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The life and times of a Pennsylvania bar.


There’s nothing about the two-story building at 1301 Kennedy Avenue that would indicate that it’s a drinking establishment. (And as far as the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is concerned, it isn’t.) The wide façade looks like an Eighties-era Macintosh was programmed with the rudiments of Tudor revival architecture, with the output executed by a few handymen: irregular rectangles of off-white stucco punctuated by thin brown beams, with five windows and a small air-conditioning unit distributed seemingly at random. The front door, of a residential rather than commercial style, is just to the left of center. This is Craig’s place.

The bar occupies the front two-thirds of the first floor. The remainder of that level is set aside as a small living space, used first by Craig’s ailing father and later by priests visiting the Diocese of Pittsburgh to deliver appeals for far-flung missions, but the floor now lists like a sinking ship. Upstairs are more suitable quarters—a full apartment Craig’s family has used off and on during his nearly four decades of proprietorship.

During those years, Craig has served friends and strangers from behind a fifteen-foot-long black counter along the rear wall of the building. Today, there is also a modern electronic dart board, three or four video poker machines of differing vintages (and, presumably, variable odds), and an ancient jukebox. Besides the bar seating, there are two long tables in the middle of the room, one high and one low; the latter rests beneath a dingy set of “Miller Genuine Draft” billiard lights. The bar could seat twenty-five patrons comfortably, and hold a mingling crowd of at least fifty.

More than anything else, it’s the walls that attract attention. Each is adorned with a mural of an American landscape loved by the artist, Craig’s father-in-law, who died shortly after completing them in the late Nineties: the Painted Desert of Arizona, the foothills of the Rockies, and a New England beach beset by choppy seas. The dim lighting and decades of nicotine do the murals no favors, but they remain transporting and affecting. They are alms of beauty.

The very first thing you see when you walk into Craig’s bar, though, is his trophy case. From the beginning of his life in 1947, Craig had nurtured dreams of playing in the majors. In those days the paths to the pros were less channelized. Sandlot could lead to semi-pros could lead to a minor-league contract could lead to a major-league career. But Craig never got beyond a sniff at the second level, and his apex was managing a suburban sandlot team to a tourney in Charleston, West Virginia, in 1975. The case contains awards and uniforms from 1968 through the mid-Eighties, when he decided the energy he was dedicating to the game was no longer equal to the joy he got out of it.

The disintegrating jerseys have “West Mifflin” sewn on the chest in that distinctive baseball script. This is where Craig has lived for nearly seventy of his years. It’s one of the most populous townships in the hills around Pittsburgh, but it would be a mistake to call it simply a Pittsburgh suburb. It’s also a suburb of the numerous mill towns that line the Monongahela River. Mill hunks who made it to the petty bourgeoisie moved up the hills and over the border; during the Fifties, the first decade of the terminal decline of the towns, West Mifflin expanded by fifty percent. The eastern mass of the dumbbell-shaped township takes up about half of a curious piece of rugged land veined with infrastructure-filled ravines and cradled on three sides by a ten-mile bend in the Mon. Here it neighbors the infamous Homestead (site of Frick’s Pinkerton massacre), the superfluous Whitaker (less than half a square mile of modest hilltop homes), and, in the southeast corner of the bend, the wretched Duquesne—home of Craig’s bar.

Mencken famously described the landscape in the valleys around Pittsburgh as “a scene so dreadfully hideous, so intolerably bleak and forlorn that it reduced the whole aspiration of man to a macabre and depressing joke.” Of the residential architecture, he said:

It is as if some titanic and aberrant genius, uncompromisingly inimical to man, had devoted all the ingenuity of Hell to the making of them. They show grotesqueries of ugliness that, in retrospect, become almost diabolical. One cannot imagine mere human beings concocting such dreadful things, and one can scarcely imagine human beings bearing life in them.

The Sage of Baltimore’s contempt for the common was particularly unrestrained in “The Libido for the Ugly,” but his subject was defenseless. The Mon Valley is beautiful, in spite of what has been done to her; she is beautiful in the hints of what once was and what can still be, in a melancholic mode that requires context and explanation and compassion. Berton Roueché, in his famous account of the Donora Smog of 1948—a meteorological anomaly that killed twenty and sickened thousands by trapping poisonous fumes in a town a dozen miles south—described the Monongahela of Craig’s childhood like this:

Its course is cramped and crooked, and flanked by bluffs and precipitous hills. Within living memory, its waters were quick and green, but they are murky now with pollution, and a series of locks and dams steady its once tumultuous descent, rendering it navigable from source to mouth. Traffic on the Monongahela is heavy. Its shipping, which consists almost wholly of coal barges pushed by wheezy, coal-burning sternwheelers, exceeds in tonnage that of the Panama Canal. The river is densely industrialized. There are trucking highways along its narrow banks and interurban lines and branches of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central and smelters and steel plants and chemical works and glass factories and foundries and coke plants and machine shops and zinc mills, and its hills and bluffs are scaled by numerous blackened mill towns.

Craig first bought a bar in Duquesne—one of those blackened mill towns—in 1979 with a twelve-thousand dollar loan from a West Coast relative. He erected the current building in 1984, the same year U.S. Steel’s Duquesne Works, a riverside behemoth that had sustained the town for a century, shuttered for good. By that time the town’s population had decreased to turn-of-the-century levels, a decline of more than fifty percent from the peak of over twenty thousand residents in the 1930s. There are now about five thousand people in Duquesne, earning a median household income of well under thirty thousand dollars. It is one of the poorest towns in Pennsylvania, and almost certainly the most derelict.

Craig specialized in derelicts. This bend in the Mon seemed to have enclosed a reservoir of weirdness—like the toxic smog down in Donora—and Craig was accustomed to the idiosyncrasies of the Valley. But the regulars at his bar were the losers among the weirdos. There was an irony, he observed to me, in his becoming so at home with these people. After all, he had spent decades in baseball, playing and managing, in order to after being labeled a loser in school and on the diamond. He was never as good as he (or his father) thought, and it took much longer than it should have to come to terms with that truth. But when he did, he felt a genuine love for the visage behind the black eye—whether of his patrons or of his town.

One way he sought and nurtured the dignity of his people was to transcribe their stories. Craig’s bar notes cover the late winter and early spring of 1983, then pick up again in 1986 and 1987, ending in August of that year. These were among the hardest years in Duquesne, as the town anticipated and then coped with the end of the mill. The notes are an incomparable, and at times uncomfortably voyeuristic, account of the wages of spiritual despair and deindustrialization.

Craig has a knack for chronicling the absurd, with clever narrative timing to boot. Here is how he introduces one character, Jane Smouse:

Jane was married to Moe Gretz but you would of never known it. Jane would always be seen with her boyfriend, J.R.
Jane had a workable agreement with Moe, Moe was not to come in the bar when Jane was with J.R. Jane told me that her old man was understanding; he was super! When Moe would walk into the bar and saw Jane with J.R., Moe would sit by himself, away from where Jane was sitting and he acted like Jane and J.R. weren’t even here. Yea Moe, it’s a perfectly normal situation! . . .
There was a classic Jane, J.R., and Moe incident that happened on New Years Eve of 1980. Jane felt sorry for Moe, because he had no place to go for the night, so she allowed him to be in the bar with her and J.R. This was rough on Jane because she had to spend half the time with Moe, and half the time with J.R. Somehow Moe got to be standing next to J.R. and Moe had a few drinks in him and he told J.R. that if he messed with his old lady, he would kill him. To my surprise, J.R. was expressionless, he calmly continued to sip on his drink as if Moe never said a word to him. Jane had it made, she had two men fighting over her and this would make some women happy but not Jane, Jane didn’t care for neither one, Jane cared for GG, her girlfriend! I mean GG was her girlfriend like in a lesbian way. J.R. always resented GG, and had to compete for Jane’s affections with GG.

The notes are rarely moralistic but do sometimes lapse into disgust, more about hygiene and sloth and ingratitude than sex and violence, which are taken for granted. (The descriptions of proclivities and hookups and shifting webs of relationships form a kind of anti-pornography, making the sexual act seem irredeemably tawdry.) They describe the bar, implicitly and often explicitly, as a kind of ministry. This is a refrain to which Craig returns time and again in correspondence and conversation. But it would be hyperbole worthy of Pangloss or Pollyanna to call it a ministry of healing or restoration rather than one of mitigation. It is a ministry of the less-bad.

Is the bar good? Craig is undoubtedly correct that without his bar, his patrons would indulge their vices somewhere more squalid and exploitative. (Duquesne is one of the many towns in the region to claim to have a record number of bars—and churches—per capita.) Whether that justifies serving breakfast beers to alcoholics is not a question a catechism would likely answer in the affirmative, but maybe it’s not a question suited to catechisms in the first place. Perhaps it would have been better for Craig to have become a social worker or a medical doctor or a priest, but these were not open to him (though in his younger days he considered the last one). And, as is clear from his accounts, in the Mon Valley everyone—even and especially the professionals—was in the mitigation business.

Perhaps it would have been better for Craig to have done nothing at all. He was an officer in the United Steelworkers across the river in McKeesport—a role he kept even after opening his establishment—and so had a little more security than most. Maybe he could have moved further away from the Valley, somewhere more respectable with a name pulled from a midcentury guide to suburban toponymy: Pleasant Hills or White Oak. But the enormous National Tube Works in McKeesport (“Tube City”) lasted just three years longer than the Duquesne Works, and Craig had no marketable skills save his talent behind the plate, such as it was. As likely as not, pursuing traditional stability would have ended with him becoming a barfly rather than a barkeep.

And the truth is that mitigation can be noble. Some of the most frequently recurring characters in Craig’s notes are members of the Steele family. The Steeles were poor people in the way that a family might be Irish or, in another age, Catholic: it was just how they were. There was nothing to be done about it, and they couldn’t imagine being anything else. The clan had roots in the Kentucky hill country and a branch in Middletown, Ohio, the town between Cincinnati and Dayton where J.D. Vance grew up.

Three members of the clan are recurring characters in Craig’s drama: sisters Janet and Jean, and their niece, Marge. All three were raised by Janet and Jean’s parents—Marge’s grandparents—in the same Riverview housing project where Craig spent most of his childhood. The red brick townhouses, perched on a bluff overlooking McKeesport across the Mon, are uniform and bland, but somehow escaped the ugliness foisted on other public charges in the Valley. (The “Hilltop Parkview Manor” in Duquesne looks like a prison; the “Mon-View Heights” on West Mifflin’s border with Whitaker looks like a barracks painted one of the very few shades of blue-green that can be described as putrid.) Riverview is a half mile from Craig’s bar; many of his patrons walked or bummed rides from there or from Burns Heights, a similar development nearby.

The Steeles’ unifying characteristic, Craig remembers, was a pathological lack of seriousness. They were nonchalant about events that for most people would be the source of joy or anxiety. In one of Jean’s first appearances in the notes, for instance, she “was going to be evicted in 5 days but you never would of known it. . . . I think I was more worried about her eviction that she was.” He knew this about them from childhood, when the disheveled girls would be ignored by their caretakers who had beer with (or instead of) their cereal. He had committed, in that vague way that good-hearted children do, to do the Steeles a good turn one day. This childlike decency never left Craig—he has it now in his seventies—and he ended up doing more good turns for them than he could have expected.

Jean did find a new place to live, but she wasn’t allowed to bring her dog. So Mitzy the mutt stayed around the bar—where one of her pups already lived. Craig had adopted R.T. (for “Rounding Third,” the actual name of the bar) when Mitzy had a litter Jean couldn’t care for. In one of the first pages of the notes from 1986, Craig writes with more than a hint of exasperation: “Somehow I was invited to be a member of their family and whenever there was a crisis, whether it was to get rid of their dog’s puppies or to take their dog to the veterinarian or now to be an aid to them, I was called.”  On that night Craig had been woken up to tend to a suicidal Jean in her home; he helped to calm her enough to be taken to the hospital. The next day Jean complained that he had been interfering.

The first set of notes, from February to early May 1983, opens at an inflection point for Marge, the niece. In her early twenties, Marge was the bar’s resident beauty, with black hair and, Craig added in the margin to the typed notes, “sympathetic eyes.” Like her mother she suffered from mental illness, probably schizophrenia, but when lucid she could also be vicious. While she had a few long-term relationships, for most of her adult life it was an open question where she would spend each night: the county jail, a local hospital, a mental facility, or the home—and often, as part of the arrangement, the bed—of a male friend.

Marge had given birth to her fourth child the previous autumn; she did not have custody of any of the other three, and the sixteenth of February would be the last day she’d have custody of this one. The baby girl’s father was in prison for assaulting Marge, and so when she and Jean were in the bar arguing and fighting, Craig figured the five-month-old was home alone. After losing some of her dark hair in Jean’s fist, Marge retreated from the bar, only to return later with the baby. To avoid a rematch with the baby present, Craig told Marge to leave. She complied, put the baby on a sidewalk bench, and wandered away, eventually returning to the bar once again. During all this, Craig dispatched a mutual friend to take the baby girl to her own home.

When Marge got around to checking on her child, she was gone. She accused everyone within shouting distance of kidnapping, then hustled to the police station. The cops immediately made an arrest—of her, for public intoxication and child neglect. (The police in several Mon Valley jurisdictions were familiar with Marge.) They knew where to go to get the story. When they arrived at Craig’s, the baby was back at the bar because no sober member of the clan could be found to care for her. The little girl was placed with a foster family until her father was released from prison; all that Craig knows of her is that she accompanied her father to Chicago.

Marge was released from prison and relieved of custody of her daughter a few weeks later. On the very day of her hearing she was back in the bar, leading to one of the harshest condemnations in the notes:

Seeing Marge get high morning noon and night was repulsive especially because she just gave up another child and it didn’t faze her. But this shouldn’t of surprised me because after Angel was born, Marge’s third baby, Marge walked into the bar, directly coming from the hospital while Angel had to stay in the hospital because she didn’t weigh enough to be discharged. I could not figure out how Marge drank and shed not a tear over her babies!

Despite his disgust, Craig would remain on good terms with Marge. One night she was astonished when he offered her a place to sleep—and only to sleep. Conditioned from birth to believe that every act of kindness incurred a debt, and that her body was the most valuable currency she had, she seems to have decided that night that Craig was the one person in her wicked little world she could trust. In 1987, she asked Craig to arrange for the adoption of her fifth child, a boy, to friends of his—local pizza shop owners. For this Marge was genuinely grateful, but in the years to come she would leverage the child to pry free food and cash from the couple. If her womb was good only as a means of getting what she wanted from others, why should its fruits be any different?

This boy was, according to Marge, the son of Jay Miller, the most ambitious and violent criminal in the bar. Jay was Jean’s husband. He was in federal prison for the duration of the 1983 notes, but returned to Duquesne in December of 1986. His first act was to accost the man who had filled Jay’s role as Jean’s lover and abuser in his absence. Craig suspects that the man’s life was spared by Jay’s respect for Craig and his bar: Jay had been assured of Craig’s chaste good will toward his family in his absence. Craig recounts a favor he did for Jay:

I took Jay M. for his drivers test, partly because I wanted to stay on the good side of this “nut” and secondly because I never wanted it said that I didn’t help out an ex-con. On the way down I got to talk to Jay, and he was a perfect gentleman, too nice. . . . [With] Jean describing how rotten he was to her and the kids back home, I realized that this was a game that he was playing. . . . Jay was not to be trusted, and I knew that all the more after the ride with him.

Five days later the Duquesne police removed Jean from her home for her protection. They did not arrest Jay. Six days after that, on February 16, Jay poured a beer on Marge in the bar: She was his new girl. (“All bigtime criminals need a ‘ma’ to be at their side and Marge will play the fool.” Then, around one in the morning on March 5, Craig got a call for Jean from the police in Middletown, Ohio: Jay and Marge had been arrested for robbing Ed Steele, Jean’s brother. Jay was eventually tied to a post office break-in in Duquesne, which brought federal charges. He died in prison, and no one claimed his cremated remains. Craig buried them in his parish cemetery.

The notes end in August of 1987 with the death of Stanley Galik, Craig’s father. Stanley had been in the bar business himself—it was what gave Craig the confidence to give it a try—albeit with a very different outcome. He surrendered to his cravings for women and drink, left his family, lost the bar, and became a vagrant in Homestead. During his final four months, though, he lived more or less peacefully in the room behind his son’s bar, while his wife and son lived upstairs. Craig is unashamed to say that he sought his father’s approval his entire life, and that the bar had become his primary means of earning it:

This is the end of my diary. Everything that I did to the bar, I wanted to show those improvements to my dad. I wanted him to be proud of me, but now there is no more dad to try and please. Maybe I could get these notes published in dad’s memory? I keep thinking I can see dad in heaven, smiling and saying “that’s my boy.”

Stanley’s death served as a memento mori in another part of Craig’s life: he had lived with his girlfriend Lisa for several years, and it was time to put things right. “I learned that I had to do things that were supposed to be done, because if I waited, the opportunity might be gone forever the next day.” At Christmastime they were wed. Both wanted to have children, but this proved impossible.

Marge had two more children, though. Ian Stanley was born on March 6, 1989, and Lauren was born on April 11, 1990. Craig arranged to adopt both babies ahead of time, and accompanied Marge to McKeesport Hospital for their births. Both times hospital staff thought he was the father. And who could begrudge him that honor?

The family’s life has not been easy. Ian inherited his mother’s volatile mental illness and has other physical and intellectual limitations. Lauren shares her mother’s suspiciousness and suffers from thiamine deficiency. Both live with Craig in a modest yellow-brick house across the Saint Joseph’s Parish Cemetery from the bar, and a stone’s throw from the Riverview projects where he grew up. Lisa has suffered from mental illness herself, and the couple split, though she lives nearby and remains close with the family.

Marge would see the children—her children—around the bar over the following years. Visiting Marge after their births, Craig witnessed a pure, vulnerable maternal affection that he’d never seen in her at the bar. It was a vision of the person who might have been. She wanted to love the children, but she loved her addictions more. In the late Nineties she joined the Middletown branch of the clan, where she died at the age of forty-one. When Craig arrived in Middletown to view the woman who gave birth to his children, the Steele clan received him as a member of the family.

Mencken wrote, in qualified praise of the Catholic Church, that “religion is not a syllogism, but a poem.” The claim may be underdetermined, but it’s more true than false. No syllogism can account for this land embraced by the Monongahela, or for the lives of the people who have no choice but to try to love it, and one another. No syllogism can explain the nobility that not only co-exists with but emerges from such ugliness.

But there is poetry, a grace that imbues the words with a meaning beyond themselves, in Craig’s declaration that the bar is not “a den of iniquity or a place of evil but a place to improve my spiritual life, and others.” That mission continues today. At seventy-three years of age, Craig still has that lanky old-time baseball physique, though his hair has withdrawn into white wisps, like a dandelion. He speaks quickly and softly and meaningfully. The bar is now more of a communal living room, open daily from four to seven, where Craig’s friends donate a few dollars and he distributes cans from an old fridge.

I saw Ian Stanley, now thirty-one, on a recent visit. His smooth black ponytail, handsome face, and darker skin would get him cast by Hollywood in a hokey television drama as a shy but knowing American Indian. His awkward gait and cadence hint at his struggles, but he happily shot darts and the breeze with a loud middle-aged man wearing bright green pants and a T-shirt torn down his sternum—a crack addict, Craig warned me, as he casually but paternally observed the scene.

Next to me at the bar was a man wearing a name tag for reasons known only to himself who got into an argument over toilets with his neighbor, who spoke with a nearly impenetrable slur. Meanwhile a group of friends congregated at the high table. They had brought cheese and pepperoni and crackers to enjoy with their beer. The local news was on the televisions—Donald Trump was coming to town for an airport rally—but the cable cut in and out. A woman wordlessly brought a plate of snacks from the picnic to the man with the name tag, and he thanked her. When I went to my car, the quiet and crumbling streets of Duquesne seemed a little less desolate than they had when I arrived, and I felt like I was finally beginning to understand the bar not as an anthropologist, but as a fellow man.

Craig wrote on the last page of the notes:

I look upon it as not a curse dealing with people who might seem to some to be undesirable, but I thank God that I was able to cross their paths before they died and I hoped that I did my job to help them get ready to face God. . . . So people can think what they want about the bar business, as long as I don’t change and as long as I continue to try to do good works, then I can live with myself.

Brandon McGinley is the author of The Prodigal Church: Restoring Catholic Tradition in an Age of Deception.

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Brandon McGinley is the author of The Prodigal Church: Restoring Catholic Tradition in an Age of Deception.