lessons from America

Jodi and Malcolm’s adventures in Pittsburgh

Netroots Nation is my reason for being in what I imagined was the unglamarous city of Pittsburgh, in western Pennsylvania. But I took the opportunity to arrive 4 days early and spend the time discovering the city and hanging out with my friend Jodi. She drove up from Cincinnati and met with at the airport on Sat eve. Now it’s Wed afternoon and she’s heading back home, while I stay here for NN09.

Jodi and I have good form (from my visits to Cincinnati in Oct 08 and Jan 09) in hitting the town, having fun, meeting some great people and enjoying what life throws at us. And so it proved again this time; albeit slightly hampered by Jodi still recovering from illness.

Saturday night:

Discovered ‘Dish’ – a fantastic Sicilian bar and bistro on S17th Street, just a few blocks from our guesthouse. Not everywhere you get a barista who takes a flavour or base drink you are in the mood for and then mixes some great creation to perfection. Haven’t had a better chocolate cocktail for many years!


Lazy morning followed by a trip up the Duversequene Incline – a rack funicular up a steep hill overlooking downtown Pittsburgh and the surrounding riverside areas. Fantastic views.

While chilling at a bar overlooking the city, met some guys from AmericasPower. They had hats saying “affordable energy” so I was intrigued as to what they were promoting. Turns out they are grassroots organisers for a campaign to promote the coal industry – clean coal, energy security, jobs and economic impact. Jeff, Tim and Opal were all experienced organisers and had been involved in the Obama and McCain campaigns. They were now going to fairs, community events, tail-gating at games etc to spread the pro-coal message and get lobbying activity underway in prep for Congress coming back. While I wasn’t sold on their pitch, it was interesting to hear a Pennsylvanian perspective on the energy debate that is quite different from the arguments in the UK. There are still serious jobs and money in coal in certain States. And the guys understood my points about investing seriosuly now in renewable energy rather than clean coal and starting a planned switch over – not (as they feared) the immediate pull-the-plug on coal we did in the early 1990s. Whatever our differences, the conversation was a pleasant one and our common enthusiasm for campaigning and political engagement shone through.

Sunday evening seemed dead in downtown and in the Strip District. We ended up eating at a Hard Rock Cafe where the best thing going was the extensive cocktail menu. Unfortunately, our friendly bartender recommended against most of the concotions because they were grim. Jodi took her advice, but I’m contrary and saw it as a challenge. So I got a ‘Gargoyle’ – something involving absinthe and last ordered several months before.

We ended up back near our guesthouse in the one happening part of town: Southside, and Carson Street in particular. Bar-hopping is the thing to do and that’s exactly what we did. Amongst it all, we saw some great hip hop dancing in one club and then ended up in a Polynesian bar with some folks who enjoyed my English accent and hitting on Jodi. The two guys had just finished their first shift at the mega-casino that opened up that day just beyond the downtown area.


An evening with Demo – owner of cafe 1889 on Carson Street and foreign affairs specialist. We’d met him when we looked at the menu outside at lunchtime. He invited us for a beer with him later, as he was interested in chatting about politics and international relations. So that evening we wandered down (all of a block and half) and went in for a beer and ended up staying for dinner and many hours of great conversation. Here was a man who was incredibly learned (self-taught mainly) with a passion both for world politics and for hearing other people’s perspectives. We talked Africa, Middle East, EU, China (he’s married to a Chinese woman) and Obama’s impact on policy. Just as the conversation was starting to tail off, we talked Crete (his homeland and where my father has spent a lot of time recently) and were off again for another 30mins.

The night was still young once we left his restaurant, and the pull of good cocktails and a friendly smile at the bar was too great … so we walked to Dish to repeat Saturday evening’s fun. We managed 3 cocktails each: not just reprises of the last creations but also new ones including a peanut butter and jelly flavoured drink. While at the bar we met a local musician who gave us CDs of his band, and two people who outdid Jodi and I for crazy antics. One’s party piece was the famous soliquay from Braveheart, complete with the right hair and booming Scots accent; the other was Danish and had perfected a hysterical laugh.


A visit to the Andy Warhol museum and some time spent wandering the streets downtown. Lucky enough to be there at the right time for a fantastic outdoor live jazz concert.


A sad goodbye to Jodi, as she headed back to Cincinnati. I spent much of the day in Big Dog cafe blogging, catching up on work emails and discussing Fairtrade with the owners.

August 12, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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