Thursday, May 31, 2012

City of Bridges

“You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same.”
-J.R.R. Tolkien

First View of Pittsburgh
Two weeks ago, I was seated on a threadbare, checker-patterned tram cushion while the weak Belgian rain streaked the windows as I passed the Palais Stoclet along Avenue de Tervueren. Two weeks ago, I was having Movenpick ice cream with two of my best girl friends as we passed La Bourse and I considered how the worst part of returning to America was the lack of Swiss ice cream.

For two weeks, I’ve been back on the other side of the Atlantic. This return has included typical American fare and fanfare: miniature golf, amusement parks, hot dogs, barbeques, coconut cream pie with real macaroon crust, baseball games and buffalo wings. In short, an abundance of indulgence.

And though I’m now in my own territory, though it’s my own country and a city that I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve visited, it felt like I was being reintroduced to American culture with enthusiasm by my Pennsylvania family, as though they were reminding me what I’ve missed. I’m surprised at how much old friends can close the gap in time between the cobblestones of the Grand Place and your ride down a rollercoaster, being just as silly as you ever were.

At Kennywood Park
One never feels so integrated into a place until one is dirty with it. After spending a day at Kennywood (Pittsburgh’s amusement park), I felt positively shellacked in the dirt and germs of its people and in this way re-Americanized. But I was also satisfyingly exhausted from the screaming and hand-holding on magnetically-powered loop-de-loops on this large-scale playground.

Kennywood is a unique amusement park, one of only two amusement parks in the world that is listed as a National Historic Place. And although the selection of diversions is largely relegated to the traditional roller coasters and arcades common throughout the nation, it was once also home to dance halls, public swimming pools, and bandstands (probably more like this when my father went there when he was six-years-old) - all of which were open, available, and designed to be accessible to the working class. Because Pittsburgh has always been a dedicated working class city.

Which means the City of Bridges (as it's called) is also host to a cast of characters that you’re both endeared by and terrified to identify with. Take for example, the man walking down Beacon in a pair of black and gold Steelers parachute pants, no shirt, sporting a pony-tailed “skullet” (you know - where they’re bald on top but with long flowing locks tied at the base of their neck) and the crowning piece: bright white neck brace propping up his head as he walks down the street smoking a cigarette. That man is most likely a good example of what we call a “Yinzer.”

Back to the Land Where Sandwiches
Are Bigger Than My Face
Yinzers are classic Pittsburgh folks, speaking a dialect that is apparently the most difficult and muddled of all the American dialects. They don’t say “did you eat yet?” – the phrase instead comes out “Jeet jet?” They don’t say “I’ll have some eggs and stuff,” they say “I’ll have eggs n’at.”

And the most puzzling of all: “yinz.” The Pittsburgh version of “y’all.” Except at least “y’all” is a contraction for “you all” and “yinz” is short for “you unz.”… Which doesn’t make any sense. And if you meet the right yinzer, it doesn’t matter how much they insist they are native speakers of English, you might not be able to make out a word.

But all Pittsburgh people are extraordinarily genuine, down-to-earth and warm. In my enthusiasm for buying a piece of Gullifty’s coconut cream pie, I left my debit card beeping in the ATM slot as I ran down the street to meet up with my friends and check the restaurant hours. I didn’t even realize my mistake, just sat there jawing over the pie options when a large-framed man in an orange shirt started waving his arms and making his way down to us.

Kennywood Sunset
“Hey,” he called after us, “you left your card. You left your card!” He waved it in the air and my friend Sakena charged up the street and retrieved it for me. This was the exact same mistake that I’d made that resulted in my previous debit card being stolen. But I was spared that particular travesty this time around by a kind and concerned Pittsburgher.

It’s a strange place with quirks lurking in unexpected places, which I’m reminded of on my first day back over lunch at the classic Primanti brothers deli. Sean, in discussion of our friend Chris’ new fixer-upper home tells me that the house includes a “Pittsburgh cellar.”

“What’s a Pittsburgh cellar?” I ask.

Pittsburgh Cellar
“Well,” Sean elaborates and spreads his hands, a trilling edge of excitement to his voice the way there always is when he’s explaining local history, “well, it’s a totally bare, undeveloped basement, that looks like it’s a cell. It’s low ceilinged with what we call a ‘Pittsburgh Toilet’ at its center; no walls, no privacy, just hanging out there in the basement.  Sometimes there's a shower nozzle. Just standing there in the middle.”

The image of a center stage, un-concealed toilet strikes me as both creepy and embarrassing.

It turns out (like so many things in the old Steel City) that this is a vestige of industrial times. The former coal miners and steel workers, apparently, when they’d come in from the mills back in the day often entered through the basement to clean the day off of them instead of tracking the dirt and grime through the house – they washed up and went to the bathroom first thing when they get home and emerged upstairs as the clean fathers of the house. So, many older houses in Pittsburgh have this feature – a grimy, de-industrializing area still standing there in the center of their basements.

I take another bite of my Primanti Brothers sandwich (a sandwich bigger than my mouth) and smile. “Ah, Pittsburgh. Ah, America.”

Pittsburgh Skyline from PNC Park
But really, what it comes down to, when I’m thinking about my love for Pittsburgh - what makes me happy to be there - it’s about something more elusive and unexpected. Something that you don't notice, but instead realize. Something that was best exemplified on this most recent trip during my first trip to PNC Park to watch a Pirates-Mets game.

There we were, enjoying incredibly overpriced and fatty food as well as beers before, during, and after the game. And although I’m a Red Sox fan in my heart, I can’t help but shift my allegiance for a game as I make my way into the disturbingly empty stadium. Nothing matches Fenway as a cathedral to baseball, but I immediately loved PNC, because it offers one of the best seats to watch the sun go down as you view the Pittsburgh skyline. The Pirates also offer some ridiculous and silly pageantry, including four people dressed as pierogies that raced around the field between innings and a call from Kiera Knightley on the big screen saying that the Pirates should not go down without a fight before the final inning.

And, if you’re not familiar, the Pirates are one of the oldest teams in baseball. Overall, the Pirates have won five World Series and lost two (most of those victories dated to a very long time ago). And after some success in the early 90s (making the NLCS three straight years), the Pirates have now tracked 19 consecutive losing seasons to date, the longest in North American professional sports history.

Pirates at Work
And yet the fans that were there watching the Pirates lose on that weeknight, leaned forward in an intense conspiracy of hope - applauded loudly for each run, standing when 
Andrew McCutchen split a bat and shot forward towards first, and resigned themselves to each out, waiting for the turn that never came. And then we all departed the stadium for the bar for conciliatory, hopeful drinks where we told ourselves the things the consistently thwarted tell themselves, "there's always the next game, the next season. Next time will be different." We smile grimly at each other and decide to believe in spite of everything that's come before. 

I don't know how you stay a Pirates fan after all this time, but it made me realize that there is an opportunity here in Pittsburgh for a tutorial on hope.

Some of the most difficult and worthy things in our life require unreasonable, even unfeasible hope - whether it's the idea that romantic love is possible or the belief that your book might someday see publication - sometimes we have to believe, cheer ourselves on in spite of repeated defeat. If after nineteen years you can still enjoy the process of watching a team try and fail, you can sustain the unreasonable and exquisite belief that anything is possible. 

First View of Seattle After Five Months
And Pittsburgh is a city that does that repeatedly, a failed industrial city always re-inventing itself, trying and always lagging. And the people that I know there are some of the most fervent and loving optimists I know - which is a quality so undervalued these days, it's worth my fierce defense. It makes me think that it's one of the best ways to return to America. 

I say that I’ve returned to America, but I wouldn’t say that I’ve returned home. Or I have, but it is no fixed point right now - it's just a continuing rotation of people to say "hello" and "goodbye" to. And in this way, travel continues. 

Farewell, Pittsburgh - thanks for reintroducing me to my country.

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