O, Pittsburgh.

When I went off to college at Carnegie Mellon in 1988, right off the bat during freshman orientation, some friends and I decided to go to the O, an all-night French fry shop that was Pittsburgh’s hangout for all manner of exhausted, underground, drunken or unruly hungry people. On the cheap, you could get a large paper boat mounded with French fries (I’m talking about an 8” high tower, friends) that were not exceptionally good by any means but were, instead, exceptionally cheap, exceptionally greasy and exceptionally cold. In a city that had a sub shop which piled French fries onto your sandwich (I’m looking at you, Primanti Bros), it was the O that was known as the gross spot.

The floor was coated in grease—you had to actually duckwalk slowly to make sure you didn’t slip and fall. The lighting was sickly and fluorescent. The crowd was wild and hectic. And really drunk. To a sheltered college freshman, it felt excitingly dangerous. If it was 3 am and you wanted some greasy, post-drinking anti-hangover junk food, that was where you congregated. I—and everyone from college I’ve consulted—went once just to try it and never again. The O was an institution, sure, but so is the prison system, and I don’t see most people rushing to go there more than once.

But when I wrote my latest novel, Luckmonkey, which takes place in Pittsburgh in the early twenty-first century, the O reappeared for me as the unnamed inspiration for a horrible place called Tamale Mama’s, a sad, greasy parody of a fast food joint (featured in Chapter 3: The Effing Taco). I just knew if I wrote a story based in Pittsburgh, the O had to appear. It was such a gross, necessary part of young life at the time.

I’m making the O sound awful, I know. I can hear you asking: why would anybody in their right mind go there ever? First of all, nobody there WAS in their right mind: they were inebriated, or a teenager, or super tired from being up all night, or otherwise desperate. It was the place the unseen—those folks who didn’t show up in the shiny, glass-glittering pictures of Pittsburgh’s skyscrapers and sparkling three rivers—collected themselves, and for a goodie goodie kid from the middle of the country with a strict Greek dad, this was the place that helped me realize there were other lives being lived far outside the orderly suburbs and fancy colleges. Second, see #1. Lots of kids went as tourists, to “experience the low life.” But lots of us also went because we felt a little more alive there, a little more at home (albeit nervously so) than at the library. It was right down the street from the infamous mens’ gay bar closest to our school (and, incidentally, the art museum). It was years before I came out as queer, but something in me knew a home when I found one. Anything could happen—there was often shouting, or fighting, or weeping, or barfing, or some combination thereof. Everything kind of came out into the open at the O.

Someone recently sent me the news that the O has, thanks to the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic, permanently closed its grimy doors. Part of me reacted with a non-reaction. (I mean, well, duh it closed. I’m surprised the health department hadn’t shut it down years ago.) And part of me is still in mourning at the news. I mean, I haven’t been there or thought much about it since 1988, and I don’t think, given the chance, I’d ever want to go again, much less put anything from there into my MOUTH, but I still felt it as a loss. It’s a piece of ratty, greasy Pittsburgh history.

Most of Pittsburgh’s history is ratty and greasy. It was a steel town, after all. Cobbled together of immigrants from everywhere, academics and artists, high and low roiling together. It may have a lot of colleges (5 well-known colleges in one small city), but its backbone and its history are laborers and working class folks. It’s been too busy sweating and scraping by to worry about whitewashing its picket fences. It is, in many ways, for all its mid-Atlantic conservativism and small townishness, the city of my heart. It’s old houses with bright-colored ceilings and coffin niches in the narrow hall. It’s pierogis and Chinese broccoli and chewy bagels and not very good pizza. It’s mountains and rivers and hulking oak trees and cobblestone and gothic towers and crickets.

And it used to be the O. I could write here my kneejerk reaction to the O closing: it’s a symbol of the callous nature of our government’s refusal to deal with the pandemic and the devastating losses it has caused. But all this has been written before, and it breaks my heart a little too hard in this moment to write that.

Instead, I’ll say this: what’s lost is something that only makes sense if you’re untethered from obligation and restraint. This untethering is only available to the few of us—most readily (but not exclusively) at that moment in young adulthood when the world is beginning to open for us but we have not yet truly felt the weight of that openness. What’s lost with the O is a slipping feeling. I don’t mean the greasy floor. I mean what’s lost is—how do I say it right?—what’s lost is the sense that there’s somewhere the rules can fall away, somewhere that is liberated, a place that’s still dangerous and alive. A rule-bending place. The topsy-turvy world that makes the “real” world work. It was that place where everything inside will come out, wild and slippery and hectic as it is.  

REVIEW: In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (Graywolf Press, 2019).

Years ago, I read Her Body and Other Parties. I’d come upon it entirely because of the title—I was working at the time on a dissertation about “the body” in English and French literature and film. The collection of short stories, it turns out, was far less foo-foo and pretentious than my dissertating, but entirely smarter and more meaningful to me. (I finished and still have the book; the dissertation, not so much.) Despite all that admiration, I allowed the book to languish for on my shelf (well-fanned, to be sure, but languishing still), along with most of the stuff related to my now-defunct academic career.

So when one of my favorite former students suggested I read In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, I didn’t make the connection that it was written by the very same author whose work I had loved so well years before. Instead, I went running into it with my eyes closed and my mind (as it so often is) completely blank. I tore through it. I mean, not literally—the book is a little worse for wear, but intact—but I could not stop reading.

In the Dream House is a memoir, the story of a queer woman’s relationship with an abusive partner. As is fitting for a narrative like this, it’s fragmented, told in tiny chapters (the longest of which is probably four pages, but the most common of which barely makes a single pages). It’s gulps of language, and it makes for a rhythm I first fell in love with in poetry. There’s a finished quality to each chapter, each one rounding itself into the perfect sigh of thought; but together, the chapters refuse to make a watertight whole and instead give the impression of bursts (emotion, language, action), snapshots, gut punches. Reading Dream House was very much like being pushed into the pool before I could get my shoes off. It was a violent, nasty little prank of which the teenagers at the public pool seemed very fond. Stooping too near the pool’s edge to remove your shoes made you vulnerable. So did being slight enough to be whisked over someone’s shoulder and carried to water’s edge and tossed in. (There’s a scene like this in the film Dans ma peau that guts me every time.) Dream House felt like this to me: a shockingly immediate opening-up of the narrative.

While that might sound like a criticism, it’s definitely not. One of the things that studying poetry teaches you is the ethos that form should be part and parcel of content—that the shape the art thing takes should be part of the meaning of the art thing—and this is true for Dream House.  It is a story about the unmaking of a woman, how her partner systematically blasted her into pieces, how the imperative of silence (laid out by a disbelieving and homophobic culture) weighed like a brick to keep her in her place. It is the story of why a woman might stay in such a relationship as much as it is the story of the ways in which we often go before truly leaving.

Any review of this book which characterizes it as being a memoir of an abusive relationship runs the risk of mischaracterizing the book, and I’m hoping you’ve read this far in the review so I can explain myself. Let me, as Obama used to say, be clear: it is the story of an abusive relationship. But it’s a story told differently than it’s usually told. Most narratives of abuse focus on what happened and how it made the subject feel. That’s certainly here, but it’s not the focus. The focus seems to be more about recreating the experience of being torn apart and reassembling oneself through the very form of the story and through the telling of it. In other words, this is not a tell-all, salacious narrative of a treacherous relationship. There’s plenty of those out there. What makes this imperative to read is that it is art made from such an experience. Your writing teacher in some grade or other was probably fond of exhorting you to “show, don’t tell.” But better writing such as this doesn’t even do that—if telling is at the bottom rung and showing is one step up, this functions at a higher level. It recreates the experience (of fragmentation, of confusion, of moorless desperation) while still insisting that you understand and make sense of it. It evokes. It pulls you in and won’t let go.

No. It throws you in.