My somewhat recent forays into downtown reminded me of the first summer I worked there, so many years ago. I've been telling my son about that experience. My stories amuse him—and honestly, they amuse me, too.
I was such a young, small-town girl that summer. Coming from a safe, protected little college where the tallest building was an 8-floor dorm, the 'Burgh was incredibly "city" to me. I temped my way through a few warm, blissful months, living with an older sister, finding my hesitant and clueless path one day at a time.
Riding the trolley was worrisome; would I get on the right one? Could I get on a wrong one? How safe was this thing? What if I ended up heading the opposite direction? Thankfully, the system was pretty fail-safe even for a greenhorn like me. I can recall the first time I saw the underground platforms, how amazed I was. Coming up from those stations, sounds of traffic mingling with piped-in classical music, I had never felt like such a sophisticate.
The first time I temped at the Steel Building, I emerged from the largest subway plaza, confused, turned around... I asked a fellow passing by where I might find my destination, and the kind man stifled a chuckle as he informed me I was standing directly in front of it.
Arriving at the right floor in those days was a whole new challenge. Security was loose pre-September 11, but getting oneself to the proper bank of elevators provided a whole new obstacle. If a person has never been in a building more than 10 stories high, then how is that person to know that there are different sets of elevators to serve different groupings of floors? I distinctly recall having to ask someone about that system, too; thankfully, Pittsburgh is full of humble workers who clearly recall their own bewilderment when first faced with similar situations.
Eating alone was awkward as well; I'd managed to avoid that scenario as much as possible in the college cafeteria. I knew no one downtown, and as a temp I didn't stay in any office long enough to meet anyone; yet, I was so desperate to break away from whatever desk I was occupying that I made myself head out to little shops or parks or courtyard benches at mid-day to take in some nourishment. I was shamelessly self-conscious then (silly me, still thinking that everyone was watching my show). I became more accustomed to the solitude as the summer passed, began to frequent the bagel and sandwich stores that offered free newspapers, learned to stow a paperback in my purse at all times, because God forbid I sit at that table and look at my food or other diners or out the window!
Somewhere along the way, in the past 20 years, I've become more comfortable with myself; I've been liberated by the knowledge that, all along, no one was noticing. I've also been denied free time for large chunks of my adult life—which has helped me to realize now what a blessing an unscheduled lunch block really is. I've learned my way around our little city, and have even managed to maneuver myself through some larger cities as well.
I'm not the girl I was. Most days, I wouldn't want to be. But that girl? She had bright eyes, and a smile on her lips, and she carried sincerity and frivolity side by side in her heart. I wish, sometimes, I could keep my liberated old self while still maintaining that girl's energy and expectation. Is that possible?