Dave Shifren has worn many hats in a life full of second acts. He’s been a university professor, a screenwriter, a novelist and, most recently, a Pittsburgh police officer.
A few years ago, Officer Shifren started several chess clubs throughout the city that brought cops and young people together in ways that helped them see beyond the stereotypes they harbored about each other.
This year, Officer Shifren added another mission to his portfolio. Every Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Officer Shifren, in full uniform, convenes a gathering of citizens at the University of Pittsburgh’s Community Engagement Center (Pitt CEC) on Homewood Avenue.
But instead of agonizing over crime stats, those who gather in the conference room with Officer Shifren wrestle with the vagaries of the human condition as participants in the Homewood Short Stories Reading Group.
Last week’s discussion of Raymond Carver’s 1981 short story “Cathedral” included Helen Turner, a retired medical transcriptionist; Zinna Scott, president of the Zone 5 Safety Council; teacher and truck driver Chuck Hier; and Father C. Matthew Hawkins of St. Benedict the Moor in the Hill District.
Officer Shifren read the nine-page story aloud to the group, which was short two of its regular attendees. Reading the entire short story aloud allows the group to get everyone’s take while it is fresh.
Helen folded her arms and listened closely while Zinna flipped through her cell phone, seemingly missing nothing as evidenced by her laughter at appropriate points. Meanwhile, Father Matt scrupulously underlined whole blocks of text while Chuck read quietly to himself, flipping pages ahead of Officer Shifren.
After Officer Shifren finished, he opened the floor to reaction. A consensus quickly formed that the narrator/husband in the three-person drama was a jerk and totally unsympathetic, the wife was shallow, and her dinner guest — a blind man who is ostensibly the most sympathetic character in the story — was suspect on a lot of levels, too.
“As a short story, it’s a failure,” Father Matt said. He considered “Cathedral” pedantic, unnecessarily terse and devoid of a single interesting idea. Helen liked the story more than everyone else, particularly the psychology of the characters.
It occurred to me as she explained herself that Helen might be the most open-minded member of the group. She raved about Philip Roth’s 1959 story “The Conversion of the Jews” weeks earlier. For a Black woman in her 80s, she’s quite edgy and can deal with the transgressive.
“This is why I like this group so much,” Zinna said. “Everyone has their own idea about what makes a good story and they’re ready to defend it.
Like any good teacher, Officer Shifren kept his opinion to himself and encouraged the class to dig deeper and ask questions about the author’s intent and readers’ expectations.
Other short stories the group has tackled include Toni Morrison’s “Sweetness,” Bernard Malamud’s “A Summer’s Reading,” Langston Hughes’ “Thank You, M’am,” Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” O’Henry’s “The Last Leaf,” Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” and Camille Acker’s “Who We Are” among others.
Two weeks ago, a reading of Robert Daley’s unpublished short story “Second Honeymoon” caused a first-time participant to excuse herself and leave early because her husband had recently died and the story’s subject matter about a widower dealing with his wife’s death had hit too close to home.
Whether taking the class through Langston Hughes’ Jesse B. Semple stories or Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” Officer Shifren is more interested in generating a conversation than consensus.
The interracial dynamic is unique but doesn’t seem to be the point. Even if things start out as “a conversation about race,” it quickly reveals itself to be something more useful: a dialogue about American dreams deferred.
Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.