Pittsburgh

As I go careening through the world in this life of mine (have you ever noticed how ‘careen’ and ‘career’ differ by only one letter?), I seem to leave scattered fragments of memory in my wake. I think that’s why I keep going back: as I walk down the cobblestone street from somewhere in my past, I’ll catch the glint of some bauble that triggers a flood of images from my past. This lamp post – I stopped, and put my hand against it, leaning heavily as I looked up the hill in the fog. Those wet leaves scattered across the path, left over by a long hard winter… you get the idea. And I’m such a pack rat – my desk is piled high with talismans I’ve picked up to remind me what I’ve been, and where.

I spent much of the last week in Pittsburgh, picking out bits of those memories. We didn’t go for that purpose – it was spring break for the kids, and we went to see old friends. But I found myself tracing my old steps and looking for that glint, those baubles, to remind me of what we were those four turbulent wonderful awful formative years.

Schenley Park: the road that – once – I knew. Winter-matted leaves steaming under the warm sun, Spring come at last. That playground – looking back, spinning, spinning, until – oh, until I don’t know what. But I remembered the spinning, and the leaves.

The Strip – the crazy industrial warehouse area turned fashionable, squeezing through the sidewalk markets of buskers, hawkers and fresh-baked baklava. The smell of the sawdust-traced floors of Penn Mac (the Pennsylvania Macaroni Company) stacked high with cases of olive oil from the old country, dried nuts and, of course, more pasta than you could safely shake a wooden spoon at.

I stopped in there, at the counter where “the cheese lady” – a Pittsburgh institution in her own right – would bustle back and forth at the crowd of shoppers, often three deep, offering advice and samples for the curious, and calling everyone “dear heart”. The counter had been moved over to the far wall of the building and expanded to twice its length. A courteous but indifferent metal-pierced young man asked if there was something he could help me with. I told him I needed a few minutes, and tried to stave off one of those you-can’t-go-home-again moments.

But it was okay. I asked for a wedge of Huntsman cheddar – I couldn’t ever seem to find Huntsman cheddar back in California – and a bit of Stilton.

Then out across the street, threading the narrow covered stalls of… oh, I don’t think I ever knew its name. They sell fresh veggies, almost like at a farmers market, but shrink-wrapped, and cradled in Styrofoam cartons.

I paused and let one of my earliest memories from Pittsburgh rise and wash over me. Andrew was trying to recruit me out to JPRC; he and Donna had taken me out to The Strip (“No, it’s not what you think!”) for a morning of shopping. He wanted to show me that Pittsburgh had shaken its steel town past, that it had something to offer progressive young eco-minded folks like us.

I remember walking with them out of the still-lingering morning haze into the shadow of these awnings in search of fresh local veggies. Green peppers – that’s what Donna was after, and I remember them both making sure I noticed their disapproval of the Styrofoam and shrink wrap. Ah, the compromise, and the irony.

And here, now, I stood out of the way and watched a young couple heft a pair of plastic-cocooned beets, look at each other in eyebrows-raised resignation, and drop the beets into their basket. They were standing on almost precisely the same spot as Andrew and Donna, twelve years ago.

Then tracing my steps on Craig Street, backward through time. One failed startup after another. Oh, if only we knew then what we know now – how it would All Turn Out – would that have made it any easier? Stupid question – of course it would have.

There are bricks in pavement on Craig St. from which, when I pause, memory blossoms so vividly that for a while I am no longer in the here and now, but back to that time. Defining moments, captured in the snapshot flash of my mind, and stored away: you will remember this when it is time. Now, maybe, it was time, and I walked through the garden of memories, indulging each as I passed.

There was so much earnest promise in these streets, again and again. And each year, as the bloom fell, we sank back down in the rains, wiped the spattered mud from our brow, and hunkered down to try again. It was less than four years we spent here, but it was enough to ride the promise of three shiny new companies down into smoking craters. To find ourselves, each year, a little grayer, with a little less of our innocence – and savings – left.

Here, in the shadow of the PNC Bank: I would buy lilies for Devon. She missed the lilies we used to get in California – enormous stargazers that would fill the house with their perfume. But the ones I could get here only ever lasted a couple of days. And the man who sold them paced the sidewalk angrily, as if daring someone to come buy from him. Perhaps it was his glowering stare that wilted the flowers?

And here – one of my last memories of Craig St: we were moving out of the office above the deli. Out of the glorious bare-masonry arched ceiling office that Annette had found for us in headier days. DigitalMC’s so-called clients said they loved us, loved our technology, but their bosses weren’t quite ready to sign – really, just another month or two. And finally, when the rent money ran out, we carried the chairs and computers downstairs, out, into the rain, to put in our cars and drive away. The barber across the hall was disappointed – he like having us as neighbors. Where were we moving? Oh, to some nice space over on Wilkins, and I changed the subject as quickly as I could. Wilkins was a residential street – we were putting everything in Annette’s attic.

Sliding the last of the servers into the back of my Honda, I slipped – crunched my hand and banged my head against the raised tailgate. It hurt like hell, and I was so angry and ashamed and hurt and wet and muddy.… I looked up at the window of that old office, wiped my forehead and tasted the blood mixed with rain on my hand. Of course I would remember this, and of course I would look back on it. I knew that. But from where?

From now. From nine years and a lifetime away. From a life where it’s hard to remember how slim the chances were that brought us here.

Then, in the now, there was a momentary glint – the lesson, why I had to remember all this. It was there, just under the surface, and I knew I had to sift carefully, slowly, not to let it fall away. It was a strange feeling, it really was. But it felt like I’d buried something there in my mind, stored away for that time that I needed to retrieve; what was it?

I stood there, on this warm afternoon, closed my eyes again, and it came to me slowly: I was supposed to pay attention to what happened next.

Cryptic? Yeah, I guess, a little. But as I said, I spend a lot of time reminiscing when I travel. Most often at the sites of important decisions – all too often bad decisions, where I find myself retracing the steps, pausing, making it come out differently this time. Saying the right thing, or saying “I’m sorry”, or just not saying anything. Tracing the steps over and over until I’ve worn a groove in my memory that leads the tortured stream of that mistake down into a new path: the way it should/would/will have been when it all happens again some day.

Standing in the rain that day, I knew that the exact details of what I did next would stay with me, for better or worse, That I would play it over and over again, for the rest of my life.

I thought about that.

Then I closed the tailgate as slowly and carefully as I could, climbed in at sat down in the drivers seat. Took a few minutes of slow, sobbing deep breaths to let some of the grief wash away. And then, when I felt confident enough to drive, I started the car and drove to Annette’s. Hauled the servers up to her attic, plugged them in, sat down at the salvaged door-for-a-desk and got back to work.

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