Of course we already know that Pittsburgh is great but sometimes it is really nice to see an outsider discovering Pittsburgh.
January 19, 2006
PITTSBURGH – This is not a bad town. Not at all. I swear it.
Now, can I come home, please?
People want a piece of me. I have over the past 12 hours heard from perhaps every single person in Colorado who once lived here.
How dare I call Pittsburgh “butt-ugly?” You would have thought I was describing their children.
Slowly, I am coming to understand.
The people here, I will admit, are some of the nicest folks I have encountered in a decade.
And even they will acknowledge – if they are the slightest bit liquored- up – what your eyes are screaming at you: The place is kind of grimy and, well, kind of ugly.
But even if it is (and, between you and me, it is) that is not, I am learning, the point.
Pittsburgh is old, northern industrial on its facade, but deep down, in its heart, it is Paris.
In the City of Light, they never tear down anything, and neither does Pittsburgh.
So what if you have a corrugated-steel lumber mill from the 19th century plopped right in the middle of the old neighborhood.
In Denver, it would now be resting for eternity in a landfill. Here, they rip out just enough from the inside to turn it into gleaming, not-too-cheap condos, restaurants and office space.
The place where I ate breakfast, with its thick wood paneling, was a firehouse back in the 1800s. The old railroad station up the street? Today, it houses fancy cheese and wine shops, linen-tablecloth restaurants and boutiques.
But even that is not the point of Pittsburgh.
It is a relatively small city that appears not to aspire to grandeur or worry one bit about any large-scale greatness. Folks seem to know each other.
I spent the afternoon with the Yinzers, up in the Strip District. I know, I didn’t get it at first, either.
A Yinzer, it turns out, will ask you this:
Yinz going to the Strip today? It is the Western Pennsylvania equivalent of the Southern y’all. Some pronounce it “yunz.” The local radio sports station even has a “Yinzer Yap” segment.
You would love the Strip District. If Steeler Nation has a capital, the Strip is it. Even the candy is Black and Gold. It is home to Primanti Brothers Bar & Grill, where you are directed to lunch if you truly want to know the Nation.
Primanti Bros. is a 24-hour joint at 18th Street and Penn Avenue where the bartender/waitress sets immediately upon you, as if you’ve had time to read the long menu on the wall. You will be dead before they hand you a paper version.
“Pastrami and cheese,” you blurt out, the first thing you read.
It comes the way folks here say you absolutely have to have it: with french fries and coleslaw tucked inside the bread. The bartender/waitress slides it to you on sheets of wax paper. They don’t do dishes at Primanti Bros.
And all I tasted, Scout’s honor, was fries and coleslaw. But forget that. The real show takes place just outside the doors.
Up and down Penn Avenue stand long tent enclosures, inside of which is every manner of Steelers gear you can imagine. People are standing five-deep in the spitting snow, just to get inside and buy yet another Steelers T-shirt, hat or jersey. Or all three.
But wait, I ask no one in particular, weren’t these same items available the first week of the season? The reply comes almost choruslike: “They’re in the AFC Championship now!”
The hottest-selling item, I learned, is a simple T-shirt that depicts the slyly smiling Calvin and Hobbes-looking kid (in decals, he’s the one urinating on everything from Ford and Chevy logos to you-name-it).
On the T-shirt, his aim is at but a single word – Denver – done up in orange and blue. I bought one.
It is about as anti-Denver as you will find in this town. People here do not have time to hate Denver.
Churches fill at noontime with folks praying only for a Steelers victory. Whatever Pittsburgh is, the Steelers are the glue that binds.
School pep rallies are scheduled for Friday. This coming Saturday and Sunday have been officially declared Black And Gold Weekend.
The Steelers are religion here. An example:
But the Bus’ TV epic will not tape until 7:30 this particular evening.
“It’s estatic here, this town is going crazy!” says Mike Stivason, 34, standing in the afternoon snow and bitter chill. He has come to the stadium with his brother, Ken, who will turn 30 today, and three of their buddies from Ford City, about 60 miles away. They have come only to be part of the Bettis show.
“What’s 60 miles?” Ken asks. “We just want to be here, to see it and take part. It’s the atmosphere! The Steelers are in the AFC Championship! We got our Terrible Towels in the trunk!”
You are born here and breathe your first breath as a member of Steeler Nation, says another of the group, Chris Zilla, and it never leaves you.
“I don’t know what it’s like in Denver,” he says, “but here we live and die with the Steelers.
“And we don’t intend on doing any dying anytime soon.”
By 5 o’clock, the line waiting to get into the Jerome Bettis show numbers into the hundreds.
And it will not air until Friday.