January 17, 2009 at 5:52 pm

Inauguration or BUST!

Rust Belt in a rusty Checker Cab

Route marked by talk of hope and tough times

PITTSBURGH -- Cold weather is to old cars what young girlfriends are to old men. Trouble.

It was eight below zero and my Checker, which photographer Max Ortiz and I are driving to Washington for the inauguration, talking to everyday folks along the way, would not start.

We sat in the parking lot of one of those soulless highway motels somewhere outside Cleveland, waiting for a good Samaritan to give us a jump.

He came, but I never saw him clearly because he refused to roll down the window against the wind. The car started. The alternator belt screamed in pain.

We took the blue highways down into the Beaver River valley, once the spine of American steel manufacturing. The ghosts of old steel mills squatted on the banks of the Beaver and Ohio rivers like a herd of oxen that had outlived their usefulness.

I adjusted my rearview mirror. My hair looked shabby. This would never do for the inauguration of a president. We stopped at a barbershop in New Brighton. The rearview mirror fell off its armature.

The barbershop was a decent enough place, odd in the fact that all the barbers were white and all the customers black.

I sat in a chair. An Italian guy went to work.

"We got no skill but mill skills," said owner Trent Williams, a white man who was working on the hair of Keith Fisher, a black man and a machinist who has the good fortune to still hold a job.

"Once the mills are gone -- and it's getting close -- then we're all gone," Williams continued. "If you see Obama, tell him to do what he said he was gonna do that made us vote for him. Help the middle class. We're mostly lower class now already."

"You can't count on Obama," said Fisher. It was the first time I had heard any black man in any part of the world say that. "I'm not sold on him. He's going to have to show me some integrity. Put prayers back in the school, for one."

I looked up from my note pad and looked into the mirror. I was staring at Lyle Lovett! The man with the scissors had mangled my hair.

I tipped him well anyhow. Times are tough around here.

We drove on to Pittsburgh along the wooded banks of the Ohio.

I called the mayor, Luke Ravenstahl. They say Pittsburgh has rebounded miraculously from the collapse of the steel industry and that Detroit could learn a lesson or two.

Ravenstahl did not return my call. So we drove up to the Hill district, perched high above downtown, and happened upon Napoleon Buice.

Buice is a 76-year-old hairdresser and is considered something of the mayor of the Hill district, which he refers to as a ghetto. His wife Barbara, 71, is a Baptist minister and holds two master's degrees. Outside their salon, a group of men in parkas work the street corner catering to young white commuters.

In their 50 years of marriage, the Buices have seen it all: They nearly lost their lives when Napoleon burned up their bed with a cigarette. God took Barbara's eyesight some years ago. But she says, God gave her enough days to see the ascension of a black man to the White House.

It was just 40 years ago we had apartheid in this country, Buice said. "And not much has changed here in Pittsburgh for the black man. Pittsburgh is what we call Up South."

"That's right," Barbara finished.

"It's obvious the plight of the black man," he said. "Get up on the hill, stay up on the hill. But we're still fighting on."

Napoleon smoothed down my hair with some tonic then said: "Tell the president that Napoleon is proud and that I'm praying for him."

Before we left, Barbara led a prayer circle for my old rattletrap Checker.

Outside, I started the car, but the passenger door refused to close.

Bad haircut, broken door. Maybe I'm not right with the Lord.