I think there is no better example of the remarkable changes between the neighborhood that I left and the one to which I’ve returned than the two linear blocks surrounding the Duquesne Heights Incline. I described earlier the active and necessary businesses that thrived there when I was a child. Things started to change when I was in high school as more people had cars and went to supermarkets instead of the small purveyors of specific needs like meat, fish, thread or prescriptions. Interestingly, the bookie joint with the ancient mayonnaise jar in the window was an early closure, gone not long after my uncles’ pharmacy became a hair styling place. It was to this area that my father decamped after being justifiably thrust out of our house for truly terrible behavior. My fear of being stuck between two warring parents, like a much less telegenic version of the original Parent Trap, informed my miserable reaction to this change in our household. In reality, it was quite wonderful in many ways because Daddy was mere blocks away, visited us at whim and didn’t stay to torture Mummy at every juncture. I also had a place that sometimes served as respite, which was more welcome as I grew into adolescence. He moved to a row house a few doors up from the fascinating and historic incline. There were many distinctive characteristics of his location, the most noteworthy that it was 9-1/2 ft. wide… from the outside! Lord knows what sorry circumstances brought someone to erect the building, but when he moved there, one walked into a narrow alley and entered the side door into the first floor. Daddy’s apartment was on the second floor. It could have been called a railroad flat to give it a cache that it didn’t deserve, and I know old railroad flats! To call another comparison, the front held a bed/sit. There was the hall, full bath and at the other end, a large kitchen with sitting area and access to the roof and one of the great downtown Pittsburgh views. The supremely odd, and to the young me off-putting, part was that the stairway that went through the middle of each floor was completely open with no doors providing privacy. This offered a colorful backdrop for my encounters with the changing array of upstairs neighbors. They were a fragrant lot, as Daddy would say. There was the wild father of a wild friend who was nearly always accompanied by women as his son would soon be. There was an older cousin who was battling the same demons that killed his father and bedeviled my own. A newly minted Viet Nam vet who took me riding on his Harley passed through as well as others less distinct in my memory. The anchor of this neighborhood for my father wasn’t the transportation or the dry cleaner, but that other necessity: the local bar, the perfectly named Hut. My mother became a denizen also, frequenting the back room, reached through a side “ladies entrance.” It was verboten in the 1960’s that any female would either want to or be permitted to drink at the bar accessed through the kind of swinging doors usually seen in westerns of the era. Of course,those doors did swing the other way & the men from the bar would come back and visit with the distaff patrons. It occurs to me as I write this, my parents probably spent the most time within close proximity at The Hut in those years. Certainly not always in communication, but it was at least the site of the greatest propinquity accompanied by the least conflict between them. When I was in college, I went into the bar at The Hut, which satisfied a decade long curiosity and appalled Mummy. I returned several times when I would visit. Here is my favorite Hut story: Once a notorious local sot bought me a drink. This was, indeed, unusual, for I had bought him drinks on several occasions. Upon hearing this, my father was astounded, not being able to cite a precedent for the event in said sot’s 40-odd years of drinking. A few weeks later, Daddy called to report that my benefactor had died. “And, kid,” he said, “I know what he died from. Remorse for buying that drink.”
Over the decades, the sites with views gave over to restaurants, the shops on the other side of the street were torn down and a few high rise apartment buildings took their place. And there, stubbornly, sits The Hut; a bedraggled two story building alone in a small prairie of parking lots. The owner, heroically to some, foolishly to others, waited for his price. And it didn’t come. So as valets swished past, parking the cars of patrons of the swankier neighbors this place carried on. I’m sure there have been students from surrounding colleges who found this dump romantic. I myself had enjoyed quarter beers at longshoreman’s bars in NYC’s far west side. But when I walked in one late night a few years ago, and it was so unchanged, so completely charmless that I turned right around and walked out. Word was out a few months ago that the place had sold. My response was not exactly “good-bye to bad rubbish,” but more along the lines of “finally!”
What brought this all to mind was my visit the other night to a new,elegant restaurant down the street from my dad’s old digs, between his place and The Hut. From there with their fancy cocktails and their lime and coconut hot popcorn bar snacks, I looked at the view that I had shared with Daddy on hot summer nights. Certainly not the same view, but a nearly identical perspective on downtown Pittsburgh. It’s not exactly the same because the narrow place that housed my father for nearly a decade has been removed along with a half dozen others, saved from tumbling over the cliff by demolition. They were built atop defunct coal caves older than the former business district and nearly anything else in the history of this neighborhood.
I looked out and was awash in satisfaction at how beautiful my city looked on a glorious, long-awaited early spring night. As I walked out I noticed that the neon bar signs for Iron City were lit at The Hut, which had been shuttered for a few months. I am surely not without misplaced nostalgia; but I walked past, refusing to enter, as I continued to bask in Pittsburgh’s 21st century beauty.