Savannah Morning News
May 28, 2017
By the time I pulled out of Pittsburgh on Amtrak’s Philadelphian, I had mastered the Keurig coffee maker (even though no one told me you had to jiggle the water first), driven a car without a key in the ignition (without knowing you had to depress the brake and the on button at the SAME time), remembered how hilly this city is (can you say sore calves?), returned to the Giant Eagle supermarket (pronounced “iggle” by locals) and peered into an old-fashioned vintage private railcar festooned with mahogany paneling and cushy seating owned by a man named Bennett Levin. Our train into Pittsburgh from Philadelphia pulled this special, tricked out car, the same car this philanthropic native of Philadelphia offered to carry Bobby Kenney’s body to Washington for burial.
“But why would someone have their own railcar?” I asked the affable conductor walking up and down the aisles, clearly impressed by Levin.
“Why would someone own their own plane?” he answered. “Because the man loves trains.”
So do I but I might love his car more. He probably didn’t have to wonder whether he should reach across the aisle and turn off his neighbor’s tablet, which was “broadcasting” a portion of the Bible. Nothing against the Bible but it was a little loud and it kept repeating itself and the woman was asleep, nodding to the beat of the train when all I wanted to do was feel the trees hugging the tracks, read my book club selection, “The Green Road,” and eat my quinoa salad, a new selection from the café car.
Baltimore, an earlier stop, kind of knocked my socks off starting with the gender-bending 51- foot burnished aluminum statue of two twisted figures facing the front doors of Penn Station, another beaux art beauty. Sculptor Jonathan Borofsky calls it “Male/Female.”
Baltimore (pronounced “Balmore” by locals), Maryland (“Merland”), is the home of bearded irises, John Waters, Ann Tyler, columnist nonpareil Rafael Alvarez, artist extraordinaire Christine Sajecki, The Wire, Edgar Allen Poe’s grave, light rail, row houses, stone houses, ginormous crab cakes from The Dizz, the yellow VW bus from ”Little Miss Sunshine” (a prize from a film festival that sits on Falls Road) and Camden Yards, where we stopped to peer into the iconic ballfield and watch four men lug around a hose to water an infield that is artificial grass.
Baltimore beckons. But I was on a mission – to keep an old friend company following hip replacement surgery. We hadn’t seen one another for nine years; she’s one of those friends for whom time means nothing. She stocked the freezer with Klondike bars and borrowed some fans to combat the heat (clearly she forgot where I was coming from). Five minutes into a walk toward the Cathedral of Learning in Oakland I got the iconic Pittsburgh signal – someone turning his headlights on and off saying, “Go ahead. You can cross the street.” Love Pittsburgh.
Although Baltimore is called Charm City Pittsburgh has its own charm. From my friend’s high rise on Bigelow Avenue we look out onto pitched and pointed roofs that could have come out of a Dickens novel, especially in the winter when covered with snow. More bearded irises, more stories between friends who have known one another for nearly 50 years.
“Now: how did you get to Chicago?” she asked, which is where we met – at WTTW public television. I was a baby; she had four kids. When time races by sometimes you need these refresher moments. At 4 in the morning, in between pain pills, we had time: to tell stories, to reach back, to review. No way I could top her memory of Society of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic boarding school outside Chicago better known as “The Madames.” She and her classmates went to mass and communion every day, wore white gloves for special assemblies and curtsied when passing a nun or an older person no matter what or where. “We got really good at the flying curtsy when we were late for class,” she said. Her mother, her father’s sisters, her grandmother and her great-grandmother all went to The Madams. Her brother, destined for Notre Dame (their father’s school), not so keen on the experience, drank black shoe polish to get out of it.
Every week she and her classmates got medals for their behavior. Because it was a French school the medals were designated rien (nothing), bien (good), assez bien (good enough) or tres bien (very good). She said she got so many medals she looked like a South American general.
She went home every weekend and returned on the Sunday night train where she got sad “looking at people in their kitchens listening to their radios, probably Jack Benny.” After dinner the girls would assemble with their knitting – “lots of long straight scarves” – and listen to the nuns read to them, “classics, like ‘Little Women’ and ‘Great Expectations,’ read with just the right dramatic effect. We loved it.”
For their graduation gift to the school she and her classmates contributed leather coverings to the kneeling pads. “By the seventh grade we had washer woman knees.”
We spent hours trying to pin down the dates of when we did stuff together – and the names of people we knew. Then came the final question, about my dog:
“Is Charlie still with us?”
“Yep. She’s 16, deaf as a post, nearly blind, barely continent, still a cutie.”
Good times. Good friends clicking, again.