Find Randy Gilson’s display at the Downtown & Business branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, 612 Smithfield Street.
“I thought Homestead was a plow, a barn, a lake, fishing, and animals. When we up on top of the Pittsburgh hill, Mom said, ‘That’s Homestead.’ I said, ‘Mom, that’s not a homestead.'”
Changes can influence a lot. The good’s, the uglies, the joys, the confusions. Most people don’t like to change. When I eight years old, my mom and dad were ministers in the Salvation Army. My mom was a country girl, living on a dairy farm up in Mercer. And dad was from Titusville. They fell in love. Mama always played the accordion in their religious tents. They got married and became Salvation Army officers. Well, dad found out that there were a lot of other women out there in the world and alcohol and so forth, and things changed. Mom took all of us and she ran away to a place called Homestead. Well, I was watching Daniel Boone, I thought Homestead was a plow, a barn, a lake, fishing, and animals. When we up on top of the Pittsburgh hill, we had our first meal in Pittsburgh. Mom says, “That’s Homestead.” I looked around, and I said, “Mom, that’s not a homestead.” And she goes, “Yup. That’s our new home. That’s our Homestead.”
Homestead wasn’t what I thought. It was a mill town. Nobody really wanted us there. We moved there and everyone on our streets were pretty much African American. Then we went to the school and mom made a big mistake. She dressed us up like Bible school. She should’ve looked at the kids and seen how they dressed before she took us to school. We had little bow ties and jackets. She paraded six kids in and the principle said, “You can’t put your kids in this school! Look around you. Your kids won’t survive. They’re delicate children and this is a city school. You have to go to the other school.” They wanted us to go to the Catholic school.
Mama was confused and crying. Like, “you can’t kick me out of here. These are my kids they have to go to public school, I have no money and I rented an apartment right behind the school in the alleyway so that we could get back and forth to the school. Everything was planned around this school for our survival.” Nobody wanted to help her, but we ended up getting registered.
We learned about diversity. We learned it wasn’t the color of the skin, but the contents of the soul that mattered. I was held back in kindergarten and then I was held back in third grade. My little brother was in school with me, same class. Here I was feeling rejection and stupid and dumb. I have ADHD and OCD. I didn’t really know all that at that time. I’m very confused ninety-nine percent of the time. I didn’t have anybody to help and mold me. Mama was trying to take care of the babies, so I was all by myself.
I actually wanted to die. I felt really stupid and dumb and ugly and bullied and called names. I wanted to die. I wanted to get rid of me. But I didn’t know how to die, because I’d never died before. I thought, “Well, I’ll die tomorrow I just got to figure out how to die right.”
There was a mirror on the wall, and I looked in the mirror, and I was just walking by, and a “what” in the mirror looked at me and got my message. I’m not a baby, I’m not allowed to cry, only babies cry. I’m a young man, I’m eight years old. Now I’m in charge of me. I have one friend, I’m not alone. My best friend is looking back at me. Somebody to pick me up, and talk to me. To push me, to love me. To carry me and help me. I got a new best friend. Somebody that won’t be leaving me and picking on me and being me to me. I can just go to the mirror every time I have a problem and talk to my new best friend. For the rest of my life I got one good buddy: me.
Then Christmas passed, no toys were around. My brothers and sisters were so sad and so I saw toys in the garbage. So, I took the toys home and all of a sudden, I start thinking. Cause mama always says Jesus was a carpenter. Then I thought, “Well I’m a toolbox.” I got eyes to see. My hands to bring home. My mind is to think. My heart is to be happy. My ears are tools to listen. My mouth is a tool to speak. My feet is a tool to walk from project to project. Now I got something. I can build anything, anytime, anyhow, anyway, ‘cause now I’m in charge of me anyway.
You grow up with that, and start using your tools. Mama always said be good to the old folks and carry their bags to the store, or help them out. Sometimes you see they had no grandkids or anybody to help them. I would sneak in their yard when they left and cut the grass. Then they’d come home and bust me, and then they’d say, “What did you do that for?” I’d say, “My mama always said to be good, so I was trying to be good, I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.” But then I got a nice little job out of it, maybe two bucks, maybe five bucks. They said, “Thank you very much we really needed your help.” Then some hedges were high and messed up. So, I started making art in the hedges. Serpentines like the back of a dinosaur or a castle or topiary trees. They’d come back and see all the hedges all beautiful and they got confused cause they didn’t know that was their house. You could see them standing perplexed.
People just started hiring me. It got to a point that I was so good at inventing jobs and doing good deeds, that I became pretty well known. In the wintertime, all other boys would throw the snow everywhere. And I always made straight lines, ADHD and OCD: I’m focused in a different way. My mind gets scrambled and I don’t remember things good.
Snow intrigued me. I love shoveling snow. So, I’d always make a straight line to the door and find out if they had a car nearby. If they did, I’d always do an extra job, and not even think about it, clean off the car, clean off the wheels. All of a sudden, they could get to the store to buy food or get their medicines. They came outside, saw that I was the best snow removal. They said, “From now on when it snows, you come back to me.” Here I am a little kid, eight nine ten eleven twelve years old, and I’m bringing home a hundred bucks, a hundred fifty, two hundred bucks a day. And my mom’s crying.
The first time she thought I stole money. She started getting ready to cry like, “Oh my God, where did you get this money from? What did you do?” I said, “Mom, it’s okay, I’m doing good. People are hiring me for helping.” I built myself to be the worker. I’d bring home a hundred, a hundred fifty bucks a day, and all I wanted was five bucks. Mom always said, “No, keep all the money.” I said, “Nope, I’m a man. I’m in charge now.” I just wanted five bucks for a hoagie. I got my hoagie, cause by that time I was pretty hungry. But you do that five days a week, I was bringing home hundreds of bucks. That was paying the bills. That was buying clothes instead of us getting stuff in the trash. But now that we had money, mom could go shopping and buy something new for us or put food on the table. I became like a copycat of my mom. She was my hero.
I eventually ran away to the North Side, here. Nobody knew me here. I started cleaning the streets. The kids were my first friends. They seem to always be the first friends. As we grow into adults, we separate ourselves. People seem to grow up and build walls or boxes to live in. It’s so sad. You know, they don’t even put windows in those boxes.
Well, heck I’ve always had windows. I’ve always wanted to see what was on the other side. The kids started talking to me. Because I have ADHD, I talk like a kid and I understand their feelings. I told them about earth, recycling, repurposing, and happiness. Well one became ten, became fifty, became seventy-five, a hundred. All these little kids came out of school all going to find Mr. Randy.
They follow me all over the streets, trying to find me. The parents liked me and saw I was teaching their kids. They were six years old to eleven and twelve. Now they’re forty or fifty and bringing their own kids to me. I got five generations of families that love Mr. Randy. I leave my gates open. Randyland’s kind of a special land. No gangs, no guns, no trouble comes inside. I leave my gates open for eight to ten hours and be in the house doing things. People can enjoy themselves. When the gangs come by, they always say, “That’s Mr. Randy.” We don’t have to always wait for somebody else to open the door.
I’m just a little country boy and found out that by waving at people and smiling, that it was like building a house, brick by brick. Randyland will be used for ideas to teach people about recycling, repurposing, and the spiritual journey of a little boy that saw his face in the mirror, saw garbage on the streets, and realized he was a tool box. It’s a journey of hunger and finding love when you feel that you’re all alone. Randyland was my medication. Randyland was my gift from God. So now I have to regift it.