New York newcomer is getting the hang of helpful strangers

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I knew I was starting to get acclimated to Pittsburgh when reacting to the store owner's question: "Would you like to step into the back room to see some rustic furniture?"

I was in Amish Accents, a small store filled with handcrafted furniture -- oak, maple and cherry pieces accented by homey touches of Americana.

"Step into the back room?" I thought suspiciously for an instant, almost as a reflex. "Is he kidding?"

But almost as quickly, I remembered that I was in Pittsburgh now, in no need of my New York armor. My instinct for self-protection, finely honed after more than 25 years of surviving in the Big Apple and tonier Westchester County, is simply out of place.

So after I'd followed him into the back, Bud carried the small table I'd bought out to my car -- reminding me of the supermarket clerks around Pittsburgh who load groceries into my car without a second thought -- and noticed my New York license plate.

"From New York, huh? What part?" Bud asked.

"Manhattan, actually," I said, waiting for the reaction I knew would come next, pleased once again at the shock value of my recent city of residence. Or maybe it was the instant coolness quotient I assumed it bestowed.

Bud acted as though I'd just landed from an alien planet: "No kidding! You really lived there? Why'd you come here?"

Something about the high cost of housing and a daughter in college was about to cross my lips, but I settled for a more conversational version: "My family's from Pittsburgh, but I've never lived here myself. I get lost a lot."

"Well, welcome," Bud responded warmly. "Any time you ever need directions to anywhere, you just stop right in to the store here. I know the best routes to everything."

Bud's offer of geographic guidance made me recall the standard Pittsburgher way of providing directions. Pittsburghers don't just tell you the best way to go, they SHOW you. The oyster-shucker at Gandy Dancer's in Station Square came outdoors in her chef's hat to point to the blue lights of the incline on Mount Washington and describe the walking path I should take to it.

In the months since I arrived in Pittsburgh, people have been amazingly friendly. Pittsburghers go out of their way to help you out, to offer a genuine compliment, to strike up a conversation that can easily last half an hour. I'm continually surprised by this hospitality.

There was the U-Haul guy with the tattoo of the Terrible Towel-waving crowd on his calf who told me to just keep the rented moving blankets, and the mystery neighbor who shoveled my walk the day after the U-Haul departed. And there was the Lowe's clerk who cheerfully refunded cash -- without a receipt -- on flowers that had died from topsoil that I said, but did not prove, had slugs in the bag.

I remember the pharmacist who worked out a way for a minimal co-payment on a prescription even though my insurance coverage had been canceled after I lost my job. It didn't matter to her that the job was in New York. I was a teacher. People help teachers.

I can't get over the Walgreens worker who gave me several dollars in coupons off my purchases, which was my initial glimpse into the prevalent "kewpon" culture here; the mailman who knocked on my neighbors' doors asking if anyone recognized the recipient's name on a birthday package; and the woman at Sheetz who told me she loved the color of my fuchsia shirt, a compliment that started a conversation about why New Yorkers, myself included, most often wear black.

If there is any common denominator to these interactions, it is simply one person trying to help another as a matter of course. They want to chat, save me money or literally show me the way.

These interactions with fellow dog-walkers, other customers, store owners and workers go beyond customer service or neighborliness. Fellow human beings who genuinely try to help? This is a new concept to me.

Individual acts like these accumulate day by day. They compensate for the lack of sunlight on winter days here and the scarcity of streetlights that makes driving in the dark challenging. If I am beginning to cast aside the heavy layer of suspicion and self-preservation New Yorkers wear, it is simply because people here provide the light and warmth.


Eileen Garred of Murrysville, who teaches journalism at La Roche College, can be reached at PG Portfolio welcomes "Raves" submissions about something local that appeals to you, in addition to other reader essays. Send your writing to; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.


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