Apple may have their hot new Roman numeral-named phone. But I’ve got “C.”
That’s right, I hit 100 followers! A lot to some bloggers; a pittance to others; a gracious plenty to me.
Thanks for letting me stretch my reading, reviewing, and writing skills–and for witnessing my bumbling and stumbling into the blogosphere, as I try to plant my Rust Belt Girl flag. I know time is scarce and there are oh so many blogs. I appreciate every single one of you who tunes in!
A few more numbers of note since my blog was born on May 16, 2017:
1,628 views by 793 visitors from 37 countries around the globe
What’s next? More, more, more. And new stuff, too. I’m currently smack dab in the middle of a short story/flash fiction submission frenzy; the more I get published, the more I can sample here (fingers and toes crossed).
I’m also interested in more collaboration with my fellow bloggers: photographers, authors, reviewers—from any and everywhere. Contact me if you’re up for it!
As always, I’m doing the Rust Belt Girl thing on Facebook, too. Find me—and self-deprecating Cleveland jokes—here.
Here at Rust Belt Girl, I’m thrilled to connect with other writers who explore America’s post-industrial heartland, the Rust Belt, and find that its rich history is still being discovered. Paul Hertneky and I share no relation except for a love of these hardscrabble places and for representing the voices of these places truthfully. For more than twenty-six years, Paul Hertneky has written stories, essays, and scripts for the Boston Globe, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, NBC News, and many more outlets. Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood is his memoir.
“Rust Belt Boy brings to life in loving, lyric detail an essential but over-looked portrait of America’s blue collar heart,” writes National Book Award Finalist, Sy Montgomery. [It] illuminates moments that change our lives and the small recurrences that shape our decisions. In a millworker’s milieu—seldom seen by outsiders, filled with soot, solvents, and sharp edges—we encounter the work ethic of immigrants, then as now. These pages explore the push-and-pull of family and a hometown, the gravity—nearby or at a distance—that keeps us in orbit around our roots. (Book jacket copy)
Paul—Rust Belt Boy is an exploration of your roots, your personal history and the history of your hometown of Ambridge, Pennsylvania. In the writing of this memoir, what was the most surprising thing you learned about your native place?
That honor goes to the Harmonists. By most people’s reckoning [the Christian separatist society—a celibate “utopia”—founded in Pennsylvania in the early 1800s] was the most financially successful community of the time, probably anywhere. To have three stanzas devoted to the society in Lord Byron’s Don Juan; to be a subject of discussion between Marx and Engels; to have more money at the time under the bed of the founder than in the U.S. treasury. What a force these people were. How we ignored it! That might be the biggest surprise: the fact that we were not entirely cognizant of where we were.
The question is: does our writing in some way put people in touch with their past? That’s the role we can play. That was maybe most surprising. This place was far more pivotal in American history than we knew. It points out how little attention we paid to the past—that distance between the immigrant experience of the here and now and the heritage of where we were.
The contemporary things that surprised me: I was expecting to be second guessed by my home-towners with regards to my research. I grew up around a lot of skepticism about academia. It was surprising how affirming people were. Most people said, you might not know just how bad it is here.
image from explorepahistory.com
youtube image of 2012 Ambridge, PA fire
graphics8.nytimes image from 2008
In RUST BELT BOY, you expose family memories, including those around your dad’s first wife’s death. What was the most surprising thing you learned about your family in Ambridge?
There were few surprises. If anything, I had to put a lot of family history aside. My father did have some material treasures of his first wife—his wedding album, for one. He wasn’t closed about telling us about her, but I don’t remember him showing us the album. I learned from my niece that she’s in possession of it. She was very happy my dad’s first wife, her grandmother, was portrayed in the book.
Food and food smells—pierogi, milk and honey, kolachi, the stuff of Sunday dinner—figure into your stories quite a lot. You’ve written about food extensively over your writing years. What food memory takes you back to your childhood?
It’s such a touchstone for people: food smells. As a writer, one of the things I’ve always tried to do is employ every sense. Usually, there are other senses involved. When it comes to smells, the smell of pierogis might be the most powerful. My grandmother’s apartment did smell like scalding milk. Then there were the smells of cabbage and sour kraut, the cooking of pork, of marinara sauce—the sofrito of garlic, olive oil, and tomatoes. There was also this constant smell of baking pie. And there was a particular smell that was made by the occasional cooking of pigs’ feet—a braised trotters dish my parents made of root vegetables and potatoes and joints of pork broken up. Then you chill it, so it gets gelatinous, and eat it with bread.
Of course, there was also the smell of a deer hanging in the garage. I remember the smell of blood and fur. That said home. That said victory.
In your book, you write that as a kid you had “several fantasy lives—cowboy, Cherokee, sailor, and frontiersman among them.” How do you think your life as a writer would stack up for young, book-loving Paul Hertneky?
I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t know somebody like this. I feel pretty fortunate. As a writer, I kind of get to be all those things, because I can interview cowboys and sailors and I can explore the lives that are interesting to me and then try to inhabit them. Cherokee, I’m having trouble with [laughs]. But as a writer you get to explore your fantasies. You can concoct them and go talk to people who are doing these things. Probably one of the more interesting kinds of research to do is to learn about people. I feel privileged to be allowed into people’s lives—to ask questions, be nosy.
Where will you be appearing next, and what are you currently at work on?
I’m disappearing for two months to Greece for a book of essays I’m working on. I’ve written two long essays that connect travel in Greece with Greek mythology and the human condition. One of the essays, The Village Kazani, won an award. In that essay, I went to Crete at the time of the year when it’s darkest—my mother had just died—and villagers get together to make grappa. The essay involves Persephone, and there’s a lot of drinking, dancing, and eating.
For another essay, this trip, my wife and I are going to the island of Lesvos. The head of Orpheus is said to have washed up on a beach in Lesvos. We were first there on the morning of 9/11, when the Twin Towers come down. We’re going back to try and get a handle on this story. The essay will probably tie in 9/11 and Orpheus and our inability to hear that which we most need to hear.
Next spring, I will get back to the “belt.”
2018 appearances (subject to change; check author website for dates and times): Rivers of Steel museum in Homestead, Pennsylvania; California University of Pennsylvania in California, Pennsylvania; Jefferson Educational Society in Erie, Pennsylvania.
Thanks to Paul Hertneky for the victory that is RUST BELT BOY, a wonderful memoir of a Rust Belt childhood, and for indulging my own nosiness!
Learn more about Paul Hertneky and RUST BELT BOY at his website and blog.
“We grew up being told to get out of town after graduation.”–that line stuck with me. Kudos to the kids, like these singers, who stuck around their hometowns and now bring soul-feeding art and music–and even beer–to the ones they love. Musical performance with a side of ale. Love this! Sharing from “Voices from the Borderland,” Mansfield, Ohio. ~ Rust Belt Girl (Rebecca)
Joel Vega & Andrew Potter, singing at The Phoenix Brewing Company
I don’t know one bean about opera. What I do know, is that Andrew Potter produced a note Monday night so low and resonant I felt it in my bones. You don’t have to know much Wagner to appreciate the talent and hard work behind making that music.
I attended “Hopera2!” at The Phoenix Brewing Company — a pairing of Phoenix’s beer with music by Mid-Ohio Opera. The opera company was founded by Joel Vega, a name I knew growing up here as someone to watch out for at the yearly solo and ensemble music competitions. And now look at him! Maybe it was the beer, but the man couldn’t stop smiling. As someone who has created his own successful arts nonprofit in a town where many said, opera? he has every right to grin. Mid-Ohio Opera brings…
Growing up in the Cleveland, Ohio, area of the U.S., the first question asked of a new acquaintance was: “What side of the city are you from—East Side or West Side?” Once that was settled (if you were still talking) and you exchanged surnames, then came the second question: “What kind of name is that?”
There’s a lot to the East Side/West Side rivalry this article delves into if you’re interested. But today I’m talking—and taking—names. What’s in a name? If you’re a Rust Belt native, a lot.
My husband, not a Rust Belt native, thinks the name question is gauche (okay, he doesn’t say gauche, but that’s what he means: tacky, uncouth, even rude.) I wouldn’t ask the question of my neighbors in the Maryland town where we now live, a town that was established in the 1600s. Here, talk of family names and countries of origin quickly gets really old—literally. (Of course, there are many exceptions—newer immigrants and many “come here’s,” like me, from other American places.) Still, for many longstanding Maryland natives, the Old Country—with its telling surnames—is a distant memory. They are Marylanders, plain and simple.
Being from the Rust Belt is a little more complicated. On a recent trip back to the Belt—the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, area to be specific—I made it my mission to have pizza. (Maryland is known for blue crab, not pizza, for good reason.) It’s true, Beaver, Pennsylvania, doesn’t have a particularly Italian ring, but it has a lot of Italians—who, thankfully, know their pizza. The next town over still had their banners flying for a Serbian food festival. The local grocery store featured homemade pierogies from a purveyor in town. Okay, we’ve established that the way to my head is through my stomach. But, really, the Old Country feels a little less distant in the Rust Belt.
On that trip back to the Belt, I visited with cousins and an aunt, and we talked about old times. We looked at black and white family photos shot in the 40s and 50s. “Looks like the Old Country,” said my husband of photos of barely-clad kids splashing in a tin tub in their Cleveland yard. We also talked about names: Polish names in my family’s Buffalo, New York, area towns; Italian names in a cousin’s new Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, area town; a lot of German names in my Ohio hometown.
Me? I am the granddaughter of a Rossenbach and a Heineman. Next year, my most famous (or infamous, depending on how you like your wine) German-extracted relations, will celebrate 130 years of Heineman’s: Ohio’s oldest family owned and operated winery. The Old Country making it big in the New Country!
Whether examined through the lens of food and drink or neighborhood or family name, we are—to a large extent—who we came from. And who you are matters a lot to me, a writer, curious to a fault.
So, I’m not apologizing before asking you, “What kind of name is that?”
I don’t know about you, but I find the memoir in general a tough nut to crack. I’ll admit it’s not my favorite genre to read. As a fiction writer, I’m an escapist–I admit that too–always seeking new opportunities to inhabit the lives of fictional others.
The memoir also poses challenges for the reviewer: how to best critique a plotting of events in a life that really happened; how to critique a cast of characters who are actual people?
Then there are my own personal memoir hang-ups, which say much more about my issues–as a “good girl” raised on Rust Belt values (more on that later)–than the genre’s. As in:
Talking (or writing) about oneself is evidence of vanity.
Talking about one’s successes is risky business, as in you don’t want to jinx yourself.
Talking about one’s trials only invites more trials, as in, you think you’ve had it bad, I’ll show you bad; also as in, good girls bear their crosses with (quiet) grace or suffer the consequences.
Amy Jo Burns knows a lot about grace–and about suffering–and she has written a graceful memoir, one I can’t quite review but find myself drawn to write about.
Chances are good I drove through “Cinderland” this past weekend, as the dust continues to swirl around the latest in a long line of sexual-assault-by-public-figure revelations. But the title of Burns’s memoir isn’t an actual place but a figurative (and arguably huge) one.
Cinderland tells the story of Burns’s formative years in [fictionally-titled] Mercury, Pennsylvania, a town in the western part of the state that–like so many others–revered the Rust Belt trinity: Father, Steel, and Holy Football.
Only, Burns grew up in the 1990s, well after the demise of almighty steel, when Mercury is at best a “sleepy” town, at worst a toxic one. The year Burns turns 10, the town is startled awake when the beloved town piano teacher (called Mr. Lotte–one of many biblical references) was accused of sexually assaulting his girl students. Seven young female accusers came forward.
Burns, a student of Mr. Lotte’s, lied when questioned, saying he hadn’t touched her. She (and likely many others) lied to protect her abuser–and herself, doing her best throughout her girlhood and teenage years to keep up good-girl appearances. This is all while planning her escape from the town she loved: a place she was both a part of and apart from.
The allegations tear the town in two–Mr. Lotte’s accusers on one side, his champions on the other. In the end, Mr. Lotte, while maintaining his innocence, pleads guilty in court, for the town’s sake, he says. He serves a short sentence.
Besides great personal tragedy and the turmoil at keeping and finally revealing her secret, Burns delves into a universal tragedy, one that goes far beyond one provincial Rust Belt town. This could be Anywhere, U.S.A.
Young Burns is an adept performer, taking on the mantle of good Christian, girlfriend, actress, cheerleader… The layers of artifice are many, like the layers of tulle in a tutu. (Oh yeah, she was also a dancer, like another Rust Belt girl I know.) Burns graduated second in her high school class–an amazing achievement–but even then is playing a sort of supporting role, in her own life.
The push and pull between the girl psyche and the astute young woman narrating her own history is palpable–and heartbreaking. If I were to review this book, I’d find Cinderland a must-read, especially for the young adult crowd–male and female. I’d find the portrayal of an American girlhood powerful; the portrayal of the setting a bit weak. (That’s not proud Rust Belt Girl talking here–the setting was often filtered through the author, not the narrator, rendering it less powerful than if it had been shown through the perspective of the teenage girl.)
At the end of the memoir is where I felt Burns most artfully illustrated the universal good girl conundrum: stay and pretend or risk an escape. Spoiler: she does escape, to Cornell, and eventually breaks her silence that is Cinderland.
In the last chapter, Burns takes on the town, a sort of horrible Greek chorus, that failed her and so many others:
I did not want to tell this story. I can picture the broad-shouldered men who used to work in town: spreading asphalt in the summer, hunting buck in the winter. I can hear them say, Shut your goddamn trap, will you? Not because they feel the need to keep secrets, but because they still believe in the innocence of a man I once protected.
Who do you think you are, anyway? they’d say. You hightailed it outta here the first chance you got. Some hotshot you are.
And they’d be right. My memories of this place are cinders floating in the air…
If there’s a city that is the butt of more jokes than Cleveland, I don’t know it. From burning waters (yep, that really happened–a long time ago) to crash-and-burn sports teams, my native city could use a re-brand. Or, so say the branders.
In this digital age, when we worry about our personal brand–imagine our grandparents pausing to consider what message they were sending with a profile pic?!–cities and states are also fighting to be presented in the best light.
Branding is such a big deal that Ohio’s Governor Kasich proclaimed that “Rust Belt” sends the wrong message; he likes “Tech Belt” for Ohio. So far that moniker hasn’t stuck.
My native place is rusty; its past is a bit sullied. Cleveland’s the opposite of slick: a brander’s nightmare. But we’ve been through the wringer (time and again) and come out tougher. Remember the “Cleveland: You Gotta Be Tough” t-shirts? The fact that native Clevelanders can wear defeat as a badge of pride, and laugh off the past while striving for a shinier future–that’s what makes me proud of my hometown.
Would you re-brand your hometown? Give it a catchy slogan? What would it be?
No matter where you’re from–Rust Belt, Sun Belt, or elsewhere. No matter how you say, thanks, I hope you hear this bit of gratitude.
I delivered this blog in May, and like most five-month-old offspring, it is still in the babbling stage. During this developmental period, I’ve learned a lot about my native Rust Belt, its history and its present, and how it’s portrayed in fiction and nonfiction. I’ve called upon memories of growing up in Ohio–the distinct sounds and tastes that take a girl back home, if just for a moment. I’ve learned how I want to represent my home, creatively. I’ve learned blogging is much more than writing. It’s connecting. And I couldn’t do that without you.
Two words–Tofu Manicotti–were enough to strike fear into the hearts and stomachs of us Moon kids.
Long before the first Whole Foods Market made its way to Ohio, my mom bought into the 80s tofu craze and made it her mission to sneak soy into ordinarily tasty dishes. And so Tofu Manicotti was born. Other health-nutty adventures of hers were more successful. For years, she was a member of the Racoon County Co-op, which saw penny-pinching homemakers like her traveling to Cleveland’s food terminal before dawn to purchase natural foods in bulk. We got our honey from a beekeeper down the road. And Mom’s backyard vegetable garden kept us in zucchini, pepper, and tomato frittatas all summer long.
Before my mom passed away, she made each of us kids a cookbook, in which she hand wrote family recipes we wouldn’t want to forget. (Tofu Manicotti does not appear.) There’s frugal, egg-based dishes, like stratas; Midwestern standards like Ham Loaf and Dried Beef Casserole; an Italian aunt’s sauce and meatballs recipe. And so, these recipes–and memories–I can recreate.
Other dishes I have to return home for: good potato pancakes, homemade pierogi, a real-deal Lake Erie Perch fish fry.
I figured I’m not the only one who hankers for the foods of a Rust Belt upbringing. Turns out, I’m not. Thanks so much to the helpful folks in my *Fiction Writing FB group, who chimed in with their favorite hometown foods–or, in one case, the detestable food of her hometown she just can’t forget. Yep, I’m talking about you, Spam!
Did I forget your favorite hometown food? Reply here, or meet me on my Rust Belt Girl page on FB, where I muse about all things Rust Belt. Next week, I’ll feature a review of the memoir, Cinderland. Read it?
Here’s my uber-scientific survey response, below. Big winners: fish frys and pierogi; runner-up, coneys:
*Thanks again to Daniel from Youngstown, Ohio; Chris; Amy from Northwest, Ohio; Adrian; Jules from Michigan; Dean; Brian; Dawn; Pumkin; Marguerite; and Carol, who has been through Erie, Pennsylvania, enough to adopt the local hotdog as her own.
The soundtrack to my adolescence and young adulthood in Northeast Ohio was unusual. While my peers were listening to Depeche Mode on the radio or catching a live show at the Grog Shop, I was in the ballet studio. While my high school classmates listened to the CHS band before Friday night football, I was in the ballet studio. Dancing to Miss Jackson (nasty or not) in the Burger King parking lot? Me? Not unless that parking lot had ballet barres and wrap-around mirrors.
You get the picture. Instead of memorizing every word to Sir Mix-A-Lot’s classic, “Baby Got Back,” I was enduring mandatory games of Name that Tune in the ballet studio. As in: pianist on the baby grand in the corner plays a few bars of classical music and we bun-heads guess the composer and piece. (Tip: Tchaikovsky is always a safe bet when betting on ballet music.)
My personal soundtrack during my formative years–and by extension my entire budding identity–felt terribly inaccurate. On my pathetic playlist: a little Whitney, some Tears for Fears, my parents’ Herb Alpert and Brothers Four records, and a smattering of Russian ballet compositions I couldn’t name.
Forgivable if I lived just anywhere. But I lived outside Cleveland, Ohio, rock ‘n’ roll capital. (Just go with me on that.)
My soundtrack’s saving grace: Cleveland’s rock station, WMMS. Really, I knew I wasn’t cool enough to blare that kind of music, while driving my parent’s Chevy Cavalier through the snow to and from classes and rehearsals, pink tights on, hair in a tight bun. Never could I have sported a t-shirt with the rock station’s mascot, the Buzzard, with the necessary cool-girl aplomb.
But I would listen to these rockin’ sounds of my city, and that tagline that gets me jazzed even today. Please enjoy this blast from Cleveland radio past: