Tag Archives: Pittsburgh

Opening Day: The Eternal Call of “PLAY BALL!”

It gets harder and harder, as the years go by, to shore up the rituals that shore up all of us. Thanksgiving is nice, but every year, something is missing, even from the enjoyable editions of that holiday. The electronic erosion of the Christmas season speeds up year by year; add climate change and the acceleration of time as we age, and it’s clear that you can’t go back to Bedford Falls.

PNC Park, Pittsburgh. I have great seats in the There-In-Spirit section.

PNC Park, Pittsburgh. Got great seats in the There-In-Spirit section.

Still, I get giddy on the opening day of every Major League Baseball season. I simply won’t let it decay. I have dug extra French drains and caulked around all the seams of memory. No amount of The Clean, The Clear, or pants worn down over the shoes will diminish today’s opener in my mind to a level below the ones I saw as a kid, when The Great Clemente himself loped out onto the field.

I try to be quiet about it, but fact is, only attitude saves me here. It is the same annoying mindset that young, overzealous sales associates employ to turn car accidents and overflowing toilets into positives instead of the undeniable negatives they are. I am resolute in my determination to keep Opening Day sacred.

Why? Because I deserve it, that’s why. Because its moment is so brief, and in the grand scheme so inconsequential, that it hurts no one for me to sit for a few minutes on a day in April (oh…it’s March…never mind) and draw a line backwards in my mind: McCutchen to Clemente to Mazeroski to Traynor to Wagner and back and back through dead-ball antiquity to the Civil War itself and rounders in England. Because Terence Mann was right, more prescient as a fictional character than legions of real people: They will most definitely come, Ray. For it’s money they have and peace they lack.

Like the God-given aroma of a newborn baby, I cannot get enough grass-clipping-and-horsehide smell into my nose. Can’t be there this year, but I have an archive. Buck O’Neil, the great Kansas City Monarchs first baseman, said it best: You can’t kill it. Throw whatever you want at baseball, and somebody somewhere will be playing as soon as it gets warm. No need for opening new markets in Australia, no worries about salaries and Arizona stealing all the teams for spring training and A-Fraud. Just…the game.

Thank goodness for The Show.

© 2014 Adam Barr

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Cheap Seats, Revalued

Most people measure their success by the size of their salary, their house, the sticker price of their car. I never did. For me, it was about where I sat at sporting events.

It was my good fortune to grow up in Pittsburgh in the 1970s, when our baseball and football teams won six championships within nine years. The City of Champions moniker shined especially brightly for us, mainly because we Pittsburghers could feel the sneering, loser-face snark of the national sports fan establishment. For them, Pittsburgh sports had been a backwater joke for decades. Many of them actually believed that the city was still perpetually shrouded in smoke and ash, not knowing that one of the nation’s most successful civic improvement projects had cleaned the air by the late 1950s.

And so, our love for our Pirates (baseball) and Steelers (football) vindicated, many of us went to games. Hockey came on strong too, once Mario Lemieux joined the Penguins. I was especially lucky: when I was a young lawyer, my office was a mere five-minute walk from the Civic Arena, where the Penguins played. The stroll to Three Rivers Stadium took longer and involved a bridge, but it was worth it.

Three Rivers Stadium: a concrete donut, but OUR concrete donut

Three Rivers Stadium: a concrete donut, but OUR concrete donut

In the early days, before my friends and I were making much money, we gathered before baseball games in the parking lot of my friend’s office at General Electric, a few blocks from Three Rivers. We ducked into the men’s room, changed to ballgame duds, and tossed around a Frisbee until it was time to go in — and up. Upstairs, center field, cheapest bleacher tix we could find. Beers and nachos, each its own food group when you’re in your 20s, were our dinner of choice.

Now, upstairs at Three Rivers wasn’t such a bad thing. Yes, strictly speaking, the stadium was of the cement donut school of civic sports architecture. But between the Pirates and Steelers, so many memories hung off the concrete ramparts that we actually loved the place. Here, Roberto Clemente led the Pirates through their 1971 World Series season; Willie Stargell took up the mantle in the 1979 season. Here, Franco Harris caught the Immaculate Reception in 1972, catapulting the Steelers into the playoffs and beginning one of the most impressive eras of dominance in NFL history.

So we happily watched from deep CF as players such as Andy Van Slyke rocketed throws home to catch foolhardy runners who decided to challenge his gun. Every game, I had a nacho-eating contest with a friend — really, the dearest friend of my buddy who provided the parking at GE. This friend-of-friend and I didn’t compete on quantity — no, it was heat. Our contests were all about who could eat the most jalapenos with his nachos. There was a gastric price later, but never high enough to overcome our twisted pride. I loved his sense of humor. (Typical quote of his, regarding the movie The Exorcist: “Why don’t we keep the devil in Regan, so we’ll always know where he is?”)

Half dozen or so of us, legs over the seats in front of us, sprawled out among the cheap seats, we reveled in the summers: the one on the calendar, and the one of our lives.

Not too many years passed before I was working later, hustling up to the Arena just in time to scalp a $35 ticket to watch Lemieux. (And I thought I was getting robbed. Can you imagine?) The other guys didn’t often come for hockey, so they missed sights such as Mario crossing the blue line, dragging Mark Howe with him on one arm and scoring with the other. Even the referee and linesmen watched in amazement, knowing that despite the full-tackle attempt by the Flyers defenseman, Lemieux would likely score and no penalty call would be necessary.

Pittsburgh's Civic Arena, for years home of the Penguins. My office was three blocks off the lower right corner of this picture.

Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena, for years home of the Penguins. My office was three blocks off the lower right corner of this picture.

And as the money got better, so did the baseball seats: down on the base line, the field boxes. No time to change; I would sit there in my suit with my tie loosened. Fewer and fewer of the guys came; when they did, though, no one could resist the eternal stupid joke when the guy selling the early edition of the morning paper walked down the aisle about the bottom of the 8th: “Hey! Who wins the game?”

My nacho pal developed a debilitating nerve disease. Our mutual friend who worked at GE is in the midst of a horrid divorce. Recently I was in town for a funeral of one of our friend’s father — yes, that season is starting — and I heard that both Nacho and GE would be there. GE, as a matter of fact, was said to be at Nacho’s house while I was at the visitation, lovingly helping Nacho into a wheelchair so he could come pay his respects. They were late; I couldn’t wait. I had to go.

And driving away in my nice suit in my nice car, I wondered just how prosperous I had become.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

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When I tell you my grandmother was a tough old bird, you will likely get a picture of a stout matron in homemade gingham, wielding a wooden spoon as she intimidates a chicken into perfect roasted readiness while declaring in a brassy voice just how it’s gonna be in this house, if we all know what’s good for us.

That picture of my grandmother would be inaccurate.

Ella Smith was a bird of a woman, to be sure. But more along the lines of sparrow or chickadee than eagle or hawk. Small, unassuming, never one to stand out in a crowd was my Gogo. (We called her Gogo because that was the closest my oldest brother could get to saying “grandma” when he was a toddler. Mere decades later, he graduated with honors from Cornell and Harvard. Go figure.)

Gogo at my wedding in 1990, four days before her 91st birthday, dancing with an old family friend

Gogo at my wedding in 1990, four days before her 91st birthday, dancing with an old family friend

But Gogo was one of the toughest people I’ve ever known. Without a gram of arrogance or bravado about her, my grandmother stood up to life’s gusts with hardly a cry. And I’m talking about a woman who was so slight that she had to stay in on windy days, or risk accidentally flying to the library.

She was born on April 4, 1899 to Lithuanian immigrants who ran a clothing business.  She was the youngest child of four, and the only girl. In the early 20th century, that made things hard. It was the boys who were expected to go out and learn and earn, so they got the advantages. Daughters were, in the words of Fiddler on the Roof‘s Tevye, another mouth to feed. Still, Gogo got what education she could, including high school German. (She would chuckle when she remembered: “‘Don’t you Jewish kids try to fool me,’ my German teacher would say. ‘I know when you’re slipping in Yiddish!'”)

Gogo married, and my mother was born. At some point while my mother was still a little girl, my grandfather left them. For years, I thought he died before I was born, like my paternal grandfather. Actually, he moved to California, where he died in a car accident when I was about eight. My mother has half-sisters there. I found this out all too late.

Not that I would ever have divined it from Gogo. She refused to dwell on the past, at least where we could see. Instead, she delighted in my brothers and me. And knowing that I would be the last one, she was especially fond of me. One day a week, she would ride not one, but two busses from Squirrel Hill (transfer downtown to the 36A) and climb not one, but two formidable hills to get to our house on Ridgefield Avenue. Rain, shine, snow. Afternoon with me, dinner with us, then my Dad would drive her home. Hardly ever missed. I sat in a wing chair while she perched on the giant chair by the fireplace, and she would tell the family stories: who was who, wear they came from, who was dead, which cousins she still ran into at the Carnegie Library. She knew her grandfather, who came along with her parents from the old country. He had to have been born no later than 1850 or so, which made Gogo a link to history for me.

She was into her sixties by the time I was born. She was nearly 91 by the time I was married. (She attended and had a marvelous time.) She was proud when I distinguished myself at school and became a young lawyer. She never squawked about less time with me as I pursued young-man adventures. For a period, I took her every Saturday to temple; she greatly enjoyed that. We would reminisce about the times she would have me to her little apartment on Wightman Street for a sleepover when I was a little boy. These trips always included visits to the dinosaurs at Carnegie Institute, homemade blintzes at her place, and me sleeping on the sofa and gazing out the window at the sky above what I believed to be the biggest, most fascinating city in the world.

It was my habit during law school, before I could afford my own car, to borrow one of my parents’ for the weekend. I too would take the 36A and trek up the hills to my parents’s house. One Friday, as I stepped into the kitchen, my Mom said, “Gogo is in the hospital.” Gogo was in her mid-80s by this time; the occasional hospital visit was not out of the ordinary.

“Oh? What is it? Can she go home soon?” I said.

“Evidently, she had a heart attack,” my Mom said.

“She had WHAT?”

“About a week ago.”

“A wee –?” I was bewildered. I had just seen her two days ago, careening down Smithfield Street in her smart violet overcoat and matching pillbox hat, an octogenarian bowling pin tottering but refusing to fall on her purposeful way to lunch with a friend.

“It seems,” my mother said with a worried huff, “that she has been walking around with chest pain for a week. And once she couldn’t stand it anymore, she went in, and they determined she had had a mild myocardial infarction.”

She recovered. She came back. She continued to walk from her apartment at Fifth and Craig along Bellefield to the Carnegie Library. She rarely complained. She met my wife, then my fiance, and they got on famously. She may have been bothered by niggling health concerns, modernity rushing rudely by, the weather, cinnamon (she just…turned on it one day), any number of things. But Gogo never stopped smiling at me. When she died in 1994, it was at the end of about three months of mental decline. Before that, she was as sharp as the crystal blueness of her gentle eyes. And here was I, in the throes of young marriage and professional life, overweight, looking for my path out of unfulfilling lawyerhood…when she went, it felt like I was lunging after days and hours that were once so substantial, but now vanished around my grasping fingers like smoke.

Fortunately, I remember it all.

There are some people you miss every day, even if you don’t say the sentence “I miss ______” in your head. I miss my late brother, for sure; he died far too young and with so much potential unspent. But Gogo’s absence dug a hole too, even with the knowledge that she had a full life, past 90 — not without trials, but also not without joy. I miss her even on the days I don’t say it to myself, in my head.

Likely because I hear it every day in my heart.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

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My Kind of Strip Joint

If you have visited this space before, you probably know of my affection for my hometown of Pittsburgh. You may also know of my allegiance to an unassuming Italian grocery there called Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. — Penn Mac to its friends, which means everybody.

Why this fierce loyalty? Because Penn Mac is Pittsburgh foodie HEAVEN, that’s why. They got St. Peter right outside the ga–…door, that’s how I know. O.K., I’m not sure his name is Pete. And he’s the guy who puts the flowers outside. And he’s not always there. Look, just trust me.

Promised Land on Penn Avenue

Promised Land on Penn Avenue

All the Pittsburgh people reading this got up at the beginning of the last paragraph to get a beer. They already know this stuff. When they come back, they’ll nod their heads, because they understand that Penn Mac is one of the best places in the Strip District. Just northeast of downtown in the strip formed by Smallman Street, Penn Avenue and Liberty Avenue, gridded by the cross-streets from about 16th (where the bridge comes over) to about 23rd, the Strip was and remains one of the city’s key wholesale depots for produce, flowers, meats, fish, and other good stuff. Pittsburghers discovered decades ago that if you come down early an’ don’t act like a jag-off an’ ‘at, you too can find the best foods in the world.

Everyone has their favorite Strip places, and Penn Mac is mine. The big, wide wooden door, painted Tuscan red, opens onto worn hardwood floors and the smell of fresh-baked bread. Spices in everything from cups to casks await, along with barrels of bulk pistachios, almonds, and a thousand other goodies. Our pilgrimages here have infused my son with a sense of mission. While my wife and I debate about whether to head left to cheeses or right to pasta, he heads straight for the back and grabs the crustiest loaf of bread he can find. No point letting adult indecision freeze you out of the buon panna.

But Penn Mac is a no-rush place. So much to look at…we do head right eventually, where we can find the shapes of pasta we can’t get in Florida: campanelle, pappardelle, those little round things from Fusco with the rippled edges nobody seems to know the name of but they hold the sauce like a miser holds a penny.

The Cheese Room. There's olives and meat too, but they're guests of the cheese.

The Cheese Room. There’s olives and meat too, but they’re guests of the cheese.

And the Cheese Room…long, bright, glass-windowed onto Penn Avenue. They got cheeses in here you haven’t thought of yet. Cheeses from all over the world try to get here. It’s the Olympics of cheese. There’s an enormous, non-electronic, wax-penciled tote board with names and names and names and prices. Here, we discover the real reason Penn Mac is a no-rush place.

“You like that Munster? You’ll wanna try this.” This is one of the Cheese Ladies, and before we can react, she has slapped a couple blocks of cheese onto the wood counter and made with the knife, offering crumbles and slices for us to taste.

“Used to live here? Aw, that’s nice,” says Cheese Lady, and between bites of Welsh Cheddar and an Alsatian brie, she knows all about my parents, my time at Duquesne, what was wrong with the 1972 Pirates and hey, maybe I do need to eat more mozzarella. Down the counter, Meat Lady works with me on her pronunciation of mortadella (flip the R; say both Ls) and we have a good laugh. Her daughter is moving down Florida; where should she live? Slicing some Genoa salami, and “I wish she wouldn’t go, but y’know there are jobs down there, an’ whattaya yinz guys think, and how often you get to visit your folks anyway? Hey, I’m gonna put on an extra slice for your Dad, you tell him it’s special, huh?”

Cheese Lady: Curds and kindness

Cheese Lady: Curds and kindness

“You tell your daughter,” I say as I take the packages over the enameled white counter, “Florida is nice. But you do give something up.”

“Whassat, hon?” (Four minute aquaintance; I’m hon.)

“Conversations like this,” I say with a grin. “I haven’t lived in Pittsburgh for more than 20 years, and I still feel like there are no strangers around here.”

“‘Less you’re a Ravens fan, hon,” she says slyly. Big laughs all around.

“Got THAT right.”

“Greet Mum ‘n’ Dad.”

Foodie Heaven? Heaven heaven.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

Photos by Adam Barr

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Hotel Room in My Hometown

It’s not that I’m unwelcome. Pittsburgh always welcomes me warmly, even though I haven’t lived there for more than 20 years. And I still like to visit.

But what could feel more odd than checking into a hotel room in the city that was home for so many years?

My Mom and Dad, 86 and 89 respectively, now live in a nursing home in the South Hills of Pittsburgh. More than 10 years ago, they sold the house I grew up in with my two brothers. They moved into a condo not far away, a place I never liked much, but it was convenient. I got married in 1990 and quite coincidentally, moved to Chicago a few months later to take advantage of a career opportunity for my new bride. When I came back for visits, it was understood: I had a place to stay. I knew the smells, the creaks in the floor, where the spatulas went, and that the kitchen clock was always four minutes fast.

Be it ever so...homogenous....

Be it ever so…homogenous….

Once I was asked to come to town to give a speech to my old law school class. It was a great evening; I invited my parents (my Dad was not yet in a wheelchair). The speech went well. Part of the deal was that I would be given a room at the then-Pittsburgh Hilton, a local institution whose upper rooms looked out over Point State Park and the junction of the Monongehela and Allegheny Rivers to form the Ohio River. I dared not refuse it. I didn’t want to offend my hosts. But shaking hands with my Dad before he and my Mom went to “our” home felt dissonant. Sitting in the hotel room with a drink 20 minutes later was no more harmonious. Lavish, sure. Comfortable, yes. Proper? No.

Once it was clear that my parents would be staying in the nursing home, we all agreed it was time to sell the unoccupied condo. So…my real estate cords with my hometown were cut, probably forever.

It’s no one’s fault. I have never shed a tear. The condo, good riddance. As for the house…I loved that 1963-vintage colonial, a tight little four-bedroom affair with a working fireplace. It was perched on top of a big ridge, unsheltered from west winds that made the windows moan in winter — but unhampered in its magnificent sunset view in summer. There was a giant willow in back, so big you could sit under it and read in your own natural gazebo. From my north bedroom window I could just see, over hilltops, the red-or-blue weather light on top of the Gulf Building in downtown Pittsburgh, seven miles away.

I could dream on and on. But I don’t miss it as much as I thought I would. Maybe because it’s all engraved, not just jotted, on my memory. Still, being an out-of-towner in my town… I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to it.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

Photo by Adam Barr

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