Please enjoy this post where I tell you a story about an event from my life. Nothing more, nothing less. Today’s story: A series of vignettes in Pittsburgh.
The first time I take a bus in Pittsburgh it’s the first week of college. Everything in this city is new but buses are the same everywhere I assure myself. The bus chimes to a stop but when I step forward to exit, the door slams shut and I turn to look at the driver. “You didn’t say the magic words” he tells me. My blood runs cold. I don’t want to be murdered in Pittsburgh by a bus driver.
“Please?” I manage to squeak out. He stares at me for the entire five seconds it takes for me to realize he wants me to say ‘thank you’.
I don’t know why this happens but this exact scenario plays out again dozens of times during my four years in Pittsburgh.
I don’t get murdered even once.
Walking to work on a warm summer morning and I hear the tale tell huffing and puffing of a runner through my headphones. Looking back there is a woman in a tracksuit coming down the block. Her arms are swinging exaggeratedly and she is holding not one, but two water bottles. One in each hand. Swinging them hard from her sides. I ignore her but she comes up on my right side quickly.
Her arms flail out and she smacks me right in the face with one of the water bottles. Instinct overruns me and the New Yorker bursts from my throat “I’m walkin’ here!”. Her muscles tense as she runs away from me at top speed. That’s right, you better run!
It’s 1 am and there’s six of us rolling around in the streets of Pittsburgh after an event on campus and nothing is open. Not even the supermarket is open. Where I’m from even the Home Depot is open 24 hours.
So that’s how we find ourselves at Eat’n’Park in Squirrel Hill. It is a long running joke that there is always Eat’n’Park. And it’s true. There always is.
Eat’n’Park is a shadow of a 24 hour diner. It’s the cheap knockoff of a designer product. I stab at my pancakes and wonder if Pittsburgh is trying to personally frustrate me.
It’s a no good very bad day of my first summer in Pittsburgh. I had found enough change in the couch cushions to buy bread. Accomplishing this mission should have felt good but going home to Austin with a loaf of bread and no dignity isn’t that easy. As I turn onto the street with our apartment it starts to rain. I hold the bread close to my body and realize a dark secret, I am free. I can leave my life at any time. Now is any time.
The bread and I board several buses and make it all the way to Mount Washington before turning around.
Austin doesn’t bother to ask why it took three hours to buy a loaf of bread.
It’s a tough situation my friend is in. We go to the paint your own pottery shop. Something to do with your hands while your mouth runs, something to make so it doesn’t feel like you’re just a bag of slowly breaking parts.
We’re allowed to use the pencil to sketch on the pottery before we commit to painting the glaze on. There’s so much pencil on my piece. I assure my friend that life will be different soon, that things change, then I curse about how much pencil is on my plate.
The woman behind the counter says “It’s okay, it’ll burn off in the kiln.”
I feel enlightened, all our worries are so temporary and they’ll be burned up when we die. It’s such good life advice it takes me a long moment to realize that she means the pencil markings instead.
I love the Strip. It’s an endless mobius of small shops, mainly specialty shops that make you feel like you’re in a bustling metropolis instead of a hollowed out shell city long past its prime.
The Chinese grocer is always chock full of fresh fruit and vegetables. Sample pieces are cut open and arranged artfully in an enticing display. Today there is a box of kiwis for $3, the box has more than a dozen kiwis in it. It’s an outrageous deal. We each pony up a dollar. We don’t yet know that if you eat too many kiwis you get acid burns in your mouth.
It’s my second to last day in Pittsburgh. I walk out to collect my car from the street and I’m greeted with an empty space. The entire street has been completely cleared of cars, a cheerful sign telling us that road work is being done on this street everyone’s car was towed.
There was no sign the night before, no indication that parking wasn’t allowed on this block. It costs $480 to free my car and the man at the lot confirms that several people have the same complaint from the same street.
The city of Pittsburgh won’t even let me protest the ticket unless I show up in person and by the time I get that information, I’m 2400 miles away.
The phrase “uphill both ways” was invented in Pittsburgh. I don’t have any proof of this but I know it’s true because everywhere you walk in this city is uphill both ways. I walk uphill both ways to work. I walk uphill both ways to the house. I even walk uphill both ways to class. My entire life is uphill.
When someone tells me there is a street by the university nicknamed “Heart Attack Hill” I instantly know which one it is – I walked uphill both ways on that street to class one semester, it felt like dying every time.
Two years later, I find out I’m wrong. The next street over is the real Heart Attack Hill, the hill I have been climbing is simply a street. Isn’t that just life?
They tell me that Pittsburgh is prepared for snow. The university never closes because it’s so common. I leave the house at 4:25am to catch the bus for work and already the snow is falling thick and heavy. I stare out the window of the library as the snow piles up and no one shows up. It’s still and quiet.
At 9am they cancel all classes. By 10am the transit authority has cancelled all the buses too. When work ends I have no choice but to walk the entire three miles home. It is so cold and arduous that when cars pass me I hope they take pity and pick me up but they don’t and the normally 45 minutes walk takes me 3 full hours.
I work in many of the building around campus and they’re all their own type of charming. There is the haunted elevator in David Lawrence, whose buttons would look just as home covered in blood. The brutalist face of Hillman Library, imposing but so blocky it almost looks boring. The student union, an 1890s hotel with ornate rooms used only to store extra chairs or tables. The multi-story battery shaped dorms of Towers, the imposingly tall Cathedral of Learning whose first floor has echos of Hogwarts, but whose outside calls back to the roaring 20’s.
And then there is Posvar Hall. Posvar is an ugly twisted monster of a building, its floors full of strange gaping holes. Empty spaces pool inside of it, filled by nothing, used for nothing. A waste. But it’s my favorite because there’s a piece of art hanging inside. It’s a glass and metal work hung high from the third floor looming over the people on the first floor. It is all angles and sharp, pointed bars. Every day I stand under it with open arms hoping it will fall on me. Hoping that its spikes and its shine will absolve me.
The Pittsburgh accent is something to behold. There are strange new sounds to learn and funny new contractions. There is a new lexicon, working class shorthands, shifted vowels, and expressions of joy I can’t understand.
But most of all, there are no real questions – only statements.
“You’re depressed” she asks me in the distinctly Pittsburgh flat intonation. It’s a question but it really isn’t. Anyone else would have asked it but in this moment it just sounds like she’s telling me something she already knows.
Maybe when there are no questions it’s easier to accept things as they are.
I go to work in the dark but before that, if there’s enough money to rub together, I go to the deli. I like bagels with egg and cheese. I like drinking hot tea in an empty cafe. I like the quiet. I like that they know my name but they also know me enough not to use it.
It’s better in the winter because it’s almost always empty but it’s fine if there’s a few people there too. Either way I like the steadiness of my routine. This is one of my only treats that I afford myself. And it’s a good one.
Curling my hands around my take away cup of tea I know I’ll get out of here soon. Hell, I might even miss this place when I’m gone.