The Good Dok

In Pittsburgh on July 28, 2009 at 4:23 pm

Random Pittsburgh 071 

Dear Fellow Gen-Xers, Yers and Echo-Boomers,

My friend is running for Mayor of Pittsburgh.

For a couple years, I’ve known him only as “Dok.” We met at a bar in North Oakland. Our friend Dan introduced us. He was tall, curly-haired, thick-bodied but not overweight. His eyes were steady — when he listens, Dok really listens, focusing directly and waiting for the speaker to stop speaking. When he laughs, he guffaws to the air. And when he talks, he talks fast.

We bonded over movies — great cinema, slapstick comedies, guilty pleasures, science fiction epics. As a fast-talker myself, it’s rare that I meet a rival motor-mouth. Dok is like a improv speed-reader, someone who can crush hundreds of words into a few seconds and make every syllable count. He’s also supernaturally funny. He once riffed on tennis clubs and mint julips for about an hour. You had to be there, but if you’d be there, it would’ve been awesome.

We’ve been friends ever since. Not the kind of friends who traded baseball cards in grade school, but two adult guys who are happy to describe each other as “my friend.”

Still, there were some things I didn’t know about Dok, starting with his name: I didn’t realize “Dok” was his real middle name and not short for “Dr.” Also, Dok has very light skin, and I would never have guessed that he was African-American (among other ethnic heritages). When we met, I knew that Dok was a talented law student, incredibly smart and ludicrously well-loved — every time we’ve met, mostly in Shadyside, Dok passes through swirling entourages of friends.

The biggest surprise is that Dok is the son of Franco Harris, one of the most famous NFL players of all time. Harris is more than the catcher of the Immaculate Reception; his reputation in Pittsburgh is almost godly. At Pittsburgh International, a statue of Franco, catching a football in that historic moment, stands near the escalators; it’s one of the first things travelers see as they move through the concourses. Next to the statue of Franco Harris is a statue of George Washington. This is how important Harris’ legacy is to Western Pennsylvania.

I didn’t find out this lineage from Dok. Dok mentions it sometimes, but with the expectation that I already knew, and that I found out from somebody else. This seems like a conscious choice — to treat his dad as a dad and not as a 1970’s superhero with international name recognition.

Again, I didn’t know Dok was running for mayor until I ran into him Downtown with a herd of volunteers. I didn’t even know this was something he was planning, or even a latent desire. Which is how I came to attend his rally in East Liberty, in the parking lot outside Home Depot.

Like most people, I’m suspicious of politicians. It’s like being an actor in Hollywood: People arrive with big ideas and great expectations, and then they’re gradually crushed in the machinery of the biz. Lincoln, a healthy youth, was emaciated by the end of his term, and then he was shot in the back of the head. Our latest Bush turned gray in eight years. So many careers seem to end in mockery. Like rock stars, the best career move for a famous politician seems to be an early demise: FDR is beloved. Kennedy is beloved. Play the game long enough, and you’re destined for infamy. So I’ve never undestood the impulse. But I also strive for harmonious relationships; I’m annoyed when people don’t like me. Most politicians don’t have this hang-up. They expect people not to like them. In some ways, they rely on people not liking them, so that the people who do like them are motivated to compete with somebody.

That said, this mayoral election is significant to me — to us — because it introduces a novel face-off: Between a young dark horse (Dok) and the youngest mayor in U.S. history, Luke Ravenstahl. And the third? Kevin B. Acklin, an independent from Squirrel Hill. Ravenstahl is 29 (my age), and Acklin is 33. Typical of our relationship, I don’t know Dok’s age. But this is immaterial. As it stands, the future of Pittsburgh will be guided by someone my (our) age.

Strolling through Dok’s rally in East Liberty, where a jazz band was setting up and stringy youths were dancing to hip-hop on loudspeakers, I realized what a different kind of race this would be. Sure, the winner may prefer “business as usual,” and age may have no particular impact (Ravenstahl has plenty of opposition). But we’re part of a generation that’s just now gotten very serious. It’s as if the spotlight hasn’t moved, but we are moving into it. To know that a friend, with whom I’ve shared jokes, ideas, and bottles of wine at Shady Grove, is gunning for the highest office in the county, is a humbling milestone. After spending our lives in the shadow of Baby Boomer grandeur, the epoch is turning. The largest, longest-living, most eccentric generation is hesitantly handing us the reins, and our thoughts and decisions are slowly becoming important. As our parents retire and start to sleep late, we can start the exodus from Applebee’s kitchens and Iraqi trenches and begin putting our ludicrously expensive degrees to use. Most of us have done our time as grunts. In the decade to come, there will be generals’ seats to fill.

And we’ll likely make most of the same mistakes. But at least we’ll be the ones making them. 


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