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At a high top next to the bar, my friend and I sipped on PBRs, waiting for a dinner of French fries and cheese sticks. It was sunny out, perhaps one of the first warm days of spring that year, and we spent it roaming up and down the busy street of restaurants and businesses until we were thirsty, stomachs growling, and my friend suggested we go to Hambone’s. It was a little bar and restaurant that was one of the few businesses that looked the way it did when I first moved to Pittsburgh – in need of a little TLC, but nothing so terrible that it impacted business. It was Saturday, just shy of evening, and my view of the front windows included the golden sun just beginning to drop behind buildings, casting shadows across the street.
Like so many of my favorite places, parts of the room and the entire bar were paneled with wood that reminded me of the basement of the home I lived in when I was in elementary school and middle school. That basement had a bar of its own made of rich, stained wood, a feature – along with the walls – I remember my parents calling dated when we looked at the home for the first time. But to me, it is an interior design treasure I hate to think will someday disappear entirely, replaced by industrial-chic metals and stark, white walls. I remember my friend and I walking in from the still-cool air outside and feeling instantly warmed from the heat of people chattering and huddling at tables.
“I forgot how much I love it here,” I said.
“We should come here more often,” my friend said.
The last time I was at Hambone’s, I was with my dorm mates my freshman year of college. We were too new to Pittsburgh to know the names of the neighborhoods, so when we found ourselves bowling in Lawrenceville one Friday night, all we knew was that we took the 54 bus to get there. And of Hambone’s, all we knew was that the menu was cheap enough for our shrinking pockets, and it was right across the street, meaning we wouldn’t have to walk far in the frigid February night.
“And it has amazing reviews,” one dorm mate said.
The dining room was a mix of families, groups of friends, punks, artists, and sports fans when we walked in. I didn’t know it then, but all the best places are like this – packed with an eclectic group of people you might not see together under many other circumstances. The six of us arrived just in time for a round table by the windows to open up, and we were seated by our waitress who beamed with an energy that made me feel like we had found a slice of home, when we were all missing it so dearly. My friends and I were starting to learn that the stretch between New Years to Spring Break was the longest we’d go without seeing our families, without parents’ weekend or fall break to shorten the wait. We were missing meals that weren’t from a dining hall, experiences unique to where we all came from, the coziness of the buildings and homes we knew better than any of those in Pittsburgh.
Our waitress assigned us nicknames – celebrity names that she could more easily remember on a busy night with dozens of people and orders to keep track of. I can’t remember the name I was assigned, but I know it had something to do with my hair and the fact that I used to sing in high school choir. The red light from the neon “Hambone‘s” sign illuminated half of our table, which was predominantly lit from a round overhead lamp. The rest of the room seemed dark in comparison. We could watch people walk by outside, occasionally commenting on someone’s outfit or dog or whatever else caught our attention.
We all ordered the mac and cheese because it was inexpensive and would redeem us from the cups of Easy Mac we were so used to eating during late night study sessions. It came out in brown crocks with sides of bread that looked home-baked. The crocks reminded me of my grandfather ordering French onion soup at dinner before my mother, brother, and I would grocery shop with him and my grandmother during our Friday night visits with them growing up.
We all grinned at each other at our round table as we paid our checks. We were full and warm and happy. In the cold, lonely slump of February in Pittsburgh, which we had all started to feel deep within us, Hambone’s was like a big hug, and probably to the dozens of other people who sat there in that room. I had left for college thinking I would never get homesick because as a child who moved a few times, I had never felt a deep connection to home, but that winter, I learned I had been wrong.
As we put on our coats, a band started to play on a makeshift stage at the other side of the dining room – middle-aged men with electric guitars who were playing so loud the chatter in the room ceased, the singer screamed into the microphone. We scurried out the door and doubled over laughing on the sidewalk, not at the men who were performing with a passion I had only rarely seen before, but because we were thrilled. Because for the first time, without knowing it, we had had an actual taste of the treasures to be found in this city, and for a moment, we weren’t longing to be where we came from. We were longing to stay here.
I clung to Pittsburgh after the first visit to Hambone’s. I wanted to make it my home. After moving a handful of times growing up – when I was too young to remember, when I was in third grade, and when I was a freshman in high school – I didn’t know where to tell people I was from. Those early college days, it was one of the first things classmates asked me, and my answer was always more convoluted than those who’d been born and raised in the same place, who lived most of, if not all, of their life in the same house.
“I’m originally from outside of Philadelphia, but I moved a couple times. I went to high school in Ohio, which is why I ended up on this side of the state for college,” I would say.
I never lived in Philadelphia-proper, just the suburbs, but it was always easier to give people the big landmark of a city they’ve probably heard of, or at least that’s what I learned when I moved right before starting high school. My time in Northeast Ohio, just thirty minutes from Youngstown, felt too brief and too far from my birth to ever claim I was from there, even though it had been where I lived right before college. Most of my classmates would slowly nod their heads, as if they already stopped listening after I said, “I moved a couple of times.”
For so long, I’ve wanted to feel like I belong, like I’ve put time into one place and stayed long enough to put roots down. Somehow, despite only being here for nine years, this is where I’ve lived the longest in my life, the place that feels the most home. But this home is constantly changing with new development, people coming and going as tech companies move in and long-time residents get priced out.
To my friend who, on that early spring evening, told me I should come to Hambone’s more often, I said, “I totally should.” But I never did. I never went back. And now, Hambone’s is closed forever. It sits on a busier-than-ever street with a For Sale sign in the window, blinds drawn.
“I feel like soon, I won’t want to live here,” I said to my boyfriend one day. He’s lived in Pittsburgh his entire life, has seen it through all its recent iterations and phases. I couldn’t decide what was worse – leaving before I was ready, or leaving after I’d already fallen out of love with this place.
“You came at a weird time,” he said. “You came just as the good parts were ending.”
In her essay, “Goodbye to All That,” Joan Didion says she’s learned “that it is distinctly possible to stay too long at the Fair.” It’s possible to stay somewhere new and thrilling until it loses its novelty and its excitement, and there’s a specific heartbreak in that realization – that the place you were once so enthralled by has grown stale. The fun has been had, possibly too much, and now you’re sick from too much cotton candy and funnel cake.
But what if you’ve arrived at the Fair too late? What if you’ve shown up just as all the Fair’s best are packing up for the season? The carnival lights are shutting off, the smells of grease are fading in the wind. People are finishing their cotton candy and funnel cake and smiling. You walk around and get a taste for what everyone’s been enjoying, but it’s disappearing into the night. And you’ve just learned that, next year, there won’t be a Fair at all.
Perhaps there are people who are excited for what comes after the Fair, for what replaces what has come and gone. Perhaps they’re staying here for the sleek, shiny buildings that look like pristine boxes, the ones that have been cropping up in small, but growing, parts of town. Maybe they prefer the homogenous, the familiar, the modern. Maybe they’re waiting for the city to look revitalized, waiting for all the wood paneled walls and unique paint jobs to be updated. Maybe, to them, home doesn’t mean community – it just means where they live at any given time.
But I stayed here for the places that scooped me up when I was lonely or dejected or ready to give it all up and move somewhere else – the places that said, “you’re part of the family now, and don’t you forget it.” I’ve stayed here for the treasures I’d hate to lose, the ones I now wish I wouldn’t have made so many excuses to not visit more often. But isn’t that how it is with all the people and places we love the most? With all of them, we assume they will always wait for us. We assume they will continue to be there because they’ve always been there. We fill our mouths with excuses and reasons, jumbling syllables into, Oh, Next Times and, I Definitely Wills, and then one day, we wake up, and we can never go home again.
Emily Stedge a writer living and working in Pittsburgh, PA. She earned a BA in English Writing and Political Science from the University of Pittsburgh, and she is a member of Carlow University’s Madwomen in the Attic writing workshops. Her work is forthcoming in South Dakota Review.