Perspectives: Grid for Grade

An author who lived in New York City for 20 years returns to her native Pittsburgh to care for her ailing mother. At first uncertain of her decision, a set of steps helps to make her feel right at home, again.

I‘m standing on Troy Hill with my sons on our first outing since moving back to the ’Burgh — a step cleanup organized by a volunteer group caring for Pittsburgh’s public stairways.

“Grid for grade,” I’m thinking. That’s the trade-off when I left New York City and came home to help my sister take care of our mother.

I went from a metropolis of squares and travel by numbers to rivers that form a golden triangle and angled streets between. From a flat matrix to steep grades of valleys to hills.

Not long after we meet up with the volunteer crew, my boys are playing King of the Hill and seeing who can collect the most pop cans to crush. I pick up a plastic bottle here, a foam cup there, and slam dunk them into a trash bag.

I’m feeling virtuous for being on a green team, for being another boomerang Pittsburgher who returns to “family first.” It’s instilled in my gender, my Italian-American upbringing, my class of people.

I’m ready for active duty on these stairs and ready to give my sis a break and split my mother’s doctor’s appointments — ear, nose and throat, (love the threefer), eyes, teeth, thyroid, heart, lower back, bladder and knee.

Yet as I reach for something blowing in the wind — missed it — the uncertainty about moving back to Pittsburgh starts to set in. 

I have my doubts. What if my mother doesn’t let me, Daughter No. 2, take her to the doctors when Daughter No. 1 has been doing it for 20 years? What if I’m demoted to driving Miss Vinnie to the beauty parlor every Wednesday, to Eat’n Park for a fish sandwich and coleslaw, to shop at Giant Eagle for groceries (not to forget one bag each of caramel, butter and cheddar popcorn), then back home to play cards?

Munching popcorn sweet, salty, cheesy. Holding cards with big numbers for the visually impaired that make me dizzy. That’s what happened when I used to come home for visits.
Maybe it’ll be different now that I’m here for good.

I make conversation with a member of the step crew who lives in affordable Garfield and tell her how friends talk up Pittsburgh’s livability. The New Yorker in me thinks: “I don’t need to buy a three-story house.” “I don’t like to drive. Give me a subway.” “I feel at home in crowds. Garbage doesn’t bother me.”

Pittsburgh is a perfect fit for me because its terrain matches the ups and downs of my moods. And it inspires me.

I glance down at a cigarette butt and look up.

A landing. No. A stage.

Not steps. Theater seats.

A candy wrapper in my hand is not a candy wrapper in my hand, is not a list of ingredients in a Three Musketeers Bar. It’s a poem. A poem in my hand. Recite it.

Skim milk. Consonance.
Soybean oil. Assonance.
Cocoa butter. Cocoa powder. Cocoa mass. Repetition of sound.
Oil of Palm.

Now that’s syntax.

Suddenly, I’m not on a set of stairs but a performance space, an unusual performance space. And yet there are nearly 800 of them in Pittsburgh. A step with a stanza. Plus a dramatic view, one that translates to, “New York’s grid has nothing on Pittsburgh’s grade.”

I go with my instincts on the Troy Hill steps. New York is one concrete corner after the other where I counted my way back when I got lost. Numbered streets north and south. Numbered avenues east and west. A city of straightforward prose, direct, to the point. Predictable. This is how I lived for 20 years.

Navigation in Pittsburgh is the dance of poetry. Whimsical, lyrical poetry.

And I’m getting up to dance.  

Paola Corso is an award-winning author of fiction and poetry books set in her native Pittsburgh. She is completing “Steppin,” a book of her poems, essays and photographs celebrating city steps. In 2016, she and Andrew Edwards co-founded Steppin Stanzas, a grassroots poetry project celebrating Pittsburgh public steps, funded by a Sprout Fund Seed Grant. 

Categories: Collier’s Weekly, From the Magazine