My years as a full-fledged adult now number twenty-two. On this day and date, I left 616, Humanities, MVHS, Mount Vernon public schools, Mount Vernon and NYC behind for the first time. Even though I’d call New York City and Grand Central Station “the third armpit of hell” for the next seven years, I had plenty of times during my undergraduate days in which I missed the sights and smells of New York, the constant buzz. Not to mention quality deli meats, good pizza, Clover Donuts, the noise of Subway cars and Metro-North trains. But from the moment I started getting ready, truly ready to go, I had already left these things behind.
It was the last Wednesday in August when I took my five suitcases, Army bag, and two boxes by cab from 616 to 241st. But not before a long and tearful good-bye with my mother, Eri, Sarai, and Maurice. Yiscoc didn’t wake up to say good-bye until I was practically out the door. My stepfather insisted on giving me an extra fifty dollars for my college journey. I thought for a second about turning it down, and decided against it. “This was the least he owed me,” I thought. I felt bad about leaving, especially for Eri, who was just a little more than three years old. Darren and I took my stuff downstairs to the Reliable Taxi cab at five in the morning, got to the Subway stop and met Jimme there. We quietly rode the train to Penn Station on West 34th, where I’d catch the 7:50 am Amtrak for Pittsburgh. Once it was time to catch the train, Darren and Jimme helped with getting all of my stuff on the train, most of which I half-realized I probably wouldn’t need. We hugged, and Jimme actually teared up. This was the second time in a row I’d seen him sober, and he seemed happy for me.
The train ride to Pittsburgh was much longer than I expected. My assumption was that since Philly and Pittsburgh were in the same state that the ride wouldn’t last more than a couple of hours. What I didn’t know was that once we pulled into the City of Brotherly Love that the engineers would have to uncouple the electric engine and connect a diesel one. What I didn’t know was that the trip across the state of Pennsylvania was a long and windy one, with hills and mountains, small towns and tunnels. What I didn’t know was that there would be a boring recording describing the construction of track through the Allegheny Mountains which led to the creation of Horseshoe Lake. I took two naps, listened to five tapes, and with all of that, still had an hour and a half to spare. I ended up talking with a young Catholic priest during that time about the nuances of Christian faith and how Christians often misapply their faith in secular situations.
We pulled in about thirty minutes late, just before 5 pm. I immediately found a phone book and called for a Yellow Cab. I waited, and waited, and waited, all while about six cabs came up and picked up other passengers from my train. I looked at the downtown skyline and thought, “It doesn’t look like a hick town so far.” Yet the cab drivers sure acted like it was. They refused to make eye contact with me, much less pick me up. After an hour, I called Yellow Cab again, this time threatening them with a lawsuit. “If I don’t see a cab real soon, I’m contacting the NAACP and filing a discrimination lawsuit!,” I yelled to the dispatcher over the phone. Within three minutes I got my taxi. I was already beginning to think that Pittsburgh wasn’t my best choice for pursuing higher education.
My first drive through the heart of Pittsburgh reminded me of what people had been saying for years about New York and how great it was. Once we passed through downtown, which took less time than driving through Mount Vernon, we went through these decidedly working-class neighborhoods and Black communities that looked at least they belonged in South Side Mount Vernon. Then we reached the Oakland section of the ’Burgh. School buildings, college dorms that looked like silos, shops and restaurants abounded. Just before we turned left off of Forbes Avenue, I saw it, the Cathedral of Learning, for the first time. I was starting to feel better about my decision.
The driver turned left again, off Atwood and onto Fifth Avenue, then a right onto Lothrop, where, of course, Lothrop Hall was. It was an eleven-story dirty uranium-brown building, where years of coke soot had built up. There were few students or staff around. I went through security, using my high school ID for the last time, and the guard gave me a temporary dorm pass that I could use until I got my Pitt ID. My dorm room was on the third floor. It overlooked a drab and empty yet clean courtyard. I was lucky, since there was a good chance I might’ve ended up with a roommate. The dorm rooms at Lothrop went to one student apiece. I was so exhausted from all of the emotions and stresses of the day. I grabbed some junk food from the vending machine in the lobby, called my mother to tell her I was fine, somehow found the Mets game on my portable radio, and fell asleep in my twin bed.
Despite all that had happened at 616, in Humanities, MVHS and in Mount Vernon, I was homesick the last third of the semester. Not homesick because I missed having my ex-stepfather say, “take that base out of ya voice before I cave ya chest in.” Not homesick because I missed spending my Friday evenings and Saturdays tracking down Jimme at some dive in the Bronx or in Manhattan. I think that I was homesick because I was still reeling from crush #2, which made me realize that I never really had a home in the first place.
It took me a bit longer — about a year or so — to realize that despite the ‘Burgh’s lack of almost anything I’d normally describe as city or city-suburban life, I could still make the place my home. At the very least, the University of Pittsburgh was relatively more diverse, urban, and exciting than compared to the rest of the area. That was the reason I was there, after all. Still, I gave myself the room necessary to criticize the university and the city when I saw fit. But I also took time to look around, to see that whatever else was or wasn’t going on, I was in charge of my life now, and safe from the slights, hurts and abuses of my past.