Now the first thing to say at this time in my own life is that I wasn’t quite “a man with a plan”. Or, if it could be admitted that I had a plan, it was a very vague one.
Jerry Seinfeld has a line, “there’s no way that moving in with your parents is a sign that your life is on track”. And that was the case with me. At age 27, I had just spent the last three years thinking I might want to be a Roman Catholic priest, in one form or another. Granted, that thought had diminished to the point of nothingness over the three years, but in one sense, my indecision prevented me from moving in other directions that might have been useful for a young man seeking to develop a career. As my own pastor once said in a sermon, “Today I have a Master of Divinity Degree, which, if I weren’t pastoring, wouldn’t qualify me to be a manager down at the local Burger King”. Indecision prevented me even from moving in that direction.
I was graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in April 1981, with a degree in non-fiction writing. But thanks to “the steel mill crisis” that I alluded to earlier, the unemployment rate in the area in the early 1980’s hit as high as 25%. So the summer after my graduation, at a time when I really didn’t have much going on, I took a job working for a Christian singer and entertainer, Jeff Steinberg (who has a singing voice like Neil Diamond and is still doing today what he was doing back then. See http://www.tinygiant.com). Jeff had been born without arms, and his legs were badly deformed. He was looking for someone to be a sound man, driver, and personal assistant. The commitment was to travel with him for a year. I ended up hanging around with him for five years – the last two years of that I was preoccupied with this issue of the priesthood.
As a priest, you don’t marry. I had been thinking about that a lot during those years, and I left Jeff’s ministry in April 1986 a lonely young man. I moved back home with my parents, and I enrolled in Pitt’s “College of General Studies” that fall. By the time I met Beth the following March, I had nearly completed 12 English Literature credits and was hoping to enter a Master of Fine Arts program for writing. I had already put in my application. I was taking two classes that semester: “Psychoanalysis and Literature”, an honors course, Tuesday nights, on the 38th floor of the Cathedral of Learning – the 40-story building that’s the center of the University of Pittsburgh campus, and “English Romantic Poetry” on Wednesday nights.
On that Monday when Beth and I met, ordinarily she would have taken a bus home from school, but after lunch that day I offered to drive her home, and she happily consented. I knew as soon as I met her that I was going to try not to let go of her.
The day we met was Monday, March 9, 1987. Over the years we would celebrate this date as an anniversary. The springtime was warm and sunny that year, which made it a beautiful time in our lives, and I was overwhelmed to be in the presence of such a beautiful woman.
I remember walking out of the front door of the college that day, into the bright sunlight. As we walked, we were separated by the respectful distance of two people who had just met each other. She was talking about the Army even then, and I didn’t catch on immediately that she had only recently been in the Army.
I had parked in the lower lot, and as we walked across the driveway to the stairs that led there, I remember yanking on her purse strap to point something out to her, a gazebo maybe. She looked over and up at me and leaned toward me while we walked, as if she would have been receptive to me to putting my arm around her or even giving her a kiss. She was smiling and I noticed how very beautiful she was.
I remember much of this time very clearly, and the dates are verifiable, if exact conversations and the precise sequence of events are fuzzy.
Generally I knew how to get to Clairton, but not specifically. I drove a white Dodge “K-car” – my parents’ car. I opened and held the door for her, she slid in on the red bench seat, and I closed the door behind her. At least my parents had taught me how to be a gentleman.
Driving out to Clairton from the college, she did most of the talking. I learned more about her role in Military Intelligence. She was stationed in Augsburg, Germany, and her role was listening in on Soviet radio transmissions. I would have found out that she smoked cigarettes; she was wearing jeans, not solid, but with a floral pattern. I noticed her shoes, which were brown leather slip-on shoes that covered up her ankles like high-tops. They had flat soles and elastic sewn into the sides rather than ties, and she said they were very comfortable.
I had large front teeth, and I was extremely self-conscious because when I was much younger, I had been hit in the mouth with a baseball; it cracked my teeth and turned them brown. I was tall, very thin, with glasses too big for my face, though that was the style. I was more than thin, I was skinny. Later she used the term: “emaciated”. But on her part, there was no hesitation to know me.
Clairton had a reputation for being a bad neighborhood, and though I only lived a couple of miles away, I rarely had ever been there. She lived above a thrift shop on the main drag, St. Clair Avenue, the “New and Nearly New” shop. The building is still there; it’s used as a pre-school now. The entrance to her apartment was in the back alley. So to drive there, we had to go to the next block, make a left, make another left, and head back up the alley. The staircase was wooden and painted battleship gray; it led to a battleship gray wooden porch and from there, there was a door into the kitchen.
Entering, the kitchen itself was large with a yellowing linoleum floor. I recall, there were dirty dishes piled up high in the kitchen sink, and the refrigerator was one of the old-style latch refrigerators. Later when I saw it with the door opened, I could see that the built-in freezer had become filled in with frost and ice, to the point that it was not usable. She never was all that concerned with “kitchen things”.
To the right from the entrance was a large opening, first of all to a dining room set-up, almost in the fashion of an efficiency apartment, where the dining room table was an old metal folding table with a cloth. And even though it was almost a month after Valentine’s day, the table seemed to have several cards at least two heart-shaped boxes of chocolates and maybe even some drying-up flowers.
Her “dining room” and living room were all one big room. There was a huge silver Sony TV in the corner, and beyond a half-wall divider there was a larger “bedroom”, barely divided off from the rest of the apartment. Against the side wall of this bedroom, there was a single-person bed with its head against the wall, beneath two bare red light bulbs above a mantle. The red lights remained constantly on, in a couple of sockets located symmetrically in the wall above the bed. The entire room had a reddish cast to it.
She seemed to have no cognizance of flowers and candies on the table, and she focused her whole attention on me. As well, I was taken by her presence. I must have asked her out immediately. In any event, I found a way to get in touch with her.
“Would you like to go out, maybe see a movie?” I said.
Given her recent experience in the Army, I knew that “Platoon”, which had been released in December, had been nominated for a number and was still playing in theaters. So we settled on that.
“Can I get your phone number?”
She didn’t have a phone in the apartment but she told me I could call her at work, at an A-Plus Mini Mart which was up the block across the street, where she was working night shifts. She carried a 6”x9” spiral notebook, and she wrote down “Johnny” and my parents’ phone number.
As it turned out, after a day of school, she was headed for an afternoon nap in preparation for a night of work. So with her phone number in hand, I left to get ready for a Monday evening shift at Color Tile.