I try not to lie, but one of the lies I find myself consistently telling people is that I once lived in Pittsburgh. I’ve nearly talked myself into believing it, too. I don’t have much foundation for saying this. I haven’t been there for fifteen years. Between 2001 and 2003, I went to Pittsburgh probably three times altogether. Knowing other people that lived there, I never had to learn my way around. I just followed them and hardly ever knew where I was in relation to anything else. Nothing significant ever happened to me there. I was just observing. But, it’s exactly this lack of significance that makes my memories of Pittsburgh mundane enough to believe I lived there. Visiting a place, you do things, see the sights, take pictures, but since Pittsburgh was the first place I ever went on my own, I had no idea I should be doing these things and spent all my time sitting on porches smoking cheap Pennsylvania cigarettes watching he summer evaporate on the uneven concrete slabs of the sidewalk.
I remember the first trip down the best and even those memories are hollowed out by a sense of routine. Matt and Josh were living in a squat on Chesterfield Street, which was a bricked street back then—maybe it still is. A flight of lumpy bricks, improbably lifting off the main street below and shaking up into the hills like a large, ungainly bird taking flight. At the bottom of the street, there was a bus stop and a decommissioned blue post office box on it’s side which people waiting for the bus sometimes sat on like a bench. As the street rose, the neighborhood must’ve gotten worse. Boards replaced windows and the lumpy street was covered in the fractured gleam of broken bottles. I don’t remember ever going up there but I remember the brilliancy of the broken glass shining up there in the morning when the sun lit up the top of the hill.
One night, we went to a party across the bridge and some other time we went downtown to see a band, but mainly, when I think of Pittsburgh, I remember sitting on that porch on Chesterfield Street, overlooking that sagging brick hill, the mailbox on its side and the people hanging around the bus stop; watching the city life go by below. It was like the first day of a class where you’re suddenly exposed to all these new people, without being introduced and, to get to know them, you have to find your way to meeting them, one at a time, but rather than people, it was things and places I had yet to meet.
I’d graduated from high school earlier that summer and I was finally free from constraint, but, now that I had no obligations, I had more time to think and all the thoughts I was producing were beginning to take on tragic aspects. So, I walked around, trying to dispel the guilt that seemed to be calcifying inside me like a gallstone. I went into cafes and parks and read and thought and wrote. My efforts weren’t leading to anything comprehensible, but it felt good to try to keep track of myself for once. There didn’t seem to be anything to do after high school but find a place in the world, which was really already done. Pay the rent, buy food, work, it wasn’t difficult. It was finding a place in myself that I didn’t understand.
I was reading a lot of Dostoevsky and when I was looking for a place in myself, I started doing what I called the ‘Nevsky Prospekt Promenade.’ This was an aimless, but intensely introspective walk, usually in a crowded place, caffeine-fueled. Back in Michigan, I’d been forced to Promenade in the malls, walking from Applebee’s to the B. Dalton Books, muttering to myself, trying to look beatific at the same time. In Pittsburgh, I found it was a little easier to imitate the narrator from Notes from Underground. There were a lot more people, everything was shabbier and I was living in a basement.
In early July, Bretton, Ryan and I left Michigan on a hot, still afternoon and listened to Bretton’s old tapes the whole way down. Too young to realize that the best part of the trip is when you leave town, we squandered it complaining about a friend of ours who could never seem to get things together. He was supposed to come with us, but, when we’d arrived he complained he didn’t have any money and refused to leave his place on the porch. We drove southeast, going under Detroit, towards Cleveland. Operation Ivy piped out of the speakers, drown out by the noise and wind of the highway. On the horizon, the flat, wooded landscape of southern Michigan melting together in the heat.
Coming out of the Liberty Tunnel that evening, the city thrust itself up from the river valley and went climbing up the hillsides. It looked bigger than any city I’d ever seen because it was all there at once and immediately we began our descent into the Allegheny, dropping down among the buildings and getting lost in the sunken streets which funneled us across the bridge. We drove until we reached the foot of Chesterfield where we angled the car up the impossibly steep hillside street and jumped out yelling before we’d even finished parking. We said our hellos, accepted beers, lit cigarettes and immediately fell into the lassitude of the place, sprawling out on the sagging porch, crashing into the broken couch; we took our places as if we were at home.
No one paid rent on the house on Chesterfield, but it was connected to utilities like water, gas and light. Some kind of deal had been worked out, but no one seemed to know what it was. There were a few people living there, coming and going. Among them my friend Matt and another guy from Michigan, Josh, who I’d met a handful of times. Hanging out with them that summer was the first time I had no obligations, no curfews, no check-in phone calls to make. I was an adult, doing adult things—if they can be called that. Sitting on that porch, talking about bands or graffiti writers, I was profoundly aware that I never had to go home again. This lent the world below, at the bottom of the street a new allure. I could be just as much a part of it as anyone else. We’d only just arrived, but I was anxious to see what else was in the neighborhood. It seemed like the whole world was out there.
After bullshitting on the porch for an hour or so, Matt and I went down to the corner store. It was the late twilight that only occurs in the summer, where thin bands of violet, gray and dark blue sit on the horizon, projecting screens of faded daylight onto west-facing walls and tree branches. The streetlights cast long shadows over this faltering light and after a few beers, the result was fuzzy and pleasant. As we walked, I took in the detail of the neighborhood, trying to focus on landmarks here and there, but I was consumed by the little differences, the minutiae of newness. A piece of graffito, an advertisement for Pyramid cigarettes, a port-a-potty, a newspaper rack, the headlines announcing the beginning of a manhunt for a little girl who had been missing for over 24 hours. Pittsburgh sits down in a bowl and looking up, I could see that hills that crowded the city, dotted with sporadic lights and beyond them, forests, coal mining regions, Appalachia—a wilderness to be lost in. I mentioned the lost little girl to Matt. It was the first he’d heard of it, but he shook his head, like the conclusion was foregone. We got lost in discussion and I’d forgotten to pay any attention to where we were. I walked alongside Matt, letting myself be led through the unfamiliar streets until we came back to Chesterfield and I could hear the voices of my friends above the clank of bottles and the snick of lighters.
The middle of that summer was murky and humid, like a greasy depression in the middle of a paper plate. After being in town a few days, we began to fall into a routine of sitting on the porch throughout the day, putting activity off until the evening when it would be cooler. Sinking into the gritty couch, smoking cheap cigarettes, drinking half-gallons of sweet tea and beer when it was around, things I had thought to understand were gradually being lost to the haze of too many hot, still Pittsburgh afternoons. My brain felt like it was evaporating in the beery haze, burning off like something I’d consumed the night before, leaving nothing but a residue of misplaced purpose. I meant to go off and explore, but something was always about to happen. There was a lot of waiting. In the evenings, people came over. People left. People I’d never met emerged from somewhere in the house and walked out into the night, down the declining row of streetlights to the main streets without saying a word. I had no idea how many people lived in the house. Some were only temporary or part-time residents. Some had girlfriends they stayed with part of the time. At the end of the day, when we’d been planning to leave, people came from the surrounding neighborhood to hang out on the porch. Paper bags unrolled, bottles clanked and a plume of cigarette smoke went up and hung around the ceiling, weighed down by the humidity in the air. We drank and coughed through it well into the night. Sometimes, I’d step off the porch to pee or something and see this unified whole of smoke, broken furniture and bodies wriggling along, whipping itself into a frenzy or sinking down on its haunches at the end of the night. By the morning, it would be gone, burnt off by the heat of the sun, leaving bottles and overflowing ashtrays. And we’d be there again, flipping through books, drawing on paper bags, planning on leaving, on exploring the city later in the day, after the sun went down.
Around noon, when the heat made even the porch intolerable, I’d go down to the corner store, listening to the smoke crinkle in the threads of my unwashed clothes as I walked, trying at once to clear my head and to ignore the thoughts that told me this was all the freedom the world had to offer. That the porch on Chesterfield was really all I had been missing when I was a kid and had to go home. Now, I could stay as long as I wanted, but, was there anything worth staying for? Consumed by these thoughts, I’d blunder into the air-conditioned, orderly world of the corner store, buy my stale coffee and stop at the newspaper rack to check the story about the lost little girl. Day 2 or 3. Girl still missing. Manhunt extended. Following the story was something as new to me as the dull freedoms of Chesterfield Street. I had never followed anything happening in the newspaper, but each day, I did the Nevsky Prospekt Promenade down to this place, to the coffee and to the headlines. As I walked back, I thought about the little girl and looked up into the hills. Was she in a place where she could see the distant haze of the lights of the city at night? What did she do all day? Wait out the heat in one place or try to find her way out? I know they say when you’re lost to stay in one place, but I can’t imagine anyone being patient enough to do it.
The main reason I’d gone to Pittsburgh was to see Matt who’d moved away after finishing high school a year ahead of me. It had drastically changed my outlook my last year in school to have a friend in another state. When his letters came, I left the envelopes laying around so people would see the Pittsburgh, PA under his name. When I wrote back, I wrote the city as prominently as his name, like they were of equal importance. In the letters I received in reply, there were allusions to crazy parties, new bands, basement shows, girls and graffiti—which was usually sketched on the borders of the letter: tags and throws in confident strokes of a permanent marker. They were exiting letters and they crowded my imagination with nights spend wide awake in a large city, jumping turnstiles, while simultaneously puffing a cigarette and tagging the wall. To a 17 year-old who’d invested everything into friends and goodtimes, the vision was a rhapsody.
At night, from a pile of mattresses in the basement of the squat on Chesterfield, I remembered the thoughts of that high school kid and tried to match them to the reality. The heat in the basement was so stifling it had a presence, like it was something else in the room, something sentient and pervasive. There was only one naked lightbulb directly above my face. It was the type of basement that would be pitch dark even in the day and the only lightswitch was all the way across the room, at the top of the stairs. To turn it off and descend into the darkness seemed counter-intuitive, so I left it on, burning over me throughout the night, hanging humid basement shadows in strange contortions on the walls, over the piles of junk. It reeked of long established colonies of mold, probably in the walls, growing in tropical profusion in bushy green masses. The heat combined with the light made me feel like a drunk sprawled out unconscious on the burning sidewalk, which, in some perverse way, made it easier to get to sleep. Drifting off in the humid consciousness of all that trapped heat, I tried to reconcile my visions of independent life with what I was finding and realized that I must be doing something wrong to come up with such a disconnect between the two, but in the heavy, reeking atmosphere, I couldn’t understand what it could be.
Routine, more than anything, made me feel like I was living in Pittsburgh. After a few mornings, I was habituated to waking up under the still burning lightbulb, staggering up the stairs into the living room, which actually felt cool by comparison. Pushing aside the wreckage of the previous night, I’d open the door to the cataclysm of the beer bottled porch and the low morning sun spearing the improvised ashtrays and crumbled paper bags with dusty shafts of green and brown light. The morning walk to the corner store was the only time of day I was alone and lucid. I walked with a firm step, confident that something would come of the day; that today, the racing adventure which seemed to be playing out just beyond the confines of the porch would finally climb the littered bricks of Chesterfield Street, envelop us and break us loose from the padded moorings of the old, threadbare couch and milk crate tables.
Down at the corner store, the newspaper rack kept a running tally of how long they’d been looking and out in the street, posters had appeared. The posters had a desperate approach. They asked if anyone had any information. The word ‘any’ was used liberally enough to look like desperation. In every line of text, there was at least one ‘any’.
At the beginning, I had imagined the little girl, like any little girl, neat hair, pigtails, barrettes, big grin, missing front tooth just sitting calmly in the woods, but as the days went by, I imagined her hair more disheveled, her jumper smeared with dirt, maybe a shoe missing. Instead of glancing at the headlines, I’d begun to read the rest of the story I could without buying the paper and opening it up. I’d stand there holding my coffee in one hand, the front page in the other, talking to the pictures, which seemed to be getting bigger each day. “C’mon, little girl,” I exhorted her, under my breath to find her way back home. “C’mon little girl,” I whispered between sips. “We’re all down here. You can see the light at night. Come down here. Follow these crazy streets down to where we’re all waiting.”
At night, more and more often, I was leaving the porch and looking up the street. Matt, Bretton or Ryan would follow me and ask if I was alright, thinking I had just had too much to drink. I wanted to tell them about the girl, but, I couldn’t think of a way to do it without sounding mawkish. At night, it just never seemed like a good time to talk about it and we went back to the noise and smoke of the porch together and I tried to forget it, because I knew, that maybe, I didn’t care as much as I’d told myself I did. Maybe, I was just trying too hard to be a Dostoevsky character.
One morning, I came back from getting my coffee and reading the latest about the lost girl and found everyone up and moving around, a little more excited the usual. I could see something resolute had been going on. Ryan told me that they’d decided to leave the next day. “There’s nothing to do here. We’re sick of sitting around.” I agreed and when Matt woke up, I told him. He lit a cigarette and said “I’m just glad you got to come down, dude.”
We were all getting ready to settle into the couches and the milk crates again when Bretton declared that she was hungry and that we should all go out and get something to eat. Matt agreed. “Yeah, we cold go to Chinatown and get something to cook back here. You could see a little more of the city before you go.” Now that our time in Pittsburgh was limited, we all became more enthusiastic. We were no longer facing down some nebulous period of time sunk into the couches walking to the corner store and back. Suddenly, we were here, in Pittsburgh and it was exciting again. We became visitors and we got back in the car to visit Chinatown.
We ended up down by the river, with the highways we needed to merge onto crossing over us, as distant as jet trails in the sky. Matt never drove, so he had no idea how to give directions without crossing medians and opposing one-way traffic. After driving along the river a while we found our way out from under the tangle of bridges and ramps by following signs and ended up in Chinatown.
As there was never any substantial Chinese migration to the interior of the country, the hinterland Chinatowns are nothing like their coastal companions. There are no lacquered wooden gates, no street signs in Mandarin, no leagues of Chinese grandmas standing in food bank lines holding folded reusable bags behind their packs, no chainsmoking men slapping mahjong tiles down in from of a steaming teahouse. No. The Chinatowns in places like Pittsburgh, Chicago and St. Louis are—or even were, in the case of St. Louis—dusty outposts of the Chinese community; a few shops, some old signs and a handful of quiet residents who would be bewildered to learn San Francisco’s Chinatown has it’s own library and community college. In Pittsburgh, Chinatown was a dusty relic, not a living neighborhood.
We bounded into the quiet neighborhood, reviving an exuberance for life that had seemed out of place on the porch on Chesterfield. The otherness of this brittle Chinatown made it feel like an attraction of some kind. We raced down the sidewalk and yelled after each other, like kids. We dropped all pretense and began to enjoy our lack of responsibility, perhaps in contrast to the drudgery of the lives of the neighborhood’s inhabitants who all seemed to be at work behind large dusty windows, just beyond the reach of the sun, which had faded all the displays of fortune cookies and zodiac calendars after having shielded the store’s interiors from the harsh, coal dusted rays of the sun for so long.
A motion sensor dingdonged as we filed into one of the larger Chinese groceries. In the back, past all the dented cans of lychee and the ageless and uncertain products with no expiation date, was a heavy refrigerator case, paneled in chrome with a window of thick freon-dimmed aquarium glass and a motor chugging away with the irascibility of a lawnmower. Under the current of the motor a radio played, barely audible, mumbling. A Chinese woman, slender, with her straight black hair spider-webbed with iron gray, got off her stool at our entrance and pretended to sweep around the shop. As we walked back into the aisles, the woman followed us, sweeping only for form’s sake. She didn’t watch the motion of the broom, or the floor ahead, but kept her eyes leveled at us, unabashed to stare directly. Confident in the knowledge that the moment she dropped her gimlet gaze, we’d be filling our pockets. We tried to shake her off—not to steal, only to get away from that accusing look— but it was her store and she multiplied herself, somehow following each of us in different directions down the aisles. Feeling lighthearted, I walked into one aisle, only to turn and walk into another the moment she joined me. The others were doing the same. I could hear their Chuck Taylors squeaking on the faded linoleum. We regrouped at the refrigerator door and went to looking for tofu. There was only one variety, but it was cheap and in a bigger block that usual. When the woman with the spider-webbed hair saw us coming up to the counter with a purchase, she assumed her place behind the counter with an air of complete indifference. I was surprised to note, as I got closer to the source, that the radio she was listening to was in English. The reporter speaking sounded like he was outside. The sound of ambient wind and voice washing in and out of the speakers. Helicopter blades. And, before I heard it, I knew. I stood there, listening and trying not to listen while my friends argued with the woman about putting the tofu in a bag. “Nine days,” I heard the voice say. She’d been lost nine days.
Our adventure ended quickly. Matt mentioned going to some place called the cork factory where all the good writers painted, but everyone was hungry and when Matt openly doubted he could remember the way, we decided to turn around and go back.
After we ate, when everyone was going back to the porch, I decided I needed a walk. I walked down Chesterfield, back to the Oakland neighborhood with its pizza places and sandwich shops with Grateful Dead bears painted above the tables. It was summer and most of the students were gone. In the heat of the afternoon, I was nearly alone on the sidewalk. I figured since we were leaving tomorrow, I didn’t have to worry about running out of money, so I went over to a cafe, bought a coffee and sat down. I didn’t have anything to read so I picked up one of the free papers by the door. It had come out a few days earlier and had a full-page ad for the lost little girl. I looked into her smiling eyes, her mom-combed hair and I felt something like humiliation, knowing that this face was still in every one of these papers up all over town, looking out from page 3, almost asking ‘have you seen me?’ I wanted to turn the page, but to do so seemed so final and cruel. I sat there a while, looking around the cafe and out the window. A police car went by, slowly, looking around. The tip jar jangled. Some one yelled “Barry! Man, I thought that was y..” out in the street. I started to fold the paper open to the girl’s face, but that seemed wrong, too. I flipped back to the cover and got up to put the paper away. A homeless guy, who must’ve thought I had a real paper tapped me on the arm as I walked past his seat with his backpack spilling out all over the table and asked “you finished with that?” pointing to the paper. I said sure and gave it to him. I started to tell him it was just a free paper, but I stopped. ‘Let him think he got a free paper,’ I thought and walked out the door.
Out in the street, hands shoved into my pockets, head down, I did the Nevsky Prospekt Promenade for a while, not walking, just going forward like I was on a conveyor belt. I was getting pretty far away when I sat down on a bench and lit a cigarette. I felt shaky with the effects of days of casual drinking and too many Pyramid cigarettes. One of my eyelids was jumping up and down, which I wasn’t sure whether to attribute to the oily coffee or to general fatigue. I sat, smoked and let my thoughts drift to all kinds of places when a kid walking by with a cubs baseball hat, 22 or 23, stopped and faced me. “Hey, you know how to get across the bridge from here?” he asked. I told him. We’d walked there a few nights ago, so I still had a pretty good idea. “How long’s it take?” I told him it wouldn’t take too long. He thanked me and walked off. The police car came back by, going the opposite way. I watched it go, smoking. Still young enough to appreciate smoking in front of cops. I finished my cigarette and started back toward the porch and one last night of living in Pittsburgh.