Sunday, January 18 2004
setting: Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Gretchen's brother Brian and his wife Jen have a nice big house with four habitable floors, but they still own their old house some blocks away. Decisions, decisions! Should they rent it out or should they sell it? Today Brian went to show the house to a group of ditzy college girls who called to say they'd be late after he'd already left. This caused Brian's father Aron to go after him and... Aron came storming back to the house visibly shaken. His car had been stolen! He immediately called the cops to report the theft. They came back with the news that his car had not actually been stolen but had instead been impounded for being illegally parked. This seemed impossible to Aron, and he and I immediately went out to where it had been parked to take pictures. We decided that local tow truck operators must be improperly incentivized to tow vehicles, and that they probably pick on cars with out-of-state license plates because such people tend to have a diminished capacity to fight for their rights.
Thankfully, we did finally find the impound lot. It turned out that we'd needed to take a right at the intersection where the person on the phone had suggested a left.
The impound lot's office wasn't nearly so much about form as it was about function. It was a miserable trailer and out in front sat two cars that had once been on fire. Customers at impound lots are never happy people, and whoever had set up Pittsburgh's lot had done it the right way. The people staffing it had absolutely no power and no real connection to the people who had towed the vehicles. The guy staffing the counter today had no interest in customer satisfaction and told Aron that he'd have to wait fifteen minutes before anything could be done. This caused Gretchen to start shouting, "Maybe if he'd been towed for a good reason, but he'd really rather be spending his afternoon with his newborn grandson." At that point I chimed in with something of my own. Aron looked tensely at us and said he wanted us to go, that he'd handle things himself and he didn't want us making a scene. He promised us that he'd be appropriately indignant. At this point I started noticing all the pissed-off graffiti scrawled on the outside of the impound lot's reception window. Most of the writing said things like "This sucks!" But it was livened up a bit with a gangsta references to geographic areas such as "Northside" and mentions of various individuals who were, it was claimed, in da hayouse.
In the afternoon Gretchen and I hung out with Christi and Thomas, a married couple who are friends with Brian and Jen (they are such good friends, in fact, that they even sent us a wedding present when we got married). Christi and Thomas are really our sort of people, something you can't always expect from a sibling's good friends. They're both witty and can be unapologetically dark when the situation demands it. For example, Christi is now pregnant, but she doesn't really want to have a baby. "I want to have a citizen," she says. She'd prefer if kids could be born as seven year olds.
We went to a nearby Squirrel Hill museum to look at art by various unknown artists. (What I mean by that is that we'd never heard of them.) Much of the stuff seemed to have been made as a form of therapy for people working through issues such as cancer or the loss of fertility. While I was looking at one temptingly tactile work, I had a brilliant idea for a truly self-referential post-modern dadaist piece. It would consist of a pillar featuring candid photographs of people. Around the pillar would be some sort of surface implicitly inviting visitors to touch it - something you're not supposed to do in a museum. Those who did touch it would be instantaneously photographed and their pictures automatically added to the display. Talk about blurring lines! In this piece, who would be the artist? Who would be the audience? What would be the art? Constructs! Concepts! This is not a glass of water, it is an oak tree!
Upstairs in the museum, one of the men's bathrooms had been decorated in a crumbling Roman motif, complete with fake graffiti written in Latin. One of these offered a phone number in Roman numerals that one could call for una bona hora. Amusingly, there was some actual graffiti in this bathroom as well, but it had all been done by various Latin nerds or people who knew how to do arithmetic upon Roman numerals.
Back at Brian and Jen's house, we had another meal of Indian takeaway, this time with the whole family (and Christi and Thomas too).
I'd like to take a moment to mention what two incidents pointing to the sad state of blue collar employment in Pittsburgh. The first came when my sister-[in-law]2 Jen couldn't turn off a faucet, and, lacking necessary tools, Brian was forced to call a plumber. He has a plumber he knows and loves, and the guy came out a half hour later (on a Sunday!) and fixed the problem. He then refused to accept any pay. It makes you wonder - how desperate for customers must a plumber be to treat his customers so nicely? It's true, this guy did two thousand dollars worth of work on the house back in the fall, but even then he charged so little that Brian insisted on giving him more.
Later, Brian was outside clearing the sidewalk of snow so it would be safe for pedestrians coming to tomorrow's bris. Some guy came along and offered to do the whole thing (a substantial task) for only $15. Mind you, this guy was not a squirrly-looking homeless man or a teenager trying to earn an honest buck. He was a white man in his thirties and, judging by his attire and actions, appeared to be middle class and non-schizophrenic. Was he the future of outsourced America?
2That wasn't supposed to be a reference to a footnote, but since lots of people will think it is one, I've decided to treat it as one and then explain what I was intending to say down here in the footnote. I meant "2" as in "squared." I've decided to start referring to everyone connected to me only by marriage as an "in-law." If someone is only connected to me through two marriages, then that person is "in-law squared." Thus Brian is my "brother in law" and Jen is my "sister [in law]2." Mikah is my "nephew in law" because my non-genetic relationship to him is through a single marriage - the one between myself and Gretchen. If he one day marries somebody (and, given the hopefully enlightened laws of the future, that person could be a male or a female), that spouse will be my nephew or niece [in law]2.
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