Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Complicated Heart of a Cubs Fan

6-22 #letsgo

My mother had burst into tears on the phone, discussing how upset it made her to see her grandson, my 6 year old nephew, so heartbroken at the Cubs losing their first two NLCS playoff games against the NY Mets.
"This is our fault," she cried, "I think, oh what have we DONE to him?"
It could be considered a form of cruelty to indoctrinate children into the lifelong baseball heartbreak that runs through our family DNA, like a defective gene.

Being a fan of the Chicago Cubs ain't for sissies.

After hanging up, my coworker overhearing the conversation asked with a chuckle, "Remind me again... what's so great about being a Cubs fan?"

I slumped in my chair, rubbing my hands across my face and thought for a moment, "Being a Cubs fan is a character builder. It teaches you from a young age that you can face disappointment head on, and survive." It's easy to cheer for a winner. That takes no kind of real effort. You're constantly rewarded. It's very Pavlovian. The bell rings, you start to salivate. The team wins, you feel joy. You strut with the swagger of a champion (without actually having done anything yourself to deserve it).Cheering for the underdog, for a team with a hundred year history of jinxes, hexes and a multitude of psychic scars? That takes guts. That takes some intestinal fortitude. Confidence, patience,compassion, endurance, optimism and a belief in magic. These things are all good traits to cultivate, so this alone is reason enough that being a Cubs fan has made me a better human being.
welcome to wrigley field

The flip-side of that belief in magic are the horrible superstitions every Cubs fan has. We're all somehow connected to the game's outcome. I somehow directly caused the Cubs to lose to the Mets, from thousands of miles away.  The sense that a loss is somehow MY fault, for something I did or did not do that day. For a shirt I should have worn but didn't. For talking about the Cubs when I should have superstitiously kept my mouth shut. Don't jinx them.
Another drawback to this spooky spiritual belief in the Chicago Cubs is the distinct sensation that the universe is against us. I mean, that's the only explanation. Other teams win big every year. Why is it never the Cubs? Is this some sort of cosmic curse? Why do the planets never align in our favor? It's occasionally disheartening, having this realization.

Over my past few decades of being a Cubs fan, I have witnessed the Cubs boom only to be followed by what seems like an inevitable bust. I have seen them start the season strong, and later wane, fade, choke. I have seen them start slow and low and then turn it all around, gaining momentum. There have been bouts of tough luck, freak fails. I have seen their energy shift and seen it all be taken away. More than once. In fact, events that happened even before I was born have caused me deep psychic scars, such as the 1945 World Series loss allegedly caused by the infamous "goat curse", and the heartbreaking 1969 late summer choke that allowed the "Amazin' Mets" to surpass them and eventually win it all. I grew up hearing grown-ups grumble about these things. My grandpa declared he'd "not cross the street to see those Cubs play!" and if we wanted to see "real baseball", "Go watch those boys from [local high school] Lane Tech play. They CRY when they lose. Not the Cubs! They're laughing all the way to the bank!" 

I can picture him waving his hand at us, a man who'd maybe once had the same gleaming optimism in his eyes but had had his heart broken a time too many.

When I was born the Cubs already had trudged 64 years through a desert free of championships. 
So, we had no rose-colored illusions as we grew up, ever hopeful yet somehow also unfairly, prematurely prepared for failure. The Cubs were "loveable losers". They were a punchline. They were cursed by the ghost of Sam Sianis and his billy goat. And yet we diehard fans would still be there filling the stands every spring, and hanging on to the very last out in autumn.

wrigley field 1985 There was a time in my youth where I lived and died by the Cubs. The day of my 8th grade graduation is most memorable to me not for the joy of the cap and gown or the ceremony on the stage with my friends, but instead for the joy of the Cubs finally breaking a 13 game losing streak. My brother, Jim and I spent as many days as we could at Wrigley Field the summer of 1985, spending all of my graduation money sitting "standing room only" or in the bleachers. Filling in scorecards with tiny pencils. Nursing a Doctor Pepper for hours. We'd arrive as soon as the gates opened. We stayed 'til well after the final out, waiting for our heroes outside the fenced player parking lot after the games, to exit in their street clothes and drive off in their boring sedans. 

6-22 wrigley field- historic scoreboard - wind blowing out.

The Bleachers were a magical universe, full of fun and silly people, shouting rude rhymes to opposing outfielders (
Fi-fi-fo-fum, McGee is a F- - - - ing BUM!) and during lulls in the action stirring things up by taunting the opposing section of the stands with a rousing game of "Right Field Sucks!" vs. "Left Field Sucks!". Enemy home runs hit into the stands were jeered with a "Throw it back!" chant until coughed back up onto the field. The sense of baseball brotherhood and camaraderie in the Wrigley Field bleachers was an intense baptism into the cult of Cubs fandom.

Though the 1985 season was a lackluster follow up to their exciting National League East Champion status from the year before, I remember that summer as golden, rich with fond memories and thrills. Ron Cey's Grand Slam! Walking home in the rain and meeting Mom for pizza. My big crush on centerfielder Bob Dernier. We wrote fan letters and collected autographed photos. So ubiquitous we were that summer we even once appeared on the WGN news game recap, swinging our legs beneath the historic scoreboard. The sports commentator called us the
Wrigley Field Rockettes, but really we were just goofing off between innings, kicking our legs while randomly mimicking the "blip-blip-blip-blooping" of Hot Butter's 1972 hit "Popcorn".

Cubs Parking

 Jim and I would even take the bus to Wrigley Field in the middle of winter, to walk around the exterior of the park, from Addison to Sheffield to Waveland to Clark and maybe again a time or two more. We'd imagine what the players did in the off season, reminisce over highlights from the previous summer, laugh about weird people we'd met and discuss possibilities that springtime would bring. Plus, we'd always stop at "Yesterday", a funny, little memorabilia shop down the street, full of weird old smells and dusty vintage artifacts, mainly to peruse their books of baseball cards and add new ones to our carefully curated collections. We weren't ever about resale value. For us it was always more about sentimental value.

6-22 walking addison street- yesterday- our fave old hang out

As high school took my attention, and I got involved in other things, the Cubs' box scores began to matter less to me. I didn't always know the line-up, and eventually I didn't even know all of the players. College was even more disconnected. Then I got married and moved out west. That distance may have saved me. My heart still beats for the Cubbies, but it doesn't break as hard as it used to.

Wrigley Field, 6/22/15

This summer I attended a game in the Wrigley Field bleachers with my family during a visit to Chicago. My mom and brother have remained absolute diehards over the years. Jim has swept his former-Sox fan wife Carla along in his fervor and in turn they are raising two little sports fans who love all things Chicago but are especially bananas for the Blackhawks and the Cubs .

Jim and Carla were actually married atop Murphy's Bleachers, overlooking Wrigley Field. 

This is as richly religious a locale for them as any house of God.

Just married!

My family in Chicago...
The Cubs beat the Dodgers on that summer night with stormy tornado skies and winds from the southwest lofting home runs out of the park. I barely knew any of the players' names anymore but my young nephews schooled me on who was who. They had picked up where I left off. Though I didn't feel the same intensity about the Cubs that I'd felt as a kid, the same feelings of being in that ballpark washed over me like yesterday-- the sounds and smells and scenes somehow unchanged despite the park's renovations and updates over the years. The deep current of history crackling in the electric air. For a moment in my life this place defined me, and therefore it is forever part of who I am.

night game under eerie skies

The 2015 season was a surprise success-- the young Cubs team ending the season with one of the best records in baseball. They made the post season as a National League Central wild card after beating Pittsburgh in a one game showdown, and then clobbering their arch rival the St. Louis Cardinals to face next the dreaded New York Mets. 

The New York Mets and their "Amazin' " 1969 season had forever wounded me with psychic scars and I was anxious the Cubs had to face them to advance to the World Series. It seemed like part of a bad hex, a cosmic curveball the Cubs may once again trip over. 

A friend in Queens who lives near the home of the Mets, probably thought I was the sweetest, most happy-go-lucky girl...up until the moment he started needling me about the Cubs' failures. Dude's not even a baseball fan- he prefers tennis. But he thought he was being comical, busting my chops, and meaning no harm. I'm sure he soon revised his positive opinion of me after feeling a sharp sting from my sudden wrath, conjured up from some deep dark well of pain, deep in my DNA.

wrigley field floyd

  Sadly, the Cubs' postseason ended when the Mets swept them in a four games and left saddened Cubs fans once again singing the same old "wait 'til next year" refrain.

This is regoddamndiculous I'd say to myself as I tried to fall asleep at night, a revived sense of baseball anxiety keeping me awake exactly as it had at age 13. Why do we always assume the Cubs are gonna blow it? Why come so close and have it all snatched away? Time and again. It seems like the universe is not in our favor, is what it seems like. I stare at the darkened ceiling and wonder about the value of the World Series. Is the World Series really what it's all about?, asks someone who has never gotten to savor one. Wait til next year for what? Who cares? 

go cubbies!

Winning the World Series would certainly be wonderful beyond words, especially for the fans who have waited their whole lives. It would be incredible. But I start to wonder if winning a championship is what everything is all about. For many teams, if they're not winners, they don't draw the fans. They don't sell the seats. They have to win as a successful business plan. Even the current World Series teams, the Kansas City Royals and the New York Mets complain about not being able to "give tickets away" most years. 
For the Cubs, the fans fill Wrigley Field every year, winning record or not. 
Indeed the Cubs have the best fans in baseball, I am convinced.
Loyal even when unrewarded with victory. It's not about being champions.

A victorious post season is a huge boost for the fans as well as the ballplayers' careers. But the championship title is short-lived.  It's all over and in a few months spring training starts and it's a whole new
ballgame. The slate is wiped clean in April to start all over. Year in and year out. So maybe what is most important is just like what is most important in life. There will always be the big events-- the weddings, the funerals, the births, the graduations. But what life is made up of most are the day to day moments. The little successes. The laughs. The perfect sunsets. The adventures along the way. 162 games spread over 6 months, each  game its own story of success and failure. Its own thrills, comedy, drama and heartbreak. Even my Gramps, so dismissive of those bums who had broken his heart a time too many, cheered louder than anyone when he attended games with us.  It wasn't about the World Series. It was about much more.

Baseball, is so often a used as metaphor for life in America. That’s why we root so strongly for the home team, the eternal champs and the ever-struggling underdogs alike. The energetic young rookie, starting fresh and learning hard-won lessons. The seasoned old-timer aiming for one last golden season. The homer in the gloamin’.

I've heard that the average baseball game generally offers only 10 minutes of actual action during 9 innings. Much of the game is spent waiting, watching, hoping, praying, fighting off pitches, brushing back base-runners. Foul balls, warm-ups, rude rhymes, the 7th inning stretch, warm sunshine and cold beer. 
The thrill of victory. 
The agony of defeat. 
It's a whole lot of anticipation. 
Just like life.

  hey old style!

Ellen Jo Roberts lives in Clarkdale Arizona, with Chad, Floyd, Ivan, Hazel, Simon, Ned and an abundance of vintage Volkswagens. Read more about all of them at ellenjo.com

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Arizona Wildflowers: It's So Hard to Pick a Winner!

"Arizona Wildflowers: It's So Hard to Pick a Winner!"

A Bouquet of High Desert Blooms

By Ellen Jo Roberts


Desert wildflowers always amaze me with the incredible beauty generated under the harshest of circumstances. Scrappy survivors, they thrive under conditions that would wilt fussier species from other regions. Spurred on by just the vaguest notion of rain, Arizona wildflowers spring forth from dry rocky soils and burst from hard-pack caliche. They sprout from stalks 12 feet in the air, they cling to impossible cliffs, decorate spikey shrubs and cacti and fill the roadsides and dry sandy washes, carpeting the high desert with color and fragrance. They provide sustenance to wild creatures, many of whom are reliant on the pollen, fruits and seeds for survival.

Colors range from the palest of whites to the hottest of reds and everywhere in between. Creamy blooms include Yucca, Sacred Datura and Prickly Poppies. An abundance of buttery gold festoons the landscape in the form of Agave, Brittlebrush, Prickly Pear and Desert Marigold. Shocking pink Penstemons sing in chorus with a fiery brigade of Ocotillo, Indian Paintbrush and Barrel Cactus blooms.

The flashier the flower, the less it needs to concern itself with sweet scent to lure pollinators. So it's often times the quietest, barely-there bloom that fills the air with intoxicating aroma: the miniature Manzanita bloom of Sedona springtime, the Cliff Rose's wee flowers filling the air with fragrance, the high chaparral scented with the dizzying sweetness of Creosote blooms and fuzzy Mesquite flowers attracting legions of honeybees.

My favorite Arizona wildflower? It's so hard to pick a favorite! (Pun intended). So rather than choose, I thought I'd share with you a bouquet of the best...

Prairie Sunflowers (Helianthus petiolaris): Flagstaff in late summer as well as other alpine regions like Mingus Mountain near Jerome and Prescott are full of the tall golden blooms swaying in the breeze along highways and throughout open prairies.

Penstemon: Seen in red (Firecracker, Penstemon eatonii) and hot pink (Parry's, Penstemon parryi) varieties, these prairie plants thrive throughout the dry, sunny west and are frequently seen punctuating roadsides and railroad tracks. Their flowers growing clustered on a stalk are shaped like tiny trumpets, in colors that seem electric and almost unreal. A hummingbird favorite. 

Globemallow (Sphaeralacea ambigua): This is my husband's favorite. Any time a volunteer takes root in our Clarkdale yard he cultivates it, waters it, shields it from the weed-whacker. Globular orange blooms dance above handsome gray-green foliage. The whole plant is a beauty, and blooms throughout the summer. It's also a relative to Chocolate, so what's not to love?

 Desert Marigold (Bailyea multiradiata): For many Arizonans this cousin of the Aster is a beloved favorite. There is something slightly space age about its look, like a 1950s drawing of flowers, their blossoms hovering high above its low-growing foliage like bright yellow flying saucers.

Saguaro (Carnergiea gigantea): Around Memorial Day each year, the stately Saguaro bursts forth with clusters of thick white petals cresting each arm like crowns. Later the flowers develop into tart red fruits that once provided a staple of the Tohono O'Odham tribe's diet, harvested prior to monsoon season's midsummer start.

Prickly Pear (Genus opuntia): Speaking of tart cactus fruits, the prickly pear's golden flowers of springtime turn into the purple "tunas" of summer. The fruit is a great source of nourishment to Arizona wildlife, though humans also have cultivated a fondness. Most of the time the prickly pear tunas are commercially packaged as jams and syrups, but you can eat a ripe one right off the cactus...if you proceed with caution! A nickel's edge rubbed on the exterior can remove those pesky little needles.

Ocotillo (Fouqueria splendens): Much of the year Ocotillo can look like a spikey bundle of dry sticks, or like a forest of TV antennae sprouting out every-which-way. It conserves its energy until there is sufficient rainfall to spur on a growth of tiny tear-drop shaped leaves. Then, when the moment is right, the top of each skinny branch is decorated with a bright, red-orange lipstick-looking cluster of flowers. It's the craziest of desert plants, really, and very special to catch in bloom. If precipitation is sufficient it can leaf out and bloom nearly any time of year.

Sacred Datura (Datura Metaloides): Also known as Jimsonweed, this flower has been immortalized in the southwestern paintings of artist Georgia O'Keefe. It's related to the tomato, but also to the other, toxic, members of the Nightshade family. Though every part of this large bushy plant is poisonous if ingested, it's safe to enjoy views of its huge, trumpet-like flowers, open during the cool of night and closed in the heat of day.

Yucca: There are two common varieties of wild yucca in Northern Arizona; one grows low and is known as "Banana Yucca"(Yucca Buccata) for the green banana-shaped fruits it produces, and the other, more slender variety is called "Soapgrass" (Yucca Elata). This more delicate yucca actually has its own Arizona subspecies, Verdiensis, and it is one of my most favorite wild blooms of the state. Every May, Yucca flowers sprout up like sentinels throughout rocky high desert hills and valleys, waxy white blooms on a reedy stalk. A favorite of hummingbirds, moths and other desert pollinators, as well as shutterbugs like me. I am a sucker for yucca.


 Agave (Agavi americana): Cousin to Yucca, Agave is also related to California’s Joshua Tree. Seeing an agave bloom is very special, because you're actually seeing the end of the plant's long life. Its entire existence is dedicated to this final goal-- the raising of its towering stalk and flower buds.Legend has it you can actually hear the stalk growing- it's said to add a foot a day! Agave is also sometimes called the "Century Plant", under the mistaken notion it took 100 years to bloom. Once in bloom, the plant is already on its way to expiring. Its sharp, thick grey-green spears of foliage grow in a circular rosette, home to a heart cultivated and roasted in the Mexican Blue Weber variety to be distilled into tequila and mescal. And though after blooming the plant soon withers into a hard husk, miniature offspring agaves may soon be seen surrounding it, growing fast and strong in the high desert.

Because of Arizona's variety of elevations and ecosystems, you make catch the same blooms in action in different locations during different times of the year, earlier in the low deserts and later in the high country. 

Enjoy the scents and sights of Arizona in bloom.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Vintage Car Heaven

Growing up in the rust belt of the Great Lakes, the dream for any fan of Detroit metal was to acquire a hot-rod from Arizona. That was the ideal. As we slogged through another sloppy Chicago winter, our door locks freezing and road salt covering our rust-pocked cars in a chalky coating, we imagined the dry sunny desert climes, a perfect environment to preserve vintage automobiles. Arizona is where cars go to retire, if they're lucky.


There is something nostalgic and cinematic about a cruise in a classic car. My husband drives a 1969 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, a deep blue convertible that causes complete strangers to shriek with delight as we roll past, its 8 cylinders rumbling like a favorite song. People want to chat with you when you're in a vintage automobile. They want to reminisce about one they had that was just like it and share funny anecdotes.

Because I'm enchanted with the old school style and technology, I've been a fan of air-cooled Volkswagens my entire life. However, by the time I got my drivers license old VWs were already becoming very scarce in Illinois. I traveled as far as St. Louis to find a yellow 1973 Superbeetle in fair shape and drove it throughout college. It made it as far as Arizona on our move here 20 years ago and then promptly fell apart from excessive rust. The engine rails actually rotted clear through and every time I turned a corner the motor swung from side to side. Arizona mechanics were dumbfounded by such rust. They'd never seen anything like it! The undercarriage of the car, at one time as solid as a turtle belly, now looked like it had been attacked by an extremely cranky wolverine. Rest in peace and rust in pieces dear old Beetle. The car was sold to a junkyard in Cottonwood and the still-running engine quickly sold. I like to imagine it still powers Beetle scooting around somewhere in the Verde Valley.

Arizona's climate is excellent for preservation, though our windshield wipers always wear out faster from sun than rain. While the strong sun can be harsh to paint and rubber, the arid landscape is perfect to keep vehicles rust-free and on the road (sometimes for much longer than originally intended!) Pulling up at any red light you may be surprised by the assortment of historic machines stopped alongside you-- 1950s trucks, 1960s roadsters, 1970s muscle cars--ranging from completely original to heavily customized and all points in between. Some have even been retooled to run on alternative fuels or electricity.

A bounty of car clubs cover every region of the state. Auto shows fill the calendar each year ranging from the  local "cruiser" club weekly meeting at the drive-in diner to seasonal fund-raising street shows to more specialized groups. 

The Phoenix-based "Arizona Bus Club", comprised mainly of "Type 2" Volkswagens (better known as vans, buses, kombis, split windows, bay windows, Westies, campers) is a national powerhouse of air-cooled enthusiasm. They've hosted a "Jamboree" camp-out at Jerome's Gold King Mine every September since 1991, spending the year leading up to the event restoring some fantastic Type 2 to raffle. 

Though my Beetle died of Illinois rust, my enthusiasm for vintage Volkswagens remained very much alive and later was rewarded with another yellow VW to love, a Karmann Ghia that we've owned since 1998. We are original founding members of the "Ghostwagens" car club, based in Clarkdale/Jerome. The gang occasionally gathers up for a breakfast cruise, bocce ball and croquet in the park, a visit to the local state parks and national monuments, the Jerome Jamboree and summer floats at the Verde River. There are many group-friendly activities for car clubs to enjoy in Arizona no matter the season.

The Copperstate 1000 is an annual road rally benefiting the Phoenix Art Museum. Each springtime a parade of amazing pre-1973 automobiles tour a different 1000 miles of Arizona landscape, ranging from low deserts to high alpine. What a sight it is when these sports, racing, classic and grand touring automobiles happen to gather en masse and pass through your neighborhood. When we lived in Jerome, the Copperstate 1000 included this stretch of Historic 89A on their route that April. One afternoon as we painted our front porch we began noticing a ridiculous number of fantastic vintage cars snaking up the hill, some roadsters piloted by drivers in old-fashioned goggles with their scarves blowing in the wind. We were so dumbstruck we had to stop our chores to watch the hundreds of foreign and domestic beauties cruise past.

The famous Barrett Jackson auction is perhaps one of Arizona's biggest claims to classic car fame. Each year this giant event in Scottsdale, draws a population of handsomely preserved machines to the auction block, some very eccentric and highly collectible. Displayed in colossal circus tents, the vast collection of automobiles are presented museum-style, for admiration and perusal by thousands of attendees.

Route 66 is a mecca for car clubs from all over the U.S., staging rallies on the Mother Road, cruising the historic highway. Arizona features the most abundant surviving contiguous stretches of this legendary pavement. Overseas visitors have come to expect sight of antique American cars along Route 66 and they are seldom disappointed. Many properties make sure to have a photogenic machine or two on hand for photo ops.
Though restored, glossed-up, candy-colored automobiles are certainly dreamy, I have a soft spot also for the sun-baked relics, each wearing their own uniquely faded patina, dings, idiosyncrasies. These cars have what you might call "character." Such beasts can be spotted randomly in the wild, parked on side streets, working on ranches, camping in the forest, patiently waiting at trailheads or ready to fill with groceries at shopping centers.

When I visit other parts of the country I am always surprised and disappointed the lack of vintage metal cruising the roads. Certainly, there are plenty of precious beauties kept stored in garages nationwide, pulled out for festivals and the occasional picnic. Here in Arizona folks utilize these museum pieces as their daily drivers! The weather is perfect year-round for a classic car cruise.

You may see us in one of our old cars at the next intersection. Be sure to wave and give us a thumbs- up!


Monday, January 19, 2015

If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pittsburgh?

Originally published Dec. 2008:

If life is a bowl of cherries, what am I doing in the Pittsburgh?

The Outs
December 2008
Ellen Jo Roberts
 The Noise

“Vivid dreams and restless sleep in Pittsburgh. Covers too heavy, room too hot, toss and turn, calves aching from flat hike in flat Chuck Taylors, snow, rain in face, tired, eyes wild, up too late watching crime dramas and cop stories.” –notebook jottings.

One can be certain your jet is bound for Pittsburgh when you take stock of the passengers around you. You’ll notice the abundance of Steelers team logos, from jerseys, to caps, to tie tacks and cufflinks. Even the tiniest tot is decked in Steelers gear. It’s the one thing that unifies those folk from western Pennsylvania, as varied as their ethnicities may be. I rolled into downtown “Pix-berg”, as the locals call it, just as a Steelers game was about to kick off. The streets were clogged with Steelers fans like cholesterol clogs arteries. Gold and black garb as far as the eye could see, flooding towards Heinz Field.

Pixberg was not for me, my friend! Normally I can wear a city like a new outfit and pretend I live there, but Pixberg never quite fit-- it was a bit stiff in the shoulders, not to mention frickin’ freezing. The daily subfreezing weather and occasional blizzards in my face were, at first, amusing, as it was so different from the sunny Arizona autumn I’d left behind. It was a fresh blast, a jolt to the senses. However, after a few days of my sunglasses languishing untouched in my suitcase I started to feel the lack of Vitamin D. Pixberg chewed me up and spit me out!  Ach-tooey!
Fer reals, this city was quite interesting, in a post-industrial/picturesquely hilly sorta way--- lots of old architecture, handsome neighborhoods, and interesting locals. People there are real salt of the earth types, nothing fancy, not putting on airs-- just real honest-to-God rough-hewn citizens. In Pittsburgh everyone swears quite casually-- they drop the F bomb as often as we might say "and", or "the". They use it as a noun, verb, adjective, and adverb. Also, everyone smokes. 

My friend Lisa used to live in Pittsburgh back in its depressingly dirty 1970s, and has no fond memories of it. She says everyone smoked there because the air was already so bad it didn’t matter.  

 Modern Pittsburgh, 2008, is cleaner, livelier, and down right spiffy in certain areas. Once known as home to numerous smog spewing steel factories, coal mines, Westinghouse Appliances, and many freight rails, most of the heavy manufacturing has left the area, leaving behind cleaner, greener industry like regional office headquarters, universities, and retail businesses. Pittsburgh, once the butt of environmental jokes, is now home to the nation’s first “green” convention center. Big names like Carnegie and Heinz still carry much weight, culturally, with universities, museums, and investments into the city’s aged infrastructure. The Heinz corporate headquarters are still located in Pittsburgh, and the Heinz History Museum is a good primer on Pittsburgh lore. My taxi driver was from Ghana. He came to Pittsburgh because his parents went to school there. He said while most of the bad industry has left Pittsburgh, most of the same old people are still in control. “We need some new people in control”, he declares in his thick West African brogue.

Because of the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio Rivers converging on the city Pittsburgh has 1,700 bridges. The number of bridges is second only to Venice, Italy! Said Lisa, "Yeah, and if you find yourself on the wrong side of one, you're screwed!!"

I was in town for a conference, for my “real job”, but was able to wander the “Golden Triangle” of downtown, solo with several cameras, to do some touring on foot during my free time. I’d arrived with a list of travel tips from Meredith Seiverd, our very own Noise Creative Director, and native child of Pennsylvania. Often times during my visit I’d think “I wonder if Meredith was ever on this same sidewalk, looking at this same view. I wonder if this is the exact spot where Meredith picked up her bad habits and tendency to use profanity?”

Another native child of Pittsburgh is Andy Warhol, born Warhola, under the sign of Leo, in August of 1928. While Warhol’s career may have been most notorious during his New York City years, Pittsburgh was where he got his start, and where he attended school, at the Carnegie Institute’s School of Art. 
 The five-story Andy Warhol Museum is a complete fascination, chock full of major artworks of significant importance, kitschy artifacts, a full library of Interview magazines, and even a few of Warhol’s multi-hued wigs and favorite Polaroid cameras. The impact Andy Warhol made on this planet, not just in the world of art but to the entire sensibility of popular culture is evident as you stroll the museum. He changed everything forever. His life was brief, dead at age 58, but his impact still reverberates through us even now. What I admire most about Warhol was his active creativity—he was always drawing, painting, printing, photographing, filming, making audio-recordings, writing letters. His documents of the eras in which he lived are invaluable resources today. 

Walking the hard cold concrete of Pittsburgh, crossing numerous bridges and 2 of the 3 rivers, one can understand how the fertile mind of Warhol sprang forth from this hilly metropolis. A place where they stuff cole-slaw into everything. Folks on the plane told me to have a “prih-manny sammich” (Primanti sandwich), a bit of regional cuisine. Apparently it’s a sandwich roll stuffed with whatever you want plus cole-slaw and fries, all in the bun. It was invented by the Primanti Brothers in the 1930s, for construction workers and truckers, so they could eat their meal one-handed. Those clever Pix-berg folk. When in Pittsburgh I drank the local brew, Iron City Beer. It was especially good after spending an entire day on airplanes, although truth be told, anything might taste good after such an ordeal.

Mister Rogers Neighborhood was actually in Pittsburgh, and Fred Rogers a local boy. Pittsburgh’s downtown is home to both the Steelers and the Pirates, with Heinz Field and PNC Park on opposite rivers. It’s also home to their “cultural district”, and abundant shopping, of the big old-timey department store variety. There are “ghost signs” everywhere, faded painted-on mementos of days long gone. All of the bridges are a sunny yellow, and magnolias bloom year round, in the form of a bit of public art by Chicago artist Tony Tasset. It fooled me, to see these big magnolia trees in bloom—I did a Looney Tunes style double-take, and may have even glanced at my watch. I had to cross the street to get a closer look. Very realistic sculptures of magnolia trees in bloom. A delightful bit of trickery brightened the otherwise gloomy weather—delighted even more to discover the work was by Ohio-native Tasset, who had been a professor of mine in the early 1990s at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The Monongahela and Duquesne Inclines are notable symbols of the city, carting passengers from the Golden Triangle downtown, up to the neighborhood called “Mt. Washington”, or as the locals say, “Warshington”. Lore has it that this was the spot where young George Warshington first surveyed the land, laying his eyes on what was to be Pittsburgh. The Inclines have been in operation since the late 1800s, and are sort of like a combination of an elevator and a cable car, riding rail tracks up the steep hill to Mt. Washington. Price to ride is $2.00 for adults, $2.50 if you want a transfer for the ride back down. The Mount Washington neighborhood is like a movie set, the homes all vintage and tightly packed, the macadam sometimes rubbed-off to reveal cobblestone. 

Some streets are steeper than what you’d find in Jerome, Arizona—like that old joke about how you could walk off your front porch and into your neighbor’s chimney. With striking views across the Monogahela River back into downtown, the scenic splendor was short-lived once a blizzard swept in, cutting visibility down to just a few yards.  

For those wanting a view from below rather than above, the Gateway Clipper fleet takes tourists on an architectural tour by river. Meredith worked for the Gateway Clipper as a photographer back in her youth, taking photos of passengers as they boarded the riverboats, in order to sell them the shots upon their return. She’s entertained us with many wacky stories of those days, including how people would sometimes try to steal their photos off the display board rather than pay for them. Life in Pittsburgh may be rough, and I imagine it’s a tough place to grow up. Many lessons to learn in a place like this, and not just from Mr. Rogers. There’s a sort of attitude there, a sort of dare I say it, a steeliness. Riding the Monongahela Incline as a dorky tourist cluttered with cameras, the energy given off by fellow passengers, all locals having their regular routine, was distinctly of the “don’t get involved” variety. All eye contact averted, no attempt to engage me in dialogue. It suddenly made me feel very out of place, the faded Arizona sunshine still painting my cheeks now burning hot and lonely. Maybe if I’d had been traveling with a friend I’d have not felt like such an oddball. Or maybe Pittsburgh just didn’t fit. 

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Ellen Jo Roberts is from Chicago, Illinois, also a dreary climate during the winter. She lives and works in Clarkdale, AZ., sharing a vintage bungalow with her husband and assorted critters. All the cool people live in Clarkdale. Be there or be square. Learn more at www.ellenjo.com