On the Saturday night I arrived in Pittsburgh, I went to a Pirates-Blue Jays baseball game. Who should be the starting pitcher for Pittsburgh but Paul Maholm, once a star pitcher for MSU? I don't follow baseball at all (and only went to this game because it was there and the tickets were cheap), so although I knew Maholm was in the majors I had no idea where. The fact that he just happened to be pitching while I was in town completely blew my mind. It was one of those strings of coincidences that beggar my imagination:
1. I happen to be going to Pittsburgh.
2. The Pirates happen to be playing a home game on the one truly open night of my trip.
3. The Pirates happen to suck ass and are playing the Blue Jays, another team that happens to suck said ass, thereby making the tickets easy and cheap to obtain ($26 for a comfy, literally-behind-homeplate seat).
4. The starting pitcher on this night happens to be a recent former player from my alma mater and current place of employment, not to mention a famous-enough player that I, not a baseball fan, know who he is.
Lengthy side note: I've experienced similar strings in the past, as follows:
1. March 1994: My wife and I go to the $3 movie on a Wednesday night in Pasadena, CA (Wednesday night was double-feature-for-only-$2 night. We saw Cool Runnings and Tombstone.)
2. The theater is a huge, old-timey theater with a balcony, where we choose to sit.
3. Being a Wednesday night, the theater is not even halfway full (empty seats everywhere), yet an older couple and their apparent grandson just happen to choose to sit directly in front of us.
4. The apparent grandson just so happens to be wearing a baseball cap, which he just so happens to be wearing backwards, which just so happens to be an MSU BULLDOGS CAP, staring us right in the face. What the fuck?
1. June 2004: I attend a professional conference in Salt Lake City.
2. Rather than go to the conference's lame opening-night reception, I wander the magic-underwear-strewn streets of downtown SLC looking for an eatery, of which there are many, and I find The Melting Pot, a wonderful wonderful wonderful fondue place.
3. The hostess tells me they're full and that I'll have to make a reservation and wait two hours for a table; however, I can opt to sit at the bar and order one of their appetizer/dessert selections instead of the traditional full-course shiz. "Oh yes," I tell her. "Oh. Yes."
4. I happen to randomly sit at the bar in a position where I have a perfect view of the restaurant's front door.
5. Not 20 minutes after sitting down, I see a family I know from Starkville who have absolutely no connection to the conference I'm attending. I go speak to them, and, after we hoist our jaws off the ground, I find out they're on a vacation and just happen to be passing through SLC. What the fuck?
1. June 2006: I'm about to leave for a vacation, so, after much deliberation, I responsibly decide to do all the yard work before I go.
2. The borders of our yard are woods, and they have a great deal of poison ivy. My yard work necessitates some interaction with this devil weed, to which I am wildly allergic.
3. During such an interaction, I just so happen to touch some poison ivy (unknowingly, unintentionally) with my right index finger.
4. Later, I just so happen to blankly wipe sweat off my right eyelid with the tainted right finger.
5. Two days later, while visiting my parents, my eye swells up. I know what it is, of course, but I want to see a doctor just to make sure I'm not going to go blind. My dad tries to make an appointment with his general practitioner, but he can't see me until after the time I need to depart for our next vacation spot.
6. I love my dad, but he readily takes no for an answer, and so rather than assert himself with this doctor's staff to get me (his only son!) in sooner, he just says "Well, that's all we can do."
7. Like my dad, I also too readily take no for an answer, but this time, I just so happen to push back. I grab the phone book and look for ophthalmologists. Huntsville is a large enough city that it has several ophthalmologists. I pick one, very literally randomly. They just so happen to be able to see me immediately.
8. This ophthalmologist just so happens to have several nurses/assistants. I get the one that calls my name (i.e., I didn't pick her).
9. I tend not be chatty, but for some reason, I just so happen to strike up a conversation with my nurse. She finds out I'm originally from Huntsville, and we ask each other questions about schools.
10. I just so happen to have gotten a nurse with whom I was friends in the third grade, some 28 years before. I remembered her and her name all these years because (a) she was blonde and cute and I probably had a crush on her back then, and (b) when I performed two Elvis songs with my pal Eugene at our elementary school's talent show, she stood up and screamed, hands-to-cheeks in that time-honored way that women (and probably Morrissey) responded to the young Elvis. (Eugene and I won first place.) That reaction, I can tell you, tends to leave an impression.
What. The. Fuck?
Anyway, after the game, I ate dinner at a restaurant attached to the baseball stadium, and a group of four steelworker-type guys came in: they all had plastic Pirates baseball helmets with the two-holster drinkholder on the top, and they all had two cans of Budweiser apiece in their respective holsters. I absolutely loved these guys. Meanwhile, the cover band in the bar next door played, among many other "gems," "Come on Eileen" by Dexy's Midnight Runners, "China Grove" by the Doobie Brothers, and "Roseanna" by Toto. Wow.
I spent Sunday walking around downtown Pittsburgh, and I came upon a street festival. It took up at least one full block and was bookended by two stages. As I walked past the first stage, I saw onstage a tall man wearing a sequined black evening gown, a crown, high heels, and copious makeup. He was lip-synching a disco song. Then I looked at the crowd, which was very large. Oh. “It's a gay-pride festival,” I thought. There were people of every age, color, size, and stereotypical manner of dress, most of whom were holding hands with someone of the same gender. A man wearing a smiling "Jesus Loves You" t-shirt handed me a sanctity-of-hetero-marriage tract stamped with the seal of "Jews for Jesus," a group I've always heard of but never actually encountered. The other stage contained some very – um – limber dancers doing a REALLY interpretive dance to Apocalyptica's four-cello rendition of the Metallica song "The Unforgiven." Wow.
As usual, the conference-kickoff picnic was a bust. It was on the convention-center rooftop overlooking one (or more) of the 3 rivers that converge in Pittsburgh, so that was neat, and they were serving allegedly real Pittsburgh food: pierogies, brats, locally brewed beers, Klondike bars (which aren't actually made in Pittsburgh, so what the fuck?). But the "entertainment" was a band of middle-aged men wearing matching American-flag shirts, playing horrendous covers, and engaging in the cheesiest between-song banter in the history of human hearing. (I take this sort of thing personally.) I had just finished texting a buddy about this goofy scene when a storm blew up and knocked their banner over on top of them in mid-song, thus ending the picnic. No one was hurt or even too scared. It was perfect.
Another, shorter side note: I recently got Stephen Colbert's book I Am America (And So Can You), and I read most of it on this trip. It's so unbelievably, relentlessly funny that I had to stop reading it on the plane because I was cackling nonstop while the rest of the plane was trying to sleep. (I'm not exaggerating; people were turning around to look at me, annoyed.) Whoever you are, please, please, please get this book and read it. You will cry tears of joy.
Many folks at these presentation-laden events still don't present very well. Two years prior in Chicago, I suffered through a "distinguished" lecture by famous author Henry Petroski, eventually leaving after nodding off a few times. The one I went to this year was even worse. It was on a super-cool aerospace topic that was ruined by the speaker's curmudgeon-ness, his complete lack of enunciatory ability, his obliviousness to the microphone (and the need for it), and his refusal to make an incredibly complex topic palatable for a mixed audience. It should go without saying that I left this one early too. The major exception was a communication instructor from Penn State who talked about an engineering-specific speech class and actually brought one of her students to give a six-minute talk on the physio-chemi-mechanical properties of spider webs as an example of how well engineering students can present – a brilliant idea.
One of my all-time faves, Peter Murphy, just happened to be playing a concert in Pittsburgh while I was there. It was at a roughly 200-seat theater a few blocks from my hotel and the convention center. He opened with the Bauhaus song "Burning from the Inside." He played "Marlene Dietrich's Favourite Poem," and I cried helplessly. He played "Crystal Wrists," and I swear that might have been the best live performance of a song I've ever heard, flawless and chill-bump-inducing. For his first (of three) encores, he played some of Bauhaus’s super-spooky "The Three Shadows Part 1" on acoustic guitar as a segue into "A Strange Kind of Love." Then he played another Bauhaus song, "She's in Parties," at the end of which he sang "We're jamming" a few times (including "We're jamming / In the name of the lord," which made me laugh out loud), and then he sang "Riders on the storm" a few times, as a kind of outro. He did not do "Cuts You Up," "Bela Lugosi's Dead," or "Ziggy Stardust." He also didn't do "The Light Pours Out of Me" or "All Night Long," and I REALLY would like to have heard those. He was way charming and talked to the crowd a lot. The theater was about the size of a small playhouse. I had a great seat, but no seat was bad. He was VERY dramatic when he was singing, almost expressionistic, which is exactly what I imagined. I bought a badass shirt with the Deep album cover on the front and the "This is no terror ground" passage from "Strange Kind of Love" on the back. Besides some really good new songs I don't know, the other songs I can recall are “The Line Between the Devil's Teeth” & “Deep Ocean, Vast Sea” (Deep); “Huuvola” & “Gliding Like a Whale” (Cascade); “The Sweetest Drop” & maybe one more from Holy Smoke; some song from Dust I can't recall; & a song or two from Bauhaus's latest album, Go Away White. It was fucking great.
The New York Yankees were in town for a series with the Pirates. I tried to get a ticket, but they were sold out, and I later found out that they were not only sold out because hordes of Yankee fans travel everywhere with the team but also because this was the first time the Yankees had played in Pittsburgh in over 50 years (being from different leagues within MLB, they had only recently resumed playing one another with the dawn of inter-league play several years ago). But lo and behold, the Yankees stayed in my hotel. Having grown up in the South, far away from most forms of “celebrity,” I am easily starstruck, so even though I don't follow baseball it was mighty neat to see Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui, and – yes – Alex Rodriguez walking through the lobby a few feet away from me. I also rode in the elevator with a Yankee, and though I didn't recognize him or know his name, he was too tall, well-dressed, good-smelling, and blinged-out not to be a pro athlete of some type. I tried to get an autograph for my son while I was there, to no avail.
A convention known as Anthrocon (http://www.anthrocon.org/) started in my hotel the day I was leaving. This meant that, the day before I left, the hotel began to be overrun by what are really and truly known as "Furries": people wearing furry tails, furry heads, and, in some cases, furry bodysuits. I heard one of them – I believe he himself was wearing a 3-foot marmoset tail – explain the convention to a clearly disgusted inquisitor as "a convention for people who enjoy anthropomorphic creatures. You know the old Disney animated movie Robin Hood, where all the characters are animals that talk like people? Yeah, that's basically it." Oh, and did I mention the NEW YORK YANKEES were staying in this hotel also, along with a bazillion of their fans, so that there was this weird mix of hardcore video-game-sci-fi-look-I'm-a-firefox-computer-science-major people and much-more-mainstream, pinstripe-wearing, I-want-A-rod's-autograph baseball people rubbing elbows with each other. "Surreal" doesn't begin to describe it, especially seeing the Yankee drivers and other assorted posse – most of whom truly looked like extras from The Sopranos – stand around in their pinky rings while hordes of 5-foot ocelots mainlined Mountain Dew and chased each other across the lobby and up the escalators. I very much fancy myself a live-and-let-live kind of person, but these sweaty, overeager, befurred folks got on every nerve I have. Yeesh.
The hotel cafe served many good dishes, none better than "steel-cut oatmeal with bananas crème brûlée and a caramelized topping." I don't know what "steel-cut oatmeal" is, but it tastes very, very good. (I had it twice.) Also, via the cafe's main server, an exhaustingly friendly and potentially gay man named Randy, I found out that "conversation is the glue of friendship." (sniff)
With apologies to Mastercard and Billy Crudup......Getting lost while walking around downtown Pittsburgh: 1.75 hours of nonstop walking. Dinner for 9 at The Metling Pot: $500. Eating with your boss, who ensures that your office picks up the entire tab: Priceless.