through Pittsburgh's front door
Saturday, May 22 2010
location: rural Hurley Township, Ulster County, NY
An urge to cough, a loud horrifying screech from a Barred Owl perched just outside the window, a need to visit the brownhouse, and general malaise got me out of bed at 3:30am this morning. But even had I been sleeping like a diaper baby, the alarm would have startled me awake some fifteen minutes later. Gretchen and I, you see, had arranged to be traveling hundreds of miles yet again this weekend. This time our destination would be Pittsburgh, and we'd be flying there in an airplane. The reason was to attend the graduation of one of Gretchen's first cousins from the medical school at the University of Pittsburgh. As part of our travels, we'd also be visiting (actually, we'd be staying with) Gretchen's brother and sister-in-law and their two kids. Gretchen's parents would also be there.
We packed out stuff and drove up to the Albany airport, arriving as a balloon of clammy grey light inflated in the east. Though Pittsburgh isn't far by plane from Albany, we still had to get there in two legs, flying first down to Dulles near Washington. Interestingly, for the first time ever I saw a Homeland Security inspector walking up to people with large carry-on luggage waiting at the gate and asking them if she could look through their things. These were people who had already had these same bags x-rayed.
The Pittsburgh airport has a draconian rule about people waiting in their cars at arrivals. If you're parked there for even a few seconds, the police show up and hurry you along. As we were emerging from the airport, we saw a woman hurried along by a cop come to a stop a second time further down, and this time the cop turned on his flashing blue lights and pulled her over. That second stop had suddenly made it a federal case. Pittsburgh has been on high alert since 2006, when a Sihk wearing a turban tried to board a plane. (Or was it that someone with a neck tattoo of an AK-47 tried to board?)
Despite these handicaps, cellphones still make it possible for someone arriving in Pittsburgh to work out the logistics with a friend arriving to pick him up. But the coordination must be precise, like landing a jet plane on the deck of an aircraft carrier. It was Gretchen's brother who picked us up and delivered us into Pittsburgh through its famous front door on I-376.
We weren't at Gretchen's brother's place in Squirrel Hill long before we headed out again, this time to lunch at a place called Zenith. It's a cluttered antique store merged with a hip vegetarian restaurant, sort of, as I observed upon entering, "like Cracker Barrel but more tasteful and less racist." The food was a little bland, but (unlike any restaurant I've been to) they offered Sriracha (aka "Rooster Sauce") as a condiment.
My little six year old nephew sat next to me and didn't want to eat anything except cake for lunch, although in the end he did eat pita bread and olives. But mostly what he was interested in doing was drawing helicopters, using a kid's cartoon book called something like Learn How to Draw. He'd start with a big pregnant oval (which he executed in one bold stroke, which impressed me) and then add details like a rotor, door, window, and landing gear. At that point he'd get creative, decorating it with stripes and six-pointed stars (the only kind he knew how to draw; he attends a Jewish kindergarten). His first helicopter had a Isræli theme, and his next was American in the style of the kind in Team America World Police (there he successfully abstracted the five-pointed stars as little white circles). For the next helicopter, we went with a Soviet theme, and a drew the hammer and sickle. (It was such a bold and foreign symbol that it seemed to momentarily stun some our table when he proudly held it up to show everyone.) Finally I helped with a design that I thought was based on the Turkish flag, though it turned out it was actually the Pakistani flag (we didn't have any flag references available).
Zenith is located in an upscale commercial area built upon recently-reclaimed brownfields. After lunch, we went for a stroll and ended up at an REI outlet, the big outdoor equipment cooperative. Inside was a two-story climbing pinnacle made of fake rock (and a scale model of a natural pinnacle in Utah). There was something alluring about watching others attempt to climb the pinnacle, so some in our group (me, Gretchen's brother, and both of the kids) signed up to try climbing it ourselves. We ended up having to wait a quite a while as two young boys clawed their way to the top, taking ample advantage of the support offered by the REI employee manning the other end of the rope down below. He'd offer helpful advice from below and tell them not to attempt to haul themselves up by their support rope, but they didn't really seem to listen. Meanwhile those of us not sitting there watching went off into the store and bought things. The climbing wall is free for REI members (which I am not), but even if it were free for everyone, it would seem to be a good loss leader.
The kids before me had been climbing the wall with a difficulty of three out of five. Since I'd never climbed before, I tried the wall with a difficulty of two out of five. But unlike those kids, I couldn't bring myself to trust (let alone take advantage of) the support of the rope that was keeping me from falling. So I ended up climbing that wall as if I had no rope support at all. It was exhausting; I'd never done it before and didn't know to keep the bulk of my weight on my feet. When I got within about three feet of the summit, I could feel the muscles controlling my fingertips failing. I would send them a signal from my brain to do something, but it was as if they had turned into inanimate objects. So I had to quit, to the great disappointment of the REI guy down below.
Next my little nephew and niece got the opportunity to climb about five feet up the beginners' wall. The REI guy seemed to be a natural at dealing with little kids, talking to them as if they were little adults, but also joking along and Socratically asking them to guess the name of the knot he was tying (which looked like a figure-8).
Back in Squirrel Hill, Gretchen and I retreated to the basement and took a much-needed nap so as to be well-rested in preparation for the socializing to follow: hanging out with Gretchen's old girlfriend Barbara and Barbara's current girlfriend, Ehrryn (sp?).
Barbara and Ehrryn picked us up and we drove out to a vegetarian restaurant called the Tin Front Café. Aside from buckets collecting leaking water from the skylight, it looked cheerful in there. Unfortunately, the menu wasn't very vegan-friendly. There was no tofu or tempeh, let alone fake cheese, and most of the dishes were slimy admixtures of egg and cheese. The chili was vegan and it was good, but after that Gretchen had to go with a constellation of appetizers. The kitchen said it could put together a spicy vegan pasta with peppers, portobellos, and eggplant, and this ended up being pretty good even though it lacked protein. Also, I had to keep averting my eyes from the sandwich being eaten by Ehrryn across the table. It was all yellow from the eggy slime that was soaking through. The four of us seemed to get along really well. We all have a quirky sense of humor that often strays into the offensively politically-incorrect. When talking, for example, about a possibly gay (thus closeted) gentleman we know, I offered that he seems less gay these days because he's "post sexual." Barbara said she thought that might actually make him more gay. I said that it's different for men and women (being post-sexual makes a woman seem more gay but it makes a man seem less gay).
One of the key things about Ehhryn [REDACTED] is that she is an avid reader of fiction. She says it troubles her that she won't have enough years in her life to read all the books she wants to read, and yet good books continue to be published.
Back in Squirrel Hill, it was past 11:00pm, and Gretchen was chatting with her sister-in-law in the kitchen while our little niece charged around as if she'd been smoking the freebase form of methamphetamine. It was long past her bedtime, but somehow she ended up devouring a huge piece of chocolate, much of which ended up on her plump little cheeks.
For linking purposes this article's URL is:feedback
previous | next