4657776_l21) TitanicOnce I would have said that James Cameron’s teen sensation blockbuster should be trimmed to a tight 45 minutes, but I am softening in my old age. Just trim every single piece of Cameron-penned dialogue. Remove scene-chewer Billy Zane entirely. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet can stay for the one lifeboat scene which demonstrates some acceptable eye acting. Kill all romance and implication that a making out couple distracted every single British sailor on deck watch right before they hit the burg. Edit out the tiresome Bill Paxton learns to love something more than mysterious lost diamonds subplot.

Oh hell, never mind. Just stick to the sinking. Pretend it’s the story of the myriad killer secondary characters and extras who make those scenes gut-wrenching. They are the reason I can’t fully advocate for tossing out Cameron’s film and going for A Night to Remember. The latter is much better overall, but Kenneth Moore is all too chipper as Second Officer Lightoller. It doesn’t hit the gut in the same way at all.

On a side note, someone British please, please, please make an epic miniseries about Lightoller. His life was one of those impossible adventure stories that you make a movie about if they happen once. His happened endlessly. The Titanic was just a fraction of a life that included an island shipwreck on a sailing ship, a diversion into nearly dying in the Klondike, and a late middle age moment of personally taking his beloved yacht across the channel to fetch 168 British troop badly in need of getting the fuck out of France before the Nazis caught them.

On a final side note, my two instances of what could loosely be described as fan fiction were about Charles Lightoller and  Titanic bandleader Wallace Hartley. I resented fanfiction.net for making me file them under the movie Titanic.

2) Straight to HellThere’s no way to edit a coherent plot into Alex Cox’s punk rock spaghetti Western parody, but editing out co-stars Dick Rude and Courtney Love and their method-whine acting would be a great start. Sy Richardson, some of the weird ’80s hotties Joe Strumer macks upon, Shane MacGowan, Elvis Costello, and director Jim Jarmusch in their bit parts can stay; definitely keep the off-kilter everything — like bad pacing that becomes funny — as well as the gory ending gun battle. But, just, trim off the annoying bits and focus more on sweaty, dusty Joe Strummer in a suit.

(Also, I find Jim Jarmusch, one of my hipster weaknesses if I must call it that, to be weirdly attractive. He can definitely stay. Also, the worst thing about his Coffee and Cigarettes is that he never got around to filming a vignette with Strummer!)

Turns out in 2010, Alex Cox released a new version of the movie, but they’ve only added five minutes of footage, some technical tinkering, and some CGI gore, so the above dream remains unfulfilled.

This is a terrible movie that I knew was terrible, even after searching Dormont’s (outside of Pittsburgh) Incredibly Strange Video for a VHS of it to rent (this is circa 2003). But either its humor holds up in spite of the no-plot plot, or sweaty Joe Strummer in a desert-covered suit is just that compelling.

3) The Towering Inferno: It’s been a while, but this movie was always completely dull for the first half hour. Cut to the fire — never mind the corruption and cost-cutting and bad villain — and cut out most everyone except Steve McQueen and Paul Newman. Sweaty Steve McQueen and Paul Newman are good for America.

I really want to share a sort of spoiler. Okay, are you ready? You have been warned — I used to say I knew this movie was awful because you could predict that at the end OJ Simpson would hand Fred Astaire a cat. But when I think about now, this movie is great because you can predict that at the end OJ Simpson will hand Fred Astaire a cat.

4) On the BeachThere’s no way to edit in even attempted Australian accents or radiation sickness, so let’s stick with just editing out the God-awful, over the top Ernest Gold score. Not so disturbing (or good) as the Nevil Shute novel on which it is based, this 1959 picture about the last remnants of humanity waiting to die after a worldwide nuclear war is still pretty damn bleak for its time. But whenever you start to feel that existential stomachache, the score aggressively demands your attention and heartbreak and sorrow, and then it’s all gone. Because it’s of course just a movie.

5) Good Evening, Mr. Wallenberg: Maybe a pet peeve of mine, but I disliked this Swedish film’s choice of beginning with an attempt at a motivation for Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg’s beyond-heroic efforts in saving 100,000 Hungarian Jews. The movie has to show Wallenberg witnessing the bodies of Jews being thrown from a train in order to explain his decision to accept the diplomatic post in Budapest. Why? I seem to recall that Wallenberg met some Jews who had fled to Palestine in the 1930s, but crimes against humanity in the cinematic way wasn’t why he went to Budapest. The man was looking for some purpose in life and he found it. And he was really, really good at it. By all accounts, he got a certain rush out of some of his audacious actions — at least before the actual battle for Budapest began. The movie mostly focuses on those rough, later days, which is an interesting choice — his triumphs where he pulled people off of trains and saved them from death marches are seen briefly at the start — to spend the most amount of time with our hero when he’s reached his limit.

This is a good film, but I have never found its way of telling the story quite satisfying. You want your perfect Hollywood man, with an arc from would-be profiteer to savior? That’s what Oscar Schindler is for. Wallenberg was less obviously interesting, more of a cipher, but that makes him all the more a superhero. Superman versus Batman, maybe.

6) Signs: My dad forgives any old movie not filmed on a studio lot. I forgive any terrible ending when a movie has done such a kick-ass job building an atmosphere of subtle, claustrophobic terror. And aliens just speak to me in a, I am technically 15 years old but I cannot sleep right now, way. The part where Joaquin Phoenix is watching the news in the closet and it is supposedly home video from a Brazilian birthday party, and then you see the alien for a second — I have never before or since made an involuntary and loud noise of alarm in a theater. Also, Abigail Breslin is so great. The Culkin kid is Culkinish, but Breslin always strikes me as such a believable little girl.

The edits I would make? The ending — spoilers! — with the water. Maybe it’s a metaphor, maybe it’s fluoride or minerals or something beyond H2o, but people just couldn’t abide that aliens could be killed by a substance that covers 70-odd percent of the planet. And I get that. The whole everything was meant to be and leading up to saving the Culkin bit was so purposefully unsubtle that I never fully minded, because it seems like a picture of a different world than the one in which we all reside. But as much as I find this movie a net good, the fact is that it deserved something better. The set-up is funny, scary, well-acted, and eerie. The idea of a man who has lost his faith in God having to face (potentially-allegorical) extraterrestrials is terrific. I am not sure how I wanted Signs to end. But like many a Russell T. Davies-penned Dr. Who finale, the lead-up was so great that the ending had to be a disappointment — but it didn’t have to be quite that cheesy.

Have any of your own suggestions? Lay ’em on me in the comments or wherever you like.

policeIn which I am relatively soft on the police, but advise everyone to not just assume that shooting Miriam Casey was necessary. Never assume it’s necessary, because the cases where it shouldn’t have happened are mixed in and too often the cops are entirely uninterested in sussing them out.

When police officers in Washington, DC, shot 34-year-old Miriam Carey after she took them on a short, frantic car chase from the White House to the Capitol, the initial consensus was that cops performed heroically, that they saved lives from a gunman who might even have been a terrorist. But the first reports, as is often the case, were wrong. Though the spontaneous hustle for news of Twitter first used the hashtag #capitolshooting, the only shots fired were by the police, and Carey was unarmed—in fact, she never left her car. But even after all of that was public knowledge, thewidespread assumption was that the cops and secret service officers were justified in shooting at a woman who was recklessly and aggressively driving toward potential targets for terrorism and who refused to surrender to them.

On Thursday afternoon Carey, a resident of Stamford, Connecticut, drove up to a security barrier around the White House. When the Secret Service approached she turned around quickly, hitting the barrier and then speeding towards the Capitol building. In the course of this chase, two police officers were injured and a cop car crashed into a barrier. When the dust settled, Carey was dead and her now-motherless one-year-old child, in the back seat of the car, was put into protective custody by DC family services.

Now Carey’s two sisters—one of whom is a former New York City cop—are criticizing the cops, claiming they didn’t have to use lethal force on a woman who was probably terrified. There are certainly indications that, in hindsight, Carey was more of a danger to herself than anyone else. She may have suffered from postpartum depression with psychosis—there are reports that medications for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, which she may have stopped taking, were found in her apartment. Carey apparently expressed various paranoid theories to police in December, including her belief that Barack Obama was spying on her. (Carey’s sisters dispute her ex-boyfriend’s claim that she suffered from delusions about communicating with Obama.)

Police say they are investigating the use of force, and the FBI is investigating Carey. Odds are the shooting will be ruled entirely justified even if it turns out the cops killed a woman who was merely confused and frightened. Carey’s driving would have been dangerous outside of DC, a town that just went through the Navy Yards shooting and is a ripe target for terrorists of all stripes.

It’s still alarming how quickly the situation escalated. What if Carey hadn’t meant to drive up to that first barrier outside the White House? What if she was freaked out by the Secret Service and sped away in hopes of avoiding a confrontation, and what if when she stopped long enough to have multiple guns pulled on her—seen in this video—she panicked?

The rest over here

Bill Emerson of Kansas City read my book and liked it enough to give it four stars, for which I am grateful.
But he couldn’t understand why I had put so much of my  libertarian politics in the book.
Here’s his comment from Amazon.com, followed by my explanation/response.

I had read several Steinbeck books, but not Charley.

I really did like the “investigative” parts to this. Bill
Steigerwald does a great job of tying the time of Steinbeck
in with today.

One thing I did not understand and would like to ask the author:

What in the hell does Libertarian have to do with it?

Don’t you know that there are only 17 Libertarians
anywhere in the world at any one time? Except when a Democrat is
president, then it mushrooms to most of the Republican party…..

 

My response:

Thanks for the nice comments. As I write somewhere in the book, when you drive the miles and write a road book about America you — the author — get to air/spew your political opinions about what you see and think. Steinbeck did, though most of his (liberal Democrat) comments were taken out of his original manuscript. Bill Barich did in “Long Way Home.” Philip Caputo just did in “The Longest Road.” Heat-Moon did.Everyone does.

Sprawl, commercial development, cars, the environment, energy policy, city planning, race relations, the ups and downs of the economy — they’re all driven by politics (unfortunately) and open to debate. Most travel books are written by liberal Democrats who, as I point out in the book, all sound like they’re reading from the editorial page of the NY Times. They hate sprawl, they hate malls, they make fun of free markets, they unthinkingly embrace government regulation, they hate the culture and the conservative politics of Flyover Country — and they say so in their books. Most reviewers don’t even notice or mention the authors’ left-liberal-East Coast politics, mainly because the reviewers invariably are liberals too. I’ve been an open libertarian journalist/columnist/media critic for 30-plus years. For me to pretend not to disagree with Steinbeck’s political point of view or the liberal Democrat point of view of Barich et al., or to let their political commentaries or biased asides about America or its people pass without comment, would have been dishonest and phony, not to mention foolish.

Road books are about the road, the country, the people you meet, etc., but they’re all filtered through the author — his life, his thoughts, his politics. Not everyone is a Republican or a Democrat, thank god. The two major parties have brought us a national government that is a Big Nanny/Big Snoop at home and World Cop overseas.

It’s pretty sad that my libertarian politics — that peaceful people should be as personally, economically and socially free as possible; that government should be as decentralized and weak and unnoticed in our daily lives as possible; and that America should mind its business overseas — would seem exotic or out of place to a fellow America today. Those basic libertarian principles have been forgotten and abused. But they would be very familiar — and very dear — to Jefferson or Washington or Grover Cleveland or Twain or Mencken or Milton Friedman or hundreds of other dead great Americans whose politics were essentially libertarian.

Photo by Lauren Pond/Washington Post

6.5) The Montana firefighter I heard of once who was named Charley Stillsmoking…

6) …who could ideally be combined with the story of another Montana firefighter  — the poor fellow was chased by a grizzly, he hid under a pile of logs, and the bear grabbed him and pulled him out by the legs. Mr. or Ms. Grizzly gave one slash with his mighty paw across the firefighter’s chest, then went on his way. This happened, by the way, right in the middle of his fighting a forest fire that endangered my family’s cabin. So thanks for braving those beasts, anyway. I’d like to reward you with a song if I knew how.

Actually, has anyone musically covered the tragedy of that Arizona hotshot crew yet? That could break some damn hearts. We may need to bring Johnny Cash back from the dead for this.

5) The story of the only pair of high heels I ever owned (less than two inches) — I bought them to go on Alyona’s Happy Hour. I wore them on RT probably three times and also to the White House Press Correspondent’s Dinner, then I accidentally left them the backseat of a 22-year-old jazz drummer’s car, a stranger who gave my friend and I a ride back to my home after we had drank whiskey sours with him, playing at being interesting older women who had done things like go to Russia (her) and develop opinions about Gene Krupa (me, those opinions being he was awesome and attractive).

There are an awful lot of songs about shoes, and I feel like those 40-dollar beauties who did so much in their short time on my feet are worthy of that honor.

4) Songs that namedrop other songs are usually terrible earnest, but — front row center at the Ryman Auditorium on New Year’s Eve, Matt Welch playing “Fourth of July” drunk (I’m sorry, it was a strange and memorable night, in spite of the bottle of wine), Bob and I singing Against Me! songs while driving through the backwoods of New Mexico on my first road trip, cousin T. and in our first moshpit together (La Plebe and Jello Biafra!), etc. Lots of possibilities in a life full of the perfect moments with songs.

Music on music can work with the proper amount of overly direct, earnest This Bike is a Pipe Bomb, Defiance Ohio, or Endless Mike and the Beagle Club spirit. (These songs need to be written by a scrappy, local level folk punk/rock band is what I am saying.)

3)

Or any American drug war songs — good try, Lindy, but you just don’t scan as well as you could. I love you to death, Steve Earle, but I want more than “Copperhead Road.”

Ballad of Cory Maye, anyway? Ryan Frederick? All too many cases choose from.

2) The woeful tale of my ancestor Anders Olson who was scalped by hungry, uprising Sioux in Minnesota in 1862. Poor Anders had taken the family to hide in a fort, so the story goes, but he went back to check on the livestock and that’s when they got him. I’m feeling an “El Paso” vibe from this one, at least lyrically. Going back when you shouldn’t and all that sort of thing.

1)  But most of all, give me a moving country tale of Pastor Randy Wolford — this guy — who died from a rattlesnake bite in West Virginia last year. Wolford was a snake handler, which is strange and stupid and fascinating enough without any deaths, but the detail that just kills in this case is that Wolford’s father had already died the same way — in front of him when the boy was just 15. Could be straight, sincere country, but something a little more subversive — that would include the foolishness, and the doomed quality of it all — would be better still. I’m looking at you, Critter Fuqua, Justin Townes Earle, Cary Ann Hearst, someone get on this.

espn-native-american-expert-rick-reilly-washington-redskinsJust call him Rick Reilly, Indian whisperer.

As much as I hate the PC crowd, there are lines. Lines that white 11-time sportswriters of the year from ESPN probably shouldn’t cross. It’s not that I’m against anyone opining on any subject. But if you’re going to write about why the Redskins shouldn’t change their name it’s probably best if your star witness isn’t your part American Indian father-in-law.

I guess this is where I’m supposed to fall in line and do what every other American sports writer is doing. I’m supposed to swear I won’t ever write the words “Washington Redskins” anymore because it’s racist and offensive and a slap in the face to all Native Americans who ever lived. Maybe it is.

I just don’t quite know how to tell my father-in-law, a Blackfeet Indian. He owns a steak restaurant on the reservation near Browning, Mont. He has a hard time seeing the slap-in-the-face part.

Reilly, whose wife’s father speaks for all Native Americans, doesn’t care, so you’re off the hook, America.

Who cares if the dictionary defines Redskin as dated and offensive, who cares if the team was named by one of the most notorious racists in the history of professional sports. Who cares if Reilly himself was one of the first sportswriters to come out against professional sports teams who caricatured Native Americans, before he was against it.

Who cares that the Oneida Indian Nation is actively protesting the name?

Of course Reilly has the right to express his opinion on the matter. This is America, (and his opinion isn’t any stupider than that of Redskins owner Daniel Snyder). But as Americans who possess brains, we have the right to berate the hell out of Reilly for doing so. And we Americans have spoken. Our response? Reilly is an idiot. Chris Greenberg from Huffington Post, Bobby Big Wheel of Kissing Suzy Kolber, Dave Zirin of The Nation, and Tim Marchman of Deadspin are just a few of the many sportswriters piling on Reilly for his over-generalized, anecdotal defense of the name “Redskins.”

As much as it pains me to agree with The Nation or Huffington Post, they’re right. Once one of the most respected sportswriters in the country, Rick Reilly’s fall from grace since leaving Sports Illustrated is well documented. But his weak defense of “Redskins” is so monstrously out of touch and misbegotten that it’s more likely that it will have the opposite effect as intended and will drive people over to the other side of the debate. Really, Reilly couldn’t have penned a better article for those arguing for a name change. A middle-aged white man, using anecdotal evidence derived from relatives and some high-school employees, yeah, that’s going to change a lot of people’s minds.

Reilly takes the few Native Americans that he spoke to across the country and uses that as proof they don’t care about the name. Hell they’re even proud of it.

“I’ve talked to our students, our parents and our community about this and nobody finds any offense at all in it,” says Tim Ames, the superintendent of Wellpinit schools. “‘Redskins’ is not an insult to our kids. ‘Wagon burners’ is an insult. ‘Prairie n—–s’ is an insult. Those are very upsetting to our kids. But ‘Redskins’ is an honorable name we wear with pride. … In fact, I’d like to see somebody come up here and try to change it.” […]

“We have two great tribes here,” says Kingston assistant school superintendent Ron Whipkey, “the Chicasaw and the Choctaw. And not one member of those tribes has ever come to me or our school with a complaint. It is a prideful thing to them.” […]

“It’s a name that honors the people,” says Kingston English teacher Brett Hayes, who is Choctaw. “The word ‘Oklahoma’ itself is Choctaw for ‘red people.’ The students here don’t want it changed. To them, it seems like it’s just people who have no connection with the Native American culture, people out there trying to draw attention to themselves. […]

“My kids are really afraid we’re going to lose the Redskin name. They say to me, ‘They’re not going to take it from us, are they, Dad?'”

Nice try, Reilly, but what you’ve forgotten to mention in your strawman argument is that no one is trying to scrub the moniker “Redskins” from all America’s sports teams — just the one that has no affiliation with Native Americans.

Reilly is unmoved even by his fellow ESPN employees are jumping on the hate wagon.

Edmundo Macedo, vice president of ESPN’s Stats & Information group, told ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte that the term Redskins is abhorrent. “We would not accept anything similar as a team nickname if it were associated with any other ethnicity or any other race,” Macedo said.

Oh, yes, we would.

In fact, ESPN and many other media companies cover the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, the Cleveland Indians and the Atlanta Braves without a single searing search of their social conscience.

Doesn’t matter. The 81-year-old Washington Redskins name is falling, and everybody better get out of the way. For the majority of Native Americans who don’t care, we’ll care for them. For the Native Americans who haven’t asked for help, we’re glad to give it to them.

Trust us. We know what’s best. We’ll take this away for your own good, and put up barriers that protect you from ever being harmed again.

Kind of like a reservation.

A lesser property than Reilly would have been fired on the spot for that last line. But Reilly is still gainfully employed (for now).

As far as the other teams mentioned by Reilly are concerned, Indians is not considered a slur, neither is Braves. Notre Dame Fighting Irish could be construed as an insult but as Joe Flood at Buzzfeed notes, “the key difference between Notre Dame and the Washington Redskins: Notre Dame is a Catholic, largely Irish institution. ‘Fighting Irish’ is their term to use.” Just like “Redskins” is okay for Native American high schools that want to use it.

It’s safe to think that Reilly wouldn’t have been so bold in talking about a larger, more powerful minority group. If he had been talking about African-Americans would he have had the gumption to write “plantation?”  No, because Jesse Jackson would have been on him before he finished typing the sentence. And therein lies the crux of the problem. Since Native Americans only make up 0.6% of the population of the United States, they don’t have the power to make their voices heard over the NFL noise machine.

Would Reilly be okay with a sports team from Cape Town being named after an ethnic slur for black people? How about a team from Berlin being named the “kikes?” Would Reilly substitute “reservation” for concentration camp? Of course not. That would be unbelievably racist and insensitive to the genocide that took place in the 1930s and ’40s. But in Reilly’s world the two are different. Native Americans were murdered and forced out of their lands back in the 1700 and 1800s and Reilly, like most Americans, develops convenient amnesia about that genocide. Moreover, the city where the proclamations and laws permitting genocide against Native Americans originated decided to “honor” them by naming its sports team after them. If I were Native American, I’d be as upset about being associated with Washington D.C. as I was the name “Redskins.”

Bill Peduto, a grown-up,  will be Pittsburgh’s next mayor and he clearly has a better brain than his predecessors, which, unfortunately,  isn’t much of a compliment.

But instead of seeing if he can break the modern mayoral record for getting laid in office, Peduto is doing some thinking/hinting/promising about what he might do when he becomes the 734th straight Democrat since 1934 to take over Pittsburgh’s City Hall.

Peduto has been talking about tinkering with the bus stops downtown to relieve congestion on the sidewalks. Businesses are complaining about all those unsightly humans standing around on corners waiting for a government megabus to lumber along. (I suspect that the skin color of many of those bus riders might have something to do with the bizmen’s concern, but that’s because I am a cynical ex-newspaper guy.)

Now that I don’t have to slave at a job at the PG or Trib, I rarely see downtown. (I hear the Twin Transit Tunnel to Nowhere is done. And that Market Square has been rejuvenated and its population of drug salesmen, homeless and mentally disturbed people has been reduced to a just a handful so that everyone can go to the fancy new restaurants.)

The City of Pittsburgh — like so many rust belt towns — continues to be crippled by the bad politics, poor leadership and stupid ideas that helped its decline. As far as I can tell, that isn’t going to ever change in my lifetime or my kids’.

Let’s hope Bill Peduto proves me wrong.

Meanwhile, as part of my never-ending quest to bring more human and economic freedom to a shrinking city population that has been tortured for decades by too much government, I offered Mayor-to-be Bill this advice on Facebook about what he should do about the transit scene downtown and elsewhere:

Please, Mayor-to-be Bill.

Don’t tinker with the Port Authority bus stops/schedules. Blow up the city’s current government public transit monopoly (figuratively, of course, dear NSA). Get the county/state/feds to deregulate it, privatize it, defund it, outlaw it, whatever, in the long run. But first ban all of its gargantuan lumbering 40-foot-plus buses from the city limits and then declare Pittsburgh an open transit city. Open up the taxi and bus markets in downtown and Oakland and especially in the neighborhoods that are poor and have been un-served by Yellow Cab for 75 years. Invite anyone with a valid driver’s license and insurance to operate a minibus or a cab or a rickshaw downtown — without subsidies or privileged territories. Decriminalize and publicize the jitney drivers, who have served the city’s citizens far far better than Yellow Cab’s obscenely expensive and religiously awful “service.” Praise and encourage and welcome transit entrepreneurs, not transit bureaucrats and intermodal planners who should be working in Moscow, circa 1983, not Pittsburgh 2013. Tell the county and state lawmakers that you want Pittsburgh to become a model city that wants to break up the clumsy, expensive, inefficient socialized transportation systems U.S. cities take for granted and perpetuate. Encourage maximum economic freedom for transit. It’s radical. But if the market can give us all the shoes we need, all the bad TV we can watch and $30 Megabus rides to New York, it can give Pittsburgh a decent ground transportation that doesn’t include $70 cab rides from downtown to the airport and too little cab service to poor people. The transit unions, the pro-government transit media (especially the PG and City Paper), the transportation “experts” and other entitled government bus interests, including riders, will cry. But in a year there will more affordable ways to move around in the city than anyone can imagine. It’ll take balls, Mr. Mayor-to-be, but it might make the city famous for something other than having North America’s slowest light rail system …

IMG_0668

Unless a comet strikes Market Square, Pittsburgh’s next mayor will be Bill Peduto. Mr. Peduto, who will get to impose his will, values, biases and plans on the future of Pittsburgh, is already talking/musing about what will happen to the Strip District under his reign: Peduto looks for alternatives to Buncher’s Strip District development plan.  Of course, I’d like to see the mayor-to-be promise to do or plan nothing of significance to the Strip, or any other city neighborhood. I made my case for a hands-off City Hall in this updated Pittsburgh Trib op-ed about DeLuca’s restaurant 11 years ago, when Pittsburgh was still in the grip of Mayor Murphy and his grandiose urban development schemes. As far as I can tell, it’s still good advice for any new Pittsburgh mayor — especially one who already seems to understand how his predecessors and their misguided urban planners wrecked East Liberty, the Hill and the North Side. — Bill s

DeLuca’s Paradox

It’s not easy to fall in love with DeLuca’s.

It’s 62 years old and looks it. Its cramped booths are made of Formica. Its water glasses are plastic. It’s got a long, low counter with round stools that spin, a big, ugly painting on the wall and cheap cigars for sale at the cash register.

But DeLuca’s restaurant in the Strip District — a humble eating place for the hungry common man and woman – is one of Pittsburgh’s great treasures.

In a tiny but invaluable sociocultural way, it makes Pittsburgh a more interesting, more livable and more colorful city. Noisy, real and incapable of being duplicated, much less franchised, DeLuca’s is one of those unique, home-grown places that helps to differentiate Pittsburgh from everywhere else.

But its value transcends its unique character and fame as a purveyor of good, cheap diner food. DeLuca’s history – what it is and where it came from — can help us understand why some good things just seem to sprout naturally in certain parts of the city.

More important, DeLuca’s contains lessons in city planning for the folks in power in City Hall who, despite more than 60 years of failed urban renewal projects, still don’t understand the inherent limitations of large-scale, government-dictated redevelopment.

FUNKY AMBIENCE

I love DeLuca’s.

It is the closest thing I’ve seen in these parts to my all-time favorite restaurant, the Pantry, an equally funky, equally unique steak-and-eggs factory in downtown Los Angeles that is so popular it literally has never closed its doors in more than 86 years.

Not long ago my wife and I went to DeLuca’s for breakfast. It was a typically crowded, noisy, smoky Saturday morning. As a short line of patient customers stood outside the front door, we sat at the long counter and watched a tireless trio of sweating short-order cooks do their stuff.

Squeamish or uptight people might be put off by the crazy-messy food-and-platter-slinging scene at the grill. But as I looked around at the frantic waitresses and the happy mob of yakking customers, I began thinking about the greater meaning of DeLuca’s.

DeLuca’s is one of those many little pleasant miracles of everyday existence we usually take for granted, I stipulated to myself. It is a good, Pittsburgh-only place. Few would deny that life in the city would be improved, albeit minutely, if there were a DeLuca’s in every neighborhood.

So how do we make that happen? Can City Hall do it? No. McDonald’s? Nope. No one — not the smartest developer from Columbus, Ohio, not the brightest mayor or urban planner — could ever make a single new DeLuca’s appear in Pittsburgh, much less a dozen.

To understand why not, you have to know where DeLuca’s came from in the first place. Who planned it? Who ordered the DeLuca family to start a restaurant in 1951? Who foresaw that in time it would fry, scramble and poach 1,200 eggs every Saturday?

IMG_0669

Of course, we all know that no one from on high did any planning, ordering or foreseeing 62 years ago.

WONDERFUL CHAOS

DeLuca’s is like most successful businesses in a relatively free marketplace. It came into being and succeeded for a whole bunch of subjective, uncontrollable, unpredictable entrepreneurial/idiosyncratic reasons known only to the DeLuca tribe and Drew and Chris Mikrut, its owners since 1988.

In a literal sense, DeLuca’s sprang spontaneously from the wonderful chaos and organic commercial complexity of the Strip District, a vibrant, wildly popular, truly 24/7 part of the city that itself has evolved spontaneously – and has been mercifully left alone by city planners, regulators and zoning officers.

That’s Part 1 of DeLuca’s Paradox: DeLuca’s restaurant only exists in the first place because no one on high deliberately or consciously set out to create it 62 years ago.

Part 2 is equally paradoxical: If, by some miracle, City Hall’s chronically misguided planners decided they wanted to bring a new DeLuca’s or two into being, there’s only one sure way they could make it happen – by doing nothing.

Unfortunately, however, doing nothing is not in City Hall’s playbook. Few city halls anywhere have understood the counter-intuitive benefits of “planning” by deliberately doing nothing and letting nature — i.e., the marketplace — take its course.

Doing nothing doesn’t mean letting old city neighborhoods rot. It means having the wisdom to let neighborhoods – even poor ones — evolve naturally, incrementally and unpredictably over time and in market-sensitive, nurturing ways, with a minimum of government intrusion and subsidy and planning.

For more than half a century the Planning Industrial Complex’s preferred way of doing business – as practiced to a “T” in Pittsburgh — was to use federal money to destroy old, poorer neighborhoods in the name of renewal or make them disappear by aiming interstate highways at them.

You don’t have to be a straight-A student of the great and wise urbanologist Jane Jacobs to notice the horrid effects of this crude brand of planning in Pittsburgh: The parts of town people like to live in or play in the most are the parts where the clumsy, trampling foot of government has not stomped.

Neighborhoods that City Hall and its planners have largely ignored — the South Side, Squirrel Hill, the Strip District, Bloomfield and lately Lawrenceville – are vital, healthy urban communities, juicy with people and local commerce.

Neighborhoods that City Hall has spent hundreds of millions to “redevelop” or “renew” – the Lower Hill, East Liberty, the North Side and huge chunks of Downtown – are, decades later, still slathered in cold concrete, conspicuously uniform and unable to support little commerce and housing that is not subsidized.

A 50-plus year parade of arrogant, all-knowing mayors and their corporate cheerleaders are responsible for these conspicuous failures. Several generations of public and private powerbrokers should be hauled before a tribunal, or at least held up to public ridicule for their stupidity.

But they have not paid in any way for their sins. Nor have they learned from their mistakes. Their descendants no doubt gathered around a long conference table even now, formulating ambitious master plans for “redeveloping” the parts of Pittsburgh that were wrecked decades earlier.

Whatever they have up their sleeves, it won’t include a place where anything simple and small like a DeLuca’s could take root.

SLOW EVOLUTION

The lesson of DeLuca’s Paradox – that the way to assure good things happening is to do nothing — applies to both the Strip District and the whole city.

Like DeLuca’s, the Strip evolved on its own over decades. The Strip grew unpredictably, crazily, unattractively, practically – and virtually free of government interference or guidance — as thousands of business owners and property owners made decisions based on what they saw or thought or dreamed.

It should be obvious, but it needs to be said: No powerful mayor, no brilliant city planner, no big-bucks developer, could have imagined or wanted the Strip, much less have created it. They can only kill it.

What you get when a mayor, a planner or a big developer gets their hands on 95 urban acres is the Lower Hill, at worst, or the Waterfront, at best. The Waterfront is a roaring commercial success, thanks to its fancy mix of shopping, entertainment and heretofore-unseen-in-these-parts chain restaurants.

As far as malls go, the Waterfront looks very good. But it is a shopping theme park, not a city neighborhood. It is only going to become what its developer wants it to become, which is fine.

It will evolve only in ways its developer/owner will allow or can imagine. No matter how many condos are sited there, it’s never going to be another Squirrel Hill or another Strip District, where a baby DeLuca’s might someday sprout in a low-rent niche of real estate.

The Waterfront is a carefully contrived, artificial construct – and always will be. The Strip – like DeLuca’s – is an organic human and commercial mess, which is why citizens in search of genuine character and surprises go there in crowds.

The Strip is broken into thousands of controlling pieces. Therefore, it can evolve in countless, unimaginable, incremental ways that are not based on the whims or politically skewed directives of an unenlightened City Hall or its favored developers.

All of which begs a big, important question that no one ever asks: Why should a mayor or the city planning director or any single mega-developer they choose get to decide what happens in large swaths of the Strip, in Oakland or Downtown?

They and all their commissions and public-private partnerships don’t possibly know enough to make informed, rational choices about what to do with whole city blocks – though they think they do.

This blind arrogance is a local version of Hayek’s “Fatal Conceit” – the mistaken belief that a few experts and government people at the top are smarter than the market and its thousands of participants and infinite social and economic possibilities.

Our local urban redevelopment czars think they know what they are doing. But they don’t – as evidenced by where they have been and the urban ruins they have left behind in the Lower Hill, East Liberty and the North Side.

Mayor Murphy’s original Marketplace at Fifth and Forbes project in the heart of Downtown in the early 2000s would have clear-cut two city blocks and replaced it with little more than an unenclosed suburban shopping mall. It was a primitive, crude reprise of the worst of 1950s urban planning – only City Hall was too clueless or too ambitious to understand it.

It’s a miracle Mayor Murphy and his wrecking crew didn’t get their way with Fifth and Forbes. It took an odd coalition of doomed Downtown merchants, façade lovers, maverick politicians and defenders of property rights (plus an upcoming primary election) to stop him.

During the 2000s a new and less awful plan for Fifth and Forbes was implemented. Thanks to tens of millions in subsidies and tax breaks to big banks and well-heeled developers, two streets that had been deliberately neglected and abused by City Hall for 20 years were resuscitated and renewed.

New office buildings, condos and restaurants have bloomed in and around Market Square, where a kinder, gentler, more suburbanite-friendly nightlife thrives.  Everyone in the professional booster and planning communities agrees the Market Square redevelopmenit is a perfect example of a successful public-private partnership.

It was a far better, more incremental and less authoritarian redevelopment plan than Mayor Murphy’s eminent domain-abusing urban mega-folly. Which wasn’t hard. But it still violated the truth of DeLuca’s Paradox – that the best way for planners to revitalize what’s left of this city is to leave it alone.

DEA_badge_CSo, the government is shut down…and by shut down, they mean to hell with national parks, WWII memorials and the veterans who want to visit them, and kids with cancer, but dammit, 87 percent of the Drug Enforcement Administration counts as essential!

Turns out there’s a name for this blatantly political effort to make government feel essential — it’s called “Washington Monument Syndrome.” Makes sense. This game is not new. And liberals are the ones who always fall for it the hardest. They tend to respond to libertarian suggestions of even light trimming with “BUT THE PARKS AND THE ROADS AND THE DEPARTMENT OF HUGS FOR POOR CHILDREN WILL GO FIRST.”  No matter how radical you are, even a full-on anarchist knows we’re not going from choking on the corpulence of this government to frolicking in the rainbow and puppydog-topia of pure voluntaryism in one day. And before we get to those cancer kids, there’s a whole lot of stuff to get rid of.

With that in mind, please enjoy my latest VICE piece and just revel in the wretchedness of my number one pick for non-essential, fired forever, burn down their building and laugh at them agency. (They’re allowed to leave the building first, however. Because I’m nicer than they are.)

If last month’s revelation that the the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has been keeping a database of phone logs since 1986 wasn’t bad enough, here’s further proof of the intrusiveness of the agency’s tactics: a lawsuit being fought between the DEA, Oregon, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) hinges on the fact that the drug warriors believe they should have easy access to the Oregon Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP) database and have been acting on that belief, even though it contradicts state law. In plain English, the DEA says that if your medical records are shared with a pharmacy—something that happens routinely thanks to the PDMP—you lose the right to assume that that information is private, even if lawmakers in your state disagree with law enforcement.

The basis for the DEA’s legal argument is the third-party doctrine, the precedent the government leans on if it wants to look into your credit card charges, your utilities bills, your emails, or anything else that you have shared with someone else. The Fourth Amendment protects you against “unreasonable search and seizure,” but increasingly, in an era where the vast majority of our private communications go through a third party, law enforcement is expanding the definition of what a “reasonable” search is.

The rest over here.