Out-of-Towners: L.A.-to-Pittsburgh's not as far a stretch as it seems to some
July 26, 2013 4:00 AM
By James R. Kincaid
Wife Nita and I moved here less than a month ago, carting ourselves across country from Los Angeles seeking -- well, we weren't too sure what.
We'd lived in Pittsburgh happily for two fall terms in 2009 and 2012, while I taught as a visiting prof at Pitt, and figured we'd parlay a total of eight months of great times into even more. This seemed to us a sane plan, and we assumed Pittsburghers would see it that way, too.
"Yinz moved here from L.A.? Why'd you want to go and do a thing like that for?"
This response, we soon discovered, was not only frequent but ubiquitous. What, the natives wonder, could possess a couple to leave Los Angeles in the first place -- and for Pittsburgh?
We have become so fascinated by this colorful incredulity that we have started deliberately prompting it, forcing ourselves on helpless strangers so as once again to hear them roar.
"Hi, can you tell me where the [whatever] is?" we ask. "Just moved here from Los Angeles."
We're collecting the responses: "Someone chasing you?" "You moved for the weather, right?" "Hell, the traffic's no better here!" "You got lotsa family here?" (No.)
"Your employer forced this on you?" (No.) "Oh, lordy -- hope you like it."
Truth is, we moved here because, of all the cities we've seen and known in our lifetimes, Pittsburgh is our favorite. Yep. Call us demented, but London, Rome, San Francisco, Chicago, Denver -- none calls to us, welcomes us and speaks to our hearts as does Pittsburgh.
Of course, part of this is connected to the stunningly obvious: great universities (I'll be teaching some classes at Pitt), outstanding medical facilities, the beauty of the place, terrific theater, the opera, the progressive politics and friendly activism, the museums, the Pirates-Steelers-Penguins excitement, the parks ... but these would be rational reasons for coming here, and neither Nita nor I is rational, certainly not when it comes to decisions such as where to live.
We find Pittsburgh irresistible because of other, subtler things: the contours of the land and the thick green hillsides, the rivers calling to something elemental in us, the heart-stopping thrill of the "Pittsburgh left," groundhogs and cardinals, pierogies and chip-chopped ham. And the people -- the droll, self-assured and deeply modest people.
For us, Pittsburghers are the exact opposite of residents of San Francisco, the capital of smug. San Francisco is a sweet place, which would be a whole lot sweeter if its dwellers were less uniformly eager to have you think so. Prickly and defensive, they insist that you envy them and pine after their Shangri-La from afar:
"Don't think of moving here!" one of the citizens told us after we had politely agreed that it was like no other place on Earth.
Imagine a Pittsburgher crowing about the city and jealously guarding its borders from wistful Californians. Unthinkable.
For that reason, we find Pittsburgh even more alluring than L.A., which we love deeply. Angelinos are typically undefensive and mildly cynical about their city, uninterested in proclaiming its virtues or testing newcomers on their admiration of it. In that way, they show a seasoned maturity that is very like the Pittsburgh ethos, only milder.
Yeah, milder -- and Nita and I are after strong stuff, those people all over Pittsburgh whose spirits are not set on defending anything, just on finding a comradely and fine life for themselves and those they love. And even for wackos crowding in on them from L.A.
One woman at Eat'n Park warned us about the February weather -- "It ain't no joke!" -- before adding with a smile and a shoulder-pat, "But you know, honey, we always got a fire going them cold months and yinz is welcome to come and warm up."
We'll go there in February, I'm sure. But we're in a fine spot now, where it's warm and real and undeluded. Home.
James R. Kincaid of McCandless, an emeritus University of Southern California English professor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The PG Portfolio welcomes "Out-of-Towners" submissions giving non-Pittsburghers' perspectives of the city, in addition to other reader essays. Send your writing to email@example.com; 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.