Writing About Place: Allentown


I am speaking at Muhlenberg tomorrow where one of the professors teaches my essay “No 13s in the Bs” from Philadelphia Reflections.  I am going to read this piece about my Pappy to them.  I read it on WHYY in 2010 and haven’t thought too much about it since (I was also invited to be the graduate commencement speaker for Lehigh in 2009, so if you were there, you will recognize glimmers of that speech in this piece).  So I thought since I was going to share it with Muhlenberg, I might also share it with you!

When I was a graduate student at Lehigh University I had a constant visual reminder of my grandfather.  From my office up on the hill, I could catch a glimpse of the smoke stacks from the old Bethlehem Steel, a place where my Pappy worked for decades.

After the war, men like him came back to find employment in the grit and steam of the Steel. They came home from a hard day’s work in search of a shower, dinner at the end of the shift, and a soft bed to comfort them if they could sleep. I used to joke that if you heard Billy Joel’s song “Allentown,” then you have heard the story of my life, a life of watching the women and men in my family doing physical labor at Mack Trucks and the Steel, or weighing semis and cleaning houses, like the jobs I had growing up.  So sometimes when I caught a glimpse of those looming towers, now reduced to backdrops for movies and a casino, I couldn’t help but think of the people who worked hard so that I could make my way to my office on the hill.

I know that if it weren’t for the kind of work that required a good scrubbing with Lava Soap at the end of the day, I would not have my fancy degree, facing a world of opportunities unimaginable to those who worked in the Steel on behalf of grandchildren they hadn’t even dreamt of yet.

Now when I say I’m going to work, I know I will come home just as clean as when I left in the morning. As a professor, I work hard – I have to make thousands of decisions every day. I am responsible for a small slice of hundreds of student’s well-being… and my feet often hurt from standing in front of a classroom. My mind is exhausted, but I don’t have to leave with more calloused hands or a smudge of grease across my forehead to remind me of the 115- degree factory and the sweat it left on my brow. Instead I can call sitting in an air-conditioned coffee shop with a three inch stack of essays to grade, “Work.”

My work isn’t determined by a shift whistle; my work has no clear demarcation between the rest of my life and my workday. My family doesn’t value my work less; it’s simply a different world.

That my sister and I were the first kids to go to college in our family is a source of great pride. There is a sense that we “escaped” from a harder life in industry or agriculture. However this sacrifice does create a disconnect between generations. None of my grandparents lived to see me graduate with my Ph.D. If they had they would have been proud of their granddaughter, even if she was going out into a world they didn’t know.

So the stacks of the Steel, still majestic in their unused state, always served as a reminder for what I believe:  that we should feel gratitude for those whose toil propelled us forward.  Not a saccharine or glossed over “thank you” I would find in a greeting card, but a daily awe for the work others did. My Pappy passed away several years ago, the Steel is no longer the lifeblood of the town, but when I see the stacks, I think of him and the rest of my family whose sweat and sometimes blood opened so many doors for me.


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