Demolition on Market Street: A Retrospective on Living Eight Years in Brownsville, Pennsylvania

The image of the buildings in the banner are on a postcard I made in 2013, and there they are now reduced to rubble after one of them began to collapse and tumbled its bricks into the road.

The block was closed off, and those buildings came down, finally. At the time I took the photo for the postcard, I was just beginning to explore Pennsylvania. I would leave the postcard at hotels, rest stops, a couple of concerts. I was inviting people to imagine the ruins as a tourist attraction . I divided my time between marathon training and trip to libraries. I was new to Pennsylvania, and I was interested in the history of Brownsville.

Historical Brownsville

People used to say, before the steel industry utterly transformed it, that Pittsburgh aspired to be Brownsville. Brownsville started as a Frontier outpost, and kicked into high gear with boat construction during the 19th century, and Brownsville remained a satellite coal town until the 20th century. It went through a brief retail revival, then sort of fell apart in 1970s. People moved away.

General Burd, a contemporary of George Washington, established a military outpost at the location of Nemacolin Castle atop an earthen mound in Brownsville that had been used as a trading post for millennia, long before Europeans arrived. It made sense to trade with Native Americans and learn from them, especially during harsh winters.

Brownsville was established in 1785. This was the Western Frontier at the turn of the 19th century. The tumult of commerce that clogged the small borough required that Brownsville to be raised, stabilized, and festooned with shops and lodgings to attract travelers and explorers before they crossed the Mon and headed West. Brownsville was an industrial juggernaut. To get supply to the frontier, the need for transportation infrastructure became crucial to the development of settlements in the Ohio Valley and beyond, and it made Brownsville an important part of US history.

Nemacolin, a Delaware chief who, along with Thomas Cresap, helped establish navigable routes West and North of Jumonville and the Little Meadow surrounding Fort Necessity. I found a stunning alpine blue crawfish carcass there one humid morning in 2019. The conservation efforts there are amazing. The last time I took the kids there, we startled quail along a path leading to nearby Washington Tavern. A visitor at the national park was transported back over 300 years to the scene that greeted George Washington and his soldiers. Events that transpired at Fort Necessity and Jumonville marked the beginning of an era of conflict between indigenous tribes and European settlers known as the Seven Years’ War. Today, as mentioned, the serenity and careful stewardship of the sites offered reflection and a sense of tranquility.

European settlers had brought trade that supported blacksmiths, builders, tanners, coopers, weavers, trappers, guides, and boat builders. People trying to cross the Easter Continental Divide had a rough go of it. The forests were thick with undergrowth. They did not have an easy way to get to the Monongahela River and the Confluence at modern day Pittsburgh over the hilly wilderness of the Allegheny Plateau west of the Laurel Highlands, It was cut and widened from trails by General Edward Braddock, George Washington, and others, but took many names on its way to eventually becoming part of The National Road, the first highway in the United States. The original trail from Washington, DC to the confluence at present-day Pittsburgh, to the site of Fort Duquesne and Bouquet’s Redoubt. I ran a parallel route one night alone after training all year from Brownsville to Point State park in November.

The Monongahela River is a wide, slow river that could be used to transport goods and people all the way to the Gulf of Mexico through the Mississippi River and its tributaries, and back, as demonstrated by steamboats built in Brownsville capable of travelling such a distance. The trail was widened, worked over and improved, eventually becoming The National Road, the first highway. The route Washington, Braddock and their French antagonists would use to get to Pittsburgh took them to Redstone Creek, presumably named for the bituminous coal veins that could be found throughout the region, coal that could burn in the ground for hundreds of years. The earthen mound in Brownsville was called Redstone Old Fort. People called old pyramids Old Forts. I have yet to verify that a small mound or pyramid at the end of Alice Road in Brownsville was leveled to make a baseball field, but it was possible. Native American nations along the Gulf of Mexico built giant earthen mound of dirt, shells, oyster shells and whatnot. English and French soldiers took turn burning down the same fort at the mouth of Redstone Creek just north of Brownsville. It was a silly time. General Burd decided to relocate garrisons to higher ground, on Front Street.

I became interested in the town history because I recognized its story in the animated film Cars. In the movie, an eponymous ghost town called Radiator Springs inspires a race car to help locals who help him reach for faded glory. Brownsville was a cultural traffic jam.


I was not surprised that the buildings featured in the banner image at the top of this article fell. The Snowden building, the Brownsville Trust, a building next to it, and the old pharmacy were all torn down with excavators and carted away this year. These buildings were basically only 100 years old. The house next door to me is crooked, warped, made of red brick, and twice the age of the buildings in Figure 1, demolished in the video, but it still stands since it was built in 1820.

Figure 1. https://www.heraldstandard.com/new_today/taking-stock-in-brownsville-a-generation-after-liggetts-bought-much-of-town/article_eddf82fe-4403-11ea-a877-2b0de2e47299.html

Why did these buildings on Market Street come down? Basically, three reasons, I gues: They were neglected for a quarter century in a broke town, coalies rumbled past the structures every day, and the buildings sit atop a creek bottomland delta.

In a series of correspondence with a retired native of Brownsville, a mechanical engineer, I learned a more about the history of the business district. I was always trying to learn more. I was interested in compiling his trove of videos, images and collected stories for the historical society in Brownsville, but, as I explained to him, I was, as I am today looking for a paying job. That material is all sitting in an email file awaiting my employment. I have kids to raise, a future to hold.

Link to WQED video about old decaying Brownsville.

My Orientation

My Brownsville guide had studied the old deeds, drawings and documents pertaining to the history of Brownsville, and he had a lot of information and anecdotes about the development of the business district on Market Street. He sent me letters that described what it was like for him as a boy growing up there.

I used to sit in libraries and go through old records kept by churches and historians. I had become a Liaison for the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh in 2019 to better acquaint myself with the rich and storied history of Brownsville, a transportation infrastructure hub and gateway to the West and the Gulf of Mexico. Brownsville was my beat, but the only thing the folks at the Brownsville Area Revitalization Corporation had me do was make an admittedly clumsy video to scare kids out of an abandoned hospital. Through the grapevine of people affiliated with regional historical societies, my Herodotus had made contact through a series of emails. I am sick of not putting down to paper what I learned so far. So, here is more labor without compensation. Enjoy.

Brownsville, Pennsylvania, my impression through a series of segues

Brownsville continues to be a site of boat building today, though, to be specific, they do much more with steel than just fabricate barges. In fact, I applied to a job at this location this week. It is in serious decline. Recently, it was used as a location for the Netflix series I am Not Okay With This. The Lane Bane Bridge sings with cars that rocket above the old town square along State Route 40, and you can still visit Fiddle’s Diner and get a hot dog omelet, coffee and pie. If I had a job, I would go there more often. When I did, it was my younger son’s favorite place in town.


https://www.wqed.org/tv/watch/onq/one-year-brownsville

The oldest cast iron bridge in America passes over Dunlap’s Creek where it meets the Monongahela River, seen in Figure 2. that was used to connect Brownsville, Bridgeport to the South, and West Brownsville on the far shore of the Mon. Click this link to see how Dunlap’s Creek appears to bend back on itself to reach the Monongahela in a flat bottomland suitable for temporary lodgings and agriculture. Click this link to see an isometric cross section of its unique tubular rings and other design features.

Figure 2. Dunlap Creek Bridge sign, courtesy of Wikiwand

Segue: Philander Knox and Tort Law Reform

The old home of Philander Knox still stands a block from Nemacolin Castle. There is a plaque outside that describes his appointments to government offices. I have never heard it called Bowman’s Castle. A dozen or so old houses, one dating back to 1811, remain on Front Street, soon home to the new Brownsville Historical Society center collection which has outgrown the space in the Flatiron next to Union Station, and the location offers a better opportunity to offer the public tours of the Castle grounds on the bluff overlooking the town and the winding river below. Later, a series of locks and channels were developed to move water through the valley with less destructive power. Locks and channels are better than earthen dams, Figure 3.

The creek, I argue, was channeled away from the basin of ‘The Neck’. It followed the cliffside along Brown Street and what is now known as Mill Creek. This construction project precluded the damage to the buildings in Figure 1. The narrow passage that carried people across Dunlap’s Creek bridge has received travelers for below the cut bank where Front Street, past both Nemacolin Castle, and the home of Philander C. Knox, former secretary of state, presidential candidate, and member of the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club . The club roster also included Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick. The club was unsuccessfully held responsible for the death of 2,200 people when the South Fork Dam, owned by members of the club The earthen structure burst and flowed with the volumetric power of the Mississippi river after heavy rains down through Johnstown. The catastrophe was notable not only because of the damage and loss of life, but because no one was really held responsible for it. It struck a nerve.

The Mud Caucus in Brazil is a modern-day example of the exact same problem. I bring this up later because, as a drone service integrator, I want to use a system that utilizes AI to assist in feature recognition of erosive progress below and around roadways affected by seasonal snowmelt, pollution or upwellings of waste from frack well injections that could affect the water table and water supply.

segue: Commercial drone services face PR challenges in Brownsville, PA

People often ask me if I am flying drones over their house. No, I am not. I ask them if they have ever met an FAA certified remote operator before, and the answer is also no, they have not, and then they go back to ignoring me again.

I used a drone to film a BLM protest over the summer at the request of a local photographer in attendance, and people left. Snowden Square and Pavilion when I started flying it overhead. I was there to protest the terminology used with elements of the unmanned aerial system and robotics technology I research and use. I objected to the terms “master” and “slave” applied to control and field devices. Robotics are rated on their degrees of autonomy, their ability to learn and adapt independent of direct control. I never want to have to use those terms when discussing robotics. Frankly, the implication is terrifying.

This is a developing field of machine learning-based artificial intelligence. I test new gear. I build stuff. I took engineering classes to learn how to build stuff, but stuff costs money. I comply with laws. I am passionate and committed to my research, too. I want to see people in aviation, AI development, and drone engineering succeed. It requires strong leadership and good partners. It also requires a receptive audience, and that is where I fail Brownsville. I just do not know how to win people over here.

I wanted to start a drone service company here that could move into manufacturing. I still pursue that dream. My main value right now appears to be roof inspection. Recently, drone flight has become a local issue, like traffic jams.

I contact airport managers, go through historical societies, do work for revitalization projects, depreciate my gear, and use my own money to do this. In the end, people have taken my ideas and give them to locals. I have never received a guest or a phone call from anyone in town in eight years to let me know anyone else is interested in my research. I have made $295 in three years. I have spent about $5000 for equipment, software, and marketing.

The concept of innovation is pushed aside by people focused on survival. I feel it is my civic duty to always pursue the goal of creative drone service integration. I use drones because they are a mesh of incredible technology and design elements that provide a jumping off point for a variety of specialty fields. Drones are a perfect learning tool. If you want to learn about flight and cannot afford an airplane, start with a drone or a delta wing single-prop radio-controlled flyer in a big, grassy field. I wanted to get apprentices, start an academy, hire local talent, and promote engineers, programmers, pilots, and support staff.

In the 1980s, small airline operators and manufacturers were dealing with a lot of aged planes and infrastructure that manufacturers built post-WWII. In the 1940s and 1950s, it was believed that pilots would return home, and everyone would embrace personal aircraft. Everyone would be flying. Cars became streamlined and resembled airplanes. However, the idea did not really take off. I joined a local DIY airplane club, a chapter of Experimental Aircraft Association, but I discontinued membership because I need the money for food.

segue: Drones have bad public image, The General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994: An Overview of Tort Reform, courtesy of Embry Riddle Aeronautical University

In the 1990s, the deregulation of the airline industry helped oligarchs in the industry drive small operators and manufacturers into the ground. Money was made. Prices increased. After 9/11, prices went up, and services went down to handle security issues. In 2010, H1N1 dinged the industry when passengers inadvertently spread the disease via air travel into the US. Today, it is like we are living in a parallel universe. Why would you want to ride in a crowded airplane during a pandemic? People who believe in eliminating ‘long-tail’ liability. When Boeing went through the faulty elevator scandal on its 737s, it basically broke the company.

I bring all of this up because I fly drones in Brownsville, and I must do my best to convince people of two things: I respect peoples’ privacy, and two, I understand my federal, state, and municipal laws designed to hold operators like me liable for damages, just as pilot error is a serious issue whenever a plane goes down and kills passengers and damages property. Limiting liability by examining and discrediting exaggerated claims against drone pilots like me pits me against insurance companies. Allowing all aircraft to communicate with location transponders, and building in failsafe behavior in recreational drones is a big deal. Helicopters and drones colliding is a big deal. We trust passenger planes to fly over our homes every day. We trust that cars stay in proper lanes. Believe me, drones can find a place in the environment, too. It just takes an effort to raise awareness.

Drones offer remote sensing and data capture opportunities available in no other fashion. From taking precise, laser-guided measurements of graded roadway crossings of railroads, making models of old structures like the crumbled buildings in this articles, or spectrographic analysis of run-off, I think drones are an asset to transportation infrastructure, and I will pursue grants again this year to try to help preserve our roads and wild places. Technology makes the data useful and convenient. This data can inform design to manage foreseeable risks.

Figure 3. “General view of wrecked city – Johnstown flood 1889” , stereographic image with stage corpse (ye olde crisis actor) taken by George Baker of Niagara Falls, NY, courtesy of crackdog via Creative Commons


Figure 3. “General view of wrecked city – Johnstown flood 1889” , stereographic image with stage corpse (ye olde crisis actor) taken by George Baker of Niagara Falls, NY, courtesy of crackdog via Creative Commons

Submerged private boat club

Figure 4: footage from Coal Center, PA

Site of the submerged Coal Center Boat Club seen shortly before the current took it north towards Pittsburgh in Figure 4.


The run-off from the Spring thaw swells the river sometimes twelve feet or more. That soupy sediment is shaken every day by passing coal trains. Perhaps a combination of neglected underground water systems, shifting sediment, and stress from heavy vibrating train cars offer a better catalyst. Look at maps and old drawings in Figures 5,6, and 7.

Figure 5.

and here

Figure 6.

and an old image showing the earthen bank of old Brownsville

Figure 7. Old covered bridge, courtesy of Stoner, J. J, and Beck & Pauli. Bird’s-eye-view Brownsville, Bridgeport, W. Brownsville, Pa. [Milwaukee, Beck & Pauli Lithographers, 1883] Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/7469315

Segue: Tort Law and ‘foreseeability’

Tort Law, laws of liability. See: Billboards of lawyers on the side of the road. ‘Have you been hurt, wronged, made ugly in the press, or enveloped in a marketing misinformation campaign, then you are going to need an injury lawyer’ Precedents of tort law to deal with third-rate vaccines, devastating floods, automobile vs bicycle collisions, airplane collisions, drone vs anything collisions, autonomous systems collisions involving aggregates of materials and grumpy AI, people sick and dying from fracking waste seeping into water tables, hidden by political cronies appointed under the Trump administration.

Reference Overseas Tankship (UK) Ltd v Morts Dock and Engineering Co Ltd, aka The Wagon Mound (1)

Overseas Tankship (UK) Ltd v Morts Dock and Engineering Co Ltd,[1] commonly known as Wagon Mound (No. 1), is a landmark tort law case, which imposed a remoteness rule for causation in negligence. The Privy Council[2] held that a party can be held liable only for loss that was reasonably foreseeable. Contributory negligence on the part of the dock owners was also relevant in the decision, and was essential to the outcome, although not central to this case’s legal significance.

Wikipedia

For further study, please consider purchasing current analysis that revolves around foreseeability and the concept of remoteness – I am broke. I am not dispensing any legal advice, just opinions. The billboard lawyers you see on the side of the road, the ambulance chasers, they deal with the limited liability that covers statistically possible injuries to persons or property because of actions taken or ignored by corporations.

This came out of an interesting case where oil leaked from a docked boat and thickly coated dock works, the shore and boats moored there. Then the oil-soaked cotton fibers floating on the surface. The oily fibers were ignited by welding torches on a dock, and a subsequent fire damaged the wharf and boats there for repair. In the case, it was determined that the dock owners had no idea the oil on the water would catch fire, because they had not considered the cotton. The cotton on the surface of the water was the hidden variable that created the damage. Think of the cotton as a sub-contractor, the man in the middle who gets squeezed in big liability cases. Blame the traffic for your late arrival. Blame the baby for your lack of sleep. Finding a patsy makes it flow.

Common Law uses a range of cases to argue a case limited by statutes that could not foresee the case in question. New situations without a direct precedent, such as the first case of an arrest by a recreational drone pilot who flew his drone into a helicopter assisting in remote viewing of a structure fire, is exactly the kind of case that gives lawyers a reason to look at a range of similar cases to make a case before the court. Common Law is the model used in English speaking countries such as the USA, the UK and Australia.

Segue: Covid-19 in Brownsville

Another incident like the Johnstown Flood was the Cutter Incident,. During the mid-20th century, the fight against polio was in full swing. A home brew vaccine company inadvertently sickened and killed a few hundred children in the rushed roll-out to capitalize on the pandemic. These litigations help insurance companies raise their rates. The polio vaccine fight pitted bitter bug chefs Salk and Sabin against one another in a politicized arena similar to the Vaxxer movement that spreads deadly measles and misinformation about health. Salk was a salty character, so he got the cold shoulder, and Sabin got the lion’s share of publicity at the time. Sounds familiar in 2006:

While acknowledging Salk’s mean-spiritedness towards colleagues, Offit believes that in denying him a Nobel prize, history has dealt harshly with a man who was `the first to do many things’ that have contributed to the virtual eradication of polio in the USA. The Cutter incident led to the replacement of Salk’s formaldehyde-treated vaccine with Sabin’s attenuated strain. Though Sabin’s vaccine had the advantages of being administered orally and of fostering wider `contact immunity’, it could also be re-activated by passage through the gut, resulting in occasional cases of polio (still causing paralysis in six to eight children every year in the 1980s and 1990s, when a modified Salk vaccine was re-introduced). As Offit observes, `ironically, the Cutter incident—by creating the perception among scientists and the public that Salk’s vaccine was dangerous —led in part to the development of a polio vaccine that was more dangerous‘ […] The contemporary climate of risk aversion and predatory litigation deters the introduction of new vaccines and discourages innovation in a field which boasts some of the most impressive achievements of modern medicine. To protect vaccine development—and ultimately public health —Offit proposes that the option of suing vaccine manufacturers should be stopped, and that compensation should only be available through the official programme.

Paul A Offit Pages 240pp Price $27.50 ISBN 0-300-10864-8 New Haven/London: Yale University Press


Misinformation about Covid-19 in Brownsville

People in my small town of Brownsville scoffed at measures taken to reduce spread of Covid-19. Our president pushed conspiracy theories. People got Covid-19, and then complained about the restrictions. People held a Covid-19 party that attracted 100 people to a remote wood, a ‘Covid party’. This is much worse than the conspicuous pollution of Rolling Coal. An inability to adapt to situations is one thing, but willful ignorance is another. This is mammalian territorial issue, like peeing on a building or something. It is destructive to communities. The study quoted below is vetted by the US Government. I ended up getting Covid-19 when my wife was forced by her company to visit a woman who contracted the disease. My wife considered Covid-19 a hyped-up inconvenience until she got it, too. The client died shortly thereafter, and we all got Covid-19. Play dumb games, win dumb prizes.

This study examines the level of politicization and polarization in COVID-19 news in U.S. newspapers and televised network news from March to May 2020. Using multiple computer-assisted content analytic approaches, we find that newspaper coverage is highly politicized, network news coverage somewhat less so, and both newspaper and network news coverage are highly polarized. We find that politicians appear in newspaper coverage more frequently than scientists, whereas politicians and scientists are more equally featured in network news. We suggest that the high degree of politicization and polarization in initial COVID-19 coverage may have contributed to polarization in U.S. COVID-19 attitudes

Sci Commun. 2020 Aug 25 : 1075547020950735.
Published online 2020 Aug 25. doi: 10.1177/1075547020950735
PMCID: PMC7447862
Politicization and Polarization in COVID-19 News Coverage

Reason returns

I began this article the eve of the inauguration of the 46th president and vice president of the US, Joe Biden, and Kamala Harris.

I never knew who to trust, until I started tuning into the daily State Department of Health briefs on Facebook offered by Dr. Levine, who has been appointed the assistant health secretary for his Cabinet. Her leadership was greatly appreciated. I enjoyed the fact that she reiterated daily measures that people could take to protect themselves and their loved ones. She gave the community a needed reality check.

Pennsylvania has only four county health departments. The counties that do not have local infrastructure burden hospitals and supply chains. People died unnecessarily as a result. Even today, 01/19/21, the rural Fayette county has a higher infection rate than the county Washington county. Westmoreland county has ridiculous numbers, too, because of the region has not seen a problem like this since Influenza ravaged the world a hundred years before. Contact tracing and infection control management studies created in Pennsylvania are tools to help people on the go stay informed about emerging hazards to stay safe, get to work, and have fun. I have been unemployed for nearly a year because of lockdown. A few months before the pandemic began, I visited Fayette County Historical Society site that had painstakingly recreated a 1918-1919 Influenza sick room. These pandemics come and go in cycles. There is nothing mysterious about regularity.

Wear PPE, practice social distance, and take care of personal hygiene. I saw people act as if the disease was a hoax. No one cared what I thought about it, either. When the disease hit, local clinics told me there were vaccines available, in March 2020. That was just not true. I was enveloped by misinformation on social media platforms.


Quaker drama

In Hinshaw’s Encyclopedia, I discovered a record of marriages, divorces, and notes of criminal or reprobate behavior. People would fool around, fight, steal or cause a ruckus that resulted in divorce, scandal, and removal from churches. Quakers left to become Methodists and Presbyterians, to live a bit looser, or to recover from failed marriages or hardships that drove people to bad behavior.

Quakers were known for egalitarian ethos that would short-circuit their involvement in politics. They were chill, too chill for the racists who ran industry. Quaker Friends’ Meeting Houses are, to me, some of the most sacred structures ever built. It is basically a room to sit in, get warm, share thoughts, and see familiar faces, in theory and practice.

There were other factors for the decline, including an ongoing exodus of Quakers to regions to the west. Ironically, according to author Albert Cook Myers in his book Immigration of the Irish Quakers into Pennsylvania, 1682-1750, “Friends (Quakers) had taken such a firm stand against slavery that they were no longer able to come into economic competition with their neighbors who utilized slave labor.”

As a former youth hostel manager and foreign exchange student, I was easily enchanted by the vision that Quakers pursued, and I relished the chance to dig into the history. I wanted to know about the turbulent changes that occurred in the 18th century when Native American and Europeans tried to make things work. I am still waiting for the reanimation of flatboat and riverboat businesses on the river. More information here.

As you look at the river from the vantage point of the viewer in Figure 6. , you would notice that Dunlap’s Creek would have passed into the river underneath the spot of those damaged buildings (south of these damaged buildings). You can see the terrain, and an old rail line cut through the hills in Figure 5 and Figure 6. However, in Figure 7. above, you can see that the rude slopes of the riverbank could not have included a continuous north-south line unless the land was built up behind a strong retaining wall.

Figure 7. Stoner, J. J, and Beck & Pauli. Bird’s-eye-view Brownsville, Bridgeport, W. Brownsville, Pa. [Milwaukee, Beck & Pauli Lithographers, 1883] Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/7469315

I wanted to recreate this hilltop image taken from a hilltop in Figure 5 for the historical society, but no one cared for me to do it. Someone should, someone from here, because history is a living document. My kids are living documents, too, and they need to eat.


Figure 6. The old rail line cut under town to Simpson Mine at marker bottom at right to center, courtesy of Google Maps

Figure 7. Marker in upper left for proposed aerial photo location, courtesy of Google Maps

Decline

No one needed to use The Neck anymore. In the late 20th century, when Brownsville decline became sort of scary, about 100 abandoned structures were purchased and left to rot. Some said the final straw was the modern bridge that both split and bypassed the town. Brownsville faded when the National Highway was slapped through the borough of Upper Market Street. Others said Brownsville buckled when retail dried up in the 1980s after two hundred years. The highway bypassed the people of Brownsville. The purchase of all of these buildings was made by Ernest Liggett, and perhaps it was just an idea that never panned out.

Archaeological Curiosities

Figure 8. Digging Brownsville, courtesy of ISSA, CAL U

Figure 8. Digging Brownsville, courtesy of ISSA, CAL U

Archaeology remains a potent way to bridge the gap between generations, as seen in Figure 8. Cal U continues to grow and share important anthropological studies of places like Brownsville.

Figure 9. Union Station and the Flatiron in “The Neck” of Market Street. All buildings left of center are destroyed.

Figure 9. Union Station and the Flatiron in “The Neck” of Market Street. All buildings left of center are destroyed.

Exile on Front Street

This is where I give you an idea of what it is like to live here as an outsider for eight years without any luck making friends.

People escape Brownsville. People never move here. Locals would offer condolences to me in 2012. Wow. That was a flag. Opioids took their toll on this place. There is a sort of bitter despair here that oozes from the blight. People eventually decided my wife and I were crazy for moving here. Case closed.

My street in Brownsville has half a dozen houses built before the 1850s – that is unreal to me, that sense of permanence. We never planned to stay here – I got laid off. My house outside Atlanta was ransacked by a deceased tenant’s family and drunks who hung around a liquor store within walking distance, so we had no home to return to anyways. We were paying a quarter of our tenant’s rent to the property manager because the tenant was on social security, and we thought she was super nice. It was a shame when she died. We moved here because the property owner accepted cats, and we saw kids playing outside on the sidewalk.

Our old home in Covington, Georgia was cozy in a cul de sac. Kids played in the road. I had renovated the tiny home over three years while I worked at a local nursing home. I put in new appliances and flooring. I found photographs of the flower beds abandoned by the original owner, and located those plants scattered across the lawn and rebuilt the flower beds and hedges just so. I dug up bricks used to line the beds, and I canted them just like they appeared in the pictures. Hummingbirds returned to our bougainvillea. I was going to plumb out a patio, then turn it into an apartment for my ailing mother-in-law, but my wife’s father invited us to stay at his childhood home in Morgantown, WV after his mother moved in with him due to illness. She had Alzheimer’s Disease and required 24 hr. care. My father’s Alabama redneck side of the family were disgusted over our choice to move to Pennsylvania.

I was reluctant at first – it seemed too good to be true to be offered a house by my father-in-law – but I took a chance, put in for a transfer with my employer, and moved here. Luckily, the transfer went through, and I was working again after a couple of weeks. What about my house, I asked my father-in-law? I had a mortgage on it. He had said he would help with that, but when I needed help, he did not. He never did. His land was being fracked, and we would ‘be rich’, he assured us. That was a load of malarkey, too. Someone drank his milkshake. There was no money.

Family Ruin

When he was a young man, brash, bold, and in love with a connected socialite in a small town outside of Clarksburg, WV, my father-in-law found out about an affair his girl was having, and he decided to catch them in the act. That was an awkward and painful choice. He confronted the lovers at a hotel in town, and he shot the cad with a pistol, wounding him. His girlfriend was freaked out, and her father covered up the incident – he paid for the injured suitor’s recovery – so his daughter’s honor would not be tarnished.

Fifty years later, my father-in-law lured us to West Virginia from Georgia, both my family and his sick ex-wife, lured us to his childhood home, and then abruptly evicted us over a stupid argument. This happened over a clogged drain line in a twenty-year-old pale green rusty refrigerator. He told me over the phone to fuck off, and then evicted us. It was the first time I had seen an eviction note in twenty years. It was a pattern. He felt he had brought people into his confidence, they had differences, and he summarily punished them for not blowing smoke up his arse. He sold his family land and house he had ‘given’ to us, and then built an apartment over a garage in a hollow in the middle of nowhere in West Virginia close to his birthplace. He has never owned a computer. He has a land line. It is like that.

Faced with eviction, we tried for two months to find a place to rent to us, but my mother-in-law’s three cats were a no-go for landlords we me. So, after a year in Morgantown, my wife’s mother went to go live with another of her daughters in Florida. Juggalo daughters, and there she died after a few years battle with cancer and the rest. She died two months before my graduation in 2018. When my mother-in-law lived with us, she had seizures, psychotic episodes, and could not feed herself. She would forget to eat. She became addicted to high-powered caffeine pills and would stay awake for days. The behavior, and her diet – almost nothing but candy and fast food – made her seizures worse.

My research project was tangled up in grief. We would go visit at the end of each semester, and the last trips were mournful. Cancer and seizures had wrecked her. She was missing part of her face and windpipe. We were going to put her in the carriage house on the rental property behind us. We would be neighbors, and she could be as independent as possible. The landlord usually rented the small house to fracking camp towners. My wife’s family resented us for not being there for her. We just felt that it would be too much. I was only sleeping three or four hours a night. I stayed up at night so I could hang out with my kids during the day. I drank two to three pots of coffee a day. I had a breakdown in 2017, started therapy, and that helped me get through those personal issues. We found out we had in-laws down the street, on my mother-in-law’s side, descendants of Polish and Italian immigrants to the area. My mother-in-law grew up in a house her grandfather, a mason, had built with his own hands in the 1890s in Morgantown. Medical bills piled up, and the family sold the house to cover a sibling’s cancer treatment.

My father-in-law was abusive to my mother-in-law, and her sisters, too. He had three divorces altogether. My wife has never really talked about him, and she never wanted him around much. I wish she had told me about her dad shooting someone out of jealousy BEFORE we got married. I wonder what other skeletons are in her closet.

My Baggage

I was paranoid of strangers since childhood. My family was pursued from Dallas to Atlanta by a violent felon in the 1970s by my mom’s boyfriend. I was but five years old. In the few months, my mom dated the creep, our lives were negatively affected. She dumped him, but he started stalking us. My dad nearly killed him with a bat during an encounter. My dad and my stepmom would go out partying at night and tell me to ‘go hide in the closet and be quiet’ if someone knocked on the door while they were gone. I played in dumpsters and culverts. I caught snakes. I got beat up and refused to talk to anyone in school in first grade.

My mom came to Atlanta to stay close to us, and the creep followed her. He was bad-tempered and mean. He would line up my toys and run them over with his car. He followed me home from a playground at my mom’s apartments, and he used me to get into my mom’s second story apartment in east Atlanta. I used the phone to call the gym and my dad showed up in his lifting belt with a baseball bat. He was a very convincing adversary. I remember watching a pirated HBO movie adapted from Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot at this time. I dug it. I started reading. By sixth grade, I had read everything he had written. I would work in local haunted houses to raise money for charity. I was a spooky kid.

My dad was a heavy drinker, a devout Christian and a bodybuilder. When my brother turned 11, he moved away to live with my mom because he hated our stepmother. I stayed, though. I felt sorry for my dad. It was a mistake. The decision really hurt my mom. I still carry that. It followed that my dad kicked me out on my 18th birthday for arguing with him about my participation in a walk-out at a Piggly Wiggly grocery store over mistreatment. He then refused, as he had previously offered, to help me with college at University of Cincinnati to take CADD classes, and I went to UGA with no idea what to do – I was a trained drafter, but UGA did not have any coursework in that, at least not in CADD, an emerging technology that I was anxious to use and develop. I learned programming on DOS BIOS in 1987. My first PC was a Personal System/2 from IBM, seen in an ad in Figure 10. It was the future! I got kicked out of UGA after I received a ‘certificate in fiction’, unverified, in 1991, and started living like a vagabond.

Figure 10.

Coming of Age and Growing Old

I read Kerouac in high school, and I wanted that hobo boho bobo glow. I took about fifty jobs in my 20s and 30s to see people working in different situations. It was a suicide mission of sorts. I never thought anything gotten without struggle was worth it. I lived in a tent in Alaska and worked in canneries. I went to Greece and split my time between managing a youth hostel and working in the fields with Albanians and Yugoslavians. The experiences changed me. Seeing people escaping genocide does that. I overbooked my youth hostel with tourists in the summer, and migrants through the off-season. We had a lot of police raids. I became a negotiator. I wanted to protect my migrant friends. I knew they needed to work to support their families. I met a lot of Serbians with scary stories that I do not want to share. By the time I came home, my heart was broken, and I was an alcoholic at 21 years old, just like my dad. It took me twenty years to finally climb back out of the bottle in 2009.

Portrait of a Nerd on a Walkabout

At the time, I thought I was dipping a toe in socioeconomic struggles, detached, observant. I was like an explorer, but one of bad jobs. I was building my back cover bio for my first book. However, when I came back home to Atlanta, I could not relate to anyone. I kept a journal and moved like a ghost through jobs and busted relationships. After a while, I forgot who I was.

Recovery

ADHD has given me ‘laser focus’ for automation projects, according to my doctor. I was diagnosed in 2020, 35 years after my brother was diagnosed with ADHD. I still run to stay sane, to keep my mood elevated, and I hope to train for marathons again after I recover from Covid-19. Residing in poverty in Pennsylvania has ruined my career of late. People look at my recent employment history, and they assume I just deliver pizzas and fly drones. Sounds stupid, I admit. My resume would look like this:

Studs Terkel Got Nothing on Me: Dragged by my past, cut off from opportunity

  • Seven jobs in groceries, restaurants, home healthcare pharmaeutical/medical equipment delivery and service, and a laundromat to 1989
  • Fifty jobs in restaurants, hotel and youth hostel, construction, swimming pool design, photography, music journalism, copy writing, canneries, acting and painting to 1999
  • Twenty-one jobs in bookstores, exchange student recruiting/counseling services , copy writing, healthcare service account management and operations, acting, and sales to 2009
  • Twelve jobs in delivery, restaurants, drone services, receptionist, library circulation aide, copy writing, construction estimation, healthcare service account management and operations, and acting to 2019
  • Currently just a drone pilot and film extra to 2021

That is NINETY TWO JOBS! The algorithms that HR departments use are inadequate forms of vetting initial contact with a literal jack-of-all-trades like me. I went from unemployable explorer to whatever I am now. It is hard to describe who I am.

I had two previous careers

I cooked for twenty-five years at a little more than minimum wage.

I worked in hospitality for two intense years that exposed me to mercenaries and a credible bomb threat, riots, debilitating exposure to illegal insecticides that gave me a pinch of PTSD-C.

Two years is NOT a career. I averaged so many hours working in nursing homes that I averaged less per hour than any employee in the building, less than minimum wage, in fact. I was on call 24/7/365 for five years. I never took a vacation. I had a zero-tag record. I was immensely proud of staff I managed, and I earned bonuses. I learned to work with unions.

People to think I want to continue that trend of itinerant. Far from it. I am trying to get people to see my potential. Shakespeare’s dad was a tanner, a muleskinner. Imagine if people judged him from his first apprenticeship. Can you picture Shakespeare easier in a leather apron, or backstage at The Globe theatre? I am my passion.

Why do entry-level jobs require years of previous experience?

The other problem I currently face is the lack of entry-level work. Businesses outsource training. No one wants to support careers. Entry-level jobs require x years of experience. How do you Escher? The good old boy system is not helpful. Brownsville was cosmopolitan when the town mattered. Abandoning diversity ruins small towns. We are living proof. The crowning issue is age. People discriminate against old people. Even though I graduated on the dean’s list in 2018 with a NASA Space grant under my belt, I cannot get a job installing fans in busted laptops because of my grandpa vibe.

I applied to Dairy Queen and Microsoft, for example, and everything in between. Employers should take more responsibility for training instead of using interns like slave labor that drive the business forward. It is much harder to rise from poverty than one might think. I proved that capitalism leads to overfitting gentrified technologies, and this leads to people rejecting scientific progress.

I am inclined to think the system of social credit and infrastructure found in other countries is a lost art here in the US. Half of everyone under thirty lives at home. Half of Americans are one trip from the hospital away from bankruptcy, and the banks do not offer valuable interest on personal saving accounts. People have ceased to matter. If companies invested in people, they could retain talent and adapt to changes.

My work started with a high school science fair project in 1989

On winter holiday break, I conducted an experiment to prove that an hour of aerobics would drop a math score. I thought my ‘brain would be tired’. The opposite occurred, and I proved myself wrong. It was an amazing experience. Exercise makes my brain work better. I would bike dirt roads for different durations, then sit down immediately and take a math test at random I got from a teacher supply store. After drinking heavily for twenty years, I quit cold turkey, then trained for marathons for eight years, then went back to college to get a degree in engineering.


I just do the same thing over again. I do the math.

Cinematography

I dream up cool cinematography to film, and if I had made one friend here, I could have made some magic. I need an assistant or a mentor, same difference, maybe a friend. The stuff I want to do requires an extra set of eyes for production and safety. File under Songs for Della. No one likes robots or drones, as I mentioned. I am looking for a new chapter. Believe me, I tried to kill the drone research like three times. I got kicked out of an ANSI think tank for ‘acting irrationally’ on Pi Day, to honor the death of Stephen Hawking. I was really preoccupied with troubles my youngest son was having at the time. He was three years old, not potty-trained, and non-verbal. I went into therapy when I did not have time to train for endurance races. I coped.

Bad Scenes

While the morons bum rushed the Capitol on January 6, 2021, I was at the doctor’s office trying to get back into therapy because I was struggling with both familiar anxiety about unemployment, and the losing battle my son was waging with special needs education through Zoom meetings. I did not have noise cancellation headphones. I blew my money on a Chromebook for his classes, and food again, bills. However, I know that my struggle is completely commonplace. Parents are struggling to deal with straight-A students flunking out. The fallout from Covid-19 will be felt for generations. Imagine that. Knowing I am not alone in this struggle is the biggest caveat. This event creates a new form of reprobate, one who lost access to capitol expenses to cover the cost of essential technology and the training to use it. Unemployment does not track people who are no longer receiving benefits. People like me do not even exist.


Systemic Racism is a terrible legacy to leave for our children

Half of all Black-owned small businesses across the country closed during the Pandemic of 2020. You can thank the White Supremacist in Chief for that. I think it should be mentioned more often. Systemic racism ignores and is unable to find an inflection point if the President is someone who, say, compels a mob to attack the US Capitol in a failed coup attempt on the anniversary of the founding of the KKK after he failed to coerce state employees to overthrow official voting results . Watch the Republican Party, who went lockstep with Trump for four years, try to sell amnesia. If rural areas were more diverse, the population would be healthier and wiser.

https://www.theday.com/article/20101031/nws12/310319808

https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-republicans-debt-amnesia-1511306302

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trump-bets-on-mass-amnesia/2016/05/20/76ba97f4-1e82-11e6-9c81-4be1c14fb8c8_story.html

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2021/01/republicans-are-already-rewriting-trump-years/617715/

“There is a universe of Republicans looking to divorce Trump,” John Anzalone, Biden’s chief pollster during the campaign, told me. “They don’t necessarily know how to do it … [but] January 6 was kind of the reckoning.”

courtesy of The Atlantic

https://www.forbes.com/sites/howardgleckman/2021/01/20/the-delicate-deficit-dance-that-will-define-bidens-presidency/?sh=354e7b5461f1


They just do the same thing over and over again. Money makes amnesia. I would forget where I came from unless I had written stuff like this to keep me grounded, to hold myself accountable to principles that hold value to me.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/pedrodacosta/2020/08/10/the-covid-19-crisis-has-wiped-out-nearly-half-of-black-small-businesses/?sh=1f7a79704310

https://wdet.org/posts/2020/08/17/89941-new-study-half-of-black-owned-small-businesses-have-closed-during-the-pandemic/https://wdet.org/posts/2020/08/17/89941-new-study-half-of-black-owned-small-businesses-have-closed-during-the-pandemic/

https://www.clevelandfed.org/newsroom-and-events/publications/community-development-briefs/db-20201008-misera-report.aspx

https://www.spotlightpa.org/news/2020/07/small-business-loans-grants-pennsylvania-minority-owned-assistance/

https://www.pennlive.com/news/2020/07/black-owned-businesses-hard-hit-by-racial-injustices-bare-the-brunt-of-coronavirus-pandemic.html


This is why Bank Greenwood works. I found out about it because I am a big fan of Michael Render, half of the legendary rap supergroup Run the Jewels. This is community banking in the 21st century. Check out new developments on Twitter.

An offer for free business dronie shots

If you are a minority small business owner, and you want a drone shot of your regional Pittsburgh business or collaborative team for your website, contact me. Just give me a thumb drive and some gas money. I want to do a dozen drone sessions to help out. I fly an American drone. I am FAA certified, and I fly safe.

Today, I was turned down for a job that would cover half of my bills. Imagine that being a good option. Sell that, Statue of Liberty. Now the country is becoming a giant Brownsville, so maybe poverty matters when it starts to clutch at the ankles of our gentrified upper class. Sometimes I feel like I am in a coma. For kicks, I am teaching myself how to interface my computer with a keyboard I found in the rain, painting, building gadgets, and learning French by translating a 180-year-old travelogue. The local school system only allows substitute teachers to work for 90 days a year here. That is ridiculous.

Being a dad made me a better person

I play games with, instruct, and protect my children. I like the world through their eyes, but they need my guidance. I am in therapy because I am cynical about their chances. I pursued studies in robotics to basically automate their security, but there is no such thing as an entry-level roboticist job for a B-student without a gentrified pedigree. It is who you know. It has been that way for a long time.

I was a book ghost

I took to books to escape in first grade, and there I stayed. My son went into video games. Games are a good strategy to reach kids with ADHD. The model provides challenge and rewards. He will be hikikomori, too. I am emerging from the deepest depression of my life better equipped to handle this preposterous situation, this pandemic, this sense of alienation. I was trained in my youth to live for sustenance as an exchange student in Malaysia, and be mindful of the source of all I own, and so I desire extraordinarily little for myself. A job would be amazing. I can pay my bills and maybe even get out of debt.

I am driven to write. I do not have a choice.

So, despite my efforts to stop writing about this place history, I find myself drawn to the idea that this place was a community, solid as rock. However, now, with Brownsville basically a ghost town, I sort of bemoan the lack of diversity and the sense that Brownsville has sort of lost its ability to adapt to contemporary society. I am drawn to that myth, the idea of escape and redemption found in the American Dream. I wonder where America is,

New View of the Library

Now that these buildings have come down, one can see the library more easily from the SR 40 bridge. As soon as I get a job, I go back to working on a book. This is a writing exercise. I am currently reading three books about Pennsylvania, a book of sea shanties because I’m a sellout, and thinking of writing a sestina.

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