One afternoon last fall, after visiting the new Carnegie Library branch at Centre and Kirkpatrick in the Hill, I looked down the street and saw "R. COOK" on the side of the old store.
I had visited Robert Cook there several times, starting in 1995 when I wrote the weekly "Walkabout" column in the printed Post-Gazette. My first visit was to get comments about the Million Man March from him and the guys who hung out at his used-stuff shop.
I made subsequent visits because I liked Mr. Cook. He was charming and funny and had a radiant smile.
That day last fall, I started getting worried as I approached the storefront. Nobody was hanging around. I feared the worst before I even got in the door. It was an orderly office. The man at the desk was Ron Scott, president of RS Supply LLC, a janitorial supplies company. Mr. Cook had sold him the building, he said.
"But he's just out there," he said, pointing out the window. "In his truck."
I hurried out to the truck and popped up at the passenger side window. Mr. Cook looked around and his eyes popped and he smiled that smile and opened the door for me to get in. We sat and talked and remembered past visits. I told him this was the year I probably needed to retire my rusty old Brinkman smoker and was ready to buy one of his. He makes them out of 55-gallon metal drums he gets from a food distributor.
"I don't have a phone, but you can call Ron," he said.
Over the weekend, a friend drove me out to pick up the smoker. It was sitting on the sidewalk, propped open on its pedestal and I could see Mr. Cook's legs hanging out the passenger side of his truck as we pulled up.
He's 81 now, and looking great.
Mr. Scott bought the building from him in the fall of 2006, but Mr. Cook is attached to the place. He returns most days, parking on the street and turning out his smokers on the sidewalk.
The barrel has a hinged opening that lets smoke escape out the top. The grill is two pieces of heavy netted metal. Unlike my Brinkman, on which I could cook three chicken breasts or four pork chops at a time, this baby will accommodate a whole rack of ribs and a bouquet of shish-ka-bobs with room for corn-on-the-cob.
"Put your charcoal in a stainless steel sink you can lift out," Mr. Cook told me. "Charcoal will burn through the barrell over time."
My friend and I lingered. Mr. Cook gave us more of a run-down about his life than I had ever gotten during visits to his shop, when his friends were hanging out and the talk deflected what was personal.
Mr. Cook had worked construction in the steel mills much of his life. He has an artificial hip. The junk store had been a way for him to keep busy in his retirement. He and his wife , Celia, raised four kids, all of whom left the area. One is an engineer for Boeing, a graduate of Carnegie-Mellon University. The parrot Mr. Cook used to keep in his store - Pretty Bird - is still alive.
He told us how he and his wife had gone to Atlanta to live a few years ago. They built a ranch house, thinking it was a good retirement move.
"I made it six months and came back," he said. "My wife sold the house.
"I'm a person of the street," he said, laughing. "When people used to ask where I was, my wife would say, ‘He's down on the street.' "
Mr. Scott lets him store the metal drums behind the building and takes his calls and lets him use the electricity.
"He sold me this building, and I'm grateful for that because it makes it easier for me to do my business," said Mr. Scott. "I had been running it out of my home.
"He's a good guy, a nice guy, and for a man who's 81 to be healthy enough to get out and do work he like is a great thing. it was an easy decision for me."