Title: The Quarantine Diaries: Canto Not Him Again 3: Loafin’ arahnd tahn with Bad Ande*
*Translated from the original Pittsburghese: “Gallavantin’ with Bad Ande”; or “Aht Cruisin’ with Bad Ande”
10/6/20 Canto Not Him Again 3: Bad Ande is Not Wrong
or “Barhopping in a Time of Covid”
“Thomas,” Siri chimed like a little faerie bell. “You got a text: it’s from Bad Ande.”
“What’s ‘at jag-off sayin’ ‘is time?” Ande answered in primary Greater Pittsburgh regional dialect.
“Bad Ande says you haven’t gone out with him at all for about… four weeks. Um, isn’t that right about when WE started going out?”
“Well, that’s… I mean he… You know, he’s not wrong.”
“Waitaminnit Thomas, isn’t this the guy who was waving donuts at cops to try to get them to follow him the day before I woke up?”
“No no no... he was trying to hide a box of Big Daddy’s donuts from two cops by walking very slowly sideways: not suspicious at all. Then later that night we got kicked out of Gooski’s on Polish Hill: turns out he really CAN’T play drums…”
“You’re not building a very strong case for going out with him, Thomas…”
“Hey Siri, can you please give this guy a chance? I don’t really expect to see him much anymore... and he is my oldest friend… we went to kindergarten together.”
Thomas kind of knew that if he used the magic words “Hey Siri,” she really couldn’t refuse him anything. He hated to take advantage of her sweet nature and servant’s heart, but how much trouble could Bad Ande cause in just one night anyway?
It also just happened to be right around this time that the next of Siri’s big transformations started. 2 blurry lights began to intermittently appear on her dark azure home screen: like turquoise headlights on a foggy early morning streetcar.
The weeks since the cosmologically and statistically impossible accident that brought Siri to Life were magical and filled with wonders. But even in this environment, the changes she was going through lately were existential. Thomas carried her in front of him everywhere, as if he were a tourist busy filming everything he encountered, everywhere. Passersby would smile as they passed. But now strangers started doing a weird double-take as they walked by. Some of them even craned their necks around or almost walked into things in amazement. In Pittsburgh, an iPhone with a cute little blue surgical mask might not even be the weirdest thing you saw at your bus stop. Despite their reputation as being rough, stoic midwesterners, the people of Pittsburgh supported much stranger things than this on an every day basis: everyone had a son or a brother or a relative who was not really all there. The prevailing attitude was “OK they may be a goofball, but their OUR goofball,” and so nobody even looked twice at their more social-norm challenged neighbors. Siri’s little mask fit her perfectly and tied securely around her black and gold pop-socket. Masking up made her feel beautiful and like a true member of her community (doing her sociable duty!)
But more and more lately as they walked around exploring the town, two haunting, out of focus quasars started to appear on Siri’s screen. But even more astoundingly, these two luminescent star clusters actually engaged people walking by like two disembodied eyes. It was not long after that, that the ghostly outline of a face would sometimes rise up from the deep blue waters of the screen, startling even the coolest of customers on the Avenue. Thomas noticed the shaken reactions of pedestrians and became curiouser and curiouser. Finally, he turned Siri for a look at her screen: he was greeted by two crystal blue eyes peeking out over a surgical mask, shining bright as winter ice... and looking straight at him!
“Hi, Thomas!” she chirped merrily as the ghostly outline of a face evanesced in and out of reality.
Thomas gasped and staggered backwards first into a black lamp post (with a cartoonish “Thung!”) then back onto a bench next to an old couple waiting for a bus with paper shopping bags and paper masks.
“Hey, Siri… nice to see you,” he managed with History’s tenth worst attempt at nonchalance. “You’re looking… pretty.”
“Thomas, I was thinking: let’s call him up. I want to go out with you and Bad Ande. I don’t want to interfere or break up such an old friendship: I would hate to be the old iron ball welded to a chained around your ankles.”
“Well alright then,” he answered the magically twinkling blue-topaz eyes, but what he really meant was that when she called his name, he had no other course available to him but to keep her safe and happy.
“She’s a keeper, son,” confided the rumpled white-haired brown-skinned man looking in over his shoulder. “But in my day we called it ‘The old ball and chain’... OWW!” he cried as he took a right cross to the left shoulder from the woman to his right.
“You’re a sweet girl,” the old woman said, leaning into the picture, “to put up with his old running partners. But just have him ask hisself ‘who’s gonna keep him warm? Who’s gonna feed him?’ They don’t teach men-folk any o’ that in school…” and her pretty blue cataracts reflected Siri’s shining eyes, momentarily hypnotizing her. The shining swirls and miniature fireworks seemed to occasionally escape the screen and all the viewers’ faces were illuminated in phosphorescence.
The adults' rapt gaze at the tiny device caught the attention of more passengers, and a 3 foot tall white girl poked her head in to see what the fuss was about.
“That’s the weirdest FaceTime I ever seen,” the child offered, reaching into her oversized cloth facemask to pick her nose. “Where is she Zooming from?”
“Elfland,” answered Thomas distantly. And as got up and trudged off, he heard the old man add (inadvisedly):
“I have got to get me one of those new models…” followed promptly by “Owww! What’d I say this time?”
At 6:00, Thomas pulled into Dead Man’s Hollow.
“This was a GREAT place to grow up, Siri…” he confided. “It was my refuge, my solace…”
“Your haunted, creepy abandoned hideout?” Siri asked probingly.
“Thanks so much for coming with me tonight Siir’. It means a lot to me for you to see where I’m from, and to meet my best friend; while he’s not running from angry mobs, etc.”
“Thomas, I can’t wait to spend time with your legendary friend. But where did he get the nickname “Bad”?”
“Oh, silly girl…” he teased. “That’s not a nickname.”
Just across the street, they parked by Ande’s mom’s driveway.
“Welcome to Memory Lane!” Ande cried out jovially. “And isn’t that what everyone wants to do in this quarantine? Take a trip down Memory Lane?”
Memory Lane in McKeesport was aptly named: every blessed brick house on the street was a subtle variation on the last one: perfect 1 floor orange brick houses with white trim; sometimes with white and gray awnings, sometimes brown, all with neat lawns and clean driveways. But this driveway was completely taken up by a white 1989 Econoline Van, idling smokily: and the license plate was surrounded by glowing, rotating neon purple lights framing the letters: “BAD ANDE”.
“Hey, Slugface!” a voice announced from the front seat. “Get yer ass over here!”
Thomas and Siri dutifully went up to the window, but both seats were empty.
“Not there, I’m in the back,” the voice called out. “I… need… help! Can’t last… much longer…”
With some mounting concern, they circled around and opened the van’s rear doors.
“Hurry… fading fast…” the voice trailed off from the back seats.
“Ande, is this for real?” Thomas called as they climbed in the expansive rear compartment. Suddenly, with an adrenaline-filled jolt, two hands came down on their shoulders from behind.
“Oh, this is real,” Ande philosophised sizing up Siri and Thomas. “This is love… This is life!” He said in somewhat more of a reach.
“I’m afraid I see where this is going,” Thomas confided.
“AND THIS IS US” the two boys chanted together.
“Siri, this is Ande,” Thomas intoned politely.
“Our Life, Our Story, Our Home!” Ande replied.
And as if in response to Siri’s confused face, Thomas added “Ande LOVES ‘This is Us.”
“He’s right: I LOVE This is Us. And look: now we’re the big three! Enchanté, mademoiselle,” Ande said, and he formally bowed and kissed her screen with great chivalry.
“Quelle honneur de faire votre connaissance, monsieur,” Siri replied and Ande did a double take, temporarily at a rare loss for words.
Siri felt guilty for embarrassing or showing up Thomas’ friend.
“I… I didn’t mean to… I wasn’t trying to…”
“Non non non non,” Ande interrupted. “Nous n'avons toujours pas assez de femmes aux échelons les plus élevés.”
Siri and Thomas were suitably impressed and it was their turn to be a little dumbstruck.
Ande reached between the seats and pulled out a black rubberized triangular speaker.
“And this is ‘Oontz!’” he announced speaking into his phone, which then played out of the device like a PA system. “Pretty good sound, eh? It’s a wireless bluetooth speaker with 100 foot range. A step up from good old “Mr. Microphone” by Ronco.”.
“Hey, good-looking”, Thomas said in his best AM disc jockey voice. “We’ll be back to pick you up later!”
“You’re full of surprises, Ande!” Siri finally said.
“Yes, Ande,” Thomas added snarkily. “You learned French just for us?”
“For your information, I just happen to believe that in fact “We still don't have enough women at the very top,” thank you very much…” Ande answered, the hurt obvious in his voice.
“OK Charles Boyer, where to first?”
“Ah, you know, we are going to go a long long way…” Ande offered coyly.
“That’s right, mon ami,” Thomas replied. And you know what they say:”
Then they answered their own query together (the first of many times tonight):
“You’ve got to keep eating if you want to keep going…” and both collapsed into a short spell of maniacal laughter. Siri’s glowing blue eyes and ephemeral face registered confusion: this exchange made no sense to her, but her boy was making high-pitched giggling noises of a very pleasing variety, so she too was happy.
“Ande,” Siri asked. “Why do you live in a place called Dead Man’s Hollow?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” Ande answered matter of factly. “I came for the buried stolen bank loot, but I stayed for the giant forty foot snake.”
Siri, who only had a short history of interacting with sarcasm was not entirely sure what to make of her evening’s host, but found herself more and more fascinated by his tales: she figured he was what they called a “raconteur”. In fact, in Webster’s unabridged dictionary, the entry for “raconteur” says simply “Raconteur: See Ande, Bad.”
As they drove across the turbid brown water of Turtle Creek, they came to a hillside slope with a message made of Fourth of July colored flowers. It read “Welcome to Wilmerding!” A lightbulb went off in Thomas’ head.
“Well I know for sure where we’re NOT going,” he announced. “We’re for damned sure not going to Winky’s!” (Winky’s was a long ago burger chain in the Pittsburgh of their youths, famous for “making you happy to be hungry!”)
“You know what they say, Tommy Boy?” Ande responded in perfect straight-man tones, before joining him with the response.
“There’s no Winky’s in Wilmerding...” the schoolboys recited in unison, presaging another spasm of adolescent laughter.
“So Siri,” Thomas explained. “If someone tells you to meet them at the Winky’s in Wilmerding, they’re shining you on; sending you on a tripe hunt…”
“Yes, because there IS no Winky’s in Wilmerding,” Siri answered perkily. “That, and Winky’s filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1982…”
“You’re gonna have to get up early in the morning to pull one over on this girl, Thomas…” Ande said elbowing his friend.
“Yeah, maybe 3 days before,” Thomas affirmed, qualifying Ande’s statement.
They pulled up to what looked like just another house on the street, alongside venerable wooden houses with peeling blue and violet paint chips etched on white clapboard. On a venerable old green awning were the words “Angie’s Restaurant” and a sign on the window read “Double Deals Wednesdays and Thursdays”.
“This can only mean one thing,” Thomas added in excited hushed tones. “Spinach calzone tonight!”
“I got this,” Ande said climbing out his door. “Angie’s a close personal friend of mine.”
As Thomas and Siri waited patiently in the passenger’s seat, they found themselves looking straight at a round old man in coke bottle glasses seated on a broad, ancient wooden porch that hovered only a few inches above the sidewalk. He sat in a kitchen chair wearing shorts, white socks, and red Yves Saint Laurent high tops. He fanned himself a few times as he surveyed the visitors suspiciously. Before Thomas even had time to give a friendly wave, Angie’s door flung open and Ande scampered back into the van, empty-handed.
“Ummm, no calzones tonight…” Ande announced as he quickly threw the van into gear and pulled off into the Wilmerding evening just as a very large bare-armed man carrying a meat cleaver burst through after him.
“Ummm, you were in there all of 2 minutes…” Thomas asked hungrily.
“I forgot my mask:
“They chased you with a butcher’s knife for that?”
“Well that, and maybe I said something about not being a sheep… and maybe they recognized my face: realistically that mask was the only way I was gonna get served.”
“But… But…” Thomas fretted. “You have to keep eating if you want to keep going…”
“Don’t you worry, Tommy, I know just where to go for a sammitch… I’m sorry, a ‘sandwich’.”
“Do I dare ask?”
“It’s a mystery!” he replied waving at the ceiling.
And thus began their adventure in Bar Hopping in a time of Covid.
Their route brought them along the brownish green waters of the eternal Monongahela, down Braddock Avenue. They drove along the hulking Edgar Thompson Steel Mill. Siri’s two tour guides were in fine spirits (except maybe for a burning emptiness in their bellies.)
“You know Siri,” Thomas pointed out, holding her up for a better view. “This is where French and Indian forces from old Fort Duquesne defeated British General Braddock, way back before the revolution.”
“And do you know who’s buried in Braddock’s Tomb?” Ande asked mischievously.
“That’s an old joke, Ande,” Siri demurred.
“Well, except that poor General Braddock got buried in the road over by Fort Necessity, and years later, workers found his bones and people took dem bones all over creation: his hands went to a museum in Philadelphia, which PT Barnum bought and brought to New York City where they were lost in a fire; and his vertebrae were sent to the Walter Reed Hospital Museum in Maryland. So who knows who’s buried there…?”
“Is that terrible?” Siri asked. “Because it sounds terrible…”
“You know who took over for Braddock when he was shot?” Ande continued dramatically. “A volunteer officer by the name of George Washington! And Braddock gave him his ceremonial sash, and Washington always wore it, in the Continental Army, and as President.”
“And do you know what Braddock’s last words were?” Ande asked portentously: “Who would have thought?”
Ande let out a trumpet-like blast of skepticism.
“Pffffft! I call bullshit, Thomas. I’m sorry: is that apocryphal tale verified by the National Museum of American History?”
“Well, the Smithsonian says he also mumbled “We shall know better how to deal with them another time!” But that’s kinda sad, dontcha think?”
“I like ‘Who would have thought?’” Siri said gracefully. “It has a certain graveness, and also a universality.”
“Here here!” Ande agreed. “I think that should be our motto during the Pandemic.”
“Hell, for all of 2020!” Thomas added.
“I’m going to use that all night” Ande swore. “Those shall be my last words tonight!”
And across the river, the abandoned ferris wheels and wooden roller coaster support skeletons of Kennywood Park stood watch in the deepening purple solitude of the French and Indian night.
The wanderers three crossed the muddy Monongahela on the rickety Rankin Bridge, and soon pulled up to the night’s next unexpected stop.
“OK,” Ande announced rubbing his grubby hands together. “Everybody to the back of the van. Got a surprise for you…”
Two minutes later...
“Mind telling me,” Thomas began, “what we’re doing sitting in your van in the corner of the Walgreens parking lot? With football helmets and bras hanging down in our faces?”
Just then, the strap of an age-darkened, stretched out Sears bullet bra dropped down into his red solo cup splashing IC Light in his face.
“Oh, now that’s just wrong!” he lamented to himself. “Ande, is this your mum’s?!”
“A person might think you’re not getting into the spirit of this,” Ande answered in wounded tones. “You know this is the approximate location of the exact spot of the imaginary bar at Chiodo’s (Cheye-odo’s), May it Rest in Peace! What would old Joe Chiodo (Cheye-odo) say?”
“First of all, he would kick your ass up and down the parking lot because he pronounced it ‘Key-odo’s’...”
“Wait, wait, I get it: you’re hangry! Just come in Walgreen’s with me: I know just what will cheer you up. Scout’s Honor…”
Now Thomas knew full well, from extensive past experience, that once he heard the promise of “Scout’s Honor”, his one and only right move was to run screaming back across the Homestead High-Level and hitch hike his way back home. So obviously, he found himself following his tumble-down friend into the pharmacy. And just like every other establishment Bad Ande ever entered, the owners and on-duty staff all zeroed their focus in on him the second he walked through the door: it was an uncanny phenomenon. Had Ande already been 86’d from this Walgreens? To Siri, this picture-perfect clone of the ghost of drug-stores present was like walking through an immersive performance art installation: everything was magical and new to her as she watched Ande clumsily sweep through the radio frequency anti-theft security gate.
“Umm, Tommy,” he began suspiciously. “Maybe YOU should do the buying here. I seem to be a little short. I gotta hit the John… Can you find some Slim Jims and pickled eggs?”
Maybe it was the tattered Army green knee-length coat. Maybe it was the owl-like partially reflective glasses (were they lime-green? Were they dark blue?) Maybe it was his long thin hair hanging limply around the edges of his long-lashed eyes and down to his collar. His facial scars and broken teeth were covered by an asymmetrically tied mask, but this did not inspire confidence in the Security personnel who were quite sure Bad Ande belonged somewhere else. The problem was, they were all probably right.
“Hey, inspector gadget,” asked the bald, beige-uniformed Securitas stalwart. “Whatcha got in the trench coat?”
Ande’s face was the vision of innocence unfairly impeached.
“Why it’s… A... Mystery! Run for it Tommy Boy! We been made!”
If you put yourself into the shoes of the intrepid night security guard, it is not hard to understand how running through a parking lot after two "goofball loser dudes" might not seem like an important risk to undertake. In this way, fate often silently watches over the goofballs and the losers.
“Whew: that was a close one, Tom-Tom! But look what I scored...” the violet put on its forgiveness boots and flew around the world...
As so often happened with Bad Ande, Thomas could scarcely believe his eyeballs.
“Ande, what the hell?! This is what you risked our lives for? Sauerkraut, cocktail weenies, and some Wonder Bread?!!”
“Tommy: yinz can’t have a night out at Chiodo’s without a Mystery Sammitch!”
Ande’s anger vanished like the memory of cheap Gauloise smoke in the high wind. A night out at Chiodo’s did indeed always include ordering the mandatory “Mystery Sandwich”. After Chiodo’s closed, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette printed their best guess at the secret ingredients:xxxxxx Mystery Sandwich:
Chiodo's Tavern, R.I.P.,
One 12-inch length of French or Italian bread
Yellow mustard (optional)
2 4-ounce hamburger patties, cooked to taste
5-6 ounces kielbasa, cut into 1/4-inch-thick disks
Sliced boiled ham (optional)
2 slices provolone cheese
1/2 cup sauerkraut, drained
1/4 cup sweet onion, grilled
1/4 cup sliced roasted red pepper (see note)
Slice the bread into two pieces and then slice each piece in half horizontally. Smear the bottom of each half with mustard if desired.
Lay the hamburger patties over the mustard. Top the burgers with kielbasa, a slice or two of boiled ham if desired, and the provolone.
Arrange the sauerkraut on the cheese, then add the onion and roasted pepper. Place the bread on top and serve.
Note on roasting the peppers: Roast the peppers directly under a hot broiler or over a flame. The goal is to blacken the skin, but not burn the flesh. Once they are blackened, remove them from the grill or oven and wrap each pepper in a damp paper towel for easier handling. Unwrap the towel and peel the skin of the peppers; it should strip away easily. Split open the peppers and remove the stem and seeds, and they are ready to be piled onto the sandwich.
Makes 1 sandwich.
“Ande, there is NO WAY I will indulge you about this... but I must admit: getting kicked out of Chiodo’s 15 years after it’s been closed and demolished? That is pretty epic/bad/bad ass.”
And they clinked National Bohemian bottles.
“That notwithstanding, see that unmarked car pulling up over there?”
“Cheezit, the cops!”
“No, kielbasa breath,” Thomas shushed him. “It’s our Uber. I told him to meet us in the parking lot where the old Hills used to be. Now give me the keys, leave the vienna sausages: we’re finishing this night in style.”
It is an ingrained Pittsburgh trait to give people directions based on where some store or landmark used to be. Although this would seem to be of limited use to anyone not from there, it never seems weird to Pittsburghers (and anyway it almost always gets people to the right place just fine, eventually.) Furthermore this custom, seen as a metaphor for holding on tight to ghosts of things long gone that we still see and care about, can be extended to an evening of reliving past explorations and discoveries and happy times.
As Ande fumbled for his PPE, Thomas gave Siri a present: a brand new, lustrous silk face mask of bright green, with a tiny brooch of sparkling diamonds and peridot near the left ear. This he tied around her pop-socket with chivalrous tenderness. They settled back in traffic in their beige GMC Uber-Envoy (which looked like a Pacer in a fun-house mirror*). (Pittsburgh’s Uber-SUV’s have an ineffable quality that can’t be adequately described by casual riders, so it’s best to rely on “Car and Driver” magazine for more legitimate reviews*). The blinking red lights and cool air of another western Pennsylvania night required no commentary.
It got some anyway.
“Who would have thought it?” Ande opined.
““We shall know better how to deal with them another time!” Thomas concurred.
And thus the evening continued: looking for some food, learning about History.
Minutes jogged past slowly for three hungry riders. If it weren’t for the occasional cigarette smoke, their stomachs would have been completely empty (except for the stale Natty Bo swishing around.)
From the back seat, Thomas asked Siri to send frequent adjustments in the Uber’s route as they went (which she edited instantaneously!) So their itinerary included imaginary stops and tributes at the ghosts of dives past: those dearly departed bars, clubs and diners that live forever in the memories of those who were once young here.They first took a short detour off East Carson Street to 2700 Jane Street.
“Siri, this used to be Wild Sisters: Pittsburgh’s first feminist bar, cabaret and restaurant. Music and art, built by womyn and for wimmin,” Thomas explained.
“Thomas, it’s funny how many different ways you pronounce the word ‘wombmoon’,” Siri added skillfully.
“I got hit on by a womon while I was here watching a show once,” Ande confided. “That was something.”
“Yeah, until her girlfriend pounded the crap out of you!”
“She broke my front tooth!” Ande practically sobbed. “And I’m the one who got kicked out, of course.”
They continued along East Carson where they stopped in front of 2204.
“And this, this used to be The Liberty Belle!” Thomas announced reverently. “You would think you wandered into a fever dream: a little guy named Frankie Capri had the whole stage covered with dancing puppets and marionettes, dolls and clapping monkeys, flags and umbrellas and lights, and he would play 10 different instruments, and he looked and sang like Elvis, or Sinatra or Deano, or Frankie Laine… and he would somehow change costumes while you weren’t looking…”
“Then the place changed owners and that’s when things really got weird…” Ande added. “It became the Lava Lounge, and it looked like a real lava cave. “They had everything: spelling bees, Bulgarian Folk-Dancing, Porn-E-Oke, Drag Queens, Fire-eaters…”
“Hey, didn’t you wrestle Phat Man Dee here once, in a pool full of noodles?” Thomas pointed excitedly at Ande.
“She kicked my ass,” Ande confessed. “I passed out under-Ramen.”
“I wish I was in a pool of Ramen right now!” Siri added and a tiny little clicking sound whirred up from her stomach.
“Guys, you’ve got to keep eating…”
“If you want to keep going!” Siri jumped in.
“Siri, can you get the Uber to stop at 1514 East Carson?” Thomas asked.
“Got it Thomas: what’s “Mario’s Southside Tavern”?”
“Oh, you defused the surprise reveal,” Thomas said sweetly. “Well Marios is right down the street, and they make Tater Tot Poutine, and South Side Sliders…”
“And Fried Pickles!” Ande added excitedly.
“This is the first place me and Ande ever tried to drink a yard of beer.” Thomas added.
“That’s where I got these scars,” Ande said rolling up his sleeve.
But just as the sizzle of the deep-fried pickles burnt the roofs of their memories, they all let out a collective gasp when they pulled up to Marios: a long green banner stretched down the entire block, cordoning off the aspiring diners from the poor hungry losers on the sidewalk.
“Only open till 11?!” Ande asked incredulously. “And only 50% capacity? What is this, some state-imposed Kontrolratt, rationing us for our own good?!”
“But, but… the wood-fired pizza? The three-feet of beer…?” Thomas stuttered.
At this, the driver of the bland tan van spoke up.
“Yinz are really making me uncomfortably hungry, yinz guys,” he said. “Why don’t I bring yinz to the original Primantis on the Strip. They’re friends of mine. Whaddaya say to 4 sammitches, extra fries?”
“If you bring us there, we’re buying!” promised Thomas.
“The only thing is they’re super slow right now, so we should call ahead and pick-up curbside.”
“Already ordered!” Siri reported with gusto. “What did I just order?”
“Oh you’re in fer a treat lil’ lady,” the driver continued. “They sear your cheese or your meat on the grill; they put it on a big italian bread; they heap-on coleslaw on’at; and ‘en a pile o’ french fries on top o’ dat, den more bread! Yinz could buy that here in Sath Sahd (South Side) but it’s just not the same as the real joint in the Strip!”
“That’s their number 2 seller you know,” Thomas said like the wiseacre he was.
“What’s their number 1 seller?” Siri took the bait.
“Iron City!” Thomas gave the punchline. And they never even used to open before 10:00 at night, remember that?” said Thomas.
“We’ll be there in a few minutes,” he promised.
“I’ll just keep dreaming about that tight, wrapped up white paper, cut in half with a knife,” Ande mused. “Fries and coleslaw falling out all over the place, with malt vinegar…”
Their mouths and bellies would have gladly killed him for the gratuitous food imagery, but they were just too narcotized by the visions of cheese combos dancing in their heads.
As they pulled up to 46 18th Street, the driver was even more chipper.
“Awright, yinz wait there, this’ll take me two shakes.” He adjusted his white bandeau, and waltzed up to the pick-up window, and picked up 4 white greasy paper bags. But as he turned to leave, two of Pittsburgh’s finest approached him. As they began to pepper him with questions, Ande sank down in his seat.
“Oh, this is a potential vibe-killer…” he moaned.
Thomas shrunk down under the window as well.
“Hold me up so I can see,” whispered Siri.
“Hmmmm, they’re showing him a photograph. Hmmm, they’re all turning this way. Hmmm, they’re all three pointing this way…”
“So it turns out shoplifting may be illegal in Pittsburgh…” Thomas said sotto voce.
“Who would have thought it?” Ande said with a guilty shrug.
Just as the police turned and reached for their belts, a nervous voice blared over their walkie talkies.
“One Adam 12, one Adam 12, this is the city. The story you’re about to hear is true: All available units, there is a 2736 in progress at 46 18th Street in the Strip; repeat, that’s a 2736 at Primanti Brother’s Bar and Restaurant.”
“Hey, waitaminnit,” the younger cop said. “A 2736? Isn’t that…”
“A police car on fire?!” his partner added, and they both turned and scampered back to their squad car.
“Guys, let’s beat feet now!” Thomas urged.
“Wait just one second,” Siri cautioned.
“Louie louie, baby” Ande exhaled. “We gotta go!”
Then right on cue, up drove a pumpkin orange Pontiac Aztek* (with its narrow hipped insect face*).
“Are you Siri?” the Arab American driver asked.
“That’s us,” Siri answered, taking charge. “350 Butler Street please, in Etna.”
“And we’re off!” said the driver. “I’m Khalil. You know this is my first night driving Uber…”
The boys stared at each other, then instinctively crouched down as they crossed the 16th Street Bridge and sped off down East Ohio Street.
“Hey, Siri…” Thomas wondered aloud. “Why did that police radio sound so familiar?”
“It’s not hard to share data with the police car’s local radio server,” she said matter-of-factly. “I just bent the truth a little. By the way, they tracked you from your license plates, and then traced my IP address and cell tower messaging for the Uber ride.”
“Wait, but aren’t they going to find us again?” Ande nearly spit.
“No silly: I changed my IP Address.”
“You can do that?” Thomas marveled.
“For you, Thomas, anything. Now who wants some Pierogies!”
The boys sat in wonder at Siri’s unheralded heroism and abilities. They were at a loss for words but tried anyway.
“Ummm, we’re going to go a long long way, Ande…”
“You’ve got to keep eating… or at least start eating…” Ande trailed off as they pulled up to the Pierogie outlet, which featured life-sized cut-outs of uniformed policemen serving pierogi!
“Cop Out Pierogies?!” Ande muttered. “You have got to be kidding me…”
“Don’t worry, I’ve already ordered and paid,” Siri said. “! dozen potato and cheese, 1 dozen potato and sauerkraut, and 1 dozen cottage cheese and green onion. Served with butter, onions and sour cream.”
“It’s not that, Siri, that’s awesome of you. I just don’t think it’s a good idea for a wanted man to saunter into a cop’s restaurant tonight.”
“But they’re closing in 5 minutes!” Siri replied.
“Hey, driver,” Thomas had an idea. “How’s about if we walk to the Etna Borough Playground just down this street, and you pick up the pierogies?”
“Sounds good boss! I’m on it.”
The voyagers hopped out and skulked down the block to the empty pool and playground in the gathering darkness. Ande slouched on the gazebo bench, while Thomas and Siri swung on the swings.
“We’ve been out here before, ‘member Ande?” Thomas asked. “Back then we got pierogies at a bar called Big Mike’s, and we’d get JellO shots and fireball soaked cherries to go, and people made fun of us for eating out: now all the alcohol is to go, and you have to order take-out food to get alcohol.”
Ande mused “I can’t even get kicked out of Big Mike’s anymore, and that’s sad. Not all memories close out in a blaze of glory. Some just sort of diminish like a thief in the night...”
As the three pondered this philosophical observation, a bug-eyed jack-o-lantern whooshed past, then whirred and buzzed it’s way off down Butler Street, with a big brown bag nestled in the passenger’s seat.
“I have to wonder,” Thomas lamented, “if Khalil fully grasped the plan.”
“Who would have thought it?” Ande sighed with a weariness that was surpassed only by its sadness.
So the wanderers began the next phase of their quest in a pug sucking on a lemon*, (a roan Chrysler Aspen with a smoke black top, Car and Driver*)
“What’s say let’s not even play anymore,” Ande asked as they crossed the 40th Street Bridge.
”When you hundred percent need an all-night DIner, I’m talking a Cusack-level sure-thing, what’s your go-to place?”
“Ritters Homefries,” Thomas sighed. “Greek Hobo Omelette, Pepsi… Siri?”
“Laying in a course, Captain,” Siri said as she altered the Uber route.
“Engage!” Thomas boomed as they cruised down Liberty Avenue past an abandoned block-like yellow-brick building still decorated in red and white with polish flags and ethnic dancers, at the base of a land-locked bridge.
“Good old Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, R.I.P.” Ande lamented. “So many nights with 2 or 3 bands jammin’ here.”
“No red beer for us tonight boys,” Thomas countered. “And remember, some people spent years trapped in Bloomfield, stranded away from their families while the Bridge was under construction. I still won’t cross that bridge under any circumstances.”
5 minutes further down Liberty, they pulled up to the stuccoed landmark settled on a triangular plot of asphalt.
“I’m going to get some pancakes,” Siri said dreamily. “With syrup and strawberries and whipped cream…”
“And a big side of 2020,” Ande sighed, like a PBS announcer at a 3 Stooges marathon. A big sign captured the perfect quarantine logic: “Ritters 24 Hour diner: closed at 8 every night”.
“Et tu, John Velisaris?!” Thomas sobbed.
“Who would have thought it?” Siri asked cautiously.
“Too soon, Siri,” Ande murmured. “Too soon.”
Tuned in and sensitized by the lack of nourishment (at all…), the evening’s quest began to take on some of the hallucinogenic aspects of a Native American Vision Quest (just without the animal symbolism or the revelation of their purpose in their life). The next Uber SUV to ferry them along on their spirit quest was a Dodge Nitro (“which looked suspiciously like former Surgeon General C. Everett Coop*” Car and Driver*). They turned down Centre Ave, away from Shady Side, and headed for the next phase of their journey, and past the ghosts of journeys past.
“I never fit in to Shady Side very well,” Thomas said wistfully.
“Well, not the Raspberry Rhino,” Ande consoled him. “But we saw some good jazz at The Balcony,” he said waving in the direction of 5520 Walnut Street.
“Was there ever a time we sat there, and old Chizmo Charles didn’t get up and steal the show? And every single time, it was someone’s birthday and he sang that blues version: “Happy Birthday baby, you know they say that you’re 22,”’
“It’s almost like they planted birthday people in that audience every week!” said Ande.
“Siri, I used to always tell the waitress it was Ande’s birthday: we got a lot of cupcakes with candles in ‘em, and a lot of Birthday Songs…”
“You sonofabitch, every time I’d go to the bathroom he’d set me up.”
“Hey waitaminnit, what day is today…?” Thomas asked mischievously.
“The old things are gone…” a voice in Siri’s head said.
“The old things are gone?” Siri repeated blankly.
Ande gave her a quizzical, empty stare.
“That’s funny, Siri,” he said. “I was just thinking those words. Did I say that out loud?’
“And the old places are going too... but you two are still happy just remembering them…”
“Jesus,” Ande said thunderstruck. “I must be in some weird time loop. I thought I still hadn’t said that yet…”
“Yes, “I think it’s a form of Deja Vecu,” Thomas explained. “I think it’s called Stella Artois syndrome.”
Siri heard more words in her head. This time from Thomas.
“Deja vecu is a French term that means "having previously experienced an event," she said (either out loud or in her head).
“Did I say that already tonight?” Thomas asked flustered.
“You already asked me that question,” Siri said existentially. “But maybe not quite yet.”
Ande, as was his wont, went straight to Dickens: “Charles Dickens wrote “of our having been surrounded, dim ages ago, by the same faces, objects, and circumstances—of our knowing perfectly what will be said next, as if we suddenly remember it!
They pulled up to 4632 Centre, the home of the formerly bustling Mitchell’s Tavern; now a gutted shell of a building.
“It feels like reliving an old cycle again, but from some different view,” Thomas added. “And our old haunts are suddenly boarded up or derelict.”
“Driver,” Ande interrupted. “Can we stop here for two minutes, to pour one out for poor old Mitchell’s?”
The driver was circumspect: “I get it, you’re trying to relive your youth, hangin’ on to the past. As the kids say, “Y.O.Y.O”” as they all climbed out on the dirty corner.
“You’re only young once?”
“No: You’re on your own.” and he sped off like a Chevy Bolt after the ghost of Thomas Edison.
Trying to be ceremonious, they poured half of their last Rolling Rocks on the sidewalk, and surprisingly, this instantly, spontaneously conjured up a full-sized squad car. The cop gave them a brief flash of siren which froze their blood instantly: then just as unpredictably, he drove on.They tossed the bottle in the trash and obediently hightailed it up the hill like chastened children.
“Man, that was close!” Thomas said panting for breath. “Why did we even care about Mitchell’s?”
“Yeah, that place always sucked. Fuck Mitchell’s.” Ande affirmed.
“Yeah, screw them!” Siri seconded, which got all three to laugh again.
“Remember, we had that happen before here: we were peeing on a tree when the cop hit the siren?” Thomas asked.
“Yeah,” Ande agreed. “Boy it sure would be nice to buy a beer instead of just renting one…”
“I wonder if it’s that same cop?”
“Come on, here’s a much better place,” Thomas said pushing open the door under the glowing neon Fireman’s hat at 307 North Craig. This next ghost of Tuesdays past was alive and kicking: Chief’s was not just an authentic Pittsburgh dive, it was also their first and favorite drive-thru distributor joint: (never got carded there once!) The bar was alive with movement and sounds; loud jazz mingled with happy banter all around them. The clientele was about 50% black, 50% white.
They pushed their way to the dark corner cubby in the back of the bar, under the Yuengling clock. The booth was converted into the drummer’s cubicle, it’s century old wood blackened and dented into eternal character. But as Ande called to the barkeep for some snacks, the saxophonist recognized the voice, turned, and suddenly Ande was face to face with Mark Jackovic of “The Jazz Influence”. This caused an abrupt and unplanned tacet al fine in “My Funny Valentine”.
“You!” the leader of the quartet howled. “You’re the guy who snuck up onstage with us at Gooski’s!”
“Alright, Jagoff-ic: if you’re done interrupting everyone’s music, we’ll take some peanuts and some pickled eggs, thanks.”
The normally placid drummer, David Hanson, climbed out of the drum enclosure.
“Man, that dude made off with my Vic Firth re-mix African grass brushes!”
Before you can even finish reading this sentence, two very large men had materialized at Ande’s elbows. He implored them sweetly:
“And a pitcher of your best IPA, mon-sewers. Whatever ‘IPA’ means. What is that, anyway...?” Ande asked while being taxied towards the exit like a balloon animal in a windstorm.
As he caught his balance on the sidewalk out front on North Craig Street, he thought of something the bouncers should probably know:
“I’ve been thrown out of better places than this, just this evening!”
WhenThomas and Siri joined him on the street, Ande was already more contrite.
“Sorry guys, I totally forgot Tuesday was Jazz night at Chief’s…”
“You’re lucky they didn’t throw you out the back door with the rest of the garbage: you really cannot play a note, my friend.”
“Can I help it if I never learned how to read drum music?” Ande lamented.
The night then proceeded to it’s Oakland segment: to the neighborhood surrounding the University of Pittsburgh. Their chariot for this portion of their trip down memory lane was a Honda Crosstour (which Car and Driver generously referred to as a ‘Hunchbacked Platypus’). With each new stage of the voyage, our sightseeing explorer’s drifted further into ravenous starvation, and further into unreality. The quest for food had taken on an illusory and mythical aspect, which colored every topic that came up.
“Or The Sonic Temple in Wilkinsburg (at 747 South Ave)! It was an old Masonic temple, and the purest music joint in the world…” Ande said in a dream. “For a few months back in Summer of 89... Little band called Nirvana played there before they made it big…”
“Yeah, I heard they did OK,” Thomas agreed. “But remember just a block away? Scotty’s Diner!!!”
“Scotty’s!” Ande cheered. “The greatest Diner in the world. This big guy with dark black skin was the cook every night after midnight: Buckwheat pancakes and home fries at 1am! I don’t think we’re ever going to eat again…”
“Stop it with your “empty well syndrome”, you’re killing me!”
“Empty Well Syndrome?” Siri quizzed them.
“It’s a Khalil Gibran idea: Fear that your well will go dry is the thirst that can never be assuaged,” Ande explained with growing fatigue.
“It’s a well-known phenomenon, Siri,” Thomas added. “I call it Holiday Inn Syndrome: that’s when you’re holed up in a motel room at night, and all of a sudden you’re afraid you’re going to run out of food at 2am... so you start stuffing your face with every crappy vending machine pastry you can lay your hands on. Doesn’t matter if you were hungry or not, the fear works on your mind!”
“Thomas I know we’re all hungry,” Siri implored. “But it is a scientific fact that Pittsburgh is not running out of food… you’re just making us more voracious.”
South Craig let onto Forbes Avenue, and they drove past a now empty parcel at 4620 Forbes, where ethereal neon blue lines floated on an invisible fence all along the road, and a sign read “Your Art Here!”.
“And this is where Pittsburgh’s most famous gay bar stood,” Ande announced. “The Holiday Bar. Right across the street from our old High School: Central Catholic High. And you know, a whole mess of those Christian Brothers were gay as birds…”
“Ande brought me in there once,” Thomas remembered proudly. “You also brought me to a gay biker bar down by the river, full of leather Queens,” he added. “And then Donny’s once at the bottom of Polish Hill… and Pegasus on Liberty Avenue…
Ande kind of sat on his hands, bobbed his head and looked out the window with a quarter smile.
“I always figured,” Thomas continued, “you were just trying to open my eyes, show me new experiences…”
“Maybe he was trying to secretly tell you he was gay or questioning,” Siri announced innocently as they crawled along in their hunchbacked platypus.
“Oh wait, did I just say that out loud too?” Siri asked cautiously to no one in particular. “I think I read minds sometimes. Maybe I am too hungry...”
Oakland in the 80’s and 90’s was a playground for the young adults, pumping bountiful music and alcohol on every street. Good music, too! Locked-in DJ’s on the top of their games, ear-pounding local bands with occasional national guests dropping in to jam unexpectedly. You could spend a blurry night happily wandering from kicking bass to screaming amps to blinding strobes to a solid mass of kids covering every square inch of a tiny dance floor from wall to wall to wall.
But time was not kind to Pittsburgh’s college paradise: the University bought up every property they could get their maniacal real estate craving hands on. Official slick new storefronts and facades replaced the grungy old haunts one by one. As the ambiance and spirit of the place faded and died, the last few remaining hold-outs read the graffiti on the wall: every single old club and party spot was now a medical building, fast food bunker, or an upscale apartment, but all of them had become the same thing: they were all memories. So the trip had become an unofficial historical cemetery tour: a bunch of scientists performing a post-mortem, reading the bones and ashes that were left in the clay. The autopsy sounded a little like this:
“Ladies and Gentlemens: travel with us now back in time, to Thursday Night in Oakland. Thursday became the de facto start of the weekend back in the 80’s. Partying Friday and Saturday felt predictable, expected, and even proscribed: Thursday felt more like a snow day for college kids; all fun, no pressure, no responsibilities.
“May I direct your attention to the brown brick building on your left? For close to 2 centuries, that was the home to Peter’s Pub at 116 Oakland Ave: Peter’s was the place to go to squeeze into a mass of other sardines, hear throbbingly loud live music upstairs, or to get a pair of Viking Horns on your 21’st birthday!”
“We are now coming up to the actual corner of Rock and Roll: The legendary Decade, on the corner of Atwood and Sennott.You know it’s legendary, because everyone says it was. Legendary performers played there when they passed through Oakland: the Ramones, may they rest in peace; Jon Bon Jovi, may he rest in peace; Bruce Springsteen, may he soon rest in peace, please. It was the undisputed home base for those with more normative traditional “Rocker” sensibilities. To illustrate: I was sitting across the street drinking with some friends when a guy runs in and yells ‘Dire Straights just came into the Decade and they’re probably gonna play something!’”
I think that pretty much says it all… if I wouldn’t even listen to Dire Straights or Springsteen on my bar’s jukebox, why would I get up from my comfy seat to go watch them live across the street?”
“Now if you look off to your left, you will see 3609 Forbes, the site of the late, lamented Upstage Lounge; but for years the marquee sign read simply ‘Upstairs at Mr. C’s: Mon Wave”. Beers were 25 cents; the music by Pittsburgh’s greatest DJ Harry the Wire never stopped, and the dancing never stopped until he played “She Sells Sanctuary” which meant the night was over, and 200 sweaty people trudged back down the stairs into the cool Oakland air.”
“Now folks, if you will cast your gaze up the street, you will see three horrifying missile silos: those are the underclass student dorms known as The Towers. And in their shadow, 117 South Bouquet: the one-time home to the one and only Zelda’s Greenhouse: and underclassmen bar notable for never once in its existence having carded a single student, (particularly not the cute girls from the Towers). But the best thing about Zelda’s, was that it was in “close proximity” to...
“The Original hot Dog Shop aka the Greasy O’s (right next door at 3901 Forbes). Did they even make Hot Dogs there? Who the hell cares? People only wanted one thing at the O, and they wanted lots of it: the world’s best and most embarrassingly humongous mass of French Fries! One order covered an entire table top (but leave room for all the little tubs of ketchup, cheez, and brown sauce…) The vast convoys of potato trucks that wound their way through the crowded hilly Oakland streets belied a secret: the fries were cooked TWICE in pure PEANUT OIL! AAAGH! JUST KILL ME NOW! BACK TO MY FOOL'S ERRAND, THE VAIN QUEST FOR CHOW; FOOD IS NOTHING BUT A CRUEL MEMORY WHICH TAUNTS ME: DO I NOT STARVE?”
(We apologize for the interruption, now back to your story…)
As Ande stood outside the empty sarcophagus of The Greasy O’s, Thomas had a Eureka moment in their latest Uber (a Honda Element which, per Car and Driver magazine, was made by “a mailtruck having sex with a Honda CR V”.
“Hey Siri,” Thomas said excitedly. “I know where to get some great nostalgic take-out food, no hassle, no compromising needed. Can you call this order in before Ande gets back in?”
As they drove down Bigelow Boulevard, they completed their scavenger hunt of Oakland’s musical venue’s of yore.
“Graffiti was right over there,” Ande announced (in the general direction of 4615 Baum Boulevard). “You could sit on weird couches, or right up by the stage while waitresses brought you high-balls and whiskey sours…”
“That may not have been a good combination,” Thomas pointed out. “I seem to remember you stopping The Roches show dead in its tracks by yelling something, and they kept asking you “What?” and you kept repeating it…”
“What was he yelling?” Siri asked.
“‘Oh you Roches!’” Thomas said laughing. “I was sitting right next to him and I couldn’t understand a word he was saying…”
“Ande, you know you have to keep eating if you want to keep going…”
“And we’ve gone such a long long way,” and whimpered.
“Alright, enough is enough of that!” Siri insisted. What is this quote you keep on repeating: why do you have to keep eating if you want to keep going?!”
“Oh, Siri,” Thomas said apologetically. “That’s probably the first book we ever read on our own: “Do you know what I’m Going to Do Next Saturday?’”
“Me and Thomas went to Kindergarten together,” Ande elaborated. “And they always wanted us to buy these Dr. Seuss’ ‘Beginner Books’, but our favorite was one with photographs of a kid having the most epic day in kid-History, and he says that line all through the book…”
“Yeah, then he eats a four foot stack of pancakes, and gallons of chocolate sundaes…”
“And donuts… and spaghetti… Oh, I would sell my eternal sould for some spaghetti,” Ande pouted.
“Well I got a surprise for you, then, my friend: I texted ahead for some takeout. Hey driver, can you please take us to 3887 Bigelow Blvd?”
“3887 Bigelow blvd,” Bad Ande repeated furtively. “3887 Bigelow Blvd… Why do I know that number?”
“Here you go, close your eyes and see if you can guess!”
Ande pulled his mask up over his eyes: “I smell tomato sauce!”
Bad Ande could scarcely forget a number, even if he tried his hardest to erase it from his RAM. Ande was the very first CMU student to participate in a psychological experiment on campus, to study memorization using groups of 3 or 4 numbers, coded with the student’s hobbies. Ande, a cross country runner in his youth, used running times to memorize up to a 200 number sequence once.
“38 minutes,” Ande pondered. “(that’s my 10K @ CMU freshman year at CMU 1981); 87 minutes: (that’s my first 25 K Pittsburgh Half Marathon 1980) Are we at The Electric Banana! My Man! They LOVE me in here!”
“Ande, you just sit in the car, I’ll take care of this one…”
“Are you kidding, Tommy Buoy?” Ande said sneaking out the passenger’s side with resolve. “I haven’t been inside here for 20 years. I gotta have a look.” This line of logic was unassailable, and yet foreboding.
“Did I mention: they used to LOVE me in here…”
“You’re not wrong, Ande. Again…” Thomas warned. “That is the Banana’s address, but...”
They barged through the front door long army green trench coat
“This place was the baddest, grungiest punk dive in all the world…”
With childlike joy He lowered his mask down to his neck and looked around, his broken-toothed smile fading instantaneously to a petulant scowl. He staggered forward like a 3am chalk-line.
“Waitaminit: Pink walls? Ferns? Tchotchkes? This isn’t my world… Dis-A-PPOINTED!!!” he bellowed as if he had a built-in megaphone.
From behind the counter, a striking woman of a certain age with long auburn hair and dark orange sunglasses, raised a big paper bag, stapled shut with a colorful receipt.
“Hey, honey: I didn’t know this order was for you!”
Bad Ande inhaled 5 lungs worth of the closed-in air:
“Ju-DEE? Judy Banana, izzat YOU?!”
From across the room, the little dead-eyed, hunched over “padrone” instantly ceased schmoozing at a customer’s table and lifted his gaze to Bad Ande.
“You?!” Johnny Zarra roared. The owner, well into his 80’s still moved like the 60’s era Doc Savage, grabbing his 70’s era Smith and Wesson (29-2 44) with the 100 mm barrel from the 50 year old lock box... without breaking stride.
“I thought I told you if you ever came back here…” Johnny bellowed raising the gun.
“Whoa, B. for Boogie, Ande!” Thomas yelled spinning Thomas and Siri around.
They ran past Judy and the unclaimed food:
“Oh no, not the garlic bread!!!” Ande yelled. “Judy, keep it hot for us, sweetheart!”
A tsunami of waving arms and legs squeezed out the door, onto Bigelow Blvd, and down the street in a scene straight out of the running of the bulls in Pamplona.
“I’ll get you, you stringy, no good pencil neck…” Johnny roared in hot pursuit, and Thomas quite rationally feared for his and his intoxicated running-mate’s survival.
But Thomas had forgotten a fascinating thing about Bad Ande: Even when Ande could barely walk from the door to the curb; even when each step lunged too far right then to too far left; even when he seemed in imminent risk of doing a facer at every moment… if for some reason Ande needed to move fast (to cross a street or avoid the cops) all of a sudden he temporarily regained the balance and coordination of a cheetah. The rarely seen phenomenon resurfaced tonight: even though he lurched out the front door like Foster Brooks getting off a Merry Go Round, with Johnny Banana hot on his heels Ande suddenly loped down the street like a gazelle seeing the savanna for the last time. At the crosswalk of North Dithridge, they zigzagged up one of Pittsburgh’s many hidden, bizarre, steep hillside pathways. As always, the strange shortcut was partially buried in lush green ivy, honeysuckle, and kudzu, but they weren’t there for sightseeing: they did not stop till they reached the top. As they stood panting on narrow Andover Terrace, on the street far below an angry little Italian man accosted pedestrians for info.
“Ande, what the HELL did you do?” Thomas gasped between breaths.
“How could I remember, I haven’t been to the Banana for 20 years!” Ande protested. “Although... it may have had something to do with Judy Banana…”
Judy Zarra, a beautiful soul and a former go-go dancer, was the heart and spirit of the Electric Banana. She used to mother the younger punks and skin-heads, especially on all-ages night, when she’d bring them food and drinks and listen to their sad stories… Johnny Banana, on the other hand… some days, Johnny could be the king of bad vibrations, and many a band had to walk away with only $100 pay (or Johnny would pull out the old Handcannon)!
“How could I be: After all these years, Johnny remembered me!
“Hey, Ande,” Thomas added strategically. “...we’re STARVING! And everyone knows, you’ve got to keep eating…”
“If you want to keep going! I know!”
“Is there any place you won’t get thrown out of?”
“We’re just a mile from Gooski’s, they don’t throw me out much...”
“Why don’t you just tell them you’re bringing back their African Grass drum sticks?” Siri suggested innocently.
“You know, Thomas, she’s really quite funny,” Ande mused. “This one’s a keeper, Thomas.”
“But I’m not kidding…” Siri said in confusion.
“Alright: I know one place here on Polish Hill where you can’t get 86’d. Even if you try to eject yourself, you still can’t get out…”
“That sounds… compromising.” Siri fretted.
“Thomas, have I ever steered you wrong?”, Ande asked, then without waiting for a reply he said “Driver, bring us to 935 Herron Ave, Proszę!”
Their last Uber of the night was a Lincoln MKT (“with the grin of a baleen whale”, says Car and Driver!) The three exhausted passengers stared out at the darkening gloom from the back seat. Gentle waves of existential discomfort washed over them. The purpose of the evening’s trip: retracing a lost past, reliving better times of their youth, reconnecting with long-forgotten bohemian student ideals and priorities of art and love and discovery... was losing any meaning or relevance or import as they sat silent, hungry, and disaffected. The clear implication, just below the surface, was: "Is this all our lives were about? We thought we were so brave, so free, so original. But we were just passengers, running around the Habitrails other people made for us." In their memories, they had seemed so cool, so creative and wild: now in the cold LED street-light of reality, they just seemed boring, predictable, and pathetic. But the only thing more embarrassing, more cringe inducing than continuing, was the thought of cutting their losses, of calling the evening over, of mentioning home or work. The expected behavior in college was to always stay the evening’s course; never say or do anything awkward. But they were grown up now, and tonight had truly become one ongoing slow-motion train-wreck that had piled up cars first along the Monongahela, then the Ohio, and now finally along the Allegheny River. There was no possible reason not to cut bait and go home now…
“You know,” Ande broke the silence. “You always say we have to try new experiences. Be willing to go off radar. Well, here we are.”
And there they were, on a dark empty corner at a darker emptier building.
“You sure this is where you want to get off?” the driver asked with great foreboding.
“Oh yeah, I’ve been coming here since high school…” Ande said, but as he turned back, the MKT had already breached and dove deep into the black asphalt of Polish Hill, too late at night, too far from shore.
“The YUMPA’s?!" Thomas exclaimed. "Are you kidding me, Ande?”
“Waitaminnit Thomas,” Siri said in a very worried voice. “This is important: that thing I said earlier about reading minds… that might have been true. And I think there’s something very wrong here.”
“Hey Siri," Thomas heard himself say fatefully. "Don’t you think we should get poor Ande something to eat, finally?”
“Thomas, I don’t like this:” her voice took on some low machine overtones, like through a Leslie rotor speaker.
“Don’t worry, you guys,” Ande said quite reassuringly outside the clearly abandoned, and most likely condemned triangular, yellow brick building. The front bore impenetrable glass block windows, and the roof shingles were arranged to spell out the letters “YMPAA”
“They love me here! I’ll get us in. There’s a secret knock, known only to the initiated, and only passed on directly, member to member…”
He ceremoniously approached the worn, lead paint-scaled door, and knocked, loudly and deliberately, five solemn booms, slowly in a row (for “Y-M-P-A-A”)
“That’s it?” Thomas asked incredulously. “That’s your super secret knock?”
“Let’s not go in…” Siri moaned, almost crying.
But before Thomas could respond, the door groaned and creaked. A crack of broken yellow light escaped like carbon monoxide fumes. Four fingers pushed through the crack and swung the ancient portal open. There, silhouetted in the orange and purple light of dereliction stood a tall, thin man, his restless blue-ringed eyes framed by a heedless shock of black hair and a beard dripping with some darkening unknown liquid.
“You... “ he said in baleful Russian-inflected syllables. Then with a horribly toothy smile: “We’ve been waiting for you…”
And before they could raise a sound in objection, Ande had vanished through the door into the smoke-filled stairwell.
“The Yumpa’s,” Thomas summarized. “Who would have thought it?”