Coming to Bookstores!

EK comp of coverThank you, Sarah Bauhan and Mary Ann Faughnan of Bauhan Publishing for seeing promise in my manuscript and setting a publication date of May 2016. We will be taking the book on tour throughout the Rust Belt and to selected cities around the U.S.

I would also like to thank all of you who have followed this blog and offered comments. You kept me going along the way. If you would like to set up a reading near you (a joint Steeler bar/bookstore event, local library, university, Sons of Italy, Polish Falcons… you get the drift) please let me know.


As a child in the 1960s, I knew Ambridge to be jammed with pedestrians and big, new cars, morning and night. On most evenings, Merchant Street, lined with shops, bars and restaurants drew families that walked arm in arm, as they might in Naples or Athens. Clusters of clean-cut men stood on corners, smoking and waving to their friends, teasing or belting a few bars of “O Solo Mio” for the women leaning out of third-floor windows.

We spilled into public out of necessity. Families were growing faster than company housing could accommodate, with three generations occupying tiny apartments and houses built with full knowledge that immigrants demanded little in the way of personal space. These houses still stand, and are about the size of today’s utility sheds.

In my family’s house, we did homework at the kitchen table with my mother ironing behind us. When the session broke up, if I wanted to read, I retreated to the basement, amid the laundry, casks of fermenting wine and crocks of sauerkraut, my father running a jigsaw and listening to a ballgame on the radio.

The togetherness sometimes overwhelmed me. Craving solitude, I sought out havens—the woods or the cool order of an empty church. But my favorite sanctuary was the most richly endowed and widely ignored building in town.

As I climbed its granite stairs, I passed under tall bronze lanterns that told me the Laughlin Memorial Library occupied a higher plane than the street out front. Thousands of steelworkers, six times a day, marched past the library and onto the bridge to Aliquippa. As they crossed, they surveyed their destination on the bank ahead, a continuous massive building that stretched for six miles downriver, the Jones & Laughlin steel mill — J&L to locals—a hulking, fire-breathing monster, bound by railroad tracks to the riverbank.

I seldom noticed a mill worker stop into the library, or hang out there before or after work. They headed home, but not before filing into back door of the saloon at the end of the block. Inside ran a long bar with no stools. The string of workers threw back shots of whiskey and beer chasers, then, like hot billets traveling down the rolling mill, exited the front door on the corner, where their wives picked them up, efficiently juiced to face domestic life in close quarters.

The library rose above the herd. In addition to its elevation, its brass doors demanded that a skinny twelve year-old had to plant his back foot to pull them open. “There must be something really good in here, something important, like a treasure,” I thought. When I entered, another world opened before me, as if I had been transported far away and into a refreshing, invigorating, and oddly familiar dimension in time. Apart from the matron at the front desk, who greeted me with a pressed smile and a nod, I was often completely alone.

Alexander Laughlin, no relation to the owners of J&L, built the library in memory of his son, who had served heroically in the first World War, only to return home to die in a dentist’s chair. Laughlin, an Ambridge industrialist and owner of Central Tube Company, took his cue from Andrew Carnegie, sparing no expense in building this public temple of erudition, right up to the vaulted ceilings, cherry tables, shelves, cabinets, Italian marble floors and columns, leather chairs and an endowment that has kept it in sweet condition.

I took my pick of seats and views. Near the windows, sunlight warmed me. Facing the corners, I fell back into a wing chair and lost the world behind me. My family’s house, the Catholic school and church, our neighborhood and the houses of relatives all made me feel at home and part of a community, but the library made me feel whole, as if I could explore every corner of my own universe and the places I had never seen. The populace of books and the millions of ideas they contained set loose my dreams.

Drowsiness never threatened my quest. Instead, something I read while doing my homework had formed a question that nagged me, and I knew it could be answered by peeking in the reference section. The flat metal drawers of the card catalog spoke to me, promising entire volumes on the migratory fish of the Mississippi delta or the first closed sewage system. How could I resist?

I liked the way every step sounded important against the marble floors as I imagined myself pursuing knowledge and culture. In reality, I was simply scratching an itch, one after another. Chasing leads, I piled up fat books until I found one to take back to the table for closer inspection only to get waylaid in biography, following a thread from encyclopedia to compendium. Absorbed, like a miser with his ledgers or an archaeologist on his knees with his brushes, hours rushed by on a current of curiosity.

During hot summer days at home, my friends and siblings grumbled until one of the mothers took them to the Ambridge pool, a massive cement playground of chest high water. Mayhem ruled, pitched with peer pressure and wet, snotty, kid-on-kid cruelty. I was afraid of the water and wore a bathing suit the way a Chihuahua wears a tutu, so I begged to be left at home or taken to the library. In winter, movies offered escape from the busy house and family, but the library allowed me to direct and star in my own movie – a Fellini-esque chase, streaked with impressions, foreignness and startling facts.

Left undisturbed among maps and magazines, I investigated far-flung nations, their mountains, shores and people, their dwellings, their towns, leaders, legends and heroes. Connecting the word “culture” to the mold growing in Petrie dishes in science class, I slipped places under a sort of microscope and found the languages, arts, innovations, and literature feeding off the surroundings, climate, and history.  New smells seeped out of the pages of Conrad, new fears out of the caves of Twain and I swam in all of it without bearings or sense of time.<!–[if gte mso 9]>

Noticing the sunbeams had slipped from the table and climbed the walls, I resurfaced with the feeling of having been swimming undersea or through a passageway between worlds–I remember as if it were yesterday because it still happens. I feel woozy, shaking off a familiar disorientation, wiping my palms down the length of my torso as if some slime remained from a membrane through which I passed. How long had I been away?

Novels were best for borrowing, so I went to the desk and checked them out. Finally, I savored one last exhilaration—walking away from the mess I left behind. The librarians insisted on re-stacking every book, so I felt like a rock star leaving a trashed hotel room.

Out on the sidewalk, nobody asked me what I had been doing there. I held my affection for the library privately, because what I did there felt illicit and indulgent. I could pretend there, to be purposeful and scholarly; the librarians probably giggled. The act came easily, though, captivated as I was by the excursions, stories, facts, no-shits and ahas. I wanted to do it forever. But, as far as I could tell, the hours led to nowhere in particular, no purpose – an admission that made me feel guilty, because every educated person I had met had become useful: accountants, lawyers, nurses, doctors, and teachers. Me? I was just feeding my fascination.

I hustled off to the Tick-Tock Dairy, a soda fountain, where I could call for a ride home and watch the workers get off the shuttle bus that carried them across the bridge  from J& L. Their hair shined and their faces still glowed from the showers. They wore clean clothes and carried empty lunch buckets. Watching them, I pictured myself among them, one of the guys, joking, prosperous and woven tightly into the community. But as soon as I looked back into my milkshake, I dreamt of other places or another kind of life. I noticed the owner of the Tick-Tock, drying his hands on his apron while standing at the front window waiting for the guys to come in and buy cigarettes. He had found another way to live and work outside the mills and I admired him. Yet, I figured a time might come when I would join the boys outside.


Here you will find drafts of sample chapters from a work in progress. Over the past year, interested publishers (bless you!) have convinced me to redirect the narrative, more toward myself, which I accepted reluctantly at first. By now, I’ve embraced that request and am at work on a more straightforward memoir.

I am grateful for all the comments, questions, observations and words of encouragement. Until such time when I can promise publication, I hope you will enjoy the chapters here.

Building Bridges Through Smoke and Glory

photo: John Vachon

continued from the previous post…

By sending their sons to war and their daughters to the mills, immigrants saw themselves as full-fledged Americans. And those who packed into every square inch of Ambridge began calling themselves “Bridgers.” As such, they did more than build spans that allowed Americans to cross rivers, bays and chasms; they completed their own crossing into American life. As much as the steelworkers, tradesmen, and teamsters may have derided those outside their own ethnic groups, they wanted to believe in the “melting pot” and they began to see how a nation succeeded when people of all ethnicities worked together. It was an ideal, like that of being a good Catholic, which meant you maintained a charitable attitude, helped the poor and the sick, regardless of their origins.

New River Gorge Bridge

Sports helped Bridgers transcend their ethnic rivalries and class jealousies. The Catholic churches made Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) basketball an institution, a training ground for boys who would become professional stars. The Sokol, an Eastern European athletic club, turned out Olympic gymnasts (and operated card-playing, whiskey-slamming social clubs to supply the funding). The mills sponsored baseball leagues, their teams playing in the park along the river, flanked by homes of executives and railroad tracks. Teams came from the ethnic and religious clubs, but just as the men had fought together in foxholes and on beaches, they played together, adding to their identity as Americans and Bridgers.

Bartender at Sokol -- by John Vachon

New rivalries pitted one town against another, most viciously in football. Although Ambridge High School had fielded a team since 1906, it became a dominant force with the arrival of a diminutive coach in 1928. Maurice “Moe” Rubenstein had grown up in a tough neighborhood in Pittsburgh. He nearly dropped out of Fifth Avenue High School until a coach there recognized his speed, skill and determination on the basketball courts and sandlots. Sports helped Rubenstein focus on his studies and stay in school, ultimately earning him a scholarship to Geneva College, a teachers’ college in Beaver Falls. He came to Ambridge for his first teaching and coaching job, brimming with gratitude for the coaches that had molded his life. He vowed to do the same for the scrappy kids in Ambridge.

Moe Rubenstein and his 1941 coaches


Rubenstein couldn’t rely on the best athletes coming to tryouts, so he walked all over town, watching kids play ball. He learned their names and found out where they lived, and then approached their parents. George Corey, now a lawyer in California, lived in Anthony Wayne Terrace in the 1940s. He remembers walking home from a pick-up football game when a friend came to him with the news that Moe Rubenstein was at his house, talking with his mother. The coach had already established himself by that time, and Corey tore for home. “I went batshit. I couldn’t believe Moe Rubenstein came to my house.”

George Corey

Corey weighed ninety-five pounds. “And there were smaller kids. But he specialized in undersized kids,” Corey said, “maybe because he had been one himself.”  Those who knew Rubenstein say that the coach usually found smaller players easier to coach: they had more motivation, more energy, more speed, and their confidence grew quickly every time they outplayed a bigger guy. “We were fast and we believed we could beat anybody,” Corey says. “Size didn’t matter. And the smaller players believed it more than the bigger ones.”

Though Rubenstein stood only five feet-seven inches he commanded respect by listening and speaking with careful authority. “Every word he said, we listened to,” Corey recalled. “He said ‘no girlfriends,’ and we obeyed. He forbade us from walking home down Merchant Street where there might be gamblers and temptation, and we obeyed, finding another way home.” Composed on the sidelines and nattily attired, Rubenstein handled his players with subtle manipulation. “He never yelled. Never.” Corey says. “If I blew a play or missed a block, he’d just look at me and hold his head, saying, ‘Why do you do this to me, Georgie, why?’”

Other players commented on the certainty of Rubenstein’s authority, testifying that he drove through town after curfew on Thursday nights, and if he saw a player out late, that player didn’t start on Friday, no matter who they were. If he saw one of his players walking with a kid who was smoking, he told that player he didn’t want to see him with that kid again.

Maurice "Moe" Rubenstein

Moe Rubenstein’s methods found traction immediately. In his first season, the team won six games and lost only two. In his second season, the team went undefeated through eleven games, scoring 180 points and allowing zero. The streak continued into the following season as his team won twenty consecutive games without giving up a single point. In his first six years, his fast, gritty teams would win two championships, scoring a total of 890 points to the opponents’ 113. The Bridgers suddenly dominated Western Pennsylvania football – the most competitive and fertile football breeding ground in the nation.

The legend grew as the years rolled on. Hobbled by the Depression that began in Rubenstein’s second year, the fans felt the sting of mass layoffs and deepening poverty, but his teams gave them something to cheer about every week through football and basketball seasons. When players’ parents despaired that their boys would never find work after high school, Rubenstein set his sights higher for his players. “The greatest pleasure I got in coaching,” he told a reporter in 1997, “is that I could sit down and write a letter to recommend a kid to college.”

And he did. Dozens of players went to some of the best schools in the nation. George Corey went to Michigan, and Len Szafaryn, the man who would become his brother in-law, went to the University of North Carolina. According to Corey, Szafaryn (pronounced zafrin) played in the band as a freshman in high school, and Rubenstein noticed that the kid stood taller than the rest and moved gracefully. He located the Szafaryn family house and found Len’s parents sitting on the porch. Rubenstein introduced himself and asked if they would consider letting their son play football. Szafaryn’s parents spoke and understood only Polish, but they knew the word “football,” and they didn’t like it. Not for their son. It was too rough. Rubenstein accepted their decision, but asked if he could try to talk to them again in a few months. Fine. That’s fine.

Steelers' Michelosen and his staff

After three months of tutoring from a friend, Rubenstein returned, and this time, he spoke only Polish. Len Szafaryn went on to become an All-American and was drafted by the Washington Redskins. He started for the Green Bay Packers and Philadelphia Eagles. He was one of many young men Rubenstein sent to stardom. Another, quarterback John Michelosen, led the Pitt Panthers to two national championships and became the youngest coach in the National Football League when he took over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In his later years at Ambridge, Rubenstein became the dean of coaches in Western Pennsylvania. Paul “Bear” Bryant, the legendary Alabama coach, kept in touch and made regular visits to consult with Moe. Paul Brown, the coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Cleveland Browns, conferred with Rubenstein every week during the season, devising plays that the Bridgers would try on Friday nights. Rubenstein then reported the results and suggested refinements for Brown to try the following day.

Paul Brown

Much has been said and movies have been made about the supremacy of football around these parts. The names of local boys line the Hall of Fame – Unitas, Blanda, Namath, Ditka, Montana, Marino, Lott, and one whom I (very briefly and badly) played against, Tony Dorsett. Football and other sports had a way of unifying us, of giving us an identity, of placing our town on a map, even though—if  NASA had taken pictures from space back then—the town would have been invisible under their perpetual layer of smoke.

Rubenstein retired a few years before I was born, but he planted football squarely in the psyche of every kid growing up in Ambridge. Over his twenty-two year career, his teams scored nearly four times as many points as they allowed. The high school stadium had become a shrine to Rubenstein’s excellence, and it bears his name today.

From my earliest days I can remember my parents bundling us up in more layers as the season went on, to cheer for the Bridgers at the stadium on Friday nights. Two bands would play; the stands would be full, and when the Bridgers in garnet and gray took the field, we threw confetti that we had made ourselves out of shredded newspapers. We saw everyone we knew. On the track that surrounded the field, politicians shook hands, and the small-time Mafiosi strutted in front of the grandstands, wearing topcoats over their shoulders like capes and smoking fat cigars. The public address announcer identified every player who carried the ball or made a tackle, and those names became household names. Every young boy I knew wanted to become one of those football heroes, and we chased our dreams through backyards and empty lots.

Ambridge Icons -- the Economy steeple, an old factory, and football

In a place where schooling was seen as a compulsory American process, academics took a back seat to other accomplishments in life. In fact, educated people aroused suspicion and petty jealousy, while the faults and even crimes of athletes only added to their status. Those who knew Moe Rubenstein emphasize that he never granted nor sought special treatment for his athletes, but they got it anyway. George Corey said, “I didn’t deserve to be on the National Honor Society, no way, but somebody got me on—all because I was a football player.”

The toughness and work ethic required of football players drew unmitigated respect in a culture that esteemed two aspects of life above all others: working and fighting. During recess at Divine Redeemer, we were called to the playground by air-horns that marked the shift changes at American Bridge. Footballs filled the air over the playground. For every football star, hundreds of hopeful and competitive boys trained to work together and fight to win. As for the girls, they were taught to admire or at least tolerate men who worked hard and fought well.

My heroic fantasies went beyond saving the timid churchgoers at Divine Redeemer from imaginary vandals or saving their souls with inspiration from the pulpit. I wanted to become a sports hero, too. I studied athletes as closely as I had studied priests and nuns. As early as first grade, I knew that piety and cleverness could work for me, and sports could make me an icon.

Another young man with an immigrant’s name fueled the fantasies of my generation—the Baby Boomers—and breathed new life into the smoky towns surrounding us. On Tuesday, October 13, 1960, while Betty worked at the stove, I sat on the kitchen floor, peeling potatos with a sheet of newspaper between my legs, listening to the radio. The slight lisp of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ broadcaster Bob Prince, articulated every curve ball and pop-up of the seventh game of the World Series against the mighty Yankees. With the score tied at nine in the bottom of the ninth, number nine, Bill Mazeroski lifted a homerun over the head of Yogi Berra. Betty slapped her spatula on the counter and covered her gasp with her hands, spun and hoisted me in the air, peppering me with kisses. Neighbors had already begun banging pots in their front yards and we grabbed spoons and saucepans and went out to join them.

Maz after his homer -- photo JG Klingensmith, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A Polish, pierogi-eating hero from the coal fields of West Virginia, whose footsteps I could easily imagine following, knocked his name into the national consciousness. Mazeroski made Mickey Mantle cry. “Maz” and his recently immigrated teammate, Roberto Clemente, made me want to play baseball and work my way onto Forbes Field.

coming:  a thrilling ride from parochial to public

American Bridge Builds a Town… and a Nation

continued from the previous post…

Less than a year after J.P Morgan bought 130 acres of riverfront property from the ransacked Harmony Society, his new conglomerate – the American Bridge Company went into operation. Opening in 1903, the company set out to distinguish Ambridge from older steelmaking communities by promising it would be “smokeless”—inviting only manufacturers that shaped and assembled the steel made in dirtier precincts around Pittsburgh. The company put out a call for workers, and they flocked in from the rural South, Europe, Canada and Mexico. The incoming immigrants who passed Economy’s outlying orchards and vineyards looked upon the German enclave at the northwest corner of town with awe, inspired that they, too, could build heaven on Earth in this land. And what was true in 1804 would be true in 1904: the new arrivals invested their own vision of Utopia in powerful men who courted their belief.

The Bridge Company’s real estate arm, Liberty Land Corporation, laid out a prototypical company town. After completing the American Bridge office building—a brick monstrosity where my father worked as a draftsman for thirty years—the company laid out a leafy park that ran beside the river. Along the park, American Bridge built spacious houses for its executives. One block back sat smaller houses for foremen and supervisors. Farther back were row houses for laborers.

Marshall Alley, by Arthur Rothstein

Construction hit a feverish pitch, matching the company’s instant success. Demand for bridges and buildings climbed every day, and American Bridge trained its laborers and steelworkers to fabricate segments of structures that could be loaded on rail lines and barges. The company made its own barges to transport its finished pieces.

But the rush into operation demanded that Liberty Land throw up tenements for new workers. At the southernmost edge of town, nearest the Bridge Company, these four-story structures soon overflowed with immigrants, most of them Greeks. First Street stood as the counterpoint to idyllic Economy, thirteen blocks north. The crush of humanity situated on First Street, its chaos and nascence, made it seem like a world away, yet it thrived with the same determination the Harmonists possessed when they arrived. For decades, this avenue of tenements held its distinction as the town’s oldest ghetto, the place most workers wanted to leave as soon as possible. Some striking scenes of life on First Street hang in museums throughout the country, captured by noted Works Progress Administration photographer, Arthur Rothstein.

Residents of the lower numbered streets of town could reach the mill within minutes on foot. New factories followed closely behind the Bridge company — H.K. Porter Locomotive Company, National Metal Molding Company (eventually, National Electric) and The Central Tube Company, makers of pipe for transporting oil. It was hard to imagine a more hospitable place for heavy industry – with oil and gas wells operating on the site and hopeful laborers lining up at the gates. At Economy’s peak in the 1850s, roughly 900 residents lived there under the care of the Harmony Society. By 1900, their numbers had fallen to 620. Once the industries and speculators got going, the population of Ambridge shot to 5,205 by 1910.

First Street, Bridge Co. in the background

More houses were built as the new immigrants poured in and staked themselves by mortgage, credit, new babies, and old-fashioned loyalty to their employers. They established toeholds, and later brought in their families, friends, and their fellow countrymen. Several families lived under one roof until each could buy a house of their own, often within sight of one another. Ethnic islands formed and churches grew in their midst.

Ten new congregations formed before 1910—Baptists, Jews, Protestants, Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox. Soon, Ambridge became notable for the density of its churches and bars.

By 1920, the population more than doubled, to 12,730. The gentle hills that once shimmered with barley and wheat, the smart orchards of the Harmonists, were stripped and decked with massive brick and metal factories, smokestacks and gantry cranes. Forges and sheet metal plants, more makers of pipe and rails and machinery snapped up inexpensive land. Their loading docks and railroad sidings formed tributaries that snaked toward the river where barges and freight trains carried away megatons of metal.

Jones & Laughlin Steel, Aliquippa

Amid the fury of this building boom on the east bank of the Ohio, two steelmaking magnates joined in erecting a massive integrated steel mill on the opposite side of the river. The Jones & Laughlin Steel Works gobbled up mile after mile of shoreline, producing beams, billets, bars, cans, wire, sheets, rolled steel—nearly every imaginable finished product—upwind from Ambridge, smothering the claim of “smokeless.”

The town of Aliquippa grew up around J&L, but couldn’t grow fast enough. Workers were needed from the Ambridge side of the river. With a bridge-maker  for a neighbor, the J&L forged the steel for a bridge that would connect it to Ambridge, and shipped the beams and girders one mile up the river to

The Woodlawn Bridge

American Bridge for fabrication. The two companies finished the Woodlawn Bridge in December of 1927, allowing the communities to draw on each other’s labor pool by making the crossing over the Ohio River a five-minute walk.

I could see all of the American Bridge Company and more from my grandfather’s lap when we sat on porch of their house above Third Street, high enough to survey the entire town, the river and J&L. We could see the Bridge Company office building and hear the whistles that marked the shift changes. The noon whistle meant my father would soon arrive for lunch.

The house behind my grandparents'... so much for "smokeless"

Milt maintained independence from his parents by packing his own sandwiches, and yet nearly every day, he joined them for lunch in their kitchen. On summer days, we sat on the porch afterwards, and could see our parish church down the hill below us, the parochial school he and my mother had attended and I would attend, too. All of it lay at our feet. Our relatives, our spiritual and social center, our source of livelihood and our school could be reached within minutes.

Beneath the gray sky-lit roofs of the Bridge Company, men and women cast millions of rivets, bolts, fittings and specialized pieces of steel. They rode crane hooks and beams that hovered into place while catching red-hot rivets tossed from furnaces on the ground, placing them into holes that matched beam to beam. With gloved hands and tongs they held the rivets while co-workers hammered them into solid connections. Others stood beneath showers of sparks, welding heavy plates into position, plumes of acrid smoke rising around them. Ear-splitting collisions rang through the shipping bays and joined the metallic cacophony that filled the valley.

My father spent his days bent over vellum sheets filled with drawings that showed how the beams and plates fit together, with precise measurements, the rivet placement and the thickness of the steel. He worked side-by-side with other draftsmen, all former soldiers and sailors like him, who had served time in the mills or bypassed them, taking their math and drawing skills into the American Bridge drafting rooms. They were organized in “squads” and sat behind tall oak tables in a vast pea-green room, illuminated by long lines of humming fluorescent lights. My father constantly worried over accuracy and the potential expense of his mistakes. Squad bosses circulated among the tables, cracking the whip, in a way, pushing the men to draw, figure, and double-check faster.

Sheet by sheet, piece by piece, they detailed the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, the Sears Tower and the Astrodome. During its eighty-three years in Ambridge, American Bridge fabricated the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building and the Woolworth Building in Manhattan, the Hancock Towers in Chicago and Boston, the San Francisco Bay Bridge and thousands of other bridges and structures. During WWII, they built 5,000 troop-landing barges and 120 tank-transport ships. Each one splashed into the Ohio River amid fanfare and prayers that it would help win the war.

Life as They Found It

Milt’s father’s family landed in Baltimore from Hungary. They were typical of the millions whose crossings from Europe were undocumented. My great-grandparents and their children settled into a crowded triple-decker in rural West Virginia where my grandfather entered the coal mines at age twelve. My research indicates that they came from a village in the Carpathian Mountains, called Hertnik. Many villagers fled to the United States and kept their names, but my great-grandparents, perhaps because they arrived on a boat full of Ukrainians, were assigned the approximate name of their village, plus a “Y” on the end, to give them kinship with all the other souls standing in line.

My grandfather escaped the mines and West Virginia in the early 1900s when Ambridge exploded with industry. His parents sold their boarding house near the coal fields and his father came north to work at the Bridge Company. He arranged work for his oldest son. But at the end of his first day at the Bridge Company my grandfather told his father it would be his last, giving his reason without hesitation and with characteristic concision, “I watched a girder cut a man in half.”

He found safer work that would take only two of his fingers in thirty years, as a die-maker at National Electric – an essential wartime job that kept him off the battlefields of Europe. He soon found jobs at the plant for his six brothers and sisters and the family reunited in Ambridge. His bride, whose family had come to Pittsburgh from Czechoslovakia, joined him, his parents and his siblings in an apartment on Sixth and Melrose.

Like most new arrivals in Ambridge, my father’s family quickly found their European countrymen. They joined the Slovak-speaking congregation at Divine Redeemer and kept their Hungarian-Gypsy roots to themselves.

Ambridge had much in common with the steel towns elsewhere in western Pennsylvania. When the mills opened, they were owned by old-stock American families mostly from England and Germany, and were managed by their peers. These bare-knuckles businessmen, writes John Bodnar in The Ethnic Experience in Pennsylvania, recruited Hungarians because they were “cheaper and more docile material.”

Credit: W. E. Smith

The best, cleanest, and safest jobs went to immigrants from Anglo-Saxon countries like Scotland and Ireland, because they spoke English to the owners and supervisors. The worst, most dangerous jobs were given to those who could not be understood: Italians, Greeks, Slavs — Slovaks, Czechs, Poles, Croats, Serbs — and, lastly, African Americans, who were consigned to the coke ovens, a circle of hell. Discrimination against blacks, Italians, and “hunkies” (considered a friendlier slur than “hun,” for all Slavic people) resulted in an elaborate web of segregation and tension.

In many ways, ethnic life in Ambridge, with all of one nationality working in a single department in the mill, worshipping at the same church, supporting merchants within each neighborhood, was more Balkanized and less culturally diverse than life in the immigrants’ home countries. In Hertnik, Hungarians, Slovaks, Czechs, Poles, gypsies and Austrian nobility lived side-by-side. But in Ambridge, each nationality had its own church, school, grocery, bars, and social clubs. According to John Hoerr, who described immigrant life in And the Wolf Finally Came, the separation and segregation played into the hands of the mill owners, who used their authority in the mills to manipulate community leaders. The early unions failed at bringing the neighborhoods together for common benefit partly because they refused to admit unskilled workers and African-Americans. Hoerr points out that “lacking democratic traditions and accustomed to authoritarian leaders, the European immigrants accepted American life as they found it. Along with the blacks, they were denied promotions and confined to low-paying jobs… Without economic advancement, there could be no social mobility.”

Ambridge Steelworker and family, by John Vachon

Hoerr’s analysis and the research work by John Bodnar help me understand the culture that persists in Ambridge – one of powerlessness against well-established families, businesses and entrenched political authority. As ethnic neighbors formed alliances to fight for better treatment, the labor movement finally became more inclusive and supplied an institution that could unify the immigrants in their struggle.

But the unions took fifty years to mount a serious threat to business as usual. The violence that erupted on Duss Avenue during the 1933 steelworkers’ demonstration had been festering for a decades. Meanwhile, the dominant class of executives and foremen filled the seats on county and municipal commissions, expanding their power into political circles. As such, they supervised ethnic leaders in the mills, who, in exchange for favors, delivered blocs of voters from their neighborhoods. It was good old-fashioned ward politics, but in this case, the mill stood at the center. Patronage became a way of life.

coming: Safely at home, at sea, and at Mickey D’s…

The Prurient Power of Pierogi

(First, a note:  In the past week, Rupert Crowell of The Independent of London, conveyed to his readers one of the reasons behind why I wrote this book — the whispers of promise after a long siege of decline. “Pittsburgh breathes rude rebirth from every pore. And therein, perhaps, lies its real significance for bruised and demoralised middle America, wondering whether pre-recession prosperity can ever return.”  To Pittsburgh and Ambridge, the road to recovery is already well-traveled. Thanks, Jim, at Burgh Diaspora.)

continued from the previous post…

Although the immigrants withheld stories from the Old Country, they practiced every religious and cultural tradition they could, allowing actions to carry their tales. I was taught to dance a csardas and to sing Christmas carols in Slovak. The Italians held festivals and parades for San Rocco Days. The musical Tamburitzans rose to fame out of the Croatian community. Most importantly, though, we preserved our cultural identity through food.

At home, housewives might experiment with modern food, but the kitchens in church basements and parochial schools turned out food from the Old Country. For me, the melding of food and religion came together on meatless Fridays.

Sitting at the kitchen table my father had built, I picked up my bowl to finish the sweet brown milk left behind by the Cocoa Krispies, letting myself go cross-eyed, pretending I didn’t hear my mother click her tongue at my slurping. I stood up and set the bowl in the sink while checking the kitchen counter for my lunch box. There would be no packed lunch today.

How could Friday sneak up on me like this? My father sat quietly, drawing profiles of beautiful women in the margins of his daily crossword, his usual morning meditation.

“Dad, could I have some money for pirohi?” Not pierogi, which is what Poles and Croatians called the handmade, stuffed dumplings, served swimming in butter and onions. We Czechs and Slovaks had our own word.

Even though Milt would happily pay for my lunch, he insisted that I ask, as part of a larger lesson about money. “If you can’t ask for it, maybe you don’t need it,” he would say, explaining that when he went to the credit union or the bank for a loan, he had to ask; they didn’t just give it to him.

He smiled and dug into his front pocket, coming up with a fistful of change.

“How much?”

“Thirty-five cents.” Enough to feed a nine year-old.

He held out a calloused hand and reminded me take enough for milk. “Sixty five for me,” Mark said as he swaggered in. He was three years older. My father whistled low in mock-disbelief and snapped each coin on the Formica table one at a time. Betty jerked away from the counter where she had been buttering toast, annoyed by the snapping of the coins. Mark kissed her and she handed him a glass of grape juice. He downed it, grabbed the change and two slices of toast. Tearing off half a slice with each bite, he remembered to say thanks, then kissed my father on the lips. We all kissed on the lips; to do otherwise would have been cold and distant.

Sitting against the wall and watching quietly behind his empty bowl, Chris, who was just finishing first grade, looked up at Mark with wide eyes and announced, “Pirohi today!” Mark swallowed and said “Well, it is Friday, dufus.”  With that, Betty, known for her prickly morning moods, popped Mark behind the right ear. He shook it off, and after a hurried round of kisses, we headed out the back door on a typical Friday morning, going off to school with more freedom than the other days of week. None of the Catholic schools provided everyday lunches, but their churches raised money with pirohi, or pierogi, or pirozhki. On Friday, without lunchboxes or bags I had a free hand with which to gesture and swat, pick up pebbles and throw them at street signs on our way to the bus stop.

Streets in the neighborhood ran like creeks to a river that was the main road. Out of the tiny households came kids with an array of European surnames—Marcia Sokil, with her fine and even Ukrainian features, would get off the bus at Sts. Peter and Paul; Dave Duplaga, a Pole, would say goodbye in front of St. Stanislaus, Bobby Cipriani at St. Veronica’s.

Swaying like a drunk around the corner, the bus skidded onto the gravel shoulder. It was a heap, an eyesore even in its industrial surroundings. Tosta’s Bus Company served the parochial schools, hauling their students in broken down buses of two designs: the salvaged city bus, and the retired tour coach. The city buses, with fare boxes, shiny handrails, outdated billboards and cables for requesting a stop, were like rolling funhouses. In contrast, the coaches were dark and quiet, with overhead luggage racks and high, reclining seats that were threadbare and torn.

All the buses had rusty floorboards with holes big enough to see the road, but too small to lose a foot through, and gearboxes that just caught. The drivers, all mechanics, wore greasy jumpsuits and smelled like garlic, motor oil, and sweat. One smoked a pipe while he drove, stuffed with what could only have been plain old oak leaves.

“Oh… God… no,” I groaned when the door swung open and smoke rushed out like a late commuter. I saw the goofy smile of the green immigrant, holding the door lever with the same hand that held his goose-necked pipe, its mouthpiece crushed from his few remaining molars.

Inside, a cloud hung over the luggage rack. The usual choke of moldy seats and exhaust fumes that seeped up through the floor was overwhelmed by the smoldering trash in the driver’s pipe. We made gagging sounds and laughed, but the driver only watched us and smiled with his pipe in his teeth, likely not understanding a word.

Most days I prayed for the bus to break down. My hopes sprang from the frequency with which it happened—first a loud clunk, then a whimper from below, the driver cussing and wrestling the rig onto a lawn or a sidewalk. They never called for help, preferring to slide their toolboxes from under their seat and fix it themselves.

But on Fridays my brothers and I wanted a smooth ride. By the time the bus wheeled to the curb in front of Divine Redeemer, I noticed Chris’ vacant stare and gaping mouth. The poor little aromatically sensitive guy, who ran from the house to escape offensive cooking odors, had turned khaki. I yanked our bookbags from the luggage rack and escorted Chris down the aisle and stairs. On the sidewalk, he doubled over and gulped the fresher air while I stood behind him, throwing my head back and inhaling like a hound in a stiff breeze.

That’s when I caught it. The scent of Friday shot to my salivary glands. When two nuns pushed open the churches’ oak doors, even the latent incense gave way to the embrace of butter and onions.

During Mass, the promise and seduction became unbearable. My stomach clawed toward its quarry while I knelt through the long Latin consecration. I stared at the ornamental sacristy and my eyes glossed over, seeing Jesus feeding hordes of followers by multiplying pirohi instead of loaves and fishes. Or my gaze landed on the soft white mound of Monica Halicek’s top vertebrae, how its contours transported me, how its roundness resembled a tender potato pirohi.

Rising for the Our Father, I quickly examined my conscience for any transgressions that might keep me from momentarily stemming my cravings with the appetizer that was communion. The unleavened wafer seemed a poor substitute for the flesh it presumed to replace. A better choice, I thought, would have been a slice of pepperoni.

Friday mornings dragged. Through religion, geography and history lessons, I learned only forbearance. Even the nuns admitted their cravings and their secrets for coping: muttering the mantras like “Jesus, have mercy on me” —ejaculations, they called them (setting up real teenage confusion down the road)—until the moments of weakness passed.

Billy Evans poked me in the back while Sister Tomasina answered a knock at the door. “How many you gettin’?” he asked.

“A half dozen,” I whispered out of the corner of my mouth, careful not to turn around.

“I’m gettin’ a whole dozen.” Of course you are; you’re fat.

When noon arrived, Sister Tomasina opened the door and the full force of cooking odors washed over us. She cuffed her sleeves and folded her thick, hairy forearms as she stood in the doorway and watched the younger kids file toward the basement. I squirmed in my seat, fishing out the coins and slapping them on my desk for a final count. Satisfied, I cupped my hand at the edge of the desk and slid the coins into it, except for the nickel that bounced off my thumb and fell to the tile floor, found its edge and rolled all the way to the back wall, where it disappeared between a row of bookbags.

Billy noticed and we were both tracking the nickel when Sister Tomasina must have signaled the class to rise and form a queue. Caught by surprise, I spun and stood, tipping over my chair. While righting it, I turned to see the angry nun hustling toward me. Her black robes billowed like a crow descending on roadkill. She took me by the ear and dragged me, sidestepping, to face the blackboard two inches away. When I dared to look sideways, I saw Billy being flung ear-first to my side.

I closed my eyes and memorized the color of the bookbags the nickel had rolled between: red and powder blue. But I doubted I’d have a chance to retrieve it. I might end up staying here throughout lunch. Sister Tomasina’s heart had long been removed, we theorized, frozen and broken into particles that, when added to torpedoes, made them more deadly. Maybe she’d let us go later, when the entire school had eaten the best pirohi varieties. Billy seethed. I would pay for this on the playground.

As our classmates marched out, the sweet aroma intensified and God’s own forgiving breath must have swept in and subdued the nun. She ordered us to catch up with the others, but before we escaped she drew a four-foot pointer from the folds of her apron and sliced the air behind us, cracking both of our buttocks simultaneously.

The sting made us hop. But we were giddy as we started down the stairs and Billy elbowed me hard enough to knock me into the rail. That was it; retribution delivered. He didn’t hold grudges. Besides, we were dropping into the most overwhelming sensual pleasure either of us would know until puberty, with a narrow escape behind us.

The pupils, as we were called, filed into a bright multipurpose room filled with long tables, folding chairs, and noisy pirohi hogs. This feast was open to the public, and local workers on their lunch breaks sat along the west wall. Kids filled half of the tables in the vast middle, and along the east wall, facing the room, sat a brigade of silver-haired grandmothers. They carefully spooned fillings—mashed potato, sauerkraut, cottage cheese, and lekvar, a prune preserve—into the disks of dough they cradled in their floury hands. They folded the edges together and pinched the semicircular dumplings into shape.

The pinchers would seldom rise. Other volunteers rolled out the dough and cut it into circles with teacups; they mixed fillings and delivered them to the pinchers in heaping bowls, then returned to harvest the finished pirohi.

Pinching and chatting in Slovak or Czech to the friends who flanked her, my grandmother, Anna Rosol, found my face and smiled, flashing perfect false teeth. I broke free of my classmates, now dazed in pirohi nirvana, and scrambled behind the pinchers, “Hi, Mrs. Hovanec, Mrs. Yaniga, Mrs. Duda, Mrs. Sinchak, Mrs. Tabachka,” until I reached my grandmother’s strong arms and soft cotton apron. She kissed me and hugged me hard, pressing her wrists into my back. Her hands, kept chaste for touching food, flew away from me. She was careful like that.

By now, Billy had reached the serving line and I had to hurry. I patted the coins in my pocket and sorely missed that nickel. I suppose I could have asked my grandmother for one, but I knew she was too poor already. If she were to give it to me, she’d probably walk home instead of taking the bus. Still, the shortfall forced me to reconfigure my usual order, maybe cutting out the lekvar, its mellow sweetness made sophisticated when it met salt, pepper, butter and onions. I hated quandaries.

Just as I was about to pick up a plate, a hunchbacked woman in a dark print dress emerged from the kitchen lugging a giant bowl of snowy cottage cheese. She saw me at once, cried my name, and set the bowl down. She wiped her hands and grabbed my face, mashing a kiss on my lips before pushing me away and tugging at the ear still tender from my trip to the blackboard. Like a magician, she let go and presented me with a shiny quarter in the palm of her hand.

Grandma Hertneky, an osteoporotic angel, always greeted me in public with a gangway flourish—even though I saw her nearly every day. Her gypsy drama, in greeting or feeding, scolding, mourning, or scaring, never subsided. She counterposed Grandma Rosol, whose serene demeanor shrouded her in ethereal gauze.

Now I was flush. I knew all the ladies wielding spoons, too, and one scooped four glistening potato pirohis onto my plate. Then I boldly ordered two kraut to go with my usual two lekvar, forcing me to hold the plate with both hands. Searching for a seat, I saw Chris, nose-down, all business. I also spotted Mark, who had just cruised in with the upperclassmen and stood on his tiptoes to assess my plate, as if he might cross the room and steal it. He winked at me.

With the long-awaited aroma buttering my face, I found Billy and sat, just before my knees were about to buckle from excitement. I freed my fork from its napkin wrapper, grabbed the salt and pepper, checked the caps for cruel jokes, and seasoned my little treasures. With my fork, I cut the firm potato pillow in half, exposing the fine filling placed there by ancient hands, refined through generations of argument, fulfilled by sunlight, pitchforks, and cauldrons of boiling water. I flipped its gaping side down in a pool of butter and smeared it across the plate.

The first bite made me close my eyes. The multipurpose room fell silent and every cavity in my head absorbed a humble gift composed of elements that sang secret lyrics to notes along an archetypal scale, a harmony to my subconscious. In my pirohi rapture I could be lost and found, week after week, until I reached the age when ardent kisses tried to surpass it, and never really could.

coming:  the world’s first oil barons and the scoundrel in their midst

The Archive Beneath the Eyesores

Logstown in relation to Ft. Pitt (Pittsburgh)

continued from the previous post…

Wandering between the mills and their enormous water tanks, I came to the edge of the industrial plain—a cliff overlooking a long stretch of the Ohio River. A hundred feet below, a swampy basin lay strewn with rusty barrels leaking iridescent toxins, tires, the broken shell of a truck bed, the junk left by those too careless to respect a wetland and too ignorant to know that in that muck lay the remains of another forgotten time—not just a day, but a century of prosperity, international commerce, and the seeds of the American frontier.

From this height, it was easy to see how trees and logs that had fallen into the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers back in the mid-1700s eddied into the wetland below. Indians gathered the logs to build shelters. Most of them had moved here as refugees, fleeing the Europeans who had invaded and occupied the coast. Only the Adenas – mound builders—had lived here earlier.

Because of the piles of timber and the longhouses, like those of the Iroquois and Algonquin, the place earned the name “Logstown.” With more than 80 such structures, it became a commercial center for traders from five Iroquois nations.

Young men like me had hacked their way through the forests to reach the spot where I stood that morning behind Armco. They were determined to press their agenda against the Indians. One of them was Major George Washington of the Virginia Militia.  In his journal, he marvels at the natural characteristics of the setting and takes note of the European style of the newest log shelters, evidence that the French were ensconced.

Washington meets Half King -- andrew knez, jr.

Washington came on orders from Governor Robert Dinwiddie, who held shares with Washington’s brother, in a land speculation firm known as The Ohio Company. Having promised King George II a map of western lands that could be sold to settlers, Dinwiddie sent Washington to do the surveying.  He also wanted him to sit down with the chief at Logstown, a Catawba named Tanaghrisson, who claimed the French had killed and eaten his father, and deliver a message to French generals at Ft. LeBoeuf.  Washington’s message – that the Marquis Duquesne should stop laying claims south of the Great Lakes – was unwelcome and he was nearly killed on his way home.

Chief Tanaghrisson -- a.k.a. Half King

Most communities make a big deal of Washington sleeping in their town, whether he had or not. But he came to Logstown more than once, and you would never know it by reading local markers or asking folks around Ambridge. You’re more likely to hear about President Kennedy’s drive-by or the time the Hall of Fame Steeler, Franco Harris, stopped into Police Station Pizza. But Washington?  Forget about it—too far in the past, his footprints too deeply buried under slag and the thirty-thousand gallon water tanks behind me.

Despite Tanaghrisson’s hatred of the French, he had been trading with them and they were well

A French priest visits Logstown

established at Logstown. In Ambridge, Logstown is best known—by the mostly Catholic locals, as the site of the first Catholic Mass west of the Appalachians. Now there’s an historic tidbit we Catholics took note of: a spot where a French missionary set up a table and attempted to work his magic on native Americans.

In his journals, Washington describes Logstown as a broad meadow atop a jutting hill overlooking the Ohio with a white watercourse tumbling from its brow that narrowed the valley. Beyond the mills that have replaced Logstown to the bluff where I stood, I can still see the advantage of the location. More than two hundred feet above the river, the meadow opens a view several miles to the east and to the west. Across the river, steep, protective hillsides made it hard to approach occupants of this meadow without being seen.

It was Chief Tanaghrisson who would meet Washington a few months after the Ft. LeBeouf fiasco, this time south of present-day Pittsburgh.  They had assembled a force to establish a toe-hold at the confluence of the three rivers, but were too late, the French had beaten them to it, and they had sent a contingent toward Washington’s militia.

Washington and Tanaghrisson hurried to attack, and fifteen minutes later, the French laid down their arms. Washington had his first military victory, but he would pay a price. Kneeling before the Virginian and his Indian ally, the captured Ensign Joseph Coulon Jumonville tried to explain that his intentions were purely diplomatic. The vengeful Tanaghrisson grabbed him split his head with an axe.

Assault of Ft. Necessity

Shortly thereafter, Tanaghrisson abandoned Washington as he retreated to Fort Necessity, where an overwhelming force of French and Indian pursuers assaulted his Virginians into surrender.  And here, Washington unwittingly took the rap for Tanaghrisson’s revenge, casting them both onto the world’s stage.

Washington, who could not read French, signed terms of capitulation, and thereby admitted to assassinating Ensign Jumonville. The document gave Louis XV justification for declaring war on Britain—The Seven Years War, which some historians see as the real first world war, killing millions in the French and British colonies across the globe.

When Washington returned to Logstown after the war, he found nothing but ashes. The strategic value of that stretch of riverbank remained lodged in his mind, though, and he would take advantage of it again, twenty years later, when it would play another pivotal role in American history.

more to come…

Horns in the Hollows

Some mornings, I still hear the horns. I’m hundreds of miles away, but I swear I hear the air horns from the trains and the factories in Western Pennsylvania, echoing along the creekbeds from the Ohio River. Maybe it’s just the wind whistling through my woodshed, but it’s the same howl that invaded the bedroom I shared with my two brothers.

Even the slightest cues can take me back to what seemed like an ordinary youth in an extraordinary place.  I now know how singular Ambridge, Pennsylvania is because I have traveled from one side of the earth to the other and found nothing like it. Even the most similar places, the other river towns surrounding Pittsburgh, lack an ineffable quality Ambridge possesses, a feeling that may come from its setting – a perfect plateau running south to north along what the French called le Belle Riviere, with hills rising in the east and steep cliffs to the west, across the river.

Apart from its topography and the river, though, the graces of nature do not come to mind when laying eyes on Ambridge for the first time. But, at one time, its setting was enough – to make its meadows sacred to mound-building Indians, to bring together disparate tribes seeking refuge from arriving Europeans, and to repeatedly draw visionaries who would employ everything from silkworms to pig iron to make this a place of idyllic spirit and international consequence.

Like most kids growing up in the industrial heartland, as the children and grandchildren of immigrants in the 1960s and 70s, we could sense the future.  We could see the beautiful West Coast booming and the South rising again while recognizing that the foundry in which we lived was slipping away and dying out, melding our towns into a swath of national neglect and insignificance.

But, if the forces of nature and history teach anything, they confirm that everything is temporary. As a young man, I could only sense that the shithole where I lived was once a Shangrila.  Its surface obscured the past.  It took years for me to scrape away the slag and cinders directly beneath my feet.  Two important discoveries made my judgment of insignificance look silly: first, the surprising facts of history; and second, that while I and everyone I knew may have seen life in Ambridge as ordinary, the fire in the night, the pervasive metallic racket, sulfurous fumes, nattering languages and ghosts of mad prophets all proved striking and unimaginable to outsiders.

I set out, then, armed with crumbling archives and bothered by cues and triggers to explore the astonishing history buried beneath the industrial ruins as well as the sensory record of my days in Ambridge and Pittsburgh. I do this by weaving, something like a drunk on his way home, through time and space.

winter on the Ohio

Hearing those horns, I picture workers rolling through the mills and barges pressing upriver, boxcars clattering alongside. At twenty-one, I joined those workers, shuffling into Armco Steel, a factory that ran around the clock. Men and women filed in and out three times a day, seven days a week. When the mill was busy, they humped for the money and thought of nothing but work. When the mill was slow, the work felt like a rut, too few hours, but too lucrative to leave. What could be better?  Nobody talked about change and nobody encouraged it, not bosses, wives, pastors or friends. Like the rivers and rails, with no room for deviation, we rolled along, punching in and punching out.

Outside the mill, our elbows resting on the edge a bar, the old guys winked at an inside joke and the smokers rocked back and closed their eyes at the end of a long drag on a Marlboro. Smiles reflected in the neon of an Iron City Beer sign, incisors capped with gold, perfect dentures, or ragged choppers like my own. In the quiet moments, though, I noticed how the family men sank into a worried hunch while picking at a longneck label, staring at nothing but a wooden chit that indicated the immediate future: someone had bought them another beer. They looked like they were taking cover, the way a boxer does against the ropes.

After all, this would be the final round for the steel industry in America. We all saw it coming – written in yellow crayon, usually in Asian characters–on the imported billets stacked in the shipping department.

As always, bars and churches held us together, and the streets of Ambridge were thick with both. Every ethnic group had at least one church: Russians, Greeks, Italians, Croatians, Poles, Serbs, Ukrainians, Scots, Czechs and Slovaks, Germans—Catholic and orthodox mostly, but Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians too. A bigger, modern synagogue replaced the old one in the 1960s. Belief in God and country, family and football, preserved the hopes of 16,000 souls crammed into Ambridge.

When faith faltered, we had taverns—hundreds of them in every neighborhood and lining Merchant Street. Even legendary boozehounds who began a pub crawl anywhere on Merchant, drinking a beer in every joint, would cover no more than three blocks before collapsing on the sidewalk. In those days, Ambridge had more bars and clubs per capita than most anywhere in the nation: Manhattan had one for every six hundred residents, Philadelphia had one for every five hundred, Pittsburgh had one for every four hundred, and Ambridge had twice as many: one for every two hundred.

Bars, like Maxims directly across the street from the mill gates, stayed open all day and night. They served workers who were mostly tired and harmless but were not always friends. Some brought axes to grind, bones to pick, and hairs to split, simmering beneath the surface or looking for a fight, if only to feel more alive.

Toby Schmidt had that hateful look on his face, sitting across the horseshoe-shaped bar one morning, boring a hole straight through me. I hadn’t noticed him sitting there until I dropped onto a stool, beat after an eleven-to-seven shift. Sunlight knifed through the tiny windows and bounced off the pool table, adding a green cast to Toby’s wavy black hair, still slick from his shower. The wiry Carl DeLessio sat next to him, puzzling over dollar bills, steadily losing at liar’s poker to the smooth coot at the end of the bar. I looked around for my pals—guys I grew up with—through the dust of the sunbeam in front, down the hall toward the cigarette and pinball machines. They’d be in soon, I figured, so I dug into my jeans for money and caught Toby still staring me down.

The bartender, wearing a peasant blouse that set off the freckly tan on her shoulders, stepped between us and smiled. She placed a shot glass in front of me and filled it to the very top with Imperial, cheap whiskey I found far too penetrating for a summer morning. “It’s from Toby,” she said. I could hardly hear her; my ears still ringing from working a jackhammer. I read her lips and followed the jerk of her head to the jerk across the bar.

“A bottle of Iron, please,” I fairly shouted, sliding a few bills toward her. “And return the favor, okay?” She swung around the island and the cash register and filled his glass. He lifted the shot toward me and stretched a rotten grin across his face. I acknowledged the gesture, threw back the whiskey and chased it with cold beer.

Where were Jack and Lenny? They should have showered and been here by now. Toby hadn’t bought me a whiskey to be friendly, quite the opposite. He was inexplicably pissed off, or so I heard in the locker room, and Imperial was his way of settling the score. I felt a pang of wishing I were back in a Pitt college bar, where nobody threw gauntlets all too common in bars like this one. The goal was to force me to drink or refuse his generosity, which he would take as an insult. He was older, about thirty, heavier, a big drinker with high tolerance. I was a stringbean kid, just twenty-one. Going shot-for-shot, I’d fall off my stool before he caught so much as a buzz.

Toby’s ire arose seven hours earlier, as Emil Sammartino and I stood before a mound of curly steel shavings that were congealed in oil, waste created by cutting threads in the ends of pipe. We were shoveling it into a crane bucket, a steel box half the size of a dumpster. Each shovelful weighed about fifty pounds. Emil and I held the lowest status of the roughly 2,500 workers at Armco and we often laughed out of disbelief at the tasks faced. We paced ourselves, knowing we’d be at it all night.

Toby, whose job elsewhere in the mill had been cancelled, appeared in the shadow of a foreman who didn’t like him. He had a reputation for sucking up and slacking off. Until he could be reassigned, Toby was told to help Emil and me.

Fuck this, he spat, after lifting two shovelfuls. And he headed off to take a leak. We figured we’d seen the last of him for a while, and we were right. Before lunchtime, the foreman came by looking for Toby to give him a different job. Not finding him, he ordered me back to the shop to sign out a small jackhammer. For the rest of the shift, I lay inside a machine used to squeeze 3,000-degree billets into shape. This chore, intended for Toby, was the most hellish work I’d ever done. Wedged in a dark, cast-iron hole, I chiseled caked grease out of the machine’s innards, striking metal against metal, a racket I thought could shake my skull right off my spine.

Enviable, I know. But Toby didn’t know nor care where I had gone, only that I’d left him with Emil and a ton of nasty waste. So now he wanted to poison me with whiskey. He left me with two choices: to stay and let him keep buying me shots until I was drooling on the bar, or leave as if he were driving me out, giving him a victory. It never occurred to me to decline his offerings, because the moment I waved one off, he would have shouted, “What?  You too good to drink with me?” And our beef would move out to the blinding sidewalk, his friends following, and my friends—where the hell were they?—following me.

Fine, I thought, I’ll take another shot from this prick. The first one hadn’t even soothed me. I had grown more agitated as the summer went on and my bosses started telling me that I could stay at Armco indefinitely. That would have made most guys happy, but letters kept coming from the registrar at Pitt asking about my plans for senior year, and, for the first time in my life, I was torn about my future. I had gone to college with a single goal: to become a lawyer, fight for justice and make a decent living. But two years as an intern at a law firm had only convinced me that I had been carrying a romantic and unrealistic view of the profession. I faced three more years of school and a lifetime of chipping away at massive loans, arranging wills and mortgages. I was tired of being broke.

Without the goal of law school, why even bother with senior year, especially when the mills, hurtling toward extinction, were paying insanely high wages? I could pay off my undergraduate debt in a couple of years. If I went back to Pitt, I’d come away with a degree in English Literature, which I loved, but would prepare me for nothing but teaching. And I had no interest in teaching.

On his way to the toilet, Toby passed behind me and made a crack, but I didn’t catch it. I sipped the rest of my beer and considered having another round, until I realized that my buddies were probably not joining me after all. Toby returned to his seat and prepared to order round three. He left me no choice.

At such times as this, I parted company with the braver men I knew growing up. I am part coward and part sensible. I’d seen blood and battle in schoolyards and bars, on sidewalks and in parking lots. One stupid remark led to another, then another. It was pointless and harrowing. I preferred making peace, which often called for backing away. So before he could order, I left Maxims without looking back, leaving Toby to think he’d taught me a lesson. I could live with that.

to be continued…