Footloose

The weather is breaking. Winter loosens its grip (not that this past winter was particularly cold) and more often, I venture outside by choice rather than necessity. I am reminded of the pleasures of unhurried walking. Of moving slowly, at street-level, without the distractions of a phone or vehicle.

In February, Peter and I traveled to Toronto. We traveled miles on foot in a snowy city, from our hotel in the Yorkville neighborhood to the CN Tower to the Art Gallery of Ontario and back. It is a distance of about nine miles, broken up by coffee and lunch and sightseeing.  

The morning of the walk began quietly. Few people are outside, but gradually the number of pedestrians crescendos so that by nightfall, which comes early, the streets are bustling. Everyone is bundled up with hats and gloves; even some of the dogs wear coats.

At the top of the CN Tower, the views over Lake Erie are breathtaking. A small plane circles over Toronto Islands, descending, skimming the runway, and then lifting off again. I hear voices speaking in languages other than English, and I smile. This is my first international trip since the pandemic. It is strangely comforting to be back among the tourists.

Squads of families roam the galleries of the Art Gallery of Ontario (or AGO, as its more locally known). The noise creates a pleasant background ruckus as Peter and I spend an afternoon discovering Canadian artists that were completely new to us. In between gazing at the artwork, I take to looking at people looking at art. This always fascinates me: what they notice, what they pass by, and the differences between the way adults and children behave.

On our walks, Peter and I passed storefronts and academic buildings and lampposts covered in handbills. There was the pharmacy, brightly lit by the afternoon sun, with a technician’s white lab coat flung across a chair. On the university campus, printed flyers announced sexual health week, advertised tutors, and promoted a philosophy discussion group. In the digital age, where information travels instantly in bits and bytes, perhaps paper still matters.

These are little moments, little kernels of stories that exist in a flash. Kernels that might become something more if we let them.

 

Pittsburgh, PA. Corner of 22nd and Penn.

Back in Pittsburgh, my home city, I start to see things I hadn’t noticed before, like the sign on the door of a Polish deli cautioning shoppers to “watch your dupa.”

Being outside of a car brings you into contact with things. With people. On the T one morning, I’m sitting next to a young mother with a squirming toddler on her lap. I offer her my seat, so she can have her little boy beside her, but she declines. He is fussing, and she is alternately chiding him and attempting to distract him by talking about what can be seen from the trolley’s window.

I think of everything that must be done to get a small child out of the house in the morning: the waking up, the feeding, the dressing, the finding of socks and shows. Brushing of hair and teeth. I want to tell her that she’s doing a great job. But I don’t; unsolicited commentary from a stranger, no matter how well-intentioned, could feel presumptuous.

On an afternoon a few days later, I’m walking the streets near my office, which happens to be near the location of a Planned Parenthood clinic. There is a small group of protestors clustered outside. I see the signs and flyers and want to tell them that Planned Parenthood focuses far more on pregnancy prevention than pregnancy termination. I want to say that they have it twisted, that this is a health clinic and not an abortion factory. I want to say that they should consider finding something else to do instead of hassling a woman trying to get a friggin’ PAP smear on her lunch break.

Confrontation is not compassion, and brochures and Bible verses are not what’s needed. But I don’t say anything, and I walk on.

I think of the age of the city, of the footsteps of those who walked here before me. The natives and the explorers and the soldiers. I think of the people around me now, of the space we share and the slices of time where, just for a moment, we might glimpse a world outside of ourselves.

And I walk on.

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Busted

I’ve had a long history with bikes. Going back to before I could remember, where the evidence is a photo of me scooting around my parents’ kitchen as a toddler on my baby tricycle. Then there was my first real bike, a gift for my 5th birthday (I think). I have recollections of a bubblegum pink frame and training wheels and being pushed up and down the long driveway in the front of the house, learning how to pedal and steer.

Obstacle evasion came next. I spent my early years in Pennsylvania farm country.  My childhood home boasted a small apple orchard planted on a sloping side of the property. I distinctly remember my mother taking me and my bike to the top of this slope and giving me a firm push. I hurtled across the grass through the apple trees, learning how to move between them and – equally important – how to stop before hitting the thick wall of pines beyond.

Years later, I asked my mother (a retired teacher) why she used such unorthodox instruction methods on a kindergartener. In hindsight, the training tactics can look a bit extreme.

“I wanted you to learn,” she shrugged.

Learn I did. Not just basic bicycling techniques, but how not to be too afraid. This would go on to serve me well. For example, when I was 10 years old and hit a raised sewer cover, flipped over my handlebars, and skidded across the dirt and gravel of the road, taking off patches of skin from my right knee to ankle. I got up, dusted off, and walked to the friend’s house that had been my destination. Her mom hosed off my leg and maybe dabbed on some peroxide and sent me on my way. I continued on with my plans to play with my friends. To this day, traces of the scars are still visible.

As I got older, I upped my bicycle game, slowly progressing to nicer, newer, more specialized bikes. From the hand-me-down I was riding at the time of my handlebar somersault to an aqua Huffy (my first bike with gears), then a Bianchi Bobcat (my first legit mountain bike, purchased with money from my first on-the-books job.) And finally, a lipstick red Trek road bike, sleek, light, and beautiful. Built for speed.

I also biked in more exotic locales than the Pennsylvania countryside. I rode beside monuments in Washington D.C., evading drivers, pedestrians, and fellow cyclists. On Bainbridge Island near Seattle, I pedaled on roads that paralleled salmon streams and woods. I dabbled with e-bikes in Southern France, pushing up through winding hills among vineyards.

So I’ve biked around. But nothing could quite prepare me for the adventure of urban biking in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh, the city of rivers. The city of bridges. The city of steel.

The summer of 2023 ushered in a series of biking adventures which rolled to an escalating crescendo on September 16th.  

The plan: Cover nearly 40 miles. Stop for lunch and a couple beers. Finish before dark.

The morning arrived and with it, some trepidation. It was the longest ride I’d attempted to date. I don’t know if I felt better or worse after a member of the group produced a bottle of homebrewed Lithuanian honey liqueur. It wasn’t even close to noon but I did a shot like everyone else. Thus fortified, we were on our way.

The ride started with gliding under the late morning shadows on a flat stretch along the river. We pedaled our way down to Point State Park, where we stopped for photographs in front of the fountain. Then we made our way across the river, eventually stopping at our first brewery and lunch at one of Pittsburgh’s most famous, most no-frills delis, Peppi’s.

As the day progressed, we visited a few more breweries, sent texts to friends who’d opted out of the adventure, and wound our way through the varied neighborhoods of Pittsburgh. Seeing places at street level, without the insulating walls of a car and going at a speed where it’s possible to notice details, is a wonderfully connective way to travel. You’re not going through a city. You’re being in it.

Gradually we reached Highland Park. We climbed the steps to the reservoir, basking in the afternoon sunlight. Snapped a few more pictures. Congratulated ourselves on time well spent.

The afternoon was easing into evening when we made a last stop before our final ascent. Cait, who’d been a veritable sunbeam throughout the ride (and whose presence, we later determined, had provided a sort of talisman), left to attend a family obligation. In a twist that was truly Pittsburgh, the biggest hill came at the end. There was an impromptu decision for a final round – at this point, I opted for a non-alcoholic sparkling blackberry seltzer – and then we rolled out to face our last climb.

Two things happened almost immediately. First, as I was rounding a turn, I noticed that both my front and back tires felt unmistakably flat. Secondly, no sooner had the realization formed in my mind than the bike tipped, I fell, and both my bike and I skidded across the pavement.

After the momentary shock, I got up to assess the damage. My legs had various cuts and bruises, but what looked to be in far worse shape was my bike. My beloved red Trek lay in a mangled heap. Not only were both of my tires damaged, but my left handlebar had been bent backwards and my right pedal dangled helplessly. The chain had been detached from the derailer. I could walk, but my bike was unrideable.

In the commotion, John, the rider following me, had run over my downed bike, landing both himself and his bike on the ground. Fortunately, neither was injured. But our ride was over. There was only one thing left to do: walk to the end.

So we did, nearly a mile to the top of the last hill, my bike gallantly carried by my boyfriend Peter as I pushed his on the sidewalk. We stopped at the city park at the hill’s crest, taking in the Pittsburgh skyline spread out beneath us. We posed for a final victorious picture. I dabbed at my bloody knee with paper towels offered by strangers.

It wasn’t the way I’d expected the day to end. But the beauty of that September Saturday was that there really hadn’t been any expectations. The day would unfold as fate willed. (That’s not to say there wasn’t a plan. Peter had meticulously figured out the route and itinerary and had even done a test ride in advance.) But what would happen in those golden hours was anyone’s guess.

What happened was this: Seeing new things. Laughing. Being in a space of possibility. Being in a space for adventure. Being, in a sense, a kid again. No agenda, no responsibilities, just needing to get home before dark.

Amazingly, my bike was able to be fully repaired. She is better than new, with sturdy hardcase tires and a black-and-red handlebar wrap that looks sleek. And we are already planning the next adventure.

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Grounded

Five years ago, in what seems a different lifetime, I moved the Pittsburgh. I bought a house (in a nice neighborhood), had a job (with a Fortune 500 company), had a marriage, had future plans. In short, my life had all the right optics.

But what my life had in appearances, it lacked in authenticity. I lived in Pittsburgh. But I didn’t know the city. Didn’t have history with it. And I didn’t know myself, in many ways. That was the lesson of the pandemic: to scrape away ballast, to look deep into the heart of things, to mourn and rebuild. To learn what I couldn’t live without. To learn what I had to go and find again after having lost it. To recognize what I needed to discover for the first time after never having known it at all.

I hunkered down. I watched, I listened, I waited. Shifting one’s center of gravity is slow work. I found a new house, sought new connections, eventually landed a new job. Through murky weeks, months, years, I got to my feet again – literally – and asked myself, “Now what?”

Rosie awaiting action.

On purpose, I walked to the post office, the used bookstore, an independent coffee shop. Not because I needed those services; I needed the interactions. Sometimes I took my German Shepherd Rosie with me, and I found that dogs are really the best icebreakers.

In short order, Rosie charmed the local bakery into giving her free cookies. She then won the hearts of the staff at the corner florist, who allow her into the store and dote on her with pets. Her most recent conquest is the clerks at the state store, who give me handfuls of treats to feed her and say what a good dog she is.

And over time, little tendrils of community formed. I learned my neighborhood, on foot. I saw the house with the potbellied pigs on Windermere Avenue, which is something of a local legend. I was shouted at from a vehicle and looked up, startled, to see it was a woman I knew from one of the area businesses. Laughing, I waved back. I saw restaurants open and close and discussed the changes with fellow residents. I had random conversations with elderly neighbors from my front porch, an experience which felt both novel and old-fashioned. Each of these a step, a thread, that brought me a bit closer to knowing and being known.

From there I ventured further afield. Some trips took me to parts of the city that were new to me: a trendy rooftop bar, microbreweries, parks where I kayaked or hiked or rode my bike. I revisited places I knew from visits to Pittsburgh during my childhood: Schenley Park, the Carnegie Museums. The Strip District with its wholesale businesses and rapidly gentrifying residential element. And I saw Pittsburgh in all its maddening charm: the nonsensical public transit system, the hills, the rivers, the vernacular, the people who will wear flip flops in 30-degree weather. The vendors at Trader Jack’s flea market, the hipsters in East Liberty, the old Italian guys who commandeer tables at La Prima coffee and gossip and play cards for hours.

Summer Soul Line Dancing, June 21, 2023.

It came to this: not just conversations and places, or experiences, but a feeling that I was part of something (again). Finding causes. Finding people who cared about the world and wanted to do something about it. Finding organizations where my give-a-d*mn could find a home, and fellow company. Finding that it was OK to be hopeful, to believe in better, because I wasn’t the only one. I hold those discoveries close, as buoys in dark times.

I don’t know when it was that I finally fell to earth. It could have been the morning at Enrico’s Bakery, when I was blatantly cut in line by an entitled Boomer (I called him out – he ignored me); I figure you can’t really say you lived in a place until something happens to royally piss you off. It might have been during a session of yoga at a soaring Presbyterian church, with light streaming through the windows and casting brilliant colors onto the transept floor. And it struck me that no matter what anyone in that room believed, we had all found our way to the same space. Could have happened when I found gifts left on my doorstep: a bouquet of flowers, treats for my pets, a container of fresh-picked blueberries. Such gestures of kindness never ceased to leave me surprised, and touched. Maybe it was seeing the amateur astronomer on Mt. Washington who brings out his telescope and invites passerby to look through it. Perhaps it was the June evening I spent dancing with strangers when I heard “Lady Soul” by the Temptations for the first time and the city skyline shimmered behind us. Or a hot afternoon next to the Mon River, sitting on a driftwood log, catching my breath and feeling a moment about to shift.

So while I’m not sure what point marked the precise threshold of coming back, I can say with gratitude that I am. Present. Breathing deep. Grounded.

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