I’ve visited the Steel City many times, and even attended school in the rural area outside the city at California University. Yep, you read it right. It is a state university I chose to matriculate when I was a teenager.
I picked the school for several reasons. One, I wanted to go somewhere far enough away from my home town of Philly so I could “start over” with a new identity (which essentially means I could get away with telling people I was a famous comedian, as well as a black belt in Tae Kwan Do karate.) I had learned enough moves and kicks while getting my beginner gold belt to fool my drunken friends into thinking I was an intimidator, who avoided fights because my hands were certified lethal weapons. “I’d like to fight, but if I punch someone with my training, I could kill you with one blow.” I watched too much Barney Fife growing up.
Another reason for selecting this particular college (certainly a crappy SAT score had nothing to do with it) was the fact that I lacked the funds necessary to move to the “real” California, a place where my beach and Hollywood dreams remained geographically and economically unattainable. My collection of Beach Boys albums made studying in a place with such an enigmatic name it alluring enough, even though there was certainly no surfing on the Monongahela River. I figured the girls back home would be impressed, too, so I made sure all the college shirts I wore did not include the “Of Pennsylvania” on the chest.
Western PA was a culture shock for me. I recall in the early days of school thinking the guys had mud in their teeth from a football game or something, but it turned out to be a wad of “chew” between their cheek and gum, walking around campus with a plastic cup, filling it with brown tobacco spittle.
I once tried to blend in with the crowd by putting a pinch in my mouth in the back of a classroom. Unfortunately, I didn’t time it right, and got pass-out dizzy in front of my Oral Interpretation class. The professor asked me to speak and I mumbled something unintelligible before announcing that I was about to vomit. Everyone laughed as I bolted to the bathroom.
This entire region had a very masculine feel. Whereas I grew up having days off of school for Jewish holidays, in the 4-1-2 zone one of the legal vacations is the first day of buck season.
Really. They take time off here to go kill things.
Deer hunting was a custom puzzling to a guy who grew up getting meat from a grocery store. The hunters explained, quite earnestly, that it was actually a service to the deer, since the food became sparse in the winter anyway. I recall thinking, “don’t you think Bambi can work that out herself, without the “assistance” provided by being on the wrong side of a shot-gun?”
But I wisely kept those thoughts to my city slicking self.
Manly fashions were in vogue here, too. The must-have Autumn-wear included a bright orange hunting vest with a large license on the back and camouflage hats I had not seen on anyone besides Elmer Fudd Again, I refrained from making fun of these tough guys and remained “vewwy vewwy qwiet” when it came to my feelings about the flap cap look.
The region hasn’t changed much 25 years. They are still proudly wearing black and gold Steeler football jerseys. Where I used to see a lot of Jack Lambert or Mean Joe Greene’s, a Troy Paloumalu jersey is now in vogue, although no guy there would ever use the word “vogue” in a sentence. They still have old school barbers here, with a striped pole in front of their shop to indicate such, giving haircuts not so different from the 80s. I’ve spotted quite a few mullets and rat tails on men (and, it must be noted, some women!)
Most of the homes in the area look exactly as they did decades ago. The neighborhoods that make up the core of the region are an integral part of the charm. Many of the families have been there for generations. Third floor attics and basements are converted to accommodate grandma or the 40-something son whose life peaked with high-school stardom. A 40-year-old in a varsity letterman jacket is not an uncommon site, and charmingly he’s still treated like a celebrity at the local tavern.
A general observation, which probably applies to much of the US, is the pervading sense of nostalgia for “days gone by” in our towns and cities. So many places are like Pittsburgh, founded upon a particular industry, only to see the boom eventually busted, as is the case with the steel and coal industries. Residents go through denial, assuring each other that a mill will reopen soon, that the jobs will come back, that it will be again “like it used to be!”
If you took photographs of a number of homes in Charleroi or Monroeville with your Kodak Instamatic Camera in 1974, except for a few cosmetic changes like new awnings or additional lawn gnomes, the picture would generally look the same today. But good luck finding film or a flashcube for your Kodak Instamatic.
The sustainability of the region’s natural beauty, however, is amazing. Ride the famous “Incline” and you will see lush foliage, three beautiful rivers merging and rolling hills. The mountains are breath-taking, except in the snowy winter, where good tires and a strong emergency brake are essential for making it through. So many towns are built on peaks, and I wonder out loud how they did it. Maybe that’s the reason you rarely see new home construction; You need a rappelling rope just to put in a driveway! If I dropped a baseball in Crafton, chances are it would roll about 10 miles before stopping in PNC ballpark.
Today, the chamber of commerce gets creative to bring in fresh revenue. Incorporating what remains of old factories and buildings, modern Pittsburgh has beautifully married pieces of old world historical charm with major new developments. Rivers used to be essential to transportation and industry, but now serve more recreational and aesthetic purposes.
With the new downtown center, many conventions bring an economic boost to the many small businesses that survived the storm. Every week fresh faces crowd into Primanti Brothers for a sandwich the size of a mama raccoon, stuffed with Coleslaw and French Fries. More adventurous travelers pop into Essie’s Original Hot Dog Shop, known in these parts as “The O” or ‘The Dirty O” (a term of endearment, I assure you) and gorge themselves on chili cheese dogs and cheap Iron City beer.
The week I was there, the city got a 4-million dollar tourist boost from a group called “The Furries.” Furry fandom, I learned, consists of people dressed up as fictional anthropomorphic animal characters with human characteristics. Basically, it looks like they herded a bunch of college-mascot method-actors taking it a tad too far. They REALLY get into their parts!
I sat next to a sheep dog made out of shredded paper while being interviewed on a local radio station. He called himself “Boomer” and looked like he’d recently lost a fight with a pompom. He regaled us with tales of life as “A Furry,” and surprised no one by admitting that he still lives with his parents and doesn’t have a steady job.
Boomer spoke in a tone you’d expect from somebody telling you to “put the lotion in the basket,” and I simultaneously kinda creeped out and fascinated. You didn’t need to be Sigmund Freud to sense some deep-seeded problems in this guy. I declined to give him my home address.
What he described was a shock to the system. I mean, I howled at the moon back in the day, but never did so drinking beer out of a dog bowl. When you “chase tail” in this gathering, you’re literally chasing something with a tail. One that wags.
Yes, friends, thousands of fur-suited twenty-somethings desperately in need of thorazine gather to poop & pee in litter boxes and hump in the streets and hotel hallways. Police turn their heads, (I’m sure after shaking it), because the revenue is simply too great and a brawl with this group might end in a rabies shot.
I can only imagine if a coal minor from 1930 saw this action. Huntin’ season starts in June!