I wish I’d kept them all. Collected all the answers people sent me. The question? And it almost sounds like the set up for a joke — Pittsburgh?
Why do we love this place? Why when we leave, even when we want to leave, why do the tears come? What is it about “home”?
How does “home” get built? Who were the builders?
Two and half years ago I wrote what? … A letter? A shout, a cry? I’m not sure what it was but I’d gone golfing with my brother who was very ill and run into some truly unsavory people who more or less mocked his infirmity. I was furious. I was also deeply touched by someone who happened to be from my hometown who defended him there.
The Post-Gazette printed the piece and since then I’ve received in the neighborhood of 1,000 emails. It’s amazed me. Stunned me. Since then as well, my brother lost his fight with cancer. He died two years ago, almost to this day. I wanted to say out loud that he is gone and thank everyone for their prayers.
I wish I’d printed them out, your letters. No. I wish I’d written them down by hand and laid them in a book. Not because you’ve comforted me, or complimented me, not because my brother needed to hear it. All true.
I wish I’d read them aloud, broadcast what you said, in your voices and played them out over the airwaves, the rooftops and trees of Pittsburgh.
When I look at a map of my city now I think, “I know someone from Belle Vernon. … I know that guy from New Castle who moved to an island in South Carolina but still dreams of home. … I know a woman from Penn Hills whose father worked like a dog at Westinghouse so she could go to college. … I know a waiter in LA who says to himself ‘I’m an artist, I’m an actor, I’m from Pittsburgh’ when he needs some faith. … I know someone who woke up after 10 happy years in San Fran and told her husband honey we gotta go home. … I know Little Washington … I know Duquesne … I know Lebo … I know Hampton and South Fayette and Greenfield and East Liberty and Gallatin and Braddock and Baldwin and Dormont” and it goes on and on and on. It’s exhausting, it’s terrifying, it’s beautiful.
I spend a lot more time away these days, but when I fly home, when the plane starts its descent, voices sound out from all over the field of the city. It’s almost eerie feeling them rise up, having been invited into the homes of people I’ll never know, into their hearts and memories, hearing them — and there’s no better word for it — hearing them praise their mothers and fathers and grandparents and children: “I was taken care of” … “I was loved” … “I’ll never forget” … “I will always remember” … “What a gift I was given” … the stories have been overwhelming.
They combine in my mind as a kind of music. Words fail most of us when we try to say why we love something but then love really is the doing isn’t it, the labor, not what we call it after.
The letters I’ve been given speak together like a chorale, a song to a city and its people. A prayer for what it turns out a great many of us have been given by those who came before.
I’ve been blessed to hear it. You. Humbled.
It’s one thing to call into a crowd and ask, “Who’s with me?!” With all the arrogance of anger, with the righteousness of a cause. But when they start to stand and then they speak one after the other, number upon number, one’s arrogance fades into astonishment. I made a minor point. You people made an epic argument. That this place matters.
You and your forbearers, your parents and your grandparents, caring and fighting and working and dying, made a city. Made a bunch of streets and plumbing and roads and houses, made all the common hardware of any town into some “thing,” the myth of a place, that haunts us wherever we go. A labor of love bent into physical form. Brought to life.
If there’s some better way to describe the American Dream, I haven’t heard it.
Please, tell me more.
David Conrad of Braddock, an actor who starred in the CBS television series "Ghost Whisperer," can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The PG Portfolio welcomes "Local Dispatch" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to email@example.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.