Houston's Pittsburgh faithful
For many displaced fans, their teams are their only way back home
The Polish grocery store is around the corner from the strip-mall Polish restaurant. Two oilmen, residents of Houston by way of Pittsburgh by way of Italy, Ireland and Germany, settle their lunch bill and head over to shop for a taste of home: pierogies, 96 of them, and three pounds of sauerkraut. You know, tailgate food.
The Steelers are coming to town for the first time in six years, and their fans who live near the Gulf of Mexico are hunting down tickets, searching for familiar food and combing stores for the odd case of Iron City. Jim Trocchio, clad in a black Steelers polo, is a Pittsburgh native who has spent most of his adult life drilling for oil. With him is Lucas Martin, a young employee he was assigned to mentor. Lucas grew up in the Pittsburgh area and looks the part, complete with a barrel chest and a thick, wild beard. Together they look like the setup of a slightly offensive joke: So an Italian and an Irish-German walk into a Polish store ...
The woman behind the counter sees Jim's shirt. "Pittsburgh Steelers?" she says with a thick Polish accent. "I know Pittsburgh Steelers."
"Are you a Steelers fan?" Lucas asks.
"Yes, I am. I used to live in Ohio. Half of my friends were from Pittsburgh. I chose Pittsburgh over Cleveland."
She pauses. Behind her is an oil painting of Pope John Paul II. Then she adds, "I did not like Bernie Kosar."
Lucas laughs. "Nobody likes Bernie Kosar."
Houston is an immigrant town. It is to oil what Pittsburgh was to coal, the self-proclaimed "energy capital of the world." Houston is also a port city, the largest on the gulf, home to fishermen and sailors, cooks and longshoremen, people who left everything familiar behind in order to make a living. In this new place, they cling to pieces of the old. A sprawling Vietnamese population shops in its own malls and listens to its own radio stations. One café serves jalapeno gefilte fish, another serves Pakistani hamburgers. There are Indian pizzas. The Polish restaurant is called Polonia, meaning a Pole who has left the homeland.
Immigrants from every corner of the planet set up outposts in Houston, including those from the nation-state of Pittsburgh. Like all the other ex-pats, Western Pennsylvania natives try to keep their memories of home alive. Houston's Vietnamese community has transported virtually an entire culture. Former Pittsburghers make do with Steelers bars and, every few years, the parking lot outside Reliant Stadium. They are fighting a battle they'll ultimately lose.
Assimilation moves with the slow certainty of water. This Sunday will be a day of joy and laughter, but there will be a poignant undercurrent: Displaced Steelers fans are celebrating a place that no longer exists.
The Pittsburgh embassy in Houston is the Steel City Pizzeria, wedged into a shopping complex north of town. It opened not long after the last time the Steelers came to town. The owners, a father and son, didn't know if the concept would work until they walked into Reliant Stadium and saw it half full of black and gold. The place is a portal. Game days are packed, standing room only. Everything is black and gold, with framed newspapers, jerseys and Terrible Towels. One customer donated an Iron City beer can filled with debris from the dynamited Three Rivers Stadium.
The restaurant is full on this Thursday night; everybody is buzzing about Sunday's game. Lucas comes through the door to find his friends and family waiting. He orders a glass of Rolling Rock, launched in Western Pennsylvania in 1939 by the Latrobe Brewing Co. Tables are a web of Pennsylvania connections. Sitting at one are Jim and Heidi Trocchio, who met when they were teenagers. Jim was Lucas' mentor and fellow pierogi shopper. Across from the Trocchios are Greg and Barbara Martin, Lucas' uncle and aunt. Greg was the one who suggested Lucas move to Texas nearly a decade ago. Tim Tirlia, who just happens to be at the bar this evening, grew up on the same block as Barbara. Both Jim and Greg went to Penn State. All of them are from Greater Pittsburgh.
They go around the table and say when they left home.
If you meet ex-Pittsburghers, odds are they left home between 1980 and 1985. That's when the manufacturing industry cratered. In those first desperate years, tens of thousands of people moved out annually. It was a diaspora. Allegheny County emptied, its population eventually shrinking by more than 200,000; since 1990, its population has been the second-oldest among large counties in America. A lost generation, some call it. People saw their parents struggle to find work, and they knew there was little future in Pittsburgh. So they left. But the connection, this idea of home, remained, feeling something like melancholy when they wrote 15224 on an envelope carrying pictures of their kids.
Their ancestors had left Ireland, Germany and Italy, following jobs. This diaspora did the same. Some landed in Texas. Pennzoil and Quaker State abandoned Oil City, Pa., transferring operations to Houston and Dallas. CB&I, which once had an enormous facility outside Pittsburgh, is based a few miles from the pizza place where Lucas and Jim are now plotting another course for Sunday's tailgate: knockoffs of the famous Primanti Brothers sandwiches made with meat, coleslaw and tomatoes and topped with french fries. People wonder how they'll keep the potatoes from becoming cold and soggy.
"We're gonna fry 'em in the parking lot," Lucas says.
Before he leaves the restaurant, Jim pulls out his phone and opens an app called Steeler Nation. It locates Steelers bars, and he grins at the endless list of them. The country is covered with them, with a dozen or so in Houston alone. These folks left Pittsburgh, but they brought along what they could. They never forgot.
"We were in the bartending business," Jim says. "Her dad was a truck driver."
"Blue collar," Heidi says. "Blue collar all the way."
"I knew I didn't want to bartend," he says.
He's a reservoir engineer now, decidedly white collar. Everyone here is. Lucas is a petrophysicist. Greg Martin owns an oil company. Joe Baker, a guy near the bar whose father was a steelworker, is a systems analyst. Tim, whose father worked at the Blaw-Knox mill and whose family ran the tavern down the road, makes enough as a petrochemical engineer to buy Steelers season tickets. They've risen above their parents' dreams for them and struggled to make sure something vital wasn't lost in the climb.
Their kids grew up hearing about blast furnaces, about the way dockworkers and millworkers ate Primanti Brothers sandwiches and, of course, about the Steelers. Many claim the fans at away games are more raucous than fans at games in Pittsburgh. For three decades, largely through this team, they've kept something alive in themselves and their children. Says Heidi, "They know that even though they live here, home is Pittsburgh."
Bret Tirlia is looking at Penn State and Pitt for college. When he and his dad, Tim, roll into the Fort Pitt Tunnel, they crank "Renegade," the Styx song played in the fourth quarter of Steelers games, accompanied by a black-and-white montage of crushing hits. The song has a long, eerie buildup, just singing and a kick drum -- "Oh, Mama, I'm in fear for my life from the long arm of the law" -- before it quickens and explodes with guitars.
Tim and Bret time their exit from the tunnel so the skyline appears as the full band takes off. The soundtrack allows them to see the city as it is today and as it once was.
The actual Pittsburgh transformed itself into a white-collar city. The seven-county metro area added people last year. The workforce is getting younger and smarter. It is in the top five in 25-to-34-year-old workers with a college degree. It's No. 1 for workers that age who hold graduate degrees.
The city has one of the best real estate markets in the country. Young residents laugh at the Pittsburgh shown on NFL broadcasts, with the footage of molten iron. That's the past. One college-age fan invented a football drinking game: Take a gulp every time the announcers say "blue collar."
That old city is an idea now, a place remembered by the people who left and the generation of Pittsburgh-Americans they've raised since. This is Steeler Nation, honored by Lucas and Jim with their tailgate preparations, home to six Lombardi Trophies, "Renegade" and violence montages. "We're all from Pittsburgh," Baker says. "It's just that the Pittsburgh that we're from isn't there anymore."
So they construct a sort of Renaissance fair for manufacturing America. They treat Pittsburgh in the same way their Italian ancestors treated Italy -- a complex thing becoming simple, fighting assimilation, trying to keep a culture from diluting into nothing. What makes this unique is that they do it almost entirely by following a football team.
"The ethnic enclaves of Little Pittsburgh exist most poignantly in tailgate parking lots of away games," says Jim Russell, a Western Pennsylvania-born geographer who studies geopolitics and the relationship between migration and economic development. "That's where you see people doing the performances of culture. The blue-collar Pittsburgh that you see flashed on the screen during games exists only in Steeler bars and in the visitors' parking lot."
Steelers fans arrive early Sunday morning, turning the color-coded lots around Reliant Stadium into Little Pittsburghs. Jim and Heidi park in Blue 16, followed by Lucas and Sara Martin and then other friends from Texas and Pennsylvania. Jim is almost glowing as he arranges the sandwich assembly line. Shawn and Jackie Dawson walk up with their two boys. They moved here from Pittsburgh five years ago. Kobe is 11 and wears a Steelers jersey. He leans against his dad and stares longingly at the meat, slaw and bread. Shawn rubs the boy's head. "You've been waiting all morning on that," Shawn says. Jackie smiles at her son. "He's been waiting all week," she says.
"Renegade" plays when the first potatoes hit the hot oil, sizzling. Lucas cranks his truck stereo, an endless mix of Styx, polka and an Italian Steelers fight song. There are homemade strombolis, trays of pierogies and the sandwiches. When a polka comes on, Heidi points to the cab of the truck and says, "That's Polish Hill." They have, in three narrow parking spots, created the ultimate tribute to their parents and grandparents. They understand the importance of serving the old foods, telling the old stories, even if part of them knows that in some not-so-distant generation Pittsburgh will be as lost to their family as Italy, Ireland or Germany. Do they sense the fading?
What they fear is everywhere around them. Other Steelers fans are as proud of their team, whooping and hollering, but they celebrate in a typically American, homogeneous way. Almost every tailgate in the country looks the same: coolers of Bud or Miller, a grill, burgers, chicken, hot dogs, barbecue, brats. There's little of a culinary nature to distinguish the fans of Houston from those of Pittsburgh. Jim and Lucas are an exception. Their foods, so familiar to them and generations of Pittsburghers, are foreign even to most passing Steelers fans.
A woman and her son, both in Pittsburgh gear, stop to gawk. "We're making Primanti Brothers sandwiches," Lucas says proudly.
"What's that?" Joan Roach drawls.
Sara and Lucas think the same thing. "Are you from Pittsburgh?" she asks.
"My dad lived there all his life," Joan replies.
"You ever tried a pierogi?" Lucas asks. Joan shakes her head. She's from south Houston. She's never even heard of a pierogi. Lucas spears a potato-and-cheese. Joan studies it carefully before taking a bite. In the moaning revelation of a new taste, she wheels around to find her friends. Her drawl turns short words into long ones. "Oh my god," she screams, "Ka-ren. You got to taste these. Oh my god."
She returns a few minutes later. "Pirollis?"
"Pierogies," Lucas says.
It's game time.
Everything goes back into coolers, which are packed into the trucks. Heidi closes the hatch of their SUV, revealing her license plate: PGHFANS. Its plastic cover says "Proud to be from Pittsburgh." They're almost ready to head for the stadium when an older man wanders up looking for a beer. He drove down from Pittsburgh. Lucas gives him a Rolling Rock.
"Latrobe," Jim Remetta says with an accent thicker than the one in Lucas' jokes. It's as if he walked out of 1979.
Heidi jumps up and down. "Listen to him!" she squeals. "He talks so Pittsburgh!"
"Where yinz from?" Lucas asks.
"We made Primantis!" Heidi says. "You just missed it!"
Remetta drinks his Rolling Rock, talking about mill hunks and parking dahntahn. Everyone crowds around -- to hear what he says, sure, but mostly to hear how he says it.
"Thanks a lot fir d'bir," he says.
They finally leave the parking lot, and Heidi seems wistful. "I've been here too long to talk like that," she says. "Been away 29 years." Her dad talked like that; he died a few years ago, so that's part of it. But there's something else, something unspoken. That's how she'd talk if she had stayed. There's a plaque at her house that reads, "You can take the girl out of Pittsburgh, but you can't take the Pittsburgh out of the girl."
As she walks inside the stadium, it doesn't sound as if she believes it.
ESPN The Magazine: November 28, 2011