Tuesday, February 3, 2009
Jump hugs with dangerous drunks
While late night comics were ridiculing Pittsburgh for excessively celebrating its Super Bowl victory, I was trying to correct a conviction I hadn’t done enough.
Two days before the Steelers won the Super Bowl, Pittsburgh City Schools announced it would delay the start of Monday’s education by two hours to allow its students and staffers time to sleep it off.
Many commentators howled this set a terrible example for hungover Pittsburgh students and showed just how out of touch the city is from conventional priorities, as if pandering to the sports obsessed in America could ever backfire.
I thought it was brilliant and believe in a few months we’re going to start to see an influx of families who’ve moved their children to Pittsburgh just so they could sufficiently recover from future Super Bowl victories. Call them Steeler sleeper cells.
Me, I popped out of bed reveille ready at 6 a.m., dashed out to get the newspaper and immediately began reading it at an eighth grade level.
I’d spent the entire day with Valerie and our two girls, 8 and 2. During the course of 12 hours of available Super Bowl coverage, I consumed four beers.
I love watching the game with the girls. I don’t mind explaining basic football terminology. I don't even mind it when on a crucial third and long the 2-year-old crawls into my lap and insists I read to her Dr. Seuss’s “The Things I Think I Think.”
But there’s a part of me I’ve nurtured through decades of zero responsibility and dubious judgment that misses watching the biggest game of the year out with the boys. That part of me would like to jaw about complex strategy, football history and unleash wanton profanities at the brain-dead refs.
The essence of the event doesn’t change. I’m still watching the same game, but if one of the boys wants to crawl up on my lap and cuddle during a crucial play, well, I can take it on a case-by-case basis.
That’s the part of me I decided to briefly indulge on Monday evening.
Jack’s Bar on Pittsburgh’s South Side is open 365 days a year and is one of the city's most raucous taverns. It has a great jukebox and a lively clientele of inebrients who bring boozy spice to every conversation.
The bar was packed with Steeler fans. Every stool was occupied except for clear down at the end where five vacant seats stood between relative civilization and menace.
He was an older man, maybe 70. He was shouting profanity at one poor guy who looked too timid to get up and run.
And when I say profanity I do mean singular. He didn’t use a barnyard array. It was exclusively the word I’d heard an off-color country singer in another bar long ago refer to as “The Universal Adjective (“I lost my f-ing job, I lost my f-ing wife, the universal adjective is f-ing up my life...).
Finally, the mousy guy got up and skittered away. That meant I still had a five-stool Maginot Line between me and the old lout. I was about done with my first beer. I could have downed it and left, but I have a rule about always drinking at least two beers in any bar. Drink just one and you look like a tourist or prey.
Drinking two always friendlies up the bartender and the regulars who recognize you as someone who means business and not one of those one-beer dorks.
It automatically looked like the two-beer rule was a mistake, because the guy turned right to me and sneered, “What the hell are you doing in here?”
I didn’t flinch. “I’m here to drink some beers with some friendly Steeler fans.”
“Well, I’m a Steeler fan,” he said.
“You a friendly one?”
“I can be,” he said a tad defensively.
That little exchange brought him one stool nearer.
Turns out he was a friendly Steeler fan. The guy went way back and knew beloved Steeler patriarch Art Rooney Sr. He told some great football stories. One stool later he told me about his kids, his grandkids and how joyful it is to share with them what he called “jump hugs.” That's when the kids run clear down from one end of the house and explode into his arms.
He was a professional window washer who by the time he was sitting on the stool right next to me told me about the harrowing tragedy 30 years ago when he nearly got blown off a city skyscraper and about the one poor guy who did.
I left after four beers and had to resist the urge to run clear from the other side of Jack’s and give the guy a great big jump hug before I split.
I learned something that day when the Steeler Super Bowl victory shortchanged city students two hours of their precious education.
I learned never to sit five stools away from drunken old Steeler fans.
Any more than two and you’re just wasting time.