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Under the Feet of Giants

Under the Feet of Giants

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Published by JoeyKuhn

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Published by: JoeyKuhn on Aug 03, 2009
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08/03/2009

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Under the Feet of GiantsPittsburgh is a giant arrow. The downtown jumble is wedged into a westward- pointing triangle where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers merge into the Ohio.I work in the Terminal Building, an old warehouse and receiving station on theSouth Side, across the Monongahela River from downtown. On the building’s river side,facing the city, huge doors open into loading bays where boxcars used to be packed andunpacked, coming and going on long journeys east to Philadelphia or west to Chicago.The building’s face is an antiquated red brick, like something you’d see in a MarlonBrando movie. The ground floor is still used as a warehouse, but only for office supplies,and the upper three floors have been renovated into small office blocs for startupcompanies.My dad’s company, where I’ve worked for the past two summers, is one of these,occupying a corner of the fifth and highest floor. They make—or rather, are planning tomake—a device that will work in place of a ventilator, exchanging oxygen for carbondioxide in the blood of lung-damaged people. I’m not exactly qualified to work there—Iswitched out of chemical engineering into liberal studies a year ago—but I do anyway because I’m lucky enough to have a dad whos a CEO. Maybe I can’t relate very well tothe engineers and business types there, but at least they are kind enough to not make a bigdeal about the obvious nepotism. With the economy what it is right now, I have to takewhatever I can get.A couple of the guys there like to go biking on their lunch breaks sometimes, soone day I borrowed one of their bikes and went out by myself for a jaunt along the rivers,a salty meat sandwiched between the stale hours of the workday. I heard recently thatPittsburgh was voted the country’s most “liveable” city by
The Economist 
; on days likethis, I could believe it. The bridges were the color of a pale sun from a child’s drawingagainst a powder-blue sky. Fresh spring-green vegetation proliferated wildly, hemming inthe bike path along the glinting river. Out of the Mon rose the darker, more establishedgreen of the Mount Washington ridge, stolid as a squatting Buddhist monk. The dustyrubber of two rugged mountain-bike wheels crunched over rocks and bumped over therusty orange-brown railroad tracks, placing me on the path. Then I was off.My job, most days, finds me wearing a white coat and surgical gloves. Like anironically underpaid god, I piece together, hover over, and destroy little laboratorymetropolises, with various meters and pumping devices forming the buildings and bloodtubing running all over the place like a macabre subway. My official title is “LabTechnician,” which basically means I come in and do what the engineer tells me to dowithout really knowing why I’m doing it. Most of the tests run all day long, but themeasurements have to be taken only about once every hour, so the rest of the time I justsit in the lab, listening to music or staring out the floor-to-ceiling windows that look ontothe Mon, the Fort Pitt Bridge, and the Point. At the end of the day, when everyone elsehas gone home and the sun is sinking into the Ohio, I wash out the day’s buckets of calf’s blood, watching the thick red life run down the drain.But this noon I was on the other side of the glass, and I was flying, going as fastas I could, pumping the pedals with an exuberant energy that had been forced to liedormant for so many hours that morning. Titanic black-and-rust tankards rose out of thewater at regular intervals along the banks of the river, used for who knows what back in
 
the era of blustering industry. I blew by old factories and unmarked buildings, some indisrepair, some used for new endeavors the original owners could never have imagined,and some still toiling in their ancestral labor, slowly, tiredly crapping out metal piping ocement in trucks, one at a time, eking out the bare minimum profit required to stay alive.I passed the South Side shops and crossed the river on the Hot Metal Bridge,riding west now on a narrow strip between the Monongahela and the highway. Above meon a rocky bluff sat Duquesne University and the Boulevard of the Allies. Everything inthis town is named after either heroes of war or great captains of industry—GeorgeWashington, Andrew Carnegie, the Allies from the War to End All Wars. More recentnames honor the heroes of the stadium, like Roberto Clemente. Duquesne Universityitself is named after the governor-general of New France who first brought Catholicism tothe region. In the colonial days, both the British and the French had laid claim to thearrow of land at the head of the Ohio; the governor of the Virginia colony in 1753 sent ayoung, unknown envoy by the name of George Washington to ask the French to leave. Of course, this didn’t work. The British then attempted to build a fort at the river fork, whichthe French subsequently knocked down, replacing it with their own, bigger fort, FortDuquesne. During the French and Indian War, however, the British returned, took over the recently deserted Fort Duquesne, and erected a still larger fort, Fort Pitt. History is thenever-ending process of knocking down small structures to make way for newer, bigger ones. The latest ones are skyscrapers bearing the emblems of big banking, law, andmedicine, and the city’s first casino, set to open in a few weeks.The cars on the highway screamed eastward not twenty yards away from me,leaving trails of noxious dust in their wakes. There was something
 subversive
on the sideof the road; it tried to slide away, into the corner of my eye, before I could see it properly.A low concrete wall separated the bike path from the highway, and on it were scribbledfurious and hurried manifestos, contrived and conceptual “urban art,” and mysteriousmonikers left solely as testimonials to presence.
MOOK. CLASS WAR. TRANSPORTATION NOT RECREATION
(most likely referring to the millions of dollars spent by the city on newstadiums for its pro football, baseball, and, most recently, hockey teams)
. FUCK ART.WAKE. TAG THE WORLD COUP. NICE WORK, ART STUDENT
(this one next to a particularlyvirtuoso piece that depicted the profile of a warped, cartoonish, big-nosed white faceoutlined in black)
. KILL YOUR TV. IN MEMORY OF
(illegible)
. FADE…
The wall of graffitiwent on and on, seeming to stream past me as I pedaled in place, unreeling like a surreal,endless comic strip that never jumped down to the next line. I wondered about thedowntrodden youth of the city who felt they had no recourse in this world but to venttheir frustrations by painting a wall—wondered what they were like, what their dreamsand blasted hopes and aspirations…people I would never meet. I was cut off from their world, as they were from mine.I passed a parking lot filled with dozens of empty Greyhound buses. There wasn’tanyone around to watch them; no sign of even a hut from which the rental company couldsupervise the fleet of landships. They were domesticated, but they still retained vestigesof the free, roaming herds from which they had descended. Right now the beasts all laydormant, parked neatly in rows and all pointing the same direction, the same way I wasriding. They sat on their haunches and were ready to spring to life at a moment’s notice,roaring off into the west with humanity in their bellies like the covered wagons that usedto set out from here for California and Oregon.
 
People forget, but Pittsburgh used to be a frontier town. Everything to the westwas just a vaguely shaded-in territory on the map, thick woods as far as the eye could seeuntil the rolling Appalachians petered out into the immense land-sea of the plains. TheOhio River gushing forth from the point was for the pioneers what the Drinking Gourdwas for runaway slaves. Settlers followed this river that marched slowly and steadilydown from the hills until it mingled its blood with the Mississippi, the almighty artery of America constantly hemorrhaging into the Gulf of Mexico. Pittsburgh used to be on thefrontier, the verge, and the funny thing about cities is, they never really change. Just like people, they always retain a core of personality they were born with.Getting into the edges of the city, everything was looming upward; instead of riding across and over land, I was now riding under. Bridges and ramps wended their ways over me, massive slabs of concrete and asphalt blocking out the sky. Colossal blue pillars, steel I-bars, shot straight up, straddling the earth, huge cement pedestals for feet planted firmly into the ground. I wove through these titanic iron shafts, riveted. I wantedto stand on the giants’ shoulders, but they, unawares, threatened to crush me under their soles.Living on the frontier can be very exciting; you’re always on the edge, notknowing what could come screaming out of the blue next. But the downside of living in afrontier town is that you always want to get out of it. In a big city, at the center of things,you have plenty of brouhaha to distract you. You can dig down forever through the strataand learn a million things without ever leaving a single spot. But in a town on thefrontier, everybody is always looking out to the horizon. You know that you’re right onthe edge; if you could only get a little bit further out… But you can’t, because that wouldrequire leaving the town, venturing out into the wilderness, and once you go out there,you can never come back. You won’t want to, or you won’t be welcome anymore. Notafter where you’ve been.Finally I was beneath the giants’ mother, a squat hulk of a building as wide andlong as it was tall, the county jail. Red brick and gray concrete reinforced by black steel.The tiny black-rimmed windows protruded, bars in their orifices, looking like antsclimbing up their mound. If they were ants, I was an aphid. I don’t know how manycriminals were looking down on me as I passed below them. If they saw me, I wonderedhow much they resented me, my life, my freedom.I know exactly what I am; I harbor no delusions about that. I’m a young whitemale, the privileged son of an upper-middle class businessman, and that has given meevery advantage in life. I’m intelligent but probably overconfident, idealistic but probablynaïve, Catholic but probably self-centered. I’m an aspiring writer who is probablyignorant of what it actually takes to make it in writing. What do I have to write about? DoI really have anything of importance to say? All I can really write about honestly, without plagiarism, misinterpretation, or flat-out fabrication, is the sheltered, uneventful, basically pleasant life of a rich suburban teenager who lives with his relatively normal, functionalfamily. I have never experienced any real trauma, hardship, or pain; so far, in the meteor shower of cruel misfortunes that seems to continuously fall upon the rest of humanitywith casual, random indifference, all the rocks have somehow managed to whiz by me. Nevertheless, while it is tempting to look at an unscarred life as a handicap in the pursuit of art, which often seems to be dominated by tormented minds and borderlinelunatics, it could actually be a boon. It could, just maybe, allow the artist to look past the

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