Why Old People Stay Home At Night

Back in the late 1990’s when I had my youth and a Joey Tribbiani haircut, my friends and I would head out to the bars and clubs around Pittsburgh.  I’m a South Side guy born and raised, so going down to my old stomping grounds to drink was familiar territory.  Even in 2016, all of the college students from around town flock to the South Side to unwind at any time during the week.  If you do make it down to this neighborhood to catch a few drinks, know that any person over the age of 35 is prone to disappear at the stroke of 9 p.m. (Old person Cinderella time).

Before 1999, I was still living with my parents so I had a lot of money to burn at the bars before many life responsibilities started to kick in.  My one friend Dave and I would always go out on weeknights, shooting pool and taking advantage of mid-week drink specials.  Dave was in the same situation as me regarding living quarters, so we got into quite a routine when it came time to meeting up.  We developed a solid tolerance for beer and I developed a rather good record at playing bar pool on the small tables.

We would usually get together at 8 p.m. on weeknights since most of the drink specials ran between 7 and 10.  At our first stop each night–no matter where we started, we were always one of few groups whose average age was under 24.  Most patrons were well over the age of 40, some as old as 70.  Dave and I would always talk with the “senior members” we got to know, and the pool tables were always empty, which we loved to take advantage of.  When I would head up to the bar around 8:45 for another round, it was like each bar had a rancher and a Border Collie that would corral all the old people out the front door.  This happened every time we went out.  And sure enough when 9 p.m. hit, the crowd became significantly younger anywhere we went.

This happened on the weekends too when we had more people head out with us.  It was as if the older crowd were controlled by the government or aliens with an ON/OFF toggle switch.  When it got close to 9 p.m., crowded or quiet, cheap or expensive, country or hip-hop, the old people wanted out.  I guess I never understood why because of my youth, but now that I am 40, I think I understand why the elders plotted their exit.

REASON #1: At college bars or dance clubs, nobody wants to talk to old people.  Every time I overheard some college-age girl talking about an older guy talking to them, it was never in a good light.  She could have been polite to the older man when interacting with him face-to-face, but the minute she “escaped” his conversation, she would utter to her friends, “Out of ALL THE GUYS in this place, I get hit on by the OLD ONE.  That’s just great.”  I know us guys reacted the same way when it used to happen to one of our own with an older woman, so I guess from trial and error (And in some cases trial by fire) older patrons figured out it’s time to seek out another venue.

REASON #2: Young drunks are usually more violent, so leave before the police arrive.  No matter where I drank, I would estimate that 90% of bar/club violence occurred after midnight.  In addition, more street robberies and drug transactions happened later in the night.  Before 9 p.m. back in the 1990’s, we rarely saw police presence on the South Side because it wasn’t needed.  If a fight broke out before midnight, it was usually between a girl and a guy with plenty of shouting but no punches thrown.  Though the experiences of their time being in their 20’s, the “senior members” knew when the crowd was going to start getting out of control.

REASON #3: Old people have more to lose.  I don’t care to go out anymore because I have a young son.  I would rather hang out with him every day of the year than subject myself to the stupid shit I did twenty years ago.  I am sure this mentality is shared with many parents my age today and this thinking wasn’t new in 1997.  The “senior members” Dave and I spoke with all those times had good jobs, kids of their own (Most of their kids were older than 18) and wives who knew where they were, some right next to them at the bar.  I never got arrested, but if I did, I didn’t have a career job and I still lived with my parents.  I didn’t have bills to pay or people to care about like the old guys did.

REASON #4: They knew of local “Old Person Bars”.  When I got to be around age 24 and started to get sick of the same old scene, my friends and I would venture to other parts of Pittsburgh to see if we could discover new places that were fun.  We soon learned of a few dozen places where we were by far the youngest group in the establishment, and we didn’t care.  The beer and liquor were cheap.  We could play darts and pool with plenty of room to move.  You could actually talk to each other without screaming over loud music and THE SAME “SENIOR MEMBERS” from the South Side who drank with us in our first hour down there were drinking well past midnight a few miles away in bars that voluntarily kept the obnoxious youngsters away.  Bartenders at these places used to fear we would bring in a younger crowd when we arrived!  It was like we were on “The List” at a dozen exclusive clubs in the Pittsburgh area.  We vowed to only bring in people that could hold their alcohol to show our appreciation of allowing us to “chill out” in their alcoves of retreat among the halls of drunken madness.

Just like all the seniors I drank with some twenty years ago, I know my place in the pecking order when it comes to nightlife in 2016.  I now go to restaurants, not bars or clubs.  I go to the movies, not the strip club.  And if for whatever reason I am in the South Side of Pittsburgh these days, get me the hell out of there before 9 p.m.

 

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The Car Fire Incident Of 1996

It was either September or October of 1996 when Pittsburgh was hit with a tropical storm.  Usually a hurricane would lose all of its wind strength by the time it hit western Pennsylvania, but this particular storm was moving a little faster than other storms of this magnitude.  Rain came down all day, and high winds of 40 to 60 miles per hour accompanied the rain.  So with those facts in mind, this story begins, “It was a dark and stormy night….”

On the day of the storm, I worked the 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. shift at a big box sporting goods store.  I didn’t move my car the whole day, and there were about six other guys on my shift that had the same routine that day: Bring your own dinner from home or run across the parking lot to the mall and get something at the food court.  Nobody wanted to drive to the local fast-food joints in this storm.

All of us guys were college age, so we weren’t wise enough to know that in hard rain storms, you should run your car on occasion to keep moisture away from the engine (Heating the engine up reduces moisture).  Cars of today can experience this problem, but it happened way more often with cars built in 1980’s.  Fuel injection engines were a new feature to these vehicles, and my clunky 1983 Oldsmobile still had an old carburetor engine, which was very temperamental.

I clocked out of work a little later than the other guys, so I was surprised to see all of them standing around in the parking lot at 10:15.  It was still pouring down rain, and the wind was still whipping sideways as it had when I started my shift.  Apparently two of their cars were “flooded out”, meaning they had so much moisture in the engine block the cars wouldn’t start properly.  They pushed one car under the overhang at the front entrance of the store and started to work on it.  I went to my car to see if it would turn over properly.

My car started fine.  I think I had the oldest car and the only one with a carburetor.  How that worked out in my favor I’ll never know, but I did know at the time I had to run my engine for ten to twenty minutes before I made my journey home.  While I was waiting for my car, my buddy John called me over to his 1987 Honda sedan.

John found out that his car would not kick over as well, so his Honda made three cars having issues with the rain.  He opened the hood and he handed me a can of starting fluid that he had in the car.  He asked me if I knew where to spray the fluid, and I told him that I had a good idea even though my car had a different engine than his.  The plan was to spray the distributor cap in order to get the moisture off of the spark plugs, then try to start the car.  At this point John and I are soaked.  I am buttoned up in my Nirvana 1990’s grungy green, brown and black flannel, John in his leather college lacrosse jacket.

At least in 1996, starting fluid had diethyl ether in it.  I’ll save 2,000 words to this post by simply saying it is a very volatile flammable liquid that is harmful to skin and harmful to breathe.  When I sprayed John’s distributor cap the first time I let him know that I was done.  He tried to start the car and it cranked, but did not kick over.  Over the next five to seven minutes, we repeated this process a few times and we got the same result.  We were close to getting the car to start but did not succeed.  Growing tired from the work day and becoming ill from standing in the rain for over fifteen minutes, our next move was a sign of our desperation to get out of the weather and home.  It almost burned me.  Literally.

I can’t remember who came up with the idea, but I know we agreed it was a good idea at the time.  I would spray the starting fluid and at the same time John would turn the key and try to start the car.  About five seconds after I started spraying, John turned the key.

WHAOOOOOOOOSH.

I remember when I was spraying a fairly large fireball emerged from the distributor cap area and spread over the hoses across the top portion of the engine.  I jumped back and I thought I was in trouble for sure.  As the fire continued to burn, John jumped out of the driver’s seat frantic and asked me what happened.  As I told him I didn’t know, I realized that I had suffered no burns.  My flannel was intact as well, and I proceeded to take my flannel off to put the fire out.  The fire started to worsen, and I told John to forget about putting the fire out.  Being his car and not having to worry about unbuttoning a tight flannel, John whipped off his leather jacket and starting slamming the thing into the fire.  Since his jacket was soaked from the rain, the flames went out and his jacket remained intact, but dirty.

I had a flashlight and I started looking under the hood to see if the flames were indeed out.  I was checking the hoses that were on fire a few minutes ago, and remarkably they seemed to look normal.  Our theory was when I was spraying the starting fluid, the strong winds caused residual amounts to land on any car parts around the distributor cap.   When John started the car while I was spraying, vapors from the fluid came in contact with a spark plug via the distributor cap, which caused the fire.  Since my spray was probably flying everywhere in the wind, the trail of ether spread to the other areas of the hood that had a coating of fluid on it from the previous attempts to start John’s Honda.

After inspecting everything under John’s hood for several minutes, we couldn’t see any damage.  We didn’t smell anything burning, we didn’t see anything burning and the engine looked the same as it did before the fire.  Puzzled, John turns to me:

“Should I try it again?”

“Go ahead, see what happens.”

John turns the key, and his Honda started up fine.  I was almost sure something was going to start ablaze but nothing bad happened.  The car sounded normal with no signs of stalling out.  We were stunned.  How can this same car that was going up in flames fifteen minutes prior able to run without issue?

Apparently when diethyl ether comes into contact with water during a fire, the fluid will layer on top of water due to its lower density.  So the rain water that got on all of the wires, hoses, engine parts and plastic pieces before the fire saved the car.  The entire event ended up being a huge surface fire, and when John put out the flames with his lacrosse jacket, the components of his Honda stayed intact thanks to the water all over the parts.  The fire created heat, which dried out the moisture under the hood.  That’s why John had no problem starting the car after the flames were put out.

John drove home that night, and when I asked him how the car was running over the next few weeks, he said it never ran better!  The sludge that caused his car to run sluggish under normal driving conditions was literally smoked out of the Honda.  Or more appropriately firebombed out of the Honda.  Yikes.

 

The Ghost Street of Clairton, Pennsylvania, USA

(BLOG NOTE: The Google mapping car drove up this road in 2007 when people still lived on it.  The car went back about 60 percent of the way until it had to turn around.  There are images on Google if you search the road in Clairton, with many of those photos being taken in 2012 and 2013.  Some of the photos were published in newspapers, trade publications, blogs and online portfolios. The road is now sealed off to motorists after a series of arson fires in 2015.)

In the summer of 2012, my brother Dan and I went golfing near his home in the South Hills of Pittsburgh.  After we played nine holes, we decided to get some lunch at a local place on state route 51.  In order to get there quick, Dan knew a few back roads via the small, tired mill town of Clairton, about 15 miles south of Pittsburgh.  After he crossed the bridge near the US Steel Clairton Works, he turned right and started north on state route 837.  About a quarter mile up the road on the left, I caught a glimpse of something improbable and apocalyptic: Lincoln Way, an accessible cul-de-sac, was left to rot.

Before I speak about the ghost street, some details involving the history of the region can assist in understanding the current fate of Lincoln Way:

During the height of Pittsburgh’s identity as a worldwide steel producer in the 1940’s and 1950’s, the region had 30 to 40 fully operational steel mills, depending on the year and how far you extended your radius from the inner city.  Most of the mills were situated along the three major rivers that run through the Pittsburgh region: The Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela.  Most of the mills closed in the early 1980’s after foreign markets produced the same steel at a fraction of the cost, and due to the companies deciding not to upgrade their aging facilities.  Today, there are three mills in the Pittsburgh region, none of which are running at full capacity.  Clairton has one of these remaining mills, which continues to suffer job losses despite being one of the largest coke works in the United States.

It took a few decades, but some parts of the Pittsburgh region are doing well.  Unlike other large American cities who still suffer from the fallout of the manufacturing sector (i.e. Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo), Pittsburgh reinvented itself as an innovative hub for engineering, robotics and medical research.  The central business district has low vacancy rates and new housing around the city has increased over the last decade.  The north and west suburbs are booming areas of the Pittsburgh region.  Many towns and townships in these regions of Pittsburgh have seen population gains of over 100% since 1990.

The south and east regions of Pittsburgh have not been as fortunate since 1990.  Steeped in the manufacturing industry, many towns that once thrived are now struggling.  Most of the steel mills closed down completely, but even other manufacturing businesses that survived the 1980’s have moved on from their roots.  Engineering superpower Westinghouse moved their world headquarters to the booming north suburb of Cranberry Township from their roots in Wilmerding, which is in the east hills.  Aluminum giant Alcoa has been operating their corporate offices in downtown Pittsburgh for many years, while their riverside production facilities in New Kensington continue to lie in ruin after they closed up decades ago.  In the case of both companies, they now operate production facilities in foreign countries.

The reason why many towns like Clairton went flat after the manufacturing jobs left town is because the land is so hard to redevelop.  The soil under the old facilities is polluted with toxic chemicals, which turns away potential investors to the south and east regions of Pittsburgh.  The north and west suburbs of Pittsburgh were farmland before land developers started transforming the properties.  It was more cost-effective to establish new industries in these markets.  Another issue is air pollution.  Since Clairton still has an operating steel mill, their air quality is always the worst in the Pittsburgh region.

I know ghost towns are not unique to the history of the U.S. (Or the world: entire cities in Syria are being wiped off the map due to war), but what is stunning about Lincoln Way in Clairton is how all of its 51 parcels of land go abandoned while the homes up on the hill via the next intersection down route 837 maintain a typical vacancy rate relative to the area.  Even the most distressed towns around Pittsburgh have at least a 75% occupancy rate.

There are tales of ghosts and a demon.  Tales of a great toxic event that forced residents out like Chernobyl in 1986.  But what really happened was a combination of jobs leaving town, people getting old, an increase in crime and descendants not wanting anything to do with the “zombie properties” of their relatives.

On the Allegheny County Assessment page, Lincoln Way has many property owners listed that have long been deceased.  The county only lists recent transactions on its website (My house has three since all of mine were done since 2007) and most of the parcels for Lincoln Way have a last transaction recorded between 1946 and 1981!  About 40 of the 51 parcels were supposed to be for homes, but as of 2012 there were only about 15 homes left standing.  Some of these 15 barely standing.

A few of the homes had everything in them from the last day it was occupied, so it would seem like a Chernobyl event happened there.  If that was the case, thousands of people would not be living in Clairton today.  These homes probably had one person living in it, and that one person died.  The owner either did not have someone to bequeath the property to or the bequest did not happen since the property would have become a burden on a relative.  After around 1986, it would have become more difficult to get a return on investment for a home in Clairton.  Tax collectors can’t collect from a dead person, so the deceased stay on the deed and the house lay in ruin.

In its heyday, Lincoln Way would have been an appealing place to live.  Its own little world tucked off the main road through the borough.  I imagined their little utopia to be like the town of Spectre from the film Big Fish, where the residents were all one big happy family.  Street festivals, music, food and optimism throughout the half mile of homes.  But when crime took over the borough after many of the jobs left town, being alone on a dead end street would be a scary situation, especially if there were not many people around to hear your screams.

When I encountered the street, it resembled many of the photos I saw published online in 2012.  There were about five homes that had a look of being occupied in 2010 or 2011, because they still had a clean look to them despite the overgrowth of weeds in the yard.  These homes looked to be in better shape than some occupied homes in my old neighborhood back in Pittsburgh.  I think that’s why I was curious about the street: How can these nice homes be left to die?

After assessing all of the facts I could find (For being a blogger; if I were a journalist I would have tried harder!), the stories I read and knowing the history of the region, Lincoln Way in Clairton, Pennsylvania is a lasting outward example of what many of us express when we are faced with a challenging time in our lives:  Sometimes you just have to pick up the pieces and move on.