Driving to Ohio and back in one night to see the rock show wasn’t the problem. The problem came later. Navigating two turnpikes, the streets of a foreign city called Cleveland, and a burgeoning head cold (again!) was fine. Even one day after a nine-hour drive from the North Carolina coast, I negotiated every street and highway with ease. My old high-school friend Jessie—whom I’d roped along with the promise of reliving carefree teenage rock ‘n roll jaunts—handled the internet print-out map like a champ, and filled the hours in the car with nice conversation.
The show was great; not only was the band great, they were total sweethearts when I thanked them afterwards and told them we had driven up from Pittsburgh. (Maybe also somewhat taken aback. Maybe throwing a free t-shirt at me was a way of getting the stalkerly fan from Atlanta to leave, leave, leave already.)
On the power of iced mochas from McDonalds that were decidedly foul in their cloying sweetness, we powered back down to Pittsburgh.
Here’s where it gets weird.
Jessie is staying with his mother in a neighborhood called Munhall that’s near Kennywood. He directed there me from the turnpike—through downtown streets and parkways nearly empty and lit gold with streetlights at two in the morning—and when we arrived at his mother’s house I told him I’d need written directions back to the neighborhoods that I know.
This is where we come to the truth about my hometown heritage and me. First: I am always talking about my hometown. I am always fiercely calling it that: “my hometown.” I defend it to people who think that Pittsburgh is a downtrodden, depressing little postindustrial casualty. I’m always saying vague things like, “I’d live there again if only it weren’t so cloudy.” (Cloudy it is. Jessie says he thinks of Pittsburgh as the Glasgow of the US.) But when I actually come here to visit at holidays and call up my old high school friend who went to college here, too—when I meet him at some bar in Polish Hill or Shadyside, I require precise, precise driving directions. And if I miss one turn, I get lost: lost on the winding, directionless streets that characterize this town. Or on the sudden exits to some parkway or some bridge taking you to the other side of one of three rivers and an entirely different neighborhood.
Because while yes, the statement “I grew up in Pittsburgh” is true, it is only technically true. I grew up firmly and safely ensconced in one set of neighborhoods on one side of the three rivers, south of downtown. Growing up, I rarely ventured into town except as part of a herd of teenagers going to Eides Records down by the train station, the Beehive coffeeshop out in Oakland, or Graffiti, a small rock club I-don’t-even-know-where that sometimes hosted all-ages shows. When I was a little girl, my dad worked downtown. He put on his coat and hat and took the trolley to his office building next to the old steepled church. Once he pointed it out and told me had once been white. I remember staring at it; the church was a black so solid it seemed as if it were made from some dark heavy metal rather than just stained from the years and years that the skies were filled with coal dust.
In my life in Pittsburgh, downtown was always a destination, full of attractions like the coal-black church; never the place I actually lived. So last night, when I asked Jessie for written directions back to the neighborhoods I knew, I meant it. I had no idea how to get home.
It was nearing three in the morning. We were both tired. My head ached and my ears were stopped up from my neverending Cold of ’09. He had dozed on and off on the drive home. In front of his mother’s house, he wrote down directions that would take me to Century III Mall. I could take it from there. I waved goodbye, went down his street and took a left, went down the next street and took a right, took a right at the next major intersection, drove and drove and—suddenly, a sign: “Homewood Bridge Ahead.”
For those of you not familiar with Pittsburgh, this sign is pretty much the stereotypical-punchline worst sign I could have seen. For a woman alone, Homewood is no place for a casual three-a.m. drive.
I turned around. Okay, so Jessie had made a mistake. If I was meant to go left instead of right, I would just go straight past the street I had turned from. Which was…which? I had been driving for a few minutes now and Jessie’s directions gave no street names. It was a cursory, tired, “L at next stop sign” kind of deal. So I drove straight until I came upon what seemed to be the next spot he’d noted. And turned. And drove. And drove and drove. And recognized nothing. Ten minutes later, I pulled into a gas station. The attendant, unfortunately, was from Russia, he said, and could not help me. So I kept driving. I was on a road whose name was familiar; the problem was that during thirteen years of once- or twice-annual visits back to Pittsburgh, the precise identities of most city roads had become vague to me. This way seemed right, but nothing looked familiar.
I was listening to a station playing pre-Renaissance choral music; beautiful, ethereal stuff perfect for dead-of-the-night driving, only through some glitch every 45 seconds or so, a prerecorded man’s voice came in and interrupted with, “This is WBRU, Newcastle!” I began to feel like I was driving through a Joy Williams short story. Nothing looked familiar. I pulled into an Extended Stay and rang the bell at the desk. “Oh, you’re right near the mall,” promised the friendly desk clerk. “Just keep goin’.” Can you just drive me there? I felt like asking her. I felt close to that kind of pleading. It was the weird choral music and my exhaustion that somehow kept me going. I had driven nine hours the day before. Two days before that, I drove seven hours. My natural, inertial state seemed to be to drive the earth for hours on end while the rest of humanity rested, dreamed.
I drove on. Finally, I saw signs for a familiar neighborhood near the one where I’d grown up. Hooray! I followed the signs, but ended up in a set of strange residential streets. I turned around, picked another road with a familiar name. I ended up at a dead-end near a bar called Fritos just across a set of railroad tracks. I turned around and after a few minutes, I was driving through the huge park where I’d gone to Brownie Day Camp as a child and to hang out aimlessly as a teenager. The two-lane road wound through huge, snowy silent hills. My headlights illuminated majestic tree branches that held shelves of snow. It was lovely and dreamlike and, like dreams, completely baffling. I didn’t remember the park having so many side roads; how was I now, one random night in my thirty-first year, driving every single one of them? I dead-ended at a horse corral. I turned around. I came upon another gas station, miraculously built in the middle of the park. The guy inside, with his long ponytail and heavy-metal ball-cap, reminded me of friends I’d had in high school. He was easygoing and sympathetic. He gave me directions out of the park, to the *one* intersection I’m familiar with in that entire neighborhood. Finally, I drove home. It was half past three.
And I couldn’t stop thinking of how it seemed my childhood home had just turned on me; how alien the place actually is, how, even when I think I’m in my parents’ house, the one I grew up in, maybe I’m not home. If you only know a few sets of streets around your immediate dwelling, it seems dishonest to really refer to a place as your hometown. It seems dreadfully dishonest to assign it this set of nostalgic feelings that makes you vulnerable to everything the place is. Other places, you might distrust or hold yourself back from—but home, that’s different.
When had I started attaching such unrestrained wistfulness to my every mention of this town that I had passed eighteen years on the edges of but never fully inhabited—not really? How had I managed to let that detail slip from even my own reminiscences, from my own personal picture of the place? And where was home? It wasn’t in the beachtown I had just visited, where I had lived for three years and made some dear, dear friends. Some part of my mind still wouldn’t let it be Atlanta, where I had lived most of my adult life before then and to where I had now returned to live. I wanted one geographical place to stand still and be unequivocally mine; each refused.
Now, in the bright glare of the next day, the view out of the back window of this room that used to be my bedroom is still the most familiar view I’ve ever known. It seems safe. It seems real enough, or at least, real enough to do that restorative thing that we ask of any trip home. Last night seems like a strange vision; still, I don’t particularly want to get into my car today. I don’t want to go anywhere.