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THE 42ND FLOOR

From time to time I find myself lost. Not so much in existential quandary or moral doubt--though that, too. But I mean just plain geographically lost. Inner compass out of order.

It all began when I was a kid in Cleveland. I got lost all the time--even while driving "dodge 'em" cars at the amusement park. Once, at a family picnic, a white helium balloon escaped my grasp and sailed toward a tree-lined horizon. Mesmerized as the balloon receded faintly into the distance, I trailed the image, then its afterimage, trudging into the woods. was lost for days and sustained myself by gnawing on tree bark. No, just kidding. A search party consisting of my father rescued me within 10 minutes.

I survived and became an adolescent. At age 17 getting lost was rendered infinitely more convenient by the availability of wheels, specifically the family Mercury station wagon, albeit on rare occasion. Late that spring I had such an occasion: interviewing for camp counselor in the Ohio woods. As for someone to ride shotgun, I had my eye on Carol Conroy, a bashful but good-natured girl who lived a block away. She was a bit of a mystery in our neighborhood. I just wished to know her better.

Carol Conroy's father, a man of cyclonic energy and ferocious temper, was suspicious of my designs. He made this clear by casually ripping the Cleveland phone book in half while demanding Carol's return by early evening.

The drive to camp went well. Carol was relaxed, even loquacious. My interview was straightforward. But on the return trip I espied a sign that said Cedar Avenue, the name of a street near my home--some 30 miles away. Could this be the same Cedar Avenue, I wondered in a spectacular case study not so much of imaginative curiosity as of outright dumb-think.

I was guilty of no hidden motivation, I assure you. I was more bashful than Carol. Not a scintilla of romance floated in the air. I swung onto Cedar.

After a mile or so, the road narrowed into a woods. I paused. Could I avert my fate? In the philosophic words of John Belushi--"But nooooooooo!" I maneuvered the car through thick undergrowth until the road dead-ended in a rut. Lost in the woods. Lost in the woods, we soon discovered, enveloped in a swarm of bees. Trapped in the Merc, windows rolled up, we perspired profusely and waited out the bees. Late at night we bolted from the car, trotted miles in search of a farmhouse. Found one with a light on. Were greeted by a pack of dogs and a shotgun-wielding mortal. Told our tale and made our phone call. I sat on the front porch, my life passing before my eyes, terrified by the impending arrival of Carol Conroy's father and my doom a la the Cleveland phone book.

But I survived and became an adult. For a while in my early twenties I was working as a freelance writer in Chicago. My life was copacetic, my work a blast--except for the fact I was broke. I took to delivering pizzas. The pizza joint I worked for had a silly policy stipulating delivery within 30 minutes. And so there I was, a newcomer to the City of Broad Shoulders, whose maze of expressways and one-way streets baffled me. Plus, I was saddled with my atrocious sense of road geography.

My car crammed with boxes of steaming pizzas, I would pore over a street map spread out across the dash-board. Then off I zoomed only to find myself totally lost. Sometimes I didn't return till dawn. Occasionally I ended up in Wisconsin . I spent more money on gas than I made. Night after night I would "eat" the pizza in more ways than one: After two months I was $400 lighter and 25 pounds heavier.

But I survived and in time moved to Pittsburgh. I lived here for seven years before gaining a gossamer sense of local topography and feeling secure enough to serve as a host. Then I invited carloads of relatives for a jovial weekend topped off with a spare-no-expense supper at a Mount Washington restaurant.

The rain fell gently that evening as our caravan, with me in the lead, became utterly lost. We crossed several bridges--both ways. We navigated three tunnels--both ways. Traffic signs became a gnostic blur. We could see Mount Washington, but we couldn't get there. Then an idea dawned on me: Drive to Station Square and board the incline bearing us right to our restaurant.

Which we so attempted, after I blithely advised my guests to abandon rain gear, saying it's all indoors from here. But it wasn't. I had the wrong incline in mind, and atop Mount Washington we faced a forced march of a half mile--dressed to the nines--in what was now, of course, an all-out deluge.

But we all survived. And you know something? Here's a lesson I've learned. Getting lost is good for the soul. It alters life's trajectory in subtle curvatures. For instance, because I got lost, Carol Conroy is now the foremost beekeeper in America. No, just kidding again. But she and I are lifelong friends going back to our Cedar Avenue adventure.

As for my wayward pizza deliveries north of Chicago, they delivered me, amazingly, to a brief, joyous TV job in Milwaukee.

The night of the Mount Washington drenching is now a venerable chapter in our family mythology. No one who was there would have missed it for the world.

Getting lost means becoming newly alive, finding out who we are, where we are--or are not--going, why we must do more than merely survive.

That's what I say, but what do I know? I'm still powerless to resist a pale white balloon softly sailing toward a lost horizon--Tommy Ehrbar


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