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.