Shortcuts by Goob

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.





30 Comments

  1. burghbaby
    March 26, 2012 10:45 am

    The world needs more of Goob’s writing. Thanks for making that happen, Ginny.



  2. Jill M
    March 26, 2012 10:54 am

    Well done Goob…well done.



  3. Butcher's Dog
    March 26, 2012 11:22 am

    This is the best writing I’ve read anywhere in a long time. Let us know where we can find more of Goob’s stuff, please.



  4. Jill
    March 26, 2012 11:35 am

    Agree completely! Beautifully written. More Goob! More Goob! More Goob!



  5. Paul
    March 26, 2012 12:18 pm

    This is a really great post. Nice work Goob.



  6. hello haha narf
    March 26, 2012 12:25 pm

    loved this story. thanks for the guest post!



  7. bucdaddy
    March 26, 2012 12:30 pm

    Got a question for you young’uns about your newfangled fancy-shmancy phone apps and GPSes: Does the belt system (orange, red, blue, green, yellow, purple) even show up on those things? Because at many times of the day (such as, say, midnight to 11:59 p.m. on the Parkway West), they are invaluable for getting around without using the clogged main arteries, at least on the theory that going 25 mph on side streets through nice neighborhoods beats going 2 mph on the freeway.

    One summer way back in the year between high school and college, I worked evenings delivering photo packages for Olin Mills. The base was in Great Southern Shopping Center in Bridgeville, but IIRC my delivery territory stretched from Moon nearly to Washington. I studied maps a lot that summer, and often used the belts, mostly blue, orange and yellow. I don’t know that they saved a LOT of time, but at 18 I kind of liked believing I knew about this semisecret way to get from A to B that nobody else was using, and to this day 35 years later I still have at least a vague notion where I’ll end up if I get on one of them, such as how to get from Dormont to Kennywood on the blue and green.



    • Julia
      March 26, 2012 1:22 pm

      I’m not sure about GPS units, but there are a couple different ways to see directions on my iPhone. One of the options is to view the route on GoogleMaps, and if there is heavy traffic in a particular area, the route will be highlighted red. If there is more than one way to get somewhere, it will give you the options (usually), and you tap on the route you want to take. However, the iPhone doesn’t give you the option to view the blue/orange/etc belts, as far as I know.



    • laura
      March 26, 2012 4:22 pm

      I remember one late night about 20 years ago, coming back from the other side of town to find the Squirrel Hill tunnels closed for work. At 3 a.m., the last thing I was going to do was call and ask dad how the heck to get home (assuming I could find a payphone and have change to use it…..Yes, pre-cell phones..…I’m old, suck it!). I actually followed the dots (orange, I believe) and they safely and quickly got me around the tunnel monster and home before the parents woke up. Love the dots!



    • Ex-Pat Pittsburgh Girl
      March 26, 2012 5:07 pm

      I can’t tell you how many times I was a passenger with friends (or as a driver) and hearing “Oh my God, we’re lost” and saying “We’re not lost, there’s the orange [yellow, green, blue] belt sign follow it” and eventually getting to a main road, usually bypassing traffic. To this day, when I give friends directions to pick me up at my parents or grandparents houses, I just tell them to follow the blue belt signs.



  8. SteelCityMagnolia
    March 26, 2012 12:44 pm

    Beautifully written! Where can we find more?



  9. English Major
    March 26, 2012 12:55 pm

    So Virginia, how did you get Annie Dillard to fill in for you today?



  10. Steve
    March 26, 2012 1:01 pm

    I used to live just up the road from that brick yard, on Four Mile Run Road. Just under the parkway east 3 doors past the roller hockey rink.

    It really is an amazing part of the city.

    The Swinburne bridge is one of those magical shortcuts that everyone should know about.

    I had the distinct opportunity of purchasing a house in that little neighborhood with its own brick yard included. There were enough bricks and cobble stones in that yard to build a 35 foot 2 course retaining wall for the garden and a 25 x 10 foot patio for the BBQ and lawn furniture. The house was built in 1901, and I bought it from the daughter of the original owner. I was the first person in the family to not own the house, and only the third. owner. ever.

    Over the years the family who lived in that house would collect the brick, and pave the driveway with them. The driveway became a parking pad, and then a parking pad for 3 cars, and soon the entire yard had been covered with collected brick and cobble stone. I only had one car and three kids, so I preferred to re-purpose the materials and the space. I built the wall, and patio, and then seeded the lawn.

    That brick wall is awesome. The character and beauty of all those stones was incredible. Fortunately I never need to pull my trailer into the brick yard for more materials, but I keep a close eye on that $.25 price in case I needed to.



  11. Pensgirl
    March 26, 2012 2:28 pm

    Anybody who’s been around this blog for awhile knows how much I love Pittsburgh for its shortcuts, side routes, back routes, hidden routes, and veritable magic portals (Armstrong tunnels!). If there is one thing I could change about the Baltimore-DC corridor, it would be to redo the secondary/neighborhood road planning to actually allow for those little tricks here. Having available shortcuts and secondary/side routes wouldn’t fix all the traffic problems, but still, it would be a big help.



  12. eastendpittsburgher
    March 26, 2012 4:05 pm

    I enjoyed the first part regarding shortcuts; I’m a master of shortcuts in this city. I disagree that it takes 5 years to find your way around though, but some of us are just better at directions than others.

    After nearly six years here, it’s amazing that more people don’t put more time in finding faster, more efficient ways to their destinations. If you are newer to the area and people tell you “you can’t get there from here”, don’t belive it. You can.



    • Kacie
      March 28, 2012 5:21 pm

      It took me about 3 years before I felt comfortable not using my GPS. Craziest city to navigate ever! The wormholes are fun to find. I’ve accidentalyl ended up on a parkway a few times, and have been beyond ridiculously lost (in my early living in Pittsburgh days). Really miss that city!



  13. Eleanor's Trousers
    March 26, 2012 4:09 pm

    Beautifully written. Lovely, lovely, lovely.



  14. Woy
    March 26, 2012 5:17 pm

    Two comments on this post:

    1. This sort of post is why I don’t write a blog anymore. In the face of great writing, you realize you’re just kidding yourself.

    2. Goob will sometimes tell me to go try a particular type of food or beer. And I do what he tells me because the man KNOWS food.



  15. jann
    March 26, 2012 6:04 pm

    I agree – LOVE the writing. What a vivid picture you painted!



  16. rewron
    March 26, 2012 7:22 pm

    Great story! That brickyard still lives on Google maps.



  17. bucdaddy
    March 26, 2012 11:44 pm

    I love that song:

    Goob-goob-a-joob.

    Nice job of writing. Like a little movie in my head. The guy bringing the water was a perfect touch.



    • Butcher's Dog
      March 27, 2012 8:04 am

      Spent too much time in college wondering/discussing who The Walrus was and what he represented. Ditto the Egg Man. Beatles on drugs…probably when the world first started going to hell in a handbasket. Thanks, bucdaddy…now I’ve got a whole day with the song playing in what passes for my brain!



      • Dr Kevlar
        March 27, 2012 9:03 am

        Then of course there was Don McLean’s “American Pie.” Many of us spent hours (completely unassisted by the internet, smart phones, tablets, iPads, etc) listening to the song on our transistor radios (sehr modern), 45′s or for the well-to-do, tape recordings and trying to assign meanings to the various lyrics.

        Those were the days.

        Now if I could only figure out the symbolism in Faulkner…



        • Butcher's Dog
          March 27, 2012 6:40 pm

          The Jester sang for the King and Queen
          In a coat he borrowed from James Dean
          And a voice that came from you and me.

          Those were, indeed, the days. And to hell with Faulkner.



  18. Cole
    March 28, 2012 3:21 pm

    Great story Goob.



  19. StacyfrPgh
    March 28, 2012 10:27 pm

    Marvelous writing. Evocative. Thank you.