SIDNEY STREET, SOUTH SIDE OF PITTSBURGH, FEBRUARY 14, 1994.
Marks the first time I had ever drawn caricatures for tips in a bar. Nobody else wanted the job when it came across the AIP freelance program advisor’s desk. Every other artist had passed it up. I needed the money.
They sent her a password, which she forwarded to me. 8PM, I believe it was Valentines Day. Word was it was a dilapidated speakeasy from the 20’s that someone had restored and they wanted to keep that image going. It was rumored that it was Al Capone’s hang out when he did business with the Pittsburgh Mafia. Oh yes! There is mafia everywhere in Pittsburgh… Lots of Irish and Italians… There’s a catholic church or a pub on every block and every cop and fireman talked like he was from Brooklyn or Boston.
I was a naïve kid from Ohio who was too dumb or too brave (not sure which to this day…) to go to a place like this and draw caricatures of this bar’s patrons for tips. I usually got paid by the hour but they didn’t offer to pay an hourly wage. They wanted to see if they could get someone to come for free. An exposure gig. I admit it. It was probably a mistake to take it, but I thought it sounded fun and anything that involved free beers was OK with me.
My girlfriend at the time was a little worried. She thought it was a bad idea too, but then again, what (non-drinking) girlfriend is fond of her (drinking!) boyfriend going to the bar without her on Valentines Day?
East Carson Street, on the South Side of Pittsburgh has more bars per square mile than any other place on the planet, or at least it did at the time of this story. Most of them were dive bars where locals hang out. Many of them have a theme, be it sports or ethnicity, a cartoon character, music venue, etc… Most have names, most close at 2am. Some don’t. For those surly patrons who like to sip cocktails and shoot the shit till the wee hours of the morning, there are the after hours bars. Some have food. Most close at 4AM. Again, some don’t. Some don’t even have a name, and there are just a select few where you might just get rolled if you don’t don’t “know a guy”. This was one was the latter. The mafia theme wasn’t a gimmick. This became very apparent soon after I arrived.
The door to the club was set about 30 feet off of the street, down a bricked in alley. There was a small door with a small frosted window with a simple white logo of an animal on it (for identification, but I can’t remember what it was, might have been a bird) I knocked on the door and a slit underneath the window opened up.
A heavy breathing, chubby, Italian man with a porn stache in a too-tight tuxedo peeked out of the slit, looked me over, took a sip of a tiny, watered down looking coke through a coffee stirrer and slid the slit shut. I knocked again and he told me to go away. So I knocked one last time and I told him what I was doing there and the slit came back open and he got a whole lot more interested. Apparently nobody had told him I was coming and it was supposed to be a surprise. He asked me if I knew the password and when I told it to him he opened the door.
The other side of the door was darker than the side I had been on. Dimly lit by small orange glass light fixtures that looked to be original. The hallway was green vertical pinstripes until it opened into a large, smokey, semi-circle bar area with wood paneling and a dark green cigarette burned carpet that smelled like the bowling alley my mom used to take me to when I was a kid and she was on the company league. The room was brightly lit with florescent lights embedded in a mirrored drop ceiling and it also had mirrors above the paneled chair rail all around the room. A few vintage neon bar signs hung behind the bar and there were a few pictures of famous Italians like Dino, Frank, Al Capone and Louis Prima. The picture of Sophia Loren looked like a more recent addition. “This shit was legit”, is what I remember thinking at the time.
There was nobody there except for me and the bartender and some girl who was a waitress. The bartender had on a tux shirt with a red bowtie and vest and the girl was dressed up like a cigarette girl from the 20’s. I pulled out a cigarette and she lit it for me. I was immediately impressed. “Every time a woman has to light her own cigarette she loses 20% of her sex appeal”, She said. “Just something you might want to remember”.
The bartender was very interested in what I did and he wanted to see what I could do right away. He explained to me that his boss, who wasn’t there but would probably come by later had probably arranged for me to come.
Rather than bringing an easel I had given some thought to how to best present myself while walking around in a strange bar. I assumed I would get bumped alot so I figured the least amount of stuff I could get away with bringing along the better. I had prepared for the job by purchasing a few of the expensive 100 page 11×14 sketchpads from the AIP store that had archival paper and I had some of the plastic Faber Castell Design 2 markers in various states of wear (which I loved but they no longer make). It took about 8 minutes for me to draw the bartender. It wasn’t my best work but it passed apparently. He was so proud of it he immediately hung it on the mirror behind the bar. I of course drew the waitress and then the chubby fat doorman with the little mustache and they both loved them and I got some free drinks and all was good.
I had on jeans, converse all stars and a (man’s) button down denim shirt that belonged to my girlfriend. I had a paisley tie as well. Even though everybody had on tuxes or some other costume they set my mind at ease that I was dressed OK. I was still pretty nervous and as there was nobody there yet, I was also bored. Not a good combo.
Even though I had already had 2 shots of Jaegermeister, I must have looked pretty nervous and bored too because it wasn’t long till it was suggested that I go look around the place, so I did. On the other side of the hallway from the bar there were some stairs, also covered in thick dark green carpet and there was wood paneling going up the stairs. Second floor was even smokier and there was an empty room at the top of the stairs. Literally empty. The room was very brightly lit with florescent lights. It was harsh light and it’s harshness only accentuated the emptiness. No chairs, tables, etc… In fact part of the green carpet was missing and you could see the plywood underneath. On the other side of the topless broken bannister at the top of the stairs was a dark room with poker machines and gambling tables set up. As I didn’t have any interest at all in gambling, I was again instantly bored. The club was build into a normal south side row house and was pretty small but the third floor had a small kitchen area (where later on there was free pizza I think) and another bar, where I drew the bartender, who was a surly old guy who didn’t talk much and I left the third floor soon after arriving there. The waitress and I talked until about 9:30 when we heard some voices downstairs. I must have lit at least 3 cigarettes for her.
I think it is fair to say that every single person I met that night was a character. The first people I drew were in their 50’s but had smoked so much they looked 70. The guy had a bad haircut and a bad dye job, a little mustache and a suit that looked like he bought it at a garage sale. I deducted that he was a used car salesman or something. He had a flashy smile and happy eyes though. Seemed like a very friendly guy. His girl was about 5 years younger and had big hair that was dyed black. She wore too much makeup, too much jewelry and had a few too many teeth I think. Maybe it just appeared that way at the time… I remember she had on a red wool coat with a mink collar and she smelled like a mixture of FDS, mothballs and Primo (a Georgio of Beverly Hills knock off) that about made me gag. She was nice though too and they were excited with the drawing I did of them. They showed it off to the bartender and another couple that was at the bar, (whom I drew next) and the next thing I knew I was busy drawing people for about 2 hours straight. It was about 1AM when it slowed down. Being I think a Wednesday, it was a “school night” and the crowd that got invited more than likely weren’t the “party all night” kind anymore as almost everyone was over 50 and wore sunglasses. Inside. At night.
A couple of drawings/customers that stood out were a couple early on that tipped me $20, which set the tone for the next few drawings among their circle of friends who got drawn. Then there was the cheap guy in that clique that refused to get one telling the rest of them that I was a “scam” somehow and spend the next 5 minutes fighting with his wife as I drew the next group of people.
A couple of strippers who came with each other and wanted to dance with me while I drew them. One walked away mid drawing and the other one who was all coked up or something, was hitting on me. They met up with a guy who was doing lines off the bar upstairs and he was a pretty big tipper. I saw him later downstairs. Instinctively I tried to avoid him but he kinda pinned me down when I was drawing some of his friends and he tipped me $20 each for each drawing totaling $60 and didn’t even want a drawing of himself. He told the bartender to hook me up and so I assume he was the owner of the club maybe. ?
There were of course the sloppy geriatric old school mafia dudes who wore their well built suits like Snuggys, sitting on the far side of the bar, facing the door, leaning on the bar and smoking cigars and talking quietly to themselves. They didn’t want any stinking caricatures even though the “owner” insisted they get one. The owner left so I didn’t push it and moved on.
There were a few younger folks that showed up later and kinda ‘rock starred” the crowd. They hung around for a drink, got a caricature, were pretty cool then left. They might have been with the owner or one of the hipper older guys. I don’t have any idea how they crashed the party but they were out of place for sure and they knew it and I think they wanted to get out as soon as possible.
I saw one of the strippers puke and I later heard that she fell down the stairs and had to be escorted out. Her friend left soon after.
Then there was Mr. Hock… He was an old skinny hard ass type dude with a big Italian nose and a horrible grey toupee. He wore loafers, slacks and a sweatshirt with a polo underneath almost every time I ever saw him. He had 2 sons that had a place a few blocks away and he wanted to know if I would be interested in drawing for tips there. I knew I was making pretty decent money at the club that night even though it was a weird crowd, so I told him SHIT YEAH I would! He gave me his son’s card and I called him a few days later to go down and meet him.
So, as I was finishing up and the bar was winding down, the bartender was giving me shots till I could barely stand up. (which was a lot considering how much I drank at the time) He was trying to figure out how much I made. I didn’t want to know or count it till I got home. Growing up in the 70’s I knew full well that “you never count your money while your sitting at the table. There’d be time enough for counting when the dealing was done”.
(-Kenny Rogers reference in case you didn’t know.)
I think I rode my bike there and back which would have meant that I crossed the Birmingham bridge on a cold winter night to get back to my place where my girlfriend was already sleeping. I woke her up and counted my money on the coffee table, sitting on the edge of the foldaway couch-bed in my studio apartment while she went down the hall to the bathroom. When she got back I had just finished counting. It was mostly large bills. She asked me how much and I screamed, “HOLY SHIT!! I MADE TWO HUNDRED AND NINETY DOLLARS!!!”, threw the money up in the air and we both took off our clothes and rolled around naked in it on the bed and laughed!
(Which was highly unhygienic of course)
Easily one of the most memorable nights of my life.
All rights reserved. Adam Pate. Copyright 2013