WHY I LIKE PITTSBURGH
by Joseph Lisowski
t's eight o'clock, and the phone rings. My wife answers and brings it
into the dining room where I'm sitting, my face just a few inches above my first cup of morning coffee.
"It's for you," she says.
"Huh? Who is it?" The words are having a tough time coming out of my throat.
"I think it's Eddie," she whispers.
I take the phone. "Hey," I mumble.
"Skipper, it's me, Eddie. What are you doing right now?"
"Well, uh, I gotta drive my wife to work."
"Yeah, and then what? I think maybe we could do something."
I start to wake up. "After I drop her, I'm going to the university. I'll be back here about 12:30. Maybe we can have lunch."
"That'll be tight. I just didn't want you to think that I forgot about you, that's all." We had been out drinking beer two weeks ago, and I wondered what he was up to.
"How about tomorrow morning. I'm free then."
"Naw, I don't know what I'll be doing tomorrow. I'm in charge of the morning shift today and don't have to do nothing. You know I ran into Russ's little brother the other day, and he says that he lives on Wiggins Street in Polish Hill, last house on the block."
"Look, I can be here at 11:30. How's that?"
"Good. I'll come by and pick you up in the police car."
Eddie is a guy I hung around with when I was fifteen. Along with the normal crap that kids do, we started a rock and roll band--me, Eddie, and Tom--Vic Sanchez and the Santurians. Eddie, of course, was Vic. I became Spike, and Tom was Russ, a name he still uses. I had been out of the city for twenty-three years, and last fall I get a call from Eddie, who I hadn't seen since we were maybe seventeen. So we get together, catch up on old times, and see each other about once a month since. Eddie told me he tried to contact Russ but, at best, was only able to get a phone number where he could be reached. He called a few times, but Russ always had an excuse why he couldn't meet. I had seen Russ in the Coney Island, a greasy spoon on the corner of 45th and Butler just before I left on my twenty-three year odyssey . He was sitting in a booth, shovelling the meatloaf sandwich special into his mouth. I sat down across from him. "Hey, long time, big guy. Where have you been? How's it going?" I said.
"All right," he said between forkfuls.
"Yeah, what's you doing?"
"I heard you joined the Air Force. Is that right?" I motioned to the waitress to bring me a cup of coffee.
"No more," he said with his mouth full.
"What? You just can't quit. Don't they throw you in jail or something."
"They tried." He scooped the last lump of heavy mashed potatoes off his plate, spread some of the thick gravy onto it with his fingers, and shoved it into his mouth. I waited for him to finish swallowing.
"They came and got me. Put me on the train back to the fort. I jumped off."
"What? You mean you went A.W.O.L. from A.W.O.L.? And you're back
here. Aren't they sure to get you?"
"Who gives a shit." He pushed his empty plate aside, slid out of the booth and left, sticking me with the bill.
The last I heard about him was from a former student of mine who told me that Russ was the biggest dealer of acid, pot, PCP, and Angel Dust in the 10th ward, but that was a long time ago. At 11:30, a police car, with large decals--SWAT SGT--pulls up in front of my house. Eddie taps the horn, and I come out in the lightly falling rain. The temperature is in the mid-forties, a welcome relief from the zero weather and blizzard we had the week before.
"Well, are we gonna find Russ?" I say as we turn on to Stanton Ave. "I was up there this morning, just cruisin'. Found Wiggens Street.
Yeah, we'll go up there after lunch, if you want." He then talks about his daughter's wedding, which is Saturday, and how he just delivered a cashier's check for $11,000 to the caterer. And how when he got married, it cost $600, and he had to pay for it. Got nothing from his parents but a fifty dollar bill. Of course, they were poor, even poorer than my family.
We turn right on Butler Street and go down to 57th where he parks next to place called Neid's Hotel. Inside, the place is pretty much a dive but not too dirty. Besides, they serve a great fish sandwich. We talk more about the wedding plans, and then about me not being able to find work. This bothers him. And he's always coming up with friendly suggestions. "What about business, huh? Have you tried that?"
"I didn't like it. I worked for a C.P.A. firm for a while. Couldn't stand it."
"What?" He gives me one of those looks like I just spit in his soup.
"A C.P.A. firm, accounting."
"Naw, I mean business. Like plumbing, carpentry, something like that."
"I worked for this old guy who built houses, sort of like an apprentice. That was pretty good, but jeez, that's what, twenty years ago."
"If I had to do it again, I mean if I wasn't on the job, plumbing is what I'd do. It's real shitty work, but the money's good."
"Damn, Eddie, you're an electrician. You make good bucks when you're moonlighting."
"Plumbers make more."
"What the hell do you want to go do something you hate when you're already making enough?"
"Security. That's what it's all about. Hey, when you get old, there ain't gonna be no one to take care of you. Say you get sick or something and can't buy the medicine. You can't go nowhere, you can't do nothing. You just sit in your one room dump and ain't got nothing but a bowl of soup."
"Eddie, you own your own house!"
"Yeah, but inflation, and then you won't be able to pay your taxes. The city comes and takes it away."
"Jesus, you're gonna get three quarters pay as pension next year. You mean you can't live comfortably on that?"
"I can. Now." He points a thick finger at my face. "But the future, that's different. You got to be prepared."
I let out a deep breath and finish my fish sandwich. He grabs the check before I do and pays it. We go back out into the rain.
"Why is it," he says once we're back on the road, "whenever we get together we talk about this heavy shit?"
I ignore his question and say instead, "how about stopping by the post office, I got some letters to send."
"No, query letters about the novel I just finished."
"Hey, I've been meaning to finish it, but, shit, with the wedding and all. Besides, I ain't much of a reader." In the fall I gave him a copy of an abridged version of the first draft.
So I drop the letters at the post office, and he takes some side streets until we're at the intersection of Herron and Liberty. He turns left up the steep hill which leads to that section of the city where Russ lives, or at least where we think he lives. Polish Hill is bound on the south by Bigelow boulevard, a major artery leading to the downtown business district. To the north is Liberty Avenue, which runs parallel to the river and the warehouse district. The Bloomfield Bridge lies to the east, and to the west is nothing but ravines. As a result, there are a lot of dead end streets in Polish Hill. Eddie goes up the serpentine road and makes a right turn, slowing the police car to fifteen miles an hour.
"I think it's down here," he says as we look for a side street to take. There are none, and he stops at the metal barrier at the end of the street. It takes four turns of the wheel before he gets the car to face out. We try another street and before long come upon Wiggins, a narrow dead-end street. He stops the car at its mouth. "Yeah," he removes his foot from the brake and the car coasts, "his brother says it's the house on the corner." We drift down to the end. On the left and set back about twenty yards from the sidewalk are three new townhouses which could be condos.
"Want me to try that one?" I point to the last building.
"Naw, Russ wouldn't live in modern shit like that. He's never had a job. Where would he get the money? Forget I said that." He swings into the drive of the last house, backs out, and goes up the street.
"Maybe this place," he says.
I look at a tan, wood frame house. "Why not. I'll check it out." And open the car door. Four concrete steps lead to its entrance. On the landing, I open the screen door and knock. I sense movement inside, but no one comes to the door. I knock again, wait about ten seconds, and knock again. The door opens. An emaciated old woman in a faded house dress, her gray hair brittle, thin, with a clump missing above her left temple, looks at me through frameless lenses, thick as the bottom of coke bottles. Her eyes are bright blue and remind me of the crayon color of cornflower.
"Hello," I say, trying out my best smile, "does Russ Lapinski live here?"
"Lapinski," she repeats in a heavy Polish accent. "No, no Lapinski."
"Oh, sorry to bother you. Do you know if he lives around here? I'm an old friend of his."
She gives me a blank stare. Her eyes seem to be painted to her face.
"He's about my height, heavy set, blond hair which is probably in a pony tail." I gesture, trying to maintain a friendly, non-threatening posture. Maybe you've seen him around? I was told he lives at the end of the block."
"I don't know," she says at last. When her lips move, her cheeks seem to collapse. "Not down there." She points a bony finger across her chest in the direction of the new townhouses. "Try up street." She nods in that direction as if she'd expended an afternoon's worth of energy by pointing.
"Thank you," I say. "I'm sorry to have bothered you." I walk down the steps under her gaze.
I lean into the car and tell Eddie that Russ doesn't live there. I catch sight of an old man who seems to have materialized out of nowhere. He's standing a few feet from the front of the vehicle.
"Maybe this guy knows," I say to Eddie and walk up to him. The rain starts to fall a little more heavily.
"Hi," I say, "I'm looking for an old friend of mine. Russ Lapinski. I heard he lives up here."
"Never heard of him," the old man says. Then I repeat my description of Russ.
"Nope. Been living here since 1955." He points to the vacant lot to his left. I look at the empty space. "Not here. Before they tore it down. Don't know nobody like you say. Maybe you ought to ask Dombroski," he looks at the SWAT decal on the car. "He drives triple deuces."
"Yeah, well thanks anyway," I wave at him and return to Eddie. I open the passenger door and am about to go in when I notice a car pull out of the garage of the last condo. "Wait," I say to Eddie, "there's a guy about our age in a car down there. I'll ask him."
I stand next to the car and look down the street, figuring that when he drives by I'll flag him. The car, however, doesn't move from the end of the block and doesn't look like it's about to. I walk down the street. When I look back at Eddie I notice that he's manuevering the police vehicle so that it's blocking the street, making it impossible for another car to pass. Alongside the blue late-model Honda, I see a clean-cut man in a dark suit gripping the steering wheel with both hands placed on top. I motion him to roll down the window. His face has a green tint of fear. I go through the spiel about looking for my buddy. He says, "no, no, no, and I don't live around here." I look at him wondering what he's doing here, stopped by maybe for a lunch time quickie. I'm about to say something to that effect but notice beads of perspiration gather on his brow and think what kind of flack Eddie would have to take if I scared this citizen shitless.
"Thanks." I wave at him, a smile now on my face. "Sorry to have troubled you."
Eddie waits until I'm in the car before he straightens out the car and pulls up on the curb. The Honda drives past.
"These people" Eddie says, "are gonna start calling the station house wanting to know what the cops are doing up here."
"Want to go?"
"What about that house there, 3307?" He points to faded pink frame house across the street. It's entrance is at the side, obscured from street view.
I get out into the rain again and go up the side stairs and on to a porch where it's dry. I'm not exactly wild about being in the dark hallway where the door is. I rap loudly and step back on the porch where I can see the front of the patrol car. No answer. I rap again, wait about a minute, and then leave. Back in the car, I see a woman who looks like the older sister of the person I first talked to standing on the porch, hands clutching coat
lapels tightly to her neck.
"Yeah, Skipper, let's get outta here. Come back some night without the squad car and try the houses at the top of the block."
"I gotta piss. If you see a bar, stop," I say.
He turns off Wiggins Street and goes about a half a block before spotting a mail carrier. He stops and rolls down the window. "Hey," he yells, "you deliver to Lapinski on Wiggins?"
The mailman, startled, looks up. "Ah, ah, I'm only on this route one day a week, and I don't know all the names. I'm going up Wiggins now, if you want to follow."
"Naw, never mind, buddy. Thanks."
We make two quick turns, and I almost miss seeing a bar in the middle of the street. It looks like a row house except it has a large painted sign saying "Sid's Bar" above the door.
"A bar," I say.
Eddie hits the brakes and backs down the street.
"I'll only be minute," I say as I run up the steps and open the door.
One guy is slurping soup at the bar. Two more are sitting at a nearby table drinking beer and talking to a man standing next to them who appears to be the bartender. He glances my way and heads for the bar. I see the men's room sign and go there. The restroom is cold and unoccupied. My kidneys are about to burst, and I pee so long that the steam rising from the urinal practically warms the place. Afterward, I take a place at the bar next to the man who now seems to be trying to hide his face in the bowl. It's a good minute before the bartender appears, a man rail thin in his fifties with skin so translucent I expect to see the pink eyes of an albino. He stands before me, wordless.
"I was hoping you could help me," I say.
"Why certainly, if I can."
"I'm looking for an old friend of mine, Russ Lapinski"
His eyes blink once but he remains silent. I go on. "I heard he lives on Wiggins . . . ."
"Russ and his brother," he says at last, "did some remodeling work for me about a year ago."
"Do you know where on Wiggins he lives?"
"Does he come in here to drink?"
The man gives me no reply. He's standing at attention like an honor guard, his hand clenching a bar rag instead of a rifle.
"Well, if you see him, tell him Skip was looking for him."
I walk out into the rain to see Eddie getting out of the car. When he spots me, he gets back in. "Jeez, Skipper, you was in there a long time. I was about to come in with guns blazing. Didn't know what the fuck was going on." I tell him what I found out. "Well, maybe some night next week, we'll check out the house." He swings onto Herron Avenue, and we cruise back to Lawrenceville. At Butler and Main, he stops in traffic, rolls down his window, and yells at a woman coming out of the bank. Thirty seconds of small talk go on as traffic lines up behind us.
"That woman was really in love with me," he says. "Yeah, twenty five or thirty years ago. A really sweet girl."
We go through a couple of alleys and past his old house on 34th Street and then past mine on 45th. "Not bad, eh, Skipper, cruisin' around in city car, using city gas. Not like the old days, huh?"
I look out at the old neighborhood and feel comfortable with what I see. Some of the old buildings have been remodeled but most are as dilapidated as ever. It's a good, earthy, city feeling, if that's at all possible.
"I'm gonna take you home now," he says as we turn on Stanton. "I gotta turn the shift over to the afternoon sergeant. He's gonna say, 'well, what went on?' and I'm gonna say, 'absolutely nothing.' And he's gonna say, 'good.'" He pats a Harley Thunder cigarette from a crumpled pack and lights it. "You know, Skipper, you oughta be on the Job. Put in an application. I can do you some good."
"What! Who are you shittin? I'm too old."
"Naw, naw. They got laws about that."
"Get outa here."
"Oh, they would like you because they wouldn't have to pay you a pension."
He pulls in front of my house, and puts out his hand. I shake it. "Next week," he says, "we'll catch some beers. Just as soon as all this wedding shit is over."
I nod, thank him for lunch, and leave. It's not until a few hours later that it occurs to me how sometimes the pattern of our lives stays the same. What we did and how we spent time in that first flush of youth exploring the boundaries of our physical world left indelible marks. At fifteen, Eddie, a good looking guy, would talk up any girl he'd see. He always had a bunch of girls' phone numbers, and it seemed that most days, especially in winter, we'd be at the phone booth on 36th Street sticking a safety pin in the wire and clicking it against the coin return so we got free calls. Eddie would talk to a girl for about fifteen minutes, tell us that she had really sharp looking friends, and lead us on an expedition to her house. Most of the time, I'd try to talk him out of it, but he was always convinced that this time it would work, it would be magic. I'd shrug and follow, knowing that the girl never lived around the block, always far away like the 10th ward or Bloomfield or Garfield. And like fools, we'd traipse through frozen streets never finding the right house, never making a connection. Except that we were in the quest together.