Navigation

I can only drive when my skin knows the way, wrinkles and pores smudged up against the leather of the steering wheel, drawing the approaching turns out from my subconscious. When I lived in Pittsburgh this fall, I learned the city this way, realizing quickly enough that the trickery of its geography would always outwit a GPS. I saw a street sign, a deserted factory, a skinny old house, a billboard. I felt something and I pulled the wheel, hand over hand, through my palms. Eventually, I got lost less.

My co-pilot—my grandmother and perpetual partner in crime, a tall, slender woman of eighty-four with pale eyes and bright hair pulled back by the metal teeth of her infamous headband, which is older than my mother—never protested. If she ever realized we were lost, I think she would have understood. Her knowledge of Pittsburgh probably comes from somewhere similar: a land of instinct and reaction deep inside her skin, rather than a place of logic or reason. And yet, despite this common ground, we were always living in two different cities.

Her Pittsburgh comes from, and has stayed in, a different era—one still smothered in the smoke and smog of the city’s industrial period, and is limited to a few streets that were considered glossy in the middle of last century. Her Pittsburgh offers a lens through which she can view her life, her personal history carved into resilient pockets of the city. My Pittsburgh is a new place to explore and understand. Throughout my time living there, I kept my GoogleDocs full of new restaurants to try, neighborhoods to wander through, trail maps, lists of festivals. I stayed a tourist—always looking to journey somewhere different. We explored side by side, I, touring neighborhoods and sights, she, touring through the stage of her life, both venturing into a Pittsburgh outside of our own.

* * *

Oh, you know where we’re approaching? It’s on the right up here—here, wait, yes, here! Right on this corner, see the stairs? Well, don’t look too much I know you’re driving, but the stairs on the hill, with the flowers on the sides?

We pass one of the houses where she grew up—an old, three story, brown building on the curve of Shady Avenue, and see how close it is to Fifth? We pass it most days we wander around the city, and each time we do, the same stories pop up as their cues blur by outside the window, her gaze flashing between the fleeting sights outside and me, my eyes on the road.

Look! Look! Did you see? Well, you know, when I was just a little girl, Audrey and I used to sit on those steps there with our nurse, Mayo, and Mayo and we would go walking all over! Right up here was the old pharmacy we went to; see there, on the right?

She was born in Pittsburgh. After eighty-four years, she attends the same stone church in which she was baptized each Sunday. As the surrounding city has evolved around them, the handful of specific buildings with which she has a lifetime acquaintance still stand.

Okay so we’re going to take the turn here, you know that right? Well, wait. Are we going to church? Is it Sunday? Right, of course, I just get mixed up sometimes, well, anyways, Calvary is up ahead here. Have you been there before? Why don’t we just drive by?

The church is near Shadyside, with its boutiques and restaurants lining Walnut Street—the one street she will always suggest we head towards for a dinner out should the Pittsburgh Golf Club be closed. As much as I love eating next to the darting squash balls in the basement of the Golf Club, where the waiters bring my grandmother a glass of Dubonnet before she has time to fret over her order, I like to explore a newer Pittsburgh—the funky galleries in Lawrenceville, the open air market under old meat-packing factories in the Strip District, the trendy restaurants in East Liberty.

We drive from Shadyside into East Liberty, and did you know that here in Pittsburgh, we call it “Sliberty?, which has evolved from its hey day as a shopping center in the 50s to a ghetto in the 70s, and is now a center of the hip Pittsburgh, with its shared, co-working offices for start-ups, such as the Beauty Shoppe, and a take out restaurant that only serves food from countries the United States is in conflict with, called the Conflict Kitchen.

As we shift between neighborhoods, driving down the long steep hill on South Highland Avenue, she grasps the handle above the window, and points to the streets where her childhood friends used to live.

And sometimes I would just get so jealous! I felt like just about everyone lived right over there. But here, careful now, see I knew I couldn’t live here because the hill! The hill, it’s just, it’s so big that I could never walk anywhere! Oh how I loved to walk. I still do, you know. Love to walk. Now which street are we heading towards? Negley? Oh well here’s Penn! And right over there was where your mother was born! Or was it your uncle? Oh, well, well, someone was born right around here.

Even when we see these different Pittsburghs—me, bragging to friends about the idiosyncrasies and innovation that landed the city on National Geographic’s list of top destinations for 2012 (the microbreweries in old factories, the bustling shops that glitter black and gold, the network of trails wedged between highways, the kayakers paddling down the intersecting rivers downtown), and her, mapping her biography onto the city streets with the snapshots associated with landmarks planted on their twists and turns (the all girls school she and three of her daughter attended, the rooms she used to dance in for debutante balls, the prison where she worked with female inmates, the cemetery where her husband, sister, and parents now lie)—she is always up for trying on my version. Though she refrains from kayaking or trail running, we can both find delight in the places more immune to time and progress, where our two cities intersect: the gardens and parks, the bridges and hills, the clouds. Always, the clouds.

Oh and look up, well not too fast, but when you get the chance, look over at those clouds over there, oh my goodness. Do you see them, over above the hills? Oh those hills—I don’t know what I would do without them. I think they’re what I love most Pittsburgh. Why I couldn’t live somewhere else! I used to park my car on the sides of streets sometimes, you know, on Sundays or something, and just sit and paint them—the hills and the clouds and the leaves. One time I think I got in trouble or something—can you believe that? I think a policeman came. An old woman and all she wanted was to just paint!           

We drive home through Oakland, where she celebrates the changes we see—guessing which of the pedestrians we pass might be a professor at one of the universities, gaping at the soccer field on the curve of Forbes where she always wonders if people really play outside at this time of night?

She marvels at these changes with pride. She comes from a generation that largely stayed put—she only lived outside the city of bridges for boarding school and college, while all four of her children dispersed across the country. Cocktail parties often involve reminiscing with her old babysitters and middle school play pals. Until recently, one of her sisters, who led a similarly Pittsburgh-based existence, lived down the street, leaving them shy of a century as neighbors. Every ride home is full of reminders of her truly perpetual partner in crime.

And over there, see a few houses down that little street right there, that was Audrey’s first house. See I was still in college then when she married Tommy and I just couldn’t believe it! My sister, my best friend, married and living in a house and all that.

We pull into the driveway of a brick townhouse that she doesn’t always recognize as being hers. She moved out of 5453 Albemarle in Squirrel Hill, the house where she raised her four children, when my grandfather died. He fell. For awhile, we blamed her forgetting on the trauma, the suddenness of his death. But ever since, her memories have been dissolving more and more, leaving her clearest images of the city in the 30’s, which fade up through the present.

Regardless of the memories that have lifted away with the retreating smoke and smog of the city, driving around Pittsburgh, she is home. There is no menu to fret over, no plan to make, no conversation to keep up with. The act of recognizing these landmarks validates her sense of self, while outside the car, she is left to navigate faces she can no longer place. Driving around the city is like flipping through a three-dimensional photo album of her life, each corner an image containing moments she could always expand upon more, many buildings a surprising reminder of what used to be.

Now when I return to Pittsburgh, hands passing over the wheel, often still hopelessly lost, I find myself navigating a third version of the city, a blend of my grandma’s version and mine. Her stories now spin around the houses and churches as they pass through my windshield, infusing the landscape with the joy, wonder, and love she always finds in it.

Diana Saverin has spent most of her life in Connecticut, though you wouldn’t know it if you saw her during football season (when, on Sundays, even her socks sparkle black and gold). Send her an email at diana.saverin@yale.edu.

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