Another Pittsburgh Romance
By Jo-Ann Pilardi
In memory of Albert “Ab” Logan, 1943-2014
(Click images for larger views.) Eighth Grade Graduation, Epiphany School, 1955 Three images below: 16th Birthday Party, 1957
Ab Logan’s humorous tale for Baltimore’s “Stoop” storytelling series about his first romantic kiss, in seventh grade during a game of post office at a friend’s birthday party, was evocative of a “post office moment” of my own. Mine happened also in Pittsburgh, but in fifth grade during my tenth birthday party. What follows is a report of the event, as best I can recall it, across these many years.
Setting: On or about June 9, 1951, in the apartment of our family of five (it grew to six later) on Marion Street, in a section of Pittsburgh close to Downtown called Uptown. Our apartment had only three rooms, but as my mother always said, “They’re large rooms.” And they were. A folding screen divided the bedroom into halves; my parents’ territory was on the street side, and the area where my sisters and I slept was in the interior. Regina and I were on a double bed and Sandra on a twin.
Partygoers: At my birthday party that day would have been the usual suspects, no doubt sparkling in their party clothes: my two sisters Sandra and Regina (five and six at the time) and any cousins close in age to me; my neighborhood was cousin-crowded. Cousins Richie, Ronnie, Lanny, Eugene, Tony, and maybe Barbara Ann would have been there, and possibly Tony, Sonny and Doreen. At the time, we all took for granted the physical closeness of our extended family—and ours wasn’t the only one in the neighborhood. It was the sort of urban neighborhood disappearing in America: full of kids who know each other and know, at pretty much every second, where any one of the others is; full of parents and aunts and uncles and grandparents, everyone vigilant—for good or ill—about what the kids are doing and where they are. I miss it deeply, to this day. Also in attendance at the party were my friends from the neighborhood (Monica, Ronnie, Buzzy, Jeepie) and a few from my school, Epiphany Grade School.
I can deduce who the Epiphany School crowd would have been but cannot remember exactly. No photographs remain of the inauspicious day. But with certainty, I remember one person, Joseph C., because I was head over heels nuts about him. He had large, deep-set blue-green eyes spangled with long black lashes, and his hair was jet black. His skin was fair. When I heard the traditional Irish tune, “The Wild Colonial Boy,” I thought of Joseph, for no particular reason except that its high Gaelic beauty—carried by both its melody and lyrics—represented the fair Joseph to me. Herewith its first verse:
There was a wild colonial boy, Jack Duggan was his name
He was born and raised in Ireland, in a place called Castlemaine
He was his father’s only son, his mother’s pride and joy
And dearly did his parents love the wild colonial boy.
But there were a variety of ways in which Joseph didn’t fit the song. Firstly, he was not named “Jack.” Nor was he raised in Ireland, nor was he an only child. But I felt it was entirely possible he lived in a place with royal resonance. Castlemaine. It would have made a good home for this prince among boys. Plus, Joseph was anything but wild. He was solid as a rock: a good student, a sensible kid, not a flirt and not a prude. He even had a whiff of humor about him. Thinking back on it, I also believe I sensed a class difference that appealed to me—he wore white shirts and dark pants (not the usual boy outfit at Epiphany) and just looked classy to my working-class self. (Mea culpa.) Somehow and in some way, he was different. (Diversity is good, right?) Joseph had joined our class during that fifth grade year . . . a very good year because of Joseph’s appearance, but also for some other reasons. The terrors of the two lay teachers we had in third and fourth grade were behind us; they’d taught us the multiplication tables by lining us up against the walls, boys on one side and girls on the other, flaunting and sometimes using their large wooden rulers to force those numbers into our little brains. In their place was Sister Jonathan, a lovely and sweet-natured young nun with a sense of humor and enormous patience. So, it was a very good year.
Post Office Plan: The goal for my birthday party, my fixation and obsession, was to kiss and be kissed by Joseph C., and I hoped the party games would cooperate. So after spin the bottle (no luck there), we started playing post office. In the intervening hour my number was called a few times, and I called the number of others a few times, but I had no luck in making the Joseph C. connection that I desperately sought. Then . . . finally . . . he called my number.
The Moment: The kissing booth (the “post office”) was set up behind the large door separating our living room and the hallway corridor. (The large white door can be seen in some of the photos shown in this article from my 16th birthday party.) Opening the door into the living room created an alcove where the kissing couple could have privacy. At the other side of the living room was the doorway into our large kitchen, from which my mother was managing the party’s food and games. Just as Joseph called my number, and as I started walking to the alcove, my mother charged into the living room: “The party’s over! It’s 5:30—time for everyone to go home.” Both I and my friends (who knew my goal for the day) pleaded with her to let it run for a few more minutes, but to my amazement, she couldn’t be dissuaded. The party was to run from 3:00 to 5:30, and that was it! And so: the party was over. I was to remain unkissed by the beautiful Joseph C. Years later, hearing my plaintive story about that day, my mother said she had no idea of what was happening at that point and certainly no intention to stop the important kiss. She had just decided to stop the party at the time she’d said it would end. I was the victim of the cruelest circumstance.
You’re thinking it couldn’t get worse. I thought so too. But it did. Joseph never re-appeared at Epiphany School that fall. We heard that his parents sent him to a boarding school. I was heartsick but also shocked, because the only people I knew who boarded anywhere were the few boys in our class (the super cool ones) living at St. Joseph’s Protectory, a foster home in the in the adjacent Hill District for kids whose families had “problems.” Joseph was not bound for that kind of boarding, I was sure. His boarding school would be the kind I’d read about in English novels. It might even have a name something like “Castlemaine.”
My disappointment and sadness at losing Joseph (in the party and in the school) continued for a long time. Look at me in my Eighth Grade Graduation picture (in this article—I’m the last on the right, front row) and tell me you don’t see signs of grief over the loss of Joseph C., three years before. (Or maybe it was just that silly hat I was wearing that made me feel so sad.) By my sixteenth birthday party, in 1957 (pictures in this article), there were no more games. I was going steady with Petey, a sweet green-eyed boy from the neighborhood, and we all can be seen conversing and comfortably dancing with each other (probably to an Elvis tune or maybe one by the Four Lads). We were on our way to adulthood, with its own awkwardness, foibles, and loves.
Copyright © 2014 Jo-Ann Pilardi.
Jo-Ann Pilardi is retired from Towson University where she taught Philosophy and Women’s Studies for 38 years. A working-class Italian from Pittsburgh, she moved to Baltimore in 1969 and was active in women’s movement groups through the 1970s. Currently, she teaches for TU’s Osher Institute, reads and writes, gardens, travels, and studies jazz piano.