Empty Streets and Dinner at the Ruddy Duck

After checking into the Pittsburgh Ramada Inn, we head out onto the streets to find a place to eat, but all the restaurants are closed and there’s practically no one around. It’s a beautiful summer evening, a bit of cool coming off the rivers that converge around this old city’s center; the sky is a dusty violet. All four of us are hungry after our long drive. Coming from Philadelphia, though, we are somewhat flummoxed by the lack of people. We wander the streets, temporarily forgetting the idea of food. We are simply in search of human beings.

It grows dark. We hear live music reverberating amongst the buildings, but it is impossible to locate. There are no people, but there is old, industrial-age stone and iron mixed with modern glass, polished marble, and granite. Ornate office buildings vault to the sky, shimmering in the twilight. Ancient brick and stone churches and storefronts crouch in the shadows, lit by the warm glow of light off the evening clouds. Everything is coated with a layer of dried coal syrup from more than a century of steel manufacturing. We peer through dark restaurant windows, scratching our heads. I begin to feel the day has been an omen for our quest: first the fierce, tangle of cars and families on the highway, now the ghost town of Pittsburgh’s famed downtown Golden Triangle. Our search will yield nothing but people all going their own way, then closed doors and darkened rooms.

“This is a lost cause,” I say to Marion.

“Let’s go back to the hotel,” she says. “There was a bar or something that looked open just off the lobby.”

As we begin to retrace our steps, I realize I am growing irritable. I need a drink desperately. I don’t want to think about what we’re doing, what I’m doing, what I may end up doing to another person. Finding her. Stopping her dead in the tracks of her reality and telling her what she may or may not want to hear. I’m your son. I’m forty-five. Do you remember me? What happened?

My family instinctively knows to keep their distance. They trail five to ten yards back, leaving their father and husband to his black thoughts and a growing sense of futility.

Coming back up a hill toward our hotel, we hear the live music again. At the base of the U.S. Steel Building is a mass of young business professionals drinking and cavorting with each other at Willy and Pete’s Bar. On the patio in front are a man and a woman playing electric guitars, singing Shawn Colvin’s song The Avalanche. The woman is attractive, and though petite, very athletic looking. She has dark features: long black hair, almond skin a bit darker than mine. Her face is at once Hispanic, Asian, Jewish and mulatto. I begin to wonder, stupidly, whether she is my sister. Not “Wouldn’t that be funny if she were my sister?” more like: “I wonder if she’s my sister.” Her voice is nothing special. There is a bit of range to it, the timber and vocal quality are pleasing enough, but my black mood, my hunger, my thirst for booze, and the overarching knowledge I have of how overwrought my thought processes are, do not let me appreciate the woman’s singing. I watch the crowd swilling it up and downing hors d’oevures, thinking how dumb they are in their contentedness. Something keeps me from going over the edge, though. The words: “No man is an island,” pop into my head. I am not a stranger here in this empty maze of hulking architecture. Behind me is my family, in front of me is a country of people partying and trading banter, on the prowl, about to consummate any number of relationships and deeds everywhere on this Friday night. It is raining somewhere. It is perfectly cool and gentle where we are, paused in front of U.S. Steel headquarters.

“I guess we’re eating at the hotel,” Jesse says, coming up from behind me, using his best quiet, wise eleven-year-old voice on me.

“I guess we are,” Marion sighs.

“I want chicken fingers,” says Conor.

We have a horrible meal at the Ruddy Duck, with slow service, bland food, over-salted meat, mushy vegetables, meager salads, and loud table neighbors with two noisy toddlers. But I do well enough at ignoring the demon thoughts lurking in my cluttered mind while I drink a beer and consume my cheap, stringy steak and a salad smothered in what is the only saving grace of the meal: a delicately flavored raspberry lime vinaigrette.

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