by Rhian Kenny
Note: This was written before the strike. It didn’t seem to help anything to send it anywhere when we weren’t on strike — there was the chance that it would just be a bad dream. But the bad dream has come true, and now maybe some might like to see what this situation is doing to our community.
Today is the Pittsburgh Day of Giving and my heart is breaking. I’m in tears, and I feel ill. Our air conditioner went out a couple of weeks ago, and we’ve been doing our best to cool the house by opening windows when it’s cool and closing them when it’s hot. We don’t dare spend the money right now to replace it, though. It will be plenty cool soon, and the girls haven’t complained although we’ve all been uncomfortable. We also aren’t spending the money we saved to replace our roof. But not being able buy yourself something doesn’t feel bad, that happens to everybody. Feeling like you can’t give to others feels terrible. In the past I’ve given to the Pittsburgh Symphony and Pittsburgh Musical Theatre, and small arts groups like the Renaissance City Winds. I’ve given to groups that care for the truly needy, like Little Sisters of the Poor and Catholic Charities, and groups that help people care for their bodies like Valley Points YMCA. But the possibility of no income changes things.
My husband and I are both Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra musicians, which makes us blessed. Hundreds of people wanted our jobs, and not everybody gets to do something for a living that touches people. Although many people think, “How tough could it be, playing music?” we work hard to play well enough to be in this fantastic orchestra. Some people think it’s so much fun that we shouldn’t get paid at all, but that’s the way the orchestra business works, kind of like pro sports; because the best orchestras compete for the best musicians and musicians compete to get into the best orchestras, there gets to be a Pittsburgh Symphony and we get to make a living that normally allows us to give something back, and every year we use the Day of Giving to give a little more.
Only this year is different. I’ve been in the PSO for 26 years, and every three years or so we negotiate a new contract. It’s always stressful because there’s always some push to get the musicians to take less, and some years we have, but there has always been some light at the end of the tunnel and it has always worked out. In the past we’ve at least agreed that keeping the PSO great is something we all want. This year we were completely surprised by the demand for cuts that would completely change what the PSO is, that would hurt the orchestra so much that we can’t agree. And it really isn’t the harm to us, it’s the harm to our orchestra. We would lose our best players, and would not be able to replace them, or keep the replacements if they are that good.
So we think there’s going to be a strike. We don’t want it, we love our orchestra and our city and want to keep playing, but we don’t believe the right thing is being done and we can’t agree to destroy what has taken so long to build. Because we don’t know how long we’ll be out of work, we aren’t spending, and that hurts everybody. It hurts the local businesses that would otherwise be replacing our air conditioner and our roof right now, and using that money to buy groceries and prom dresses and dance lessons. It hurts the restaurants we haven’t eaten at all summer. It hurts the car dealer down the road who would have sold us a used car for our teenage daughter, and used that money to take his family out to eat at restaurants a few times.
But right now it hurts the charities I’ve always given to, INCLUDING THE PSO, and it hurts me in the heart that it has come to this. Everything was going so well, the orchestra was going from triumph to triumph, getting better and better, we had a new executive director who said all the right things, ticket sales up, fund drive exceeded its goal. Now we don’t know which paycheck will be our last, or how long we’ll be without one.
Maybe we’re looking at this wrong. Maybe we should trust that the Pittsburgh that created this fantastic creature, this beautiful orchestra, wouldn’t have brought it to this point only to walk away and let it starve. But that’s kind of what we’re being told will happen, and the dollar we give now we might need later to keep the lights on. My faith says to take care of others first. But we have kids to take care of, mustn’t we take care of them first? Do we give now, on the Day of Giving, as an expression of faith and hope? Or do we accept that it’s a hard world and a crappy business and take care of ourselves?
I’m in tears, and I feel like my heart is breaking.
PS: We gave.