My Mysteries of Pittsburgh: An Alphabet

I GREW UP IN PITTSBURGH, in Point Breeze, between John Edgar Wideman’s Homewood and Michael Chabon’s Squirrel Hill. It was the ’60s, just late enough to miss Annie Dillard’s “American childhood,” though later (I think) I delivered their Post-Gazette.  I also claim to have delivered David McCullough’s morning paper, but that, like many of my memories, may be untrue.

Like a people, a city grows its own legends, passes its lore down to younger generations. Sometimes, as in the case of Michael Chabon, an outsider arrives and adds to that lore, though mostly the job (and privilege) of telling a city’s stories falls to those who were born and raised there, as in the case of John Edgar Wideman.

I’ve written very little about Pittsburgh. Not the fictional Pittsburgh which, like any good writer, I could cobble together from deeply felt characters’ lives and realistic details, but the real Steel City, the city that’s shared imaginatively by all long-term Pittsburghers.  A popular, common, yet ultimately hidden culture.  People and things we as Pittsburghers know, whether they’re true or not. Stories, I guess.  History.  Here’s just a sampling.


For Adventure Time, a children’s show in the ’60s whose host Paul Shannon raised his magic sword and brought the curtain down in front of a bleacherful of Cub Scouts so he could show the next cartoon. At home, we envied the kids on TV, even in their weenie uniforms.  We wondered how we could get on short of joining the Cub Scouts and envisioned our faces–our very particles–beamed out across all of Pittsburgh from the WTAE studios our parents sometimes drove us by on the way to Monroeville.  TV was like family. We all knew the local anchors–Paul Long, Bill Burns and his daughter Patti, Ray Tannehill, and of course Chilly Billy Cardille, who hosted Friday night’s Chiller Theater on W11C. When these people talked to us, we listened, because we knew them. There was an intimacy that, as children, we didn’t know was manufactured.  It still obtains today, despite our hard-won cynicism.  When I see Lori Cardille in Day of the Dead, I’m inexplicably happy, connected again to people I’ve never met.


For the Bridge to Nowhere, actually an on-ramp to the Fort Duquesne Bridge, a bridge across the Allegheny that took forever to build, whether for lack of funds or some other political issue. For years the on-ramp arched inconclusively over the river, leading from the North Side into thin air, blocked off by a fence of striped Department of Transportation barricades. Legend is–fact is–one night in 1964 a 21-year-old chemistry major from Pitt went flying up the ramp, through the signs, and launched his Chrysler station wagon off it like Evel Knievel. This was before my time, because they say his car landed in the mud, half in the water and half on shore, and there’s no mud there anymore, just a stone lip. The guy wasn’t even hurt, according to the story, just embarrassed. He refused to discuss what happened at all.  But we all thought: what was it like, that first second when he knew something was wrong? The tires must have stopped making noise, and then it was just freefall, darkness, like drifting in space. And then the water, freezing even in Spring.


For Connie Hawkins, who they say was the greatest playground ace roundball has ever seen. The Hawk played briefly for the ABA Pipers as well as a number of NBA clubs, but was supposed to haunt the courts of The Hill District and both Westinghouse and Mellon Parks, taking on all comers, drawing crowds with ridiculous skywalking jams. Maybe the best ever, people said, in an age when Dr. J was just showing us the dunk, but everyone knew he had some trouble with drugs. Scag, or boy it was called then.  A waste, people said, a shame, but the fatal flaw only deepened the legend. Did he play for money, laying down his Jackson on the baseline so he could cop later on, or was it sheer love of the game?  It was all just rumors, pick-up games long before the age of videotape.  You’ll find men who played against him. They just shake their heads. Couldn’t stop him, couldn’t even foul him. He was just playing with us.


For the Duke Beer clock across the Mon, visible when you were driving in on the Parkway or the Boulevard of the Allies.  It sat on top of the Duquesne Brewery, its giant hands letting you know you were on time for work.  But then the brewery faltered in the ’70s, like the rest of the economy, and they sold the plant and moved to Cleveland, of all places.  For a while the clock sat there, stopped. Then it was taken over by Stroh’s beer (from Detroit, which we held no grudge against, even though it was the U.S. auto industry who basically sealed our fate), and then, mercifully, by Iron City.  It’s changed hands since then, and it’s running today, though I couldn’t tell you by who.  Not like the reliable digital Alcoa clock across from Three Rivers Stadium, unchanging, a constant (no, it’s now the Bayer clock, I’m told, and always seems to read 5:30).  A good lesson, I suppose, in capitalization.  I remember being puzzled that an entire company, massive brewery vats and all, could suddenly disappear.  I wasn’t puzzled long.


For Ernie “Arrowhead” Holmes, defensive tackle beside Mean Joe Greene in the Steelers’ vaunted Steel Curtain front four.  Named Arrowhead for shaving his skull and leaving a forward-pointing arrow that ended in his widow’s peak to indicate the direction he was going through the opposing offensive line.  In an incident never publicly resolved (at least in the Pittsburgh papers), Ernie Holmes was driving on the interstate in Ohio when he stopped his car, got out and began firing at a police helicopter with a rifle. Motives? Left wide open.  Why was the helicopter there? Erratic driving, I think Paul Long said, but more likely he was simply Driving While Black.  He rejoined the Steelers.  They won.

Also for Dock Ellis, who in his memoir ghosted by the poet Donald Hall claims to have thrown his no-hitter against the Padres while tripping.  A claim that paradoxically only makes sense when you are tripping.


For Forbes Field, home of the Pirates and earlier the Steelers when they were named the Pirates. Razed in 1970 to make room for a new law building at Pitt. Honus Wagner and Cool Papa Bell played here, Ralph Kiner and Roberto Clemente. In the ’30s Joe Louis beat Max Baer under the lights behind second base, and of course Bill Mazeroski hit his Series winning home run here, over Yogi Berra’s head (why Yogi with his catcher’s duckpin legs was playing left is anyone’s guess) . That part of the left field wall (brick with ivy) still stands, beyond it a Little League field named after Maz. My brother and I went to the last two games at Forbes Field, a doubleheader against the Cubs which the Bucs swept. It was standing room only, and after the last out, people whipped out their pliers and screwdrivers, unbolted whole rows of seats and walked them out the centerfield gate and away. A decade later you’d see the seats on people’s porches, the blue and gray paint flaking off year after year.


For Gertrude Stein, rarely associated with Pittsburgh, but born on the North Side, then called Allegheny, PA.  How she became the Stein we associate with Paris and the avant-garde is all properly documented, but what must she have thought of her hometown?  Certainly her family fled it, but can we ascribe some of her love of plain speech and regular people to being nursed here, the cadences heard in the cradle?  And I think she’d get a kick out of our other great expatriate Andy Warhol having his own museum right here on the North Side, where you couldn’t have paid him to set foot again. All the same, he’s partly ours.  New York may claim him, or that nebulous world of Art and Fashion, but somehow–yes, that’s what’s hard to figure out–somehow Pittsburgh is a big ingredient in him as well.


For Heinz 57, the massive factory along the Allegheny we were marched through as schoolchildren (Andy Warhol too?), the teachers fretfully counting heads as we clattered along the catwalk over the open vats of ketchup and vegetable soup.  Steam roiled up from the floor, and the stench of vinegar had us holding our noses.  This was definitely not Willie Wonka, though we could see how easily other stuff could get into our food–like the plastic shower-capped workers, bending perilously over the soup with long steel paddles.  At the end of the tour we all got a small box of Heinz products and a pickle-shaped pin, and spent most of the bus ride home imagining horrible industrial accidents. “You want ketchup on that?” my father said over dinner.  “No,” I said, “I’m okay.”

Also for Homewood Cemetery, our favorite playground. In winter the ponds were perfect for hockey, and year-round we could find open ground to play football or just kill-the-man.  The muddy backhoes that rolled through didn’t intimidate us, and the famous dead were industrialists, completely boring.  The only thing that worried us was the German shepherd the caretaker let run free inside the high, spiked fence.  And the crematorium, maybe, its chimney leaking a thin wisp of smoke, even on weekends.  “They roast them slow,” my friend Mark said, “so all that’s left is the teeth.”  Can’t teeth burn? I didn’t know, so I didn’t argue with him.

And also for Highland Park, where, when my father was a child, a bear got loose from the zoo and eluded the police for three days, then supposedly escaped by swimming the Allegheny River across to Aspinwall. This last part I don’t believe at all, but the start of the story is good:  my father and his friends stayed home from school for three days, and my grandmother kept a shotgun with her in the kitchen.


For Isaly’s, an ice cream company with a chain of neighborhood restaurants with soda fountains that have pretty much disappeared. Their specialties were distinctly Pittsburgh–chip-chopped ham and whitehouse ice cream (vanilla with maraschino cherries). They also made the Klondike which, not having evidence to the contrary, I boast was a Pittsburgh invention.  They licensed other companies to sell it–or did they pay another company to sell their own version? Is my history wrong, slippery, suspect? I can’t imagine my grandmother with a shotgun. In any case, if your Klondike had a pink center, you got another one for free.  If it had a green center, you actually won a dollar. I think there’s an Isaly’s in Chabon’s Mysteries of Pittsburgh.  If not there, then in the short stories, A Model World.  Some of them take place on Forbes and Murray up in Squirrel Hill, two streets I know with a startling intimacy, even after twenty years.  To see them transformed in another writer’s imagination is both difficult (hey, that’s my material!) and fun (wow, you got it right).


For Josh Gibson, Hall of Famer and maybe the greatest catcher and power hitter of all time.  Called signals for Satchel Paige, who could throw a lambchop past a wolf. 800+ career homers. Pittsburgh fielded two of the premier teams in the Negro leagues, the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays, regularly drawing mixed crowds of up to 35,000. Because of travel expenses, visiting teams were likely to play both the Crawfords and the Grays–a brutal road trip. Lore has it that in the mid-’30s the Pirates and the Grays secretly played a game one morning at Forbes Field, with the Grays winning 5-2. (A wishful fabrication?  Maybe, maybe not.)  While everyone knows Western Pennsylvania as football territory–producing players like Larry Brown, Tony Dorsett, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, etc.,–the city itself was historically a baseball town until the ’70s, when Forbes Field was torn down and the city built Three Rivers Stadium on the North Side.  Even when the We-are-Family Pirates won the ’79 World Series, regular season attendance averaged less than 18,000 in a stadium that holds 50,000. We’ll lose the Pirates eventually, and we love them dearly, always have.  The mystery here is that most American mystery–the mystery of money.


For Kennywood Park, oldest trolley park in America, with at least two world-class stomach-emptying rollercoasters, the Thunderbolt (traditional wooden) and the Steel Phantom (briefly the fastest coaster in the world, with the longest vertical freewheel). The first week the Thunderbolt was open, a boy stood up at the top of the big, curved drop that faces the midway.  As the cars rocketed down, he left his feet.  The cars hit the curve and sent him flying out sideways at about seventy miles an hour. He flew through the sheet metal picnic tables of the Potato Patch, a big french-fry concession, his head smashing on the asphalt.  Pronounced dead at scene. The next week our annual school picnic was held at Kennywood, and we ran off the bus clutching our orange and blue tickets and dashed for the Thunderbolt, then tried like hell to cut the line.  My other Kennywood memory is when the Ghost Ship burned down. It was your basic fun house; you sat in the padded, clanking car (sort of a wheeled banquette) and screamed when Day-Glo skeletons jumped out of the dark.  Mirrors and strobe lights, a puff of water at the end that didn’t even get your hair wet. A make-out place for seventh graders–not enough time or privacy to do anything sustained.  It burned in the off-season, but everyone pictured it going up with them inside, the flames dancing in the mirrors as you and your date-for-the-ride jumped out of the car, holding hands, lost in the funhouse.

Also for Michael Keaton the actor, a native Pittsburgher actually named Michael Douglas. Now what are the odds?


For the public library, donated to the city by Andrew Carnegie.  Carnegie donated libraries all over the northeast, but this was one of the first and certainly the biggest and with the library in Braddock the one used most by the people who slaved to make him the money he would later give away.  At the library’s 100th anniversary a few years ago, John Edgar Wideman gave an eloquent speech reminding us of a free library’s value to the community, especially a community hungry for knowledge, starved of opportunity. It moved me, and reminded me of my own reliance on the children’s room, the bookmobile, the Squirrel Hill branch I haunted all summer. But why did it have to come from Andrew Carnegie? It’s a Pittsburgh conundrum. Beautiful Frick Park is named after the man who called out the Pinkertons on the Homestead strikers, Mellon Park after the family who bankrolled the steel barons.  As a child, I read a history of the mills that had a page with a calendar charting the number of industrial deaths on the South Side.  1906, I think.  The days were filled with little x’s. These were people happy to have a job. Let’s not even get into child labor.


For Michel Briere, Penguin rookie star.  Obscured now, after the supernova of Mario Lemieux. The Penguins joined the NHL in 1967 and floundered through their first two decades, an embarrassment in a town that calls itself The City of Champions with reason.  But for one year, Michel Briere appeared to be the Pens’ savior.  Like Mario, he was young and fast and handsome, at once humble and brilliant–the first farm club star the Pens could sell to the city.  After the end of his rookie season, one night in Montreal he crashed his car into a fire hydrant and fell into a coma.  At first there was some hope he’d come out of it, but soon it became apparent he never would. The Penguins named their rookie of the year trophy after him, set up a fund for his beautiful fiancée. A decade passed, his monitors beeping. He lived on life support for so long that when the papers announced his death it was a surprise.  And then Mario showed up.


For Night of the Living Dead, the greatest horror and maybe truly low-budget movie ever made, at least ten years ahead of its time, and never seriously challenged. It was shot in Carnegie (yes, that name again) by local auteur George A. Romero and released in 1968.  Sets the standard for all films of its genre. Best line: Chilly Billy Cardille is interviewing the local police chief and asks him about the zombies who are attacking. “They’re dead,” the chief says.  “They’re all messed up.”  Our English teacher Mrs. Epstein supposedly played the Naked Zombie in Graveyard, baring her breasts for her art. No one has ever verified this with her.

Also for Nick Perry, bowling show host and all-around nice guy who with his friends rigged the Pennsylvania Lottery so it came out 666 and then went to jail.


For the Original Hot Dog Stand.  Not the Dirty O in Oakland, which still cuts the best, saltiest, greasiest fries in town, but the original Original, gone now, over behind the Nabisco plant in East Liberty. All beef weenies, with crisp rubbery skins.  No tables, you just stood at the steel counter and ate off butcher paper. On the walls above the grill area hung pictures of famous people eating Original Hot Dogs.  I don’t mean just famous people, I mean FAMOUS people. Martin Luther King Jr. John Fitzgerald Kennedy. How they heard about the O I don’t know, but I’d eat mine and look at them eating theirs, knowing they stood where I was standing, dreaming big.


For Bob Prince, The Gunner, radio voice of the Pirates.  Famous for saying, “We had ’em all the way,” no matter how tight the game was.  He spoke out of one side of his mouth, like a stroke victim. Legend is, as a young man he drank a bit, and one night some players dared him to dive out of a fifth floor hotel room into the pool below.  Prince did.  He was an ornery man who wore ugly clothes as a joke on other people, and he could make vicious political jokes and in the next breath sincerely wish Mildred Magillicutty a happy 83rd birthday.  His last years at the mike, his voice and his strength were both going, and it was hard to listen to him.


For WQED, our public TV station, home of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.  Actually, I grew up in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.  He lived two blocks over from us in a big house at the corner of Beechwood and Hastings.  Never once saw the man, despite innumerable paper routes.  He’s a minister, and back then he was active in St. Peter’s (I think) over in Highland Park.  My sister-in-law swapped the gospel with him. Unlike the rest of Pittsburgh’s institutions, Mr. Rogers is still there, still punching the clock, doing the show.


For Roberto Walker Clemente, the true Great One (no offense and no apology to Wayne Gretzky).  Only major league MVP on a last place team. Willie Mays said he was the greatest player he’d ever seen.  Clemente carried the burden of being the first great Puerto Rican star with grace and dignity in a city with almost no Puerto Rican community. Like Jackie Robinson, he spoke with his talent and suffered baseless criticism in silence.  Exactly 3000 hits lifetime. He was ferrying supplies to earthquake-stricken Managua when his plane went down in the Caribbean. Or, rumors persisted, was he on his way to see his other family there?  Body never found. As boys, we dreamed a desert island life for him, a kind of heaven he deserved. I still see him there, older now but still fit, listening to the games from Miami on a cheap table radio like the one in Gilligan’s Island, playing dominos in the shade while the green sea washes in.


For Soldiers and Sailors Memorial, a huge marble hall near Pitt used for graduations and other formal occasions.  Never actually been inside it, except when I watched The Silence of the Lambs.  The scenes where they’re waiting for Hannibal Lecter to come down in the elevator were shot in the lobby. Spooky echoes. When I was young I thought the dead from World War II were actually buried there, the building one gigantic crypt, walls honeycombed with morgue drawers.


For Stanley Turrentine, the Pride of Pittsburgh, whose Ballads on Blue Note I had to go to Minneapolis to discover. For Ahmad Jamal and his Pittsburgh, and for Roy Eldridge, Erroll Garner, Billy Eckstine, Billy Strayhorn, Earl “Fatha” Hines, and Walt Harper, giants all.


For the Underground River beneath the Golden Triangle. This third tributary of the Ohio joins it invisibly beneath the Point, creating–or so the kids in my neighborhood claimed–an undertow which, if you fall off the Point, will suck you ineluctably beneath the tip of the city. It’s this mysterious source that feeds the oh-so-photogenic fountain you always see on TV, spewing geyserlike.  So far no one has tracked it beneath the streets, canoed through its dripping, rat-filled passages. A place for sodden, bobbing bodies nibbled by blind fish.  A place for chase scenes at the end of a long, convoluted novel.


For venison and Vietnam, bound together by Michael Cimino in The Deer Hunter, set in nearby Clairton.  The snow-capped peaks Robert DeNiro and his friends hunt the great stag in belong not to Western PA but Oregon–the Cascades. And the buck itself isn’t the right kind, any local hunter knows that.  While some critics harped on these flaws, others questioned the accuracy of the Russian Roulette scenes, pointing out the fact that no such underworld was even rumored to exist in Vietnam. No matter; the movie was so powerful it inspired a veteran named Jan Scruggs to go home after watching it and sit all night in his kitchen, writing up a proposal for a monument to the nation’s war dead. Less than four years later, The Wall was a reality, a reminder far more powerful than the film.


For Wilver Dornel Stargell, Pops.  In the ’70s he owned a number of chicken joints, the first of which was in the Hill District. Every time he hit a homer, a lucky customer would get a free bucket and Bob Prince would cry, “Chicken on the Hill with Will!” He lived down the street from us on Conover Drive, and supposedly he’d pay you ten dollars to wash his van. His son, Son-Son, played ball with us at Mellon Park, and we all wished our father was Willie Stargell.


For XYZ, or examine your zipper. Also offered as “U.S. Steel is down 100%,” which, soon after we passed that stage of taunting, turned out to be a devastating, even conservative prophecy. Mr. Carnegie’s company dropped its name and became USX.  The plants were closed down, overgrown by weeds and rust, then leveled, the poisoned land auctioned off.  XYZ!


For yins and youns (the ou pronounced as in “should”), meaning you-ins, or you all. As in, “Whadda yins guys wanna do–go dahntahn or just screw arahnd up here?”  Mystery: why does half the city say yins and half youns?


For Fritzie Zivic, great Polish featherweight, either a world title holder or just one round short of it. And for Billy Conn, another Pittsburgh pug who took the ring against the great Joe Louis and fought him almost to a draw. Like Bronco Nagurski, these fighters were some of the only heroes allowed the South Side. Fritzie Zivic and his family later owned a marina on the Allegheny below the Highland Park Bridge where they moored a whole flotilla of decrepit barges that gradually sank year after year, and then, like so much of that earlier Pittsburgh, were suddenly gone.


You can ask any Pittsburgher about these things, and they’ll tell you I’m wrong, that my dates are mixed up, my facts off by just that much. I would hope so. John Edgar Wideman is fond of quoting a Yoruba saying:  All stories are true. I’d say that in the realm of non-fiction, this is even more important to remember. Every narrator, being human, is unreliable; only the story is true.  These are tales told over and over, freely embellished on, left tantalizingly open, and all the stronger for it.

Naturally as children we’re drawn to the fantastic, the strange and unexplained, the feats of heroes, and my hometown–like everyone’s, I guess–seemed full of that stuff. There were other, real mysteries, of course, like why Mary down the street shot herself in the parking lot of the East Liberty Kroger, and how the Vitas who lived next door to her ended up with her car, a rusty blue Nomad, how they could drive it around for years afterward without thinking of what happened in it. And there were the heavy mysteries to come, like love and hate and joy and disappointment, guilt and pride, exile and belonging, but back then these were the deepest mysteries we could comfortably appreciate.  Like the Pirates, they were ours.

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