Much of what I've published in the past four years was written while sitting in the Bakery Square Panera Bread. There was a time when I lived three blocks away, so it was a convenient drive to make when writing from home got too monotonous. And, even after moving across town to share a place with my now-wife, I'd still make the trek to that Panera. The seats were familiar, the wifi was reliable, and the cashiers knew my name.
This Panera sits directly across Penn Avenue from the Reizenstein campus; a space that tells both a macro Pittsburgh story and my own, micro Pittsburgh story. Reizenstein first existed as a middle school; serving East Liberty, Larimer, and Homewood (all predominately Black neighborhoods). As the city continued to lose population and the Pittsburgh Public School district continued to operate at a deficit, there was a major reshuffling of schools. Some (Reizenstein included) closed, some of the buildings housing these schools were sold, and some (Reizenstein included, again) underwent an identity shift. Schenley High School, which had recently been closed due to asbestos, moved into the Reizenstein building. And then, a couple years later, Schenley changed its name to The Barack Obama Academy of International Studies. And then that school changed buildings again, moving to the former Peabody High School. And then, once the Reizenstein building was vacated for good, it was demolished. An apartment complex sits there now. The Bakery Square apartments, which, according to the description on its website, is "the uber-comfy lounge where you unwind with a latte after work. It’s the bike trail that winds through grassy bioswales. Home is the grilling deck where you and your friends concoct the ultimate dry rub. And it’s the vibrant urban neighborhood just footsteps away."
This is a macro Pittsburgh story. My micro story is more about the campus that surrounded Reizenstein (three full basketball courts, a baseball field, and a soccer field) and the gym inside of it. Just three years ago, that campus was were a group of my friends — including VSB contributor Gem Jones — would play regular kickball and flag football games. A couple decades before that, it was where my dad taught me how to be a man.
For years, the main Reizenstein basketball court served as a nexus for the city's basketball population. Part of this was practical. It was centrally located; not too deep in any hood or too far in any suburb. It also had lights that, in the summertime, would stay on until 11pm; a rarity in Pittsburgh. And it was perfectly level. Which veteran ballplayers know is also a rarity with outdoor city courts. Its import went beyond that, though. Reizenstein on a Saturday or Sunday night was where the men played. Where men would drive their Caddies and Chevy Blazers right up to the court, jump out and argue over who had next. Where games were to 12 and you'd "switch" ("switch" meaning teams would switch baskets) after six. Where you didn't call foul unless someone drew blood. Because calling "bitch fouls" might result in an 'bow to the nose the next time you went to the hoop, the subtext being "Now THATS a real foul!" It's where I dunked in a game for the first time. Where, after recovering from an ACL tear and the subsequent surgery/rehab, I first tested my knee outdoors. Where, during a hazy night in June or July of 1997, two men with machine guns chased everyone off the court. They didn't fire any shots. We later found out they came looking for someone who wasn't there. And we found this out later because, after we saw these men emerge from around a corner and approach the court, all 20 or so of us there ran as far and as fast away as we could.
And it's where, on regular Sunday nights in the summer, my dad would bring a 9 or 10 year old me, as I'd watch him play and wish I were man enough to play with him.
I remember the day my dad pointed out Roger Kingdom — a regular at Reizenstein — and told me he was in the Olympics. I remember the 90 degree day my mom advised against me putting iced tea instead of water in the thermos bottle I'd take with me, and I remember how sick that damn iced tea made me for the next week. I remember playing on one of the side courts, beating a few of the other kids there — also brought by their dads — in one on one, believing I was ready to finally beat my dad, challenging him an hour or so later, and losing…again. And I remember overhearing my dad tell my mom when we got back home how much better I was getting, and that it might even be time for me to play a game on the main court.
As I reached my teens and my dad didn't play as often as he did before, he'd drive me there. Sometimes he'd leave and come back later. Sometimes he'd just sit in the car and watch. On the rides back home he'd offer critiques. Some positive ("That was a really nice pass you made in that first game") and some not as positive ("I don't care how big he is. Don't let someone just strip the ball from you like that."). And then, by my sophomore year in high school, I'd walk or catch the bus or catch a ride there myself. I could hold my own with the men now. I didn't need my dad to drive me there, or pick me on his team, or argue in my favor. I was a man on that court.
But, when I got back home, the first thing I'd do is find my dad and tell him how I played. He'd ask who was there and how many games I'd won. I'd tell him how many points I scored and how my "J" felt that day. We'd talk a little while longer, and he'd remind me to shower up, to get something to eat, and to get to bed before midnight. Which was necessary because, even though it was the summertime and I was a man on the Reizenstein courts, I still was not a man.
Today is my dad's birthday. He is 68. I am several years away from the same age he was when he'd bring a 9 or 10 year old me to the Reizenstein courts. I don't play as often now, but when I do and I happen to talk to my dad that evening or the next day, I tell him about it. He'll ask who was there and how many games I won. I tell him how many points I scored and how my "J" felt that day. We'll talk a little while longer, and he'll remind me to say hi to my wife for him, to call and check up on one of my aunts, and he'll ask if I went to church last weekend. Which is necessary because, even though I'm finally a man, I still need my dad to help me be a better one.