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Learning from legacy of Lansberry

Sunday, June 27, 1999

By Barbara Cloud Post-Gazette Columnist

Everybody who frequents Downtown Pittsburgh undoubtedly has a Robert Lansberry story.

I couldn't help but be amused as well as sympathetic as I read his large obituary recently.

It was more space than he had ever seen in his lifetime, although you could never say Lansberry didn't get his name or photo in print more than the average Joe.

The sandwich boards he carried and their range of derogatory remarks amused and bemused, bothered and bewildered, most of us.

But he was a sight.

The obituary made him human, not just a character to avoid while walking up Fifth Avenue.

As a reporter, I've been on the Downtown streets since 1957. So our paths crossed often. It was never a lengthy conversation because after the initial "Hi there" the discussion would deteriorate.

Infrequently we would exchange a dialogue of several minutes, which soon became difficult to relate to. When a man tells you his teeth are wired by the CIA, you don't always have a reply.

"Oh?" I would say. Then I'd move on. I had no clever retort. He was an angry man but, as far as I know, not a violent one.

And there was a point in one of our encounters about 15 years ago when I looked at him and imagined what a good-looking man he must have been. I asked him: Would he be interested in a makeover?

Under the grime and grit and dishevelment, I saw a Paul Newman, possibly. He had the blue eyes.

He'd like himself better, I thought. Naively, I thought such a project might make him feel better about everything in general.

A new suit couldn't correct what troubled Lansberry, but I wanted to give it a try.

"Sure," he said, pointing to the store window display at Saks. "I've always liked good clothes."

He seemed excited about it. I was amused. Who would have guessed?

It never happened. My editor didn't like the idea. I thought it would be fun, but it might have been unkind.

Then one year, to prove a point -- that he did get his mail like most of us -- I sent him a Christmas card.

I passed him a week later, and he mentioned the card because he liked the picture on it. It was a winter landscape.

"See, you do get your mail."

"It's the only mail I got. None of the others got to me."

He walked away, the sandwich board strapped to his back, large letters spelling out "I don't get my mail."

But he did. Oh well. Maybe the Postal Service just couldn't find him most of the time.

He mentioned his children to me several times, but again, the conversation would veer, and I never knew what was true or what was imagined. I knew one thing. His life had gone terribly wrong.

I had many letters from Lansberry over the years. They began like his conversations, sensible to a point, then going off into the wild blue yonder. Sometimes he filled six pages.

I often wondered if he had ever submitted to therapy or evaluation, or been under a doctor's care. Would he ever allow it? Did he even want to be helped?

I began to cross the street rather than confront him. I wonder how many people did that or, worse, just ignored him.

Maybe, just maybe, he was happy in the world he created for himself. He believed in something. He never gave up.

Maybe that's his legacy. And it's not all bad.



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