Adam Reger | Pittsburgh Writer

Pittsburgh writer, editor, and ghostwriter

Tag: Pittsburgh

Writing Studio: Slightly shameless plug of an upcoming writing class

Later this summer, I am going to be teaching a class at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts that I think/hope may be of interest to some of my readers (local ones, anyway).

The class is “Writing Studio” and it’s not so much a class as, well, studio time dedicated to writing (as the name may suggest).

Just as students in other disciplines at the PCA have studio options, and can drop in once or twice a week to work independently with ceramics, screen printing, sculpture, etc., students interested in writing will now have the opportunity to come in to the PCA’s education building once a week and get some writing done.

The class stems from a basic observation I’ve made throughout my courses at the PCA: most of the writers who’ve come through my classes have the most trouble not with point of view, plot, etc., but with the struggle to find time to write and to keep writing (both in terms of keeping their seats during a single writing session and coming back to the writing desk day after day). Building a healthy writing process, and the discipline to keep it up, is among the most pressing challenges for any writer, especially those just getting started. (And working a day job doesn’t make those challenges any easier.)

“Writing Studio” is meant to address these challenges by offering a dedicated chunk of time each week, as well as a space where students can come to work quietly, buoyed by the presence of others doing the same thing. Along with time to write, the course will offer a sense of community and the opportunity to discuss ongoing challenges, troubles, and triumphs. The aim is to give writers time and space to get work done during the five weeks of the course and to launch them into a productive and sustained writing routine long after.

I’ll supplement the core of the course—in-class writing—with writing exercises, craft lectures*, and availability for one-on-one feedback and discussion. But by and large, the class is about giving students a place and a time to come, sit down, and write.

The class runs five Mondays, beginning July 11 and concluding August 8. Each class will run from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.

If this sounds like something that may be of interest, I hope to see you in July!

*An important note: “Writing Studio” is designed to work for writers in any genre, so readers who don’t write fiction (as I do) may still find something useful in the class, even beyond writing time.

The Great Pittsburgh Spelling Bee of 2014

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This weekend I had the good fortune of participating in the Great Pittsburgh Spelling Bee of 2014, which raised funds for the extremely worthy Literary Arts Boom (LAB), a project run out of an awesome Pittsburgh nonprofit, Assemble. LAB is Pittsburgh’s answer to the 826 writing centers project from McSweeney’s and fills the same niche of tutoring kids in writing, publishing, making reading and writing fun, and so on.

A friend texted my fiancée and I about the spelling bee and, without too much reflection, I signed us both up.

I should say that I have a history with spelling bees. I participated in my middle-school spelling bee every year I was eligible (sixth, seventh, and eighth grades). I still remember each word that knocked me out: “raunchy” in sixth grade (“rawnchy”); “dormitory” in seventh (“dormitary”) . . . and the last one I’ll mention in a moment.

I love spelling bees; I love spelling. I always thought I was great at it in school, and I entered the spelling bee last Saturday feeling like I’d only gotten better over the ensuing years. Since eighth grade, I’ve graduated high school and college and earned a Masters degree in writing, and have accrued about a decade of experience as a professional proofreader, copyeditor, and writer.

Still, I didn’t have any expectations. I basically took it on faith that somewhere in Pittsburgh there existed a medieval Latin-reading philosophy grad student, or a wizened old doctor who knew all the derivations of a thousand polysyllabic conditions and syndromes, or an insomniac librarian with a photographic memory, who would show up and dominate the field with the detached cool and confidence of a spelling assassin.

Read the rest of this entry »

A Pittsburgh List That’s Actually Pretty Good

It’s great that Pittsburgh has been getting noticed nationally as a good place to live, and even a cool place to visit. But man, some of the appreciations out there have been kind of lame. Take as an example this Buzzfeed piece, “16 Reasons Why Pittsburgh Is the Greatest City on the Planet.” Sounds cool, but if you dig into it you’ll find that whoever compiled it likely spent an hour Googling things to do and see in Pittsburgh (and even then, the search isn’t current: Number 10: “And the Pirates . . . Well, they have a cool logo!” What?! The Pirates have owned or shared first place since the end of July! Get current, dude.) It name checks Primanti Brothers, the bridges of Pittsburgh, and the Cathedral of Learning (twice). This person evidently hasn’t even heard of the incline.

But a great list, “30 Reasons You Need to Move to Pittsburgh,” has appeared on Movoto, and I must tip my cap to its author, Molly Kirwan. It ranges from solid stuff outsiders wouldn’t necessarily know about (like the Carnegie Museums) to neighborhood-specific things not even every Pittsburgher knows about (like the Unblurred gallery crawl, the Allegheny Cemetery, Banjo Night, the patio at Pusadee’s Garden, and others) to more abstract things that Pittsburgh does well: dancing, drive-ins, estate sales, and thrifting.

So, check it out if you are addicted to “list-icles” (even if, like me, you always click against your better judgment). If you are interested in Pittsburgh boosterism, this one is well worth your time.

This ‘n that

Updates to several recent posts:

-I wrote about the fascinating case of A.J. Richardson, the candidate for the Democratic nomination for mayor of Pittsburgh whose face is covered in tattoos. Others did not find him quite so fascinating, as he came in dead last in Tuesday’s primary election, with a vote total described, variously, as “in the triple digits” and “a smattering.” (Yikes. I’m no politics wonk, but I know you’ve got to get more than a smattering of votes.)

Some interesting links on Richardson:

*A Pittsburgh City Paper (blog) interview with him after the election.

*A City Paper blog photo of Richardson with his tattoos “removed.”

*And here’s the City Paper‘s cover for this week:

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-Following this post, about my struggles with plantar fasciitis: this week, I got a cortisone shot in my heel to hopefully get me over the hump by reducing inflammation in my plantar fascia. As mentioned in the prior post, I really did not want to get a shot, let alone have surgery, but over time that opposition eroded enough that I basically asked for the shot.

So far my foot has felt better. The reduced inflammation has allowed the stretching to be more effective (I think), and I’ve done some increased activity. Nothing major: standing up while doing some weightlifting. I’ve been tempted to run over the weekend, but I think I need to hold off.

-And finally, I went ahead and secured the domain name adamjreger.com. adamreger.com, unfortunately, is taken by another Adam Reger who has had the domain since at least 1998; I had the bad luck to have the same name as an internet-savvy tech guy.

As far as I can tell the new domain name has meant no changes to anything or anyone, and hardly seems worth mentioning except that it feels like a step toward greater permanence.

The unceasing wonder of the internet (and Reason to Love Pittsburgh #11)

. . . exists, among other places, in the fact that sometimes your blog subjects write back. And are completely kind and nice about it.

In the comments of that piece today, I found Billie Nardozzi had written in! Just go to the above link, scroll down to the comments, and experience my unfolding wonder as it happened.

This brings me to my Reason to Love Pittsburgh #11: people here are really, really nice. Like continue-to-surprise-you-with-their-niceness nice. (I had the idea recently for a mural (or a t-shirt, a bumper sticker, or whatever), in the vein of Austin, Tx.’s “Keep Austin Weird,” that would read “Keep Pittsburgh Polite.” I still think it’s not a bad idea.)

Reason #9 to Love Pittsburgh: Billy Nardozzi and Pittsburgh’s Literary Underground

Today I was paging through the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and saw this guy’s face in the section for paid announcements:

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It was the second time I’d seen Billy Nardozzi and his poetry in the Post-Gazette, and I thought, “What in the world?”

I did some research, and apparently he’s a known quantity here in Pittsburgh: NPR wrote a piece on him in 2011. That followed a Post-Gazette feature from 2009 by Brian O’Neill, a great PPG reporter.

Nardozzi drops $50 to $100 every Tuesday to have his poems published, along with a photo of himself with that ridiculous mullet and, at the bottom of each poem, his phone number, with a note beneath it saying, “((( All Calls Are Welcomed ))).”

Some people do call him, he said, many with words of encouragement and thanks, and others with advice to cut the mullet. Both pieces take pains to make the point that, no, this is not ironic at all. You’d be forgiven if you thought it were an elaborate joke, because these poems kind of stink.

I could explain why in detail, but instead, here’s a Tumblr of the poems of Billy Nardozzi.

Reading about Nardozzi reminded me of The Dirty Poet, a Pittsburgh fixture whose poems tend to appear overnight, yellow 8 1/2 x 11″ yellow sheets of paper taped to poles in Squirrel Hill, Friendship, Bloomfield, and other neighborhoods. This Pittsburgh Quarterly piece talks briefly to The Dirty Poet.

I met The Dirty Poet once, setting out his poetry at great Pittsburgh bar the Brillobox. He said to me basically what he said to the Pittsburgh Quarterly: that he gets more feedback on his poetry from taping it to phone poles than he ever has publishing in small literary magazines. (He was a little snide when he heard I was a writer, and asked if I’d published anything. I said I had, which occasioned his little soapbox speech.)

This New Yorker blog piece also namedrops The Dirty Poet as it extols Pittsburgh’s literary scene. As good a job as the writer does, I feel there’s an obvious indicator of the depth and richness of Pittsburgh’s literary culture that Ms. Macy Halford missed: Pittsburgh has not only a literary scene but a literary underground, populated by writers who so burn to be heard they bypass the machinery of that literary scene and pay to publish their work, and sneak out in the dead of night to tape their work to traffic poles (or, go out at 9 p.m. to distribute it at bars). That is what I call a literary culture.

The New Pittsburgh Sandwich

I have been, nominally, a vegetarian for the last ten months. (“Nominally” meaning that I fall off the wagon with considerable frequency.) Of the sacrifices that decision has entailed, there is one that stands head and shoulders above the rest.

I’m talking about the sandwiches at Szmidt’s Old World Deli in the Greenfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh. 

These are consistently among the best sandwiches I’ve had in Pittsburgh or anywhere else. Szmidt’s bakes its own bread and cures its own meat, the lion’s share of what makes their sandwiches so great (and I’m not the only one who thinks so: check out the reviews on Yelp and Urban Spoon).

Here’s their menu:

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Some favorites include the Hoya (basically a Reuben), the Kanai (turkey with bacon, cheddar, and garlic mayo), the Emily (turkey, Swiss, and homemade slaw on rye bread), and the Doe Doe (turkey, Swiss, and cranberry vinaigrette on a homemade bun). Their “Cheezers”—grilled cheese sandwiches, basically—are pretty great as well.

(I’d have an even longer list of favorites except that even before going vegetarian, I made it a point not to eat so much red meat, which is why the turkey sandwiches are so heavily represented.)

But the thing that sets Szmidt’s apart, that makes them worth a blog post, is this sandwich of theirs called “The Rage.”

In a nutshell, The Rage is four pierogies, slapped on a homemade bun and topped with other delicious stuff: bacon, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and sauce. If that doesn’t sound quite delicious enough, there’s this: these are special, custom-made pierogies, stuffed with buffalo chicken (the “Buff”), southwest chicken (the “Sanchez”), and beef (the “Philly”). The “Pole-Lock” (formerly the “Pollock”; changed, you would assume, as a concession to general ethnic inclusiveness), is a regular potato pierogi.

I have to confess here I have not tried a Rage in this current four-pierogi iteration: the last time I had one, the sandwich consisted of a single giant, meat-stuffed pierogi with all that other stuff on top of it. There was something really novel and even a bit magical about biting into a sandwich that was built around a giant pierogi stuffed with meat.

Even so, I want to go public with an idea that occurred to me the very first time I bit into a Rage.

This should be the Pittsburgh Sandwich. Not the famous one everyone knows, that is sometimes talked about as if it were to Pittsburgh what the cheesesteak is to Philadelphia, the Chicago hot dog or deep-dish pizza is to Chicago, etc.; the sandwich that’s basically a hunk of meat with French fries and cole slaw piled on top, squeezed between bread; not the one that will give you indigestion for a day and a half, that’s probably only really good if you’re drunk. (I say “probably” because I’ve never had a good Primanti Brothers sandwich, but I’ve also never had one while drunk.)

Forget that other sandwich, and consider the possibilities of this one: Pittsburgh was built on the backs of steelworkers and mill hands who came from all the places across eastern Europe where the pierogi is a staple, where people could get excited about a potato dumpling on a nest of sauerkraut, with a little sour cream or some apple sauce to sweeten the whole package. We’re talking Poles, Slavs, Hunkies, Russkies, Ukies, Serbs, and plenty of others I’m probably missing. Why, this sandwich is nothing less than an homage to Pittsburgh’s culture!

And more than that, here are modern-day Pittsburghers doing something interesting with the pierogi, taking that heritage and reinventing it—just the way the city now is reinventing itself, shrugging off all the rust and depression and harnessing the arts, education, technology, and medicine. 

Here’s a sandwich for the old Pittsburgh—and the new. A sandwich for the Pittsburgh of yesterday and the Pittsburgh of tomorrow; a sandwich that is authentically homemade; a sandwich that tastes good, and that can easily feed two, or make a lunch and a dinner. (This thing is huge.)

What does that other sandwich offer the soul of Pittsburgh? A day’s worth of starch? The sustenance to continue drinking long into the night? Bah! Begone, Primanti’s, you token of a bygone city.

You heard it here first: The Rage from Szmidt’s Old World Deli is the new Pittsburgh Sandwich.

Reason to Love Pittsburgh #8

The “Random Acts of Kindness” column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I just love it.

For the sappy reasons you’d think, having to do with faith in humanity and the milk of human kindness and so on. But also because there’s such lovely Pittsburgh textures in these messages, and because, if you live here, you can convince yourself these stories wouldn’t be told everywhere else in the world.

Here’s an example, from the March 21st installment:

“Thirty minutes later I realized I didn’t have the [lost credit] card and hurried back to that lane, where I asked the assistant if she had found it. She had not. She directed me to the customer service counter, saying, ‘Don’t worry — this is Pittsburgh!'”

Also to wit, the opener from one of today’s “Random Acts of Kindness”:

“I had occasion to have a buffet luncheon and soft drink at the Pizza Hut located in Brentwood Towne Square.”

Oh, Lord. Oh, Pittsburgh.

P.S. Here is a link with all of the other reasons to love Pittsburgh. There are many more than eight, but I’ve been going slowly.

The Fascinating Case of A.J. Richardson, the Candidate for Mayor of Pittsburgh Whose Face Is Covered in Tattoos

Pittsburgh’s in the midst of a primary campaign for mayor—a Democratic primary, anyway, which in this city is the de facto general election—and so far the greatest storyline to emerge has been A.J. Richardson. He’s originally from Brooklyn, he’s working at present as a bus monitor on the city’s North Side, he’s never held elected office, and, last but not least, his face is covered in tattoos.

Seriously. This is A.J. Richardson:

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I’ve mostly been reading about him through mainstream media—here’s a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review profile; here’s a CBS Local piece on how he’s not an underdog; and here’s a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette piece on his decision to plead guilty to DUI charges after a Tuesday night incident—and so I can’t say with any certainty whether or not—

Wait, what? Yep. This tattoo-faced dude was found in a green minivan, engine running, passed out or in a deep stupor in the middle of a road in Pittsburgh’s West End late Tuesday night. Cops honked at the minivan and when there was no answer they pounded on the window. Richardson declined a breathalyzer test but failed the cops’ field sobriety tests. Asked about it the next day, Richardson said the arrest was part of a conspiracy; “It’s a weak, feeble attempt to discredit me.”

I can’t tell if this twist makes me enjoy the A.J. Richardson saga more or less. No one was hurt, but still drunk driving is never funny. But then again it has made it all the more strange to see various media reporting on Richardson’s comments and debate appearances with entirely straight faces.

To be fair, nothing I’ve heard Richardson say is unreasonable. His angle is that he’s never held office, so he’s a fresh voice, will be a fighter for the working man, will sweep out corruption, etc. His campaign website is appropriately vague and positive-minded, and his “Project X”—a plan to ID areas where heavy drug-dealing is happening, to help the police target those areas and not entire communities—is certainly better than some policies.

But man. I just can’t get past those face tattoos. It’s almost like he’s adopted the most extreme body modification I could think of, that is usually associated with white supremacists, prison inmates, rappers with checkered pasts, and basically no one you would characterize as at all wholesome or respectable, and now is also demanding earnest consideration for his adoptive city’s highest office. And, God bless them, most in the media and in the political machinery seem to be doing their best to give it to him.

It’s like everything I love about Pittsburgh is wrapped up in this one news story: weird people, a sort of small-town quality that invites this sort of quixotic campaign, and a widespread niceness, or at least politeness, that has prevented the masses from laughing this guy out of the room.

Anyway, I hope I haven’t been too harsh on him. He seems, on the whole, like a nice guy, and you’ve got to love these kinds of grand, doomed gestures. He has zero chance of winning the Democratic primary, but I’d like to think that the city will measure each candidate by his positions, his record, and his actions, and that it will be these things—his lack of a record or any relevant experience, his unconscionable DUI arrest in the middle of a campaign—that cause him not to be elected, and not all the shit inked into his face.

Morning Fog

It is a foggy morning in Pittsburgh. As is always the case when fog is general across the city, I am reminded of one of my favorite short stories, Tobias Wolff’s “Our Story Begins.” The story’s setting is San Francisco, and the fog is a bit more aggressive than it is here this morning, but what lovely descriptions:

“The fog blew in early again. This was the tenth straight day of it. The waiters and waitresses gathered along the window to watch, and Charlie pushed his cart across the dining room so that he could watch with them as he filled the water glasses. Boats were beating in ahead of the fog, which loomed behind them like a tall, rolling breaker. Gulls glided from the sky to the pylons along the wharf, where they shook out their feathers and rocked from side to side and glared at the tourists passing by.

“The fog covered the stanchions of the bridge. The bridge appeared to be floating free as the fog billowed into the harbor and began to overtake the boats. One by one they were swallowed up in it.”

. . .

“Charlie started home the long way, up Columbus Avenue, because Columbus Avenue had the brightest streetlights. But in this fog the lights were only a presence, a milky blotch here and there in the vapor above. Charlie walked slowly and kept to the walls. He met no one on his way; but once, as he paused to wipe the dampness from his face, he heard strange ticking steps behind him and turned to see a three-legged dog appear out of the mist. It moved past in a series of lurches and was gone. ‘Christ,’ Charlie said. Then he laughed to himself, but the sound was unconvincing and he decided to get off the street for a while.”

Copying out these passages, I was struck first that these aren’t actually flamboyantly beautiful descriptions of fog; second, that they’re sneakier and more effective than that, because what they conjure up is the sensation you get when you’re trapped or enveloped in fog: in the first two paragraphs, Wolff describes a bus boy inside a tourist-trap restaurant as the fog closes in, strangling business for the evening; in the last, the bus boy walks home alone, late, through the fog and the empty streets. The three-legged dog is not Wolff’s usual thing—he’s a more realistic, generally unsentimental writer, not given to quirks or humor other than the dry sort—but here it makes sense: strange things come out of the fog, and everything looks a bit stranger when its context is wiped away. You can read metaphorical significance into the fog, isolating the main character, Charlie, forcing him to confront his own life—but you don’t really need to; it’s fog, it’s San Francisco.

I can remember reading “Our Story Begins” for the first time and getting chills. It was the summer and I was sitting in a laundromat in Philadelphia, waiting for my load of wash to be done. Walking around the city I had picked up a book called Graywolf Annual for some year, maybe 1989 or ’90, in a box of books put out on the curb with a placard reading “Free Books!” There were a number of fantastic stories in that collection—Andre Dubus and Richard Ford were represented, along with Annie Proulx’s “The Half-Skinned Steer”—but “Our Story Begins” was the one that made me put the book down, look around, and feel obscurely that I had been taught something important and at just the right time. I was older than the main character—23 or 24 at that time—but in not so different a place in terms of life and career. In the story, Charlie is revealed to be an aspiring writer who has moved to San Francisco with thoughts of Kerouac, of Allen Ginsberg or Gregory Corso popping into the cafe where he goes to escape the fog; his novel, we’re told, has been returned without comment by all the publishers he’s sent it to—except for one, who’s written “Are you kidding?” across the title page. Without encouragement, friendless, with San Francisco’s long, cold summer wearing him down, Charlie is just on the point of giving up. His encounter in the cafe, listening in on an ambiguous conversation between a married couple and the choir director the wife is having an affair with, sustains Charlie, convincing him to push on a little further by conveying a sense of possibility, of wonder at what the world will turn up next. It was an immensely encouraging idea to read in a story; whether or not any of this happened to Tobias Wolff, it seemed impossible he hadn’t lived some version of this pivotal moment, deciding whether to go on.

I’ve already sort of spoiled the story for you, but below the jump is its conclusion—a big part of why I’ve remembered this story so fondly for so long: Read the rest of this entry »