I’m drinking a beer with my brother Pat and my sister-in-law Karen in a cool beer bar in the Pittsburgh suburbs. Along with nail salons/spas, these places have sprung up all over this town. Beer on tap and pedicures, two of the few remaining things you can’t buy online.
My father and his wife live in an apartment building on a hill overlooking my old high school, across the street from the library I grew up in. Mt. Lebanon Public Library is where I stood among the shelves reading Mary McCarthy’s The Group, missing the snark and wit and social commentary and going straight for the sex. That book weighed a ton, it’s a wonder I never developed much upper body strength. Today I ducked in to use the library wifi to download a few new books on my stepmother’s Nook.
They’re ninety one and two, my dad and his wife. She just got out of the hospital due to a broken pelvis and he wants to wait on her, protect her, but she won’t let him – she’s that tough. My father used to be my fiercest foe, or so it felt. He was the one who could push all my buttons and make me feel the shittiest. How can I feel fury towards him now, when I ring the buzzer to get in the door to his building and he says on the intercom “Are you downstairs?”
I’m staying up the street in a new hotel. It sits right next to the building where my orthodontist, Dr. Sassouni, would tighten the metal bands on my teeth. The view from my hotel room window is the same one I’d see when I was writhing in pain. My first night here I barely slept at all. I could just feel the hills out my door too much – the cemetery we’d cut through to smoke cigarettes and get home a little quicker from high school. The brick of the houses a particular color I’d never even noticed before, but I’ve been a lot of places now and seen a lot of brick and nowhere else has that color. This is where I grew up.
Usually I’m playing a gig when I visit Pittsburgh — I even wrote a song about that particular experience. This time I’m just visiting for a few days, family visit. To say I was here last year and the year before is not entirely true, when being here involved a soundcheck, the post-gig rehash and either Cleveland or Philadelphia the next day. It’s definitely been a few years since I just hung out. I should do this more often.
I go to pick my brother John up at the streetcar stop down by the old Grove roundhouse, where they held teen dances when I was young. I start off using the GPS and then think, wait, I know these streets, but I only know them as I’m driving them, a muscle memory from over forty years ago kicking in. The topography of Pittsburgh is extreme and my calves almost start aching as I roll up and down crazy hills. My older brother waves me down by the tunnel where our mom used to honk the horn of her orange Ventura once for every kid in the car. The best was when she had to do five quick hard blasts in the very short tunnel, an overpass really. With the reverb, it was cacophony.
My mom opened an antiques and country crafts store when we’d all gone away to college and the army and New York City. She really came into her own with this shop, in her fifties. Now my brother and his wife and I are drinking beer in the space where she displayed her flea market finds and quilts and wreaths so proudly. Over the noise of a Penguins hockey game, we try to explain to the cute young bartender, “Our mother had a store here!” We try to describe what it was, what it meant getting jumbled up with “isn’t it crazy, we’re all sitting here drinking beer now?!” Patrick describes how, if a customer wanted a piece of furniture that wasn’t in the shop, our mother would run home and grab a chair or coffee table from the living room, hustle back to the store and sell it. While the beer crowd cheers hockey, we laugh and laugh. This was our mother’s place; aside from the tunnel with us kids and the honking, maybe the place she was her happiest ever.
The past, and the memory of my mother, feels so alive, even with the craft beer and Penguins on ice, or maybe because of it. I should do this more often.