Edit ModuleEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Perspectives: ‘He Wants to Talk to Ms. Betty’

An encounter at a healing garden in Larimer leads the writer to reflect on his own connection to others.




Photo by Chuck Beard

 

I lock my bike to a stop sign at the corner of Meadow and Ashley streets in Larimer and walk a half block toward the garden, passing two abandoned TV sets swimming in weeds.

“His name is Jonathan,” a woman who greets me tells the others. “He’s a writer and wants to talk to Ms. Betty.” She jots my name in magic marker on a nametag and leads me from the sidewalk back toward a tent where Betty Lane holds court in kente cloth, cane, glasses and dark red crocheted cap, a grey tuft of hair poking through its middle. Betty is black. I am white. It is Sunday, Oct. 1. To my right, behind a chain-link fence, is the African Healing Garden, which is opening today.

An hour before at church, I read from the lectern about Jacob on the run, how he found a stone for a pillow and dreamed of angels climbing a ladder to heaven. He awoke and gazed around him and said that surely the Lord was in this place and he did not know it.

Surely the Lord is here too. Balloons festoon the garden’s entrance, opening to a pond and pear tree, plants and flowers. White male hipsters unload cases of pop while older African-American women serve veggies and hummus. Gospel group Take 6 croons from speakers. African symbols and animals carved from wood adorn the garden’s fence — lion, elephant, zebra, even an ostrich poking its neck above the fence’s top, testing the trust between people and place.

Because there is hurt here. Arising out of a burned-down building on a lot Betty owns, the garden is meant to heal Larimer’s history of violence, drugs and blight so that anyone can congregate and relax, she explains.

In a way, I’m hurting too. I’ve given my life to teaching and writing words, practically marrying a manuscript, revising its chapters and straining for book contracts and stable academic jobs, often at the expense of relationships. I live alone. Adrift from a network, I see myself in Jacob’s flight, even as I realize the privilege of my race, gender and class, the chance to ponder these advantages from the safety of my apartment. I’ve crashed the garden’s celebration as a hungry ghost, wondering how to write and still connect with others in the flesh.

Under the tent, Betty receives well-wishers — a couple from a local church, one of whom admits he plans to leave soon to watch the Steelers game; a man wearing a bandanna wandering off the street; a woman who once teamed with Betty at a women’s shelter. Betty introduces me as “the writer.” “He’s interviewing me,” she says.

So I do. I learn that she grew up in the Hill District, that she moved here to raise her children, that she’s lived in the same house for 47 years, just a block away. I learn how neighborhood residents, inspired by her vision, partnered with groups all over the city to sculpt the garden’s entryway arch, design its paths, dig its pond. I learn that the pond’s goldfish have gone belly-up, that organizers hope to install a filter system to clean the water once rain returns.

Two hundred and twenty miles east of us the Steelers take the field against the Ravens. Will they stand or kneel for “The Star-Spangled Banner”? Pittsburgh is roiling with unrest around the organization’s handling of the national anthem. Fans have burned team jerseys. A local fire chief called Tomlin the N-word on Facebook. And yet here, African-American state Rep. Ed Gainey mingles with retired postal worker Tony Mainiero, who’s pushing 100 and recalls growing up Italian in Larimer. People of all ages and races crowd in the street to watch Betty cut the garden’s ribbon and preach nature’s power to cure sickness. When she joins us for a photo, she stands so close to me I must curl my arm around her shoulder. It is light to the touch.

Minutes later I will ride my bike home and write about what she said, what I saw.

Weeks later I will finally delete voicemails I’d saved from the last woman I loved and go volunteer with strangers at the healing garden, flattening the ground for planting, sparing the mustard weed to leach the soil of lead. Composting my past, creating space to begin again.

Months later I will cycle past the garden, dead of winter, and spot Betty leaning over with her cane, stringing orange plastic netting around the entrance to keep out trespassers.

She’ll recognize me. “Come and help me get this up,” she’ll say. I’ll dismount and loop the plastic around the metal fence. “You’re a gift from God,” she’ll say.

Yes, and so are you, so are we all.  

Jonathan Callard has written for Pittsburgh Quarterly, PublicSource, Creative Nonfiction, Hotel Amerika, Gulf Coast, Image, Arts & Letters and the Dallas Morning News. He writes and lives in Pittsburgh.

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit Module Edit ModuleShow TagsEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

The Latest

What Are You Doing to be Like Mister Rogers on 1-4-3 Day?

Pennsylvania names May 23 as 1-4-3 Day to celebrate its favorite neighbor.

The 400-Word Review: Aladdin

Disney's live-action remake of the '90s hit stars Will Smith as the iconic Genie.

Sharing Knives Grows into Sharing Farms

For its third season, the collaborative dinner series at Ace Hotel will celebrate the region’s growers.

A Slice of Pizza Kept Sean McDowell Going in the Early Days

After 41 years in the business, the legendary rock DJ on WDVE has announced his retirement.

This New App Will Help You Track Upcoming Cicada Swarm

Follow Brood VIII, which is expected to have three species of periodical cicadas emerging from the soil as early as this month, on the Cicada Safari App.

Best Restaurants in Pittsburgh in 2019

Our annual roundup of Pittsburgh's Best Restaurants covers a lot of ground. The list of 30 includes everything from fine dining at a resort hotel to a scrappy, farm-to-table breakfast and lunch counter in Bloomfield.

This Restless Pair are Pittsburgh Restaurateurs of the Year

Together, Richard DeShantz and Tolga Sevdik of the Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group form the Pittsburgh restaurant world's most dynamic duo.

Our 50 Years: The Best Restaurants of 1999

Twenty years later, nearly everything about our best restaurants list is different. But our picks for the best of 1999 hint at the great leap forward that was on the horizon.

How Pittsburgh's Homeless Teens Escape the Mean Streets

For homeless Youth, living on the street can end up being worse than what they’re running from. Gaining their trust and guiding them to safety is a long and painful process, but local agencies are making progress.

Announcing our Scenic Photo Contest Winner

There were 682 photos submitted to our Scenic Vistas photo contest, which ran during the month of April. Art Director Chuck Beard picked a winner and two runners-up.

Braddock Brewery Brew Gentlemen Turns Five

A deliberately slow fermentation has the young brewers primed for a big expansion.

Claudy Pierre is Non Stop

The owner of Arnold’s Tea spends his time connecting communities and working to empower a new generation of Pittsburghers.

Daytripping: Enjoy Comedy History 3 Hours from Pittsburgh

The national comedy center in Jamestown, N.Y. takes the whole comedy thing kinda seriously (just kidding)

Remembering Some of Mister Rogers' Famous Houseguests

A world renowned French pantomime artist, an astronaut, a TV news anchor and a beloved chef are among the notable visitors to Mister Rogers' neighborhood.

Perspectives: Call of the Wild

Award-winning journalist Sally Wiggin explains the evolving role of zoos, including the Pittsburgh zoo, to save endangered species from extinction.
Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags


What Are You Doing to be Like Mister Rogers on 1-4-3 Day?

What Are You Doing to be Like Mister Rogers on 1-4-3 Day?

Pennsylvania names May 23 as 1-4-3 Day to celebrate its favorite neighbor.

Comments

A Slice of Pizza Kept Sean McDowell Going in the Early Days

A Slice of Pizza Kept Sean McDowell Going in the Early Days

After 41 years in the business, the legendary rock DJ on WDVE has announced his retirement.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Sharing Knives Grows into Sharing Farms

Sharing Knives Grows into Sharing Farms

For its third season, the collaborative dinner series at Ace Hotel will celebrate the region’s growers.

Comments

A Look at the Latest Restaurant Openings in Pittsburgh

A Look at the Latest Restaurant Openings in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh says hello (again) to Dish Osteria, Cinderlands Warehouse, Pizzeria Davide and more.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
5 Best Spots to Hang Out with Your Dog

5 Best Spots to Hang Out with Your Dog

For those who can’t stand the idea of leaving their dogs home alone on a beautiful day, these dog-friendly stores, restaurants and bars in the Pittsburgh area welcome humans and canines alike.

Comments

5 Races You (Yes, You) Can Run This Year

5 Races You (Yes, You) Can Run This Year

Even novice runners can work their way up to these fun and (mildly) challenging races.

Comments


The Funhouse at Mr. Smalls is a Treasure

The Funhouse at Mr. Smalls is a Treasure

The small, second venue above the Millvale hall is one of the city's best rooms for live music.

Comments

Unleash Your Inner Pinball Wizard at Kickback

Unleash Your Inner Pinball Wizard at Kickback

The Lawrenceville pinball cafe offers new and classic games for you to play solo, or (as we were surprised to learn) in competition with a friend.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Pirates’ First Quarter Record Defies Logic if Not Description

Pirates’ First Quarter Record Defies Logic if Not Description

The 21-19 record the Bucs took to San Diego doesn’t add up given all they’ve had to overcome. Perhaps there’s more to this team than meets the eye.

Comments

Steelers' Rookie Impressions Destined to Excite If Not Convince

Steelers' Rookie Impressions Destined to Excite If Not Convince

“Football in shorts” won't solve the Steelers' kicking woes, but for a team on the rebound, the rookie workouts are an opportunity to take another step in the right direction.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
The 400-Word Review: Aladdin

The 400-Word Review: Aladdin

Disney's live-action remake of the '90s hit stars Will Smith as the iconic Genie.

Comments

The 400-Word Review: John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum

The 400-Word Review: John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum

Keanu Reeves returns, and Halle Berry arrives, as the action series broadens its scope.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
This Wedding Had a Guest List Unlike Any Other

This Wedding Had a Guest List Unlike Any Other

Brendan Renne and Thais Canedo wanted a penguin at their wedding. They ended up with a menagerie.

Comments

You’ll #ShalieveInLove After Seeing Ryan Shazier's Wedding Photos

You’ll #ShalieveInLove After Seeing Ryan Shazier's Wedding Photos

Pittsburgh Steeler Ryan Shazier danced at his wedding Friday 18 months after a serious spinal injury.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
New Tour Gives Insider Look at Pittsburgh’s Ethnic Neighborhoods

New Tour Gives Insider Look at Pittsburgh’s Ethnic Neighborhoods

With stops in Bloomfield and Polish Hill, the event from DOORS OPEN Pittsburgh celebrates the contributions immigrants made when they settled here more than a century ago.

Comments

Three North Side Garden Tours (And One on the South Side) You'll Want to Explore

Three North Side Garden Tours (And One on the South Side) You'll Want to Explore

Here’s your chance to explore some the city’s most beautiful historic (and new) homes and outdoor spaces.

Comments