Tagged hometown

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.