Pod City

In 1955, Jack Finney published his best-selling novel The Body Snatchers, a story that so captured the American imagination that it was made into a movie not once, but three times, having a much more lasting impact on popular culture than Finney’s more critically acclaimed novels. The Body Snatchers tells the story of a small California town invaded by a perfidious alien species: huge pods that are able to take on the exact appearance, mannerisms and speech patterns of any given person. Early on in the book, a young woman named Wilma tries to explain to Dr. Miles Bennell, the hero, just how she knows that her Uncle Ira has become a pod person:

Miles, he looks, sounds, acts and remembers exactly like Ira. On the outside. But inside he’s different. … With this—this Uncle Ira, or whoever or whatever he is, I have the feeling, the absolutely certain knowledge, Miles, that he’s talking by rote. The facts of Uncle Ira’s memories are all in his mind in every last detail, ready to recall. But the emotions are not.

Miles leaves, disturbed not by the prospect of an imposter Uncle Ira, but by his concerns for Wilma’s sanity. After all, he’s just seen the old man with his own eyes, and, clearly, Uncle Ira is the same as he ever was.

Miles has been deceived, of course, as will soon become horrifyingly clear to him, but it doesn’t take an alien plot to muddle our definition of the true self. The bare metaphysical quandaries of identity are enough to baffle the cleverest minds.

In 75 C.E. Plutarch presented a conundrum: According to legend, the hero Theseus rescued a group of Athenian youths from the island of Crete, where they had been held prisoner in a labyrinth, at the mercy of the fierce bull-headed Minotaur. The ship in which Theseus brought the young men and women back to Athens was so revered by the Athenians that they kept it for generations, replacing any plank that began to rot with a new, strong piece of wood. This had become the subject of a standing question among philosophers, Plutarch reported. As all the boards were eventually replaced, was this still the ship of Theseus or a new ship?

Identity’s landscape is amorphous. Its boundaries are always murky and mist-shrouded, dissolving and shifting. With human beings, the question of identity revolves around memory and the soul. Some people claim to find the reincarnations of dead lovers or spouses in the bodies of complete strangers. Others spend tens of thousands of dollars on plastic surgery only to learn that, despite looking completely different, they are still the same people. The definition of identity becomes even harder to grasp when we consider the inanimate entities with which our human lives are intertwined. How do you reincarnate a ship, decipher a house’s memories or find the soul of a city?

At the Vincentian Home, in the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh, my grandfather sits in a wheelchair in his room, looking at nothing, with an amiable expression on his face.

“Hi, Pap,” I say.

He smiles at me and nods, but I can tell he’s just being polite, something he’s been all his life, along with decent, hard-working and friendly. He has a corny sense of humor and loves to make puns. The nurses all like him. When he dies, they’ll come to the funeral home to give us their condolences even though they have dozens of people in their care and deaths are a routine part of their job. I unlock the brakes on his wheelchair and push him out of his room into the hall, past a nurse counting pills into cups and another resident in a wheelchair who’s moving slowly toward the TV room by pulling himself along the plastic rail that runs the length of the wall. Pap holds his legs out straight and stiff so that his slippers don’t scuff against the linoleum as we go.

“Gramma’s waiting for us,” I say.

Another nod.

I try again. “Rose,” I say. “We’re going to see Rose.”

He sits up a bit straighter, his eyes flickering with recognition. “Gramma” no longer means anything to him because he doesn’t remember that I’m his granddaughter.

“Yeah,” he says, “where is she?”

When we get to the main hallway, my grandmother’s waiting for us on the sofa. She gets to her feet and hands her purse to Pap, who holds it in his lap. “Hi,” he says. Now his smile is genuine; he looks content. My grandmother pushes the wheelchair, leaning heavily on the handles. As we move through the corridors, past the open doors of residents’ rooms, we hear the chatter of a dozen television stations, people muttering to themselves, the occasional soft conversation. Panels of sunlight fall across the hallway through the glass walls surrounding the courtyard. We head to one of our favorite spots, a small aviary near the nurses’ station. Finches, doves and canaries flit between metal branches and dip in and out of nests of Spanish moss. My grandmother positions Pap’s wheelchair in front of the birds while I get chairs.

“Do you know who this is?” Gramma asks, sitting down and twisting to face Pap, pointing at me. He gets a sly look on his face; he doesn’t know but is trying to find a way around saying so. “It’s Anji,” she says. “She’s home from Iowa for a visit.”

“Hi, Pap,” I say again.

“Yeah, I know who she is,” he says. “OK.”

One of the nurses walks by and crouches down to talk to him. “How are you feeling today, Tom?” she asks.

He grins and spreads his fingers. “With my hands,” he says.

Is he still my Pap? He is.

In 1943, my grandparents met in Pittsburgh at the Heinz factory, where they both worked. Then, as now, it was a large brick building perched near the edge of the Allegheny River. My grandmother quit a few years later when she married, but even now, she remembers the smell of the rotten tomatoes she picked off the conveyor belt and the stacks of labels that were glued on by hand, what she calls “piece work.” Pap was, at the time, a panel operator, although he would hold a variety of positions during his years with the company. He was a tinkerer and liked to invent things. When my mother was growing up, the house was always full of pencils from the plant, imprinted with the words, “Got an idea? Write it down!” He did more than write things down; he cobbled together bits of machinery and brought his ideas to life, inventions for which the company never paid him—not that he ever expected payment. Having a solid job that provided for his family was enough for him.

Besides, Heinz showed its appreciation in other ways. There was the employee resort, which my grandparents always referred to as “the funny farm,” a piece of property in nearby Gibsonia, PA, that offered swimming and horseback riding and other amusements for female employees. There was the company store, where they could buy deeply discounted Heinz products. And there were gifts. Every Christmas, a new piece of Heinz memorabilia arrived. Some of these items were beautiful, like the cut-glass horseradish dish topped with a tiny, carved horse head or the sterling silver spoons with their bowls pinched into strange shapes, presumably for serving various items from the relish tray. Others were pure kitsch. My cousins and I favored a talking alarm clock in the shape of a tomato-headed man wearing a top hat and tails, who announced in a hearty, cheerful voice, “It’s time to get up! Get up right away. Wait any longer, and it’s ketchup all day. Remember, Heinz is the thick, rich one!” We had never seen a talking electronic at that point, and it held a certain fascination for us. It announced the time in a voice with a poorly cadenced, swooping tone that suggested English was not its first language: “It’s eight four-teen, p.m?”

In 1978, after 40 years as a Heinz employee, my grandfather retired. Liberated from the factory, he spent his time working for his church, gardening and traveling with my grandmother. But the Heinz merchandise kept arriving and accumulating. Some of the company products migrated to the homes of my mother and her siblings, and, later, to my cousins and me. As the years passed, we started not just to collect, but to purchase things that reminded us of Heinz. We added a blown-glass pickle ornament to our Christmas tree; my mother studded the sun visor of her car with the company’s miniature pickle pins and worked more of them into some of her art projects. This may not seem like such a big deal, but you have to understand that my mother and I have a lot of anti-corporate sentiment. We boycott Wal-Mart and won’t wear clothing with a visible brand name of any kind. If we were to stop and think about it, we would have to admit Heinz is really no different from any other large corporation; this is, after all, a company that begins the “Relishing the Past” portion of its Web site by boasting, “Revenues have climbed from the thousands in 1869 through the millions, the tens and hundreds of millions, now billions,” as though the most endearing quality of the brand, even in the retrospective view, is its ability to rake in huge amounts of cash.

In fact, our hoard of Heinz merchandise had nothing to do with any devotion to the company. When it came to grocery shopping, we usually dismissed its products altogether. We bought off-brand pickles, French mustard, soup from Progresso or Campbell’s; only Heinz ketchup made its way into our refrigerator on a regular basis. If forced to explain our Heinz collection, we might have said it was to make my grandfather happy, but with each passing year, my Pap was more removed from his time at Heinz and the life he lived when he worked there. Yet, the material remnants of his past life seemed to be gaining a hold on us. The ornaments and dishes and talking clocks were elements of a disappearing part of our lives that we didn’t know how to relinquish, signposts of a devotion that satisfied the vague requirements of our nostalgia without necessitating any actual change in our eating or spending habits.

You could call this “quaint,” “eccentric,” “sort of nerdy.” “Pickles,” you’d say. “They collect pickles. Right.” And maybe anywhere else, it would be strange. But here, we are not the only ones; if there was ever a city where nostalgia puts on unusual disguises, it’s Pittsburgh.

All cities have a past, but not all of them cling to it the way Pittsburgh does. Maybe it has to do with the contrast between the opulence and magnificence of the city’s glory days and its relatively sedate present. During the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, Pittsburgh was home to Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick and the Mellon brothers—four of the richest Americans ever. They were not isolated tycoons; Pittsburgh and its environs still bear the stamp of Industrial Age wealth in the form of libraries, museums and concert halls. There are also more quaint reminders. Pittsburgh’s cemeteries, for instance, are filled with the last desperate bids for remembrance of long-gone aristocrats: towering obelisks, Greek-inspired statuary, crypts with stained glass windows from Louis Comfort Tiffany.

In the days when Pittsburgh was synonymous with steel mills, there was no hiding progress. As the 19th century faded away and the 20th took over, the city buckled and spread like an amoeba consuming the countryside. One-story buildings were replaced by three-story buildings were replaced by skyscrapers, and the sky itself was black with progress. Change smelled like coke furnaces and molten metal—not the kind of thing you could ignore, and the people engaged in herding progress forward wouldn’t have dreamed of concealing it in any case. Andrew Carnegie wasn’t a man for meek change. Neither were the Mellon brothers, or Frick, or Henry John Heinz. Their progress came with trumpets, with marble pillars to flank it and lush parks for it to romp in, until progress, progress, progress became not just a goal, but a command.

Today, Pittsburghers appear highly suspicious of progress, as though we’ve passed through a magical era that divides the city’s history into before and after: Some generations looked forward to it, a few lucky souls lived through it, and the rest of us look back on it. The past is still the muscle and bone at work behind the thin skin of our present, seemingly more important and even more “real” than what is happening here and now. And so we defer to it. We give directions using long-gone buildings as landmarks. We clamor for documentaries like local filmmaker Rick Sebak’s “Things That Aren’t There Anymore,” a litany of much-loved Pittsburgh-area attractions that are now accessible only through memories. Progress went out with steel; perhaps, like the steel jobs, it was exported to China.

Or so it seems on the surface. If you look around, you’ll see that the city is filled with vestiges of and monuments to the past. The emotion that holds Pittsburgh in its grip, however, isn’t a simple longing for times gone by. Instead, it’s a potent mixture of nostalgia and guilt, the sort of thing for which the Germans must surely have a word. Slowly, carefully, behind the scenes, the city is modernizing. For many of Pittsburgh’s inhabitants, though, every change feels like a betrayal of the old city, and so modern accomplishments are cloaked in the trappings of the past.

Take, for example, The Waterfront, a sprawling shopping district occupying the space along the Monongahela River where US Steel’s world-famous Homestead Works once stood. This complex of big box stores, chain restaurants and bars is about the least nostalgia-inducing place one could imagine. It’s utterly generic, with most of its square footage devoted to businesses you could find in any major metropolitan area in the country—the modern definition of “progress” incarnate—but the first things you see as you approach The Waterfront are the tall brick smokestacks of the former steel mills, standing next to the exit ramp from the Homestead Grays Bridge. This juxtaposition has always struck me as perversely evocative, like posting a herd of stuffed buffalo at the side of the Interstate where it crosses the Mississippi with a sign that reads, “Welcome to the West. Here’s an example of a species that used to inhabit it before we decimated them. We just thought you’d like to see what they were like.”

It’s the emptiness of the gesture that makes it strange, the token nod to what’s gone. If what the city’s shoppers really want is the past, they only have to go a few hundred feet beyond The Waterfront onto Eighth Avenue, Homestead’s original shopping district. Some of the stores here predate the collapse of the steel industry, and the business owners can still remember the halcyon days of Homestead. “You couldn’t walk on Eighth Avenue, as wide as it is, without bumping arms with someone accidentally; that’s how crowded it was Friday nights,” says Armand Panka, who owned and operated A & B Donuts on Eighth Avenue from 1962 until he retired last year at age 69. The bakery, up until the day it closed, was like a preserved parcel of 1960s Homestead. A small counter with vinyl-topped stools stood next to display cases of poppy seed rolls and pretzel-shaped donuts, and if you bought a cup of coffee to go with your pastry, it came in a cone-shaped, plastic insert fitted into a pastel melamine holder, the kind of thing you could imagine drinking out of at an automat. A & B was famous for its nut rolls, which Panka shipped as far as to Japan and Turkey for smitten customers, and in the early days, his store was always filled with men coming off their shifts at the mills. “The steel workers made me, and they almost broke me, too, when the mills shut down,” Panka says. “I always thought the mills would never close. When I heard they were going to, I said the government ought to step in, even if they had to make a steel beam and remelt it the next day just to keep these guys working.”

Panka’s support of the steel workers doesn’t mean he wants the city to remain unchanged. Panka has mixed feelings about Pittsburgh’s development. He sees The Waterfront as a blessing, one that’s brought life back to Homestead and put the deserted space left by the defunct steel mills to good use; he seems much happier about the jobs it’s brought in than the prospect of turning the area into a monument or museum to the steel industry. At the same time, he casts a skeptical eye on the city’s move toward robotics and information technology. “Everything can’t be high-tech,” he says. “There has to be so much physical labor, too, in order to be productive. Everybody can’t be a lawyer or a doctor, a specialist; you have to have plumbers, electricians and bricklayers.”

This is a common dichotomy for residents of the ’Burgh. True Pittsburghers are constantly struggling to reconcile their desire to honor the past with their desire for change. Even the Heinz company, the cause of my family’s own ambivalent nostalgia, isn’t immune to this sense of conflict. Heinz has converted its old factory buildings into the trendy and expensive Heinz Lofts. Here, Pittsburgh’s yuppies can check their e-mail in an on-site business center and live in buildings—Meat, Bean and Shipping—whose 1920s factory exteriors have been painstakingly preserved. Back in her working days, if my grandmother had taken the odd step and slipped the bounds of time as she crossed between rooms of the factory, her hands full of shipping labels, she might have found herself transported into one of these shiny, posh and anonymous living spaces, with the old beams and wooden ceilings of the factory she had always known still incongruously unchanged.

The Heinz Lofts are only a few of the buildings to have undergone this kind of transformation in recent years. Rather than using the cost-effective raze-and-rebuild measures favored in most places, Pittsburgh is changing stealthily from the inside out. The city has a wealth, or some would say a burden, of old red brick buildings, remnants of the industrial past that now slouch on underdeveloped streets like aging grand dames. I used to imagine what they would look like inside—a confluence of tangled pipes tessellating toward the ceiling; old machines left untouched, their cog teeth filled with dust, waiting for the world to call on them again; a grainy shaft of sunlight piercing the cavernous, dark interior.

These days what you’re likely to find beneath the red brick shell is something entirely different. One by one, these buildings, dormant for decades, are being body-snatched. They wear the same familiar faces you’ve seen a dozen times while walking down Penn Avenue or driving across the North Side, but below the surface, everything has changed. The buildings are gutted. They’re rewired, repartitioned, fitted with granite counters and hardwood floors and halogen lighting, remade for a new form of life. The old factories are upscale apartments, office buildings, coffee shops, nightclubs.

Yet, there’s a sense that the future is desirable only if it can be acquired without sacrificing the icons of the past. Perhaps if we progress without seeming to, if we agree to keep up appearances, the ancestral spirits of the city, like weary parents, will turn a blind eye to what is really going on behind the scenes.

Who knows how long this can last? Maybe one day the city will stretch and shake itself and shed its red brick exterior like a cicada’s shell, springing fully re-formed and unrecognizable into the world. Until that time, it seems that the complex fiction of a traditional Pittsburgh is going to be carefully preserved as if by some kind of tacit understanding among the residents. There is—there must be—a reason we cling so tenaciously to particular markers of the city’s past: this building, that turn of phrase, the sacred signs we’ve denoted as markers of Pittsburgh’s true identity. These are the keepsakes we’ve chosen to save from the fires of change, dragging them with us into the new millennium as we flee the crumbling ruins of the city’s previous incarnations. Perhaps these remnants, our token monuments to nostalgia, our smokestacks and pickle pins, are both an apology for moving on and a thank you to our forebears for all they left us.

My aunt visits Pap on one of his bad days. Usually he recognizes her, but today, he doesn’t. He’s distracted and fretful. Sitting in his room, surrounded by glitter-coated art projects and old greeting cards, he looks small and worried.

“What’s wrong?” she says.

“I spent all my money on bowling,” he tells her. “Now how am I going to get home?”

She smoothes back his hair. “I’ll take you.”

Pap scoffs at her. “You don’t even know where I live. I’ve gotta get all the way to the South Side.”

“Sure, I know where you live,” she says, and she recites his long-dead mother’s address, a house he hasn’t lived in for more than half a century.

“That’s right,” he says, looking both surprised and relieved.

What must he be thinking? How can he possibly explain to himself this kind woman who looks oddly like his wife, appearing at just the right moment to offer him a way home? And how can it be that she has filed away in her memory that street name and number, a piece of information seemingly as useless and vestigial as the cable cars, the old brick buildings, the bone-shaking Belgian-block side streets that still remain in parts of the city? Unless, perhaps, all Pittsburghers grow up with vague premonitions of moments like this, when the right memory at the right time will be exactly what’s needed to blaze a path from despair and disorientation back to comfort.

And so, as the city grows, we slowly strip away the past. We pressure-wash the soot from the buildings. We reform our accents and scrupulously avoid using the second person plural. We change our economy from steel and aluminum to robotics and healthcare. But we keep the wooden roller coasters, the smokestacks, the old women making pierogi by hand in church basements, because, 250 years from now, if the dead rise from their graves and their stained-glass crypts, if they wander the streets of Pittsburgh, disoriented, wiping at their eyes like sleep-addled children, and looking gray and lost among impossible architectures of carbon and plastic, frictionless floating highways and whatever other innovations the future holds, we want them to find something—a taste, a sound, a stamp of identity—that says to them, yes, this is still your city, you are still home.