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Melancholic in Monroeville

Since my move back to Allegheny County on March 26th, just as all of Pennsylvania and most of the country locked down and buzzwords like “social distancing” and “contact tracing,” and, of course, “Dr. Fauci,” began to consume our daily media feeds, I have experienced an insatiable appetite for the “oldies,” those songs of yesterday. After at least four weeks of debating whether I should dare to write again, this all came to a head last evening, right in the middle of cat supper, when the melodic strains of my favorite Carpenters’ song, “It’s Yesterday, Once More,” aired from KFB, 97.5 FM, on my C. Crane radio. I melt on the spot when Karen Carpenter delivers those lines,

Every sha-la-la-la
Every wo-o-wo-o, still shines
Every shing-a-ling-a-ling, that they’re startin’ to sing’s so fine

All my best memories come back clearly to me
Some can even make me cry, just like before
It’s yesterday once more

Contemplative by nature, I am always dazzled most by simple melodies in the mid-range octaves with sadly sweet overtones. Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” Brook Benton’s “Rainy Night in Georgia,” and Marilyn McCoo and the Fifth Dimension bleeding heartache with every phrase in “One Less Bell to Answer” are three of my all-time favorites guaranteed to send chills through my core and more. When I hear the first notes of a masterpiece, I must drop everything and tune in with fully mindful attention.

With very few places to go now I can revisit places decades removed from Corona time. Petula Clark takes me back to the living room sofa in the downstairs apartment of Eddie Johnson’s remodeled Victorian at 1829 Willow Street in McKeesport. It is Wednesday around Noon and I am waiting for Daisy Jean to finish loading her purse so that we can walk under the canopy of craggy sycamores to the bus stop at Willow and Jenny Lind. Wednesday was the day out for Daisy Jean and 11 or 12-year-old Dave. The destination was “downtown” as in McKeesport, circa 1959-1960.

After deboarding the bus on Ringgold Street mother and son trekked all over town to pay the phone bill with cash at the Bell Telephone office, then on to the bank at the busy heart of town at Fifth and Walnut Streets to pay the other utility bills. I always hoped that our next stop would be to the basement restaurant at The Central Drug Store for beef or pork barbecue sandwiches and apricot pie or to the famous lunch counters at Murphy’s or the H.L. Green Company five-and-tens. My boyhood in gritty, shot-and-a-beer McKeesport did not allow for visits to art museums, but the large framed industrial murals—fiery and dark with the industrial heritage of the Monongahela Valley arranged on the walls in Green’s—never failed to fill me with awe. I could study them while Daisy Jean shopped the cosmetic and costume jewelry counters.

It was 1970, at the height of the Vietnam War, when Brook Benton’s Grammy-award winning “Rainy Night in Georgia” was released. His voice, coming out of the depths of spell-binding loneliness renders every line of the heart-melting lyrics with impeccable phrasing, breathy and delicate in all the right places. Surely, he was born to sing that song. And if the whining guitar strains, as the crooner takes his place in the empty box car of a passing train aren’t enough, it’s the almost inaudible, but sensual notes of a harmonica in the background that can make a heart skip a beat or two:

Find me a place in a box car
So I take my guitar to pass some time
Late at night when it’s hard to rest
I hold your picture to my chest and I feel fine, I feel fine

But it’s a rainy night in Georgia
Baby, it’s a rainy night in Georgia
Lord, I believe it’s rainin’ all over the world
Kinda lonely now and it’s rainin’ all over the world

Just as a nation was weary of a protracted and unwinnable military conflict then, we can all “hold a picture” to our chests and feel a little better during our unprecedented time of social isolation. Yes, perhaps it is “rainin’ all over the world” once again, but we can look forward with hope that we over-65ers won’t be cheated out of too much more of our most precious commodity—time—a commodity that is not our friend.

There are days when I am all despair, mourning our losses—“one less egg to fry,” one less place to go, dreading the possibility that there could be more lockdowns in the months, even years ahead, robbing oldsters of even more precious time, the one irreplaceable commodity. I do get a little weary of constantly being reminded that “We’re all in this together.” True, but the costs are vastly different from one person to the next, from one demographic to the next.

I realize that it is selfish for a retiree with steady income to sound like a “sad sack” about the current condition. I recognize the desperation in the plight of those who have lost work and economic livelihood. But those losses can be repaired, regained. Those Gen-Xers and Millennials do have time on their side—time to recover, return to jobs or discover new ones. Most will have decades ahead of them.

Most days my optimistic nature takes hold. I count my blessings and take inspiration from that signature song of Petula Clark. I may be situated in my downsized galley kitchen in a Monroeville condo, but those “oldies” can dizzy me with day trips in the most amazing ways. I rock to the gentle bossa nova beat, all smiles inside at the sweet melody while I watch the cats devour their supper paté, looking ahead to the day when we might once again be “downtown where all the lights are pretty.”

Dave Knoepfle

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