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. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Pittsburgh Rarities I

    Call this a series about wealth. Rich places. In Pittsburgh, our city state. Places where people don't go much anymore.
    I won't pay attention to borders - Irwin and and New Ken are as Pittsburgh as Bloomfield- and I won't tell you where you can get a decent cup of coffee amid the hip urban decay. I won't try and sell you on the town because what I'm talking about is of course a spiritual wealth which you can't buy. Which might be the only thing that really makes Pittsburgh worth living in. 
    To quote a local writer, "If ever there was a place worth not leaving, it's here."
    To quote The Deer Hunter, "It's all here." 
    Frick Park. 
    Sure. Everybody goes there. Pretty much everyone in Pittsburgh knows where it is. Epicenter of the East End. Dog run of the creative class. Backyard of every cake-eater in the 14th ward. 
    If you think it's too obvious, a place overloaded with happy yin, it still has some brutal yang. Some original sin. 
    Here's where to find it. 
    Helen Clay Frick's buried on the highest ground in the Park. (Like I said - no borders- Homewood Cemetery's just Frick park with permanent residents). She died in 1984, probably from joy that Reagan got re-elected. She was 96. 
    Her dad, a large stone's throw away, died 65 years before and when he was buried next to his two infant children, he gave us the park and 50 years of class warfare in the Mon Valley. Helen gave us more of the park and a lot of art. 
    Pay your….respects?….and then walk North-west along millionaires' row, past  mausoleum after marble mausoleum, family after famous family - the Pitcairns, the Shaws, the Hays, the Lockharts -arrayed along a descending avenue just like they'd lived - tight up against each other in Gilded Age friction, clubbing, working, drinking and stealing each other's husbands and wives, a century before. 
    The last family pile you hit before crossing cemetery lane belongs to the Benedums. And they sit facing away from the rest of their monied gang, the steps to their front door stacked like a throne which looks out over a field of veterans buried in rows 50 feet below, and out over a right angle of steeply cantered grass bounded by the wrought iron fence of Kirtland street. On this slope of grass are scattered several small stones. "Beloved son". "Baby Grace".  "Our Child".
   This is Division 3 of Section 15. If you were buried in a "division" and not a section proper, you're in a separate grave, not a plot. Maybe you died young, before your family could plan for the future -which in this case really is the same for everyone- you couldn't afford more space, you didn't have the time, you were a tragedy or bad luck. You were put here and left alone. In this division, it's where people buried their infant children. There are about 300 bodies interred here. More than half of them infants. If you look down on the slope itself you'll see about 20 random graves. The rest of the dead are unmarked, under the grass. 
       If Pittsburgh is where people witnessed the wheels of history rise up out of the ground and grind with or against them and their daily efforts, then this is one of its scars. An unintentional trace left by conflicting needs, by supply and demand. Poor people lose more children. A cemetery needs to apportion its space. People remarry, grow old and don't always come back and put flowers next to a little tragedy common in its time. In the red ledgers of the cemetery, most of the 78,000 dead are given reasons why they died. Inscribed in the flawless handwriting of another age. One said, "Baby was too weak and faded away."
        When you leave you can walk right into Frick Park, passing by quick joggers headed back where you came from, and down a wide path onto the cool valley floor. 100 yards before the shadow of the Forbes bridge there's a small path which climbs up to the right. It stops at a slate outcropping which forms a rock lean-to. It might be where Gene Kelly used to go and hide and build himself a fire and which 70 years later he recalled to his young wife as the happiest times he knew. 

    It's also where you can grab a rope hanging from a branch 40 feet above - well secured and re-enforced over the years- and from which you can run and leap, twirling slowly, gliding out across tree tops and kudzu and a little hidden stream fed from the cemetery above.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Let's root for the home team

    I went to a Pirate game. Day game.  Sunday. Four seats, behind the on-deck circle about thirty rows back. Part of the park where the guys wipe the seats, where they know who should be there and whose tickets you borrowed.
  I had a capicolla sandwich, a beer and my phone in hand. Talking to three friends as the usher took us across. Knees bending, sorry, sorry, excuse me. These seats since you'd paid enough you were allowed to come in mid inning which surprised me, and it took me a couple seconds to realize I'd just missed a home run as I juggled my 50 dollars worth of "concessions" trying to pull a fiver out for the man who led us there. 
   All I could get hold of was a flattened pack of ones. Felt like more than five. I thought, I either make the man wait and count out his tip in front of 27,000 people or I just hand over the bills. The tickets were free, one of my guests had bought a round, Hell give the man his money, and hope you haven't  trapped a twenty in there.
  I palmed them to him, he nodded, and as the stadium sat down and the Pirate ran home I thought Christ …."concessions", like they're doing me a favor by feeding me as well. Entitlements for the sporting crowd. 
  We cheered, we clapped, we baked. We were entertained. 
   Baseball's been completely emasculated by its public soundtrack. No one does a thing if they aren't cued. No songs, no cheers, no calls come from the people to the players that aren't set up by corporate karaoke. 
   Not a moment's wasted on peace, on stillness, on the pauses within the game that make the game. Its insistence that This isn't the Working Day. There's no clock here. We are in the city but we are not of it. This is the field of grass within the concrete and the steel and the punch clock. You work. We play. You get to watch. For a few hours you're untethered. 
   If there's a redeeming quality to baseball it's its rhythm. Like a day at the beach, after 4 days you actually start to move differently. You think differently, in longer lines, in deeper troughs, you turn your head less, the check list falls out of your hands, the phone gets left on the floor with its charger. 
   But play the music, give each player a theme song and every play a downbeat and you bring the rhythm of the gym and of the office and the factory into the ball field. Where it should not be.
   The gift of baseball to America was Here's a colosseum, a temple really to the idea that you shouldn't always be working and planning, betting and scheming, parcelling out time like it was change. "Thus I wasted time and now does time waste me."
   And baseball came of age just as the great American cities were booming. Odd.  As we embraced steroid capitalism there was also a giant room in every city and town, a room open to the sky where when you walked thru the gates you shut them on the imperatives of business. 
   Not that the game wasn't a business, ha far from it, but the act of playing and the act of watching, both lived on here at their own pace. Side by side. The noise of commerce and conveyance fell away and you listened to the sounds of  leather, wood, and dirt slapping against each other to build a game. And the smell of all that grass even to the upper deck. 
   An inning later the usher came back around the corner and called out, "Where's the guy who gave me too much money?" 
   I looked at him, he recognized me and put the folded bills into my hand. 
   There were 11 ones. 
    11 dollars. 
    It's not like there'd been a twenty under a few singles, no, he came back to give me my 11 bucks. 
    I said thanks and gave back five. 
    And I thought, only in my town, only in mine. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Golden Gate

  San Francisco approved a resolution recently to build suicide netting under the Golden Gate Bridge and eventually fencing across the face of the span. In other words when you walk the Gate you'll be looking thru a scrim of metal across one of the greatest vistas on the planet.
  Bullshit. Madness.
  Sound cold?
  It's not the Bridge's fault people kill themselves. It's not our job to redesign every monument, bridge, mountain top, rooftop, cliffside, and seaside to keep someone from killing themselves. They wanna do it they're gonna find a way.
  The world should not be disfigured, cut off and wrapped in netting, so we can make a nod toward these tragedies, because that's all it is, a nod, a gesture to liability, to not wanting to engage with larger problems, to tamping down the fury of broken hearted people while in reality we shuffle off the problem.
  They're crushed. Who wouldn't be? A son, a daughter, a husband, a wife, a child took their life. Someone has to do something. Something has to change. Someone should pay.
  Problem is what that boils down to is as long as anything is changed it's considered something, some good. One platform for suicide is gone.
 Are you kidding? A distraught, deeply depressed person is not going to find another? A fence on a bridge will make them whole again? That's how we do good?
   Nonsense. Childishness.
   "The Bridge of Death" they called it.  What? Is the bridge somehow evil in its design? It entices people to kill themselves? It's Charybdis? It's a witch and one can tell by the cast of its face that it harbors the devil? No sorry, it's just a bridge, made by hand, by thousands and thousands of desperate men and women, during the depression who by dint of their labor created one of the most astounding objects humans have ever imagined.
  And now we get to see thru a fence what they gave us. Inspiration, beauty, strength, astonishment, fear, awe, all of it, covered in netting to put a salve on the horror those who lost someone feel and on the guilt some of us project outwardly from the heart and mind, those parts of us that are truly responsible for all this misery.
  For it is in our stars that the "guilt" lies. It's in us. Not in bridges or rooftops or rafters or in a medicine cabinet. It's in us. And build fences where you may, around the roof of every skyscraper in the country, erase the views, the experiences, which have inspired and comforted generations of people, deny access to the rougher edges of what God built, sue every single person who owned a piece of someplace your beloved died and you'll have accomplished nothing but a kind of institutional vengeance weaker than oaths into the wind.
  The issue here isn't how do we stop them. Fences won't do that. This isn't a question of a view being more important than a person's life. Erasing that view won't save them.
  The heart of all this is silence.
  Because the real horror of death, of suicide in particular, is its silence. Its emptiness. The lack of response. They do not move anymore. They do not speak when spoken to. They won't tell you why.
  That's what's unbearable. But ultimately it's what must be borne.
  You can't reach in after them and make it better. Wrecking the house won't bring them back.
  Perversely, one place you might find an answer, where you might find salve for your broken heart is someplace like that odd orange bridge in the fog, any given morning, 200 feet above the water, as the sun rises. A place like that, or a cliffside in the Grand Canyon, or leaning by the short little railing which is all that stands between you and anyone and the soul shaking beauty of the Niagara, a beauty which stands hand in hand with oblivion. Places like that, left to themselves and you, might bring you peace. They've certainly talked me off the edge.
 Maybe that's what's so hard to bear - the fact that the void you relish and the void you throw yourself into are the same thing. Pretending it's not won't change a thing. Being alive is messed up, we are not simple, simple acts of violence won't fix a thing.