Out-of-Towners: A transfixed visitor finds a new city worth a love story
July 25, 2014 1:15 AM
By Stephanie McFeeters / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Pirates game ends and we make our way out, flooding into the night across the Clemente Bridge. I pause, surrounded by a sea of black and gold.
When I pictured Pittsburgh before arriving this June, I saw rust: coal barges, steam stacks and long-forgotten train tracks. As a nomad raised in the jungles of Java and markets of Seoul, the daughter of a diplomat, what I knew of the city (and largely, America) was restricted to worn pages of a history textbook. And there, I figured, its allure would remain.
But those piercing whistles still ring clear, and the city glimmers brighter than its industrial past would suggest — more silver cloud than steel.
On a Saturday night, fireworks dust lingers in the air and the Allegheny glows, reflecting Pirates pride. All around me people sing and hum and burp, convivial. A stranger to baseball, I forget whether we won or lost (though I’m fairly confident the game extended beyond nine innings, as it always seems to do).
The night is radiant either way. I stand transfixed.
Shouts of “If it ain’t cold, it ain’t sold” from a man hawking bottled water echo in yellow arches. PNC Park jingles loop through my head, along with shouts of “Charge!” and the pre-Polanco walkup tune. Cheering on Cheese Chester at the game conjures up visions of pierogies at a Thursday afternoon farmers market.
My mind wanders to other Pittsburgh impressions: the pulse of Market Square at noon; the scent from Primanti Brothers (fries crushed into bread) wisping outdoors; the statuesque Renoir couple watching over PPG Place, where fountain frolicking is mirrored in luminous Oz glass.
Across town in the Strip District I eye a bucket of plums selling for $2. Lines for Pamela’s hotcakes and fresh chevre at Penn Macaroni bleed into the street. Mouths water at the taste of hummus from Stamoolis Brothers.
Atop Mount Washington a sign reads “Ice cream 100 feet.” Wedding parties pose on round overlooks. The skyline has bookends: Fifth Avenue Place on the left and the Cathedral of Learning three miles to the right. Beneath it all, fountain mist cools young lovers at the Point.
And oh, that view coming out the Fort Pitt Tunnel, greeting newcomers with open arms! Zooming above the city’s lifeblood, cement merges with crystal, chrome and cloud. Eastbound along I-376 the river gleams, infinite and sacred. Rolling hills mesh with evening gridlock (sigh).
Across the triangle, shady trails on the North Shore offer respite to weekend cyclists avoiding the squeal of bus brakes, the beep from crosswalks, road detours. And yes, the occasional pothole.
The city has modernized: museums standing in place of mills. Yet the names of Pittsburgh royalty still pervade: Heinz, Mellon, Frick, Benedum. From Will Pitt, Earl of Chatham, to Andrew Carnegie, King of Steel. From Burgh to Burg to Burgh.
I cross that bridge Downtown after the baseball game (yes, the Pirates won) as if in a trance. I look to the right, toward the Point. Most cities don’t have a natural bulls-eye. Pittsburgh does. And there’s something magic about the space: two rivers converging to form another, rinsing away grime and stress and grief.
On my walk across, I pass locks dangling from the bridge grid, emblazoned with couples’ initials. In red, one bunch forms the shape of heart. A man asks me what the locks mean, and I try to explain: They’re small personal monuments, testaments to often fragile vows. (I’ve seen them elsewhere. In Paris, where I once lived, love’s weight crumbled part of the Pont des Arts.)
My gaze shifts left to swooping steel named for Warhol, then right, left again. Looking up I see a banner for the zoo. Metal embraces water and sky.
There’s a seduction to these bridges. An elegance. And it’s not the casual saxophonist in the eaves. From below, via kayak, iron rods and rafters resemble aquatic dinosaurs. Beautiful yet tough. I dream of crossing all 446 — allowing them to speak to me of labor and loss and love.
The crowd disperses as we reach the other shore. Back to the neighborhoods yinz go — to Homewood and Squirrel Hill, Beechview and Shadyside, Hazelwood and Hays. But bonds formed on the bridge remain, the city breathing as one, just for a moment. Jolly Rogers rippling in the breeze.
Stephanie McFeeters, a senior at Dartmouth College majoring in government, is a summer intern at the Post-Gazette. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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