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THE COMMONS ROOM

CARPENTERS'
SONG

I N THE BASEMENT OF Benedum Hall, crammed to the ceiling with lumber and scraps and patterns and blue-prints, carpenter Bob Barie is mating together massive cherrywood planks for a dental school display case. Carpenter Rocco Longo has just finished his five-foot-high bookcase; the smooth, dark wood is ready for Pitt's paint shop next door, where it'll get a few coats of satin varnish. Then it's off to the Cathedral's fifth floor, destined to be...

Completely unnoticed.

Well, that's not true. You may notice the bookshelf, or the beautiful new tables and chairs tucked into the alcoves on the third floor of the Cathedral. They're built from scratch, built to be used, yet built to be inconspicuous--made to match the unique decor of a national landmark. These pieces are meant to blend in; if you want to be recognized every time you do a good job, then Pitt's carpentry shop may not be the place for you.

Most large universities have in-house carpenters, says foreman Tim Schoeppner. As Schoeppner speaks, he stands amid the fruits of his laborers' labor: re-topped desks, some shelving, restroom signs ready for painting. (Schoeppner oversees 16 carpenters and two locksmiths; the latter are kept busy by requests that begin, "I think I may have locked my keys in my....") Such tasks are a mundane but necessary part of a campus the size of Pitt's: fixing chairs, repairing loosened wainscoting, tacking a recalcitrant threshold back into place.

A few years back, says Schoeppner, those mundane-but-needed tasks were just about all the carpenters did. Though Pitt woodworkers had provided much of the University's cabinetry and furniture over the years--including many of the pieces in the Cathedral--orders had slacked off, and some departments were going to outside contractors for their cabinets, major displays, and self-standing bookshelves.

When Schoeppner came to Pitt two years ago, he saw some seriously under-utilized talent. So, like any proud shopkeeper, he began to submit bids on the larger, more complex jobs--and began winning more work and some loyal customers. Pitt's carpenters have an advantage over outside vendors, Schoeppner says, "because we're only a phone call away." He then smiles, a bit wanly. "We had better do it right--there's nowhere to hide."

Schoeppner's counterpart at Pitt's paint shop, foreman Torran King, agrees. "There are specifications that outside contractors have to follow, and they do a great job with those specs," King says. "But any additional work that they discover along the way...well, what can they do? They're not in the business of doing free work. So we end up with their punch list."

A punch list is what's tacked on at the end of the project--additional work to either complete the specs, or some new, unexpected wrinkle. In a campus with buildings 40, 50, maybe 60 years old, it's hard not to find an unexpected wrinkle or two.

Take, for instance, the revolving doors at the Cathedral of Learning. Those doors have been turning counterclockwise a few thousand times a day since Pie Traynor managed the Pirates. "It got to be too much," says Schoeppner. "I was sending guys down there two, three times a week. Do you know how many little screws are in one of those doors?"

Fortunately, this was a rhetorical question. In any case, a contractor was brought in to overhaul one set of doors--the first complete refurbishing in more than 60 years. The results were fine, but Schoeppner and King were once again called in to attend to the pesky punch list. So when bids for the remaining doors rolled around, King, Schoeppner, and sheet metal foreman Richard Hoff asked for--and got--a chance to show their stuff.

Refurbishing a revolving door is a painfully slow process. Each is carefully disassembled, each fitting regreased and/or replaced, the weatherstripping restored, and the door re-installed (using x number of little screws). Meanwhile Hoff's team removes six decades of grime from the brass and buffs up the glass. King decided to add six coats of clear finish, even though the original contractor used half that. "It needed six coats," he says, shrugging.

And when it's all finished, when the grand moment arrives, when some lucky undergraduate becomes the first person to use the renewed door on her way to calc class...well, not much happens. People may notice the shine, but only for a moment. It's not built to be admired as much as used, over and over again.

Still, the craftsmanship is there, just as it is on Rocco Longo's new bookcase on the Cathedral's fifth floor. An observant eye will notice a small black mark behind the hard-routed spindle near the top shelf. It's a simple signature: "Rocco Longo, the PITT Shop, 7/26/96."

Rocco Longo has signed his work. And--this time, at least--someone noticed.--
Mark Collins



IN FACT.
IT'S A GAS...

SOMETIMES THE most difficult (and lasting) lessons in college are learned outside the classroom--as proven by this conversation between two Pitt undergrads, overheard near Hillman Library:

"So we got the apartment for $150 each plus electric, and the landlord said the gas was free."

"Wow. Sounds like a great deal."

"Well, it would've been, except nothing in the apartment runs on gas."



THE MYSTERIES
OF PITTSBURGH

LISTEN: GRAHM Bullen knows the secret of the universe. Well, at least the secret of Pittsburgh.

He and I are traveling inbound on I-376, the infamous Parkway East, entering the Squirrel Hill Tunnels. "I know exactly why people slow down when they enter the tunnel," he says matter-of-factly, as if he's simply driving his 1995 Ford Taurus, as if he isn't unraveling the deepest mystery of the tri-state. "People should slow down. That's prudent driving. If people didn't feel the need to slow down on narrowed roads with no berm, then we could make all our highways like that. It'd be a lot cheaper." But those signs that say maintain speed?

Not a good idea, says Bullen, associate professor in Pitt's civil and environmental engineering department. If it's rush hour, for instance, and you've been riding the brake since Churchill, the last thing you want to do is continue crawling. Likewise, if you're traveling 65 miles an hour late at night, you don't want to whiz through the tunnel just for the sake of "maintaining your speed."

But what about all that congestion around the tunnel? "Too many cars in too little space," Bullen says simply. "That's basic capacity analysis."

Like the weather, like the riddle of existence itself, everyone talks about traffic but no one does anything about it. Except Graham Bullen, traffic engineer. He's worked on traffic since the 1960s, back in his native New Zealand. He's consulted on traffic for local and national governmental agencies as well as the 1994 US Open at Oakmont Country Club. He's written papers on vehicular flow and density. And now he's codeveloper of a traffic software program, part of a large traffic management system now under consideration by the US Department of Transportation.

To understand Bullen's model--developed with the University of Maryland and Louisiana State--it's best to paraphrase former House Speaker Tip O'Neill: All traffic is local. While large metropolitan traffic systems rely on centralized control (such as the one in Toronto, which pioneered computerized signals in 1963), Bullen and his cohorts propose a network of independent controllers at every major intersection. These "smart" controllers could react to local conditions in concert with fellow controllers, both upstream and down. Instead of merely counting cars, Bullen's system measures the relative speed of passing traffic and the length of the queue. While centralized systems can only react to large traffic events, Bullen's model can keep local intersections clear to avoid gridlock.

Keeping intersections clear is the most controversial part of Bullen's design. But he is adamant: Even if the line of traffic backs in one direction, there's no use in crowding an intersection. "You may as well keep the cross streets clear," he says.

You see, intersections are...well, at cross purposes. On one hand, you want to keep "down time" to a minimum--those few seconds in every light sequence when no one is moving. On the other hand, you want to keep the intersection safe, especially for pedestrians. In the early days of traffic planning, all yellow lights lasted three seconds. "It was the industry standard," Bullen says, yet it also created "dilemma zones" at certain intersections, where drivers could neither stop safely nor continue on without running the light. So intersections nowadays are carefully timed--sort of. There's also the art of observing the natives.

Take Pittsburgh, for example. Bullen has lived here for 25 years. He believes Pittsburghers are generally more accommodating than folks in other cities. That's good and bad. A traffic cop might be more likely to let stragglers through an intersection, Bullen notes, which slows up traffic for everyone else. "Lights are fairer," he adds. Also, Pittsburghers are more inclined to allow folks in the opposing lane to make a left-hand turn in front of traffic when the light changes--the famous "Pittsburgh left." "The technical term for these drivers are 'sneakers,'" Bullen says, "and the number of sneakers allowed to make the left turn affects how you time the light, how you plan for traffic."

In fact, the whole concept of traffic planning requires an unusual fusion of skills, only some of which involve engineering. In an ideal world, says Bullen, you create a 20-year plan for traffic and road construction, and you stick to it. In reality, the execution of that plan is mostly political. Road decisions aren't made for the best flow of traffic, but for money reasons or political pressures, so plans are altered. "I tell my students being a traffic engineer means you have to go out and defend your plan, and you have to listen to people who administer the money and listen to the people who drive. It's a very public process."

And anything public includes an element of unruliness. Traffic control is really a misnomer--no one controls traffic, any more than voting booths control an election. "Traffic is a self-regulating phenomenon," Bullen says. "People will find what they consider to be the best route to their destination." While Bullen's traffic model utilizes the precise laws of fluid dynamics and objects in motion, there remains an ineffable, incalculable yearning out there: Drivers itch for release, unfettered by lights and stop signs and other cars, seeking the freedom of an open road, a glass of wine, and thou....

Or something like that. As Graham Bullen eases through the somewhat synchronized lights of Fifth Avenue, he reveals the paradox of his own dilemma zone: "Trying to figure out human behavior is what makes traffic planning so difficult--and so fun."--Mark Collins



ANOTHER KIND
OF PITTSBURGH

ON A HOT AND hazy afternoon, English prof William Coles took me to Brilliant Cut, a cliff that looks out onto the Allegheny River, and one of the obscure Pittsburgh places that appears in his second novel for young adults, Another Kind of Monday. (His first, Funnybone, was published in 1992.) Brilliant Cut, off Washington Boulevard in the city's East End, is most visible from the Highland Park Bridge, but few people, other than geologists, pay much attention to its existence. The 200-foot cliff holds shark fossils and exposes millions of years of geological history.

Coles walked along the rusted railroad tracks that run along the base of the cliff, talking excitedly about the history that can be discovered in the rock face and in the city. In 1941 a slab of Ames marine limestone fell away from the cliff and derailed a train. He showed me the spot where the track was moved. But the fallen piece of Ames was hidden by weeds and trees.

Aside from the distant traffic noise, we were alone in the small wilderness, following fresh deer tracks, looking for foxes, and talking of Pittsburgh's great contradictions. Suddenly there were 30 seconds of rapid gunfire nearby. The popping and cracking was fast, and clearly from more than one gun. We walked a little faster. The gunfire repeated a few more times. A gravel road that followed the tracks eventually led to a chain-link gate. The short intervals of shooting and the nearby police training center convinced us that a shooting range was behind the gate. "I hope we make it out of here alive," Coles said, half joking, after another round of fire. We did, but like his book's heroes, two teenagers on a mysterious quest, not without feeling a little spooked.

Another Kind of Monday begins when Mark, a high school senior, checks out an old copy of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations from his school library. Inside the book he finds $300 and a letter from someone who announces himself only as Mark's benefactor. The benefactor gives Mark a tricky rhymed clue about where to find more money and further clues, each of which is filled with references to Pittsburgh's history: Mrs. Soffel, the Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Carnegie. The catch is that Mark cannot mention the quest to anyone. Later though, in assignment number three, the benefactor directs Mark to choose a partner for this adventure, with the stipulation that it be someone of the opposite sex who is not already his friend. Mark asks Zeena, an intriguing, African-American student in his English class. The benefactor sends Mark and Zeena all over, from poorer neighborhoods in Braddock, East Liberty, and the North Side to the wealthier Shadyside and Point Breeze. These travels offer Mark and Zeena views that differ metaphorically as well as visually.

In order to decipher each clue, Mark and Zeena read books like Out of This Furnace by Thomas Bell and John Brashear's autobiography A Man Who Loved the Stars. They visit Pitt's Allegheny Observatory, which Brashear established at the turn of the century, and the graves of the Biddle boys, who Katherine Soffel helped escape from prison in 1902.

When Coles and I finally left Brilliant Cut, we crossed the Highland Park Bridge. Down the river, the skyscrapers were barely visible, reminding me of the smog-filled days of Pittsburgh's great steel-making, smoke-belching past.

We headed for a Croatian church in Millvale, where, Coles said, surreal political and religious murals, painted in 1937 and 1941, cover the walls.

A similar church is in the novel. Sadly the doors were locked and not a soul could be found to help us. Mark and Zeena encounter their own frustrations, disappointments, even dangers on their quest. This is a young novel with a dark side to it. At one point, Mark is even assaulted and left with a concussion. But, like Coles in his unending search to see all the sides to Pittsburgh, Mark and Zeena never give up.

The more they find out about the city, the more curious they become.

My last stop with Coles was the Highland Park Reservoir, which provides water to the city's eastern section. Sometimes after feeding time at the zoo nearby, you can hear the tigers roar as does Zeena in the novel.

While my adventures with Coles lasted only a few hours, I realized that I had seen sides of Pittsburgh that surprised me. And like Mark and Zeena, I longed to learn more.--Elizabeth Starr Miller


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