Sunday, July 24, 2011

Rust Belt Chic: Pittsburgh Drinking Clubs

I love beer and bars. Drinking culture and its geography is a minor hobby of mine. Reading a brief history of Silicon Valley this morning, I perk up when I get to the part about the importance Walker’s Wagon Wheel in regional lore. Then there are the quirky booze laws of Utah. If you have visited or lived in the state, you know what I mean. The Pittsburgh connection:

This was my first trip to Utah, where at one time would-be drinkers were required to go through the charade of joining a "club" in order to be served a drink. This transparent attempt to discourage bar patrons is the kind of risible ploy that brings government into disrepute by making it ridiculous.

Growing up in Pittsburgh, "clubs" were to facilitate drinking, not discourage it. Because of strong nationality groups - and because as my great-grandfather and great-uncle explained to me, Western Pennsylvania never did pay much attention to Prohibition - various ethnic groups were allowed to serve alcohol pretty much at will in their private clubs.

The membership rules could not be honestly described as strict - $5 initiation fee and some kind of piece of paper attesting that the bearer was 21. Unlike Barack Obama, I could produce a much creased and worn birth certificate on demand; the catch was, it wasn't mine.

When we had to go for our draft physicals, we were presented with something called the Attorney General's List of subversive and suspected subversive organizations and state whether we belonged to any of them. "I'm dead," I thought. I don't know how many Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, Polish, Lithuanian fraternal, friendship and social clubs I belonged to. I didn't even remember their exact names, only that they all seemed to be on the list.

The tale makes me wish I could have experienced an ethnic drinking club. I'll have to drive to Pittsburgh for Schlachtfest:

Christel Van Maurik and her husband, Teutonia president Cornelius G. Van Maurik, invited me to take part in one of the club's favorite celebrations.

"Do you like pork?" she asked. "You must come to our Schlachtfest."

Giving directions, she said, "Cross the 16th Street Bridge to the North Side and you'll see in front of you a big German-style building, what they call wooden half-timbering with brick in-fill. That's Teutonia. We'll be in the rathskeller wearing ethnic dress -- my husband in his wool Bavarian suit and I'll wear my dirndl skirt.

Okay, you can't just walk in on a Friday night trolling for your latest Rust Belt Chic experience. But there are "open lunches" and "free concerts" that offer access to the club. The best way is to get invited by a member.

This is the hidden Pittsburgh, or hidden Cleveland. And it's cool, part of the allure of shrinking city with their aging demographics. Everything old is new again.

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