January 19, 2011
I grew up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, far removed from the city’s true essence. The rivers and bridges and steel mills were talked about but rarely seen save for an afternoon trip on the weekend. Mine was a childhood of mall parking lots, neatly trimmed yards and Outback Steakhouses. However, the spirit of the Pittsburgh could not be confined to the small plot of land bisected by the Mon and the Allegheny. Its personality leaked through the Liberty Tunnels, over Mount Washington and on into the sprawl. So even though I didn’t know the difference between Penn and Liberty for the bulk of my life, I still felt as though I could never truly be lost downtown. I had never held a residence there, but it was my home nevertheless. Because “home is not where you live, but where they understand you.”
When you share a place in common it only makes sense that you feel a kinship with fellow residents. There’s a thread of pride that weaves between us. The most prideful are referred to as “Yinzers.” Their love for the city is so dazzling and brilliant that it blinds them (often to the rules proper grammar). And although we high-falutin suburbanites tend to laugh at the Yinzers, we can’t help but realize that there is a sliver of Yinzer in us all.
As I said, I would not be viewed as a stereotypical native of the city. My dad was not a steel worker. He was a Salesman. I never played baseball underneath the Bloomfield Bridge. I played soccer on an astroturf field in Upper St. Clair. My family didn’t get fresh meat from the Strip District. Our grocer was Giant Eagle in Bethel Park. Even if those classic Pittsburgh places were in different zip codes, people in my circles spoke about them enough to make me believe that they were right down the street. They were like cousins that you never saw. You probably wouldn’t know them to look at them, but they’re still your family.
And if family is attacked, no matter how distant, a ferocious defense is mounted.
It was Light Up Night, a Saturday in mid-December where the people who have moved out to the suburbs gather downtown to celebrate the beginning of the Christmas season. But the excitement surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ and the retail madness that we use to celebrate it was overshadowed, as it often is in Pittsburgh, by football season.
Sports was and will always be the thing that brings Pittsburgh together. The Steelers were having a strong year. They would be playing the Oakland Raiders on Sunday, a team that they once beat through an immaculate reception. In recent memory, the Raiders were almost irrelevant, while the Steelers had secured 2 Championships.
A group of friends and I walked along Boulevard of the Allies and turned onto Grant. We saw Santa Claus riding in a motorized sleigh at the back of the parade that was starting its trek through the city. Most people were in Steelers or Penguins jerseys, waving at Santa and his elves as they passed by. They pushed strollers and held the hands of their children, leading them through the cold streets. Just as the first candy cane was thrown from the sleigh, we heard a loud horn, followed by some shouting. A black suburban pulled onto the street behind Santa, its license plate read, “OakRdr3.” Five goons wearing Black and Silver jerseys poured out of the car, the bass thumps echoing off the walls of Oxford Center. They had a Terrible Towel, Pittsburgh’s official flag, and they were desecrating it. Stomping on it, throwing it underneath their car and running over it with slick black tires.
My friends and I all looked at one another. We were angry but not sure what to do. We are all relatively mild-mannered. One was a school teacher, one an advertising manager, the other a lawyer. We saw what was happening and wanted to react.
“F*$k off!” blurted the schoolteacher.
“Go back to your toilet city, you jackasses,” crowed the ad manager.
“You will literally die at my hands!” screamed the lawyer.
We fought briefly to suppress this urge to be a raging, ignorant Pittsburgher. We were raised to be polite and proper. But the pride we felt for our city outweighed our own. Those Raiders fans awakened our inner Yinzers. We felt such a luminescent pride in our city, that we were blinded to the fact that our actions might lead to a possible misdemeanor charge.
We weren’t alone either. The Raider’s fans were in the heart of the beast. A teenage girl wearing Steelers gloves flipped them a black and gold middle finger. Two older men took their cell phones away from their ears to yell choice vulgarities. Others joined in. A lone snowball flew through the darkness and found its mark on the Black and Silver jersey. We all bathed in the vicious sparkle of our Yinzer Pride.
The goons piled back into their Suburban, surprised at the solidarity shown by all citizens and drove away. As the headlights pulled back, I secretly thought that what just happened would seem ridiculous if looked at out of context. “Some guys ran over a towel and that somehow ignited the hate of 2,000 some Pittsburghers? I don’t understand why everyone got so angry.”
But we understood. Because even though we lived in different places: the Southside, Squirrel Hill, Cranberry, Butler, Emsworth, Penn Hills, Dormont, Hampton, Peter’s Township and so on, we all understand. “Home is not where you live, but where they understand you.”
This is our home. Here we go.