Pittsburgh Years






hen I was young, nearly 17, I began to smoke a great many cigarettes, more than two packs a day.  It seemed everyone smoked then; it was simply what people did—men, and many women too.  The left hand pocket of one’s shirt seemed permanently occupied by a neat, compact, paper package of just the right size which was slickly wrapped in cellophane.  It was nice to know it was there, comforting, and every five or 10 minutes ones right hand seemed automatically, completely on its own, to reach in to retrieve it.  Only one end of the topmost part of the package, the part just to the right of the official-looking, paper seal would have been opened, and inside were the perfectly round, tightly packed cigarettes, like cartridges in the magazine of a gun.  If the package was full, or nearly so, one whacked it, upside down, against the edge of ones left hand, and a few cigs would peep out.  Then one could easily be plucked from the package, an end inserted in one’s mouth, and a Zippo lighter, or a match, applied to the other end.  It was ritualistic, and satisfying, as one then dragged in the smoke, held it a moment in the lungs, and then slowly exhaled, sometimes through the mouth, but often through the nose, or some combination of each.

One day, about 17 years after having started, the talk about cancer increasingly penetrated my mind.  After not thinking much about it, the notion of mortality finally sank in.  An odd bit of rectitude, highly abnormal for me;  perhaps I was just getting older.  I had been thinking that cancer would certainly be the worst of all possible ways to die, so I decided to quit.  In truth, I was getting tired of it anyway; it was the first thing I did in the morning, while still in bed, and the last thing I did in the evening when just in bed, ready to sleep.  And by that late time of the day they tasted pretty bad, yet I seemed to want one anyway.  I was hooked.

There were no nicotine patches in those days, and I had tried slowly cutting down the number of smokes several times only to go straight back up only a few days later.  So, it seemed one had to quit cold turkey or not at all.  I then developed a new technique for quitting, one that I now call my jujitsu method, since it takes the strength of the enemy and uses it against him.  It works like this:

At the end of the first day completely off the weed, which had been incredibly difficult, I said to myself, Bill, if you start back now you’ll have to go through that terrible day again the next time you try to quit smoking.  That thought carried me over into the second day.  Then, after the end of the that day, nearly as bad as the first, I said, Bill, if you start back now you’ll have those two awful days to go through again later.  And so it went, day after day, building up my resolve and my resistance.  Slowly my dependence on nicotine diminished.  It had worked.  I have not smoked since, and that was in 1968; to be precise: June 16, at 10:30 in the morning.

But I did take up drinking with more zeal after that.

There were then a lot of bars in Southside.  (There are now even more.)  And there were a lot of churches too then, mostly Catholic, both Roman with spires and Orthodox with onion domes.  There are two Christmases and two Easters here as well, the two denominations never finding a convincing reason to synchronize their calendars.  Both dome and spire point, well…  inspiringly, heavenward together, as do the minarets of mosques: up, always up.  It tells us something about the state of astronomy in the old days: since the earth rotates every day on its axis, these pointers all really indicate out and around, and around…  somewhere, pointing in circles as it were, inviting a question for the fateful: where, exactly, is up, heaven, nirvana?  Or, for that matter, where is hell?

There are still a lot of bars here in Southside, but the churches are gradually disappearing, an interesting commentary on modern life.

In the long heyday of the mills, the bars were mostly conveniently located directly across the street from work, though others had been sprinkled here and there on side streets, and a few were on the slopes, just for those in the neighborhoods. 

Since the mills were gradually automating, the mill workers were becoming old and, when I first came here they were mostly retired, and in surprising comfort.  This, thanks to the United Steel Workers Union still headquartered here in Pittsburgh.  These ample retirements were obtained primarily by the union but with the unstated, but nevertheless genuine, acquiescence of management.  In the decades after the war it was found easier to raise wages and benefits than to argue about it with the unions, the men of which had become, after all this time, their colleagues, or relatives or friends of colleagues.  Incest had taken its toll on the union-manage­ment wars, both sides at last having found a better way:

Contract negotiations had now largely become a passion play reenacted at regular intervals to show the good guys and bad guys distinctly, each for their separate audiences.  And all this brotherhood was made possible simply by involving the politicians who submissively maintained the steel tariffs that prevented the import of steel from abroad, a solution so straightforward that one can only wonder why it had taken so long to work out the script for this drama in the first place.  But slowly, as larger forces contended, this had to change:  Globalization had arrived and the buzz of the mills, once tremendous beehives of activity, began now to quiet as fundamental change came, change wanted neither by management nor by labor, who together were now more of an in-house team united in facing down the foreigners who, it seemed to them, rather unfairly wanted a piece of our pie—didn’t they have their own country?

In Southside itself the change was so gradual as to be nearly invisible:  Older people, long pensioned off, now died off, and were replaced in their homes, which they had owned, by their children.  Many of these, aspiring to modernity, soon had fake-stone applied over the fronts of these homes to bring them up a notch or two and, inside, acoustic tile ceilings were installed far below the original high, plastered ceilings or the pressed tin ceilings.  This seemed to give them something of a ranch-house feel, bringing them further up-to-date in the minds of their new and younger dwellers.

And one day the great Jones & Laughlin mill was demolished; they used dynamite.  It was quite a show, with a big audience.  Everyone there seemed somber, as though someone that everyone knew had just died.  And the girl-children no longer swept the sidewalks as their mothers before them had done; they had jobs themselves now, and they hung out in bars too.

Across the street from my new home in Southside, on Sarah street, was Felix’s.  It was a bar that was then run by a feisty old woman, Helen, whose father had started the business many decades ago, having had the tall, narrow, brick building built from scratch.  He had, even before that, owned a small bar somewhere else to get up the money for the new place.  In all of this long effort, or in the booze that attended it, he had died and it had become Helen’s place.

The long bar itself, on the left as one entered the door, had a continuous, sloping, stainless steel gutter at its foot with an incoming water pipe at one end and an outflow at the other.  In the old days, I was told, people would spit in it—chewing was cheaper than smoking—and perhaps, with usually only men here in those days, it was convenient for other bar effluents as well.  What goes in must come out.  The bar was on the first floor and along the right side of the room, directly across from the bar, was a row of booths, always empty now, they remained from a time, long back, when they had served food here.  Sleeping rooms for men were on the second and third floor.  Helen herself now had a small suite up there.

Helen once told me that she had worked at the bar since she was a very young girl.  And she had worked very hard; her father was not an easy man, though she adored him.  They were Blue Tails (Lithuanians), and St Casimirs, a Lithuanian church, was just up and across the street.  By now, Helen had become a pudgy, five foot, bottle-blond woman of about 65 with penetrating blue eyes, a woman who didn’t take any shit from anybody, male or female.  Though now she waddled around the bar in her bedroom slippers, she still seemed to have a tremendous amount of energy, hustling about, here and there.  At this age she was utterly tired of the bar business, but there it was; she was old now; it wasn’t going anywhere and neither was she.  She had wanted to be a nun, she told me once, but it was not to be; her father needed her help and, since she idolized him, that was the end of the matter.

Helen’s father had been successful, and when he died she inherited considerable money—most likely in cash—and the bar as well, free and clear.  She then, with father gone, married a man, Tony, who had been in the Navy during World War Two, a nice looking kind of guy, all things considered.  But he was probably someone her father would not have countenanced.  Tony fancied himself a painter, turning out, among other works, a portrait of John F. Kennedy from which one could, with only a little effort, distinguish a likeness.  Helen was very proud of the painting, displaying it prominently behind the bar, and she was proud of Tony too; I think she felt lucky to have gotten him so long after her beauty-days had passed, thus saving her from spinsterhood.

Tony’s take on the matter seemed to be that this was not a bad setup.  He tended bar, and drank about as much as he served; there wasn’t a lot of business anymore, and they didn’t need the money anyway.  He had convinced Helen to buy a “stretch” Cadillac, one that had previously been owned and, for some reason, lengthened, by a rich doctor, so she told everyone proudly.  It was practically a limousine, a huge old vehicle that did still retain in its old age a certain faded classiness.  They took trips in it some weekends to the country house her father had bought years ago.  Neither Helen nor Tony drove—not unusual in Southside—so they had to invite one of his bar friends to chauffeur them, then, of course, the driver got to stay the weekend too.  It was a rather grand entourage when it finally got going after packing up a lot of food, booze and who-knows-what else.

Unfortunately for Helen, her Toulouse Lautrec died of a liver malfunction after only a few years in his perch: the pilot’s stool at the window-end, behind the bar.  After that, Helen, alone now, opened the bar only at 5:00 in the afternoon, just for me and a few people that worked at Milan’s, the car garage on the corner, on my side of Sarah street; she liked us and it was a few bucks but, more importantly, it was some company.

Helen had two roomers who lived upstairs, Bo and Charlie—last names never mentioned.  Both of them were on disability for being somewhat dim or disoriented, or both.  Bo also had a cleft palate that had split his upper lip as well as his palate, but he was friendly, smiled easily in spite of his minor deformity, and tried to be helpful.  Charlie was quiet; I never quite figured him out.  Helen took their disability income and kept them fed, and fed pretty well since she liked food and cooked for the three of them.  She gave them a few glasses of beer at the end of the day, but only a few.  She made Bo run errands, like going to the food store.  Charlie wasn’t up for that and I never quite understood whether that was because he was more disabled, or because he was less disabled and therefore more assertive.

There were two schools of thought among the bar patrons concerning this familial arrangement.  The majority, cynical, as bar people often appear to be, seemed to think that she was ripping them off for their welfare checks.  But I always thought it was a pretty good deal all around; it was a real home for the guys, with a kind-of-real mother, and not a sort of halfway house, or some sort of commercial-care enterprise, where they would probably have been drugged up all day.  Their caseworker, who showed up every now and then to see how the boys were doing, seemed to agree with me.

I once mentioned to Helen that I knew how to play pinochle.  She said she had always wanted to learn how to play.  She knew how to play “66”, generally the card game of choice in Southside but, though there is some similarity, she thought pinochle more sophisticated.  But it really takes four people to play pinochle properly, so Bo and Charlie were drafted to make the table and, to even things up, as in a pick-up ballgame when one is a youngster, I took one or the other of the boys as my partner, and Helen took the other.

You might think that Helen would understand that this arrangement wouldn’t always work out her way—it was a crapshoot of a card game—but she was a sore loser and she had a machine gun mouth that fired on her partner when he screwed up a bid, which was often.  Then she’d turn to me as master arbiter, “Bill, am-I-right-or-am-I-wrong?” the question uttered in a machine-gun-like staccato.  She was always right.  But there was beer for all which, in moderation, has a great soothing and smoothing effect on mankind.  Slowly, sitting closely together in one of the booths, we learned to play pinochle.

Once in awhile I went over to Milan’s garage on the corner, just next to my apartment, to shoot the shit.  There’s nothing like the distinctive smell of an automobile garage: oil, paint, solvents, and cigarette smoke.  There was often another fellow loafing there too, an older guy who had been retired for some time.  He lived across the street from me near Helen’s.  He had been in the mills his whole working life.  Back in those times, and rather late in life, he had married a younger wife who now worked at a local bank as a teller—my bank in fact.  His name was Carl (or Karl).  I can still see him in my mind’s eye: he was tall, relatively slim and well built, and he still had some hair.  But he had a nervous tic: he would incessantly open his mouth in a near circle and move his tongue around inside in a regular manner, as though he was winding up a spring with it.  It was peculiar to watch.  He seemed quite unaware of it, but I never became used to it.  He often came over to Helen’s after work too, though of course he wasn’t working anymore.  He would often buy a beer for everyone.  “I’m heavy on the hip today,” he would say, and pull a twenty out from the wallet in his hip pocket.  He had a good pension.

One day, about noon on a Saturday, Mr. Heavy-on-the-Hip said, “Bill, let’s go up to Karwoski’s and get a drink, they have a spread out today.” Karwoski’s, a bar, was a number of blocks away, and I had never been there, so I said “Sure, let’s go.” I had an old Volvo car then and I said I’d drive us up.  When we pulled up and I parked, he reached in his wallet and pulled out a five and handed it to me before we got out of the car.  He said, “Here, Bill, you can buy a drink.”  Knowing where I lived, and now knowing my old car, he assumed I was poor, and he didn’t want me to be embarrassed in the bar.  I was flustered; I had money in my pocket.  But, thinking it over quickly, I took the five and thanked him.  I was touched and he felt good.  Weeks later, I deposited a $75,000 check with his wife at the bank, the proceeds of one of my first big sales and a notable chunk of change in those days when a house could be bought for $10 or $20 thousand.  After that he probably didn’t think I was so poor any more.  He was a good guy.

Text Box:  Karwoski’s is in an out of the way place, and if you don’t know it’s there you would probably never find it.  It has the traditional one long bar with a linoleum surface that had been red, but it had turned white in most places because of so many washings-up of spilled booze and beer.  There were only a few tables, remnants of when food had once been served there.  It has some few rooms in the back too that aren’t used anymore and, like Helen’s, a few rooms upstairs where the family used to live.  (They now live in a quite fancy house in the exurbs.)  In the bar room there’s a round table in one corner near the side door; sometimes they play cards there, but this day, since it was Saturday, it was filled with plates of hot dogs—the real kind, with crunchy skin—potato salad, liverwurst, bread and buns, mustard and pickles, all the things that men like to lunch on when they’re drinking.

There is a homemade, and carefully hand lettered, wooden sign over the back of the bar that reads, “Honest John – The Working Man’s Friend.” The son of Honest John was behind the bar the first afternoon when I went up with Carl, and he was just barely functioning: he had a fondness for small glasses of vodka, warm and straight, especially while all his buddies were there and the bar was full.

Now the grandson of Honest John runs the place, and I still go there, but they changed the bar top—it’s just white now, a disappointment since I had come to like the subtlety of the old worn red surface, polished down to reveal some of the white below the colored surface.  One concentrates on these simple things when drinking.  The grandson, who now runs the bar, is also named John, though we old-timers call him J. C. to distinguish him from his father.  He is an argumentative libertarian, a rarity in this union area.  He feels obliged to straighten out all the lefties.

J. C. stopped drinking after he’d had four DUI’s—next one is the big one, with serious time attached—so now he drinks Coca-Cola all day and is usually highed-up from that and ready to argue with anyone.  Though he is disliked by some of the clientele—nearly all Democrats—he doesn’t care.  I don’t think he has to make much money anymore; my guess is that his parents wanted to give him something to do.  Yet some of the same old patrons, if they’re still alive, and some new ones, continue to come; they’re just used to it; it’s their second home.  I once suggested to J. C.  that he change the old sign to: “Honest John  – The Working Man’s Philosopher”.  He laughed, but only a little.

The Amber was the bar I went to when I was tired after my night-work on the Food Bank program at about eleven o’clock or so.  It was open till late; at about two in the morning they started hustling the remaining customers out, not always an easy job.  I was about fifty then, probably the oldest person in the bar which was ordinarily patronized by young people, at least people younger than me.  It was only a half block from my apartment.

Before I began going to the Amber, the bars I knew had seemed sort of like a living room for the people that lived in one of the neighborhood’s small homes.  Not infrequently there were multiple generations living together.  So it was a place to go out to, a place to drink at with friends and get out of the house.  Generally the ambiance is calm and sedate, people talking and sipping, as though the place was simply an extension of one’s house; everyone knows everyone else and, though not everyone always gets along together, the differences are papered over, usually by the other patrons.  Occasionally someone is ejected by the bartender; shut-off as they say—no more booze.  Sometimes this prohibition is temporary—one might get a week’s sentence—but sometimes, for a serious infraction, it is permanent, or at least until, years later, the bartender changes or forgives.

In the best of all possible worlds, this homelike function is precisely the point of a nice neighborhood bar; it is a common living room.  The Amber was like that too, in a way, but it was like no living room I had been in before.  It was raucous, with a pool table and loud music, guys trying to get with girls, and ordinarily speaking rough language, which I have gradually become fluent in as well, though I can turn it on and off.  Sometimes a fight breaks out, usually just outside the door, but not always.  And of course out on the sidewalk those funny cigarettes are sometimes smoked. 

The bar was owned by a man considerably older than me, or at least he had a lot more miles on him.  He was called, simply, Old Dad or, to be more precise, Old Dad Shook—he was of German ancestry, but he was pure urban American.  He had a roofing business at which he had made considerable money.  He had even personally made local television commercials for the business.  The bar was just his hobby, a place for him to hang out.  There, he was indisputably Old Dad, and in charge.  You could borrow money from him if he liked you.  He’d peel off a bill from a great wad secured by a gum-band, as we say here, that he kept in his front pocket.  But he seemed unerringly to remember who owed him how much.

A great many bars seem to be owned by plumbers and roofers, electricians and ex-policemen.  In a certain way it was a sort of closed society in which they, and many of their workers, and their serial girlfriends, hung out.  And they would often go to each other’s bars, just for something new to look at and to scope out the clientele and the prices.  Usually, there, off their home base, they would buy the whole bar a drink; they kept a wad in their pocket too.  It was considered an appropriate “etiquette” for an owner.  One doesn’t ask where the policeman got his wad.  That’s not good etiquette.

Old Dad drank highballs, as had my parents: slowly, but very steadily.  Drinks go in and out of fashion, just like clothes and music.  The style one begins with at a certain crucial age can become imprinted on your psyche, after that never to change.  In Southside you can choose a bar by the age group you wish to associate with, and the music in its juke box will reflect, and satisfy, that particular sector.  This is specialization taken to its outermost limits.

Old Dad Shook had a big family, to two different wives—serially, not in parallel; each of them quite different.  His mother was still alive; she was 90, and he was solicitous of her, bringing her, of a mother’s day, to the bar for a glass of wine and a meal.  All her grand­children would be there at the bar, drinking in celebration.  All of these children were unusual, some more than others.  Those he had to his first wife were the least strange.

The boys were smart and had picked up a certain business sense from the old man.  But all were boozers, though one had reformed—something about a car wreck.  Dry now, this son, his eldest, started a roofing business and competed with the old man.  Understandably, though they spoke occasionally at the bar, it was a restrained relationship.  The next boy down the list had a construction business, and the one after that had worked for the old man in the roofing business, but they’d had a disagreement and the boy started his own business, selling used cars.  All but the oldest, the dry one, hung out at the Amber regularly, but even the eldest came in once in awhile just for a coke and to say hello to his family, many of whom were sure to be there.  There were a few daughters in the lineup too, generally quite pretty; one had worked in Las Vegas as a showgirl for a spell.  The girls drank there often, and thoroughly, as well.

His second wife was much younger than his first, quite small and very feisty; her clothing of choice seemed to involve camouflage.  She had two idiosyncrasies that I knew of: she had a great many dogs, I was given to think more than a dozen; she liked to train them; and she ran an organization of young people—both black and white—called the Guardian Angels; she trained them too.  They had uniforms of a sort, berets I as I recall, and they practiced marching in step together down the sidewalks of Southside.  In theory the group was formed to protect the citizenry, thinking, I suppose, that the police were inadequate for the task, though as far as I was aware the Southside, a homogeneous neigh­bor­hood after all, was relatively crime free.  I’m not sure that the Guardian Angels ever did more than simply march together.  But that alone, by simply corralling all these strange young people together and giving them some exercise to do, may actually have protected the citizenry to some extent. 

Old Dad had two more children by the younger wife and, genetics being what they are, they turned out rather stranger than the first set.  The eldest of these, a girl nicknamed Muffy—or it may be, considering her mother, that that is her given name—was petite and very pretty, about sixteen or seventeen, a just-blooming flower when I first knew her.  She drank at the bar just like anyone else and was the center of attention.  Eventually, Old Dad, redid the bar, modernizing it, and he renamed it: Muffy’s.  His idea was to give her a job managing the bar.  But since she was essentially already an alcoholic that was a poor choice of professions for her.  Eventually, she became an out and out alcoholic and drug addict: heroin I believe.  I have lost track of her.  Her younger brother, at about fifteen or so—handsome but quite uncontrollable—hung himself one day in one of the rooms above the bar.

Old Dad survived these traumas, but became estranged from his second wife, whom he then sent to a small farm that he bought for her in West Virginia where she could raise her dogs in peaceful distress; she seemed to have had quite enough of motherhood.  After many years of knowing this family individually and collectively, it was as though I had taken on a bit part in an extravagant virtual-reality soap opera.  I then lost interest in the family and in the Amber; the opera had become too stale; I knew all the parts by heart already.  But, while it was fresh, it seemed a compelling but chastening story of urban life to this naïf from the country.

Pittsburgh, and Southside in particular, has a great many fraternal organizations.  There is the Polish Falcons, the Polish Vets Club and the Veterans of Foreign Wars club; there is the Lithuanian Club, the Serbian Club, the German Club and the Slovak Club; there is the Saint Vincent’s Literary Society, a bar quite without a book on the premises; there are athletic clubs, now relieved of any athletics aside from shooting pool and bending elbows, and there are generic social clubs as well.  Most of these clubs can be joined by anyone for a small annual fee, but one needs a member as a sponsor in order to do so; helps to keep out the riffraff.

These many fraternal organizations had two main purposes when they were originally established:  The first was to help a particular enclave of new citizens, generally; most club members were from some Eastern European country, usually speaking little English when they first came over; and some of them occasionally ran short of money or had other problems.  The Club put them in touch with their brothers who, if you were a good guy, would help you over the rough spots.  And most of them had some sort of savings program which returned a small but relatively safe bit of interest.  More importantly they helped their members save for a home and provided a certain restraint so that one’s complete paycheck was not frittered away; you would be, almost literally, in-family at the club.  The second purpose, antithetically, was to extend the hours during which it was possible to drink.

Pennsylvania, a Commonwealth founded by Puritans, had, and has many, relatively strict booze laws; Sundays were reserved for Church; bars must close.  And on election days, in those times when it was possible to buy votes with drinks, ordinary bars had to close then too, but fraternal organizations could remain open.  Nor were they subject to the same closing hours as ordinary bars.  Drinking hours at clubs were from seven in the morning to three or four o’clock the next morning, and often even these strictures were not rigorously observed.  Many clubs might be open right around the clock, which made it convenient for those who worked odd shifts at the mills and for those who just liked to drink at any time of the day or night.  One never knows when one might have a fight with the wife.

This abundance of clubs and bars, in a condensed area, lends itself to bopping around from one to another to see different sets of friends or to just get out of a place where you are not, now, having a very good time.  Someone is drunk and making a fuss or the juke box is blasting away because everyone, but you, is already feeling good.  But maybe you’ll come back later to see if the ambiance has changed, or perhaps you have, by then.  And all of this can be done quite without a car.  As I said: condensed.

The notion of a club or a bar as an extension of family remains more pronounced in fraternal organizations, even now, decades after their formation.  There is still a vague sense of ancestry, even though intermarriage and other dilutions have rendered these connections tenuous.  I occasionally hear words in Slovak, Polish, and other tongues, especially in given names:  “Hey Mishou (Mike), how you doin’, the old lady let you out again?” It’s all very friendly, brotherly, fraternal, nice.