Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Welcome to TNSOL Town

A small fire could be seen burning in the distance of an abandoned railroad property in backwoods Beaver County early this morning. For the dozen of us census workers who spent the early morning hours today attempting to count the homeless population in our zone, this was exactly what we were looking for.

We trekked down a long and winding gravel road that led to the secluded camp site unsure of what we might find. The glow of the fire brightened the closer we inched with flashlights trained on the area. But when we arrived at the fire, there was no one there, just a red car with a legally registered Pennsylvania plate and other indications that someone in another car left hurriedly minutes before. We had been fooled. Instead of enumerating someone, we likely had been stalking a couple of teenagers drinking beer.

Beginning at 12 a.m. today, census workers fanned out across the country to canvass Targeted Non-sheltered Outdoor Locations, or TNSOL, searching for homeless people who would be otherwise omitted from the decennial count. Our group searched six places in our region that previous canvassers indicated might be where the homeless population stays. Wearing reflective vests and holding flashlights and clipboards, we searched local parks, underneath bridges and in densely wooded areas, but found no one during the three-hour event. The frigid temperatures likely sent the people we were looking for into shelters for the nights.

Although it was unsatisfying, it still felt important that we made the effort to count those who are the most neglected in our society. The U.S. Census Bureau's effort to count these people across the country should give a more accurate representation of who we are as a nation. And it shows that the 2010 Census is about more than just a paper form to be filled out and mailed back.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Working for Free - Part 2

By Joe Pontillo
BLB Guest Blogger

When I got to L.A., I had no immediate prospects in the entertainment business, and had no idea how I was supposed to get that started. I began working a couple of part time jobs - at a grocery store (Ralphs, as featured in The Big Lebowski) and a video store (remember when you used to have to go to a store to rent a movie?). I'd had no L.A. or New York internships during my time at film school, so I didn't know anyone and didn't have any professional experience. And when that's the situation, there's really only one way to get your start. You work for free.

My aunt, who lived in Ohio, informed me that a neighborhood friend of hers had a son who was producing music videos out in L.A. She offered to put me in touch with him and see if he could offer me any advice or opportunities. It just so happened the company he worked for was bringing in interns at the exact moment I contacted him, and he offered to pass my resume along.

So that's how it happens. You you become an intern or, simply, an unpaid production assistant. "Un-work," as I refer to it. This accomplishes two of the most important things you need to start your career in entertainment - it gets you experience, which is far more valuable than any college degree; and it helps you make friends and acquaintances, which is how you're going to find your way into future jobs. Since entertainment jobs are essentially all freelance, you live by your connections. These are the people who will inform you about job openings on their shows and will get your resumes to the right people (along with the ever-important implied recommendation).

How do you keep a roof over your head and food on your cheap Ikea table while you're working for free? It's surprisingly manageable, even in the high-cost-of-living city of L.A. Obviously, you're not living extravagantly. But as long as the bosses at your part time jobs are somewhat cooperative, you can usually work out a schedule where you can earn enough to get by, have plenty of face time at your unpaid entertainment job, and even have enough left over to go out to the occasional movie.

How do these multi-million or billion-dollar companies justify using free labor when they seem to have so much money to kick around? Well, I can't honestly say it's justified. There are a lot of people with padded pockets walking amongst the zero-dollar interns in any given office, and it seems like there should be a way for them to remain rich while still tossing a few bucks to the underlings.

But ask any line producer on any show at any time and they'll tell you the budget is beyond stretched. And they're not lying; they can only work with what they're given.

It may suck to have to work for free but, in a way, it's the greatest gift a newcomer could ask for. It makes the game so easy to play. People who are stressed out about money love to get things for free, and you're in a position to underbid anyone. It's an investment in yourself; you'll gain experience and contacts that will pay dividends later

I worked around the office of the music video company for a couple months, and was invited to be to an on-set production assistant on a couple of their music videos and commercials. With that experience on my resume, I was able to convince "The Amazing Race" to hire me for a low-end position. From there, I worked my way up to higher positions on a variety of shows. It's amounted to some six years of employment. And that, my friends, is what we call a career.

Recently, however, I've been looking for a change. I'd worked those six years mostly in post production on unscripted TV shows. When I finally took a moment to give my life some cold, hard analysis, I remembered that I'd never really meant to pursue post production, and had never been all that passionate about unscripted shows. It was time for a change. And, as luck would have it, a friend who works in animation informed me that they were accepting interns at her company.

It's hard to press the reset button at age 29. But I'm not getting any younger; I can do it now, or wait until I'm even older and more ingrained in what I've been doing. So I took the chance. For almost a year now, I've been putting in several days a week at the animation company. It's been great to try something new. I have plenty of anxiety about whether or not they'll be able to hire me, especially in this economy. But at least this time around, I have one thing that I didn't have before - the knowledge that working for free is a great strategy that pays off.

So what can I say? It's like the lady said: a great way to get your start is to offer to work for free.

Accept it. Embrace it. Don't resist it. It will serve you well.

Joe Pontillo previously worked in post production on unscripted television shows. He currently interns at Shadow Animation and writes scripts. He resides in Los Angeles and blogs at

Monday, March 29, 2010

Working for Free - Part 1

By Joe Pontillo
BLB Guest Blogger

When you enroll in film school, people start to take you a little more seriously as an aspiring filmmaker. You still face a certain amount of skepticism from a great many people, but at least your goals -- and your intentions to achieve them -- come off as a little more authentic. People have a better understanding of how to relate to you. What was once perceived as a flight of fancy now seems more practical and attainable and, most importantly, comprehensible. When they see a "making of" special, or a magazine interview with Quentin Tarantino, they think of you.

In 2000, while I was right in the middle of film school, a friend of the family passed an article my way. A soon-to-be-released movie had amongst its producers a native of my hometown of Erie, Pa., so the local newspaper did an interview with her. The movie in question was Dungeons & Dragons. Yes, that Dungeons & Dragons -- the rather regrettable adaptation of the role-playing game starring Jeremy Irons and Thora Birch. But, quality of the movie aside, it was interesting to know that someone from my hometown was a producer, and that it was really possible for a lowly Pennsylvanian to "make it in Hollywood."

I've long since forgotten the name of the producer, and the article does not seem to be archived online. But as I recall, the questions focused on what it's like to go from a small Pennsylvania town all the way to big, bad Los Angeles, and then how one actually manages to become a producer on a movie. In the course of answering one of the questions, the producer said something that stood out from everything else in the entire article. Something that would haunt my remaining college years. Something that would stoke my anxieties about taking the dive and moving to Los Angeles. She said that when one is getting a start in the entertainment industry, a great strategy is to offer to work for free.

I couldn't believe what I was reading. Work for free? But how? How do you manage to pay your rent, or buy food, or, hell, go out to see a movie once in a while? Because isn't that why you wanted to get into this business in the first place... because you love movies? I couldn't imagine working for free in Pennsylvania, so how was I supposed to work for free in California, where the cost of living, as I understood it, was far higher?

And then I started to get indignant. Why should someone have to work for free on a movie? When it comes to money and Hollywood, all you ever hear about are these $80 million budgets and these $200 million box office returns. Are you telling me there's no room in there to toss a newbie a few hundred dollars a week to help them get by?"

"Not me," I assured myself. "Maybe this woman worked for free to get her start, but that's not what I'm gonna do. I know I have to start low on the ladder. Of course! But I'll make sure I'm earning at least a little bit of money. I have to!"

And then I worked for free.

Click here for Part 2...

Joe Pontillo previously worked in post production on unscripted television shows. He currently interns at Shadow Animation and writes scripts. He resides in Los Angeles and blogs at

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Census 101

LEETSDALE, Pa. - I am now officially a public servant. At 8:39 a.m. today, I raised my right hand inside the borough building here along the Ohio River and pledged to participate faithfully and honestly in the federal government's census count.

The first day of census training was simple, although I must have signed and filed a couple dozens registration forms during the eight-hour shift. Those typical bureaucratic forms ranged from direct deposit information to confidentiality agreements. And it felt great to know I will be earning my government paycheck by working rather than raking in taxpayer money due to lack of employment.

The room was filled with 25 people of various backgrounds, ages and professions (or lack thereof). Most said they were retirees, although a few of us in there mentioned we were without a job. This position will supplement our income and give us a much-needed feeling of being productive.

The initial phase of the job for this crew will last for about four weeks and focus on counting people living in group quarters. That includes nursing homes, soup kitchens, homeless shelters and prisons. Fortunately, I don't know of any prisons in the western Allegheny County zone where I'll be working. We continue to train Thursday and Friday before the crew leaders cuts us loose next week.

I'm looking forward to getting back into the workforce.

Monday, March 22, 2010

From weddings to health care

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Apparently I missed must-see TV on Sunday while attending my stepsister's wedding. Rather than cracking a tall, cool Budweiser and watching the totally bizarre vote on health care, I spent my night at the wedding on Florida's first coast.

Sure, I had fun throwing back a few while spending the night with my family, but I would have just LOVED to watch all the crazies (aka: Republican congressmen) march on D.C. just before voting against Obamacare. I mean, were the Republicans really applauding the protesters who spit on Democratic politicians and yelled gay/racial slurs? Did one Republican congressman really call a fellow colleague a "baby killer"?????

And here I thought the drunks at the wedding were out of control.

Do I love this bill? Not really, because I'd prefer a single-payer system where everyone pays and everyone benefits. But our democracy usually results in these types of unsatisfactory compromises. But I'm OK with that because this is a major step in the right direction.

Still, I would've liked to watch our infantile elected leaders interact in a way that makes rowdy wedding receptions look tame. Maybe next time.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sweeps week

Who else is tired of these third-party health care reform commercials? I'm going to be sick if I see one more ad trying to sway Congress to vote for or against the health care bill. This feels more like a presidential campaign than the dog days of March. These commercials are amazingly annoying and don't really prove any points. One of them shows a hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast, as if that explains why Obamacare will allegedly kill grandma.

But what is more infuriating is that these commercials are aimed at U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, who isn't my congressman. Instead, I'm stuck with the regrettable Tim Murphy, a Republican who has made it clear for months that he won't support any Democratic form of health care reform. Even thought I don't live in Altmire's district, I decided enough was enough and called his D.C. office. I told the receptionist that while I don't live in his district (although just 26 miles from the Aliquippa office) that many people in Western Pennsylvania do support reform.

But the commercials keep coming and this area isn't alone. We find out this week that Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper, D-Erie, is getting pounding by ads that she should not support a bill that the crazies claim won't adequately fund cancer... just weeks after both of her parents died of cancer.


It's clear that these third-party organizations (cough cough, big-money corporations) are just slinging mud to see what sticks. And it appears to be a preview to the kind of garbage we can expect after the Supreme Court ruled in January that companies may spend relentlessly against political foes. Gee, I can't wait 'til November. Let the real games begin!

Monday, March 15, 2010

The demise of newspapers

Maybe I got out of the newspaper industry at just the right time. Local papers used to be the pillars of the community when they provided important information and uncovered stories that would otherwise have been swept under the rug. Now, they're nothing more than online sideshows in the age of blogs and Twitter.

Case in point: The Post-Gazette is promoting a live webcam video of Xante, a Golden Retriever puppy spending his weekdays in the newsroom. I wasted about 15 seconds watching Xante wag his tail this afternoon before moving on to more interesting things like washing my clothes. Is this P-G Puppy Cam really what Pittsburgh's top newspaper should be focusing its attention on?

Things seemed to devolve even more when the Observer-Reporter launched a contest today asking people to guess the mystery location where several Peeps marshmallows were staged for a photo. This seems to undermine the O-R's journalistic credibility by publishing something so trivial next to hard news. And with only two full-time photographers left on the payroll, why are they wasting anyone's time shooting a photo of marshmallows dressed up in baseball uniforms?

What really concerns me, though, is whether people find this more interesting than feature stories about people doing good and/or hard-hitting news articles that expose sleazy politicians. If so, then that makes me glad I'm a former newsman.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Take Me Home, Country Roads

Onward we march to the dance! So in honor of the West Virginia Mountaineers defeating Georgetown to win the Big East Tourney...

Friday, March 12, 2010

Getting in on the conversation

Char Jeggle, of Shadyside, second from the left, talks about the essence of man, good vs. evil, during a conversation salon at Upper St. Clair Public Library. Photo by Jasmine Goldband/Tribune-Review

By Michael Jones
For the Tribune-Review
March 11, 2010

Even as human contact migrates to the Web, the Allegheny County Library Association is getting people together to talk -- face to face.

Conversation salons, where philosophical and newsworthy topics are broached and everyone has a say, have become a hit locally and across the country in the age of Facebook.

"We're all on computers now, and we don't have as much personal involvement with each other," said Lee Boyd, a salon organizer at Upper St. Clair Library. "I think we need more of that. It's nice to meet people in the community with wisdom on issues."

Conversation salons date back hundreds of years ago to The Enlightenment, when people discussed philosophy and new scientific discoveries. They first returned to Western Pennsylvania about nine years ago as a way to get retirees interacting on a regular basis.

Now, 10 area libraries hold monthly salons with attendance ranging from a few to up to 20 people.

"We didn't have to work at all to drag people in or entice them," said Norm Wien, who helped promote the early salons. "There's this subset of people who like to converse in a polite and respectful way, and it caught on right away."

A group of 17 people met last week in the Mt. Lebanon Public Library, with the chairs positioned in a circle so all could be included.

"If it gets bigger than that, they don't get their dibs in," Wien said. "If it gets too small, then you lack the diversity of the viewpoint."

Most people in this particular group are from Mt. Lebanon, but a few are from other South Hills communities. Joe Meltzer, the group's facilitator -- or referee -- got the conversation started.

"The first topic is immigration," Meltzer said before throwing his arms up in the air. "Go!"


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"A census taker once tried to test me..."

Although that classic line by Hannibal Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs" is bone-chilling, it isn't enough to deter me from working as a census enumerator this spring. The U.S. Census Bureau contacted me this week to hire me for the part-time job that offers a lifeline in this economic abyss. At $15.25 per hour for up to 30 hours each week, it's a nice gig if you can get it. This part-time job also should replace unemployment compensation during the eight weeks the feds need me to knock on doors counting heads.

I'm excited to begin my training in a couple weeks, but am somewhat concerned that people will shy away from this constitutionally mandated count because the federal government is held in such low esteem. Now, I'm not so much worried about who might be on the other side of the door (I've been to plenty of funky neighborhoods as a newspaper reporter) but I do wonder if people will actually answer my questions when I come knocking. There is no need to worry about privacy, though, because it will be 72 years before your basic answers are released. And those answers become fascinating reference points for future generations interested in genealogy.

Not to sound like a PR shill, but the census is important because it decides how federal money is directed and helps to shape our state legislative and congressional districts. And after watching the cluster that has become our state/federal governments, do we really want our local communities on the short end of this legislative mess?

So do us all a favor and mail in your census forms when you get them this month. Otherwise, I might be searching for you in the coming weeks, although I promise not to be too testy.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Photog for Hire

By Greg Tarr
BLB Guest Blogger

Never thought I'd use it again, but I held onto it anyway. Who knows, one of these days I may just be a member of the press again. It's a long shot considering since June 24 (lay off day) I haven't applied for a single photojournalist position or even considered it. But in the console of my car still sits a Pennsylvania Newspaper Association parking tag from 2008. And I'm glad it was still there.

Thursday at 3:45 a.m., I went outside to get into my car so I could head to work. Work? I'll get to that a little later. Quarter to four in the morning? I can explain that too.

I wasn't expecting a layer of frost on my windows, but it was there. Unfortunately, my ice scraper was in the garage. Instead of going back in and wasting time, I reached in my pocket for my driver's license (a great scraper in a pinch) but it wasn't there. That was in the house, too. Finally, what do I find looking up at me just waiting to be used again? Used for anything at this point? My PRESS parking tag. A little flimsy, to be honest, but it got the job done.

So what job was I scrambling to make it to for a 4:00 a.m. start time? I'm a part-time employee at Target working mostly in the stockroom. I've been working there since the beginning of November. Retail is a different world from what I am used to, but it's going. I've met some new friends and I get a 10 percent discount. That's really all there is to say about the job.

Now, about the photo business. I secured the funds to purchase photography equipment a few months ago and have been picking up little photo jobs here and there. I have four weddings booked for 2010 as of right now and I have a few others pending. The first wedding is coming up May 8 in Chicago. Before you start to think that I'm already a famous wedding photographer traveling the United States, I'm going to be honest. It's a friend's wedding. I'm excited about the future and can't wait to start shooting.

So there's a little update on what I've been doing with my time. If you know anyone out there looking for a very reasonably priced photographer cutting his teeth as a new business owner, I know a guy.

Greg Tarr previously worked as a staff photographer at the Observer-Reporter in Washington, Pa. He can be reached by e-mail at, or visit his photography website at

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The TMZ effect

Easily cast aside as a celebrity gossip forum, is becoming an increasingly legitimate source for news, especially offbeat sports stories. Whether it be photos of Steve McNair's lover to snapshots of Tiger Woods' smashed Escalade windows, TMZ is finding relevant information and putting it on the Web.

And now they broke a monster story. The website was the first to report that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is being accused of sexually assaulting a woman at a Georgia bar. Roethlisberger has not been charged with any crimes, but this is still newsworthy because police are investigating. And once TMZ pounced on the story Friday afternoon, it prompted every major news organization in Pittsburgh to stumble around for information on the investigation.

How do they do it?

Some cast them off as a joke, but it's clear they have informants in unusual places. Now, a lot of the celebrity gossip photos they publish are stupid. But TMZ might soon become the most trusted name in news if they continue breaking stories in lieu of the mainstream media.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

New domain, same great site

The Bread Line Blog now has a new domain name. It might have been all the commercials with Danica Patrick (or maybe it was her DNF at Las Vegas) but this blog can now be found at The original blogspot hyperlink will still work, but this should offer fewer taps at the keyboard.

I have been amazed by the positive -- and sometimes negative -- responses to this blog over the past eight months. It has offered me an opportunity to reach out to other unfortunate victims of this recession, while also receiving great advice from people who lost a job years ago. Thanks again for reading and responding to my often mindless rants.