1990s Hip-Hop/R&B, 1990s Rap, Coming-of-Age, Constantine's, Dance, Dancehall, East Liberty, Fights, Grad School Days, Graduate School, Hypermasculinity, Misogyny, Observation, PE, People-Watching, Pitt, Public Enemy, Reggae, Self-Reflection, Sexuality, Voyeurism
“Last call for the alcohol!,” the half-bartender, half-bouncer would yell about 20 minutes before the two o’clock closing of the hole-in-the-wall joint that spend a few too many Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays in between the summer of 1991 and January 1995. It was my time “bein’ around my peeps,” sitting around to nurse two or three drinks, dance, people-watch, and occasionally go back home with a patron. It was my time to not think about what I feared, especially God and graduate school. It was my time to forget that I was the second of six kids who had the triple responsibility of father figure, oldest brother, and caregiver. Mostly, it was just a place to allow my horny and bored-with-the-world ass hang out and not be so intellectual and weird all the time.
Constantine’s was where the East Liberty CVS on Penn Avenue in Pittsburgh now sits. It was less than two blocks from where I lived on Penn Circle South, my first on-my-own flat that I didn’t have to share with no one. I have no idea what was there in that rickety and beaten up old one-floor building before Constantine’s. Maybe it had always been a bar or a club, one that had seen better days in the decade or two before I was born. Maybe it was once a hardware store or a dry cleaners. Who knows?
All I knew was, in the month or two after I moved into my Penn Circle South studio apartment, I stumbled onto the place. It would’ve been October 1990, just cool enough for Pittsburghers to start wearing winter gear, Steelers jerseys, and enough Steelers and Pirates pleather and leather to scare a herd of charging bulls. A group of 20-somethings were packing their way through Constantine’s front door. There was a bouncer, I guess, checking IDs to make sure everyone was over 21. Judging by the way some of the youngest women were made up, though, I didn’t think the bouncer was consistently checking folks.
I didn’t go in that day. Too many bills, not enough money, and too many thoughts about What would Mom think? and What temptations would harm my soul? So I forgot about the place for the remainder of my senior year at Pitt.
It wasn’t until I started having problems with my friend E during my first full summer living in the ‘Burgh in ’91 that I started carving out me-time at Constantine’s. I went in on a sweltering mid-June Wednesday, and as would become ritual over the next 3.5 years, the so-called bouncer didn’t check me for ID. The joint was tacky as hell. The tables and chairs on the left were either plastic or plywood, Kelly green or harsh white.
The barstools on the right were of better quality, up against a bar with a prickly middle-aged-looking Black dude who maintained his fresh Ving Rhames-in-Dave (1993) haircut under any and all circumstances serving drinks. He was so mercurial. He could be, “Wassup man? How you be?” one Saturday, and “We don’t serve your kind!” another. One Friday, I ordered a screwdriver (Vodka and O.J.) without any pushback. The next Friday, he was all like, “Muthafucka, just call it a vodka and orange juice! I don’t mix screwdrivers here!”
There was a well-proportioned Black woman who always, always, always, sat in the middle of seven barstools, just to the right of the cash register. She was maybe about five-two, skin the color of mahogany, her hair in a ’90s-style perm or in ruffles. She either wore skin-tight dresses or jeans with a revealing blouse, never danced, and rarely greeted anyone. I figured she was either the gruff bartender’s girlfriend or that Constantine’s was her favorite watering hole. Whatever. She probably could drink the entire group of men (and sometimes women) who hit on her every night under the table and under the concrete foundation, too.
Much of what remember from my Constantine’s outings were the fights. There were so many fights. Fights between two guys over a woman would break out in the middle of the dance floor one Friday or Saturday after another. I once saw a guy beaten until there was a pool of blood in the center of the floor, with a trail of blood leading into the alleyway that led to the side entrance of my apartment building. It wasn’t unusual for women to throw down either, knocking each other out somewhere between PE’s “Can’t Truss It” and Daddy Freddy’s “We Are The Champions.”
Speaking of the music, it was the early ’90s, so the vibe went from New Jack Swing, Babyface and Tony! Toni! Toné! to Jodeci, MJB, and PE, with bits of Kriss Kross, Tribe Called Quest, Naughty By Nature, TLC, Dre, MC Lyte, and LL Cool J thrown in. But it was reggae — specifically dancehall — and gansta rap that was mostly in our ears at Constantine’s for most of my time attending. Shabba Ranks was so big at Constantine’s. So was Patra and Buju Banton and fake raggamuffin Shaggy. Outside of Pitt, I didn’t know African Caribbeans lived in Pittsburgh until I started sipping drinks at Constantine’s.
I also didn’t really know how to dance until I started hanging out at this smoked-filled and slick-floored destination. I went on the floor maybe once every three trips. Sometimes I was more interested in observing than in participating. Sometimes I was too stressed and horny to do anything else but stare at faces, breasts, hips, and asses for a few hours. But I did dance, at least, as best as I could. I used my halfway decent post-up moves from the basketball court as the basis for decent footwork. But, as I began realizing that some of the women wanted to grind, I learned how to do that too.
I had some awkward moments. Like the time my Swahili instructor and I found ourselves at Constantine’s one really warm Wednesday night in the fall of ’91. He had a woman on each arm. All three of them were from Tanzania, not the typical group of Constantine attendees. We greeted each other, and proceeded to ignore each other the rest of the night. Class the next afternoon was pretty much about my and his after-hours habits.
Sometimes I almost got into it with a guy here or a woman there because I looked at them the wrong way, said the wrong thing, sounded too educated or “White,” or because someone’s conversation with me ran on too long. In 1992, one woman laughed at me and kicked me in my rear on my way out the door after I revealed that I was “also working on my master’s” — she obviously didn’t believe me. Until she saw me on campus a week later. After that, I lied, and told folks who asked that I was a “part-time college student.”
I was too young, stressed about grad school and life, and excited and aroused to be scared. I should’ve been. On two occasions, someone threw a large liquor bottle in my direction when I was on my way out of Constantine’s. One other time, I swear, a bullet whizzed past me and into the window of a parked car.
The last time I went to Constantine’s was the beginning of February ’95. I kid you not, they were running the place with a portable electric generator plugged into an outdoor outlet — someone hadn’t paid their Duquesne Light bill. It kept the lights even dimmer than normal. There was no heat. This is a bar in Pittsburgh, before climate change made American winters into the wet season in Guyana. It was 15 degrees Fahrenheit that day, and it felt like it at Constantine’s that night, even with nearly 30 dumbasses like me in the bar that night. I left after 45 minutes.
Three days later, I was in Washington, DC, working on my dissertation project. When I returned at the end of March, Constantine’s was gone, bulldozed to make way for East Liberty’s first CVS.
Truly, if my field had been sociology, cultural anthropology, or social psychology, creative nonfiction writing, my times at Constantine’s would’ve made a great project, with me as subject, too. The misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, and hypermasculinity on display, side-by-side with intersectionality, feminism, sexuality, all in the midst of the beginning of this neighborhood’s gradual shift toward gentrification. It was, well, fascinating. Thankful, though, to not feel that awkward at this stage of life.