This is the fourth part of a serial travelogue entitled How I Spent My Summer Vacation, starring Artificially Sweetened (AS), Cupcake, and me, The Nittany Turkey.
This would be the day when I returned to my homeland, Western Pennsylvania, like a boomerang coming back to its hurler. I seem to never tire of visiting the land of my nativity and my formative years. Although brief, today’s tour would hit enough high points to satisfy my desire for repatriation and give Artificially Sweetened and Cupcake a good feel for where I grew up.
We had agreed upon a sleep-in for Monday morning, as I did not want to be fighting rush hour traffic in dahntahn Pittsburgh. (For those of you who are not familiar with Pittsburghese, “dahntahn” means downtown.) There really isn’t much traffic in da Burgh these days, but what little of it there is I wanted to avoid. So, we agreed to leave the hotel shortly after 9 AM. We had a pretty busy day ahead, visiting old haunts in three different Western and Central Pennsylvania cities, so we couldn’t dawdle.
Cupcake was sleepy. Having enjoyed the privacy of her own room without AS to tell her when to go to sleep, she undoubtedly spent most of the night conversing with godknowswhom on her surgically attached cell phone. She needed coffee. So did AS. Earlier, I wrote about the crankiness of a hungry AS; a coffeeless AS in the morning is an order of magnitude worse. It has to be made a certain way, too, with two packets of the eponymous substance from whence cometh her name and a dollop of half and half. With the GPS in hand, I searched for the nearest Starbuck’s and navigated the van to it. Using the drive through lane, we coffeed up. There was bound to be some calamity, but in this case it wasn’t one of us. It was the drive-through barista. As she leaned forward toward the open window, it closed and smacked her in the nose. I guess it is designed to thwart robberies, but the effect on this morning was to wake up a barista. “That thing closes too fast,” she said stoically, handing me the recycled cardboard carrier that held the three recycled paper cups. I noticed that she was quick about it this time.
As we drove away, AS complained. “I forgot that at Starbucks, ‘tall’ means small.”
“Yeah, you have to order a ‘grande’ if you want big,” I mumbled, hoping that she would make do with her small tall and I wouldn’t have to go back to Starbuck’s for a refill.
“I hate that bullshit! Oh, well,” she responded, “I guess I’ll make do.”
In a very short while, we were on West Carson Street down by the Ohio River. That was quick. As we pulled into the parking lot for the Duquesne Incline, I noticed that the former Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad tracks had been removed and the rail bed was now serving as a jogging trail.
The “inclines”, as they’re called in Western Pennsylvania with the accent on the first syllable, are cable driven cars on railroad tracks that ascend and descend steep hills. There used to be several in Pittsburgh due to its being located in a valley among three great rivers. People used to commute to work in these things, as they were faster than winding one’s way down the mountain in a street car or bus, particularly in the winter. There remain two operating inclines in Pittsburgh, and we were about to ride one of them to the top of Mt. Washington (known locally as Mt. Worshington), where there is an area called Grand View, with a grand view of the city.
We crossed over West Carson street on a relatively new pedestrian bridge, but not until I had made a special effort to point out Heinz Field (home of the Steelers) across the river. When we got to the incline’s ticket window, the attendant, who looked very much like my childhood babysitter, Mrs. Colville, asked me, “How many of yinz are there?” I knew I was in Pittsburgh.
“T’ree adults,” I replied, automatically lapsing into da lingo. She took my money and gave me a yellow slip of paper on which she had scrawled something. I was hoping it wasn’t her home phone number with a note that said, “Babysitting. Call anytime. Mrs. Colville.” But it merely had a “3” on it.
“Themz was workin on the tracks, so it might be a few minutes,” she said.
When the bell rang, we plopped down onto the wooden benches of the incline car and rode the creaky vehicle to the top. I was in a rush to show the ladies the view of the city, but they wanted to putz around looking at pictures in the station. Finally, I got them out to the grand view. I think they were impressed, as cameras came out.
I explained how the Allegheny River to the north and the Monongahela River to the south met to form the Ohio River, pointing them out as I went along. Cupcake wasn’t paying attention but AS was. At least I thought so until she asked me where the Ohio River was. Well, maybe she wasn’t paying attention after all. It was the one directly in front of us. I reiterated that the two other rivers met at the “point” where the Ohio started. Then she comprehended. (Actually, the large islands in the Ohio River had her convinced that the confluence was further downstream.) The downtown area was between the Allegheny and Monongahela on a point of land appropriately called the Golden Triangle. At its apex, on the location of first Fort Duquesne and then Fort Pitt, was Point State Park. Locals call the whole thing “the Point.” At the very tip, where the three rivers meet, is a fountain. When it is operating, it enhances the scenic value of the point, but on this day, it was dry.
Viewed from Mt. Washington, dahntahn Pittsburgh is a glorious sight. The tall buildings clustered in the Golden Triangle, the myriad bridges over all three rivers, the old, shuttered steel mills along the rivers, the coal barges, and the surrounding mountains create a Kodak moment beyond compare. We snapped many photos, both with and without our faces, followed by a tour of the museum-like upper incline station. I wanted to illustrate that Pittsburgh was not always this photogenic. I showed AS a photograph taken in the mid-1940s at 3 PM on a dahntahn street. It looked like midnight. Until Pittsburgh was cleaned up in the mid-1950s, it was filthy, and stinky clouds of polluted air from the steel mills and coke ovens hung over the city. The transformation of Pittsburgh, called the Pittsburgh Renaissance, driven by its dynamic mayor at that time, David L. Lawrence, was targeted to be substantially completed by the city’s bicentennial in 1957. I was lucky enough to witness the makeover firsthand as a young lad, and to participate in the bicentennial festivities.
I noted that “themz” was still working on the tracks, so it was a while before the bell rang. When it did, we descended without incident except that when we passed the ever vigilant Mrs. Colville, she asked, “Did yinz pay?” I showed her the yellow slip. She apologized, saying that she couldn’t remember.
Our next stop would be a restaurant and bar called Primanti Brothers’. In Pittsburghese, the “a” is pronounced as in “hat” and the “t” is slurred, so it sort of comes out like “Primannys”. Primanti’s is famous for its sandwiches, which prompted West Penn General Hospital to name their new cardiac wing after the Primanti brothers. Well, I made that up, but they should. In these culinary creations, the French fries are stuffed into the sandwiches, along with cole slaw, sliced onions, and whichever sliced meats and cheeses one orders. It was the only place I knew of that made sandwiches like that.
Primanti’s has grown from a single location in the Strip District (which used to be the produce market, but is now a trendy area) to many locations around tahn and in the suburbs. There are even a few in Florida. To make this experience as authentic as possible, I decided upon the original Strip District location on 18th Street. My father had a kitchen cabinet factory around the corner from it on Penn Avenue at 20th Street when I was a young lad. That building, originally a 19th Century glue factory, is long gone now, and a bank occupies the spot.
Before we reached the Strip District, we toured Station Square, quite by mistake (mine). I had taken a wrong turn and wound up there. So, instead of executing the original plan of using the Ft. Pitt bridge to get across the Monongahela, I took the Smithfield Street bridge. In Pittsburgh, there is always another bridge when you need one. This diversion provided a couple of unexpected benefits. First, the bridge itself is a unique lenticular truss design, which opened in 1883 and was designed by famed bridge designer of the time, Gustav Lindenthal. Next, at Fifth Avenue and Smithfield Street, the heart of downtown Pittsburgh, we passed the famous clock of the old Kaufmann’s Department Store (now Macy’s). Cupcake snapped a picture as we passed on our way to Primanti’s, finally.
We parked around the corner from the restaurant, by a crappy old warehouse. While walking up 18th Street, I checked my BlackBerry for the presence of a convenient Geocache. Yeah, of course, there was one nearby. So, we (meaning either AS or Cupcake) homed in on it while I pretended like I was searching for it in true ISAG fashion. After we took some pictures, including a mysterious fire escape photo, we ducked inside the restaurant and got a booth.
The waitress came by and got our drink orders as AS looked around and Cupcake furiously texted someone. (She’ll have thumbs the size of King Kong’s if she keeps up this pace.) Bringing my blessed beer, the waitress asked, “Do yinz know what you want?”
AS asked for a menu.
“You have to look up there or there,” said the yinzer, pointing to the huge menus on the wall.
“Well, he was supposed to give us guidance!” AS complained, feigning exasperation with the negligent male (me) for the benefit of the waitress.
“I gave you the damn menu that I printed from the web site!” I said.
“Yeah, but did you expect me to memorize it?”
Eventually, the menu cognition function was completed and the orders taken. The food was quickly delivered.
“They put French fries inside the sandwich,” said Cupcake. “That’s stupid.”
“That’s their trademark,” said AS. “This is the only place that does it that way.”
“No,” disputed the omniscient Cupcake. “I’ve been to a restaurant in Chicago that does it that way.”
See? I told you I would be learning stuff on this trip! We hadn’t eaten breakfast, so the welcome sandwiches went down quickly, French fries, cole slaw, and all.
“I still think it’s stupid to put the fries in the sandwich,” reiterated Cuppy.
Yeah, we heard you the first time.
Back to the van. We had time to do a whirlwind tour of some hot spots in Pittsburgh before leaving for our next stop of this whirlwind day. First, a short ride uptown to see the “Igloo”, the former Civic Arena ( now called Mellon Center), which has been the home of the NHL Pittsburgh Penguins for 32 years. Across the street and nearly complete is the Penguins’ new home starting this fall, the Consol Energy Center. AS has become quite a Penguins fan, so this was a treat for her.
We wound our way through the Hill District, rumored to be the location of the old TV series Hill Street Blues, then descended the hill into Oakland, the cultural and medical center of Pittsburgh. Through the University of Pittsburgh campus (home of the still despised Panthers), I showed the ladies the Cathedral of Learning, the Carnegie Music Hall, and the Carnegie Museum. Then, past Carnegie-Mellon University, where I remarked we could glean that we were in a university area by the presence of students, who looked much the same as the ones we saw at Pitt, only geekier, and into Squirrel Hill, a a formerly largely Jewish section of Pittsburgh. We rode down Murray Avenue, which back in my day was lined with Kosher butchers and bakeries. On this day, AS spotted a single Kosher butcher amongst the Starbucks’, the Dim Sum joints, and the Barnes & Nobles. From there, it was a short ride to my former high school, Taylor Allderdice, which was the first drive-by of a series of former Turkey roosts including two elementary schools, Linden and Fulton, and two houses in which the fledgling Turkey lived as a chick. Fulton and the second house were in the Highland Park area, which borders the formerly major shopping district of East Liberty (pronounced ‘sliberdy by the locals), so I took the opportunity to show one more landmark, the iconic East Liberty Presbyterian Church, an impressive edifice which is also located there. Cupcake woke up long enough to snap a photo of it.
“I still think that putting fries in a sandwich is dumb,” she mumbled before returning to iPod oblivion.
One more of Pittsburgh’s universities, Chatham University, was on our way out of town. Our outbound drive on Penn Avenue quickly passed part of it, then took us to Point Breeze, Homewood, and the lovely (sarcastic) borough of Wilkinsburg. Finally, we were on I-376 (formerly, the Penn-Lincoln Parkway and now called the Parkway East), and out of da Burgh.
I was born in Altoona, Pennsylvania, a railroad town in Central Pennsylvania, about 100 miles east of Pittsburgh. My travel plan included the area’s most famous attraction, the Horseshoe Curve, a railroad engineering feat of the mid-19th Century. A railroad curve might not seem like much of an attraction these days, but this historic landmark has continued to attract the attention of railroad buffs and neophytes through the years.
The first order of business was a Geocache. I had “found” a virtual cache here several years ago, but it had been archived. This one was a real container. So, I set the girls off in search of it while I went inside to purchase our admission tickets. I asked for a senior discount, just for the hell of it, and drew a big smile in return. Other than to say “no”, I didn’t know what the smile was for. It turned out that I had passed a rather large sign on the way in that said no senior or group discounts. Hey, I had done a lot of driving, so I was cross-eyed. I joined the ladies outside and we (meaning AS) quickly found the cache.
In front of the gift shop building, there is a railroad flat car. I asked AS and Cupcake to climb aboard it for their official picture. Mounting it was the easy part; AS had a little trouble getting down. But the photo shoot ended without incident and we prepared to go up to see the Curve. I asked if anyone wanted to take the stairs, consisting of 194 steps, and received a couple of “no” grunts in return. Thus, we took the “funicular”. How many people can say that they’ve ridden two different “inclines” in two different cities in one day? Not many, I’m certain.
Up at the top, there is not much to do but wait for trains to come. With the curve shaped like a horseshoe (hence, the name) one can rotate one’s head like Linda Blair in The Exorcist for a 300 degree panoramic view of a long freight train. We amused ourself by watching people while waiting for a train. My favorite person was a slightly built, ginger haired tween girl named Sam, who was either anorexic, masochistic, or clamoring for attention; she ran up and down the 194 steps at least three times. Hell, the last time I had walked up those steps, I was gasping for air at the top. Sam huffed and puffed a little each time before repeating the torture. Oh, to be young again! (Come to think of it, I couldn’t even do that stuff when I was young!)
A train finally came. I suppose it was a bit anticlimactic, as it didn’t quite move as fast as Sam, but it was what we came for. Pictures were taken and we settled back to wait for the next train, in order to get our money’s worth. Then, the obligatory gift shop browsing and a brief time during which we thought we lost the Cupcake, who turned out to be in the ladies’ room, and we were done.
Although the Curve was all I had on the official agenda for Altoona, I decided that a little tour was in order. I couldn’t take the ladies to visit any friends or relatives, because everyone I know who is still in Altoona is buried there. I decided to eschew the cemeteries for a look at some former houses of grandparents and great-grandparents.
I also pointed toward what was the original Sheetz Dairy store, a little shop where we kids would get ice cream sandwiches and “drumsticks” when we visited Grandma. It was only a couple blocks from Grandma’s house. Sometimes, one of the original Sheetzes would let us have the ice cream for free. Fifty years later, Sheetz is now a multi-state chain of gasoline filling stations and convenience store/restaurants, one of the largest such chains in the country and it maintains its headquarters in Altoona.
One somber stop on the tour was the location at which my Grandpa Goldfarb died of a heart attack in 1951 while crossing a street on the way home from the butcher shop.
By that time, AS was having a coffee attack, so I took her directly to the big Sheetz store on 17th Street. By then, it was rush hour in Altoona, so we had to do battle with the 20 or 30 cars that were on the road in order to get to Sheetz. The Cupcake and I got some crap to eat while AS poured her coffee. Back in the van, we buckled up for our final major drive of the day, a smooth, 50-mile run up I-99 (the Bud Schuster Highway) to State College, Pennsylvania, the home of Penn State University.
Hail to the Lion
My GPS navigator seemed to have some trouble finding our motel, a Marriott Courtyard. I had obtained a room for the night for $55 from Priceline. That same room would probably go for $300 per night during football weekends. I should have had my eyes open, as the GPS took us right past the damn motel. I found it with the aid of Google Maps and a pair of sexagenarian eyes.
The Cupcake would once again be relegated to the sofa, as she had been when we were in Asheville. No two room luxury here. I was too cheap! But we were all hungry, so we would worry about sleeping assignments later. I asked whether pizza would be acceptable for dinner, as there was good pizza available in State College, being a college town. AS and Cupcake were happy with the choice.
“State College is such a dumb name for a city,” said Cupcake.
I resisted the temptation to explain how it got its name, but that was pretty obvious, anyway.
Knowing I could get a good pizza at Hi-Way Pizza, which had been in operation since I went to school here sometime before Napoleon Bonaparte’s retreat, I drove to the store on Westerly Parkway. Funny, the usually busy pizza parlor had no cars in the parking lot. I pulled closer to the front door, where a sign had been taped. It told us it was sorry, but after 40 years, this location had to close due to economic tough times, but we should visit the other location on North Atherton Street. I didn’t know where that was, so I took the girls to Faccia Luna, where they could get an equally good pizza and I could get some equally good beer. As we concluded dinner, I asked whether they were up for a visit to the famous Penn State Berkey Creamery for some ice cream. They were.
Entering the campus, I drove up the west side by the old fraternity houses, the old west residence halls, and the old Rec Hall. My intent was to visit the Nittany Lion Shrine, a sculpture by Heinz Warnecke that has been iconic with Penn State since it was unveiled in 1942. I parked the van in one of the metered spots reserved for visitors to the shrine, and we strolled over to the statue for our photo shoot. Cantankerous AS, who had downed a couple of beers at Faccia Luna, decided to mount the lion (not in the carnal bestiality way) and have her picture taken with it that way. Why not? Kids climb on it all the time for pictures.
After the lion frivolity, we made a bee-line for the Creamery. I was thinking that we could see the Calorimeter Museum, too, but it was getting late. But wait, I hadn’t shown the girls Beaver Stadium, one of the largest football stadiums in the country. I parked across Curtin Road from the stadium in an empty lot.
“The sign says no parking without a permit,” saith the Cupcake. “The van will get towed away and it will be your fault!”
“It’s OK. The lot is empty and no one’s going to tow us away,” I said. “It’s summer and the cops don’t care.”
AS and Cupcake got a good look at the stadium and the Bryce Jordan Center as we started walking the several blocks to the creamery. I also pointed out my old dorm in the East Halls complex. I said that at the time, it was just called “E” but now they’re named after Pennsylvania governors or some other major state figures.
“There was a governor named ‘E’? That’s weird.”, complained Cupcake.
“No. It’s called McKean now. Ah, never mind.”
Along the way, a drunk babe in a Volkswagen driving east on Curtin Road yelled over at us, “We are!” I was supposed to yell back, “Penn State!” but I didn’t figure out what her slurred yelp was until she was a block beyond us. We got to the creamery on time and had our ice cream. All the while, Cupcake was muttering about the van being towed and it being my fault. Then, noticing that it was getting dark, she got on a new tack.
“Shouldn’t we be getting to the van before it gets dark?” she asked.
“Why?” I asked in response. “Unlike my brother, I can drive at night.” (Inside joke for AS.)
“Because we’re walking alongside a street and it’s dark.”
I wasn’t sure what that meant, because there was a rather wide sidewalk and the whole apparatus was lighted by rather large street lights. AS tried to reassure her that university campuses were well patrolled and pretty safe. Apparently satisfied on that front, without missing a beat the Cupcake started back on my case about the van probably being towed.
Once again passing my old dorm that had been named after Governor E, I told the ladies about how things were back then, with gender segregated dorms and curfew times for the undergraduate women, who had to live in dorms unless they were at least 21 years old or married.
“But not for guys?” asked Cupcake rhetorically, with a disgusted sneer on her face.
“Yeah. That’s the way it was back then.”
It really wasn’t as bad as it sounds today.
By this time, we could see the van gleaming in the distance, all by itself in the deserted parking lot across from Beaver Stadium, so Cupcake got off the towing schtick. The ice cream fueled the remaining walk of a couple of blocks.
We drove by the Joe Paterno statue on the east side of Beaver Stadium. I asked AS if she wanted to stop, but she wasn’t interested, having seen many pictures of it. Cupcake was already in iPodville.
It had been a long day and now it was back to the motel and to sleep.
Tomorrow, the trip continues with more of Penn State, including another visit to the creamery, followed by the assault on Tam Manor, the palatial estate of Toejam and JudyTam in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Read about it in our next installment.