Mailman walked the Hill like Teenie

March 8, 2012 12:01 am

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There's nothing like walking with Joe Horne when you're among the nearly 1,000 photos in the Teenie Harris exhibit, because nobody knew the Hill District quite the way Joe did.

He was the mailman there for 40 years.

Joe will be 87 in a couple of weeks and now walks with a cane. I'd been honored to walk the Hill with him his last day on the job in November 1990. This past Sunday we took another walk, among the black-and-white photos at the Carnegie Museum of Art with his son, Joe III, and three of his old postal buddies.

Pittsburgh jazz from the 1930s through the 1970s played as part of the Harris exhibit and set the mood as we walked, but it was Joe Horne who was taking us back in time.

"1810 Centre Avenue,'' he said when we got to a photo of Lena Horne.

That's where the great singer's father and stepmother lived. I'd read somewhere that Teddy Horne once ran the Hill District's numbers racket with gambling kingpin Gus Greenlee, but by the time Joe knew Mr. Horne, he and his wife were living in a small apartment above the old Benkovitz seafood shop.

"Teddy was my drinking buddy,'' Joe said. "Many, many times we'd go across the street to the bar.''

That was Lou's Ringside Bar, run by Lou Shiring, an ex-boxing commissioner. Mr. Shiring was as tough as anyone who came through the door, Joe said, and he stood for no nonsense.

When we came to a photo of the West Funeral Home, he recalled the old Hill District saw about two competing funeral homes: "West is the best, but Jones gets the bones.''

Joe started delivering mail on the Hill in 1950 and passed up many a chance to switch to another route. The streets felt good around him, like a worn sweater. (Could that be because his mother also was named Lena Horne? She was Irish, as was Joe's father, also Joe. He tells me they're now into the fourth generation of Joe Hornes, all named for the famed carpenter St. Joseph, yet "not one of us can hammer a nail in straight").

Decades ago when I walked his mail route with him, Joe got more hugs than a grandfather at a Christmas dinner, and he said he still exchanges Christmas cards with some from the neighborhood.

If that day seemed a bit like walking through Mayberry with Sheriff Andy Taylor, touring this exhibit was reminiscent of loafing with Forrest Gump; Joe seems to have had as many brushes with fame. A Forbes Field shot had him telling me he was a batboy for the visiting teams in 1941 and '42, and how the great Honus Wagner, by then a Pirates coach, spat on Joe's spikes as he walked past -- in a playful way, mind you.

"1806 Wylie Avenue,'' he says, standing before a photo of Harry Bobo, the heavyweight boxer. "He eventually became a bartender on Liberty Avenue.''

Charley Burley, the great middleweight who won 83 fights, 50 by knockouts, was another photo subject and another drinking buddy of Joe Horne's. In his day, Burley "was so good nobody wanted to fight him,'' Joe said, but by the time Joe knew him he was a sanitation worker. "A very nice man."

Joe didn't know Teenie Harris well, but he saw him often on the streets, always with a camera. The man was a bit aloof, at least to Joe, but maybe one has to be to record the particular and unique beauties of a sprawling neighborhood, one photo at a time.

"2178 Centre Avenue,'' Joe says when we get to a shot of Walter Hamm, owner of Hamm's Barbershop, wearing a long shearling coat and standing in front of his Cadillac, circa 1973.

"He had all kinds of business. All kinds of business.''

Joe's old route isn't what it once was. Some of the streets we walked in 1990 are now part of Crawford Square, the hugely successful, tree-lined housing development poised to stretch toward Downtown once the Civic Arena disappears.

Joe, who lives in Dormont, is a widower. His wife Dorothy died in the summer of 2006, but his son Joe and his old postal buddies -- Keith Medved, Jeff Snyder and Dom Fratangelo -- "make sure that I get out of the house.''

Nina Simone, Eartha Kitt, Roberto Clemente, Josh Gibson -- they and so many of the other lesser-known people Teenie Harris shot are gone now. But, Joe says, "One nice thing about getting old is that you can reminisce.''

Not that memories are everything. Elsewhere in the museum, we pass a color shot of a bikini model in the fountain at Katz Plaza, and I think I hear some disappointment when he chuckles, "She wasn't on my route.''

First Published 2012-03-07 23:33:38

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