The Ghosts of Pittsburgh Bars

Pictured: The Green Front Inn. Not Pictured: The Ghost of the Cook.

It’s a Saturday on East Carson Street on the Southside of Pittsburgh. It’s hot and I am wearing a captain’s hat, a gift from my friend L. He was one on too. We are in a convertible that I couldn’t afford if I had a decade to save up for it and an extra kidney to sell on the black market. It’s then that we pass a place I know too well. The Green Front Inn.

“Oh my God,” I say. “I haven’t been there in more than a decade.”

“Well we’re going in now.” He pulls in front and parks, where the shiny red convertible is a sore thumb.

Pittsburgh is a city of neighborhoods. This was typically the only reference people would give when going out. “Where you going tonight?” “Southside” or “Shadyside” or “The Strip” was all that was said. This is also because a night out in Pittsburgh rarely included only one bar, but rather a mini-bar crawl often occurred, so a neighborhood was used as a blanket location.

The Green Front Inn was a job taken out of necessity. I was working an unpaid internship at a local magazine and I needed a paid job, if only because I had grown accustomed to eating food and sleeping indoors. And so four nights a week I stood behind the bar in this dive and wondered where everything had gone wrong. I’d loved bartending up to that point, but probably because I worked in a campus bar before that. It was filled with young, good looking people who wanted to have fun and often did so right there on the bar. The place before was positive and much of my time there was spent laughing and surrounded by people I really liked.

Now I was working days at a magazine where the editors were convinced of my vast stupidity. Evenings I spent surrounded by people who were attracted to the cheap alcohol and the down-on-your-luck atmosphere Tom Waits based his entire early career on. A lot of young hip people were attracted to this atmosphere out of a campy interest in a world they didn’t have to live in, but that they could dip their toes in before going to more expensive Southside bars with drinks that had more than two ingredients and customers that had 32ish teeth. Others were attracted to the bar because that’s exactly where they wanted to be. Blue collar guys who wanted to smoke, drink, not talk too much, and then go home, the homeless who made nightly visits for six packs of Laser malt liquor, an alcohol I drank one night and recovered from for four days.

My life in general was busy, real, and less than enthralling. My life at the Green Front Inn was lonely. I was friends with one other bartender there, an enormous late-fortysomething black guy named Train Man. We met the day he yelled at me for measuring out his Canadian Club in a jigger and I promised him the only reason I’d done that was because I was being watched on a camera. The owner had been ripped off a few times and so he combated this by watching the bar over a security camera from his apartment upstairs. He also had a complex and expensive security system that monitored each door and the cooler. The system was monitored by a panel on the right of the front door; if all the lights were green you were good to go, all was locked up. If there was a red light, something had to be locked before you could leave. The fact that the owner had installed this grand security system to guard this bar was not unlike building a $10,000 garage to keep your Schwinn safe.

“I know,” he said. “I work behind that bar too. You’ll forget about it pretty soon.”

He was right, but by the time I quit seven months later I was still unnerved by getting a call during my shift that would call into question some recent action or transaction. “I didn’t see you charge that guy. Did you know him?” or “Did you ring up that six pack?”

Thursday nights Train Man and I sipped CC’s and Jack and cokes and told stories that descended in reliability as the drinks were poured. Sometimes the cook joined us. Sometimes a recovering addict who let himself slip twice a week or so or if someone was carrying something really good. We never usually walked out of there too late, but I remember seeing the sun once. Maybe twice.

It’s this bar I am sitting at now with L. We order a couple of Jamesons neat and tell the bartender that I used to work there. The bar is much nicer now or that might be the effect of having not been there for almost two decades. The place is otherwise as I remember it. TV in the corner, cherry machines at the bar, a doorway behind the bar that leads to the bathrooms and the restaurant seating area in back. Through that doorway I can hear some Pittsburghers ordering Pittsburgh food in Pittsburgh accents and it puts me into a state of deep content.

Coming to Pittsburgh is so nostalgic that I get dizzy. Pittsburgh was and will always be my first home away from home. It’s enormously comforting. They love sandwiches and beer and baseball. It rains a lot and people go to their local amusement park in the summer. The memories are really thick at the Green Front Inn, so much so that I can almost see the hijinkery reoccurring with phantom characters of the past. Me and Train Man sitting at the bar talking baseball. The manager smoking and drinking her Michelob. It’s sort of like being on a ghost tour, as a matter of fact it’s too much like that right now.

On one night both the cook and Train Man told me about the Green Front’s in-house ghost. It was the ghost of the old cook who’d had a heart attack in the kitchen during her shift one night and died right in front of the walk-in cooler. I laughed, but they didn’t. They both claimed to see her at the same time, when she walked past that doorway behind the bar, the one that leads to the bathrooms. I remembered that the bar I used to work in, the one with all the optimistic young people, also had a ghost. It was a guy who appeared in our beer room from time to time. My laugh petered out into a chuckle. I think our conversation that night went to some piddly philosophy draped around being a ghost in a bar.

I was not chuckling later after they had left and I saw a red light at my security panel. When I realized that the unlocked door was the walk in dry storage closet down in the basement I think I actually said “Oh for fuck’s sake.” The basement was straight out of a horror film, creepy and unfinished and leaky. I turned on every light I could in the bar. The front. The back. The bar lights. I turned up the television and the radio, just to have happy, safe noise. And then I went down to secure it.

In something of a self-fulfilling prophesy the overexertion on the electricity caused by my putting on every light and appliance in the place blew a fuse. This occurred when I had gotten into the closet and was holding the lock to attach to the door. As the radio and TV died in a slur, I heard three loud chuckles. Ha. Ha. Ha. And then a door creak.

In no time that has ever been recorded inside or outside of the context of speed races or involving Harry Houdini has anyone ever negotiated a padlock in the dark and gotten up a set of stairs and out of a basement and reset a fuse and shut off the lights and a TV and a radio and checked a security panel and locked a door and been out on the street in the time that I managed to do it that night.

Today I sip my Jamesons and reflect on my current state versus my state then. I was poor and had a job that occasionally required brandishing a Billy club and more often that I’d like to admit forced me to assist people out of a bathroom. I didn’t think I’d ever be as content or settled the way I am. I also never imagined I’d be over forty. I also never thought I’d look back at those days with some kind of happiness. They were not easy, but I find now that, even imagining myself running out of this place frantically escaping a ghost who didn’t exist, I am smiling. I ask the bartender for two napkins to write notes to the manager and Train Man, both of whom I am assured are doing well.

My napkin note to Train Man is a little warmer and more involved. I wish him well and tell him to look me up on Facebook if he does that sort of thing. I tell him I miss our nights of whiskey and coke and nice chats. Before I hand it over I add a PS: What was the name of the cook?

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