Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Signs of Life

I live in an apartment building that was not built to be an apartment building. It's beautiful, unique, conveniently situated and incredibly well-converted, with one exception: the floors. The floors are, they say, the original warehouse floors, which I don't buy at all because they're way too pretty, but the official word is that there's no soundproofing between floors because they wanted to retain authenticity. This is occasionally irritating and sometimes downright infuriating, such as when, on election night, my downstairs neighbor came knocking on my door to chide me, in the most condescending way I could imagine, for having a party. I apologized profusely, saying I understood the problem, because I got to hear the every move of my own upstairs neighbors, and promised to quiet everyone down immediately. But this was not good enough for her, and she kept scolding me. I hate to reinforce her behavior, but she did effectively keep me from having any more loud parties. But only because I don't want to have to try to find a polite way to shut the door in her face again.

The reason I found her so irritating, besides the fact that her tone of voice insinuated that I was a child and she (no older than me, I'm sure) was an adult, was that I've also found myself in the position of needing to go upstairs and ask the neighbors to quiet down. But I don't resent the upstairs neighbors for having people over and having a good time; these are great apartments, perfectly laid out for parties, with open floorplans and plenty of space, and it would be a shame not to put them to good use. The intensity of her anger also frustrated me because, even though I know what I can hear through my ceiling, I don't know how loud those upstairs neighbors are actually being, and so I don't know how quiet I have to be to avoid causing my downstairs neighbor pain. I try to be considerate, but on the other hand, sometimes I need to turn the TV up a little louder than normal so I can hear it 15 feet away as I fry bacon. I wouldn't hold it against my upstairs neighbor if he did the same, so I figure I'm within my rights.

The interesting thing is that, although my friends often comment on the clarity of the noises we can hear through my ceiling—and it is remarkable—they rarely bother me. In fact, it's bizarrely reassuring to hear other people going about their lives. More than once I've been lulled to sleep by the sound of my upstairs neighbor's clothes dryer or gently awakened by the sound of his shower. I guess it's probably a couple that lives up there, because I also sometimes hear a woman calling to her cat as the cat food clatters into the bowl. Late on weekend mornings, I get to hear the guy's morning-after phone calls to his buddies, which almost always start, "Yo, man, didja make it home last night?" or some variation on that theme. It's a little weird, and yes, I'm aware that this is not the most private place I've ever lived, and if I'm telling secrets I need to tell them quietly. The noise from upstairs can be irritating: do I need to know how much you hate USC and how sure you are that UCLA is going to kill them in today's football game? And what do you keep dropping on the floor that sounds like a sack of marbles? I can't begin to guess. Still, I like the feeling that I share this building with other humans, many about my age, all just trying to get through each day. And I like the little snippets of my neighbors' lives that I get through those supposedly-original floorboards.

Friday, January 05, 2007


I thought about not blogging over the break, but I think I need the practice with words. After six weeks or so of continual foot-in-mouth incidents at the beginning of the semester, I decided that discretion was the better part of valor and I ought to clam up if I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to say. Now the pendulum has swung back too far in the opposite direction, and I keep finding myself surprised that people don't know what I think or how I feel about something, and then realizing that I haven't actually vocalized any of my thoughts on that subject.

To sum up: I need to talk.

I'm in Pittsburgh now, through the end of the week. This is such a simple city, a city that rarely asks more from you than you are willing to give it. It's very easy to live here when distracted, tired, or not feeling well. It's so cheap to live here that you can be out of work for a while, or work part-time pretty much indefinitely, and not have to worry about making ends meet. You don't have to leave your own neighborhood for much of anything. On the other hand, if you're feeling claustrophobic, there are zillions more places to go that have little in common with wherever you live. It's less a city than fifty or so small towns all pressed shoulder-to-shoulder against each other, plus downtown, which is its own animal.

The up side of Pittsburgh is also its down side: it doesn't challenge you. You can live here for years and spend the whole time treading water. You can also do incredible work here, if your motivation comes from within you, because the city presents so few obstacles.

If I move back here after finishing law school, I'll be making a real, definite choice to live here, a choice with a purpose behind it. I didn't do that when I moved here for the first time in 2002. Then, I came here because my fiancé wanted to come here and wanted me to come with him. I hated this place for the first two years I was here: I resented it for being something I hadn't chosen for myself, and felt like a timid houseguest everywhere I went, afraid to do anything other than put everything back just where I left it, afraid to claim any space for myself. Then for the next two years I largely ignored it: it was simply the backdrop for a more important drama that was unfolding, one that involved finding out what kind of work I wanted to do as well as finding out who I was all over again, post-marriage. If I move back here, this city will not be an adversary or a backdrop. I'll be moving here to interact directly with the city of Pittsburgh, doing what I can to shape and improve the landscape while helping the neighborhoods retain their character. I hope that I'll be doing that no matter where I end up.

It's exciting to see the city through that kind of lens now. And it gives my work in law school a focus, a purpose, other than just learning about the law because it's interesting, or proving to myself that I can still study and learn. Pittsburgh is so far from being perfect that it's often frustrating. But it's so full of character, so different from the sanitized, strip-mall-filled cities that I find dehumanizing, so potentially exciting.

This isn't what I expected to find here. I came here to see a collection of friends that I had missed over the few months I've been away. I've been doing that, and it's been great. But I thought this was going to be an escapist retreat from law school, and it hasn't been that at all.

It's good not to find what I expect to find—not easy, but good. I need to stop looking so hard for the answers that are easy, and looking instead for the answers that are right.