Chiodo's Bar in Homestead has gotten a lot more crowded in recent weeks, which is a bad sign for those of us who love it.
There's a developer who wants to buy the place, tear it down and replace it with a drug store. It would be the classic Homestead story -- uncaring corporate giant destroys cherished landmark -- except that owner Joe Chiodo is 87 years old. He's been running the bar since just after the end of World War II, and he wants out. He'll tell anyone who asks, not that regular customers needed telling: I started realizing it wouldn't last forever when Joe stopped traveling the length of the bar to charm my girlfriend. I'm surprised this day didn't come sooner: I mean, when I'm in my 80s, I don't even plan on charming my girlfriend.
I have some good memories at Chiodo's, and at least one good time I don't remember at all. (There was an audiotape but it's been recorded over.) But when Chiodo's closes, as it seems likely to by year's end, I won't miss the parties or the bras famously hanging from the ceiling. I'll miss playing shuffleboard with my brother and discussing Niall Ferguson's musings on empire with Tony Novosel -- who is either the city's most educated bartender or its most besotted academic. (Or both.) I'll miss the back-door beer garden: While grapes on the trellises overhead mellowed and grew swollen in the sun, I mellowed and grew swollen with beer.
Years from now, people will call Chiodo's a "classic steelworker bar," but that's not how I knew it. It was something else, and something more.
It was, in part, a living museum for the world disappearing around it. For more than a decade, it's been just about the only place you could find a US Steel logo in Homestead. Or a Mesta machine logo. Or a sign for the #42 forge shop, or a rifle that (I'm told) saw action in Europe during the Second World War.
The walls and ceilings bristled with odd fragments of history -- the scrapbook of a life, a community, and industry. In the bar's dim lighting you could almost feel oppressed by the past. It pressed down on you like...like...a ceiling full of bras, old helmets and bedpans, a scale-model jetliner and the pickled remains of a snake. And if a museum is all Chiodo's has been, maybe it would have been oppressive.
But it was also one of the few places I know where the guy two barstools down could either be an employee of the Irvin Works or an aspiring poet. Or both. There aren't many places like that. The closest you get is hipsters wearing trucker hats, and you don't often see them in places with truckers (probably out of self-preservation). Chiodo's wasn't just a "steelworker bar"; no one group identified with it that strongly. That's why anyone could go there, and probably did.
Somebody might find a way to re-cycle that legacy in another bar, or to preserve it in an actual museum like the Bost Building just down Eighth Avenue. Those just looking for a beer and snack can try the Pinkerton sandwich across the street at Duke's. The crowd there is a bit younger and flirtier on a Friday night, not visibly burdened by either the past or the thought of losing it. But maybe that's where we're headed anyway. We lost everything but the memory, and now we're losing that. The sign outside of Chiodo's once boasted of being located in the "steel capital of the world." Later, the boast was repainted to read "former steel capital of the world." Now the signs, and the walls on which they hung, will disappear entirely.
There's talk about putting up a plaque to Joe Chiodo himself when that happens. And if we have to lose a living monument to a disappearing city, maybe the least we can do is put another monument in its place.
It's funny, though: I used to take out-of-towners to Chiodo's, stand out back and show where the mills used to be. A year from now, maybe, I'll be showing where Chiodo's used to be instead.
"I remember Chiodo's," I'll say. "It's where I used to do my remembering."