a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Sunday, May 27, 2012

An expression of war

By Scott Beveridge

If someone had shown me decades ago the photo, above, taken in South Vietnam of my childhood hero, John Malcom Zelenick, I would have barely recognized him.

He had gone from being a handsome and seemingly happy teenager in 1965 to becoming an emaciated soldier with a hardened, sullen expression two years later, just before he was shot and killed by enemy fire in Tay Ninh.

It's no wonder I didn't recognize him, either, in his open casket in a Monongahela funeral home before his burial. Three white roses had been placed upon his chest before his burial in California, Pa., just shy of his 20th birthday.

I had almost by then forgotten about Malcom - who was nine years older than me - while I went about growing up and the Vietnam War was often shielded from kids.

And then Malcom died and the war suddenly became real to our family.

My mom adored him. He had tagged along with us nearly everywhere we went, and many people often mistook him for her son. And for some reason he took a shine to me.

My best and clearest memory of Malcom involved a Saturday morning spent in the kitchen of his home in New Eagle. He was eating a bowl of Cheerios when an older bully walked into the room and pronounced me - at about age 5 - as being stupid because I didn't know how to tell time.

Malcom waited until that kid left. He sat me on his knee and proceeded to explain to me how to read the clock on the wall. I can still see that clock in my mind to this day. It was one of those metal 1960s clocks surrounded by pointed starbursts.

And then Malcom waited, patiently, for that obnoxious kid to return. At that point Malcom asked me the time and I promptly replied with the correct answer. The brat stormed out of the room with clenched fists. I'm sure Malcom and I wore a broad smiles across our faces.

Another fond memory of him took place at his 16th birthday after he his family relocated to Hazelwood, where his step-father had taken a job in a steel mill. By then Malcom had lost interest in little kids, and he was being chases around that day by pretty girls, all of whom wanted to be his girlfriend. I watched them run down the hill together and I dreamed about wanting to grow up to be just like him.

The next thing I knew he was dead, and my mom and her girlfriends frantically debated ways they could keep their sons from being sent a war that seemed to have no end in sight.

They discussed any variety of medical reasons, which ranged from flat feet to allergies, that might sway the draft board from sending any of us to war. It would have proved fruitless, and our socioeconomic status didn't offer connections to politicians with the pull to get any of us assigned to a branch of the service that didn't deploy men into battle in Southeast Asia.

Fortunately the war came to an end in 1975, shortly before I turned 19, and it felt at the time as is I could finally take a deep breath for the first time since Malcom died February 25, 1967, shortly after he signed up for a second tour in Vietnam.

I would learn decades later that he had been killed in Củ Chi territory. It was a famous area possessed by the Viet Cong whom had built a large network of underground tunnels to carry out their defenses. It was there where the guerrilla fighters created booby traps from confiscated U.S. weaponry and would earn much credit for the country's military success. The Củ Chi warriors became Vietnamese heros and were given a national monument at their elaborate cemetery alongside a country dirt road intersecting rice paddies.

It's no wonder the two photos of Malcom included with this post show him as a man from a generation that was forever changed by the terrors of war.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Saddling up to this bar

The Cobb Dog at Pittsburgh's eclectic new bar, The Rowdy Buck, on the city's trendy South Side (Scott Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Somewhere between a Johnny Cash tune and an acoustic version of Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler" over the speakers at a new Pittsburgh bar I take a liking to my barstool today like a herd of cattle looking for a shady place to rest.

Maybe it's the urban-sheik "cowgirl" bartender or the rustic lodge decor that brings me back to the Rowdy Buck, the newest in a string of bars on the Pittsburgh's South Side owned by two entrepreneurs whom have helped to reinvent this part of the city.

Most likely I return because I am drawn to this watering hole's novel approach to warming the belly.

"We're also going for the craft cocktail bar theme," the bartender explains while we discuss the place at 1325 E. Carson St., which, at first blush, seems better suited for a roughneck out to belt down a shot or six of rye whiskey than a dude looking to sip a fancy martini.

The interior is lined with log-shaped pine siding. The ceiling above the bar is appropriately covered in shave tree bark. Across the room a frame holds a Boy Scout uniform and camping gear not far from deer antlers hanging from two ceiling beams. On a shelf behind the bar rests a wonderful, handmade whirligig - a miniature wooden lumberjack frozen in time beside a row of three pine trees, unless, of course, a strong wind comes along and puts this gadget to work.

OK. I've heard of craft beer by now in this misunderstood city, where nearly 10 percent of beer drinkers are snobs and prefer more-flavorful brew crafted by independent breweries over that produced by big corporations. But the craft cocktail concept needs a bit of explanation by the knowledgeable mixologist behind the bar.

She says bar customers, today, are being lured to pre-Prohibition cocktails because of a recent trend introduced in New York and Chicago. Bartenders there are being greeted with accolades by adding such an odd ingredient as a splash of beet juice to the traditional gin martini.

My pal Dash Kaplan at Bocktown in nearby Robinson Township - last year's Pittsburgh Magazine bartender of the year - calls his version of that mixed drink the Pepper Beet-Tini. He concocts it with Absolut Peppar vodka with a garnish of a slice of pickled beet, spear of pickled asparagus and jalapeño stuffed olive. It doesn't get more creative than that behind the bar.

Give this guy a hoppy glass of India Pale Ale and I'm happy. And this establishment, which has yet to install a draft beer system, has plenty of bottles of craft beer to choose from.

The Rowdy Buck, which opened March 16, introduces its cocktail theme with an expensive absinthe fountain, which is planted in the center of the bar until it needs shielded from klutzy patrons.

The glass and silver fountain holds ice water to drip over a caramelized sugar cube balanced on a spoon over a glass to flavor one $17 shot of absinthe.

That's pretty fancy for a bar whose menu features little else than 11 hot dogs, vegetarian chili, beef stew and curried potato salad.

But hold your horses these are not your ordinary hot dogs.

One bears the name The Tokyo and it's topped with seaweed, radish and wasabi mayo - a recipe that is sure "to melt your kimono," the menu promises.

I select The Cobb Dog served with lettuce, tomato, avocado, bacon and crumbled blue cheese. The sandwich is pretty tasty, even though it's difficult to find the hot dog buried under all that dressing.

Between bites I giggle upon noticing a large frame beside the bar holding a cast of a bigfoot "footprint" beside a photograph of this elusive ape-like creature.

This bar owned Scott Kramer and Steve Zumoff oddly sits next door their Beehive, a great coffee shop that appeals to grungy artsy-types. These guys also own three other local bars, include the hoopy, trailer park-inspired Double Wide Grill, a restaurant that is about to open a second location in Cranberry Township, Pa.

All things combined, Pittsburgh is lucky to have these two cowpokes.

A bigfoot display is among the kooky decorations at this bar. (Scott Beveridge photo)

Monday, May 7, 2012

Polishing a Brownsville gem

Paul Orris of Brownsville is nearly lost in the mist from a power washer he is using in his hometown to remove paint from a storefront a local couple are reopening as Mitchell's Cafe & Bakery. (Scott Beveridge photo)

Scott Beveridge

BROWNSVILLE, Pa. – It's always inspiring to see young people invest in the redevelopment of derelict buildings in the Mon Valley, where blight in downtown districts has become a common sight.

Mitch and Brianne Mitchell have taken on such a project in Brownsville, Pa., between raising two you children and making marks in their own careers. She's a college professor and runs the Brownsville Film Office, and her husband is a bail bondsman, attorney and publisher of a local online newspaper.

"My husband has such a passion for Brownsville," Brianne Mitchell said in March, while workers remodeled and restored the former Plaza Bakery at 121 Brownsville St, which the couple hopes to reopen next month as Mitchell's Cafe & Bakery.

"So we said, 'Yes. Go for it.'"

Going for it can be a lot easier than it sounds in these older municipalities, some of which inhibit reinvestment by taxing merchants on their sales. It's no wonder all the new retail has shown up in such nearby places as Rostraver Township, where that tax doesn't exist. Bureaucratic red tape also can make it costly and confusing for start-ups to apply for historic preservation tax credits in these towns, which rarely offer tax breaks for those who choose to invest in historic preservation.

So these reasons make it all that much more impressive that the Mitchells are taking the time to hire local people to help them by using eco-friendly products to remove paint from the glass and brick on their two-story brick building. They want to reinstall a decorative tin ceiling inside above the original white marble honeycomb tile floor, and also recreate the wooden lunch counter that used to be inside Brownsville Pharmacy.

They also plan to hire a soos chef to recreate family recipes.

And, there appears to be a lot of local buzz about the opening of this cafe, of which I can't wait to be among the first customers.