“I never would have called it homelessness, if you’d asked.”
By Corinne Duval
I moved from Cleveland to Pittsburgh in 2006, eighteen years old and running from a life I could already see the end of. My father overdosed when I was four, and a single mom meant too much TV; Catholic school taught me to hold all my pain and turn it to shame; and then there was the grey city snow. When I was seventeen, and a man came to the house to yell at me about how my mom wasn’t paying the mortgage, I was already halfway out the door. I finished high school living at a friend’s house in the Tremont neighborhood, and my mom moved thirty miles west to live with my Grandma in Medina.
I spent that summer saying goodbye to the city. I was reading the pleas of D.A. Levy before he committed suicide: “I don’t want to die in Ohio anymore.” I walked through the tunnel on the shores of lake Erie where they had found my friend Ben dead the year before. And I laughed with my friend Quincy at Edgewater beach while we sang Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car. By the fall of 2006, I was ready to be done with Cleveland.
The move to Pittsburgh was easy. Like Cleveland, it had a legacy of industrial barbarism and palpable racism embodied in the pointillism of blighted buildings, food deserts, and lead in the water. But in Pittsburgh there was something new for me: possibilities. I had collected some friends who were all heading there from various points in the Midwest—Ohio, Illinois, Indiana.. We migrated to the liminal spaces of the Steel City, and in those gaps I found a community that, for a while at least, made the burdens I came with seem insignificant.
In the urban fault lines we searched for new ways to live. Fifteen of us moved into two attached, abandoned row houses on a steep hill, and I lived there for two years. That was squat number one. For the next nine years I moved around Pittsburgh, squatting different houses—six in all—trying to find safety and a different life.
I never would have called it homelessness, if you’d asked; I had houses. You see, squatting is something else, somewhere between homeless and home, between choices and trapped. But the story I want to tell right now, the one that often feels the most important, begins in the middle with squat number four. It’s about a boy and a house, but to tell it I have to go back to house number three, and a little of two.
Matt and I had met early in the summer of 2009, in a car full of friends leaving Pittsburgh. I told a joke he thought was funny, and so we fell in love. It was that easy. We parted ways in Denver, and when I returned a month later, he had moved to Pittsburgh and was living in a squat across town: number three. This home was so large that I never truly got to know all the banisters, landings, mantles, and halls. I never went to the basement, and never saw the backyard. The roof had caved in, or so I was told, but since it was summer and we only occupied the first and second floors, it was as remote as the future and of no great concern. I remember how white everything was: the walls, the rubble, and what was probably lead paint all over the hardwood floors.
I was still at squat number two, a story in its own right. But I would spend time at number three instead of my own place, conflating our new romance with the beautiful old house. Then I moved in and there were five of us: Matt, Flynn, Erin, Kelsey, and me, all living an absurd, quixotic life: for meals, we ate gummy vitamins we had stolen from Whole Foods, imprinting colorful stains on the white sheets (they never did wash out). We read a children’s book aloud, and under the covers we passed the novel between us, feeling ourselves echoed in the orphans of Jorge Amado’s Rio de Janeiro. In those brief moments we were a tableau of childhood dreams and the ache of adult nostalgia.
But all of this ended quickly; when number three was raided by the police after the G20 summit that summer, the blanched house was ripped apart, tagged and codified beyond all meaning. Flynn ended up in jail, and the menagerie of objects that made up our lives were called evidence. It was really only one month there for me, but in memory-time it is epic.
With Flynn in Jail, Kelsey and Erin moved into apartments. That left Matt and me to find something new. Friend’s of ours squatting a house across town got jumped, and it scared them back to New England. They gifted me the squat before they left, so we moved in. It was up a steep hill—as are most of the squats in Pittsburgh—with city woods all around. To get there, you went up a crumbling set of cement stairs, pushing past tree of heaven and knotweed, until the house finally revealed itself all at once on the top step. It was a haven in the city, and more than perfect. It came with stolen electricity straight from the telephone wire outside, which was surely about to catch fire any moment. (Years later, it did.) There was no water however, so when we dirtied dishes we’d smash them ceremoniously in the backyard and steal new ones.
Matt and I had almost no possessions, but we filled the space quickly with everything we could find. If white paint is to be the defining memory of number three, paper of all color and make defines number four. We held the house together with paper—pamphlets, flyers, notes, and pieces. He formed a magazine, and we had a room full of partially working printers that hummed a mechanical symphony through the small house, spitting out reams of our polemics that piled on the floor.
We became lost in the archives of our own history. On good days, under blankets, we read and discussed Stirner, riots in Greece, bank robbers in Italy, all in whispers. On bad days we debated the nuances of love until his shouting and thrashing brought the house close to crumbling. Back then it seemed like we couldn’t survive unless it was on the precipice of some great disaster. But we kept going, embedding ourselves in crisis and extremes. He broke the house apart with every emotional outburst. It was a bowling ball down the stairs, a kick through the railings, another broken door. We hid money above the ceiling tiles and stacked bats by the door. All the while the printers screamed a motorized dissonance and produced ever more copies.
I don’t remember ever sleeping. At 3 a.m., Matt would kick the soccer ball loudly against the walls, paper flying—a remedy against writers’ block as he tried to finish another article for that damned magazine. And me? I tried to keep it all together. I would organize my trinkets over and over, re-examining all the pieces of my life, and move stacks of paper from one box to another, trying to find meaning in the microstructures I could control. But I did not feel in control. Living in a whirlwind of paper, there never seemed time to ask about the things that were tearing us apart. Another copy, another forgery of another feeling. And the printers performed their final cacophony.
This could have been a love story, if he was a better man and it wasn’t the Rust Belt. But I ended it—ended us—and he demanded the house. I could have fought for it. But what would I have been fighting for? Paper? Textualized plans and well-made arguments? No. I know we could have done it all so much better. All that possibility: windows to start, happiness to end. But I couldn’t keep holding us both up when he was so determined on the fall.
I moved back to house number two for a time, Kelsey and Matt started dating, so she moved into number four. I heard their fights got so bad they were pointing guns at one another, but mostly I lost track of them. Word was they left when the mold and raccoons finally took over. And then the house was empty.
I returned once more to number four, before the city tore it down. Paper and shotgun shells covered the floors. The smell of mold was overpowering. On the walls, in red ink, someone had written: “Matt is an asshole”, and that they “stole your shit.” I appreciated the spectacle of it. I took a toy plastic Happy Days record player and some back issues of his magazine from the ground, and then I left for the last time.
What a mess: number four, a paper house full of drafts. They tore it down, like all the old places, four years ago. We never took a single picture, and I have made so many edits to the memories I no longer remember the original. But that empty lot on Pacific is where we lived for a time, and where I learned that safety can’t come from hiding. And so I say, to the boy and to the city: “You were always an asshole, and I stole your shit.” ■
Corinne Duval is originally from Cleveland and currently resides in Pittsburgh. She is a graduate of Chatham University with a BA in English Literature and Cultural Studies.
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