Waiting for the Beer Man
This is the opening essay in my memoir Montour Four.
In Hills Station, Pennsylvania, there were more places to drink than there were places to worship. This coal-mining town, with a population of around 500 people, had four streets, four alleys, six stop signs, two stores, one bridge, and no sidewalks.
Three bars, two clubs, and three speakeasies served miners thirsty for secular invigoration. After a week spent hundreds of feet underground, separating coal from rock and breathing the deadly air, a man deserved some liquid recreation. Babe’s Bar, owned by Babe Carlini, and Hills Tavern, owned by Tom McVerry, were near each other on Georgetown Road, the main street in town. Forno’s Bar, owned by Pete Forno, was located on the other end of the road, a few doors away from the Catholic church. Most men had a favorite bar, which they frequented regularly with their friends.
Since the early 1900s, Hills Station had been a company town. The houses had been built by the Pittsburgh Coal Company to house its miners. Most were identical two-story duplexes, with a kitchen, a living room, and two bedrooms on each side. But even within that limited space, several people found room to sell a little alcohol. These informal speakeasies were mostly frequented by black townspeople. Mr. Jenkins ran the most popular one. He lived on Third Street, directly across from the Baptist church. Behind his house was a garage with a jukebox and a small concrete floor for dancing. While the adults sat in the kitchen enjoying drinks and gossip, the kids danced to the latest records out in the yard.
Mr. Wilson, who lived two doors from my house on First Street, sold alcohol in his kitchen and ran numbers. At his place you could get a shot of booze and a shot at a jackpot. Townspeople were willing to pay a small fee to drink a few shots of liquor at the home of a friend. Spirits were expensive at the local State Store. In Pennsylvania, liquor could only be purchased at government-run stores. The nearest one was six miles away.
But beer was a different story. A man did not have to leave home to get his favorite brew. Beer was no farther away than the front door, thanks to the Beer Man. Years before Hills Station had pizza delivery service, there was beer delivery.
The Montour Four Mine was one of the largest mines in Washington County, a county southwest of Pittsburgh. It had been producing coal for over seventy years. By the early 1960s, many of the town’s miners, including my father, had retired. Old mine injuries and the coal dust coating their lungs were starting to wreck their bodies. They were ready to rest and spend their summers sitting on the front porches of the houses that they had bought from the coal company. They wanted nothing more out of life than a comfortable chair, a good meal, good friends and a cold beer.
Without fail, the Beer Man, Tom Cushey made his rounds every other Friday. He was a stocky florid-faced Irishman, with huge biceps, developed by years of hauling cases of beer throughout Cecil Township. In Hills Station, he had a lot of customers. He always had a friendly word and a smile for each of them.
Once he entered the town limits, Tom methodically went from house to house, picking up empty cases and depositing full ones. Each case held twenty-four bottles of beer and each bottle was sixteen ounces. His truck was laden with cases. Tom knew what brands to leave at each stop. Most people liked Iron City, the local Pittsburgh beer and official beer of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Some preferred Rolling Rock, which came in shorter green bottles. Carling’s Black Label, Keck’s, and Stoney’s were also popular selections.
In the summer, the retirees sat on their porches, straining their necks for the first glimpse of Tom. They had already stacked their empty cases by the front door. As Tom got closer, the rattle of the empty bottles being loaded onto the truck grew louder and louder.
Everyone liked Tom, even the church members who didn’t believe in drinking alcohol. He was a hard working man making a living for his family. Every retired miner understood the value of hard work. And Tom understood the balm that the golden liquid provided to men who had given their best to the Company, only to spend their final years coughing up black tar. Every now and then, Tom had to leave extra cases for funerals and wakes. Friends would toast the memory of a retiree who had lost his battle with the poison settling in his chest, weighing him down like a ton of fine-grade coal.
Hills Station was a town with four streets, six stop signs, two stores, one bridge and no sidewalks. It was a town built from and by coal. By the 1960s, the industry was dying out, and so were its workers. But until he was permanently returned to the Pennsylvania soil, a man could still sit on his porch, listen to the Pirate game on the radio, and wait for the Beer Man.