The Place for Smiles

Images of Black people smiling and drinking milkshakes from straws as well as glass bottle Coca-Colas, with ice in the background.

Diner Week – All Artwork by Viv Le

When you’re drunk and high late nights in Pittsburgh, there aren’t a lot of places you can go.

It’s a running joke: If you’re hungry late in Pittsburgh, you have to fight for your life. Most places are only open until 10 p.m. at the very latest. I heard from my older brother that Ritter’s Diner used to be open super late. It was the place he went after a night of drinking. He’d fill up on breakfast and lunch items, then walk home in the cold dark.

For me, that place was Eat n Park. Eat n Park was founded in 1949 by Larry Hatch and Bill Peters. It’s kind of an institution in the city. As a kid, we would go to the one close to Walmart and eat from the salad bar. It wasn’t super impressive like the Hoss’s we also frequented, but it got the job done. I ate the chili and a salad and maybe something kid-friendly, like chicken tenders, with my brothers and niece.

At the end of the meal, you could get one of their famous Smiley Cookies. A basic, hard sugar cookie topped with white royal icing, colored icing in the shape of a smile.

What I remember about eating at this spot as a kid was the times I went alone with my mom. She would tell me about her marital problems, her friend drama, and anything she had on her mind that day. I listened to anything and everything she said. Word for word, desperate to be her confidante.

***
Going to Eat n Park as a drunk adult was a different story. I’d spend most of the night drinking at 5801, There, and other gay bars around town with my best friend, her ex, and their friends. Back in those days, I thought drinking was the most interesting thing about me. My favorite cocktail was a vodka cranberry. I liked the tartness of the cranberry and the stark pink of the mixed drink, it made me feel feminine and classy, even when I was the opposite.

If I wasn’t having a cocktail, I drank wine and whiskey alone in my apartment, waiting for the next party.

When I wasn’t hanging out with my best friend, I was running in a crowd of lesbians I had been introduced to by an old high school acquaintance. She added me on Facebook one day after I graduated from college and confidently messaged me: “I always knew you were gay.”

This woman reintroduced me to The L Word, and it wasn’t long before I began to wonder what the hell we were doing with each other. Were we going to hook up? My mind was governed by the thought of adding another notch to my bedpost.

We never did hook up, but she did introduce me to her crew of lesbians that were entrenched in the melodrama of who was fucking who in the group.

I grew close with the most charismatic of the group and watched as another woman became increasingly attached to her. Once, when they were giving me a ride home after I had too much to drink, I lay woozy and hot in the back of the car as they argued about how the butch was into the charismatic one, but the charismatic one paid her no attention.

They assumed I was blacked out, but I was conscious enough to be saddened by this, because I had a thing for the butch. She was stocky and looked like her lips were soft.

We’d sometimes end up at the Eat n Park in Squirrel Hill. By this time, I was vegan and was keen on eating sides like french fries and salads without dressing. I didn’t want to be the obnoxious one that had the waiter run down the ingredients of other dishes, so I stuck to things I knew couldn’t be made with animal products.

***
Eat n Park is a chain throughout Pennsylvania and West Virginia with the feel of a one-off homey diner. The waiters and waitresses were either teenagers with their first jobs or 20-year veterans that called you hun when filling up your coffee.

The color scheme is green and red, with an off-white to balance the two. When you enter, you are met with the hostess and a large display case of pies; the classics meet more inventive ones like chocolate peanut butter pie.

When you’re seated, you first get your drinks. I was partial to strawberry lemonade or the slightly decent coffee. After a night of drinking, I thought “sobering up” meant black coffee and fried foods.

The salad bar used to be $7.99 for one person, so you could fill up on greens, macaroni or potato salad, soups, chili, and stews with rolls and biscuits on the side for a pretty decent price.

***
It didn’t take long for me in my addiction journey to start mixing drugs with alcohol. I got into pills, mostly Xanax, but really whatever anybody gave me. Before I would head out drinking, I’d pop a pill and steady myself in the mirror, determined to have a good time and be somewhat charming.

I don’t always remember what I took, but one day I took too much of it. And with a side of too much drinking, I was soon slumped and drooling in a booth at Eat n Park, my friends trying to shove fries and fried zucchini into my mouth to help me come back to myself.

I remember the hard glass against my forehead, how I must have looked to the waitress, hell, to my friends. To teenagers and early twenties folks heading in to do the same thing we had set out to do.

I drank pretty regularly from age 11 to 25, with a break around the age of 17 before heading off to college. On my 18th birthday, I relapsed and didn’t look back for seven years.

***
When I did finally get sober, Eat n Park and I met again. I hadn’t been for a while, and a group of sober people I had started to hang out with suggested we go there after a hangout for coffee and food.

I immediately had a flashback to the night I spent slumped in the booth with my eyes glazed over and cringed. I didn’t want to go. But trying to be cordial with my new friend group led me to sliding into one of the chairs at an Eat n Park table long enough to fit our huge party.

From the beginning of those sober trips to Eat n Park, we had a great waitress who was definitely in high school or college, just trying to make a few bucks to support herself. She was a rockstar. No matter how many people were seated with us, she always remembered who had what and what we wanted to be added to or removed from a dish, what side of mayonnaise somebody else needed, everything.

When I was new to this sober group, I always felt like the focus was on me, which I hated, because as much as I wanted to be kind, I also did not want to talk to anyone. My desire to remain sober led me to hang out with these people, but I wasn’t interested in them actually getting to know me.

Being sober for an extended period of time was a new venture for me. Since I was 11, I hadn’t been sober for more than six months at a time, so when I reached that milestone in a new group of friends, I was met with cheers and congratulations. It was a good feeling. I had accomplished something I didn’t think was possible for me anymore.

Then I got a year, then two, then three, then four. I was slowly doing what I said I couldn’t. We’d head to Eat n Park before a hang with just a couple of us, talk about our problems, our triumphs, our personal projects. I didn’t have to be embarrassed or apologetic about my actions anymore. A place I was once afraid to show my face in became a sign of good fortune and a changed life for me.

I grew to love the people around me, those I once was so averse to, those I thought I could never let know me. They know me now, and they haven’t run away.

The Eat n Park in Squirrel Hill is shut down now. The chain has slowly been scaling back on its restaurants around the state. I’ll always remember it as the place where I built a community, one that liked me for me and not because we were intoxicated. I’m different now, but I still cling to the image of drunk and slobbering me so that I know that is a place I can go back to. It keeps me on the right path to recall the past and steer clear of it. It keeps me whole and humble to strive toward who I want to be today.

a white napkin with red print that reads AUTOSTRADDLE Diner Week

Diner Week is a 12-part series of essays curated and edited by Autostraddle Managing Editor Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya.


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danijanae

Dani Janae is a poet and writer based out of Pittsburgh, PA. When she's not writing love poems for unavailable women, she's watching horror movies, hanging with her tarantula, and eating figs. Follow Dani Janae on Twitter and on Instagram.

danijanae has written 116 articles for us.

6 Comments

  1. Early in the pandemic, I discovered that you could get a whole chocolate creme pie delivered from the Squirrel Hill Ean n’ Park to my house for $7 including fees – can’t believe that they’re gone. I grew up in that Eat n’ Park, and this piece evokes all the weird sad homeiness that is that restaurant.

  2. Also, I didn’t realize that Eat n’ Park is a regional chain – it really does feel like a one-off homey diner. My one experience with them was the one near where my parents lived in Johnstown, PA – they moved there when I was in college and we always went to the Eat n’ Park when I came to visit.

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