Obscure Lives

Cynthia Ozick, 84, is a New York writer for whom New York is a grand estate and Pittsburgh is often a rusting generator outback, used only when the power goes out. Here are examples from four of her novels and short stories written over the past fifty years.

He asked, “What’s that about?” and put on his straw hat, though the band was too tight and pressed his brow and stained it with a red thong-mark.

“The revolution of the workers.”

“Yes,” he said. “And will he be here today?”

“Who?” But she knew.

“The one from Pittsburgh.”

“He’s not from Pittsburgh. He’s from Chicago. I don’t know. I can’t telephone. The telephone company took out all the telephones this morning — I made them. I can’t concentrate with all that racket. I don’t want anything ringing in my head but these voices: the sisters, the foreman, the workers. Wait till I read it to you William!”

— Cynthia Ozick, Trust (1966)


In the decade or so since, Rupert had lived without romance — not that kind, anyhow. Paris, and then London, and then Pittsburgh. He was sick of being a seedy wanderer bartering the baubles of trick and knack. In granite Pittsburgh he worked for a provincial satrap, the monarch of an intrastate railroad, and for half a dozen years threw himself into designing billboards. His grand noisy posters, in riotous orange and purple and drumming red, jumped out at every station like oversized postage stamps connecting town with town. All the commuter lines that led to Pittsburgh were stitched together by Rupert’s posters — he thought of them as brilliant beads strung on wire tracks.

— Cynthia Ozick, “The Puttermesser Papers” (1996)


Obscure lives inspire no inquisitiveness. If your neighbor tells you he was born in Pittsburgh when he was really born in Kalamazoo, who will trouble to search out his birth certificate?

— Cynthia Ozick, “What Happened To The Baby?” (2006)


“And he remembered the giddy week in Paris — whatever Paris was, it wasn’t Pittsburgh…

“I think I realized almost from the start that he’d never go back home. And now I won’t either, even if I’m not sure about the ‘never.’ Phillip says he hasn’t ever wanted to go back, but I noticed once that he still keeps his old Pittsburgh key in his pocket. He laughs at it, though — he says it’s to remind him of why he left…

“His French too had become flawless, except for its Pittsburgh inflections, which he could never get rid of.”

— Cynthia Ozick, “Foreign Bodies” (2010)

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