Archive for November, 2009|Monthly archive page


In Uncategorized on November 21, 2009 at 6:49 pm

As we bombed down I-79, we passed an exit for Laboratory, Pennsylvania.

Also Prosperity. Crucible. Then some place called Deer Lick.

The highway between Washington County and Waynesburg is long and monotonous, especially on a Sunday afternoon, when the sky waffles between storm-clouds and blinding sun. We’d woken that morning with a desire to go somewhere — to “take a drive in the country.” And now we were here, cutting through the country, where the forested hills had shed their foliage and the landscape was dead and brown. Valleys opened up, showing the dots of cattle beneath us; red barns topped ridges and high-tension power-lines garlanded the horizon. But mostly the land was empty. On a four-lane interstate, everything looks distant, even the highway’s shoulder.

Waynesburg stands about an hour’s drive from Pittsburgh. Waynesburg is the largest town in Greene County, a region famous for its autumnal colors. I had written an article about the area for a local magazine, telling readers exactly what the Tourist Promotion Agency had told me: Greene County is famous for its covered bridges and winding country roads. Recently, O, The Oprah Magazine, had cited Greene County as one of America’s most beautiful fall drives. So why not take a day-trip out there? See some scenery. Stop in a diner. And walk the Warrior Trail.

“Do you know where the Warrior Trail is?” Ky asked me.

“Not exactly,” I said. “But we can drive into Waynesburg and ask there.”

Travel Rule #1: Ask the locals first.

After all, Greene County is “Nature’s Corner of Northern Charm and Southern Hospitality.”

The charm did not begin at the edge of Waynesburg. Quite the opposite: Waynesburg’s suburbs are a glut of fast food restaurants and Sheetz stations, carelessly spattered around five-way intersections. I puzzled through the mix of traffic lights and grassy islands, and as we accelerated toward downtown Waynesburg — the Old City, if you will — we spotted a large billboard for Chuck’s Collision Shop. The shop was an enormous tan warehouse with cars and trucks parked outside; the nose of each vehicle was smashed, the windshields shattered, the hoods crushed like aluminum foil. It didn’t matter, as we blew past in Ky’s Volvo, that Chuck and Lisa Kreuzer were expertly running this 25-year-old business, that they provided “precision collision and automotive repair.” Their expertise in “paint-less dent removal, windshield replacement and 24 hour towing” were irrelevant to us. The bottom line was this: Waynesburg, a town of 4,184, actually needed a “Collision Shop” — a business that throve entirely on car accidents. But more power to the Kreuzers: As far as the eye could see, signs for Burger King and Taco Bell loomed, and Chuck’s Collision looked like the most significant locally owned business.

We saw a McDonald’s sign, and the sandwich-board letters advertised “McTeacher’s Night, Nov. 17.”

We reached downtown Waynesburg and parked next to the Locker Room (Est. 1960), a small sporting goods store. High Street is Waynesburg’s main drag — a wide, straight street that planes through town, flanked by reverent brick buildings.

It was Sunday, and everything was closed. We realized, stepping out of the car, that we hadn’t planned this outing very well. By early November, the most vibrant leaves have fallen, and the branches are snarled and naked. We paced the sidewalk, spotting CLOSED sign after CLOSED sign. The only open business, it seemed, was the tavern; as we passed, Ky and I heard the din of conversation within, the clinking of glasses behind the thick wooden door.

Then we found the diner. As we stepped inside, it looked like an old-school roadhouse, unchanged since the 1950’s. A couple sat in a cushioned booth, way in a distant corner. At the long counter, a thick-bodied man nursed a cup of coffee. He turned his enormous bald head and studied us with his one good eye; the other was squashed tight, and I wondered if it was missing.

We stood by the glass door, waiting for someone to notice us. When an elfin young man approached, he said, “You can take any seat you like.”

“Actually, we’re just looking for directions,” I said.

“Oh,” he said, surprised. “Okay.”

“Do you know where to find the Warrior Trail?”

“The Warrior Trail,” he said. He looked to the floor, trying to remember. “The Warrior Trail.” He looked up and backed away, toward the kitchen. “Let me just look that up for you.”

A moment later, a waitress offered help. Then a second waitress. When we explained our destination, a third waitress offered advice. Ky and I stood there, wondering how a diner could support four Sunday employees when there were only three customers.

“I hope it’s no trouble,” I said.

“No problem,” the third waitress said. “I mean, we aren’t doing nothin’. Just watching the Steelers game.” She threw up her hands and grimaced.

At last the elfin waiter re-appeared. “Okay, the one way you could go is down High Street, but it’s about a 20-minute drive,” he said. “It’s actually right past our house.”

“Your house?”

“Yeah, our house.”

“Oh, okay. Where is that, exactly?”

“You just take High Street, and you keep going. And you should see a sign for it.”

“For the trail.”

“Right, the trail.”

So, not a sign for your house, then.

“The other way is to go back the way you came, to the highway, and take the exit for Kirby. You take the main road until you find the Visitors’ Center, and it should be just around there.”

We thanked them profusely. The second the door closed behind us, Ky said, “They were very nice.”

That must be the Southern Hospitality part, we decided.

As we walked back to the car, we saw a little park. It was wedged between two buildings, bedded with wood-chips and lined with young spruce trees. In the center stood a bronze statue of a boy piggybacking a small girl. The girl held an umbrella over both their heads. The sculpture had rusted green, and it had a nostalgic look to it: The umbrella was old-fashioned, like the ribbed parasols that were fashionable in fin de siècle Paris. They children looked so free and innocent, the kind of kids who love to cup toads in their hands and skip stones on the crick.

Near the car, a wizened old man stood on the street corner, watching us. His body trembled, and his bloodshot eyes glared warily. He watched us pull out of the parking space and pull into the traffic. The squad car, idling in a side-street, did the same.

These things should have nothing to do with each other, but they do.

We never found the Warrior Trail. We took the exit for Kirby and drove a winding road for several miles, but no Visitors’ Center emerged — only some farmhouses and wetlands. We weren’t disappointed so much as surprised: The Warrior Trail is 67 miles long and follows a creek. All the Greene County brochures boast its beauty. Indeed, the trail was trodden by Native Americans for 5,000 years. Surely somebody knew where to find trail access.

As we U-turned back toward the highway, Ky and I spotted an ATV rumbling down the road. Two teenagers — one guy and one girl — sped through Kirby’s main crossroads and accelerated up the long hill. They wore no helmets, no pads, and the guy had no shirt. The girl extended her arms, a gesture of freedom, victory. They rounded the corner and disappeared. I hoped that their ATV, riding illegally on a main-road, wouldn’t end up at Chuck’s Collision Shop.

We drove back along the barren highway, startled by what we’d found. Waynesburg has an airport and numerous bed-and-breakfast hotels. Waynesburg University is a respected Christian school. The business district is beloved for its intact Victorian architecture, though the town has sprawled into complete disorder. The other towns of Greene County beckoned us with their quirky names. There is so much potential here — like Greensburg, which could be Western Pennsylvania’s most attractive small-town, if only the Walmart hadn’t gutted its center. Like Windber, if young people decided to sette there and lay off the heroin.

But this is the trouble with rural Pennsylvania — not the “clinging to guns and God” that President Obama cited, though there’s some truth to this. More so the loss of place: interstates dumping drivers into formless sprawl; public school teachers congregating at McDonald’s; the town itself a clusterfuck of one-way streets; and even the management of the local diner, kind as they are, need the Internet to find the county’s most ancient monument. The region seems unfamiliar to itself, foggy with fatigue.

Travel Rule #1 doesn’t really work here. You can ask the locals first, but they may not realize where they are, what they could have.

On the Home Front

In Uncategorized on November 20, 2009 at 11:37 pm

The bathroom renovation was supposed to take two days. A painless, 48-hour sprint to better bathing.

Four weeks later, I sit in the living room and listen to Harry, one of our renovation guys, murmur to himself upstairs.

“Maaah-velous, simply maaaa-velous,” he sings in a mock British accent. Then something crashes, and he mumbles, “Sliced my hand. No problem. Just sliced my hand.”

Harry’s cell-phone rings now and again, and he grumbles before answering it. The ring itself is a kind of magical tinkling noise. When Harry answers, he argues nasally with someone from work. “Do you know how many times I’ve been laid off? This has got to stop, man.”

I don’t like having Harry in my house. The last time he visited, Harry cited some vague “cracks” in the bathtub, which forced him to leave for the day. Somehow, three different Bathfitters reps had failed to notice this potential crisis. When we called his company to re-schedule, they said there was no possible way that these cracks should stop him from proceeding.

Harry arrived this morning, an hour-and-a-half late, and three weeks after our first appointment.

“I was watching the Pens game last night,” he said jovially, by way of explanation. “I was eating some food, and I didn’t even know I fell asleep. Next thing I knew, I was gettin’ a call from work, saying, ‘Where the hell are ya?’” He laughed breathily at this. “

He’s not the first to stagger the work-effort: Two handymen were recommended for moving the door a few feet farther out, so the bathroom feels less like a tomb. They promised that moving the door, and building a frame around it, would only take “a day.” Nearly a month later, they have skipped three appointments and re-scheduled two. Altogether, we have wasted nearly 20 hours on phone-calls and waiting for them to show up.

When Harry started working, I offered coffee.

“That’ll be good,” he said.

Funny, I thought. Most people say “thank you,” asshole.

Harry is a talker, and although silences make me anxious, Harry’s endless monologues are a rare kind of monotony. He’s mustached and sinewy, and I can picture him, in his youth, being a “scrapper.” He’s been accommodating enough – telling us when the water’s shut off, letting me pass to use the toilet – but every few minutes, there’s a new attempt to break his boredom – odd phrases that make no sense, strange humming: “The Adams Family” theme, ABBA, bits of classical music I know only from Warner Bros. cartoons.

A few hours ago, he whistled the theme to the “Muppet Show.”

In an effort to make nice, I went to the bottom of the staircase and called up. “Is that the theme to ‘The Muppet Show’?”

“I don’t think so,” he called back. “Wait, is it? Yeah, maybe it is. That there was a great show.”

He broke into another song, a trail of off-key melodies. I went back to work.

It’s strange enough having people in your house – or even letting people know where you live. It wasn’t long ago that every family listed its address and phone-number in the Yellow Page, which were free and delivered to every doorstep. Today, I can’t imagine telling strangers my home address, my phone number, or even my full name at first meeting. Even my Internet passwords are intensely encrypted, and my Facebook pictures are scrutinized for content (since I’ve “friended” several of my work-mates and superiors). Ever since we moved into this house, we’ve seen a parade of eccentric workers stumble inside. In an era of full-blown paranoia – of identity theft, serial killers, or simple burglary – the rift between skilled worker and home-owner is already pretty wide.

But there’s another layer of awkwardness: By hiring someone for home improvement, you also inherit their emotional baggage. They carry not only tool-boxes, but also loads of stress and disappointment, regrets and personal dramas. They carry the weight of funerals and pay-cuts and overdue bills. And they trudge this emotion all over your house, filling the air with vanquished sighs.

Harry comes downstairs and starts telling me a story – but he begins in what seems to be the middle of the story.

“…old lady getting ready for Thanksgiving, and she was not happy.”

Wait, what? Is he talking to me? Did I miss something?

“I’m sorry,” I say, “this is your… mother?

“Not happy at all,” Harry continues, as if I haven’t spoken. Then he stomps upstairs, annoyed that he can’t grip the sliding-door, whose installment will finish the project. “Just can’t hold onto it!” he wheezes. “Too much silicon on my hands! Gotta wash it off. I’m gonna get angry.”

Upstairs, trying to affix one connector to another, he curses, “God, I can’t stand this shit!”

It reminds me of living on Ophelia Street, back in my college years, when our broken-down building was being renovated around us. The landlord allowed us to stay – we had nowhere else to go – but we had to sleep on the floor and had no running water for the few first days (the renovation project was supposed to be finished when we first moved in; when we arrived with all our worldly possessions, only one bedroom, on the third floor, had been worked on – a layer of new carpet). My roommates and I awoke each morning to the whir of power-drills and scream of a table-saw.

One day, I woke to hear this worker named Butch hollering in the stairwell.


I walked to the edge of the staircase, wrapping my bathrobe belt and rubbing my eyes.

“Hey, Butch, you okay?”

Butch whirled around, dropping his hammer. “WHOA!” he screamed. “I didn’t even know you was up there! I was…”

Butch didn’t know what to say. He’d been caught talking – screaming – to himself, in a house he’d thought was empty. He looked down the staircase. “REGGIE? YOU STILL DOWN THERE?” He looked back at me, as if this explained the outburst. “He must’ve left.”

“No problem,” I said, and went to the bathroom, before remembering that the shower wasn’t installed yet.

It pained me that Butch – a friendly guy, by any measure – should harbor so much anger. But nobody living the house had offered to be his therapist, or even his friend. Instead we had to sidestep each other’s private lives, though we existed for weeks and months in the same three-story building. Yet another strangeness of American private lives – we pretend not to know about each other, even when we do.

Harry walks into the room, puts his arms akimbo in a dramatic fashion. “You been typing at that computer all day!” he exclaims. “Your eyeballs are gonna fall out!”

I smile dispassionately. Harry is nearly done, and there’s not much reason to humor him anymore. Soon we’ll part ways and probably never see each other again our lives. He’ll leave, knowing nothing about us, though he’s walked through my house and re-ordered our most intimate room. At most, we might be an anecdote one day. This jagoff sat on his couch and typed at his computer all day. Probably never did a day of work in his life.

And among all the other things, Harry will never know I was writing about him.

How to Ride a Bike in Pittsburgh: 10

In Uncategorized on November 6, 2009 at 10:49 pm

New Pix 021

Coast down a smooth Squirrel Hill turning-lane as you race for the intersection, because this time you will pass beneath a green light without stopping. Pedal fiercely as the green left-turn arrow switches yellow, then red; watch heavy-hearted as the main light turns yellow as well, but keep pumping, because it’s too late to brake; stand up on your pedals and push with all your might, so that the wheels whir over the fresh white crosswalk, drivers’ eyes bore into your back and shoulder and face, but never mind, because you’re halfway across when the light officially turns red, which leaves you four or five seconds to reach the opposite side – and only as you fly pass the sidewalk do you hear the engines groan, the cars rolling into motion, behind you.

How to Ride a Bike in Pittsburgh: 9

In Uncategorized on November 6, 2009 at 10:15 pm

Downtown 007

In the Strip, bike fast. The traffic whirs along, and car doors fly open, and shoppers play chicken on the median, walking slow in front of maroon-blooded drivers. Hopscotch from lane to lane, leaving room for a flatbed truck that sweats clouds of black dust. Since your eyes are open so wide, observe the Korean signs, the dangling potted spider-plants, the tables laden with Steelers jerseys, the boxes packed with fly-flecked melons, Wholey’s gushing sea-scented steam, Roland’s balcony alive with tinkling silverware. When you return, pedal through the back-streets, where the fire-escapes fit together like teeth, and thick-booted men smoke and murmur by tribes of trash-cans, and if you really believe, you can flash through the cross-streets without stopping, or even slowing down, for perpendicular traffic.

How to Ride a Bike in Pittsburgh: 8

In Uncategorized on November 6, 2009 at 10:09 pm

Random Pittsburgh 007

You will venture into bad neighborhoods. Above all, show no fear. Belong to the street. Gaze ahead. Breathe hard and loud. Unfurl your lock and click it into place with purposeful movements. Stretch like a yogi, arms out, like you own the place. Nod to everybody, no matter how young or wrinkled or angry. Convince yourself you grew up here – in that house, over there, where the green plastic awning is half torn off, and two grizzly women perch on their lawn chairs, puking cigarette smoke from their vulcanized faces. Nod to them, too, even if they just stare, because you’re ruining their view of the closed antique shop armored in a quincunx gate.

How to Ride a Bike in Pittsburgh: 7

In Uncategorized on November 6, 2009 at 10:03 pm

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The mornings are best to cross the Roberto Clemente Bridge. You won’t wake for this often, so dismount and push your bike across the yellow span. Watch the mist crawl across a river as smooth and dark as tea. The fuchsia light will gather in the sky, until the soggy sun bleeds between skyscrapers, and you will rejoice to be blinded by its color.

How to Ride a Bike in Pittsburgh: 6

In Uncategorized on November 6, 2009 at 10:00 pm

Vintage Grand Prix 027

Before you ride along the river, learn to breathe through your nose. Gnats cloud the air and swirl at precisely face-level. Unless the sunbeams pierce the foliage in just the right way, illuminating this insectoid whirlpool, you won’t spot them before they bullet to the back of your throat. Sunglasses will prevent them from hitting your retinas and drowning beneath your eyeball.

How to Ride a Bike in Pittsburgh: 5

In Uncategorized on November 6, 2009 at 9:58 pm

Vintage Grand Prix 003

Navigate South Oakland in a low gear, and see everything: The guys in T-shirts nattering on their porch. A dismembered window shattered against the sidewalk, baby-blue shards dully glinting. The tree’s foliage cut into a heart-shape, to make way for strangled power lines. Whiff the curry from the Indian grocer, whose metal door is always propped open. There’s the gutted marinara jar, its sauce bloodily vomited. Skinny dudes roll skateboards toward the curb, then spring ape-like, praying for their boards to flip and land face-up beneath their Sketchers. How often do the boards smack sideways, so the boarders’ legs slip and tangle, and their hips roll on pavement as friends moan in slacker sorrow? A car slows, beeps once, and the boarder, dusting himself, waves it along, laughing through his bright teeth.

How to Ride a Bike in Pittsburgh: 4

In Uncategorized on November 6, 2009 at 9:54 pm

Random Pittsburgh 017

As you cross the bridge over Panther Hollow, stand as tall as possible and look down – way down – at the man-made pond. See the joggers floating along the ruddy dirt trails. See the sky reflected brownly in the murky pond. Stare at this, not paying attention to your front wheel, until you feel vertigo. Imagine toppling over the stone wall, falling forever and flopping against the water. Imagine the ducks quacking as they flap away from your fallen bulk. Smirk at the thought, look ahead, keep going, past the playground full of scampering children.

How to Ride a Bike in Pittsburgh: 3

In Uncategorized on November 6, 2009 at 9:30 pm

Random Pittsburgh 005

Swig water from a used plastic Coca-Cola bottle that you filled with crisp water-fountain water in Schenley Park. Even though the pale blue paint is peeling from the fountain, which is shaped like a dumpy concrete tower, relish the cold metal taste on this sweat-soaked day. Notice the line of dried salt that smiles along your black T-shirt, lining your pectoral muscles. Chuckle.