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. 

For more information:
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

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