Discover more from Breathing Space
Never a good idea to call Pittsburgh a "municipal hovel"
Jim Halpert is not here for your silly shenanigans
In this edition, which again I have not proofread or edited because [flails dramatically at life]: my daughter might be a demon * perhaps the most scathing diss letter ever published about Pittsburgh * if Xena: Warrior Princess lived in Pittsburgh * Burghy Halloween items for sale * an update on me and also on my husband Jaromir Jagr * more!
Let me tell you a story about motherhood. On Tuesday, my 16-year-old bug-loving possibly future-entomologist daughter was walking on our walkway to the front door, while at the same time, I was exiting the house. She was returning from school. I was on my way out to walk the dogs.
I called out a greeting, and as our paths crossed, she smiled at me.
And that’s never good.
So I said, suspiciously, “Uh-oh. What did you do?”
And she said, “This!”
Internet, from a foot away, she threw a live lanternfly at me. My body. My human person. She had picked it up on her walk from the bus so she could study it in her hand, but then saw me and chose to use it for evil instead. Luckily it evaded my face and landed on my shoulder. I turned my head slowly to look at it. We made eye contact. It winked at me and I swear it did that thing bulls do with their hooves before they charge.
Needless to say, I yelped loudly, flicked that jag to the ground and stomped its brains out while my teenager threw her head back and cackled her way into the house.
She’s grounded for eternity. I remain at war.
1. Tell us how you really feel, Stanleigh
My latest column for Pittsburgh Magazine is up and it’s the one I’ve been telling you about for weeks—a roundup of the most scathing insults published about Pittsburgh since the 1700s.
Pittsburgh was still a wild child when one of the earliest insults was printed. The year was 1792 and a military officer who arrived at the forks with a company of recruits dispatched a letter to his friend that included the oxymoronic statement, “I am agreeably disappointed in this place.”
After describing the beauty of the confluence (yes, he used that word), the officer trained a critical eye on those inhabiting the 200 homes therein. “Ostentation,” he wrote, “seems to be the prevailing passion of the Pittsburghers; billiards lead many … astray, and cards are too often introduced.” This merely sounds like Pittsburghers already knew how to make their own fun in 1792.
It’s a fun one and I hope it gives you a laugh to read it.
Now let’s get on to talking about another of the insults that I didn’t include in the column.
We’re taking it back to 1947 when a local 3WS disc jockey named Stanleigh Malotte, whose profession prior to coming here was theatre organist, lost his whole mind after living in Pittsburgh for just one month. Stanleigh fired off a letter to the editor of his hometown newspaper completely trashing his new city up one side and dahn the other. The letter, so scorching in its hate, ran on the front page of the September 15, 1947 edition The Birmingham News.
Yinz butts held? Okay, here we go. Stanleigh starts brutally right out of the gates:
There is an atmosphere of disgruntled defeat here, as though the city had given up the idea of ever amounting to anything attractive and had just settled down into being as ugly as possible.
To quote Jim Halpert …
Stanleigh was just getting started. He had things to say about our water …
“As disturbing to the stomach as the city is to the eye.”
The general ugliness of our “municipal hovel” …
“In final desperation, some years back, the city drilled some tunnels through a hill euphemistically called Mt. Washington. By going through these tunnels and traveling fast and hard through several miles of municipal horror, one finally gets into the country, and discovers that the Lord is still in business making scenery. The trip is worth it to the extent that one fervently wishes to keep going.”
“futile incline railways which take you out of the industrial obscenity into a cluster of domestic warts.”
The citizens, which he refers to as “a race of robots”?
“Dimwitted” and “colossally ignorant.” Also, “Spiritually they constitute an abscess. Humorless, drab and living in a huge pit” and having “a complete absence of social consciousness all around.”
The view of Pittsburgh from the air?
“looks like a huge hole”
And you’re like, well, my goodness! He’s trashed everything. Used every foul printable descriptor he could think of. What else could he possible write about Pitts--
“An aesthetic abortion.”
Needless to say, Pittsburghers were generally calm about the piece and that is a lie. Of course they lost their shit. Heck, even Pittsburghers living in Birmingham wrote letters to the editor defending their hometown from the weirdly intense slander. As for Stanleigh, he was let go from the station. A day after being fired, he claimed he wrote the letter knowing he didn’t plan to stay in the city, and in that respect, the Birmingham News declared Stan had the “last word in [the] ruckus.” It’s giving you can’t fire me; I quit.
Many years later, Stanleigh’s adult son offered this story about his dad, who returned to being a theatre organist before dying in 1972 or 1973. It is a perfect illustration to show why historians have to take bias and memory into account when evaluating sources:
Eh. Not quite. When it came to his month in Pittsburgh, Stanleigh Malotte was just plain mean. Despite his opinions, I think it’s safe to say that Pittsburgh did pretty well for itself since 1947, so we’ll forgive old Stan for whatever it was that pissed him off so deeply the morning he decided to write that screed.
I think we all know it probably had something to do with tunnel traffic.
Only the strongest can survive.
2. Boo, yinz!
History will tell you that Pittsburghers have ALWAYS made a huge deal about Halloween. Like, I am talking absolute madness, as you can read in this older newsletter edition. And I’m pleased to say that modern day Pittsburghers continue to do the holiday up big, as evidence by some of the awesome Halloween-themed items I’ve dug up for this week’s feature of locally made/designed products!
All the literary candles from North Avenue are especially speaking to my dead dark writer soul.
None of this is an ad. The links are in the caption and most of the sellers have additional Halloween-themed items for sale, so check them all out. And let me know if I missed any good ones!
This reminds me that I’ll start putting my annual Yinzer Holiday Gift Guide together very soon. Please email, message, batsignal, or pigeon carrier me* with any suggestions you have for the list. As you know, the list is very popular every year, so the goal is to let me know of items of which the makers/sellers can meet a decent-sized demand.
Dozens is one of those words that you shouldn’t look at or say for too long because it loses all meaning so fast. Dozens.
What is that, Polish? Never heard it before. Dozens.
*as long as you are okay with never getting your pigeon back
3. Do yinz promise to love and cherish and never fight on Steeler Sundays?
Two Steelers fans got married at Acrisure Stadium during a tailgate before the Browns game. Steelers Jesus walked the bride down the aisle and Yinzer Pope performed the ceremony. And that’s a sentence I just wrote. Would you look at this photo from their wedding …
She calls herself Steeler Princess and he is Steeler Warrior. So basically this is what would happen if Xena: Warrior Princess and a Terrible Towel had a baby. In fact, let me just see what AI says. Hold.
Maybe the robots ARE going to win after all, because, Dall-e nailed it. But then I asked Bing AI and …
You guys, I’m scared and I want my mom.
4. Update on my life and things moving forward
I was in therapy yesterday, because I still go twice a month just to stay grounded, and I said, “I would very much like to return to my hermit ways come January.” It has been a big, scary year for me. I had to switch from my 17-year history of saying no to just about everything, to making the choice to spend one year cloaked in bravery—saying yes so that I could spread the word of my book. Because I believe in my book that strongly.
I think back on everything I’ve done this year, and, man, it is all starting to run together. Speaking to over 1,000 people at the Pitt commencement. Library talks. Readings. Interviews. Book club visits. Book signings. The History Center book launch. I’m so lucky and grateful beyond measure for it all, but I don’t know how you all aren’t so sick of me by now; I am so sick of me.
With that said, I have some big book-related things coming up these last months of 2023, and then I do plan to return to declining most public-facing events/appearances/speeches other than book club visits and Pittsburgh history related things—because I love doing those. I have a thesis to write, grad school to finish, and maybe other books to write, and they require that I’m not weighed down by anxiety associated with public appearances/events.
You know this about me by now, but I was never meant for a public life.
So I’m giving a TEDxPittsburgh talk! Hahahahwhatamidoingtomyselfffff
I said yes to this because I have a message to share and what a nice little bucket list item to check off. But mostly I just really really really want to unironically say, “Thank you for coming to my TED talk.”
I’ll actually be writing my speech today because the first draft is due tomorrow and I’m nothing if not persistently and achingly procrastinatory. If you’d like to come and hear me and the others speak (there are five others and I’m excited to hear from them), you can buy tickets here.
Other appearances I have in September and October:
Author talk and book-signing with the University of Pittsburgh’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Friday, October 6 at 10:30 a.m. in the Connolly Ballroom in Alumni Hall in Oakland.
City Books OcTBRfest book signing at noon on Saturday, October 7 on the North Side
Sewickley Public Library book and author talk, October 12 at 6:30 p.m.
Please come and see me at one or all of these events! And if you have something in mind you wanted to invite me to, please get those requests in soon, before January rolls around and I just …
5. Random roundup!
Yee-haw! Here’s the short stuff:
Pennsylvania now has automatic voter registration for eligible voters who get or renew their driver’s license. I love that.
There is now video proof of the Kiski River alligator. So that’s fun and bitey.
My husband Jaromir Jagr is returning for another season of professional hockey at the youthful age of 51. He weirdly didn’t run it by me first. What do you think that says about the state of our relationship? Also, I had lunch with my sister at the Benedictine monastery at the invitation of one of my longtime super fans who happens to be a nun, and she gave me Jaromir’s autobiography … autographed!
I can’t wait to read it. I assume he declares his love for me before page 100 or we are going to have such a fight.
The Pittsburgh Promise is ending due to a foreseen lack of funding. I worked with the The Promise launch and early years of operation during my time employed at NEED, so this is sad to see.
Duolingo commits to helping improve early childhood education in its home of East Liberty
My full interview with Heather Abraham that aired on KDKA’s Talk Pittsburgh can be viewed here. I won’t lie. I listened to it, but I can’t bring myself to watch it. Why am I so weird? We talked about my book, my mapping project, how I think I built up my local audience over the years, where the name PittGirl even came from, and more.
Sid “The Kid” has gray hair now and well, that made me feel super old because I remember first writing about him on The Burgh Blog when he was a baby-faced boy of 18. Time is stupid and I hate it.
6. And we’re done!
That’s all I have for you this week. Remember to be kind! Don’t throw live bugs at the woman who gave you life! Don’t litter! Buy my book! Leave reviews!
And be sure to make plans to come out this week and see my new band Cluster of Domestic Warts as we preview our upcoming album Municipal Horror.
We sound exactly how you think we would.