Monday, May 12, 2008

A Toast At A 250th Birthday Party

I was in Pittsburgh last week for my sister's wedding. The Steel City. Health Careburgh. North Robinson. Having been a resident of Other Parts for nine years now, whenever I return to Pittsburgh, it's both as a fond old friend and an impartial observer. Like if you went to a 10-year high school reunion and one of your good friends from chorus was now a 280-pound chain smoker with bad hair. And so here are my observations on a week near the confluence:
  • First, the city is absolutely electric right now for the Penguins, and with good reason. They have the two best players in the league and they're 10-1 in the playoffs so far. We were at a bar Friday night and about an hour after the Pens wrapped up Game 1, Michel Therrien walked in and got a rousing ovation. Apparently the place is a bit of star jock bar and local celebrity joint. So it's nice that Mark Madden didn't come in, because apparently I made his radar recently.
  • If sports fanaticism was a salable good, something that you could wrap up and ship to other cities, Pittsburgh would still be the industrial king of America and would possibly rival China for goods exporting. When you arrive at Pittsburgh International Airport, two life-sized statues greet you. George Washington and Franco Harris. And 85% of returning Pittsburghers can only identify Franco while assuming George Washington is William Pitt. And because you cannot turn sports fanaticism into a salable good, the Pittsburgh International Airport is a veritable ghost town. The arrivals and departures boards each have ten flat panel monitors for listing flights, and five on each board are turned off because the airport doesn't have enough daily flights to fill them up. Maybe if they switched to a 24-point font for each flight listing.
  • The passion for sports does not always lead to intelligent discourse. In the course of one night at a bar with friends, I heard the following opinions: Marian Hossa isn't that good (12 points in 11 playoff games), Jaromir Jagr will be Crosby's winger next year and Crosby is the most overrated player in the league. I just sipped my beer in silence.
  • That is not true. I actually yelled at each of those points, but that brings us to the next topic. Pittsburgh is a fantastic beer town. Although a large chunk of the populace spins a wheel to choose between Miller Lite, Bud Light, Coors Light and Warm Piss, more and more people are starting to opt for quality over quantity. While not exactly ignoring quantity, either. I visited Bocktown, Sharp's Edge and Pittsburgh Bottleshop Cafe, three places that offered me around a combined 50 taps and 7,000 bottles. I personally took down an unholy and unhealthy amount of beer last week. Enough that if you lick my forearm right now, it has that peppery hop taste to it. For a fancy boy like myself, it's nice to see people quaffing Erdingers and Hoegaardens while watching the game. So nice that you barely even notice guys with white baseball hats and gold chains hanging out over their t-shirts drinking Bud Light in an aluminum bottle.
  • Erie Brewing, damn, you people are all kinds of nice. I fought the Maibock and Railbender Ale twice each and came out a happy victor. Finally, a reason to drive up 79 for two hours!
  • People in Pittsburgh don't give directions by street signs, mainly because the actual presence of street signs is unreliable. On my friend's street, his street sign is twisted around like Wile E. Coyote is trying to fool the Road Runner. Instead, people give directions by landmarks. "You know where that gray Buick is always parked after 4pm? Make a left there." "Where's the Buick?!!? Where is it?!? It's 4:15!! I CAN'T TURN!!!!!!" Monday at dinner, I mentioned a cemetery (one of Pittsburgh's few growth industries) by the Parkway, but my uncle couldn't recall it. For five minutes, we spoke the native tongue and fired landmarks at him. "The Knickerbocker sign with the guy in the K." "The Vesuvius sign with the sparkly lava." "The way to the airport." Finally, my dad said, "Do you remember Scrod's?" and my uncle immediately recalled the cemetery. Scrod's was a restaurant. It has been closed for 25 years.
  • The reason my uncle was so unfamiliar with the area is because it is in the South Hills and he lives in the North Hills. People in Pittsburgh are perfectly willing to move. They'll hop from one new development to another with no problem. But nobody in Pittsburgh ever crosses a river for a move. If you were born in the North Hills, you'll die in the North Hills and you'll only see the South Hills a few times, most likely on accident.
  • Pittsburghers love chain restaurants to the point that even local places are becoming chains. The expansion of Atria's, Enrico's Biscotti, Primanti's, Sharp's Edge, Vincent's and others ensures that not only can you have the same thing every Friday night, you no longer will have to cross a river to do so. There's nothing quite like an unfamiliar menu to get a Pittsburgher's heart racing with terror.
  • Plus, at a familiar chain like Mad Mex, you can wear your Malkin t-shirt and not worry about getting cross looks. For those fancy places, you have to put on a pair of khakis, thick brown shoes and a button down shirt. Or, as I call it, Pittsburgh Dressy. All of the men at the rehearsal dinner Friday - outside of the two California pretty boys - were Pittsburgh Dressy. Tan pants and baby blue shirts as far as the eye can see.
  • Cities like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Dublin, London and Paris no longer have bars because they foolishly outlawed smoking years ago and people simply stopped going out. Even the non-smokers stay home. Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania are deftly avoiding this economic collapse by continuing to allow people to light up with immunity. There's no better reminder of last night's good times than smelling the smoke in your hair during your morning shower. Hey, my hair stinks! I had fun last night! On Sunday, we watched Game 5 of Pens/Rangers at Cupka's in the South Side. If you chipped away the decades of tar and smoke, the ceiling would be three inches higher. They might as well have drop ceilings. Also, the bar mirror at Cupka's is covered with union stickers. A set decorator for The Mysteries of Pittsburgh wanted to use Cupka's as is for a scene, but she was fired. The director thought she did a hacky job of making the bar look "too kitschy and ethnic". Hipsters would love Cupka's. Thank Holy Jesus that there are no hipsters in Pittsburgh.
  • And because there are no hipsters in Pittsburgh, that's why all of the abandoned buildings aren't turned around into useful spaces. The epidemic of strip malls in Southern California isn't the most beautiful architecture in the world, but a positive is that when Bev's Nails & More goes out of business, Suk Hoo Phun Pizza can slide right into that exact space with minimal effort. In Pittsburgh, when a factory or office building or grocery store or house had been abandoned, it stands empty forever. This used to be a Giant Eagle on Route 51 in Elizabeth. The size of the building makes it appropriate for two businesses, a roller skating rink or a grocery store. Well, nobody roller skates any more and it used to be a grocery store until it went out of business. Nothing is ever going inside these four walls again, except for the tips of nails holding on the plywood. There's a row of houses on Route 28 that will never, ever, ever be lived in again except by people who push around shopping carts all day. There's nowhere to park and you can't make a left off of your front porch because of traffic. And this is fine. Part of the change from industrial steel to white collar health coverage means that river proximity is no longer important or desirable. In fact, if your town was reliant on river traffic and access up until 1979, the better the chance that it looks like Hell's waiting room today. I'm looking in your direction, McKees Rocks and Elizabeth!The city needs to make a concerted effort to start knocking down buildings and replacing them with green space. Not even a park. Just some grass. Maybe a wildflower or two. It's pretty apparent which red brick factories could be renovated into a combination residential/retail space and which ones are just nurseries for rats. Eyesore, depressing, blight, whatever you might want to call it, these piles of stone, plywood and dust need to be handled. Mr. Ravenstahl, tear down that wall! And then that one, and that one and that one too, please.

That's what I noticed last week.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well, you know what they say - you can take the boy out of Pittsburgh, but you can't take the Pittsburgh out of the boy n' at!