Saturday Diary / The thin line between loneliness and independence

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At the first session of the beginners' biking course I took through Venture Outdoors last month, our leader, Joe, asked the group to introduce ourselves. Besides our names (Liz) and neighborhoods (Bloomfield), he told us to share our motivation for enrolling in a remedial biking course, which assumed basic skills but would take us through flat trails along the North Shore and instruct us in elementary bicycle maintenance.

I had signed up for several reasons: Biking is healthy; I wanted to learn how to change a bike tire; my mentor at the Post-Gazette had recommended Venture Outdoors. But I didn't mention any of those reasons.

"I want to be more confident riding on the road," I said.

Growing up, I was terrified of biking on the street. I hated going down hills. I was afraid of potholes and cars. I was not a particularly competent cyclist. Maybe, I thought, if I learned alongside a non-judgmental group, I'd be better equipped to bike solo.

I enrolled in the four-week course alone. It's how I spent most of my summer in Pittsburgh, where I lived for three months while interning for the Post-Gazette.

I graduated from college in May, making my time here my first real-world career experience. For that reason, I know my PG internship, and Pittsburgh, will stick in my mind as formative. But when I look back on the summer, I don't know whether I'll associate it with loneliness or independence. As I learned during my 13-week stay, there is a thin line between them.

I arrived in Pittsburgh, a place where I knew virtually no one, on June 10, the day before I started my internship. Pittsburgh is considered the most livable city in the country, I'd heard.

For me, living here was not always easy, for reasons entirely unrelated to safety and affordability and the quality of schools -- common measures of livability. Rather, my summer was accompanied by a series of arbitrary ups and painful downs. Pittsburgh was my teething toy.

Most of my close friends from college were settling in Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. None had joined me in Pittsburgh. My roommate here moved out five weeks into my internship. So I made the deliberate choice to see how well I'd manage alone.

I went to the Andy Warhol Museum, treating myself to a night on the town. "One," I told the person at the ticket counter, handing him a coupon I had received for a free admission. (Was it silly to use this on the night they charge half-price anyway? No -- I was taking myself on a date. And I was a cheap date.)

I enjoyed my elegant evening alone, savoring the art and browsing through the gift shop.

Wallking over the Andy Warhol Bridge to catch a bus home, I was proud of myself for going solo -- so much so that I did not mind the hour-long ride in post-game Pirates traffic.

That liberating sense of independence was short-lived. The next day, I went to New York to attend a college roommate's birthday party. For a brief 24 hours, I settled back into college comforts, breezily reconnecting with friends and sliding into the tipsy coziness I had become accustomed to over the previous four years.

When I returned to my temporary sublet in Pittsburgh, it no longer felt temporary -- it felt like purgatory. It wasn't just being alone in Pittsburgh. It was the post-college world, and it was only after seeing my friends that I realized what I was missing. That night was my worst of the summer. But it also set the bar low, the place from which I needed to grow.

They were strange, the places where I found that growth.

Driving the company car through Polish Hill, Monroeville, Moon and McKeesport. Eating alone at a fancy restaurant for the first time. (Cafe du Jour, in the South Side.) Taking myself to movies at the Manor in Squirrel Hill. Watching "Sleepless in Seattle" at home. Exploring Pittsburgh's neighborhoods, fantasizing about the ones I'd want to live in if I moved here. (Lawrenceville, maybe, or the Strip District. The North Shore. Shadyside, if near a park. Bloomfield.)

I cooked, cleaned and watched the Olympics alone. I drank wine.

I ran a 5K road race in Regent Square. (I liked mile one. I hated mile two -- it was entirely uphill. I don't remember mile three. I wore bib No. 666, the devil's number, for all 3.1 miles.)

On my own, I had no problem completing most of the items on my Pittsburgh bucket list, from buying a McCutchen shirt in the Strip District to seeing the Frick collections in Point Breeze to drinking an iced latte at Espresso a Mano in Lawrenceville.

But I found myself most surprised at enjoying riding alone on my bike. With Joe's competent instruction, I explored neighborhood after neighborhood on two wheels -- to brunch at a friend's apartment in Squirrel Hill, to a coffee shop in Shadyside. I tried to stand up on the pedals, to look like hipsters and other people who are better cyclists than I am. I'm still working on it.

Pittsburgh has a lot of bumpy roads, tough hills and steep drops, all of which terrified me. And I never rode very far. But it was a start, an indication that I have, in fact, become somewhat more confident biking on roads.

I found myself both satiated by time alone and fulfilled by the kindness of Pittsburghers. I was fortunate for the Post-Gazette's hospitality, and Pittsburgh's. Pittsburghers shared milk shakes with me at BRGR in East Liberty and rides up the incline to Mount Washington. They met me for coffee in Garfield before work and for Pirates games after. For these new friends, for their surprising warmth, I am grateful.

The gears on the old Ross bicycle I borrowed didn't catch very well. Sometimes, when I shifted, they made an anxiety-inducing clicking sound as I wavered between a gear that was too hard and one that was too easy. The back brake didn't work well, either, and sometimes I wondered whether I was moving too fast.

But sometimes, you have to let yourself just enjoy the ride. Thank you, Pittsburgh.

opinion_commentary

Elizabeth Bloom graduated from Harvard in May and is about to embark on a 10-month travel fellowship to Turkey.


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