Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access

From an unpublished draft of his memoir. A longtime television critic for Newsday, he died in June at age ninety-three. 

During the Great Depression, my father always had a job. He worked for Western Union, the communications giant, as a troubleshooter. In 1937, he was transferred from Pittsburgh to New York City. My mother was against the move. In addition to taking care of my sister and me, her responsibilities included looking after her mother, Bubbe Kaufman, who was housebound in Finleyville, Pennsylvania. She had rheumatoid arthritis and needed a wheelchair. After much discussion, my mother finally agreed to relocate on one condition: that she would spend six months of every year with her mother in Finleyville. That meant taking my sister and me out of public school in May and returning to Brooklyn in October.

And so the highlight of my early school years came on those spring days when the vice principal would tell me to gather my belongings. It would be a pity that I was missing the final exams, and they would miss me; I was such a good student, blah blah. Mrs. Gluckheimer, the third grade teacher, admonished me to study the rest of my lessons hard, blah blah. I wasn’t listening. The other kids were bug-eyed as they watched me gather things from my desk, say goodbye to friends, and give one final tug on my girlfriend’s braid. And then I was out of there, a winged angel flying over the prison walls. Going to Finleyville, a place as foreign to me as China, meant I’d get to ride the train. 

The most direct—and most expensive—route to Pittsburgh in 1938 was the Pennsylvania Railroad. Other trains went via Baltimore or Buffalo. The Pennsy was the only one that took you around the famous Horseshoe Curve, just outside Altoona, an engineering marvel that let you see the front and rear cars of the train simultaneously. The station in New York was the most beautiful in the world. All the other Pittsburgh-bound trains left from New Jersey. To persuade people to ride the trains more during the Depression, railroads sold discounted round-trip tickets called “excursion fares.” People would use them for a one-way trip, then sell the return portion to a ticket broker, who would resell it, adding a fee. It was cheaper than buying directly from the railroad. 

A few days before our departure, the ticket broker called at our apartment. There was muffled talk in the kitchen as the deal was negotiated. Despite the advantages of taking the Pennsylvania, my father chose the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the country’s oldest, because it was cheaper. Catching a train at the Pennsylvania Railroad station gave me the same feeling I would later have entering the Duomo in Florence or the nave of Saint Peter’s in Rome. Taking the B&O paled in comparison.

I was up before dawn on the day of departure, having spent the night tossing and turning in anticipation. I was tasked with carrying the pillows (the train charged a rental fee) and provisions. We had food for a week (tuna sandwiches, boiled eggs, salami). The candy butcher gave us a dirty look every time he passed with his cart. My sister and mother each carried a small suitcase, and my father two big ones. 

The romance of train travel began with taking the ferry in lower Manhattan to Jersey City. My father always believed in arriving early, so we were the first ones pressing our noses against the boarding gate. This was more than just an anxiety meshegas. Unreserved seats were first come, first served. As soon as the gates opened there would be a race to the coaches. We headed for the rear, not too near the steam engine because I liked to keep a window open. The soot from the engine would collect on the faded velvet seats or get in your eyes. We needed two benches; by reversing the direction of one, we formed a kind of private compartment. My sister and I would stretch out, pretending to be asleep so that nobody would think of invading our privacy. It would be a long time before the train left the station, which never bothered me. I had preparations to make. First, I’d struggle to open the window. Then I’d stick my head out to look up and down the station platform, checking on the trainmen at work: the brakemen inspecting the air brakes, the oilers squirting their oil cans. Then I’d watch the steam rising from the engine down the track. After lunch, I napped. Chik-chick-chik-chick-chissss-chik  . . . the sound of the train going through the mountains was a lullaby.

Once we arrived, we waited with our luggage at a crowded corner in downtown Pittsburgh for a streetcar called Charleroi. Fifty trolleys passed us by. Then at last it came: a big red car with its Cyclops front light blazing in the daylight. Climbing up the steps, I beat everyone to the seat behind the motorman, who sat on a green leather chair, swiveling around to punch your ticket. At night this godlike figure would be sealed off from the rest of us by a black velvet curtain. In those days, interurbans were self-propelled electric railcars that ran between cities and their surrounding communities. The Charleroi Interurban ran on the same tracks as the other Pittsburgh streetcars, which were operated by the Pittsburgh Railway Company, a consolidation of numerous smaller lines, each with its own politicians on the take.

The Charleroi served the mill towns along the Monongahela River, an area called Steel Valley. After it had gone through the Mount Washington Transit Tunnel, the Interurban passed the long lines of hopper cars filled with coal waiting to go into the mills, then down by Saw Mill Run Boulevard. It made its way through crowded mill towns, past South Hills Junction, past Castle Shannon. Then we burst into the open countryside, the car shaking from side to side as it zoomed past the telegraph and telephone poles, the scattered farmhouses, the coal tipples of abandoned independent mines where the veins had run out. Ruins of blast furnaces, mineheads, water towers, slag heaps.

Then the Interurban really got going. I gripped the armrests as we rocketed from side to side along Route 88. I was afraid the car would go off the tracks, but I also didn’t care. What a way to die. Past farms and corn fields, past stops marked by wooden sheds, where passengers could keep out of the rain and flag the car down. The Charleroi filled up and emptied, picking up and disgorging passengers. It sped past the Mesta Farm, the carnival grounds, the telephone exchange building. I shut my eyes, dreaming. I’d never known anything so exhilarating. I could ride that streetcar to eternity. I wasn’t religious, but I prayed the ride would never end. 

Eternity arrived a few moments later. The Interurban entered Finleyville, air horn blaring, wheels screeching on the curve, swinging down the back road that skirted downtown. It stopped in front of the Finley mansion.

There has always been a Finley in Finleyville. The occupant of the Finley mansion at the time was Dr. Frank H. Finley, aka “Young Doc Finley,” until he became, in his later years, “Old Doc Finley.”’ Young Doc Finley was to be the last survivor of the founding family. He died in 1939. This mansion, the most important residence in Finleyville, was just across the tracks from my grandmother’s house.

More from

| View All Issues |

November 2010

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now