My fiancee and I went out to dinner earlier this year and ended up in Oakland, our first trip there since moving back to Pittsburgh during the holidays. After circling several blocks looking for parking, we ended up on Semple Street in the first open spot we could find.
Ruthie’s brother, Adam, went to Pitt in the early 2000s and paid the bills by working at a beer distributor. She couldn’t remember the name of the place, only that he enjoyed the job because of the Steelers tickets his employers often provided. Toward the end of dinner, she texted her father, whose memory of its name was also fuzzy. He came up with “Menninger’s.” Close enough — Google corrected it for us to Mellinger’s.
It was closer than we could have guessed. That parking space we found was less than a block from Mellinger’s. Too much of a coincidence and too near not to stop in. Would anyone remember him?
Before I opened the door, Ruthie paused outside. “What do I say?” she asked. I didn’t have a good answer, so we walked in. We stumbled through inquiries of how long a few of the employees had worked there. Four or five guys were sitting around, watching TV. It was a slow part of the night. And our unannounced entrance and questions were awkward at first.
“Uh, last summer. So, like, eight months,” the college-aged cashier said.
“Anyone longer?” I asked.
A bearded gentleman said, “About 20 years.”
Ruthie asked the man if he had worked with Adam. Of course, he said, “His pictures are all over.”
There was Adam, above the cash register, in a fading 4-by-6 print. And in the back room, where beer cases were stacked 4- and 5-feet tall, his face was indeed visible everywhere.
Despite being part of a generation that witnessed the Steelers fail to bring home a Super Bowl in the 1980s and ’90s, Adam grew up a devoted Steelers fan. He went to many Steelers games while a student in Oakland and graduated from Pitt in the winter of 2005, just as that season’s team was to embark on a storied run.
In the final Steelers game Adam watched on television — wearing a No. 82 Antwaan Randle El jersey at his family’s home in Erie — the Steelers scored 28 unanswered points to beat Cincinnati. They went on to win against Indianapolis, Denver and then Seattle in the Super Bowl. One for the thumb, as the saying went.
But Adam didn’t get to see those playoff wins or the parade that followed.
Ruthie woke at 5 a.m. the morning after the Steelers beat Cincinnati. Her mother, breathing through what Ruthie remembers sounding like a stuffy nose, told her, “Ruthie … your brother … your brother is not with us anymore.”
Adam had died in an early morning car crash. He was 24.
The next week brought some of the most difficult moments any family can endure, particularly one as close-knit as Adam’s. A constant stream of people bringing food to the house. A jam-packed viewing at a funeral home. An endless line of cars for the memorial service. So many speeches.
Ruthie remembers coping by zoning out for most of them, though her focus did return when Adam’s boss from Mellinger’s delivered this line: “Adam loved his sisters more than anything in the world.”
I never met Adam — and those sentences above are Ruthie’s more than mine — but even for me, the dozen small images on the walls at Mellinger’s were powerful. And obviously a genuine tribute. No one from her family had visited the place in more than eight years.
Ruthie is not a woman who easily succumbs to emotion, but the photos instantly drew tears. It wasn’t the images themselves, but their meaningful location inside the store.
Her brother, gone physically, was living on with friends in the middle of Oakland.
“He’s still part of the family,” one of the employees said. “We miss him every day.”
A reminder: Adam’s was a job one holds in college to get by. It was certainly not the start of a career, and he couldn’t have worked there for more than two or three years.
Ruthie and I are only a few months removed from living in Florida, where I attended graduate school and worked for two years before returning to Pittsburgh to work for the Post-Gazette.
A recent op-ed bragged of there being “something about Pittsburgh.” It was true for us that night at Mellinger’s, back in a town where friendly faces are easy to come by.
With the kindness Adam’s former co-workers had shown us, the least we could do before leaving the store was to make a purchase. As I was about to pay for a case of beer, the same bearded gentleman spoke up again and gave the cashier a directive.
“They get an employee discount.”
Ethan Magoc is the Post-Gazette’s social media content editor (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1731).