Last winter I went home to the States for five weeks. One of those weeks was spent criss-crossing the great state of Pennsylvania – a series of adventures now collectively referred to as the Pennsylvania Pitstop.
Saturday, January 7th, 2017: Mr. Rogers is a Saint, but Betty White is Fucking Metal!
When I woke up on an air mattress at Keith’s place the next morning (at some point you just have to accept the fact that your habits have become your lifestyle) it slowly began to dawn on me that I hadn’t actually met his girlfriend Ashley the night before. She was sick when I came in and didn’t want to meet one of Keith’s A-list friends while she was all congested and crudded up. (Translation: if you’re friends with Keith and you’ve seen Ashley sick, you’re probably not on the expensive Christmas gift list. You’ll be lucky if you even get a card, loser.) I felt a little strange creeping into the kitchen to introduce myself, especially when I realized that Keith wasn’t there. But, our first meeting went exceptionally well – how Keith landed either of us in his life is a mystery to us both – and Ashley wasted no time introducing me to her dog Presley, easily the coolest dog north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
When Keith got back from some early morning bullshit at the airport, we headed out for lunch at Essie’s Hot Dog Shop, which was basically a ballpark concession stand writ large. Hot dogs, Coke, and french fries in a red plastic basket. It was amazing. And it served as proof of my earlier observation that Pittsburgh was indeed a small town at heart.
After lunch, we did a little bit of sightseeing before meeting up with Keith’s friend Josh at the Heinz History Museum. I’ve done enough traveling to know that museums are extremely hit and miss, so believe me when I tell you that this one was a definite hit. Honestly, if you ever spend time in Pittsburgh try to visit this museum near the beginning of your trip. It’ll give you a nice overview of the city’s history and culture.
The first few floors were dedicated to Pittsburgh’s NFL team, the Steelers, as well as the industrial history which gave them their name. Among other things, we saw the shoes Franco Harris was wearing when he made the Immaculate Reception:
An exhibit honoring steel/textile tycoon Andrew Carnegie (more on him later):
Elektro and Sparko, a robot man-and-dog team that I first saw in one of my favorite books when I was a kid:
An electric chair that made me blurt out “Oh shit!” when I first saw it, much to the amusement of Keith and Josh.
A stuffed bear that I did my best impression of:
And, most exciting for a horror movie fan like me, George A. Romero’s director’s chair from the set of The Dark Half.
Then we got to the upper floors, which is where the magic really started to happen. Turns out, the museum has a whole floor showcasing the history of the Heinz Company and its long timeline of products. (I know that’s probably hard to believe with a name like ‘The Heinz History Museum,’ but believe me, it’s true.) I’m a huge fan of food labels, packaging, and marketing – especially for vintage products – so this was like Disney World for me. Old bottles and crates and posters and collectible items galore. (Yes, I’m one of those people who spends an hour in the Cracker Barrel store every time I drop in for chicken ‘n dumplings.)
And then – then! – just when we thought we’d seen it all and were about to leave, Keith wondered aloud, “Hey, I wonder what’s on the next floor.” …To think we’d almost missed our chance to see the set of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
The exhibit was set up in such a way that we didn’t see the set as soon as we came off the elevator. First, we had to go around a corner and pass the tree where Mister Rogers’s owl friend used to live.
Then we saw the set, complete with the living room where Mister Rogers would always change into his trademark shoes and cardigans, the Land of Make Believe ruled by good King Friday, and the tiny trolley that shuttled viewers back and forth between the two.
It’s weird to admit this, dear readers, but the three of us actually fell into a state of reverential awe at the sight of these things. It was like we had all walked back into our kindergarten classrooms 30 years later and found nothing out of place. After all the changes and difficulties and disappointments that have taken place in our lives between childhood and the present day, it was incredible to see that this good, gentle little world where we all grew up still existed. I think we all got a little misty-eyed.
Feel free to poke fun at us about that if you want to, but first I encourage you to watch this video of Mister Rogers at his Hall of Fame induction. Hopefully you’ll understand that it wasn’t an act with this man. Fred Rogers was truly a saint. Get your Kleenex ready, bitches.
It was a nearly impossible act to follow, but there were a few other things worth seeing on the Mister Rogers floor, including some old carnival attractions and religious iconography.
After the museum we headed off for a Big Lebowski-style bowling alley.
Had drinks and bowled a few games with some of Keith’s other friends – all great people who then joined us for dinner at the Church Brew Works.
Now, the Church Brew Works. This might take a little explaining. As its name suggests, it’s a brew pub built inside a deconsecrated Catholic church. This means that people can now eat, drink, have conversations, and take selfies in the very spots where other people once knelt, prayed, and confessed their sins. It’s huge. Clearly, this wasn’t just some little tourist-y church for people in t-shirts and shorts back in the day. This was a church where immigrants and steel workers came for some real-ass Catholicism. I’m talkin’ about that serious pre-Vatican II, Baltimore Catechism, Latin mass, women wearing veils, fasting all day on Sunday, burning incense, and side altars kind of stuff.
Somehow, even on a Saturday night, we ended up in one of the best seats in the house: a semi-circular booth inside a large alcove that probably housed devotional candles or statues at one time. I had the buffalo meatloaf and a local beer I can’t remember the name of.
After patiently listening to me explain the architecture and purpose of various parts of the building, Keith grinned and asked if I thought we were going to Hell for eating there. “Not yet,” I said…But an hour or so later, we were well on our way.
Most of our party decided to head home after dinner, but, Keith being Keith, he was determined that we should do a little bar-hopping first. Specifically, he wanted to take me to a metal bar called Howlers. He said he’d always wanted to go there, but he needed me to come with him for “cred” (as if my appearance screams “Metal!” any more than his does). Sure enough, though, I was immediately embraced by all the show promoters and musicians, who couldn’t believe that “a guy from fucking South Korea” was in the audience.
I caught the second half of a stoner/sludge metal set and then a full show by It Is Written. (Follow the link and check them out, fellow metalheads.)
Keith and Josh, not even remotely interested in the music, passed the time at the bar in the next room where, of all things, The Golden Girls was playing on two large-screen TVs. That’s right. Songs of death and carnage in one room; “Thank You for Being a Friend” in the other.
“You know something?” Keith told me as we staggered out a few hours later. “Betty White is fucking metal!” And just like that, the Pennsylvania Pitstop had its first official catch phrase.