The woman on the phone was from National Public Radio, and she had a problem. The network was looking for someone to interview about the Steelers' upcoming AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots. They wanted a sense of what football meant to Pittsburgh, she said. An "old bartender" would be ideal, especially if he did a lot of traffic with ex-steelworkers.
"I know it sounds like we're looking for a stereotype," she admitted.
"I'll see what I can do," I told her. So I sobered up our A&E editor, a guy named O'Driscoll, and asked if he knew any good bars. He didn't, actually, but eventually we found NPR a really good interview subject, despite not being a stereotype at all.
I suppose I should be happy about my PR coup. I suppose I should be celebrating this moment in Pittsburgh sports. The Steelers did better than anyone expected, and the Pirates are fielding a young team with lots of promise. Even if they suck again, at least they won't be overpaid for doing so. For the Pirates, that's progress. Hell, even the Penguins are in the midst of an undefeated season.
Yet, like a stereotypical Steelers fan, I've been feeling empty inside for weeks. It's not the Steelers losing that bothers me; I grew up in the 1980s. It's that even when we win, it feels like a setback.
When we built Heinz Field and PNC Park, part of the reason was to advertise Pittsburgh to the nation -- to show them we weren't the steel-making metropolis of everyone's memories. Yet every time the Steelers play well enough to get national attention, I start hearing about the "blue-collar ethic" of our "gritty, physical, hardworking" team and its fans.
I've got nothing against praising Pittsburgh's labor heritage. (Though you'll notice these homages rarely include mention of unions.) It's just that it so often becomes a meaningless and patronizing cliché.
Consider, for example, a Jan. 30 op-ed piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by Maxwell King. King heads up the Heinz Endowments and came here by way of Cleveland and Philadelphia. But in Pittsburgh, he says, "[T]he personality of the team completely matches the personality of the town": They're both "tough, unpretentious, straightforward, [and] hardworking."
True enough, if you substitute "stereotype" for "personality." After all, there's no shortage of pretension here, as you know if you've ever walked down Walnut Street on a Saturday afternoon.
But King isn't finished. "Not only does this town seem to love the Steelers unconditionally, but it has achieved the strongest bond between community and team that I've ever encountered," he writes. "Here our passion really is unconditional, and our relationship with the team largely a happy one."
Which leads to one question: Has Maxwell King actually been to a Steelers game?
I have, and "unconditional love" is not exactly how I'd describe the atmosphere. On one occasion, a guy three rows behind me began shouting "I paid too much for these [expletive deleted] seats!" two plays into the game. I've heard "fans" scream "Get that faggot out of there!" when Kordell Stewart threw an interception, and even when he didn't. (To be fair, I suppose that is unconditional emotion of a sort.) I've heard stories of people cheering when Terry Bradshaw -- Terry Bradshaw! -- broke his arm.
If we have to resort to generalities, and it seems we do, here's what Pittsburgh fans may really be like: We're like Joe Chiodo, the legendary Homestead barkeep and longtime Steelers fan who, just days before the AFC Championship, told the New York Freaking Times he hoped the Steelers lost. Why? Because his seats in Heinz Field weren't as good as the seats he had in Three Rivers.
That, my friends, is Pittsburgh. We don't really care who you are, or what you've done. The minute you try doing it to us, we're going to tear you from the pedestal we put you on. I'm sure it would be a lot easier to run an offense, or a city, if that wasn't so. But that wouldn't be Pittsburgh. It might not even be football.
I like to think that attitude helped make Pittsburgh what it is today. If we suffered in silence or were easily impressed by millionaires, we never would have stood up to Carnegie in Homestead. We might still be tending open-hearths on 24-hour shifts.
Either way, if National Public Radio calls again next year...I'm giving them Joe Chiodo's number.