by Mike Crawmer
I’m obsessed with Fred. No, not my brother Fred. Obsession thrives on imagination unhampered by knowledge. I know my brother all too well.
This “Fred” is pure mystery. For one thing, I don’t even know if he exists. Or if “Fred” is a he or a she--or even human. But, for the sake of argument, let’s agree that “Fred” is a guy, not a Fredericka, or a pet or some cartoon character.
I first became aware of Fred last spring. I was cycling along the Southside Trail, waving to the engineers on passing freight trains, veering around wobbly weekend cyclists, and enjoying the good weather. Somewhere along the four miles between Ninth Street and the Glenwood Bridge this love note painted in white on the trail’s asphalt caught my eye: I LOVE FRED.
Graffiti is as much a part of Pittsburgh’s biking/hiking trails as the weeds that line these urban paths. On the Eliza Furnace Trail (aka the Jail Trail), the north-side wall (the one holding up Parkway East) is an exploding canvas of color for an ever-changing cast of “graffiti artists.” (BTW, I really don’t consider these people artists; in my book, they’re no better than strip mine operators and clear-cut loggers. Environmental destroyers all.) Some of their “art” hints at potential. Mostly, it’s little more than the juvenile scribblings of some bored kids with little talent and less regard for the public good.
Amid all this colorful, chaotic and incoherent chatter, I LOVE FRED was just another scribble. But, as spring morphed into summer, I LOVE FRED (or sometimes just FRED) started popping up everywhere. In black paint on benches. In red paint on the sides of port-o-johns. On large boulders and submerged barges. Whoever loved Fred certainly wanted to tell the world about this passion.
Then, one day last summer, this valentine to the mysterious Fred went from a trail-side advertisement to a giant billboard. Looking across the Monongehela River from the Southside Trail I couldn’t help but notice a new I LOVE FRED, this time in giant block letters--8, 10 feet tall at least--on a riverside wall.
While some of the other messages have faded or been painted over (bless the city’s beleaguered anti-graffiti crew), the giant I LOVE FRED lives on, difficult to reach and invisible to motorists passing overhead. By now I can’t help but see it every time I pedal down the trail. I’ve even taken to looking forward to seeing it, as if seeking reassurance that the artist’s love for Fred has not faded.
For all I know, the artist and Fred are no longer an item. Or maybe they’ve married and moved on, taking their love and their paints to another city. Then again, the artist may have been Fred all along, and these avowals of devotion are just his way of announcing this truth: that the graffiti artist’s first and only true love is himself.