In H’s room, there sits a wall clock with a minute hand that ticks louder than it should. I always notice it, but when the house is dead quiet like it is today, I almost stop the hands so I can fold and put away my son’s clothes in peace. From his windows, I can see a slog of soggy gray clouds hanging above our house. I dismiss them happily, because by this time next week they’ll be gone, and it will be springtime, finally, in Columbus, OH.
If you’re counting, this also means that my last 36×37 assignment is due in 11 days. That’s fun to think about—the number of accomplishments and silliness we can fit inside a year—but before I can hand in #36, I have four others I need to accomplish first. This means I have some work to do.
While I’m doing that, here’s an old piece with some major tweaks here and there to refine the story. As far as 36×37 assignments go, #5 was a personal favorite. I hope you enjoy the repost…or at the very least, I really hope you’ll like Randy.
36×37 Assignment #5: A Postcard from Randyland (June 1, 2010)
A few years ago, GB drove to Pittsburgh for a weekend to help my brother and former sister-in-law with her family’s business. When they returned and I asked about the trip, they peppered their recount with stories about some guy named Randy.
“You should see this guy,” GB said. “He was a server at the restaurant in our hotel, but he’s also an artist with a huge, quirky personality. I guess he bought an old building on the Central Northside, completely renovated it with recycled stuff, and started this whole rejuvenation project across his community. It’s wild.”
Now, I love art. And I’m fascinated by people who can cut themselves loose from social convention. But so far, nothing about the guy sounded that out of the ordinary. He sounded like a lot of other people I’ve met over the years.
GB could see I wasn’t convinced, so he opened a Google search. And he showed me this:
“This is Randyland,” he said.
I scrolled up and down, clicking picture after picture. “Is this for real?” I asked.
GB nodded, arms folded.
“Huh!” I said, nodding back.
Now we’re here in Pittsburgh. My brother and I have seen the city dozens of times, but this trip has a special purpose: We’re here to see Randy. It’s 36×37 assignment #5.
There are rules to this trip. First of all, Randy doesn’t know why we’re here. No one is allowed to tell him, either, because I want to observe him organically.
Maybe you’ve never heard of Randy, but he’s actually somewhat a celebrity, and from what I can tell, he’s a rare and interesting guy. The Chicago Tribune thinks so. Good Morning America thinks so. The Dave Matthews Band thinks so. And so do 50,000 or so other tourists annually. I wanted to see for myself whether I should agree.
Randy was raised in a poor neighborhood across town from his current address. His mother—a Salvation Army minister—was a single parent to six children, so his family didn’t have much when he was a child. In one article I found (on popcitymedia.com), he said his interest in recycling and refurbishing trashed items began when he was small. He built bikes and made toys for his siblings year-round, then stored them in the basement. At Christmas, he placed his creations around the Christmas tree so his family’s holidays would look like the ones in magazines.
In another article, he said he’d been told all his life that he’d never amount to anything. He took that as a challenge, and redefined what success meant to him: Happiness.
I’m not sure how or when he came to live in the Mexican War Streets district of downtown Pittsburgh. However, I do know his restoration project began in 1982 with a $1,000 unemployment check and some barrels filled with dirt and flowers. In 1996, he bought the 3-parcel Jacksonia Street property for $11,300.
Today, Randy is almost single-handedly responsible for installing 800 streetscapes, 50 vegetable gardens, and eight parks across the 30-block area.
Now we’re eating breakfast, and Randy is our server. I’ll concede that he’s loud, talkative and gregarious, and I’m guessing busy and/or perpetually hung-over patrons would find him “hard to take.” But for folks with a good sense of humor, Randy’s the man. He pulls off his abundance of energy with sincerity and sweetness. He makes an impression.
Here’s what I mean:
While we’re eating, five families come and go, and each makes a special point to tell our host goodbye. They initiate hugs and handshakes. He remembers their names. They leave the restaurant feeling important, like they’ve just seen a long-lost friend.
Me? I’m taken with how he treats my boys.
“Do you know why good food is important?” he asks them. They nod like smiling, hypnotized puppets, so he continues. “The food goes down your throat and into your belly and down to your toes and up to your brain, and that’s what makes you smart! That’s what makes you strong!” His eyes crinkle into a smile as my boys shovel spoonful after spoonful of cinnamon-scented Irish steel-cut oats into their tiny, chewing mouths.
Before we arrived, some of my online research uncovered articles and posts that painted Randy as a court jester of sorts–someone to observe then scoff at in private. Not all reports were unkind; but they all did consistently force him into a kind of “otherness.” They used phrases like “eccentric,” “larger than life,” and “colorful” to build a storied image of the man.
Maybe, but if you look beyond those words, you might see a man who is kind to the core. That’s who I see, anyway: a unique person with a tender, exposed and joyful spirit.
I feel guilty. I realize now that I came here to gawk at a man who walks to his own beat, even though I told myself I had honest intentions. Today, however, I marvel at his pure and obvious love for companionship, and his desire to turn each day into something that feels like a promise. I’m ashamed of my short-sightedness and relieved he proved to be more than just a caricature.
“Randy, when you have a minute,” I say, “Can we get a picture with you?”
I love this photo. It’s blurry, but it captures everything I want to say about Randy: He makes people happy.
Anyway, we click the picture, and the next thing I know, Randy is handing me a map and offering to give us the Randyland grand tour if we can wait an hour for him to go home and tidy the place. I figure such a tour will add a certain “flavor” to this particular assignment, so we head toward the Mexican War Streets. We arrive before Randy does, unfortunately, so we snap the photos you saw above, then pile into the car to head back home.
The boys burst into tears. They don’t want to leave Randyland.
And from what I can tell, the grown ups don’t want to leave either.
Want more photos of Randyland? Check out this set on Flikr.
P.S. Randyland wasn’t the only “new thing” we did in Pittsburgh. Check out Assignment #5 (Part II) for more…
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