Culture Clashes Real and Imagined

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I admit it: I was a New York snob (maybe I still am). My worldview was like the famous New Yorker magazine cover (above) that shows New York City looking west from Ninth and Tenth Avenue, where the city is a bustling metropolis and then the rest of the United States is a vast empty space, devoid of anything interesting. It was with that mindset that I moved to Pittsburgh in 1982. I was 23 years old, engaged to Gary.

The late December morning dawned gray and cold. Good weather for driving. We, my parents and Gary, were standing in front of the house in Canarsie, getting ready to say our goodbyes. My Dad pulled me aside. “How bout you go to a justice of the peace when you get out there? You can still have the wedding, as planned, in July. But this way you’d be married.” Dad looked at me with his big blue/gray eyes, questioning, hopeful. I was sorry to disappoint him, but said, “Dad, we aren’t going to do that. There’s no reason to. It will be fine.” I turned to put the last few things in the back seat of my cobalt blue ’72 Toyota Celica.

He didn’t want his baby girl ‘living in sin,’ even if it was only for six months. It was six months too long for him. Fortunately, he didn’t pursue it further. We all hugged, and Gary and I got on our way.

We drove to Pittsburgh with high hopes and some anxiety. Gary had successfully completed his first semester of medical school. Now I was going to join him. I needed to find a job. I had some savings as a cushion, but I was hoping I wouldn’t have to drain it.

Pittsburgh was slowly on the rebound from the collapse of the steel industry. The landscape bore the scars of it. Buildings were soot stained. The Carnegie Library, down the block from our apartment, was gray sandstone heavily streaked with black, but the inscription, Free to the People, was still quite clearly etched over the main doors. Hulking mills, some vacant, some producing steel at reduced capacity, lined the river. The city remained the headquarters for a number of large companies that inhabited gleaming skyscrapers downtown.

Pittsburgh had the feel of the Midwest to me. I didn’t know geographically how it was characterized, but culturally it didn’t feel like an eastern city. The influence of its immigrant history, largely Polish, Germanic and Italian, was imprinted on the stores, restaurants and, most importantly, churches that dominated. Unlike New York City, which certainly had ethnic pockets but the sum of which was a hodge-podge; Pittsburgh felt more homogenous. It felt like there was a dominant culture and it was defined by the Catholic Church. While there was a Jewish community, it was quite small, and it felt small. This took some getting used to. After all, other than Israel, New York City is home to the largest Jewish population in the world.

After five months of pounding the pavement, I was about to register for secretarial work with a temp agency when a solid job opportunity came through. I had nearly exhausted my financial resources when I got a job with the city’s Finance Department.

There were some noticeable differences between the New York City’s Mayor’s Office of Operations, where I worked before I left, and the Finance Department. The first was the air quality. I worked with several men who chain-smoked through the day. Offices and conference rooms didn’t usually include windows and there was nothing I could do to disperse the fog that permeated the air. Somehow there weren’t nearly as many smokers in New York City’s Mayor’s Office.

Another difference: when we went out for a drink after work, I could not keep up with my new colleagues (not that it was a contest)! People would take turns buying rounds. I almost never got a chance to buy (and it wasn’t a strategy to avoid it). My drinks would be lined up on the bar.

Aside from air quality and drinking habits, there were actually more important differences. I worked with very few women, and there was only one at the management level. Many of the employees were only high school graduates. I was an outsider by virtue of my age, gender, education, religion and, of course, as a New Yorker. Sometimes it felt quite lonely, but there were some interesting conversations, too, especially about religion and faith.

Some of the cultural differences were more imagined than real. Gary and I invited one of his classmates, and his fiancé, to dinner at our apartment. Budgets being what they were, we didn’t eat out often and most of our socializing entailed going to each other’s apartments, eating, watching football or basketball and playing games like charades. Alcohol may have been involved.

As I recall, Ron and Ann were the first people we invited over. They were both Pittsburgh born and raised. I planned a menu after considering various possibilities. I worried that Ron and Ann would think the food I prepared was weird.

Gary and I kept kosher in our apartment (we didn’t when we ate out), so we didn’t mix meat and dairy. I was worried if I prepared a meat dish they might ask for parmesan cheese. I was worried if I made a vegetarian dish they wouldn’t be satisfied. I thought they wouldn’t know what it meant to keep kosher. I settled on making a ratatouille with ground beef (no cheese) and then worried that they wouldn’t know what it was.

Turned out Ron and Ann were more worldly than Gary and I, which in retrospect wasn’t saying much. Ron had gone to Dartmouth as an undergraduate and, if I remember correctly, majored in art history! Ann had been an English major and worked as an editor. I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of Gary’s classmates weren’t science majors as undergrads. Turned out Ron and Ann were quite comfortable eating my ratatouille. We had a great time, it was the first of many meals and laughs shared.

I realized I shouldn’t make assumptions about people based on where they came from, or any other single characteristic, for that matter. Of course I should have known better. When I stop and think about it, my Zada, who appeared on the surface to be a common laborer, was a self-taught Shakespearean scholar with the heart of a poet. Why would I buy into the stereotype implied by that New Yorker cover? But I did, and to this day, I need to check myself.

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10 thoughts on “Culture Clashes Real and Imagined

  1. Me too. If not NY I still will say Brooklyn is the world because wherever we traveled we would meet others from Brooklyn even in elevators. My leaving home to join Daddy was an eye opening experience. Steve born in Texas (no Jews or New Yorkers) and then Mass. For Mark was still hard but easier to acclimate. Florida was a whole new experience with many less differences. Now living here in Applewood ls all from NJ but Jewish population is less than 30 persent and I feel so much at home. I am grateful for the mix and enjoy the differences

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  2. What a wonderful group of people we were fortunate enough to spend four great years with in Pittsburgh. And I agree because I think I was also NY centric in my thinking, but it turns out that good and bright and creative people are not geographically limited to the city. We always need that reminder. Thank you. I still remember that game of charades!

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  3. Fantastic Linda [Gary]!! Now more than ever we ALL need to stop, take a deep breath and ” check ourselves”. Then listen and try to understand each other. Only then can we move forward together.

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  4. Let me tell you of my own little story of being New York centric (downstate) . I go away to college in Western NY. My roommate is from a small town in central New York State. I don’t believe he ever traveled out of the central New York state area. I get to the room first. He comes in later in the day. Has one of those classic black long trunk containing most of his belongings. It is pad locked. His parents left without giving him the key. He’s a bit distraught as he can’t get the darn thing open. I said let me give it a shot. I put my fingers between the latch and lock and pry it apart enough to get more of my hand in for leverage. I then stand up and give it one good yank. The lock goes flying across the room. My roommate is gaga eyed and yells holly s**t. But I can see in his face he is scared s***less. I say to him in my best Brooklyn accent – no problem, let me know if you have any other issues (or if anyone bothers you….). True story.

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  5. Living in sin – I wonder if grandpa had the same problem with his son and future daughter-in-law living together before marriage.

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    1. Good question. Your dad and your uncle will have to answer that. While in some ways Grandpa was pretty progressive when it came to women’s rights, he could also be quite old fashioned, too. He was very protective of the women in his life.

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      1. A double standard may be presumed, but it was more likely a protection mechanism he felt toward the women in his family. He totally embraced Cindy & Pam with unconditional love. He particularly enjoyed his grandchildren as they came into his life, Whatever personal objections he may have had were voiced once and never impacted his relationship with the people involved.

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