Why I was staring into the men’s room

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Whenever Joe and I go to a national park I always ask a ranger what I should go see. What is something cool that most people miss?

That question lead me and my cousin Joy to poke our heads into the men’s room of The Duquesne Club in Pittsburgh.

The Duquesne Club is a private club founded in 1873 by industrialists like Andrew Carnegie as an exclusive men’s club. The building on Sixth Avenue opened in 1890 and the club didn’t admit women until nearly a century later. It currently has 2,400 to 2,700 members, according to the concierge I spoke with.

You have to be invited to join. My invite must be lost in the mail, or my spam folder.

My cousin Joy and her husband Scott, however, got an invitation to an event put on by their financial adviser. I jumped at the chance when they asked Joe and I to tag along.

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Joy and Scott snuck into the “Members Only” lounge at the Duquesne Club.

 

The event was fun, two comedians, drinks and hors d’oeuvres. No sales pitch. Better yet, afterwards we were free to roam around the exclusive club with its walls filled with original art, including some Frederic Remington sculptures, and beautiful antiques.

 

That’s Joy standing beneath a painting of Cousin Andrew.

Joy and I stopped by the front desk near the revolving front door where a doorman dressed in a black coat and bowler stood outside on the sidewalk. We peppered the concierge with questions about the art work and the people who’ve stayed overnight in its 42 hotel rooms.

So what’s the one thing we shouldn’t miss? I asked.

The first floor men’s room, she replied. The concierge explained that the men’s room is huge.

It was a men’s club for a century before it opened membership to women. The room is now a little smaller after renovations to install a women’s room. After weddings you’ll find the brides and bridesmaids in the men’s room looking around, she said. Just get your husband to go in and open the door wide, she said.

Joy and I had to go to the men’s room. Forget the tired husbands, our aching feet in high heels, we had to see this plumbing wonder.

Down the oak paneled hall, past the billiard room, across from a large glassed in dining area was the magic door marked “Gentlemen.”

Scott pushed open the door and held it wide.

It was the largest men’s room I’d ever seen. To the left was a shoeshine bench, rows of sinks stood along that wall. The entire room was done in marble.

But don’t ask me about the urinals, I didn’t look to the right.

Joe was unimpressed. “It was big and marble.”

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The men’s room at the Duquesne Club.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Undiscovered Pittsburgh

We had expected to spend our winter exploring southern Texas and Arizona, but God had other plans.

A minor medical procedure on Joe’s legs has forced us to spend the winter in Pittsburgh. But that doesn’t mean we’ve given up exploring.

Currently we’re living like college students above a store front on Warrington Avenue in the Allentown neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

Because we live upstairs, we can’t just tie Nikki out like we would in a motorhome. That means at least four times a day Joe takes the dog out for a walk in the neighborhood. Nik’s a great ambassador. People who won’t look up when you pass by will stop us to talk about our blue-eyed dog.

On his daily walks Joe found two really cool buildings.

On one of his walks Joe noticed was a two-story brick building and tower up on a hill a couple of blocks away.  Climbing the hill for a closer look he found the 1909 Beltzhoover Sub-District School.

 

The building was used as a school until sometime in the 2000s and is now for sale. It’s an impressive building that’s on the National Register of Historic Places. We don’t know why it was placed on the register. Did someone famous go there? Was it designed by a well-known architect? Information about the school is not yet digitized on the federal government’s website.

While researching the school, a story in the Tribune about one of the six oldest houses in Pittsburgh popped up. It’s a little field stone house near us on Climax Street.

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The building dates to 1794 when German immigrant Melchoir Beltzhoover, who bought 248 hilltop acres on what was then the western frontier and built a house on his farm. There’s a Facebook page that explains a lot about Beltzhoover, his family, business and how he came to Pittsburgh.

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Beltzhoover homestead

The front of the building on Climax Street looks like a 1900s store front that was later converted to housing. The vacant lots beside it are weedy and overgrown. The store front is attached to the two-story field stone building. The news story says someone from Baltimore bought the building and land for $20,000, but he hasn’t done anything with it.

It’s not likely anything will be done to the building. Beltzhoover is not a prosperous area by any means. The properties around the homestead are run down or abandoned and that area of the city hasn’t drawn developers to redevelop properties like the South Side, the Mexican War Streets or Lawrenceville.

The Beltzhoover homestead sets me to dreaming. What would I do if I had the money to return that old house to its former glory? And what else lies undiscovered in this neighborhood?

 

 

Playing Poverty

Web_Banner_Fountain-skyline-750x400At a church luncheon on Sunday I watched two men pile their plates with chicken, lasagna, sandwiches, salads and then pack more food into to-go containers.

We talked as we ate. Charlie works at a call center earning $15 an hour answering questions about people’s utility bills. Luwayne and I talked about video games.  He appeared to be disabled and I don’t think he works. At least he didn’t mention it.

Two guys needing to-go boxes from the church lunch to make their meals stretch through the week. That’s not someone playing poverty. That’s someone living in poverty.

In my past life as a reporter for The Post-Standard. I wrote a story about some well-meaning Girl Scouts pretending to be homeless for the night in a local hockey rink.  The girls were excited for the sleepover. They were given cardboard boxes, which they decorated with sparkles and signs. I’ve never seen sparkles and drawings on the side of a homeless camp.

I’ve been to Empty Bowl fundraisers, where I bought beautiful bowls crafted by talented Syracuse University ceramic students, and received servings of soup created by local chefs. I’ve never seen a homeless person with a fancy bowl.

This past week I got an email from our old church in Skaneateles, New York, a quaint lakeside town outside of Syracuse. Members were asked if they wanted to take part in a poverty simulation on Saturday with other churches. I’ve never seen anyone living in poverty asked to attend a simulation for what it’s like to live in the middle or upper class.

What an eye opener that would be. Enough food to eat. To-go boxes filled with restaurant leftovers in the fridge. A clean bed. A car. A job to go to. A paycheck. A doctor to visit when sick. A roof over your head.

I’m not dissing any of these admirable programs meant to bring a focus on the needy.  It’s just I don’t believe I’ll better understand what it is to be needy by playing poverty.

Poverty is a tricky thing. There’s no one method to end it. Some people prefer sleeping outdoors on the streets. Strange, but true. Others wandering the streets or squatting in abandoned buildings are mentally ill or addicted to drugs or alcohol.  Families are left homeless when someone loses a job or becomes ill. So many people are one paycheck away from having nothing to eat.

While in Pittsburgh for the winter Joe and I have hooked up with The Well, a church planted by the North American Mission Board in the Mount Washington. The neighborhood is a mix of people living in homes with million dollar views overlooking the city and poor folks who live on the streets behind them.

The Well’s stated mission is to love God, love people and do something about it.

It’s a diverse congregation. Black and white. Young and old. People who have money, those struggling to get by, and those living on the streets. People hug you when you enter church. The pastor quietly asks those whom he knows are on the streets if they have a warm place to sleep.

Once a month the church serves a meal to the local community, and once a month the congregation gathers like family for lunch, which is where we met Charlie and Luwayne.

The church has clothes for those who need them. A food pantry. And is the site of a once-a-month food bank distribution.

And while the church can’t permit people to sleep in the building, there are plans this year to renovate the bathrooms installing showers and laundry facilities that will be opened to those who need them.

The members of the Well see poverty, some live it and members are doing something about it.

There’s no need to play poverty here.

 

 

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There just aren’t enough volunteers

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Josh Hipp, a disaster relief coordinator, sat on top of a picnic table across the bonfire from me and stated a harsh fact that has burned in my mind ever since.

“Volunteers like to go off to the latest disaster,” he said. But with the numbers of natural disasters piling up–Hurricanes Florence and Michael, wildfires in California–volunteers are beginning to burnout, Hipp said.

It’s getting harder and harder to get people willing to give up a week or two repairing someone’s home when the natural disasters come one on top of the other, he said. Everyone wants to rush to the latest spot, but what about the people devastated by last year’s hurricane or the one before that?

I met Josh at a bonfire on one of our last nights of a three-week stint volunteering for NOMADS in Crystal River, Florida this fall. It was an easy gig. We were working for the Crystal River United Methodist Church building new classrooms for a school the church is starting, painting the outside of a house for one of the members, weeding and generally doing maintenance.

NOMADS is a Methodist organization that does service projects in churches and communities. Its members also repair homes damaged by natural disasters. The group has disaster rebuilds in the Midwest and Louisiana for homes flooded out, in Key West, North Carolina and now the Florida Panhandle for hurricane damage.

NOMADS isn’t the first group into a disaster zone. They’re the ones that arrive a year later to repair your roof, sheet rock the walls or put in wiring.

Josh has been traveling around the country for the last eight years doing disaster rebuilds. Lately, his motorhome and trailer have been parked on the church’s property while he works in the area.

He supervises groups like NOMADS repairing homes for people who have gotten grants to do repairs after natural disasters. Recently he’s been working for Catholic Charities supervising Mennonites repairing homes damaged on Florida’s Gulf Coast last year.

Before his time was up in Florida  another hurricane had wrecked the coast. He’s already been called to go up to the Florida Panhandle where this fall Hurricane Michael wiped some towns off the map.

Well-meaning people have already flooded the area with help, but the nagging question Josh faces is will there be enough volunteers to do the work a month or a year from now when the repair grants are approved and the materials bought. Who will hammer the nails or install the wiring?

Experts say the climate is becoming more extreme. More devastating storms. That means more flooding. More damaged homes needing repairs and more people needed to do the work.

Who will do the necessary repair work that will be needed because our leaders have failed to work on the larger question of lessening man’s impact on climate. See the government’s latest climate report.

Will there be enough volunteers?

 

Lincoln, Starry Night and Route 66

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We took a wrong turn in Pontiac, Illinois and ended up viewing art work worthy of public art in New York, Chicago or Philadelphia.

The three tall metal sculptures called “Seasons of Life” were located in a playground in this small city in Central Illinois. They depict three eras of life: childhood, young adulthood and old age. We wouldn’t have seen them if we hadn’t stayed in Pontiac for three weeks.

We were in Pontiac to work with NOMADS, a Methodist mission group that travels around the country rebuilding churches and camps or doing disaster relief. We were in Pontiac to repaint a senior citizen’s facility.

That’s one of the things I like about our new lifestyle. We travel to new places and stay long enough to get to know a community with all its little quirks.

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I doubt there are many places like Pontiac, a city of just 13,000. You reach it either by driving on Interstate 55 or on two-lane roads stretching for miles through corn and soybean fields, which is what we did. Two-lanes give you a real feeling for just how far out there the middle of America is.

The city doesn’t look like much. There’s a Caterpillar plant and the county court house, a couple of restaurants. But this little place supports four museums, all free, plus several house museums. That’s a lot of museums for a small town. There’s even a free trolley to take you around, but really it’s so small you could probably walk it.

Route 66, in all its forms, runs through Pontiac, and the town capitalizes on it big time.

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It hosts a Route 66 Museum and Hall of Fame, a Pontiac-Oakland Automobile Museum and Resource Center and The Bob Waldmire Experience (celebrating a man who traveled Route 66 handing out literature).

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The Livingston County War Museum and the Life in the 1940s Exhibit are in the same building.  I was drawn to the dozens of newspapers from around the world that showed the run up to Pearl Harbor and its aftermath. And for some odd reason there is a recreation of an old radio station.

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The city also hosts a Museum of Gilding Arts, which is the art of pounding gold or silver into into extremely thin sheets that are used for decorating.

The city boasts Murals on Main Street where people have also installed kiddie cars painted to look like Transformers, Lincoln and Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

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We walked part of the Lincoln Trail,  which goes from the courthouse where the president practiced law as a young attorney to the house were he stayed for two weeks after a snow storm stopped the trains from running and kept him from returning to Springfield, Illinois.

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And we walked across one of the three antique swinging bridges across the Vermilion River that used to bring workers from their homes on one side of the city to jobs on the other.

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Then on the last day a wrong turn took us to the Seasons of Life Statues, public art worthy of the Met in a playground.

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What odd things have you found on your travels?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Waiting for Florence

I’ve been watching the surfers as I sit on an Outer Banks beach this fall.

We’re all waiting. The surfers are patient. They line up on their surf boards in the ocean beyond the waves breaking on the beach. They’re watching the water, waiting for a beautiful wave, a high one with a long roll that they can ride all the way to shore. It’s a beautiful dance.

The rest of us are waiting for Hurricane Florence.

Whenever Joe and I talked about retirement we dreamily spoke of spending a month on a beach. I had always envisioned a condo. Joe saw us in a motor home. We would stroll in and out of the water, park our butts under a canopy and read to our hearts’ content.

So here we are, living in a 32-foot motor home separated from the Atlantic by a sand dune on the Outer Banks National Seashore. We’re in the Ocean Waves Campground in Waves, North Carolina.

The campground is about a mile from Rodanthe. It’s the setting of  “Nights in Rodanthe,”a movie with Richard Gere that makes the hearts of middle age women beat harder. It also happens to be some of the best surfing on the East Coast, according to Outside magazine.

It’s an odd little place where the people in big  beautiful vacation houses that probably rent for several thousand for a week are served by one Dairy Queen, a Dollar General and a handful of small restaurants.

We’ve been casually watching the weather, noting tropical storms, more for the impact of a day’s rain on our beach time than anything else. We have a weather radio that we’ve yet to turn on.

Florence started as a tropical storm way out by Africa. The forecasters at first offered cautious optimism that it would not become a hurricane and hit the East Coast. Few storms that formed in that part of the Atlantic have ever hit the U.S., said the weather person at a television station in Norfolk, Va.

Toward the end of the week warnings about Florence ratcheted up. It could become a Category 4 hurricane.

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The Weather Channel.

Friends from the Virginia Beach area called Friday. Had we seen the news? They planned to leave their stick and brick house, jump in their motor home and head to Greenville, S.C.. Maybe you want to head for the hills too, the friend advised Joe.

Then North Carolina’s governor declared a state of emergency. Apparently it allows the state to bring in the resources it needs in case the storm strikes. It also allows farmers to use transportation to quickly get their crops out of the fields. (I don’t quite understand that part of the declaration. Can’t farmers always do that?)

Some of our campground neighbors have begun to leave. The first to go was an older couple in a motor home who had pulled in after us. Their son told Joe he had driven them down for a  three-week stay. We saw them filling up the motor home at a gas station on the way out on Sunday. They were headed north.

The pastor of the Fair Haven United Methodist Church, where we attended Sunday morning, urged the congregation to attend a community dinner that night to discuss preparing for the storm. Then he preached a sermon about not letting fear control your actions and separate you from God.

After the service, Joe spoke with the pastor offering our help with the community’s storm preparations. For the next six weeks this is our community. We have a bay full of tools ready to use to help the people in it.

The pastor accepted our offer and urged us to go to the meeting. He told Joe he has seen storms before, but this one, this one, has him afraid.

We plan to leave when an evacuation, which seems inevitable, is ordered. Our house is mobile. We will pack up the beach chairs, drive several hours inland, park and ride it out. When the all clear sounds we’ll return and help with the clean up.

For now, I watch the surfers and wait.

 

 

The one where we watch fireworks from 212 feet in the air

Where are you going?

That’s what everyone asked before we left on our grand motorhome experiment.

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Patricia Richard and Charley at the IronGirl, by Bill Richard.

People who are staying put want to hear that you’re taking some grand tour as full time RVers. First to the Grand Canyon, then Bryce and Zion, over to Yellowstone and Yosemite. Or maybe you’ve set your sights on going to every stop on the Dave Matthews tour, or hitting all of the major league ball parks. Or in our case every Penn State football game home and away.

Nope, we spent our first weeks on the road less than a day from Auburn.

So that’s why on the Fourth of July, Joe and I were sitting in lawn chairs on an old railroad bridge 212 feet above the Hudson River.  We hadn’t planned it. But long about July 2nd, Joe and I began to wonder where we would watch fireworks this year.

Had we stayed in Auburn, we would have parked the car in the driveway on July 3rd, moseyed down to Emerson Park on Owasco Lake with our lawn chairs to listen to a symphony play the “1812 Overture” and watch a fireworks display that never disappoints.

Joe wanted to watch fireworks from the Palisades in New Jersey across from New York City But it was so hot. So where to go?

That’s the big question, where are we going.

Since Joe retired: I’ve run the IronGirl Sprint Triathlon at Oneida Shores in Onondaga County, we’ve hiked along Lake Ontario at Robert Wehle State Park in the 1000 Islands, skipped down the grand staircase of Boldt Castle while I hummed the theme to Masterpiece Theater, and visited every brown-signed park in Hyde Park. (We’re a little addicted to history.)

Before we left town, I’d look for hiking trails in the Mid-Hudson area and that’s when Google showed me the Walkway Over the Hudson State Park. A 1.2 mile-long former railroad bridge that has been converted into a walking, running, biking trail 212 feet above the Hudson River. The bridge connects to a rail-bike trail on either side of the river that runs for miles.

The best thing about the Walkway is the fireworks. For a fee, you can watch the City of Poughkeepsie’s fireworks shot off from a barge in the middle of the river. Locals come early bringing lawn chairs  and dinner. The adults next to us played cards and discussed national politics. Kids played games and blew bubbles that floated over the river.

We watched boats and kayaks maneuver for the best viewing spot on the Hudson, including Pete Seeger’s sloop  the Clearwater.

 

As dusk drifted to twilight,  the sheriff’s boat escorted a small tugboat to center stage and the first of the fireworks began popping up over the hills in towns up and down the river.

A little boy yelled out “C’mon Dad we’ve got to go there. We’ve got to go there,” pointing to a distant display.

Our heads were on swivels. Joe, at one point, counted 15 communities with fireworks going off all at the same time.

The main act took it’s time giving the smaller displays their moments in the night.

With a loud BOOM! Poughkeepsie’s fireworks announced its presence  and put on one of the best fireworks displays I’ve ever seen in person. The flashes of red ribbons and hearts, bright blue flowers, gold stars burst in a seemingly endless display with a grand finale that couldn’t be beat.

There is joy in a journey that stops to watch fireworks, no matter where they’re found.