I love a good music festival. Sitting on a folding chair with an umbrella, drinking beer and eating fried foods, it’s as American as apple pie. Which probably explains our obesity problem. Still, the Three Rivers Arts Festival is right up my alley. I was excited to try it out one of my first summers living in Pittsburgh.
Unfortunately I have children.
I’m sorry, that came out wrong.
My wife and I chose to bless ourselves with two little miracles who prevent us from doing fun things. Their bedtime and babysitter logistics made it difficult to make the festival at night. But no matter, we decided to take the kids during the day. We would make it an outing. Now, when planning an outing with a 3 and 4 year old, I find it important to remember the ”box principle” That is, you can buy your kid a super fancy cool toy and they will spend the day running around with their head in the box it came in, singing “I am a musical robot!” until they trip over the actual toy and break it; you can never predict what a child will find entertaining.
Once we took our kids to see a live performance of their favorite show, Yo Gabba Gabba. We bought the tickets, battled through traffic and parking at the Benedum, and sat through 2 hours of this:
We did not do this for our own entertainment. But their highlight: the escalator. The box principle.
So we take a shotgun approach to discussing any day’s plan, no matter how cool we think the end game is. “Guess what we’re doing today? We’re going to have breakfast?! Yeah. And then we’re going to pick out some pants for you to wear?! “
It was in this spirit that we decided to take the subway to the Three Rivers Arts Festival.
And we struck box gold.
It turns out our kids had become obsessed with subways after an episode of Caillou, a horrendous kids cartoon from Canada. The show stars a 3-year-old named Caillou who is inexplicably bald. At first I thought it was about a kid struggling with cancer which would have been very bold. But it turns out it’s supposed to just make Caillou more of an “everykid” that both toddlers and babies can relate to. In practice, it’s creepy. And his parents are annoying in that overly indulgent, everything is a lesson Canadian kind of way.
Plus, I know this is going to sound weird, but his mom’s chest is drawn all wrong.
It’s like the chest of a once buxom 80-year-old showgirl on a middle aged woman. In scenes where it’s just close-ups of Caliou’s head talking to his mom, you can still see the contours of it. It’s an odd choice. And the illustrator also randomly draws Caillou’s babysitters or young teachers with crop tops for some reason. It’s all off. Like Canadian bacon.
Anyway, one day Caillou takes the subway somewhere and learns all about the wonders of public transportation. My kids watched this episode about 100 times.
So when we mentioned the subway they lit up; “You mean we get to take the subway just like Caillou?!” Well, hopefully not exactly like Caillou. Mommy will wear a bra, but yes.
There was much jumping around the house and singing, “We’re taking the subway!”
And if we’re being honest, it wasn’t just my kids who were excited. I grew up in Los Angeles where public transportation is exotic, like driving on the wrong side of the road or using a unicycle. So I’m a bit fascinated by it myself. “Oooh, a subway? Will there be a salty nut vendor? A crazy hobo?”
The subway in question was the extension that connects downtown to the North Shore. When this station opened it was heralded around my office on the North Side like the opening of a new ride at Kennywood. We all took it downtown for lunch one day. It took us two hours to pick up Mongolian BBQ at the food court in Gateway Center and bring it back to the office. As useful workday public transportation goes, this route only makes sense if you are trying to get fired.
But as a way to give drunk people a chance to nap on the way back to their car after a Steelers game, it’s spot on. For what they spent to build this one mile connection the city may have been better off just covering everyone’s taxis for the next 15 years. But for coming south down Route 28 and to avoid downtown parking on a weekend, it’s perfect.
So our subway journey started with a 20 minute drive; out of the gate my kids are learning the wrong lessons about public transportation. “Everyone get in the car. Let’s buckle up so we can drive to the subway.” When they’re told people in New York don’t need cars because they have the subway, my children will be confused. Once we hit the North Shore we could have continued driving another five minutes to get to our actual destination, but that was no longer an option. You do not renege on the promise of a subway ride.
The station itself is a new, shiny modern building of glass, steel, concrete and sharp angles; a bit of architectural sleight of hand to distract the residents of the North Side and North Hills from the fact that the Pittsburgh subway runs twenty-three miles south of the city with forty-five stops, and then ends with this 523 million dollar two-stop nub on the other side of the river. An urban planning booby prize. “No, we don’t go to Cranberry, but look at this flying buttress!” “Up to Millvale? No way. But look at this glass elevator!”
On this sunny Saturday morning with a huge festival just across the river, the station was a hub of inactivity. We entered at street level and saw there was already a train waiting above at the platform level. This could have been perfect timing if not for the ticketing machines on the lower level which were apparently designed by the same committee that decided to replace simple parking meters with a new streamlined system that involves waiting behind someone as they try to remember their license plate number in the snow. In this case there was some kind of zone system involved and by the time we deciphered the map and figured out we were travelling in a free zone, we had missed the train.
So for one of the first times in my life I managed to be pissed about getting a free ride.
The kids were, of course, unfazed, focused as they were on the escalator. “You didn’t even tell us there was going to be an escalator!”
Kid outing tip #2: always keep a few surprises to yourself. There will be a day, probably very soon, where I will not be able to entertain my kids just by taking them somewhere that is two stories. So we rode up and down a few times. Then they ran back and forth on the platform. Then they noticed the tunnel.
The ride from the North Shore to Gateway goes under the Allegheny River and standing on the platform you can see the track curve toward the river and head down. If you’ve at all been paying attention you should be able to guess that tunnels are right in my kids’ wheelhouse. “A way for something to get somewhere?! Sign me up!”
Waiting for the subway now took on a sense of urgency. They couldn’t have cared less that we were taking it to the festival. In fact, I’m pretty sure they didn’t remember where the hell we were going. They just had to get into that tunnel. And until they did, they were going to grill me about it.
“Are we going to go under the water? How do we get under the water? Will we get wet? Why not?” I felt like my Saturday morning was turning into a McCarthy hearing. By the time we got into discussing what the fish may or may not have been doing while the tunnel was being built, I wanted to grab them both, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
I mean, seriously, the last time I even tried digging a hole I was seven and attempting to make a trap for my sister. The plan was to cover the hole with leaves and brush, lure her out and she’d fall in. Just like in Looney Tunes. Instead, I got stuck to the shovel by a large splinter and my mom had to call the paramedics to detach me. I’m not going to have your answers on this tunnel.
Eventually, the subway came and we went to the Arts Festival , which would have been a tremendous disappointment had anyone actually been looking forward to it at this point. There were no bands in Pittsburgh awake, let alone playing at noon. And the festival’s vaunted “kids area” is essentially a few folding tables with crayons and a guy who keeps a bongo in his van. Don’t get me wrong, I think the Three Rivers Arts Festival is a great event. We were just there at the wrong time for our tastes; my kids have limited interest in buying framed lithographs of the Pittsburgh skyline.
But it didn’t matter anymore. We’d eat some fried food, probably on a stick. Followed by chocolate-covered things, also on sticks. And then we would ride the subway home. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, life is journey a, not a destination. And to think, he hadn’t even ridden an escalator.