And To Think That We Saw It On Pitler Street

September 2019

Ed the Maine Coon Cat, Oren B Helbok photo

It all started with the blue shoes.

 

My friend and fellow photographer George Hiotis and I had spent the morning on the west side of the Ohio River, photographing trains crossing the mile-long Ohio Connecting Bridge; it spans the river and Brunot Island, two miles downstream of the Point in Pittsburgh.  When the sun got high and the haze too thick to see through satisfactorily – the temperature would reach an unseasonable 87 degrees by mid-afternoon – we got in the car to continue our explorations of the city; in four visits in as many years, we have barely scratched the surface of its 446 bridges, 900 miles of streets, and umpteen miles of railroads, not to mention industries, churches, and landmark buildings by H. H. Richardson.

George Hiotis sunrise Pittsburgh, Oren B Helbok photo
Norfolk Southern westbound coal train Ohio Connecting Bridge Pittsburgh, Oren B Helbok photo

George watched the sun come up from a hillside overlooking the Ohio River two miles down the Ohio from the Point; by 8 o'clock, the trains started running, and we saw at least eight in the next three hours, starting with this coal train that came west on the Mon Line and then turned eastbound on the former Pennsy main line on the other side of the river.

Norfolk Southern eastbound stack train Ohio Connecting Bridge Pittsburgh, Oren B Helbok photo

This eastbound stack train had a great variety of colorful containers.

We crossed the river on the McKees Rocks Bridge and headed towards downtown on Pa. 65, keeping our eyes peeled for a vantage to the other end of the OC Bridge.  After missing at least one exit and having to go a ways out of our way, we came back downriver, driving under the OC on Beaver Avenue, then turning inland on Eckert Street, passing under 65, and heading uphill.  Not a thriving neighborhood: The wide spaces between the rowhouses indicated that almost as many had come down as remained standing, and the piles of trash in some of the yards spilled out onto the street.  A hard right and a further climb brought us past a large abandoned school, named for American educational reformer Horace Mann.  (“No one did more than he to establish in the minds of the American people the conception that education should be universal, non-sectarian, free, and that its aims should be social efficiency, civic virtue, and character, rather than mere learning or the advancement of sectarian ends.” – Wikipedia)  Vacant since 2006, the building had a $285,000 price tag as of 2018.  At the end of the next block, at a T intersection, we bore right, now dropping down as precipitously as we had climbed; straight ahead of us, at another T, we caught a glimpse of the OC Bridge between a couple of houses –

– and in the middle of that intersection, at Pitler Street, a remarkable sight: Amidst the remains of a busted-open shoebox lay a pair of bright blue men’s dress shoes, splayed on the asphalt.  I avoided running them over and made a u-turn into a parking space.  George went to scout locations from which to photograph the bridge; just down the street, a grassy lot allowed a clear perspective of it beyond the roof of a house atop which an industrious and sweaty carpenter nailed tarpaper down.  I walked back to the shoes and picked them up, with their wrecked container: size 10½ – way too small for me.  A few feet away, a woman knelt on her front stoop, picking up little bits of something.

Norfolk Southern westbound Ohio Connecting Bridge Pittsburgh and roofer, Oren B Helbok photo

I approached her.  “Excuse me,” I said. “Do you have any idea what I should do with these?”  She straightened up and looked at me, and at the shoes.  “I found them in the middle of the street,” I said to prompt her.

She looked slightly annoyed.  “You would not believe the shit people throw out of their cars coming through here,” she said.  And then, slightly brighter but still resigned, “You can leave them against the fence there; perhaps my neighbors can use them.”  And then, as if letting me in on a secret, “They’re kind of needy.”  She asked after my business in the neighborhood; I pointed at George, down the street with his camera to his eye, and explained our quest.

 

“Oh, you like trains!  My husband likes trains too.  He collects model trains, and he fixes them up, and he puts sets together to give to needy kids.  They’ll have a story about him in the paper this fall; he’ll give away his one-thousandth set at Christmastime.  You want to photograph the bridge?  I’ve got a great view of it from my room upstairs.  Let me clean up these beads and you and your friend can come on in.  Such a beautiful day, and I brought my beading outside, and I dropped the beads all over the place.”  While she went back to finding the tiny beads and corralling them, I hailed George.  “Bob went to Ohio this weekend to collect more trains,” she went on.  “I don’t know how he has the strength to do it, and he won’t take his wheelchair with him; you’ll see it right here in the house.  I do the best I can to keep him alive, but I don’t think he pays a lot of attention.  His name’s Bob, Bob Evans, just like the restaurant.  My name’s Marsha, like Marsha Brady.  Come on in.”

 

We climbed the steps to the front door and walked into the house.  Our host had already started climbing the inside stairs, which rose seemingly straight up almost from the threshhold into the gloom.

Not that I needed to do anything to keep the conversation going, but I did feel compelled to say something, anything.  “How long have you lived here?” I asked.  Over her shoulder, Marsha said “It’s been in Bob’s family since 1911.  You can see my pottery, too.”  We reached the second floor and all three of us crowded into a small room lined with narrow shelves, every one packed with mugs, bowls, and other small pots.  “I’ve loved Roseville pottery for years, and I keep buying more pieces.  I guess I have the place pretty well filled up.  There’s what you’re looking for.”  And indeed in the righthand corner of the room a window about three feet square looked out to the west-southwest; George had not needed directions to it, and he had already made a quick reconnoiter.

 

“The screen doesn’t come out, does it?” he asked, raising his camera as a Norfolk Southern freight train came towards us.  He made a few exposures of the head end of the train, then let me into the tiny space between desk and chair and shelves and assorted other furnishings and accouterments so I could take a picture or two. Even with the screen in the way, it made for an arresting prospect, with the roof and the two small onion domes of an Orthodox church in the foreground, the gas-fired power plant beyond the church, the bridge stretching across the river, and the heights of the Sheraden neighborhood at the horizon – including the very backyard where we had photographed all morning.

Norfolk Southern westbound Ohio Connecting Bridge Pittsburgh, "St John the Baptist Carpatho", Oren B Helbok photo

“I see the best sunsets from here,” Marsha said as she took out her phone, to show us the photos that she has made.  “I call this my office, but if I ever had to get any work done I don’t know how I could with that scene to distract me.

 

“You should come meet my big cat.”  Marsha went back down the stairs and of course we followed her, around the corner at the bottom, into a postage-stamp-sized living room lined with more shelves (these covered with videocassettes and CDs) – and in the doorway to the kitchen beyond lay the largest housecat I have ever seen.

Ed (Thomas Edison) the Maine Coon Cat, Oren B Helbok photo

“He’s a Maine coon cat and he weighs forty-two pounds.  I just had him to the vet, and here’s the receipt, you can see they weighed him.  His name is Ed, short for Thomas Edison.  I should get a kitten for him to play with, and keep him moving; his brother Bo – Bo Diddley – only lived to be five, rest his soul.”  Meanwhile, Ed had rolled over, presenting his acre of furry belly to Marsha, and she leaned over and rubbed him vigorously.  “I don’t feed him very much at all, just a few ounces a day, but maybe I give him too many treats –” as she reached into a small bag and got out a few crunchies to put into a bowl on the floor.  Ed pulled himself over to it and deliberately ate them.

Ed the Maine Coon cat, Oren B Helbok photo

I had busily photographed this whole scene, neither Marsha nor Ed paying me the slightest attention.  When he had done eating, though, he fixed his eyes on me, and I got down on my knees and reached towards him. In classic cat fashion, he sniffed my hand and accepted a quick scratch between the ears – and then he got up and moved just out of reach.  “I had almost gone out today to go to the pound to see if I could find him a playmate,” Marsha said, “but then I got involved with the beads.  I should take him outside for more exercise, but you see the way people drive around here.”

 

“Does he shed much?” asked George.  “Oh, my, yes,” Marsha laughed, “and I collect it all.  I got this today –” and she pulled a large handful out of a grocery bag.  “I might try using it to fill a pillow.”

 

Or a couch, I thought.

Ed the Maine Coon cat, Oren B Helbok photo
Ed the Maine Coon cat, Oren B Helbok photo

Ed showed no more enthusiasm for us, and it had come time for us to take our leave.  We thanked Marsha heartily for her hospitality and went back outside – just as a woman walked by, pushing a baby in a stroller; two other children, perhaps four and six years old, walked alongside her.  The woman’s pinched cheeks and the children’s faded clothes looked like modern-day echoes of FSA photos in Appalachia during the Depression.  “My neighbors,” Marsha said to us.  They stopped at the blue shoes leaning on the fence.

 

“You can go ahead and take them,” Marsha said.  “These gentlemen found them in the street before.”  The woman instructed one of the children to pick up the shoes and their former container, and she looked inside one of them.  “These will fit your father,” she said, “and we have that wedding to go to next week.”  All four of them passed through the backyard gate and down the hill to their house, the shoes going home with them.

 

Marsha waved goodbye and went back to her beads, and George and I got back in the car shaking our heads, not sure if we had really seen everything that we had just seen.

The Blue Shoes, Pitler Street, Pittsburgh, Oren B Helbok photo