I’ve known Goob, as he is called, virtually for several years now and finally met him in the flesh at last year’s PodCamp Meet ‘n Greet at Alphalab. You can find him on twitter at @Goob and hopefully you can get to know him and he’ll fold back the curtain for you that he keeps over himself to some extent. He’s such a great writer, so I thought to share that with the rest of Pittsburgh. Here he is talking about shortcuts in Pittsburgh in a way only he can. It’s a must read story. Also, I’m going to get more of those gosh darn shortcuts out of him!
I am not a Pittsburgh native; I have only lived here for twenty-two years, and there are yet many things about this place that are still somewhat wondrous.
If I may offer you an example: shortcuts.
I am convinced it takes about five years to really start to get an understanding of how to get around in this city. At first, there are tricks: drive downhill and hope to hit a river you recognize. Was there something over the top of that hill? Aim for it. Stay on Forbes, because even though you’re nearly going backwards, you know where it goes and where it goes will lead you home. Eventually, gaps get filled in and locations become familiar and sometimes even the street names make sense.
After all of that, there comes a moment when you’ll take a shortcut. You may be lost, or exhausted, or late, or simply tired of the long line of red lights before you. You will say to yourself, “people keep turning down that side street. I wonder why?” And you will follow them, only to find yourself someplace else, someplace better than where you were, and getting there was easiest of all. You will know a secret, and you will look for more.
I have found several. They are blissful, transportive routes: city streets that melt away into woods for a quarter mile, setting you down gently in the sleepy corner of a quiet neighborhood, cozy streets, the smug satisfaction of avoiding all that traffic, that odd sense of dislocation: “how in the world did I end up here?”
I can’t tell you what any of them are, of course. That would ruin it for the folks that depend on such things. I can’t, for example, tell you about the utility of using Jefferson for getting to Udipi Cafe (sorry, Alec). And it would be unreasonable of me to mention the footbridge tucked away in the middle of Shadyside, a momentary echo of South Graham Street (sorry, Pamela). Too much attention would ruin those places. So I can’t tell you about shortcuts.
I can tell you about bricks.
A while back, I was in the market for bricks, as were friends of mine (who had access to a truck). Bricks are expensive, more so than you’d think, and buying a lot of bricks from a home improvement store is a soul-less, tiring experience. I had noticed while noodling along Second Avenue (sorry, Derrick) that, in between Mobile and Tullymet, there was a brick yard. It was dust and stone, stacks of bricks and heaps of bricks and granite and other things, with a propped up sheet of plywood with a phone number on it. It took me four tries to remember in time to slow down enough to memorize the number, but I got it eventually. On the other end of the phone was a nice fellow who cheerfully told us to come on down and bring the truck: the bricks were for sale, and a quarter a piece, and we had to load them ourselves.
So we showed up one sunny Saturday morning, me and my friends and their six year old son, pulling into a deserted brickyard with no sight or sound of anyone. He called to us from the roof, saying he was fixing the old place up, that he’d be right down. We waited until he joined us there in the yard, and asked us what we wanted.
A patio, we said. Maybe a fire pit. “Well, these bricks,” he said, “they come from houses, but they’d be good patio bricks. The other bricks,” he said, patting a stack, “these are fire bricks, and they’ll handle anything you’d want to burn in ’em.” We asked about the long yellow bricks in the corner, and he frowned. “I wouldn’t use those,” he said. “Kiln brick from the mills. Lots of bad metals in those.”
We set to work, stacking brick from the loose piles into a pair of careful layers in the truck. He told us stories about where the bricks and stone came from, how local high school football players would come to his yard to stack brick for free because Jerry Rice used to stack brick, how he had come to own the old building, all run down at the side of a road few stopped on, living a life of DIY next to a yard of anonymous rocks. That afternoon, in the hot sun and dust, picking up brick and putting down brick, three extraordinary things happened.
We were working away, and a gaunt fellow with a mop of dark hair approached us from the street, cradling bottles of water. He walked right up to us in the brick yard, beaming, holding out the plastic bottles, labels free of all English except for “FINE MINERAL WATER” across the front in light white type. “You are working hard,” he said in a thick Slavic accent, “and good workers should have good water.” He grinned at us when we thanked him, and ambled off again, walking in the side of the road off toward Hazelwood. The water was from the gas station next door. It tasted pretty good.
We were working away, when we discovered we ran out of bricks from the piles we were sorting, those good, deep, earthy bricks that hold well in your hand. We called up to him on the roof again, and he clambered down again, this time to pull himself up into a cab of a giant yellow excavator, complete with caterpillar tracks. “Mind your boy, now,” he said, and turned the key. The boy’s eyes went wide indeed when the little plate on top of the exhaust flipped open and diesel smoke coughed up and away as the big old engine growled to life. He carefully brought the excavator over to a large mound of earth, and started to swipe at it with the bucket on the end of the arm, some great cat of a machine, pawing at the pile. After some minutes he was done, having uncovered seams of brick in the dirt. We went in for those bricks like they were veins of ore, laughing, and I will never forget the sheer look of wonder that can be put on a child’s face by massive construction equipment.
The third thing came as we were finishing up, making sure the bricks were well set in the bed of the trick, settling up with money laid out on a stack of bricks, another brick on top of it to keep it from scattering in the breeze. He sized us up; he said, “you guys want to see something?” He said: “come with me.”
He brought us toward the building, his building, his home. It had been there for nearly a hundred years, he said. Before that, it had been on the other side of the tracks; they had moved it on jacks when the mills came in, he said. He led us out of the bright sun and into the dim room behind the screen door, and it was full or everything. Furniture, boxes, lamps, pictures, shelves, things that go on shelves. “I don’t live down here,” he said. “All of this stuff came with the place. I’m still trying to sort it all out.” He told us to keep coming in, deeper into the mountain of things, and he told us, “this place used to be a speakeasy, too.”
And turning the corner, we found the bar. Fourteen feet of solid mahogany bar and paneling behind it that covered the wall all the way to the ceiling. A full length brass rail for resting weary boots. The trim work from a time when men carved such things with pride. A patina of a thousand cigars tempering the finish, under the thin film of dust that kept the luster down. “It needs some work,” he said. He said it with affection. And we were lucky to stumble on that quiet secret, that day, learning a little history and seeing a small wonder in the timeworn building next to an unassuming brickyard on a desolate stretch of a road anyone only ever uses to get to someplace else.
It’s different, now. If you drive along that stretch, you’ll find the gas station is closed and slowly folding in on itself. The plywood sign with the phone number is gone, too, replaced with the simple placards of a real estate agent. I do not know what the story is; I do not know if he is still there, if any of the wonderful things on that first floor are still there, how much it’s all on offer for, how much someone will eventually decide it’s worth. So you can drive by it all, and maybe keep going. You may want to keep your eyes open for something.
But I can’t tell you about shortcuts.