May 04, 2009

Gist Street!

The best trips can start out under the worst conditions. Admittedly I took my sweet time getting out of DC on Friday morning. I wanted to come home to a stocked fridge and clean counters, not a desiccated orange and three vases of dead irises and mums. Besides, giving myself seven hours to make it to Pittsburgh? Plenty of time. Enough that I'd be able to camp out at a tea house before the reading, get a bite to eat, and absorb the town's atmosphere.

After losing an hour to the snail pace of the Washington suburbs during a hard rain, I realized I might be in trouble. By minute 47 of the total and inexplicable dead-stop on I-70, I knew I was in serious trouble. The A.M. station offered no accident-related revelation; truckers were listlessly working their CB radios, but they looked as clueless as the rest of us.

But let's fast forward. To...the bridges! The bridges of Pittsburgh! My mother had advised on the phone: "It's kind of like the Emerald City when you drive in, so take your time." Between the post-rain verdant hills, houses perched among them (much life the San Francisco of my imagination), and the iron swoops of the bridges, she had a good point. I set my bags down at the Quality Inn (not-so-quality, but convenient to the venue/highway) and before I knew it, Nancy Krygowski was picking me up and driving us to Gist Street.

Nancy: sweet and talented poet, awesome streak in her hair, a cacophony of strange dashboard ornaments. Gist Street: buzzer hanging by bare wire at the front door; huge, colorful sculpture courtesy of James Simon; ice and beer in the bathtub. The crew: Sherrie, who I'd not met before, chief mover and shaker; friendly bickering over the pizza supply, and whether a vegetarian-run fund could pay for a ham; the realization that we were competing with Denis Johnson and not only were these hosts not intimidated, they were talking smack about the poorly-designed CMU poster!

Holy hell, we packed the house. 85 seats and a responsive, friendly audience that laughed and "oohed" at all the right places. Apparently the policy is to BYOB and community food; people brought everything from a half-empty bottle of Planter's peanuts to some awfully tasty looking home-baked cookies; my favorite self-supplied gentleman brought a plastic cup of ice and a pint of scotch. I was simply blown away by Ron MacLean and his elegant, creepy fiction--Why the Long Face? is a book I'm dying to read--that featured an uncanny ear for the dialogue of an alienated teenage girl.

Afterwards it turned out a lot of books had been sold. Afterwards there was sipping of some crazy homebrewed lavender-based wine. Afterwards there was caravanning to the downtown Renaissance hotel, where there happened to be a local senior prom going on. The music! The glory! The gel-colored spotlights! Afterwards people who wanted soup had soup and people who wanted martinis had martinis. Afterwards there was a storytelling and a general agreement that this was the best reading we'd all been to in a while.

My only regret is that I had to leave the very next morning. I have a total love for Pittsburgh now.

Oh, and if you are a DC local, please root for James Simon's inspired idea for an artwork at the intersection of 18th & Columbia in Adams Morgan. The three proposed designs are here.

Oh, and for a gloriously non-objective corroborating opinion on our Gist Street evening, I stumbled across this blog.

P.S. - I can define and re-define my Desert Island Discs until I'm blue in the face, but the proof is probably in the ones that I always end up listening to on long car drives. XO by Elliott Smith. The Concert in Central Park by Simon & Garfunkel. Let's Get Lost (a best-of) by Chet Baker. Living with Ghosts by Patty Griffin. The complete Rolling Stones (Vol. 1). In the Dark (Live at Vicar Street) by Josh Ritter. August by Rose Polenzani.

P.S. part 2 - The prom was taking place in the hotel's "Jimmy Stewart Room." Sexy.

P.S. part 3 - Okay, so maybe with only a half-hour left from home, I noticed a hairline fracture in my windshield that had not been there before. What can I say? The Roadtrip Gods were just not with me. Next time, I'm sacrificing a golden ram before I get behind the wheel.


Steve Rogers said...

Pittsburgh is great city and lots of good poetry coming out of there. Read Peter Blair's LAST HEAT - it won the Washington Prize from Word Works a few years back. I shared a reading with him at Iota and became a fan.

Lyle Daggett said...

Loved reading this. Though I've lived in Minneapolis most of my life, I was born in Sewickley Valley Hospital, just a tick downriver from Pittsburgh, and we lived off and on in Coraopolis, about a half tick downriver from Pittsburgh, for the first few years of my life. (Moved away and came back two or three times before we headed west for good.)

I was five when we moved away once and for all, but still have vivid memories of the place, in particular (yes!) the bridges. My dad was a civil engineer with a construction company that specialized in building things in water, and he worked on building one of the bridges there. Also on a dam somewhere in the vicinity.

The reading and afterparty sound just too good. I haven't been in Pittsburgh since, except for a couple of times passing through on a Greyhound bus.

Sacrificing a golden ram might work for good fortune on a road trip, although if the next road trip is to Pittsburgh again, I recommend a golden sausage. More in the spirit of the place, maybe?

Word verification is "ration." A case in point.