Friday, December 22, 2006


Dead ladybugs keep showing up in unlikely places in my office; bookshelves I didn't think they could get to. I always find them upside down.

The squirrels were undaunted by the steady drizzle today. I would run into them under naked bushes, feasting away on an acorn held in two hands. Another one was digging furiously. They didn't get scared off when I walked by; two even met my eyes directly.

A flattened dead pigeon on the sidewalk had the 2-D appearance of a flamingo's neck with a turkey's body. The flamingo pink was the skin of a wing whose feathers had been trampled by steady pedestrians. This was in front of the Mellon Center, one of the ugliest and most oppressive buildings I've ever seen.

Speaking of turkeys, the wild turkeys have not been spotted for a few months now, by me anyhow. There was the time in September that the sight of them scared me, they looked so much like dinosaurs. Just pecking around the grounds of M_____ Hall, right there on Bouquet Street when I was coming back from the Post Office. I stopped dead in my tracks. I don't think I've seen anything that surprising since I watched the second tower go down on live television, that old black and white set my roommate found on Manhattan Avenue.

The two brick apartment buildings on the Murray Avenue end of Hobart Street birthed another litter of feral kittens recently. The old ones were black and white and stand-offish; they'd sit on the highest steps and run away or stare at you through slitted eyes if you dared to call or move closer. The new litter is white-calico and needy: They came running from every direction to me, from the steps and from various hiding places in the flora and fauna.

Back at home, Spooky peed the rug for the fivehundredth time, then slept soundly in front of the radiator. Weetzie Bat looked dissatisfied, but raised her ass high when her flanks were patted.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


In my office, I work with my back to the window. Just now I turned around and saw something I’ve never seen in life before, only in the darkroom: the light was trying to take over the picture.

The sky has been hazy all day, though “hazy” doesn’t describe the mood. I woke this morning to find a pink fog had settled into the gorge below my seventh story window, distinct and barely perceptible at the same time. But just now the white sky above Squirrel Hill (the hill not the neighborhood)--a sky of diffuse, post-foggy-morning light--is trying to eat the whole view. The light is hiding things rather than revealing them: I can’t see the tree branches on the top ridge of the hill where they meet the sky, the reflection coming off one rowhouse roof is brilliant-white, blinding me. The tiniest tree branches closer to me have become light, as have the electric lines. The newest and ugliest buildings are lower contrast, less noticeable than usual.

I’m reminded of my earliest days in photography, working with hopelessly overexposed shots I nonetheless was determined to print to my liking, because I had been there, on that day, because I liked that composition, because I wanted that record of my angle of witness. But those skies never budged, not without minutes of exposure under the enlarger, sending the rest of the scene into blackened oblivion; those skies over train tracks, over low mountains, over four-story brick buildings; those skies of silver, dense and stubborn on the negative.

Labels: , ,

Monday, December 18, 2006


I’m in one of those canvas mail carts: a kind of dolly with four sides, an open top, a wooden floor, and four wheels. I’m sitting on a package and I can barely see over the side. Someone is pushing me; we’re going under an elevated highway, the BQE or 279 over Sandusky Street. He’s male but I can’t make out his face. Suddenly he’s not there anymore. I wonder how I’m going to propel myself; I imagine that if I had a paddle I’d be alright. But next thing I know I’m traveling west on 42nd street among a fleet of yellow cabs. The cabs push me along at just the right speed. I fail to wonder what will happen when we get closer to the Hudson, but anyway 42nd Street lasts forever, or until I wake up.

Friday, December 15, 2006


Saturday I headed to a Christmas party in West Mifflin, by way of Munhall. I knew I’d never been to West Mifflin, but I thought I’d been to Munhall before, and technically I had. My favorite donut shop is on 8th Avenue in Munhall; if you follow 8th Avenue from Homestead, the road makes a curve and somewhere after the curve you look up at the street signs and they say Borough of Munhall. The donut shop is pristine and many decades old, with display cases of glass and wood, a tiled floor, and a formica counter. It’s not big enough to have a U-shaped penisular counter like the donut shop on 8th Avenue and 23rd Street (Manhattan, not Homestead) or the one on Manhattan Avenue (Brooklyn, not Manhattan), although they’ll serve you coffee or Lipton tea in the same type of coffee cup, the two-piece kind with one paper cup inside a plastic holder complete with handle. No, Munhall has only two slabs of counter, at a right angle to each other. They have three kinds of cinnamon rolls, chocolate or coconut or blueberry cake or jelly-filled or any number of other kinds of donuts, nutrolls for which they are known, and pies for only $4.69 though at the holidays please order early. Day old goods are half price.

But I’d never been to the Munhall around the corner. At McClure Street, before you reach the bakery, the 53F turns up the hill and then turns parallel to 8th Avenue but turns up again at West Street and just keeps going up and up. Is it a small mountain or a big hill? I wouldn’t have predicted such a height from what I could see from the flats of 8th Avenue. The bus went up West Street and then turned onto Main, up past the gas station, up past the huge cemetery I didn’t know was there, up past Fran’s School of Dance, up past the Munhall Boro Fire Department, up past the Hair Cottage and Carmine’s Barber Shop, up past the pharmacy, up past the funeral home, up past the corner bars, up past lawns decorated with signs for Steelers Country or vinyl Santas or lights in the shape of Reindeer, up and up into the Western Pennsylvania sky which was cold and clear and blue.

I got off at the corner of C___ and M________ Avenues, now in West Mifflin and firmly inside a residential neighborhood of compact brick and cinder-block post-war homes. They were not at all identical, but the further I walked up the hill (for the end of the bus line was still a good ten minute walk from my destination), the more identical they felt. They had varying details, mostly in terms of the front porches--a porch or no porch, a porch that covered the whole width of the facade or half, if half which direction did it extend from the front door, right or left, was the porch glassed in or open.

There were no sidewalks here but there was no traffic, either. For a moment I noticed the emptiness of people and the complete silence. Then behind the silence I heard the noisy chatter of the birds, gathered in a laughing party in a tree in some backyard. I followed the noise, and peeked behind a house to see could I see them, but the birds eluded my view. I became briefly mesmerized trying to decide whether a backyard deer was real or a convincing statue, when a brown-haired lady came out onto her porch and said, “Did you want to cut through?” Her tone sounded kind of stern, but then she seemed really lonely to me. And I thought, if I saw a pedestrian in such a quiet neighborhood, I’d talk to them from my porch, too.

A few more houses up the hill and the vista beyond started to command my attention. I realized that in between the houses I could see to rolling blue mountains stretching out wide when I looked either to the south or north. I felt like I was on the highest peak for miles around. Far below, I could see the hospital complexes of Oakland and U.S. Steel headquarters downtown, but from this height anything manmade looked very small and a little silly.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


Pittsburgh precipitation doesn’t fall subject to the laws of gravity. No, as Thomas likes to say, we’re in sort of a weather bowl up here, something to do with being a valley of hills among mountains, and we catch all sorts of air currents that look nothing like life at sea level.

Friday there was a snow squall in late morning, and the view out my office window looked like a glittery snow globe. The fine, dry snow flakes flying every direction, in nonsensical circles more than any one line, catching glints of the soft-bright sunlight as they did so.

I found myself marveling at the quality of the light shining through the clouds—the clouds soft white, edged with hints of pale blue, yellow, and pink. A three dimensional sky--no, three dimensional clouds, there was no “sky” behind them to contrast, only this soft, beatific pink-yellow light passing through them, bathing the street below. I wondered about such a light, as I have a few times these past months, is it so bright because Pittsburgh is closer to the sun? I remember my childhood with the humid Virginia haze, the flat white sky; even sickly blue with some cirrus clouds seemed unusual back then. We concerned ourselves with creeks and basements and cul-de-sacs instead.

In Texas, I walked around in awe. The wide, wide, Technicolor blue sky! Puffy white white clouds against 2-D blue like only Hollywood could offer. Something about that clear blue sky and the word Texas and the number of navy blue Cadillacs on Guadalupe made me laugh, made me walk back from some job-training seminar (north of my usual haunts) the Airport Boulevard way wearing a flannel shirt and my leather jacket in the summer sun, because the sky was so very clear and the cotton flannel was so clean and there were no sidewalks only gravel and no pedestrians only me, so I laughed and I didn’t mind sweating. But I also knew that sky had capricious powers: the power to blast me with a sunburn in the space of a fifteen minute walk. Or the power of an August thunderstorm, which could blow through with little warning, rattle the wooden houses to their shingles, and leave huge trees felled in the Austin streets.

Labels: ,

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Guide to Understanding the Pittsburgh Bus System:

You pay when you get on if the bus is going TOWARD downtown. You pay when you get off if the bus is going AWAY from downtown. You pay when you get on if the bus is not going through downtown at all like the 64A, or if the bus has a U in the title like the 59U. You pay when you get on any bus if it is after 7:00 pm. If you need a transfer, get it when you pay your fare.

You pay for the bus if you are a temp worker or a food worker or a sex worker or a zoo keeper or a bookkeeper or a barkeep or a docent or self employed. You don’t pay if you work for the University of Pittsburgh or Carnegie Mellon or can prove you are on your way to public school or that you are over 65 years old except between 4:30 and 5:30pm. Your parents pay for your bus fare if you are a student of these schools and it’s called an Activity Fee. If you are paying for the bus, a transfer will cost you fifty cents extra or half that if you are between the ages of six and eleven.

Each bus route has a pamphlet with a map and a timetable, and most pamphlets contain two or three overlapping bus routes. Stand in the cold wind and unfurl your pamphlet if you have the right one on your person, check and see if it tells you when the next bus is coming; if it’s a weekend and your destination is less than an hour’s walk, don’t bother waiting in the frigid air. Be your own bus: the body circulates better when it’s in motion, and you’ll get there at about the same time.

When on a sardine-sandwich packed bus at 5:15 after a long work day after an ice storm in December in crawling stop-go traffic and the bus driver has lost her wits and keeps letting on more bodies, and a passenger in back has become vociferous and keeps yelling at the driver, and they start going back and forth, the bus driver with There’s no more busses, the passenger with There’s no more room (Miss), the bus driver with Move it to the back!, the passenger with Someone just fell out the back door, Miss! the bus driver with I’m the last bus, the passenger with I’m serious there’s no room, Miss, the bus driver who has lost her wits and lets on more and more until there are more bodies than you think you can hold your temper against, when on this bus consider whether it is possible to let go of your pride and your so-called principles, whether it is possible to let yourself out the back door of the prison that your own rigid body has become, and sway and laugh in the crush of your fellow riders.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


Saturday the birds on Murray Avenue were all a-twitter, as I stood waiting at the five-way light on the corner of Forward. A whole flock of them were buzzing inside the naked branches of a small tree, a poplar or a young oak, in the courtyard of the three-story stucco box that calls itself the Squirrel Hill Professional Building. It made the tree look alive--it didn’t seem like the birds were landing, just flying into the contours of the tree and remaining in motion. There were other birds waiting on one edge of the building’s roof, and still others on a telephone wire just next to that--but there seemed to be a certain momentum. That is, some birds (the largest flock) choosing what was THE place to be, and then capriciously choosing again, and then a group of birds filling the space they’d just left, and then another flock following them, like the domino effect if dominoes were more like magnets. So, first it was the tree, the tree in this tiny courtyard of this ugly building that I always wonder if it’s still in business, first because I’ve never noticed any activity there, and second because it seems like a precarious spot to get to from the very beginning of the parkway, considering the especial graciousness of Pittsburgh drivers. (Everyone likes to say that Pittsburgh is very nice until it gets behind the wheel of a car, and then it is an angry driver. Maybe this is how the city negotiates being part East Coast and part Midwest.)

So, first the place to be was this courtyard tree and next it was the bush in front of the Verizon Building, across Pocusset Street, which is the only sane little residential side street in this five-street pedestrian-hell light. Although I don’t want to give the wrong impression that Pocusset Street would be the place to stand at this light, no only if you lived on that street and were heading towards the movie theatre up Forward or the Korean grocer, otherwise the BP gas station corner is a better vantage point, because you’ll want to stay far away from the mouth of the parkway, and from the Pittsburgh Left. The Pittsburgh Left here will be from Murray Avenue to the parkway; thePittsburgh Left in general, I was only recently told, is a phenomenon of the city’s streets being so old and narrow. The Pittsburgh Left is this: If you have a major street like Murray that runs two lanes two ways, then it has been the agreed upon thing, if you are at the head of the line and turning left, that you should gun your car and take the unprotected left turn before the opposing line of traffic can cross your path going straight, because otherwise you will be holding up an entire line of cars behind you waiting for your left opportunity.

After the Verizon bush, the pioneer birds went back to the telephone line, now made vacant by the birds that had taken the roof edge made vacant by the birds who took the courtyard tree. But the telephone line didn’t suffice for long, and next it was on to a tree on Pocusset, and then to a tree up the hill on Phillips Avenue.

Sunday it was the same drill, but this time in the parking lot of the Giant Eagle in Greenfield. There it was the edge of a pitched roof, then a telephone wire on the north side of the parking lot, then the horizontal structure atop the telephone pole, then on the telephone lines across Lilac Street.

The pigeons that hang out on the lines in front of (east side of) Giant Eagle, the ones who shit up the sidewalk below, were not to be outdone. Though not practicing for migrating, they showed off some impressive Blue Angel formations, over the parking lot as we headed north toward home carrying plastic bags heavy with eggs, apples, bananas, juice, and a new toothbrush.