The first line of a recent horoscope I saw caught my eye. “Don’t be shocked by any déjà vu you encounter.”
Each time I return to Pittsburgh I hear about the ways that it has changed. People mention the revitalization of the Southside and E. Carson St (how long can something claim to be undergoing revitalization anyway?), the burgeoning loft apartments in Shadyside and E. Liberty and along the Allegheny River, the transformative Warhol Museum, and even the glassification of once grey, decayed buildings downtown. And how bout ‘dem Steelers last year?
But why would a city change? Why wouldn’t it remain defined and determined by the memories associated with its streets and the time spent residing there?
The music on Pittsburgh radio doesn’t change, that’s for sure. As I drove for the hundredth time along that stretch of I-279 leading from the airport to downtown Pittsburgh, I heard these songs: Sussudio by Phil Collins, Don’t Fear the Reaper by Blue Oyster Cult, I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues by Elton John, and Dancing in the Dark by Bruce Springsteen. Not out of desperation but because I had a feeling, I located Pittsburgh’s token nod to alternative music, 91.3 WYEP. Sure enough, nothing had changed there either. Lucinda Williams, John Prine, and songs that generally fall in the “close-to-Appalachian country music-sounds.” It must be alternative, right? Hello, Appalachian music hasn’t changed all that much in the past, I don’t know, 200 years. Neither has WYEP. (**You can listen to Lucinda Williams on this blog)
Pittsburgh will always be the city where I first fell in love. Really in love. Most people don’t get that gift on the first try, and believe me, it is a gift in all senses of the word. She and I knew we were in love earlier, I suspect, but in perfect love, even the timing of its announcement seems handed-down by some higher power. And so it took months and months of two-hour phone calls, hanging out at parties and movies and other group settings that aren’t really group activities, and finally, a dance sponsored by the Indian Youth Organization at a motel on Route 8 towards Butler. It was there during a Corey Hart song (It Ain’t Enough) that I asked her what her best friend at the time (and my girlfriend at the time – oh, tragedy!) would do if she knew that I liked her. It was there, after I saw the supreme, rare spark of true happiness and wonder in her eyes, and after she rested her head on my shoulder for a quick moment and held me just a little tighter as we danced, that she asked me if I would go to the prom with her. Meanwhile, Phil Collins sought out unreachable (for him) notes in Against All Odds.
Memories such as these are inescapable whenever I visit Pittsburgh, even if my parents have emptied my room of all memorabilia from that era save a Band-Aid “Feed the World” poster and my old desk that managed to be useful even though it was made for a left-hander. I’ve searched for the “revitalized” portions of the city and driven upon roads that I never knew during my childhood, yet I always end up traveling along those same portions of asphalt that break apart every year in the same places during the drops in temperature and from the pressure of gritty, unappetizing salt that is sifted onto the roads during snowstorms by dump trucks that remind me of dirty sandpaper. And on those roads I always encounter the same memories.
I’m not shocked by deja vu I encounter.
I’ve come to expect and savor these moments, and I always wonder what the people in my memories are up to these days. Of course, I’ll never try and find out for sure, will never pick up a phone and call them out of the blue or even send a hopeful email to a long-out-of-date email address. The most I’m content to do is find out occasionally and subtly from my parents whispers from the community grapevine about the people consigned to my memory. Small bits of information. As time passes, even they know less and less.
Pittsburgh will always be the city that has recorded my memories and my loss. Why does this matter? Well, below is an entry I had written on another blog in late 2005. It was called “The A.D.D. of Pittsburgh.”
Lately when I think of Pittsburgh, I begin to think of a form of A.D.D. Is it possible that this city, or this house where I spent my first 17 years growing up, and that I return to 2-3 times a year is the cause? I’m starting to connect some dots. Dot numero uno being that the house is too silent. Silence has been, ever since I remember, an invitation to a symphony of raucous proportions in my head. When it’s too quiet, I can’t concentrate. Instead, my mind begins to work in overdrive; images, phrases, ideas, flashes, figures and their like appear nearly simultaneously.
When I’m home I always think of what I could have been.
At some point, I simply retreat to ritual. Opening up the same desk drawers whose contents haven’t changed in years, or looking through the closet full of books that I know I’ve read, but can’t recall in the slightest (not even the characters, let alone meaning). I keep looking for something that has changed, but the only thing that ever changes is the arbitrary elimination of an object, the shuffling of bedsheets, or the occasional new tchotchke randomly placed by Mom.
Less and less remains of me and my associations with this place, and what does remain is frozen in place. This, I suppose, is also why my mind turns inward upon itself, and why it is particularly vulnerable to random thought. To provide an example, the following are things I’ve thought about since arriving home today: