We both needed a vacation. I needed to be surrounded by something a little more urban and Mark probably needed to be someplace a little less, well, San Francisco. We had a new (to us) Buick to break in. Charleston and Pittsburgh proved to be the perfect choice.
I’ve had a fetish for Pittsburgh since my very first visit in 1997. Even then, I thought it was both more aesthetically pleasing than San Francisco and also a more realistic place for mere mortals to live. I love the diners, the variety of neighborhoods, the fact that a viable working class coexists with a major collegiate presence, and that whole Rust Belt vibe. Pittsburgh has a very undeserved bad reputation as an ugly, grim, depressed sort of place. It’s not. It is, however, one of my favorite cities, and it’s probably the most likely big city I’d ever consider relocating to.
But the trip started in Charleston, following a drive up a series of back roads that took us through Mt. Airy, Princeton, Beckley, and the Kanawha River Valley,a nd offered several Kroger locations for our convenience. Once in Charleston, we found an ancient Italian restaurant and had dinner before retiring to out stylish accommodations at the Kanawha City Red Roof Inn.
We started the day in beautiful downtown South Charleston at a diner called the Farm Table, which was nothing particularly special, but was more than adequate. We walked around the area a bit and then hit the car for the grand loop of South Charleston, Dunbar, and Charleston proper.
I was excited to find a smelly old Fas Chek supermarket in Dunbar that had opened as a Kroger more than fifty years before, and we were both excited to find what is apparently the West Side Urban Renewal Area, a streetcar strip with amazing old commercial buildings (most of them vacant) and also the Charleston Department Store. We liked the Charleston Department Store. It had pants in my size, which is an unsual and beautiful thing since most “big and tall” stores have the big part covered, but not the tall part, under the assumption that there are no tall fat people. I also found an abandoned pharmacy from the 1930s that I really want to live in.
Afterward, we made our way to downtown Charleston, where we strolled about and had cheap pizza for lunch.
The evening brought a trip to the more far-flung western suburbs of Nitro and St. Albans, where we found a Tim Horton’s for Mark and something resembling a Mexican restaurant for both of us.
Breakfast was at Freeman’s Family Restaurant and Catering on the edge of downtown Charleston. It was a great little diner where everyone seemed to know everyone else (except, of course, for us). It was kind of an interesting neighborhood too.
After breakfact, we headed through Morgantown WV (which will, I think, require further study at a later date) toward Charelroi PA, where Mark’s dad was born. We’d visited Charleroi before, back in 2004, and thought it was sort of cool little town. In fact, the thought of buying a really cheap vacation home there had occurred to us (Mark fantasized about owning the old family homestead) and one of the goals of the trip was to spend a little more time there. And it was fun. We had lunch in an ancient hotel restaurant called Rego’s, which got me all warm and squishy amid the old people and their salads and soup. WE actually spent several hours in Charleroi, looking at houses and trying desperately to find postcards and stamps.
And then there was the library. Mark had planned to do some research there, using old city drirectories and maybe newspapers. Alas, this was not to be. Upon entering, we made the mistake of asking the reference librarian (OK, the only librarian) for help, and were told flat out that “nobody keeps stuff like that anymore because it’s all on the computer” and that the only people who might be able to help us were members of the historical society, who were only there one day a month or something. This woman was horrid. It wasn’t that she was rude, per se. She was just unwilling to help in any way. And she didn’t know what she was talking about; I’m pretty certain that Charleroi’s old city directories haven’t been digitized yet (and even so, wouldn’t the library be the one doing it?) and such items, as well as newspapers on microfilm, are available in most public libraries I’ve visted, no matter how small. As a library school student, I was appalled by her demeanor and her complete ignorance. Plus, she pretty much shat all over one of Mark’s primary reasons for visting the town.
End library rant.
After Charleroi, we continued up the back road to Pittsburgh through the Monongahela valley. By the time we arrived, we settled for a trip to Giant Eagle and some Chinese takeout before bed.
As all my Pittsburgh trips do, this one started with breakfast at Ritter’s, which is a wonderful thing. It’s also a smoke-free thing now, but I imagine that it by legislation rather than by choice. All the same, it was nice.
Today, we did a slightly modified version of the Blue Belt tour of Pittsburgh For those not in the know, Pittsburgh has a system of color-coded belt routes around the city, cobbled together from existing streets (sort of like Route 4 in Charlotte). The Blue Belt is the closest in (not counting the Purple Belt, which is all downtown) and it’s a good tour of the Pittsburgh periphery, giving a glance at parts of the city proper (Shadyside, Spring Hill, Troy Hill) as well as suburbs like Homestead, Dormont, Crafton, and McKees Rocks.
On a detour through the Northside, we wound up in need of lunch in an area where none was to be found. I really wanted to eat at the Modern Cafe, but when we walked in, we determined that it was much more bar than cafe. Sadly, it would be destryed by a fire thirty-six hours later, so maybe we should have risked it anyway, particularly since Wendy’s turned out to be the alternative.
Tonight was dinner with Mark’s friend Tina in Southside. It’s noce to hang out with a native (of the area, if not the city), especially one who just sort of gets it. Tina also has Charleroi connections. I requested that she use her powers to get the librarian from hell fired, but I’m not sure if that’s really likely.
As any aspiring Pittsburgher must at some point, we had breakfast at Eat’n Park, although we chose the one in Squirrel Hill, where you can’t actually park on the premises. Squirrel Hill is apparently Pittsburgh’s upscale Jewish homosexual neighborhood; the cross-pollination made it less annoying than some other purely gay ghettos like the Castro. As circumcised homosexual Gentiles with middle class incomes, we were not harassed, and we felt quite welcome, even though the houses were probably outside our price range.
We spent a couple of hours driving around south of the river, exploring Homestead some more, as well as certain hilly neighborhoods whose names I don’t recall right now (Old Birmingham, maybe?) before landing downtown for an afternoon pedestrian and photographic excursion.
We finished off our last evening in Pittsburgh back in Squirrel Hill, with dinner at Gullifty’s and Milk at the Manor.
The last Pittsburgh breakfast was at the Dor-Stop in Dormont, which we’d seen a couple of days before. It was a nice enough place, although it was horrifically crowded, perhaps because it was a holiday week or maybe because the place had been featured on the Food Network the week before.
After a final spin through PIttsburgh, we headed south toward Hagerstown (Roy Rogers), Frederick (Safeway), DC (traffic), and Richmond, our home for the night and the site of one of only two Extreme Pizza locations on the east coast. Dinner, a drive through Cary Town, with a stop by Ukrop’s, and downtown completed the last night of the trip.
I hate the last day of a road trip. It’s usually all driving and no fun at all.
Breakfast was at Richmond’s Third Street Diner, which looked enticing from the street and inside, although I could never quite get past the notion that the place was about to be busted either for gambling or prostitution at any moment. I’m sure this was not the case, but there was just this sort of weird paranoia about the place, probably since there were several people drinking at the bar so early in the morning. The mini-skirts and the curious “ticket jars” on the tables didn’t help, nor did the fact that as we finished breakfast I realized I’d left my wedding band back in the motel we’d already checked out of.
Ring recovered, we made a last spin through Richmond (Cary Town, the Fan, downtown, and that hillside neighborhood off East Broad) and even Petersburg, and made our way south on I-85 through such exciting locales as South Hill, Henderson, and finally Durham, where we stopped at Honey’s for our 3PM feeding before returning home to Winston-Salem.