Monday, April 30, 2012

PGH Book #4: Brothers and Keepers

The fourth book in the 2012 Pittsburgh Canon was suggested by and graciously lent to me by one of my oldest friends, Kate. As soon as I mentioned my resolution to read these books about or relating to Pittsburgh, she immediately said "Brothers and Keepers."

Confession: When I was at Pitt, one of my writing professors "encouraged" us to go to a reading/discussion/lecture featuring John Edgar Wideman. Because I was a dumb, unappreciative college student, I went - begrudgingly. I might have even fallen asleep at one point. I admit to this because after reading Brothers and Keepers, I am so mad at my stupid younger self for not paying attention during that ninety minutes of my life when I could have had the pleasure of listening to this man tell me stories, teach me lessons, and make me appreciate words in a way I haven't in a while.

I could never adequately explain how much I loved this book, so I thought the best way to honor this beautiful memoir from John Edgar Wideman was to hand the reigns to Kate and let her explain why it is one of her favorite books:

Brothers And Keepers is among my favorite books.  Amazon tells me that I have purchased it nine times, and I purchased it for myself in 2003, which means that those other nine were given away as gifts. I bought a bunch of copies from two of the Half-Price Books stores near Pittsburgh. So what makes it that good?

First, it’s non-fiction, my preferred brand of reading, and it’s a memoir, which I also prefer. There’s something so satisfying about hearing how life is experienced differently across people—I’d say that a good 2/3s of by personal library is autobiography or biography.  Second, it’s a story of a Pittsburgh family, and I do love Pittsburgh. So much so that I gave up being a baller in Baltimore to be a pauper in Pittsburgh, because there’s something in this city that Baltimore doesn’t have. There are third and fourth reasons, but I’ll get to those in a bit.

I studied non-fiction writing at Pitt, and majors are required to do a non-fiction readings course. I told my adviser that I wanted to skip the book-length non-fiction class and wait until the short essay non-fiction class came around in a subsequent semester. This was true, but for a very bad reason: I had heard that the professor in the book class was hard on students, and I hadn’t yet found the merit in failing at something worthwhile instead of succeeding in something worthless. In the end, I ended up in the book class, with Jeanne Marie Laskas, who was not so hard a grader and once wore mismatched shoes to class. I didn’t think twice when I saw the book on the list. John Edgar Wideman grew up in Pittsburgh, Jeanne Marie told us. So what, I thought. I never heard of him.

And then  I read the book. There’s so much depth to it, so many surprises. I’ll let the surprises be his, but will tell you this much: Wideman grew up in Homewood, with his brother Bobby. Black boys in a black neighborhood. John grew up, went to Penn, was a Rhodes Scholar, teaches at Brown, wins prestigious writing awards. Bobby is serving a life sentence for homicide. Here is the central theme of the book: How did two brothers, in the same city, neighborhood, family—identical contexts—end up so differently? That’s my third reason. The examination between differences among siblings, something I feel so deeply because of how different I am from my sisters, has kept me reading and rereading this book. Make no mention of the fact that John himself has three children, one of whom plays in the WNBA and another of whom is serving a life sentence for homicide. Siblings, same city, neighborhood and family—identical contexts—finding themselves on remarkably different paths. Wideman, who spent years trying to answer this question about himself and Bobby, now tries to answer it as a father. Bobby’s son has been killed. He took a life, and one was taken from him.

Much of the story takes place inside Western State Penitentiary, Pittsburgh’s prison. The river trails runs past it, and while out on a run one afternoon, passed the building. The first thing I noticed was its mansard roof. I thought what a beautiful old building it was, and when I looked past the old ruins, I saw a modern concrete building and razored wire. I have lived in Pittsburgh for twenty-four of my thirty years, and I do believe that was the first time I ever saw the prison.

I do, however, spend a lot of time in the Allegheny County Jail. Therein lays my fourth reason for adoring Brothers and Keepers.  I loved the book before I started teaching in the jail, but after that year, when I had more or less fully developed the sense that most inmates were not actually bad people, just had decision-makers, I fell for it even more. I’ve taught murderers.  I’ve taught rapists. I even taught the man who fatally shot my sister’s boyfriend. But they are someone else’s criminals. They are my students, and I see them as redeemable souls, like John sees Bobby, but like so few other people do.

One of my roles in the jail was to find inmates to tutor other inmates.  Before I departed for Baltimore, I gave each tutor a copy of Brothers and Keepers. One of them, with whom I had a particularly strong  bond, asked me how I knew about the book. I told him that I’d read it at Pitt, and he seemed incredulous. I thought I told you about this book, he said. I must have looked confused, because next he told me that the book was about his father, one of Bobby’s accomplices, who also did some prison time. But, he told me, his had got out of prison and built a productive life for himself. My tutor was also trying to  figure out how he ended up in jail. It wasn’t because his father had been in prison, he told me.

So the book is good enough, and the internet makes the story even better. Since its publication, there’s been much written on Bobby’s case. Some of it enrages my bleeding liberal heart. If you read the press clippings after reading Brothers and Keepers, it’s like reading the epilogue. A letter from Bobby ends the book, but certainly didn’t end the story.
In writing this, I kept thinking of the high homicide rate for young black men. I found some stats from 2005, the year I worked at the jail the first time. Allegheny County published this conclusion, “Mirroring trends documented in other urban areas, the homicide rate for young, black men in the City of Pittsburgh was nearly 60 times the city-wide average and more than 50 times the national average.” I also read a chapter from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which claims that more black men are in American prisons than had been colonial slaves.  I’ll leave you with those figures; maybe they’ll lend some clarity to how black men in Homewood make their decisions.

-- Kate Lukaszewicz, April 2012

Kate Lukaszewicz has a last name I am never certain how to spell. She is one of my favorite storytellers and conversation partners. She is my former hallmate, manager, assistant and roommate. She is awesome and out to conquer the world, with a cocktail in hand.

This is one of my new favorite descriptions of Pittsburgh.

So here we are at the end of another month in 2012. Whenever I think about how quickly this year is flying by (which has been made to happen ever quicker due to the increased number of awesome things happening lately), I think about how much is left to come (the bike trip, the pool, fireworks) just in the warm-weather months makes me excited.

Though I haven't actually done the volunteering at the time of this writing, I am spending a couple hours with BikePGH tomorrow at the Steel City Showdown (which hopefully I'll get a post out of for sometime this week). That'll bring the volunteering hours to three for the year. I'm a ways away from fifty. 

As for trying new things, I did try and keep a list this month, but halfway through I sort of gave up. I'm not happy with me either, okay? But, here is what I wrote down and what I remember: Mercurio's in Shadyside, my first cappuccino, walked across the Ellsworth Pedestrian Bridge, Taste of Dahntahn in Downtown, La Cucina Flegrea Regional Italian Cuisine in Market Square, Olive or Twist in Downtown, the Apollo Cafe in Downtown, drank beer at Shale's, had an iced latte, Eat Unique in North Oakland. Basically: I went to new restaurants. I need to do some actual NEW THINGS soon. 

Biking is going great. I actually treated myself to a new bike recently as a little pat on the back for getting to 1,000 miles. I'm continuing to have fun with it. And the nerd in me is loving all the stats that I get to play with as a result. As of writing this on Saturday evening, I've logged 1,055 miles in 2012 and have so far raised just over $850 for Gilda's Club of Western Pennsylvania. If you want to get in on the action, visit the Pedal for Pennies blog or click this link to make your pledge.

With April and its one random bizarre threat of snow behind us, it's sun and warm and good stuff ahead.

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