It was early March, and I was doing one of my favorite jobs — compiling my picks for the best upcoming concerts for the next two months for NEXTpittsburgh. I’ve been writing about music for 18+ years, going back to my days at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and relish the opportunity to shine a light on great music: local, national and international.
Then, one by one, the concerts started disappearing. Postponed. Cancelled. Ticket sales suspended. Venues like Spirit and the Rex and Mr. Small’s were going dark for an uncertain length of time.
I still have a file of half-finished concerts in my computer somewhere. My last show attended was D.C. gospel-garage-punk legends The Make-Up at Spirit on March 4. In my darker moments, I wonder if that’s the last concert I’ll ever see live.
Earlier, I had finished a story on the restaurant rows of Pittsburgh — those clusters of great restaurants that help define neighborhoods, and make them vibrant, walkable places that people want to go. When everything shut down, it didn’t seem relevant. Maybe, when we get back to normal it will see the light of day.
I used to go to an office every day — a shared co-working space called Ascender that my other employer, Markowitz Communications, rents in East Liberty. As an introvert, I had no idea how much I would miss talking to all the smart people running tech startups and social enterprises in the break room. Not to mention, walking to Trader Joe’s, Choolah, Two Sisters Vietnamese, or Kelly’s Bar for lunch.
Now my office — and really, way too much of my waking life — is at my kitchen table.
If I could set the entirety of 2020 on fire and push it into the Monongahela, I would.
That’s not to say there weren’t some bright moments amid the ever-encroaching doom. My cousin’s husband, a journalist and teacher, got the virus early on. After 10 days intubated in a medically-induced coma, he pulled through and made a full recovery.
My son somehow sneaked in a full season of Little League while wearing masks, and no parents or players got Covid.
Largely setting aside my usual wheelhouse — arts, entertainment and food — I helped cover City Design stories for NEXTpittsburgh. I reported on the many changes going on in Pittsburgh — a city unaccustomed to anything but stagnation for decades, and still unsure how to respond to its newfound vibrancy.
But the pandemic and the shutdowns suddenly became the only story for a looooong time. So I had to learn to talk about epidemiology, vaccines, monoclonal antibodies, industrial-grade P100 masks, virus-killing robots, a Covid-fighting nasal spray, virus-repelling textiles and computer modeling of predicted Covid spikes.
I also wrote about a furry llama named Wally whose blood has Covid-fighting nanobodies.
I want to say it was exciting to learn about so many new things, giving this English major a taste of talking about science. It was certainly inspiring to see so many of the region’s brightest minds all focused on this one intractable problem. Of course, the polio vaccine came out of Pitt, and that talent and tenacity behind it are still very much in evidence here.
There were moments of brief joy here and there. I wrote about a socially-distanced pandemic front-porch wedding. I wrote a tribute to how much I love shopping in the Strip, and how it was weathering the worst of the pandemic lockdown.
Some people found new and impressive ways to help, like Dr. Mark Baratz. In his spare time, he came up with a plan called “Double Play,” to order meals from struggling restaurants and deliver it to those facing hunger. Inspired by this, 412 Food Rescue (winner of Fast Company’s World Changing Ideas Award) used their organizational muscle to scale it up into “Community Takeout” with more restaurants and recipients. For a long time, I was a weekly volunteer for 412 Food Rescue, and it’s great to see them meet this moment.
When I did get to write about music again, it was about music venues in crisis. If I helped even just a tiny bit in getting the word out, with a goal of getting the public — and, by extension, Congress — on board for a rescue, it was worth it.
I also got to help people figure out how to vote, in a year that opened up so many new ways to do so. I learned about the peril of naked ballots and how to avoid them. Pennsylvanians, by and large, figured it out.
I got to interview Josh Shapiro, the state’s reelected Attorney General (and likely bound for higher office) who has exposed corruption in the Catholic Church, settled the feud between UPMC and Highmark, brought criminal charges against big players in the fracking industry, and has beaten back every attempt by President Trump to overturn the state’s election results.
I started a series of stories about how to survive a cold, isolating pandemic winter, with more additions on the way.
Somehow, I was able to continue my annual roundup of the 20 Best New Restaurants of 2020. It was, frankly, a miracle that anybody took a hard look at the challenges of 2020 and said, “Yeah, let’s still go ahead and open a restaurant.” There were actually way more than 20. Hats off to them. I hope to see them all again on the other side of this pandemic.
My favorite story, though is an update of my definitive ranking of the Best Movies Ever Made in Pittsburgh. There have been some new additions, so I expanded it to a Top 16. I was a movie critic for years at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (yes, that was once a real job!), and this is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time.
This year has seen so much suffering, disease, death and despair, on an almost unfathomable scale — and the worst may be yet to come this winter. Still, if my reporting has taught me anything this year, it’s that researchers are focused on the pandemic like nothing else in history, and there’s a good chance that science succeeds where our leaders have failed.
Here’s hoping 2021 is better for all of us.