New Kensington: The Song that Doesn’t End

There are many things in fall that I don’t take for granted: pumpkin-flavored lattes; crunchy colored leaves; pumpkin-face carving; marathons of bloody, mini-stroke-inducing movies… the good things in life, of course.

But what I always forget about my favorite season is the lack of sunlight, the roadsides teeming with odorous rotting animals, that forever-grey that seems to paint the sky from horizon to horizon. And we all could really use some sunshine about now in Southwestern, PA.

My hometown of New Kensington has been polluted with all kinds of shootings and tragedies, as of late. And though it’s nothing new, it seems to only be getting worse. I can’t help but wonder why and re-read the news articles and flashback to those days when I was just a wee one—playing on the porch with my Legos and my Barbies, ducking from every passing car behind the white bricks. Yes, even at eight-years-old I was worried about “drive-bys.” I’m not even sure I knew what they were exactly.

While I’m sure paranoia was part of my personality from the beginning (along with guilt, insecurity, and an ever-present sense of doom), I am curious if others have these memories. One instance, in particular: I recall someone had been shot in their bathroom—stray bullet—and my little brains sketched some strange scene. I could see him vividly: the victim, a lumberjack-looking man dressed in flannel, reading a Shop ‘N Save flyer on the toilet until suddenly BAM—in mid-bowel-movement—gets knocked from his seat, ass up in the air.

I realize now that—not only did I not witness this (why do I often, in memory, have a hard time deciphering between dreams and reality?), but for months, I had extraordinary difficulties going to the bathroom, myself. I tried to hurry. I tried to avoid it. I had to talk myself into it. I kept my eyes fixed to the once-white tiles in the tub, as if they were about to splinter and swallow me up like some ceramic black hole. But I wasn’t sure if this was where the bullet would come from, of course. It just seemed logical—eight-year-old logic. Realistically, a bullet could have come from anywhere. Bathroom or not. These weren’t conditions for a pleasant potty experience.

While other kids prayed, I did different things before bed to occupy myself. I used to play this game. I called it “Three Wishes.” And every night, I gave myself three wishes. But it wasn’t just three general wishes. Depending on what I wanted or worried about that day, I wished in categories. Sometimes I wished for three things I could change about my physical appearance, or three toys I wished would magically drop from the sky (for some reason, these always came with an unlimited amount of batteries, if required. I was an over-prepared wisher, I suppose.) But on those nights where word of violence came creeping in across my step-mother’s scanner in short, static-ed bursts, I wished for no pain. The bottom line: bullets hurt. Even in my youth, I knew this.

“Ways I wish to not die…” I held up three tiny fingers under my worn comforter—dingy white with primary-colored, construction workers and utility vehicles, a dated bargain from Big Lots. “Being shot” was always my first answer, followed by “fire,” and then, “car wreck.”

These are the type of memories I don’t readily think about, but remember well. When people ask where I’m from, I first shoot them a look—chin down, eyes up, head cocked to one side—”New Ken.” And then, when they cock their heads in the opposite direction of mine, and we’re sort of looking a lot like confused puppies, I correct myself: “New Kensington.” Then, they get it.

The responses are unanimous, predictable. I’ve heard everything from—”Did you wear a bulletproof vest?” to “Oh, wow. You can’t tell.” And my first reaction is always to defend New Ken, tell them I’m not afraid, and “you know what, it’s not that bad.” I don’t always remember my childhood in the context of those fears. There will always be a soft place in me for my hometown. And since my dad has passed away, New Ken is a different kind of violence for me. Most of my good memories are tied up in things that are no longer there—the drive-in, Sunday breakfasts at the 5th Avenue Deli, shopping at J.C. Penny’s for my school clothes, and, of course, my dad.

I admit, maybe I was a little more nervous than kids my age, dancing to the latest Boys II Men song on B94, anticipating Friday Night Skate at Melwood or watching Lamb Chop’s Play-Along, but I know I can’t be the only one. Old or young. No matter where in the town you lived. How many of us overheard disgruntled grandparents chatting amongst themselves about how New Ken “used to be booming.” Apparently it was a brimming with department stores, shady gambling, and paid parking lots. By age 10, we were all trained to say that “New Ken went downhill once the mob left”—as if we knew first-hand, as if we personally watched the caravan of swarthy Italians pack their black Cadillacs and wave goodbye, cigars hanging from their tight-lipped farewells.

But the story is in what is left. And as the violence continues, years after leaving, I can’t help but feel sad for the families still there—those raising their own families, growing up, scared to stay, scared to leave. I hope that I’m speaking to a small percent, that most feel safe and untouched by the violence. More than that, I hope for a change: a reconstruction that consists of more than demolishing buildings and planting grass seed. Though it’s a start, change comes from within. I’ve heard people complain and spout off about the local cops and officials, but people need to start taking responsibility for their own actions and inactions. It’s a mindset. It’s everyone and everything. Is it possible to remain positive and embrace what you do have? I think so. Is it easy? No.

I might seem cloudy-eyed, but I’m not stupid. The darkness that hangs thick over New Ken is something we all experience, but on a smaller, more personal scale. A grief, a sadness, that pervading feeling of never having enough, never being full… but amplified with poverty, desperation, addiction. Can there be good there? Maybe we don’t look in the right places. When, even in our own lives, do we fully appreciate what we have? If we don’t stop this now, it’ll continue—generation to generation. If nothing else, can’t those who decide to pick up the gun, instead decide to put it down, give their kids a chance?

Yes, I’m gone now. I don’t live in New Ken anymore. I went off to school, found a job, did my thing, and so maybe it isn’t my place to say anything. But sometimes I still play the wish game when I can’t sleep. I close my eyes… hold out three fingers. And lately I’ve been wishing for peace. I’ve been wishing for the madness to stop… for all those kids who nervously flinch at passing cars, find themselves not sleeping, but thinking about grown-up things like bullets and strange men getting shot on the john when they’re trying to sleep.

6 comments

  1. Amanda Rose says:

    Ok, one I have to say everything you said reminds mgr of what I think about new ken. I can't say when I was little I was ducking from passing cars, instead of threw snowballs at them and them fucked behind a tree. About the mob and how we all day new ken was so much better with them running it, even though we only heard by weird of mouth, its one hundred percent true. And about when people ask you where your from, I was encountered with the same scenario last night with another friend from new ken. We both dRopped our heads and kept our eyes up and said new ken. they asked us whywe did that. We said because new ken is terrible. Then they said you should be proud of where you came from. And we said we are proud of what new ken used to be, not what it is now. It was a better place when we were younger, not the best it eve r was but better than it is now. A s for you and your three wishes, that does nothing but disturbes me. Sorry for misspellings I did this on my cell.

  2. Chris says:

    Meghan,
    As I read this, I read for content, but the English teacher lurking within me could not help but read for style and mechanics. That red pen in my brain only quivered in anticipation once or twice, but I told it to “hush,” and it backed off.
    The tone makes me think that you have left a suicidal lover..one whose relationship with you shames you; one you love, but for whom you no longer see hope; one who you see self-destructing, but feel you can no longer aid.
    I felt despair in your childhood fears, as I grew up in NK and had none of these. Alas, though, we are a generation apart, and from different parts of town, I would wager. My youngest is 30, and she knew none of these fears. Location, location, location, remains a big deal in real estate, for many reasons.
    I could visualize a miniature Meghan with chubby, stubby fingers counting her wishes…your detail added so much to your work!
    I loved your mob comment…it is so true that it is funny! The lumberjack in the bathroom is another statement that has humor, but what underlying sadness! A child having the worries you had is a sad statement on society…can it all be blamed on NK, or possibly TV, movies, conversations, or other input?
    One of my fears that I remember thinking about while going to sleep was a bear attack (brought on by a TV show) or floating in the ocean and being attacked by sharks. (where I got that, I have no idea.)
    Granted, the state of NK is depressing. Very depressing. I have double, at least, the number of years of life in NK that you do, and I still have hope. I have seen much change..good to bad to good to bad…but change.
    But, I digress. I am to be examining your blog. I must admit I enjoyed it very much, and a plethora of emotions were uncorked with its reading. You expressed yourself very well; the moments in your childhood are real, your explanations are excellent…I am proud of you. Nice work, kid!

  3. 1flychicken says:

    Thanks everyone. And Chris… Mrs. Sokalski. (I think I need to still call you that…) I grew up on Taylor Ave. I don't know that it was all that bad there; however, I was pigeonholed between Funzi's and a “crack house.” I was permitted to ride my bike from telephone pole to telephone pole. I wasn't allowed to cross the street, and at night—I had better be on the porch.

    I realize my experiences weren't everyone's. My parents were probably more paranoid than most, and like I said, my personality is loudly nervous at times (probably because of it.) Still, I want there to be good from it. I always can find that, no matter how silly or sad I am. A part of me feels stronger, as cliche as it is. I'm a pretty aware individual.

    I wish I knew what New Ken was like before the decay, you know.

    I appreciate you reading. All of you. Thanks! Next time I'll try to draw more pictures to make it entertaining. haha… <3
    mpt

  4. Chris says:

    Meghan, until the day he died, God rest his soul, Mr. Hageal could not bring himself to call me by my first name. He tried, once, shook his head and said, ” I just can't.” The ironic thing is that he was never my student! So, I understand.

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