I play the role of the sophisticate. It comes with the job. I teach English at West Liberty University in the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia. See, even the geographical description of the region sounds a bit too quaint—all this talk of panhandles puts one in mind of a grainy black-and-white Auntie Em’ shouting about twisters. But here I am inhabiting my “panhandle” and representing sophistication to the 80-100 students who sit through my classes in any given semester. A healthy percentage of the university’s students are still first-generation college students. They’re the wide-eyed sons and daughters of hardworking steel mill parents who toil in the mills dotting the banks of the Ohio River in the hope of providing their children with options. WLU is one such option, and I’m proud of the service we provide. But you can see why there might be added pressure to represent intellectual sophistication. In fact, one now-deceased former English professor even endowed a lecture series at the university because he believed so few of our students had been truly in the larger world around them that he felt the need to bring the world to them via guest lecturers. That speaker series still exists today, but those well-read and worldly guests to campus only surface once or twice a year. For the remainder of the weeks school is in session, I bear the responsibility of representing well-read and worldly to them. Well-read? Reasonably so—it comes with the training as an English teacher. Worldly? Well, let’s just say I play the role of the sophisticate.
I haven’t always been a Panhandler. I grew up in suburban Pittsburgh. However, my suburb was so carefully constructed and cordoned off that it functioned like its own small town. I have plenty of Normal Rockwell memories of playing ball with neighborhood kids, riding my bike for streets and streets. It felt like a small-town existence. In fact, when my parents moved us to Wheeling, WV—my first taste of the panhandle—when I was 12 years-old, I recall feeling as though the “real” small town in which I now lived fit me better than the constructed version I assumed I’d been living in before. It was as though I had always been trying to wear small town life, but everything was just a bit too big—like well-intentioned hand-me-down clothes. So moving to West Virginia gave me the feeling that I had finally grown into that older-sibling, hand-me-down t-shirt; it finally fit just right. Growing up in suburban Pittsburgh, our trips into the city from the suburbs were as infrequent as those of my adolescent years in Wheeling. We were 20 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh, but we may as well have been the 65 minutes away that I am now. Such trips into town were always isolated experiences and only reserved for special occasions—a Fourth of July fireworks show, a professional sporting event, or a Christmas parade. Despite my “big city” upbringing, I really always felt like a small-town kid. It was the role I played before I moved to an actual small town and became a fully-fledged, card-carrying small-town kid.
Now those roles are reversed. Once I came of age, I left my small town to educate myself. I spent eight years in reasonably-sized cities in Southwest Ohio—Dayton and Cincinnati—earning advanced degrees and dabbling with urban experience. I eventually emerged with a Ph.D. in literature. And one year later, when the “homecoming job” opened up back in the panhandle, I raced back to put on the comfortable clothes of small-town life once again. No longer did I have to play the small town role—I was the small-town kid come back as small-town adult; that fit just fine. Now the role I play is “urban intellectual” with just enough worldliness to pass.
I planned a trip to the city on November 23, 2013. An old graduate school friend of mine had just published her second book of fiction, and her book tour was making a stop at a bookshop in the Bloomfield section of Pittsburgh. In preparing for the trip, I was feeling confident in my role as sophisticate. After all, my sole reason for heading to Pittsburgh was because I was suddenly someone who could say he had “an old friend who publishes novels and gives book tours.” It doesn’t get much more “urban sophisticate” than that. In addition, I was surprising my old friend—she had no idea any familiar faces would be in that audience. After her reading, I imagined, I would let her know I was in the audience by asking something witty during the Q&A. After the reading, we would hug, slap each other on the back, and reminisce about our mutual acquaintances who are also publishing books. In fact, I also happen to be acquainted with the publisher responsible for producing my friend’s novel, so I imagined that the publisher might also be there and the three of us would pal around after the reading, making us the envy of the roomful of real sophisticates who had come out to see the show. I, as I imagined it, would get to be part of the show. But, you see, I’m doing it again as we speak—playing the role of the sophisticate.
At any rate, the plan was set—both the logistics and my imagined tableaux of witty sophistication that would follow. I left my small town on a bitterly cold November afternoon—making sure to leave enough time to navigate the Parkway heading into Pittsburgh, which seemed always to be trafficky even when logic would suggest it shouldn’t be. There were light snow flurries in the air, the first of the season in fact. On the roughly 65-minute drive, I enjoyed the first flurries; I imagined the reunion with my writer-friend; and I tried to contain my excitement. However, in retrospect, I can admit that it wasn’t really excitement I was containing in my gut. It was nervousness. Whenever I drive to the city, my small-town stomach flutters. No matter how many trips I make, I get very anxious about navigating the busily unfamiliar city streets with my admittedly small-town navigation skills.
There’s a theory going around—well, “going around” insofar as my seasoned Pittsburgher brother-in-law said it to me once—that there’s a good reason for all the palpable local pride that seems to ooze from the pores of native Pittsburghers. I know of very few cities in which the residents wear their city affiliation with as much pride as Pittsburghers. Sunday morning church services in Pittsburgh are filled with more Steelers jerseys than most rival stadiums are at kick-off time. So, my brother-in-law’s theory is that the greatest source of that pride is the twisted, tortured geography of the region. Because it’s so difficult to master the geography of this hill-and-valley city, once you’ve figured out how to maneuver your way around Pittsburgh, it’s something like becoming an initiate of a private club. But rather than a secret handshake, the club initiates declare their membership by showing off their shortcut to Lawrenceville. This clubhouse feel of knowing one’s way around the labyrinthine world of Pittsburgh seems to breed a kind of innate pride in Pittsburghers. In us small-town poseurs, the unnavigable terrain only breeds high anxiety.
In my relatively infrequent trips to the city, I’ve only learned one route to Bloomfield, the location of my friend’s reading. The plan was to exit the Parkway at Liberty Avenue and take Liberty Avenue past the Strip District and up Bloomfield Hill. I had followed that route on one or two other occasions when I needed to get to Bloomfield in the past, and I experienced no problems. It may not be the most expedient way to go, but it’s a relatively straight path—as straight as a path through the winding river valleys of Pittsburgh can be—containing only a few key turns to memorize. Past experience taught me I could pull it off. However, this time when I exited the Parkway at Liberty Avenue, I was greeted by a construction barricade that pushed me rightward onto the Boulevard of the Allies instead. At that point, I thought nothing of this slight detour, as it is fairly typical for PennDOT (the lyrical local slang for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation) to conduct its road work in Pittsburgh over weekends to avoid city traffic. So I took the Boulevard of the Allies assuming I’d be able to cut back to Liberty after a block or two once I’d maneuvered around the construction. However, upon making that cutback toward Liberty, I was immediately swallowed up by a swarm of cars. Thousands of them. Utter gridlock. Where did all these people come from? How did I not notice the traffic from the Boulevard? Did I simply assume they must all be heading to the theater district for a big opening at Heinz Hall? Or was there another movie crew, taking advantage of this beautiful night’s first flurries, filming on location up ahead—something that happens with more and more frequency in Pittsburgh these days? One way or another, I was now firmly planted—for an hour or longer—in dead-stopped traffic on Wood Street. By the time I inched my way to a small triangle of turf near the corner of Wood and 6th Streets, I found my answer: The “Light-up Night” Christmas Parade was marching down Liberty Avenue, and I was on Wood Street, facing Liberty Avenue, and most definitely not going anywhere until the parade was over.
Though my car was already thick with the embarrassment that accompanies an admission of incompetence, that wasn’t the only (or even the most pressing) thing I was feeling. Due to the time that had elapsed—2+ hours from my driveway in Wheeling, WV to the smallest half-block of city street I could imagine on 6th & Wood as it angles into Liberty—and my rising anxiety, I was now feeling, with far more urgency than my embarrassment, a mounting pressure in my bladder.
I knew that my urgency to find a bathroom wasn’t going to outlast the parade that marched down Liberty Avenue in front of me. I would have to find a bathroom—or, I briefly considered, at least an alley or even an empty bottle; although, the sheer amount of police presence for a downtown parade made those options and their accompanying fines far less attractive than they might have been on another evening. The anxiety-soaked urgency in my gut began to rise to my head. Full-on panic set in. Cliché as it may be, I began to feel as though the towering city buildings were closing in on me like in some sort of bad movie dream sequence. Or perhaps like the walls of my bladder appeared to be caving in on the liquid sloshing inside. I needed to get to a bathroom fast—not only to relieve my physical discomfort but the rapidly escalating psychological discomfort as well.
I managed to maneuver my car through some kind of alleyway and noticed a small unassuming entrance, seemingly shielded by shrubbed landscaping, leading to a parking garage under the PNC Bank building. I pulled underground and parked the car. Given the gridlock from which I had just emerged, I knew I would have a better chance of locating a bathroom on foot.
I parked the car in the garage and took the elevator up to the lobby of the bank building assuming that there would be a public restroom in the lobby. There wasn’t. I headed outside and down Wood Street toward a McDonald’s. The place was overrun with people. I managed to cut through the waves of humanity to find the bathroom door locked with a sign suggesting that one needed the manager’s approval to use the facility. Finding a manager amidst hundreds of hungry parade-goers seemed an insurmountable obstacle. I left. I headed up Wood Street toward a 7-11. No bathroom. CVS Pharmacy around the block. No bathroom.
I had to widen my search. Finally, after wandering 3 blocks away from where I had parked and embarked on my now Exodus-like journey to part the sea of humanity and reach the promised land of bladder evacuation, I wandered into the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel. No bathroom in the lobby . . . but the concierge allowed me to enter the adjacent bar, Andy’s Bar, to use that facility. I hustled past all of the raised Martini glasses, toasting Light-up Night, the start of the Christmas season, and the beauty of the first flurries of the season. All I could think about was the bathroom. There, in Andy’s Bar, I managed to relieve myself of a flurry of physiological and psychological pressures.
The relief was short-lived. When I arrived back at the parking garage where I had left my car and approached the automated pay-station, I realized that I had just paid $7.00 for the privilege of walking three blocks to use the public restroom of an establishment I didn’t even patronize. The physiological relief I felt was now replaced by the return of utter humiliation.
It was at this point that a surprise irony highlighted my incompetence, embarrassment, and complete lack of sophistication. I was approached in the parking garage by a well-dressed couple clearly heading to a parade-night dinner date. Here were a couple of real sophisticates, a couple of young professionals out for a night on the town, their town, a town in which they undoubtedly felt comfortable and for which they surely felt pride. The couple stopped to ask me a question. They wanted to know how to use the pay-station machine in the garage to pay for their parking. There I was, having just gagged down my pride in the form of a $7.00 bathroom-break bill and now trying to get back into character, playing the role of the sophisticate. I was a small-town guy playing the part of a big-city parade aficionado, who really only ended up in this garage because of stupidity and a small bladder. And yet I was apparently playing the role pretty well. These supposed real city-dwellers—who had clearly just outed themselves as the same kind of suburbanites around whom I grew up, likely only making their second trip into the city for the year—were asking me how to pay their parking bill. I must have looked as though I knew what I was doing, but by this point in the evening I was ready to admit—to those two well-dressed twenty-somethings, but more importantly to myself—that I knew nothing. I disappointed those strangers when I admitted to them that this was my first time in this garage and that I didn’t really know how to work the automated pay-station machine either.
Once those two strangers and I figured out how to escape the garage, I went up that ramping exit $7.00 lighter in the wallet but several mental pounds heavier with the weight of big-city humiliation. As I emerged from that underground world, the city around me was different and there was a different feel to the air. I suddenly knew what it must be like to be a character at the end of a David Lynch movie. I had been through something psychologically horrifying, but I had emerged to a kind of eerie stillness. Maybe the atmosphere was different because the parade was now over and traffic was actually moving. Or perhaps without my sense of urgency—both physical and psychological—the skyscraping buildings only stretched skyward, no longer closing in around me. But in reality, my illusions of my own sophistication were shattered. These were now just tall, anonymous buildings in a city I would never fully know the way the city-dwellers know it.
I thought back to my imagined evening—my triumphant return to my novelist-friend’s life as a surprise audience member at her book-tour reading. Even though Liberty Avenue was now open to traffic, it would be far too late for me to get to Bloomfield in time for my friend’s fiction reading. The reading would be long over by now. Instead of spending my evening hobnobbing importantly with local literati as I imagined, I spent the hours sitting in traffic, panicking, and hunting for the apparently rare species that is the downtown public restroom.
The police officer who was directing the post-parade traffic waved me off the garage ramp and, ironically, onto Liberty Avenue. I would now use the only road I knew to Bloomfield to travel backwards instead, toward the Parkway heading home, heading toward failure.
I spent the whole ride home sifting through my complex pile of emotions about the evening. In fact, I found myself essentially writing this essay in my head for the duration of my 65-minute trek home. The only way I could really make myself feel better about the whole debacle was to intellectualize the experience in this essay. I reasoned: if I could find a way to write a relatively sophisticated, reasonably insightful essay about my unmasking as an imposter, it might enable me to crawl comfortably back into the very same imposture.
I play the role of the sophisticate.