a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Santa switcheroo

                                                                                      Scott Beveridge photo
Great. Even Santa Claus went to the mall to make an exchange after Christmas. The round jolly fellow, above, is seated at The Mall at Robinson, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

No Austrian blown-glass ornaments for us

By Scott Beveridge

Looking back I can't help but think my parents were insane for the way in which they orchestrated Christmas for their three kids in the early 1960s.

And it’s a wonder we kids even survived into adulthood, given the way in which we celebrated the holiday.

Dad, a steelworker, always selected the tree in advance of the big day and it would remain on our front porch until we were sent to bed on Christmas Eve.

He and mom, who worked full time then as an office clerk, would decorate the tree -its needles already falling by then - while we slept to fool us into believing in the morning it had been decorated and laced with gifts by Santa Claus.

It had to be a struggle for our beered-up dad to untangle those strands of electric lights, which were already old with frayed wires by the time they were passed down to us. Each socket held a blue bulb that became sizzling hot when illuminated.

The traditional red and green Christmas would never become our style.

Mom insisted on draping the tree with silver tinsel one strand at a time while dad likely popped another nerve or six until he exploded over the stress of assembling that new bicycle or mini tool bench.

She would finish the tree by hanging on its branches a bunch of cheap white Styrofoam ornaments. Our budget could not afford German blown-glass ornaments.

In short order the blue lights would smolder and melt into many of the her while Santas, snowmen, stars and balls.

It gave our living room the scent of burning plastic for the holidays. It was a miracle the tree didn’t catch fire and destroy our house and its dry-rotted wooden clapboards.

The destruction of the ornaments didn't matter so much to mom because they were cheap and easily replaced at the local five-and-dime store.

Under the tree went a miniature village we all helped to create using milk cartons cut in half to resemble the shapes of houses with pitched roofs.

We’d cover them with a layer of “stucco” made from whipped hot wax “snow icing” spread with butter knifes. Then we’d cut plastic in the shape of doors and windows and attach them to the buildings, which also were dusted with glitter before the wax dried.

Yes, mom even found a way to burn her fingers and those of her children with hot wax in advance of December 25th.

Yet, to mom’s children, nephews and nieces, her holiday trees were astoundingly beautiful, unlike any other in our circle of friends, neighbors and relatives.

How one of her Frosty the Snowman ornaments, shown above, survived such torture is anyone's guess.

But I'm glad it did because that's my favorite holiday decoration, something priceless to me, despite its odd red belly button.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Boarding up a shopping mall wing

Another wall rises to block off a vacant department store at Century III Mall in West Mifflin, Pa. (Scott Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

WEST MIFFLIN, Pa. – A gigantic retail mall on the outskirts of Pittsburgh shouldn’t have lasted more than a year had widespread rumors of a tragic nature been accurate when it opened three decades ago.

The one I heard involved a New Year’s prediction by astrologer Jeane Dixon about people being crushed on escalators during a mall collapse along America’s East Coast. Many of her fans were sure the then-new Century III Mall in West Mifflin, Pa., was doomed, including some of my relatives in Rostraver Township, a 20-minute drive south of that shopping Mecca.

It was 1979. I was my early 20s, and was convinced that story had been invented by any number of small shop owners who were struggling to survive new mall competition.

The owners of mom-and-pop stores had plenty to fear, as most of them between Charleroi and Monongahela and Pittsburgh’s South Side and Brentwood wouldn’t survive into the 1980s.

Charleroi, which had one of the busiest retail districts in Pennsylvania, was known for its many shoe stores, yet its chamber of commerce would quit advertising the borough’s annual Shoeleroi Sales Days before that decade was out. The biggest mall in Pittsburgh – Century III Mall and its whopping five anchor department stores – had by then cornered the local shoe and clothing markets.

Purchasing new clothes in the hinterlands at Tars Romito and shoes from Mr. Pagano in Charleroi – where personal attention from familiar faces was paramount – was suddenly within reach of such fine, established Pittsburgh stores as Kaufmanns, Gimbels and Joseph Horne Co.

And then came Internet shopping followed in 2008 by a deep economic recession, which lifted the big mall collapse from urban legend status.
A string of small mall stores were closing. The Gimbels, Kaufmann's and Hornes had already disappeared from Pittsburgh’s landscape, leaving Century III with just three two-story departments stores - a Macy's, JC Penney and Sears.

Yet, the hub of the mall looked more festive and alive with shoppers this Christmas season than it had in recent memory. People are spending money again.

Even so, the mall just closed off a second wing with a new high wall of dry wall – one that had led to a Macy’s scratch-and-dent furniture warehouse. Other high-end retailers have been replaced by such businesses as hip-hop discount clothing stores or even a tattoo parlor.

Meanwhile, trash containers sometimes double as buckets to collect dripping water from the mall’s leaking roof.  Pittsburgh’s transit authority also began two years ago to reduce bus routes to the area, vehicles that had brought to the stores inner city customers who scared away many country racist redneck shoppers.

If nothing, maybe this trend could lead local investors back to such places as Monessen, Donora and Charleroi, towns with an abundance of vacant and decaying historic storefronts in need of care.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

My ghosts are shy around people

 By Scott Beveridge

It appears the ghosts that follow me around only come out when I am alone, if one can believe the new app downloaded on my Droid X.
Ghost Radar Classic’s green tracker is showing nothing as I write this in a newsroom, where the police scanner is jamming and reporters voices are raised while they conduct telephone interviews.

The green radar also came up empty Tuesday at a local pub where a friend, Val, tried to explain to me how this device works. Val is a true believer in ghosts and the radar on her BlackBerry registered them all around her.

I felt left out, ignored and thought about calling a séance to lure spirits to my smart phone. Now that really would have drawn stares from the otherworld from my bar wife across the room at Beer Belly’s in West Elizabeth, Pa.

Given a U.S. copyright in 2009, one Jack Jones of Spud Pickles offers this free app, which supposedly uses a “proprietary algorithm to analyze quantum flux,” his website indicates.

Ghost Radar Classic occasionally blurts out words it interprets from ghosts while using a variety of smart phone sensors, like those on traditional equipment ghosthunters use to detect sound, vibration and electromagnetic fields.

It’s been 15 minutes since I activated the radar this afternoon and I’m still sitting in a roomful of somewhat normal reporters void of paranormal activity around us.

But, as I earlier turned off Interstate 70 into Washington, Pa., alone in my Ford sedan, a few blips of red and blue appeared on the phone as signs of ghosts along with the words “find” and “George.”

“Who in the hell is George?” I asked myself. And then it dawned on me that the phone’s global positioning system might have given Ghost Radar a hint that I was entering a city named after President George Washington.

Hey, it’s a logical explanation from a nonbeliever in ghosts.

They also came out yesterday while I was alone again in my car, offering an assortment of words that made no immediate sense at all. 

Another 15 minutes have rolled by here at the Observer-Reporter in Washington, Pa., in a century-old building where any ghosthunter with credentials would surely expect to find paranormal activity. The ghosts still are not talking.

While an online poll at Spud Pickles indicates 75 percent of the people who use its radar apps believe they work, the company makes no promises.

What the readings mean and how they are interpreted are “up for debate,” the website states. “You be the judge.”

Now does anyone out there in the real world know where I can find a good app to direct me to the best India Pale Ale in town?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

You served me well Box 12

 By Scott Beveridge

WEBSTER, Pa. – Box 12 had become an old pal at my post office.

That address delivered both good and bad news and would remain loyal and dependable as years rolled into decades. It became the kind of best friend few would ever want to part with.

“It feels weird to give you this. I mean my family has been using that box for so long,” I said the other day while forever returning the key the Box 12 to the postmaster in my southwestern Pennsylvania village.

I’d carried that key again on my key ring after dad’s heart gave out in 2007 because mom was too weak to pick up her mail until she lost her life in May to cancer and emphysema. Losing that box gave me a sense of finality that was difficult to wrap my head around after having used it off and on for 50 years.

The former Webster Post Office in a tired old clapperboard was retired about 30 years ago, replaced by a tiny redbrick shell of a building without much personality. The old one had a wall of boxes, each opened with combination locks as if they were safes holding precious jewels.

It was where I sobbed privately in the sixth grade after opening a letter informing my parents that I was about to be transferred to another school, yanked away from long familiar classmates.

Later, it would bring gifts of free food samples delivered from big food corporations, thanking me for writing them to endorse their products. It was all part of a silly sibling rivalry to see who could generate the most mail and free stuff.

Box 12 would later deliver my college diploma because I hadn’t attended my winter commencement in 1978 at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Four years later it’s emptiness would become a reminder that once again my unemployment check was late during a recession in which the national unemployment rate grew higher than it ever did under the one ushered in by President George Bush. The unemployment lines were even longer here as the region’s steel industry collapsed, but we didn’t have 24-hour television news then to constantly remind everyone how bad things were on Wall Street.

I depended on the post office to distribute my resumes, and then Box 12 to deliver the job rejection letters.

Saying goodbye to that box was symbolic of many changes. It reminded me about how little I have been making use of the post office now that bank statements arrive home via the Internet.

It’s become a time when I get most of my news from Twitter, where I learned this week a Google executive I follow there won’t be sending Christmas cards this year to help the environment.

Meanwhile, handing over that key also felt like the final gesture in accepting the fact that this has become the first holiday season without mom, and realizing new traditions should be created.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Glass luminaria

What you can do with a bit of imagination, a canning jar, watered-down Elmer's Glue, a paint brush, some tissue paper, scissors and a candle when you have too much time on your hands and the weather is nasty.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Mon City Renaissance Man

Plumbers advertise their wares on Main Street in Monongahela in a photo in the Taylor collection at the Monongahela Area Historical Society.

By Scott Beveridge

MONONGAHELA, Pa.  – William Playford Taylor could have been called the Renaissance Man of Monongahela a century ago, having been a dental surgeon, inventor, traveler, stage show producer and collector of everything.

And he wanted to make sure his legacy was remembered through 42 large scrapbooks he assembled over his lifetime in a fashion only he could have understood at the time.

“I thought I was a collector of useless things,” said Noel Sawyer, vice president of the Monongahela Area Historical Society, which owns the Taylor collection.

The books for years were rarely shown to the public for fear the pages would fall apart. That day has come as the paper holding the collection disintegrates while the society attempts to duplicate in a digital format the rare documents, which define the historic city through the eyes of its upper class.

“There was a lot of idle rich in Monongahela and they got around,” said Charles Talbert, a program director at the society. The local wealthy, he said, contributed to Taylor’s collection as people learned about what he was creating.

Taylor went as far as to clip and save mundane local newspaper advertisements, including one announcing the January 1919 showing at the Anton Theater in Monongahela of the movie “A Hoosier Romance,” starring Thomas Jefferson and Colleen Moore.

However, he also kept old photographs that are important to American history, including one of Benjamin Parkinson, whose uncle of the same name was indicted for high treason for his participation in the Whiskey Rebellion in the late 1700s. Beside the photo is a copy of a document signed May 3, 1797, by President George Washington pardoning the elder Parkinson for his role in the farmers’ revolt on a national tax on the whiskey they produced.

The rebellion was quelled in Monongahela in 1794 on a bluff overlooking the Monongahela River where the Parkinsons once operated a ferry.

“It’s just like opening a time capsule,” Sawyer said of the books prepared between 1902 and 1954.

“This is like a pictorial history of everyone and everything that went on in Monongahela during that time,” added society President Susan Bowers.

Taylor was born in Washington County January 19, 1882, and went on to earn his degree to practice dentistry at the University of Pittsburgh. He married Delnorta Frye in 1903, and they had two children, Harold and Mary Virginia.

A few years after his marriage, U.S. Patent Office records indicate he invented a roller coaster powered by gravity. He also collected more than 20,000 advertising cards that came with packs of cigarettes or in cans of coffee, according to an old story in a Rotarian publication. Later in his lifetime he became a public speaker on the evidence he collected to support his belief of life on other planets.

“Something strange has invaded our atmosphere,” he was quoted as having said during a speech on flying saucers at the Charleroi American Legion.

Unfortunately, Talbert said, the books were not organized neatly and have no table of contents. Many of the photographs only carry a name, leaving the society questioning their connection to the local story.

Sawyer said he is considering placing copies of the photos in the storefront windows of the society’s museum at 230 W. Main St. beside a sign asking for help in identifying the people in the images. He said he also wants to offer Ringgold High School students extra credit for helping to copy and input the scrapbooks into a searchable computer database.

“What good are they sitting in a box?” Bowers said.

The society has expanded its museum hours. It is open from 3 to 8 p.m. Tuesday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.

Click here to see two more photos from the collection.

(This story first appeared in the Observer-Reporter  newspaper in Washington, Pa.)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Polo trendsetters

MONONGAHELA, Pa. – Designers today for Abercrombie & Fitch of New York have nothing on those who came up with these uniforms worn by the Monongahela Roller Polo Team of 1907 in southwestern Pennsylvania. 

Well that's the opinion of a volunteer at the Monongahela Area Historical Society, which houses this photo in its rare archives.

Meanwhile, take a look at an old photograph of the packet boat, "Columbia" docked along the Monongahela River in North Charleroi, Pa., on one of its runs between Pittsburgh and Morgantown, W. Va.

These photos are part of the William Playford Taylor collection at the historical society. Click here to read a story about Taylor.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Big Ware potter

SCENERY HILL, Pa. – Artist Phil Schaltenbrand does some kooky things with clay, including this jug art sculpture in progress of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

The retired California University of Pennsylvania professor is celebrating his 35th year in business as owner of Westerwald Pottery, a North Bethlehem Township, Pa., studio reproducing pottery hand-thrown in the early-American gray stoneware style once heavily manufactured along the Monongahela River in southwestern Pennsylvania.

You can find out more about Phil in Sunday's edition of the Observer-Reporter newspaper in Washington, Pa.

Until then, consider attending his book signing from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday at Bradley's Book Outlet at 1368 Mall Run Road, Uniontown, Pa. He will be there promoting his third book, "Big Ware Turners."