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Sure But Not At All Certain

May 18, 2011

Home Sweet Home -- Small comfort in Brutalism

continued from the previous post…

Betty sat in the back seat of the packed station wagon as I directed my father to the Pitt dorms where I would spend my freshman year. They were shaped like cleanser cans and I would be living on the 17th floor of Tower B, a circular arrangement of rooms split between two unlikely populations of freshman – long-haired, skinny kids like me who had enrolled in an experiment called “The Alternative Curriculum,” and football recruits, who, at the top level of competition, resembled refrigerators with heads.

One afternoon during orientation, I danced with complete strangers in Schenley Park to a free concert with Bruce Springsteen lighting up the E Street Band. Few freshmen, except for the Jewish girls from New Jersey and Philadelphia, had ever heard of him. And to my delight, there were lots of Jewish girls, their mothers nowhere in sight—such a nice break from the Catholic girls I’d grown up with. I remember that day in 1973 as the day I enlisted as a soldier in the sexual revolution.

Icons of the revolution -- best viewed by black light

My roommate had different ideas. I knew I was about to meet someone unlike anyone I’d met before when I saw a hand-drawn portrait of Mahatma Gandhi above his bed. He had already created a tidy and soulful space—books on the shelves, sheets on the bed, a guitar case propped in the corner. Tom Waseleski’s father had died when he was a boy, making him the man of the house, comfortable with responsibility from an early age. Though serious and studious, he smiled warmly when I met him and showed a durable sense of humor throughout a year that must have been irritating for him–disgusting from time to time.

Tom’s girlfriend Saundi—a pretty, sweet, easy going gal who had known Tom since high school, came over to study with him nearly every night. She had an unforgettable laugh set on a hair-trigger. They drank tea and tried to concentrate while I cracked wise to hear her giggle and hammered at a typewriter before drinking buddies and waifish poets banged on the door and took me away. Some nights, Tom sat at his desk and wrote music, plucking the notes out one at a time, then jotting them down. I cleaned flasks, carboys and airlocks as part of the winemaking enterprise I had going with Vito Zingerelli. Tom and I sketched with charcoal, wrote and read poetry, and discussed politics. And, while Tom walked Saundi back to Carlow College, a Catholic girls’ school nearby, I pretended sophistication with girls upstairs, sipping homemade Lambrusco and fumbling with their anatomy.

At my worst, I stumbled in drunk with a nursing student and we made love in my bunk, four inches away from Tom’s. I apologized the following day. He insisted he was sleeping, and never mentioned it again. Mensch—the hung-over girl called him.

Dilated pupils and a Fu Manchu -- what a look

Milt had left me at Pitt with two bits of advice: “Too much of anything is bad for you,” and “There’s no one woman in the world for you,” a pearl he was qualified to deliver, and which shaped my attitude toward girls. Losing Elaine, Mark’s mother, then finding Betty proved that to him.

Pitt and Carnegie-Mellon share the Oakland section of the city, rich in concert halls, museums, libraries, stadiums, bars and cultural events–all the distractions a student could want. As a sophomore, I volunteered at the annual  jazz festival and never missed another. A craving for more chases and bop sent me into the streets and smoky clubs, where only curious and respectful students ventured.

Eric Kloss, photo: Ave Pilda

One club tempted me every time I passed it on the way home to my second-year apartment. A blind saxophone impresario named Eric Kloss led the house band at Sunny Daye’s Stage Door, where an older crowd of well-dressed men and women, black and white, spoke in soft tones and showed an easy intimacy. I sat in the same seat, in the corner, against a wall, and spent money on drinks I couldn’t afford. But it became like a church to me, where the music made sense in that it traveled from one note to the next seemingly without a plan, taking me with it from moment to moment, suspending my ambitions and allowing me to dream of going where life took me.

My work-study job, though, kept me out of the clubs most nights and saved me from going broke. From 10 p.m. until 6 a.m., I sat at the entrance to one campus building or another, checking in late-night visitors. Approaching the Pitt campus from just about anywhere, it’s impossible to miss its architectural focal point—the modestly named Cathedral of Learning. At forty-two stories, this Gothic tower, made of Indiana limestone (the same as my revered library in Ambridge), dominates the landscape. Its Commons Room, the entire ground floor covers a half-acre has the proportions and feeling of a cathedral with arches vaulting three stories high. Surrounding the Commons Room are twenty-six classrooms, each styled after a classroom from another nation. The desks, seminar tables, chairs, stained glass windows and wall panels were either imported through the largess of industrialists or donated as a cultural artifact by the nations themselves.

The Commons Room as I knew it -- empty

When I wasn’t stationed at the dental school or the engineering building, the entire Cathedral fell under my supervision from midnight until morning. I gave the thumbs-up to a passing patrolman twice a night and then went back to shuffling along the slate floor, my head bent to the essays of Michel de Montaigne.

I liked that Montaigne, a lawyer and magistrate in the late 1500s, had given it all up to examine himself and write what he discovered as he went along. He could be ruminative or controversial, willing to lob fire-bombs at the dogma of his day, while continually questioning and contradicting himself. The more exposure I had to literature and the arts, the more I doubted my teenage certainty and assertions, allowing Montaigne’s pattern of thought to resonate with me. And it did; the clarity of those moments still ring with me. Throughout those long nights, without the reverie supplied by a jazz band, I allowed Montaigne to inhabit me, imagining myself in his stone tower in Bordeaux.

Closing a compact edition of his Essais around one finger that marked my selected passage, I assumed the lectern in the English classroom, with its stained glass windows and oak furniture, or I situated myself on the pillows around an ebony table in the Japanese classroom to read aloud. Montaigne did all the talking, leading the imaginary students through the divagations of his mind. He sought to prove nothing but an understanding of himself and his train of thought meandered through the countryside, not like a Swiss express with a ambitious schedule, but more like a tourist coach of ideas and reasoning, clattering to the rhythm of the rails, throwing switches and likely to go anywhere.

How kind he was, I remember thinking, to let me in on his thoughts. A man four hundred years gone, who matched the music and the noise of my own thoughts, improvising melodies and philosophical riffs, like Sonny Rollins picking out a solo and floating it across the floor. I felt as if he played only for me, but I knew my audience could understand him, too. I became convinced that the folks back home, the ones who usually read no more than the box scores and the obituaries, could relate to Montaigne’s introspection and misgivings.

He made perfect sense, running in one direction then wandering off in another—patterns of thought we all know. Through him, I recognized the ambler within me, who discovers where he is going by where he has gone. It reminded me of the attraction I felt for cowboy life, back when I strapped on plastic six-shooters, and rode the range of my imagination.

For the first time, I felt reassurance for having a nature I saw as anti-systematic. Montaigne saw himself as an “accidental philosopher.” He loved the transitory, without constructions, models and logical systems. He showed me that it might be okay to leave deduction and induction to scientists and lawyers. Reading him, I wanted to push aside professional advocates and fall in with the idlers Robert Louis Stevenson said “have a great and cool allowance for all sorts of people and opinions.”  That felt right for the times, and for me—much better than charging down narrow corridors of advocacy.

Montaigne made me want to embrace open questioning, to loosen the laces on corseted ideas, including my own. But in trying to consider all sides, I feared losing my convictions and principles. Writers, philosophers, and especially lawyers must plant their feet on prescribed territory and defend it. Slowly, though, I began to see contradiction as more natural for me.

Logic and analysis helped me make decisions, but contradiction—advancing an idea, turning against it, doubting my doubt—made me feel alive, as if I had quietly picked a lock or blown a door off its hinges, leaving a gaping portal between what I had intended and what might happen. Whether falling into a jazz-induced trance or the admissions of Montaigne, what would it mean to resist my long-held ambitions, or at least question them? Was I desperate to get ahead or get away, devoting myself to cheesy desires—chasing status and girls? Why were saxophones and an ancient Frenchman seducing me with the beauty of changing my mind?

USSteel Homestead, photo: Van Scotter

After my shift, I would walk through the early morning streets toward home, and I could hear the air horns call the shift change across the river in Homestead. I wished every steelworker there could have been with me in those classrooms overnight. If we opened our minds and considered new choices, though, what would we choose? Later, when the steel industry fell, everyone in these valleys would confront that situation. But until then most would—by necessity—ignore the inevitable. Like me, they had no Plan B.

I couldn’t imagine a change of heart when it came to my future. So I denied the doubts Montaigne raised within me. He would have approved of my refusal to swallow his attitudes whole, massive skeptic that he was. Instead, I reasoned that I could wedge his wisdom into ambition to bring the powerful and corrupt to their knees (and win admirers along the way). Shoving my improvisational nature into a smoky corner, I sat on my imagination and held fast to the hero fantasy.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Beth permalink
    May 18, 2011 11:54 pm

    Aah, the photo definitely brings back memories. I didn’t live in the towers but did drink the wine–I think vintage one week before. AFT was kind of cool too…..

    • May 19, 2011 12:35 am

      Do you know how few people would admit to drinking that wine!? You were lovely guest. And we caught every AFT performance–those were great afternoons. You introduced me to Edward Albee, and I may get to shake his hand this summer.

  2. Paula permalink
    May 19, 2011 2:47 am

    My visit here, long overdue. My Dad would have loved this. I do. I’ll be starting at the beginning.

  3. Jane LaPointe permalink
    May 19, 2011 4:58 pm

    Paul, it’s so great to find your blog via Baxter’s FB link. All these delicious chapters to devour. Thank you.

  4. Gene M permalink
    May 23, 2011 3:35 am

    I remember the three dorms being referred to as Ajax, Babo, and Comet– the three cleanser cans. Nice piece of writing.

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