I went to college in Buffalo, NY, a city which shares many cultural and aesthetic similarities to Pittsburgh. Well, Pittsburgh in a time warp. It’s a city that’s perhaps 10 or 15 years behind where Pittsburgh currently is, which makes it five years behind Cleveland and 225 years behind D.C. That said, I greatly enjoyed my time there, and I also learned many lessons, including…
1. Toronto is the best city on Earth
(There are two types of people in this world: People who believe Toronto is the best city on Earth. And people who are wrong)
2. Dominicans and Puerto Ricans really, really, really, really hate being mistaken for each other
3. Both ranch and blue cheese are good for dipping both wings and pizza
4. There are few worse feelings in the world than being at a party during the dancehall reggae set and having no one to dance with
(Seriously, I’d bet that 90% of the male-on-male fights I saw at clubs then stemmed from an extended bout of no dancehall dance partner frustration)
5. I have an accent
Although Buffalo and New York City are on opposite sides of the state, both my school and the city had a robust New York City presence and influence. Initially, I was fascinated by the New Yorkers there. They had their own language and slang, they made curious fashion decisions, and they all assumed New York City was the epicenter of everyone’s life, not just theirs (which became extremely annoying).
Me: “Where are you from?”
Them: “The City.”
Me (thinking) “There are like 38053 cities in America! Which fucking city are you from?”
It was also through them that I first realized I had an accent. As hard as it was for me to understand everything they were saying, it was just as hard for them to understand me. Some even assumed I was from the Deep South (which is as hilarious now as it was then). I was flabbergasted by this. I assumed I spoke “normal, accent-free English” and the New Yorkers were the odd ones. But people from other cities (Buffalo, Toronto, Cleveland, etc) also noticed I had an accent they’d never heard before. It wasn’t until sharing this with my best friend — who was in school in Baltimore — who shared that he’d hear the same thing from his teammates and classmates, that I realized it was a Pittsburgh thing.
My surprise at my accent may come as a surprise. After all, Pittsburgh did just win Gawker’s Ugly Accent tournament. Perhaps people don’t know exactly what Pittsburghese is, but people are aware it is a thing, and native Pittsburghers should be hyper-aware. And I was, but here’s the thing: (Generally speaking) Pittsburghese isn’t associated with Black Pittsburghers. We (Black Pittsburghers) speak regularly, while they (White Pittsburghers) are on that Yinzer shit.
But this is wrong. Perhaps we don’t use the same slang (it’s been over 25 years since I called someone a jagoff) and perhaps there are prominent distinctions within our diction, but Black Pittsburghers also have a “Pittsburghese” with its own unique cadence and rhythm. It’s just not something we tend to recognize until we get away from home and its more noticeable.
It still took me some time to embrace this. After assuming I was the baseline and everyone else spoke with an accent, it was a bit jarring to learn that the way I spoke wasn’t “right,” just Pittsburgh. Also, as anyone who’s ever been in close proximity with a native New Yorker (Harlemites especially) for an extended period of time will tell you, they’re such assholes that they force you to be assholes by osmosis, resulting in you thinking things like “Look, asshole. The way I speak is the right way. You’re wrong, and your city is filled with rats the size of penguins.”
But it eventually happened. And here I am today, over a decade after first learning I had an accent, beaming with pride after seeing my city being recognized for a way of speaking that I’m not even really completely a part of. This might not make much sense if you’re not from Pittsburgh. But I’m used to things said by Pittsburghers not making much sense if you’re not from Pittsburgh, so I don’t care.