By Robert Roman
My earliest memory of The Original Hot Shop is from the backseat window of my parents’ Volkswagen Bug as it chugged along Forbes Avenue one day in the 1970s. While my brother and I counted other “Herbies,” a cartoony neon sign caught my eye. My mother said, “That’s The Dirty O.”
How could an eleven-year-old ruffian from the home of Iron City Beer and “Mean” Joe Green not be intrigued by a place with such a Pittsburgh nickname?
I was born in late November and started school early. So, in the mid-80s when my high school friends were finagling their way into Oakland bars with fake IDs, I wasn’t fooling anybody. It was The Dirty O that offered me refuge.
The Friday-night crowd was hungry and “well-lubricated” but always civil. This may have been due to the uniformed security team. One duo consisted of an enormous, linebacker of a man and his much smaller partner who wore a hunting knife on his hip that would have made Crocodile Dundee envious. For the record, I had seen more fistfights in classrooms, shoe stores, and churches than inside The O.
While a student at Pitt, had it not been for The O (and footlong hoagies the ROTC sold outside the Cathedral of Learning), I might have starved. My go-to lunch was the unsung veal Parmesan sandwich because it was the cheapest yet heartiest option on the menu board. Once, I popped a French Fry into my mouth that had toppled onto the counter. The fryer on duty said, “Hope you’ve had your penicillin shot, Hon.”
My senior year, Colin McCabe conducted the final class of his James Joyce seminar at The O over pitchers of beer. It wasn’t exactly a Dublin public house, but it gave me a glimpse into what the study of literature might be like on the British Isles.
To me, it was more than a lunch spot, study hall, and after-hours club. Its three doorways provided an entertaining shortcut past the corner of Forbes and Bouquet where future Baltimore Raven cheap-shot artist, Tony Siragusa, lurked at all hours apparently waiting for someone to look at him the wrong way.
The Post Office hired college students in the summers to pick up the slack when regular mail carriers took vacations. My supervisor, a former Panthers player, invited me to play on his flag football team that was sponsored by The O. I can’t remember if our name was “The Dirty Os” or “The Original Hot Dogs,” but I distinctly remember an opponent growling, “We like blood with our fries,” during a pre-game coin-toss. In 1987, several of my teammates were drafted as replacement players during the NFL players strike. Any sort of football, even “grab-ass” football, was serious business in Steeler Country.
I moved to Los Angeles in the late ’90s, and I don’t recall making it to The O during any visits home. But I wouldn’t be surprised if an old friend reads this then texts me, “Hey jagoff, we went there for what’s-his-face’s bachelor party for his third marriage.”
My last visit was in the summer of 2013 with my oldest friend in the world, Joe “Cool” Shaughnessy. We met while hiding underneath the broken church pews that lined the hall outside our first-grade classroom of Annunciation School.
After our visit to the Carnegie Museum of Art, there was little debate on where to have lunch. The place hadn’t changed much. I posted a picture of our meal on Facebook with the caption, “In Pittsburgh, this is a small order of French Fries,” to the shock and disbelief of non-Pittsburghers across the Internet.
I hope the reports of The O’s permanent closing are greatly exaggerated. The Original Hot Dog Shop exemplified my hometown. Maybe not the most glamorous, but both were forever reliable and always willing to do the hard jobs. And do them well.
Like the Pittsburghers I grew up with, The O took no guff but was always friendly. Everyone was welcome to drop by anytime, as long as you behaved. You were offered food that may not have been the healthiest, but it was real and it was delicious, and you never, ever went home hungry.