The cashier’s look was some serious “You’re not from here, are you Mr. Schmeckelhead?” No shit! What gave me away here lady? Just give me my sandwich and fries so I can go hide out in the corner! I so wanted to just blend into the crowd much like I always have tried to my entire life. I actually wished I had a hoodie and mullet for the first time in my life. What the hell??!!In the end, I realize everyone around me may not look like me or act like me or come from my background, but we are still people. I hope they feel the same about me. I won’t even pretend to know their life circumstances but judging by the state of this town, it can’t be all that pleasant. Perhaps they feel trapped here.
Is this why everyone pulls a hoodie tightly over their heads? God knows I understand how it feels to be trapped in a certain life without an obvious escape route, albeit my circumstances are a bit different than geography or economic collapse.
And these very people are the souls who add color to an otherwise drab streetscape. Of course I met one crusty old fart who totally brightened my day. I moved towards the cash register at Rite Aid to pay for my 99 cent water and spied a little old woman looking suspiciously like my nana who has since long passed. I thought to myself, oh how sweet and frail she looks. Sweet my ass it turns out.
She looked at me. I looked at her. We commenced a game of chicken. I’d lunge forward and she’d one up me. Finally, grandma pushed right past me and growled at the clerk, “Hey Caroline, gimme two packs.” I guess I was so mesmerized by her raspy charm, I didn’t realize I was now fixated. Nana looked right at me and asked, “You gonna buy me my smokes?” Uh, No ma’am. “Then get out the hell out of my way. You cut in line.”Rough crowd! Where’s the love? She shook her head while saying, “Better make that three packs. It’s been a rough day.” I feel your pain, sister. I looked at Caroline and she just shrugged her shoulders and sauntered off to fetch Nana her cancer sticks.
Second hand smoke from the steel mills all over town is one thing we don’t have to worry about anymore though. The hulking carcass of a long abandoned steel mill looming large, yet no longer in charge, over downtown drew me right in. I just stood there staring and staring like one of those haughty museum people would at a Picasso.
Imagination is a powerful force to fill in the blanks, and I used mine to feel the hustle and bustle of this town back in its heyday. Call me crazy but an old building rotting in the elements speaks to me more than some dried paint slathered on a canvas in a climate controlled room to which I have to pay admission. Johnstown just exudes this ambience as if someone inadvertently hit the pause button in 1983.
I got to thinking about my personal journey this week and how the road to Johnstown is such an apt metaphor. No, I am not about to foist some poetic new age bullshit on you or anything truly deep and meaningful. But hear me out. It’s not often I come up with an original though like this on my own.
The roads leading towards this city twist and wind yet no direction signs ever seem to indicate Johnstown exists. You just have to place blind faith in US 22 that its twisting lanes will eventually crap you out inside the city limits. For sure, signs for Ebensburg and Indiana plaster the highway yet surprisingly Johnstown isn’t special enough to warrant its own. The city remains tucked away in a valley quite detached from the surrounding area, at least through my eyes.This isolation describes me lately. At times I have felt hidden, and for sure all roads leading to my heart and soul were clearly unmarked for anyone who dared take the journey. Just like the high ridgelines surrounding the town, steep walls shielded me from most people daring to come close. I say most, not al. And well, I have to admit it. Sometimes I felt I had hit the pause button long ago, too and fallen into an unfulfilling slumber.
A sign I’d seen earlier boasting to the world that Johnstown is home to the world’s steepest incline railway naturally caused me to head back that way. Hell yeah, I am going to ride this bitch right up that mountain. I didn’t drive all the way to Johnstown, PA to just get yelled at by some crusty old chainsmoker and look at a steel mill.
“Aw hell no” more aptly describes my feelings when the big ugly “closed” sign came into view. Now don’t be doing this shit to me. You can’t be bragging about the world’s biggest something or another and then dash my hopes. It’s like schlepping your ass all the way to Cawker City, Kansas only to find out the world’s largest ball of twine rolled away like a piece of tumbleweed.
I looked up at that ridge line so far out of reach and said I am getting up there somehow. I eventually wound my way through some rough neighborhoods and scaled steep roads that taxed that damn Suzuki’s limited capabilities before finding a quite pleasant neighborhood up top. Oh yeah…You sensed right. Here come some more abstract musings about my life lately.
Hey, you can’t say I didn’t warn you earlier that this week has been an eye opener. The view of Johnstown from above was so peaceful. I wouldn’t go as far as saying bucolic, but it was nice. Hell, you look at anything from far enough away, and of course it all looks like some warm and fuzzy b.s. even though you know better.I know I seemed perfectly “normal” to so many people, too since I kept my inner workings so distant. But up close and under the microscope, my inner workings felt like a petri dish of competing forces. Yep, that was me. And notice I say “was” and not “is.” My week has been much like those steep roads winding up, up, up through some bad ass neighborhoods to reach some modicum of inner peace much like how the Jeffersons were finally able to move on up to that deluxe apartment in the sky though they are still outsiders in a way. We’ll get to that another day.
Johnstown’s geography has lent itself to two major floods in modern times as water backed up deep in those valleys. My life has been much the same where every once in a while pouring rain induced a flood washing on through me. It’s what we do in their aftermath that charts our new course once the waters recede. I know in mine I have brought someone new into my life, and I look forward to a lasting journey together.
I think I may have had a rebirth of sorts in Johnstown, Pennsylvania of all places. It’s not such a scary place after all once you climb above it, and I will forever feel a connection to my namesake city. Now if there was a Jakeville or something similar out there, we’d be talking!