Saturday, September 10, 2011

Everything But The Book (Club)

For this Everything But The Book (Club) get-together, we started at the bar that served as the primary setting for our book selection, Cage Days by Lee Skirboll. A self-published "liquid novel," Cage Days highlights Lee's experiences as a bartender in the 1990's at Pittsburgh's very own Squirrel Hill Cafe, fondly known as the "Cage" by locals and regulars. I got there a few minutes early, and was warmly greeted by this sign...

Throughout the book, Lee mentioned several of the former owner's handwritten signs, so from my first steps into this place, I felt like I had walked literally into the book. The narrow bar, with its tiled floor, wooden booths, and faint smell of cigarette smoke and grease is exactly how a drinker's bar should be. Patronized with a crowd of hipsters and yinzers, the Cage is pretty authentic as far as Pittsburgh bars come. Furthermore, the jukebox blares out a definitive mix of the eclectic, which matches the crowd ideally. I must say that I was disappointed that I didn't here anything of Pink Floyd's (as Lee laboriously describes in one chapter); but I did hear everything from Huey Lewis's Hip to Be Square to Weezer's Island in the Sun to Ke$ha's Your Love Is My Drug.

Because I was the first to arrive, I was able to say hello to Bill the bartender, who asked me how my day was despite this being our first introduction. With his warm personality, a backwards ball cap, a full gray beard and a long, lean physique, Bill personified the role of a real Pittsburgh bartender. While sitting at the bar, I had a chance to get a good look at the infamously problematic dumbwaiter. Lee devotes many pages of his book to this ancient device, and I wanted to see if his use of imagery matched with reality. It did.

Everyone arrived with a "when in Rome" attitude, trying to soak in as much as we could of the Cage experience. With the exception of myself, everyone ordered an alcoholic drink, some of which were mentioned in Cage Days. I had an iced tea; and when I ordered, a female patron with a perfectly coiffed mullet yelled to the bartender, "she means a double long island" and proceeded to laughed heartily at herself. ESD has some kind of pumpkin craft ale from the extensive selection housed in this cooler...

Yup, that phone in the foreground is real.
MBK had a shot of amaretto straight up...

This is one classy shot glass.
DSL had a black and tan...

And JRW and MPF went with an altered version of the "imp and arn" (Imperial Canadian Whiskey and Iron City Beer) because the Cage was out of Imperial, and neither one really wanted an Iron City. They chose Old Grand-Dad and Sam Adam's instead, which they realized was not a match made in heaven, but one that certainly served its purpose...

We all would have tried the Root Beer Schnapps that Lee mentions multiple times in the book, but the Cage was also ahhhht of that.

For a bar, the Cage has a menu with a good reputation and very low prices. If I had been in the mood for red meat, I would have ordered the cheeseburger (apparently it was $2 when Lee worked at the Cage, but has since gone up in price to a whopping $3.75), but I opted for the $2.75 grilled cheese instead. I got a blend of American and Swiss cheeses on white bread with chips and a large dill pickle. And, since I am a self-proclaimed expert on grilled cheeses, I will deem this one to be nothing short of traditional grilled cheese perfection.

Squirrel Hill Cafe on Urbanspoon

As for our opinions concerning Cage Days, we collectively agreed that the book will mean more and be more interesting to people who have a real connection to the Squirrel Hill Cafe... past employees, patrons, Squirrel Hill locals, etc. We weren't too keen on some of Lee's criticisms of Pittsburgh, as all of us truly love this place in which we live, work and play; but it's always interesting to read other people's perspectives, especially Lee's. He painted himself to be quite a "character" throughout the book. Also, MPF actually used the word "dichotomy" when describing a part of Cage Days, which proves that every now and then we actually have some scholarly conversations about what we've read. Personally, I would have enjoyed the book more if it were less stream of consciousness, but that's just me. In high school, I could barely get through James Joyce's A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man for this same reason. But overall, we enjoyed reading Cage Days, and going to the Cage heightened the experience.

Currently, we are reading Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld. As I mentioned last month, if you are the type of reader who gets concerned with "spoilers," our next get-together is planned for October 13. I'll post Everything But The Book (Club)'s thoughts sometime shortly after that.

Lastly, for your amusement, here's a list of topics as discussed by Everything But The Book (Club) at our last meeting:

  • How much we can't stand Ke$ha and Nicki Minaj
  • The Rocky Horror Picture Show
  • How the original Beehive in Oakland was "the coolest place on the planet and it's a travesty that it's now American Apparel and a T-Mobile." (JWR) 
  • The Big Pour
  • If some of our book club members' children are yinzers or not. 
  • How we need to read more books by "hot guys" (ESD) because then we will invite them to our meeting and interview them (among other things)... 
  • What our first concerts were (John Denver, Meatloaf, David Cassidy and the Nelson Brothers to name a few)