This Saturday, I’m officially being inducted into Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s Hall of Fame. Bethlehem is where I grew up and where I set my six (so far) Bubbles Yablonsky books, so I suppose that’s how I ended up on the list, along with Jonathan Frakes (William T. Riker, Star Trek: The Next Generation and also on the Liberty High debate team with my brother) and Dwayne Johnson, aka, “The Rock.”
We inductees (there are, like, 20), have been instructed to keep our speeches to two minutes seeing as how for spectators this ceremony will be more painful than a graduation for your neighbor’s niece, especially at 90 degrees. Personally, I plan on taking my plaque, thanking the committee and raising my fist to yell, “Bethlehem rocks!” which is so unoriginal as to be parodied to a pulp.
But if I could give a speech – and anyone would be willing/drugged enough to listen – it would go something like this:
Thank you so much for the honor of including me among the first inductees to Bethlehem’s Hall of Fame. I don’t know what I’m doing on this stage with all these famous and notable Bethlehemites – scientists, professional football stars, and actors like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
Pity. I guess that sums up the committee’s reason to include me. Also, blatant self promotion. Who cares? It worked and now you’re stuck with my name on a plaque. Suckers!
My deep and grateful appreciation for this honor is all the more ironic when I recall the day I blew out of here at age seventeen, right foot on the gas pedal, middle finger out the window. Man, I could not wait to be rid of this stinking steel town and all the petty little minds that made my teenage years miserable, from the Latin teacher who called my father a sonofabitch in front of the class, to every single guy who refused to ask me to the prom.
That was awesome, by the way. Nothing boosts a girl’s self confidence like total, bonafide rejection. And, yes, that was my bare ass you saw outside the Hotel Bethlehem that night. Thanks for driving, Maureen Wellner, wherever you are. Good times.
My plan had been to leave this hell hole and never, ever return. Except I did, again and again. I worked at the Globe-Times nights taking rewrite until 2 a.m. I came back to get married and attend high-school reunions (“Shout out to the Class of ’80!”) and, too soon thereafter, bury my mother.
Even when I wasn’t physically in Bethlehem, Bethlehem was in me. In my bones. There’s something about growing up in a steel town that leaves you with an iron spine and an aching heart. Bethlehem taught me to be tough – and understanding. To never ever suffer the delusion that I was better – or worse – than anyone else. I am loathe to use the word “grit,” but there, I said it. Grit. No wonder we Bethlehemites can’t get too comfortable.
I know Bethlehem Steel is long gone, that our town is now internationally famous for being home to the world’s oldest bookstore and the magical Moravian Love Feasts and MusicFest. Yes, I’m sure the tourists love all the Christmas City sparkle – and gambling, too.
But what I love the most about my hometown, I included in my Bubbles books. The pink-walled hair salons where a Friday wash-n-set was sacred. The spotless sidewalks and green plastic carpets gracing concrete porches festooned with bright red geraniums. The reassuring thumping of the steel mill cooling in the night. The almost religious devotion to parades. The rich cultural neighborhoods of the South Side where newly arrived Puerto Ricans exorcised our Eastern European stuffiness with music, food and song.
And who could forget those frigid Friday night football games at Liberty? Sorry, Dwayne. Too bad you played for Freedom. I don’t know what you thought would ever come of that!
So, my apologies to Bethlehem, for badmouthing you all those years when I was just a surly teenager. And also, I would like to tell my manager at McDonald’s on Easton Ave. back in 1979 that I’m sorry I lied about not planning on going to college so you’d hire me the summer after senior year and then pretending to get a surprise scholarship. (See above – grit.)
Because while Dwayne Johnson may be “The Rock,” he’s not the only rock. We who call this place home are rocks on which futures are built. Solid. Unbreakable. Forever. And undeniably gritty.
Thank you, Bethlehem!
Yeah, that’s what I would say but I won’t because, dude, 90 freaking degrees!