Sunday, November 9, 2014

Music I

 
   What matters more than rock n roll?
  I mean when you're there, inside, listening to it live. When you're in a place, a bar, a club, a concert hall and you can feel it, literally, happen in your heart, when you turn around, look at your rational self and say, "See ya, brother."
 
   You've been standing there for an hour.
   You walked down the street to get there, shaking your head at guys your same age dressed back up in their 20 something selves from 1982. 
   You walked past the door and went on 3 more blocks so you wouldn't have to stand in line with them and their "dates". 
   Your life is a clotted mess of failing joints and greying hair no one notices, misguided attempts to find a mission, and the occasional outburst people are either inspired or bored by.
  You're middle aged.
  You don't fall for it anymore. You know "it". You knew "it". You stood by "it". On rare occasions you were "it". It suckers you no longer.
  You watch. You appreciate. You think, "Now how could I spin this into a story worth selling?" cause in this day and age selling and telling have become the same.
  The club's an old church from a working class section of the ex-working class city you were born in. It's been gutted, the stain glass removed, the pews long gone and flanked by a 50 foot bar. Like the Orthodox, you stand for the show.
  People you can't recognize but know you knew say long hellos. They hold their gaze. You can't place the faces. The bald. The sag. The waddle. Counting out tips like grandmothers in a diner, they're wearing tour shirts like kids in college wearing their college hoodie.
  The band starts. If ever there was a band that was "it" back "then", this is them.
  They look like they wanna sit down. The lead singers so far off key she's using cyrillic. You don't recognize the guitarist. He's one of the most famous guitarists in the world. No. Can't be him. It is.
  Their first song sounds like a recording of their first song underwater. You can't hear the words. The volume is bearable which was once anathema to this band. Unforgivable. You remember seeing them in Rhode Island, Pawtucket, and when the guitarist warmed up he emptied a swath in the stands before his amplifier. He ruled. He stood on high. Love's gonna hurt, he told us all. So's hearing the truth.
   You're leaning against some sort of temporary barrier keeping the underage from the aged. Women approach you and stash their purses behind it. They look at you like you're gonna keep a secret, like you work there. And then they don't dance.
  The beer that was trendy then is again trendy now. Pretending to be hip is easier.
   You look down at the half empty floor.
   You look around and see teenage children ask why did you bring me dad?
   You look up behind what was the altar, and the windows -which once held saints and archangels- have been slitted out with steel panels admitting a shaft of light cut like the bar's logo. There is marketing even in the ether.
  "Why am I at a concert when the sun's still up?" you ask. The answer? 
   You can barely hear it anymore.
  "That's entertainment. Ever felt like you've been swindled? Eat the rich. There's too many of us. I wasn't born so much as I fell out. Let's start a war. Ask what your country's been doin to you! We're desperate. Get used to it. How you gonna come? With your hands on your head or the trigger of your gun? Ohhh way to go Ohio……"
   All that, all that you were told, and this is where you are? What you've become? A two bit marketer and marketing tool letting the anthems of your youth roll over you like they were just…..lyrics…..?
  You're tapping your foot, sure, keeping a steadier rhythm than most and making sure everyone notices but you're not moving up to the front of the stage and you don't mind that people are talking texting analyzing replaying rearranging liking sharing and repurposing something before it's even happened. Nothing's happening to them anymore if their friends don't know. "That's okay", you say, "that just leaves more of what's left of the now to me."
  That's the peace you've made.
  And then you hear the other lead singer do something funny. He changes key to keep the harmony he and the other lead have had for years working since she can't hit her old notes. He bends the song and lo and behold the song holds it. And you see him laugh. The guitarist who rarely even acknowledges the lead looks over and nods. Was that appreciation? Was there just some detente in their mutually brilliant disdain for each other? Like the old days when they were kids?
  You lean a little farther forward. The music rises up and you realize they're so good they're covering themselves. They're not rushing through songs they can't stand anymore a la the Stones turning Brown Sugar into Husker Du. They're rebuilding what they still buy in the songs of their younger selves and making them new. The lead takes a whiskey from someone in the audience and then points at the sound mixer- Turn it up. He says it twice. 
  You stop tapping your feet. You jump. You dance for them. You sing back. You know every word.
  And that's it. 
  I could try and put words to it, to what happens next, but that's really the point of these words, and of all music, and that's that words end at a certain promontory in the world of our selves. They cannot follow. They tell a great tale when we come back but there are rooms in our lives, their are whole bloody fields of experience you shouldn't worry with language.
  The thing is, music shudders into life some dormant spirit in our chests- some amplified heart carried over by the 10 millennia of our species that thrived and died before we ever wrote anything down - this vestigial organ that still lives and plays in our bones and in our tapping feet and humming selves- and when that spirit takes off it can fly right out of you. If you're lucky its talons or its coattails or the golden dust vibrating in its wake catch hold of some part of your body and drag you into the air where music has no gravity, no historical time, no reason. And rock n roll lives right at the place where that spirit takes wing, gains lift, finds its most dangerous velocity. It can't last, by Dionysian definition it never does, but oh the power of mortality when it forgets it's mortal.
  You melt away in the sonic shock wave-
the welcome suicide of your socio economic self- and what's left is maybe something you loved but didn't have a name for at 18 at 23 at 29. 
  You were delivered? You were transformed? You were elevated? 
   No. 
  In truth it wasn't you, it was some sort of "us".   
  The gift of rock is its hovering truth that is only true as long as the music lasts but that no one afterwards would say was a lie. It just …only ever... lives…in there.
  You had to be there.
  You have been.
   Rain on me……….
 
 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

A Cost of War

   The very residential corner of Monongahela and Schoyer streets in Swissvale is basically a thru way for people trying to get to work. It's no wider than any other local intersection but it's cursed by being the quickest way to get onto 376 and then downtown or out to the eastern burbs and beyond, the Turnpike.
  So everybody uses it. Pity the poor sods who live on it.
   I was pulling around this corner when an ambulance passed going the opposite way, into Swissvale or Swisshelm Park. A glimpse of two twenty something guys in reflective gear blipping their lights and siren.
  And I thought, it's possible, anywhere among the thousand some homes and apartments behind me in this old working class, old too white neighborhood, there's a decent chance somebody's watching the last moments of their life tick by. Somebody's dying.
  As I'm driving on a pointless errand, glancing up at steps and storefronts I haven't let register for 47 years, passing facades I've insisted over the decades will be unimportant to me, clotted with exhaust, and worn down by endless traffic, somebody's staring at the last thing they'll ever see: the side of a bed stand their parents gave them, the underside of a lamp they thought to but never replaced, the sliver of a windowed view into a backyard anyone could have and not appreciate.
   The immensity crossed from my banality to their melodrama. The sad drip of a day? A block or two away Angels sing or Devils howl and a shock wave's about to pass through a family. 
   Boggles the mind. A seismic shift thru 20 people's souls. The karmic fabric of a neigborhood wrinkled for years. 
  And I drive by thinking about nothing; knicks on the windshield, the bricks below the potholes or how miserable Bonnie Rait's rhythm section is. 
   Death doesn't go off like a bomb. Bombs may kill people - car crashes, gunfire- sudden impact and dramas create death but the loss of someone is like a suction, a silent removal, a leaf pulled under the surface of a river, an insect plucked from a fissure of sand.  
  There's a Czech word I saw written on some gravestones in Prague- a conjugation of the verb zanik- which doesn't mean "died", it means -loosely- extinguished, snuffed out and the Czechs use it on the stones of the murdered, holcaust victims especially. "Died" normally is something like zemryl or umerl. (I spent 3 months in Prague but speak no czech so forgive the approximations).
   I asked someone to say it for me, this zanulych type word, and it fit, the sound. The last syllable like a drop of blood, or a slavic version of the "pfft" we make when we draw a finger across our necks. The silent piff which accompanies someone breathing their last, leaving us to transform the non-event into our own catharsis- to tear our clothes, strike something, sing, pray, scream - basic human instincts-  reaching for some kind of form to wrap around the spongy madness left after a death in the family.
  I drive my car through a neighborhood I grew up next to and all this is happening again. To someone else. As it always does. Till you're the someone else.
  Think of the casual trauma all these someones carry thru their daily lives. Even if a death is expected. A person's of a certain age or contracted a known disease, it's accepted, this is the way it goes. You loose people.
  And then it happens and the threads in your psyche fray and your behavior changes and your friends suffer if not your lovers and your family, tearing and taking a toll wherever you go. Of course there's the covalent decency, the new empathy you have learned as well, but I can't help but think the damage is worse than the good when you feel you've had something torn from you. Or when you may be responsible for the tearing.
  You go out every day into the daily world and you potentially bring discord. You fray the fabric.
  And I thought if that's what I bring….what the Hell do people bring who've seen vast terrors and murder on a military scale? What do they bring with them if they did those things? Felt responsible for them? What aura trails in their daily wake?
  I don't mention this in terms of blame, well not for individual soldiers, nor do I say this as some sort of practical warning- I simply feel that I now have the slightest grasp on, the tiniest understanding of why  people completely forswear violence as a tactic to achieve justice.
  I think of reading Tolstoy and his 1400 page mantra against War, his simple insistence that murder rends the fabric of creation, allowing the demons of our nature to emerge.
  If someone who feels cheated by the death of his brother trails a dark spirit or two through his day what possibly happens to daily life in Sarajevo, or Gaza, or Baghdad when hundreds and thousands and then millions of people collide who at one extreme or another are suffering some kind of traumatic shock? Think of the waves of paranoia coming off these people. Ever amplifying. Sure some of them will cancel each other out but by the simple laws of propagation some of those waves are going to double and triple. Rogue waves of terror. A perfect storm of fear.
    What cruelty could be unleashed? What madness?
    What could possibly be worth that reality?
    What about the US?
     As we acculturate violence further into our culture how much have we changed? As the very air around us is more and more colored by the off gassing of the worser parts of our selves what do we become?
   It just strikes me now. I used to mock the sayings of Ghandi and MLK - what was Malcolm X's riposte, "If I respond to someone trying to do me and my family harm I don't call it violence I call it common sense." I still agree with that- but I can see how the price of violence, of murder, or assault is written down in the hearts of those who pull the trigger. They pay, if they're sane. And so do we.
  This again is in no way me saying "Oh all those violent people in our midst! We're not safe!"
  This is me saying governments that send men and women to die and kill for any reason below the Holy or the necessary, reap the whirlwind. Or we do. It comes back, with its own vengeance and again the people pay the price.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Hallows

   The danger of Halloween.
   It's like the danger of voter fraud. 
   Please look this up:
    In almost every urban area in the United States crime is lower than it was 30 years ago, 40 years ago.  Name it: Violent crime, crimes against children, abductions, abuse, murder, theft. By a factor of 40%. 
   And yet we treat the world like it's a mine field of perversion. Children are monitored to within an inch of their interior lives. They have next to no public memory of what it is to be unobserved, to be allowed decisions unmediated by adults, to move amongst themselves and build their own brief childhoods , their worlds, not one designed by their parents, makers of the Disney childhood, a walled psychic suburban community (which could be anywhere) with adults trying to legislate behavior with codicils, restrictions, requirements and security patrols. 
  Halloween. 1982. Several hundred children walking around a small town together. Big brothers and sisters. Police driving down the street.  HS seniors patrolling as well.  Lights on. Folks watching out their windows. An agreement: this is a community action. So….what actually were the chances that one of your neighbors was going to abduct your kids?
  How much stranger danger is there?
  What actually are the odds?
  Nonsense.
  This is where the coin drops- the crime rates that haven't gone down? The child abuse and sexual violence that still happens?…..happens in the home. Between people who know each other, are related, should be a family.
  So what's the issue?
  Projection.
  What we fear most in the house we project onto the stranger, the creeper, the bum, the poor guy, the "gang banger" (go ahead and read black or brown there). And of course onto that figure of universal dislike - the guy a couple house down who doesn't mow his lawn enough.
  Racism and reputation. 
  It's either about blaming somebody else for the demons we fear in ourselves, in our homes, in our bedrooms, or it's about reputation. Keeping up with the Joneses.
  "I maintainence as well as they do. I hover just as much. I've taken this precaution, that insurance policy, these new helmets, that new allergy medicine." What it boils down to is fear. Not "oh the kids are gonna get grabbed by Rapey the Clown" but "oh the neighbors'll find me out- the bad parent. I'll get sued. I won't keep up." I'm just as GOOD. 
  We monitor each other like survivors in the Walking Dead, "Wait, are YOU going to take everything from me!!" like Black Water operatives casing anyone not wearing the uniform, anyone who's NOT carrying the weapons of suspicion. What else are the packs of the fleece clad half smiling parents standing at the foot of your driveway making sure Jimmy doesn't get too close, doesn't step indoors, doesn't get leered at, but vigilantes? You used to go trick or treating with your big brother now you go with the latte toting minions of Big Brother. 
   It's not just being practical. It's nuts. You're not embracing your kids, you're smothering them, you're not covering all the bases, you're quite simply, trying to stop the game. And the truth is folks, you can't. 
   When it comes to "freedom"- the real F bomb in our American narrative- we're penny wise and pound foolish. Enable kids to get a vaccine for cancers that effect 60% of women born in America? "You're limiting my freedom!" But pass legislation that a man can't sit by himself in a park if kids play in it? You're defending the children! Try and put some brakes to an industry that shortens life expectancy in an area the size of Texas, the slightest limits, and you're impractical, you're waging a war on coal or some other extractive behemoth casting itself as a victim. Mention we might as well just let the kids go out and play, by themselves….and you're Adrian Peterson. 
  Let Yer freakin kids go outside. Eat dirt. Break things. Get in fights. Scream at something other than your paranoia. You've got bigger problems, by far.
   Let them walk alone at night for the first time in their lives in the cool of a Fall and think - this place is mine. And when they climb the stairs to someone's door, somebody they've never met, across a lawn they could never normally cross, up to old folks who mostly never smile at them or young toughs who don't give them a nod, let them knock and those people, those strangers will emerge…. and give them candy. A gift. Like what happens 90% of the time you run into someone you don't know and need a hand. Most of the time, they'll give it. An affirmation that this is our town and we will help each other out. 
   
   Let the rough democracy of childhood return. Let it live. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Pittsburgh Rarities III

 
      Pittsburgh. Our town. A town owned, like no other, by its people. 

     "Nowhere in America will you find a place more beloved by the locals, more arrogantly praised, and oddly enough….deserving most of it." (Chicago Tribune)
     Pittsburgh. A city whose best riches are hidden. And a city whose finest attributes most of us have trouble letting ourselves see. Or hear. Or believe. Or admit to.
     So why is a place; a conglomerate of land and water, concrete and steel, and the people who tied all that matter together, why is it actually worth loving.

     Like, "I'm in love" type loving.
     What's best about Pittsburgh can't be quantified, or sold, or added up. It's a city made for music and poetry, fighters and lovers, children and anyone who ever walked away from a perfect, high paying job because well, that's all it offered.
     Pittsburgh -  every better business bureau's nightmare, the rock against which the spin doctors break their tag-lined will. A city that can't be summed up. Or capped. Or figured out.
 
      So here we go. Again.
      Go to Monroeville.
      Yes, Monroeville.
      Preferably just after a good rain.
      Past Rodi Rd at the top of the hill on your left is a Sheetz. It's across 22 from Penn Center Mall. The mall that came before The Mall. It's in front of a Marriott. Or a "Residence Inn by Marriot".
      Park in the Sheetz lot facing the hotel's driveway. If you need a good cup of coffee, there are worse places than Sheetz. So grab one, kick your driver's side door open, lean back and right in front of you is a little waterfall.
      The shale hillside here must have been blown out to make way for development and for 30 yards alongside the entrance of The Residence Inn by Marriott is a sheer black cliff, about 40 feet high, hidden by junk trees and kudzu. Water trickles the length of its face, almost a stream in some places, over slate and through heaps of moss you'd be thrilled to find in Ireland, but what makes this hidden oasis special is that the architects of the Residence Inn by Marriott, or maybe some functionary in the planning division of the contracting firm that cleared the lot, decided this "water feature" deserved to stay. Somebody placed minor league boulders at intervals along the base of the cliff and water pools around them as the flow increases on its way to the culvert which keeps both the Marriott and Sheetz from flooding. It's pathetic. It's beautiful.
      So next time you're on your way to...whatever it is people go to find in Monroeville....pop by the Sheetz and take a moment. You might even remember that this lot was where the first big box cinemas in Pittsburgh were built. "Cinema 1,2,3,4" which eventually became Cinemas 1-10 before they went the way of all technology. And if you're old enough you might remember your brother taking you there to see "Star Wars" for the first time, a week after he'd replayed the entire movie, sound effects included, laser blasts, Chewy's saxophone vocals, Darth Vader's basso breathing, all of it during dinner, while your mother laughed and your father told him he was ruining it for the rest of us.
     But he wasn't. He was showing you for the first time that the end of a story is nothing compared to the story itself. Kind of like a life. And he waited out there with his little brother in the two hour line which snaked around the parking lot you're sitting in now and kept him happy and fed him Junior Mints and said, "Oh just wait man, just wait, you're not gonna believe it." 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Things I know and things I believe. (A rant)

   This past summer, I was asked to speak to a gang of bikers - bicyclists that is, on bikes without engines, things propelled by people, under their own power - who labored past Pittsburgh by a southern route out of Morgantown. One of the yearly trail events organized by the DCNR or the DNR or some equally unfunded department of government - 300 people give or take.  They ride for 7 days along various trail systems. This time they came up from West Virginia, along our Montour trail, and on to Maryland. They were camped in West Newton some 30 miles up the Yough when I met them.
  I talked about bike trails, why they were important, how they gave land back to people who hadn't seen or used or crossed that land since the railroads cut thru their towns a century before and why we should respect that process of return and that we as bikers should respect the people we pass along the way whether they're on a bike, pushing a stroller, selling us lunch, or just out for a walk. Rails to trails- an American success story, green space given back to citizens whose parents and grandparents and great grand parents toiled along these lines of industry now dormant to give their kids a toehold.
  And them someone asked me "If we do, why should we come back to Pittsburgh? What's good to see? What's so special about it?"
  Can someone say, "Softball." ?
  And then can someone say, "Strike."?
  I mumbled, I laughed, someone prompted me with "the Paris of the Appalachias" and I said, "Yes I know the guy who wrote that, " and then I couldn't remember Brian's name.
  In short, I choked. Hard core. Full on.
  I failed my people.
  So if anyone asks me again or if they ask you…Why Pittsburgh?…. maybe this will help. Maybe this will expiate my sins of omission.
  I'm google free here so be kind.
  This is my preamble to the Constitution of my hometown. My Haka before its enemies. My pursuit of life, liberty, and some odd kind of local happiness.

  Pittsburgh. City in the trees, capital hill town of the forgotten empire of the Appalachians - that swath of radical American geography which to this day can astonish and stymie anyone who has the guts not to fly over it. The Appalachians. Oldest rocks, hills, and dales in the United States. The Appalachians - huddle as well of poverty, cruelty and self hatred unparalleled.
  We aren't Midwesterners. We aren't from the East. We're hill people. Hill and hollow, hateful and with a hatful of sorrow, joy, laughter and scorn. A hard place but with more heart than a balkan love song.
  George Washington fell out his boat crossing the Allegheny one winter and woulda died if not for a kindly Lenape indian (Delaware? Lackawanna?) who fished him out and built a fire. Probably the first recorded instance of a pgher being too nice to some stranger who had his eyes on local property.
  Lewis and Clark didn't start their trip in St Louis, they started it here. Well, Lewis did as he haggled with the drunk Germans who built and misbuilt his precious little bark down in Elizabeth.
  Free blacks practiced medicine in pgh before the civil war, Jews came here by the thousands, Catholics built chapels here before there was one in South Boston. Every variation of every delineation of christianity built its churches here. Go to Homestead and in three blocks you can walk by 8 separate denominations. 8 facades built by glass, iron, steel, and wood workers. 8 parishes from the ground up paid for by men and women who fought to make a living wage. Go to Mckeesport and you can do the same. And 5 of them will be abandoned..
  Faith, booze, and labor. Our truer trinity.
  Speak to any Jew in America and say you're from Pittsburgh, say you know Squirrel Hill and they'll nod. That intellectual and commercial powerhouse of a neighborhood, perhaps the supreme achievement of men like Edgar Kaufmann ( Senior, thank you) who when he wasn't fucking the daughters of the men who wouldn't let him thru the doors of their clubs, was empowering a community that would outlast the Fifth avenues and North Sides of Frick, Carnegie and Phipps. By a long bloody shot.
  Pittsburgh- mighty heart in the small body of the African community- the Crawfords- the Grays- best Negro league teams that ever played (sorry KC), Josh Gibson raised in Pgh, Satchel Paige played here, their stories told by The Courier - as Gibson was to Ruth so it was to the Times- all the news that was fit to print in black ink. Its reporters broke every story in black America that mattered, they followed soldiers into battle who in basic training weren't allowed to drink from local water fountains, they followed Jackie Robinson right up to his rookie MVP, they broke the Tuskeegee syphilis scandal, they told the story of the airmen of the same base 5 of whom came from Pgh, they were in the front of the marches in Alabama, in Memphis when MLK was killed, their star photographer Teenie Harris left a body of work over 70 years that tells the story of an American city as well as any chronicle ever assembled. Like his contemporary Romare Bearden, like August Wilson a generation later he laid down a tapestry telling the story of the history of Pittsburgh. Stitch those into Eugene Smith's Pgh Project- 10,000 negatives shot over 5 years, lay them over The Pittsburgh Study organized by the Univ of Wisconsin at the turn of the 19th century. Mix in Luke Swank and Clyde Hare, as I'm mixing metaphors, have Charlee Brodsky and Bob Qualters wrap it up. No town has ever had so many geniuses want to tell its tale.
  And then lets count the geniuses that left. Some of them can fuck off and then some of them did what they had to.
   Fuck off:  Gertrude Stein, Philip Glass, Martha Graham, Jim Laughlin, Alex Katz, David Mccullough , (why?- because he never wrote about US)
   Do what ya gotta do: Andy Warhol, Mary Cassatt, Thomas Cole, Bessie Smith, Earl Hines, Stanley Turrentine, Billy Strayhorn, Gene Kelly, Roy Haynes, Ray Brown, Rachel Carson, Duane Michals, John Edgar Wideman, Washington Roebling (bridge building's an art you shits),
    (Jeff Goldblum can go fuck off too but he's so far from genius he's not worth bringing up except to single out a dude who's disowned and badmouthed, and actively made fun of his home town more than anyone I can think of. What was the name of that guy who had the local access channel in NYC - ha Al Goldstein! - and every week gave out the golden screw award to any shit bag of a landlord, cafe owner, tv repairman, editor, producer or all around bozo who screwed over Al. And each week he'd show their name address and business on air and then flip off straight to camera, "Jeff Goldblum? Fuck you!!!")
  Every building in NYC under 16 stories is made of Pittsburgh Structural steel. Every. One.
  Pittsburgh made more steel more quickly than every Axis nation in WW II. One city. More than the GERMANS! And in 1982 a team of Homestead Steel workers set a record of man hours per ton of steel that's only been beaten once by a squad of Koreans who were tasked to break the record. When someone tells you how inefficient US Steel workers were tell them to go fuck themselves like Homestead resident Jeff Goldblum and read their history. We just paid our men more. Like one would fellow humans, neighbors, and kin. A living wage. How dare they ask! The cheek, the umbrage.
  Pittsburgh was the center of the glass industry, the oil industry - people don't know the Mellons didn't make their money in steel they made it in oil and chemicals and land and plain old banking, steel was too radical, too boom and bust for them- the food business, the aluminum industry, industrial grease, coal, shipping, nuclear engineering, tool and die, carpentry - the skills of the mold makers of the steel industry who carved every piece ever cast in a foundry first as a piece of wood were unparalleled. They built to tolerances unheard of- they knew wood like renaissance craftsman- Pittsburgh birthed and raised an entire army of physical builders who when they weren't toiling in its many mills were building the housing stock of the city's neighborhoods - and its churches and schools- which to this day can astonish in its variety and brick shit house solidity.
   Pittsburgh was the home of the first US Croatian diocese, the place where the Czech's and Slovaks made peace during WWI, the home of the Polish national government in WWI, the birthplace of the VFW, the greatest contributor to the Union army in the Civil War, the greatest contributor percentage wise of population to the armed forces in the entire history of the country, the most medal of honor winners came from here, the most NFL quarterbacks, the most Hall of Fame jazz musicians, when Duke Ellington and Count Basie brought their bands thru here they used to say "We're comin to the land of the giant killers. " Stanley Turrentine's little brother Tommy used to hang out and wait for the big boys from New York to finish their set so he could go out and embarrass them. Gene Kelly's older brother never left East Liberty and according to Gene's widow was the better of the two. There was a piano player from Homewood who'd warm up by playing scales with both hands, playing in opposite directions just to spook the visiting pros. How many, how many decided to, had to, couldn't anything but stay- who could play rings around the names we know now as the giants of jazz?
  And how bout who did leave? Earl Hines, Bessie Smith, Art Blakey, Billy Strayhorn, Errol Garner, Ahmad Jamal, Stanley Turrentine, Dakota Staton, Billy Eckstine, Ray Brown, Roy Haynes, George Benson - who if you haven't heard play a standard after he gives the audience his "hits" you should do so before you die - and the exodus continues today - the students of those giants teaching kids today who can't get enough work here to live. Good bye and good luck Sean Jones, how long can we keep you Dwayne Dolphin?
   Pittsburgh has more green parks per capita than any town in the Country. It has more golf courses, more hospital beds, more bars, more thickening and evolutionarily astounding accents than any city in the country. A writer from the Wall Street Journal wanted to do a contemporary field study of the Dictionary of American English which if you haven't paged thru it is like finding three lost Gospels- anyhow he was going to cross the country and track where the accents described and transcribed in the 50s had gone. How had they changed and faded?
   Across the entire nation regional accents are eroding. All of them. TV has done its work well and everyone is slowly beginning to sound like Tom Brokaw.
   Everyone except two regions in the country.
   Inner city New Orleans. And Pittsburgh. In fact, all of Western Pennsylvania.
   The writer was going to stay a day here. He stayed five and came back for more.
   We are, he said, "The galapagos islands of American dialect."
   Fuckin A right.
   CBS tv spearheaded the use of local metrics to count tv viewers in their larger markets. Local Nielsons they're called.
    KDKA -the only tv station east of the Mississippi that leads with a K- is their affiliate and when it turned in its numbers for a Steeler game in the mid 70s the folks at CBS corporate in NYC laughed and said "Idiots you screwed up, count em again."
    KDKA's engineers said nope, those are the numbers.
    CBS had a goldmine.
    High viewer ship nationally is 20 million viewers. A rating above 15 % lands you these days in hit territory. The finale of MASH in 1982 was the highest rated show in history. It had something like 69% of the national viewership glued to its story.
    High regional sports viewership is the NY Giants, or the Redskins who pull in about 48-55% of their local viewers, The Green Bay Packers have been known to break 60 but they have no other sporting team within 50 miles and they're a city of less than 200,000.
    Every week the Steelers routinely break 75%.
    3/4s of all the tvs in the greater Pgh area are tuned to the Steelers week in week out. The finale of MASH every week. And more. Now imagine what they can't count. The bars. The bars in cities all across the country, across the world where the diaspora of Pittsburgh has set up shop, turning "Black and Gold" into a religious mantra.
   So what is it? What's the twisted chromosome in the mind of every Pittsburgher -well, most of them- that turns them toward home like Salmon like Monarchs like Carrier Pidgeons like everyday work a day folks in cities across this country that I've sat with ...and thru the first two quarters they're happy, they're well paid, they're out, they made it, they've made a life in Santa Monica, in Portland, in Northern VA, in Austin, in NYC, in New Hampshire, in Indianapolis, in San Fran, in place after place where there's sufficient mass to keep the creative class burning what is it come late in the third quarter and then the fourth when they start screaming like they're Palestinians swearing to return, like Irishman promised to a home, like people torn from the arms of loved ones, who somehow inexplicably must have done something wrong in their hearts when they decided to make it on their own?
   What did it to us?
   And this in the end is the point.
   You can add up all we've done, built, made, forged, cast and sold. You can name 100 Pittsburgh names that should be set in bronze somewhere or other, you can say how many, and how much, and how often it's happened in Pittsburgh and you can do it with numbers that are pretty damn accurate. And then you can say therefore there must be this many reasons why you should live here. Ka chink, deal, escrow, done.
  And you'd be totally wrong.
  You'd have no idea what makes a Pgher with two happy kids in a good school in sunny California taken care of by a high paying rewarding job, you'd have no accurate way to estimate "Why is this man crying about a town he hasn't seen in over a decade? About a father he barely knew? A mother who gave him as much pain as love?
  Because it's all bullshit. The PR, the counts, the ratings, the councils and the conferences, and oh the howler- the number of times we've been called livable.
  Pittsburgh might only make sense on a Sunday when you can't get a decent meal or see a show and the roads are as empty as a bombed city, and in all this absence suddenly you feel happiness. Because the emptiness, the reason the commercial thoroughfares have been left to themselves is quite simply everyone's visiting their families.
   Pittsburgh doesn't, and I'm speaking quite literally, it's a city that doesn't "add up".
   For all its centrality to the history of world commerce and capitalism, as a people we don't much care. There are better things to be doing.
   You won't find "Pittsburgh" on a graph or a spread sheet.  What life it has will be found in its language and its laughter and its music. It's a city of poetry. It is one.
    Good luck. Cause the poem is long and it's printed in places you might be afraid to visit.

    "The gritty alleys where we played every evening were
     stained pink by the inferno always surging in the sky
     as though Christ and the Father were still fashioning
     the Earth. Locomotives driving through the cold rain
     lordly and bestial in their strength. Massive water
     flowing morning and night throughout a city
     girded with bridges. Sumptuous shouldered,
     sleek thighed, obstinate and majestic, unquenchable.
    All grip and flood, mighty sucking, and deep rooted grace.
    ….our spirits forged in that wilderness, our minds forged
   by the heart."

 And when you drive around you'll get lost and some Pittsburgher will come up and without being asked start to give you directions and usually end by telling you, 'You gotta know it by heart."
 

   
 
 
 
 
 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Pittsburgh Rarities II

 
   If there's a most lost of lost Pittsburgh that town might be Glassport.
   Quick, Pittsburgh lovers, Appalachian scholars of geography, where's Glassport?
   And how do you get there?
   ...beat, pause…
   And the answer, as the answer usually is when you talk about neglect and indifference, is that it's a lot closer than you think and quite easy to reach.
   Drive thru McKeesport. And keep on going. You cross the Yough, you pass the biggest strip club in Western PA, a brilliant blue bridge slides by on the passenger side and then you fall into Glassport, right on the main drag.
   At the far end of the drag is Glassport Memorial Stadium which opened its gates in 1950. It sits smack at the end of the road placed like a Hollywood director put it there as a backdrop, railroad roundhouse beside it (now gone), Westinghouse plant behind it (now gone), railroad still cutting 20 yards beneath it and beyond that the long regular roof of the Steel Mill (now closed but still standing).
  Glassport still calls its football team the Gladiators but now they graduate from South Allegheny and not from Glassport high, which is also still standing but empty of the "lofts" and tech offices its owners once hoped to attract.
   South Allegheny. Funny name for a school district built on a bluff on a curve of the Mon.
   I went to Glassport on a friday afternoon in the Fall hoping to see that most rare of rarities, a town actually walking to its High School's football game. I thought, wow they're literally going to pour out of their still handsome and well kept houses five avenues deep and march down Main Street to the game.
   I met the secretary of the resident judge. I met the manager of the municipal hall. I had coffee at the local diner people filing past me for dinner at 5:30 in the afternoon. Guy refilled my cup without a word and told me I shoulda come next week as that was homecoming, "That's when they march, the old timers."
   My phone rang and the municipal manager, Nancy, had looked up the old Mayor and the head of the local Polish National Assoc and asked me would I like to meet them. I told her that was the kindest thing anyone had done all week and thank you.
  I walked into a small store that called itself a hobby shop and thought "Oh yeah…won't be trains or models it'll just be fantasy figures and video games…" Was I ever wrong.
   Neil Young has a minority interest in the Lionel Model Train company, which is like owning a piece of the Steelers if you like football.
   Whenever Neil does a show in Pittsburgh he comes down to Glassport to see Ken, the owner of Ken's Hobby Shop and hang out with him and talk, well, shop.
   My eldest brother and my father were train lovers and would they have ever lost control of their respective bladders in Ken's tight little empire of antique, rare edition, long lost, and longed for diminutive jewels - perfect reductions of those massive metal monsters that built our country. The Pennsy, Union Pacific, Burlington Northern, Lackawanna, Baltimore and Ohio, New York Central, Norfolk Southern, Chessie, and on and on and on across the rolling fields of the republic.
   And yeah Ken sold gaming figures and made most of his money outfitting Boys and Girls Scout troops around the world. Their need for merit badges he said is insatiable.
   His daughter lives in New York City, he worked for USair until they tried to do to him what they'd done to every one of their employees below a certain seniority - screw them, kill their pensions and hack their wages, and demand they travel 400 miles  to work week to week, Philly or Charlotte or NYC regardless. One Christmas eve they demanded he be in Philly the next day. He said "What're ya going do?" hung up and took his retirement.
  "She never comes back. I mean she does, she was here to see her mother last week, comes home for Christmas and all that but she'll never live here. Graduated, went to Syracuse and never looked back. 'Dad I love NYC',  that's what she tells me, day in day out."
   And I was half way down the block when I realized he'd just told me he speaks to his daughter every day.
   No one walked to the game.
   Well, I did see two couples on the sidewalk but I'm pretty sure the older pair were in town for Saturday's Car Show and the younger couple left early. If they were gonna have kids those days had passed.
  Just like everywhere else- suburbs the nation over- everybody drove to the game. But unlike everywhere else they were coming from maybe a mile or two away. Glassport is the Detroit distopian model on a tiny scale. Like a miniature train town. The people I spoke to who said No one lives in the town anymore meant the 4 avenue stretch sitting on either side, for a mile, of the main drag. They lived within sight of that stretch, up on the hills or just around the riverbend in Lincoln or Port Vue. I could, pretty easily have walked to their front doors from this rough old downtown they remembered as peaceful, a longing for that which so often simply translates as "white".
   How to explain the casual racism of Pittsburgh? The home-brewed discrimination you hear daily from people who'd just as casually drive you home 10 miles if your car was dead on the highway, who'd just as casually cook you dinner and let you crash on their couch if you were lost, who fix each other's boilers and change their rotors and lay concrete or put in a roof for someone who needs it whose family - white, black, brown, or Jewish- two generations back did a favor for their grandfather.
   The blood, both warm and cold, runs deeper here. And it's awful but it's also beautiful, because the other side of the coin, of racism's ugly penny in these valleys, is that in a way it has nothing to do with race. The odd truth is that they don't even see themselves in this discussion as white. They see themselves as workers. As a class. And when their pride got wiped off their faces when the mills went down and there was no great seething fire breathing thing for them to to point at and say "That's us, that's what we do." They turned on the people who had even more to loose, and who'd work for less. And quite frankly on those who had the guts to say, "Bullshit, no Viet Cong ever called me nigger." White working class America could never quite handle that their black counterparts wouldn't just stand there and take it. Wouldn't five years on vote for Reagan, wouldn't buy the crap that said on the cover it was their fault the economy tanked.
   I walked up some Pittsburgh stairs to a bluff which I thought might look out over the football field. The view was blocked by a swimming pool collapsing in on itself, fenced in with signs warning away vandals and anyone who didn't know the reason the ground was giving way was this bluff was a slag heap they paved a road over. An old guy was smoking a cigar up there at the foot of the elementary school, shorts, long black socks, Irish working man's cap. The most generous thing anyone said about Glassport's new demographic came out of his mouth "These kids…they got nothin to do. Nobody gives them anything to do." He lived in the Elementary school which now was subsidized housing. I led with the best softball you can ask in Pittsburgh's heartland, "What was this place like when the Mill's were running?" and he looked at me and said, "Hell, I'm not from here. I'm from the country. This here's a poor man's retirement."
  Earlier I'd sat in a dark bar with two of the men who'd built this town. Or who'd tried to build a roof as it collapsed around them, the mayor who was elected two years before the Reagan recession, and the Polish labor leader who still spoke like he was in a room 30 rows deep and pounded on the table when I mentioned fracking," Bills! Everybody's gotta pay their share, you, me, my kids, that asshole at the bar and yes absolutely these companies who come into Pennsylvania, drill the Hell outta the country, hire a bunch of drivers and say they're the new golden ticket. Horseshit. Pay your share, I say." I stifled a grin and did everything I could not to get up and hug him while the mayor complained we were driving away business. "They'll just go somewhere else, ya know. All these taxes and regulations, they're just too much. It's the same we saw in '84. I fought to get the union at Copper Weld to take 50 cents less but no….and look where that went. " And the Polish guy- well they were both Polish, and both spoke Polish even though their families hadn't touched Polish soil since the Russian Revolution- the labor guy didn't push back with his argument and let his old friend, the mayor, gradually get to the point, which was that He was being overtaxed and over regulated, His apartments were getting cited by the borough even though they were spic and span and done right, his work wasn't appreciated, wasn't forgiven, and I thought to myself that's always and forever it, isn't it? - when people aren't being heard they break down. When their story doesn't rate the papers, they start speaking like the 6 o'clock news. They forget their local knowledge and take up the banner of power or the powerful. And the simple truth is if you aren't powerful they don't want you. You're just voting fodder mouthing nonsense.
   I'm the child of a man who never saw a fight he couldn't run from and a woman who wouldn't stand up for herself if she could forgive someone else. I've been an actor for 25 years. And so my inclinations, natural and trained are to defer, to listen, to wait for the reveal -at least among strangers- before passing judgement, and to hear the voice in my head, my mother's and my voice teachers, "It's not your job to say who's wrong, it's your job to know why."
  What's the poem - "Sunday too my father got up early…."
  I thought about these two guys getting up early for 30 years trying to figure out ways to keep their town from falling off the map. Fixing shit themselves, loaning people money, calling in every favor they had, asking State road workers to lend a local hand, finding federal pennies in the corner of a bill, borrowing from fire to pay for police, in their offices begging owners and bankers to make an investment just one more time when mostly what the owners wanted was to get the locals to just stop asking.
  What did I know? What did I know what they'd been through.
  Shit leaves scars. Poverty bends people, breaks most of them if it lasts long enough. How about two generations of negative growth in the Mon Valley? How about 5, with two good ones in the middle? The hurricane of abuse labor's lived thru in this country- the eye of the storm passing over from '37 to '73, lending jobs from FDR to Nixon until the conservative movement finally swore it would never apologize again or pretend to give a damn- gloves off, ain't Indians at this Tea Party, suck on this.
  What could I say to these guys that I knew better in any way?
  And the game? The game? I mean, who cares? The boys in their awkward helmets push back and forth across the grass, under industrial lights rendering everything around you in automatic focus, parents yell, mothers with those buttoned photos of their children which look so much like gravures on an orthodox grave, fathers cupping a smoke at the top of the stands,  girls race by on the boardwalk below, the fries and the dogs and the sugar forever smell the same, no one can kick a field goal.
    It's the same in town after town after town after town this Friday night in this wedge of Western PA. If you could rise up and float out over the rivers high enough you'd see electric campfires set in concentric ridges as far as the eye could muster,  an army had arrived in the night to take Pittsburgh and with little doubt it could do so. Football in my home town. A ritual not a game. A rite not a sport. A reminder.
   I drove home in the deep dark which only lives here, something to do with the valleys and the water in the air and the contrast between what a steel mill can put out and what a stream nestled in a hollow 40 yards wide which hasn't been built on since the Revolution can do to evening light. The leap from 0-60 on the pitch black scale. It used to scare me, that Pittsburgh dark, that spiritual dilation, the eyes can't keep up: jobs lost, lives abandoned, families cast away, that's how you lit that story. But now I find it comforting. It's lives in me as much as it fills the space above the Monongahela. Own it, run toward it, you know the way. It's my home field advantage.
   I took the long way home thru Mckeesport and at the corner where they used to print the local paper I saw an onion dome peek out over a closed department store to my right. That shape from my childhood. The lacquer, the stars. That cross with the extra little sideways step. Where Christ could put his feet, I always thought, while he suffered. Somehow considerate. How Pittsburgh.
 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Letter to Pittsburgh - an issue none of the papers or the local tv news folks will cover.



      ALCOSAN is about to spend 3 billion dollars.
      Of your money.
      If their plan to fix Pittsburgh's sewers and storm water overflow goes into action - and it will in December- your utility bills will go up by a factor of ten.
      For two decades.
      A working family of four will spend 8% of their monthly income on their utility bill.
      And that's the first part of the ALCOSAN plan.
      They could spend 2 billion more.
      Of your money.
      You can change their plan, alter it, slow it down, make it smarter. Because it's your money.
      The word "green" is thrown around a lot these days and frankly it's kind of exhausting. Plastic bottlers make smaller caps and talk about saving the world. Hotels call themselves green when they ask you not to use their towels when really what they're saving is laundry costs. Car companies are green when their car uses 10% electric, oil companies are green......well, because they pay their advertising agencies a lot of money to say so.
       ALCOSAN doesn't mess around. Their expertise is construction. Their solution is resolutely grey. It's made of concrete and steel. Tubes, tunnels and tanks which when finished will do nothing to change the fact that water gets into the sewers and rivers too fast. And in 50 years their concrete and steel will have to rebuilt, all over again. Just about the time our grandkids have finished paying the bill.
       But if ALCOSAN spent 1/5th, a 1/6th, even a tenth of their total budget (your money) on a preliminary green sewage solution, on stuff on the surface that costs less to build and employs people for years to maintain, then your utility costs would go up a Hell of a lot less than a factor of ten.
     And your town would have parks and trees and fewer floods and a municipal bidg that doesn't bleed electricity and maybe a public garden and a bike path all of which sounds like trinkets but which in truth will save you money. All of this physical stuff, trees along your creek, parking lots that absorb water, parks that act like filters for what would normally end up in your sewer or the river, all of this stuff adds up to mean less spent on a construction plan which was obsolete 30 years ago . Which will allow you to pay that extra tuition bill, which will let your family have a vacation that year rather than staying home, which will let you be part of a new Pittsburgh rather than a bystander.
     A lot's been said about a new Pittsburgh. How we're going to be the new Portland, the new Austin, the new hot town.
     We can build all the cafes, and farm to table restaurants, and artisanal bars, and condos we want and we'll be doing nothing but spreading ice cream over mud.
     10% of the population enjoying their new start up jobs and eating well while the sewers pollute the river, and bus routes are cut, and taxes ascend is not a new Pittsburgh.
      You rebuild the basic infrastructure of this city, you fix a problem that is damaging the economic opportunities of 80% of the people who live here - then you can call it a new Pittsburgh.
      And when I mean you, I mean us.
      I'm not asking you to tell PNC to change the shape of their new skyscraper. That's their money.  ALCOSAN is a public authority. Your bills pay for it. Your mayor, your county exec appoint its leaders.
      You tell them to change the plan, they'll change it.
      You don't, you'll pay. And pay, and pay.