Pittsburgh thoughts and poems by Susan Chute and Laurence Carr

In the late 60’s and early 70’s Pittsburgh was, for me, a place of unrealized dreams. Neighborhoods were segregated. Martin Luther King had just died. The steel mills were closing down, and the fathers of my contemporaries were laid off, their modest dreams of owning a split-level home and raising multiple well-fed children vanishing in a puff of acrid smoke.  In the kitchens, our mothers were experiencing the first precepts of second wave feminism but had no avenues for undertaking the transformations suggested. The arts were rudimentary at best: the Pittsburgh Public Theater was just a thought; Heinz Hall opened only in 1971; the museums (except for the dinosaurs) were lackluster.

And me?  With a BA in English, several graduate credits from the University of Pittsburgh, a passion for theatre, and a lower middle-class background, the best I could hope for was a job as a secretary.  I’d rather be a secretary in New York City than here, I thought. At least I’d be able to go to the theatre. So, I moved. And much to my surprise, I was able to cobble together a career in the theatre as a lighting designer, union card and all. After that, I found a place as a librarian at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.  Those were realized dreams I never dared imagine in Pittsburgh.

Now I’m in New Paltz, pursuing the poetry path (dream mostly unrealized) and curating the literary series Next Year’s Words (dream realized).  (Did I mention I was an English major?) I am in good Pittsburgh company: Michael Chabon, Damon Young, Jan Beatty, Lucie Brock-Broido, August Wilson, Augusten Burroughs, Jack Gilbert, Gerald Stern. I don’t personally know any of those renown souls, but there is one Pittsburgh exile I do know, and that’s the editor of this esteemed magazine, Larry Carr. He and I share Pittsburgh, theatre in NYC, retirement, and a passion for the craft of poetry, but we didn’t meet until a few years ago, in New Paltz. So, we lived in parallel, in Pittsburgh and in New York City.  

Now it’s time to explore the perpendicular—how did our lives unknowingly intersect? To start, we thought we’d present a pair of poems about our Pittsburgh lives. Will we harmonize?  I can’t wait to find out!

—Susan Chute


Poor in Pittsburgh, 1972

	If it was free, you taught, I ought to grab it—Ned Balbo, The Sugar Thief

Gone from the soot-stained city of
	a triangle cut out of the hillside
	a gasoline tower high in the sky
		monument to workers now interred,
		stepped pinnacle flashing steel red or ice blue.

Gone from the soot-stained city with
	three rivers to a trihedron
	of tempers, iron city belching its beer 
		through smoky red-light streets,
		city so wounded that hospitals 
		provide the primary means of support.

Gone from the soot-stained city with 
	steep cobblestone streets and freight trains
	the blind child, red-haired 
	climbing cement stairs
		while the dog barks 
		and gritty black dirt with grains of white 
		fertilize green beans and dahlias 
		in the backyard garden.

Because the front door is always locked
	Because the coal cellar shelves are lined with 
		plastic flowers
	Because the artificial Christmas tree is stored
		with trimmings intact
	Because the unopened sheet sets are in the attic
		though the beds are threadbare.

Because the piano is out of tune
	Because you can find a pencil but not a sharpener
	Because the desk drawer is stuffed with brochures
	           for trips not taken.
	Because the old man peers through bifocals at
	            Worldwide Wrestling
	Because the lover lost his laughter.
	Because the cars on the boulevard 
	            are going somewhere else—

                   Go from this soot-stained city
                   scrape through sour beginnings
                   get away 	find somewhere else
                   make something of yourself 
                   bootstraps and all that

but we can’t buy the boots
Rubber pull-ons will have to do.

—Susan Chute


Pittsburgh Remains
by Laurence Carr

The memory surfaces slowly, image by image. Of going downtown or “dahntahn” as we would say and seeing the men in suits in the obligatory broad-brimmed, high-peaked hats, and the women gloved and hatted in Sunday best, hose, and dresses, many with colors long before any thought of retro. Some wore pearls. All of them walking with purpose to work or shop or to meet a friend under Kaufman’s clock, one of the large department stores. And there, my aunt worked in Kaufman's shoe department on the third floor. Sometimes her sister, another aunt, would take me there and we’d all lunch at the Tic Toc restaurant on the fifth floor, where ladies took an hour from their busy days to chat over Waldorf Salad. I sat there at the height of adolescent sophistication.

It was a time, gone now to that place where the past ends up but still can be reeled in, never on command but in those moments when our minds have cleared and like an old toy train (Lionel or American Flyer, you choose) comes wobbling down the track to make a station stop at your quiet, days of youth.

And thanks to my friend Susan Chute for connecting a few of our Pittsburgh thoughts and poems.


where streetlights glowed

in the milltowns in the valley
where streetlights glowed at noon 
like ashy stars 
and chickens romped in sooty suits

men trekked their way up cobbled streets
away from the blasts of open hearths 
toward their brick oven homes
their weedy garden wheelbarrows rusting
from sleep deprived shiftwork
they stop time to enter their oasis
the corner tavern to quench
in the waters of Iron City

one step out the door
the time clock ticks them home
and back again
down to the hell that pays the bills
and offers boiler maker dreams

so much depended 
on those steely furnaces and rolling mills 
that we had no time for poetry 
although I wonder 
if Dr. Bodkin wrote imagistic verse about us 
his fledgling patients 
after shooting us up with polio seeds

                                            Laurence Carr

Susan Chute

Read Susan Chute’s poem, “Her: A History”, here in Lightwood. She is a poet and the curator of Next Year’s Words, an online and live reading series.

Laurence Carr

Laurence Carr is the publisher of Lightwoodpress.com. His new book of poetry, Paradise Loft, is published by CAPS Press and Lightwood Press.

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