Monday, May 24 2010
location: Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Today was the day of the graduation we'd come to attend, and it was also the day we'd be flying back to New York. We got up early, to the sound of the Six Feet Under theme and the loud vibrations of my iPhone against the top of the metal-walled appliance it had been sleeping on. We got dressed and Gretchen's brother dropped us off in front of the Carnegie Music Hall on the Pitt campus, where the graduation was to be held.
Inside, the front colonnade of the music hall was a mind-blowing spectacle of over-the-top opulence. What wasn't gilded was marble, and all that stone still seemed to contain some residual coolness from the winter, so the space felt almost cavelike. I wouldn't say that the space was beautiful; it was actually a little offensive in how it seemed to boast across the decades, "Look how fucking much money we have to spend on this project!" If my family had struggled to mine underpriced coal for Carnegie's steel mills and suffered through the black lung, mine collapses, and poison gas, I don't know what I'd think of all the needless splendor. But there it was, and there it shall be, forever untoppable by any economy that can ever follow.
Further into the building was the music hall itself, which wasn't all that remarkable given the spectacular ones I've seen in the past. It did have a large seating capacity that included two balconies. Interestingly, these balconies went into progressively shoddier states of upkeep as one ascended.
We found our group on the lower of the two balconies and took our seats. I was displeased with my seat at first because there was a young father with a tiny baby seated next to me, and, though I'd mostly been averting my eyes, I still happened to be looking at the thing on one of the occasions when it did a spit-up, shooting a long thin white tendril of half-clotted industrial milk from its mouth across the shoulder of the father. But the baby soon made it clear that it was not going to sit silently through a long boring med school graduation, and the father was forced to take the blubbering thing out into the marble-clad colonnade, where the echoing baby screams sounded like a horror movie cliché.
There isn't much of interest to say about a med school graduation. The people who'd gathered in attendance were a strikingly unhip demographic, at least judging by the absence of tattoos on the abundant bare flesh of those young women present. As with all professions, doctors have an outsized view of their importance in the world and the level of self-sacrifice that led them to choose their career path. Still, there were bits of the commencement speech that seemed to contain valuable insights, for example, "It is better to fail when in pursuit of your dreams than not to have any dreams at all," and "we must be participants, not spectators, to history." Judging from the number of diplomas waiting to be handed out on a table on the stage, there were hundreds of new doctors graduating, and it was uncomfortably hot up there in the balcony with all those bodies and no apparent air conditioning. At some point Gretchen (who'd vanished) sent word for me to come join her out in the colonnade to help babysit that baby with the dinner-plate-sized eyes from yesterday. This was the infant daughter of the cousin whose graduation we'd come to see, and (as with most of the many other babies that had been brought to this graduation), it had been determined that she would be too distracting if allowed to remain in the audience. While neither Gretchen nor I are much into babies, babysitting duty proved to be the perfect escape from the hot, sticky, plodding ceremony. Out in the marble-clad colonnade it was still nice and cool, even on the upper floors. And we could stretch our legs by walking circles around its circular balcony-like upper levels. The baby was contained in a car seat that doubled as a baby carrier. The whole thing (with baby) weighed about forty pounds, so it wasn't a trivial thing to carry around. And at one point when the baby had been still too long and began to cry, I had to swing her around like she was in a centrifugal-force-heavy midway ride, something that made her fall first silent and then asleep. As we went around and around the colonnade, Gretchen holding a bottle of formula and me carrying the baby, we looked for all the world like a couple who had just had an infant of our own. Gretchen thought it would be funny if someone stopped to admire the kid's big beautiful eyes and then asked, "How old is she?" to which Gretchen would truthfully reply, "I don't know." Hell, I didn't even know what the kid's name was. As babies go, this was a good one to babysit. As long as we moved, there was no fussing. And we didn't have her long enough to have to worry about diapers. (When it comes to diapers, Gretchen's motto is, "I'm a fair weather aunt.") Best of all, by cheerfully volunteering to babysit, we earned massive brownie points. I should mention that part of what made this baby so easy to look after was that her mother isn't pathologically attached; she willingly hands her off to other friends and family members, some of whom the baby has never seen before. This makes the baby comfortable with strangers, a good talent to have mastered so early in life.
We didn't end up staying until the end of the graduation. At some point Gretchen's father and mother came out, we handed the baby off to her non-biological grandfather, and then headed for lunch. We stopped first at an incompetently-run coffee kiosk on the Pitt campus so I could get a cup of much-needed coffee and then we continued to the Cathedral of Learning, which Gretchen's father insisted we see. We rode the elevator as high as we could up this neo-gothic marvel, and then snapped pictures from windows near the top. The rooms up there seem to de devoted to various graduate programs, and the guy manning the desk looked like an aging hipster; one wouldn't be surprised to find him playing bass for Death Cab for Cutie.
More spectacular than the view from the upper floors was the massive vaulted reading room near the Cathdral of Learning's first floor. Here there was a good forty feet of headroom beneath a web of spiny gothic arches, looking like those of a traditional European gothic cathedral but devoid of two dimensional decoration and in a much better state of repair. The school year being over, there weren't many students working, but the few who were reminded me of Jack Nicholson typing on his typewriter in a big empty lodge. My only problem with the Cathedral of Learning was that it had been cleaned since the last time I'd really looked at it (back in the late 80s or early 90s), and I'd thought that the black grime from industrial-age coal smoke had given it a fittingly-sinister patina.
The post-graduation lunch happened at a vegetarian restaurant called Quiet Storm (out in that sketchy neighborhood near the Indian restaurant we'd been to yesterday). I knew I was going to like Quiet Storm the moment I saw that every table had its own bottle of Sriracha (aka "Rooster Sauce"). (Outside foodie culture, a love of Rooster Sauce seems to be a generational thing; the only other person in our large contingent excited about its presence was its youngest non-infant, Gretchen's 23 year old cousin Holly, who now lives in Oklahoma.) I ordered a build-your-own burrito that was delicious and ended far too soon. Most of the other people at the table ordered glicky breakfast meals featuring lots of egg and cheese. As always, I had to avert my eyes in order to enjoy my meal. (Though I still find meat appetizing enough not to require eye-aversion when I see it being eaten.)
The others left and said their goodbyes and then it was just me and Gretchen's parents, who would be taking us to the airport. On the way out of town, we stopped first on the Strip (for a visit to the Penzey's spice shop) and then downtown (to walk around amid the mirrored and otherwise-glazed buildings of PPG Place. Glass covered nearly everything there except the sidewalk, from a gothic-inspired skyscraper to a stegosaur the size of Subaru Outback.
Eventually Gretchen and I found ourselves going through airport security at the Pittsburgh airport. She was wondering if she'd have any problems getting her empty metal pie pans through (they'd had no problem going the other way when full of tart), but that wasn't the problem Homeland Security focused on. Instead they freaked out about the presence of an inch of water in her metal water bottle. She loves that bottle and didn't want to throw it out, so they made her go out and then back through security again, not even offering to let her dump out the bottle in a water fountain. Because, you never know, it could have contained some sort of special fluid that backed up the entire Pittsburgh airport plumbing system but would only be effective if unleashed from behind the security checkpoint. Substitute your own idiotic explanation here. This obsession with zero-tolerance enforcement of the rules doesn't make me feel any fucking safer when I get on a plane; these guys are all fighting yesterday's war. Some day someone will smuggle a series of blades embedded as snap-apart cutouts in a metal pie pan and then Gretchen won't be able to fly tarts to Pittsburgh ever again.
We'd arrived earlier than expected at the Pittsburgh airport, so we managed to take an earlier flight to Washington than originally planned. Unfortunately, though, there was no earlier flight to Albany available. So we had over an hour to kill in National Airport (which is how our stewardess referred to it). The only indication that it was living up to its unwanted name, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, was that one had to pay for WiFi (free WiFi would have been socialist!). Whenever I would jokingly used its whole name, Gretchen would hold her hands to her ears and beg me to stop. But I was actually pronouncing it "Rahrayguh National Airport."
Eventually Gretchen and I found ourselves in a Gordon Biersch franchise. I remember Gordon Biersch from the time I lived in San Diego, when it presented itself to the backwards baseball cap crowd as a microbrew for douchebags (or, as Kim and I referred to them at the time, schteves). In the context of Washington National Airport, it was just another place to get drinks and French fries; none of the restaurants near our boarding gate sold vegan entrées. So we ended up tying one on over a big bowl of greasy fries. Each of us had both a watery bloody mary and a beer. By the end I could tell Gretchen was drunk because she'd developed that slight drunken lilt that she gets on the very rare occasions when she drinks to excess.
The Carnegie Music Hall lower balcony viewed from the highest balcony immediately above. The bald man with a camera in the center there is Gretchen's father.
Gretchen with our handy borrowed baby in the colonnade.
Views from near the top of Pitt's Cathedral of Learning.
"Having fun is fun," a stencil tag on the sidewalk outside Quiet Storm. Gretchen and I were delighted by this because "Having fun is fun!" is one of many ridiculous things we ventriloquise into our dogs' mouths, and it's not something we'd ever expected to actually hear from anyone else.
Children's art at Penzey's Spices. Evidently Penzey's has found a way to manage the boredom of children as parents hunt for spices, and it involves tapping their creativity. I looked for awhile at all these designs trying to come up with the one I would judge as "best in show" and clearly the best of them all was an abstract rainbow design made with small, regular crayon strokes.
Gretchen gets advice from the mirrored stegosaur at PPG Place.
An unmirrored but creatively meta-designed fossil tyrannosaur at PPG Place. A sign read "do not climb on the dinosaur," though normally such a sign would have read "do not climb on the sculpture/artwork."
The 40 foot center piece of PPG Place.
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