Up for Bids
The Mystery Sandwich Revealed!
"They're taking away my office," groused Bud Ward, sitting in the dining area of Chiodo's Tavern. "I was on the board of directors, and now I'm losing my headquarters. I'm pissed."
As Ward spoke, a giant winged horse passed in front of him, turning cartwheels on the floor. The steed was emblazoned on a circular Mobil Oil sign, which was being rolled along the floor by an employee of Three Rivers Auction. All around Ward, similar artifacts -- thousands of them -- were being stripped from the walls, taken down from the ceiling, being unbolted from the floor. It was all going to be auctioned off, from the shuffleboard table that ran the length of the bar's front room to the tiny statue of the monkey playing golf.
Ward was missing it already. After retiring from the steel industry, he says, "I haven't done a thing for 22 years, but I've had my office hours here every day from 2 to 4 p.m." His last day at the office will be April 24. At noon, underneath a tent slated to go in the parking lot next door, the contents of Chiodo's will be sold to the highest bidders.
The Homestead bar -- a landmark at the foot of the Homestead Grays Bridge since 1947 -- had closed weeks before. Owner Joe Chiodo is 87 years old. He'd talked publicly of retiring as early as 1997, when the bar turned 50. His plans to sell the bar, which will be replaced with a Walgreen's pharmacy, have been public knowledge since last year. But the date for the bar's closing kept getting pushed back, and when it came, on Fri., March 25, even the staff was surprised. It wasn't official until cook Marcia Anderson hung up her apron at the end of the 11 o'clock shift that night. "Joe told Marcia, and she walked out into the bar," says Josh Comer, who's worked as a bartender for the past 12 years. "Everyone could tell just by looking at her.
"After that, it was a long three hours."
The news still hasn't sunk in for some. Even as the auction workers packed up the bar, would-be customers appeared at the door, only to be turned away. Bud Ward didn't know quite what to do with himself either.
"A place like this --" he shook his head. "It takes two or three lifetimes to create."
Over at the bar, Tripp Kline pondered how long it would take to sell. "It would take all day just to auction off the bras if we did them one by one," he said. And the bras -- donated by female patrons over the years -- are the least of the items Chiodo's accumulated over the past half-century. "We spent hours with wire-cutters just getting stuff down," Kline said.
And every item comes with a story. Kline holds aloft a tangled mass of numbered tags, each tied to a loop of string. "You know what this is? Joe told us they were for chickens. You'd go to the poultry store and pick out a live chicken. They'd put your number on it, and you could leave while they plucked and dressed it. When you came back, you'd be able to pick out your chicken by the number."
Now the bar itself is being plucked, with a story far richer.
According to the Homestead & Mifflin Township Historical Society, Chiodo's began as a hotel and bar owned by a Frederick Troutman in 1890. Even then, the beer list was a source of pride: "Bar Well Stocked With Finest Brands of Wines and Liquors," boasted an ad for the Hotel Troutman.
The bar changed hands over the next half-century, until in 1947 it was purchased by the son of an Italian cobbler named Peitro Chiodo, who'd brought his family to America in 1927. Young Joe Chiodo served in the European theater in World War II, and upon returning home he realized that the real money wasn't in shoes: According to the historical society, there were 75 bars operating in tiny Homestead in those days, serving the thirsty crews manning US Steel's massive Homestead Works. Over the decades, notes an article by John Asmonga in the society's newsletter, Chiodo's "survived the steel mill strikes, layoffs, shutdowns and even the closing of the Homestead Works in 1986."
In fact, Chiodo's didn't come into its own until after the mills started shutting down. In the early 1980s -- a full decade before most Pittsburghers had even heard the word "microbrews" -- Joe Chiodo's brother Sam began offering a varied mix of imports and high-quality domestic beers.
"There are perfume companies that hire experts with a perfect sense of smell," says Comer. "Sam was like that, except with beer. He'd get Xingu from Brazil, San Miguel Dark from the Philippines, stuff no one had heard of. People would drive from two hours away, because no one else had them. It was an absolute stroke of brilliance."
Even as Homestead withered, Chiodo's thrived. And it drew the famously varied Chiodo's clientele: poets and professors, college kids and construction workers.
"I don't think it was really a steelworker's bar," recalls William Serrin, a former New York Times reporter who later wrote a book about Homestead. "You wouldn't necessarily see the average craneman going in there." You might, however, run into Sigourney Weaver, Joe Pesci, Ed Asner or Prince Charles -- all of whom visited the bar over the years.
The regulars, meanwhile, became celebrities too. There was "JW," the singing bartender who sometimes took weekends off to perform in operas, and Burt the Bev-O-Matic guy, who kept up a running commentary at the far end of the bar. "If my shift started at 8 o'clock, I'd get my first insult from Burt at 8:01," Comer recalls.
The biggest celebrity of all, though, was Joe himself. "He was dynamite working the crowd on the other side of the bar," recalls Bud Ward. Chiodo regaled customers with stories about the items on the wall, or the events of his own life. There was, for example, the wallet he found while serving in Europe -- a wallet which happened to belong to another Homestead resident. There's a newspaper article about it in the bar. Somewhere.
Customers knew Joe as a kindly flirt, and as a man of prodigious memory. "He could talk to somebody about a recipe in 1985," Comer says. "That person would come back to the bar 20 years later, and Joe would be able to pick up right where he left off."
Chiodo didn't forget grudges either, and part of his legend is his classic Pittsburgh impatience with jagoffs. For years, it was impossible to get an Iron City beer at Chiodo's -- all because of a 1980s-era dispute over a TV ad the company wanted to film there. The brewery wanted to use its own actors for the spot, which Joe took as an insult to his customers. The crew was tossed out, and so was the beer. It took a public apology from Pittsburgh Brewing before the beer was returned.
The Steelers, too, ran afoul of the quintessential Steelers-bar owner. For years, Chiodo owned three dozen season tickets, which he shared with selected patrons. Like many fans, however, when the Steelers moved to Heinz Field Chiodo was unhappy with his new seats. Unlike many fans, it takes more than an AFC Championship game for Joe to forget his disappointment. While the rest of the city celebrated the advent of Big Ben this January, Chiodo was quoted in The New York Freaking Times saying, "I hope they lose every game."
Some of us, meanwhile, will never forgive Joe for closing the bar, even if, at 87 years old, he couldn't run it forever. There's even some grumbling that he's auctioning off the bar's contents, many of which were given as gifts.
Back amongst the boxes and old signs, auctioneer Kline acknowledged the problem. "Over there we've got a postal carrier's cap and bag. What are those worth? Well, somebody called up and said they belonged to his grandfather, who gave them to Joe when he retired. He wanted to know if he could buy them separately."
The postal carrier's grandson, however, will have to buy them at auction, just like anyone else. And he may not be the high bidder. "It's tough," said Kline, "but our first responsibility is to Joe." Some high-profile items have prompted calls already, Kline says. A giant US Steel logo -- taken from the Homestead Works and hung near the bar's back entrance -- has attracted the interest of a corporate buyer Kline won't name. Even as Kline spoke, representatives from the Heinz History Center were picking over the items nearby, looking for treasures worth adding to their collection.
If it seems a bit ghoulish, consider that the success of Chiodo's bar always depended on making a buck from good memories. Joe Chiodo didn't outlast the entire domestic steel industry by being stupid.
In fact, there may be a few more memories, and a few more bucks, yet to be made. Cory McGough, who took on much of the bar's day-to-day management toward the end, plans to start his own place nearby. It will likely include some Chiodo's artifacts, and maybe the Chiodo's name.
Will he start a bra display of his own? "We're not going to bring these over with us," McGough says. "We're going to start another, but Joe is the king of that. He's got this sweet-old-guy thing, and girls just fall for it.
"Nobody can get a bra off like Joe."
For customers like Bud Ward, nobody can run a bar like Joe either. "There was the Mystery Sandwich, sure," he says. "But the whole place was a mystery because you never knew who was going be in there. That's what made it what it is."