While visiting Pittsburgh, I’ve been captivated and controlled by the overwhelming pull of nostalgia. Everywhere I turn, every corner I round, recollections lie in wait, surfacing as the opportunities present. History lies in every nook and cranny of this town for me, and I confront the specters of my past no matter where I look.
Driving through my old neighborhood hit me hard, the houses cloistered together, less space than I recall between them, crowded in by the flora and fauna that have overtaken the gaps, the green almost overpowering everything. No matter where my eyes wandered, they soaked in crumbling houses, years of poverty and neglect taking their toll on the worn, dusty siding and slowly weakening wooden porches, the steps sloping and buckled. This place tells a story of people who work too hard for entirely too little, those who spent their lives in one place, only dreaming as far as their next paycheck could carry them. My parents were hard workers, but they were also fortunate to be in professions other than manual labor, and as soon as they had the means, when I was a college student, they escaped to a borough five minutes away with larger, well maintained homes and better schools.
I gazed at the curve and angle of the streets where they converged, remembering the sensation of rounding those bends on my bicycle, tires swishing along the concrete, or how familiar landmarks would present themselves as I turned a corner walking these streets, signaling my approximate distance from home. In my mind’s eye, the softball field sitting tall on the hill was lit in the dusk for an evening game, and the candy store on the main road above was no longer a boarded storefront, but bustling with neighborhood kids buying penny candy and cans of pop. I remembered the descent and ascent along the steep hill to and from my Catholic school, where I first discovered the existence of religion, and that people take it seriously.
The asphalt of the basketball court at the abandoned school above my street sat silent, the wire of its fence twisted and tortured. This was the spot where I spent most of my summer nights watching boys I crushed on dribble and shoot, its floor marbled with cracks, tiny green weeds struggling to survive in its divisions. It’s amazing anything can grow there at all, with the scorching power of the sun soaked by the black top, yet tufts of vibrant shoots manage, and the irony is not lost on me that I am one of them.
My former home looked tired, its white siding dirty and grey in patches, the wood frame around the windows decaying and splintered, the black paint now faded and chipped. I looked at the tiny back porch roof, where I would climb outside and sit on hot summer nights, hoping for a breeze and relief. I drove by the houses of my childhood friends, heard their voices echoing in the alleyways and in the wind, calling my name, as if I were pedaling too fast for them to catch up.
Earlier in the day, I had driven to the campus of my former high school campus, which was an imposing convent where my education was doled out in the basement. Wandering along the outside of the gigantic mansion, compact windows cut into the stone to let in blocks of light, I realized how much of my becoming was predicated on not having enough sunlight to grow and become. Standing there on the hillside, overlooking the dilapidated town below, I felt the same energy I had when I was an anxious teenager: a persistent desire to venture beyond those walls and the constraints that held me back. There was so much that was kept in shadows, and that I never felt comfortable about inside myself, until I left that dungeon, and left home.
Most of the people who grow up here stay here, and don’t venture beyond the city, let alone the neighborhoods where they grow. And while I feel there is an intimacy that can be established with a lifetime of depth established and explored in one location, that has never been my path. I have always been too hungry for different experiences and for the world outside my door and beyond. Everything is a constant reminder that I am an anomaly.
At the same time, I love the familiarity here, like discovering an old lover in the dark and knowing where every curve and slope leads, being able to feel my way around with comfort. So much more stays the same despite superficial changes. Rather, it is me that returns evolved, memories intact…welcoming every ghost.
Reflections of a woman spawned in a cement cocoon...