When I went off to college at Carnegie Mellon in 1988, right off the bat during freshman orientation, some friends and I decided to go to the O, an all-night French fry shop that was Pittsburgh’s hangout for all manner of exhausted, underground, drunken or unruly hungry people. On the cheap, you could get a large paper boat mounded with French fries (I’m talking about an 8” high tower, friends) that were not exceptionally good by any means but were, instead, exceptionally cheap, exceptionally greasy and exceptionally cold. In a city that had a sub shop which piled French fries onto your sandwich (I’m looking at you, Primanti Bros), it was the O that was known as the gross spot.
The floor was coated in grease—you had to actually duckwalk slowly to make sure you didn’t slip and fall. The lighting was sickly and fluorescent. The crowd was wild and hectic. And really drunk. To a sheltered college freshman, it felt excitingly dangerous. If it was 3 am and you wanted some greasy, post-drinking anti-hangover junk food, that was where you congregated. I—and everyone from college I’ve consulted—went once just to try it and never again. The O was an institution, sure, but so is the prison system, and I don’t see most people rushing to go there more than once.
But when I wrote my latest novel, Luckmonkey, which takes place in Pittsburgh in the early twenty-first century, the O reappeared for me as the unnamed inspiration for a horrible place called Tamale Mama’s, a sad, greasy parody of a fast food joint (featured in Chapter 3: The Effing Taco). I just knew if I wrote a story based in Pittsburgh, the O had to appear. It was such a gross, necessary part of young life at the time.
I’m making the O sound awful, I know. I can hear you asking: why would anybody in their right mind go there ever? First of all, nobody there WAS in their right mind: they were inebriated, or a teenager, or super tired from being up all night, or otherwise desperate. It was the place the unseen—those folks who didn’t show up in the shiny, glass-glittering pictures of Pittsburgh’s skyscrapers and sparkling three rivers—collected themselves, and for a goodie goodie kid from the middle of the country with a strict Greek dad, this was the place that helped me realize there were other lives being lived far outside the orderly suburbs and fancy colleges. Second, see #1. Lots of kids went as tourists, to “experience the low life.” But lots of us also went because we felt a little more alive there, a little more at home (albeit nervously so) than at the library. It was right down the street from the infamous mens’ gay bar closest to our school (and, incidentally, the art museum). It was years before I came out as queer, but something in me knew a home when I found one. Anything could happen—there was often shouting, or fighting, or weeping, or barfing, or some combination thereof. Everything kind of came out into the open at the O.
Someone recently sent me the news that the O has, thanks to the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic, permanently closed its grimy doors. Part of me reacted with a non-reaction. (I mean, well, duh it closed. I’m surprised the health department hadn’t shut it down years ago.) And part of me is still in mourning at the news. I mean, I haven’t been there or thought much about it since 1988, and I don’t think, given the chance, I’d ever want to go again, much less put anything from there into my MOUTH, but I still felt it as a loss. It’s a piece of ratty, greasy Pittsburgh history.
Most of Pittsburgh’s history is ratty and greasy. It was a steel town, after all. Cobbled together of immigrants from everywhere, academics and artists, high and low roiling together. It may have a lot of colleges (5 well-known colleges in one small city), but its backbone and its history are laborers and working class folks. It’s been too busy sweating and scraping by to worry about whitewashing its picket fences. It is, in many ways, for all its mid-Atlantic conservativism and small townishness, the city of my heart. It’s old houses with bright-colored ceilings and coffin niches in the narrow hall. It’s pierogis and Chinese broccoli and chewy bagels and not very good pizza. It’s mountains and rivers and hulking oak trees and cobblestone and gothic towers and crickets.
And it used to be the O. I could write here my kneejerk reaction to the O closing: it’s a symbol of the callous nature of our government’s refusal to deal with the pandemic and the devastating losses it has caused. But all this has been written before, and it breaks my heart a little too hard in this moment to write that.
Instead, I’ll say this: what’s lost is something that only makes sense if you’re untethered from obligation and restraint. This untethering is only available to the few of us—most readily (but not exclusively) at that moment in young adulthood when the world is beginning to open for us but we have not yet truly felt the weight of that openness. What’s lost with the O is a slipping feeling. I don’t mean the greasy floor. I mean what’s lost is—how do I say it right?—what’s lost is the sense that there’s somewhere the rules can fall away, somewhere that is liberated, a place that’s still dangerous and alive. A rule-bending place. The topsy-turvy world that makes the “real” world work. It was that place where everything inside will come out, wild and slippery and hectic as it is.