I had to use the GPS to find my cousin’s funeral. The same roads where I once “cut my teeth” as a young driver were now all a little suspect, within my memory, at least. Kennedy Street or Grant Avenue? Kennedy Street or Grant Avenue? I have always interchanged the names of those two roads for as long as I can remember.
The monotoned electronic commands (and my severely atrophied muscle memory) signaled me to the correct street. Dressed in my Sunday best, I pulled into the empty parking lot and exited my car. The neighborhood always had it’s quaint charm harkened back from another era, but was never the very safest one for as long as I knew it. It is another casualty of the steel mill industry. Because of this, I expected a slight uneasiness when I arrived. But today was vastly different from anything I had anticipated. I exited the car into nothing, literally no one. The streets were dead, quiet, like a ghost town. I have never seen Duquesne in such a state. I used to pass by people all the time when I was growing up there. People driving their cars, people entering the tiny little grocery store, complete with a butcher that always resembled Sam from the Brady Bunch to my young eyes, the local pharmacy complete with soda fountain and a wall of black and white images documenting the town’s history. But after a decade’s absence, all was silent and askew. Burnt out buildings and abandoned businesses aligned part of my route as I turned towards my destination.
I walked towards the stairs of the funeral home. I could hear my heels click on the brick surface of the road and echo off the leftover buildings. I felt nervous. It felt like a a nuclear holocaust had engulfed the town. I reached for the door. Locked! I slumped to the stairs calling my sister. The newspaper obituary had listed the times wrong.
Irritated, I hung up the phone and headed out. I ventured towards my old street. I don’t know what I was looking for but I wanted to find some reason to be in town on that day. I wanted to find something else other than the nothing I was given in that moment. I parked along side the neighbor’s house on 4th Street. I sat in my car for what felt like forever. I eventually got out to take some pics but was extremely timid about my approach. Now I regret not snapping a few more. The street was more active than any other spot in the town, but I felt a disconnect. I felt like an outsider. I was no longer on what was once my turf. I became distracted by the happenings in the church across the street.
I got back in my car and tried to decipher what was going on. I smelled food grilling. My need to pee overrode everything in that moment. I walked over to the tables and chairs that were set up on the parish lawn and asked what was going on. A burger benefit for the church was the reply. I began asking questions about my old neighborhood and in particular my old neighbor who was the priest at that particular church. I was told they were away, then the kindly gentleman cooking the burgers invited me to eat. I promised I would eat if I could use their restroom.
As I gathered my burger and chips, they engaged me in small talk, asked me my last name, and asked me about my house across the street. Of course after being away for 17 years, a last name means very little to most town dwellers who never knew you. As the pleasantries ended, I found an empty table and began to eat my church cooked burger and store bought Lays potato chips. I was keenly aware of the irony of that moment, sitting at a table placed on the lawn of my father’s old Lutheran parish, on the day before father’s day, facing my old residence. Chewing and staring, chewing and staring, chewing and staring at this place that was once so familiar but now lies there askew, worn, and even more disconnected to me than I had ever imagined. A place that my grandfather built right after the second world war. A place that housed several generations of our clan and hosted numerous family get togethers, backyard BBQs and family picnics. In that moment, I felt so very small. I lost any sense I ever felt of belonging to that place, to the people, and to anything else resembling “home”. I imagined this as my final family picnic, laying to rest the ghosts of all who used to inhabit that space.
On the car ride back, I set Little River Band to play on repeat. I was looking for something that resembled WJAS radio to suit the distance, my melancholy, and to take me back to other memories. (“Reminiscing” was always a little too hokey for my taste, especially in this moment.) But the sound of the opening piano chord of “Lady” always takes me back inside the old Pizza Hut my family would frequent. I can still feel the texture of those tacky vinyl checkered tablecloths and see those tiny jukeboxes filled with soft hits of the 70s and 80s that sat on every table. Bad lyrics and melodic chorus crescendos always bring me back home.
I returned to the funeral home the next day with a new found sense of something but I was not sure of what.