My dad died last month. This has nothing to do with that.
What I have to tell you is how I pulled up in front of my childhood home the day of the funeral and the woman who lives there now stepped outside, looked at me and said, "Are you OK?"
I said, "No, my dad died."
She tilted her head. "You used to live here?"
"Do you wanna come in? I'm just going down to the market, but no rush, come on in."
And she proceeded to let me walk around her home, asking if I needed anything, asking who had lived in what rooms, what doors to the porch we had used, and was my mother the one who planted the perennials, and how has it changed? All the time smiling and encouraging me to stop when I needed to, cry if I had to, she said,
"Please. Go upstairs. Which room was yours?"
My brother's very sick. He has cancer. He's now blind in one eye and has to live in the hospital one week a month. Every time Phil goes in there's a chance he won't come out. This has nothing really to do with that.
What I want to tell you is we played golf his last day before going into the third chemo round. A course in San Diego, out in an old olive grove that's now a casino. We signed in as a twosome, wanting to just spend the time together, but the course pairs you up with others if they need to. When we arrived at the first tee, there was a guy waiting for us.
"Hey I'm your third wheel, 21 handicap. Sorry"
"All good, we're serious amateurs."
"Where you from?"
There's that question I love so much. When we said "Pittsburgh," he gave the appropriate answer.
He's a doctor named Mike who grew up in McKeesport and lives with his family now in Lancaster, Pa.
Laughter, handshakes all around. Where'd you go to high school? ... What's your other brother's name? ... Oh, really, I worked at National Tube summers to pay for school. ... Etc, etc, et-Western Pa-cetera.
No carts. We walk. It was a good morning of golf.
Until the 10th hole. We'd stopped at the lunch shack after the ninth. Phil's working with one eye and compromised balance, so his game is nowhere near good. He's a little slow. But his short game's great and he putts like a champ.
We buy some hot dogs, Polish dogs actually, with Mike the MD saying, "I gotta get one of these since you're here."
Then a woman walks by us saying, without any eye contact or the slightest inclination of a greeting, "So you're letting us play through, yes?"
My brother laughs and says, " Would you like to play through, ma'am?"
She snorts -- still no eye contact, no pause, at her sarcastic best. "Uhm, yes."
So we let the four go by, no problem. They take their carts on the fairway, they play at a run -- they are filled with a lot of things, none of which is joy.
Then the twosome behind them, a couple, come rolling up at the 11th. My brother tops the ball.
"At least you got it past the ladies tee!" says the wife.
Mike steps up. Another golf cart comes rolling right to the edge of the grass. It's a younger couple -- three holes in front of us, I later learn -- and the man yells, "Get off the course!"
Now I may have gone to Kiski Prep, where I was taught some manners. I may have been raised in the church by my mother. I may have been shown at camp summer after summer that "love conquers all." But right then I didn't want "all" -- I just wanted some southern California suburban heads on a platter.
I start walking toward the younger duo.
"Excuse me," I hear behind me.
It's Mike, our third wheel, waving me off.
"Excuse me," he says to this well-kept pair. " I can prescribe something for that condition, because you need to chill the hell out."
"You don't play golf well enough to be on this course."
"This public course? Actually, we do, and see that guy, the bald one with the 7-inch scar?"
"Well, he's blind in one eye, has a cancer you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy, the stamina of a emphysemic, and this could be the last 18 holes he ever plays."
It got quieter.
"Well, if there's nothing you want to add, I'm gonna go hit this ball. Dave, wanna join me?"
What this all has to do with is how damn decent Pittsburghers are compared to vast swaths of their countrymen. Call me prejudiced, call me an unreliable source; what I would call me is well-traveled.
It's the simple damn truth: You come from here, you learn to look people in the eye when you greet them. You learn to give them the benefit of the doubt till they screw up. You learn not to mouth off to people you don't know. You don't say crap about people's families. You hold doors open. You say "Hello" and "Thank you" to someone's face and "You're welcome" when it's needed.
It's just simple decency, and yet the more I move about this gigantic country, the more I see and feel it becoming the same nervous, overburdened, resentful gaggle of selfish golf cart drivers who can't feel anything but their own imaginary needs. It's a pity. And it's a shame.
And it's great to come home and have the door guy at the Fairmont Hotel smile at me at 3 in the morning and then laugh at me leaving my car keys in my jacket. He's got a job to do, he doesn't have to kiss my ass to do it -- he treats me like an equal.
It's great to have a conversation with the waitress at the Original Fish Market, who tells me I'm way off about movies and need to watch this list she's about to give me.
It's great to sit in a cab with a guy who knows more about European history and theology than a Ph.D., but who shares it with me like it's a gift we've both been given.
And it's great to walk out of my childhood home in the late winter sun and have a woman I just met tell me how happy she is I just slowed her day down by an hour.
My father used to tell me something I hated, something that his father had told him.
"Know your place."
And I'd rail about how controlling and meek and subvervient that sounded. And in some ways yes it is, but there are times, more and more of them these days, when I hear his voice: when I'm complaining to a person who's not responsible for their bosses' mistakes; when I'm talking over someone older and more experienced; when I rush to get into a line in front of just that one extra person.
Then I catch myself and say, "Come on, Dave, know your place here."
Know what you're doing, honestly. Know where you work best in a situation, and who you can serve. Know where you're from. Know your "place."
Me? My place is Pittsburgh.
David Conrad of Braddock, an actor who starred in the CBS television series "Ghost Whisperer," can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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