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February 18, 2014

As a child in the 1960s, I knew Ambridge to be jammed with pedestrians and big, new cars, morning and night. On most evenings, Merchant Street, lined with shops, bars and restaurants drew families that walked arm in arm, as they might in Naples or Athens. Clusters of clean-cut men stood on corners, smoking and waving to their friends, teasing or belting a few bars of “O Solo Mio” for the women leaning out of third-floor windows.

We spilled into public out of necessity. Families were growing faster than company housing could accommodate, with three generations occupying tiny apartments and houses built with full knowledge that immigrants demanded little in the way of personal space. These houses still stand, and are about the size of today’s utility sheds.

In my family’s house, we did homework at the kitchen table with my mother ironing behind us. When the session broke up, if I wanted to read, I retreated to the basement, amid the laundry, casks of fermenting wine and crocks of sauerkraut, my father running a jigsaw and listening to a ballgame on the radio.

The togetherness sometimes overwhelmed me. Craving solitude, I sought out havens—the woods or the cool order of an empty church. But my favorite sanctuary was the most richly endowed and widely ignored building in town.

As I climbed its granite stairs, I passed under tall bronze lanterns that told me the Laughlin Memorial Library occupied a higher plane than the street out front. Thousands of steelworkers, six times a day, marched past the library and onto the bridge to Aliquippa. As they crossed, they surveyed their destination on the bank ahead, a continuous massive building that stretched for six miles downriver, the Jones & Laughlin steel mill — J&L to locals—a hulking, fire-breathing monster, bound by railroad tracks to the riverbank.

I seldom noticed a mill worker stop into the library, or hang out there before or after work. They headed home, but not before filing into back door of the saloon at the end of the block. Inside ran a long bar with no stools. The string of workers threw back shots of whiskey and beer chasers, then, like hot billets traveling down the rolling mill, exited the front door on the corner, where their wives picked them up, efficiently juiced to face domestic life in close quarters.

The library rose above the herd. In addition to its elevation, its brass doors demanded that a skinny twelve year-old had to plant his back foot to pull them open. “There must be something really good in here, something important, like a treasure,” I thought. When I entered, another world opened before me, as if I had been transported far away and into a refreshing, invigorating, and oddly familiar dimension in time. Apart from the matron at the front desk, who greeted me with a pressed smile and a nod, I was often completely alone.

Alexander Laughlin, no relation to the owners of J&L, built the library in memory of his son, who had served heroically in the first World War, only to return home to die in a dentist’s chair. Laughlin, an Ambridge industrialist and owner of Central Tube Company, took his cue from Andrew Carnegie, sparing no expense in building this public temple of erudition, right up to the vaulted ceilings, cherry tables, shelves, cabinets, Italian marble floors and columns, leather chairs and an endowment that has kept it in sweet condition.

I took my pick of seats and views. Near the windows, sunlight warmed me. Facing the corners, I fell back into a wing chair and lost the world behind me. My family’s house, the Catholic school and church, our neighborhood and the houses of relatives all made me feel at home and part of a community, but the library made me feel whole, as if I could explore every corner of my own universe and the places I had never seen. The populace of books and the millions of ideas they contained set loose my dreams.

Drowsiness never threatened my quest. Instead, something I read while doing my homework had formed a question that nagged me, and I knew it could be answered by peeking in the reference section. The flat metal drawers of the card catalog spoke to me, promising entire volumes on the migratory fish of the Mississippi delta or the first closed sewage system. How could I resist?

I liked the way every step sounded important against the marble floors as I imagined myself pursuing knowledge and culture. In reality, I was simply scratching an itch, one after another. Chasing leads, I piled up fat books until I found one to take back to the table for closer inspection only to get waylaid in biography, following a thread from encyclopedia to compendium. Absorbed, like a miser with his ledgers or an archaeologist on his knees with his brushes, hours rushed by on a current of curiosity.

During hot summer days at home, my friends and siblings grumbled until one of the mothers took them to the Ambridge pool, a massive cement playground of chest high water. Mayhem ruled, pitched with peer pressure and wet, snotty, kid-on-kid cruelty. I was afraid of the water and wore a bathing suit the way a Chihuahua wears a tutu, so I begged to be left at home or taken to the library. In winter, movies offered escape from the busy house and family, but the library allowed me to direct and star in my own movie – a Fellini-esque chase, streaked with impressions, foreignness and startling facts.

Left undisturbed among maps and magazines, I investigated far-flung nations, their mountains, shores and people, their dwellings, their towns, leaders, legends and heroes. Connecting the word “culture” to the mold growing in Petrie dishes in science class, I slipped places under a sort of microscope and found the languages, arts, innovations, and literature feeding off the surroundings, climate, and history.  New smells seeped out of the pages of Conrad, new fears out of the caves of Twain and I swam in all of it without bearings or sense of time.<!–[if gte mso 9]>

Noticing the sunbeams had slipped from the table and climbed the walls, I resurfaced with the feeling of having been swimming undersea or through a passageway between worlds–I remember as if it were yesterday because it still happens. I feel woozy, shaking off a familiar disorientation, wiping my palms down the length of my torso as if some slime remained from a membrane through which I passed. How long had I been away?

Novels were best for borrowing, so I went to the desk and checked them out. Finally, I savored one last exhilaration—walking away from the mess I left behind. The librarians insisted on re-stacking every book, so I felt like a rock star leaving a trashed hotel room.

Out on the sidewalk, nobody asked me what I had been doing there. I held my affection for the library privately, because what I did there felt illicit and indulgent. I could pretend there, to be purposeful and scholarly; the librarians probably giggled. The act came easily, though, captivated as I was by the excursions, stories, facts, no-shits and ahas. I wanted to do it forever. But, as far as I could tell, the hours led to nowhere in particular, no purpose – an admission that made me feel guilty, because every educated person I had met had become useful: accountants, lawyers, nurses, doctors, and teachers. Me? I was just feeding my fascination.

I hustled off to the Tick-Tock Dairy, a soda fountain, where I could call for a ride home and watch the workers get off the shuttle bus that carried them across the bridge  from J& L. Their hair shined and their faces still glowed from the showers. They wore clean clothes and carried empty lunch buckets. Watching them, I pictured myself among them, one of the guys, joking, prosperous and woven tightly into the community. But as soon as I looked back into my milkshake, I dreamt of other places or another kind of life. I noticed the owner of the Tick-Tock, drying his hands on his apron while standing at the front window waiting for the guys to come in and buy cigarettes. He had found another way to live and work outside the mills and I admired him. Yet, I figured a time might come when I would join the boys outside.


December 15, 2012

Here you will find drafts of sample chapters from a work in progress. Over the past year, interested publishers (bless you!) have convinced me to redirect the narrative, more toward myself, which I accepted reluctantly at first. By now, I’ve embraced that request and am at work on a more straightforward memoir.

I am grateful for all the comments, questions, observations and words of encouragement. Until such time when I can promise publication, I hope you will enjoy the chapters here.

A Book in the Making

December 4, 2011

Here you will find, IN REVERSE, sample chapters from RUST BELT BOY: Life in a Land of Visionaries. To read them in order, go to SAMPLE CHAPTERS on the right side of the header. I’d like to hear from you. Please feel free to drop me notes as comments, and thanks for coming.

Rust: The Patina of Possibility and Renewal

September 5, 2011

Note:  I love photography, so here’s a shout-out and round of applause for the talented Christopher DellaMea and his new book Exploring the Rust Belt.

Also:  This post goes up in appreciation of Jim Russell and his exquisite mind. A younger man than myself, Jim coined the term “Rust Belt Chic” and illustrates it in the latest Cleveland Review

For those of us who grew up in the suburbs ringing the silent manufacturing plants, the appeal is a reconnection with our roots. We are nostalgic for a time we never knew, the world our parents made sure we could escape. The geography of nowhere gets a soul. We move back and haunt the streets of our grandparents…. All the connoisseurs of Rust Belt Chic are seeking the same thing, authenticity. A strong sense of place is highly valued. At every turn, you know that you can only be in Pittsburgh. And you love all of it, the grit and the faded grandeur.  A vacant building is more about possibility than the spectacular fall from grace.

ontinued from the previous post…

As much as I loved the verve of Cambridge in the 1970s, I satisfied dual yearnings for solitude and the sea by living in the back of an old custom’s house in Nahant – a quiet peninsula that hangs off Boston’s north shore. I walked its long beach every morning and swam on days when the water immediately numbed me and ripped my breath away, but I was making up for twenty-two landlocked years.

The commute in and out of Cambridge nearly killed me several times and my sweet Civic kept running while its body took a bashing. But I loved living there. My landlords were a retired Italian couple with a few lobster pots in the bay. Sunday mornings I’d help haul in the pots (which were invented, my landlord told me while I was doing all the work, “in Swampscott [swomscut, as they say], only five miles away in 1808.” On Wednesdays, the couple invited me to dinner of lobster and linguini in marinara, a food ritual that made me miss home.

Nahant, MA

Back in Ambridge, the mills fell silent. Between 1979 and 1986, Armco, American Bridge, A.M. Byers, H.H. Robertson, and finally, the mammoth Jones & Laughlin that had become LTV Steel, shrank and closed. Milt was forced to retire from American Bridge with 30 years of service, but still only fifty-five years old. He joined one of the small drafting firms that cropped up throughout the valley, taking in work from all over the country, awarded to the lowest bidders.

American Bridge office building today

During those years, every time I returned to visit my family, I saw signs of deeper decline in town. Plywood covered more storefronts on Merchant Street, vandals tore away the bronze lampposts in front of the library, the streets crumbled with neglected potholes. For Sale and foreclosure signs sprung up like weeds as desperate residents abandoned their families for service jobs in the promising Sun Belt.

The seedier the town became in the 1980s, the more odd combinations of merchants moved into the vacant storefronts, selling “collectibles” and beauty products, hobby supplies, second-hand clothing, tutus and tap shoes. They came and went—bold experiments by naïve entrepreneurs. Some endured: a ceramics shop, owned by my Aunt Helen and her husband Fred; a bicycle store; a place called Mars’ Drums. Several of the neighborhood bars closed, and a few became hangouts for crack dealers and whores, but many hung on as cool, dark gathering spots for workers and harmless drunks.

Throughout the 1980s and 90s, as the owners of houses and apartments moved south and lost their properties or their paying tenants, buildings fell into disrepair. Landlords accepted government assistance that required them to take in unsavory tenants, addicts, prostitutes, pimps and gangsters. The streets, especially those in the southern end of town, around Divine Redeemer and my father’s office at the Bridge Company, grew dangerous with crime. The already limping Catholic diocese of Pittsburgh shuttered several churches, including Divine Redeemer.

But like the creepy prints that decorated every Catholic household in my youth, rays of hope streamed through the clouds. The Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry sunk its roots in Ambridge. It brought fresh energy and optimism, counseling families, helping the poor, the sick, the dying, the mentally ill and the lonely. Instead of living in posh Sewickley and commuting to the school, the seminarians bought houses within the safer neighborhoods of Ambridge, sharing backyards and gardens with older Bridgers and young, struggling families. They began to look after children, mow lawns, and shovel sidewalks for those who otherwise shuffle to the pharmacy. They may have an evangelical agenda, but they are gentle and genuine compared to the economic and political hooligans that once ruled the streets of Ambridge.

Beyond Ambridge, the closing of J&L stripped Aliquippa of its tax revenue.  Its Franklin Avenue, which once rivaled Merchant Street for retail vitality, became a littered and deserted alleyway of shuttered institutions and stores. These scenes saddened me, especially when I thought about how the blight had spread throughout the industrial towns within fifty, one hundred, even three hundred miles, from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to Chicago, to Duluth. The Rust Belt corroded with blinding speed.

The former US Steel heaquarters in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh has only begun to recover. From 1970 to 1990, its population fell by more than 21 percent and the exodus continued for another ten years. Even now, the surrounding county has the second highest percentage of seniors, exceeded only by Palm Beach County in Florida. But the stunted city soldiered on. With its back against the wall, it slowly reinvented itself, drawing on academic and health care institutions that serve the young and old, respectively. Its medical infrastructure found new ways to serve elders and the disadvantaged with innovative community health and rehab centers – ahead of the aging-boomer curve that will soon challenge the rest of the nation.

Pittsburgh has shown remarkable, if plodding, adaptability that reminds me of one of the Rust Belt’s most emblematic buildings—the former headquarters of US Steel. Soon after the building was designed and commissioned in 1968, Milt brought home a brochure about it. At 64 stories, it would be the tallest building in the skyline; its triangular shape and orientation echo the city’s well-known triangle; but its skin is most telling—Cor-Ten Steel—with a pre-oxidized surface, rusty from the outset, a deep brown patina that responds to weather conditions by healing itself. Favored by sculptor (and former steelworker) Richard Serra and Robert Indiana, Cor-Ten presents a renewable aesthetic, an ongoing work in progress.

The original LOVE Sculpture - Robert Indiana

I return to Ambridge at least twice a year to see family and catch up with my old friends—Rege Ryan, the steamfitter,  is now a union representative with keen political instincts, Rory McCoy, a former nightclub bouncer now owns waste hauling company, and Johnny Niaros, who took over his family’s Fair Oaks Bowling Lanes when his father died at fifty-four. If Bob Marcink, who had become a newspaperman in gritty McKeesport and is now a professor, is in town, he joins. As for many other friends, they’ve managed to get by without their mill jobs, becoming postmen, bartenders, baggage handlers, truck drivers and cooks. Some still curse the mills and others have simply moved on.

Thirty years after the bottom fell out, the blight has abated. Some of the factories found new uses as warehouses and were soon surrounded by tractor trailers, giant dumpsters, boxcars, and mountains of palettes. The A.M. Byers plant on the site of Legionville became such a terminal for a while.

AM Byers' Bessemer Converter -- from memory to memorial

AM Byers' Bessemer Converter -- from memory to memorial

One evening while visiting home, I made plans for a reunion dinner with Mimi Lacarno. We met at Station Square in Pittsburgh, a converted railroad station on the banks of the Monongahela. Near the entrance, I spotted a massive industrial relic that had been enshrined in the middle of the plaza, and it looked familiar. Its proportions and shape struck me – about thirty feet tall and formed like a giant beer barrel made of heavy iron, rusty but now shellacked for preservation. I recognized it, but the closer I got, the less I could believe my eyes—Bessemer converter #1 from the A.M. Byers plant in Ambridge, Vulcan’s nightly show of sparks and molten iron I stood on the back seat of my parents’ Ford to watch.

Mimi came up behind me and took my arm. “I know,” she said. “Can you believe it?”

“No, I can’t. It’s like a shrine.”

“To what, though?” she asked.

“A sacred place, I guess.” We both laughed.

“Yeah, right, of course,” she said.

But the monument set the tone for dinner, for the “what ifs” that punctuate the past. During dinner she asked whether I would have married her back then if she had still been in love with me. I told her I didn’t know. If she had leapt into my arms, I may have stayed in town, loading trucks and settling down. But the lure of travel and exploration was too strong and, if I had ignored it, the ground would have shifted under me. I suppose I did, in a way, ask for her hand and invite her to come along. Instead, she waved goodbye and set me free.

I walk the length of Ambridge during my visits, an increasingly depressing exercise for the last three decades. By 2003 I could catalog the sights, starting on First Street and traveling north, away from Pittsburgh. Abandoned cars line the streets. At ten-thirty in the morning, kids in hoodies hustle past bloodshot hookers and disoriented drunks. Divine Redeemer was sold to Baptists, and the school where I formed my boyhood dreams overlooks a playground littered with dissolving cars, rental vans and trailers.

Most of the once-friendly neighborhood bars in the southern quarter look too forbidding to enter. Their front doors are solid sheets of steel, heavily dented or pockmarked with bullet holes, windows covered for privacy.

Still, some of the houses and shops stand as reminders of what the residents of Ambridge once cherished. I see evidence of new masonry and carpentry, gardening, and painting done by diligent homeowners and shopkeepers. A three-story company-built house, circa 1920, with a tidy yard and colorful awning over its porch holds its own between identical buildings that look as if they’ve withstood a siege. My aunt’s ceramics shop, populated by clay mallards, Virgin Marys, leprechauns, and gabby hobbyists, defies economic odds. One big bar and restaurant, owned by former Pittsburgh Pirate Jim Rooker, keeps its stools and booths full on Fourth Street. Only a block away, in what had been the first synagogue in town, The Maple Restaurant, owned by the Pappas family since 1963, serves enormous portions of Bridgers’ favorite foods, most notably, a hot roast beef sandwich topped with French fries and gravy. It has a sign in the parking lot that says, “Welcome to Hot Beef Country.”

After 80 years of fabricating iconic structures and contaminating 40 acres of riverbank, American Bridge abandoned the site and it lay fallow for decades. Merchant Street benefited from a facelift—new sidewalks and a row of saplings were planted near the curb. Just beyond the high school between Eighth and Eleventh Streets, dilapidated factories threw a shadow over the sidewalk. National Electric, Bollinger Corporation, H.K. Porter left tangled messes and heaps of slag, scrap, and trash behind. The central grounds and buildings of Economy remained under the protection of the state—an oasis of dignity at the core of the old village within the town.

On the site of Logstown

Between Duss Avenue and the parallel Merchant Street, industrial blight infected clusters of houses, leapfrogging over tire stores and body shops to resume its rot all the way to the end of town. It stretched for another mile into Harmony Township where an abandoned strip mine at the site of long-forgotten Logstown, a massive crater, punctuates the end of a heartbreaking stretch of land. After a century of pounding the soils and the aquifers with industrial waste, only whispers of activity remained. Taken together, the abandoned, ruined real estate covered nearly 400 acres.

Nobody felt worse about the fate of Ambridge than my cousin, Dave Dieter. He worked his way up through a local savings bank and raised a family there. At a time when Ambridge had little to offer in the way of kickbacks and graft to its traditionally self-serving leaders, Dave entered public service. Before long, in 2003, he assumed the most powerful position in town: chairman of the borough council. With the help of a new and professional town manager, Pam Caskie, he and other young council members learned about “brownfields.”

Precisely one hundred years after John Duss delivered Economy into the hands of industrialists, that bland word—brownfields—swept through town on rumors. “Something called Brownfield Redevelopment,” my parents and their friends told me over coffee at The Maple, “We don’t know exactly what it means, but I guess they call all these broken down mills brownfields, and there’s money to fix ‘em up. We’ll see. Sounds fishy,” they said, all of them shrugging at once.

coming next:  With the new century, a new visionary, this time from Down Under…

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.


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

Of Heroes and Helpers

July 7, 2011

continued from the previous post…

It’s hard to imagine how becoming a steelworker could serve my quest for heroism, but I followed the money and a lifetime of curiosity. Sitting on benches beneath the banners of Armco Steel and the United Steelworkers of America, twenty-six men and two women, most of us in our twenties and thirties, shuffled our feet on the polished tile floor and waited for the personnel officer. He strode in, clipboard in hand, wearing a white shortsleeve shirt and a crew cut. We straightened up while he passed out intake forms and told us he would see us after our physical. As we filed out, he chatted up most of the other men, saying things like, “hey, you’re Mickey’s kid, right?  Used to work with him down in bar mill. Good to meet ya.”

Standing in line in my underwear reminded me of every story I’d heard about military induction. But in this situation, I prayed to pass. We submitted to the anticipated thumping, peering, and coughing on demand, dressed in blue shirts, work pants and white socks, and padded back into the meeting room. The personnel officer gave us safety glasses and black boots with a steel shield that ran from the toe to the top of the tongue.

Amid the smell of aftershave, floor wax and the leather of my new boots, I turned around and everyone and everything looked familiar. Behind my dreams of skiing the Alps, sailing the Caribbean, buttoning a Roman collar behind my neck, and arguing before a jury, lay the likelihood of this scene. It had always been possible. And because of the high wages, I had hoped for it over the last couple of years.

The personnel officer explained that some of our jobs might only last through the summer, but the best of us would be welcome to stay on. Consulting his clipboard, he told us to step forward when we heard our names

“Kosis, Joe; Byoriak, Tom; Rossi, Bruno; Sokolowski, Chuck.” He stopped, handed each of them a new white hardhat and a badge with a four-digit number, sequenced in the order they were called. These numbers reflected seniority, so that Kosis had seniority over Byoriak, and on down. “Hot mill,” he announced, and they headed out the back door.

He called names for the bar mill, the threading mill, the finishing mill and the piercing mill, until only four of us remained, and all the white hardhats were gone, leaving four that had been painted orange. “Zelinski, Steve; Spolarich, Harry; Hertneky, Paul and Sammartino, Emil; Mechanical Department, labor gang.”

Labor gang didn’t sound good, and my next-to-last seniority number made it sound worse. A nearly toothless veteran escorted us to the Mechanical Department and told us to wait for the foreman who sat in a glass enclosure finishing paperwork, ignoring us. He seemed old enough to retire and scowled as he rose, as he met us, and as he glanced at our files. He looked around as if to trying to find someone to blame, then walked away without a word. His name was Frank Razano, known as “The Razor” behind his back.

I had only one man to pity more than myself: Emil, a pudgy family man who was thrilled to have a job. Without him, I would have been the lowest-ranking steelworker in a mill where 2,498 others could refuse an assignment before it came to us, and most jobs required two workers. The Mechanical Labor Gang was the last chance for morons, creeps, fighters, potheads and drunks who had washed out of production jobs that required advanced skills like counting and cleanliness. They were the filthiest and most dangerous men in the mill and they all ranked above me and Emil.

That Sunday and every Sunday following, the two of us dropped into the bowels of the mill, dragging canisters of black goo, lubricating the mechanical beast overhead that heated and processed megatons of steel. On other days, we jackhammered, sometimes inside furnaces, drove spikes in the rail yard and shoveled mountains of metal shavings.

The mile-long plant stood on a bluff above the river. Its towering steel roof and black walls admitted light through tiny windows near the roofline. The operations on the floor were lit by hanging lights, preserving an overall gloom. For scale, picture a shopping mall, minus the stores, with black walls and ceilings, its concrete floor a maze of machinery and catwalks.

From the rail yard, I could see Aliquippa’s Jones & Laughlin plant, making steel downriver, where workers cast blooms from iron ore and coke, then finished them into cans, wires, and sheets. At Armco, we made seamless pipe from raw billets, but instead of buying the steel from the mill within sight, Armco bought them more cheaply from Korea and Japan.

Oil companies, drilling in new fields all over the world, bought Armco pipe as fast as we could make it. After two months, working seven days a week, sweating in greasy holes, breaking concrete and bending rails under the thumb of The Razor, I needed a change of scenery. Outside the mill, I found no time for anything but drinking and sleep. My parents saw it wearing on me. Milt knew the drone and the danger of mill work, which is why he eventually found his way out. He never discouraged me from entering the mills because he knew I needed the money and he respected the way of life. But he also had deep doubts as to how long the industry might last.

photo: Thomas D. Mcavoy

Emil, or Emilio, as his mother called him, intended to make the mill his life. I checked with him as The Razor announced a high-paying millwright helper’s job at roll call. Everyone was refusing it and Emil shook his head, resigned as he was to his affection for a 60-pound jackhammer. He slapped my back when I snapped up the job. To me, helping a millwright, a skilled mechanic who kept the mill’s machines running, promised a way to tolerate the desperate rut of jackhammering and shoveling, greasing the mill on Sundays. Any change of routine would do. At the same time, I worried why the job had drifted, unconsidered, down to me.

Through family connections, patrons or protectors, my cohorts on the gang either knew the millwright or had been tipped off. I found out for myself that Rocky Marschuk, one of the oldest millwrights and one of the best, had no friends. His sullen nastiness repelled anyone who dared approach, and he went through helpers like a weasel in a warren of bunnies.

I waited for Rocky in the millwrights’ shed, a ten-by-ten cell with benches along two walls, adjacent to the piercing mill. When he walked in with his lunch bucket (literally, a pail, with a lid), I hopped to my feet and introduced myself. He ignored my offered hand, only jerking his chin upward a quarter inch and glancing at me through the crossways buttonholes he had for eyes. He turned away and pulled a Dutch oven from a shelf, dropped it onto a hot plate, reached into his bucket and extracted a can of sauerkraut, cranked it open, and shook it into the pot. Then he threw in a loop of keilbasa, covered the pot and flipped on the burner. His routine.

“Ever done this job?” he asked while untying a bundle of shop rags, stuffing one into his back pocket. I told him no, and he shook his head and looked out the door at the racket of the mill. Then he walked out, scratching his stubble and mumbling “’ets go.”

He issued a silent order by pointing to a grease canister like the ones I used on Sundays, and then strode ahead of me, silently touching the fittings—nipples on the mill’s machinery that accepted grease. Their shiny brass stood out against the black motors and massive armatures. To service some fittings, we had to descend into a pit designed to catch errant pipes that were twenty feet long and glowing orange at two thousand degrees. That part of the routine scared the hell out of me. I watched and deduced that the trick was to quickly grease those machines before the pipes began to roll.

When we finished our tour of Rocky’s section of the mill, he led me back to the shed where he examined a clipboard on the wall. I stepped out of the doorway as he noticed a man wearing a blue hardhat – a production foreman – and intercepted him. Jabbing the clipboard with his finger, Rocky barked in the foreman’s ear, who nodded. All I could hear was the roar of the mill.

Behind me, ten-foot long bars traveled slowly around a donut-shaped furnace that heated them until they glowed like bright orange glass. At the end of their go-round, they fell into a slot of rollers that squeezed and stretched them as they passed through. Waiting for these nearly molten bars were the men who operated the piercing mill. One of them worked levers and pedals in a glass booth inside an A-framed structure that towered over the rollers. He controlled the propulsion of a long ramrod at the base of the machine that reared back, waiting for a soft bar to approach. Straddling the ramrod was a true roughneck, who used long tongs to fit the end of the piercing rod with a bullet-shaped bit. Once he placed the bit, the rod began spinning furiously under a torrent of cold water, then vaulted forward, ramming directly into the end of the oncoming orange bar. It reared back and rammed again and again, boring deeper each time, flakes of hot steel flying as the bar, clamped by rollers, picked up the spinning motion and finally gave way, and the piercing rod punched through, and then quickly backed out through a cloud of steam. The tortured new pipe rolled down the mill for finishing and cooling.

Howling machinery and high speed collisions made a racket that would have drowned out a submachine gun. Rocky wore no ear protection and appeared to deliver his message clearly before turning away from the worried foreman. Calmer now, Rocky stepped back into the shed, hung his orange hardhat on a spike above the hotplate, folded a couple of shop rags into a pad for his head and stretched out on the bench along the wall. The aroma of keilbasa and sauerkraut had crowded out the smell of grease and smoking steel. With closed eyes he said, “Hit the fittings at two and four-thirty. Follow me when it blows five.”  Seconds later he was snoring.

I had to leave the shed to find an older production worker and ask him what Rocky meant. The production men and women wore white hardhats. Millwrights and grunts like me in the labor gang wore orange, so we could be easily spotted deep within the mill’s darkest holes and shadows.

“Oh, you’re Rocky’s helper?  You poor bastard. Listen, do not fuck with him.”  He bowed, shook his head and spat, smearing the tobacco juice with his left boot.

“What he means is, when a piece of machinery breaks, we shut down the mill and call the millwright, givin’ the whistle five shots.” He reached up and touched a loop of steel cable attached to a steam whistle. “Time is money, and he’ll be on the move. You better fuckin’ be behind him.”

“Does he just sleep until then?”

“Pretty much. Good luck,” he said, walking away.

Everybody walked away from me. Nobody wanted to look at me, or stand near me, as if I didn’t have long to live, or at any moment, they might catch a piece of shrapnel. Back in the shed, I sat on the bench along the wall perpendicular to Rocky, leaned back against the cinder blocks and stretched out my legs, crossing one heavy steel-toed boot on top of the other, rested my hardhat on my lap and closed my eyes.

Downtime punctuated every job in the mill. Lulls and waits and periods of boredom made the days longer. On a shoveling detail, for instance, I might fill a “bucket” – a dumpster-size box – with shavings, yank the rope of an air horn, calling the overhead crane, then wait and wait for it to come by and bring me another, taking the full one away. Millwrights, though, waited to be called and the best way to bide the time was sleeping. Arcane rules prohibited card-playing and reading. And something about the rules seemed reasonable; you wouldn’t want to get too absorbed in a game or a novel.

Regardless of exhaustion, sleeping in a steel mill takes some getting used to. I stuffed my ears with soundproof fiber that looked like cotton. Wearing it was a sign of a short-timer, scared to lose his hearing and willing to risk ridicule. It made naps possible and I could hear enough. So, on this and one or two other matters, I took a hard posture inside the mill, like a convict, trying to protect myself. The attitude worked—against hazing anyway. Other rookies suffered more abuse, adding to the cruel mystique of the labor gang. In the showers, a greenhorns careless enough to bend over could be playfully violated with a bar of soap. As it turned out, nobody messed with me or Emil because they couldn’t afford to lose the two guys at the end of the line. Without us around, someone else would have to take our jobs.

Half-deaf to the mill and Rocky’s snoring, I drifted off. Every time a whistle blew, I snapped awake and instinctively reached for my hardhat. Then I’d see Rocky sleeping and I’d wait for the whistle again – only two bursts, or four. My movement woke him once. “Settle down,” he said.

The next time I woke, Rocky was kicking the soles of my boots. I followed him out, counting five on the whistle. After twenty-five years as a millwright, answering the call of five, Rocky’s subconscious had learned the drill. One of his neighbors told me that when Rocky slept on his porch across the river from J&L in Aliquippa, he woke up cussing when one of the mill’s whistles blew five. Every time I slept through the call, he gave me hell, as if I should adjust, too. “And get the goddamn cotton out of your ears.”

I stopped trying to sleep and stayed out of the shed, happy to grease my fittings on schedule and watch the mill in operation. At least once a shift, I noticed how a newly pierced pipe protested against the rollers and flared at the end, making it wobble down an incline toward the edge where I stood. One in a row of several armatures that rose up like forearms caught it, though, and sent it to another set of rollers, forcing it to comply, which I found comforting, especially because I had to stand in a pit at the bottom of that incline to grease the armatures.

Over two weeks, Rocky and I got by on fewer than ten words a day. I was happy for the break from the jackhammer and railroad maul, the insipid shovel. Rocky treated me as dismissively as he treated everyone. I found peace in it.

We were passing the pit on the way back to the shed one night when Rocky noticed a leak in one of the hoses connected to the piercing mill while it ran at full tilt, maximum production, no time for shutting down the operation. I had fixed dozens of those hoses with him, meaning he had fixed, oh, sixty thousand. Amid the hellacious racket, he fished a clamp out of his pocket, a screwdriver and channel locks from his belt, and hopped into the pit. The operation was routine, a reflex. I crouched on the wall of the pit, ready to jump in behind him but he didn’t want to be crowded, so he pushed me away with the back of his hand.

When I looked up, I saw one of the curled pipes flop out of the piercer. It jumped the first set of armatures, but I’d seen that before. The interruption in timing caused the second set of armatures to miss it entirely and allowed it to pick up speed. Guys may have been shouting at this point; I don’t know, my eardrums were protected.

By the time I screamed, Rocky was already watching the glowing three thousand-degree, one-ton pipe rumbling toward him, confident that the final set of armatures would catch it, never considering otherwise. Its flared tip canted the entire pipe into the air and sent it slamming down, dashing hot flakes through the sloping metal grate. The final set of iron arms reached up, corralling one end but slinging the other, and the pipe hopped over the armatures like a tailback at the goal line.

Rocky dropped his tools and spun, clutching the wall of the pit. I reached down, grabbed the shoulders of his shirt and fell backwards, taking him on top of me. The pipe crashed below us. He jumped to his feet, offered me his hand and yanked me up, then turned to look at the sizzling pipe, lying in the pit. “Yeah,” he said. He squeezed my arm and shook his head. I trembled from heels to hardhat.

The shift ended and word got around the locker room that Rocky had nearly been cut in half. Guys asked me questions, but I was still shaking and tried to say it was nothing. The men and women in mill prayed against all surprises, especially injury and death. Suddenly becoming a hero sounded stupid; I reeled between relief and residual terror. Adrenaline wouldn’t let go. Over and over, I kept seeing that pipe drop past Rocky’s feet. The guys rubbed my head and slapped my back, joking that maybe I should have let him die, that even in death, he’d probably wake up at the sound of five.

But Rocky knew the truth, and so did I. He thrust himself over that wall like a gymnast over a vault. I felt his raw strength. And because I felt his power, I knew he had saved himself. That’s why it was okay that he hadn’t thanked me. I hadn’t even screamed in time.

Among my fellow workers, talk held little purchase. Every time I tried to explain that I did nothing, they told me to cut it out. “Nobody’s gonna hate you for lettin’ him live… except his wife,” one guy said and everybody laughed on the way to the showers. That morning, as rare as it was for me, I had nothing to say.

Rocky, the cruel and selfish antithesis of how I saw myself, robbed me of a chance to save him. He didn’t need a hero. All these years I had been following a thread through a labyrinth, looking for every chance to slay a monster, and here I stood with only a child’s fantasy lying at my feet. Feeling Rocky’s wiry frame landing on top of me knocked the wind out of me, and cut a part of me loose. I had been freed from saving others. I could have been in that pit myself.

I drove home in my pale green Fiat, a comical hatchback I had bought for $650 earlier in the summer, and went to bed. When I awoke at three in the afternoon, I dressed for work. I could still think of nothing to say, apart from telling Betty that I was heading for the river until my shift started at eleven o’clock. She asked me what was wrong. I said I was tired. On impulse, she packed me three meatloaf sandwiches.

At the river, I found an old utility pole that had eddied out, just the way the logs had washed up for the tribes at Logstown. I sat on it and stared for a while, skipped a few stones, lay back and watched the clouds. Boredom settled in, then a trance, aided by the thlip-thlip of the water on the gravelly beach. I rolled up my jeans and dragged the log closer to the water, letting the tiny waves tickle my feet.

Christ on the cross, there he was, burnt into my consciousness by kneeling through years of masses, the ultimate hero, undeniably triggering those savior fantasies I had created as a child. In my reverie, Gatsby sauntered in, maybe because I had just read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-up. Jay, Jesus, and Fitzgerald himself—“Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy”—all followed that script. I wasn’t up to it.

But, if I could cast myself as a hero, what new role could I imagine? I let the question hang. I had nothing. All my visions of the future suddenly lost their color and slipped into a sepia of overuse and obsolescence. I grieved for them. I stared across river, until the silhouette of the power plant crept over me, its smokestacks piercing the twilight, pressing their outline into my skin like a crude tattoo, marking me as a pipe-dreaming millworker. My lofty aspirations were unreal. The smell of oil and sulphur, the taste of meatloaf and ketchup, the dying light of another day—that was real.

Two centuries earlier, I might have been sitting on a birch or pine log instead of a pole splintered by rung-holes and stained with creosote. Industry had supplanted nature here, just the way my own narrow ambitions crowded out the love that came my way from family, friends, and all those sweet women who let me hold their hands. And yet, in spite of the mills and slag piles, the lost settlements and forgotten history, the river flowed as ever, and when the stars came out, they held their place in the current.

By the time I passed through Armco’s gates again, I felt numb, calm, and vaguely privileged to return. Rich Detz, a craneman and a friend from junior high, spotted me and dropped the iron hook of his crane behind me as I walked to the locker room. He sped up, chasing me. I picked up the pace as the hook closed in on my back. We had played this game before; I ducked and it whooshed over my head. I flipped him the bird and heard him laughing as he rumbled down the roofline of the mill.

Seated in front of my locker, I bent over to tie my boots and, to this day, I can still feel my cheek pressed against the cool grease caked on my pants from the night before. My fingers began to shake. I struggled with the laces and felt the hand of the foreman on my back. “Line up for a job tonight. Rocky wants a new helper.”  My head sank to my shins. I could go back to the comforts of a shovel or jackhammer.

Emil overheard the foreman. Now he would become the millwright’s helper. I sat up, taking a deep breath of the solvents embedded in my uniform and the gooey Go-Jo we used to wash our hands. I had never imagined that stirrings of a new future would appear for me within the walls of a steel mill.

coming: Giving up or giving in — time for improvisation

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.


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