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A Trip to Pittsburgh

February 1, 2009

Two weeks ago, I took a road trip up Pittsburgh. I left on a Friday after a week of trying to get highschoolers to review for their midterms, and I stayed until Monday, Martin Luther King Day. On this trip, I learned a foreign language. Yinz see, I went to Picksburgh and learned Pittsburghese. Becoming bilingual on this trip was a bonus. The purpose of the trip was to visit Drody and his fiancee. I wanted to see how they were making out in the Steel City, since their move from the City of Brats, Milwaukee. When I planned this trip, I had not idea I'd watch the temperature drop from 18 degrees when I left Virginia to -4 degrees in Picksburgh. I can't give the exact windchill, but let's just say it was damn cold.

I stopped once on the way for gas and a meatball sub at a Sheetz just before getting onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and snow covered the ground. It's a strange experience to leave a place where one has not even seen a snowflake all winter, drive hours in the dark, and then step out of one's vehicle to find the earth wrapped in a blanket of snow and ice, without ever having seen a snowflake fall. The experience can cause one to lose their seasonal context, like the season 5 premier of Lost or the premier of Life on Mars. I lost my reference point when I stepped out of my car and into the dead of winter. I called Drody to see how far away I was and to inform him that I may have gotten lost in Narnia, that my car was a magic wardrobe, and that Mr. Thomnas made my meatball sub at Sheetz, before a werewolf truck driver came in and wrecked the place. Western Pennsylvania took me out of comfort zone.

I like to ease into winter, so this trip came as a shock to my system. I never saw the snow fall, but there it was covering everything; and it wasn't a clean, fresh snow. This snow had already been churned up in rubber tires and covered with grease and oil. This snow was already sludge and looked more like it came from a slag heap at a coal mine than from a nimbostratus cloud.

Before arriving in western Pennsylvania, my winter experience had been a busted thermostat that caused my apartment's temperature to dib into the 40's. In Picksburgh, there was snow, negative temperatures, and a busted water pipe in Drody's apartment building. The landlord notified us of the break with a sign on the building's front door that read, "PIPE BREAK FIX SOON." I wondered if their landlord was an Indian chief from a politically incorrect John Wayne movie: "Red sun rise. All water dry up. Must go to river. For people to live free like buffalo. White man cheap bastard."

I'll jump into a swimming pool without dipping my feet, but when it's cold outside I can take all morning to get out of bed. I sip hot chocolate slowly because I'm afraid of burning my tongue. The cold makes me less responsive. I struggle to adapt. Last year, while at school, snow covered all the cars in the parking lot, and I didn't have an ice scraper. Instead, I used my longboard to shovel snow off my windows. I don't like the cold, and I don't understand why people choose to live in it.

When humankind rose up on two legs and walked out of Africa, I don't know why anyone walked into places like Mongolia, Scandanavia, and Picksburgh and decided to stay put, unless frostbite had already taken hold of their feet and legs and forced them to make permanent encampments. These places seem unnatural to live in, just as yinz sounds unnatural to anyone not from there. Of course, I drop a yall in every sentence, so who am I to judge? Still, the cold makes me feel tired, beat down, and weary. It makes my left knee turn into a rusted hinge that squeeks and creaks like the Tin Man's jaw. I was only in it for four days and three nights. I can't imagine what living in a place like that does to one's psyche after days turn into months, months turn into years, years turn into decades, and decades turn into generations. After just a few days, I took pride that I was sleeping in shorts and not flannel pajamas. After experiencing years of living in that frozen, stagnant sludge, I'd probably take great pride in terrible towels, the Pens, and the ghost of Roberto Clemente.

I got to Drody's on Friday night. We spent the night drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon, instead of Steel City Ale, and playing RockBand. Our band was called The Newsies. We wore newsie hats and brown blazers. Every song started with one of the following lines: "Get your papes!" or "Have no fear, Brooklyn is here!" It was a fun night. On Saturday, Drody, the fiancee, and I went and saw some of the sights of Picksburgh. We hit up one of the Jewish neighborhoods of the city for some pizza, we saw the strip, and then we went to the Heinz museum.

First, let me say that Stiller fans are a strange breed. I wouldn't even call them fans. They should be called followers because they're a religious cult. On Saturday, it was still damn cold outside, and these people are still outside, shopping for black and gold gear at a flea market, known as the strip. The thing is, each person I saw buying more Stiller gear was already wearing multiple jerseys. Several of these people don't wear coats or jackets to stay warm--they just wear more jerseys. I bet if one were to go up to one of them and ask him to peel off their jerseys one by one, the history of the franchise would be revealed. It would be like going into an old rowhouse and peeling off the wallpaper, only to find another layer of wallpaper, representing a bygone era. The first jersey would be Big Ben's, then a Polamalu jersey, then a Bettis jersey, then Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd, then Ron Woodson, followed by Mean Joe Green, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, and Terry Bradshaw. I don't know why these people were out buying more merchandise when everything they already own is black and gold. It's like watching King Midas as a football fan, and everything he touches turns into Stiller memorabilia. Midas wound up despising himself and his gift when he came to the realization that gold can't sustain human life. Can a city that was built for the twentieth century be sustained by a football franchise in the twenty-first century?

The Heinz museum is an interesting place. We took the elevator up to the top exhibit, which is dedicated to the French-Indian War. The French-Indian War was just a tremor of the Seven Years' War going on in Europe, a sign that the world was shifting and changing into something else. This shift was the world turning away from colonialism and monarchies and towards nationalism and democracy. At the time, this war did not seem to be about ideals and how nations define themselves as much as it was about territory. Picksburgh is built on the front of this 18th century war. Picksburgh is a city formed from a series of forts built strategically where rivers meet. Rivers and oceans have always shaped the world in which we live. Water takes many forms: liquid, ice, snow, rain, sleet, steam, and sludge; these forms, in turn, shape human life.

A series of forts becomes a city that ships out coal, steel, glass, and condiments. In the Heinz Museum, the floor below the French-Indian War exhibit holds three exhibits of its own. The first exhibit lays out the history of glass making in the Ohio River Valley, and gives examples of everything glass is used for. It's a long list, and one can feel like quite "the stupidhead" when looking at objects that don't look like glass but are.

The second exhibit was dedicated to Heinz Ketchup, Heinz pickles, and other processed foods. The Heinz Corporation began processing and packaging foods in the nineteenth century. These foods became staples of the American diet in the 20th century. America could not have become a suburban and commuter society without these staples. It's ironic that a blue collar town, such as Picksburgh, paved the way for America becoming a white collar nation, making itself obsolete. Throughout this exhibit, one can hear Carly Simon, singing the lines: "Anticipation, anticipation/ is makin' me late/ is keepin' me waitin'." One can even hear these lines being sung while walking through a third exhibit on that floor dedicated to those men who lost their lives in Pennsylvania's coal mines.

The anticipation of waiting to be dug out of a collapsed mine shaft is much different than the anticipation of waiting for ketchup to come pouring out of a Heinz 57 bottle. America's steel belt has been America's rust belt for a while now, waiting with anticipation for how the world's shifting waters and governments will help them get back on their feet. While places like Picksburgh have been stuck in cave ins and winter's frozen sludge, places like Virginia have only needed patience for ketchup and other trivial items.

The day before the pipe in Drody's apartment building busted, his fiance discovered dirt leaking into the back of the toilet, meaning there was already a crack in the pipes. She called the landlord to tell them there was something wrong. The landlord didn't fix the problem or worry about it that day. Then the pipe busted and the landlord put up a sign: "PIPE BREAK FIX SOON." When Drody's fiance was on the phone with the landlord on Saturday, I sat on the couch, watching basketball, thinking this isn't a big deal. On Sunday, I couldn't piss or crap in the toilet. I had to hold in my sludge for hours, as did Drody and his fiancee.

We wound up going to Circuit City because they're going out of business and everything in the store had to go. We stopped at a fastfood place on the way to use the bathroom because when a person can't go in their own home, they still have to go somewhere. At Circuit City, all the yinzers that had been at the strip buying Stiller merchandise on Saturday were now at Circuit City buying plasma televisions to watch the Stillers on, while wearing their newly purchased Stiller merchandise. Midas apparently was still at work, touching everything.

There's been dirt in America's toilet for years. Places like western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Detroit, and upstate New York have been calling their landlords for decades, but Washington was too busy helping Wall Street make sure their burgers had ketchup. "Anticipation, anticipation/ it's makin' me late/ is makin' me wait." After hearing Obama's inauguration address and witnessing his first two weeks in office, I hope that the wait for some of America's heartland to be dug out of a cave in is finally over. I hope the fact that Picksburgh lies where three rivers meet allows it to adapt for the 21st century. I hope this is the last time the dirt in the toilet lesson needs to be learned by landlords. I hope that after the Seven Years' War, two World Wars, and multiple global economic crises our leaders realize that Midas touches everything from ketchup bottles to coal mines, from water pipes to rivers, from flea markets to Circuit City, from Pennsylvania's winter sludge to Arizona's deserts, and from Main Street to Wall Street and back again.

I also realize that even though Picksburgh already has 5 Super Bowl trophies and Arizona has none that this game tonight probably does mean more to Stiller fans, as Drody observes, "what happens to this city if they don't win?" I stayed there for only 3 nights and found myself taking pride in the fact I wore shorts to bed, so you tell me what Picksburgh would be without a good football team.

1 comments:

Langston said...

Without a good football team, Pittsburgh would be Cleveland.

February 1, 2009 at 2:22 PM

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