Shut Up and Drink

In early spring of 1996, I went for a job interview at a restaurant pub opening in Oakland, Pittsburgh. Though freshly 21, I had been visiting the pubs in Oakland and beyond since about 4 years earlier on a series of fake IDs and inside men who’d let me, a 5’6, 130 pound (well, until my sophomore year Cambrian explosion), peach faced fool walk through the door with a nod and an extended two-eyed wink.  

Oakland was rife with bars. Zelda’s, CJ Barney’s, Peter’s Pub, in a pinch down the road there was Babylon and Denny’s. The as-of-yet opened pub I walked up to on that afternoon had been another: Caleco’s. A lean orange cartoon cat slinked up its narrow sign from at least 1992 to around 1994. We used to go there to see a friend’s band and though they had a particular attachment to Rush that I could do without, I would go to support my friend the drummer, drink warm beer, and ogle the singer whose physical beauty made her Geddy Lee voice bearable.

So as I walked into the restaurant, still in the far-off-sound-of-saw, plastic tarp, wooden beam, and sawdusty era of its reconstruction, I felt like an old timer. I was one of the ones who knew what things had been around before the things that were there now. I was greeted by a guy who looked like Ned Flanders – pushbroom mustache, light blue in-too-good-condition jeans, belt up to the nipples of his forest green golf shirt, glasses whose wide, circular rims pegged them as leftovers of a late 1980s fashion sense. (A decade later my wire rims would be pegged as a leftover of a mid-1990s fashion sense.)

“Vic. Hi.” He told me about the place. “A west coast bar food with a twist.” Stuck out in my head – or it does now, since I heard or said it about 659 times in the following 3 years. As I tried to figure out what that meant, Vic caught me off-guard.

“Tell me a funny story about yourself.”

I panicked and told him an embarrassing story of a graphic nature. Correction: the most embarrassing story of a graphic nature. Vic stared.

“OK, you’re hired. As long as you come back Wednesday and tell that story to Mike. He’s one of the owners.”

We were given T-shirts: Shocks and Struts or Shut up and Drink. The staff became instant friends. Like every bar on earth, characters became famous. Jimmie Kuhl. JC. Sam. Nikki. I’d work there for about 6 months. You see, before I was the paragon of responsibility I am now, little things like ‘showing up to work’ used to be a problem, made worse by not informing anyone about it. These are called ‘no call, no shows’ and after three such of these occasions, I was let released into the wilds of working at other bars. This was like being kicked out of the Garden of Eden, with no west coast bar food and no twist. After a three year statute of limitations, I was hired back.

History has told us of the importance of the pub in a sociological kind of way. The first pubs (called tabernae or taverns) popped up along the Roman road network to cater to travellers. They were places to offer drink, food, and company. Stories were told, news was shared, gossip was enjoyed. The Bubonic Plague gave rise to the British pub, which started in people’s homes. The current day British pub still has all the hallmarks of this transition of home to pub – fireplaces, cozy chairs, intimate atmosphere, comfort food, throwdown fistfights three times a week, the police. Home. We about-to-be-Americans brought this overseas to the New World.

Pubs and saloons and taverns have been intimately connected to the development of America – along travel roads, in small towns and cities, they went out west with our manifest destiny. In America pubs have played a part in every step of American historical development: community, revolution, politics, assassination plots. Some of our best and worst ideas as Americans have been brewed in a bar. Which we can all attest to first hand. Who hasn’t woken up in the morning after a big pub night saying aloud “whose bright idea was it to steal that llama?” Who amongst us hasn’t?

Though we can look at “the pub” and its sociological and historical importance, what we who frequent pubs remember is the feeling we have or had there. The buzz of walking in and being recognized by your bartender. The rush of seeing pals come in or of watching the ninth inning or the last two minutes of the fourth quarter on TV with 150 people, some of whom are friends, some of whom are friends for the next three minutes. There are names that mean nothing to anyone on earth except the people who used to go to the bar and they stick with us forever: Jimmie, Lonnie, JC, Tuner, J-Mac, Sake, Lonesome Joe Eliot, O’Hara.

Bar patrons talk to each other like veteran co-workers. Remember that time J-Mac set up the wine bottles for a bowling match? Remember when those Canadian medics were here for the hockey playoffs!? Never drank so much Canadian Club in my life. Are you in JC’s 100 Beer Club? Yep. 10 times!

The feeling we get from those memories – whether we still live in the neighborhood or live 40, 50, or 4,319 miles away – is instantaneous. The only thing impossible to do is convey the full feeling to someone else. Fuel and Fuddle is a great pub. The only thing outnumbering the memories I have of the place are the memories I don’t have of the place. It’s closing this month, which is sad, but for now – shut up and drink.

  1. #1 by Jer on May 16, 2023 - 9:10 pm

    I haven’t been keeping up with your posts like I should, but this caught my eye immediately this morning. Took me back. Even more shocking is that one of the community sites I frequent has and open thread during the day, and not even joking, the header was about Fuel.

    Fuel is closing at the end of this month. My comment is pretty far down. Thanks Damien. This post reminded me of a few folk I’d forgotten about over the years, and would just like to say that your initial description of Vic, before even mentioning his name, made me go “Yeah, that has to be Vic”.

    • #2 by Damien Galeone on May 22, 2023 - 7:37 pm

      Jer – I saw that. Did you get a chance to go and say goodbye? Jenny Craig and some of the (tipsy) gang called me from Fuel on Saturday night (Sunday morning for me) and it sent me down a rabbit hole of nostalgia. Wild. Do you have a good corner bar now?

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