Friday, April 15, 2016

Trump Night in Pittsburgh

  The Post- Gazette won't print an article, editorial, or letter with the word "Jagoff" in it. 
   David Schribman the editor in chief finds it offensive. Or possibly he finds it beneath his dignity. 
   A beloved term from our local dialect - a phrase possibly deriding someone as "a masturbator". (That word passes Schribman's muster I imagine.) Why give it the silent treatment? 
   I guess it would be similar to allowing the use of "intercourse" but not "fuck"? 
    Grandmothers might be upset. 
     Hell, mothers might be upset. 
     Someone please find me a mother or grandmother in the entire Greater Pittsburgh area who'd be upset by the word "jagoff".
   So it must be that the PG finds Jagoff beneath its dignity. 
     The same dignity that almost endorsed Donald Trump. 
    The same dignity that's pushed half of its veteran staff into early retirement. 
    The same dignity happy with the worst online homepage in the web's short history. 
    I'm kinda glad they told me they wouldn't print the piece below if I didn't excise my "jagoff". 
    When I looked up "letters@pg..." I shouldn't have pressed send. 
    And quite frankly folks, until the ownership of the paper leaves the hands of the blockish Blocks and the-where'd-responsible-journalism-go-Mr Robinson's none of us should press "spend" on the PGs pay site or elsewhere for its thinning content. 
   The time has come. 
    Let it and the Trib chase each other to the bottom. They deserve each other. The latter subsidized by a radical conservative billionaire and the former trying to sound like him. 
   Press delete. 
   I wrote this the night of the Trump rally in Pittsburgh and I should have printed it right then on this little blog. 
   Somehow I felt like Pittsburgh and its newspapers still co-habituated. 
   They don't folks. They don't. 
     Jagoffs. 
  There's been a lot said in the media about a new Pittsburgh. 
  How we're a cultural gem, a rust belt city reborn, a realtor's dirty secret, a foody Mecca, the best example of a new American Urbanism.
   What I saw last night, (a few nights ago) Trumps all of that. 
   Literally. 
   There was sound, there was fury, there were even a few punches thrown. But....
   I watched a number of people who should have been fighting shake hands. Take time. Reach out. 
   I watched a bearded college kid repeatedly approach the Trump supporters line along the convention center wall and ask,  "What matters most to you? Tell me." 
   He was never assaulted, he was never harassed. He talked to a massive guy in full Harley skins for quarter of an hour. 
   I watched three African American women talk for 20 minutes to a Persian CMU grad about what was missing from American government. He held
His hands up at one point and said, "Hey look I don't mean to offend you." They embraced when they parted.
  I watched a guy with half his head shaved carrying a "Dump Racost Sexist Trump" banner the size of a  flag for the 1st Air cavalry, speak to a man in a cowboy hat with the Virgin of Guadeloupe across his chest, quoting scripture - they never came to blows. 
  And I watched the city's police act with a kind of restraint and decency I can only say almost brought me to tears. 
   My point is: old or new, this is Pittsburgh. 
   We don't fit the national model of disdain, disharmony, and disunion. Thank God.
   We don't behave like jagoffs. Right or Left.
   We might get in fights but we don't hit each other without good reason. Usually. 
   So yes, there was anger,
 cruel words were thrown. But...
   I watched people, radical conservatives and radical democrats, both, who for good reason, believe they have been left behind by the powers that be, dispossessed. 
    Who believe their government has got to change.
   And I truly believe I saw them look at each other, across the divide under the David Lawrence Convention Center, and I think I saw them see themselves. 




Monday, February 1, 2016

Flying over the date line...

  It poured the last night I spent in Los Angeles. Rained the entire day. 
       The place was awash. Winds came from the ocean and from the mountains, the palm trees dropped their quilled limbs, garbage cans were knocked flat, and dust devils of trash rose above the roofline. The long over-shopped avenues were empty. 
       A Florida gale had come West and by some consent, everyone stayed inside. It was a Sunday without football. The roads not worth clogging. 
      That whole day, weird magic trailed me. 
      At a Venice Starbucks, there was no line. 
      I held the door open for a young couple and... they thanked me. Both of them.
      I went to a bar and everyone said hello and looked me in the eye.
      For over an hour, I left my car at an unpaid beach meter and received no fine. 
  Surely the Gods were for me. 
  Toward sunset and not far from Sunset, I turned onto a Brentwood street and the entire block was covered with pine needles. Long fronds from those expensive cypress trees tonier neighborhoods use to mark their territory. Blown down, end to end, the street was a deep scattered green.
   I drove to Will Rogers Park. The gate was abandoned. The parking was free. I walked up to Inspiration Point, turned my back on the view of the city and the bay, and watched a cyclist descend the green hills 2 miles away. A gold figure floating through the desert brush followed by the bouncing white ball of his dog. Oliver Stone passed me the opposite way with his wife. The horses that always ignore me from their paddock -once they know I have no sweets, no apple, no business telling them to stay- stayed by me and snorted and chewed, and we watched the light go out of the sky. 
    Today, I thought, somebody up there loves me.
    Which was bittersweet, as I’d come to leave. 
    I’d come to quit.
    I'd come back to LA to mail home the last of my stuff. The bike. The Golf clubs. A few suit jackets. Work out clothes. A pile of books. The kindling I’d kept for a life here that I thought might always catch. 
   And now I was done. Left the acting business to take a job in the administration of the City of Pittsburgh. 
    I’d never been to LA not to work. Never been a civilian before. The giant town felt absent. The air wasn’t filled with hope or my potential, it wasn’t filled with the money I might make in the blink of an eye. It was just air. Sweet cool California air the day after a storm.
    Strange. There was no hovering, no practiced waiting, nothing on hold. If I stood on the corner, on the concrete of a random SoCal crossroads, I wasn’t standing there waiting for my agent to call me and say They Loved You. No, I was just standing. I was just me. I was real. 
   Unreal. 
   I got up early the last day to mail out my last box. Crossed thru the park where my gym once was, a patch of grass with chairs stuffed between three office buildings, where I played tennis with a guy from Maine for 10 years, where I could swim in a pool built under the parking structure, under the grass itself and if you stood in a raised corner of the park you could look down thru the heavy glass and watch the swimmers go by. A park which on weekends no one visited, and you could read or write, or watch the inbound jets from Japan or Russia cut across the sharp blue sky their engines powering down. A place that bizarrely for its corporate setting gave me a peace I found nowhere else in LA.
  For the first five years I came here the little park had a resident cat. A small black feral who roamed the landscaping and sometimes hid like a hunter in the trees. A cat even the security guards knew by name and whom the office crowd left food for scattered about the grounds on white plates. 
    I spent five years trying to pet that cat and she never came to me but once. I tried everything, but only once. I was sitting eating a protein bar or some such stupid urban fare and she brushed my arm. I turned, put my hand down and touched her shoulder. Bones like a bird. Hair heavy like a stray’s, a cat that never had her guts out, she didn’t flinch but she didn’t lean into me either and that was it. The gold eyes went back into the grass and she hunkered down. No one I spoke to in all those years ever heard her make a sound. 
  I came back one year after a 6 month stay in New York and her plates were gone. She wasn’t in the book of her favorite tree. I walked in a quiet panic. A security guard who knew me said “Gatto negro, she’s gone now.” I asked “Died? They didn’t move her? Didn’t come capture her for some fucking health thing did they?” He smiled, “No man, she’s just gone.” 
   And now I was going. 
  A woman I know told me not to be sentimental, not to see the process as a loss. I could hear Joe Cotton’s character in the Third Man when they tell him to leave Vienna- “Be sensible Martins and go home.” 
   "I haven’t got a sensible name." he says and tears up the ticket.  
   I wish I had such guts. 
   To get to my friend’s apartment building from the Post office you walk East. I looked up. After a big rain, at the far reach of the avenues of Santa Monica you can see the tops of the Los Angeles mountains 40 miles away. You can see them for a day or two.
    Storm clouds gathered along the peak line of the LA basin. The morning sun turning them into molten gold. The air smelled like the Sierra Nevada. I was 10 blocks from the ocean, smack in the middle of a metropolis with 20 million cars, and inhaling with my eyes closed you coulda told me I was in Yosemite. 
   I love my new job. I love that Pittsburgh owns me. That I belong to a place. I know I was never going to be happy if I didn’t work for some tangible good in the world….lemme rephrase that… I know I'm never really going to be predictably happy no matter what I do so working at something I do know is important makes total sense. 
   But give it all that and still, just walking that distance from a park to an apt in non descript LA , in just those few blocks I could look around me and even in every haggled tree, every overpriced doorway, every narrowed glimpse of the Western sky I could still feel this dreamland’s power all around me. 
  It is astonishing. There’s a city at the end of the road, on the Western shore of a continent, ringed by ragged mountains, on a desert plain without water, with no harbor, a place as motley and mundane as a big box shopping aisle, built by thieves and racists and murderers, who squeezed the American Dream out of every immigrant they could sell a plot of dust to, a City whose history has been tried and convicted more times than not, and still into it pours the dreams and fantasies, the lust and madness, and the incarnate alchemy of the whole fucking human race. No matter how you well see it, no matter how you have it figured out, no matter how clearly you know the game is rigged and the house will win, still you’re gonna feel it in your bones…..anything can happen here…..
   In the end I always reach for Fitzgerald, who reached for something in this town and died trying. That line about the inexhaustible nature of our dreams in the face of all evidence to their contrary. That line about his hero, 
"Through all he said, even through his appalling sentimentImentality I was reminded of something--an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago.   For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted....But they made no sound and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever."
   How odd I feel this way not about a man but about a place. LA. Despite it all, I take my hat off, well fucking done Big City Under the Big Black Sun. 
   Everyone should see it.
   If only to see themselves. 
  
   

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Waving and not drowning.

  I was watching a documentary about FDR, Teddy Roosevelt and Eleanor and I kept noticing the way people waved goodbye back then, in those less selfied days. 
  They'd hold out a hand, palm down and shiver their fingers as if they were practicing piano or shooing something away. Big smile. 
  There's FDR waving to the crowd. He looks like a matron airing out a hankie. Even Teddy. Wave like a sissy and carry a big stick. Only Eleanor looked like she'd take you out with the back of her hand. 
   My dad waved like that. He'd stick his arm straight out and wiggle his fingers at me, smiling and fluttering, as I left for summer camp, after he took me to a party in High School, as he dropped me off my first day at college, smiling even after I'd slept the entire 12 hour trip to Providence, saying nothing to him, driving no share of the way, jammed next to the window because I'd stayed out till 5am with my girlfriend the night before and then lain next to her, us curled like dogs under the dining room table, my gear piled about, waiting for the grownups. 
  He smiled when he said goodbye even after some of our worst fights. Screaming rants, humiliation, brutality meted out in the meager family arena - but give it a few hours, he'd deliver me to where I had to be and he'd smile regardless and wave that wave like it had all been a game, something extraneous and silly to be shooed away, unimportant compared to ....compared to nothing sadly... as there wasn't much else between us beside fighting and waving. A few shared jokes. Some tv shows. We both loved cats. Christmas. The rest was silence. But when he took me to a train or to the airport, he would always wave and he always stood there, waiting, till I had left his sight.
   Synod Hall. Pittsburgh. I was listening to a famous quartet. Old instruments; early versions of a violin, a cello, a flute, and a viola. As one movement began, the Doppler wail of an ambulance sped by on the same note as the music. Harmony between the post-industrial age and the baroque. A duet 400 years in the making. Time folding it's hands around me. 
   Before the concert, I'd sat in a pew in the church next to the Synod. The City's grandest Catholic parish. Walking by, I'd seen the lights on, the inner doors not locked. I entered, crossed myself with some Holy water, which was for sale by the liter, sat down 20 feet from a seriously elaborate Mary surrounded by candles, also for sale, and soon realized that the church was open because it was confession.
   The center of the church, the grand mass under the nave, was nearly empty but directly behind me stood a silent row of the faithful come to petition their Lord. Like they were waiting for their grades from an angry headmaster. 
  The huge space, the candles, a few people praying. Why not? Why not tell them, why not tell Him, what you'd done. What I did. Why not? I thought about it. Just bow your head and tell him, Father, what you'd done. But I was sure I'd be found out, I'd blow my lines, the Protestant in me would protest and I'd get tossed out on my ear. Dad would have approved. Lapsed Catholic that he was, the rituals never got a good word. 
   I did listen. Heard some whispers, some shuffling, the soft click of a well made door, what sounded like a phrase I recognized from somewhere. But I didn't go in. I watched the candles burn down. I breathed in the emptiness and the quiet. A man and his two young sons prayed to Mary, after he explained who Mary was. The one boy staring intently as if she might move, as if there had to be a film about this where he could get the real story.
    The concert was mediocre. The quartet past their prime. The audience clapped for themselves and their good taste, their contribution to Culture in tough old pragmatic Pittsburgh. I watched some music students in the cheap seats trying to be polite. I wanted more - to feel it in my heart, but it didn't happen and I left before the encore. 
    We do that though. We applaud for those who show up. We thank ourselves. We forgive the present with the glories of the past. We attend. Especially around Christmas. We do a lot, we labor at that which in the holiday moment delivers all the thrill of a joke too often told, a story a close friend can't remember's confiding to you again and again. Ritual in this casual world, in our reform age, doesn't pack the punch it used to.
     We ask too much. And we give it no credence.
    We pay no homage.
    I think somewhere along the American line we suddenly decided we deserve all these feelings. That they should come to us upon demand. And when they don't don't, something out there must be wrong, something's missing.
   What's missing is you don't get to call the Gods down from on high when you need them. You don't put your Muse on hold. The Spirit doesn't show up just because you do. Walking in the door and taking your reserved seat isn't enough.
    I don't know why we've come to think it's that easy, inspiration, or when we copped out. And by you of course I mean me. 
    Like the priests and the self help gurus say, on both sides of the socio political aisle, Marriage takes work. Which is a way of saying, Love takes work.
   If you love Shakespeare you gotta read him more than once. A day. You love music, you gotta practice like a person who if they weren't practicing an instrument would be diagnosed autistic. You want the runner's high? Go hurt yourself. The Right Stuff, the Real Thing, the magic doesn't descend around us in the dark, until we work. The Gods don't smile on us until we suffer for them.
   And if you love each other, your family, your friends, your people, and it's the Holiday season....what? What does it take? Suffering and Christmas? 
   After the concert, I walked a little ways to the car in the cold and I thought, what did I leave undone this Holiday season and who did I forget to tell?
   My father's dead now half a decade. He can't tell me. He never could.
    I wave at the parents of a woman I almost married. I nod at people that recognize me or I went to grade school with, I can't tell the difference anymore. 
    Blocks from the theater my truck's parked across the way from a bicycle chained to a street light. Painted pure white. A girl died here. Run over by a commuter anxious to get home. She died on the pavement and her friends and family built this ghost sculpture. Its wheels lit by strips of tiny lavender bulbs. 
     I drive home on streets I could close my eyes thru. The last Christmas lights have come down. Collectively, homeowners deciding a fortnight was the limit. God, how dim and grey everything seems. How cleared out. The deep blue black of the City landscape regaining its hold on the shadows. 
    I must love the season. For a month or so, collectively we all lean toward worship, or kindness, or whatever keeps us from killing each other. And then it's the long climb toward Summer. It's like being dropped out in the ocean where you can't see the shore and being told, "Swim.That way. Have faith."
 
 

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Like the night

   "She walks in beauty like the night
of cloudless climes and starry skies
and all that's best of dark and bright
meet in her aspect and her eyes,
thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies."

      Most of my life I've asked why is this poem a great poem? It's a sledge hammer, it's a stack of cliches, with a ten year old's rhyme scheme it's as gaudy as its accusation toward day. It ends two lines late.
   Heck, it was the product of an all-nighter..
  "He wrote that ...coming home from a party."
   Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. The first play I ever did. I listened to the poem or at least this piece of it spoken every night for a month.
  I kept telling myself, "It's clunky. It thumps. It's awkward. Why this one?" Why this one in a language, a literature, filled to the brim with love poems?
   I watched the twin towers fall 14 years ago. I walked in their rubble. The air that week was filled with the atomized spray of some 3000 people - the detonation of two of mankind's most gigantic gestures. Our folly.
   Last night I watched The Walk, a Hollywood take on Phillipe Petit's high wire crossing between the North and the South tower in 1974.
   It's a thumpy movie. It's a stack of cliches. It's gaudy and it plays with your heart strings like a ten year old would.
   But when I saw them again, when I saw them standing there, full, finished, shining and perfect in that awful way that they did double perfection, I nearly wept.
  I don't know if we freeze the time, the part of our life we remember before trauma, that we choose to privilege, we freeze it and we leave it there forever, before the event. So it someday can be returned to or so that some part of us remains untainted, unhurt by what happened next. But watching, I knew myself back then. I could feel myself out over the void that was coming, that's still there, still waiting, alive and young and reckless in New York at the turn of the Millennium.
   When I saw the towers standing again, the actors touching the stainless metal, I was breathless - unhooked into an emotional vertigo- happily shocked and in love again with something that no longer existed, that had turned to dust, and that maybe never was more than an awkward couple of buildings you had to cast your hopes across to make better.
   But so many things exist simply in experience. They can be spoken of but not evoked. Not made true. Like a song, or a film, or a poem.
  This man walked across two buildings and made them one beautiful enough thing. Him and the New Yorkers who didn't arrest him, and the few hundred on the ground who bore witness to something far rarer than even a man walking on the moon. They made those two giant silver boxes into something graceful. Some thing worth all that work.
    My brother's been dead for 4 years. I ask for the simplest of things. That he haunt me. That he wake me from my sleep, or track me down, or scream at me when I'm foolish. From somewhere.
  I believe in the simplest of ideas, of the cliche of a ghost, of wisdom from beyond the grave, something a young boy would want from an absent parent. Some impossible crossing between the world of the living and the wordless dead.
  "Of cloudless climes and starry skies.."
  He wrote that coming home from a party.
   About a young woman, his cousin I think she was who he'd seen dressed in mourning. "And all that's best of dark and bright." She's been dead and buried in an English courtyard for a hundred and forty years. The raven tresses, the liquid eyes, her walk, her clouded face, what her voice must have been to the ear. All, dust in the earth for a century and a half.
   And yet.
   "All that's best and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes" and every time I hear that poem, bussed by it, I can feel that night's cold air, the kind of chill the dark can have in the country when there's an empty sky and the stars seem to suck the heat out of the ground. In six lines. Six lines laid down with a hammer.
  The real. A poem. Two towering staring metal ghosts. The space my brother left. It's all so astonishing. Incredible we go on daily living the lockstep lives we lead. The endless feeding, the lists, the half felt duty, the pallid day after pallid days.
  There's a light outside my window.
  It's a 70 foot flame spit out by the steel mill across the street. A building that probably contains the combustive force of an atomic bomb. The flame. I can read by it in a pitch black room. Just the mill blowing off steam.
   Byron dashing off immortality before daybreak.
  A million and a half tons of metal there and then not there and then there again.
  My brother in the corner of my eye chasing me, chasing me until I'll stop.

 
   

   

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

March 7. Storm Large and Thomas Lauderdale of Pink Martini. Pittsburgh



     Hey folks who read this: My friend and neighbor and the actual Mayor of the town I live in, John Fetterman is running for US Senate.
   Please spread the word among your multi self media platforms and Facebook libraries : there's a benefit concert for John: Monday March 7 in PGH. Club Diesel on the South Side. 7pm.
   The lead singer of Pink Martini, Storm Large, and the band's founder and resident prodigy Thomas Lauderdale will play that night to raise some cash for John's campaign.
 
   Fetterman. He's the guy saying crazy radical things like "We need to legislate for working and middle class people." Not "Let's ID all the Muslims in America" or "Let's carpet bomb Iran." IE someone on the Dem side is ready to play politics but with intelligence and empathy rather than sound bite antipathy.
   I'm personally sick of right wing cowards talking about exclusion and "wealth creators."  I wanna see a 6'-8" street working, Harvard grad who put his money, his family, and his reputation where his mouth is (that sounds little strange but..) I wanna hear this guy on the floor of the US Senate talk about what we can do FOR each other.
  John's the Western PA response to Cruz and Trump and Rubio. They aren't America, they don't speak for the heart of this country. They stand for fear, John talks about hope. Moreso he talks common sense and he talks honest results. Wanna upset a demagogue? Make him give you a quantifiable example. Make him describe policy. John does that. He'll go toe to toe with these punks who rant about defending America but who could care less that 80% of the population ends up paying for their anger.
  Democrat, Republican, honestly in Pittsburgh it shouldn't matter. We all lived through the economic catastrophe that was the 70s and 80s or we grew up in its aftermath - there's an economic intelligence ingrained in Pghers - we know how the machine worked us and we want to make sure it never happens again.
  We're also fundamentally decent people and we don't abide the cruelty and plain discrimination being expressed by the Right. If there's hope for a new Republican party it should be born here. The legacy of Elsie Hillman and John Heinz wouldn't allow otherwise.
  So join hands folks - come to Diesel and see Storm Large the chanteuse powerhouse and theatrical bombshell play with her Pink Martini impresario and musical genius Thomas Lauderdale.
   They're coming to do a benefit concert Monday March 7th at 7pm on the South Side at Diesel. They're brilliant , they rock the stage, they purr, they'll move you to tears, and they give a damn. They  have both worked for various political and personal projects in their hometown of Portland Oregon and when they heard about John's work and his campaign they immediately volunteered their time and talent.
  Come see and hear two amazing musicians, and help out a remarkable guy.
 
Storm and Thomas L -" Brasil"

Monday, December 28, 2015

Heartland

   I looked deep into my heart last week. 
   It beats at an odd rhythm. Thump, tap tap, thump, tap tap.
   It works fine when I'm resting or when I'm working out but the everyday beat is uneven. It stutters. It plays around. 
   I had some tests done. 
   The MD told me, "Well, if you do die from it it'll be fast so...there's that." 
    Just keep riding your bike, was his parting advice. Your heart's a champ when you're sweating.
    Normal life is killing me was the message. 
    Trussed up like Da Vinci's akimbo man - tape and wires hanging between my chest and the machine. I was a health care marionette. 
   I stood , I sat , I laid down, I ran on a tread mill and then they took that thing they run across a pregnant woman's belly and filmed my heart with sound. Sonared my chest. 
   And there it was. The little muscle that's kept me alive for half a century. Pumping away. An oblong shape jumping at every beat. That motion when someone surprises you- that full body jerk you make when you leap back from sleep - that's what a heart does - and when it's going at 180 beats per minute the saying "Nearly lept out of my chest" no longer seems like an idiom.
   Every step I've taken. The days I spent grousing in Edgewood grade school, fused to the chair in Ms Jozwiak's class, the long beautiful Ohio summers, the dark incredible years in New England, the decades sprinting between New York and LA. Each minute inside that pathetic personal immensity my heart was pumping inside me. The same song every day, every hour down to the minute.
   In the sonogram what struck me most was the not the heart's wafer thin walls  but its bird-like finger valves opening and closing, tapping away like feathered drumsticks, letting the blood run from chamber to chamber. It doesn't even look like a "process"- it's a dance, a stream barely regulated. I've never seen such efficiency. 
   Your life rushes through you and your heart keeps the time. Keeps it from overflowing. Or stopping dead. It is the time. Your time. 
   Your life as a single muscle. Stunning to stare at on a screen, cut in half like a house you're wondering should I build it or not, a cross section. A four room fixer upper.  
  I wanted to give it a name. Reach out and pet it like I would an eager dog, a happy horse who had carried me for a hours. I stared. It couldn't possibly be me but really is me more than my imagination or the bag of ideas I call my soul. 
  There I was. A nameless, blind blob, eager and working in the dark, bobbing away like a mad legless gerbil .....there I am. David Conrad. 
   Inconceivable machine. One that never rests. Amazing we live as long as we do.
  Every one of us with the same inner badass. 
  I laughed. I wanted to hug the little guy.
  I guess I kinda do, every day. 
   Now I lay me down to sleep...
   And wake up in 2016. Another decade making the turn and heading home. 
    
   
    
   

Monday, December 14, 2015

the train to Harper's Ferry

  The train from NYC to Pittsburgh costs almost 400 bucks. The train from DC to Pgh costs 150 and you get a private room.
   Union Station, just a few blocks from the Capitol, is one of the most beautiful structures in the country. I imagine the old days. House members and maybe even a Senator walking the distance and hopping on a train home, their term complete.
  When DC was said to be a quiet town and politicians spent as much time in the State they represented as the place they made their name.
   Now DC seems to me more like the Kremlin I saw once when I was 17 or Wonka's factory behind the walls. No one ever goes in. No one ever comes out. Or to tell the truth, like a Steel Mill, like the one I live next to in Pittsburgh- in all the years I've spent in my hometown only once have I seen an employee walk thru the gates.
   The 4:15 to Chicago. I had an empty room. A thin thing- two seats faced each other,  a drop down bed, a sliding door with a curtain that velcro'd to the aluminum threshold.
   My window was huge but the sun had almost set by the time we cleared the Maryland suburbs and by the time we crossed the Potomac at Harper's Ferry it was dark and I had to imagine the old town; period houses preserved from falling down its hillside to the warehouses and shops where Lee had once commanded a garrison and John Brown had tried to end the Civil War before it began.
   I thought of two things.
   1) We. Traveling by train is always we. You're part of a troop, a continuum, a gathering of emigrants leaving one place, finding another but always welded to the ground. The rails deliver you or they take you away but you are always home. You're in America.
  Trains I think are mechanical metaphors for the best of the States, the best we ever did. Yes, rail travel and the Railroads brought the murderous wealth of the Eastern States across the continent and helped burn and bury the Native tribes. That's for sure.
   But they also literally became the skeleton for a nation that was previously only an idea. They let us make it flesh. They were Will incarnate. They were the sound of hope for generations of American kids trapped in tiny towns across Middle West and the Plains. When Fitzgerald talks about the dark fields of the republic rolling on under the night, his wild dreams rolled across them by train.
  Maybe I was born in the wrong century under the wrong star but to this day I can't think of anything more elementally astonishing than a full locomotive roaring by pulling a half mile of metal. Not planes, not movies, not a cruise ship spinning on its 1000 foot axis to dock on the Hudson, not anything made by humankind shakes me the same way.
  My family on both sides worked for a Railroad that at the peak of its strength had more employees than the federal government. I can't help but feel that I belong to them, the rail yards and the old stations and the dying men sitting in little museums up and down the East coast telling the occasional visitor how these mammoth furnaces on wheels once worked.
  The second thing I thought as I crossed the Potomac was that, soon enough, we're going to have a battle on our hands. Because a new Civil War, started in the imagination of extremists on both sides, is going to raise up a new Cloudsplitter, a new John Brown for whom the only solution to America's deep sins is more violence.
  This is what I see-
   And before I tell you what I see, let me say that I own a gun.
   I wish I owned several more.
   My father had 8 guns in the house, two of which were rare and beautiful family heirlooms that I wish I had been able to save. My brothers sold them when he died, emblems they claimed of a culture they wanted no part of.
  I shoot skeet and trap and sporting clays. A Pennsylvanian, I've of course gone deer hunting. I've shot grouse and pheasant and I tried once to shoot a turkey. (It didn't go well.)
  I have more than a few friends -some veterans, some not- who hunt regularly, who own multiple weapons, and who can strip, rebuild and repair them like you'd clear a pencil sharpener.
   They lock their weapons away. They separate the ammunition stores from the gun. They pay copious license fees to hunt where they hunt- fees that make up the majority of the money raised to maintain the State Forests of Western PA.
    That said, I believe resistance to increased Gun Control legislation is more than a tragedy. I believe it's criminal. As a nation, as a people, I think we are responsible for every mass shooting, every gun death - we have the blood on our hands, our souls really- until we change our laws.
    No true hunter needs an assault rifle. Most hunters I know pride themselves on Robert DeNiro's mandate in The Deer Hunter- one shot. You should be able to kill a deer or an elk or a bear with one shot, if you know what you're doing. Hunters train themselves to do so. They train their sons and daughters. And mostly, they treat the weapon with the utmost respect, always treat it as loaded, know its every part and tooling, learn to strip it cleanly, learn to kill cleanly and use as much of the animal as you can.
   I see nothing wrong with this. There's no intrinsic evil here, just a choice. Cattle farming is more deadly, more disruptive to the environment, than hunting.
   But, none of this lifestyle, this gun culture requires unlimited liberty. This life can continue with NO change even if we demand stricter registration and purchasing laws.
   What would change is the body count. Plain and simple.
   It's simple statistics- change the laws, fewer people by a factor of ten are murdered.
  When these laws are changed does it mean you can't buy almost any gun known to mankind? No. Does it mean the government is going to come and take your weapons? No.
  All it means is you're going to be required to pass some tests that you, as a responsible American, would already pass. All it means is your unfettered liberty is now slightly ( and not even "well") regulated. Within reason.
   I frankly don't care what the framers of the constitution meant in their 18th century minds when they wrote the second amendment. They were fine with slavery. They had no inkling women should vote. I can handle that they may have not been able to foresee the future.
   No original intent, no abstract notion of Americanness or liberty or freedom is worth thousands of deaths. Nothing is worth it.
  But that's just me. And I'll argue this all day. Hell, I'll argue it at a gun range with my radical republican friends, some of whom were Navy Seals. And then we'll hug and go home. Usually.
  But that's not what came into my mind as I crossed the Potomac.
  What I saw was this.
  There's going to be another John Brown.
  There's someone out there. A man who saw his kids or his neighbors gunned down in an Amish church, or in a grade school in Connecticut, or his wife killed in a VA Tech classroom, or one of his co workers blown across a wall by an AR-15 held 2 feet from her chest in a Municipal office in San Bernadino, there's a guy out there, or maybe even a woman who's watched this madness up close, or maybe only watched it play out again and again on the tv as people look the camera straight in the eye and say "If we put more money into mental health this would all end"- this person is going to go and buy a gun, and train themselves how to use it and then they're going to walk into the government office of a Representative who got an A from the NRA, or they're going to walk into an NRA meeting itself, or a gun store, or a shooting range, and they're going to kill a few people.
  Maybe hold some hostages, maybe live long enough to say, "This is how the fires come back , this is the circle of justice, this is what your laws bring you." And gun down the gunners.
  I hope I'm wrong. It's everything each lunatic fringe would love to see happen.
   For a long time slavery was something abolitionists prayed would end. They spoke eloquently that an enlightened nation should legislate it out of existence. The met, they organized, they asked for sanctions, they abhorred what they felt was a culture of violence, a civilization built on human cost.
   And then one day one of them, John Brown, got up and was willing to kill people to end it. He watched his own son die as he tried to start an insurrection to stop it.
  Most people, abolitionists included, called him a madman, a radical extremist.
   His last words were, "I am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had as I now think vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done."
   Under the dark hillside where he was cornered more than a century and a half ago, as the steel behemoth taking me home crawled into the trees, I thought- he's out there now, he exists, he's been brought up by what we've left undone in this country.
   God help us.