What’s the Story #69

"The beer wasn't the main attraction. The real intoxicant was the opportunity to connect"

Reading through the craft pieces in this issue made me think of a bar where I used to spend a fair amount of time. The Squirrel Hill Café is located on the corner of Forbes and Murray Avenues in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, not too far from the Tree of Life synagogue, which tragically became known nationwide after a gunman killed eleven worshippers on a Sabbath morning in October.  

I don’t know when it first opened, but I have lived in or near Squirrel Hill my entire life, and the café has always been there. It has a black tile front façade and red door; red deco writing spells out the name, with two red squirrels underneath. Locals call the place “The Squirrel Cage”; regulars, simply “The Cage.” No one I have talked with knows why, but a comment from a patron I read recently online captures the place best:

You walk in and you see a mix of people that would represent different classifications of people you’d see throughout Pittsburgh . . . a different subset of the population. Every booth and table is an exhibit or cage at a zoo, there for you to observe how each group interacts with one another.”

In many ways, this describes the city itself as it was in the 1970s and 1980s, when I was a Cage regular. Pittsburgh was—and still is—a city of separate neighborhoods, tight and independent, like an archipelago of self-sustaining islands. But The Cage was delightfully diverse: professors from the University of Pittsburgh and IT wonks from Carnegie Mellon interacted with retired steel workers, postal employees, and truck drivers—folks from every corner of the city.

To be honest, I rarely go there now, though after a recent visit, I can attest to the fact that the beer is still cheap, the food plentiful and greasy, the service friendly and slow, the bathrooms semi-maintained depending on how late you stay, and the patrons just as diverse as when I used to hang out there with a bunch of other writers who lived nearby, talking, smoking, drinking pitcher after pitcher of “Iron” (Iron City beer), and sharing our days.  

I am, sorry to say, out of touch with all these folks now. Theodore Weesner, author of seven fine novels, including the literary classic The Car Thief, died in 2015. His best buddy from back in the day, Chuck Kinder, the charming and charismatic novelist whose life was captured by Michael Chabon in Wonder Boys, has retired to Key West. Colleagues and students would come and join us just to hang out with Chuck and the visitors he would lure into town to give readings, like Tobias Wolff and Richard Ford, with whom he had studied at Stanford.

There were many great nights when we stayed late, often closing the place down. We talked about everything—sports, politics, recent and current love affairs—and sometimes we fought, too, but mostly we talked about writing. 

I guess that’s what made me think about The Cage as I began reviewing the craft pieces published in this issue. They are quite terrific, informative and eloquent, skillfully offering different perspectives on the intersections of writing and intoxication. There’s a really great scene in Beth Kracklauer’s reflection on what drinks writers say (and don’t say) about drinking. She remembers a night, early in her career, when she went out for drinks with some editors from Gourmet magazine. She ordered a Manhattan, her grandmother’s favorite, and was delighted when the “grizzled” editor she was sitting beside did the same: “When our Manhattans arrived, he and I sipped in silence for a few minutes, letting the liquor do its work. Then he smiled down into his glass, palpably gratified, and said, ‘After a long day, having a Manhattan is a lot like having a mild stroke.’”

On the flip side, there’s Kira Compton’s fine piece about getting sober and trying to get past the “Great Hard-Drinking Writer” myth/stereotype, and a tremendously interesting interview with Leslie Jamison, who fights hard against this myth and many others in her most recent book, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath

As far as I know, none of the folks I drank with at The Cage ever stopped drinking, but, in any case, the beer wasn’t the main attraction. The real intoxicant—what led us to our dark booth so many nights—was the connections we made with people other than literary folk and, of course, with each other. Each of us devoted the day or part of the day to writing in our own spaces, in isolation. Unless we were teaching, we might go for hours, even days, without talking to another living soul. I am not complaining. That’s basically the writer’s life—then and now.

The Cage was a place to let off steam and talk to someone who was confronting the same demons and struggles. While we were certainly drinking—it was a good thing to do—we were also reconnecting with the world. 

I am guessing that many readers will understand that feeling. And although the essays in this issue focus on a wide range of experiences—everything from first drinks to speaking in tongues to falling in love—I’m guessing their writers are on the same page, too. The one thing we cannot do without, what gets us through the day, what defines who we are, what literally intoxicates us, is the writing itself.

About the Author

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Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

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