Glimpsed from a seat on the outbound Castle Shannon T, the fair casts a neon fog over a school parking lot next to the tracks. From the middle of its midway, it looks like a weeklong reenactment of 20th century suburban history. The miniature bucket-of-bolts amusement rides line up to the right, with the fruitless admonition “Positively No Fast Spinning” posted at the teacup ride; the games of chance, sponsored by local dentists and grocers, take center stage; the fenced-in all-male poker game flanks the Lily Pond fishing booth; and the flea market, a warehouse of hand-me-downs so highly coveted that it has early-bird hours, takes over the gymnasium usually occupied by the St. Anne’s Cyclones, their grade school diocesan sports victories commemorated by pennants along the walls.
“How long have you been going to this thing — decades?” I ask my husband Jim as we troll Willow Avenue on a gray Saturday evening, searching for a coveted parking spot. “That’s super conservative,” he replies. “It’s likely half a century. Let me drop you off while I kill myself.”
In the nuanced parish boundaries of Catholic Pittsburgh, Jim wouldn’t normally be found at St. Anne’s. He’s a Sacred Heart boy from the East End. But there were the South Hills cousins, and the clanking Ferris wheel, and the heavy, grayish doughnuts fried alongside the school steps, and as everyone said graciously, “it’s for the church.” So Jim and his siblings donned their new shorts and tucked-in shirts, to be reprised weeks later as their Kennywood school picnic outfits, and ran wild for a few hours at the solstice. A few decades later, we hauled our sons there, dressed in matching outfits their grandmother bought for the occasion. And last June, after a 10-year hiatus, we took ourselves.
Reader, it was unchanged.
When Pittsburghers say “Where ya from?,” they really mean, “In exactly which Pittsburgh neighborhood were you born?” Despite living in the city for 30 years, I have come to understand that a former Philadelphian will never be considered a native. But I was fortunate. I had an instant extended family in the city, and because of them, I got the casual invitation: come to the fair.
Year after incremental year, I became an insider, if only as a spectator, precisely because of the fair’s 43-year-old traditions. I know a seminarian (rarer each year) will be the guest bingo caller. Middle school boys will always beat each other with the inflatable bats or plush animals they’ve won. The Legion of Mary society will man the Willow Street school doors, and some Ladies of Charity will organize the flea market. Each weeknight will feature a different ethnic dinner: Thursday, pierogis; Friday, spaghetti.
The church fair was a small, welcoming pathway into the community. It’s a moveable feast enacted all over Pittsburgh, as the rides and lights migrate from parking lot to parking lot each week of the summer.
Some years we came home with secondhand toys. The next, we were boxing them up and recycling them back to the flea market. We bought the doughnuts, which never improved. Our kids brought the friends they’d made. The church fair was a small, welcoming pathway into the community. It’s a moveable feast enacted all over Pittsburgh, as the rides and lights migrate from parking lot to parking lot each week of the summer.
This fall’s flood of images from Europe, of refugees with outstretched arms, reminds me that newcomers still need that path. When St. Anne’s was founded at the end of the 19th century, it served a congregation of German farm families. These days, strangers are more rare, but the parish still finds and befriends them. Little celebrations gradually pull them into the neighborhood.
As I sat on a bench listening to the poker players banter (“May the fours be with you,” quipped the dealer), a woman in a green sari seated herself timidly on the opposite end. Shot with gold embroidery, the sari glinted in the sunset. It was easily the most elegant outfit at the fair, worn by Mrs. Tilaki Khadka. She didn’t speak much English, but she was willing to try to chat; she arrived in Castle Shannon in 2011 from Nepal, joining her husband, who came in 2007. She’d just walked down Willow Avenue from the family home to chaperone her daughter, Karuna. She pointed. Karuna, with a few teenaged friends, was bouncing along to “Cheerleader,” blaring from KISS-FM. A student at Keystone Oaks, she circled back to her mom, quickly wrote down her family name for me at her mother’s Nepalese command, and raced back to her crowd.
I left Mrs. Khadka waiting patiently for Karuna, and walked to the school entrance. “Established in 1894 for God and Country,” it proclaimed. Inside the gym, piles of mid-century modern swag awaited buyers. Recliners, televisions, dishes, Steelers relics and kids’ clothes: each aisle overflowed with the contents of aging South Hills closets.
Among those aging here was Monsignor Charles Owen Rice. When he died at age 96 in 2005, he was Pittsburgh’s oldest priest, and had been pastor of St. Anne’s for three decades. In a city that treasures characters, the fiery Rice had been a well-known labor activist, railing in his weekly radio show against “the infamy of great wealth.” (When he founded a shelter for homeless men during the Depression, TIME magazine patronizingly reported the work of “the Flophouse Father.”) He didn’t mellow much in his later years, but he did try to stay fit. Parishioners were startled when he appeared on the altar one morning with a bandaged head. The story goes that he’d been jogging in place on a mini-trampoline when it gave way.
That trampoline, of course, made its way to the next year’s flea market, and thence to our house. We never figured out how to fully repair the legs, so that it collapsed reliably each time one of the kids attempted to bounce. Shoved further and further into a basement corner, it eventually disappeared altogether.
I’m not sorry that I didn’t hold on to the trampoline, with its faint footprint of Pittsburgh history. It’s the fair that’s the important artifact. The June 2016 fair will mark its 44th year. We’ll take yet another chance on the 50⁄50. We’ll see a few people we know — including, I’ll bet, the Khadkas, who find the festival a way to feel at home. Because, you know, it’s for the church.