maybe a month or two ago, a. and i were on a bike trip. we rode about 35 miles out, camped at the free hiker-biker campsite, and rode back the next day. it was a really fun and special trip for multiple reasons, mostly because a. is one of the most magical people i’ve ever known and spending time with her is sometimes a revelation.
we passed through mckeesport both ways. mckeesport, if you don’t know, is a small city about 20 miles from pittsburgh. it used to be a thriving place and it was completely gutted by the steel mills closing; now it’s a lot of abandoned buildings and houses and neighborhoods. i got to pittsburgh in 2007 and i’m not from here and i didn’t really think much about it as a place one way or another. i guess if i thought about it at all it was more like, “seems depressing” and “why would i go there?”
but, you do go through there if you take the bike trail that goes from pittsburgh to cumberland, MD. that trail meets up with another one that goes all the way to washington, DC. i rode it in 2010 with an unfaithful lover. he’d majorly betrayed me a month or two before, but i didn’t want to break up because i didn’t want to cancel our trip. he had all the camping equipment, all the camping know-how, i couldn’t do it alone. i’d quit my (terrible, traumatic) job at child protective services because i had reached my breaking point. one of my coworkers said one of the worst things i’ve ever heard a human say (ten years into social work, having worked many wild and traumatic jobs, it is still one of the worst things i’ve ever heard) and i had a fucking breakdown. that job was supposed to be my ticket out of being broke. it was my only shot at health insurance; my heart was fucked up and i needed to see a doctor. i got an expensive echocardiogram and the next day this incident happened. it was like the universe saying, go, go. my ex and i had this thing scheduled and at the time we lived in lawrenceville, in a 2 bedroom apartment that cost $440, which meant if i kicked him out i’d have to pay that $440 rent all by myself, which sounds silly now but at the time it was a scary and difficult thing. so i stayed, and we biked, and i absolutely should have dumped him when we got home but i waited to get my heart completely obliterated and my spirit bruised and my sanity so questioned it turned tail and ran.
anyway, that was my last time in mckeesport before this trip. this trip, in 2022, we were sweaty and tired, a. was fully doubting that she could make it all the way back (which she totally did, and which i knew she would). we played songs to get ourselves pumped on my old ipod, blasting out of my skorts pocket, singing along with the songs we knew the words to. beyonce and britney and oldies and other things.
we stopped for a moment at dead man’s hollow, visited the old terra cotta factory that is covered in graffiti, trees growing up through the walls that remain. a. and i have worked very hard for many years at jobs that ground us down and right now we’re not doing it. what a true joy to be able to be out here, in the middle of the day on a weekday. there are so many lifetimes where this was impossible. all of our relatives, including our parents, working until their bodies break, until their life force was sucked out, nothing to do but work and work and work. sometimes for hardly enough to get by, just enough to lead a difficult life where there’s never enough. for here, for now, we have stepped out of the path of that generational curse.
we found trillium by the old factory. a got excited because they can’t grow in captivity.
anyway, all this is a very long setup to tell you that we were taking one of about 50,000 snack breaks in downtown mckeesport. it was 5pm, we were tired and hot. we were 8 miles from where a’s borrowed car was parked and we were super excited to get back to it, for this trip to be over, even though it had been fun. a church bell gonged, but the gonging didn’t stop, it was someone in one of these churches, just playing and playing music. i recorded some of it on a voice memo and i’m gonna try uploading audio to wordpress for the first time ever, hope it works! the recording itself is not very good, but there’s nothing i can do about it now.
i don’t even know how to explain it to you. we stood there and listened to it for a while. it was just magic, sandwiched between the housing authority office and the police station, in an alley hidden from the sun. i got restless and wandered down the alley, saw a tattoo parlor called “gratitude tattoo,” felt like the universe was speaking to me through random experiences again. i haven’t felt that in so long. i’ve felt so abandoned and so hopeless for such a long, long time, and it changed who i was, but being back here i feel it slipping away somewhat.
ANYWAY, after i got back, i grew obsessed with mckeesport and homestead. did some research. found this awesome book at the library called “crashin’ out: hard times in mckeesport” that was made in the 80’s, via a grant, where teens of displaced steelworkers interviewed both survivors of the great depression and people living in the current depression. it was so so good, such a good book, and i feel like nobody had read it for years and years, just sitting on the shelf:
i went on another bike trip, by myself, and rode around mckeesport and homestead and went into the woods and took pictures. i tried to find the church where we heard the music but i couldn’t. i struggled up some hills and felt a little stupid and aimless but still happy to be out and about.
that same day, i went to the eat ‘n’ park because it was the only place that sells GF food, and i was in the bathroom when a song came on that i hadn’t heard in years. it was by rod stewart, someone who is uncool by many standards and something i’d always dismissed as my parents’ music, but this one song really struck me. it was about playing old records from another time with a friend, turning them up inside your house so you could hear it in the alley down below, and that weird feeling that everything’s going to be ok. it was a beautiful song, a beautiful document of that feeling. a lyric from that song is the title of this blog post. i’ve been obsessing over that song, listening to it over and over and over again, being comforted by the message that everything is going to be ok,
even though we are absolutely not going to be “ok” by any definition. in therapy (as a therapist) this week i told a client who was having a political conflict with a childhood friend, “i mean it makes total sense that you’re feeling that way. we’re in the fucking end times and our friends need to be the people who are going to have our backs in prison camps or fighting in the street or developing mutual aid societies or whatever the fuck we’re gonna do in the apocalypse. now is not the time for people we feel halfway about.” (note: i don’t talk this way to all of my clients! but this person has very similar viewpoints to me and curses like a sailor so i knew this wouldn’t be a hard thing for her to hear.) she was like, “yes! exactly!” and i realized that’s why i moved 2500 miles, because even though i like and care about my california friends i just don’t feel like we can weather an apocalypse together.
i told that therapy story to e. and o. yesterday, at the bloomfield pool, a space where o. was chased out of by transphobic and homophobic children 15 years ago, which is now full of queer people being loud and proud. i told them i moved here to spend the end of the world with them, and my other friends, and it felt good. later o. drove me home and, as is our wont, we sat in their car for over an hour talking because we just can’t shut up around each other. we both have loud voices and passer-by kept peering into the car to see if they needed to intervene or something. but we were talking about black tourmaline and richard nixon’s gross last meal before resigning. we were talking about our families and shame and cats and our friends. about doomscrolling and roe and everything. we both chose our names, they both start with the same unlikely letter. we’ve both been through so much, so very much, both in our friendship and separately, and here we are, yell-talking in a car, excited to be together, in damp bathing suits that have turned cold but feel good in a hot car.
we’re not going to be ok, but we are going to get through this together, relying on our community wisdom, the wisdom of our elders. alice walker says, “they can destroy the earth and take everything it has, but there will always be stubborn flowers, climbing whatever walls are left.” joan e. biren says, “Many of us have been at this a long time and know the law is only one tool. When the legal system doesn’t work for us, we find other ways of collective care and action to make ‘We got us’ real.” we, for whatever reason, were selected to be alive in a time of mass death, suffering, and pain. it’s unfair, but none of this is fair, none of this has ever been fair. everyone i know, whether or not they acknowledge it, is brave. i hope i stay brave and i hope i stay connected to that magic. it is the thing that will sustain me.