Virtue and Mischief


The mysteries of Pittsburgh

By Tim Swensen



In August of last year I wrote a “Virtue and Mischief” column entitled “You Can’t Get There From Here,” a little essay dedicated to the contagion of road construction that had invaded Darke and nearby counties that summer.

In one brief section of the essay I compared the (usual) ease of navigating Darke County roadways to the psychosis-inducing exercise of getting around one of my favorite cities, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Let me quote a part of last year’s column: “If there’s a more difficult city to navigate than beautiful Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, then I don’t want to experience it. The geography of the metropolis—thousands of undulating hills and valleys wrapped around the three major rivers that cut through it and ultimately converge in its center—creates of necessity a swirling morass of roads, streets, and avenues whose desultory paths can vex even the most experienced traveler… I don’t boast about my now healthy batting average moving from point A to point B of the city—that’s a surefire invitation for humiliation or worse (‘pride goeth before a fall’, after all)—and I always reserve for myself a mulligan or two during any junket there.”

Well, I returned for another business/pleasure visit with two of the amigos (Abby and Luke) last week and received my humbling, aggravating, and deserved comeuppance.

I decided to reserve a room in a hotel I was not familiar with, in the Oakland section of the city—where the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University are situated. I did this primarily because it was equidistant from all the other sites we planned to visit while there. Because I’d enjoyed such good fortune in our recent trips to “the Burgh”, I got cocky when printing out the hotel’s location on mapquest. “I see it’s on a main thoroughfare,” I thought to myself. “No need to print out a hyper-specific map depicting things at a street by street level—I just need a general picture of where it is and I’ll be fine.” Big, big mistake.

So last Wednesday morning Luke, Abby, and I bade Krista, Daniel, and Graystripe farewell and boarded my Ford Fusion. We made our way east on I-70, grateful for the clear skies and manageable traffic that greeted us. During our trek Abby and Luke did what Abby and Luke do—played video games, bickered about whatever they could find to bicker about, talked, bickered some more, read books, bickered, and asked about food.

After a quick lunch break in Zanesville, we proceeded and I estimated we’d arrive in the mid-afternoon, providing plenty of time to relax a bit—maybe even take a dip in the indoor pool—before driving to a relative’s home in the Forest Hills section of town. We breezed through eastern Ohio, a narrow strip of West Virginia, and a wedge of western Pennsylvania before emerging through the Fort Pitt tunnel right on schedule. From there I made a laundry list of errors, beginning with the decision to go through a particular strip of downtown instead of a less direct but more comprehensible-to-mere-mortals pathway along the northern edge of the Monongahela.

Let’s now dispense with the specifics of my navigational miscues. There were so many I lost track and, indeed, I doubt I could adequately describe them even if I could recall them all. I looped around a northern strip of downtown and promptly fell prey to all the charming demons the city holds in store for those visitors bold (moronic?) enough to attempt to conquer it by the seat of their navigational pants.

Roadways that bend and wind in all directions, like a snake slowly uncoiling itself; streets and boulevards that abruptly dead-end at the base of one of the 400 bridges that traverse the city’s rivers and railroad tracks; viaducts, abutments, train tracks and construction-induced detours everywhere; absent street signs, or street signs that are bent at such an angle you’re not sure if they’re marking the street you’re currently on or the intersecting street you’re approaching, or street signs that are maddeningly obscured by tree foliage.

My personal favorite—streets that end at a T-intersection one moment, only to reappear after a jog a few blocks in one unknown direction or another. It was this delicious little attribute of the city that drove me over the edge on Wednesday afternoon.

After making nearly an hour’s worth of wrong and otherwise ill-fated turns, I finally found the road we needed: Bigelow Boulevard. I was excited. My back and bladder were thrilled. Abby and Luke were relieved.

“Dad’s not (quite) going to go crazy,” they surely thought. “We will live to see another day!”

And then Bigelow Blvd. evaporated into the maw of another avenue. Gone. Pffft. Steam wafted out of my ears and my blood pressure skyrocketed. I’m not certain, but I think I emitted a facial tic.

“WHERE THE _____ IS BIGELOW BOULEVARD?!?” I bellowed. Abby and Luke seemed struck in equal parts by the absurdity of our situation (so close and yet so far!) and the spectacle of their temporarily insane father, and guffawed uncontrollably. Luke, seizing on a situation in which he could make his sister laugh by imitating me with impunity, executed a spot-on impression of the old man under pressure. Fortunately for all of us, I miraculously found our hotel by his third or fourth iteration of “WHERE THE _____ IS BIGELOW BOULEVARD?!?”, each one followed by reflexive, heart-felt gales of amigo laughter.

Sigh. I had to admit that I was a fitting target, and now we have a new piece of family lore—a little tale Abby and Luke like to refer to as “The Bigelow Blvd. Fiasco”. As for the laughter at my expense, it’s a small price to pay to halt the bickering. As both the past and the future will attest, I’m happy to foot that bill almost any time.

Timothy Swensen is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at tswensen1@udayton.edu. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.

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The mysteries of Pittsburgh

By Tim Swensen

Timothy Swensen is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at tswensen1@udayton.edu. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.

Timothy Swensen is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at tswensen1@udayton.edu. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.