Opinion: Portrait of an American city at the dawn of a pandemic
Pittsburgh — On Friday, James Coen is folding and unfolding, arranging and rearranging the piles of colorful St. Patrick’s Day T-shirts he has displayed on folding tables outside one of the three sports retail stores he owns. The stores are all large historic buildings with big, shiny, planked hardwood floors, all snuggled in a three-block radius between assorted assemblages of late-19th-century buildings along what is affectionately called “The Strip” or “Strip District.”
No one calls him by his given name. He is “Jimmy Yinzer,” the unofficial mayor of the city and purveyor of all things Pittsburgh. He's mostly known for having the largest inventory of Steelers, Penguins and Pirates items you would need to wear, wave or grill. His stores are all called Yinzers, an affectionate hat tip to the people of the city he loves, whose unique dialect includes referring to a group of people as “yinz.”
It is nearing 70 degrees, and there isn’t a cloud in the sky. Had it been any other March day in any other year, the nine blocks that make up the Strip District would be so overflowing with people that cars would have a difficult time navigating Penn Avenue to get to their destination, especially just days ahead of Pittsburgh's legendary St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
But while the district is not barren, and at times it is bustling, the numbers are still down.
Coen is used to holding court, solving problems and waiting on customers at an exhausting rate. On Friday, he is enjoying a rare lunch at Cafe Raymond across the street from his marquee store, a lunch hour he typically works through. The biggest times of the year in retail for him and the rest of the Strip are football season, Penguins postseason, Pirates opening day, Christmastime and the lead-up to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
The parade was just canceled.
“Last weekend, I thought we might be able to hold our own through this crisis,” he explains. “By Monday of this week, we were down 50% in our business. By the time they canceled the parade Wednesday, I was down 75%.”
Those St. Patrick's Day T-shirts that help him make bank every year are now 50% off.
“I have 25 employees,” he says. “I looked at my bank account. I am not sure what I can do if this goes on much longer.”
Raymond Mikesell, the owner of Cafe Raymond, is watching the cafe dining room from the kitchen counter. The day before, there was nobody eating his legendary food. On Friday, the place was doing much better: “Thursday was the worst,” he says. “Every catering job we had scheduled has been canceled all the way through until May. Today is a much-needed improvement. I had people coming in steadily and just said they wanted to support us.”
Mikesell tears up. “That is who we are here. We lift each other up, and people kept telling me we are all in this together.”
Think of the Strip District as Pittsburgh’s continuous tailgate party, with the sounds, smells and sense of singular purpose that goes with that. There are people tossing pizza at Bella Notte; stacking mile-high sandwiches filled with French fries and coleslaw at Primanti’s; sipping the finest coffees at La Prima, surrounded by more Italian-speaking patrons than not; and eating Cafe Raymond's famous ricotta pancakes stuffed with oversized blueberries.
There is also live music played at nearly every corner by street musicians, fiddlers, rappers, drummers and that guy who always sings Crosby, Stills & Nash songs a little off-key. The bars vary from charming dives to an authentic Irish pub.
You can buy trinkets, pottery, lavish handmade clothing, jewelry and funky furniture at Hot, Haute, Hot, and antiques from the finest robber barons’ homes at Mahla. Or you can pick up ingredients at kosher Chinese, Greek, Polish and Serbian groceries, and at the king of Italian epicureans, Pennsylvania Macaroni Co., filled with whatever you need from the “old country.”
Over at La Prima, the regulars can't help themselves. Old and young people are either standing around at the tables or outside.
Over at the Italian grocery, Pennsylvania Macaroni co-owner Rick Sunseri says that because everyone is rushing to the big-name grocery stores and growing weary of the long lines, their store has been OK. “We have plenty of our specialty food, which for Italians is just food,” he says with a smile. “But we have plenty of water and necessities and no panic buying. It was slow Tuesday and Wednesday, slower than usual, but it picked up today.”
Pittsburgh, at the moment, is a flurry of contradictions. There are still people out and about — not at the normal clip but not in complete withdrawal. Shelves are not empty in several CVS and dollar stores, but they're wiped out at Whole Foods and Costco. Schools were still open Friday afternoon, until Gov. Tom Wolf announced a 10-day closure, with some districts announcing longer closures.
Everyone you talk to points to Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald for pulling the local civic, health care, labor, foundation and business leaders together Thursday afternoon to offer a calm, coordinated plan going forward.
By Saturday morning, Fitzgerald confirmed the first two cases of the virus in Allegheny County.
“That is what we do around here,” Fitzgerald says. “Our civic leaders in medicine, business, labor and foundations all pull our expertise and abilities together, because we are all in this together, and you see that reflected in people everywhere here.”
Fitzgerald is not wrong. Despite facing financial peril, Coen is also pulling the local businesses together in the Strip to accumulate, store and distribute food and necessities to elderly and sheltered people in the area.
He is the quintessential American Everyman. Ordinary only to the unobservant, his common traits are generosity, pride in community, volunteerism and knowing everyone by name.
There are thousands of different Jimmy Yinzers in thousands of different cities and towns and villages across this country. They are the ones who are going to feel the hurt the most, and they are going to be the first to rise up and help others.
He says what happened is no one’s fault, and he admits the crisis is going to get worse before it gets better. “Whatever this looks like on the other side, we will prevail,” he says. “That’s not just here. That is in most places in America.”
Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner. She reaches the Everyman and Everywoman through shoe-leather journalism, traveling from Main Street to the beltway and all places in between.