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Lessons in unity from Pittsburgh

Last weekend, for two blessed days, I escaped the Washington divide of Red vs. Blue and was enveloped in a unified world of Black and Gold in my hometown of Pittsburgh. There are lessons in that place for the country and for the president who would lead it.

I didn't have change for the bus but it didn't matter because I was back home and figured that somebody would help me.

It was nearly 11 o'clock at night, and a frigid downtown Pittsburgh was fast emptying out after the Steelers game. My 13-year-old son and I had raced to a bus that, I knew from childhood memory, would take us to my mother's home. But I didn't have the right change for the $3 fare for the two of us.

The bus driver rolled his eyes, but gave me time. Standing in the aisle, I asked, "Does anybody have change?" as the bus lurched around a corner to Fifth Avenue. The "71 Negley" was packed. There were other dejected refugees from Heinz Field, wearing "Big Ben" ski caps or "Bus" jerseys; maintenance workers heading home from the second shift; nurses on their way to night duty at the hospitals near the University of Pittsburgh. Rows of sympathetic eyes looked at us. Passengers fumbled with their wallets or purses. No luck. Finally, a corporate-looking fellow in a ski jacket spoke up. "Here, take the three dollars," he said. "I can't do that!" I replied. "Go ahead," he insisted. "Somebody did this for me just the other day."

In Washington, I live in a divided world of Red vs. Blue — Republican against Democrat, Heartland vs. Coasts, Rush Limbaugh vs. Al Franken. But last weekend, for two blessed days, I was enveloped in a unified world of Black and Gold. There are lessons in that place for the country and for the president who would lead it, the main ones being: We are all in this together. Winning is important, but not the only thing. In America, pride of place is an all-but-forgotten form of salvation. Cities matter.

Those of you who know me from this column know that I am a native Pittsburgher — the fifth of five generations if you count my immigrant great-great grandmother, who came over late, and may not quite have known where she was. I am absurdly proud of my hometown and devoted to the football team that embodies it. My son and I happily schlepped via Amtrak through a snowstorm to the Auld Sod. We watched the Steelers succumb to the tough and smart — but colorless and technocratic — New England Patriots. The loss hurt, but, in the end, not much.

All about being there
What mattered was being there, with family, in a city that always felt like family. I am not naïve about Pittsburgh. I know the history. It was and to some extent still is divided by race (ask August Wilson) and class (ask the Steelworkers) and income (ask the members of the Duquesne Club), and by its chaotic and divisive topography. Rivers, hills and valleys isolated each ethnic group. Growing up in Squirrel Hill, you headed into foreign territory when you crossed the bridge into Greenfield. You didn't go to Italian Lawrenceville or Polish Hill or the black Hill District. And you certainly didn't venture out to Sewickley, where the WASPs were.

And yet, ultimately, no one in Pittsburgh was or is allowed to pull rank. It's a civic crime. More than that, it's impossible: If you are a Pittsburgher, well, that's what you are, whether you are a Mellon or guy who sells them. Pittsburgh is the Bigs, but is hundreds of miles from the biggest of the big leagues (New York and Chicago). Set off alone in Western Pennsylvania, Pittsburghers are united in their splendid isolation and in pride in being better than those other more famous places. When I was a kid, it was both a boast and a curse that everything in our city was the biggest or best "between New York and Chicago." All that really meant was that we had it over Cleveland.

When I was a kid, the sense of civic identity came from something else as well: excellent public institutions, funded by charities and tax money. We had the best in libraries, schools, museums, parks and playgrounds. They belonged to everyone — and everyone, high and low, used them.

You could see the unity of the city in the parking lot of tailgaters hours before the game. The standard male fan uniform was blue jeans (usually with a Terrible Towel hanging from the belt), work boots and Steelers jacket. But making their way to the stadium were guys in overcoats and college caps, and the Land Rovers and battered trucks were side by side.

A gargantuan twirling marigold
By kickoff, Heinz Field was full to the brim with the largest crowd in its history. The snowstorm had kept the New England fans away (much to the dismay of scalpers, I'm sure), and the view from our box was vivid almost beyond belief: 66,000 roaring people twirling bright yellow Terrible Towels, turning the stadium into a gargantuan marigold whipped by the wind.

In politics, that kind of display can be frightening, an ominous emblem of dictatorship and ideological rigidity. But no dictator ordered the fans to do this, no one organized it, and the only message was a benign one: Here we are! We chose to be here to support our team, our town and each other.

The game went badly, of course. The rookie quarterback played like a rookie. The inspirational but unimaginative coach — a Pittsburgh native as tough and unbending as stainless steel — lost his fifth championship game in six tries.

In the bus, no one seemed angry. It had been a good year — better than anyone had expected. The consensus of the Heinz Field fans and those who had watched the game (just about everyone else) was that the rookie would grow, and improve. As for the coach, well, he was from Pittsburgh. "They'll never fire him," said the nurse on his way to the hospital. "He's family."