I take a deep breath and I cough. The J&L Plant in Southside must be venting coke gas, which stings the nostrils slightly, tasting like matches mixed with rotted charcoal. It’s the smell of home.
From our front porch, I can see most of my world. The horizon to the right is dominated by the Junior High where I was sentenced to three long years before I got that scholarship to a more civilized High School in Minnesota. Some rich folks set up a program for disadvantaged and minority kids. I guess being poor and white in 1970’s America lands me in the disadvantaged category. Past the school is Grandview Avenue, with its panoramic views of downtown Pittsburgh, Oakland and the Northside. Grandview Avenue is the place to take chicks, especially chicks from other parts of town. They are always impressed.
Closer, I can see the woods and the park where we hung out as kids. We played ball on the fields and board games at the Rec center before the city shut it down. It was supposedly some kind of code violation, but I think they just hate seeing kids have fun in the summer. They would rather see us working. Hell, I got my first job from the city the summer before I turned 15, as a janitor’s assistant at the grade school. They start early, training us for a life in the steel mills or some equally soul numbing place.
My street is a tidy working class neighborhood made up of frame and brick homes. Most houses have postage stamp yards, inviting front porches and on street parking. Our house sits on a sort of dividing line; from our house to the end of the street is newer construction, modern bungalows with driveways, garages, and level back yards. Before my mother kicked out my boozing, womanizing prick of a stepdad, we had been doing pretty well. Now we take it day to day.
Lately, though, the neighborhood has been slipping a little. There are a few more rental units, places not kept as nice as when the owners lived there, but overall it’s an OK place to live. As far as maintenance goes, I guess you could say the same about our house; I need to weed and mow the grass, the bushes needed trimming and the railing I’m holding onto needs a new coat of paint. But I can get to that tomorrow, I guess, today; I have other work to do.
I throw on some sneakers and head down the driveway, left at the street, then cut right down beside the Wherler’s house, through their trash strewn lot. “Someone should talk to these people,” I mutter under my breath. Cutting through their yard takes me directly to my friend Bruce’s house. I knock on his door, but there’s no answer. Last week I was working, this week he found a job, it seems like we are never both laid off at the same time. “I’ll catch him over the weekend,” I think as I trot away. I cross Southern Avenue and head for the steps beside Sally’s house.
These steps are long and steep, running down a large and nearly vertical dirt lot. They must have once separated some long gone houses, probably into someone’s backyard. Now they are a shortcut to my destination, a place we all call “The Hollow.”
The Hollow is a neighborhood a few blocks from my street where I spend most of my time these days. It lies in a valley, surrounded by some woods that end at a steep cliff over Route 51. It’s resemblance to West Virginia, is how it gets its name. There is only one way in, the street circles in on itself, taking you back out again. There was once a second road, but it has eroded into the hillside, inaccessible to anything with more than two wheels.
Most of the houses have seen better days. Like its West Virginia namesakes, the neighborhood is hardscrabble and quick to a fight. Dogs and kids rule the streets, and on July fourth, the neighborhood has its own fireworks display. The cops know better than to break it up. Though a bit shabby and run down, the neighborhood has a life and spirit of its own, a gritty independence that sets it apart from the blue-collar conservatism of my family and my neighbors.
A quick left at the bottom of the steps takes me to Zappa’s house, where I can score some weed and have a little belated “wake and bake.” Zappa is not his real name; we just call him that because he looks a little like the musician Frank Zappa and he plays guitar. Zappa is my main weed connection. He is also teaching me to play guitar, and he’s cool about me crashing on his couch when I’m kicked out of the house for fighting with my mother.
It seems like my mom and I are always fighting these days. Ever since I got booted out of college for creating mayhem and being a major nuisance, things have been rough. I was just having fun with my friends, but they were paying to go there and I was on full scholarship. The college didn’t appreciate me partying it up on their dime, so now I was no longer the family hero. I was no longer the first person in three generations to not only graduate High School, but to actually attend college. I could probably go back, but I’m not sure I belonged there anymore.
Here I have my construction jobs and a chance at the Union Apprenticeship Program in the fall. I have some money in my pocket and I get to run the streets with relative immunity because most people know me. If you want weed, I can get it for you, good counts at a fair price and I’m not telling from whom or from where. I don’t rip people off and my honesty insures my safety and a certain power that feels good and right.
With a bounce in my step I hit the sidewalk in front of Zappa’s house ready to grab my packages and a little tip for myself when I’m intercepted by some street kids playing in a vacant lot between houses. “Kenny wants to see you,” they say, almost in unison, “he’s up at Ritchie’s garage fixin’ his truck.”
I spit, “Kenny wants to see me, what for?”
“Don’t know,” the oldest kid says as he rolls a tire down the hill into an abandoned Ford Pinto, “but he wants to see you now!”
“Shit!” I whisper as I spin around in the opposite direction, jogging the block and a half to Ritchie’s garage, confused and a little bit scared.
Ritchie’s garage sits at the end of the street, an impressive cinder block two story structure the size of a house. Ritchie built it himself, and all the older guys hang out there. He lives on the second floor, above a fully stocked, professional machine shop whose main purpose is the maintenance of a custom built metallic purple pick up truck that holds court in the center of the shop floor. He hit the jackpot in some kind of lawsuit that left him well off enough that he only works when he feels like it. Ritchie is the archetypical biker, tall, bearded, long haired and always in his bike gang colors. A few years ago, one of Ritchie’s gang mates shot him point blank with a 20 gauge shotgun, leaving him forty pounds lighter and half a chest thinner. He built the garage, then the truck soon after he recovered.
Kenny is with the other guys in front of the garage, turning wrenches under the hood of a late model Ford 4×4 pickup truck with oversize tires, a roll bar, and a confederate flag decal over the rear window. His Appalachian drawl is as out of place as his weightlifter’s physique. He is dark haired, round jawed and just as dumb as he looks. Kenny was plucked from the Maryland hills by Lydia Vincent, my best friend Gary’s sister. In the short time that Kenny has spent in The Hollow, he’s earned a reputation for being a hot head and a loose cannon. He is strong, fast and a damn good fighter. We would all be glad when Lydia tired of him as she always does. Some people collect stamps, Lydia collects studs, discarding them when they no longer amuse her.
I approach slowly, my hands in my pockets, chin up, looking towards Kenny. “You want to see me,” I said, feigning indifference.
“Yeah,” he drawled, “whatch y’all doin’ tonight?”
Well, I thought, after cooking dinner for my siblings and cleaning up to my mom’s near impossible standards, her and I will fight, I’ll storm out of the house and get stoned under that streetlight over there like I always do. “Nothing special,” I respond coolly, “why you asking?”
”Cause Hoss, me an’ you are headed downtown to the titty bars!”
“Why me?” I protested.
He turns his attention from the engine and looks up at me, all smiles and mischief with an undercurrent of menace in his voice, “’Cause, my truck is down ‘til at least t’morrow, and y’all have a car.”
“Sounds great,” I replied, stabbing at enthusiasm.
“Be here at eight, don’t be late, and don’t have any of those faggy punk rock tapes in the stereo,” said Kenny, laughing as he returned to his wrenching. As I turned to trot away, I noticed Ritchie, looking annoyed, flipping Kenny off behind his back. I guess that Ritchie had been stuck there a long time.
I head back towards Zappa’s house to finish my initial errand, no more spring in my step. I’m saving up to buy an electric guitar; I don’t have the cash to pay for a night at the stupid strip clubs. I know that cheap bastard, Kenny isn’t going to pay my way, and I just hope that he’s not expecting me to pay for him.
I’m back at home, alone, wondering what the hell I’m doing. How can a Neanderthal like Kenny interfere with my life like this? I barely know him or Lydia. They’re ten years older than me and they’re prescription drug junkies. I smoke weed and drink beer. We have nothing in common. The truth is that they’re closer to my younger brother, Mike. He scores speed for Lydia, and she occasionally screws him. Neither Mike, nor Lydia is particularly good at committed relationships.
These people have no vision, no real future. I’m not like them, I’ve seen other places and I know other possibilities, I control my destiny, or do I? This monkey, Kenny has me doing his bidding. Is this what it’s come to, nineteen years old and already washed up? While I am technically only suspended by my exclusive Midwestern Liberal Arts College, I know that I can’t go back, I owe them some money and I don’t think I should pay it. I have a Shop Ironworkers card in my pocket, and I join the big show, Local 3 Structural Ironworker’s Apprenticeship Program in the fall. Between the weed money and the union wages, I’m going to be rolling in cash. The Ironworkers have most of the repair work in the steel mills sewn up, and the mills have been here forever. I don’t want to work in one, but I’m happy to install a new outbuilding and then head off into the sunset towards the next job.
The Ironworkers are also total bad asses, and they offer total freedom, literally carving buildings out of thin air, one beam or column at a time. There’s tons of work, enough to last a lifetime. Who needs college? I don’t belong with the rich kids anyway.
Then, there’s music. The last time I was laid off, I bought an acoustic guitar on a whim. I was wandering around over by the University, when a storefront caught my eye, and I spent my last paycheck on a Martin acoustic guitar knock-off. Since then, with Zappa’s help, I have been learning to play.
I love music, but the music that I love is scorned by my peers. I blast The Clash, and all around me worship Led Zeppelin. How can these morons not see that The Ramones are so much cooler than Foreigner? This is my neighborhood, for now it’s my world, but is it really my destiny?
Lately, this conversation keeps looping through my brain, driving out all the other thoughts, and damn near driving me crazy. Getting high helps, but weed wears off and thoughts don’t… and besides, it’s almost eight and I can’t be late.
I pull up as Kenny walks down his steps, wearing tight jeans and a partially unbuttoned shirt that frames a trio of medium thickness gold chains. This ensemble is topped of by a smallish brown cowboy style hat. “What a moron,” I think, “he looks like the bastard love child of John Travolta if his Urban Cowboy character mated with the guy he plays in Saturday Night Fever. It was going to be a long night.
As we drive down McGardle Roadway, half of the county fills the horizon to our left; the rivers are black mirror snakes reflecting lights back towards the skyscrapers that created them. It’s beautiful. However, as you descend, you become aware of a grittiness growing like an avalanche that rolls over you and takes you to the bottom where no one cares about cleaning their store fronts-there would just be more dirt tomorrow.
Downtown is dingy and not really much for nightlife since they razed Market Square. Its heart and soul had been ripped out to make way for gleaming new skyscrapers fed steel from the mills lining both sides of the river just a few miles away. Some places hold on, though, mostly centered around the sex shops and strip joints on Liberty Avenue, where we now stood. Even perverts are ashamed to be seen here, but not Kenny, that good old boy is in his glory.
I recommend the Casino Royale, highly regarded by the man-whores at the union hall. It is an anything goes kind of place where the girls are up for whatever you want, as long as you have the cash. Kenny doesn’t like the cover charge there, so we end up at the Fish Net, a PG-13 topless joint that specializes in warm beer and cold dancers. It smells like beer soaked gym socks and sweaty hookers. The décor is a tragic nautical theme with actual fishnets, shells and wooden clipper ship steering wheels of all sizes. There was a dusty stuffed parrot above the back bar, and I half expected the bartender to have a peg leg and eye patch
Kenny is over by the stage eying the entertainment, a slightly invested middle aged woman with a decent, but average build. Her tasseled pasties are swaying as half heartedly as her hips and I notice that her face is strangely familiar. As I sweep what I hope is some kind of beetle from my beer bottle, the recognition hits me like an angry girlfriend, she’s a woman we call Mrs. H, Zappa’s neighbor. My kid brother plays with her oldest son. She makes peanut butter chocolate chip cookies for the grade school bake sales. All of the sudden, being in this place feels like incest.
“Kenny,” I yell over the music, “this place is lame, let’s check out The Casino Royale, I’ll pay.” I’m lying, I don’t really have that much cash, but I have to leave.
“No, Hoss,” he grins and rolls his eyes towards Mrs. H, “let’s get us a bunch a beers somewheres else; I’m in the mood ta rip it up!” He lets out a short hillbilly howl and walks straight to the door and out onto the sidewalk. I follow, like I always do.
Now I’m confused, and a little concerned. If all he wants to do is drink, why the trip to our little red light district, and why with me? There are a dozen bars in our neighborhood and at least two where I don’t need my fake ID. I look at Kenny and notice a slight change in his composure and the faintest hint of menace in his voice as he asks, “Where to?”
I turn left and start walking, “I know a place. Its cheap, clean and no one bothers you.”
Kenny swings around and follows. “Sounds good, let’s rip it up!”
The Lantern is the place the old school Ironworkers drink their breakfast. I prefer the 99 cent eggs, toast and bacon on the days I’m not running late. We sit at the bar and order, not saying anything for a few minutes, until Kenny suddenly speaks. “Ya’ll been friends with Gary Vincent a long time, haven’t you?”
My internal alarms almost drown out my response, “since fourth grade, he was my first friend when I moved here.”
“So, you know the fam’ly pretty well, his brothers and sisters and such?”
“For Christ’s sake,” I thought, “I’m about to be grilled by Hillbilly Columbo.” “I know Gary, of course, and his younger sister, Terry, I mean I’ve asked her out a few times, I mean who wouldn’t, she’s gorgeous, but the others, they’re older, adults. We’re friendly, but I don’t know them very well.”
As I say this, Kenny becomes more solemn and serious. I have never seen him serious. He turns to me wide-eyed, face slowly reddening, “So you like the Vincent women, huh? Y’all think they’re ‘Gorgeous,’ might be ya want ta fuck them?” His voice rises enough to catch the bartender’s attention. A good bartender smells trouble before it becomes uncontrollable.
“Are you two ready for another round? We have two for one specials going until midnight. Get ‘em while you can.”
I chug my beer and buy some more, grateful for the interruption. But I was skating barefoot on razor blades, and had to be careful what I said next. “Look Kenny, I like Terry a lot,” there’s a trace of panic in my voice, “but she’s Phil’s kid sister and he’s very protective, I don’t think he’d like me dating her. As for the other sisters, like I said, I hardly know them.”
He takes a drink, looking at his reflection in the mirror behind the bar. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he’s thinking. He turns to me, nodding slightly, the red is fading and he looks almost vulnerable. “Somebody’s fuckin’ Lydia.” He’s looking at me, but his eyes are focused inward. “Everyone says you’re a stand up guy, I was just thinkin’, you know, that might be ya heard somethin’, you bein’ so tight with the family an’ all.”
At this moment, the floor falls out and the walls open up like some set from a big budget Hollywood musical, only instead of song , I want to break out in a scream. Here I am with a half drunk, shit kickin’ good old boy that’s having a crisis of the heart. His girlfriend is no whore, but she definitely indulges her appetites, and he’s too stupid to realize that he’s this year’s fling. With Lydia, you either ride the wave to shore, or end up a broken wreck on the sea bottom. Kenny had SS Titanic written all over his face. I should be home, practicing guitar, setting up deals for tomorrow, and figuring how to move out of my mom’s house before we kill each other. Instead, I’m playing Dear fucking Abby to a heartsick, homicidal, hillbilly.
I realize that my future could depend on what I say next, so I go for broke, turning my head and looking Kenny straight in the eye. “Look, I spend half my day running nickel and dime bags, and the other half taking care of my brothers and sister, while my mom’s at work. Right now I’m a lot more worried about how to get myself laid than I am about who’s screwing who. I don’t do gossip, it’s a waste of time. Besides, any time I see either one of you, the other is always nearby. You guys are practically joined at the hip.” I take a long drink of my beer and notice Kenny relaxes a bit. He seems to be buying my bullshit.
The truth is that I know she’s with my brother at least a few times a month and that they are definitely friends with benefits. I have also heard that she still has a thing for her ex-husband, Jimmy who is on the short end of a 2-4 year sentence for some senseless act of violence. I think Kenny’s term ends when Jimmy gets released from “The Wall,” sometime in the next few months. “Do you want another one?” I ask as I finish my beer and reach for my thinning wad of bills.
Kenny shakes his head, “Naw, not here, let’s grab a sixer and head back, I gotta early one t’morrow.” I look at my watch; it’s not even eleven o’clock, still time for me to salvage some fun out of the evening.
I can hardly believe my luck. In a few minutes, Kenny would get out of my car and head into his house and I will be free and unbruised. Maybe I’ll head up the street to Sonny’s Bar for a celebratory nightcap. I pull into my usual spot across from Zappa’s house, long past ready to rid myself of Kenny and his paranoia. As he gets out he asks’ “Hoss, ya’ll got a joint on ya?”
“Sure Kenny, I’ll give you a joint,” I say, thinking it’s a small price to pay to be rid of you.
“Naw, I don’t want to take it, I just want a few tokes fer the road.” Kenny says this with a faraway look in his eye.
We smoked in silence for a few minutes, normally I like to get high, but this seemed like work, something to get done and over with. Kenny breaks the silence, “Ya’ll almost had me thinkin’ I was losin’ my shit, but I ain’t. I know Lydia’s fuckin’ aroun’ on me, and I was thinkin’ it might be your little bro’, but you been such a sweet talker t’night, so quick with an answer, playin’ dumb an’ all, like you don’t give a shit. Well Hoss, I think yer dum’ like a fox. Might be it’s you screwin’ her, it might be yer bro’, might be I don’t care, cause might be is good enough ta kick your skinny little ass.”
He’s almost calm when he says it, but his eyes are pure crazy. He means business, I’ve been drinking, the weed is kicking in and my feet feel like concrete. Besides, a race horse can’t outrun Kenny, and I know I can’t outfight him. I wonder if I can out bleed him? Despite my panic, the thought makes me laugh a little, must be the weed.
“Whatcha chuckling’ about boy,” Kenny growled, “didn’ ya hear me, I’m gonna tear ya’ll up an’ leave ya for the rats ta eat.”
In that instant I’m sober and back to full panic mode. I look back to Zappa’s house, gauging the distance for a possible get away, but the lights are out, and it’s too far anyway. I reach down for a big rock, hoping for a miracle when I see something move out of the shadows and into the space between me and Kenny. Something metallic reflects in the streetlight and a bright red line opens across Kenny’s right thigh as he drops to one knee. Quickly backing away I catch someone else in the light, its Jimmy, Lydia’s ex-husband, with a hunting knife in his right hand positioning for his next strike.
“I got this,” he says over his shoulder, but I’ve already made my move, down the road, up the steps and through Bruce’s yard, back to my street and a new lease on life.
I grabbed my car early this morning, but I’m laying low for awhile, maybe I’ll spend the day doing some yard work, and get started on painting the porch railing. I look out from my porch at my world and the thought hits me that maybe this isn’t my world anymore. Being away the last few years made it easy to romanticize these streets and the people I grew up with, so different from the world that rejected me last year. What I forgot as I took my place on the street corner is that I was never that great a street fighter, I just don’t have that killer instinct. Around here, that can be a fatal flaw.
The phone is ringing, I pick it up, it’s Bruce, he’s off today and wants to party. “I can’t,” I say, “I have shit to do around the house. I’m going to Oakland tonight to see some bands, you’re welcome to come along.” He says he might. “Cool,” I reply, “I’ll call you later.” Before I hang up, Bruce says that he heard that something heavy happened last night in The Hollow, something bad. When he was down earlier this morning seeing Zappa, he noticed Kenny loading up his truck, limping a little. He wasn’t sure if the two things were related. “I haven’t heard anything, let me know,” I say as I cradle the phone and head back to the porch.
Looking up towards the Junior High, I remember that I have some business with the art school students up by Grandview Avenue that I met through my brother. He works for a guy that owns a bunch of apartment buildings and I pick up a few bucks here and there helping him out. They are cool to hang out with and some of them want to jam when we can find a place to play that won’t draw the cops. I do crazy acoustic jams with a couple of them using toy organs and pots for drums. It’s a little weird, but it relaxes me in a way the weed can’t. They also know all the cool underground parties the punk rockers have in abandoned warehouses and such. Since most of the bands are under 21, they can’t play in the bars and clubs.
I almost have enough cash saved to buy the sweet Epiphone electric that Eddie G wants to sell me. It sounds great looped through the pre-amp on my cassette deck into the Ampeg amp I bought from Gary, real early Stones, or Iggy and the Stooges. Once I have the guitar, I can start jamming with the art school guys, maybe even start a band.
This morning’s paper had an article about a new Renaissance downtown, how they are planning to build several new skyscrapers and do a lot of other development. The Ironworkers will be all over that, there will be years of work, enough to keep a guy in beer and guitar strings for the next ten years. A new decade is coming up, and it looks like the 1980’s are going to be awfully kind to the working man. As I pull the mower out of the garage, I look up and see the late morning sun burning through the haze…looks like its going to be a decent day. The mower starts on the first pull and I smile as I tear into half-foot tall lawn, digging the sun on my face and the smell of fresh cut grass in the air. Yeah, I think…definitely going to be a decent day.
As I’m mowing and trimming I think about the things I’m blowing off, I have orders to fill, I should catch up with Bruce and Gary and I should hit The Hollow to find out what, if any, trouble I’m in with the other guys. As I push the mower back towards the garage, I notice the porch railing and realize that I can get to those things tomorrow, today; I have other work to do.