Prove your humanity

This story was originally published on October 2, 2015.

Jason Fleming is a lawyer. Make that an ex-lawyer. Now he’s the caretaker for a 40-slip marina on the Ohio River in Pittsburgh. And life has never been better.

“On paper, it doesn’t sound like a great deal. I live in a 40-foot trailer with extended pop-outs. The running joke amongst all my friends—and I’ve had to own it because you can’t avoid it—is that I live in a van down by the river. The fact that I have a 20-foot-by-20-foot deck that’s right on the water and what I guess I would describe as kind of a carefree bohemian lifestyle—that makes it all worth it. We are on the outer edge of the Chateau neighborhood, which is an industrial neighborhood. But right along the edge of it, along the river, we happen to have this leafy oasis feel that makes it a little world unto itself. And if you want, you can kind of disappear into this little bubble and not really deal with the rest of the cityscape.”

“Five times a week minimum, every week of the year, somebody comes by: Do you live here? Yes. Oh my god. That is the coolest thing in the world. I wish I could live here. And they typically are people with kids and responsibilities. And they see this as what I see it as: a wonderful escape in the middle of the city.”

“The owner of the marina has two sons. One is a city cop who used to live here. The other is a former cop. And when I moved to Pittsburgh and needed a job, I got on working construction with this guy. And I became really good friends with his entire family and used to come down to the marina often because it was a great place to swim at the end of the day. And the son who used to live here at the trailer was moving in with a girlfriend. And I said, ‘Well if he moves out, I would love to move in and I’ll watch the marina for you.’ And they said that was great. But I said, ‘Listen, here’s the caveat: You’re moving in with this girl. You’ve been dating for six months. What happens in three months when you break up with her? Are you gonna want to come back here?’ And he said, ‘It’s not gonna happen. Don’t worry about it.’ Three months later, when he broke up with his girlfriend, and he came back here, I said, ‘Hey, bud, we had this conversation. You’re not getting me out of here. I’ve found my oasis.'”

“I’m not off the grid. But I’m surely on the edge of the grid.”

“In the wintertime, it is like what Buzz Aldrin said: He called the moon ‘magnificent desolation.’ It’s like that back here. There’s me, the occasional truck back by the warehouses, a barge on the river. A train. There’s no people. It’s quiet. It really feels like you have the river to yourself.”

“Even though it’s in the middle of the city, it’s actually a really quiet place. You don’t hear the pushers and the barges very often unless they’re going against the flow of the river and the river is flowing heavy. One of my favorite sounds is in the wintertime, when the river is partially frozen over and you hear the barges cruising through the ice. It sounds like they’re breaking up giant pieces of peanut brittle.”

“The people that come here tend to stay here. I can fit 40 boats if I get creative, and I might have two openings a year. I have people calling me from Christmas on, wanting to know where they are on the waiting list. The waiting list is an informal list by the telephone that never really gets used because I never really have slips to give people. But occasionally miracles happen.”

LISTEN: “An Oasis on the Ohio”

“Somebody asked me the other what was the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen on the river, and I had to think about it. It was the Fourth of July a couple of years ago. And at some point, some knucklehead got a little tiny rowboat with an outboard motor. And it was just him and his very pregnant girlfriend on the boat. At one point, I heard some commotion and looked out. The boyfriend had fallen or jumped out of the boat—I don’t know why—leaving his pregnant and now panicking girlfriend in the boat, with the outboard motor stuck at full throttle and in full turning position. So now the rowboat is doing very loud, very aggressive concentric circles in the river. And people were slowly thinking, How’s this one gonna end, and can we do anything? But nobody was really going out of their way to come up with a plan—until those concentric circles started to get closer and closer to some very expensive cabin cruisers. And suddenly that passive curiosity turned into like SEAL Team 6 brainstorming. And everybody suddenly had a plan because they didn’t want their boats touched. And what ultimately happened was that a brave young soul got on the back of a jet ski. Not a WaveRunner. Not a Sea-Doo. One of those old-school jet skis. And he took it out to her and, in what was admittedly a very impressive feat, jumped from the jet ski onto the boat—TJ Hooker style—and immediately turned off the engine and saved the day. Mind you, the boyfriend, was not the person who saved the day. I don’t know if that relationship stood the test of time.”

“Boating is a subculture like any other subculture. It’s kind of a weird fraternity. People talk about the expense of the boat and how the two happiest days in a boat owner’s life are the day they buy the boat and the day they sell the boat. For those people that don’t use their boat frequently, no amount of money is worth it. But if you use your boat all the time, and you really just suck the recreational marrow out of that boat, then it doesn’t matter what you pay for the boat. It’s worth it 100 percent. It’s the perfect way to not be at work and not be at home for them. The escape is the river.”

“Surprisingly, for someone who lives on the river, I don’t own a boat. The best boat to have is a friend with a boat. But show up with beer. More importantly, show up with gas money. A six pack is not enough.”

“Everybody who lives on the river lives under the constant threat—or promise, depending on how you look at it—of urban redevelopment. The Urban Redevelopment Authority has bought a lot of the property just up river from us. And I guess they’re just waiting for the real estate conditions to be right to start developing. There’s a good chance when that happens, this marina won’t be here. It’s kind of like the sword of Damocles just hovering above everyone, and you’re just waiting for it to drop. When that happens, the nature of the Chateau neighborhood is going to change drastically and quickly. And my world will change drastically also. That’s how my story will end eventually. I’ll have to go somewhere and get a real job. And who wants to do that?”


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