As Robert was installing an old metal furnace grate onto a wall at The Ruins, I had a flash memory from childhood.
Growing up in The Mon Valley, a place that, by the 1980’s had already begun its descent towards being a shadow of itself, I have watched the institutions around me fade and dwindle. The story I tell you here took place at Rego’s Restaurant in Charleroi, Pennsylvania.
Rego’s was a classic mom and pop red sauce joint. No frills, just the exact same menu for 60 years or so. I always noticed the stale smell of cigarettes as you entered. If you were smart, you ordered the homemade ravioli and a side salad.
The perfectly white Italian bread came with a small bowl of wrapped butter pads that were always too hard to spread evenly so you ended up getting chunks of cold butter with each bite. I can taste the whole meal with nostalgia as I write this.
Rego’s was where I learned how to have lunch with the ladies. We always seemed to end up there after a day of shopping at Richard’s for school clothes or stopping at the pet store to watch the Siamese fighting fish. Through osmosis we learned from Mom and Mama that a restaurant is only as good as its cup of coffee. My Mama reveled in sending hers back for a fresh cup that was piping hot. The waitresses were older, no nonsense ladies who had zero turnover. This was the place where I discovered the magic of the mixed drink. Being permitted to order a Shirley Temple with extra cherries never got old.
But let me get to the memory that this old grate unearthed…
For years, my brother, sister, and myself had an understanding that an alligator lived in the darkness behind the furnace grate in the Rego’s entrance hallway.
From what I can remember, our mother convinced us of this during one of the waits for a table. My brother was very small and needed to be distracted. “Don’t put your fingers in there; the alligator will bite you!” It worked so well that from that day forward, I never walked past that mundane grate in the wall without a quick peer into the darkness thinking of the alligator. If I could go to lunch there today, it would be the same. Tragically, like so many other Mon Valley institutions, Rego’s is no more.
My mother is gifted with that rare quality of being a natural storyteller. A good imagination is, of course, central to this talent. But also, I think, conviction. The storyteller must convince. She must, in some important way, believe in her own story. Mom also had convinced us and all our friends and neighbors that a troll lived in a drainage ditch just below the house.
I digress. I write this today because Charleroi is in what many believe to be its death throes. The town that was once called The Magic City is now derided as the Tragic City. It’s not as simple as ‘the mills closed.’ There could, and have, been whole books written on why some places thrive and others collapse.
It’s a complicated mix of post-industry malaise, the hollowing out of organized faith, the deadly cocktail of opioids and the drawn and quartering of the family unit. Throw in some civic leaders with no interest in a bigger vision and you get Charleroi. And Monessen. And Donora. Naomi and Brownsville. McKeesport and Fayette City. The businesses that thrive here do so in spite of the challenges, not because of encouragement.
I can write about these places because they’re mine. And because I write from the perspective of a woman who wants desperately to help them succeed again. The past cannot be recreated so, in some ways, nostalgia is a kind of useless commiserating.
We need new ideas. Risk takers! Brave people who will put their skin in the game. This is where I bring up The Ruins grate again. Because, as an artist, I see what is possible. As opposed to what is impossible. It has been declared impossible to save The Coyle Theater in Charleroi. If you are from here and are reading any kind of media, you know that there is a great battle afoot to save the lost cause of that flagship institution. I say we need the kind of people who can imagine the alligator behind the furnace grate.
I live in a world where the alligator of imagination is always a possibility. Armed with that story, I can do things that everyone has declared to be impossible. Turning the ruins of the Whitsett coal mine into a vibrant mosaic museum that is reverberating its energy all over the world would have seemed an absurdity.
It wasn’t possible. Until it was.
Maybe it’s time for the artists to start moving into Charleroi. Real estate is in the tank. Cost of living is as low as it gets. The ingredients are perfect for a comeback and the artists are always the first to see the writing on the wall. Maybe the only hope Charleroi has left is imagination.
So, I end with this. “Can you see the alligator?”