Starved for weirdness

Today was the first day since the beginning of the pandemic that I went to a coffee shop and sat and wrote. It was an outside courtyard and I was seated at a metal table beside a little garden, but still.

While I was sitting there, something skittered across my vision. I tuned it out but a moment later this guy who was at the far end of the courtyard got up and approached the garden. When I looked up he said, “I think that was a spotted lanternfly.”

If you’re unfamiliar, spotted lanternflies are these invasive insects that destroy plants. I’m not super familiar with them myself because they have not previously made it to Pittsburgh, at least not that I have seen. Most of what I know I’ve heard from family in Philadelphia, where they are a much bigger nuisance. There and now here, if you see one of these bugs you are encouraged to kill them. (Seems kind of rough to me but that’s apparently the way it is.)

Anyway this stranger and I stomped around the garden for a minute or two, trying to flush this thing out so we could stomp it to death. It was a little funny and made me feel like a little boy, charging into the undergrowth, eager to wreak havoc. After the lanternfly disappeared, we each returned to our tables and I took the opportunity to ask the guy if he happened to know the wi-fi password.

Throughout the day today I had this sense of re-entering the world somehow. That doesn’t quite add up because nothing has changed, really, in terms of the pandemic. I’ve been fully vaccinated since early May, and everywhere that I had to go indoors I wore a mask.

But it’s true. Or rather maybe it’s that I felt a curious sense of aliveness, of weirdness, that I had been missing without ever realizing it was gone. Later I took my daughter for a walk and I saw a woman physically lifting her older daughter, who likely had cerebral palsy, into the backseat of her car.

I test drove a minivan in the afternoon and as I waited at a stoplight at the edge of Pittsburgh’s Polish Hill neighborhood, a man selling roses to the idling cars walked past all the other cars at the light and looked in the van (a Honda Odyssey that seems pretty cool) and asked the time. I didn’t know where to look on the van’s console to tell him and the salesman barked, “4:30.” I’d just been thinking that the salesman and the rose peddler seemed like two sides of the same coin: weathered, hardened men working long hours. The rose peddler said, “Is that all?” and walked back to his table on the sidewalk. A few blocks from the dealership I saw a man loading a cage full of tiny puppies into the back of his car. Later, driving to pick my daughters up from daycare, there was a soaking rain and I saw a woman with one leg, her loose pant leg hanging down beside her, struggle to get from the pavement around to the driver’s side door.

My first infatuation with Pittsburgh came via my sense of its deep strangeness. I’d moved from Philadelphia and it struck me that here was a place where the weirdness had a chance to spread out, where there was room for it. I was living in a tiny apartment in Greenfield, at the bottom of a long winding road and across the street from a cemetery. Even before I moved to Pittsburgh, just visiting, I had a sense that this was a place I could get writing done. Maybe that’s just a feature of going somewhere on your own as an adult, someplace that isn’t the town where you live in a dorm and isn’t the place you grew up, but is in some way all your own. Pittsburgh always felt like my own, and that perceived strangeness was at the heart of that feeling. So many of the city’s great amenities feel random, for lack of a better word: why is the National Aviary in Pittsburgh? Why is the library system so great? Why do they hold the furry convention here? Why is there a museum for Andy Warhol, who lived here but left as soon as he could, and one for Roberto Clemente, who isn’t from here? There are answers to all these questions, of course, but the cumulative weight of so many questions of this nature has always felt like something important and substantial, deliciously pleasurable.

All this just to say that I missed this feeling. I don’t expect it to be sustained, and I don’t think it’s a true marker of any turning tides, any safety reached in terms of the pandemic. For one thing, I think the lack of weirdness in my life has much more to do with staying home nearly every day with anywhere from one to three little girls, of my focus being directed toward them and not at the weird world around me. But it was a wonderful reminder of what I’ve always found so charming about this place, and a lovely affirmation that that world never went anywhere.