How Steel City Summers Leave An Indelible Impression on Pittsburgh Youth

(A PopCity Exclusive —‘A weekly online magazine about the people and places moving Pittsburgh forward’)

 TAGS: Pittsburgh, Summer, Millennial, Coming of Age, Steel City

 

By Beau Berman

We weren’t the poor kids or the rich kids. Mark and I were between. So when summer scorched its way into the calendar, we weren’t at camp. David (Deak), Mark, Tyler, Matt, Josh, Kirsten, Gorana & Vedrana (the Croatians) and Mary were the same. We were neighborhood kids.

The girls watched the boys play “butt ball”. It was a vicious game, really. Throwing a tennis ball against a brick wall in the parking lot of the apartment building on Claybourne Street. The apartment manager reminded us daily that we couldn’t play there.  We played anyway. A fear lingered in your thoughts – knowing if you drop the ball you immediately become a target. The ball could be fired at you as hard as possible until you touched the wall. Oh the feeling of relief. I would take a deep breath and loosen once my hands felt those khaki-tinted bricks and lines of mortar. Welts would come though. Matt wound up like Nolan Ryan and desecrated the younger kids. A moment of pain followed by a bruise of honor.

Boredom struck sometimes. We’d listen to “B94” – Pittsburgh’s most popular top 40 radio station- while sitting on Mark & Matt’s porch. Sweltering days prompted trips to Rite-Aid, at a time when a ‘pop’ cost less than a dollar. Back on the porch we’d play Truth or Dare, myself secretly hoping for an excuse to kiss Kirsten. Those games were innocent, yet charged with something.

The boys were sports-addicted. We’d watch Mario Lemieux torch NHL opponents on the ice. The next day’s emulation meant strapping on rollerblades, grabbing Mylec hockey sticks and setting up our Civic Arena in the middle of Claybourne Street.

“Carrrrrrrr”.

That was the common cry during hockey games on Claybourne and football games on Noble Street. Our fields were the streets. Cut knees and hurt feelings were something you just overcame.

There wasn’t a cafeteria or camp counselor.  We created our own activities. We were kids being kids. Mark & Matt’s mom died years earlier. The rest of our parents worked or were busy. It’s not that my parents couldn’t afford to pay for camp. I refused to go. My camp was the neighborhood. Yet nothing was scheduled, and boredom breeds mischief.

It started small. The boys would have “super-soaker” battles. We’d fill the green cylinders at the hose, screw them to our guns and make teams. You had to go far enough around the corner until you couldn’t see the other team. Then it was a guessing game. Would you go back the way you came or take the other way around the block? Routinely, we’d cut through neighbor’s yards holding our guns. Sometimes we’d wear camo pants or dark clothing while playing. It was 1996. I’d become frustrated that the block limited us to only two options: go left or go right. Super-soaker battles lacked an element of surprise. One day I ventured by myself through a neighbor’s stone-covered drive way. I nervously approached their fence and began to climb over while holding my gun. This proved difficult. I was suspended above the white picket fence and the ominously pointed heads of each plank. I started sweating, caught in a position where I was too high to just get down and too weak to reposition and get to the other side. Then it happened. I couldn’t hold my weight anymore and dropped down, straddling the fence. It hurt so bad I gathered enough muscle to plop off. Inspecting the damage, I noticed blood from my crotch.

“Will I ever have kids?”, I thought in horror.

Running home as fast as I could would have been grand. But I couldn’t. So, I begrudgingly towed my stupid gun around the block, the way I was expected to be coming, by the enemy. It was like a death march. I was injured. I should have been a POW, not a target. But little did the other team know of my injury. Little would they believe me if I even had the chance to explain what happened, which of course, I did not. I turned the second corner and felt the burst of hose-water on my body. This was Mark’s first time using his new CPS 2000 Super Soaker. It sprayed like a water machine gun. Thick streams of water struck my shins, face and worst of all, my torn scrotum.

Two hours later I was at Children’s Hospital’s Emergency Room. The nurse asked if I preferred a male or female doctor. I said I didn’t care. But when I watched a female doctor come into the room moments later, I felt relieved. She stitched the sack and said nobody would ever know it was cut, because the scrotum usually wrinkles with age. Hallelujah.

Our toy guns shot more than just water. “The Potato Gun” was a favorite. Mark and I would see how far we could shoot the chunks of potato and aim at pop cans. But one morning we chose to fire at oncoming traffic. Most shots misfired or hit closed windows, not noticeable to drivers. But one blast flew into an open window, hitting the driver in the eye. The woman immediately stopped her car, shouting.  Mark and I ran for refuge the closest place we could find: our friend Tyler’s house. We scrambled up the stairs and through the unlocked door into his parents’ air-conditioned condo. Tyler wasn’t even home. I briefly wondered if Kirsten was home. No one saw us enter aside from the victim of the walk-by potato shooting. We were in Tyler’s room hiding when the doorbell rang. Tyler’s mother answered her door, unaware of the tidal of rage she’d soon receive, all the while clueless the culprits were upstairs in her son’s room. Thankfully, his mother told the driver nobody was home except for her. It was strange. We watched her wholly believing herself even though she was lying. The driver finally gave up and returned to her car, still in the middle of the street. We eventually presented ourselves to Tyler’s mother who was outraged. I felt like a really bad kid. I don’t think I truly was a bad child. But sometimes I wonder what would have happened if that potato chunk blinded that driver or if she would have swerved into a tree and died. Would I be branded as a killer? Would it be chalked up to ‘boys being boys’?

We got out of the neighborhood at times. The boys would ride our bikes out of Shadyside, cutting across Oakland into the South Side of Pittsburgh. A few wrinkled one-dollar bills meant we could buy some pops midway through our journey. Some days it felt like we were just inventing new ways to kill time. But in reality we were creating memories and growing up by ourselves. Bike rides, bus rides and long walks brought exposure to other neighborhoods. It was summer and we had fun. We swam, built things, threw pies in each other’s faces while my mom recorded it on video, had water-balloon fights with Kim and Kevin, the married couple next door. Mark and I were best friends. We talked mostly about the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Steelers, and the Pirates here and there.  We were Pittsburgh kids spending summer on the streets. We knew the city like we knew ourselves: comfortably familiar, with room left for discovery.