I first encountered Randy Gilson back in the '90s when he came to a Mexican War Streets meeting with all manner of flip charts and maps and enthralled the crowd with an intricate plan to dot the neighborhood sidewalks with potted juniper bushes.
I never thought of myself as the kind of guy who'd get excited by potted juniper bushes. Yet I was. It occurred to me then that if George Patton had been a florist, he'd be Randy Gilson.
Sure enough, not long afterward, he led a small army through the streets to spruce up -- or rather juniper up -- the 'hood.
Randy -- nobody calls him Mr. Gilson -- has been doing this sort of thing for a couple of decades now. He's most famous for his home, Randyland. To say his sprawling place at the corner of Arch and Jacksonia streets is colorful is like saying the Monongahela is wet. If a Crayola crayon executive drove by, he'd be Tropical Rain Forest Green with envy.
On Thursday afternoon when I stopped by, Randy was talking with four young men from Thailand. They've been traveling the country in a rented Toyota and had just been down to Fayette County to see Fallingwater. They decided to bop around Pittsburgh to see what they'd find, turned the corner and all began saying "What the ... Are you kidding me? ... Wow ... '' -- or whatever the corresponding words are in Thai.
"It's something like a hippie revolution,'' Patipol Jongkirkkiat, 19, managed when I asked how he'd explain this place to the folks back home.
Randy earns his money as a breakfast-shift waiter in a posh Downtown hotel -- "Randyland is built on tips'' -- but he lives for moments like this.
As my colleague Diana Nelson Jones memorably put it years ago, Randy "can be a waterfall when you only need a sip." He and his new friends were snapping pictures of each other and exchanging email addresses and hugs. The Thais had just finished writing "Welcome'' in their language on the courtyard's wooden gate, using bright blue paint -- nothing's dull in Randyland -- that the man of the house supplied.
"I gather smiles from everyone," Randy told them, which is why his courtyard is open to the public every day from 1 to 7 p.m.
It's not hard to find Pittsburghers who love their neighborhood, but this man LOVES HIS NEIGHBORHOOD like nobody else. One might first be attracted by his home's rainbow colors or the old signs for soft drinks, "Air Raid Shelter'' or "Home Sweet Home'' that punctuate the corner, but move in closer. At eye level there's a stylized, romanticized map of the North Side, from the riverfront to the stadiums to the hills, with tiny animals and people glued along the byways.
The dilapidated house Randy bought 19 years ago "with a credit card'' is now as well groomed as a circus clown's poodle, but the sun's been pretty hard on that south-facing map. Vinyl street names have curled like hot bacon and fallen and it's looking pretty battered.
So Randy has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $10,000 to "completely reimagine the map and make it more colorful, expansive and durable.'' With Tuesday morning's deadline approaching, he'd raised more than $9,300 from 227 backers by Friday afternoon. (Sociologists should start calculating how much Kickstarter has upped the nation's quirkiness quotient.)
The map's very nice, but those bright colors -- everywhere and anywhere -- dazzle at this "house made of junk and joy,'' as its owner puts it. As a timid family of four from Philadelphia (who said they learned of this place from the Internet) idled in the courtyard among the pink flamingos, rubber rats and plastic balls, Randy told me his secret: "oops paints.''
He'll go to the big-box stores and buy for $2 to $5 those gallons of paint that people returned. He imagines the first buyers bought "these colors that made them happy'' after coming back from a sunny vacation where the "young, happy, joyful kid came out in them.''
Then they went home, looked around at their neighbors' safe, conservative colors "and couldn't follow through on their dreams.''
"I'm the dreamcatcher,'' he said.
I left him to his palette, his home.
Brian O'Neill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1947.