‘Rust Belt Boy,’ a memoir by Paul Hertneky.
By BILL BROTHERTON
The first time Paul Hertneky saw the ocean it was a revelation. Those who have read his memoir, “Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood,” have experienced a similar reaction.
Hertneky grew up in Ambridge, Penn., a struggling steel town that saw its factories close and manufacturing cease. It was a town with no future but that’s where their futures lied, to paraphrase Richard Thompson. Anxious to start a career, he decided to flee, like many of his generation. In 1978, he landed a job at The Real Paper in Boston and moved to the North Shore.
“I hadn’t seen the ocean till I was 17 years old. When I moved to Boston I wanted to find a place near the sea.” Nahant beckoned. He found an apartment with a view of Lynn harbor, close to the beach and an old Italian couple as neighbors who invited him to supper every Wednesday.
“I used to sit on the rocks and watch the sun set. I would walk to the sports bar (The Tides) and catch Steelers games. Now that I live in Hancock, N.H., I’m a Patriots fan,” he said in jest. “Lynn reminded me of home. I’d spend time in the Buick pool hall, on the second floor, (of a building on Washington Street/Central Avenue). It was run very carefully by an old-timer. It was great. I felt at home there.”
Critics have embraced Hertneky’s book, offering such plaudits as “Rust Belt Boy brings to life, in loving, lyric detail, an essential but overlooked portrait of America’s blue collar heart” and “I felt Hertneky was writing a love letter to my own boyhood, and at the same time a Dear John letter, telling me goodbye to all that. If you’re one of the six million baby boomers who walked away from a dying hometown, read this book and remember another America.”
Hertneky’s memoir has struck a chord with readers, not only in Pennsylvania but especially in New England where struggling mill cities with rivers running through them, such as Lynn, Peabody, Lawrence, Lowell and Fall River, have seen factories shut down and good-paying manufacturing jobs go elsewhere.
No one is more surprised at the book’s reception than Hertneky.
“I underestimated how many people in the Eastern United States grew up in these mill towns, in ethnic neighborhoods. In many ways, New England is a rust belt, too.”
“The national media says these cities are dying. That’s the wrong adjective,” said Hertneky. “The cities are struggling, they are changing.”
Hertneky is hoping to schedule readings of his book at libraries and retirement centers in the Lynn area and throughout New England soon. “I wrote this book for people who love reading and love literature. But I also wrote it for people back home who read one book a year.”
“I was back in Lynn for the Mavericks concert at City Hall Auditorium a couple of weeks ago. I was very impressed,” said Hertneky, praising the downtown arts community, the nice restaurants and the energy created by young adults who live in the area.
“It reminds me of Pittsburgh and other big cities that have followed a similar path to reinvention. Salem took advantage of the train line; it’s Lynn’s turn. This is what happens in the rust belt cities.”
Hertneky said a follow-up book might look at those individuals who abandoned their hometowns but are now returning. “People are coming back to their hometowns. They come back and buy inexpensive restaurants and turn them into expensive restaurants. Coffeehouses spring up, becoming almost a community center for young people in these great industrial cities. Lynn is in a great spot.”
“Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood” is available at www.amazon.com.
Bill Brotherton can be reached at [email protected]