Another look at the Steel City

There are stories you tell with great joy. Like the one that’s well-known in my family, from when my grandfather was a little boy and took a trip to Pittsburgh with some older relatives. (I’m afraid I don’t know the details, but they aren’t important to the story.) Even though nothing particularly bad happened, it was just such a long and tiring day that at the end of the day, someone asked how he was doing the reply was an frustrated, on-the-verge-of-tears, “I’ve been to Pittsburgh!”

That has become one of our familial idiosyncracies ever since. One way we have of saying we’ve had a very trying day is to whine “I’ve been to Pittsburgh!” and this continues even though everybody who was there at the time has since passed on. My favorite twist is the time his youngest daughter called her father from the Pittsburgh Airport and announced “I’m in Pittsburgh!”

Because of the earthquake, the train was two hours late leaving Washington, and then crawled out of Union Station and halfway to West Virginia at about 15 miles an hour, meaning that the train (which was supposed to get to Pittsburgh around midnight) rolled into town at 4 in the morning. And this after a day with a long walk, travel ennui, not really getting much sleep on the train, and an earthquake thrown in for good measure. So is it any surprise that when I got to my hotel at 5:30, the first thing I did was send my mom an e-mail, “Waaaaaah! I’m in Pittsburgh!”

But then there are travel stories that you don’t necessarily put on the back of a picture post card (or a blog being read primarily by family) and if you do tell them at all, it’s usually months later, when the temporal distance makes them funnier, and you are safely home. You may have noticed that the train arrived at 4am and I got to my hotel room at 5:30. I spent more than an hour at the train station waiting for a cab. And if all that happened was waiting for a cab, I wouldn’t be giving this kind of build-up to the story.

In addition to the two or three licensed cabs that serve Pittsburgh, there are a large number of unmarked cars—which I’d heard referred to as “Jitneys” several times—that allegedly offer transportation for much less than cab fare. And my first experience with a Jitney was unnerving enough that I hope it is also my last experience with a Jitney. This unkempt dude gets out of a shit-box pickup truck and approaches me, speaking in a hush-hush voice that made me think at first he was trying to sell me some drugs. “You need transportation?”
I attempted to decline politely, “No thanks, I called for a cab.”
At which he became threatening and aggressive. Why he thought this would instill confidence in me and make me more keen to get into his truck is beyond me, but apparently he did. “You’re not from around here, Jitney’s how we do things in Pittsburgh.”

A little later, a Crown Victoria that might be older than I am but appeared to be neat and well-maintained drove up.
“Do you need transportation, sir?” The driver asks, sounding very much like a cab driver.
“Is this a licensed cab?”
“No, sir, this is not a cab.” Very polite and friendly.
“I’m gonna wait for the cab I called.”
“That’s fine sir, I understand.”

As I got to thinking about it I realized (and please remember that I’d been awake 21 of the previous 24 hours) that had the Crown Vic approached me first, I probably would’ve ridden with him without even a thought about whether he was licensed or not.

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