The Three Rivers Arts Festival

In Pittsburgh on June 13, 2009 at 9:00 pm

Autism Walk 042

The Three Rivers Arts Festival is sublime, and even a little silly: Downtown Pittsburgh dresses up as a craftsmen’s souk, where tents crowd together between skyscrapers, and so-so Chinese food is sold for $9 per plate. Some artists are pros, selling watercolor still-lifes for hundreds of dollars; others vend cheap jewelry for a fraction of the cost. Anarchists set up shop next to landscape artists — who paint in the bright, saccharine style of Thomas Kincaid — while a nearby photographer sells the usual profiles of Heinz Field and the Italian coast. Echoing between the buildings is a female voice, a not-yet-famous rock musician covering a recent WYEP hit. The sun shines brightly; the recycling volunteers tensely sort my napkins, aluminum foil and paper plate into the proper bins. I lie on the grass and watch couples hold hands.

And some moments are happily surreal: On a street corner, I discover that my friend Dok Harris is running for Mayor of Pittsburgh. He gives me a yellow T-shirt, but makes me promise to actually wear it. He’s standing on a street corner with his campaign team, and before I know it, I’m signing his petition. A year ago, Dok was a brand-new lawyer pondering what to do with his life. Now he’s gunning for politics. I need to recalibrate my clocks.

When I ask about restrooms, a hotdog vender says to use the facilities in the Hilton; at first I think he’s joking, but when I step inside the air-conditioned hotel, nobody notices that I’m slipping into the men’s room using two paper towels to dry my hands. Nobody realizes I’m not staying here, that I probably couldn’t afford to stay here. (For all I know, none of the people sauntering through the lobby are staying here. We are all trespassers, undercover, using free toilets). When I leave, I feel like I should tip somebody, just as a thank-you. Instead I buy a gyro.

On the lawn of the Golden Triangle, my friend Jessie points toward the rows of tents. “Look!’ she exclaims. “A spaceman!”

“A what?”

“That guy’s dressed like an astronaut!”

When we approach the grounded space-walker, who lumbers across the grass with a tired gait, I half-hope that he’s just a guy who likes to wear space-suits. No association with the Festival at all. Just a playful fetish for NASA-wear. It turns out I’m not the only one who wants his picture.


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