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?
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.