One can’t even help without hurting.
If that isn’t the craziest component yet to this coronavirus calamity, I can’t conceive what is.
On this chilly Saturday morning, on Lot 1 near Heinz Field, dozens of volunteers from the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, with both $50,000 and physical labor from team officials from the Pirates, contributed three 75-pound boxes of food to each car that passed through, nearly 800 in all. No questions were asked. No contact was made. Pittsburgh Police officers directed traffic to ensure it stayed staggered, the trunk was popped, the boxes were dropped, and off they’d go.
It was beautiful in its own unhappy, haunting way. A scene I’ll never forget.
And yet, I’ll be equally haunted by this having been my initial question upon hearing of this initiative from the Pirates: Is it safe?
Really. That’s what I wondered first.
Never mind that, as one of the team officials reminded me, “These guys are pros at this,” meaning the Food Bank that has to be cautious with germs in all settings. And never mind, as no one needed to remind me, that everyone involved — from the Pirates’ new CEO, Travis Williams, to all the other volunteers — was taking his or her own risk.
Nope. I still had to doubt it first.
But that’s where we are now, isn’t it?
This isn’t 9/11, where we could run out of our homes to help, or where, in the most noble context, Pat Tillman could leave the NFL, grab a rifle, and get some of the bad guys before making the ultimate sacrifice. Anger doesn’t apply here.
Stay home, we’re told. Sit there. And it’s indisputably the correct thing to do.
It still stinks. I live in the Strip District and, as a proud 15222-er, I consider this and Downtown to be my twin home neighborhoods. I’m bleeding for them. Small businesses are shuttering after days of trying to stay open, of spraying tables as soon as a patron stands up. Others continue to employ people despite their doors being closed, this out of mutual loyalty.
This went up on a Smithfield Street window yesterday:
Pittsburgh, we had to go, but we left a note ⚒ pic.twitter.com/H84BqN64Ux
— Steel City (@SteelCityBrand) March 21, 2020
It’s the same the whole way down Penn and Liberty, Market Square and Sixth Street. Like ‘The Walking Dead’ come to life. And bear in mind, we haven’t even been hit hard by the damned virus yet.
So yeah, I went over to Heinz Field yesterday. I wanted to witness, with my own eyes, Pittsburghers helping Pittsburghers. From a safe distance, of course.
There literally wasn’t anything else to do.
• This is my 12th column in as many days since the world upended with the Penguins being whisked out of Columbus. I’ll keep going like this, too. There isn’t much I can contribute to anyone’s cause beyond blathering about sports, as I’d mentioned yesterday, so the blathering will continue.
Once a week, though, I’d like to step back, eschew sports and get a little personal over this extraordinary situation. And Sundays feel right, so I’ll start here.
• Thanks to the Food Bank. We take programs like that for granted. This is an area where we actually can help.
• Williams was unloading boxes from the big trucks like everyone else. This was his idea, identifying those who’d be most immediately in need.
“In times like this, there’s a lot of anxiety, a lot of unknown,” Williams would say. “So for us to just be calm, compassionate, patient … that’s what our whole country should be doing at this point in time. And in a city like Pittsburgh, a sports town, we come together like a team, like teammates, and pull together.”
This guy’s legit. Told you that when he was hired.
• There’s anxiety, all right.
It’s OK to talk about that sort of thing now. It wasn’t always, but it’s now openly — and correctly — encouraged. Mental illnesses are every bit as real as physical illnesses, and anyone who still denies that can feel free to sail their ship right off the edge of our flat Earth.
I didn’t used to be able to talk about this, but I feel comfortable doing so now: When my back blew out in early 2011, I came undone. The first anxiety symptoms of my life soon grew into a severe disorder. It’d been the first time in my life I couldn’t work, and I’m nothing without reporting/writing. The Pirates were in Bradenton, and I was stuck in Pittsburgh, and all of my brain’s pistons began misfiring.
How long would this last?
Would I be able to walk again normally?
Did my very young children think something was wrong with me?
How long could I count on my wife to take care of me the way she was?
But most of all, and I’m not ashamed of this, when could I start working again?
Before long, as the back slowly began to heal, with the help of the Pirates’ medical staff, the brain had overtaken it as the biggest worry. Then that multiplied. Then many times over. And it wasn’t until nearly several months later that the worst year of my life had finally run its course.
Both the back and the brain are fine, the brain having had only one brief relapse a couple years later when I stopped taking medication in an episode of epic tough-guy stupidity.
My point: I get it.
People will experience all kinds of anxiety, clinical or otherwise. As Williams worded it, there’s “a lot of unknown,” unlike anything any of us has seen. We want it to end, but we’re told it’s better if it goes on longer. We want things to return to normal and worry about Jake Guentzel being available to face the Flyers, but we know that isn’t likely for the foreseeable future. We want to make a difference, but, as I described above, we can’t.
The unknown, the uncertainty is the worst. If someone could tell us all everything would be awesome by, say, August — and I mean 100 percent awesome — I’d sign up in a heartbeat. But that doesn’t exist, and the timelines being floated range from mid-May to mid-2021.
Talk it out. Even if you’re one of those people like my wife who have no flaws, be the ear for someone else to talk it out. Better yet, place the call yourself. Ask the questions. It’ll make more of a difference than you might imagine.
• One of my fears: We’ll grow further apart as a society.
I’m a handshaker and, if I know you well enough, a hugger. That’s maybe the Serb background, where we’re all brothers and sisters to the same Petrovic or Popovic from centuries ago, or that’s maybe the born-and-bred Pittsburgher in me. Because most people in our city are that way.
Whichever the case, we’ll never shake hands again. This is the one absolute I’ve already accepted. We were mostly fist-bumping before, anyway. This’ll finish the shake for good. It’ll feel like some weird invasion of privacy by the time this is over.
We need more closeness, not less. That’ll be the next battle once this one’s done.
• Here, I’ll come out and say it: We will reach the point, as a society, when we’ll weigh which is doing more damage, the virus or the virus’ effect on the economy.
We aren’t there yet. At all. But again, we will be.
• Could there be any good to come from this?
I mean, haven’t we stopped fighting wars and murdering and robbing each other?
And if we’re washing our hands like psychopaths now, shouldn’t we be doing generally at staving off other illnesses?
And if we’ve stopped operating all our machinery, shouldn’t the big hole in the ozone layer be healing up at least a little?
Hey, I tried.
• Wait, there is one good thing: There’s probably been more time spent with family in the past few days than the past few years combined for some of us.
My 14-year-old son Marko and I go for daily walks. Long ones, too, along the Allegheny River, all around the Strip. And when we do, I try to do that dad thing where I explain to him everything that’s going on … only for him to come right back and show me up with that much more knowledge.
He’ll rule us all someday.
My daughter Dara stays focused on college, which she’ll be entering this fall. That’s a 19-year-old girl for you. Everything that’s in front of her is what matters.
But a neat thing’s happened in that the two of them, brother and sister, are staying up to crazy hours playing board games. (I didn’t know Parcheesi still existed, but I’m now definitely aware that they’re capable of sinking each other’s Battleship.) My man’s reading his first book, Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune,’ and she’s doing all her usual singing and dancing — theatrical arts ‘n’ at — but they’re now doing stuff together. Which has been amazing to watch.
They’ll be fine, but one thing I’ve been careful to do is to remind them to remember a lot of the details right now. It’ll be a time too incredible to imagine at some point later in their lives.
• My mom’s in Monroeville. She’s 77 and very much safe with a friend tending to her and no one else coming into contact. We talk once a day. It seldom goes well. She begins listing a litany of people to blame, I kind of tune out, and I promise to call her again tomorrow. But then, that’s how we’ve always rolled.
• Speaking of Monroeville, an old baseball coach from my childhood there once taught his players, ‘Always end on a catch,’ meaning any drill should never close with a drop. So let’s close out ourselves with something upbeat.
If a CGI artist submitted the following to a movie director, it’d be rejected as unrealistic:
Roberto Clemente could field the ball in New York and throw out a guy in Pennsylvania. -Vin Scully
— Baseball Quotes (@BaseballQuotes1) March 22, 2020
For as many times as I’ve admired that throw, which anchored a runner to third base in Game 6 of the 1971 World Series, I’ve almost as much appreciation for how casually Manny Sanguillen collects it. As if he’d fielded a half-dozen others exactly like it from that same guy that same day.
• If Roberto Clemente can happen, anything can. We’ll get through this. We will.
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