Philosophy with Strangers: ‘What is Happiness?’ in Charleroi, PA (Pop. 3,923)

In Philosophy With Strangers, a new series from the Moundsville blog, Pittsburgh writer Mike Vargo and I drive to small Rust Belt towns to ask big questions. Our idea is that we can engage, and unite, Americans by showing that our differences are not as divisive when we’re talking about things that really matter. Reporters often conclude that America is divided by big questions, but maybe we’ve been asking the wrong questions. Philosophy With Strangers is an attempt to remedy that.

This is not a new notion. Epicurus (341-270 BC), the ancient Greek philosopher said “no age is too early or too late for the health of the soul.” Surely, the same goes for nations.

In this first installment, we visited Charleroi, a former glass-making town of around 4,000 on the Monongahela River with a per capita income under $15,000. There we asked people: “What is happiness?” The answers we heard would be familiar in almost any American community, centered around the notion that happiness is self-determined.

For Bob Kosh, who owns a clothing store on Charleroi’s main drag, happiness is personal responsibility and an insistence on humor.

Thank God I have another day to do what I have to do. I have to find humor and happiness every day. I’m glad to be alive, grateful to be alive. Every day. I’m disgruntled about all the negativity. Why do we always get caught up in something negative? You know, you’re jealous because this guy got a beautiful car and you are driving this kadadaika, which means old car. In Hunky [Hungarian]. Some things you just accept. Guy in a wheelchair can’t walk. So we got to push him. That’s okay. You must accept it. This is your fate. This is your destiny. My mother was my backbone. Dad always worked and my mom was always there and she was great. Mom loved us all the same. A good upbringing [is important]. Good parents. It’s always good parents. You have choices. Everyone, I don’t care who you are, you have choices. And you know if it’s good or if it’s bad. Everybody knows that. If you go over to break a window, you know that’s bad. Just, everybody knows right from wrong. Everybody knows to make the right choice. So what do you make a bad choice for? [Some people] are weak. Weak minded. No self-esteem. Now, I can do anything I put my mind to. I’ll dig across the street with a spoon. It might take me a long time. Shawshank Redemption, there you go. I can do it. I can do it. [Helping] makes me feel good. It puts you on the right road. So, yeah. Help somebody. A guy came in here one day. Shoes were flopping off him. I gave him a pair of shoes. A few days later, I saw him. Where are those shoes I gave you? [He lost them]. I said you know, never ask me for something—well, he didn’t ask me, I gave it to him—but he will never get nothing. But maybe he will. If he gets me at a low point, where I’m feeling sorry for him. 

Michael Coury, Mike Vargo, Lori Coury

Next, we visited a couple who operate a restaurant in Charleroi. Lori and Michael Coury are religious, and Lori, especially, says happiness is good spiritual practice.

Life has its ups and downs. But when I think of happiness, our children are our happiness. They’re on their journey, they’re healthy, and they’re just very loving, compassionate people. So it gives me peace to know that if anything should happen to us, our children are going to be okay. And when it comes to the end of life, all I want to know is that I was loved. I don’t care about what we’ve accumulated or what we went through. It’s just to know that I’m leaving this earth loved. I’m not ready to go yet, but I’m a very spiritual person, and I know what’s waiting for me. My God is waiting for me. I think we’re all struggling in life in our own way, but some people more than others. Those are probably the unhappy people. They’re struggling to find that happiness. My advice would be, they need to find God. The one person that will never walk away from them. And it’s something that doesn’t happen overnight. I think they need to learn to love themselves. So I think that being in a good church can help someone, if they have no other person to talk to. It’s a good place to start. And to let them know that they’re not alone. 

Michael, Lori’s husband, is a military veteran and former police detective. Some years ago he survived multiple surgeries for a dangerous brain tumor and infections. 

I think I’m a control person. Control people in the military, control people in the police force, control my family to a certain extent — except for, yeah, my children. But when you’re hit with a life-ending situation, you have no control. So I was at peace with it. Like the doctor said, I handled it a lot differently than most people did. Just riding the waves. And that was probably one of the reasons why, in my opinion, I survived everything. I think I appreciate the little things a lot more than I ever did. Like just spending time with Laurie, going for rides for the day. Or gardening, landscape gardening around the house. What is happiness? Every day is a struggle to find happiness in this crazy world. But our kids are everything to us. It’s nice getting them off payroll. [Laughter] And for our employees, for the young people who work here, we strive to create a family environment. Whatever background they’re from, we show them they’re family here. If someone needs a home we make sure they get it. And we try to instill self-worth. That’s very key for young people. They have to know their value to step into the world. They need to know that somebody loves them, that somebody cares. And even police work is not just all about arresting people. Maybe ten percent of it is arresting people. It’s about helping people. Some lady needs someone to talk to, or maybe somebody is having a mental breakdown. Sometimes you can help to get them in the right direction. You run into those kinds of situations all the time. Policemen don’t see the best things in life. So that probably has a lot to do with the way I am today. It’s hard to explain. I’m the same person I was when I was 21. And I’m the same person as when I was 31. But I’m always growing, always trying to be a better person.

Casey Clark

Finally, we talked with Casey Clark, a manager at a coffee shop who asserts that happiness is taking “small steps forward.”

There are countless kinds of happiness, right? If you weren’t expecting something and you get a gift or you win a scratch-off ticket, you could be surprised happy. You could be consistently happy doing what you love to do — enjoying the day, rolling with the punches. Sometimes I’m sarcastic happy, cracking jokes, being witty. But I do try to help the less fortunate. I’m on the board of our local Salvation Army, and sometimes we don’t have the happiest clients who come in, because they’re not in the best situations. For people who are homeless or need recovery help, there are programs we offer and agencies that we can refer them to. They’ve made it this far to seek help, so being able to help somebody who might be down on their luck might give them a different perspective. No matter how comfortable you are, or whatever you’re doing, you always seek for something different. Like “Oh, that would be nice or this would be nice to have.” But if you focus on those kinds of things, and you weren’t genuinely happy with what you already had, that’s eye-opening. So I think that one of the biggest things is being happy with where you are in life right now and what you’ve accomplished so far. And if you haven’t accomplished much? Goals, goals, goals. Small goals. There’s always something to look forward to, like getting healthy again. Seeking help as a goal. Having a warm place to sleep. Having proper clothing — maybe socks are a goal. Just baby steps, any kind of a goal. Once you meet that goal, you can set another. I think that happiness is a mindset. Everybody can have a down day; everybody can be confronted with a real misfortune or tragedy. But it’s about overcoming. It’s about taking the step forward, whatever that may be, and realizing that it could have been worse. I think if you can do that, it’ll guide you.

In the next 12 months, Mike and I will be visiting these small towns and asking these big questions:

Braddock, PA. The struggling river town that elected U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman as mayor. Q: Who is your community?

Latrobe, PA. Mr. Rogers’ hometown. Q: Who do you love and why?

Greenville, PA. Amish country. Q: What is beauty?

Oil City, PA. The birthplace of the modern oil industry. Q: What is freedom?

Beaver Falls, PA. The classic political bellwether. Q: Where do you look for truth?

Donora, PA. Hometown of baseball hall of famers Stan Musial and Ken Griffey, Jr., and site of 1957 zinc smog disaster Q: What do you control and what controls you?

Homestead, PA. Site of famous 1892 union battle. Q: Are people born good or bad?

Steubenville, OH. Q: Is life essentially happy or essentially sad?

Punxsutawney, PA. The Groundhog Day town. Q: Is suffering necessary?

Aliquippa, PA. High school football dynasty. Q: Who decides morality?

Moundsville, WV. Subject of John W. Miller and David Bernabo’s 2020 PBS film. Q: Are ghosts real?

We’ll publish our reporting on this blog. We’re also developing a podcast.

Stay tuned.

Mike Vargo and John W. Miller

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