March 29, 2006

What I am about to confess, dear friends, will lead you to conclude that my brain is a wasteland of misfiring synapses.  You may want to sing to me the words of my late, lamented, much-missed pal Screamin’ Jay Hawkins:  “There’s somethin’ wro-onnng with you.”  Feel free to do so.  I will not argue.

I can always tell when I am long overdue for a visit with certain friends in certain cities when I have dreams about those cities.  That in itself is not an odd phenomenon; what makes it odd is that I dream, vividly and with overwhelming nostalgia, about neighborhoods that do not exist.  It has been close to eight years since my best friend and her family moved from England to New Zealand, but I still find myself dreaming of driving around a neighborhood that I know for a fact is not there.  As often as my subconscious finds itself in England, though, it finds itself in Pittsburgh a lot more, and the places in which I find myself are so resonant that I never fail to wake up in a state of utter confusion, trying to remember just where the hell I am.  I have had recurring dreams of living in a huge (nonexistent) room in the dorm where I lived during my senior year of college.  More often, though, my dreams of Pittsburgh follow the same plot:  I have driven out to Pittsburgh (an 8+ hour drive) to visit one of my best, dearest, oldest friends and her husband.  For reasons I can’t ascertain, I have to drive right back to New York because I can’t miss work the next day; I need to get right back on the road, but I’m either on a bus headed for a candy store in Squirrel Hill (on a street that does not exist, but runs parallel to Forbes Avenue), or on another bus headed for an office supply/stationery store downtown (or rather, somewhere between the Hill and Downtown on a street that – all together now!...); I haven’t had enough time with my friend, and I don’t want to leave.  You can probably guess by now that I miss my friend, and I do.  I miss Pittsburgh, too.

Those of you who remember my love letter to Philadelphia (a/k/a “the post so nice, I had to post it twice”), particularly those of you acquainted with the eastern/western Pennsylvania rivalry that runs through both cities, may be surprised that I can love both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with all my heart.  In general, Pittsburghers and Philadelphians are not each other’s biggest fans, although this is, of course, a broad generalization, and not certainly not applicable to all people in either city.  But I have heard a lot of griping from Philadelphians about the provincialism of Pittsburghers, and a lot of griping from Pittsburghers about the snobbery of Philadelphians.  To both I say Enough already, in much the same tone of voice that Antigone used with Oedipus at Colonnus.  And to everyone – there are more than six of you – who said “you have this vacation time and you’re taking it in Pittsburgh?  Why would you take a vacation in Pittsburgh?”, I say listen my child, and you shall hear.

First things first.  Here is what Pittsburgh is not.  It is not the ugly redheaded stepsibling of Philadelphia, or of Cleveland.  (I will not even begin to delve into New York Magazine’s recent statement:  “If Philadelphia is New York’s sixth borough, then Pittsburgh is Philly’s West Village,” a statement supposedly meant to convey Pittsburgh’s gay-friendliness.  I will make no comment on that reductive “sixth borough” designation, nor will I mention that Pittsburgh does not play second fiddle to Philadelphia, nor does Philadelphia play second fiddle to New York.  Careful readers, I am betting, will able to pick up the subtext.)  It is not geographically close to Philadelphia.  I know that it looks close, because Pennsylvania looks small on a map of the Lower 48, especially sitting underneath that geographical behemoth New York, but trust me:  the first time you drive across Pennsylvania, particularly if you’re driving northeast to southwest, it will boggle the mind just how much Pennsylvania there is out there.  It is not geographically close to Penn State.  Nothing is geographically close to Penn State.  A running joke among several of my pals is that Penn State is a minimum five-hour drive from everyplace else in the state, even the next town over. But I digress.  Pittsburgh is not a ghost town, although Downtown can get a little spooky at night.  It is not merely the city for people who can’t handle living in larger cities.  (I still remember one of my college classmates, a girl from Morristown, New Jersey, explaining to me that I probably considered Pittsburgh a city because my own hometown was so very small, and that if I had ever been to New York, I would know what a big city looked like.  The look on her face as I explained to her that my little hometown in the mountains was less than three hours’ drive from New York, and that I had grown up taking nearly-weekly day trips and weekends in New York, and yes, I still considered Pittsburgh to be a city, was pretty fine to witness.)

But I have had enough, as I’m sure you’ve had, of what Pittsburgh is not.  Here is what it is:  It is a beauty.  It is a city that sits at the confluence of three rivers, its various neighborhoods linked by bridges that are delightful to look at and even more delightful to walk across.  It is made of steep hills and long flat strips of land, and the views from the former are just plain superb. (If I were any sort of proper blogger, traveler or friend, this would be the point at which I would inundate you with photographs from my travels in Pittsburgh, but because I am none of the above, I will instead urge you to check out the photos at this site.  Scroll down past the driving information -- yep, there's a lot of it -- and you will see a nice gallery of photographs, which include some of my favorite vantage points in the city.)  It is the home of two of my favorite museums, and the place where I have attended some of the best concerts of my life, including R.E.M., the Violent Femmes, Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson, Squeeze and Mike Watt.  (The first gig I ever attended was X, with the [very drunk] Replacements opening for them, at the sadly-long-gone Syria Mosque.)  It is the home of my alma mater and the place where I ate the first gyro I had ever eaten in my life, the first of many.  It is where I took baby steps into adulthood, where I first realized that I had unstructured time to spend as I pleased -- and where I learned, quickly, that at least a little structure and restraint were necessary.  smile  It is also the home of the singular food-shopping mecca known as the Strip District, where in one short block you can buy Italian meats and cheeses and pasta; Greek staples; Asian vegetables; Middle Eastern pastries and yogurt soda; Mexican groceries; and biscotti that makes me so happy that I float on a cloud with every single bite.  And it is the source material for what I think are the finest documentaries in the world, made by a native son, quirky little movies brimming with clear-eyed affection for the city, whimsical without ever being cloying, the kind of programming of which the Food Network only dreams.

In short, I really, really love Pittsburgh, and for that reason, it gives me a little chill to think of how close I came to never visiting it, and never discovering its myriad pleasures.  I started my long, long march of college applications with only one school in mind, New York University.  My parents wisely suggested that NYU might not be the best place for a 16-year-old college freshman, fresh from the Poconos, and gave me a choice:  wait a year after graduation before attending NYU, or picking another college and heading to school three months after graduation.  I didn't even think twice.  I drew up a new school list, putting Sarah Lawrence at the top, mainly because Grace Paley taught creative writing at Sarah Lawrence, and I longed to study with her.  Among the other schools I applied to was a small liberal arts women's college in Pittsburgh, a mile away from Carnegie Mellon, less than two miles from the University of Pittsburgh.  My stepdad, who had traveled to Pittsburgh on business, suggested that we take the school up on its invitation to visit, and off we went.  I will confess to being underwhelmed at the prospect of the visit, figuring that there would be little to interest me in Pittsburgh, and I would be spending my next four years at the library.  Then we drove through the Fort Pitt Tunnel, and my jaw dropped.  It was a city, a proper city, with buses and giant buildings of steel and glass, with bookshops and record shops and libraries, with sprawling parks and public art and classes to take and things to do and places to be.  By the time I finished my interview and tour at Chatham, I knew that it would replace Sarah Lawrence at the top of my list; by the time we took our post-lunch trip up Mount Washington on the Duquesne Incline, I knew the other schools didn't have a chance.   Six months later I was at school, a brand-new freshman, when I saw a television interview with Jamie Lee Curtis, who had just completed a movie in Pittsburgh.  "You go through this Fort Pitt Tunnel," she told the interviewer excitedly, "and it just...shoots you into this city, and the view is unbelievable!"  I knew exactly how she felt.

Lloyd and I still talk about moving to Pittsburgh when the rents here in New York become too much for us; it is not a question of if, but when.  Eventually we will be done with all this, and we will run, not walk, west.  Two years ago I was writing a business plan for a bread bakery, and planning to open in Pittsburgh.  Then I blinked, and lost my nerve, and the business plan went into a drawer, where it has been sitting ever since.  There is a part of me that says I'm being smart by keeping it there.  The one big drawback of Pittsburgh is that it's a tough place to sell bread, at least the bread I like to bake.  It's true that Pittsburgh is home to BreadWorkS, a large-scale independent artisanal bakery that wholesales to just about every market in the city, and that there are enthusiastic bread-fressers all over town.  But this is a town with a real palate for underbaked bread, blond crusts with squishy crumbs.  There is a 100-year-old family bakery on the outskirts of town that makes billowy light Italian loaves, and they sell tons of them, mostly to people who line up for "the best bread in the city," but also to a restaurant that makes an iconic Pittsburgh sandwich with this bread.  I have been to this bakery.  The people who work there are some of the nicest people I have ever met, friendly and chatty and enthusiastic about their work, and I wish I liked their bread as much as I like them.  This is the bread that sets the standard, and I don't know if there is a place in the city for mine.  On the other hand, I know that I am not alone,* and that if there is in fact a place for me and Lloyd, for crunchy bread, for pies made from scratch and for cakes laced with rum and butter and risen with yeast, we will be there.

*Did I mention that in addition to one of my closest friends, and to all of the delights mentioned above, Pittsburgh also has this wonderful woman living, cooking, writing and blogging within its city limits, and that I would give my elbows to be allowed to hang out in her kitchen?

Posted by Bakerina at 10:52 PM in valentines • (3) Comments • (0) Trackbacks
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