In Pittsburgh

Things that are different in Pittsburgh:

Alcohol — You can only buy wine or liquor at the state store. Only bars are allowed to sell takeaway beer … so the corner convenience store has an area where you can drink singles and smoke (smoking ban in effect March 30). You can bring your own beer or wine to a restaurant without a liquor license, and pay a corking fee. The way I remember it is, everything you can do in DC, like buy beer in a grocery store, you can’t do in Pittsburgh, and everything you can do in Pittsburgh, like drink beer in a convenience store or carry a six-pack out of a bar, you can’t do in DC.

Buses – Buses are part of the strangely influential and omnipresent Allegheny County Port Authority. Port Authority runs a huge transit system consisting of hundreds of little niche bus lines each with multiple permuations of [A, B, C, D…] and [Local, Express, Alternate], the T line light transit (which many people seem to feel is useless) and probably ferries, hot air balloons, etc. I don’t know exactly why I have this impression of bizarre complexity, except that it is a remarkably big system (facing cuts) that everyone takes for granted here. Near my apartment there is a dedicated bus road going downtown.

And buses have an authority beyond their size in this city. A bus I was on didn’t turn the corner at a sharp enough angle and couldn’t make its left turn because of the solid line of oncoming cars. The driver backed the cars up as far as they could go, and then forced three cars to drive onto the sidewalk before he could straighten out into his lane. The other day I saw a cop holding up traffic while he furiously berated a guy in a sports car for trying to get around a bus.

The buses aren’t actually lines, but cycles. They nearly all go downtown, so they’re basically named after their originating neighborhoods. These two facts confused me a lot when I first started riding. I couldn’t understand how I could get off the bus at one stop and then catch the same bus going in the same direction to go home. It’s because they follow a single route from the named neighborhood until they approach downtown, then they loop through the city and return to the single route when they get out from the city.

This is the reason for the (initially, to me) strange fare policy of having people pay when then get on if they are “inbound” and pay when they get off if they are “outbound”. Of course, it makes more sense for the bus to spend less time taking people on in the chronically congested downtown, especially at rush hour. But there are some places when the bus is still basically inbound but you’re planning to go outbound where it gets confusing. You just get on and don’t pay until you get off. Today I saw an angry homeless guy walk in through the back door (which is okay, as long as you’re outbound) and ride a couple of blocks and get off without paying. For all I know, it’s free to ride around downtown. At least, this is a fairly obvious hack of the system.

I think the bus system might be chainlinked way out into Allegheny county through a system of bus depots, like the one in nearby East Liberty. So the sense is that this is a commuter transit system where all roads lead to Pittsburgh’s downtown. 1 This is a city with lots of cool, fully-fleshed-out commercial neighborhoods, but everyone who rides the bus has a constant need to go downtown.

I know I sound out of it. It’s just so much more centralized than I’m used to living in DC, where the bus lines crisscross the city with the purpose of getting you from one neighborhood to another, or from one quadrant to another. Also, we have the subway2 . I would probably have a different view if I’d ever tried the daily commute from Maryland or Virginia.

Grocery store – We have a Whole Foods and a Trader Joe’s nearby. We mostly shop at the Giant Eagle, though. (Amy likes to free-associate this name with the divebombing bald eagle from the intro to the Colbert report.) The Giant Eagle in our neighborhood seems to be pursuing every demographic at once, and does a pretty good job of it. They have a complicated organization scheme that is oddly intuitive:

Cafe, plants, deli, gourmet cheeses, produce, deli breads… (yes, I’m doing this all from memory) then several aisles of food grouped by ethnicity: a whole wall of kosher foods facing miscellaneous European food nationality groups (e.g., German for jars of sauerkraut, a Scandinavian cluster for chocolates and strange pickled fruits) ; Mexican (e.g., salsas, including blatantly Anglo salsas) ; Asian (e.g., instant noodles) ; Italian (e.g., spaghetti sauce); Polish (e.g., pierogies) — each of these is very decently stocked with interesting stuff, and probably provides a good census of the ethnic-American makeup of the city. Along the walls, the standard fish, meat, milk, a small but vital fake lunch meats (and fake cheese) section, then pasteurized cheeses (remember the gourmet cheese section?) … over to breads, where you can find Thomas Squares Bagelbread3. Then several long aisles for: cookies, crackers, juice boxes; soups, spices, coffees and teas; beverages (juice); beverages (sodas); magazines; personal hygiene products; etc. ; etc. The two frozen food aisles feature lots of frozen ethnic foods, including more pierogies, as well as an excellent fake meat section (across and down from the Organic Foods section, which also has vegetarian fare). There’s a bank, a pharmacy and a place to buy bus passes. Amy gets a discount if she buys gas from a Giant Eagle affiliated gas station.

I want to talk more about this grocery store, I really do. The reason why I mentioned all that was to point out how ingeniously broken the store’s taxonomy is. In most grocery stores it’s more or less kingdom -> genera -> species, dairy -> cheese -> velveeta. Here, the categorization is based on clades.

Pretty good grocery store.

  1. If you ever study a map of the area between Washington, DC and Pittsburgh, you’ll see that all roads really do lead there, or rather through it. [back]
  2. I guess it’s harder to build a subway in a hilly city? [back]
  3. The humor of which will be explained in a subsequent entry. [back]