Pittsburgh Years

Southside

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A

t the end of the 1800s, workers flooded to Pittsburgh from Poland, Bohemia (Czech Republic), Slovakia, Ukraine, Serbia, Lithuania, Germany, Austria, Hungary and many other once-hungry, often angry, parts of Central Europe.  Southside, where I now lived, still retained much of this heritage.  To me this was a strange, almost foreign, land.  Strong-looking women marched militantly out of their homes each morning, still in their bathrobes and, if it was cold or windy, their heads were covered with babushkas.  They were armed with brooms with which they resolutely swept the sidewalk in front of their side-by-side homes.  If a neighbor was ill, or too old, her sidewalk would be swept as well.  These same women, during the day, while their men were at work, kept a close eye on the neighborhood for any strange goings-on.

It was a close-knit community and I was a rather unlikely bird for these parts; most days I went off to work in a suit and tie; a robin among wrens.  Yet one afternoon when I came home from work, a neighbor across the street told me that someone had been looking in my window.  Rather than making me nervous about intruders, the solicitude she showed made me feel at home, accepted, part of the neighborhood.

Southside is rather clearly divided into what are called the “flats” and the “slopes”.  The flats are flat as flat can be.  They are just south of the Monongahela river right at the curve.  They are only a mile or two wide, eight or ten city blocks at its widest.  Some years back it had been a city called Birmingham but it now is part of the City of Pittsburgh.

Text Box:  
The Flats by the River at the Curve
The Slopes Behind to the South 
From the flats, farther from the river, the slopes rise up six or eight hundred feet, tough stone that the river could not wear away and, thus frustrated, went around.  They are steeply inclined, covered with trees and with uncountable tall and narrow houses perched precariously on them.  Narrow and perilous roads, but sometimes just wooden or concrete steps, wind their way up and around, here and there, so that people can go down to work and get back up home.

In some places there are—now, mostly were, because only a few remain—mechanisms, called “inclines” here.  They are small, peculiar Text Box:  
An Incline
looking, cable-cars on rails that are pulled up the hills.  At one time this was done with steam power, now electrical motors are used.  I have seen similar only in Budapest, Hungary, on the slopes of the Danube, from where, I presume, ours have been copied.  There they are called funiculars.  I have been told that, generally speaking, the slopes were originally occupied mainly by the Germans, while the flats housed most of the rest.  Now it is more mixed up, even inner-married.  Southside then—slopes and flats—was largely occupied by, the workers of the mills that, along with the railroads, lined the banks of the Monongahela River.  These railroads, and the barges that ply this large river—often still pushed by paddle-wheeled push-boats when I first came to Pittsburgh—supplied the mills with coke and iron ore and their other necessaries, and they supply the power plants down river with coal.  The river also supplied the water to the mills and carried their effluent downstream to the Ohio and then to the Mississippi and thence to the Gulf.

The resulting products from all these inputs were generated electricity, manufactured steel sheet and plate, coils and beams, in great abundance.  And of course serious pollution of the rivers and the atmosphere.  In short, these mills and their mill workers produced the three things for which Pittsburgh had become both famous and infamous: steel, smoke and grit.  Frank Lloyd Wright was once asked by the City Fathers just what should be done to improve matters.  His curt reply, “Raze it.”  But the smoke was all gone now—the remediation of the fifties.  This complete absence of the infamous smoke was one of the Text Box:  Andrew Carnegie, the progenitor of steelmaking in the city, the country, and the world.things that most surprised me when I first came here in 1960, expecting the worst.

The mills of course ran 24/7; in the early days in two shifts of twelve hours each, and later, in more relaxed times, in three of eight—a concession angrily fought by the mill owners, I’m told.  The huge mills were of course both unheated and, in places, red-hot and overheated.  The work was hard and some of it was dangerous.  The men were generally hard and a few of them could be dangerous if provoked, or drunk.  For men, this work largely defined their lives.  The pay was good, as good as could be in those days.  That is, after all, why they had originally come this long way from the old country.  The “mill hunks” worked as hard as was required, and afterwards—and sometimes in between—drank as hard as they could.  The mills, and their taskmasters, saw to the first, the nearby bars to the second.  That the bars were nearby saved time: one’s mid-shift meal, often a “jumbo” (baloney) sandwich, could be downed quickly, even on the way to the bar.  And then one could get down to the beer and shots necessary to properly prepare oneself for the next half of the shift.  After work … repeat process… then home for supper, and after that maybe a Pittsburgh ballgame listened-to on the radio while sitting on the front stoop if it was hot.

For the first time in my life I was living by myself.  My apartment in Southside was small and more than a little tacky.  It was the first floor of a two story house that had been converted into two apartments.  It had a front room, a middle room, and a kitchen in the back, and it had a tiny bathroom just off the middle room that had been tucked under the stairs going up to the second floor apartment.

I slept in the front room, that nearest the sidewalk, on a “Swedish-modern” couch that Nola had given me.  It had been bought when we had lived in McKees Rocks and had served as Marcia’s bed when we had lived in the apartments.  If I “made the bed” the room could double as a sitting room; I had a chair or two that I had bought from the Red and White Store, a cheap little place that sold used stuff for down-and-outers.  I had pretty much stocked my kitchen from there too.

The building itself was basic, similar to all the other homes in the neighborhood that, block after block, seemed to rest intimately, shoulder to shoulder, against each other, as they often do in Europe.  And there was not even a sliver of lawn in the front, just the sidewalk.

From the sidewalk three concrete steps ascended to the first floor, this small change in elevation an acknowledgment of the former willfulness of the Monongahela River, a large waterway only a few blocks away; it had occasionally over­flowed its banks back in the years before being properly constrained by the locks and dams that now discipline it.  On many streets there were trees which seem to grow directly out of the sidewalks, in many cases cracking them in their irresistible urge to grow.  Originally the sidewalks had been constructed simply of brick which just calmly gave way as the trees grew in girth and root structure, but now, in patchwork fashion, the fine-looking, if always uneven, brick sidewalks were being replaced by concrete, which seemed more modern to the locals and didn’t require as much weed pulling to keep them neat-looking.

B

usiness at The Simplex Group seemed to be picking up.  At the Salvation Army I bought a tabletop for five dollars.  It was a big one, a full sheet of extra-thick plywood surfaced in what I think was linoleum.  I thought it was beautiful.  It had a dark pattern and was edged in a complementary solid color.  It was like new, and it had an executive look to it.  I often wondered what it had been in its former life: part of a conference table or a very large and elegant desk?  I had no answer, but our paths had now crossed and I was glad to have it with me.  I still have it.  I spent eighty dollars in a fancy store buying two strong, glossy-black, metal horses to hold it up, one at each end, like sawhorses.  It was very heavy, but The Army delivered it in their truck and brought it in to the middle room of my apartment.  On this setup I put my two computers—I had bought an IBM PC by that time—my telephone, and a rack of stacking plastic trays to hold my papers.  Now I had an office.

Gradually the Primavera Systems part of the business became predominant; I had, quite by accident, chosen the right product at the right time.  In addition to selling scheduling programs for microcomputers I also made an arrangement with Calcomp, then the premier manufacturer of pen plotters.  P3, the common name used to designate the Primavera Project Planner, had a rather good plotting capability with which to display portions or summaries of a particular project plan on paper for a presentation, or just to look at to see if the input into the schedule had been correct.

A pen plotter is fascinating to watch: controlled by a computer, it has a wide (24 inch or 36 inch) role of smooth-white, sprocket-fed paper which moves around a wide metal drum about eight inches in diameter.  At the same time, a small rack of colored pens moves back and forth parallel to the axis of the drum; the fascinating thing is how fast it all goes, the ink pens pecking up and down like a very nervous bird, and then, quick as a wink, one begins to see the picture begin to form on the paper, that is the diagram, the plot of the schedule that the machine is drawing.  It seems miraculous when you first see it operate: a magical finger, drawing just the way yours would, but so fast, and with no mistakes, as though it had a brain.  It has the same magic as computers in that it seems to make fun of time; what would take hours for a person to do, it completes in a few minutes—and it can even change colors in the process.

Fortunately for me, pen plotters were then very expensive, and they were tricky to install: one had to know just how to set all the switches, but once understood it was really quite simple.  I remember that a 36 inch wide plotter retailed for $13,600, and I got a big cut when I sold one.  Pen plotters are passé now because electrostatic plotters are much better—though still expensive—but they helped to build my business.  The lesson in this for me was, again, that selling things is better than selling your time, of which you have only so much.  Besides that, when selling time, you spend more than half your time selling yourself, for which you don’t get paid at all, so you have to sell yourself at a high enough rate that the time when you are working makes up for the time when you aren’t.  In any case I finished up my programming with Patterson and began to concentrate on selling Primavera.

By this time Tricia had left Patterson and, after a brief stint at a computer store, she had joined me at Simplex.  We both worked at selling P3 and building the business and soon we seemed to need more space and someone to do filing, take care of the books, and answer the telephone.  A friend of mine that I had met at Milan’s, an automobile garage on the corner—he painted cars there—has a brother that occasionally came in for a few drinks with us at the Amber Lounge, a nearby bar.  The brother had been out of work for a while but he had money—a handsome fellow, he had married a doctor—and had bought a rough old house up on Jane street, near Karwoski’s Tavern, which he planned to remodel.  I told him that if he reworked it into a sort of an office for us, we would rent it, and he did.  After that Simplex moved its base of operations up near Karwoski’s and we hired a young woman to work with us there to basically keep things running, while Tricia and I were doing deals.  We also did training there; a few people from a company we had sold to would come in to learn in a few days the finer points of the product, and that was very profitable for us.

There is a great deal to learn about just having a business, independent of what the business is.  One can be smart as anything, concerning some esoteric product knowledge, and still fall flat as a businessman.  Most of what must be learned in this respect has to do with finance and government.  We learned that even very good companies take a very long time to pay—something about money management.  Once you make a big sale it seems natural to spend that money for which there are calls from left and right, even though you don’t have the check yet.  The solution to this particular problem is to get a line of credit from a bank to hold the company over until you actually get paid; and we had done this, but then had frittered the borrowed money away, who knows how?

Once you get off a regular salary, a certain form of steadiness seems to disappear from your life and money doesn’t have exactly the same meaning that it did before.  It is somehow different just for being irregular; at times you seem to have a vast fortune on your hands, only to be followed in no-time by a poor streak.  So we had to have a serious talk with the bank about the $50,000 we had borrowed.  Tricia promised that we would have it back to them rather quickly; I was mum since I didn’t have any idea how we could do this.  Since they seemed to be aware that one cannot get blood out of a turnip anyway, they agreed to give us some time.  Tricia then put us on a money diet and, sooner than we or the bank had thought, we had paid off the loan.  The other problems of this nature have to do with government:

If I made a sale, for some reason it then seemed just like my money.  I knew I had to pay income tax on it, and did, but I remained unaware that I was also obliged to pay Social Security taxes, which seem like something that companies did.  My company seemed so small that I just considered it me, no matter that I had a bank account in the company’s name.  I had run up quite a deficit the accountant said, when we finally got one.  That was another problem.

When I used to use the term government, I thought of the Federal government, or the State government, but there is also a Local government and, besides that, there are any number of other organizations that consider themselves civil and which, when you get into business, will try to keep you on the right path.  A young woman who lived across the street from our new house-office worked for one of these agencies, a Southside redevelopment group which took as its aim the up-scaling of Southside.

My house-like office seemed to offend their planning and she called on us one day to see if we actually lived there.  She had a suspicion that the house was just a front for a vast commercial enterprise which, in their planning, more properly belonged in a different part of Southside.  At five o’clock, or whenever we finished work for the day, I would make out as though I were just going out for a few moments, waving across the street if I saw her, as though I might be back for supper in only a short while.  This was not difficult, because I was going for a drink at Karwoski’s.  Playacting of this sort was not hard, but eventually she seemed to notice that supper never came, and that I seemed always to roll back “home” in my car at about eight in the morning.

The young lady from the redevelopment group seemed to have the law on her side: this area was zoned residential.  Yet there were, in this proscribed area, any number of doctors’ offices, a printing business, and other small businesses as big as, or bigger than, my budding little enterprise.  No matter.  She seemed to have it in for me, and because she lived just across the street she could keep her eye on me.  Though I was able to fight off the forces of order for six months or so, eventually I had to get legal.  We began to think seriously about moving, and to decide just where we would go.

The Duquesne Brewery is a massive brick and stone edifice from which beer no longer flows.  The lower walls approach 5 feet in thickness.  The main structure is divided into two sections; one is called the Brew House, the other was called the Stock House, which had stabled the large horses that delivered kegs of beer to the local taverns.  They were similar, I suppose, to the Budweiser Clydesdales, though no doubt less elegant, probably more resembling the large farm animals that my grandfather shod back in Illinois.  The structure had been built in 1899 and had brewed beer until 1972.  High on the side of this great masonry structure is a huge clock with a minute hand 35 feet in length long and a 25 foot hour hand.  The ceiling of the first floor of the Brew House soared some 40 or 50 feet above the floor.  It was vacant, and now Simplex needed a new office.  It looked nothing like an office.  And we had, of late, begun training as well, so there would be business people coming in.  But I began to brew a radical idea, my architectural juices foaming over; usually a bad sign.

The structure was owned by some sort of real estate holding company that had taken over ownership recently when the brewery went belly-up.  I spoke with them.  The place could be leased for a song.  And it was properly zoned.  But then we would have to put quite a bit of money into it to make it suitable for our business.  There was a balcony that ran around one side of the great Brew House room.  That is where our offices would go.  In the center of the room I planned to build another structure inside of it that would be suitable for training.  It was to be constructed cheaply of concrete block colorfully painted.  It’s “ceiling” Would Be of some colorful, draped fabric, a large, tent-like structure inside the grand Brew House.

I asked an architect to come look at the place with me and I told him my ideas.  He had done some interesting restorations at other places in the Southside which was beginning to heat up as a place where new things were happening—mostly new bars.

Some years later so many bars and restaurants had been constructed that, as I write, over 100 liquor licenses are active here in Southside.  So the City Planning Commission designated the area as an “Entertainment District”; whatever that might mean to the zoning board.  The lesson here is that government will find a way to do what it wants to do and, equally, it will find a way not to do what it doesn’t wish to do.  This is a valuable, and non-obvious, thing to learn.  Anyway the architect thought that he could do something interesting with this strange notion.  This is another valuable thing to learn: architects will always find a way, if you pay them.  Thus one learns, little by little, lesson after business lesson.

The problem came quite suddenly, just before the deal closed; the holding company of the Brew House went bankrupt and no leasing could be done.  In retrospect no doubt a fortuitous circumstance for the fledgling Simplex Group.  So we began looking elsewhere in the Southside, to which I had taken quite a fancy.

There was a place for sale on Carson street, the main drag through the Southside.  A young man with architectural aspirations himself had purchased an old barber shop and was about half way through converting it into a combination living quarters and art gallery.  He was doing the work himself on a tight budget.  Tricia and I went through it and saw some potential, even though it was quite a ways from being finished.  The building had a large room—the former barbershop—and there was the makings of a kitchen in the rear.  In between those there was a room which had had its ceiling removed thus making it an impressive twenty or twenty-five feet high which we thought might be suitable for a conference room.  And then above there was a second floor which could serve for offices.  All of this had been roughed out but nothing was finished.  The owner was in the process of divorce and on top of that—or because of that—he had quite run out of money.  We bought the building for $94,000.  But that of course was not the end.

We located a fellow who had a carpentry shop in an alley near the Brew House and showed him through the building.  We had some reason to think that he might be a talented fellow, though I can’t remember why.  In point of fact he was talented, but he was not interested in our project—he didn’t have time.  But he said that one of his friends who occasionally worked for him might be interested and that he was pretty good, though he had never done a job this big before.  He sent him over to see us.

I walked him through the structure with a list I had made enumerating each thing that had to be done to get the place into the shape that we wanted it: a wooden handrail here, a certain floor finish there, some windows here, and on, and on,…  He took the list home with him and meticulously priced each and every item.  He came up with a total that, it seems to me now, was about $25,000.  We thought that pretty reasonable, especially if the guy was as good as his recommendation had made him out to be.  So we engaged him to do the work, but I’m afraid that we neglected to ask him how long it might take.  It took quite a long time.

Meanwhile, we had a business to run through all of these shenanigans.  I’m not sure how we managed, but we did and that ex-barbershop on Carson street in Southside became our office.  When completed and furnished it was a place where one felt happy coming to work in the morning.  It was beautiful.

Simplex International Headquarters: A Pictorial