Continuing an end-of-year tradition, contributor Tom Squitieri is visited by a familiar face with whom he discusses the events of the past year. Previous installments are available in the Contributors section here and at Squitieri's website here and here.
The lights from the party boats on the Mon twinkled merrily off the water as the clocks ticked closer to the new year. It was merely cool at Point Park in Pittsburgh, far from the bone chilling of an 8:30 p.m. game at Heinz Field. In the other direction, in a luminary concert, were the lights on the Roberto Clemente, Rachel Carson and Andy Warhol bridges. All seemed fine in the world as 2016 starting pushing out 2015.
Well, I was home. But it was still today.
Suddenly, with my eyes and ears still closed tight, a new sense stirred. My nose caught the smell of something from long ago and, for a brief moment, I thought perhaps my Dorothy wish had come true.
It was the smell of fresh-baked Syrian bread. I opened my eyes to see a loaf dangling under my nose in the gnarled hand of the Old Geezer.
"Well, Old Geezer," I said. "I never thought I would see the day when you would come bearing gifts." I was starting to swoon over the smell of the bread, remembering just how good it tasted.
The Old Geezer watched as one of the party boats came close to where we sat. We could see several drunken couples trying to dance on the deck.
"Think of this as the 'Ghost from Christmas Past,'" the Old Geezer said. "A time when Mrs. Joseph would make sure your dad was able to get one loaf of this fresh Syrian bread each week. It may help remind you of things that are good from all parts of the world — and when people from all parts of the world felt like part of America."
"I've been trying to wish myself back to that time, Old Geezer," I said. "Yet no matter how many times I look, I'm still here and that party noise of tonight never really drowns out the anger and hate of this year."
One of the guys on deck shouted something and the female squealed an unappealing laugh.
"I give them to Lock No. 3 before they go overboard," the Old Geezer snorted, as he tore a piece of bread from the loaf and handed it to me.
The aromatic steam grabbed me and pulled me toward it, much like the way dogs would float to a great smell in an old Bugs Bunny cartoon.
Nevertheless, I paused.
The Old Geezer saw me hesitate. "What, don't you like it anymore?" he asked.
"It's not that, Old Geezer. I just can't seem to rationalize, grasp, even believe this spew of hatred and bleating against Syrians and others who want to flee terror and find hope. Even in this city that was made strong by immigrants, just three miles from here a taxi driver was shot because the passenger thought he looked like a terrorist."
The Old Geezer looked hard at me, but remained silent.
"Meanwhile, those running for president seem to run from the real issues and to the red meat. Look at some of these bridges — about to crumble any minute. And even here, where the economy has rebounded somewhat, people are giving up thinking they can get what used to be called 'a good job,' and the middle class has become the little class."
The Old Geezer scrunched up his face and nodded. "I would say, given our location to what was Three Rivers Stadium, that is an immaculate perception on your part. How did you get this clarity of mind? It is not like you, Tomaso."
I thought I could answer, but then I realized I also was filled with anger — not at those who are coming here, but those who were destroying from within what we all had built.
"Why, Old Geezer? Well, it's a challenge to be optimistic when that last survey by Public Policy Polling found 30 percent of GOP primary voters support bombing Agrabah — the imaginary country in the Disney movie 'Aladdin,'" I said. "And Democratic voters seem equally out of touch. A Wilson Perkins Allen survey found that 44 percent of them would accept refugees from Agrabah. No wonder those running for president feel little need to be specific on solving the huge looming challenges."
The boats passed again. The amorous couples were nowhere on the deck.
The Old Geezer nodded, munching a chunk of the bread; he seemed to be eating more than proffering to me.
"Okay, I will give you this," he said. "Voters pick up those breadcrumbs of disinformation and anger, then follow the trail to an illusion of their own making. Like any trompe l'oeuil, that illusion benefits from the fuzziness of detail and metamorphoses in each mind to each individual weakness and fear.
"Had they been eaten Syrian bread — in other words, hearty, real food as in real thoughts and words from real people with love and special care — it would be different. They only eat what they are fed. So, Tomaso, it is up to you and others like you, who teach and share, to feed them the reality."
Now it was my turn to nod.
"How about this, Old Geezer? Sanders wins Iowa and New Hampshire, but cannot get the nomination, becoming the first Democrat in history to win the first two and not get the nod. The Democratic convention becomes chaos, as more revelations about Clinton are made public. Meanwhile, Republicans start voting for folks not named Trump, yet cannot coalesce around one person. So their convention is deadlocked and since — sadly — Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson died this year, they look at numbers and pick guys from big states."
"And?" said the Old Geezer with a slight smile.
"That good Scranton, Pa. guy, Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Trail 2016: One large crack in the glass ceiling Biden should have been the clear choice for vice president Biden to end long career by boosting his rival MORE, along with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenKaine will stand with Clinton on TPP opposition The Hill's 12:30 Report Hillary Clinton needs to start embracing progressives MORE, wins a close one over the GOP pragmatic Electoral College ticket of Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Florida Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioGroups unendorse Grayson after domestic violence allegations Trump postpones Hispanic roundtable Tim Kaine backs call to boost funding for Israeli missile defense MORE," I said.
We heard the party boat band speaker tell everyone to find his or her date.
"That's not too bad, Tomaso," the Old Geezer said. "There always is room for a surprise. Remember, urban legend has it that Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerDem drops out of race for Boehner's old seat Conservative allies on opposite sides in GOP primary fight Clinton maps out first 100 days MORE of Ohio, a fine gentleman, made his decision to leave the Speakership after meeting with Pope Francis. It is a great dramatic tale. Let's hope he is not the Immaculate Exception.
"Because looked what happened next. Congress sort of passed a budget. They managed to extend some highway program so these bridges may not crumble for another year or so. They even did some work on trade agreements, tried to fix education policy, helped clarify — maybe — Medicare reimbursements and limit Big Brother to our phone records."
He finally handed me another piece of bread.
"Okay, Old Geezer," I said. "I promise you I won't give up if you won't. So why don't we head over to Market Square and lift a few at the Original Oyster House. I bet my grandfather would not recognize it. And then we can drift through the First Night crowd over to the Cultural District."
The Old Geezer brushed the breadcrumbs off his jacket. "Go ahead. I want to go look at the water for a second," he said.
I watched as the Old Geezer slowly made his way to the Point — centuries ago, the western terminus for man's continuing desire to seek what is beyond the next mountain.
As always, the wind picked up, yet I was sure I heard the Old Geezer say, "Come un aquilone in una tempesta?" As the din from the party boats got louder and the mist from the river thicken, I saw him nod before hearing him say "coloro che volano da soli hanno più forti ali."
The Old Geezer came back over to me. He scattered a few more crumbs on the ground. "For Coco, in case she makes it this way," he said with a smile. I smiled in return. We turned and pointed ourselves to Market Square.
As we started walking toward the merriment, we heard a splash behind us.
Squitieri is an award-winning reporter and communications veteran and an adjunct professor at American University and Washington and Jefferson College.