Squirrel Hill Is My Beating Heart

I recently visited my mom. She lives in Mt. Lebanon, which is a southern suburb of Pittsburgh. She is still in the house where my two brothers and I grew up. I make several trips a year back to the town of my childhood.  This particular trip, however, was more than just a routine visit. It was in part, to take a purposeful journey into my past. To reflect. To honor. That journey begins in Squirrel Hill.

My mom’s life with my dad did not start in Mt. Lebanon. After a few moves, they settled in the predominantly Jewish community of Squirrel Hill, on Hobart Street.  Our grandparents on both sides also lived in “The Hill” after emigrating through Ellis Island.

There were Sunday trips to visit my father’s mother who lived on Munhall Street. The smell of plastic-covered furniture. It squeaked like a mouse when my father moved during his naps. Quiet snoring that I can still hear when I am alone at his grave. Mark gave me noogies on my head while we lay on our grandmother’s 40-year-old carpet, watching television.

We battled for control of that black-and-white TV. I preferred cartoons. Mark preferred movies. I changed the channel. Mark pushed me aside and turned it back. A wrestling match ensued, stopped by the irritated grunt of our dad, awoken by our horseplay.  The oft-repeated growl of, “Cut it out.”

His edict came as our grandmother called from the kitchen for us to get our bologna sandwiches and ginger ale.  When our television shows were over, it was time to explore.

Our grandmother’s basement meant hidden treasure. Books written in Russian and Yiddish. They smelled of must and mold, but to a 10-year-old child, it was the aroma of adventure and places far away. I might strike gold. Find a coin or two. Old photos. More treasure from the old country. A connection to the past I did not yet understand.  The drive back home always included a stop at the Isley’s Dairy in Oakland for the mouth-watering, melt in our mouth, chocolate covered Klondike Bars.  When our grandmother died, uncontrollable sobs of grief as I held my younger brother in the bathroom of the Burton L. Hirsch Funeral Home. The first time either of us experienced loss.

I pulled my rental car in front of that house on Munhall Street, now bracketed by hip condos. High-end autos parked bumper to bumper. Not the building of my childhood, yet it was. I became tunnel-visioned, blocking out all evidence of the present. A car in the driveway. Should I knock? Maybe they will let me go upstairs to the forbidden, haunted room. It was off limits to me and my brothers. I thought of ghosts, murders, and monsters. Why couldn’t I go up?

I would not know for over 40 years that it was forbidden because they rented it out to tenants. Even into my adulthood, I thought of it as the room of Chiller Theatre ghouls and flesh-eating zombies. I stood outside the home. I wanted to go in. To walk upstairs and open that door. To quell the fears of the little boy still inside me. I drove on.

My next stop was my Nanny’s house. My mom’s mother. Visiting Nanny often meant a bus trip to her place on Phillips Avenue alone or with my brothers.  I loved to rummage through the old, black, traveling salesman trunk under the bed. When my grandfather was napping on the couch or watching television, I laid on my stomach and pulled it out inch by inch, so as not to make a sound and alert him. There were socks, shirts, and ties he sold up and down Murray Avenue and at clothing shops in downtown Pittsburgh. The real treasure though was the money he kept hidden in his bible under an old wooden table stand. My heartbeat quickened when he pulled it out and said in his gravel voice, as he handed me 10 dollars: “Don’t tell your nanny I gave this to you.”

As he put the money in my hand, I also promised not to tell her where his cash stash was.

Saturday trips to Kennywood Amusement park were my favorite times with Nanny. We also spent time walking up and down Murray Avenue. A stop at Murray News for baseball cards and comic books. A hot bowl of matzah ball soup at Rhoda’s Deli. Sometimes my brothers and I just spent the day watching the Three Stooges while we flipped baseball cards.

I, however, lived for Kennywood. The walk from the bus stop to her home. Her exaggerated, high pitched voice calling out to me in a heavy Russian accent,

“Brianola! Brianola!”

I’m coming Nanny!

When I got close to her house, she would break into as close to a run her heavy-set frame allowed. Book and lunch bag in hand. Our hands clasped. We turned and walked back to catch the bus. Next stop, Kennywood.

Walking into Kennywood with Nanny was like the Magic Kingdom. It smelled of popcorn and cotton candy. Another 10 dollars to spend on food and rides. I didn’t tell her about money from my grandfather or his stash.

Nanny found a wooden bench under a shady tree and sat for hours with her book. I first played the penny arcade a few feet away. Each time I looked in her direction, she was watching me. I circled my way through the rides, cotton candy, and hotdogs. I had to stand on my toes so I was taller than the “you must be taller than me to ride this ride” sign. As a tall child, those inches mattered and got me on the “Jackrabbit” rollercoaster. I loved the weightless feeling as the coaster “jumped” the track. The reality was that it never lost contact, but I was flying.

As the early evening shadow replaced sunlight, I made my way back to Nanny. She had not moved. She bear-hugged me.  Her hugs were love incarnate. She took my hand. We boarded the bus back to Squirrel Hill. I saw her head rest against the window. Eyes closed. I didn’t wake her until we arrived. Another loved-soaked hug. She waited with me until the bus came. Back to Mt. Lebanon.

Once more, I parked my car in front of a place I had not walked into in almost 40 years.  Once more I stood on that sidewalk. I approached the door. I peered in the window. I did not see the updated and modernized interior. I saw a little boy sitting on his Nanny’s lap. I saw three brothers watching The Three Stooges.

That was my Squirrel Hill. It runs deep in my family and will always be part of my beating heart. I mourn for my fellow Jews who had that taken from them. I honor them. I remember them. I cry for them. I stand with the Jews of Squirrel Hill and Jews everywhere as we collectively grieve their loss. I stand with the City of Pittsburgh. My hometown. My black and gold.

Brian Cuban (@bcuban) is The Addicted Lawyer. Brian is the author of the Amazon best-selling book, The Addicted Lawyer: Tales Of The Bar, Booze, Blow & Redemption (affiliate link). A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, he somehow made it through as an alcoholic then added cocaine to his résumé as a practicing attorney. He went into recovery April 8, 2007. He left the practice of law and now writes and speaks on recovery topics, not only for the legal profession, but on recovery in general. He can be reached at brian@addictedlawyer.com.