Chapter 35: Nick, the Heads-up Penny, and the Assassination of JFK

All-American Ruins
11 min readJan 23, 2024

Irish Centre of Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh, PA

I’ve been staring at a blinking cursor for over a month.

I’d set a deadline to publish this story on Nick’s birthday, November 18, but that passed, so I adjusted the release date for the 60th anniversary of JFK’s death, November 22, and then that also passed.

As such, the extraction process that was writing this particular post became much more daunting than I could’ve realized. As it turns out, it’s a bit taxing to write a story about an abandoned Irish center in Pittsburgh that weaves through the deaths of JFK, an Irish Catholic from Massachusetts who was murdered; and my first love, Nick, an Irish Catholic from Connecticut who killed himself.

As it turns out.

At the core of the story, of course, sits an abandoned building.

At first glance, it looks like all cinder block buildings look: cold, commonplace, cost-effective.

I realize that doesn’t mean all cinder block buildings are cold, commonplace, and cost-effective; perhaps if I’d noticed the conspicuous, classy, capital letters plopped on the side of the building, “IRISH CENTRE,” that first glance would’ve felt different.

Besides, when I finally do see the words “IRISH CENTRE,” dark green, with a distinct, bold font, the Irish in my bones unfurls, having already been gently awakened by the dreamy, winding hillsides and 446 bridges that make up the City of Pittsburgh. It’s dreary, which, in these particular circumstances, pleases my spirit because sometimes, these sorts of gray days can transform the ruins of America into a reverie, as if I’m navigating a totally different dimension (or at the very least, a different planet). Every once in a while, I’ll imagine an empty film set for an apocalyptic movie that was never released because the entire cast and crew just vanished. I do that sometimes, especially if I’m listening to a recording of a motion picture score like Blade Runner or Gone Girl.

I’ve said it ad nauseum: It’s fun to play pretend.

There are countless made-up scenarios to choose from.

Not that any of this matters at the moment; Julie and I don’t have time to stop anyway. Our names are on a list for a hard-hat tour of the Carrie Blast Furnace, a once-abandoned, now-revitalized Pittsburgh-steel-boom-icon, located in the Swissvale neighborhood down in the Monongahela River Valley, a “remnant of the once massive, legendary U.S. Homestead Steel Works… a vestige of Pittsburgh’s 20th-century domination of the steel industry,” to quote the Rivers of Steel homepage.

We have a blast (har-har), especially during the part where we get to observe the Rankin Deer up close and personal.

As we head back to our Airbnb from the Carrie Blast Furnace, I remain unconvinced that we should go poke about a boarded-up cinder block building. I don’t even know that it’s the Irish Centre of Pittsburgh — yet.

Julie is dead set on snooping around, though, so I oblige because — well, why not? That is what I do, after all: explore abandoned spaces. That is why we came to Pittsburgh: this trip with Julie is a small birthday gift I gave myself, to reconnect with the hobby for a moment. It’s been a while.

We ditch the car at a public park across the street and head out on foot, up a slight hill with no sidewalk, making sure to stay as far off the slim, twisted road as possible before we reach safety. Once we set foot on the property, something happens. A quick burst of wind grazes my face, wraps around my shoulders, and continues on, into the wiles of the building.

It stuns me. I fall behind Julie for a moment.

“Nick?” I say to the air. “That you?”

“Hey, Beaux.”

The sound of traffic from Interstate 376 hovers in the distance, and I stand still, listening for his voice.

“It figures you’d show up at an Irish Centre the day after my birthday, a couple weeks before your birthday, and just over a month after the anniversary of the day you died.”

I met Nick in an elevator bay, though I don’t have much memory of it. After we started seeing each other, he asked if I remembered that moment. I didn’t. I had no recollection of it. Apparently our parents were staying at the same hotel during freshmen orientation week, and we were all leaving the hotel at the same time. Everyone introduced themselves. Nick and I shook hands. After he reminded me, the memory came slightly more into focus, but to this day, it still feels like a dream.

Then again, everything surrounding Nick feels like a dream. Our tumultuous but usually loving time together, all the way up until January 2011 when I was taken into custody of the National Korean Police (South Korea, not North Korea, don’t worry) after Nick very stupidly sent me a care package that contained marijuana cookies. (That’s a much longer story for another time.)

Upon returning to the States, I waited a few years to see Nick, and when I did, he apologized. We ate a nice lunch together on the Upper West Side, took a walk through Central Park. He told me all about his life.

That was the last time I saw him alive. It’s strange to lose the first love of your life to suicide, but on September 17, 2017, I got the call I’d always somehow known I’d get.

Nick was dead.

Julie and I make our way around to the side of the building. As we approach the side door, the urbex gods give us a wink.

A key is, quite literally, in the door, which is ajar.

We don’t even have to turn it in the lock.

We just waltz in. Immediately, I’m silently praising Julie for insisting that we stop to scope it out. I didn’t think it would happen.

That’s why it’s important to investigate. Closely.

We stare down a hallway that seems to stretch for centuries, tiled and cold, and I hear the leaky roof dripping above us. I immediately picture all the mold that could be floating all around us. I carelessly forgot my mask.

To our right is a bathroom with broken mirrors, clogged toilets, no lights, and a cart that’s weirdly chained up. “I hope we didn’t just stumble into someone’s home,” I think aloud.

“Hello?” Julie calls down the hallway as we cross the hall to a utility closet. It’s pretty standard and packed to the brim with an assortment of chemicals, paper products, Christmas decorations, and milk cartons.

As we continue down the hall, the Irish-ness of the place starts to become clearer and clearer. Framed photographs showcasing years of volunteers, Gaelic painted up and down the corridor, and as we begin to see glimpses of the main hall, we spot a giant Irish flag painted on the back wall of a stage where I start to hear the distant, imaginary echoes of Irish step dancing bouncing off the walls.

Julie makes an immediate right turn into a library that is filled with hundreds of books about Irish history, culture, politics. Awards for the step dance team, Pepsi cans from the ’90s, magazines, and a plethora of photo albums documenting a lush and colorful history of the Centre.

I pull a giant scrapbook off the wall and open it. Newspaper clippings from The Pittsburgh Press are shoddily pasted inside, and every article has a publication date between November 22 and 25.

As Julie begins to tear through the library, examining each and every artifact stored inside, I hear a faint hum floating down the halls.

“Greensleeves.” I love that song.

“Nick?” I say in my head.

I head to the great, vacant hall, which is divided in half by a metal railing. The stage is prominently featured at the back of the room, and dust covers everything. There are piles of old paper scattered all over the floor: bank statements, purchase orders, invoices, checks, donation receipts, decades of logs tracking money going in and out of the Centre.

I glance outside at the empty, deserted pool and think about Nick’s love of the ocean. His body was buried on the shores of the Long Island Sound, in Connecticut, in his hometown.

I glance down on the floor and staring back at me is a heads-up penny. A chills rushes up and over my shoulders.

If I didn’t know it before, I can confirm it now: Nick’s here.

The last time I saw Nick, he walked me to my part-time job as a box office clerk in a theater on 42nd Street. I kept thinking about all the heads-up pennies that he’d saved for me over the years. It was our little game: every heads-up penny I found, I gave to him, and vice-versa. It’s a game I played with many people, many lovers over the years, but it started with Nick.

“For good luck, or whatever,” I giggled the first time.

At the end of college, Nick surprised me with a bag of heads-up pennies he’d collected over the years. Each coin was laminated into a small piece of paper that had the date, time, and location it was discovered. It was the most romantic gift I ever got.

After he died, I started to see them everywhere. At first, I convinced myself that it was my way of grieving, that this is how my brain was trying to cope with the loss.

Maybe that’s true.

I grab the coin and pocket it as I make my way onto the stage. As I walk up, I find another heads-up coin. A dime. JFK.

“Okay, Nick. I get it. Hi.”

I recently had a nine-hour layover in Dallas, Texas. I decided to take the train from the airport to downtown Dallas and visit Dealy Plaza. I stood where Zapruder stood as he watched the President’s head explode from the shot that rang down from the Texas School Book Depository. I had watched that film dozens and dozens of times, but there was something about actually being there that was… I don’t know how to explain the feeling. It was a unique experience, despite its roots in a societally tragic moment.

I also can’t explain the feeling in this moment on the stage inside this abandoned cinder block Irish community center. The floorboards makes a noise, creaky and crickety. Nick wanted to live up here, onstage. In college, he expressed how badly he wanted to be an actor like me. It put a strain on our relationship as did many other things. Young love.

I stare out at the empty audience and picture it packed to the brim with Irish people, clapping and stomping along with the dancers. I glance toward the back where the bar sits. The word “Goon” is written across it.

I smile. In the reverb of the room, I sing:

Alas, my love, you do me wrong
To cast me off discourteously
For I have loved you well so long
Delighting in your company

Greensleeves was all my joy
Greensleeves was my delight
Greensleeves, my heart of gold
And who but my Lady Greensleeves

I head backstage and poke around, uncovering all sorts of remnants from days gone by. Old scripts, sheet music, more loose-leaf photographs, and an old, free-standing AC unit that most certainly hasn’t worked in a while.

A social security card. This one baffles me.

I begin to ascend to the second floor of the dark room before I think twice. I’m about to break my own rules: no second floors without a buddy in tow.

I walk back out onto the stage, sit, and stare into the audience.

Nick’s there. He’s smiling.

“Hi, Bello,” he whispers, though it sounds like he’s right next to me.

“I miss you,” I whisper back.

“I’m proud of you,” he responds.

I close my eyes and picture his big, strong arms wrapped around me, those summer days in Boston when everything felt free and exciting, the nights under the stars as we’d stroll the streets of Cambridge until 3:00 in the morning, talking, laughing, loving each other.

In the silence of this cinder block building, I open my eyes again.

Nick’s gone.

I pull the penny out of my pocket. The stillness is undercut by the faint sound of traffic that continues to roar from the distant bridge as well as the rambunctious ruffling of Julie pouring through the objects left behind in the library.

It’s these kinds of moments where I feel the most alive, the most centered, the most at home in these sanctuaries of forgotten memory.

“Bye, Nick,” I whisper into the air, as I place the penny back into my pocket.