I have been to the “O” a hundred times late night. We all have. And that mass of greasy, crunchy, fused-together fries, sided with ketchup, cheese-whiz and warm beef gravy in those little plastic cups always tasted better after 2 a.m. We all know that. But, odd as it may seem, the one “O” visit that sticks in my head happened on a Sunday morning.
I had gone on a visit to Penn State Beaver with a friend, and I had expected a legendary Penn State party scene. Instead I got three guys (one of them me) sitting inside a dorm room, sharing a bottle of Ketel 1. (And lets just say I did most of the sharing). I think I might have been twenty.
The next morning my buddy drove me back to my apartment. (And if you’ve never taken your college days to true excess, then I’m sorry you just won’t be able to relate). As luck would have it, the O was on the way.
And so we stopped. (Pretty sure I demanded)
I had a pair of leather gloves – a present from my mother – in my back pocket when I entered. They were hanging kind of halfway out.
They were not there when I left.
That was probably because I was drunk.
But it might have been because there was a shady dude standing behind me.
Either way, there was enough of a shadow of a doubt behind it for me to write a short story called “The Man Who Stole My Gloves“.
I can’t remember if it was published, but I might have recited it at a reading. Suffice to say that somehow that story led to a buxom young undergrad um…acknowledging my writing style … at a party later that semester.
So yes, that’s my favorite “O” story. And who doesn’t love one where the guy gets the girl in the end.
But I digress. The “O” has passed today. And this is my obituary.
The Original Hot Dog Shop officially passed on April 18th, 2020. It died quietly, in Oakland, on a clear 55 degree day in April. By some accounts, 350 boxes of potatoes were moved out of the basement on the day of its death. The “O” was mourned by nearly everyone who had experienced it late night, and many who had not. The cause of death was old age, with complications brought on by the Novel Coronavirus, or COVID-19 as has come to be known. The “O” was 60 years old when it passed.
According to the website, the Original Hot Dog Shop was founded in 1960 by Syd and Moe Simon, who were ostensibly trying to capitalize on the Pittsburgh Pirates magical 1960 season. It was thought, “where would a better place be than outside of a ballpark to open a hot dog and burger stand?”
Little did they know that it was the University of Pittsburgh that would put the “O” on the map. The restaurant, originally named “House of Beef” and “Franks & Burgers” later renamed “The Original Hot Dog Shop” was featured on on various television programs such as The Food Network’s “Unwrapped”, The PBS Special “A Hot Dog Program” not to mention several other magazines and newspaper articles.
It’s unclear when the “O” started to become a phenomenon for University of Pittsburgh undergraduates. Perhapst its when they started to focus on hand cut French fries, deep friend in peanut oil. It can be surmised that the Pirates move away from Forbes Field in 1970 had something to do with it. Either way, the “O” Survived for another fifty years after the Pirates headed for the North Shore, and succumbed only that what will likely be considered the greatest economic downturn since the great Depression (although I do fully expect a V-shaped recovery).
If the “O” loved anything, it was getting down and dirty with a bunch of random ungraduated on a Friday or Saturday night. Serving them fries. Maybe a cheap pizza. Possibly even a hot dog (although it was the fries that they truly came for). Only God and IRS know how many thousands of pounds of potatoes passed through that building, but I can say with confidence that every time I went in there, there were dozens of 50 lb sacks stacked behind the counter. Yes the place was not clean, but the “O” never worried The hot grease killed all the microbes.
The “O” loved all walks of life. From wealthy undergraduates to those Oakland residents who could scrape together only enough change for a cheap malt-liquor forty. It did not discriminate, and it served all that came through its doors in the same fashion. With stolid, slightly surly service, greasy surroundings and somewhat (or depending on your era, very) funky bathrooms. Yet, no matter who you were, the “O” was there, neon lights gleaming in the night, a beacon to those wayward souls with nowhere else to go after leaving the bar, the club or the party, beckoning all on Forbes Avenue to come and enjoy its tawdry delights, and extend their night just one more half hour. (although it should be noted the potatoes were not of poor quality)
Most people will remember the “O” for the heaping mountain of french fries that could bought for below market prices. I, on the other hand, will remember the experience of it all. Oh… and what an experience (yea sorry pun slightly intended…) If you can take yourself back to a time when you knew little about the world and yet thought you knew everything. Where, upon entry, judgement was clouded but confidence was at an all-time-high. Where the landscape was dotted with people of questionable intention (yourself included), whose desire was very much concrete. The smell of cooking grease. The harsh neon. The dirty orange floor tiles. The potatoes. Bags upon bags of potatoes. Behind the counter. Right next to the deep fryer. Stacked as high as the ceiling, with just a stainless steel cutter in between. The seemingly endless cheap, white, plastic price signs blaring at you as waited for your order. The sound. The smell. The sizzle. That was the O.
There will be a memorial service on Social Media starting on 4/18/2020, and lasting until at least 4/19/2020 (if not longer).
My only regret is that I never tried a hot dog.
Hail to Pitt
How about you? What’s your favorite “O” story? (Try to keep it PG)