"Why are you going to live there? You hate those people," said Katrina three months ago when learning of my Pittsburgh housing plans. She was not wrong. I too knew I wouldn't like the people with whom I'd chosen to live. But they were in the location I wanted, they were professionally useful to me, and besides, it was only for five months. How bad could they be?
• • •
To say I live with rich white people is underselling it. I don't mean majority white or majority rich. I mean exclusively both. Some of them are kind, some of them are eye-contact-avoiding twinkies, and many of them are unrepentant elitists. It occurs to me that I've never lived with a concentration of rich people before. I've lived near some, sure, and I've worked with many others, but they were the outliers, the rich people. Here, there's no such distinction. Here, everyone's got money. And here, the people who don't make small talk about statusy pretenses are the outliers.
That, I can handle. 17 years at Microsoft well-conditioned me to tune out tales of Cannes. But I was not prepared for overt classism and racism. In Redmond, those things are unspoken. Not so here.
"You shop there?!" said an otherwise kind woman when I told here where I grocery shop. She was genuinely shocked, concerned for my safety. This was my first inkling of an elitism with which I'm still coming to terms. My grocery store of choice, not coincidentally the nearest one, is across the river. They stock my childhood brand of cheese doodles, so they have my loyalty. Most of the customers and employees are black and lower middle-class. There is nothing whatsoever to suggest a lack of safety. That sheer nothing-whatsoeverness does make one question what variable, exactly, alarms her so. I can guess. And I have.
That night, my sinuses were killing me, and I schlepped off to Monster Grocery to buy meds. The Scary Black Cashier surveyed my DayQuil, NyQuil, nasal spray, saline spray, 12-pack of toilet paper, and cheese doodles. "Man, I wanna party with you tonight."
• • •
A few days later, I was attending to the dogs' colons while chatting with—kindly sit down—two rich white people. Let's call them the "dogshit people." Again, they seemed nice enough at first. They asked me about my story, and like most they're amazed that anyone would uproot himself for an entire football season. They asked for my thoughts on the neighborhood. "It's amazing to me how you walk just one block, and the entire culture changes," I said. I haven't had one tolerable conversation with the stiffs in my building, but walk 200 feet, and you're drowning in culture. I have yuppie, Oriental, Middle Eastern, Mexican, and Italian groceries all within 8 blocks of me, and the sidewalks teem with people of all backgrounds, ages, classes and cultures. For someone from Metamuville, it's dazzling diversity.
"Yeah. But you know, it used to be even worse," replied dogshit guy. I twitched my head a bit, trying to flick his statement around in my brain. Perhaps it would make sense at a different angle. Slowly, terribly, it became clear that he'd heard the exact opposite of what I'd meant. He'd heard the people in our building are the ideal, and everyone else needs to be gentrified out.
They started talking about area restaurants, and they emoted about one pretentious douchefest after another. They people in my building are very much into "scenes." They recommend venues on the basis of prestige, whereas I'm far more interested in the food, conversation, and the ratio of waitresses with brown ponytails and daddy issues.
I am what I am.
My new cigar buddy Earl—a 55ish black dude who looks exactly like what you're imagining, so go ahead, it's not stereotyping in his case—had the previous night recommended a restaurant called Savoy. It gets rave reviews online, and they have live R&B, which appeals enormously. I'm excited to try it. As we discussed restaurants, I asked the dogshit people if they'd been to Savoy. There was an awkward pause. Yes, they each had. "It was...nice," said the woman haltingly, pained, visibly avoiding words. "It's just...not...my...normal scene."
"The words you're avoiding are it's a lot of black guys in suits and bow ties," cheerfully offered dogshit man. He then explained that unlike in other black establishments in Pittsburgh, white people are welcome at Savoy. He then rattled off several establishments where I would not be welcome, including the one at which I've drank happily some dozen times. The one where I met Earl. The one in which Earl had told me about Savoy the night before, in fact.
"The blacks don't want you in there, and you don't want to be in there," dogshit guy imparted gravely. My very life clearly depended upon my understanding local racial protocols as well as he. "What can you do?" he shrugged, feigning sad resignation. "That's Pittsburgh."
As we took our leave of one another, he insisted on giving me his phone number. "My wife and I eat out every single meal," he chirped. "Do join us!"