Monday, April 07, 2003

Deja Vu in Pittsburgh?

Sunday afternoon I had a few hours to kill before I left Pittsburgh. So I went for a walk in the city. I made my way down Smithfield Street and across the Monongahela River.

That stretch of Smithfield Street is a bit seedy. As I approached the river, this walk on the wildish side was capped with the view of a Hooter's across the river rubbing up against an establishment loudly labeled "Philthy McNasty's."

More appealing to the right, further along the opposite bank of the riverbank, was the Monongahela Incline, a small pair of cable cars that take visitors up the steep side of the riverbank to a set of viewing balconies overlooking the city center of Pittsburgh.

I love aerial views of cities. That's why I love climbing tall buildings or taking the window seat in airplanes. I eagerly took the cable car to the top of the riverbank and found a spot on one of the balconies to view the city and its merging rivers laid out before me.

Confident that nobody was watching me, I leaned over the balcony and spat out my gum. I watched it hurtle down and ricochet beautifully off a tree branch before it hit the ground.

It was Sunday and there was no river traffic. The river lay thick and dark green. At first glance, the water appeared to be barely moving. Looking closer, I saw how the cold wind, which was whipping at my exposed hands, was also sending small ripples across the river's surface.

I gazed down on Pittsburgh. Below I could hear the dull hum and roar of cars. The old historical buildings and modern office towers stacked up together like mismatched children’s building blocks. To my left the Monongahela and Ohio rivers gently merged. A ship - perhaps a small passenger liner - was docked below me. To my right lay residential neighborhoods with houses hugging the ground and hillsides.

For an instant I thought I glimpsed something. Out of a corner of my mind Pittsburgh seemed to wink out of existence. I didn't see it as much as I dimly remembered it. In my mind's eye, I recalled a shred of a memory of seeing this landscape from the time before the Europeans came. I saw the same rivers but, instead of the city, I saw undisturbed hills with trees.

This was no vivid vision. It was more a nagging, vague memory. It was like waking up in the morning and slowly witnessing my dreams slip away like fog in the dawn sunlight. As I chased the memory, I caught nothing but the faintest glimpse. Somewhere. Maybe.

By now the wind was freezing my bare hands. My joints ached from tension and lack of sleep. Above my head I saw a single hawk circling. I followed its path for a few moments then it I lost it.

I took the cable car down and started to walk back over the river. On the bridge I turned around and looked back at the top of the riverbank where I had just stood. High in the sky the sun glared weakly through the dense gray cloud. Big houses topped the riverbank like white icing on a cake. I felt the cold bite at me again. As I stood staring, trucks rumbled by me. I felt the bridge shake.

I turned around and walked back to the hotel.

I don't really know what I glimpsed from that balcony overlooking Pittsburgh. I doubt I ever will.

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