Doing Donuts in the Housing Projects

August 10, 2009

“I’ve heard the metaphor ‘the other side of the tracks’ in other cities before, but that is a literal thing here!”  – Bill Burr commenting on Homestead, PA

Essentially my whole life has been spent living in the South Hills of Pittsburgh.  There are several different areas and municipalities, but generally speaking, it’s very homogenized.  Overwhelming white majority, middle-high income, good school districts, low violence.  All in all, it is a fantastic place to grow up.

I call myself a Pittsburgher, yet I barely know the rest of the city.  Luckily, through stand-up comedy I have had my eyes opened a few times to other areas of my hometown.

I was performing at the Genuine Pub, a local bar in Verona on the northeast side of Pittsburgh.  Some people lump the bar in with Penn Hills, but the customers insisted they lived in Verona.

“How can you tell the difference?” I asked an audience member while onstage.

“It’s Verona until they start shooting.  Then it’s Penn Hills.”  They were exaggerating a bit, but still…

Much to my mom’s dismay, my comedy career had already led me to some questionable areas of the city.  I remember walking through a back alley in East Liberty to a venue called the Shadow Lounge.  I nearly messed my pants when some dude popped out of a dumpster like Oscar the Grouch and started yelling jibberish at me.  I quickened my pace and vowed that I would buy myself a Tazer the next day.

The Shadow Lounge was the same place where a riot nearly broke out at a hip-hop show that preceded a comedy open-mic.

As I parked my car near the venue, a few inner city high school kids spilled out onto the street.  I cracked my window a bit and tried to listen to what the whole scuffle was about.  I’m nebby like that.  Apparently some girl was being a b*tch and the other girl didn’t like it.  She maintained that she was about to get “really real right now!”  Then about 45 other kids came pouring through the door and it began to look like a G-20 summit protest, except without all the free trade coffee.

I had never seen a fight as large as this one about to take place.  It had some destructive potential for sure.  So I did the whitest thing possible; I started my car, drove around the block and parked at the PNC bank lot, and listened to the Penguins game.

After about 15 minutes, I figured that the melee must have dispersed so I started to walk back to the venue.  I turned the corner and everyone was still there and they were whipped into a frenzy!  Determined, I kept walking to the door of the Shadow Lounge.  I nudged my way through the crowd avoiding eye contact with anyone.  I made it inside and found my buddy Terry Jones in there waiting for me.

“Geez, that was rough!” I said.

“You did the right thing man,” Terry replied.  He used to be a bouncer in Alabama, so he knew how to navigate those situations.  “I’ve seen too many white people like you try to get involved in that stuff.  It’s a bad decision.”

“What are you supposed to do?” I asked.

“Just like you did; mind your business.  Whatever is going on out there doesn’t concern you at all.”

It was stories like that one which made my mom a bit apprehensive when I would travel into uncharted territories.

However, I had been to the Genuine Pub in Verona a few times before and absolutely loved it.  I still say that the people that go to that bar radiate contagious optimism.  You just get good vibes from a place like that.  And everyone there has always been very supportive.

Anyway, a show was going on and Terry was hosting.   He was trying some new political jokes that were getting mixed reactions.  He had to introduce the night’s second to last act: Billy Braddock.

Billy was pretty active in the comedy scene back then.  I remember the first time I saw him he absolutely killed at a bar show, then afterwards asked me to jump his car cause it died.  That was essentially his reputation: a good comic who was usually an inconvenience.

Billy had a so-so set.  He started to blame Terry’s new jokes for his lack of a crowd reaction.

“I gotta follow this kid doing jokes about Democrats and illegal immigration?  What the f*%k?”

Billy got off the stage and proceeded to take full advantage of the complimentary chicken wings that the bar provided.  He was not a small man either by any stretch of the imagination, so he packed as many in as possible.  Terry took the stage and was understandably offended.  Usually if someone has a bad set, you’re not supposed to mention it unless you are the MC, or if it was so horrendously bad that by not addressing it, you would be avoiding the elephant in the room.  Terry started laying into Billy about it.

“Blaming me for his stupid-ass jokes.  Big fat bastard better watch that he doesn’t choke on a chicken bone.”

Billy was late for the show to begin with because he didn’t have a car to drive to Penn Hills.  Another comic drove him out there.  Inconvenient.

“Hey man,” he says to me while Terry is still on stage.  “I gotta go.  I need to get out of here.  Can you drive me home?”

“Why?” I asked.

“That dude’s gonna start some stuff tonight bro,” he replied, visibly shaken.  “I’m not trying to get killed by that dude tonight.”

He thought Terry was going to beat him up.  I was a little bit bewildered.  Terry was making fun of him, but it didn’t seem like it would degenerate into physical violence.  However, I could empathize with him.  If I were in the same position, maybe I would want to leave as well.

Billy stuffed about twelve more wings into a couple of napkins and we left.

“I just live a few minutes away.”

As we drove, I realized that his slow metabolism probably also warped his perception of time.  We drove for twenty minutes going through increasingly nasty-looking portions of the Steel City.  We ended up in Braddock, a once thriving mill community that had been hit particularly hard once the US started outsourcing steel production.  The houses were boarded up and the streets were marred with graffiti and garbage.

“You can just let me out here,” he said as I pulled up to a nondescript stoplight.

“Do you live here?”

“Uh…yeah.  Sure.”  He picked up his chicken-stuffed napkins, exited the car, and disappeared into the night.

Now I was alone in Braddock with no idea where I was going.  I tried to drive back the way I came but the surroundings seemed unfamiliar as I backtracked.  I passed the shell of the old Carrie Furnace bathed in the dusty yellow of train track lights.  It looked like a nice little spot if you wanted to get murdered by zombie cannibals.

Next thing I knew, I was lost in Braddock at 12:30 at night.  The surroundings reminded me of Detroit in Robocop, where the city has become a run-down corporate controlled dystopia.  I had no clue how to get home.  A GPS System?  “I’d buy that for a dollar!*”

I just decided to keep going somewhere and eventually I’d run into a highway.  But it never happened.  I have since come to the realization that every instinct I have when it comes to driving directions is dead wrong.  I turned down a long dark road but was met with a fence and train tracks.  I threw it in reverse and turned down the first place I could find, just to get my bearings back.  I looped around a large parking lot a few different times.

I somehow realized that I was doing donuts in a housing project.

The little I knew about housing projects I had learned from rap music, which consistently paints a pretty bleak picture.  Coincidentally, I was listening to Mobb Deep on my i-pod, which did little to alleviate my fears.

“It’s the start of your ending…”  – Mobb Deep

Now some would can call me ignorant or insensitive but I think most would call me practical when I made the decision to get the hell out of there.

It’s pretty sad when a 22 year old has to call his dad at 1:00 AM, to ask for directions.  Mike Konkle was jostled out of his REM sleep as I described my whereabouts.  He had always been a guiding light in my life and always had the answers.

“Uh…,” he groaned.  “I don’t know.  Look for a bridge or something.”


Well that wasn’t very inspiring.  But I did what he said and sure enough I came to the Rankin Bridge and crossed it, not knowing if the situation was about to get worse.  I turned right and suddenly there it was, my bastion of hope, my North Star: the Waterfront shopping complex.

I’ve never been so relieved to see a Costco in my entire life.  I had made the trip down to the Waterfront a number of times, so I knew exactly how to get home.

As I drove through, I came to appreciate the dichotomy of the area.  A huge upscale shopping center was plunked right in the middle of Homestead, a semi-depressed satellite city of Pittsburgh.  There was no gradual build to the retail Shangri-la.  There was only a set of train tracks that separated the haves from the have-nots.

It’s those experiences that, for better or for worse make you appreciate your geography a little bit more.

* Robocop quote.  Appreciate it.

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