Not long ago, I visited my hometown of Clairton and walked by my abandoned childhood home on Miller Avenue. The windows were broken and the porch roof collapsed. The grass was two feet high and there was a “no trespassing” sign in the front yard. It’s destined to be demolished, and soon the house filled with bittersweet memories of the agony and ecstasy of my youth will be nothing but a vacant lot.
My parents were married a few months before Pearl Harbor was attacked, and they raised eleven children in that house. Since my parents were poor, we didn’t take vacations, so the house was never empty for more than twenty years. My dad worked in the steel mill at the bottom of the hill next to the river. It steadily pumped smoke and pollution into the sky, but it provided my dad with enough money to pay the mortgage and feed eleven kids in that six-room house.
When I was 12, my first job was delivering the Daily News. It was seven cents a copy and 84 cents for two weeks. When I collected, I purposely stalled and fumbled reaching in my pocket for the change and some people would just say, “Oh, keep the change!” At Christmas, lots of people gave me a dollar tip and I felt rich since I had 70 customers.
Their generosity made an impression on me, and to this day, I’m proud of my roots and the humble, hard-working folks of Clairton. Fifty years later, the Daily News is extinct and most of my old customers are gone from this life, but I still recall fondly lugging my paper sack up and down Third Street and Reed Street at Christmas with a fistful of dollars, relishing how I was going to spend it. That paper route paid for a bike from Western Auto, a guitar and records from R & M Music, and a hundred movies at the Capital Theater. Thank you, Daily News.
The summer of 1969 is remembered for the first man on the moon and Woodstock, but for me, that was my “soul music summer.” I was a scrawny, pimply 16-year-old working as a stock boy at Haines Supermarket on State Street in Clairton. The warehouse had no air conditioning, so I roasted in that sweat box as I loaded and unloaded boxes of canned goods and paper products for $1.35 an hour. Between the torrid heat and the garbage bin stench, the job was almost unbearable, but luckily somebody always had a radio on. My Cherie Amour by Stevie Wonder and What Does It Take by Junior Walker were the top songs playing on KQV, and they got me through that sweltering summer.
Music became my solace and respite from the dingy realities of life growing up in Clairton. I suppose I began to write poetry as an escape, too. And like most poets, I write about what I know best—my impressions of the world, my surroundings, and my search for meaning in life. Life is all about a search for meaning, and poetry helps us to define what makes life significant—whether it’s a country road in a rusty steel town or a pleasant summer day in June. Poetry brings us closer not only to understanding the universe, but also to understanding ourselves.
Old Clairton Road
Apricot-colored leaves to touch
sparkling black coal piles.
Undulating soft hills melted into
a tawny autumn sunset,
and a hundred cackling blackbirds
in an old man’s stripped cornfield.
Soft on the eye, even strip-mined
precipices with mossy edge can blend
and not burn the rustic dream of
Old Clairton Road.
The Days of Summer
The days of summer have dwindled away,
Days of naps on clouds and sleeping late,
Warm was the coffee in early June,
Those mornings on the patio, sunshine on the leaves,
so tender a breeze, the rustling of the trees,
So vivid was the sky in the mid-afternoon,
Never a clearer blue, never a purer white,
Father wisdom in and out, behind the clouds or all alone,
Never more magnificent, raging, and pure,
Late afternoon, the sun in the west,
and on the wall near my bed,
A patterned design, the patches of light,
The sun paints me a picture,
A new one every day,
Then late at night, the windows open, the doors secure,
But not as I am, in my bed inured,
The rhythm of the railroad, the hum of the fan,
lulling, enervating, then off to…dreamland.