mall and discover why Pittsburgh is doing just fine, thank you very much. And you might be surprised to find sympathetic ears for your proposed government jobs program. That sounds like a really good idea. We’ve got plenty of bridges and power grids. Let’s do it! Just don’t try peddling that stuff around Congress. They will put you on a people-mover right out of town.
Let me start by admitting that I am no expert on Pittsburgh politics. Whenever I try to delve into it, my eyes roll to the back of my head and I feel a strange need to bathe. If I’m looking for knowledgeable Pittsburgh political banter, I go to Bram, or Vannevar, or perhaps the City Paper.
However, in addition to getting stuck watching reality police car chase shows on basic cable, I’m also a sucker for indulging in a little political schadenfreude from time to time. It’s just so satisfying to view the slow, painful unraveling of a corrupt, once powerful political empire. Again, I’m a novice at yinzer-filled backroom power brokering — but I’m also from Illinois, where 4 of our last 7 governors have been both convicted and imprisoned. (And that’s just Springfield. It doesn’t even begin touching Chicago politics!) My spidey senses start to go off when questions like “What did you know and when did you know it?” are tossed about. I can tell when there’s blood in the water.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Grant Street edition of Shark Week.
Hold on to your hats, folks, because when the unraveling begins, it can take off pretty quickly. (Amendment: Ginny at That’s Church has a much better and more complete synopsis of events. What follows is what I’ve gleaned since I started paying attention last week!)
Previously on Shark Week… (2/13) when allegations of police department private side businesses began to emerge, Mayor Lukey came out in defense of his embattled police chief, Nate “the Skate” Harper. (Cue “Stand by Your Man”)
“I spoke with the chief as recently as today,” the mayor said during an afternoon press conference in front of the City-County Building. “He pledged to me that nothing was done improper or wrong. I’m taking him at his word….He has my confidence.”
But by Wednesday of this week, a few plot twists were tossed into the story. Being mayor, you can always use your “people” to misdirect local reporters or staff members of the City Council, but it’s a little different when the knock on the door comes from the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office. Now there were allegations of a secret police fund and union credit cards kept in a safe and off-the-book expenditures. After a two-hour sit-down with the Feds, first blood was drawn, with a rather wide-eyed Lukey singing a different tune:
“At this point, it gave me enough, and I learned enough to know that it was time to ask Chief Harper to resign.”
“…there were questions asked, yes. They didn’t present me with anything….I’m not going to jeopardize their investigation. It was pertaining to the investigation that is ongoing…”
Insert a slight crack in the voice…
“I’m not a target.”
This is the crucial stage of any political scandal: the involvement of the Feds. This is when people who once were intimidated into silence, grow a pair. People who may want to save their own skins begin to lawyer up and start taking singing lessons. Welcome to Double Jeopardy, where dollar values are doubled!
By yesterday (2/21), the pace picked up. First, the mayor admitted that his two police bodyguards had police union credit cards but “Anytime they used these cards they were on trips with me,” he said, stressing the expenditures were “legitimate.” He insisted that he had no knowledge of the unauthorized police account.
Later that same day (going faster… faster…), one of Lukey’s former bodyguards learned that confession is good for the soul:
“Luke knew firsthand that these cards were given to us and they were specifically given to us because you guys [the press] were doing the Right-to-Know [requests],” said Fred Crawford Jr. “You would never see the trail of the hotel bills and stuff like that from us….You can say the cards were given to us specifically because they wanted to avoid the media tracking what we did and where we went through the Right-to- Know [law]. We used cards for official business but it was used for unofficial business as well.“
And as for Chief Harper, the ex-bodyguard said,
“He was aware of it… Nate got caught up in the middle of some stuff. He’s just too nice. He should have just said no to some stuff. He’s never been that ‘no’ person and now they’ve thrown him under the bus to carry all the weight himself. Really, he was doing what he was told to do.”
For his part, Lukey says these allegations are “patently false, plain and simple.” The mayor’s people are claiming that the ex-bodyguard is a disgruntled employee, trying to throw investigators off the scent of his buddies.
That could be. But in my experience in these matters (see State of Illinois), the folks who come out of the woodwork with a story to tell may have ulterior motives but they rarely commit the crime of lying to Federal investigators.
Who knows where this will end up? All I know is that, IMHO, Ravenstahl has been a horrible leader for this city. He rose to power by fluke chances after being appointed head of the City Council and then taking office after the death of Bob O’Connor. And he has held on to his office through cronyism, back-room deals, and nepotism. He wins elections when multiple opponents face him and split the anti-Ravenstahl vote.
After his wife divorced him soon after the birth of their child (and even before that!), stories of his penchant for partying were abundant. Still are. Wasn’t he partying at 7 Springs when the city was hit by its biggest snowstorm in years? He loves to pose with celebrities and even snaked his way into the Batman movie that was filmed here. Rumors have it that he lets his staff run things and only shows up at City Hall when he has to. He constantly sides with big business interests over the financial needs of the city. He even proposed a 1% tax on college student tuition. And then there were those 250 garbage cans emblazoned with Lukey’s signature that cost the city a cool $252,000 in state grant money. (That’s $1000 per can! For that, they better have Wi-Fi!) There are other stories about no-bid contracts and such. He surrounds himself with handlers who are famous for their bullying tactics. Plus, he’s got RAVEN right there in his name, for God’s sake!
Individually, this is bush league political corruption. Small potatoes. My problem with Lukey is his lack of visionary leadership for a city that desperately needs it. He seems to be in the job for the perks and not the hard work of governing.
Now we’ll see how Teflon the man is. If he escapes this, he may come out stronger than ever. On the other hand, the way these things go, there could be a resignation as soon as next week.
Lukey should remember that when it comes to federal investigations: (A) you are never a target until you become a target, and (B) if you are a target, they don’t necessarily have to tell you up front.
Enjoy your weekend, Mr. Mayor. I hear Bon Jovi is in town.
“There has been class warfare going on. It’s just that my class is winning. And my class isn’t just winning, I mean we’re killing them.” –Warren Buffett, in a Sept. 30 interview with Charlie Rose on PBS.
Our country seems bound and determined to create a two-tiered, dual class system of have’s and have-nots. After World War II, soldiers came home to a country eager to build its middle class. Factories were hiring. Industry was humming. Companies like IBM, GM, AT&T, and DuPont where growing. Unions thrived. Wages, which had been frozen during the war, began to rise. The suburbs were born. Workers who once had to live in urban tenements now could provide a modest house for the family. The American Dream was not about a business owner becoming a zillionaire; it was about Average Joe Worker being able to afford a decent house for his family. Gone was the English lord and serf. Gone was the robber baron and the immigrant rabble. America was the country where, if you worked hard, you could provide for your family.
Why does it seem that we are going backwards? It seems that we are going back to that very separate two-tiered system.
In this country, it used to be admired when a company came to town and hired workers, helping them to put a roof over their heads, grow a pension for retirement, and maybe even send a first generation of kids to college. It used to be enough for companies to make a good product, recognize a profit, and provide a decent lifestyle for their workers. But our insatiable appetites for more and more profits (and higher and higher CEO compensation) has thrown this all out of whack.
The middle class has turned out to be something we can no longer afford, not if we are going to insist that companies continually rack up ever-increasing profits for stock holders, and pay out lifetime fortunes for CEOs and board of directors. You can’t do that if you have to pay a lousy worker a living wage. So, in an effort to maximize profits, we ship the jobs to other countries, where no one insists on such foolishness. (And if they do, they get replaced.) Why pay some guy in Ohio $25,000 a year to stitch up volleyballs or assemble VCRs when there are people in China and Indonesia who will do it for pennies? No health care. No pensions. No work stoppages. Do you realize how much that can inflate your bottom line?
Since 1980, the U.S. economy has doubled. But all the gains have gone to the top 1 percent. See the chart below. Middle class wages (the purple line) have remained stagnant (losing ground to inflation) as the net worth of the top 1 percent (blue line), and especially the top 0.1 percent (green line), have gone up. It’s not hard to see that part of the reason for that is the decline of labor unions (red line).
Union has become a dirty word in this country. Some see it as synonymous with corruption, laziness, redundancy, and waste. Those who still fear Communism behind every tree are uncomfortable any time “workers organize.” Have there been some examples of unions abusing the system? Have they sometimes protected incompetent workers? Sure, just as there have been examples of capitalists abusing the system and companies rewarding CEO incompetence with huge severance packages. Welcome to free enterprise. But in the larger picture, unions protect workers against abuse by management. Unions fight for safer working conditions. Unions have provided all of us with things like the weekend, vacation time, health care, and 401ks. Unions allow many to negotiate as one, instead of one negotiating for oneself. The argument should not be about whether union or non-union workers provide better quality products, it should be about unions providing better wages and benefits for their members. Living wages, real wages that can help our economy grow. The lag in our economy is due, more than anything else, to stagnant middle class wages because it is the middle class in their huge numbers that drive the economy by spending those wages on goods and services.
Instead, Republicans seem to be on a mission to destroy the middle class by getting rid of unions and collective bargaining completely. It was done in Wisconsin and now in Michigan, two states that vote blue nationally but remain red at the state level due to redistricting.
To better state my case, I present the Carpetbag Players. While the names and figures are real, the rest is a dramatization…
Welcome to workday in America.
It’s early in the morning when McDonald’s CEO Jim Skinner heads off to his plush Oak Brook, Illinois, office. Last year, he made $8.75 million, or around $35,000 a day.
Only a few miles away, Fred Johnson, a 44-year-old cook, awaits his bus in Tinley Park, Illinois. He’s on his way to his part-time job at McDonald’s. He makes $8.25 an hour (Illinois minimum wage). He will work two part-time shifts at two McDonald’s today. He doesn’t have healthcare because he does not have a 40 hour-per-week position. He knows he has to pay off that $900 doctor’s bill for his daughter’s broken arm. He had to put it on a credit card. Another morning, another day deeper in debt.
Meanwhile, back in Oak Brook, Skinner will make$900 during his first trip to the bathroom today.
Once at his desk, Skinner peruses the Wall Street Journal. He grimaces. New York fast food workers are picketing for union rights. How is he supposed to increase market share for the company if he has to pay those workers more than minimum wage? Plus, Obama might be raising his taxes by 3 percent. How’s he supposed to live on that? Everybody has their hand out! His secretary reminds him of a 9:30 meeting. During those twenty minutes in the Wall Street Journal, Skinner just made $1,458.
Across town, Johnson puts two Egg McMuffin sandwiches on the counter for the clerks to bag. In those same twenty minutes, Johnson just made $2.75.
Welcome to workday in America.
UPMC is Pittsburgh’s largest medical provider and insurer. Medical assistants there make as little as $12 an hour, have to pay $250 for insurance, and still have hundreds of dollars in co-pays. Workers with college degrees are on food stamps or are forced on public assistance. In contrast, UPMC CEO Jeffrey Romoff made $4 million dollars last year. The company itself made more than $726 million in fiscal profits in 2011. And despite owning $1.33 billion of property in Allegheny County, they pay no taxes due to their “non-profit” status. In fact, if they were a for-profit company, their $9 billion in revenue would put them solidly into the Fortune 500.
It’s two days before Thanksgiving and UPMC administrative assistant Leslie Poston sits at her desk. She has been fed up. While most workers keep their heads down and suffer in silence, last summer, Leslie went public with her complaints about low wages for UPMC non-medical workers. In the months that followed, a war began to brew over the potential unionization of these workers — 20,000 to 30,000 or UPMC’s 50,000 employees. The SEIU says they are being shut out; UPMC says SEIU has engaged in bullying. Meanwhile, Poston, like many of UPMC’s full-time employees and technicians, has to go to local food banks to supplement her family’s food.
On this day, Leslie’s unit supervisor approaches and puts an arm around her. “We’ve been hearing what you’ve been saying,” the supervisor says. With a flourish, she proudly sets a flier on Leslie’s desk. “We’re starting a food bank for the employees!”
Tears begin to pool in Leslie’s eyes. The supervisor is pleased. There! We did something, the supervisor thinks. Maybe now you’ll shut up and mind your own business.
Leslie stares at the flier as her supervisor walks away. Anger begins to boil in her gut. They just don’t get it, she thinks. They just don’t get that I’d rather they pay me a better wage so I wouldn’t have to go to a food bank.
On November 30, a company-wide newsletter went to employees with exciting news. Under the heading “‘Tis the Season to Help Our Community,” the newsletter asked employees to take part in activities that demonstrate our caring and compassion for our patients, families and the colleagues we work with everyday. The food bank would be supplied, in part, by donations from the employees. No word on how much, if anything, UPMC is putting toward the project. Here is a similar announcement to benefit “UPMC Presbyterian Shady Side associates in need.”
It’s going to be more demeaning and embarrassing for me, thought Leslie, because now I have to go and pick up food at a food bank where I work in front of my friends and co-workers. I make it a point to go to food pantries where nobody knows who I am.
Today, the UPMC CEO will make $16,000. (Probably more, this was based on his 2011 salary.)
This was from a scathing column in Pittsburgh’s City Paper.
Welcome to workday in America.
You can have your summer blockbusters, the Nov-Dec holiday period is the cine-must-see time of the year. Problem is, our weekends get filled up with other things we also want to do.
For instance, there is the Christmas tree exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Art with the 18th Century Neopolitan presepio, which is either a nativity display or a delicious Italian dessert.
There also are the 27 nationality rooms at Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning. They are all dressed up for the holiday celebrations of the various nations. This weekend, there is a free open house with ethnic dances and music and food.
For the little girl in me, there is the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Nutcracker Suite. A little overdone? Perhaps. But it features Pittsburgh-centric scenery and the only music that truly gets me into the Christmas spirit. I just love me some Tchaikovsky.
So when am I going to see all these movies? Obviously, I must prioritize them to determine which ones I will see in the theater and which ones might have to arrive via Netflix.
Argo. I’ve heard nothing but wonderful things about this from many sources with varying degrees of taste and preference. Yet, they all love it. It is probably Ben Affleck’s finest movie. And I can’t believe I just wrote that last sentence. Think I need to see this first, as it will probably disappear from the big screen first.
Lincoln. Being the stone-cold history geek that I am, a part of my soul probably will die if I don’t see this in the theater. Historians have been generally favorable toward it, with a few reservations. Here’s one review. (Historians need to get over themselves.) I love the fact that Daniel Day Lewis read more than 100 books on Lincoln in preparation for the role. I love it that the sound guy recorded Lincoln’s actual pocket watch and the opening and closing of the door to the coach that Lincoln took to Ford’s Theater.
Les Miserables. Besides being a history geek, I am also a theater geek. Back in the day, I worked, onstage and off, on dozens of productions, mostly musicals. If there is one show I regret never being in, it is this one. I remember scoffing at it when it first came out. “A French musical? Ha! Doomed to failure! Same goes for that one with the mask and all the opera music that is also based in France!” Yeah, now you know why I never made it in theater. And although I mostly stay away from filmed Broadway musicals, this one hooked me with the trailer showing how the actors sang live on camera, allowing the orchestration to be added later. Plus, Borat is in it. I’m in.
Zero Dark Thirty. At first I thought this was a tawdry money grab trying to be the first to capitalize on the killing of Bin Laden. Then I realized that it is directed by Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) and that it was well underway before the bearded one’s death as a movie about the search for him. This one may be the kind that sneaks up on Oscar season and takes a bunch of awards.
Django Unchained. This one almost slipped down to the next level. But I don’t think I will be able to resist the combination of Tarantino, Foxx, and Waltz.
Want to See
Silver Linings Playbook. Don’t know why I want to see this, but I do. Maybe I’m just in the mood for a little holiday bipolar comedy.
Life of Pi. I really wanted to read this book before seeing the movie. But I can pretty much tell that isn’t going to happen. Don’t know why I find myself resisting this one. Maybe it’s the fact that I tend to stay away from movies that go heavy on the CGI. It’s probably one of those films that I should see, however, so I probably will.
Not Fade Away. Forget that this movie is by the creator of The Sopranos and stars James Gandolfini. This one is right in my wheel-house. I grew up playing in garage bands in the late seventies and early eighties. This one is set about a decade before that but I think I’ll go along for this ride.
This is 40. This one could definitely go the Netflix route. It’s a sequel to Knocked Up without the stars, which I have no problem with. The background family in that movie was much more interesting than Seth Rogan and Katherine Heigl. But it also has that feel of an SNL skit that has gone on too long. We’ll see. But, as a rule, I think Leslie Mann is entertaining doing just about anything.
The Impossible. This movie is about the 2004 Christmas tsunami that hit the Pacific Rim. I suspect that it will be overly dramatic (special effects teamed with swelling orchestras) and primarily focused on whether or not the white people survive. But I’ll try to stay open minded until the reviews come out.
Jack Reacher. Formulaic Tom Cruise, but set in Pittsburgh. I’m a sucker for movies set in Pittsburgh and will watch even the bad ones. (I’m looking at you Sudden Death, Striking Distance, and Abduction!)
The Hobbit. Fair warning, here. I was never into The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I saw one, suffered through the second, and skipped the third. They bored me to tears. I just don’t go for fantasy, I guess. What scares me about this one is that they have taken one book and split it into three movies. Why? Because they want that sweet, sweet cash. I just don’t know that I want to make that kind of commitment.
Anna Karenina. Another movie that I wish I had read first. I’ve never been able to wade through a Tolstoy novel. I think I’ve started two of them.
Hyde Park on the Hudson. Even a history geek can only take so much history at the holidays. Bill Murray as Roosevelt. Who woulda thunk it?!
On the Road. I’m holding out hope that this movie will do justice to the iconic Jack Kerouac novel, but the trailer looks like the cast of Twilight pretending to be beatniks for Halloween. The hair is too contemporary. Am I being too picky?
Red Dawn. This movie is so flawed that they had to change the villains after it was filmed. During filming, the invaders were the Chinese. Then, the studio heads realized that China is not so much an enemy as a huge customer base for their foreign market. Freakin’ geniuses. So, special effects gurus substituted North Korean flags and banners for all the Chinese ones. Hey, they all look alike, right? Who’s gonna know? Certainly not the guy who played Thor! The only question for this movie is whether it will be “fun bad” or “piss you off bad.” And whether Patrick Swayze is rolling over in his grave.
Twilight, Breaking Dawn. I already satiated the little girl in me with The Nutcracker Suite. So, no. Just no.
Playing for Keeps. Teary Christmas romance? Not gonna happen.
The Guilt Trip. Road movie featuring Seth Rogan and Barbara Steisand? This has the feel of a movie that got made because somebody lost a bet.
Parental Guidance. The trailer for this movie actually makes fun of the fact that young people don’t get Billy Crystal’s jokes. And yet, he still did the film. Perhaps this film should have been called Billy and Bette Get Paid.
That’s the end of my list. No kiddie movies like Monster’s Inc., (Billy gets paid again!) or Rise of the Guardians. Left out foreign films like Rust and Bone, although that will probably get plenty of Oscar buzz, too.
What’s on your must-see list?
Hunkering down on a rainy Monday night in Pittsburgh, waiting to see if anything happens with this storm. So far, it’s just a LOT of rain. Not even that windy here, yet. Just a few strong gusts. If the storm turns north around Harrisburg as they say it will, we may just get a glancing blow here. Just don’t want the power to go out. Also don’t want to miss my flight to San Fran on Wednesday. It would be just like me to have two flights canceled by the same hurricane one week apart.
This past weekend got away from me. Completely. I had a feeling that was going to happen. It really became surreal.
Our house is in major campaign mode. Jean is Lawrenceville volunteer coordinator for the Obama campaign. That means phone teams and canvassing (door-to-door teams) running out of our house from 10am-9pm all weekend. It means we have two house guests in our attic — a mother and daughter team from California who wanted to work for Obama in a swing state. Not sure Pennsylvania qualifies, but California certainly doesn’t. Lexxy (the daughter) is an aspiring hip-hop/pop musician (known as Lexxy in the City) and actress. It seems like she is well on her way. She’s only 20 but she is recording regularly and has been cast in a soon-to-be HBO series. Norma, Lexxy’s mom, has a complicated role — part manager, part body guard, part mom.
They are working for the campaign eight hours a day, sometimes more, making calls and entering data into the campaign’s vast voter database. Norma has been a great support and encouragement for Jean, who wasn’t feeling the love from Lawrenceville as far as getting people to volunteer for the campaign. Here are Jean, Norma, and Matt, working until 9pm on Saturday night.
On Saturday and Sunday, there was just a steady stream of people coming through to make calls or knock on doors. Ten days until Election Day. And these people are going to use all of ‘em. I’ve made the phone calls. They aren’t easy. You only talk to about 10 percent of the people. Many of them are sick of the election; they’ve been called multiple times; they are tired of being bothered. The campaign knows that phone calling and canvassing neighborhoods door-to-door increases the turnout by around 6 percent. That could be the difference in the election. They also have studies that tell them when people are bugged by the campaign to the point of annoyance, it does not change their mind nor dissuade them from voting. Thus, the barrage of phone calls and door knocking continues. Every once in a while, though, you get that 1 percent of the electorate who is chomping at the bit. For them, casting a vote just isn’t enough; they want to make a difference in the election. Those are the good calls.
On Saturday was a Bruce Springsteen campaign appearance at Soldiers and Sailors Hall next to the Pitt campus. I wasn’t planning to go because you had to pick up the free tickets on Friday at noon. I was working. But on Friday, Norma came back from the campaign office with 6 tickets. By Saturday afternoon, Jean didn’t feel that she could leave the canvassing, so I took Matt and Lexxy and another campaign worker. I had given 4 tickets away to my friend Derek, who was already going to Bruce’s evening show at Consol Arena.
First of all, I’ve never been in Soldiers and Sailors Hall. It’s very cool. The entire Gettysburg Address is chiseled into the wall. I don’t know what I was expecting for a 62-year-old rocker, but the crowd was not nearly as young as I was expecting. Lots of gray hair. In fact, it made me feel rather young. Lexxy asked me who Bruce Springsteen is. Ouch. I know. How do you answer that question? He’s a bar-singing… he’s from New Jersey and is not the best singer in the world, but… He sang “Back in the U.S.A.”, okay?
An hour and a half wait, and then Bruce sang for half an hour. I’ve never been a huge Springsteen guy. His music seems like a great time when played live in a bar, but it’s never made the soundtrack of my life. I’ve never bought one of his albums. I don’t hate his music. It’s just never been my thing.And I really thought he’d come out a fire up the crowd. I told Lexxy to watch how Bruce works the crowd. Learn something. But he really didn’t. He sang mostly sad ballads. “We Take Care of Our Own.” A really slow version of “Thunder Road.” I didn’t know it well enough to sing along as much of the crowd did. Something else, maybe “Wrecking Ball”? No “Dancing in the Dark.” No “Back in the U.S.A.” No get on your feet songs, even though the crowd was on its feet the whole time on the main floor.
Then, I was assigned to help Lexxy write a hip-hop song. You might as well ask me to help choreograph a ballet or sculpt a statue. It’s not really in my wheelhouse. But I love a challenge. Lexxy needed me mostly for lyric help because she was writing a song about the campaign. So I started dropping some mad rhymes about Obama’s political policies. We both learned Garage Band and recorded the lyrics and set them to a beat track she had. I recorded the names of the swing states. Her line I’m probably most proud of: “Ladies makin’ their own health choices; not made by men in Rolls Royces.” Drops the mic. Walks off the stage.
But that wasn’t enough. The song has to go up on YouTube, so we set off in the dusk and rain of Sunday night to film Lexxy with a Flip Cam all over the city. At the PPG building, on Mt. Washington, and in some of my favorite city alleyways. We did the entire song in about 8 hours. It was crazy.
So this was my crazy weekend. When it began, I had no idea that our living room would become a war room, that I’d see Bruce Springsteen perform, and that I’d help write, record, and shoot the video for a hip hop song. Surreal is not enough of a word to describe my weekend. But if Lexxy posts the video, I’ll share, no matter how embarrassing. Really, Lexxy is a sweet kid. She was fun to work with. I’m already very protective of her. Her mom has promised that when she wins a Grammy, we’re solid in her posse. So there’s that.
As I sit here, KDKA-TV is now reporting on garbage cans tipping over and construction signs knocked over. Hmmm. Not exactly Jim Cantore, is it?
Hands down, October is the best month of the year. The weather in the Midwest is near perfect. The trees put on a show of colors that belongs in a museum. As for food, I have two words: pumpkin… spice. It’s even a feast for the nose, with the smell of dried leaves and smokey burning wood in the air. There’s playoff baseball and plenty of football to behold. Of course, this year, Pittsburgh will be stocking up on anti-depressants with the threat of a long, cold winter with no hockey. But let’s not go there. I had such good mojo going on.
Even the sunsets are better in the fall. I think it’s the low angle of the sun, with its long shadows and golden glow. We may not be Key West but the last two sunsets in Pittsburgh have been spectacular.
October is also an awesome time to hang around our Lawrenceville neighborhood. Each October, they highlight three of my favorite things about living here: the homes, the food, and the art. Unfortunately, this is going to be a heavy travel month for me, and though it won’t be uninteresting, none of it is for pleasure. Thus, I will be out of town for two of the three events. So I post them as a public service to you.
The Lawrenceville House Tour — Sunday October 7, noon-5pm
In 1988 the Lawrenceville Historical Society announced plans for the first neighborhood house tour. There were doubters who said that nobody would pay to come to Lawrenceville. A little more than 80 people did. That was nowhere near the number that other neighborhoods drew but the feedback was terrific. The numbers have grown with each successive tour. By 1993 there were almost 400 participants coming from seven states. It was during this event that people began to notice in mass that the neighborhood had so much to offer. Thus began an influx of people buying cheap old homes and fixing them. Last year, more than 600 people schlepped through Lawrenceville in those 5 hours.
It’s a great combination of old buildings beautifully restored; new construction with innovative designs; and unique spaces that have been reimagined. Each time I go, it is a mixture of feeling inspired by what other people do, but also feeling totally inadequate that we don’t get off our patooties and get something done around our house. Either way, it’s good for ya.
Tickets are $12 if you get them ahead of time from Butler Street businesses like Dandelions, Coca Cafe, Pavement Shoes, the Gallery on 43rd (just off Butler), Jay Designs, and Perk Me Up. Otherwise, it’s $15 on Sunday. You get on the tour at the Allegheny Cemetery.
8th Annual Lawrenceville Studio Tour — October 20th – 10am-6pm (FREE!)
It’s a great time to get some exercise, see some inspiring art, and to support these local artisans who are bravely trying to make a go of it here in Pittsburgh. Some of them are storefronts and some are home studios.
Again, this one is free. Just pick up a map in most Lawrenceville locations, or check on the Website on the link above.
The LUPS Progressive Dinner — October 27
This one is closed, I’m afraid to say. But it is my favorite event in Pittsburgh each year, hands down. It’s also one of the oldest. It began 27 years ago when 15 “Lawrencevillains” who were rehabbing houses held a progressive dinner to support and encourage each other. They called themselves the Lawrenceville Urban Pioneer Society (LUPS). Some of the dinners where held in half-finished homes on tables made of plywood and sawhorses. Last year, there were more than 150 participants. You all meet together for appetizers at a big space, where you also pick up your schedule for the evening. The next three courses — soup, salad, entree — will be at three different locations with three different groups of people. Then, all come together in another large space for dessert. At each stop, there is plenty of wine, so you have to pace yourself or you’ll never make it to dessert. To participate, you volunteer to either host a course or bring an appetizer or dessert to those gatherings.
You eat lots of great food, drink a lot of wine (did I mention you need to pace yourself?), and meet fascinating people. Last year, I met a 100 lb. lesbian cage fighter, a dude who worked on The Colbert Report in New York, and enjoyed salad at the home of a couple who made artisan cheese in their basement right here in Lawrenceville! Really good cheese that is sold at Whole Foods! Each course, you just meet the most interesting people. It’s another reason I love Lawrenceville.
Last year, some filmmakers even made a movie about it that is going to be released soon. Alas, this one is not really open to the public. You sort of have to live here and get on the mailing list. And unfortunately, I will be gone on business this year, but Jean may bravely soldier on by hosting a soup course in my stead. If anyone in Pittsburgh knows her and wants to partner with her on this, I’m sure you could take my place.
Late this afternoon, the Baggers and Belle the Dog head off for Chicago. Jean’s mom has been having health struggles and we are moving her from a condo in the Chicago suburbs (where she has lived by herself for many years) to a residential care facility in Hazleton, PA, where she will be near Jean’s sister (and closer to Jean). It’s a time of boxing up memories and shutting down a significant period of your life. It’s a bittersweet time of life transition that most of us will go through, first with our parents and then ourselves. It helps, however, when all the family members are on the same page, including mom herself.
Have a great autumnal weekend. Get out and about and enjoy it!
I was there when it all began to unravel. It was Thursday, August 9. It was turning into one of those beautiful summer evenings in Pittsburgh. A few clouds but no threat of rain and only 81 degrees. The sweltering heat of June and July had turned into a fairly mild August. Because our partial season ticket package had been a string of mid-week night games, this one took me by surprise. It was a 4:05pm start. That meant I had to leave work early, which I was glad to do.
The Buccos season was shaping up to be one to remember for a long, long time. With their win the night before, the Pirates were now 63-47, a full 16 games above that elusive .500 mark. It seemed a sure bet that there would be no record-breaking 20th straight year of losing seasons. With 111 games played, the Pirates were 2.5 games out of first, but in firm control of a wildcard spot for the… dare I say it?… playoffs. Of the 51 games remaining, 23 were against the lowly Padres, Cubs, Mets, and Astros. Despite my caustic baseball history, I was allowing myself to believe that this time, it could be different. PNC Park was the place to be. It was buzzing. The crowds were huge. Jolly Rogers were flying everywhere. After a long hiatus, this city was a Baseball Town once again. Everybody had Pirate Fever. Z signs were sweeping the Strip District. It was baseball elixir and we drank deep.
Ah, baseball, you are a cruel mistress. (And a heartless bitch!)
It was a typical Pirates loss. They “exploded” for 4 hits and 3 runs in the second inning. Then, the offense disappeared, scattering just 4 hits and 0 runs for the remainder of the game. I remember thinking that how typical this was of this team. If they had a flaw, it was that they scored their runs in small bunches. They weren’t consistent. There would usually be one or two good innings surrounded by plenty of 1-2-3 innings and lots of strikeouts.
Part of this was because the offense seemed to be carried by three guys: McCutchen, Jones, and Walker. The bottom of the order, where Barmes, Barajas, and the pitcher “hit”, were pretty much 3 automatic outs. Anyway, the Diamondbacks hit 3 2-run homers (2 by the same freakin’ guy) and won the game 6-3. Typical Pirates loss. But who was going to argue with success. The Pirates were 16 games over .500. Well, after that Thursday, they were 15 games over .500.
Since that afternoon, the Pirates have played 46 games. Their record over that stretch has been 13-33. That’s a .282 winning percentage. That is historic. That is unprecedented. In the history of baseball — in a league that began before Custer’s Last Stand — never has a team been 16 games over .500 and finished the season below .500. Never. Ever. Folks, this has been one for the record books.
I’m going to my final game of the season tonight to pay my last respects. The Pirates must win out their next 6 games (against playoff teams Atlanta and Cincinnati) to finish 1 game above .500. I think we all know that that is not going to happen. I hate to say it, but this team has lost their heart. They have quit. Their minds are more focused on the bass boats, golf courses, and hunting trips of October. It’s done. It’s over. Call it. The corpse I will see before me tonight is an ugly mixture of self-inflicted wounds, severe head trauma, and a dash of natural causes. Time of death? Sometime in late August. Cause of death? Lousy off-season pick-ups, zero consistency, and a lack of nerve to come through in crucial moments with men on base.
This historic collapse makes the season difficult to evaluate. On one hand, with one more win, this is the best Pirate team in 13 years. Win three more games and this is the best team in twenty years. It’s hard to blow up a team and front office that is the best it has been in two decades. There are players here that are fun to watch. Besides the obvious Andrew McCutchen, Garrett Jones has quietly had a career year, hitting for average and power.
In only about a quarter of a season, Starling Marte looks like he could be very special. I’ve seen him uncork two throws that made my jaw drop. He can throw a frozen rope from the deep outfield to home plate that will take your breath away. It’s… dare I say it… Clemente like. After hitting a home run off the very first pitch he saw in the majors, he settled down to a .250 average, but you can see that he’s getting better every day. Pedro Alvarez has not been horrible, which is what he was last year. I would rather have him in the .270s than the .240s, but you can’t argue with 30 home runs. And when he connects with a baseball, it is a thing of beauty. Neil Walker is Neil Walker, a solid professional who, when healthy, is one of the few players on this team you can count on. And there are some young players like Brock Holt and Alex Presley who are still developing.
Pitching has been a mixed bag. It was dominant through the end of July, but August and September have been a train wreck. What do you do with James McDonald? He was a Cy Young candidate at the All-Star break and the team’s No. 2 starter. By Labor Day, they had to take him out of the rotation completely. Once again, he seems like a kid with a million-dollar arm and a ten-cent head. Free agent signing Erik Bedard had to be released outright and paid the rest of his 4.5 million dollar salary. Kevin Correia was demoted to the bullpen until they discovered that he was actually one of our most consistent pitchers. Jeff Karstens can’t stay healthy. A. J. Burnett has been a reliable pro, but at 35, he ain’t getting any younger. The September call ups from the minors have proven that they weren’t ready for prime time. Even the bullpen seems to have wet the bed since the collapse began.
At the trading deadline, we picked up Wandy Rodriguez. He’s been adequate and will be a solid guy to have in the rotation going into next season. But then there are the castoffs we traded for: Gabby Sanchez (an All Star two years ago) and Travis Snider. Both were well-regarded prospects that their old teams gave up on. We didn’t give up much for them other than Brad Lincoln, a solid reliever and occasional starter. That hurt a bit. Both are under contract for next season and to give up on them would be admitting a mistake in trading for them. So, we must hope for the best.
Poor Pirates. Imagine if they had built the current record consistently over the entire year. We might be singing a different tune. After all, 2011 saw a 15-game improvement over 2010. With six games to go, the Pirates have already built a 4-game improvement over 2011. But no, they had to go and scale the mountaintops in August, only to plummet to the depths of despair in September. To put it another way, this season could have been a very tasty but modest tuna fish sandwich. But no, they had to go and create this gourmet souffle that baked to a perfect golden brown before the bottom gave out and the whole thing collapsed into a worthless mess at the bottom of the oven. Now company is coming over and we are reaching for the can of tuna fish and everybody is disappointed.
I think not. It’s frustrating for me this time of year. I don’t know why my baseball season must almost always end in August. Let’s face it, the last time “my team” played a meaningful baseball game at this point in the fall, Steve Bartman had some really good seats. Ugh. Just 6 outs from the World Series. (Deep cleansing breath. Let it go. Sigh.)
And before I finish, can we burn the Zoltan sign once and for all? It is a sign of failure. As Alec Baldwin once said, “Coffee is for closers only.” And so are gimmicky hand signs by teams that can’t finish. You don’t get a hand sign until you can carry it into September.
Let’s look at the bright side (the last resort of years for fans of a loser).
1) I get back the thousands of dollars I put down for playoff and World Series tickets. (I might as well have been putting down money for a space colony on Mars.)
2) My season ticket seats actually may improve a little next season. (Next season? Yes, don’t underestimate my baseball pain tolerance. I was a Cub fan for 30+ freakin’ years!!!)
Hey, it’s only 140 days until pitchers and catchers report to Bradenton. Just wait until next year! (Wow, am I sick!)
UPDATE: Yes, in a final “F-you”, my last Pirates game was the first no-hitter I’ve ever seen in person… by Homer Bailey, a Reds pitcher with mediocre stats who admitted after the game that he didn’t even have his best stuff. What a way to kiss off a winning season.