Runaway inflation triggered a national recession in mid 1970s—just as a fat and rigidly managed steel industry began taking a beating from global competitors and its own unions. Only high oil prices and the demand for pipelines kept the steelmakers in business. I read foreboding stories about the industry in Pittsburgh’s newspapers.
But my relationship Liz Antonucci brought light and nature into my world of steel and concrete. She left the smokestacks of Steubenville behind on the day she went to college in rural Athens, Ohio. She sent me beautiful letters in her decorative hand, full of news and pastoral poetry, and I sent her drawings and lyrics to love songs. She had become a vegetarian and schooled me in meatlessness and whole wheat bread with the texture and taste of roofing material.
When I visited Liz, we spent most of our time outdoors, where she seemed propelled by breezes and softened by sun. Natural elements took possession of her and, within the reach of music, she seemed to rise straight out of the pitiless world. I had never encountered a spirit like hers, and she was mostly spirit. I could feel it and I loved it. But I was afraid to say so.
At the house on the beach in Massachusetts, every moment with her had inspired me. My imagination performed barrel-rolls, gratitude whispered through the surf, both love and longing felt more pervasive in the salt air. But once I turned my back on that bliss and headed inland, I tried to run from it and dismiss its effect as unreal.
I went about preparing myself for law school in every way I knew how—serving with other aspiring lawyers who volunteered to help tenants fight sleazy landlords or rush to aid students who had been arrested. I couldn’t have looked more ridiculous, carrying a black attaché case around campus. The briefcase was jammed with sketchbooks, South American novels, collections of Dylan Thomas and Montaigne—all of which had nothing to do with law.
Liz saw through the act, but she trusted my idealism, my passion to fight for the stricken and indigent. The practical side of her recognized that I stood one rent check away from being indigent myself, and law school would only dig a deeper hole. Although she respected my professional intentions, she urged me to send her more stories and poems.
I tried to keep a distance from her because I knew how strongly I felt, and I couldn’t see how she fit into my plans. During my second visit to Athens, we scrambled along the banks of the Hocking River, and then sat in the tall grass above it. That misty Saturday morning, the
colors bleeding into each other, seemed like an odd time and place to notice contrasts. But she lay back, her arms stretched above her head, enthralled and enchanted, while I sat
forward, my elbows on my knees, gnawing the juicy end of wild oat, feeling entirely at home in the setting, yet a little restless. I knew the woods and streams and fields—had run through them all my life, camping, picking berries, shooting animals, waking up with a face full of dew. She knew Steubenville—her father’s novelty store, her uncle’s sausage-making operation, the streets and barbershops frequented by Dean Martin. She had fallen for the natural world while I was infatuated with the city.
When I stayed at her family’s house, her parents enveloped me in the kind of warmth I had felt from Mimi’s parents and siblings. And, like Mimi’s famiglia, their food cast a spell. I woke up to a kitchen table filled with nests of fresh pasta that would eventually join sausages in marinara sauce on my dinner plate. How could I resist marrying into such a family?
But at school, I drew a curtain behind me, resuming my ride on a torrent of sexual adventuring that I may have justified by reading Tropic of Cancer too many times. Through classes and politics, through parties and my three Philadelphian roommates, I met brainy girls and wild girls, nurses and painters, budding lawyers and furry feminists. Skinny and awkward, I made a forgettable first impression, but always stood ready to become a friend, then a better friend. I only had to sit and listen, show a little interest and compassion, and anything could happen.
During summers, the road crew kept me away from Mimi and Liz. And when I had time off, I’d see one, then the other. At times, I beat myself up for juggling the affections of two sweet and lovely girls, avoiding any commitment, and falling into bed with anyone else who turned me on. But I justified my recklessness and duplicity by refraining from sex with the two girls who meant the most to me.
Somehow, that made all the philandering okay. Mimi knew of my escapades but never showed enough interest in sex to discourage me. Liz, however, made her desires plain, but with the forces of the moon and tides coursing through her, I turned away out of fear of falling in love, mutually and exclusively. She had too much power over me, and I knew it while I watched her braiding her hair, barrette in her teeth, her fingers working with the same instinct that painted Peter Max-like scenes on her dormitory walls, or drew in the sand as we sat on the beach and told each other dreams. Agile and artistic, her fingers waited patiently to help her make a point, to plant a seed or set out a line of calligraphy. Along with her eyes and lips, her walk and laugh, her hands portrayed an image of promise, fecundity and terrifying fertility. If we made love, I would have to welcome full responsibility, not only for her heart, but for the baby we were bound to create.
She simply wanted to have some fun while I showed that I was naïve, blind to her intentions and afraid. And yet, she waited, while sex, for me, had to remain meaningless.
I was a man on a mission, two missions, really: one to become a savior and hero and the other, to simply get away from everything I thought I knew. My family would do fine without me around and I needed some distance from all the birthdays, confirmations, weddings, christenings, graduations and holidays. I knew that my friends would always be in my sphere, regardless of where we traveled. As for the savior business, the hero’s quest to make a difference continued to drive me, lodged in my psyche after those long masses at Divine Redeemer, where I prayed to hear a calling from God. In lieu of that, I heard my own boyish desire, right out of a comic book, and worked it into a career goal. The wisdom of Montaigne couldn’t dislodge it. Without the hero’s script, I would be ordinary, and I didn’t like the way that looked at all.
When I felt like I was losing my way I hid in a jazz club or the stacks in the Carnegie Institute library, closed my eyes and tried to dream up a new vision that would make me something other than a milltown kid. I wanted to go where Ambridge couldn’t be detected in my diction, like whiskey or garlic on my breath, where I could present a mystery or a clean slate to those I encountered, like those to whom I was drawn.
I feared very little back then, but I did about worry getting girls pregnant. My life would change instantly and I feared being trapped, stuck, and having all my dreams die. I knew life among mill workers and restriction of tight communities. More than anything, I needed freedom to improvise.
At the time I hardly knew how much I itched to leave Pittsburgh. None of my friends shared the fantasy of fleeing with me. Liz understood but also embraced practicality: graduating, getting a job, and settling down near home.
With the oil industry booming, and Armco Steel making pipe, Ambridge held its own. Between my sophomore and junior year, when summer came again, I applied to work in the mills. They didn’t call, so I went to work as an intern for a local attorney at minimum wage while doing research and studying for law school entry exams.
As much as I wanted to move beyond Ambridge, I felt an impulse to immerse myself in it, to try to reform it, or at least understand its inner workings. Every day, I put on a suit and tie and dredged up legal precedents, ate lunch at my desk, and examined the depositions of accident victims while my boss paid the bills with real estate transfers and probate cases, divorces and wills. I began to see the way the money flowed through town and how landowners used the courts to circumvent local ordinances. And I noticed how the mills began to dance around new clean air and clean water regulations. They had been polluting with impunity for decades and were now being asked to account for it.
My boss’ skill as a trial lawyer disappointed me as well as his prison-bound defendants. He picked up steady work as a sort of magistrate for a juvenile detention facility. I helped review the cases, and one day, I watched in horror as he badgered a child into tears so intense and sobs so deep as to burst the capillaries in her nose. Her mother sat stonily by as the girl filled her cupped hands with tears and blood, begging forgiveness. But “justice” sent her back to her cell.
By the time I filed into the auditorium at Pitt for my law boards, I had traveled nearly every road in the western half of the state. I had crossed all the rivers, seen most of the mills, met dozens of lawmakers, judges, mayors and businessmen. My dream of becoming a hero from the pulpit evolved into becoming a hero in court, but along the way, that dream had suffered from repeated awakenings. As a page, I saw powerful state senators behaving like bullies; I stewed while slumlords wriggled away from court orders; I twitched every time drug dealers made bail; I nodded off at the sheer boredom of daily life in a law firm; and I shuddered at the leaden digits on my tuition loan statements. In the end, I hoped that good scores on the exams would give me a boost, and a high-paying mill job in the summer before my senior year might help ease the worry.
When it came to practicing law, I liked researching and investigating, both of which allowed me to indulge my nosiness and imagination. Making connections between bits of evidence and statements, interviewing, and watching body language and gestures fascinated me and made me think that I might like to conduct investigations for a living.
My hands shook when I opened the envelope with my scores on the law boards. They were fine, good enough to get me into a school. I blew out one mighty sigh of relief, and immediately, when I tried to breathe again, felt smothered by anxiety. The idea of committing to another three years of studying, much harder than I had been, terrified me. But I had no other plan.
One night, half-heartedly celebrating with Jack Haight, another aspiring lawyer, the two of us cooked up an idea for an independent study in civil and criminal investigation. We were both English majors and we convinced the university to approve a nine-credit research project. We served half of our time with the detectives on the campus police, and the other half helping indigent clients of Legal Aid.
We worked nights and weekends on stake-outs and wild-goose chases. The detectives dropped piles of unsolved cases on our desks. The lawyers sent us to the seediest and scariest streets in the city. Jack was fearless, dogged and smart – a perfect partner for our cockamamie scheme. We located thieves and rapists, and then stood in the shadows while they were arrested.
The work only made me more cynical about the justice system. I finished the year broke, disheartened, and afraid that my heroic dream was fading with no alternatives in mind. My summer job at the law firm waited for me, but first, I wanted to repeat the dehumanizing ritual of walking into the personnel offices at the mills, up to the tiny windows where women slipped application forms under the glass.
Back home, I moved into the basement for the summer, the house filled with all of my siblings plus my mother’s mother, who had become too needy to live alone. One morning, I went to my desk at the law firm, opened my briefcase and peeked at the statement the college loan agency had sent. I had a sense of how much I owed and tried to ignore the total—$16,000—a staggering amount to me, more than my parents’ first mortgage. The figure darkened the entire room. I bent over my desk to look down the hall at my boss cradling his bald forehead, proofreading stultifying documents, and my deflation might have been audible, as if the secretary would later find only a permanent-press wardrobe draped across the blotter.
“Hi Sweety,” said Betty. “I thought you might want to know that Armco called.”
“They want you to call them back.” She gave me the number. “Rudy said they were hiring. Are you going take a job there?”
With my free hand, I immediately began filling my briefcase with the few personal items on my desk.
“Hell yeah, Mom.”
Causes Paul Hertneky Supports
Monadock Area Transitional Shelter
Monadnock Humane Society
The Harris Center for Outdoor Education