Ode to a City of Misfits

Ode to a City of Misfits

Ode to a City of Misfits 1920 1412 Eric Botts

I wasn’t born in Erie, Pennsylvania, but it is my home, all of it: The bricks tumbling from the walls of its crumbling factories, the abandoned Hammerhill Paper Company off the Bayfront Connector highway, State Street’s homeless population with their shopping carts of discarded metal and their duct-taped cups rattling for change to buy bottomless cups of burnt coffee and ham sandwiches at Dominic’s Eatery, and the dead fish that blanket the beaches of Lake Erie and fill its winds, frigid even in summer, with the stench of decay. For over two decades, I despised this city. Now, having left it six years ago, I think I’ve finally learned to love my home.

When I was eight and my brother Greg was eleven, our parents asked how we’d feel moving from Florida to Pennsylvania. The narrative for my first twenty years was that my mom had gotten a tenure-track job teaching biology at Behrend, a satellite campus of Penn State. I eventually learned we moved because the family industrial trading business, IDOD (pronounced “EYE-dodd”), had been in a state of zombie-like decay for over two decades, eating my dad limb-by-limb destroying his back. He’d told my mom we had to escape and she should take the first available job. Maybe that escape need is hereditary; the word “move” sparked in me a childhood urge toward a new beginning, a reset button on life. I recall similar feelings in my teens after they divorced when my mom first floated the idea of leaving Erie.

I didn’t begin to see how this city could trap its residents under mountains and floods of precipitation and poverty until my dad lost his job and my parents split. He jumped from motel to trailer to dingy apartment, from unemployment to telemarketing and back, from barstool to barstool. By my twenties, I saw Erie for the sinkhole it was as I scrounged $7-8 an hour at restaurants, grocery stores, and gas stations, then a bit more, after I started college at Behrend, as an English tutor, making ends meet with food stamps and state utility assistance.

By that time, my dad had long-since fled that snow-crushed city and Greg’s protracted death, which began with infant heart disease and ended twenty-three years later with what should’ve been a preventable and treatable infection of the peritoneum. In the midst of this crisis, my dad returned to the still-failing family business in Florida.

I gave up resenting him when, having flown back as Greg’s dying came on, he entered the hospital room in the last few minutes. We sat in silence, my dad, my mom, her husband, and me. Greg lay there, mouth slightly agape, snoring, arms straight down the sides of his body, atop the sheet. He’d always been pale like this, and his medications had slowed his healing, leaving him riddled with scabs and bruises and pockmarks. Add to these the scars he’d accumulated from heart and kidney transplants and countless other surgeries, the catheter hanging just above his pelvis, the tubes he’d plug into himself for dialysis, and I’m left with an image of him in constant decay, with an understanding of his life as a long dying.

Anyone who’s spent much time in a hospital knows its ambient arrhythmia of beeps, clicks, mechanical breaths, footsteps dopplering down the hall, the opening and closing of doors. Now and then I’d glance at the doorway, the window, the blank television, the beeping-clicking-breathing machines. When one of the beeps dragged into a long tone, my mom’s husband got up to look. “Is that…?”

My mom started to stand until he put his hand out.

“Don’t, I got it.”

He left the room, returning quickly with a nurse close behind. She stopped the long beep. Then she pulled the sheet over his head and stopped the clicking and breathing machines. The nature of the situation was obvious, but I couldn’t understand. The long tone obviously meant she needed to do something, so why would she just turn it off? I stared at her, feeling weak, stupid, and suddenly furious as she left.

My dad approached the bed and whispered in his gruff baritone. The only word I could make out was “son.”

My mom reached for my hand, but I charged out the door, angry and confused and terrified—any feeling but grief—until finally I fell into a panic. My vision filled with blots of color, like a blackout from standing up too fast. As I stumbled blindly down the hall, my legs gave out. I caught myself on the wall railing and swatted away a voice asking if I was okay, then pulled myself up and barrelled into a waiting room, falling head-first through the bathroom door, hitting my shoulder against the wall as I collapsed over the toilet.

I don’t know how long I kneeled, dry-heaving, before my dad came in. He didn’t say anything though. Just put his hand on my back. I couldn’t speak either—probably for the best because, as I thought of his leaving, for an irrational moment, I blamed him for Greg’s death. Maybe it’s reasonable to be angry that he’d moved during that final year, but it’s also hard to hold a grudge against a man for running from his problems after he’s watched his son die. Sure, his leaving had significant emotional consequences for my brother and me. And yes, he had time to think about those consequences before he left. But some realities are too painful to accept. As I calmed down and thought about my own flight from the room in mid-panic attack, my anger toward him gave way to sympathy.

Around 7am, I told my mom I wanted to leave with him. We returned to his room at the Lighthouse Inn and enacted an old, depressing ritual. Just as we had done with Greg almost weekly in my late teens and his early twenties, we smoked the room out with weed, knocked back a bottle of whiskey, and listened to Comedy Central in the background as we played chess until everything went a little mute.

*

When I started at Behrend in 2008, I was twenty-three—just old enough that I struggled to relate to my eighteen- and nineteen-year-old classmates. Every year, I befriended the graduating class, and the next found myself newly friendless. No one stays in Erie if they can help it. It’s the snow. The rain. The fog. Whatever precipitation oppresses the city at whatever God-forsaken moment. It turns us all bitter, drives us all away.

In December of 2012, I graduated from Behrend. January through March, my heating bills grew from their temperate-weather average of $40-80 to a staggering winter high of $250-350—nearly the cost of rent, $480. But no matter how incessant the blast from my heating vents, no matter my cocoon of clothing and comforters and sleeping bags, the cold ached deep into my marrow. I’d lay there, shivering into physical and emotional exhaustion, recalling that my dad had lived two floors up in this same building, Northview Heights, just three years earlier.

Once, as we left my dad’s apartment, I climbed into Greg’s little Hyundai Tiburon. Cranking the heat, he exposed his meatless arm, quaking like a frail old man’s. His heart disease and the surgeries and medications it required eventually led to further complications with his kidneys. Since the age of two, Greg’s life consisted of back-to-back surgeries, mountains of pills, in-home and on-site dialysis, and long stays in Intensive Care. Cold weather was particularly painful because he’d developed rheumatoid arthritis from, I don’t know, medications or dialysis, or whatever else might spur the immune system into self-destructive overdrive. But worse than the arthritis, he said, he could actually feel his blood slow down with the cold, as if freezing in his veins—a result, I suspect, of the blood-thinners he had to take.

Living at Northview, I grew to understand, though to a far lesser extent than Greg would have known, the pain of unrelenting cold. When my partner Meg stayed with me, we’d crush our bodies together, drawing close as our muscles ached for warmth and the furnace strained to work my 850-square-foot apartment to 68 degrees, managing what felt closer to 45 between walls hollowed of insulation.

*

Early in 2013, after I graduated, the city accumulated around two feet of snow—not a terrible amount, but the temperature frequently dropped below negative twenty degrees. Ice layered the roads so thick it’d be a week before the salt trucks had any noticeable effect. From every stop, I would feather the gas, coaxing the little Hyundai I’d inherited from Greg into a belabored crawl.

Meg was visiting her mom outside Pittsburgh, and another class had just graduated from Behrend, leaving me just four friends in the city—two across town, where my car would never reach, given the road conditions, one studying for an exam, and one under house arrest for violating probation with yet another DUI after having killed a motorcyclist in a previous drunk-driving incident two years earlier. I couldn’t bring myself to visit him.

Sitting in the parking lot of my apartment building, I took my key from the ignition and stewed a moment on the past week, which I’d spent isolated in my almost entirely unfurnished apartment, getting drunk and stoned while playing videogames and watching The Princess Bride, Wall-E, and endless episodes of Arrested Development. I pressed my head against the seatback and stared into the fresh case of Yeungling lager on the passenger seat. Already, the snow had begun to cake my windshield, gathering in a slushy melt. My throat clenched. My face burned. My fingers ached from their grip on the base of the steering wheel. I screamed a rush of obscenities and hit the wheel with the heel of my wrist until my muscles shuddered. I sat a quiet moment longer, then climbed from the car, and brought the beer in for a night spent sloshing into my apartment walls, spilling now and then into the kitchen to slop undercooked rice and lentils onto a plate, and washing them down between hits of weed with warm Yeungling in front of The Man with the Screaming Brain—a less-than-B Bruce Campbell movie I’d watched several times.

At 4am, my poisoned gut sent groans through my body, aching me awake. By the time I found my bearings, my throat already burned acidic. I charged across the hall to the bathroom and slumped over the toilet. The violence of my drunken vomiting, I’ve been told, sounds as terrible as it feels. The force and time it takes, often several hours, leave my muscles limp for days and wracks my chest with whoop-clattering, bronchitic coughs.That night, after the vomiting, I wept madly from pain and loneliness and from the weakness I saw in myself.

The next day, I dragged my body awake and into a sitting position at 2pm and indulged, for twelve hours, my old videogame addiction as I hadn’t done since I’d moved, three years earlier, out of the basement bedroom Greg used to inhabit in our mom’s suburban home. I paused only to use the restroom, pack weed into my bowl, and snack on the previous night’s unrefrigerated rice and lentils.

*

Economically and emotionally depressed, I clung that year to what had been my student job as “lead tutor” at Behrend’s Learning Resource Center, even though I had graduated in December. Despite my degrees in graphic design and creative writing, I’d have been lucky to earn, at any of Erie’s maybe ten design jobs, the $15 an hour I made as a tutor, and the chances of any small time ad company or smaller-time Erie publisher giving me more than an unpaid internship were slim-to-nil.

Most days, after tutoring, I’d walk a half-mile from campus to Meg’s place at University Gates Apartments. During my fourth undergraduate year, we’d met in a global literature class. I was immediately drawn to her. She hardly talked in or out of class, but her facial expressions spoke of skepticism and wry wit. She had a sort of misfit quality to her, as if she felt constantly out of place, a feeling to which I related. We’d stay a couple hours, watching Doctor Who or whatever streaming video held her screen-addicted roommate’s glazed attention, then we’d dig my car from the snow and drive wordlessly to my damp apartment while Tom Waits graveled through the stereo.

At my apartment, we’d cobble together a paltry meal of grains and beans, which we ate while smoking weed in front of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which Meg had introduced me to somewhere around our third or fourth date. One of her, and subsequently my, favorite episodes was “Hush,” in which a group of ghouls known as the Gentlemen, bearing old-style black leather medical bags, come to Sunnydale, California. One night, as the city sleeps, they steal its inhabitants’ voices, muting their screams as the Gentlemen carve out their hearts. Amid the silent terror, the city tumbles into riot and chaos as its communities crumble without voices to bind them.

*

Poet’s Hall huddled on the cusp of the city proper amid rundown bars and laundromats, mini-grocers and convenience stores, apartment buildings and Ultimate Warrior Martial Arts. A mile or two down the road was Erie’s East Side, the part of the city that, in the past decade or so, has become infamous for its robberies, shootings, and some crimes so horrifying I have trouble reconciling them with my childhood and teenage memories of Erie.

It eventually moved to the less crime-ridden West Side. The pictures online present a more welcoming ethos, but in 2013, it was the epitome of black. The stage was black. The podium, black. The stool where readers would sit, the floor, the scattered metal folding chairs, all black. And to light it all, strings of lights spiraled around curtain rods and microphone stands, finally framing the podium and stage-front. For BYOB readings and open mics, attendees would fill a scuffed wooden table with boxed wine, Yuengling, Mr. Pibb, and Kraken rum, and next to the booze, they’d deposit small-denomination bills in a fishbowl to help the owner, Cee, cover overhead costs.

The night’s featured reader seemed to draw inspiration from the beat poets of the 1950s and ‘60s while indulging pop culture obsessions of the ‘70s and ‘80s with poems whose narrators came from the era’s classic film and television—Cool Hand Luke, M*A*S*H, A Streetcar Named Desire. After maybe a dozen poems, his exit from the stage met sizeable applause—even for this place, where the audience tends to clap after every poem.

Typically, the Serious Poets of the academic literati discourage such tendencies toward automatic applause, in part because doing so might break the mood they’re trying to set, but also, I suspect, because it makes every poem equal. And in the ostensible meritocracy of academic poetry, equality is an insult.

Not here, though. Here, applause is both symbol and manifestation of community and support, a bulwark against the demoralizing isolation this city inflicts on its residents, a rejection of the elitist, class-driven realities that lurk behind academia’s rhetoric of merit because, the fact is, many of Erie’s residents can’t afford college. Most of the people in that room that night probably lived, like me, on food stamps and other government aid, and unlike me, most of them weren’t lucky enough to have a mother who worked at a university and could therefore get them a 75% tuition break.

In fifteen minutes, the open mic would begin. Meanwhile, a rush of thickly bundled bodies funneled out the door, rubbing and huffing into their hands, lipping their cigarettes. I had known most of these people for over a decade, some even longer. These poetry readings went at least as far back as Cuppacino’s and Poe’s Café, where I first discovered them in 2002. After their closures came Mooncents (a pun, I’m told, on Starbucks) and Papa Joe’s. They and a few other coffee shops came in succession, each opening just before or just after another closed. Poet’s Hall survived because its singular mission had been poetry. Without need for a kitchen or employees, Cee managed to keep overhead down and run the place with threadbare funds.

It attracted people who struggled to make eye contact or talk to others; people who struggled to advocate for themselves, sometimes because of a physical or developmental disability; people who might, if not for places like this, end up in group homes; people who needed each other, some of them talented artists, nearly all of them misfits who just wanted a place to feel less alien, a community where they could find their voices without fear of judgment or censure.

The open mic readings were the usual fare: Confessions, rants, raves, rambles, and fantasies. Then a guy I’d seen around for years but never talked to took the stage. I feel somewhat ashamed that I couldn’t (still can’t) remember his name or the names of half the people there, whom I’d seen a thousand times, but I’ll call him Aaron because I need to call him something, and Aaron’s as good a name as any.

Hunched, shaking, he stepped onto the stage and glanced around the room before taking the podium. “So-sssso-s-s-so,” he began, pushing through his stutter to explain that he didn’t have a poem, but “D-d-does anyone rrr-re-mmember the show Cheers?” Most of us gave quiet but encouraging uh-huhs, a couple of people exclaimed that they loved the show, and one guy hooted. Aaron had always liked Cheers because the characters accepted and appreciated each other. They reminded him of this community. His stutter disappeared, but his voice still quaked as he sang the lyrics, all about escaping from the “worries” of the modern world.

We all have moments that stay with us, dogging our sleep, demanding that we make meaning of them. For me, this is one. It seems too easy to read it to mean, simply, that I should feel bad for not knowing “Aaron’s” name while he sang the refrain, well-known to most Americans born before the 2000s, about how we all want a place “Where Everybody Knows Your Name.”

He worked through the song off-key, off-rhythm, and generally off-. It was beautiful in the way damaged, limping things are sometimes beautiful, in a sort of painful, heart-rending way. Like a Tom Waits ballad or an aging man’s attachment to his dying family business or my memory of sitting with that man, my father, after his elder son’s death, playing chess, getting high with Comedy Central in the background.

These are the aching poetries of nostalgia and elegy, and this song was Aaron’s ode to the impoverished residents of a city in perpetual decay, his love letter to the misfits of Poet’s Hall and the city of Erie, cold, crumbling, full of a strength and beauty hard to grasp unless you’ve lived there.

Toward the end, he sang more and more quietly, performing live the recorded song’s fade-out refrain. During the polite applause, Poet Hall’s great equalizer, two audience members stood, spurring a few others to rise, lifting themselves by the arms of chairs, by canes and walkers, by the hands and arms of friends and loved ones. Most of us, though, looked around for a while until we finally gave in and joined them in a standing ovation to the theme song from Cheers.

Header photo © S. Schirl Smith.

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