This is a guest post by by Robert Yune who contributed in response to the American Vignette call for submissions. The setting is Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Enjoy!
Pittsburgh. Steel city. Iron City (beer). Distance from Morgantown, West Virginia: 78 miles. Pittsburgh, the “Paris of the Appalachias.” Distance from Paris, France: 3,987 miles.
True story: she grabbed her bottom lip and pulled it to the side. “Heah,” she said, pointing. She had the Steelers logo tattooed on her gums. She let go, rubbing her face. “Just wanted to be true to my roots.” The Steelers don’t have cheerleaders—what’s the point?
Pittsburgh: eighty days of sunlight a year. Andy Warhol had to flee to sunny New York. The Warhol Museum downtown has a fully stocked bar—it’s the first thing you see when you walk through the door. Their happy hour sucks.
Working steel mills in Pittsburgh: The imposing Edgar Thomson plant in
Braddock, the Irvin Works plant in Dravosburg, the Clairton coke plant, the U.S. Steel plant in the Mon Valley. How many does your city have?
Oakland is a busy neighborhood in east Pittsburgh, a “cultural district” that contains a business district, three universities, residential neighborhoods and several hospitals, all crammed into half a square mile. Hospitals. There are five thousand, seven hundred and fifty-nine hospitals in the United States and most of them are in Oakland, situated amidst a maze of one-way streets and conveniently located atop one of the steepest hills in the nation—Pitt students call it “Cardiac Hill” as they pant their way to Trees Hall. Let’s pour out some liquor for the old stadium before we roll downhill. The new stadium—sorry, “events center”— looks like an Austrian Museum of Banking.
Downhill to the Cathedral of Learning. In the 1920s, Chancellor Bowman commissioned the structure, prompting workers and students to call it “Bowman’s erection.” No one knows why it was built: I like to picture Chancellor Bowman enjoying the panoramic view of Oakland from his castle-like mansion overlooking the city. You know what this area needs? he says to no one in particular. A thirty-six floor gothic skyscraper. He throws his snifter of brandy on his lead crystal window, watches a tall amber stain run drip onto Forbes Avenue, the new axis upon which Oakland would turn. He turns and pulls his robe tight around his chest. We’ll begin tomorrow.
“Spare some change? Spare some change?” Shake your head and the beggar, a skinny man in a dirty blue bomber jacket, will move on. A few feet and you can’t even hear him. Amidst the sound of the bus’ massive diesel engine, there are blaring horns muted through the windows. “Aw hell no,” the man stuck in traffic says into his cell phone. “Goddamn Pitt students.” Indeed. It’s Arrival Survival week, meaning a swarm of bright-eyed Pitt freshmen are descending upon Oakland. They push their belongings in giant yellow carts, laundromat-sized, with PITT HOUSING stamped on the side. One student has his filled entirely with ramen noodles. And then there’s the usual: computers, clothes, vacuum cleaners, fans, mini refrigerators. As the traffic inches by, you spot a freshman girl pushing a cart filled to the top with stuffed animals.
“Got any change, change?” Meet Sombrero Man, one of Oakland’s many panhandlers. His broad, dirty face is shaded by an authentic-looking straw sombrero. Occasionally, Freshmen steal his hat and hang it like a trophy outside their dorm windows. He always gets a new one, though. No one knows from where.
Sombrero Man’s on the move, and so are we. It’s a dense neighborhood—this entire tour only covers about four blocks. Now we’re passing another Oakland landmark: Diplodocus carnegii, the huge bronze dinosaur outside the Carnegie Museum of Art. It’s tall and as long as a school bus, its thin neck stretching to overlook Forbes Avenue.
Oh yeah. This happens a lot during Arrival Survival—and here, you thought it was just a clever rhyme. There’s a poorly marked intersection where Forbes Avenue changes from being a two-way street and abruptly becomes a one-way. If you don’t turn down a side street, you face the very real prospect of a head-on collision with four lanes of oncoming traffic. Next to this intersection is the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. It’s a huge stone building adorned with statues: bronze Copernicus and Shakespeare guard the entrance. From the roof, statues of great pioneers and architects gaze down pitilessly at the scene below. A minivan stops in the middle of this trap/intersection. Horns blare. As it attempts a K-turn, a few cars speed around it.
Speaking of transportation, there’s one last thing I’d like to show you—“Excuse me, excuse me,” a young man in a red shirt says, interrupting me. He runs ahead of us, facing us and walking backwards. “Please, my man,” he says to me. He’s in his early twenties, white, with a scraggly mustache and a neon green baseball hat. We stop. I exhale in disgust. “My car broke down on the Boulevard of the Allies yesterday.”
“Sorry,” I say.
“It’s out of the shop, I mean they’re done with it in the shop—you know the Exxon down there—and anyways I need it to get to work.” I tell him I don’t have any money. “Come on,” he says, looking at you, pleading. He says there’s four grand worth of tools in the back. He can repay you. His inflection is so perfect, his eyes pleading. He could be faking, or is that genuine sorrow behind the “I’m ashamed I have to ask” tone? That look in his eyes…one can’t fake that, right?
Enough. I say something rude to him and walk away. You look back at the man—maybe you’re even wondering if you have any ones or fives. He’s good. And maybe he’s telling the truth. Either way, that’s the third time his car has broken down this week.
“Time Capsule, Pittsburgh, 2005” is an excerpt adapted from Robert Yune’s first book, EIGHTY DAYS OF SUNLIGHT, forthcoming July 2014 from Thought Catalog Books. Yune received a fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts in 2008. His stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Avery, and Los Angeles Review, among others. He currently teaches fiction and composition at the University of Pittsburgh.