Growing up together apart (or vice versa)

For my paisan and compare Phil Bertoni, 1949–2011

by Clif Garboden

It’s different there in Western Pennsylvania where Phil Bertoni and I grew up — so different, in ways subtle to sky-written, that if you describe merely the commonplace, outsiders assume you’re joking. We come from the land of six layers of plastic cloths on every kitchen table; the culture that invented and perfected (and to some extent monetized) hoarding disorder.

Phil and I grew up there at the same time, but not in the same place. (We met in the late 1960s, in Boston, but I’m getting ahead of the story. Consider that to be not-very-dramatic foreshadowing.) We were true baby-boomers, and ones whose fate it was to live in the greasy sprawl of Pittsburgh as it reluctantly declined to a fading-boom-town status. The mills worked ’round the clock during World War 2, collaterally coating everything within a hundred-mile radius of West Carson Street black. Apparently, people were so busy mining coal and making steel that nobody had time to clean up. And by VJ Day, the eco-system was already well past the point of no return.

So my neighborhood north of dawnntawn up the Allegheny Valley and Phil’s in Uniontown in the coal-rich south were strewn with competing vestiges and intrusions: company row houses — pre-fab GI Bill housing tracts — robber-baron mansions — shotgun shacks. Paved highways and dirt roads. And shadowing it all, the region’s trademark high horizons and terrifyingly steep hills covered in jagged second-growth scrub.

Decorating this time-and-place defying landscape were slag dumps, unfinished WPA projects, just plain dumps, a lot of cars up on blocks, abandoned houses, demolished houses, abandoned pick-ups, coal piles, acres of deer-infested woods with enough rampant poison ivy to qualify them as brownfields, and lots vacant except for carpets of broken glass and chewed-up old tires. These are the places we played.

Then came Sputnik — you could see it from our porch. In its wake, came tons of federal and state money to educate the masses, i.e. us.

Two out of three rivers apart, Phil Bertoni, I’m certain, and I shared elations. Finally, somebody was going to favor us because we were smart. Schools segregated high achievers from the rabble through a merciless program of tracking. A gift — to some of us. No more sitting through badly taught classes watching Robert the goofy kid write on his arm and make airplane noises; no more sneers from some thrice-held-back punk called Killer Ferris when we raised our hand to asked a question betraying the sin that we’d read the assignment; no more being beat up on the school bus for getting a good report card. In our new ivory-tower enclave, gym-class prowess was no longer considered the highest form of achievement.

Of course the tracking system in reality broke us down by class, economic, and ethnic lines as well. But it was, for better or worse, a meritocracy of sorts, and a few of us from the wrong side of town snuck across the tracks and under the social barbed wire. Time for the system to make good on that equality/opportunity brag.

We could study music with an expectation higher than playing the Memorial Day concert at the VFW. We studied books most people wouldn’t see until college, if ever. And poetry — in class, some doggerel, some brilliant; and even better stuff we found in seldom-checked-out volumes unknowingly tucked by the library bluestocking on the less explored shelves.

Math and science. Not my personal strong suit, but definitely Phil’s, and with them Ruskies on our asses you could go as far and as fast as you wanted. (This eventually landed Phil at MIT, where he did his best to study something other than bomb building.)

Our lives were redirected — and we didn’t even have to move out of the neighborhood (dammit) — by Cold War social engineering. Then poof — our generation’s legendary tragedies blindsided us, and we lost interest in playing geo-political chicken. But we were tracked for college and to the draft-shelter of higher education we went — Phil to MIT; me to Boston University, still one river apart.

Susannah and I (not yet married) met Phil through my roommate, Ed Biggs, who knew Phil’s child bride, Marcie Ryan, from class. At first, things were all New Age and spooky-spiritual, but over time, Phil, Marcie, Susannah, and I teamed up to address life’s practical concerns — fixing our cars and moving furniture — and Phil and I discovered how much heritage, habit, and humor he and I shared. He didn’t have to explain Western Pennsylvania to me. Together we could  trade stories and amaze our suburban-bred friends. A neighbor parked a school bus in his front yard for storage. Yeah? So? What’s so funny. Ridge-runner converted a table saw to run off a Chevy power train? Uh-huh. Hair-lipped half-wit walked around town rubbing his chicken? Failed church converted into a brothel? Bill the Gooch steals a cop car and tries to ransom his glue-sniffing brother out of jail? This is real life. It may not be pretty, but it sure can be funny.

Marce and Susannah embraced the roles of straight-women for these autobiographical comedy routines. Phil even took the act to the stage. I occasionally brought childhood memories to print. We had a deal that we could steal each other’s material, no apologies. I still do. And although I can’t sing a note or play a stringed instrument, we wrote songs together based on life back home. I composed “Sharpsburg Polka.” He wrote the brilliant “Garden of Prayer” (about the church turned brothel).

Later, when I became a section editor for the Boston Phoenix, Phil wrote some remarkably funny and eccentric features for me — an hilarious piece of original fiction for a CB radio supplement and a truly touching Christmas-section fiction set in a coal mining town. And, as an annual highlight, a series of musical-fad-based  Xmas carols — “Rasta Santa” for reggae; “I want to Kill You for Christmas” for punk, “Christmas with Aliens” for early electronica, and more, which we published, complete with sheet music. (This was when the alternative press valued being different.) Phil never met a deadline. Never. Not even close. But when he delivered, what I got was always refined to the point of fantastic.

Through mutual neglect, Phil and I fell out of touch. The last times I saw him were at a karaoke bar in a Leominster Polynesian restaurant, a couple of Inside Straight gigs — one of which involved meeting the line-dance Nazis; another, in Clinton, I think, brought me back to the world of obnoxious small-town bar flies. Slumming? Not possible for Phil or for me. There is no escape from the Fellini-esque experience of growing up under Pittsburgh’s gritty cloud — a smart kid from a gun-culture neighborhood sharing accelerated regional high-school classes with the offspring of educated middle-class parents. Immigrant life ran close in our backgrounds even as we interview for admission to MIT or Princeton. Constantly adapting. Class traitors walking an uncharted line between cultures and values. The only kid from the high-track English class ever to polka at a Polish wedding. The only kid in the neighborhood reading Beowulf.

It wasn’t easy for me. I know it wasn’t for Phil. He told me, even though he needn’t have. But the end result was that we found things to value and things to disdain on both sides of the class divide. Phil, with his charm and exceptional musical and thespian talents, had social skills far beyond mine, and I learned from him. When WBCN scheduled me to do some radio commentaries, I called Phil for lessons. He, in turn, had little to learn from me, I figure. But we enjoyed each other’s company and shared a love of taking things apart even if we didn’t always get them back together.

When you work alone, problems are discouraging frustrations; working with a Phil, they became jokes — fodder for future monologues. It was a splendid attitude — another vestige of Pittsburgh do-it-yourself (if possible with duct tape and bailing wire) training.

Odd that some of my fondest memories of Phil involve being supine under the oil pan of a distressed Karman Ghia, my legs splayed and exposed to Marie Avenue traffic, while Phil fumbled with some non-metric wrench from above.

Then there was the night the washing machine broke and we disassembled the mechanical (no electronics) rotary control assembly — an array of several dozen spring-loaded switch contacts. We tinkered, we failed; we realigned the contacts only to have the whole thing explode into a pile of copper arms and tiny springs. We rebuilt and installed the thing again and again with no success. Around 1 a.m., with Marcie and Susannah drinking wine and sharing great insights into the deaths of kings in the living room, we giddily declared the switch inoperable. Fun times.

I also remember cruising the streets of Medford in Phil’s delinquent 1967 Olds Cutlass, which he named Chingachgook because it came with a globbish stripe of blue body putty at the at right angles to the roofline just above the rearview mirror, trying (and failing) to find the boarding house where Ed Biggs was staying.

And I recall surfing the greasy underbelly of the Somerville used car market looking for a replacement Ghia, and finally finding one Phil liked at a lot run by a guy we nicknamed Bob the Fence.

And there are sweeter memories as well.

Seeing Phil do Krapp’s Last Tape at MIT and being amazed at his stage presence.

And sitting around with friends and some truly odd refugees from Marcie’s Celtic studies program at Harvard with Phil playing guitar and singing. Sometimes we drank Jameson’s; sometime we passed a jug of Father Cribari red, which Phil and I, of course, referred to as Dago Red to offended the PC Cambridge crowd. Many of us smoked, and by the end of  the night the ceiling had turned a shade darker.

I remember fondly watching Phil with Megan and his being patient even when she was bratty. (Which, dear MAB, was not infrequent . . . ah, dear.) He loved her madly, and for those of us a decade away from parenthood, it was a learning experience.

Softball with the Hunyah league; the theatrics and costumes at our annual banquets; more nights with guitars; more wrenching nights under sinks . . . what may sound trivial was truly enlivened by Phil’s participation.

The standard rap on Phil’s trajectory was that he never brought his extremely real talents to the big-time — always stepping back when opportunity rang. (The bell was probably broken anyway.) This self-defeating reluctance was, to an unfortunate extent true. What insecurity or uncertainty drove that curse, I don’t think even Phil understood any better than I do. But it’s a not uncommon trait with people born into an immigrant culture.

As someone sharing that very background, I’d rather cast Phil’s magpie “career” in a different light. Hollywood Schmollywood, et al. Phil did use his talents — on small stages and the living room floor and in the pages of the alternative press and, ultimately, as a math-prof rock star. To say he deserved more is to diminish those accomplishments unfairly. He deserved a lot, of course, but I believe he had enough.

How many rivers apart now, comrade? I hear you’re going home to rest in our native soil. Home, that blessed, wretched, inescapable comic-tragedy cranny that informed our similar selves. Peace there, my brother. Three rivers, no wading.

Go Steelers!

(Written from my hospital bed, with deepest sorrow, February 2, 2011.)


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