I didn’t become aware of exactly how Pittsburgh I am until I went to college in upstate New York; a place where I was made aware of exactly how Pittsburgh I am by the endless questions about the genesis of my accent. An accent I wasn’t even aware of until I went to school.
“Are you from the South or something?”
“No. Well, technically I’m from south of here, but I’m not from the South.”
“Where are you from, then?”
“Oh. You mean like Philly?”
“No. Not at all.”
Increasingly annoyed by and intrigued with this line of questioning — which almost always came from the New Yorkers who happened to be in Buffalo — I doubled down on my Pittsburghese; incorporating a Hill District/Schenley High School-centric slang term (“Ike”) into my lexicon that I, a Penn Hills grad from East Liberty, had no business using. But they weren’t from Pittsburgh — shit, one even expressed to me that she had never even heard of Pittsburgh –– so what did they know?
It’s been over a decade since I was in college. But that awkward cocktail of self-consciousness, haughtiness, and overprotectiveness still persists, still permeates, when the subject of me and my relationship to my city is brought up by outsiders. I do not say ‘Ike” anymore. Because the questions are no longer about my accent. And even if they were, a man in his mid-30s still ending every sentence with Ike is giving you full permission to open hand smack him on the eyelids. Instead, I find myself answering a different question..
“Why are you still in Pittsburgh?”
…and giving great answers I’m not quite sure I believe.
On Monday, the answer might be “Well, we (my wife and I) were planning on moving to D.C. a couple years ago. But then my mom passed and I didn’t want to leave my dad alone here by himself.” By Monday afternoon it’s “Man, with the cost of living the way it is here, if I moved to New York City I’d have to make 56 million dollars a year to maintain my standard of living.” Monday evening it’s “I can’t leave if I’m attempting to convince people of color to stay here. That would make me a hypocrite. And the only thing worse than a hypocrite is Cleveland.” And, if you cornered me at a bar somewhere at 10:27 that night — and bought me several Honey Jack and gingers — you might hear “I’m the shit here. Why would I leave?”
None of these answers would be false. But they’re not true truths. They’re lawyer truths. Aint shit husband truths. Bush administration truths. Love and Hip-Hop cast member truths. The type of truths you volunteer when you’d rather be evasively truthful than honest.
Because the truth — the honest reason why I’ve decided to stay in Pittsburgh — just isn’t sexy enough. Or convincing enough. Shit, even as I prepare to type the words out and visualize how they’ll look on the page, I’m not convinced of it. Not because I’m deluding myself. But because it feels like it should be more. It should be more compelling. It should stick and sting.
I mean, I am a Black man in the single Whitest major metropolitan area in the country. A city so White Rick James once tried to snort it. I’ve seen multiple peers and friends — including each of my best friends — leave. Some of whom would rather leave the motherfucking continent than return back to live in Pittsburgh. I also have an occupation with no geographical constraints. I could do what I currently do anywhere from Austin to Aliquippa. I do not need to be here. And I have several very valid reasons not to be.
But I am here. Because I want to be. I live in Pittsburgh because I want to live in Pittsburgh. And, there’s no specific reason I can cite; no powerful words I can write to add weight and meaning to my point. Nothing about the neighborhoods or the topography or East Liberty or the gotdamn Primanti Brothers sandwiches. Asking me why I’ve stayed in Pittsburgh is like asking a father why he loves his daughter. Or how a tree feels about the sun. All attempts to articulate it would seem clumsy and maudlin because it is just not something that can be articulated effectively.
But, because that answer is so, well, uninspiring, when people ask why I’ve stayed, I’ll continue to pull from my vault of half-truths. Maybe the next time I’ll tell them something about the Steelers or something.