South Sider reflects on life, community
South Side residents were considered "second-class citizens" when Virginia Carik moved into the neighborhood 47 years ago, she says. This was where the mill workers lived.
"In other words, we weren't professors," Mrs. Carik says. Names that she won't utter were used to describe people in the community.
But Mrs. Carik loved the South Side. So she spent decades volunteering to try to improve its reputation.
"Back in the eighties, when the steel mills were closing and families had challenges--in terms of keeping the fabric of the communities strong and healthy, I think in large part that was accomplished because of folks like Virginia Carik," says Hugh Brannan, executive director of the Brashear Association.
Mrs. Carik turns 90 this month on July 18, and health issues in the last year have stopped her from driving and volunteering.
But before that, her volunteer career included peeling countless onions and washing dishes at Prince of Peace Parish pierogi sales (despite being of Italian descent).
Mrs. Carik sat at event tables sharing information about the "friends of the library," and was on the board of the South Side Community Council, the Brashear Association, and other groups. She was also a kind of community chauffeur. For 20 years, she had a 1973 blue Chevy Nova, and she packed neighbors into her car bound for community meetings and events.
South Sider Barbara Rudiak, also a community activist, describes her as having a calm presence, even when big decisions created tension among others. Mrs. Carik says it's a trait from her parents, who didn't spank their children, as others did more commonly in the day.
Her father's "philosophy was, 'If I can't talk it into you, I'm not going to beat it into you,'" she says. "Nothing phased my father."
Mrs. Carik said her dad was a "hardworking coal miner" who missed out on better opportunities because he couldn't read or write. So he was insistent that his children completed high school.
"When I was young, a high school education was a luxury," Mrs. Carik says. It cost $3 a month to pay for each kid to get the bus to attend high school from where she grew up in Sutersville, 20 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. She says that was not a small sum 75 years ago, "but dad insisted on our education."
After high school, during World War II, when women were needed in the steel mills, Mrs. Carik came to Duquesne.
"We did our patriotic duty," Mrs. Carik says. "I was 18, making $6.36 a day and that was good money."
Her job was counting bars of steel in bundles, hundreds a day, after they were cooled. After the war, she says, "They laid all the women off."
But Mrs. Carik didn't go back to Sutersville, because, while in the mill, she'd fallen in love with one of the steelworkers who lived in South Side, named Michael. The two married and she moved into his family home.
Mrs. Carik also worked for 23 years for the A&P grocery store, she says, "as a cashier or wherever they needed us, that's where they put us."
Her memories of working at the store include one of a customer pulling cash for her groceries out of her bra. Another is of one Christmas Eve when the clerk at the store's bakery yelled at a crowd of 20 customers who were waiting late into the evening for her to discount that day's bread.
"She blew her stack," Mrs. Carik says. She told them "you people should be home with your families, not waiting for me to mark down the bread."
Mrs. Carik's work at the A&P ended in 1969 when the store went out of business.
She and her husband raised one son, Hank, and lived a modest life on Carey Way. She described their home in the alleyway as a Volkswagen as opposed to a Cadillac. They bought the home when her father-in-law died.
"It had no bathtub, no furnace," she says. Little by little, they added on those items and made it their own.
After her husband retired, Mrs. Carik says, he "liked to go shopping, liked to go to the Strip District." He would search for deals. In fact, he stocked up so much toilet paper and Dial soap that 32 years after his death, she still is using what he bought. Her family jokes that she'll have to divvy up the rest in her will.
Since Mrs. Carik's slowed down lately, and doesn't have a leading role in community volunteering, she has time to participate in the neighborhood's offerings-like Mass at her church and weekly bingo at the Market House Senior Center.
Mrs. Carik regrets the volunteer work she and others did weren't able to prevent the loss of several churches and schools, and a hospital in the South Side. But she's pleased the community now has a measure of prosperity to better maintain housing and buildings.
East Carson Street's recent reputation for bars and drunken behavior doesn't trouble Mrs. Carik too much.
"The noise doesn't bother me," she says, even though she's close to the center of the action, living just a block off East Carson. She just wishes the drunk drivers would stop ripping the mirrors off her car-seven mirrors have been lost.
Mostly, though, Mrs. Carik's still content in the community she helped build up.
"As long as I can, I'm going to live here," she says. "I'm used to it, it's home."