The Chargers play Pittsburgh on Sunday at their place, Heinz Field. The way San Diego has been playing lately, taking six points is tempting.
I was born in Pittsburgh, Mercy Hospital, at 3:06 in the morning. We (new-born self, mother, two brothers, and one sister) were staying at my maternal grandparents’ house. Mom had gone back “home” to have the baby. Dad stayed on the job in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.
My first memory occurred four years later, in Pittsburgh. We were back living with my grandparents. (I don’t know how that came about.) My memory is of sitting on my grandfather’s knee in the second-floor den. Don’t remember the man’s face or voice, only his knee and a thick, oriental rug. He was, to use the vernacular of the day, an industrialist, owned a steel factory, vanadium company, department store, advertising agency, and brewery.
I remember watching a big black Buick, with my mother in its backseat, as it drove down the driveway. She was flying down to Houston to join Dad. We followed two weeks later.
I attended the third grade in Pittsburgh. My father’s data-processing business went under and we moved back to Grandparents World. Dad found a job in Cleveland and stayed until he got a stake together. It took a school year.
We lived in the servants’ quarters in the attic, which was not as Cinderella as it sounds. Great big rooms. There were five of us, and we stayed together. But it did set an us-against-them dynamic. Since we were more or less on the run, we took on an outlaw attitude. They were rich; we weren’t. They lived in a big house; we never knew where the next house was coming from. We did not consider our grandparents’ generosity, but then, gratitude is an acquired taste not usually found in children.
At the end of my third grade we moved to Dallas and that was it. We never went back, and I never thought of Pittsburgh.
Twenty years pass, fast forward to Fairbanks, Alaska. I’m living in a cabin up the hill from Denny Mehner. He arrived a couple years earlier, fresh out of Washington State University, in possession of a master’s degree. He’d been hired as a lecturer of psychology at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
Denny taught for a couple years, then took a year off to work on a Ph.D. in existential phenomenology at Duquesne University, located in downtown Pittsburgh. He and a Tlingit native by the name of Francis McNeil were living in an old farmhouse in West Sunbury. I flew in with my mate, Peggy O’Callaghan, to spend Christmas.
It was a great ten days, but cold, coldest on record — zero and 15 below zero. I remember Pittsburgh’s blue-collar taverns, their mahogany back bars, Rolling Rock on tap. Remember a Christmas party at the home of Denny’s faculty advisor. We arrived early, no one about, so we went around to the backyard and in the most respectful, gentle way possible, broke into the house, warmed up, went upstairs, took showers (no running water on the farm), and cleaned up. The professor and his wife returned home as we were sauntering down the staircase. Naturally, they were outraged. We said it was existential and offered a beer. Nobody is immune to the great good humor we rolled with that night. It’s still the best party I’ve been to. I didn’t call any of my relatives while I was in town. Why would I?
Another 20 years pass. I’m working for the Reader, new on the job. My mom, who lived in Atlanta, told me she’d been invited to a family reunion. She had the brochure in front of her. I asked her to send it to me.
It is a big family. I’ll start with John Henry Friday. He was born in 1850, died 1932. He’d started as a grocer, finished as owner of Duquesne Beer. He fathered eight children: Harry, John, Hilda, Adelaide, Ralph, Paul, Marie, and Walter. Those children produced 18 children, and in the course of time, by the summer of 1991, the count totaled 298 descendants. I was one, a great-grandson.
I pitched a story to the boss along the lines that it might be weird to see what it would be like to go to a huge family reunion and not know anyone there.
I flew back to Pittsburgh and interviewed everyone. I drank with those who wanted to drink, had meals with those who wanted to eat. Took car rides to familial sites, spent a full day at the family barbeque hobnobbing, won a pocketknife for being the relative who traveled the farthest.
And then I left.