The Strangers Who Saved Me

From the mid-1960’s until 1987, one of the most popular shopping malls around Pittsburgh was Allegheny Center Mall in the North Side neighborhood of town.  It was a basic rectangular two-story design complete with an indoor, two-level parking garage directly under the mall.  I remember as a boy my brother Dan and I would tag along when our mother and our grandmother decided to shop there.  They had a variety of stores there, but one of the places I remember spending a lot of time in was Sears.

Even though I was very young in the 1970’s and 1980’s, I remember the vibe Sears had compared to the modern-day big box purgatory it has become.  The Sears of 35 years ago had the department store atmosphere of Target mixed with the product quality of Kohl’s.  It was a much nicer place to shop back then, and my grandmother loved to take her time and look at everything when she ventured out with us.

As a four-year-old in 1979, my grandmother’s appetite for perusing wore heavy on my level of patience, which of course back then was none.  I remember on occasion my mother yelling at me to remain close to her, fearing that I would run off and become lost in the store.  Around this time I developed an unhealthy habit of crawling under circular clothing racks and hiding in the middle of all the items on the rack.  Winter coats were my favorite; the added bulk allowed for a better hiding spot.

On one occasion just prior to Christmas in 1979, I decided to hide among the winter coats.  My mother and grandmother were apparently distracted by something and did not notice I was missing.  After a few minutes under the clothing rack, I noticed it became very quiet.  Upon crawling out of the fixture, I realized I was alone in that particular area of Sears.  Panicked and afraid of getting in trouble, I ran in between the clothes racks in hopes of catching up with my family before they knew I wandered off.  A good plan set forth by a four-year-old, but there was one problem:

I ran the opposite direction from them.

I can still remember vividly standing in a main side-aisle with the tile floor near the first-floor entrance to the mall from Sears.  I wondered if my family walked out into the mall to shop at other stores.  Completely terrified of all of the strange people around me and knowing that this was truly the first moment in my life that I was on my own, I stood there and started to cry.  A few seconds later, I heard a man’s voice:

“Hey little guy, it looks like you are lost.”

He was probably twenty-five but no older than thirty.  He had short, wavy brown hair typical of that era with a light brown coat and wore eyeglasses.  A woman was with him, presumably his girlfriend or wife.  She was about the same age, wore bell-bottom jeans and had long, straight brown hair.  I couldn’t convey my thoughts on attractiveness at the time, but I remember she was very pretty.  It was noticeable.

I confided to the man that I indeed was lost.  During this, I remembered him talking to me at my level, getting down on one knee to talk to me face-to-face.  It was unconsciously comforting and I remember reading from multiple stories through the years that children’s television pioneer and advocate Fred Rogers would do the same thing while talking to children.  Born out of this moment of fear, I have always tried to talk to children in the same manner when comforting them and to let them know that they have my full attention.

I never spoke to the woman, but I remember the three of us didn’t move from that spot right away.  I don’t know why, but it could have been they were hoping my family would arrive to see me, or the woman was informing an employee of my situation.  I only spoke to the man.  Apparently he learned from me that I became lost from my mom in Sears, so a plan was hatched to walk back into Sears instead of taking me out into the mall.

The man picked me up.  He stated that the three of us will go back into Sears, and when I saw my mom, I would point to her right away.  I calmed down a little bit at this point knowing that there was a chance I would get to see my family again.

The most vivid part of this tale is when we rounded the bend on the same side aisle I ran parallel to a few minutes earlier.  Looking ahead of us, I saw my mother, grandmother and my brother’s stroller with him inside of it.  It was one of the only times I remember my mom running.  My grandmother would have if she could, but she was pushing Dan in the stroller.  The man asked if this was indeed my mother, and I told him that it was her.

My mom expressed her thanks to the man and woman for bringing me back to her.  Mom told me many times over the years that this moment was one of the most frightening ordeals she encountered in her life.  It was ten minutes of time, but to her each minute felt like an hour.  She never got their names, but she will always remember them.


I hope that somehow in this universe there is a way I can personally say thanks to that man and woman who kept me safe in a time of complete vulnerability.  Maybe without knowing, I already crossed paths with them, helping them out in a time of need.  I know how old they would be now and I wonder if they stayed together, having a family of their own.

Without knowing it at the time of our encounter nearly forty years ago, I might have helped them at that very moment.  Perhaps, that look of sheer terror on my face stuck in their memories, and when it became time for them to have children of their own, they kept their kids close to them when going to public places.


The Colorless Life Of My Father

My parents grew up in Pittsburgh’s South Side neighborhood during the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Like many other ethnically diverse places in the United States at that time, city neighborhoods often were divided up between African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics, Italians, Poles, Irish, Jewish, German and many other ethnic groups, dating prior to World War I.  Racism was everywhere in Pittsburgh then, even between nationalities that shared the same skin color.

My father lived in the epicenter of it all, nestled in a double-brick row house along Carey Way near South 18th Street.  At the age of fourteen, Dad took a newspaper carrier job, delivering the Pittsburgh Courier for a few years before working in a butcher shop during his final years of high school.

The Pittsburgh Courier was one of the leading African-American newspapers in the United States during its publishing between 1910 and 1966 (New ownership has called the newspaper New Pittsburgh Courier since 1966-67).  Its customers on the South Side were on the east end of “The Flats” between South 26th Street and South 29th, and a few houses that snaked up the back half of “The Slopes” on Josephine Street.  It was quite a walk from Dad’s house, especially carrying 30 to 40 papers eight city blocks and then climbing the hill toward the end of his route.

Each week, he collected the money due from each customer and turned his receipts into his supervisor.  He also thanked his customers for the extra money they gave him during Christmas.  Dad never told me how my grandparents felt about his first job, but he did tell me about the reaction he got from some of his friends.  His friends couldn’t understand how Dad could work for a black newspaper publication, a black supervisor and interact “with all the blacks” on the back half of the South Side.

To Dad, his customers were people.  People like all of the Polish families he knew from church and school, smashed between South 13th and South 20th.  People like the thousands of mill workers that walked to their jobs at all hours of the day.  Dad had a very progressive attitude toward race relations, especially in the turbulent era that he was a witness to.

During his time in the United States Navy, Dad continued to encounter people that had a difficult time accepting others that were of a different skin color.  Dad did his best to avoid these individuals and went on to meet many good, hard-working, disciplined men while he was stationed at Pearl Harbor, San Diego and doing reserve work in Philadelphia.  All of the guys were from different economic and cultural backgrounds, but Dad just saw men.  Not black men, white men, Latino men, California neo-suburban men and men with a southern drawl, just men–his Navy buddies.


The most memorable story Dad shared concerning race relations occurred in 1969.  Racial tensions were at an apex in the United States and Pittsburgh had its share of police-involved fights and riots.  At that time and through the early 1970’s, Dad would occasionally travel to Philadelphia for four weeks to do reserve work and complete his duty to the Navy.

One particular summer day, Dad decided to leave the barracks in South Philly and walked north on South Broad Street.  He heard from another reservist that there was a small jazz club and bar not too far from base, and that they had live performances daily by local artists.  A marine happened to hear Dad’s conversation and insisted he accompany Dad to the club to catch a few drinks.  Dad didn’t mind the company, but he soon realized that the marine was a “tough guy”, telling him heroic tales from his time served during the ongoing Vietnam War and apparently doing his best to emasculate Dad on their walk to the club.

The two of them arrived at the club.  They paid a small cover charge and made their way toward the bar.  They each got one beer and found a spot to sit down.  As Dad started to take in the music, the marine pokes at him to get his attention.  Confused, Dad wanted to know why the marine had a scared look on his face.

“What?  What’s wrong?”

“Look around.  They are all staring at us.  We’ve got to get out of here.”

“Who’s they?  Who’s staring?”

The marine, who just ten minutes prior was telling Dad about his heroism and strength in combat was frightened of the fact that he and Dad were the only two white men among approximately fifty black men.  Annoyed, Dad told the marine to shut up, drink his beer and listen to the music.  After a few songs, it was clear to Dad that the marine was squirming to leave the club, so they left despite Dad’s wishes to stay.  Dad felt that the marine’s uneasiness was drawing more attention to them than the music.  Dad was pissed at the marine, and despite being fifty pounds lighter and six inches smaller, told him how he felt.

“So you’re a big, tough marine, huh?  We’re all in there for the same reason, to listen to music, and all you saw was a bunch of black guys that were going to beat your ass.”

The marine didn’t say much to Dad on the walk back.  Going to the club Dad said he couldn’t talk enough about himself.  The same, ugly preconceptions that some of Dad’s friends had instilled in them years before were shared by the marine years later.  Stereotypes that kept people apart instead of bringing people together.


Before going to preschool, when my son was home or being watched by my in-laws, he noticed that people were different but treated everyone the same.  Now that he has gone to school, he has learned some not-so-nice preconceptions about race, gender roles and class structure.  When pressed on where he obtained such “knowledge”, he has stated that his classmates tell him these things.  This is proof that parents can have influence on the lives of others beyond their children.

In the coming years, I will continuously teach my son what my father taught me:  Don’t see the person by their color, ethnic background or by how much money they have…see them for who they are as a person.  If a person is good, then be like that person…no matter what color their skin is, man or woman, rich or poor…follow their example.

On My 15,146th Day (In Iambic Pentameter)

Raised in a town known for steel and rebirth,

The product of parents who choked on its ashes,

Groomed to be virtuous among the broken and strife

Yet fell–engrossed in the fears of my home and its streets.


The awkward transition to grow mature and with purpose,

Wasting my youth in attempts to find manhood,

Searching six years beyond broken and lost,

A path was made clear through the trials and the errors.


The feeling of love brought forth a new passion,

True to my heart I pushed on through rough waters,

Intent on a life to expand my forced boundaries,

Content to pursue my dreams in tight quarters.


My son is my rock, my ground is kept stable,

His pursuits are now mine, my goals are left burning,

Purpose was found, my life loved while held down,

He will know my mistakes, shared space will bring triumph.

Our Son’s First “Party Foul” (At Age 3)

On a Friday night in early December of last year, my wife was invited to a wine-tasting party.  It was to be at a house on the other side of our subdivision, which wasn’t far from our house at just under one mile.  These parties are usually reserved for adults, but my wife was told that she could bring our son along to play in the downstairs game room.  There would be other kids attending the event, so my wife agreed to take him along as long as I went too.


I know this party meant a lot to my wife, so I agreed to accompany her and our son with the intent of watching him play alongside the other kids in the game room.  Our boy was three at the time and to this day acts shy around strangers, so I knew my presence there would help him become acclimated to the unfamiliar surroundings.

We arrived in one car and went inside the house.  All of the women attending the party were sitting around on the main floor and the children were downstairs running around with only one adult watching over them.  I carried our son down the basement stairs since he was too afraid to move freely in this unfamiliar environment.  I weaved through various toys and kids in search of an open area where we could observe the chaos, and I located a open spot toward the back of the game room.

On the wall closest to us was a bookshelf that contained books (duh) and pieces of sports memorabilia.  I scanned the lower shelves to see if there was anything fragile in hopes that I could move items that might be subject to destruction via three year-old.  The only breakable item was a commemorative plate honoring Roberto Clemente, arguably the greatest Hispanic baseball player and greatest player for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  The plate was seated on top of a small pedestal, which held the plate in place.

Before I could take a few steps to move the plate up a few shelves, a boy came over to our son and handed him a small football.  The boy was about the age of five, and he wanted our son to play with him.  Our son was surprisingly receptive; he accepted the ball from the boy and seemed eager to play with him and the other kids.  He didn’t cling to me like he did when we first arrived, so it looked like my night was going to be easier than I thought.

As the boy moved back to receive the ball, our son slowly turned his body and brought his arm back to throw the ball.  It was a very nice throw; there are six and seven year-old kids that don’t have the graceful mechanics of our little boy.  He threw a perfect spiral…right between Roberto’s eyes.

The plate immediately came crashing down to the tile floor, shattering into a few dozen pieces.  At the same exact moment, a collective groan was let out by everyone in the room, alerting our son to the fact that the broken plate was a terrible outcome as a result of his throw.  I didn’t yell at him because I knew he didn’t mean to do it.  The gesture from the boy to allow our son to play with him was very nice.

Our son began to cry uncontrollably.  He buried his head into my shirt and it muffled the sounds of his unrelenting wail.  I tried to remind him that I wasn’t mad at him for breaking the plate but he continued to sob and hide his face in embarrassment from all of the strangers in the room.  The situation bothered me so much that I actually had tears in my eyes.  I knew our son would have wanted to stay home and build puzzles with me and run around the house.  When he started to calm down, he made a declarative statement that I knew I couldn’t deny him:

“I want to go home.”

My wife was drinking wine so she wasn’t going to be fit to drive at that particular moment, so I knew taking a quick trip in the car wasn’t a good idea.  I also knew my wife wasn’t going to walk the 0.8 miles home, weaving through the dark streets of our subdivision.  Hell, she has problems finding her way in the daylight around our neighborhood.  I had to walk home and carry our son even if there was a slight chance we would be locked out of the house.  We didn’t take extra house keys in case the garage doors malfunctioned, but I told my wife to keep the house keys with the car keys so she could let herself in the house if she couldn’t open up the garage.  Now that she needed some time to “dry out” before driving, there was a chance she would come home very late.  Everyone upstairs knew what happened since they all heard the loud crash of the plate smashing against the floor, so when I told my wife we were leaving she didn’t even fight me on it.

It was nice for a December night.  No wind, no snow or ice on the ground and not much car traffic in the neighborhood.  Our son was scared because it was dark, but he was pleasantly distracted by several houses that had very nice (and very bright) Christmas light displays.  We arrived back at the house and I was so happy that our garage door opener’s keypad worked in the correct manner.  We made our way upstairs to put on our pajamas and then headed over to the dining room table where we built some superhero puzzles together.


A person is usually guilty of their first “Ultimate Party Foul” between the ages of 16 and 25 since it usually happens while alcoholic beverages are consumed.  To determine if someone is charged with such a “crime”, three questions must be asked:

  1. Did a guest break an expensive item during their time at the party?
  2. Did the guest responsible for the damage provide money or services for replacing/repairing the broken item?
  3. Has the guest responsible for the damage been in contact with the party hosts since the incident occurred?

If you answer “yes” to question 1 and “no” to questions 2 and 3, then the UPF has taken place.  I apologized for the damage and the guy who owned the plate we broke told me it wasn’t that expensive.  He was probably saying that to be nice, but I was glad our son wanted to go.  He was capable of breaking more stuff in the game room and we were already giving them money upstairs via the wine party.  We never returned to the house, we never provided money to replace the plate and we have not spoken to the man or woman who lived there since that night last December.  Thanks to our son, my wife and I vicariously committed our first UPF.

God-willing I hope to hear our son talking to his friends in the 2030s about their party adventures during the time they spent in college.  When friends bring up our son’s first real “party foul”, I’ll tell them this “old man story” to let them know there was a time many years ago that our son “went big”, and then he went home.


The Ghost Who Snuggled With Me

Can a ghost story be funny?  Over the years I’ve had my share of the typical scary encounters that many people write and speak about.  My father had a very nice encounter that perplexed him until the day he died.  In 2008, my wife and I moved into a townhouse that would occasionally produce unexplainable occurrences.  So of course, I will now try to explain one of those occurrences during our four years at this location.

To be clear, my wife has had at least one experience with ghosts, but at the townhouse, she claimed that she never had any strange happenings while being there.  Me?  I had a few dozen bizarre tricks being played on me there, and they all happened during DAYLIGHT hours, when I was home alone.  I know–how convenient.

In my forty-one years I’ve lived in six different locations and the townhouse was the only living space that produced paranormal activity.  The place wasn’t that old (it was built in 1971), but the structure acted as if it had a storied history where people had a tendency to “stay” even though they “left”.  Most of the hauntings were enough to spook me but not in a mean-spirited manner of behavior.  Huge swings in temperature, lights flickering on and off (while other parts of the house were fine), a woman talking (usually one word but distinctively within the walls of the house) and the feeling of being watched were occasionally observed or felt.  The most severe of the incidents happened in 2009, about eighteen months in to our time at the house.

My wife has always worked a typical daylight job since we’ve been together, but I have not.  At the end of 2009 I was working a 4 p.m. to midnight shift and I didn’t see my wife that often (Some men would call this paradise.  I’m kidding.  Really.).  I would be home alone each morning, but I would usually sleep throughout the morning and into the early afternoon.  The sunlight coming through the windows didn’t bother me and we didn’t have a cat yet to wake me out of a deep sleep just so they could put their ass in my face.  Sleep was abundant, peaceful and sometimes, unnerving.

Around 10 a.m. one morning, I woke up, but I didn’t get out of bed right away.  Once I saw the time I knew I had a few more hours of sleep to get in before heading off to work.  Eventually I drifted back to sleep, and the next thing I remembered seemed like a dream.  I remember my eyes remained closed, my arm was draped over what seemed to be a woman’s body in the middle of the bed, her hair in my face and the smell of perfume.  Not old lady perfume but a sweet, light, flowery fragrance.  By the contour of the body and the scents I encountered, it felt like there really was a woman in bed with me.  A slender, sophisticated girl was spooning with me into the late morning at the house.  Eventually I became more conscious of the situation, but I was afraid to open my eyes.  At this point I knew I was awake and I felt someone/something was spooning with me in bed.  Eyes still closed, I lifted myself up, knelt upon the mattress, and opened my eyes–I couldn’t believe what I saw.

In bed, next to the location of where I was sleeping, there was an indentation in the mattress.  There was no person there, but the mattress provided a perfect outline of a female’s body snuggled up right next to where I was lying in bed.  The smell of perfume still resonated through the room and it wasn’t anything my wife would wear.  She wears “Chance” by Chanel and that’s a smell I’ve been around since we started dating in 2004.  Even though I was frightened, I was at the same time flattered by the experience.  Instead of screaming out and trying to banish what I couldn’t understand, I thanked it.  I’m convinced it was a woman, and I thanked her for appearing to me in a loving manner.  I believed she liked being around me and I told her she can stay in the house.  But I also told her that spooning with me scared me, and that I now know she was there in the house–there was no reason to manifest into a form anymore.

In the remaining 2 1/2 years we lived there, I never had another ghost snuggle with me and the hauntings went back to the milder fare I became accustomed to.  Often I thanked the ghost for letting us co-exist with her while we occupied that particular space in time.  I’m sure one day I’ll find out who she was when I have the opportunity to walk through the invisible veil amongst us and into another dimension.

Unless she met someone else…probably moved to Maryland or somewhere further south.




Chuck E. Cheese’s 1984: Where a kid can fight off teenagers to play arcade video games

For my 9th birthday in 1984, my parents took me to an establishment new to the Pittsburgh area that had plenty of games for kids and plenty of pizza for kids to eat.  Chuck E. Cheese’s was my funhouse as a child, and it looks nothing like the place I knew growing up over thirty years ago.

Each location in Pittsburgh had different activities for kids, and I appreciated the location west of town near Bridgeville.  Sure, they had an awesome ball pit and they had a cool and scary twisty slide (It would have been deemed unsafe in 2017, that’s for sure), but the real draw for me was that the Bridgeville Chuck E. Cheese’s had the best selection of arcade games to play under one roof.


My favorite arcade game

The original Chuck E. Cheese’s had the same types of games that are found in today’s locations–skee-ball, whack-a-mole, wheel of fortune and other games where the object is to earn tickets which are then redeemed for cheap toys.  Toys that might cost a few dollars elsewhere, but at Chuck’s they could be obtained with the tickets earned from $10 worth of skee-ball games.  Today’s locations have many more of the “ticket games” than actual arcade games.

At my old age, I was curious as to why the old Chuck’s had so many cool arcade games.  I discovered that Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari, Inc. was actually one of the original owners, and wanted the video game arcade to showcase many of the titles that Atari and its parent companies released.  What transpired in the arcade section of Chuck’s in the mid-1980’s was wonderful chaos.  In a place that was marketed to children ages 3 to 12, teenagers and college kids were lining up to play video games.

The arcade section was set up the same as other arcades in the 1980’s.  They were usually found at malls and amusement parks all across America.  Token machines were stationed throughout Chuck’s.  One token was worth twenty-five cents, and the majority of people playing the arcade games at Chuck’s would simply walk in, bypass all of the pizza and dinner theatre themed areas for the kids and spend $10 to $20 on the thirty to forty arcade games lined up in a U along the walls on one side of the main play area.  Some of the bigger cockpit-style video games were in the center of the floor, including two (TWO!!!) Pole Position games.

All of the games were not Atari games.  It seemed that Bushnell wanted whatever was hot to increase traffic and boost profits.  Many of the companies I remembered were very big names in the video game industry then and well represented at the Bridgeville Chuck’s.  In addition to Atari, they had Nintendo, Data East, Midway, Konami, Sega, Namco and Gottlieb.  Gottlieb was the video game equivalent of a “one hit wonder”, being responsible for the legendary game Q*Bert, which is pictured above.

By 1986 traffic declined at Chuck’s due to the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).  Previous home systems were mostly crude versions of the arcade games, but the NES combined fun games with better graphics.  Teenagers and college kids could buy an NES, play games at home all day and not have to worry about running out of money to play the machines at an arcade.  Even though there were less people playing the games, for a few years the machines stayed at Chuck’s.  Toward the end of the 1980’s, the Bridgeville Chuck’s had the following games in one location:

Donkey Kong, BurgerTime, Bump ‘N’ Jump, Rampage, Defender, Joust, Gauntlet, Space Invaders, Ms. Pac-Man, Pac-Man, Galaxian, Galaga, Dig Dug, Pole Position, Q*Bert, Frogger, Centipede, Paperboy, Marble Madness, Zaxxon, Out Run, Mario Bros. (The original, not Super Mario Bros.)

Chuck’s had other arcade games besides these, but I remembered these games well.  They were fun to play and I even enjoyed watching the older kids play them because I would learn the game before spending my money.  The 13-25 age group that hogged most of the games taught me which ones were the best to play so I could spend my $5 a little more wiser than I would have.  And sometimes, the older kids let me in on the action.

At my brother’s 8th birthday party in 1986, the Bridgeville Chuck’s got a multi-player Gauntlet machine.  It would allow for up to four players to run the game at once and team up to beat the enemies on each level.  I was 10 at the time and while I was walking through the arcade, a teenage boy about the age of fifteen asked me to be player four on Gauntlet.  I agreed even though I had no idea what I was doing.  The two other players with us were his friends, also around high school age.  During the game he taught me how to use the buttons and what areas to focus on attacking.  By the time we completed the game (We got about halfway through the game before we all ran out of money), there were a few other teenagers watching us run through the beginning levels.  Before the next batch of guys tried the new game, they were asking my new acquaintance and I about the game play features.  Not him and his friends–him and I.  Me, all of age 10.

The Gauntlet experience at Chuck E. Cheese’s taught me not to be afraid of unfamiliar environments.  Sometimes the people that seem intimidating end up being helpful, kind and welcoming.  If I would have said, “No, I don’t know how to play”, an early shred of confidence gained would have been missed out on, and it would have affected me going forward in life.

That fall, my friends at school wanted me to go out for the basketball team.  I never played before, but I remembered playing Gauntlet with the older kids, finding my place on a team and learning that new experiences didn’t have to be scary, unappealing situations.  I tried out for the team, made the team, and by the end of the year had become one of the better players.

So as you can see reader of this post, there is a lot to be learned from playing video games.  Happy 40th birthday Chuck E. Cheese’s, and thanks for the awesome place to learn the meaning of confidence.

Soothe: Nintendo lullabies, Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake and my young son’s love of them

There’s the old adage, “Write what you know.”  Many writers over time (Including Twain and Hemingway) have given this advice.  This tale can be titled Sing What You Know and/or Put On Music That Calms You Down When Calming Your Baby Down.  

My wife and I have one son who is age three right now.  When he was a newborn, he did the usual things a baby would do in its first year.  He woke up at night many times, pooped six times a day, required burping after bottles and wanted to be held the majority of the time.  We both worked during this period of his life so trying to get enough sleep was becoming more difficult.

I have a brother who is eight years younger that me, so I remember observing what my mother and father would do to calm my little brother down when he was crying.  Some would obviously work (Giving him a bottle because he was hungry) and some would not (Taking off/adding clothes when he just wanted held).  Over time my parents learned his cues and my brother didn’t cry as much as he got closer to his first birthday.

During those early desperate nights when it seemed we could not get enough sleep before going into work for a full day, we tried to understand our son’s needs in an attempt to get him back to sleep.  When it came time for me to take my turn in the waking up rotation, I wanted to sing my son back to sleep but I didn’t know any of the traditional lullabies people would sing to babies.  I wanted my wife to stay asleep, but I didn’t want our son to keep crying for thirty minutes.  I needed something to hum or sing that was repetitive, and there was only one type of music that came to mind in my state of sleep-deprived delirium:

Video game music from my old Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).

The first night I tried using NES music, I slowed down the background music used in the above-ground levels of 1986’s The Legend of Zelda.  It worked!  My wife would get so pissed that I could sing him back to sleep with the silliest method that would never be found in parenting advice books and blogs.  When our son didn’t want to hear the Zelda music, I slowed down the following music from other games (I challenge others to try this method to see if it works on other babies):

The podium win AND the “kick the can” music from Excitebike, above-ground music from Super Mario Bros., the game introduction/general background music from Bases Loaded and the count out/winner music from Mike Tyson’s Punchout.  I added a few from other platforms, including the original “hammer” music from Donkey Kong.

As my son got older and started going to day care, I had a problem keeping him happy in his car seat on the way home.  I always had CD’s of Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen in the car, so I would pop one in to see if the mellow folk music of Drake or Cohen would calm him down.  I could tell he was listening to the different instruments and the words being sung in the songs.  It was a sound completely different from what he heard in his early life.  After a few tracks, he would go to sleep.  If I knew he didn’t sleep well during the day, I would keep the music on and drive around for an hour to let him rest.

Even at three, my son remembers some of those drives home and knows their music well.  He has his own special names for each of his favorite tracks and when I pick him up from day care, we usually have Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left on when we drive home.  Instead of tossing a child’s DVD in the car and my son blankly staring at a small TV screen while we drive home, my son and I sing “Time Has Told Me”, we listen for the strings to kick in on “River Man”, all while looking out the car windows, seeing the birds fly, viewing the turkeys pecking at last year’s corn crop remnants and marveling at the big construction trucks when encountering road work being done.

I loved my old NES and when I have time again, I know I will eventually purchase the recently released Nintendo NES Classic Edition.  I love the music of Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen because their poetic songs bring calm to my worrisome existence.  The games and songs that have soothed my soul over the years have provided my son with the same feelings of comfort and familiarity in a unique form.


Carrick Classic Lanes: A south Pittsburgh relic immortalized by Hollywood

On a congested section of Brownsville Road in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Carrick, there is a simple double door tucked away just a few steps down the street from a local tavern.  Hundreds of people walk by this door every day, unaware that beyond the inner vestibule an old American “bowling house” awaits.  Alleys that hold precious memories in the hearts of many south Pittsburgh residents and were triumphantly portrayed in the 1996 film Kingpin.  Alleys that remain but are not in use like they were throughout the last half of the 20th century.  The name of this hallowed place?  Carrick Classic Lanes (CCL).

In 1995, the present day Roosevelt Elementary school along Brownsville Road was a vacant building.  The upper parking lot was only in full use when the patrons of Saint Basil’s Church used the lot during Saturday vespers, Sunday services and their annual festival.  So it was very surprising at that time when one dozen mobile-home trailers occupied that very lot for a week along with numerous box trucks scattered between West Cherryhill Street and CCL.  Eventually people in the neighborhood found out that parts of a movie were being filmed inside CCL with Woody Harrelson (Roy Munson) and Randy Quaid (Ishmael).

The two images above are from the downstairs of CCL.  Lanes 1-12 are upstairs when walking in the front door and the staircase just inside the front door to the left lead down to lanes 13-24.  In the movie, a fictitious exterior was used when Munson ventures into “Lancaster Bowl”.  After Roy enters the building, the next clip shows  Munson descending  the very same steps I walked down as a young city boy.  Here, Munson witnesses Ishmael bowling for the first time, and the partnership that is the foundation of the movie is born.

CCL not only had the look of an old-school 1950’s bowling house, it was a 1950’s bowling house that did not “modernize” their equipment or the aesthetics since its heyday.  My bowling ball would return to me with an occasional slice or gouge in it.  The ball returns were at alley level, whereas the newer bowling centers had their returns dropped below the lanes.  There was no computerized scoring at CCL and there wasn’t even overhead scoring projectors that were common in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  Scoring was done on paper and pencil.  From an insider’s perspective, I could understand the appeal of CCL to Hollywood. It was one of the last truly authentic bowling alleys in Pittsburgh.

When viewing Kingpin, the generations that are younger than my Gen-X self will have a hard time understanding how important bowling was to many Americans.  Professional and amateur leagues were far more abundant than the recreational, “cosmic bowling” participants that are fast becoming bowling’s majority moneymaker.  There were many fun characters that I used to encounter at each bowling house I rolled at and the old pro league on ABC and ESPN had just as many goofballs throwing strikes on TV.  Kingpin captured the essence of bowling’s finest hour:  It proves that bowling can be entertaining in its purest form.

In Pittsburgh and across the United States, some old-school bowling houses remain but many are gone.  Suburban bowling centers with a high amount of lanes, a high amount of gimmicks and high prices (To help pay for the gimmicks) continue to alienate the people who JUST WANT TO BOWL.  Even if my bowling manifesto fails to reignite a movement, a resin ball re-enlightenment, it gives me great joy that I can revisit my childhood bowling house, a place where bowling mattered, just by watching Kingpin.

My father used to tell me wonderful stories about his old bowling house on the South Side of Pittsburgh, which was Alvin’s Lanes.  I had to imagine what the place looked like since it closed in the mid-1970’s.  Hopefully one day when my son gets older, I can not only share my goofy bowling stories with him, but I can ACTUALLY SHOW HIM what CCL looked like.

In Kingpin, there is a scene where Munson is sitting with his legs open on an above-alley ball return at CCL between lanes 11 and 12.  Not paying attention, a ball rolls up to him, hits him in the nuts, and he collapses to the lanes below.  At the age of twelve in 1988, my 128.6 average self rolled a 212 on lane 12 at CCL in my catholic school bowling league.  It was my first 200 game and one of the fondest memories I have from that time in my life.  No matter what happens to CCL in the future, I am grateful that Kingpin will always grant me the opportunity to revisit the bowling house that I knew growing up in Pittsburgh.


Movie images are property of MGM Studios, Inc. and were found via Google Images

A great example of a classic bowling house with 21st century equipment/technology is Arsenal Lanes in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood.  Google Image THIS place!  Well done.

Alvin’s Lanes resided on the second and third floors of what is now Nakama Japanese Steakhouse on East Carson Street in Pittsburgh’s South Side.  One floor had ten lanes of duck pins, the other floor had ten lanes of ten pins. 

1917: A Discrimination Tale



All of my ancestors that decided to come and start a new life in the United States during the early 1900’s came from Poland.  Yet, I have a German last name.  This is the story of how my great-grandfather created an alias to attain better job opportunities and avoid the overt discrimination that dominated American life during his time as a steelworker.


Between 1892 and 1909, my ancestors passed through Ellis Island on their way to the South Side of Pittsburgh.  With Polish diacritics in their surnames, they settled in the same pocket of town, married and started families.  My great-grandfather Frank Golebiewski arrived sometime in 1904 or 1905, and I’ve never heard of somebody calling him anything other than Frank.  Coming from Poland, there was no way his birth name was Frank.  My family was never sure if it was indeed Francizek.  Even before he settled into his new life across the Atlantic Ocean, Frank was creating a new identity for himself.

Upon arriving in Pittsburgh, Frank went to work in one of the many steel mills on the South Side.  In 1904, there were at least six that sat along the Monongahela River in the city limits and many more just outside of the city.  Frank worked for two mills: Oliver Iron and Steel Company and another owned by Alexander Byers.  The mills sat three city blocks apart and produced piping, nuts, bolts, rivets and many other specialty parts used in construction projects.  Working in these mills required a higher level of intelligence than most of the South Side factories.  Many machine operators had to have a basic understanding of math to create dies (metal forms), molds, production tools and other site specific items used in the manufacturing process.  Frank started out at Byers and basically held the same position for about a dozen years.  He was a ground level production worker with no authority.

Over the years Frank noticed that all of the higher level positions in the steel mills were controlled by mostly English or German men.  When job openings would be posted for such titles as, “Crew Foreman Wanted”, somewhere under the heading would read, “No Poles Need Apply”.  Other select ethnic groups would also be shunned in these advertisements, but the Poles were always included on these posters around the South Side.  Frank knew he was qualified for a supervisory role, but he also knew his last name was hindering his ability to earn more money for his growing family.

All of the Catholic Polish families attended church at Saint Adalbert parish and were members of the Polish Falcons of America, which is a fraternal society that has had its national headquarters in Pittsburgh since the 1910’s.  For years, “Falcons” (As my grandparents called it) had two buildings in the heart of the South Side.  Many of Frank’s Polish co-workers were also friends to him.  They drank, smoked and played the card game euchre with each other at Falcons or at their houses when they weren’t working at the mills.  Over time it became apparent to his friends that Frank wanted to move on from Byers, but he didn’t know how.  Even in 1917, “glass ceilings” existed at the workplace.


One Saturday night during the usual euchre game between the guys, a close friend and co-worker of Frank’s–a person that I have never learned the identity of, came up with a plan for Frank to get a promotion:  Frank had to get a foreman’s job at a different mill but with the German last name of Kress.  Employers didn’t check for proper identification until they were forced to by law in the 1930’s, so Frank simply could use the surname Kress as an alias.  Of all the surnames Frank could use, why was he instructed to use Kress?

I don’t know if it’s a generational trait or if my family was very uninterested in their family history, but I never got a straight answer as to why Kress was the consensus pick to obtain a job promotion.  Over the years I pieced together some facts about Frank, the name Kress and what the name meant to “Millionaire’s Row” on the other side of town in Pittsburgh’s North Side:

Kress wasn’t as common as other German names in Pittsburgh.  If Frank chose “Miller” or one of the many spellings of “Schmidt”, eventually one of the higher supervisors who did have the last name of Miller or Schmidt would have found him to be a phony.  In traditional German, Kress is spelled Kreß, with the eszett (ß) representing the “sharp S” and replacing the “ss” at the end of the name.  So if Frank was to be German, his friend sure picked a hardcore, badass southern German name for him to use.

Frank knew how to speak the German form of broken English.  Over the course of twelve years at Byers, Frank heard his German supervisors speak to the English heirarchy in English when the production process was discussed on the floor of the mill.  Frank had to have some experience with German culture when he grew up in Poland as well. Poland and Germany shared a border then (Poland was a territory of the Russian Empire) and they still do in 2017, so being exposed to German culture as a boy gave Frank confidence that he could portray being German in the “theatre” of steel mills.

Early automobile owners on Pittsburgh’s North Side relied on the Kress name to keep their cars moving.  The North Side and South Side of Pittsburgh are less than four miles apart, but to the people of 1917 Pittsburgh, they were very far from each other since automobiles were only owned by the upper class.  Many of Pittsburgh’s wealthiest families resided in what was deemed, “Millionaire’s Row”, a few blocks of very large mansions on the North Side that were primarily built along Ridge Avenue and North Lincoln Avenue (Many of them still stand today).  When the automobiles of the wealthy needed work done on them, servants were dispatched to handle the problems. The rich rarely interacted with the working-class, especially immigrant workers. For car tires, a man (Or a few men) with the last name of Kress provided good, affordable tires to the people of the North Side.  Their reputation grew from their roots as horse carriage builders and they eventually got their own automobile repair garage in the 1920’s. Pittsburgh’s elite might have not interacted directly with their tire repair and service shop, but the name Kress represented hard work and provided a good product on the other side of town.


A few months after Frank’s promotion plan was outlined, he secured a foreman job at Oilver Iron & Steel as Frank Kress.  He kept this job until the mid-1930’s, when employees were required to provide legal documentation for work due to the Social Security Act of 1935.  Poles in 1930’s Pittsburgh did not suffer from the same level of discrimination as their ethnic group did twenty years prior, so Frank found suitable work as Frank Golebiewski until he retired after World War II.

I theorize Frank’s friend knew about the Kress family and their budding business on the North Side.  He also knew that the owners and higher managers would never strike up casual conversations with Frank.  Frank’s secret would be safe, and his plant supervisors could see that he was capable of supervising workers while delivering quality products.

Frank must have been well-respected by his friends and fellow co-workers, because I’m sure there were plenty of people that worked under him that could have “ratted him out”.  I guess all of the Poles that worked for him didn’t mind working for their “German” boss.


My grandfather (Pap), Frank’s son, was the only one in the family to legally change his last name to Kress in 1953.  I think Pap might have pissed his dad off when he made Kress his real name, because Pap never really gave me a good reason why he did it.  Personally, I love that Pap changed the name because it preserved this story about his dad and what he had to do to succeed in America.

Many other families around the world have similar stories to mine.  I even have a few more examples within my own family.  Solarczyk is another name throughout my family tree.  My grandfather who had this name had step-brothers who legally changed their name to Solar.  They also changed their last name to attain better job opportunities.


In 1917, immigrants that resided in the south neighborhoods of Pittsburgh came from many different countries in eastern Europe.  In 2017, the same south neighborhoods I grew up in still have an immigrant population, but from entirely different parts of the world.  Today, former citizens of Nepal, Bhutan, Mexico, Laos and Somalia seek the same opportunities that my great-grandfather Frank did.  The discrimination might not be as overt, but long-time residents seem to have a hard time accepting foreigners into their communities.  Long-time residents who have apparently forgotten the fact that their ancestors were the target of the very same abuse that they shell out on our 21st century newcomers.

The United States of America is known as a melting pot.  It was in 1917 and it is in 2017.  Hopefully in 2117, there will be another third-generation American sharing a tale about how their great-grandfather arrived in New York in 2004 or 2005 and found a way to succeed in an foreign country in search of a better life.  A third-generation American that is not a victim of discrimination, but remembers the stories from his family of when they endured it on a daily basis.


Thanks great-grandpap Frank.  The story of your drive to succeed, your emphasis on family and your courage to take risks to benefit your sons and daughters in the future is not lost in time.  I’ll make sure my son knows your story too.

Your great-grandson,

Larry Kress

(Image found via Google, traced to an advertisement found in “The Daily Free Press”, June 19, 1910.  Carbondale, Illinois had a newspaper under this name in 1910 and they have a rich history in coal mining.)

December 7, 1966 — My Father At Pearl Harbor

Today is the 75th anniversary of one of America’s darkest hours, the attack on Pearl Harbor naval base by the Imperial Japanese Navy.  The attack killed over 2,400 Americans and wounded nearly 1,200.  It destroyed almost the entire American fleet stationed in Hawaii, which led to the United States entry into World War II.

My late father was in the United States Navy and was stationed at Pearl Harbor between 1966 and 1968, which allowed him to be there during the 25th anniversary of the attack.  Dad remembered that day to be a Sunday because he had no obligations at base during the early morning hours on December 7.  Being a history fanatic and understanding the weight of the day, he decided to walk alone around the base when the attack would have commenced in 1941. Dad didn’t think his fellow mates would show the same level of reverence as he did.

At 7:48 a.m., Dad looked out to the mountains to the north, where the first wave of Japanese planes were detected.  He then turned to the south toward Iroquois Point and Mamala Bay where many of the 353 planes approached when the attacks were launched in two waves.   Dad couldn’t believe that twenty-five years prior he would have been standing in the middle of absolute hell.  It was a sunny morning in 1966, a clear blue sky with the usual amount of activity that he became accustomed to there.

Dad told me he did a lot of standing around that morning, staring into the skies above and the land around him, trying to imagine the nightmare in his own mind.  He had three senior officers on base who were at Pearl Harbor on that infamous day when they just started out as seamen in the Navy.  They lived that nightmare.  Dad didn’t know them and he wasn’t going to search for them in hopes of hearing their own personal accounts of December 7, 1941.  It’s certainly a day to remember in America, but maybe those officers would have liked to forget that day.

Today we remember those Americans we lost 75 years ago.  I give thanks for the active military members we have today and the countless veterans that served over the years.  Their dedication to the United States, duty as a service member and their dedication to serving their communities post-military (Police, Fire, National Guard, etc.) is greatly appreciated by me and my family.