Vern's Verbal Vibe

Singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist and purveyor of folk 'n' roll: spirit-filled sad songs made better.

April 12, 2007

Greetings from da 'Burgh

Having almost finished my book, I've taken a well-earned holiday. I have an hour here in Pittsburgh before leaving for chilly Cleveland, so thought I'd stop by and say hello.

Some (but not all) white, male Pittsburghers (yes, that's what you call them) talk likedeysgottamoutfullamashedpodayhdus. Conversely, I'm sure they find my speech stilted and proper. I can't count the number of times I've offered a polite "thank you" and been met with a grunt. I'm convinced it's not rudeness but a cultural difference.

Other observations: American talk radio is full of screaming fanatics. The hosts are often worse than the callers. NPR and the major dailies aside, there's no such thing as world news here, unless it's a region in which America is directly involved or has a vested interest. The intelligentsia apart, Americans seem cocooned in a cozy insularity. Such is the price of living in a nation so powerful that it need not concern itself with anyone's business but its own. (In Canada, we pay attention to world affairs not out of an inborn broad-mindedness, but because it affects us more.)

Pittsburgh is hilly, traffic-clogged, and to get practically anywhere, you have to cross a bridge over one of the three rivers that meet at the "Golden Triangle" downtown. Getting around by bus is an adventure. There's no city-wide bus map, so I had to look up point-to-point directions online. And the fare system is simply bonkers: three zones, no map showing zone boundaries, different fares to different zones depending on the time of day, fare paid when boarding or when exiting depending on time of day, which zone you're travelling from and to, and ... I don't know, whether or not it's an alternate Thursday and the moon is in Scorpio. And the "T" (light rail/subway system) goes nowhere useful. Anyway, I managed to annoy several bus drivers, and they most certainly returned the favour.

That said, there's a lot to see here: several top-rank museums, a cool contemporary gallery (The Mattress Factory) in a funky North Side neighbourhood called the Mexican War Streets, two inclines (antique cable cars that go up and down Mt. Washington), a nouveau old-timey ballpark with great sightlines, and so on. For every attraction I managed to see in my two full days here, there were at least three I wanted to but didn't have time for (or couldn't figure out how to get there). The topography is great, too.

More amusing tidbits: at many attractions I was asked for my zip code. When I started rhyming off "M5A ... " the clerk acted like her head was about to explode. Presumably she (or her computer) couldn't handle the alphanumerics. I also noticed that most people expected I'd carry my cash and travellers' cheques (US translation: traveler's checks) in Canadian funds. I had to reassure them that no, I realize that shops in the US take only American money, and seeing as I'm down here a few weeks, I did the smart thing and got myself some.

Based on the two cities I've visited so far (Buffalo and Pittsburgh), US downtowns are spruced-up, reasonably safe, contain some nifty architecture ... and are dead outside business hours. No one lives (or shops) downtown. In Buffalo on Easter Sunday, I did not encounter a soul while walking the streets. It was so deserted that whenever I came up to an intersection, I crossed whether the light was red or green. Granted, it was a holiday; granted, the weather was truly appalling. Still, I had to buy lunch at a convenience store and order room service for dinner because the few downtown restaurants were all closed.