Tuesday, August 8, 2017

New Segment -- The Vices of Chuck: an Exploration of Pittsburgh’s Unsung Sanctuaries


Hi once again, jags, jagettes, and fellow enthusiasts of the sauce, the creature, the good stuff – be your beverage of choice a domestic lager or an absurd cocktail served in a repurposed aquarium.

Between bouts of sports-driven mayhem, I manage to make it out on occasion to the hangout, the haunt, the dive. Just as often, I write about things that tolerate – or enable – my poor decisions and unabridged fits of cursing despite their being no missed tackles, throwing errors, or wretched turnovers in the neutral zone. I swear these events are purely coincidental.

We all have these retreats, these havens, where nobody asks questions, you realize you may somehow be the most well-adjusted person in the entire establishment, and a regular who isn’t called by his or her real name is lying face down in the remains of a behemoth nacho plate, seemingly adorned with an unspoken “Do No Disturb” sign.

These places share a thread that endears them to the public: they don’t try too hard. They try, to be sure, but as any business does so not to get evicted. It’s this common thread that makes the term dive bar so divisive.

That’s because some people, proprietors and patrons alike, want to make a dive bar or have one be made for them. Of course, these same people would only dare enter such a spot if it features minimalist or steampunk-themed architecture and every instance of the word ‘food’ is replaced with ‘gastro-,’ but the endeavor is intrinsically self-defeating. 

Simply put, a dive can’t be manufactured. It just happens. It develops organically in some nebulous combination of events and circumstances in which wood paneling is still en vogue (whatever the hell that means), the TV or jukebox can, in fact, be your best friend, and you address any unacquainted contemporaries with the sacred prose of all good watering holes: “Hey, boss.” “How ya doin’, guy?” “Not bad, chief.”

It’s this very environment I hope to celebrate and likewise strengthen – those homes away from home where the identity of the bar and its visitors are irrevocably rooted in one another, kind of how the groove of Bob’s fat ass will endure lifetimes in the cushion of that corner bar stool.

These efforts are meant to be communal, not exclusive, a characteristic whose presence is growing and demeans the same establishments we are here to support. Have you ever driven by a spot and asked yourself what it’s like there? Have you ever wondered how the sweet fuck that one place stays open when they offer $1.50 pounders every day of the year? Have you ever felt compelled to throw a hard right, opposing traffic be damned, because you just had to try the “world’s best” something at a bar that has a sum of three windows? Then this segment is for you – for Bob, for chief, for the nacho plate sleeper. This is for the dive bar, the unsung sanctuaries of the city and its people.

TODAY'S SANCTUARY: DALE'S Bar and Grill

4377 Murray Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15217


DALE'S aesthetic immediately captures the attention of any passerby or bar-goer who might be in the mood for a cheap domestic, thanks to two particulars: 1) its glass block windows, which I imagine are barely legal or a grandfathered exception within coding and regulations, but furnish instant confidence that drinks are affordable and nobody will bother you if you just want to stare straight ahead and envision the world enveloped in a firestorm; and 2) that the bar owner -- "Dale," one would think -- insisted that his name be shouted at all times, even in text form. It's an unusual touch, the spirit of which is easy to catch, though presumably not the only thing you could catch quickly enough in unknown libations territory, which was a guiding principle in my first visit.

Walking through the door, it was clear that simplicity reigns at DALE'S. The place consists of one straightforward room without much of a crevice, caveat, or nuance. Upon entering, the bar runs down the majority of the left-hand side, forming a very tall reverse 'L.' At its bottom, two game machines are wedged into the corner, but, as the handmade sign suggests, they are "for amusement only." The man exchanging unpleasantries with the one machine seemed to suggest otherwise. Following the basic hardwood floor to the back, you find the bathrooms, accompanied by a digital jukebox, and a pool table and cigarette machine occupy the right.

The bar has about a dozen people in it. Some in pairs, some riding the solo wave of a beer, a sipping shot, and a cigarette that burns off into the waiting ashtray more than it's actually smoked. The two TVs are playing the Pirates game, and the group as a whole is relaxed and easygoing. We had overcome the first hurtle: namely, our entrance passed free of dirty looks, record scratches, and a quick reminder that I left something outside that might take me, oh, forever to find before I return.

What I imagined would greet our presence.
The bartender approaches us, an Irish-style flat cap on his head; I assume he's a Dropkick Murphys fan and / or was driving a cab in the 90's. Nevertheless, his "What are you havin'?" is jovial enough, and we go with a round of domestic bottles to allow time to prime ourselves and acclimate to the surroundings before pressing on.

The music overhead blares as loud as one would expect in any other dive. The teetering between "Friends in Low Places" and a DMX song made up mostly of the words "my," "suck," and "dick," along with numerous such alternatives, alerts me that control of the jukebox is a prized objective in a visit to DALE'S and could provide a fast track to making friends or getting shanked in the bathroom for interrupting somebody's play of the entire Jimmy Buffett's album of greatest hits, as much of a painful misnomer as that is.

The bar's night goes on within the anticipated parameters, featuring the peculiar jukebox rotation, a few games of pool among the patrons, and a couple eclectic characters who join the menagerie. As we move on to the next round, the bartender, who, we later found, is called "E," asked, "This your first time here?" Not necessarily a malignant question, but one you always hope to avoid. After informing him that we are indeed first-timers, E replies, "You'll see," and smiles, almost devilishly. It wasn't intended as a scare tactic, nor was it received that way; in fact, it only certified DALE'S worthiness in this feature.

Now seems appropriate to remind the reader that I had no intention of amateur voyeurism on this night and will not in any future renditions of this segment. Any pictures of patrons or bartenders will be planned well in advance and even asking to do so will be carefully calculated. To be sure, I'm fairly certain that the phrase "I'm a blogger" is the primary precipitating event in roughly 95% of bar stabbings, excluding, of course, statistics from the 13th to 17th Street stretch of East Carson, where it is more likely to be sparked by some sort of mating call emanating from a pack of unruly males.

Patrons at Jimmy D's attempt to settle their differences.
We examine the tops of the draft taps and discover that DALE'S proudly carries Lionshead, both on draft and in cans. At $2.25, these beers are not only a bargain, but a smooth-tasting relic of divey goodness. As we cycle through a couple rounds of this house party classic, another player seeks to be "amused only," to paraphrase, and there seems to be some sort of distribution of funds from the bar. Maybe they are good friends or perhaps the efficacy of signage is mired in a troubling downward trend. Meanwhile, the bottom of the Lionshead glass reveals one of their riddles. It's cheesy at best, but we heed the message all the same.

How captivating.
We start to chat up E, to whom we more or less reveal our reason for being here and explain the bar scene farther down Greenfield Ave. He talks about serving at DALE'S, saying he could "write a cartoon about this place," which in my experience has represented a hallmark of noteworthy dives and pubs. Things slow down some, but E claims people traffic at the bar varies unpredictably.

Speaking of unpredictability, a man walks through the open door as these discussions ensue. He is, of course, carrying a pistol openly in the back center of his jeans, and no doubt the best way to ensure discretion when wielding a firearm is to start drinking alcohol. I've never felt safer. Ironically, the entire affair came off as rather predictable, and I don't know how the stop would have fared without it.

Our beer-swilling unsolicited security liaison jaunts to the jukebox, and the uncertainty rippling among the rest of us regarding his temper, vendettas, prejudices, and aim have gifted him uncontested control over it. Because it couldn't have been any other way, such poetic classics as Kid Rock's "Cowboy" (I'm gonna paint his town red / And paint his wife white) and Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue are enforced upon us, and we have little choice but to take it all in. In a strange way, it all seemed to fit the evening's threshold of expectation.

As our patriotic urban cowboy continues to twirl, "yee haw," and lubricate his trigger finger via the bottle, we turn to some more potent beverages to make the most of the night, coming in at $3.25. We go on talking to E some more, and eventually the bar winds down for good, as even Toby Keith's greatest fan in Pittsburgh heads out. $40 was allocated for the festivities, and some change still remained, helping DALE'S to reach another benchmark of a dive done properly.

While our experience at DALE'S was in a sense uneventful, it included everything you could want from a visit to, as I've called it, a home away from home: solid conversation, beverages mindful to your wallet, minimal attention to decor, and cast of fellow patrons that could produce a wonderful fiction, should their own non-fiction somehow not suffice. DALE'S is, however, but one limestone in the gravel driveway of our backyard dives and bars, and I can only hope that the next feels just as right.

Rating: 13 / 10 -- Triple Steel Super Recommendation

Pros: easygoing bartender; Lionshead; great group of locals; Lionshead; relaxed setting; Lionshead.

Cons: gun-wielding individuals evidently love to blast garbage country music; you should probably smile at said gun-wielding individuals.

Now, do you have a suggestion what sanctuary deserves its moment? Or do you have a spot where you want to know if it's worth your time? Then let me know, jags.

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