Archive for July, 2009|Monthly archive page

Lunchtime Atop a Curb

In Pittsburgh on July 31, 2009 at 7:34 pm

Random Pittsburgh 009

Around noon, downtown Pittsburgh is a harried place: Office buildings bleed workers into the street. Delis absorb long lines. Panhandlers frantically shake their Styrofoam cups. As the sidewalks fill with hungry pedestrians, cabs and buses gush through the intersections, and the city vibrates with pandemonium.

The Pittsburgh Culinary Institute is an oft-overlooked institution. From what I’ve heard (from instructors and students), people at PCI are serious about their craft, and there’s a unique comraderie among these future chefs. After all, kitchens a stressful, sloppy, sweaty places, and only the strong can survive behind the burners. Even in bakeries, which are often perceived as quaint and relaxing businesses, pastry-makers must wake in the dark and knead their dough before the break of dawn. Having worked in many restaurants, I can only say that the bonding in a kitchen is unlike any other.

As I passed the PCI students on their break, I was heartened by a line of lunchers and smokers — between classes, even the curb of an alley provides comfort and companionship. It reminded me of Charles C. Ebbets’ 1932 photograph, Lunchtime Atop a Skyscraper, now regarded as one of the most famous images of all time.

The Good Dok

In Pittsburgh on July 28, 2009 at 4:23 pm

Random Pittsburgh 071 

Dear Fellow Gen-Xers, Yers and Echo-Boomers,

My friend is running for Mayor of Pittsburgh.

For a couple years, I’ve known him only as “Dok.” We met at a bar in North Oakland. Our friend Dan introduced us. He was tall, curly-haired, thick-bodied but not overweight. His eyes were steady — when he listens, Dok really listens, focusing directly and waiting for the speaker to stop speaking. When he laughs, he guffaws to the air. And when he talks, he talks fast.

We bonded over movies — great cinema, slapstick comedies, guilty pleasures, science fiction epics. As a fast-talker myself, it’s rare that I meet a rival motor-mouth. Dok is like a improv speed-reader, someone who can crush hundreds of words into a few seconds and make every syllable count. He’s also supernaturally funny. He once riffed on tennis clubs and mint julips for about an hour. You had to be there, but if you’d be there, it would’ve been awesome.

We’ve been friends ever since. Not the kind of friends who traded baseball cards in grade school, but two adult guys who are happy to describe each other as “my friend.”

Still, there were some things I didn’t know about Dok, starting with his name: I didn’t realize “Dok” was his real middle name and not short for “Dr.” Also, Dok has very light skin, and I would never have guessed that he was African-American (among other ethnic heritages). When we met, I knew that Dok was a talented law student, incredibly smart and ludicrously well-loved — every time we’ve met, mostly in Shadyside, Dok passes through swirling entourages of friends.

The biggest surprise is that Dok is the son of Franco Harris, one of the most famous NFL players of all time. Harris is more than the catcher of the Immaculate Reception; his reputation in Pittsburgh is almost godly. At Pittsburgh International, a statue of Franco, catching a football in that historic moment, stands near the escalators; it’s one of the first things travelers see as they move through the concourses. Next to the statue of Franco Harris is a statue of George Washington. This is how important Harris’ legacy is to Western Pennsylvania.

I didn’t find out this lineage from Dok. Dok mentions it sometimes, but with the expectation that I already knew, and that I found out from somebody else. This seems like a conscious choice — to treat his dad as a dad and not as a 1970’s superhero with international name recognition.

Again, I didn’t know Dok was running for mayor until I ran into him Downtown with a herd of volunteers. I didn’t even know this was something he was planning, or even a latent desire. Which is how I came to attend his rally in East Liberty, in the parking lot outside Home Depot.

Like most people, I’m suspicious of politicians. It’s like being an actor in Hollywood: People arrive with big ideas and great expectations, and then they’re gradually crushed in the machinery of the biz. Lincoln, a healthy youth, was emaciated by the end of his term, and then he was shot in the back of the head. Our latest Bush turned gray in eight years. So many careers seem to end in mockery. Like rock stars, the best career move for a famous politician seems to be an early demise: FDR is beloved. Kennedy is beloved. Play the game long enough, and you’re destined for infamy. So I’ve never undestood the impulse. But I also strive for harmonious relationships; I’m annoyed when people don’t like me. Most politicians don’t have this hang-up. They expect people not to like them. In some ways, they rely on people not liking them, so that the people who do like them are motivated to compete with somebody.

That said, this mayoral election is significant to me — to us — because it introduces a novel face-off: Between a young dark horse (Dok) and the youngest mayor in U.S. history, Luke Ravenstahl. And the third? Kevin B. Acklin, an independent from Squirrel Hill. Ravenstahl is 29 (my age), and Acklin is 33. Typical of our relationship, I don’t know Dok’s age. But this is immaterial. As it stands, the future of Pittsburgh will be guided by someone my (our) age.

Strolling through Dok’s rally in East Liberty, where a jazz band was setting up and stringy youths were dancing to hip-hop on loudspeakers, I realized what a different kind of race this would be. Sure, the winner may prefer “business as usual,” and age may have no particular impact (Ravenstahl has plenty of opposition). But we’re part of a generation that’s just now gotten very serious. It’s as if the spotlight hasn’t moved, but we are moving into it. To know that a friend, with whom I’ve shared jokes, ideas, and bottles of wine at Shady Grove, is gunning for the highest office in the county, is a humbling milestone. After spending our lives in the shadow of Baby Boomer grandeur, the epoch is turning. The largest, longest-living, most eccentric generation is hesitantly handing us the reins, and our thoughts and decisions are slowly becoming important. As our parents retire and start to sleep late, we can start the exodus from Applebee’s kitchens and Iraqi trenches and begin putting our ludicrously expensive degrees to use. Most of us have done our time as grunts. In the decade to come, there will be generals’ seats to fill.

And we’ll likely make most of the same mistakes. But at least we’ll be the ones making them. 

A Letter to The International

In Pittsburgh, Uncategorized on July 27, 2009 at 1:53 pm

Random Pittsburgh 012

NOTE: Last week, I applied for a position at The International, a professional-looking online newspaper headquartered in Canada. The position was “North American Journalist.” The day after I sent my query, The International sent me instructions for application: I was to write three essays and a sample article (the subject was “Assessment #523-14502-2039”). Their full e-mail is available below (under “more”). This letter was my response.


Dear Editors,

I recently applied to become a North American correspondent for The International. Now that I have received material from your human resources department, I have chosen not to pursue this position. The reason is this: You will never find the writer you want. Whomever you’re looking for, this writer does not exist.

Your HR department asked for three essays, answering three different questions. In brief: (1) How will we report for an international audience? (2) How will we report different perspectives? (3) How will we report first-hand observations and still maintain objectivity?

These questions are too banal to bother answering. It’s like asking a fire-fighter why putting out fires is important. It’s insulting, after 10 prodigious years, to be asked about bias and readership comprehension. All this suggests that you are looking for very green rookies, not hard-core investigative reporters.

That said, your HR team also requests a 2,000 to 2,500-word article on a story about “conflict.” To begin with, your armed conflicts must be “ongoing” and incur “1000+ deaths per year,” a measurement so shocking and arbitrary that I wonder what you would say to victims of short-term, <999-death conflicts. That aside, do you really expect serious journalists to compose a 2,000-word investigative feature — the equivalent of front-page, Seymour Hersh-style journalism — FOR FREE? And if this audition piece is worthy, are we to expect that you’ll abstain from publishing it, since there was no previous contract?

Even if I did answer your ridiculous questions and expose some Burmese war criminal or octogenarian Nazi fugitive, do you really think I’d waste my talents for CAN $30 per article? Since it would take at least a week to meet your golden standards, are you really paying your Woodwards and Bernsteins $120 per month — hardly enough to buy them cheap lunches, much less pay their mortgages?

The International has a fine layout and seemingly well-produced reportage — but how did this come to pass? What your little start-up needs is millionaire journalists, people who don’t need a living wage, because they’re independently wealthy. And instead of monitoring their vast wealth and fucking supermodels, they want to write for a tiny Canadian online newspaper, churning out the finest news fit to digitally print. What you need, in short, is Charles Foster Kane, who thought it would be fun to run a newspaper.

You are living a pipe-dream, and you have lost another fine applicant. You’re not the first — there are thousands of little Internet papers trying to make their way. But you are ruining journalistic standards, not re-building them. If you even read this — which I naturally doubt — I hope you will reconsider your business model. It’s upside-down, and soon, thanks to publications like yours, so will all the media. Good night, and good luck.


Robert Isenberg
Freelance Writer
Read the rest of this entry »

Strange Conveyances: 3

In Pittsburgh on July 24, 2009 at 12:00 am

Random Pittsburgh 013

Thirteen years ago, when I first came to Pittsburgh, the stairways boggled my mind: Did people actually climb hundreds of concrete steps to ascend from one neighborhood to another? And did every stairway look so ragged? The steps jiggled beneath my feet; their pebbled cement looked cracked and unstable. I imagined breaking through and landing on the bottle-strewn wasteland below, rolling through crushed glass and groaning in a bed of mulched leaves.

But the stairs were also exciting — like ancient passages leading to the mines of Solomon. Pittsburghers still use the stairways, toting groceries or taking short-cuts from one clifftop neighborhood to the next. Pittsburgh is a tiered city, where houses cling to hillsides and porches hang over foggy chasms. A street will splinter into stairways, and then, after a series of treacherous curves, the stairways and street will reunite down the way. The steps that once bore steel-workers and housewives now carry pre-teens to the basketball court, or drifters to a dumpster, or lovers to a hidden overlook. Most often, though, you won’t pass a single soul.

The other day I hiked from Panther Hollow to the Frick Fine Arts Building — a quick, hard-breathing ascent up a weathered staircase. I was riding my Schwinn, and for a moment I considered biking out of the Hollow by street, but the cobblestone pavement would wreak havoc on my tires. I lifted the bike onto my shoulder and heaved it upward, one step at a time, relieved by each landing. Once I reached the top, I set the bike down and guided it for a minute before mounting the seat and peddling toward Schenley Plaza.

A middle-aged woman approached, shaking her head.

“You’re hard-core!” she marveled.

She probably missed my smile as I pedaled past, tasting delicious salt.

Strange Conveyances: 2

In Pittsburgh on July 23, 2009 at 12:00 am

Random Pittsburgh 006

It’s not every day you turn a corner and see a fire-engine red, London-style, double-decker autobus parked on a Pittsburgh street. As I circled the bus, trying to discern its origins, a tour guide stepped out and chatted with me about the Pittsburgh Tour Company. For $20 (and no reservation), tourists can jump onto the bus and ride through the South Side, Downtown, the North Side, and then back again. The whole ride takes about one hour and 15 minutes, although passengers can jump out in any neighborhood.

“Are you the driver?” I asked the tour guide.

She shook her head defiantly. “Oh, no. I’m just the tour guide.” And as she said this, I realized what a harrowing experience driving a double-decker bus must be.

There’s only one bus (allegedly named Martha), and only two owners: Vince and Manon LaMonica, who drove to Eastern Canada to rendez-vous with the bus, and then spent two days driving their conspicuous transport back to Pittsburgh.

As the tour guide handed me a brochure, I remembered the Segway tours in Station Square and Green Gears Pedicabs, the bicycle rickshaws that have become mainstays of the South Side experience. Getting around Pittsburgh has always been challenging, so it’s no wonder that the vehicles themselves have become clever gimmicks. But unlike the Segways and cyclos, the Pittsburgh Tour Company may stay lucrative in winter — unless there’s a spike in diesel prices.

Strange Conveyances: 1

In Pittsburgh on July 22, 2009 at 4:13 pm

Autism Walk 027

As I was crossing the Fort Pitt Bridge on foot, I saw a chain of Segway riders passing in the opposite direction. They wore blank expressions and rolled past me at drowsy speeds. I later found out that the riders were patrons of Segway in Paradise, a tour company based in Station Square. For $59 (plus tax) guests can man their own Segway unit for two hours, zipping along the sidewalks of Downtown and the North Side.

People have strong feelings about Segways: They’re harmless fun, they’re the way of the future, they’re incredibly dorky, they’re the cause of American obesity. As I watched them disappear over the bridge’s carve, I remembered a sentiment shared with my Dad a couple of years ago.

The last time I visited Washington, D.C. with my parents, we strolled the National Mall and passed a flock of Segway-riders gunning for the Air & Space Museum. My Dad and I watched as the Segways rolled out of sight, and finally I blurted, “Those things drive my crazy.”

“I’m so happy to hear you say that,” my Dad replied with an understated chuckle.

My Dad always fears that technology will take over the world, and cell-phones and MTV spell the doom of humankind. I’m less fearful of the Segway; the machine requires pedestrian walkways, and the U.S. is painfully short on sidewalks and walking paths. I’m guessing that Segway patrons wouldn’t want to walk the National Mall anyway. In their defense, the distance between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial is 1.9 miles, and on a sweltering day in the District of Columbia, the hike can be exhausting. Then again, that’s what the Metro’s for.

But the Segway will probably survive as a novelty. Everybody will love to smirk at the sight of one; few will buy a Segway for themselves, and it’s a little expensive and unwieldy to offer as a gift. Really, it’s perfect for a Pittsburgh tour company: After two hours of slow-moving whimsy, $59 poorer, riders will feel satisfied with their zigzag through Downtown and ask about that famous Primanti’s sandwich.

What Was Said About Vietnam

In Uncategorized, Vietnam on July 21, 2009 at 2:26 pm


I told Harold about Saigon – how the city was now crowded with high-rise office towers and giant billboards advertising Japanese cars and electronics. How the wide colonial streets were mobbed with scooters and foot-pedaled cyclos. I told him how open the city felt – the scarceness of glass or closed doors, the outdoor markets and restaurants that feel barely enclosed, thanks to gaping windows and the constant flood of pedestrians entering with shoulder-bags and leaving with pho-soup poured into ceramic bowls the size of woks. I mentioned the spices, so potent that I sobbed through each meal, but so addictive and cheap that I’d eat four or five times a day. The fruit, served fresh from the Mekong Delta, was so tender and juicy that I drank its meat as fluidly as squeezed nectar. I grew to love the sticky, saline taste of the air.

I walked right into a courthouse, I told Harold, not knowing that it was a government building, and wandered freely through the dusty rooms, which were lit only by golden threads of sunlight and sounded only of the ghostly snapping of typewriters. The soggy heat plastered layers of dust to my face, and every breath sucked more exhaust into my lungs. The people were short and bronzed, and in the withering sun they gravitated toward the trash-strewn concrete – crouching low, resting their elbows on knobby knees, letting their wrists and forearms dangle. But Saigon moved, at a brisk and clumsy pace, with motorcycles weaving knots in traffic patterns, operated by shirtless men and old women and entire families, crowded onto a single Honda street bike. The streets throated the leonine roar of a million two-stroke engines.

— Excerpt from The Legend of Pangkor, ©2008 by Robert Isenberg, all rights reserved.

Vintage Grand Prix

In Pittsburgh on July 19, 2009 at 2:54 am

Vintage Grand Prix 013

Visit the audio slide show on YouTube.

A Dangerous Week

In Pittsburgh, Uncategorized on July 17, 2009 at 1:00 am

Vintage Grand Prix 019

It started this way: I was typing at my laptop, at the desk in my bedroom, and I heard a popping sound. Then my laptop’s screen dimmed, signaling a power shortage. I adjusted the power-cord, checked all the connectors. Sighing, I took the laptop downstairs and plugged it into the dining room socket. Before I could tap a single key, there was another popping sound, and then the air filled with a burning, chemical smell. The power-supply, that box in the middle of the cord, emitted a puff of smoke. Quickly I unplugged it and shut down my computer.

And so began my dangerous week: Awkward moments, surreal hazards. The very air trembled with discord.

As I took a short-cut through the Museum of Natural History, a kid walked up to me, his eyes bright with excitement. “You have to see the dinosaur exhibit!” he exclaimed.

I hesitated, thinking he was talking to somebody directly behind me. I’d been listening to the Cranberries on my iPod and had to remove the ear-buds to hear him.

“Oh, uh, okay,” I said.

“You have to.”

“I will.”

“No, but they’re amazing. The skeletons are huge.”

The kid’s face was layered with acne, and his dark hair had a bland cut. But his eyes looked pried open, caffeinated.

“I’ll check it out.”

“I didn’t even realize how glad I am that they’re dead!” he said, his voice cracking. “Because if they weren’t, we would be!”

“Okay,” I said, turning a corner and replacing my headphones. The kid called after me, but by then I was pushing through the glass door, into the sunlight of the outdoor court.

I pushed my bike down the sidewalk of Forbes Avenue, basking in the sunny morning. Squirrel Hill had just begun to stir: Men sat at cafe tables, teenagers murmured on the corner, women smoked cigarettes outside their stores, waiting for customers and a reason to go back inside.

Suddenly a man blustered out of the alleyway. He emerged so quickly that he lost his balance, and his abdomen bent forward, like a ballet-dancer stopping himself at the edge of a stage. Another man trampled the concrete behind him, and they danced around each other, a strange duet. The first man was young, thin, wearing a T-shirt and shorts. The second man was older, huskier, his expression serious and methodical. At first I thought they were rough-housing — just two friends being funny — but then the younger man shrieked, “GET OFF OF ME!”

A third man darted out of the alley and skipped on his feet, then pointed at the first man. “The police are on their way!” he squeaked. He wore glasses, and his voice was an effeminate tenor.

“I didn’t do anything!” the young man squealed, just as the older man tried to grab his arm; but the grab was clumsy, too fast, and their skins made smacking sounds.

“You tried to steal our van!” the bespectacled man said, his voice swollen with tension. “And the police are on their way!”

“GET OFF OF ME!” the first man screamed again, but then he stumbled over a metal grate and fell forward on the ground; his body thumped against the sidewalk as his treads scrambled for footing. The older man loomed above, eager to pin him but not sure how to proceed.

The young man lay only a few feet from my bicycle. I could take two strides and nudge him with my toe. We were that close.

Then the young man was up again, stumbling in a zigzag past the cafe tables. The older man sneaked up behind him, and with the stealth and speed of a wrestler, he grabbed the young man’s leg and flipped him upward; the man spun in the air, propelled by the older man’s grapples, and together they crashed to the ground, rolling over the edge of the curb, until the older man was mounted on the younger man, and everything paused.


Now the bespectacled man stood above them both, between two parked cars, pointing and screeching: “You tried to steal our van! We saw you!” He turned to passersby on the street, addressing them in a stage-voice: “He tried to steal our van!”

Within a minute, a squad car was pulling down the street, toward the odd trio. The bespectacled man skipped over to the car and leaned into the passenger-side window, explaining the situation to a grim-looking officer. By this point, I’d seen enough. I started pedaling away, discombobulated. Coasting down the street, I watched a bike-cop pedaling furiously in the opposite direction; then another squad car; then a paddy wagon.

At the bus stop, an older man with a swathe of graying hair and a pocket-protector on his shirt loudly calculated: “Five factorial seven, that makes nothing,” he said. “That comes out to nothing. Three and five, that makes nothing, too.”

I met with some curators Downtown, some friends who are putting together a kind of directory for art galleries. We met in one such gallery, a third-story loft with waxed floors and enormous windows. Much to my surprise, a large dog was pattering around; it came to sniff us as we stepped off the elevator.

We started talking about who was coming to the meeting; most contributors were indisposed, or sick, or pregnant. The meeting would probably be intimate, just three of us.

Then I felt a warm spray against my exposed toes. I looked down at my sandals and saw the dog, who was proudly looking up at us. Beneath him, a steady stream of urine splashed against the ground, forming a puddle; the floor was panelled and uneven, so the puddle bled and grew in several different directions. The dog kept pissing, shooting at the floor with manly fervency. After nearly a minute, the jet stopped, and the dog happily darted away, his paws slipping in the yellowish flood-plane.

The dog left behind his one toy — a plastic baby-doll, stripped and beheaded, lying in the reflective puddles on the cold, hard floor.

Although I was clearly on the phone, and in a hurry, an enormous man pointed to me on a corner of Liberty Avenue. “Nice hat, man!” he said, then extended a giatn paw. I slapped his hand and rock-locked, but his hands were greasy and tingled the skin of my palm. Just as I heard “Hello?” crackle in my receiver, the man said, “Gimme fifty cents.”

“Hello,” I said into the receiver. “I only have bus-fare,” I said to the man.

“GIMME fifty cents,” the man said again, rolling his eyes at me.

I’m on the phone, fucktard, I thought.

“Hello?” the phone said again.

“I, uh, I…”

The man leaned into me and stuttered: “UH, UH, UH, UH, UH!”

As I absorbed his mocking tone, I wondered how this man thought he was getting fifty cents out of me — interrupting my conversation, stopping me on the street, offering a transparent compliment before demanding (not asking) for money from a complete stranger. I continued down the street, feeling wind blast along the narrow Downtown streets.

The bus dropped me off at Highland Avenue, which left me with five or six blocks to walk. The evening was warm and comfortable, and the sun was just setting in the distance, casting a lazy orange light over the lawns. I crossed in front of the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.

And then a hawk flew up from the grass. I caught the bird in the corner of my eye, but the hawk had clearly descened from the trees, raked the ground with its talons, and shot upward again — a swift pendulum of flight. But the bird ascended slowly, and as I watched it silhouette against the PCA’s bright brick wall, I realized that the hawk was carrying a chipmunk.

At first I thought the hawk would vanish behind the building, but instead it landed on the edge of the roof, where the chipmunk dangled helplessly, its tiny legs struggling to escape. By the time I drew my camera, the hawk spread its wings again — enormous, resplendent — and lifted off the roof, swooping down and across the lawn, toward the trees, where it disappeared in the shadows.

The Border

In Uncategorized on July 17, 2009 at 12:56 am


Where Mexico invited us,

los Estados Unidos barricade us out.


Hours die

as our peasant caravan

growls forward,

breaded in dust

and fried by evening sun,

while swine

in navy uniforms

hulk between

the side-view mirrors

spying every face

with aryan eyes,

their muzzled pinschers

starved for flesh to rip.


Our guard stretches

a sinewy smile

and waves us through

with an umpire’s flourish—

we melt toward San Diego,

through the desert,

the wind whistling

in this cemetery

of prayers

so rarely