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In David Conrad’s recent op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the actor/Swissvale native/part-time Braddock resident waxed philosophical on the tenacious appeal our region has for many of us who grew up here, left and then were drawn back. (Some call us boomerangers, or as the Rivers of Steel’s Ron Baraff aptly puts it, gumbanders.)
Conrad, whose writings on the region occasionally appear in the P-G, the blog Two Political Junkies and elsewhere, notes how besotted many of us are with this place, even when it drives us crazy. He talks about the feedback he received from readers who talk of the family members who built our concept of home, and of almost hearing their voices rise up from across the city when returning home.
I recognize that goosebump-causing sensation he describes. In the early days of my own return to Pittsburgh, I often could all but see the younger selves of my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles walking toward me on Smithfield Street or Fifth Avenue. So compact is our downtown, and so central was it once to any kind of business anyone could conduct, that I have certainly trod the same ground — given the potholes, maybe even the same Belgian blocks. Here’s Fourth Avenue where Aunt Bonnie learned stenography; there’s Grandpap tucking into Dr. Diamond’s on Wood Street to pick up a new set of eyeglasses; there’s the streetcar stop where Dad, barely a teenager, used to sell newspapers (fumbling with his coins in hopes the streetcar would pull away before he could hand commuters their change).
The friendliness of Pittsburghers that Conrad mentions is equally resonant. Folks here have a way of teasing each other – even when they haven’t met before and likely won’t again – that can seem rude or a little crazy if you don’t know jagging around when you hear it. The 70-ish gent with marcelled golden hair who’d shout, “Hey lady! That dog bites me and I’m suing you!” at me and my six-pound pooch in Lawrenceville. The man a block down on Liberty Avenue with whom, on a recent darkening evening, I exchanged a nodding of heads as I broke into a sprint towards him. He wordlessly held open the door of my bus until I could leap aboard. The crossing guard who blows kisses to motorists and calls out, “Good morning, Honey-on-the Bike!”
Social scientists call them “consequential strangers,” the characters who color our everyday lives even though we often don’t know their names. Conrad calls them the homebuilders, the singers of a song to the city.
Long may their voices ring out. Keep your ears open.