PART 2 — The Move
Managing our dad’s transition has been like running a small enterprise, with several months of spreadsheets, financial transactions, investment decisions, service provider evaluations, strategy phone calls, and game planning of different scenarios. In mid-February the week finally came when we would move him into Schenley Gardens. Our itinerary was detailed to the hour, a thing of beauty for a project manager, a product of a real coordinated effort between Andy and me. It was going to be a hard week that had to go just right given the narrow window of our visit.
Andy and I flew in from Sacramento and Mike from Zurich, where he is working on a startup software project. On the flight, Andy and I marvelled at how dad had Mr. Magoo-ed into an ongoing investment bonanza, doubling his money and making a small fortune in the last two years, owing to his market obsession, and significant investments in hot stocks like Tesla, Apple and Amazon. There is a crazy irony that at the exact moment he was essentially losing his mind he was beating the market in a way people only dream about.
We checked into our AirBNB near dad’s place on Mt. Washington. The two story place was not quite as nice as the photos (surprise), but had sweeping views of the Monongahela River. At all hours of the day and night you could watch tiny cars way down below streaming along the Parkway East and the Boulevard of the Allies.
When we got to dad’s it was important to have one final bottle of wine, a ritual we enacted with him over the years. Wine was his thing. He made his own wine and really bought into the French joie de vie thing with wine. We opened a bottle of Bordeaux we got at the State Store and had a proper toast, just like he taught us how to do.
Then we took him out to a warm, homey Uzbekistani restaurant down the street where we ate dumplings, stroganoff, lamb, chickpeas and rice. Again, the quest for interesting things like this little ethnic place comes directly from our dad’s ethos. The food was really good, although there was no booze due to their muslim customs. Mike and I went for a nitecap at a little bar fly type joint on Shiloh Street, just around the corner from our place.
The next morning we flew into action. While Andy took dad to the Social Security office, Mike and I scooped up a U-haul van and headed for the IKEA out by the airport. We got there 15 minutes early and sat there in the lot with the other consumer desperados waiting for the doors to open. Once inside, we scouted through the IKEA labyrinth, ever in danger of disappearing through a wormhole into another dimension.
It turned out there was no need for the Nigel character kabuki theatre. Either dad forgot about his request for a designer or maybe he had come to the point of just going with our program. He liked the little printout of the furniture items we showed him. We selected matching black furniture, modern and minimal, accented with pops of color in the area rug, pillows and his colorful framed artwork. Later, sitting in his new apartment, he kidded us that it’s like he’s living in an IKEA showroom.
That night the three of us did a late night furniture assembly session. There was a certain camaraderie to working through maddening IKEA instructions in the small living room. Owing to a bit of whisky, in the morning we noticed a bookshelf with a backwards piece.
Before we started moving his stuff out we wanted to have a final photo session. I love the pic of the four of us in front of his windows. I put on this John McCutheon mid-70s, neo-appalachian hill music, hammer dulcimer stuff from when he was going down to West Virginia a lot. He didn’t remember it. Funny the fragmentary things a kid will latch onto and bring back 45 years later.
We got dad into his bed to take a nap while we packed up the rest of his stuff in the U-haul van and drove over to the new place. Going up and down on the freight elevator we got to see the inner workings of the facility, and chatted with the workers who rode the elevator with us. We met some of dad’s new neighbors and got a first look at the range of residents—some walking around independently, some with walkers, and some sort of zombie-like haunting the hallways. One guy had spiddle hanging off his lips. It’s all pretty weird if you’re not used to being around old people.
At some point I split off and embarked on one of several manic shopping sprees at Target, REI, Whole Foods and IKEA again. Late afternoon I got a panicked call from Andy: dad was refusing to leave his place, saying he had changed his mind. By the time I got there he was slumped over on the couch in a defiant, defeated, uncommunicative state. We continued to try to convince him, to no avail.
His stuff was already moved out and we had turned the bathroom water off due to heavy leaking the night before, about which we received a call from the building manager. We didn’t think the place was really inhabitable anymore. We escalated our persuasion, eventually threatening to call an ambulance, the cops, social services. We honestly didn’t know what to do. I muttered under my breath to Andy, “don't go out like a little bitch.” That’s not a good thought to be thinking about your own dad.
We had no choice but to leave him there for the night. It was hard walking out with him on that couch like that. As we left, we implored him not to go out, not to try to navigate the stairs. Stay in the apartment! We were genuinely worried about his safety and baffled by so much contrary reality, not sure of the right thing to do. Andy wondered if we should take his shoes so he couldn’t go out, but I said no to that.
Later that night Andy and I had a blow-up, or more accurately I blew up at him. For me it was a string of little differences over the course of two days, in which I thought he was dismissive of other ideas and a bit superior. Sibling stuff. He apologized but said I was also hard to work with. I’m sure my louder personality and style was getting on his nerves. We said “no hard feelings” in the interest of moving forward, but there was some bad blood.
He and Mike went to a neighborhood restaurant and I took the incline down to the Grand Concourse restaurant, in the old Pennsylvania and Lake Erie railroad station. It’s the most impressive building I think I’ve ever seen, with magnificent Tiffany and stained glass details and a grand staircase opening onto a main waiting room, now the dining room. I sat in the Gandy Dancer Saloon and watched the first period of the Pens vs. Maple Leafs game and sipped a Penn Dark from the north side brewery. I backed that up with a bowl of mussels, one of dad’s favorites over the years. Historical tidbit: a gandy dancer was the guy on the crew laying railroad tracks who would pry the metal rails in place with a long implement.
I decided to walk across the bridge and get a cheap ticket to watch the second half of the hockey game. There was a bleak moment on the middle of the Smithfield Street Bridge where the wind was rolling down the Mon River and cutting through me. I was thinking about how we had devolved into a desperate situation with the old man, how nasty it had gotten, and also my fight with Andy. Later Andy and I texted strategy for the morning, that we would make him bacon and eggs and maybe the calories would give him energy and clarity. And if that didn’t work, the fall back was either making a call for help, or as I totally seriously suggested duct taping him to a chair to carry him out of there. Yeah, that was actually an option, somehow.
I approached the new Mellon Center on foot, “The House that Lemieux Built,” thus saving the Penguins for the City of Pittsburgh. Gone was the domed mid-century Civic Arena, the Igloo as it was called, where Elvis, the Beatles and the Doors had played. It’s a vast parking lot now. I walked right by the spot where the players entrance was, where in 1980 Andy and I saw Edmonton Oilers rookie Wayne Gretsky walk out in a full length mink coat, fresh-faced and glamourous, with long flowing hair. He was the much heralded phenom from junior hockey, only 17 years old. He came out surrounded by a police escort on account of there had been a crazy half hour bench clearing brawl during the game, triggered when Pens goon Kim Clackston took a cheap-shot at Gretzky. The video is insane.
The new arena is full of exclusive luxury clubs and suites, a deluxe modern sports-entertainment experience with 40-foot-tall windows framing the city. Gone were a lot of the blood sport elements, as the game has been changed over the years to be more safe for the offensive stars. Afterwards, I walked down to Market Square where a group of polite Leafs fans were dealing with some taunting from a torqued-up, mullet-wearing Pens fan. Good to see the piss and vinegar wasn’t completely gone from the old town.
In the morning it’s a miracle—we call at 8 a.m. and dad is ready to go! We fly into action before he changes his mind, and it goes without a hitch. And just like that, he walked out the door of his place for the last time. Sometimes life is reduced to its basic elements: walking out of one door and into another. All three of us guided him down the down stairs—a very shaky, sombre and meaningful slow-walk. It is a miracle he didn’t meet his end on those stairs.
As we are walking into Schenley Gardens I am on my phone moving my return flight up by two days because I thought Andy and I needed some distance, and most of the main stuff would be done by then. He wasn’t happy about this. In a surreal contrast to the triumphant arrival at the new place, he and I were engaged in this snippy conversation, me bitching at him that his anxiety condition was no excuse for being an asshole. I regret that comment.
The new apartment was dialed, and the entry was sort of transcendent. The people were so nice, all greeting dad warmly. Christine the sales manager stopped by the room, and also Melissa, the site manager. She talked with us at length, part chat and part information session. She paused at one point when we were talking about meals, emphasizing that at meal time it is crucial to socialize. The unspoken suggestion was that socializing and being engaged is a big part of staying healthy. The aides were stopping by to say hello, including one very boisterous large African American housekeeper, who was irreverent and funny. The nurse came in to take his blood pressure. In that moment, Dad, sitting in his rocking chair, was so happy and appreciative of our efforts. He actually got a little emotional at how nice the new apartment was.
After an hour or so, we let dad nap and we raced back to the condo. With all of the saveable stuff already out, it took only about an hour and a half to make one big crude pile for the junk guys. A life lived and all those things that a person collects that seemed important at the time are instantly ripped off the walls and shelves, junk to haul away. Most heartbreaking for me was when Mike and I were clearing out his dank basement storage stall and came upon the green Coleman stove, mangled up aluminum folding table and a few beat up canoe paddles that looked so tiny. Camping was so big for our dad, and now this stuff was just trash. Lifespan conceits.
Deeper thoughts about the junk man and lifespan twisted through my mind as we lugged stuff up from the basement. These guys showed up in a janky old truck and were pretty low down, rough looking characters from a local southside outfit, missing teeth, smoking, respectful but laying out a little “hey brotha man” schtick. They hauled everything out in four hours, cursing the steps, and busting up one of the hanging pendant lamps in the hallway. The junk man is a cousin of the grim reaper—when you see the junk man coming, the other guy can't be far behind.
Dad’s friend Barbara, long an advocate of dad moving, imparted some cagy wisdom aimed at convincing dad to move. She told him that all of his friends have heard all of his stories, and moving to the new place was an opportunity to share his stories with a whole new group of people. She is a keen student of human nature and also knows our dad likes to show off a little too. I got to thinking that he might not remember a lot of his own life story at this point, so I drafted a little narrative of his life and we made a few booklets, with key people, places and events bolded. Because what are you, really, without your own stories?
In the days that followed, to our surprise, dad seemed to be really liking the whole situation. He was using the walker (called a rollie) we had ordered for him. He actually mentioned how a “rollie gang” of seniors he met at lunch went out regularly on walks. He talked about the pleasant banter in the lunchroom and the monthly outings to the symphony—one of his lifelong passions. At one point they brought him a plate of lobster mac and cheese and stewed tomatoes. He wolfed it down. Later when we checked on him via phone, he said he was just looking out the window at the stars and sky. I could stop thinking about that lonely last night he spent in his old place, how he somehow must have made peace with his aging, with giving up control, and letting someone care for him. It was some kind of come-to-Jesus thing. It was very hard to walk out and leave him defeated on that couch, but that’s what he needed, a final bit of time.
Andy and I were sort of back in a normal mode, even joking about the point when I suggested duct taping dad to a chair...that I still wanted to duct tape someone to a chair, anyone. We went out for dinner to a joint called Big Jims up along the Mon river, below Oakland. It had been featured on Diners Drive-ins and Dives. We sat at the bar and ordered the veal parms as big my fuckin head. 7 & 7s, Yuenglings, wood panelling, massive calzones—the whole old school thing.
A place we didn’t get to was Sonny’s Tavern in Bloomfield, a low down neighborhood spot. Mike found this classic review on Yelp:
A place I missed but Andy and Mike stopped at is Blue Slide Park on Beechwood Boulevard. We used to hurl ourselves down the concrete slide on a full-speed running approach. This otherwise ordinary city Park has become a hip hop landmark because it was the title of Mac Miller’s debut album. In 2011 the skinny Squirrel Hill kid took the rap world by storm with his raw, honest voice that melded urban swagger with a painful narrative of his addictions and relationships. After he OD-ed, the top of the slide became a makeshift memorial of flowers and handmade tributes.
We hit East Liberty several times during the week, because the Target was there. One time we stopped by the old YMCA that our mom took us to for judo lessons, movies and dodge ball in the old gymnasium with the balcony running track circling it. To be accurate, dodge ball may have been “smeer the queer” back in that era. That’s when East Lib, a formerly grand section of town in the 40s and 50s, was gritty and a bit rough with several high rise public housing towers. Today the housing projects are gone and that Y is an upscale Ace Hotel. In the lobby we checked out the polite and well dressed hipster crowd engaged in quiet conversations, and then went upstairs to see the judo room. There was a swing dancing class going on when we poked our heads in. It took everything I had not to break into some fake judo moves.
As I lugged a heavy bag of photo albums through the airport, there was a sense of relief at the successful completion of such a big push, so many details and things resolved around housing, and getting dad the right care. Real peace of mind. I don’t know how he made it the last year and a half, just hanging on, a serious miracle he didn’t meet his end on those stairs. As we were reminding dad to use the call button pendant he now wore—that the staff would do anything he needed—Andy explained, “Dad, you’re a man of leisure now.”
The three of us got up very early one morning and went through his 15 or so photo albums to create two more comprehensive ones that would be easier for dad to share. Seeing all the photos was surreal. A rush of life, neighborhoods and people, long gone memories. We also sorted the contents of his filing cabinet where we came across a 1971 government security clearance document that listed his previous residences in Pittsburgh. That document confirmed that Schenley Gardens is located about two blocks from the North Craig Street apartment dad lived in when he arrived in Pittsburgh in 1956. Circle of life in the Burgh!