by Gina Sestak
A few weeks ago (June 23), I wrote about some of the places I lived as an undergraduate. I had intended to pick up the same theme today, continuing on with descriptions of all the horrid little apartments and sleeping rooms, not to mention the time I was homeless, but the more I thought about it, the more I remembered that my housing crises hadn't started when I entered college.
Although I was born in Wilkinsburg, PA, we moved to Detroit when I was a baby. My father spend most of his working life employed by Westinghouse, which at that time meant he was often out of work -- on strike or laid off. He'd managed to find a job in a Michigan auto plant, and so my mother and I moved there to join him. I don't remember anything about Detroit except being in a train station -- our mode of transport. I also have a vague recollection of looking down at a train running through a valley, which may have been near where we lived. We came back to Pittsburgh when my mother's father was terminally ill.
The first place I can remember living with my parents was at my Grandmother's. My Grandfather had died and we shared a two bedroom house with my Grandmother and an aunt. My Grandfather had built the house himself and, although it was in the city, the residential lane had homes on one side only. When my mother was growing up, a dairy farm had occupied the hill across the lane but it had burned down. When I lived there, the former farm had gone back to nature and was just "the woods." The federal government built a mental hospital on top of the hill, and we children were forbidden to go into the woods for fear of encountering a wandering patient.
I have a vague recollection of living someplace near Highland Park. I don't remember much about that place, except going to the zoo and asking the stork to bring me a baby brother. The request must have worked. My brother Johnny was born around this time, when I was three years old.
We moved back to Wilkinsburg, to a second floor apartment in a house. Our landlords live on the first floor. I started kindergarten at the local public school, then first grade, with a religious education class once a week at the more distant Catholic school. That was my first encounter with the Sisters of Charity, who later made my high school life a living hell, but Sister Olga seemed nice enough. This was the McCarthy era, though. We were taught that, when the Communists came, they would ask if we were baptized. We would say, "yes," then they would kill us. We would be martyrs for Christ. This was my first crisis of conscience -- while I thought I would willingly die for my faith (and get to go to Heaven with Jesus and all the saints and other martyrs, of course!), I didn't want my little brother to be killed and so worried that I might be tempted to lie and say he wasn't baptized. This worried me no end. I also managed to get my family evicted. The landlords' little girl, Shirley, was a year old than me. One evening she and a neighbor girl, Eleanor Jean, trapped me outside and wouldn't let me go home. It was getting dark and I was terrified. I bit Shirley. Her parents got angry, calling me a "little animal." We moved out.
My final childhood home started as another second floor apartment in a house, but this time we lived above another tenant. The landlord lived across the street. The thermostat was in the first floor apartment and the woman who lived there kept it set so low that our bedrooms on the third floor had little heat. We would sleep in the second floor living room -- my mother on the sofa, my newest little brother Joey in a baby buggy, and Johnny and I in Joey's play pen. My father worked nights. When complaints to the first floor tenant didn't work, my mother finally told the landlord and he moved the thermostat into the hall. That woman moved out, and a family moved in, a woman with several children whose husband was in prison. When they left, my family rented the entire house.
It was an old house, brick, the last house on the left on a dead-end street. A really dead end - the street stopped at a cemetery fence. Between our house and the cemetery there was a dahlia field -- our landlord also ran a floral business. He grew some plants outdoors and, behind our house, there were greenhouses, all white washed glass and steamy interiors.
The house was haunted and so, even with heat, I was often afraid to sleep in my third floor bedroom, preferring to sack out on the couch. I lived there until I left for college.