Arnold Mitchell moved out of the old neighborhood in 1968.
Today he lives in Milwaukee. He has married, had kids and grown older; he’s lived an entire life far away from where he grew up in the Mexican War Streets on Pittsburgh’s North Side.
The distance, however, is merely physical. In spirit and intent, Mitchell never actually left. He stays connected — every week for the better part of five decades — by picking up the phone and calling his lifelong friend, Sam Caruso.
“Back then, every family knew one another, celebrated holidays together — it was a unique neighborhood,” Mitchell says. “I looked for what we had there wherever I travelled as an adult. I tried to reconstruct that same kind of neighborhood where I grew up, where everybody knew one another and your parents knew if you were doing something wrong — everybody in the neighborhood knew. And you knew they knew when you got home.
“The rich, middle class and poor all lived together in that neighborhood, but you didn’t know if you were rich or poor because everybody shared with each other. Everybody was in it together. We were all connected for life in that neighborhood.
“And Sam was like my brother from a different mother.”
An unexpected career
Mitchell’s weekly phone calls come into Sam’s business, Caruso Beer Distributor, on North Taylor Avenue.
Sam’s dad, Sam Sr., founded Caruso’s in 1933. The license to sell alcohol — one of the first granted in the commonwealth after the repeal of Prohibition — still hangs on the wall. Sam took over in 1968, the year Mitchell moved away. A Caruso has been selling beer to War Streets residents uninterrupted for 84 years.
Although Sam grew up around the business — his dad also owned a grocer on Monterey Street, and the family lived in an apartment above — he never anticipated a career in beer.
He was a musician, a skilled piano and accordion player who earned a music degree from Duquesne University and spent several years teaching band at area high schools. But the pay wasn’t great, and one day his dad sat him down and said: “Son, you need to get out of that school teaching racket and make some real money.”
So Sam did what countless other kids in the old neighborhood did: He went to work at Caruso’s.
“He was a great citizen, his daddy was,” Mitchell says. “He was the fabric of the North Side. He lived his life as an example of a hard-working man, a living example of what it takes to have a family and provide for your family, but he gave back more than he took. He gave a lot of kids the opportunity to work for the business, to get some money in your pocket as a teen. He was really something.”
Father and son worked side-by-side for several years. When business was slow, Sam took off in the company truck and visited local bars to secure new accounts. The Shamrock Inn on Western Avenue was a big get for Sam, who still has the old order sheets, faded and brittle, in a desk drawer at the shop.
“I don’t know what to do with them,” he says, thumbing through the brittle pages.
He’s considered throwing them out, but he never does.
Because history matters.
And Sam knows his history.
‘It was a different day’
Sam thinks back to when he took over the business in 1968. Back then, the neighborhood was blue-collar and multi-racial, and the beers of choice were Schlitz and Iron City — no-nonsense beers for a no-nonsense clientele.
Then the steel industry collapsed, the workers moved away and Pittsburgh went from being one of America’s great cities to one of its most desperate. The neighborhood’s stately brick row houses mostly remained, but suddenly many were vacant. Business slowed, but Sam stayed. And while he had fewer neighbors, those who remained continued to be loyal customers.
“It was a different day,” Sam says. “Boy, I’ve seen it all here.”
Now the city is reborn. The old houses — available for just a few thousand dollars not too long ago, Sam says — are again full and some sell for close to a million dollars.
The Iron City doesn’t sell so much these days, not with the doctors and lawyers and professional viola players streaming in and out of the old shop. It’s mostly craft beer now, and Sam even moves cases of Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA for a cool $205.
“Like I said,” he says with a shrug, “time’s have changed.”
Still the same
What hasn’t changed is Sam. He’s still here, happily greeting customers, rattling off one-liners and telling stories about the old days.
Walking into his shop — a one-story, nondescript brick and cinderblock building — is like walking into a history book, stepping back in time to a Pittsburgh that no longer exists. Bells alert your arrival. Sam, who might be back in the one heated room in the building, rushes out to greet you from behind the plexiglass front window. If you’re a regular — and pretty much everyone is — he opens the door and lets you inside to peruse the beer selection.
“Who has the best prices in town?” he asks one customer.
“You do, Sam,” the man responds.
“Maybe I’m not charging enough,” Sam says.
“No,” the man says. “It’s perfect.”
A woman enters and explains that her brother died and she needs to buy beer for a celebration of his life. But she’s short on money. She asks Sam to knock $2 off each case.
“You know how much profit I make on these?” Sam asks. He doesn’t tell her, but it’s not much.
Still, she’s a loyal customer and she’s in a bad place.
“I’ll do it for you, dear,” he says.
The woman leaves.
“I’m easy,” Sam says. “How can I say no?”
Then he recalls the time, years ago, when a little girl walking past the shop poked her head in and asked if he had potato chips.
“Well, I sell potato chips,” he told her.
“Oh,” the little girl responded dejectedly. “I was hoping that would be my lunch.”
That broke his heart, Sam says. And of course the girl got her free bag of chips.
Always an adventure
Simply put, Caruso Beer Distributor is one of those places that screams Pittsburgh, a local landmark that has changed little even as the surrounding city and neighborhood rises and crumbles and rises again.
It’s a place as identifiable with the city as Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. and Wholeys; and Sam himself embodies Pittsburgh much in the way that Fred Rogers, Vic Cianca and Sophie Masloff once did.
This is not lost on his customers.
On Dec. 2, War Streets resident Paul Carson posted this message on the neighborhood Facebook page:
“For anyone new to the neighborhood and does not know about Caruso Beer Distributor, you should. Getting beer from Sam is always an adventure. He is super friendly and will engage you and tell stories. I have known Sam for almost 20 years and I highly recommend you buy beer from him. The hours are somewhat limited as Sam gets towards retirement so make note of them. He is willing to special order anything and is a salt of the earth guy. We are lucky to have him in our neighborhood.”
He’ll be here for a while: At age 77, Sam has no immediate plans of retiring.
“I’m only down here three days a week, four to five hours a day,” he says. “I’m kind of retired now!”
Besides, if he left, where would his old friend Arnold Mitchell call for updates on the old ’hood?
“I might miss a week here or there, but when I call it’s, ‘How you doing? What are your kids doing?’” Mitchell says. “We just keep in touch. The Carusos are a great family. They should be etched in the history of the North Side forever.”