I was munching on fries and sipping a pop at the nearly full bar in Regent Square on a recent afternoon when an older gent sat on the stool next to me and ordered a beer, four hot dogs and a six-pack.
He was smoking a cigarette, which he perched in an ashtray as he drank. This was just before I got my hot dog, and the smoke was annoying to me. I felt self-conscious at my annoyance, because in November I quit smoking cigarettes, and I thought of how many times I had been around smoke while I ate. I didn’t want to become one of those self-righteous former smokers, so I was determined to enjoy my hotdog and not let the smoke bother me.
Halfway through my hotdog, it occurred to me how new it was that I was not smoking, which I always had done in the past while I was at the bar. I thought of my connection to cigarette smoking, and I remembered how earlier in the week I had been digging in the garden and the spring air was so fresh and the temperature was so perfect that I had a craving for a cigarette. It occurred to me that certain actions remind us of connections—sometimes old and broken, but connections still—that inform our behavior. After a nearly 20-year habit, I reflexively wanted to reach for a cigarette while laboring in the yard.
At D’s, I wasn’t even drinking a beer, because I planned to work out that evening. I was one of few people in the bar who weren’t imbibing. I realized it was the first time I’d had a hotdog at D’s without a beer.
I gazed around the place, taking a quick inventory of how few others weren’t drinking. I caught the older fellow’s gaze, and he said ‘Hi.’
“It just occurred to me that I am not having a beer, which feels kind of strange,” I said.
He sipped his beer and laughed. “I drove six hours to get here,” he said. “Do you know where Primanti Brothers is?”
I told him about Primanti’s and he said he wanted to go to the one in the Strip District. He was in the neighborhood to visit his daughter and son-in-law, who works at Kiski School in Saltsburg, he explained.
“No kidding? I went to Kiski,” I said, considering again how small a town Pittsburgh is.
“Then you probably had his dad, my buddy Tamas, for class,” he said.
“Mr. Szilagyi! I had him for Russian History!” I said. I thought of Szilagyi, a Hungarian who escaped the Soviet system, and I recalled his unorthodox style of teaching that we students loved. Upon entering his classroom we would find him scribbling notes madly on all of the chalkboards, after which he would give his lesson as we students scribbled furiously. During the discussion part of class, Szilagyi would often remark on how he loved the American style of teaching—the “anarchy of the classroom”—that was so foreign to the Soviet educational system in which he was educated. He regularly would wake a sleeping student by threatening to cut off a certain member and mail it to the student’s mother.
“Are you laughing at my high, Mongolian forehead?” he would say to us, which would make us laugh more.
He kept class interesting, as did Mr. Botti. Botti taught Math IV, also known as “Math For Jocks,” to we students who didn’t take Calculus.
“I feel sorry for you poor S.O.B.s, you’re not going to make it in college without math skills,” the Jesuit-trained Botti would say to us.
During Botti’s class, I conspired with all of the other students to get him off-track and talking about how he helped liberate the concentration camps during World War II.
“Cappy-tan! Cappy-tan!” he would sneeringly mimic a burgermeister who tried to patronize him when he and his men liberated one German camp.
“I spat in that Burgermeister’s face!” he’d say disgustedly.
Through their actions and words, our best high school teachers taught us how to be individuals, and they taught us how to live.
We learned that “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist” in Mr. Pidgeon’s English class, where we were drilled on Ralph Waldo Emerson. When I consider the good and bad associations that we make in our lives, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” has new relevance.
Life, of course, is all about making associations and connections. Not just the business connections, but also the seemingly less significant connections we make with the people and things around us, as well as the ties that bind us to our habits. Good teachers help students to question their assumptions and to make truer associations.
A new group of high school seniors soon will graduate and move on with “real life,” but they would do well to remember some of the new connections that they’ve made. Because it is what they know, not with whom they are acquainted, that will truly separate them from the pack.