Sunday, July 24, 2011

Pittsburgh from the Perspective of Puppeteers

(Monday, July 18th- Wednesday, July 20th)

I left the flat lands of the Midwest and headed East towards the Alleghenies. After a quick three hour megabus ride, we entered:

(awaiting verification for photo-credit. Inititally posted on
Land of three rivers. City of bridges.

Right off the bus, I followed a concrete path that snakes beneath the Pittsburgh Convention Center...


A glimpse of three of Pittsburgh's 446 bridges.

This was my last view of Pittsburgh’s exterior for a while, because next thing I knew, my friend Murphi picked me up and (before a huge storm started) whisked me away to:

Murphi’s House of Wonders:
Murphi and her boyfriend  Zach are both puppeteer playwrights and flea-market aficionados with a taste for the off-kilter.

I'd classify her and Zach's home as somewhere between The Twilight Zone and Nightmare Before Christmas—but that doesn’t do it justice. It’s really closest to the explosively strange worlds of Murphi’s plays.

As a collector of oddities,  Murphi has A LOT of cool  (er…interesting)  possessed looking toys:

(DISCLAIMER: the following is not for the faint of heart)

A paranoid alcoholic teddy bear.
A taxidermy gator collection:
(Two taxidermied gators posed atop a sterilizer box .)

(Murphi’s birthday present to Zach. Outfit and mini-gator puppets hand-made by Murphi.)
(Mr. Toad does karaoke.)

And my favorite:

Creepy German wind up bunny:

(creepy factor enhanced by Zach’s sawing and Murphi’s toy piano playing)

But by far the greatest thing in Murphi and Zach's apartment: Murphi's chaise!

Murphi on the chaise.

This was good, because I spent a lot of time in Pittsburgh catching up with my work, while in a sort of chaise malaise.

Chaise malaise.
My first day in Pittsburgh was mostly spent in their living room, recovering from whirlwind exhaustion and also quite possibly the change in elevation. Or a minor case of arsenic poisoning from jokingly petting the taxidermy.

But I’m pretty certain it was the change in elevation.

Am I the only one who finds it funny that they live in a neighborhood called Squirrel Hill?

Because of the time spent on their chaise during my first day, instead of exploring Pittsburgh, I got to witness Murphi and Zach  fashion a projection unit out of a packing tube,  magnifying glasses and a light-bulb. Ala MacGyver.

The results:
Apologetically low quality image (from my phone-camera)  of Zach's projection for his magic light box project.
This was part of a prototype for a larger installation Zach is doing for the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

But I couldn't let my knowedge of Pittsburgh be limited to Annie Dillard, Michael Chabon and August Wilson.

 It was time to get out.

On this trip, I have been discovering that it's not so much the place as it is the people showing me the place that makes the experience. And this time, I had two puppeteers steering my way.

They guided me to the Mattress Factory, a  museum filled with installation works. It's located on the North Side, one of Pittsburgh’s oldest neighborhoods...

Where if you wander down the right alley, you might stumble upon a building with the following engraved:

(part of an outdoor installation)
 “Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign un-possessed places”  -- Italo Calvino (Invisible Cities)

On a megabus journey, running into a trippy quote like this can only send you one place:

Into a state of inescapable self-reflection.

The Mattress Factory turned out to be a great place to go to REFLECT.

 Or spend way too much time taking artsy photos in Yayoi Kusama's mirror installation.

Eventually, I discovered a secret doorway—leading to:

 Nothing like surreal polka-dotted naked mannequins to jar you back into reality.

 My other favorite exhibits at the Mattress Factory:

  1. Gary Pyle's work titled:

I'm pretty certain this piece was in honor of Pittsburgh’s gloomy weather during my stay:

2. James Turrell’s light gallery on the third floor. 

Where, in a total play on the viewer's perception, a red box floating  in space:

 upon closer inspection is revealed to be:

 Nothing more than red light projected in a corner.

Ready for my own perception play? Ready?

Am I standing or lying on the floor? (answer at the bottom of this post.)

3. My other favorite installaton at the Mattress Factory... the BoxSpring café.
Despite the fresh ingredients on the menu, it’s by far the most affordable museum café I’ve ever seen—

My lunch:
Mango, orange, mint soup
summer squash and brie quiche
asian coleslaw
price: $11. (ßIt’s okay to splurge once in a while.)

Further Pittsburgh dining highlights and a bonus perception play:

On the outside, this building looks like a church:

But on the inside, it's actually:

I’m told grainy photographs are hot right now. That makes my poor quality indoor shots automatically hip, right?
A brewery! And restaurant. 

Murphi and Zach took me to:

And on Wednesday, after some quiet writing time at 61c (a local coffee shop), Murphi and I had farewell waffles at Waffalonia. Yes to establishments devoted solely to waffles. (Yes, it’s real.)

And soooo good.

Cinnamon ice-cream and fudge topped sugar waffle.
This was followed by dinner with my friend Dan O’Neil, who went out of his way to drive me to my next destination.  (Fun fact: Peter, Murphi and Dan = 1/3rd of Carnegie Mellon’s Dramatic Writing program).

To allow space for the puppet explosion set to happen Wednesday evening, the night before Zach’s deadline—I had found a place through

I know what you may be thinking:

“Sleeping at home of strangers? What's this woman thinking?? I realize not everyone out there are rapists and ax murderers, but in this day and age -- come on, let's use common sense!!" (direct quotation from a comment posted on  kcci8  which recently publicized my journey).

Relax. It’s not craigslist.


HIGHLIGHT ON COUCHSURFING AND WHY I AM 99.9% CERTAIN I WILL NOT BE AX-MURDERED IN MY SLEEP (we should always be open to the .1% chance of being ax-murdered. Regardless of sleeping arrangements.)

*members' identities are generally verified 
*they usually have references from previous surfers and hosts and friends
*my judgment is pretty sound. So far.  I am obviously not going to stay with anybody I sense is unsafe.  Mostly, I am staying with young couples.
*320 countries actively participate, creating an international exchange of ideas and good-will
*it’s free

Here is why it’s a brilliant social experiment (in's own words:)
Our mission as an organization is to create inspiring experiences: cross-cultural encounters that are fun, engaging, and illuminating.”
“you have a lot more information about new people than you do in most circumstances.” (it's like reading a new friend's facebook profile before you’ve met them.)
“You have the chance to read all about other members' experiences with that person, whether positive or negative.”


After the young couple that were going to host me had a last minute emergency, Ali and Emily (sisters), with only one days notice saved the day.

(these are the ax-murderers I stayed with) 
 Ali is a biology senior at Pitt; Emily, a recent graduate about to move to Austin, TX  to work for AmeriCorps.

They were great.

On the way to Brillobox, a local bar, for trivia night-- they showed me around Bloomfield...

A place filled with idealistic punky bookstores, according to Ali,

and quirky wall art:

They confirmed what I suspected all along, Pittsburgh is a terrible biking town:

Despite our losing at trivia (an unfortunate set of categories in the second round), Ali, is a trove of knowledge. And she made sure that before I left, I had seen the wonders of her own home.


The Pittsburgh toilet!

A toilet and shower located in the basement, where pre-WWII steel-workers and miners could wash up immediately upon entering their home. Ali and Emily’s house (according to their landlord) dates to about 1910.

If I missed any further “Steel City” toilet lore, I’ll be back in Pittsburgh August 6th on my way back to Iowa City.

Next stop Philly!

(Answer to visual riddle: I am lying on the floor.)

1 comment:

  1. Our strange neighbor adores cats and had them everywhere in her house. As if the dozen live cats were not enough, in every room in her house, she has framed prints, large and small, of the blessed animals.0
    She says that she orders her canvas prints, like this one by Franz Marc, from who delivers them. Perhaps they can take away a cat or two as well.