Pittsburgh has it good. It's got a small-town feel combined with the best parts of city life: old man pubs alongside trendy bars, neighborhood grocery stores beside organic shops, and gossipy old women shoulder-to-shoulder with homeless people. Best of all, the rivers haven't even caught fire in at least 30 years! The one thing Pittsburgh lacks, though, is a sustainable economy, and like all my childhood friends who didn't want to work in the fast-food industry, I had to move out. Sure, Houston's my adopted city, but I still get pangs of homesickness anytime the black-and-gold Steelers come on TV.
For the Super Bowl, I head to the only sports bar in town that has more Steelers fans on Sundays than Texans fans. (Wait, couldn't that be any bar? Are there any Texans fans?) Sure, Sansone's Neighborhood Bar & Grill (14144 Westheimer Road) is outside of Beltway 8, but the fact that the clientele is, on average, slightly overweight and middle-aged makes it feel like Pittsburgh.
Just after halftime I'm smoking a Camel outdoors with the cell flipped open, talking to an old high school buddy. Considering that 250 people have packed the inside of Sansone's, the sight of eight men hanging around outside heckling Pittsburgh beside an eight-foot-tall inflatable Steelers player is a welcome relief.
Super Bowl Sunday
I go up to the loudest one, "Hi. I'm Jeff. I'm writing for the Houston Press. Why are there only Hispanics outside?"
He laughs and introduces himself as Juan Carlos, a regular at Sansone's (even on the non-Monday weeknights, when I'm told there are no NFL games) and a staunch Cowboys fan.
"I hate the Steelers. Dallas is my team, and since the Cowboys hate the Steelers, I hate them too."
Right then, there's a Seahawks interception, and Juan Carlos joins the other seven guys in a loud celebration. A bartender comes outside and starts counting us on her fingers. Juan Carlos starts yelling: "They're counting us! There's gonna be a rumble!!!"
Yes! Perfect! A good race riot is bound to move a few papers! But instead of a bunch of angry white men, the only person who emerges from the Sansone's doorway is Kim McMillian, a Desperate Housewives-ish blond who, despite being decked out in Steelers gear, starts giving out hugs to everyone. I compliment her black-and-gold skirt, and within two minutes she finds out where I'm from, tells me where to get free food, and offers to be my surrogate aunt.
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Kim is typical of the diehard Steelers fan inside the bar. During the regular season, Sansone's houses Steelers, Bills and Packers fans who watch the game on the bar's 25-or-so big-screen TVs while downing pitchers of light lager for five bucks a pop. Kim has been there most weeks for the last ten years, ever since emigrating to the Bayou City and discovering that "Houston is a lot like Pittsburgh was 30 years ago."
(Oh, shit, does that mean Houston won't have jobs by the time I'm 53?)
"I came from a small town near Pittsburgh, and [my now-husband] Rob and I were from the same high school," she says. "I dated his brother, and he was dating my best friend, and then Rob and I both got dumped and started going out while sitting on a gravestone in a cemetery."
The game that Kim had waited 27 years for is in full swing, but she's completely oblivious to it while telling me about her children, her time in Houston, and even her political leanings. I also find out she grew up about 20 minutes from where I did in Pennsylvania.
"We weren't the brightest of the bunch. When we skipped school we used to ride our horses on the hill, and the next day I would get called to the principal's office and they would tell me they saw me outside," she's telling me when the Steelers suddenly get a first down.
Kim turns and runs back inside, hooking a left into the side room where the diehard fans in matching jerseys sit, week in and week out. Normally, it's just that dedicated group of 50, but the entire bar is taken over starting with the playoffs. The more casual fans, in their crisp new Steelers T-shirts, have commandeered the area to the far right and are getting some of the cheers right when prompted. Smack dab in the middle are those just looking for a place to go for the big game: Polo shirts and backwards baseball caps dominate.
The only ones inside not wearing any black and gold are the bartenders, who are all decked out in neutral white "Super Bowl" T-shirts. I can't help noticing that, in the case of the waitresses, these logos are popping out of, um, very strained fabric. I try to trick the manager, Geno, into admitting that he only hires beautiful young women, but he just flashes an impish grin, and laughs.
"We're blessed to have waitresses who are both good-looking and good workers. Looks aren't everything. You can edit that to make it sound good for your article."
Since he gave me that blessing, what Geno was really saying was, "I like breasts. Our waitresses have breasts. Everyone loves breasts. Breasts breasts breasts breasts breasts."
Geno is clearly in his element, joking with the regulars, making sure there's enough bottled beer, and keeping his well-endowed staff in line. In fact, Geno grins the entire night, at least until three officers from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission show up. Luckily those bastards don't find whatever they're looking for and soon leave. (Sorry, TABC, I still resent you for trying to put a stop to my underage-drinking days.)
I get in a conversation, lose track of time and suddenly discover it's the middle of the fourth quarter with Pittsburgh still up 21-10. Bottles of Iron City are clinked and toasted. Now, Iron City is to Pittsburgh pretty much what Shiner is to Texas. The only difference being that the Pittsburgh brewers take Shiner, turn it into a Lager, dump it out, and then piss in the bottle. Still, for two bucks per, I'm willing to make concessions.
The clock keeps ticking down. Friends and family are continuously texting and calling to state the obvious: "We're winning! We're winning!" Kim comes around the bar, clocks my Iron City bottle and pulls a face:
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"You know, when you get Iron City Light on tap, it's not good, but it's palatable."
Two minutes left. Still 21-10. Two-hundred-and-fifty out-of-shape people are jumping up and down, screaming, hugging and waving their yellow Terrible Towels in an orgy of black and gold. The left room is going crazy: Pittsburgh transplants who have been living in Houston since the last time the Steelers won the Super Bowl in '79 are riotously celebrating. I witness tears forming in the eyes of grown men.
The clock runs out. The Pittsburgh Steelers fucking win! Bottles of Iron City are spilled. Overweight women in jerseys chortle with glee. It's all just beautiful. I look around and smile. Growing up, I dutifully watched the Steelers every week on my black-and-white TV, waiting for this glorious day. And though I never pictured myself celebrating it in Houston, I guess it could be a lot worse.
I could be a Texans fan.