a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A village about to lose its identity

Former Webster, Pa., Postmaster Bee Hodgson poses outside the old post office under a zip code facing extinction. (photographer unknown)

By Scott Beveridge

WEBSTER, Pa. – The news Tuesday about the U.S. Postal Service’s proposal to close the tiny post office in my hometown will likely lead to a new dateline on stories I write about the village.

The demise of the 15087 zip code as early as December has the potential of wiping the small Southwestern Pennsylvania town off the map. In all likelihood the few hundred people who call Webster their home will receive mail at their street addresses, with Webster being replaced on the envelopes by Belle Vernon.

It really doesn’t make sense for the federal government to keep open the 3,700 small post offices on the list for review if they are losing money. It especially makes sense to close them when the government is so heavily in debt and facing public demands for cutbacks in spending.

What doesn’t make sense, though, is the rational Congress has used in the past to establish zip codes.

For example, people who live in parts of Centerville in Washington County, Pa., have mailing addresses in Brownsville, Fayette County. Some of my neighbors in Forward Township, Allegheny County, receive their mail under addresses of Monongahela, a small city in Washington County.

It would make better sense to give people addresses in the municipalities where they reside. Sometimes I wonder if the people who made these decisions about postal logistics were using LSD during brainstorming sessions.

And if things proceed as they appear, the Westmoreland County village of Webster in Rostraver Township would next year be given an address associated with a small borough that doesn't even have a post office 10 miles away in Fayette County.

If you are having trouble following along it's understandable because this system of addressing is insane. It's no wonder Comcast and the electric and gas companies have trouble finding my house when those utilities black out. 

The post office needs to catch up with the times. The privately owned FedeX and ups figured out this nightmare a long time ago, before global positioning satellites added better layers to finding destinations. And those companies do a great of finding my house to deliver things when I order products on the Internet.

What's even sadder for Webster is the post office is the last public door in town where residents can enter and mingle, exchange greetings and feel connected to a community, except for a fire hall and smokey bar.

And if the state Department of Transportation ends up demolishing the old, closed Donora-Webster Bridge over the Monongahela River, Websterians won't even be able to walk to a store to purchase a newspaper, quart of milk or loaf of bread.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Jesus it was hot

The relatives in July 1952 on the front porch of this old, weather-beaten house that would become home eight years later to my family.

By Scott Beveridge

WEBSTER, Pa. – The extreme Pennsylvania weather and how it seeped into our old, rundown house was seared decades ago into my childhood memory.

That’s because the clapboard siding protecting our two-story frame house was weathered and pollution-beaten to the point where the outdoors easily swept through its cracks. The only insulation between the outer and inner walls there were the papery nests of wasps that seemed to breed like rabbits.

Our family of five struggled on a good day in the 1960s in that poor pocket of Webster, Pa., along the Monongahela River 30 miles south of Pittsburgh.

And attempting to fall asleep in the then-60-year-old house was nearly impossible on hot-August nights without a fan in the bedroom windows, let alone air conditioning.

I’d moan in bed as a kid with the doors wide open to our three bedrooms while we prayed for the air to circulate.

"Close your eyes and think of Jesus," my mom, June, would respond, as if our family were bidding goodnight like the TV Walton family would do a decade later. "It'll help you fall asleep," she would add.

Mom’s advice offered little solace under the blanket of a hot, humid night. Neither did divine intervention.

Her words weren't received much easier during a January freeze, while the basement furnace died down and no one got up to stoke its embers with new lumps of coal.

Fortunately we had indoor plumbing then, water pipes that were pressured by an ancient, electric pump that kicked on a few seconds after a faucet was opened.

However, the bathroom in a renovated kitchen pantry was soooo frigid in the dead of winter that it took extreme courage to park flesh atop the bitter cold commode seat.

I nicknamed that tiny room the indoor outhouse, and would go on to rejoice the day when dad finally bought a window fan for my bedroom.

That brought a new problem, though.

The fan's blades didn’t seem to help much on those breathless summer nights, whether they were used to draw the stale indoor air out, or more of the muggy outdoor air inside.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A market of opportunities

Debbie Steinberg of East Deer Township, Pa., used Pittsburgh Public Market to incubate her business selling homemade marshmallows in a multitude of flavors ranging from Creamsicle to ghost pepper. Observer-Reporter

By Scott Beveridge

PITTSBURGH – A new market house in Pittsburgh features vendors selling the traditional vegetables and one who dishes out homemade marshmallows flavored with the hottest pepper on the planet.

And in a back corner of Pittsburgh Public Market, the local East End Brewing Co. pours nonstop samples of its Big Hop India Pale and Session ales to a long line of thirsty customers.

“We’re so busy. It never ends,” said brewery salesman Steve Gorby, while working his booth at the market in the historic Pennsylvania Railroad Fruit Auction & Sales Building.

The venue opened in September along Smallman Street in the city’s Strip District after nearly 10 years of planning, said Cindy Cassell, its marketing manager.

A public market is an old concept brought to the United States from Europe, giving local farmers and small businesses a place to sell their produce and goods. At one time Pittsburgh had three such markets, Cassell said.

This one grew out of a 1999 study by William J. Green & Associates for the nonprofit Neighbors in the Strip that recommended such a destination in the area where merchants have long retailed produce, coffee, seafood and ethnic foods. Six years later the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh funded a public market study that caught the eye of former Gov. Ed Rendell.

“He really liked it,” Cassell said.

That led to the market receiving a state grant of $150,000 to add to the nearly $1.3 million it took to open the business opposite the 17th Street entrance to the sprawling brick building, she said.

Sarah Mansmann of Eighty Four had a hand in organizing the market. She wrote a concept paper about it while attending graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh and then worked there recruiting vendors.

“I think it’s a fantastic project to give local farmers a place to retail their products,” Mansmann said. “Hopefully, some of them will make the transition into the Strip.”

“It’s a pretty amazing marketplace to get the best the region has to offer,” Cassell added.
Pittsburgh Marshmallow Factory has the homemade treats flavored with ghost pepper.

Owner Debbie Steinberg said her boyfriend, Chris Momberger, started out by making vanilla and chocolate marshmallows for parties and special occasions.

“I said, ‘Hey, wait. We need to make Creamsicle.’ It was the perfect first step,” Steinberg said.

Their flavored marshmallows “had such a huge reception,” she said. “We decided to stick it out.”

The small company wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without the low startup cost offered by Pittsburgh Public Market, which charges it $300 a month for the booth every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Steinberg said.

“They kind of think of themselves as a business incubator,” she added.

A few booths down from her, a group of friends and relatives known as the Crested Duck Charcuterie has a meat case offering such delectables as smoked duck breast and smoked andouille. Across the aisle, a Penn State University Extension representative periodically shows up to offer growing tips. Other merchants are selling pierogies or stuffed grape leaves, and near the entrance, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh has set up a mini library. 

“There’s a little bit of everything,” Steinberg said.

On a hot and humid Friday in June and without air conditioning, Linzee Mihalcin is selling vegan roasted-tomato soup and Thai hot and sour soup with shrimp at Soup Nancys.

“It’s a fun place to come to work,” said Mihalcin, who with her partner, Sara Raszewski,  prepares the food in a Methodist church kitchen to bring to the market.

“You can’t beat the location. It’s been good so far,” Mihalcin said. “It’s a fun place to be.”

(This story first appeared in the July/August edition of Living Washington County magazine, a publication of the Observer-Reporter.)
Linzee Mihalcin, an owner of Soup Nancys, offers a customer, Mark Trawka, a sample of her soup, made using such ingredients as white bean, bacon and spinach and sold at Pittsburgh Public Market. Observer-Reporter

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The funny side of Frank Mascara

Former U.S. Rep. Frank R. Mascara of Charleroi looking rather humorous in happening clothing in 1972 after having been elected controller in Washington County, Pa., where he would later serve 14 years as chairman of county commissioners. (Observer-Reporter photo)

By Scott Beveridge

CHARLEROI, Pa. – Two humorous stories were told Saturday during the funeral for former U.S. Rep. Frank R. Mascara, who was otherwise all business in public.

One involved a tradition he carried out each Thanksgiving at his Charleroi, Pa., home that involved him starting a food fight.

"Imagine to be at his house and him throwing food," said the Democrat's nephew, Joey Mendola, who delivered a eulogy for Mascara in Mary, Mother of the Church in this Southwestern Pennsylvania borough.

It is funny to think Mascara would waste food when his per diem receipts in Washington, D.C., often came from such fast food restaurants as McDonald's and Wendy's rather than those at five-star hotels.

"He'd say, 'That's people's money. That's just wasteful," Mendola, was quoted as saying in the Observer-Reporter while remembering the life of Mascara, who died of lung cancer July 10 at age 81.

The other story came from a 13-year-old grandson, Matthew Mascara, who delivered an eloquent eulogy.

The boy spoke about his having convinced another kid in the family to sneak behind their grandfather and dump handfuls of rock salt on his head.

The other boy complied, and then Mascara just sat there and did nothing, staring with a straight face and salt burning his eyes.

"That's what I call love," Matthew said. "What an amazing man."

It was a fitting end to an impressive and classy funeral carried out by the late congressman's family.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Journalists startle birds at bridge implosion

A killdeer guards its nest today from journalists gathered to report on a bridge implosion near Monessen, Pa. (Scott Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

MONESSEN, Pa. – A gaggle of journalists played havoc today on two nesting birds otherwise left to themselves along the banks of the Monongahela River.

The reporters and cameramen had gathered near the nesting killdeer alongside a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers locks and dam in Rostraver Township to document an implosion of the historic,105-year-old Charleroi-Monessen Bridge.

Journalists from across Southwestern Pennsylvania await an implosion of the Charleroi-Monessen Bridge (Scott Beveridge)

The anxious shorebirds had already selected a spot nearby at Locks and Dam No. 4 to lay a speckled black and white egg on the ground perfectly disguised among some gravel. For added measure against intruders lock workers had already encircled the nest with some larger stones and three orange construction cones to keep away the mediafest.

It was really cool to watch the killdeer attempt to lure some from the nest. One pretended to have a broken wing while the other seemed to entice people away from the nest by running a short distance in another direction only to stop, turn around and then scamper away again.

One of the birds later let out a screech when an absent minded TV guy nearly tripped over an orange cones there while taking a microphone to a camera set up for the demolition at the edge of the lock wall.

The old camelback span eventually dropped to the river in two seconds after a series of 500 charges were set off in 150 pounds of explosives connected to 8,000 feet of detonation cord.

From a distance about the length of two football fields the 8:55 a.m. explosions were startling and could be felt deep in the chest. It was an awesome sight.

So my morning was greeted with two very cool experiences.

Explosives take fire before the bridge is reduced to rubble within seconds. (Scott Beveridge photo)

Sunday, July 10, 2011

So long old bridge

The older spans of the Charleroi-Monessen Bridge await implosion. (Ron Paglia photo)

Tomorrow I have a bridge implosion party to attend.

It's always cool to watch a bridge crumble regardless if some folks had supported preserving the original humpback spans on the 104-year-old Charleroi-Monessen Bridge.

The battle to save the steel bridge is crossing the Monongahela River, connecting Monessen and North Charleroi, Pa., is over and it's scheduled to fall at 9 a.m.

Thanks to former local newspaper editor Ron Paglia for sending along the photo, above, showing the bridge about ready to be destroyed.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The more-modest memorial to a president

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The 32nd president of the United States who ushered the nation out of the Great Depression didn’t want to be remembered postmortem with a pretentious monument on the National Mall.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt made his wishes clear four years prior to his 1945 death in a conversation with a friend, then-Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, that he wanted to be memorialized with something simpler than the Washington Monument or Lincoln Memorial.

Placing his hands on his desk Roosevelt said, “If any memorial is erected to me I know exactly what I should like it to be,” according to an obscure brass plaque near Ninth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.

Roosevelt then said he wanted a stone block in his honor without any ornamentation about the size of his desk placed in the grassy area in front of the federal Archives Building, the plaque indicates.

That president's desires were fulfilled on the 20th anniversary of his death April 12, 1965, by a group of his associates, But that would be outdone in 1997 with the installation of a his statue, along with one of his dog, Fala, in a 7.5-acre memorial in D.C. tracing the dozen years he represented.

So much for honoring his wishes.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Museum highlights the gruesome side of illegal drugs

A grim reminder at the DEA Museum in Arlington, Va., of the consequences of abusing drugs. (Scott Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

ARLINGTON, Va. ­– A fake stiff is placed under a white sheet on a gurney suggesting a morgue at the federal Drug Enforcement Agency’s museum near the nation’s capital.

The disturbing scene is a cold reminder that death is “what happens when you take too much,” the display indicates in this odd tribute to America’s drug war.

Unlike Washington Monument across the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., visitors do not face a long line to get inside the DEA Museum at 700 Army Navy Drive in nearby Arlington, Va. On the Friday morning leading into the Fourth of July weekend, there are just three visitors in the building whose interior is shielded by black tinted windows suited for a drug dealer's Cadillac Escalade.

Just beyond the metal detector at the side entrance are glass display cases whose contents focus on marijuana. One of them protects a brick of pot so old it has lost its color. Another holds a bevy of pot-smoking bowls and pipes and even a cute bong handcrafted from a plastic Honey Bear bottle.

Further inside another display focuses on saxophone player Milton Mezz Mezzrow, who introduced cannabis to Harlem in 1929. He argued the drug “improved their music,” possibly coining a phrase so often repeated by musicians to follow him in the drug-fueled 1960s and 1970s.

Prominently displayed down the hall is an old-fashioned clandestine pill press, the kind used by drug mixers who specialized in dealing in bootleg narcotics.

Another display honors Operation Scorpion, which uncovered Pablo Escobar’s lucrative cocaine shop in the Colombian jungle in what became known as the Tranquilandia bust of 1984. The DEA used satellite technology to track a huge shipment of ether there based on information received from a tipster in New Jersey. The Escobar case became the most-infamous bust in DEA history as it helped to bring down a cartel that netted $25 billion a year.

On a lighter note this museum boasts a hip pair of green snake-skin platform shoes worn by an undercover agent working Detroit in the 1970s.

And then it turns quite serious around a glass case containing a black 9 mm submachine gun used nowadays by agents battling the heroin comeback, among other drug-related issues.

Here there is a gruesome crime scene photograph of a man who died in 1995 from inhaling fumes at a meth lab where someone was carelessly cooking the drug in San Diego.

That helps to explain why anxious tourists are not rushing to get inside this place.
Pimp shoes worn in the 1970s by an undercover DEA agent in Detroit. (Scott Beveridge photo)

Friday, July 1, 2011

A city folks' adventure along the old National Pike

By Scott Beveridge

A restored National Pike tollhouse in LaVale, Md., survives today  as a lonely reminder of America's western migration that changed the world. (Scott Beveridge photo)

ALONG THE OLD NATIONAL PIKE, Md. – A clerk at Billie’s Gas and Grub in the Allegany Mountains immediately takes me for one of those lost city folks when I approach her counter today with a bottle of water in hand asking for directions.

“Yeeeesss. Where are you goin’?” she says when I inquire if the narrow Maryland Route 144 passing her tiny store in Flintstone is part of the old National Road.

“Washington, D.C.,” I respond. “How long does it take to get there?” I ask.

She replies that it’s a 2 ½ hour drive if I hop onto the highway about 10 miles down the road.

“That way you’ll get to see some of the old countryside, blah, blah, blah,” she says, rolling her eyes.

She’s seen my kind before, a nostalgic motorist who sometimes prefers to take the back road to see America from a lost era. I’m slowing down on vacation this week and do not want to compete for a part of the four-lane asphalt with tractor-trailers and rude aggressive drivers to spend some time in the nation's capitol. I’m on this two-lane to experience historic stretches of the National Pike, otherwise known as the National Road, Cumberland Road and Route 40, while this, the nation’s oldest interstate marks its 200th birthday.

The federal government laid out this former turnpike in 1811, and then Congress argued for more than two decades over whether or not the United States should be in the business of building roads. Eventually the tasks of collecting tolls and maintaining this road were turned over to the states as the road expanded into Pennsylvania and beyond during the America’s Western Expansion.

That story is retold at the perfectly preserved LaVale Toll House, which collected in 1833 nearly $10,000 in travelers’ fees during its first year in operation in Maryland. That’s an amazing sum that speaks to the volume of people this road served then, considering the tollhouse keeper charged just 3 cents for every led horse, mull or ass that passed through its gate.

The steep of portions of this old trail over the Appalachians and its dangerous switch backs survive as testaments to the difficulties pioneers faced in forging new territories.

I wonder if most drivers today wearing blindfolds on the nearby modern highways know what they are missing on this scenic byway.

I am traveling the nearly 100-mile stretch between Uniontown, Pa., and Hancock, Md., and pass many stone or brick Colonial houses that once served as inns for stagecoach passengers and cattle drovers in need of rest. Women would enter these old houses through one door leading to the parlor while the men walked through another into the tavern. Guests were charged by the candle inch for the light they burned at night, and they then slept like spoons to compete for the space on the beds.

East of Uniontown I pass a summit with a roadside sign identifying it as Negro Mountain and wonder how such a racist name could still exist in modern times.

Down the road I stop along a curve in downtown Frostburg, Md., to take a peek inside the historic three-story Failinger’s Hotel Gunter. Its brick fa├žade is wearing patriotic bunting two doors down from an old storefront with boarded up windows. The hotel lobby boasts a grand antique wooden stairway oddly paired with a modern hotel registry counter. This town, at its face, is struggling for survival like most between here and there that have been overshadowed by modern highways.

That’s more obvious further east in sleepy Hancock, Md., where it costs just 25 cents to park a car for an hour on Main Street. This downtown is heavily dressed in the Southern Cross, two centuries after that flag was overtaken by the stars and stripes at the end of the Civil War. There is a near-empty store here named Redneck Mall that sells a tacky bikini made with material matching the Confederate flag.

A block away the interior walls of Hancock Town Tavern are lined with too man shot-down animal trophies to count. Their mounted heads in such forms as a zebra, moose and horned wild boar hog are perched near four breathing and seated bar patrons who cannot seem to quit staring me down.

At this point I realize I’m an out-of-place tourist from the North who needs to redirect myself back to the fast lanes of travel.