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Like Ambridge with a “C”

August 24, 2011

continued from the previous post…

After the steel haulers’ strike in 1978, I tried to ignore the bullet holes in the window by my chair in Central Dispatch. But the job wrung me out as Jonesy and I struggled to fill trucks running throughout what’s now called the Rust Belt. Production at the mills had begun to fall off. We sent more drivers to Baltimore and Newark, where longshoremen loaded their flatbeds with containers of imports.

One night, I told my parents that I had explored the possibility of moving to the Boston area with my cousins who lived there. They offered me a bedroom in their house until I got on my feet. Milt and Betty weren’t surprised. They encouraged me to follow my instincts, confident that I would make a successful transition. In later years they admitted the sting of hearing my plans, but were happy I could stay with family.

Still uncertain, I consulted my two closest friends, Bob Marcink and Rege Ryan. Bob was finishing his senior year at Pitt and Rege had started an apprenticeship as a steamfitter. He had done a few turns in New Jersey, but Pittsburgh, Ambridge, Western Pennsylvania, was home; it was all we knew. I worried about missing my family, mostly my siblings, but my buddies could tell I was itching all over. They knew my family would always be there for me, and my friends, those who were worthwhile, would be there too.

I thought Jimmy O’Leary, the bloody-knuckled president of the trucking company, would punch me in the face when I gave notice. But I remembered his advice that unhappy employees “get the fuck out” so he nearly congratulated me as we shook hands for the final time.

I packed everything I owned into the Civic and hit the road. Thirteen hours later, I caught a whiff of the Atlantic again and this time I felt relieved that I could stay.

Apart from my cousins, I knew no one in Massachusetts. Any leads for a job would have to come from the newspaper. Now I could finally prove Betty’s adage wrong: I could find work based on what I knew not who I knew. I studied the classifieds and pursued every lead, traipsing through Boston and Cambridge, trying to learn my way around.

One hot afternoon in August, I rode the subway to Central Square in Cambridge and walked toward Harvard Square. A street hawker sold me a colorful tabloid, a weekly  that carried stories about Love Canal, Lou Reed, and a food called tofutti. After walking a few blocks, I saw a new sign in front of a modern office building that read The Real Paper, the name of the tabloid under my arm.

The elevators opened to a floorplan typical of newspapers: business offices to one side with big windows and a nice view, and an dark, editorial slum on the opposite side. The receptionist, a beauty with long dreadlocks snaking around her headset smiled when I asked if I might talk with someone about a job there. Within moments, a sprite of a woman in a skirt and pumps, one of the few grown-up types within sight, came out to meet me.

“What are you looking for?” she asked.

“I’m wide open,” I blurted, handing her my resume.

She ushered me to her office where I talked about the trucking company, my move from Pittsburgh and what I had done at college. The questions went on and I began wondering if I might finally get a job on experience and enthusiasm alone, without strings and connections.

Her phone rang. She said, “Yeah, okay. I will.”  And I could tell the responses were timed with a muffled voice I heard from another cubicle. After hanging up, she told me about selling advertising. It sounded dreadful. She also said that editorial jobs open occasionally and I could try writing one article at a time but the pay was lousy. She promised she would keep me in mind for selling ads. I would have done anything she asked—the office held a kind of youthful energy I hadn’t seen anywhere and I could easily imagine how much fun it could be to work there. But as she shook my hand and offered only a perfunctory promise to call me, I felt hope dwindling.

“Oh, and Dave Semple wants to see you.”

“Who?” The name sounded familiar.

“Dave Semple. He said he knows you from Pitt.”

He occupied the adjoining cubicle and I recognized him immediately as being a class ahead of me, though we hardly knew each other. A stiffly formal guy who had grown up in one Pittsburgh’s affluent suburbs, Dave had taken over as circulation director a year earlier. He shook my hand and asked me to wait in a seat next to Kita, his pretty secretary. The walls were covered with maps of the city, the state, and all of New England – my kind of décor. I smelled Dave’s cigarette smoke and heard the whoop of salesman making a sale as he dropped the phone on its cradle. An editor popped in to see if Kita was busy for lunch. The Real Paper – with its patron, David Rockefeller, in the corner office, was the pulse of the youth culture in Cambridge.

After a short interview, Dave offered me a job.  My knowledge of trucking and transport systems helped. I would be charged with visiting newsstands and distributors, but the power of the Pittsburgh connection made all the difference. Once again, Betty was right.

Two weeks after I reported for work, a Friday night in September of 1978, after making sure the paper had gone to the printer, I crossed the street to The Plough and Stars for beers and hippie lasagna. The editors, artists, and ad sellers soon splintered off, leaving me alone with the cash from my first paycheck pulling me into Harvard Square.

Harvard Square

Students returning from summer break filled the Square, chattering four abreast, oblivious to traffic and crosswalks. I had never seen such wild disregard for traffic or safety. Drivers jabbed their brakes and horns as they crept through clusters of  bewildered freshmen and excited sophomores leaning in to hear each others’ stories. Professors gazed at the pavement, murmuring a lecture or allowing madness to move their lips. And they all strode at a brisk clip, sidestepping browsers at newsstands and head-bobbers squatting in alcoves and doorways where folk singers played for pocket change.

At the corner of Mass Ave. (they all said “av” never avenue) and Boylston, I stopped to get my bearings. My nose followed the perfume of girls in boots and miniskirts, their Carol King-ish hair riding the breeze off the Charles River. The men dressed in wrinkled linen and faded jeans. Some wore berets and pored over chessboards on streetside tables, their chins resting on their fists.

I had explored Harvard Square a few times that month, but with the students back I realized that I’d seen their ilk only in Life magazine’s stories about American youth traveling abroad and ski bunnies of the eastern slopes. And yet, the Sixties and early Seventies had brought counterculture into this scene. Harvard students were portrayed on television and in film as precocious law students, apologists for Timothy Leary, sitters-in and protesters. In their midst, I was drawn to their sense of purpose, their enunciation, their understated layers of cotton and tweed and their quiet talk of horses and squash. One day they would be pulling the strings and working the levers that determined world events.

I had embarked on a new adventure and my job in the circulation department of the paper gave me a sense of permanence. I would move out of my cousin’s house, rent an apartment and find my footing among these people who had an entirely different bearing than I did.

When I looked down, I saw the wrongness in my shoes. They were two-tone, black and grey, something Sonny Corleone might wear. I fingered my gauzy shirt and thought I might be trying too hard. But these were the 1970s and who cared about clothes? I was the age of a graduate student, had big hair, and moved easily among strangers.

Near the center of the Square, I heard the blues rising out of the doorway to a rathskeller named Jonathan Swift’s. I sprung for the cover charge and descended into the squeal of slide guitar. After buying a beer, I found a place to stand behind a few rows of seats, closed my eyes and drifted along the swells of a saxophone solo. I separated the odors and then let them blend again: beery floorboards, summer bodies, hot amplifiers, cigarettes, marijuana breath and Herbal Essence shampoo. The long hair of the girl standing next to me kept tickling my forearm and I didn’t want to interrupt it, so I held my eyes closed and fell into the music.

Applause called me back to the room and I looked down to see the woman beside me clapping, tossing her hair to the side until she reached over her head with her other hand and pulled it behind her ear. Nice beaded earring, I thought. She smiled at me then looked back to the stage, sipping from a plastic cup.

“I just love John Mayall,” she said, turning her green eyes toward me.

She surprised me; I hadn’t expected her to speak. And I knew nothing about Mayall. “Why?” is all I could squeeze out.

She said something like, “His blues find me.”

I don’t remember what I said, only that she asked, “Are you from around here?” a question I took to mean that I didn’t appear to be a student.

“No. You?”

She was from Evanston, Illinois, which I knew was outside Chicago, geography-freak that I was.

“And you?” she asked.

“Oh, a little town, outside Pittsburgh.”

“Which one? What’s its name?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Yes it does,” she shot back, a little perturbed.

“Ambridge”

She asked me to spell it, so I did.

“Oh, like Cambridge without the ‘C’?”

I was struck by the similarity that began and ended with that initial letter “C.” Cambridge, originally Newtowne, renamed for its aspirations—its eventual power and privilege, erudition and stateliness, all its history and money, presidents, preachers and philosophers, its rowers pulling sculls down the Charles, sweating for sport. Ambridge, originally Economy, named for its landlord, The American Bridge Company—its steel, smoke and football, corruption and soot, its displaced immigrants and fractured languages, thugs and brawlers, bookies and mobsters, bargeloads of ore and coal grunting up the Ohio, where nothing but carp and catfish could survive. Cambridge, a tangle of streets lined with bookstores and libraries, galleries and museums, coffee houses, theaters, dormitories and think tanks. Ambridge, a simple grid of company houses, bars, churches, pizza joints, machine shops, Sons of Italy, Polish Falcons, factories, vegetable patches, alleyways, all-night diners, shrines to the Virgin, more bars.

The Mayall fan’s comparison triggered this psychic excursion and when I snapped out of it, I looked all over the dark basement and tried to catch a whiff of her, but she was gone. She was curious enough to ask about me, to demand an answer. How could I let her slip away like that? And where had I gone? I was trying to immerse myself in this new place, to forget about Ambridge, and one simple mention sent me off into space. She probably thought I was stoned.

I had entered my own land of milk and honey. Like my grandparents, I put my old home behind me and looked ahead. In the decades that followed, mill towns dying along rivers became a cliché and melded together to form The Rust Belt. I tried to shake the effects of growing up there: the hillbilly twinges within my diction, a millworker’s class anxiety, a cynical edge to my natural optimism. I wanted to shed all that, but I also felt a son’s attachment.

coming up: emptying out amid silence and rust

4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 24, 2011 7:28 pm

    pulling the strings and …. nice

  2. elecpencil permalink
    September 3, 2011 12:44 pm

    Very good!

  3. Debbie Reeves permalink
    May 20, 2012 1:54 pm

    Love this one. I’m sure most of us who left Ambridge have the same feelings. Your words describe the details so well. I haven’t heard anyone use the description “a sprite of a girl” for way too long. And I would love to know the ingredients for hippie lasagne!

    • May 23, 2012 11:31 am

      Hippie Lasagna — think lots of cheese but no meat, any available vegetable, including peppers, onions, carrots, eggplant, more cheese, and if it’s really hard-core, whole wheat noodles. Best if cooked to death and left on a steam table until crisp and leathery. Served with buckets of beer or Yago sangria.

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