There’s Something About Pittsburgh, But Not That

If you have not lived in Pittsburgh, or have not ever left an otherwise small town to follow your dream, this may bore you. Or it may offend you. I hope not, but people tell me I tend to do that…

An article circulated on the face books today that got me into a very passionate argument with myself in the shower as I got ready for work. When I have Imaginary Shower Arguments, I know it’s something big, because I’m usually meowing showtunes in the shower.

Please check it out. I’ll wait.

The TL;DR version is that a woman moved from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles for a career, and whenever she returns to Pittsburgh on vacations, she’s reminded of how kind service workers can be, how homey and comforting all her old haunts still are, and how big cities like LA don’t have that sense of community we all grew up with. It’s a shame, and she misses it.

But — and this is the point I will latch on to ferociously — she ain’t coming back. She could maybe. But she’s not.

I will start with the caveat that I myself don’t know what the future will hold. I live in Los Angeles. Maybe someday I will live in Pittsburgh again. Maybe Atlanta or Denver or Seattle. What I take issue with is the shaming she casts on Big Cities and the romanticized version of Small-Town Living that simply isn’t true. Because I tried to make it work in Pittsburgh, and it just didn’t take. And while I don’t know her life, it looks like the same may have happened to her.

I too grew up in Pittsburgh. After college, I lived three years of my adult life there. I had a crazy career dream I wanted to follow, but I wanted something to fall back on or pay the rent (and loans) until I succeeded. Pittsburgh didn’t have the dream opportunity I was looking for (writing for television), but I would have stayed for a good career.

What I got was a job that required special training and knowledge of the English language on a level that I still don’t see in my professional life. I was paid for this less than an Arby’s manager makes. (No offense to Arby’s managers.) So I left.

Do I love LA? Is it all sunshine and butterflies? Well, smog has killed most of the local fauna, but there is a lot of sunshine. Donald Sutherland thanked me for holding the door for him the other day, and I made Josh Gad laugh a few months ago with an elevator joke while we shared an elevator. (I’m nothing if not topical.) But rent costs could reduce a lesser woman to tears. (I’d actually be quite rich if I only lived in a cardboard box under a bridge!) Drinks “specials” at restaurants are hilarious. I enjoy my job, but I’d like to reach higher.

But it’s working for now.

Back to the article. It starts with a humorous and relatable anecdote about a Starbucks barista who actually cared about the holiday plans of the customers ahead of the writer in line. It must be because she’s from a small town and nurturing community! LA baristas, she informs Pittsburgh, just grunt and shove you over, eager to move to the next person in line.

Where to begin with this?

1. If we’re making sweeping generalizations, I will say that the actors in LA working at Starbucks are a LOT better at faking being happy to serve you. I’ve been served by plenty a Surly-Emo-Teen’s-First-Job barista in Pittsburgh. I think you just ran into a nice lady, the kind of which you could find in any town.

2. I’ve been a waitress. The barista wasn’t truly interested in anything they had to say. Trust me.

3. Call me an Impatient Irene, but if someone stood with a barista for several minutes chatting about holiday plans instead of serving a line full of people their precious caffeine gold, I might flip a table. Like a reality-show contestant, I’m not here to make friends. I go to Starbucks for a service. I’m nice about it, but I’m not going to read you my Christmas card.

Let’s move on to the next section. She visits her old haunts. Even goes to an open mic. She learns more about someone’s life in 10 minutes than she had learned about any lives in a month in LA. (I guess she doesn’t talk to a lot of homeless people out here?)

Giiirl, do you want to hear a story about open mics? I started stand-up comedy in 2003. The crowds weren’t huge, but we comedians entertained ourselves. After getting a few gigs in dive bars paying upwards of $5 or a free grilled cheese, I was given my first MC gig at the Funnybone for a little ol’ comedian named MIKE BIRBIGLIA. I was so excited. He was bursting onto the scene, and he was genuinely hilarious. We played the Funnybone that week to a crowd of maybe 40 people total. All nights combined.

I drove Mike back and forth to his hotel each evening, and I always felt like I needed to apologize for “us” — Pittsburgh. “Ahh, it rained. No one likes to drive in the rain.” The next day. “Steelers game. You’re gonna have an empty house  during a Steelers game.” The next day. “I mean, ‘Survivor’ is on, so… what are you gonna do?”

The Funnybone is no longer in business.

Was it was right on the cusp of the recession? Had people already started cutting live entertainment out of their budgets? Do people just like football more than jokes? I can’t really speculate. But it sure didn’t leave me with a great feeling of this community support everyone talks about.

There’s a palpable pull back to Pittsburgh, the author says. I’ll admit that when I drive on 279 and you round the curve and see the city pop up right in front of you, there’s a tingle of awe and pride. But I also feel that rounding the 405 when I see the Valley at night. I like them both and call neither “home.”

Perhaps you’ve heard of Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs. Everyone needs food and water to live. Next, shelter’s nice, and money for said food. Then, once you have that, you’re open to accept love and warm hugs. And so on.

Beyond all that basic survival, I have a personal heirarchy of needs for where I live. I don’t know if I’ll ever find a perfect balance, but I’m working on it.

At the bottom is financial comfort. Can I live in a safe neighborhood? Can I pay for insurance and medicine and doctor’s visits? Next up is career. Do I like what I do, provide for my family, feel valued, and can enjoy my time off? Following that is friends. Do people get me? Do they laugh at my jokes and come to me for advice, and vice-versa? Finally, food/entertainment. What to do in those 8 hours you’re not sleeping or working?

I’ll just come out and say it.

You want to know what I don’t like about Pittsburgh?

When I do a job search on LinkedIn in Pittsburgh for “marketing” in a hilariously restrictive 10-mile radius, I get 50 hits. A lot of them “Senior Manager, VP” types that a “young person” is unqualified for. In a 10-mile LA radius? 1,000. Many entry-level.

When I look up restaurants in Pittsburgh, many don’t have websites. Less have mobile sites.

When I book hotels online in Pittsburgh, sometimes my confirmation email is just a line saying a date, without even the hotel’s address.

When I eat in Pittsburgh, in large part, the choices are fast food burger, sit-down chain burger, or mom-and-pop burger. If you want Indian or Vietnamese or good sushi, you go to the one place in town for each.

When a gay couple is spotted in public, it’s a rare and noteworthy occurrence.

When I talk to people in Pittsburgh about Bad-Luck Brian and Keyboard Cat and sometimes even Twitter, and they look at me like I’m a crazy time traveler.

Do you know where tortillas are in Pittsburgh grocery stores? It’s not with the bread. IT’S IN THE INTERNATIONAL SECTION. OH, MYSTICAL FOREIGN TORTILLAS. HOW DO YOU WORK?!

If you live in Pittsburgh and these don’t apply to you or bother you, then awesome. And I probably wasn’t talking about you! But I didn’t make them up.

If you have a great job and great family and great house in Pittsburgh, I couldn’t be happier for you.

I am terrible at golf, but I tried dodgeball and was pretty okay at it. Golf worked for you immediately. But you can’t fault me for getting upset with an article that badmouths dodgeball and extolls the virtues of golf, when the author still plays dodgeball. And in the end, golf and dodgeball both have pros and cons.

She mentions missing the Pittsburgh childhood, and how all Pittsburgh expatriates share a “feeling they can’t put their finger on” about being away from home. I dunno, doesn’t anyone who had a good childhood yearn for a simpler time? I read “The Pittsburgh That Stays Within You” by Sam Hazo in high school. I liked snow days and sledding and eating pierogis as much as the next kid.

But if you’re latching onto happy memories of the ease of youth before you couldn’t get a job to pay you what you were worth and stress forced you to move to greener pastures, it’s not really correct to say the old place is “better” than the new. You can never go home again, Oatman. But I guess you can shop there.

The author proudly admits to posting pro-Pittsburgh articles to her FB feed and taping physical cut-outs to her walls. I’ve read them all, because my friends post them, too. “Pittsburgh is the next up-and-coming city. Hip youth will stop moving away. The median age will no longer be 65. Pittsburgh is bursting onto the technological scene, and foodies love it.” I don’t see it. I don’t see the town that I expect to see in 2014.

And I can’t stress this enough — I love Pittsburgh. I WANT it to be hip and up-and-coming. I want to have friends there who know what Reddit is, diverse restaurants, a fulfilling career, and A MONTHLY RENT I DON’T NEED TO TAKE OUT A LOAN TO PAY.

If it’s not Pittsburgh and it’s not LA, maybe my hierarchy of needs works somewhere I haven’t found yet. LA has its issues, but don’t act like it’s worse than Pittsburgh, ESPECIALLY if you have no intention on moving back. Because other cities exist where the jobs, money, restaurants, and hip youth actually are, and you’re living proof that sometimes you have to go there to get it.

The end. I’m sure she’s a lovely person.

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