December 13, 2018
I matched my shirt and tie, and drove up and down through one of America’s hilliest neighborhoods to an internship interview. The position was at a nonprofit newsroom, and the drive was my first time leaving the Pittsburgh’s lower levels in three months. I watched the city flatten to a blue-grey triangle as I climbed.
Many of southwest Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods exist at a 20-degree angles. Their roads are like concrete terrace steps, over which birds thread upward between row houses to crest the Alleghenies’ peaks. Cars compete with sidewalks for what little space remains. This divides the city into what author William Rees Morrish calls “terrestrial rooms,” or geographically enclosed and distinct spaces.
I arrived at the office at 9 a.m. Two editors sat me down to interview immediately. “What motivates you?” one of them asked me. “What shuts you down?” “Well, uh, it’s hard to work with unclear compensation structures,” I said. I cursed my answer as soon as it left my mouth.
I continued to flagellate myself as I nursed a coffee after the interview. The editor’s questions rang through my head. What motivates me? What shuts me down? Two-digit checking account balances loomed large in my memory, and I wondered whether I was more of a capitalist than I’d like to admit. I wrote off the interview as a failure, but then my email pinged. They were giving me the position anyway. It netted me 15 hours a week of newsroom work and guaranteed bylines for four months. Feeling grimly satisfied, I bought myself a croissant.
I went back to my house and made myself a sandwich. The combination of the offer and my final exams’ completion meant that I effectively had my first day off in three months. A slot machine of possibilities unrolled. I could do my laundry! I thought. I could cook a meal! I decided, instead, to do my Christmas shopping. I caught a bus to Squirrel Hill — the Pittsburgh neighborhood I hadn’t visited since reporting on the Tree of Life synagogue shooting six weeks prior — and made a list of places to visit.
My bus pulled into Squirrel Hill’s central intersection around 3 p.m. It was an unseasonably warm December day, and the neighborhood was out enjoying itself. A woman in a Commes Des Garçons shirt went into a nearby macaron store. A child leaned down to pet a stranger’s dog across the street. Families hustled and bustled to the rhythms of everyday life. I slipped off the bus and into those rhythms with them.
Two blocks from here, while reporting, I had watched a stone-jawed former FBI agent exit Tree of Life and weep. Three blocks from here, SWAT teams had shepharded synagogue-goers clutching woolen tallits away from the temple. Six weeks later, the shooting had left a physical presence that was hard to describe. On my way to a thrift store, I had to keep from turning my head to look in the temple’s direction. I wondered whether other people were doing the same.
I went into the thrift store and bought a kitsch Christmas sweater. Afterwards, I bought two tacos filled to the point of bursting with pork and creamy guacamole. I licked my fingers clean and stood at the table. A blond man walked past wearing a shirt that sported a Hebrew phrase for healing: “Tikkun Olam.”
The phrase stuck with me as I walked to the bookstore. I knew that it roughly translated to “repair the world.” The words had a comforting ritual solemnity in their original language. A woman asked the bookstore cashier to help her find a feminist Christmas gift for her niece. Tikkun Olam. Three strangers waited outside for paramedics with a man who was short of breath. Tikkun Olam. I flipped through a copy of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and wondered whether I could afford to spend $16 indulging my melancholy. A rescue project of soon-to-be-lost blues. I decided I couldn’t, but sat down to peruse it for a few minutes by the window.
The sun went down and I caught the nearest bus home. I opened my computer to draft some freelance story pitches. For a moment, I stared at a blank screen, unsure of what to write. I rubbed my temples, closed my eyes for a minute, then got back to work.