What My Father Taught Me About Pittsburgh
Illustration by Patrick Neil
I spend a bit of time each Father’s Day reflecting on the things my father has given me throughout the years: A warm home, food on the table, religion, love, toys, his time, his curly hair and his deafness. Recently, I realized that he has given me more than a tangible list of nouns; he taught me from a very early age some things about Pittsburgh:
There’s always a back way.
Driving with my father is an adventure because he never seems to take the same path to a destination twice. He always knows “a back way,” and in the Pittsburgh region, where traffic and orange cones can make a route maddening enough to give road rage to a church lady, those back ways come in handy.
Oftentimes, my four sisters and I referred to “the back way” as “the long way,” but as our father would explain, “At least we’re moving.” I recall trips to downtown via “the back way” in which we would literally SPIRAL our way to the city, circling it and circling it, but never seeming to get any closer.
But hey, we were moving.
Appreciate the skyline.
One way to learn to appreciate the beauty of the Pittsburgh skyline is to spiral your way to it, but our father taught us to appreciate the skyline by having us sit up and look at it as we shot out of the Fort Pitt Tunnels on our way home from Grandma’s house every Saturday night. It did not matter if we were sound asleep in the car; he would have our mother wake us up to see what we had seen probably a hundred times before. We were thankful he woke us to see the way the view explodes with lights, water and brilliance as we exited the staid tube. We would rub the sleep from our eyes and say, “Ooooh, looky!” It never got old. It never will.
If you look to the U.S. Steel Tower, you’ll never get lost downtown.
Look at a map of pretty much any U.S. city, and the pattern of streets resembles a checkerboard—nice square blocks resting against other square blocks. Take a look at a street map of Pittsburgh, and it looks as if a drunken spider spun a web of streets creating blocks of various shapes and sizes, some so irregular that “block” really just doesn’t do it justice.
Dad spent many years working in what is now the U.S. Steel Tower, and he taught us that if you use that skyscraper as your focal point, your beacon and your invisible homing device, then you will never get lost. He taught us to see every street, every store and every trapezoid-shaped block in relation to the building, and for some reason, it works.
It wasn’t unusual for my mother, in trying to reach Kaufmann’s department store, to find herself desperately lost in an unfamiliar parallelogram, and we girls would be able to guide her to the store because we knew where we were in relation to “Dad’s building.”
“Mom, you want to go two triangles up, make a left and then it will be three trapezoids on your right.”
Stick it to The Man:
Don’t pay for parking. If there is anything in Pittsburgh that frustrates my father more than the fact that the Parkway East is really just a fancy name for a giant parking lot, it is the expensive parking. Ten years before he retired, he decided he was never going to pay more than $5 to park within walking distance of the U.S. Steel Tower.
He began at the lower reaches of the Hill District, where he could pay $5 and walk a little under a mile to work. Then he decided $5 was too much and began arriving at the crack of dawn to snag a meter near the Mellon Arena. HE WAS WINNING.
Then he decided $3 was too much, especially when there were people parking in the Hill District for free. Free was the magic number he had been reaching for.
He began parking in deserted alleys in the Hill, not caring a flip about the broken window glass often littering the curb. This resulted in his car being stolen more than a half-dozen times, and we would watch my mother hang up the kitchen phone with a sigh, turn off the stove over which she had been making dinner and say, “Get in the car, girls. Your dad got his car stolen again.”
I realized how much he taught me about how I see Pittsburgh when recently I met my entire family up on Mount Washington at about 10 at night. As I walked from my car to the overlook, I cradled my sleeping daughter in my arms. I nudged her awake and pointed out the city lights. On my honor, she said, “Ooooh, looky!”
Thanks, Dad. Because of you, I know the back way to downtown, where I’ll park for free and never get lost as I walk through the oddly shaped blocks surrounded by the breathtaking skyline of the city you taught me to love.