You have to bow your head when you enter Pittsburgh. It’s surrounded on almost every side by mountains, so in order to get in you must first pass through a tunnel — a long, low, ceramic tiled tube, narrow and teeming with rushing cars. Enter and there’s the sudden cut off of sunlight, and then the moment when there’s nothing but tunnel, no outside light or sound, even the radio shushed to static, just a diffuse aquatic glow and a rushing babble and buoyancy; but you’re not underwater, you’re under earth, with green, chipped guard rail pipes flashing by on one side and the front half of a grey car and grim driver on the other. You’ve left your former straight highway overworld for this timeless, dark purgatory beneath the ground, slouching slowly toward something that’s not at all apparent, like being in a cave.
Think — weren’t the mysteries at Eleusis sort of like this, the most famous ritual of the ancient Greeks, a subterranean procession toward a suddenly growing light, like Persephone, say, stepping out of hell into spring…but maybe that was just me, starting to lose it a little, overintellectualising over the claustrophobic panic when what I really needed to do was to keep my overloaded car within the restricting lane, to try and fight the feeling that the floor tile was as slippery and endless as it looked with the reflection of the murky ceiling florescents rising from it in an icy sheen.
No, but wait, really, wasn’t it even more ancient than the Greeks, our universal tunnel journey, suspended in a suffocating length, pushed out, pushed out into what? A flicker less dim, then BOOM — born into the world, bright and beyond human imagination — who could imagine or even correctly remember that — coming out of the tunnel and onto the bridge in the streaming sunlight, like it or not, water jetting up from the fountain, colors refracting over the looming glass rectangles of downtown, Three Rivers Stadium, for crying out loud, and below three real rivers, two joining into one, right there the green pubes of the city, the legs winding into a trunk. After all isn’t this the birthplace of Pittsburgh? The reason? (Literally) The Point? George Washington himself stood astride the sharp mouth of it, the father of our country, casting his seed in the water.
And I drove like I was tearing into it all, out of a somnolent womb and into this glaring, startling buzz, off the bridge and curving beside the river, lanes merging from all sides with brief glimpses of downtown popping up between long streams of traffic — and, believe me, I knew as well as anyone how dangerous it all could be. After all, wasn’t this the place that Eleanora Duse, on her deathbed in the Schenley hotel, called Pittsboorg – la plus hideuse ville du monde, Sir Henry Irving’s Hell, with the lid off, the city Frank Lloyd Wright advised abandoning? The place where I’d not only been born but had also almost died?
Things were veering in a dangerous direction, and for a moment of wild sunlight and traffic I couldn’t tell where I was going, glancing down at the book on the seat beside me as if for reassurance, a copy of my book, the black cover warped and moldy, all but illegible with water damage. A few months ago Virginia had sent it to me, or rather returned it, in that condition, an insubstantial enough gesture, certainly, but one which still, as much as any of Pittsburgh’s responsibilities or opportunities, summoned me here.
But then — the old dodge, I turned up and off and everything went back to regular speed, people trudging with grocery bags in front of the common wall tenements that arched up the hills, stop signs but no cars, the radio back to playing the same rock it’s always played. I crept around the corner until, there it was, my favorite intersection, the occult spot where Hamlet meets Ophelia. I turned here and back into traffic on the Boulevard of the Allies and on my left was Magee Women’s Hospital, the place where I was born, exactly two hundred years after Pittsburgh, and then I floored it because the city that’s always talking about renaissance is the place where I had to be reborn, like those Pilgrims at Eleusis, or like Dante, Incipit Vita Nuova, begin the new life, because I knew all too well what the alternative to that was.