Thursday night, around 9:20 pm. Pittsburgh…
So I finished some mentoring business last night on the Northside, and I’m driving across the Allegheny over the Clemente Bridge. If you’re driving in this city, you’re regularly crossing a river or two. We’re in the City of Bridges.
I exit the Clemente right into the heart of downtown. Meandering through light traffic brings me into Market Square in just a few minutes. I make the half loop of the cobbled stone square and end up facing the Original Oyster House. My pulse qickens. Just a little.
Lit up in red neon and seemingly empty, it’s probably later than I think. They must be closed. But wait, just as I start moving closer to the bar, I see guy in a parka slipping in through the front door. Better yet, I notice there’s a parking space directly in front!
I park, look at my cell and see that it’s almost 9:30 pm. Getting out, quickly I look through the front window and see that there are no other customers inside. Just the one new customer walking to the bar and the young bartender waiting for him.
The parka guy is at the bar when I’m swing open the front door. Both faces turn and give me the once over. As I pull up a stool about five stools up from the other customer, I nod and give both gents a smile. The older black man in the parka with nightwatch cap nods back and turns to the bartender. Still smiling, he gives the bartender his order. I don’t catch it all, but I hear “bourbon and a beer.”
The bartender, walks up toward me where the liquor bottles are lined up at this storied Oyster bar and fish sandwich emporium.
I lean in forward and ask, “Is it too late to order a sandwich?”
“No sir.” he says smiling. “We don’t close until ten. Plenty of time.”
I smile back. The craving for the fried fish increases perceptively.
He lingers briefly.
“You need a menu?”
I give him a good look. He’s a 30 something guy who has a kind of Wilem Dafoe chiseled face. But longer. And more handsome. Short cropped light brown hair. Wearing an Oyster House black tee tucked into jeans. He’s lean, but has some muscle as most guys lifting kegs and cases of beer have in thse kinds of places.
“I’ll have the Monster fish.”
“No, just the fish.”
“For Here or to go?”
“You know we’re cash only, right?”
“Something to drink?”
“A ginger ale?”
“Okay…you got it”
He grabs a bottle of Bourbon from the shelf across from me by the register and a large shot glass. Pours it and moves back down toward the parka guy. Setting the shot in front of his customer, the bartender reaches under the counter and pulls out a beer. He uncaps it, places it gently on the stainless steel bar and says something quietly to his customer.
He places my order with someone in a kitchen out of sight and wanders back to me. He fills a glass with ice, and pours me a ginger ale from a fountain hose under the counter where.
He nods to me, smiles and heads back down to the parka guy who has downed his shot and is now sipping his beer from the bottle.
I use the opportunity to soak in my surroundings.
I’ve never tired of this place in the 45 years since I first came in with my pop. We ordered the fish back then when pop first introduced the Giant Fried Fish Sandwich with hot sauce and hot vinegar to his first born.
The place holds many memories. The unique decor itself owes a lot to the fourth owner, Louis Americus who was an ardent fan of the Miss America pagents andbrought back a photo every time he visited the contest in Atlantic City. Photos from the golden years of the pageant line the walls. The old yellowed Rocky Marciano poster across from me was there on that first visit. The Rock was my father’s favorite boxer, no matter who won or lost the title over the years. Pop schooled me well on Rocky.
My reverie is interrupted as my bartender is back placing the condiments in front of me. Hot pepper sauce, ketchup, tartar sauce, salt and pepper, some extra napkins.
I notice he hasn’t included the hot vinegar and I ask for it.
He laughs. “Of course, the only one I forgot.” And grabs the bottle amber of colored magic and places it along side of my small army of flavor enhancers.
“Thanks.” I say smiling back.
The bartender, leans back against the opposite bar and folds his arms in front of him. He shakes his head, looks up at a basketball game playing on a big screen monitor at the far end of the bar, looks back to me and says,
“You know, I can’t get that song from the movie M.A.S.H. outta my head tonight. “Suicide is Painless.” You remember that?”
I pause for a second or two. The question, an attempt to engage me in conversation surprises me.
“Yeah, I DO remember the song.” I say.
I add, “And that scene in the movie…where the dentist doubts his sexuality…and thinks that suicide is his solution? That was great.”
The bartender laughs and looks down toward the end of the bar. Another guy wearing another black Oyster House tee, older and gray-haired with a small gray mustache is bringing a few big fish sandwiches out to the bar. He disappears as quick as he’s appeared. As the bartender moves down to retrieve the sandwiches, he turns back to me, stops and says, “I always thought the “Hot Lips” in the movie was hotter than, um…the “Hot Lips” on the TV show. Loretta Swit, right?”
“Yeah, Loretta Swit was on the tv show.” I say. “Who was the actress in the movie? I can picture her, but her name…?” I ask.
He’s too far away for me to add anything without shouting, so I take another sip of my ginger ale and watch him wrap up one sandwich and put it int a brown sack. The larger sandwich, mine I presume, is placed on a simple, flimsy paper plate. The fish sandwich takes up a lot of room.
Coming back up the bar , the bartender delivers the paper sack to my other bar mate with a few words. The guy in the parka pays for his order and takes another pull on his beer.
I hear the front door open behind me and turn to see another older black man, also in a parka, also wearing a night watch cap walking up to the bar beside me as my bartender drops off my fish sandwich.
I turn to my sandwich take the top bun off and start dressing it.
Liberally sprinkling hot sauce on the bun so that it’s now a bright red, I flip the giant fish filet onto it an repeat the operation for the bottom of the bun.
Beside me the new customer is giving the bartender his order, but I’m not really listening. I’m deep in preparation mode. I next take the hot vinegar and liberally sprinkle that onto both sides of the fish. Part of the splendor of the Oyster House breading is that it stands up to the soaking of hot vinegar and still remains relatively crisp.
I tear off hunk of fish that lies outside the bun and pop it into my mouth. Oh my. It’s hot, both in spicy red pepper heat and in temperature…fresh out of the fryer to my plate.
I am in fish fry heaven. I tear off another bite, sip my ginger ale to clear my palate and with both hands dig into the sandwich itself. The cayenne soaked bun enhancing the hot fried fish with its legendary breading.
“How is it?” the bartender asks walking back up to me.
I guess he can read the ecstasy on my face.
“Great.” I say. My mouth full of fish and bun.
He smiles and nods knowingly at me.
After I swallow, I tell him that I remembered the name of the M.A.S.H. movie’s Hot Lips Houlihan.
“Yeah, yeah. That’s her.” he says.
And just like that we’re into a detailed conversation of the movie, a movie TV show comparison, Alan Alda, how the movie was darker that the weekly show, how good Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland were in the movie etc.
I’m a film and movie buff, but this young guy knows a lot. It’s an entertaining and enjoyable exchange.
“You know the owner of this place, Mr. Grippo? He was a Korean War. Pilot for the Marines.” the bartender says.
Another fish sandwich is delivered to the bar from a kitchen in the back somewhere, and the bartender is asking the last customer in whether or not he’d like hot sauce or tartar sauce or ketchup with it.
The other parka clad fellow is on his cell talking to someone and quickly hangs up to say, “Uh, just put them all in the bag with the sandwich. Don’t put anything ON the sandwich. Just put them in the bag WITH the sandwich.”
“Got it.” says the bartender and takes the man’s money, and makes change.
The second parka guy is standing next to me with his bag getting his change and says to me, “I gotta get this back to Forrest Hills. My baby was dying for a fish sandwich tonight.”
I understand completely and say, “You better get it back there quick then, while it’s still hot.”
“I do. I DO! Well, y’all have a good night.” And he’s waving to all three of us as he hurries out the door.
My bartender sees that my glass is nearly empty and he reaches under the bar for the ginger ale hose and tops me off.
“I guess I better be on my way too.” says the first parka guy and he gathers up his bag of food and heads toward the door.
“See ya next time.” says the bartender.
Then it’s just me and the bartender as I’m finishing up the last of MY sandwich.
“Hey, you wanna see a picture Mr. Grippo when he was in Korea?”
“Sure!” I say.
“C’mon then.” he says.
I follow the bartender to the back end of thebar and he motions for me to come back on his side of the bar through a doorway that leads to an adjacent seating area, dark except for the night lights coming in the front windows and a few auxillary lights at the back of the room.
We make our way through the room manuevering through neatly arranged tables and chairs to one of the photo covered walls.
“My name’s Mark, by the way.” I say as we reach the spot on the wall with several photos of Mr. Grippo.
“Hey, Mark! I’m Jason.” he says smiling broadly. “Nice to meet you.”
We shake hands.
“Here’s that photo I wanted to show you.”
It’s a slightly blurry black and white, framed photograph of two young men in airmen jumpsuits sitting on the wing of what I think is a Grumman F9F.
“Wow. That’s pretty cool.” I say.
“I can’t believe Mr. Grippo was ever that young. Look at that hair!” he says as he points to one of the figures in the photo.
We talk a bit more about the Korean War (the bartender clearly far too young to have been born until well after the war ended). I’m impressed by what he knows. Impressed how knowledgeable, bright, and articulate he is.
When we make our way back over to the bar, I look at my cell and see that it’s a little after 10pm. The basketball game is still on at the far end of the bar, but it’s time for me to head home and let Jason close up and get home.
As we’re walking back, I mention that I’ve never been in the Oyster House with this few customers. Jason admits that this Thursday night has been pretty slow. I don’t tell him that I have really enjoyed being here almost by myself.
I take a few last gulps of my ginger ale and tell Jason that I better get going. I thank him again, tell him it was nice to meet him and leave a tip next to my empty paper plate and ginger ale.
He picks up the bills and thanks me. As I’m heading toward the door.
he adds “I enjoyed talking with you. Thanks for stopping by.”
Once outside I turn and look in through the front windows again before getting into my car. Jason is gathering the condiments off the bar, my glass and wiping down the bar where I was sitting.
The Oyster House always leaves me feeling happily satiated, and grateful. The ambiance, the food, the smells. Everything about the place touches me in ways hard to express. The Miss America photos, the giant yellowed Rocky Marciano poster. The white tiled walls and the hex-tiled floor. So much history in this place. And memories.
Turning the ignition it all hits me like a warm hug. Then I realize I could eat another fish sandwich. Right now.