Originally published in Steel This Magazine, Issue 5.
It’s clear I’m unprepared. Sitting in a sticky airport in northern Florida, pant legs already rolled up to reveal pale legs, I start to remove more layers: the gray 412 snapback that’s served me since college, a fresh, heavy Steel City hoodie, and underneath it all a 2017 Stanley Cup Champs locker room t-shirt. I’m covered in baggage from home, literally and otherwise. My phone tells me it’s a beautiful day with temperatures in the upper 80s – smooth sailing and a fresh start. But the mountain of humidity outside suggest I’ve still got a climb ahead of me.
2016 wasn’t always the kindest to me. I unexpectedly lost an important person in my life, someone very close to the one I love. Loss and death were things that I had experienced before, but this was a harsh gut shot. I felt a real loss of control and direction, like the safety net of youth had been stripped away. It’s hard to be someone’s rock when you’re not sure what’s holding you in place. Perhaps the greatest feeling of helplessness is realizing the extent of someone else’s pain, knowing there is nothing you can do for them but be there and say, “I know.”
I had just moved to the North Side, tucked somewhere between Deutschtown and the base of Troy Hill. This made frequent trips to Allegheny General Hospital both convenient and a constant reminder of the shitty hand life can deal. That Spring the Penguins would make a run for their first Stanley Cup in seven years. It was a welcome distraction that also unintentionally weaved its way into some of my worst memories.
This isn’t a muse about the power of sports to transcend entertainment, to teach life lessons and lift the spirit. Being a fan was a habit that permeated life growing up within a 20-mile radius of the city. That Spring watching hockey became something to do to avoid the subjects of doctors, options, and uncertainty – something to fill the few free moments in between the tunnel vision. When the long-dreaded, middle of the night phone call came, the Penguins had just clinched an Easter Conference Finals berth. And watching the ensuing Conference and Stanley Cup Championships that followed was more habit than actual distraction. I remember tearing down East Ohio Street blasting Queen’s “We are the Champions,” in a vain attempt to enjoy the moment. I ultimately felt disappointed by my own indifference and the feeling of angst at no longer having that distraction meant that the coming days, weeks, and months ahead would be filled with facing the void that the loss of someone important in your life makes.
When I was younger I imagined I’d head west or flock to New York for no other reason than it seemed like a thing that you’re supposed to do. As a writer I dreamed that moving to a mecca would be a seamless transition to inspired work, entry to a larger network of creators, and maybe even a regular paycheck. Naive? Yes. Possible? Certainly. I think everyone gets that Springsteen itch to skip town at one point or another. But if there was a time for that kind of move, I thought it had definitely passed. What surprised me most was realizing that I no longer wanted to chase that dream, and everything I was looking for could be found in my backyard of Pittsburgh.
You don’t need me to tell you about the amazing growth Pittsburgh has seen over the last decade. By sticking close to home I couldn’t help but feel that I was getting in on something early, and the pride in my hometown getting national attention as a cool city only intensified a hipster stubbornness to want to stay for fear of missing out on something. Which is why it seems so odd to be reflecting on leaving now. But it was hard to just resume life when physical surroundings were constant reminders. Allegheny General loomed in the distance of the view from my front door. I could see the exact window of AGH I had looked out of just months before and I couldn’t help but wonder who was looking out of it now.
There’s a certain comfort in routines, in knowing what to expect and when. While this can be advantageous in the year following a big loss, routines can also have their pitfalls. With comfort can come complacency, resulting in a lack of change that would otherwise be beneficial. Take it from me, it’s alarmingly easy to get to a place where you find yourself going through the motions. I had gotten too comfortable in Pittsburgh, too quick to let my favorite places become the only places I went, the routine another cozy distraction. And that went for any work I pursued as well. Despite all the growth and amazing things I read about the city on a weekly basis, I couldn’t actually see or be a part of it. As odd as it seems to want to leave Pittsburgh at a time like this, with people flocking here and so much innovation emerging, the events of the last year had burned me out. The indifference I felt the night of the Stanley Cup victory had returned, but this time with my Pittsburgh experience as a whole, trying again to carve out a moment that ultimately felt forced. My yinzer tinted glasses just grew a little jaded.
When my fiancé (one of the few truly wonderful things 2016 brought) had career opportunities that would take us out of Pittsburgh, we both said yes without wavering. What else do you do when you’re feeling stuck? Moving for work felt more like pressing the reset button than running from anything.
The reset button took us somewhere we probabl ywouldn’t have chosen otherwise, and farther south than I ever thought I’d live, but we committedd fully and started getting used to the idea of living in Jacksonville, Florida. Neither of us had a clue about what we had in store. Jacksonville? I hadn’t noticed it on any Forbes lists, but it had beaches, warm winters, and brought a new sense of possibility. What we didn’t expect from our last few months in Pittsburgh was the freedom it would bring. Freedom to enjoy Pittsburgh again, to be grateful for the experiences it’s brought and how it’s shaped what life’s potential looks like moving forward.
And when the Stanley Cup Playoffs rolled around this year, they once again aligned with a significant change in my life. But they were no longer a distraction. Like an old friend who you’d gone through something terrible with, things would never be exactly the same, but that was ok. Maybe you’re better for it. In this case another championship felt like a personal victory lap, and a chance to actually, genuinely enjoy it for what it was. This year as toasts were made, confetti falling, cheering all around, I was rooted firmly in a place I loved, with people I loved even more and excitement at what was to come for the first time in a long time. And for as much as I thought I was looking forward to leaving, I found the final weeks leading up to our departure moved too quickly.
If the last decade has shown us anything it’s that there are big-little cities everywhere full of interesting people, organizations, and businesses doing amazing things. There’s always a new hipster paradise and every city has its own self-proclaimed version of Brooklyn (yes, it turns out Jacksonville has one, too; a neighborhood actually named Brooklyn that’s undergone a lot of change itself). What changes are the individuals that come together, bringing big ideas that help push that culture and uniquely shape it. Every city has a vibe. What’s always interested me about Pittsburgh, especially recently, is how many transplants make up the movers and shakers. The fierce loyalty and hard work of longtime natives that have helped usher Pittsburgh into this new age is undeniable, but transplant stories end in conversion often enough that the liens get blurry. And if it’s not transplants, it’s a homecoming of sorts for individuals who had left for a time and are now bringing those experiences back.
So far Jacksonville has brought kindness from strangers, a new community, a sense of adventure that exploring any new place brings, and warmth in more ways than Florida’s “endless summer.” We all have our baggage and scars. My latest are still a little fresh, but I’m excited to be the new kid for a change. Maybe if I’m lucky I’ll have my own successful transplant story, bringing a little bit of Pittsburgh to the Sunshine State. I’m not sure if a homecoming will ever be in the cards, but I’m already feeling pretty lucky to have called Pittsburgh home, scars and all.