Not long ago, the U.S. Census bureau released information indicating that Pennsylvania leads all states in the share of homeowners who have lived on their property for more than 30 years. A statistic even more revealing of Pennsylvanians’ propensity for sinking deep roots finds that 78 percent of the state’s residents were born here. In this category, we rank second to Louisiana.
Having never been to Louisiana, I assume it’s a great place. Although with its notorious humidity and destructive hurricanes, I suspect their residents are knee-deep in swamp muck and so tangled in Spanish moss that they can’t escape the Bayou State.
Pennsylvanians’, and specifically Pittsburghers’ proclivity “to bloom where we are planted,” must puzzle more nomadic types. As a native, however, I find our resistance to succumb to wanderlust quite comforting and charming. Pittsburgh is like an intricately woven tapestry. You can pull a thread and follow it to someone you know.
This inter-connectedness has given rise to a game my family and I enjoy playing that I call Six Degrees of Pittsburgh. It’s based on the game with a similar name, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, where you name a celebrity and, within six relationships, link them back to the actor. In my version, whenever I meet someone new, I immediately begin to try to connect that person to someone we already know in Pittsburgh.
More often than not, with a little digging, I discover that we share a mutual friend or at least an acquaintance. “You’ve Got A Friend in Pennsylvania” wasn’t on our old license plates for nothing.
From the reaction of some newcomers to the area, I must not be the only one playing this game. A few transplants have commented to me that when first arriving here, they had been a little put off by Pittsburghers’ “nebbiness.” They feel as if they’re being interrogated by the KGB when we ask where they’re from, where they work, where they go to church, where they live.
Understand, we aren’t being “nebby” or trying to pigeonhole a person. To those of us born and raised here, you’re a dropped stitch that needs to be woven into Pittsburgh’s fabric.
However, not everyone in my family enjoys playing Six Degrees of Pittsburgh. In fact, when my daughter was a teen, she was quite annoyed by it.
As she grew and acquired her own social group, I continued to engage in the game. When she came home from school in freshman year and asked if we could take her new friend, Ashley Wagner, to the football game, I immediately began scanning my mental Rolodex of all the Wagners I’ve ever known.
“I wonder if she’s related to Dirtbag Wagner that went to school with your uncle?” I asked.
My daughter glared at me. “Don’t you dare ask her if she’s related to someone named ‘Dirtball.’ ”
“Dirtbag,” I corrected her.
When I picked up Ashley, I respected my daughter’s wishes and refrained from questioning her, but only because I couldn’t find a tactful way to phrase the question, “Is your father Dirtbag?”
A few weeks after that, as I drove a car filled with her new friends home from a dance, I reveled in the chance to play my game with a whole new gaggle of girls.
I discovered that one girl’s family owned the corner bar near the neighborhood where I grew up. Another’s second cousin and I went to school together, and we all laughed when I told how we drew lots in fourth grade at St. Athanasius to win the privilege of naming the “pagan” baby we adopted through the Holy Childhood fund. Her cousin drew the honor and dubbed the lucky adoptee Wolfgang Sean.
When we arrived home, my daughter was less than amused. “Do you have to do that?” she said.
“Do what?” I asked innocently.
“You know what. Interrogate my friends.”
“I’m only trying to be friendly,” I replied, and to change the subject, I asked if she danced with anyone.
“Yeah,” she said, and I eventually pried an identity out of her.
“That name sounds familiar,” I mused, rubbing my chin.
She groaned and walked away, knowing I was well on my way to completing a Six Degrees run.
The name tumbled through my head like a lottery ball until an entry popped up. I called my sister for verification. “I think I worked with his father,” she said. “Nice guy, an accountant with a colossal comb-over.”
I got off the phone and called up the stairs to my daughter. “Your aunt thinks she worked with the father of that boy you danced with. Do you know if his dad is an accountant?”
My daughter opened her bedroom door and sighed, sounding like the Hindenburg deflating. I knew I’d pegged the kid. “Can’t I know someone on my own?”
I smiled, satisfied that I’d made the link, and walked away mumbling to myself. “Not in Pittsburgh, sweetheart.”
By Janice Lane Palko