Forward and Shady Avenue, Squirrel Hill, July 1, 1970
Isidore Jesse Saint Ben-Levi walked out of the back door onto the tiny porch. He closed the old door behind him. The metal know was painted over a hundred times, with the latest coat of white paint revealing a pervious coat of pale green underneath. The door barely shut correctly. It had a weird little pane of glass above which could be adjusted by a long-broken knob.
It was typical July anyway: 90 degrees and windy. It was very green and very old in the rump of a backyard. Old garages, cracked pavement, weird rusty chemical-smelling contaminated industrial drums which served as garbage cans in this City and mezuzahs on the door post.
The one elderly neighbor’s yard was meticulously coiffed. The other was a rental duplex with maybe three families. Isidore’s House was also a duplex. A duplex. Two families under one roof. What an awful idea created by some cheapskate landlord.
He surveyed the yard to the left. Empty boxes from unpacking from the latest move, were stuffed into the giant pungent cans.
He wore jeans and a blue Yankees t-shirt. His hair was long and always unkempt. His Converse All-Stars were already sweaty.
Breakfast had been Honeycombs with milk. His father and mother were puttering around the house, unpacking, but he didn’t pay any attention to their business. His brother, Meerschaum Polonius did not join him, rather staying in his room reading a tattered Edgar Rice Burroughs paperback in near-darkness. His mother would always yell at him to turn on more light, but he never did.
His dad, Hervé was born in Weirton, but raised in Pittsburgh. Hervé’s father Ian was born in Allegheny City in 1900.
Ian’s father, Olivier was born in East St. Louis, but Olivier’s father Otto was born in Oakland Township next to Pittsburgh in 1874.
The rest of them were born in Squirrel Hill, going back to 1793 when Jean-David Ben-Levi, a 53 year old French Veteran of the American Revolution and « La guerre de Sept Ans » (what we would call the French and Indian War), settled his family, two sons, two daughters and several grandchildren in what is now the bluff at the tail end of Pocusset Street where it meets Schenley Park.
Hw first saw the City as it were when it was Ft. Duquesne. He was an 18 year old cannoneer from Lille serving under the ill-fated Colonel François-Marie Le Marchand de Lignery of New France.
Jean-David was fascinated by the little frontier outpost. He would explore on foot, crossing the creeks with his Indian friends and climbing the steep green ridges. His favorite place was the bluff above « Le Course de Quatre Bornes ».
The bluff now sits above the Greenfield bridge. The old street is now pedestrian only. It had been collapsing into Four Mile Run since 1800 any way. Beneath the bluff was the remnants of Old Salt Mine Road, destroyed in part by the Parkway East back in the 1920’s or so.
‘Salt Mine’ was the first road built by the white-eye. It meandered from the raft-crossing point at Monongahela River at Duck Hollow along the giant goose-neck of land back to the Monongahela River yet again where Second Avenue criss-crosses over Irvine Street at the base of giant flaming Steel Mills that ran along the river.
Isidore started to explore the neighborhood. He walked up Forward Avenue towards Beechwood. There was a Church called St. Philomena’s with a parochial school. He knew of Catholic Schools from New York City.
On the grounds, amongst the old massive trees was a girl about his age. She was blonde. Playing alone.
”Hi!” She Said with a wave. She had a peculiar accent.
”Hi.” Responded Isidore. She was the first person his age that he spoke to in the new city.
”Do you live around here!”
”What’s your name?”
”My name is Jesse.” He used his middle name as he was always embarrassed by the name Isidore.
”My name is Mary.”
”So you want to go for a walk with me? I’m exploring the neighborhood.”
”I don’t have permission to go, maybe tomorrow.”
The church wasn’t a place he belonged, so he crossed the street to an old gravel parking lot with a set of stairs and an old broken lime-green wrought iron fence.
He walked up the steps between two ancient, white stone storage sheds. At the top, was a small tennis court, a basketball court and a combination baseball/football field with an oiled dirt surface straight out of the roaring 20’s.
The Field was deserted except for a bespectacled old man, maybe in his late 70’s who was sitting on a bench. He was a distinguished-looking thin gentleman. He wore an old timey hat, like Connie Mack and he stared straight ahead as if he was watching a movie.
“Hello there, young man. I am Dr. Cornelius McTaggerty.”
Isidore stopped. He didn’t fear adults. This old man was strangely interesting and not at all threatening. The old man exuded knowledge and mystery.
”Hi. I’m Isidore.”
”Pleased to make your acquaintance, young master Isidore. May I tell you a story? I am afraid, as it were, that I have run out of time, and I must tell a story, lest it disappear into the fabric of time.”
“OK. That sounds kind of cool.”
Isidore perched on a dry, dilapidated water fountain. The ever-present mosquitoes still found him. He could hear them buzzing in his right ear.
Some baseball players appeared and their cleats clattered across the ill-maintained asphalt and broken, forgotten concrete as they walked towards the cramped urban ballfield.
“There is an old rumor that something is buried under Salt Mine Road. When the French evacuated Ft. Duquesne in November of 1758, they forgot that they had buried a payroll shipment of coins, silver plates from the officer’s mess and even a Fanion from the Regiment. under what is now Saline Street. Back then it was an Indian trail.”
“Sounds interesting to me, I collect coins. I’d like to find that.”
“No one had ever found the payroll or anything else, young man. I’ve been searching for it for seventy years since I was a boy your age. I had some clues which I put into a map and a little notebook. I came close, but I never found it. I think I know where it is, but how do you excavate without a permit?”
“Hmm might be fun to look for it. But someone could have found it decades ago, Sir.”
“Possibly, but neither I nor anyone else could ever share the story, or treasure hunters from all around the world would descend on the city with a grand public todo and beaten me to it. And if they didn’t find it, I would die with the reputation as a famous local crackpot. Some say it’s a legend. I’ve done my research, it’s no legend. You’ll see, it’s all in my notes.”
“Cool. Are there any other legends?”
“There are several other local legends:
the secret storage room under the Lions Club Ruins of Frick Park,
the hidden telephone of Mellon Estate,
the skeleton in the wall of Colfax School,
the top secret government spy lab in the Bell Telephone building on Pocusset Street,
and finally, the 1920’s speakeasy beneath Poli’s restaurant.
and the strangest of all, the Slentav Screen experiment in Schenley Park.
You’ll have to read about it… the Slentav screen designed by Dr. William Blake Hall and Professor Valarious Stephenson of Carnegie Tech.”
“Sounds kind of far-fetched, but it’s a good story. I’m so bored since we moved here that I need a quest. I read the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Almanac all the time.”
“Ha! Wait until you meet the Internet. Einstein believed that all things past and present leave a little trace behind. If you look really carefully you might just find it.”
”The quest for the Legends of Squirrel Hill. I like it. I can do it! Unless you are crazy. Because why me?”
“You will know in time. This was no chance meeting. Take this book. Your future self will thank you.”
Isidore looked at the thick old leather book. It had a little leather locking strap, with a brown bronze snap.
“How do I start, Doctor McTaggerty?”
“Start in the old collection of the Carnegie Library in Oakland in the third floor. Ask for Doctor Chaminade. But you dare not show this book to anyone else ever or others will get there first.”
“How do I contact you if I have a question?”
“I still have an office in the top rotunda of Hammerschlag Hall at Carnegie Tech. If I’m not there, leave a note about what date and time you can return and I will be there.”
TO BE CONTINUED