Thursday, July 8, 2010

Meeting Willie Stargell: 1st Installment of "Nostalgia Thursday"

It is January, 1980. An overcast, cold day. I am driving hundreds of miles from my childhood New Jersey home with my husband, Paul, his brother Kevin in the front seat next to him and my sister Maureen sitting with me next to my baby Brian in the car seat. We are heading toward our new home in Pittsburgh, PA.
I am not happy about moving to this city that I only know from my 6th grade geography textbook. In it, there was a grainy photo of a steel mill spewing smoke, the sky around it, all gray dismal clouds. Beneath the picture is a caption "Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: The Smoky City." Paul is going to get his Ph.D. in Anatomy and Cell Biology from the University of Pittsburgh.

We are nearing the Liberty Tunnels, nicknamed "The Tubes," claustrophobically narrow tunnels that make you feel as if you've fallen into a giant's straw and are being sucked forward into the dazzle of the Pittsburgh skyline at the other end. It is the last step of our journey to our new home.

Outside the tunnel is a giant billboard. On it, a strong-jawed man with dirty blonde hair and a black and gold jersey grins down at the traffic. I can't figure out what is being advertised here. There's not a single word on the billboard.

"Is that the mayor of Pittsburgh?" I ask. My sister and Paul laugh.

"You'd better go back to NJ, sis, if you don't know who that is."

Paul chimes in: "That's Terry Bradshaw, Shar." I stare at him: "Who?"

"Quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers? Don't you know you're moving to the City of Champions? Steelers just won the SuperBowl again and the Pirates won the World Series."

Hmmm. Sharon living in a big sport's town? Not sure how this will all turn out. I look out at the thick gray cloud cover and wonder what I'm doing so far from home?
Welcome to Nostalgia Thursday: where I'm going to indulge myself in Pittsburgh memories for the next few weeks this summer. After decades living here, I'm moving back to NJ at summer's end. So, if you don't mind, one more "Sharon-never-did-catch-onto-the-whole-sports-mania-in- Pittsburgh" story for you:
By the age of 24, I was divorced and raising a son on my own. I was living in a railroad flat in Squirrel Hill, where I allowed my son to ride his big wheel up and down the long highway of our hall. Around the corner from us was Wilkins' Market, a charming 4-aisle, family-run store. As a pre-school music teacher, I was barely bringing in enough money to buy basic necessities.

On this particular winter day, I was tired, worried about money. I walked with my son bundled in his winter jacket, down to the market figuring out what I needed more: a 1/2 gallon of milk or cereal. I only had enough money for one item. I stood before the shelf of Cheerios and Rice Krispies, sun spilling in through the plate-glass window. Suddenly, the aisle was cast in shadow. I looked up, shifting my son to my other hip. Filling the aisle was a very tall, very broad shouldered, very handsome African-American man in a full-length mink coat and huge rings on his fingers. If Super Heroes came in fur coats, I would have sworn I was looking at one. The man approached us, smiling down at Brian:

"Hey little man--do you like baseball?"

"He's only two," I demurred.

I picked up the box of Cheerios. $4.00! I loved the owners of Wilkin's Market and understood why they had to charge more than Giant Eagle. But, I didn't have enough to buy the cereal. The handsome stranger in the mink coat still stood there.

"You're gonna be a slugger, too. Sure he doesn't like baseball?" He smiled broadly at my son who grinned up at him.

"Look, I'm sorry. I don't mean to be rude... It's been a long day..." I was in no mood to chit-chat, even with a good-looking, friendly stranger.

"OK, enjoy your day." He waved his hand and one of the large gold rings caught the light. It flashed through my mind that I could buy a whole carts of groceries with that ring! I smiled
weakly at him, feeling guilty for being rude. And went and bought the milk.

At the register, one of the owner's sons looked at me with scorn.

"Do you know who that was??? Do you know who you just blew off?"

He was indignant, blustering. I handed over three one-dollar bills, trying to figure out what to make for dinner.

"Sorry, I have no idea. He seemed nice, though."

"That was Willie Stargell. THE Willie Stargell! And he was talking to your son about baseball!! You could have gotten an autograph! Or tickets to the games! Something!! I can't believe it!"

He dropped my milk into a paper bag.

As I left the store, I didn't have the heart to tell him that I had no idea who Willie Stargell was.
(PS: though I did finally find out!)
Yes, leaving Pittsburgh's going to be mighty hard. And the memories are going to keep washing up onshore, I suspect. I'm hoping this writing will be a small place to land, to remain grounded, to find stability in change, to find the courage to change.


  1. Nice reminiscence. I bet Willie Stargell (I wouldn't have known who he was either!) was also a little interested in the young mother of the "little man." ;->
    I thought you were going to tell us that he ended up buying you the cereal (both the Rice Krispies and the Cheerios) and maybe a whole gallon of milk (and something about living happily ever after, of course ;-)

  2. I wouldn't have known who Willie Stargell was, either, so don't feel too bad.

    And wait, what? Our last connection to Pgh is leaving Pgh? How? Why? Where?

    And where in NJ? Will you be closer to us (not that that's your motive, but it would be nice for us!)?

  3. Nice memory. Your desciption of the 'Burgh as a sooty, dirty city reminds me of a line that James Parton wrote in an article for the Atlantic Monthly in 1866. He described Pittsburgh as "...hell with the lid off...." (No! I did not read the article when it was published ... not quite *that old!! :-) Hope maybe to see you before you leave for NJ...

  4. Thanks so much for your wonderful comments, friends! Marilyn: that's part of why we're such good friends--we're incurable romantics! I would have loved to say the story ended as you said (And maybe Jimmy Stewart could play the role of the kindly grocer...) @ Teri: I'm moving nearer to family in Edison NJ (which is not too far from Rutgers University). Where are you guys located in PA?? It would be lovely to see you both again!! (and I'll bring my guitar...) @ Gene: You are such a sweetheart! I've heard that quote before, and I have often felt so happy to have lived in beautiful, non-mill Pittsburgh. We should go get some Italian food somewhere before I leave!!! I'd love to see you again.

  5. this is awesome! I had no idea you were leaving the burgh. But these memories are amazing. I'm going to make visiting your blog a weekly endeavor.

  6. Thanks a lot, Sarah--and pass it onto friends if you think they'd get a kick out of it!!

    By the way, where did you move to recently? I'm sad about my move back to NJ, but I'm unemployed and need to find a place to settle and get myself a little more financially secure. I've got lots of family back in NJ, NY and CT, so I hope that's going to help ease my missing all my loved ones here in Pittsburgh.

    Hope you're having a great summer!