So today I was faced with an interesting choice. Now that I’m much better at navigating Pittsburgh via public transit I know that from the stop near my office there are two bus routes that take about the same time to get back into the city. The first goes through a fairly poor rundown area before hitting the downtown. The second goes through the prestigious University of Pittsburgh. And the campus is impressively beautiful.
Guess which place my preppy white girl outward appearance fits in better?
I know the anticipation is killing you, but it was the second one. And that makes me kind of sad. Because while I’ve taken both ways, the first time I took the first way I was taken aback. Because suddenly I was launched into a world that was primarily African American and included many people with disabilities, the elderly, and had a strong presence of single mothers. One in particular who had a broken foot and was carting around her work bags and her kid on this broken foot of hers still haunts me. Because that would be damn hard. I don’t even know if I could do it. And while I hate the notion that just because I grew up with a nice, middle-class family I don’t know what suffering is (I know well enough, believe me), it would be hard to bear that particular cross. And I’m grateful that I had a really supportive family to go through it with me, because that lady was all alone with her child.
But fortunately since this is Pittsburgh, there is something sort of genuine about the people here, what you see is what you get. There’s this like prevailing blue-collar honesty, a sweet simplicity that’s hard to describe. Just know that it is the opposite of superficiality. And the people had a little community. A lot of them knew each other. And what could have been a really depressing scene (one that my more elitist but sometimes well-meaning professors and teachers would teach me to automatically pity if not outright condescend) was turned into something almost sweet. Because there’s nothing like being cared about, knowing that people have your back through thick and thin, not because of what you do for them, but because you are friends and neighbors. That is the power of Pittsburgh. And I’m sad that, being raised up and down the east coast, that I haven’t experienced anything like it in other places.
Because other places have turned their back on it as something outdated in this dog-eat-dog world where you are number one and everyone else is number two (extend the number two metaphor as far as you want). And that’s too bad. Because now there is an absence of this type of community, an absence that the world is in mourning for, whether they admit it or not.
Because the truth is the best things in life aren’t things. What makes the experience worthwhile isn’t “finding yourself” or accumulating lots of material goods or even being the best. It’s serving your neighbor. And in a community like the ones I’ve described in Pittsburgh, you get the joy not only of serving your neighbor but in having your neighbor serve you too. I’m glad they keep that tradition alive. And I’d love to see it come back to life around the world.