I’m not much of a joiner, an aversion I was able to legitimize by making a career in a profession where aloofness was an ethical imperative, at least until the advent of public journalism. But I am a member of the Dunning’s Group, which sounds like an investment firm but is actually just a group of guys that meets monthly at Dunning’s bar and restaurant in Regent Square, a neighborhood where the city of Pittsburgh blends insensibly into three adjacent suburbs.
Convened by my high-school debate partner Bill Stewart a decade ago, the Dunning’s Group is a pre-Oprah book club–well, a book-and-beer club. To its critics, including some bemused wives, this stag party is a Pittsburgh parody of those London men’s clubs where former boarding-school boys pathologically re-enact their dining-hall meals. And, to be fair, the nucleus of Dunning’s “membership” is a group of alumni from Central Catholic High School, my all-boys alma mater once storied for its debate teams. Over time, however, the group has added non-“Central boys,” including the occasional Protestant. Attendance isn’t mandatory, and there is no quorum call; on a given night the turnout can be as small as four or as large as 12. Last night’s roster was a pretty typical nine.
Last night also saw the return of the prodigal–me–to Dunning’s, after a five-month absence because of a scheduling conflict. The group meets on Thursday nights, and so did the free-speech seminar I just finished teaching at the University of Pittsburgh’s Honors College. Actually, were it not for all those pitchers of beer, I could have justified bringing my class to Dunning’s on a field trip. There’s plenty of free speech, and when I’m present as a punching bag, some attacks on the abuse of the First Amendment by the liberal media. But, despite Bill Stewart’s perennially high hopes for a rigorous treatment of the book or issue of the month (last night it was supposed to be Kosovo), the discussion often degenerates to gossip or generic guy talk.
With primary elections next Tuesday, there was naturally some talk last night about the race for Allegheny County executive, which in the general election may pit Dr. Cyril Wecht, the county coroner who is favored in the Democratic primary, against businessman-cum-civic leader Jim Roddey, a Republican who came to Pittsburgh from Atlanta more than 20 years ago. Wecht, a lawyer and a doctor, was a national figure long before Pittsburgh began to aspire to “world-class” status (not every local pol can hold forth about the single-bullet theory, O.J. Simpson, JonBenet Ramsey, and an alleged space-alien autopsy). The silky-smooth Roddey is a type not much seen in Pittsburgh elections, the businessman as civic savior.
More to the point, Wecht grew up in Pittsburgh, and stayed here (even after he achieved a national profile, while Roddey, in some eyes, is a reverse carpetbagger. For a lot of people here, 20 years in Pittsburgh doesn’t make you a Pittsburgher, any more than the Turks who have worked in Germany for decades are considered Germans by their “hosts.” This is, after all, a place where the default-mode description in an obituary is “lifelong resident of Pittsburgh.”
Most of the members of the Dunning’s Group would consider themselves too cosmopolitan to partake of such paleo-Pittsburgh provincialism, but our little group has its genesis in just the sort of stability (or stagnation) that makes the city such an insular and forbidding place to newcomers. A former colleague who came here from Florida used to complain about how hard it was for him and his wife to stay in touch with local couples they liked; the natives were always busy on the weekends with their siblings, first cousins, or childhood friends.
The charter members of our book-and-beer club were Pittsburgh boys bred within walking distance of Dunning’s. My own roots in the area are deep, even if you discount the testimony of a great-great aunt that our forebears were in the East End in the 18th century. My mother grew up not far from Dunning’s, and her father was a regular at another bar in the neighborhood. It’s not quite the Serbs and Kosovars–I wouldn’t compare my grandfather’s bar to a monastery–but I suppose I do consider the East End of Pittsburgh sacred territory. And, as with the Catholic Church, I was born into it; I didn’t have to join.