Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Worst Superpower

Orlando Serrell was hit by a baseball when he was 10 years old, in 1979. After he recovered, he realized that he had gained a new and relatively useless, but nonetheless impressive, skill. He can, up to today, recall the weather, where he was, and what he was doing for every day since the accident.

This got me thinking about superpowers I don't desire, and particularly about a superpower I am currently trying to tame - the power to puke. It started when L. came home from NY sickly and pathetic. The day he felt fine, I woke up nauseous and pale. On the way to work, I had to pull over to throw up. I spent a total of 20 agonizing minutes swiveling in my chair and taking frequent trips to the baby blue bathroom to see if I could purge myself any further. At that point, after interacting with only two people, I decided it was time to go home. I made it without incident, but could not make it into the house before puking in an alley. I spent the rest of the day napping.

The next morning, my dad, who I hadn't seen in two days, called me on the way to work. "I'm nauseous," he said, "and M. just called me from the office to tell me that everyone there is puking."

I found this scenario worrisome, but thought that perhaps the office staff was just having a delayed reaction to the Christmas party luncheon, two days earlier. I mean, I hadn't even seen most of them for the 20 minutes I was there.

I pacified myself with these explanations until about 8 p.m., when I received a text message from C. It read, "I puked twice."

At time of posting, there have not been any further pukings. While this is consolotary on the one hand, on the other I am sad to see a superpower come and go so quickly.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

NJ’s Hidden Population Going South, For Now.

An outreach worker at a clinic remarked that you can live in Hammonton all your life, and not know just how many farms there are. They lie flat, hospital corner tucked into the NJ Pine Barrens, with neat rows of vegetables, blueberries, cranberries, turf, even. Down dirt paths, hidden in the middle of fields, or behind, or at the borders of infringing woods, or scattered amongst trucks and tractors, lie the farm camps.

They are quiet now, at the end of the season, and rapidly emptying, if not eerily abandoned already. Hammonton’s famous blueberry harvest wound down at the end of August and its cranberry and vegetable farms shut down for the winter in mid-October.

Homestead Farm, a vegetable farm, had its last work day on a Thursday and most its workers were heading south, to Florida, the following day.

“We go without knowing,” says Jose Huerfano Mejia Perez in Spanish, who still hasn’t found a contratista to take him.

The contratistas are independent or farm-sent contractors that find workers, transport them, and are often responsible for managing them at the farm, as well. In theory, they are supposed to be registered and certified in compliance with the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, but in practice they are often no more than a man with a van bearing legitimate plates. It is the contratistas, too, that are responsible for checking the legality of workers’ papers and work status, but this technicality also falls by the wayside.

The wayside is littered with unmentionables.

At Homestead, for example, bathrooms consist of two porter potties for the 28 men living in the two trailers and little kitchen house, at time of first interview. Porter potties are often used in the field, where regulations also require such facilities, but, says a lawyer who heads a legal rights project for workers but did not want to be named, using them at camps is a way to sort of provide required facilities without spending the effort or money. Sometimes, porter potties are brought in instead of fixing broken extant bathrooms, a common problem for Hammonton’s off-grid septic systems. Jessica Culley, from the Farmworker Support Committee (CATA), explains that many farmers will wait to get an official incompliance notice from the County Health Department or Department of Labor inspectors before investing the effort to fix problems, even if they were already aware of them.

At Homestead, too, there is running water, but it is housed in a different building than the workers and the facilities are limited. The one washing machine is occupied non-stop and clothes always hang on the lines outside of the locked up kitchen. Pickers make about $60 per 10-hour work day, well bellow NJ’s minimum wage, which they should at least be getting, by law. Some men also complain about the food; they are served three meals per day and the kitchen kept under lock otherwise, but they say that it’s not enough to sustain them for the duration of the vigorous work day and the chef has a heavy hand when it comes to hot sauce, making meals inedible for some.

Celestino Martinez Lopez talks about his impending journey south with liminal fondness. Housing there is more decent, with only one or two people per room, and better sanitation facilities. “At this camp,” he also says of Homestead, “one works a lot. And they take out a good amount for insurance. For us, it’s not good, because they take out $50 for insurance and $50 for meals. That’s $100 taken out…We don’t know what [the insurance] does.” In Florida, he explains, about $20 is taken out a week, and if anything happens, that covers medicine, doctors, etc.

“Here, nothing, none of that. Here, if something happens, here, the boss doesn’t…doesn’t pay anything,” Lopez says.

Both the lawyer and Culley say that while familiar with the other mentioned problems, above, insurance payments is not one they’ve heard recently. More common, says Culley, is a group of workers signing up for paid insurance, like Aflac, without understanding what they are signing. I was not, however, able to reach Homestead’s owners for comment, and its workers left NJ. The constant migration makes any efforts to sort out problems that much harder.

Some New Jersey, and particularly Hammonton, farms have been recognized federally for their commendable treatment of their workers, which fact alone demonstrates that such sterling behavior is rather un-ubiquitary. Or its enforcement unassailable: while in the ‘70s investigative visitors to camps, like NJ assemblyman Byron Baer, were physically attacked and chased off camp grounds for peeping the squalor with ameliorating motives in mind, more recent problems with enforcement range from lack of funds for performing checks at the camps, to a lack of knowledge of their rights by the undocumented workers, with an adjoining fear of State authority, to the States’ conveniently unregulated discretion in cases of union organization attempts by migrant workers. But, Culley says, “unofficial data” reported to CATA by the Department of Labor states that the large majority of camps passed pre-season occupancy inspections. With such low standards (one toilet per every 20 workers, “twenty inches, extending from the floor to the ceiling or roof, between each bed or bunk or tier thereof,” etc.) it shouldn’t be too hard.

Homestead Farm, with its incredibly cramped but relatively neat trailers, its nice lawn, and its friendly, homey atmosphere is hardly the worst. There is a consensus by the men there that they’ve been treated well (suspicious to a journalist familiar with the sometimes oppressive politeness of Latin culture) and Mejia Perez remarks with a wistful tranquility that “there are no drunks here. Other camps have problems.”

Down the road, at Macrie Farm camp, the parking lot is full of vans and there is a group of men standing around out front on the Sunday evening I visit, Columbus Day weekend. They’re all in their early 20s, except Miguel Angel Ropoca Bravo, who is 42. He laughs shyly when asked if he acts as the de facto father figure of the house and admits that he serves as the designated liaison between the men at Macrie and the community clinic that serves the workers.

“This camp has good conditions,” Ropoca Bravo says from the edge of the activity. He says that he’s never been present for the State’s camp inspections, since they happen during the day while they are out in the field, but he knows that they’ve happened during this past season.

He is staying for the winter, along with some of the other men there. Macrie camp’s boarders do not work exclusively for Macrie Farm, rather, they are often recruited by other farms and nurseries in the area, especially during the slow, winter season.

“There are many people that work only for the seasons. They go to Florida, when the season ends, they come up here. They’re not stable people, so to say, that establish themselves here. The way I see it, it’s better to be stable. It’s only 8 hours [of work a day], but they’re secure. And if I go elsewhere, and don’t know anyone there, it’s hard to find work. Here, we don’t pay rent, don’t pay water, don’t pay light. And so, I feel calm,” says Ropoca Bravo.

Inside, beds stand in rows, without any attempts at even curtained partitions, in one large room. Some men are already sleeping, but the light is on and outside, they are playing music. Most of them are a little tipsy and the yard behind the house is littered with a voluminous display of beer cans, strewn around a trash can as if it had volcanically erupted, spewing aluminum cans. Around 8 pm, a white van pulls up and makes a few circles in the yard, beeping like a banshee in the quiet woods; men come out to purchase tacos, tamales, sodas.

With the end of the season looming like a precipice, most still don’t have solid plans. Excluding the few who stay, the most detailed answer given about what happens next is, simply, “Florida.” And despite Lopez’s border-line utopian description of Florida camps, all over the U.S., the biggest factor in the correctness of an agricultural work camp seems to depend on little more than the correctness of the proprietary farmer. There are so many stops along a migrant worker’s way that could lead him or her to somewhere relatively worse – an unfair contratista with unreasonable rates and meager contacts, a poorly kept camp and/or working conditions at the end of the trip, not enough work, problems with INS for undocumented workers, etc. – that staying in a bearable place, once found, almost seems preferable, even if less profitable and hardly ideal.

But Lopez, for whom this is the sixth year in the U.S., says, “Each year, if it’s not good here, you go to another place, over there.”

The grass is sometimes greener “over there.” And it needs cutting.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Philly [the adjective] Schools

Philly when used as an adjective, particularly as in Philly school, brings on a dirty, unpalatable texture, weighing down school as if with a fetid, boggy layer of inward and outward doom. When I started working for a school picture company, photographers in the office threw around “Philly school” as if it was the F-bomb, ending tails of horrific work days with, “It was a Philly school.” to knowing nods from fellow shooters.

At first, I relegated this to the fact that few seemed to be from or living in Philly proper; not only did they talk about disliking even “going into the city,” but they also didn’t seem to possess that special oomph of endearing and rude aggressiveness and poise that would make them functional in this particular town. They can’t handle a little attitude, I thought.

They started out sending me to suburban elementary and middle schools, in Lower Merion, a bit past the Main Line, in Doylestown, etc. I arrived, without fail, to sprawling buildings with polished floors, lotion in the private ladies’ bathrooms, unbarred, clean windows, and, most noticeably, young bombshell teachers and happy, well behaved children. When, weeks later, my boss started sending me to Philly schools, it was like being downgraded to the crap class, where one has to run behind the train instead of sitting inside of it.

It was familiar, because, after all, I had attended Philly public schools for a good, painful, long while. But with this new reference frame, the suburban school, these old building looked even more haggard and their children and teachers even more tragic.

The problem is this: Pennsylvania funds its schools in one of the most blatantly unbalanced and ungracious manners in the country. It’s so bad that in 1998 the Philadelphia School District and the city of Philadelphia actually sued the state in a civil rights suit, claiming that the state’s funding practices were glaringly discriminatory against districts with large numbers of non-white [read: poor] students. PA does this by making up only 36% of the districts’ budget with state funds, one of the lowest rates in the entire U.S., and relying heavily, 44% heavy, on property taxes to fill in the woeful budget. In areas where residents have money this works out fine and there is a ring of suburbs choking Philadelphia where districts are actually funded not just sufficiently, but extravagantly. Meanwhile, poorer districts are perpetually underfunded. When you consider that in PA the richest district is 84 times wealthier than the poorest district, you can start to imagine the great gradation of quality, like a slowly creeping shadow, that moves steadfastly towards poorer areas until it envelops them in its metaphorical darkness completely.

My schools weren’t terrible; I attended Anne Frank and Comly in the Northeast, Baldi for middle school and the oft-commended magnet, Masterman, for high school. Masterman, which consistently ranks as the city’s best public school and even makes national lists of top 100 schools, remains polemic to me; I was psyched to be downtown, my classmates were mostly smart and interesting and I had a few great teaches. But I also had classes without teachers, where permanent substitutes entertained us with their life stories, tales of meeting men on vegan message boards, asked roomfuls of bored teenagers for advice, or assigned silent reading as a substitute for actual teaching, while brooding over yet another failed law board exam up front. There were teachers who were intelligent and informed on their subject but absolutely incapable of leading an actual class, and the strange reverse of that, as well. The shortage of smart teachers, of teachers good at teaching, and the holy grail of the combination of the two, along with a healthy lack of decent text books and resources in the supposedly best school in the city are telling of the environment in the rest of the schools.

As a photographer, I do not enter classrooms. I interact with the kids and their teachers in the auditorium, and although this probably brings in a different element to student-teacher interactions and student behavior, I believe it is still telling.

There are consistencies in the wealthier and poorer schools, for example.

In the suburbs, teachers sing to their younger classes. With older students, teachers are cordial and trusting, often counting on them to return to class alone. While waiting, students are chatty but do not yell, polite without the city schools’ seemingly authoritarian enforced use of “Miss” and “Sir” towards any figure with power, which often happens to be their white teacher. Teachers seem eager to get the kids back to class. In some schools, teachers address students as “friends” (as in, “Ok friends, let’s all line up.”) and rarely raise their voices for extended periods. One of the most amazing things I witnessed, while packing my gear, in a suburban school, was an assembly. Each grade greeted the rest of the school in a choral hello, and then chosen students did presentations of what they were learning in their classes, both as a way to formally exhibit their progress and ostensibly to tease, constructively, kids coming into that grade in upcoming years, who will get their chance to perform such exciting exercises. At the end, the entire school, close to 500 kids and their teachers, did the chicken dance together. I, sadly, imagined the headlines if this were to ever happen in a Philly elementary school: Children Trampled in Tragic Chicken Dance.

In Philly schools, picture day is louder, more disorganized, uncomfortably chaotic. Teachers bring their students and keep them, or at least try, in strict lines. They yell at their students, not with any sort of escalation, but explosively, from the child’s first offense. Younger kids are often physically manipulated, instead of vocally instructed, shoved into the lines, pulled by sleeves to come here or there. A co-worker told me about a teacher that beat a kindergarten student for taking off his dress shirt without even talking to him about it first. With older kids, it is normal to see teachers chase them around to get them back in their seats or lines, or, alternatively, to see resigned teachers that let their charges do as they will; the kids run around, hitting each other, flirting, yelling, teasing. The return to class is often delayed for elusive, to me, reasons. Kids roll their eyes at me more often, decline my requests to smile for the camera, and boys, without fail, try to throw some Ds on the admittedly lame pose with peace signs and gangsta chin strokes. Philadelphia public school students wear uniforms. Younger kids are taught to respond to rhythmic clapping, quieting down and clapping along with the teacher, instead of instructions. Classes are larger, buildings are older, dirtier, sometimes with the music teacher tucked behind the curtains of the auditorium stage. At one school a teacher refused to let her first grade class get their pictures takes because the six year olds were supposedly misbehaving that badly (they weren’t).

I am describing here an ambiance. But performance levels between the two can be found in statistics and it’s clear that Philly’s ambiance translates to its students’ success – it’s limited. Both state and federal government, however, seem to tell us that just because funding is limited, success shouldn’t be, and Bush’s No Child Left Behind mandates testing for State-set standards blind to State-wide inequalities. Not that poorer schools should strive towards lower goals, but it seems ridiculous to even half-heartedly demand equal scores and reward the ones that do well. Jonathan Kozol writes, “There is something deeply hypocritical about a society that holds an eight-year-old inner-city child "accountable" for her performance on a high-stakes standardized exam but does not hold the high officials of our government accountable for robbing her of what they gave their own kids six or seven years earlier.”

In July, the PA’s state legislature passed a budget developed on a new formula for funding the state’s schools. The budget guarantees a minimum 3% budget increase from the state, and a possible further increase that depends on factors like the district’s poverty level, size, number of English learners, and regional cost differences. And Barack Obama, upon entering office, has vowed to reform NCLB, invest in early education programs and build a new “teacher army.” That all sounds promising in a liminal, vague kind of way, but meanwhile it looks like the Obamas are going to send their daughters to a private school and the Philly school will remain in stigmatized italics.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Oh Phillies! Fires in Hearts and Streets

I can get down with most mass demonstrations of the emotional mien; admittedly, not always in a particularly participatory manner, but at the least as an affectionate observer. I've gone to protests, demonstrations, shows, and massive street celebrations where my innards were infused with a sudden incomprehensible appreciation for the human spirit and I wandered, dumbly humble to the humanoid crowds and all of their synchronized excitement. It is nebulously reassuring to me that I can still find momentary but tender comfort from standing shoulder to shoulder with many strangers under a live, electric net of limbic resonance and be able to shock myself with it by reaching out just a little.

But just this past week, something went wrong.

Philadelphia had been quivering with the anticipation of the World Series, and when the Phillies finally won on Wednesday, the city, quite simply, exploded. Broad Street was ignited with campfires, fed by paper thrown from the tops of office buildings. Cars were flipped over or, alternatively, beaten with fervor and attention to detail into unrecognizable states. The windows of banks and stores were broken with stones, a newspaper distribution box and who knows what else. Dumpsters were set on fire. Giant planters were overturned and their trees and bushes paraded through the crowds until they were leafless, bare-bone branches dancing atop heads. Flying bottles, fruits, fireworks and high-fives were rampant. Every surface, even the vertical ones, was teeming with red capped bodies. There were 76 arrests throughout the night but, as local news sources liked to mention, no homicides; while this is good news, it’s sad that it needs announcing at all. The night was predictably rounded out by misbehaving cops trying to disperse the misbehaving hoards.

But I couldn’t get psyched for the games and I couldn’t get psyched for the riots. I rode my bike down to Broad feeling besieged by the stampede of honking vehicles, had my back wheel bent up in the festivities, and rode home (after my brother saved the day!) on trash strewn streets with high fives still flying at my face. How is it that I didn’t even get tipsy on the glory when everyone else was positively wasted?

I also wonder, did it ever stop being about the Phillies? Did the hysteria on Broad Street ever tip past the “We’re celebrating a sports event!!” status to an engulfing, adrenaline infused party where revelers were fucking shit up just because energy was so high, because they could, because it was already on fire, because the net was sending sparks that ignited? Or was it all, earnestly, about the Phillies? I have a feeling it was the latter, in which case I stand in awe of Philadelphia’s capacity to wreak havoc to show they care and to, well, care.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

I don't

I find myself surrounded by women planning their weddings; women incessantly leafing through wedding industry magazines and discussing such details as the color of the flowers (satin orange, vanilla cream, lilac dream), the color of their dresses (white, champagne, ivory), the date (two years from now, but the date is already set), their budget (in the tens of thousands (and these are not wealthy women by any means)).

This is not going to be a rant by an unmarried woman jealous of their fairytale parties and flurry of meticulous planning. This is going to be a rhetorical, inquisitive, rechauffe by a jaded lady with limited experience in these desires and the finite quest to fulfill them. These ladies make me worried that I am not enough concerned about my conjugal future, or at least its initiation ceremony, and so, I am trying to make amends to my disinterest.

About a year ago I was looking for photo assisting jobs with Philly's somewhat quantitatively lacking, hiring photographers. I came upon a website where a wedding photographer wrote to his excitable clientele the following, indirectly quoted, entreaty: Your wedding day is going to be the best and most memorable of your marriage. It won't be as good from hence forth, so hire the best and you can at least remember the good times by leafing through your wedding photo album. (I'm not rewording in order to exaggerate, rather, because I can't find the website.)

Was the gentleman's depressing sales pitch telling it how it is? Is the wedding day the lead zeppelin of a convivial future, gleaming so pretty in the sky for that one moment only to fall to the dull ground? Does it set a tone? They're not exactly maidens dressed in their ivory gowns, dancing pretty before succumbing to the dirty fate of womanhood, the couples meeting each other for the first time and having their inaugural quivering in bed at the end of the festivities. Chances are, they already live together, know each others' families, how to make each other cum fast and slow, and how they like their pants folded. Chances are, they'll fight planning it. What is the big deal?

If I get married one day, I'll probably have a party. It will be in someone's backyard and I'll likely have more kegs than flower arrangements. If friends and parents shower us with money on that fine day, we will probably take it and fly far, to not return for some time. It seems silly, to me, to spend so much on a party to then not be able to afford an extra two days on the honeymoon, making it a full week (a week!), like someone at my work just did. This, however, is not the point.

The point is, weddings are rampant. Lasting marriages, not so much. In putting all of one's hopes, dreams, and efforts into a ceremony, are they also investing in their relationship? Who is the showiness and formality for? What is it that they really get out of it? I'm also curious, what's the morning after the party like? Some of these productions seem too unreal to even have a morning [ever] after.

Monday, October 20, 2008

West Virginia - Dolly Sods

Dolly [after the German Dahle family, who farmed the land and used it for their sheep to graze upon] Sod [1. a section cut or torn from the surface of grassland, containing the matted roots of grass. 2. the surface of the ground, esp. when covered with grass; turf; sward. 3. sodomite; homosexual. 4. chap; fellow; guy. 5. child; kid; brat. 6. to damn: Sod the bloody bastard! ]

The sun sat upon the red leaves of the huckleberries in a rather unspectacular manner, except when it hit them at the right angle, when it shone through them as if they were thin, veinous membranes, alighting them in a lambent red glow that spread over entire fields. One couple was unimpressed; they drove up to the lookout, remarked that 'there wasn't even anything to take a picture of,' and drove back down in their miserable car. Well, sod them! There was plenty to take a picture of and plenty more to revel in without pictures. There was a ubiquitous, lithe silence, crisp mornings in a soggy tent, raging camp fires that in shyly bewildering winds threatened to besiege whole, blond fields, forest floors covered in key lime colored ferns, and fields, fields littered with trees and covered by wind-swept grasses, all poised in an undomineering quietude...

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Monday, October 6, 2008

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Persistent Mediocrity

Hallelujah, I'm employed. Oh yes, I've taken the job that I refused to take exactly one year ago, citing something about freelancing glory and not making plaintive allowances to my bills, my interests or my way.

I work for a certain national company that takes school photos. I can't say which because, in fact, it explicitly says in one of my many color coded handbooks that I cannot blog about them, unless I am prepared to field their wrath.

My job is this: Wake up before sunrise, dress and tuck in my emblazoned polo shirt, take out my lip ring, leave before the coffee shop opens, drive drive drive, arrive in a nice school that makes my alma mater, Masterman, look like a litter box of undesirables, set up my equipment along dotted lines and color-coded, idiot proof guidelines, take photos of kids, jump around so they smile, make sarcastic remarks at eighth graders so they don't punch me with their pimply faces, pack up, make nice with the hovering administration, drive back a) home, where I have to spend two hours recovering from hating my life or b) to the office, where my paper work is checked by senior photographers, a process that makes me hate my life a little more.

Training for this job took two weeks; two entire weeks of assembling and disassembling color-coded, marked and practically Archimidean, self-constructing sets and practicing posing. Lean in for me, yes, just like that, now sit up tall, ok, turn this way just a tad, great, now tilt your stupid head just a nibble and give me a big toothy smile. Great, your ma is sure gonna like that one, you cute, little bastard.

At the end of training there was a luncheon. The main manager, G-, was to come sermonize to us about our bright new futures. "You'll recognize her when she comes in," everyone had said. G- walked into the firehouse wearing high heels and an elegant suit jacket.

After she thoroughly welcomed us to the company, she lectured us a rechauffe, in a restrained manager voice, in passive aggressive rigidity. This season’s motto is Zero Tolerance for Negativity in this Zone, she said. Along with the help of enlisted lower managers and long-time photographers, she talked to a fire hall full of underpaid employees in unbeauteous polo shirts about making it, introducing yet another motto in her speech, Success Is What you Make It . Interestingly, she also mentioned an alternate, darker mantra, not officially written on the cake as the others, We’re All In This Together.

There seemed to be genuine enthusiasm among the more established employees, those beckoned to the front of the room to receive their 5, 10, 15 year rings, trophies like anchors, and the others in their in between years, killicked but not berthed, sitting attentively at their tables. They were psyched about the catered meatballs, the chance to sit at large round tables instead of behind small, cubicle-enclosed desks, the promise of more sales and more yearbooks and a fall photographing season that would no doubt inaugurate that bright, new future G- was preaching, giving an early morning birth to a photogenic hereafter.

I sat at a table with some of the other new photographers, a small conglomeration of the more disgruntled and jaded hatchlings. It was comforting to know that my horror wasn’t singular, my shock at the blatant power play and demeaning slogans not my own snobbery and a lucky lack of previous experience in real, corporate America.

G- had clearly gone through intricate managerial training, where she took extensive notes on the fine art of making people feel appreciated and irreplaceable. She remembered everyone’s names after our introductions, for example, and used them unabashedly. I had stood up and said, “My name is Irina, and I am a new photographer.” “An appreciated photographer,” she corrected. Then, she proceeded to ask questions, a sort of pop quiz review of the slogans and goals and technicalities of the company and the job entailed. She called on people to answer, using their names, and when they answered correctly she pointed her manicured nail in their direction and a man with a stack of crisp bills rushed over to the recognized employee and handed them a $5 bill. There were $10 dollar questions too, after which the room swelled with a covetous excitement and hands shot up faster to answer the next question. She would wait, composed, until the masses settled down and then pop a $15 question.

My table slowly emptied out. I voluntarily stayed, taking notes on this strange scene that I had only previously seen in satirical sketches.

I wonder why they stay. When I talk to people separately now, they readily admit the shortcomings of this company/job (although still with a fair amount less of disdain and, let’s face it, haughtiness than yours truly). Is it the convenience? The company’s willingness to tolerate everyone as long as they tolerate the company? A sense of security? Or is it all ok – am I overreacting to a reality that I simply have not been exposed to before, gaping ignorantly at a norm that I just haven’t had? I grow vicariously weary at the thought of that. Not so weary, I hope, that I stay.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Pittsburgh, ye glorious!

Pittsburgh is Philadelphia's cleaner, hillier, more industrial, more bridge bedazzled cousin, unfortunately located in western Pennsylvania, hours away from, some may say, anything desirable. It's closer to Ohio than it is to the ocean, and to me, that's not geographically admirable in any way. But Places Rated Almanac rated it the #1 most livable city in 2007; the same year, it rated Philadelphia #5, so honestly I don't know if it's much to go on. While I love Philadelphia dearly, much like I love my mephitic mutt, I sincerely hope our nation can do better.

Anyway, I went west and here is what I saw:

The first night we camped an hour outside of Pittsburgh, in Laurel Hill State Park. Upon arrival, we discovered that our borrowed, gargantuan tent came with an alarm clock and a room-separator-fly, but no rain fly. We also discovered that it had rained earlier and ended up sitting by a waning, sizzling fire. It was awfully pretty that night.

We awoke to a soft, gray morning and a drizzle that was quickly turning into rain. We packed and fled to The Quiet Storm Cafe , where I had the incredible Magic Snake (cheesy) sandwich and checked out locals' bike legs. The hills and staircases of Pittsburgh remind me of those of Valparaiso, only considerably better paved, so I resolved to bring my bike next time. But driving around, we got to see how green it is, neighborhoods poking out of vast and climbing vegetation-covered slopes.

We went to Braddock, right outside of Pittsburgh, on the Monongahela River. It's a depressed town that rises onto crooked hills from Braddock Ave and creeps with broken houses - porches and windows and slanting walls lying in dejected and somnolent heaps, weighed down with stinking furniture and scattered pasts. It's also home to the still functioning Monongahela Valley Works, Edgar Thomson Plant Steel Mill - Carnegie's first, in 1873. Lately, Braddock's bad ass mayor has been trying to gentrify the town to the best of his abilities and to bring in new folks who can appreciate the cheap land and houses and perhaps even revel in the industrial wonderland that surrounds that town. It's not surprising, of course, that the punks are biting then. But so are others, leading to phantasmagorical scenery, like, say, an organic farm with the mill towering in the background.

At some point we made it to The Church Brew Works. This is not just a brewery installed in a defunct church - this is a brewery that put the brew kettles on the altar, and painted angels with pint glasses in the stations of the cross. This is a brewery that made the most amazing beer I've ever had, a coconut stout that was so light and silky and so perfectly tinged with coconut that I might have prayed a little on the way out.

And then Gooski's (3117 Brereton St).

And then there was Zenith. Color-coded, well-dusted antique shop, tucked yet spacious dining room in back, plant-protected windows, goblet-set tables, vegetarian and vegan delights, an entire table set with pies and cakes. Too bad the food wasn't too exciting (although I hear it's not always bad, perhaps we came on bad day?) because otherwise I may have grannynapped the little old lady who must, inevitably, be responsible for this extravagant buffet. She must have been sitting in a back room, where servers took unpriced items to be blessed and valued. Their website says, "Eat where your seat could literally be sold out from under you," but it so happened that the one thing I wanted to purchase was not for sale. The bestest part of this best place was it's bathroom. Its walls are painted a super-saturated cobalt blue and lined with hundreds of owls. They're there to watch and make sure you're not doing anything naughty in the john.

Afterwards, we did some fancy sneaking around and went to the Carrie Furnace, closed in 1982. It's incredibly rusted but also incredibly intact. There are swinging doors, and stream stoppers, and oil still wheezing and bubbling through minuscule holes in the piping. They're planning to build a museum on the grounds, I think?

So, Pittsburgh. If it wasn't so miserably isolated out there I'd be moving there in a minute. But alas, #5 will have to do for now.