|"It was the best of times;
It was the worst of times…"
|How many have you heard this and wondered what this really meant?
In Pittsburgh, we lived through both of those times.
December 23rd, 1972 – The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Oakland Raiders in their first playoff win thanks to Franco Harris’ improbable, impossible, unimaginable “Immaculate Reception!”
Just eight days later (December 31st, 1972) Roberto Clemente dies on a mission of mercy in a plane wreck. The best of times had just become the worst of times. Merry Christmas & Unhappy New Year.
The Immaculate Reception had erased 40 years of futility for the Steelers and launched them into a dynasty. Roberto Clemente’s death had devastated a tiny island and tore the core of a city to an open wound that still needs to be carefully cleaned and bandaged every once-in-a-while.
|I was eleven years old. Roberto Clemente was my baseball God. There is not one person in Pittsburgh that was alive at the time, who cannot remember where they were when they heard the news of Clemente’s death. Roberto Clemente was not just a gifted athlete, a MVP, a batting champion, a phenomenal fielder with a legendary arm. He was regal. He was a talented artist, a Marine, a civil rights icon and a humanitarian envoy and now…a martyr.
This story, however, is not about Charles Dickens, Franco Harris or Clemente. This story is about my budding career as a Dormont Delinquent.
It was about six months after Clemente’s death and a new book had just come out about “The Great One,” Roberto Clemente. I wanted this book, I needed this book...
|I walked into Mead’s Pharmacy. There, on the spinning book rack, were ten copies of the paperback edition of “Roberto Clemente” by Jose Torres. I walked past the ice cream cooler and looked up to the register lady behind the candy counter. She was waiting on a customer and there was another in queue. I peered at the back of the store where the Pharmacist in his white frock was tending to a prescription. My 4’-8” frame disappeared behind the book rack. I slipped one of the paperbacks into my shirt, turned my back and then picked up a small transistor radio. I fiddled with the knobs for a moment and then put it back down and quietly shuffled out the door.
I turned left and after I cleared the store’s huge plate glass, I bolted as if thrown by Zeus his self! I ran as fast as I could to the “Sortino’s Breezeway,” three storefronts away and leaped down the stairs with such abandon that I almost bit concrete! The cut-through off the main drag exited into the prevalent alley system that Dormont is known for. Running with all the speed and abandon that an eleven-year old can muster, there was no way a pack of wild dogs would catch me! I was in fear gear by the time I reached the Arch’s house on the corner of Gaylord and Peermont Alley and it wasn’t until I hit Pinehurst before I looked back. Not one Sgt. Don Hasley in sight!
At this point, I was confident that I had gotten away with my petty crime. I sauntered down the rest of the way to the Piedmont Cowpath where I sat on the cement wall at the red barn garage. I pulled the book out of my shirt and, there on the wall, began reading about my Hero.
|I sat there for two solid hours reading. It was the greatest book ever written at that point of my life. It was now about three in the afternoon. I decided to cruise the neighborhood and see who else was around. On the hot, summer day, I could usually be found at Dormont Pool but I had a Little League game that night and I didn’t want to get too tired. So, I walked down the Piedmont Alley and began the north face ascent of the Biltmore hill. When I passed “Triangle TV,” I noticed the Watergate Hearings were still going on. “The President is a criminal! Hmm, I don’t feel so bad after all.”
I walked into the A.B. Charles Hobby Shop. I was hoping to catch one of my friends maybe racing their RC cars in the basement but, there were only a couple of old race geeks there. After perusing the shelves, I headed further down the road. I walked past the Grotto Bar, where Buggs Malone’s Pap would take us in for the best burger and a coke while he and the other old men would knock back Imp & Arns (Imperial Whiskey & Iron City Beer) while standing at the bar. Back then, they didn’t have bar stools.
I could hear the click and clack of Nick’s Pool Hall too. I was several years away from being a regular there. Then, as it was for most people, Nick’s was a scary place. No, there was only one place to go, Isaly’s!
|Elegantly dressed, with a wool jacket, knee length skirt, oversized, faux-pearl necklace, coifed to, at least, the 35th degree and, bright, red, fish-scale lipstick, her intimidation factor was hovering around the high three-digits! As I’m stammering for words and on the verge of shock, she allows, “I know why you took it, he was my hero too. But you know Roberto would have never stolen it.” The guilt that coursed through my veins slowed my heart beat. “Please give it back.” I pulled it from my seat and sheepishly handed it back to her dog-eared and covered in sweat, ice cream and jimmies.
She stood up, faintly smiled or smirked, if there is a difference and, spun on a heel and walked out. The sweat immediately escaped my body and I gulped all the air that I hadn’t used while she was there. To this day, I have not had a shock as electrocuting as that moment.
This was a full four hours after I left her store! Had she been following me all this time? Did she know I practically lived at Isaly’s and knew she would find me there eventually? Or, was she some kind of all-knowing Persephone? I don’t know and I never will.
Regretfully, I wish I could tell you that I went back and apologized or, that I went back and paid for the book or, that I repented my sinful ways and paid penance in the form of self-flagellation. This was not the case. What I did do is was much harder! For over a year, I took every pain to not cross in front of those Mead’s Pharmacy windows again!
|Isaly’s was maybe the greatest place on Earth, at least on my Earth. The cool air envelopes you as you enter its confines and the confections arouse your senses better than static electricity with the smell. Their Pittsburgh famous Chipped Ham was only the beginning. Moon Pies, Klondikes, Ho-Ho’s, baseball cards and, of course, the apex of delight, the Skyscraper Ice Cream Cone! Eight tall inches of carefully crafted and sculpted creamy delight in a sugar cone, Mmmhmmm! This missile of mouthwatering, melt-y magnificence, made every day worth living! I spent the extra nickel and got mine with jimmies.
Walking carefully to balance my Skyscraper, I take a seat near the back facing the back wall. I was slurping on my cone and paging through my book on my seat when, out of heaven itself, does someone plop themselves down in my booth across the table from me. I glance up…It is the Mead’s Register Lady!!!!!!!!
What a sight I must have been! With my hair that goes everywhere, eyes popped out of their sockets and a slack jaw chin slathered in vanilla ice cream and jimmies! She looks me dead in the eye with the hairiest eyeball since Medusa and says, “I saw you take it.”
|"It was the best of times; It was the worst of times…"|
|West Liberty Avenue - Dormont
Mead's Pharmacy Was Here
|THE IMMACULATE RECEPTION|
|The Object of Desire|
|The Getaway Route|
|Red Barn Garage|
|Triangle TV & A.B. Charles Hobby Shop in Background|
|The Author - 1972|