Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005


It's under suboptimal conditions -- leaving my eight-month-old car with my beloved Polish Hill mechanic (if you ever need a killer mechanic, as honest as the day is long, drop me a line) -- that I find myself on Bigelow Boulevard this morning walking on the crumbled downhill sidewalk toward downtown to the next 77A/B/C bus stop, below the second pedestrian overpass from the Bloomfield Bridge. The cacophany of high-speed traffic speeding by on my left is enough to chew up what ration I have of early-morning tolerance; by the time the angry blat of an engine-braking rig subsides, I'm scaling the chainlink fence to my right and keening skyward in a voice that only slowly comes back to me as a lull in the traffic follows a change in the traffic signal.

Embarrassed, I unhook the fingers of my right hand, move it down to my hip where I thread it back through the links and begin the process of returning myself to the sidewalk, checking over my shoulder to be sure that my bus isn't just around the bend. I'll run to get to the stop in time if I have to, congestion and all, and I'll climb aboard blue-faced and winded with a smile, anything to get away from the incessant rush of traffic speeding toward downtown, which hastens to arrive there it will inevitably start wishing it could go back the other way. I know these people. I know myself.

There's no bus in sight.

I resume my modest progress toward the second footbridge, ears ringing and heart pounding, and chastise myself for not remembering that I could have taken an alternate foot route that would have shielded me from Bigelow until I was just downhill from my stop. But I'm out of practice; whereas my last car had me at the shop every three or four months, it seemed, I'm spoiled now, unaccustomed to a car that starts and runs and seems to enjoy his life a great deal (yes, "his" -- this weekend, after he put up a hell of a fight under adverse conditions, I named him Luther, a strong name he fully earned) . I fancy myself the reason, but he seems a car designed to have fun, so he probably would enjoy himself with anyone who would let him run. Of course, very few people, even among those inclined to pay the premium money for a race-tuned sports-compact, would run him like I do. But then he doesn't know that. It's so rare that any of us recognize our own good fortune.

Anyway, enough with the personified car. He -- it, after all, is just a car.

So back to Bigelow: I'm walking toward the bus stop in the morning fog that slowly lifts like a stage curtain, trying in vain to block out the racket of passing vehicles, looking over my shoulder every so often to confirm that the bus has not yet rounded the bend, and that a tractor trailer isn't bearing down on me intent on tossing aside the thin concrete barriers (which I imagine wouldn't protect me from so much as a Range Rover moving at moderate speed) in lethal pursuit, and trying to avoid puddles that will force water through the porous leather soles of my rain-inappropriate italian shoes. (I simply will not wear galoshes. I've come to prefer the consequences of my stubborness to what I might gain by changing my mind. In my humble opinion, there's only one good reason to wear "rubbers.")

To my right, as I near my objective, a few sad houses slouch on their knees against the sidewalk, benumbed and benighted with soot and road grime, eyes slit in mockery of sleep must elude them like water eludes Tantalus. Unlike so many houses dotting thoroughfares in well-off parts of the country, these houses have no shield against the frenzied back and forth sinewaves of traffic to and from downtown, no armor except their grimy vinyl siding, their bloodstreams the povery-stricken, equally set-upon families that choose to live there, in houses they surely must have selected in full knowledge of what they were getting into, as I imagine Bigelow is older than the number just about any ordinary family's eldest members' house-buying years.

And so this does happen. People live in trailers in tornado alley. They build and restore and rerestore ramshackle cottages on floodplains. People live in broken down homes because they have no choice. They rent, because they need three bedrooms for their children but can't afford even to think about owning; or they own for similar reasons but for their good fortune in somehow cobbling together enough money at one time to secure a mortgage. Indeed, nothing should be more self-evident to me, in this particular neighborhood, on the ribbon of dilapidated pavement that separates this end of the Hill District from Polish Hill, each neighborhood comprised in significant proportion of houses I can't begin to imagine living in, virtually all of which are called home by some handful of people, a family or a young working-class couple, or perhaps an heir who took the property when her last parent died because she didn't know what else to do. There's nothing extraordinary about this.

But the porches -- they're what get me. These porches, narrow, painted in gray peeling away to reveal aqua peeling away to reveal seafoam, sided in vinyl and viewed through a sliding window far smaller than the original window in that opening must have been. Porches of plywood and clapboard and poured concrete riddled with injuries like giant bites that reveal it's dry-rotten entrails of gravel and dust, which bleed into dusty cones on the sloped and sagging floors. And on one of these porches, an old steel chair, rustoleum'd within an inch of its asphyxiating life, preserved in its misery, forlorn in one corner of a porch. On the next porch, a glider, its plywood platform exposed by the absence of cushions, perhaps taken in for the winter, which thought merely reinforces the suggestion prompted by these two unlikely pieces of furniture: that people actually sit on these porches for recreational purposes.

Do these houses lack back porches or decks that look down into the valley from a vantage shielded by the house from the worst of the traffic noise? I'd rather play Boggle in the basement with a pre-literate buffoon than so much as smoke a cigarette on any of these porches, where for all the CO one probably inhales smoking seems redundant. The thought of trying to sleep behind one of the low-enough-to-touch second-floor windows, even when closed, gives me chills. And my stomach turns at the thought of the exhaust stench the room would collect were the window left open for any significant period of time, as evidenced by the blackening residue in the corners of these homes' siding and splintered and peeling porch supports and everywhere else in sight.

At the busstop, I'm restive. I can't stand still. I move to the lee of the pedestrian overpass but then I can't see my bus's approach (soon, please be soon). I move to the other side of the stairs, and step back away from the road, but the noise appears to rebound from the concrete beside me in a reverberating process that's more horrifying than walking down the side of the road was. I pace back and forth in a futile lowercase t, resigning myself to my discomfort, wondering what it would be like to try to have a friendly conversation as I walked by one of those porches if someone were sitting there. A conversation in which "excuse me?" and "what" mortar together the bricks of whatever smalltalk we might muster before surrendering to the impossibility of sharing ideas under such adverse circumstances.

And this -- all of this: this is somebody's morning symphony. His cup of joe. Her orange juice and newspaper (delivered to the downhill side of the house, ostensibly, though the thought of a maverick paper boy racing down Bigelow Boulevard is not without its charm). Someone's communion with humanity each day. And it could be mine, had things gone differently. It still could be; I assume nothing.

And I count my blessings.


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