No one starts out trying to be an icon. You have to be good at your area of work and you have do it at a high quality level for a long time.
Gus Kalaris, 83, has been serving up shaved ice for a long, long time. The cart has been in operation since 1934 or ‘On The North Side Since Your Dad Was A Lad’, as it says on the side. “It’s part of my life, I was 2 years old when it started,” said Gus as he lifted a yellow-colored jug out of the back of his van. It wasn’t much longer after that when he started working there full-time.
He creates little cones of shaved ice with homemade flavor syrup, but what he really creates are happy memories.
“Some of my favorite pictures of us are from here, feeding pigeons,” said Julie Niederberger, an early 20-something enjoying a ice ball with her sister, Clare, and her father. Mike Niederberger used to bring his girls in from the South Hills to “get them out of the lily white suburbs and see what city life was all about.” As Julie enjoyed her banana ice, I asked if she’s been getting that the whole time, but she said she used to get rainbow, but it was “a whole mess of colors until it was brown.”
Gus is amazingly spry for an octogenarian. He’s like a shark, constantly moving around his old-timey orange cart or getting stuff out of the purple conversion van parked next to it. I have to interview him on the move as he flits from place to place. During the spring and summer, he’s open from 11 am to 9 pm (weather permitting). “It used to be until 11 p.m., but…you know…that’s a lot of hours,” he said with his ever-present smile. Yeah, good idea to pare it back to a 10-hour workday on your feet when you’re in your 80’s.
On a typical day, Gus says he goes through two to three 40-pound blocks of ice. Each cone is piled high with ice shaved with machine-like precision, then topped with one of 12 flavor toppings. Many people get a combination of them — anything goes. And all for $1 for a small size. “I have to keep the prices low for the little kids,” says Gus.
You can also get peanuts and popcorn, which is great if you park on the North Side and are walking down to PNC Park, just a short 10-15 minute walk from Gus’s place on West Ohio Street next to the tennis courts.
Gus is a North Side lifer. He grew up on North Taylor Street in a house that became the original incarnation of Odell Robinson’s Funeral Home. “When Odell got out of the service, he went to mortuary school and wanted to open a funeral home. We were just renters, so we moved out.” His family stayed nearby the whole time. Gus is a walking documentary on the history of the North Side, recalling events back in the 1930’s and 40’s with amazing clarity.
“There used to be an apartment building owned by Phipps, the same fella that gave all the money for Phipps Conservatory, back in the 30’s. It was a tenement that you could rent a room for $1 a day! Imagine living in a place for $30 a month! It was mostly Irish that lived there. There was a rooftop that they would hang all their clothes on, go up there to get a suntan.”
As a man of half-Irish descent, I can’t imagine the amount of glare off all that pasty white Irish skin on that rooftop.
“Do you know there used to be seven theaters on the North Side?” he asked. After I shake my head no, he immediately rattles off the names for me. “There was the North Side Harris, the Kenyon, Boom-Boom…that’s what all the older kids called it…the Garden, the Ohio, and the Arcade.” Yes, that’s only six, but considering he was recalling 70 years on the fly, I didn’t backtrack to grab that seventh one.
“We had five bowling alleys. We had two hotels over here, too,” he said, with a measure of pride in his voice.
With a man that has seen the North Side rotate and evolve around his singular fixed point, there’s no better person to ask an opinion on the best and worst of its history.
“Without a doubt, Allegheny Center was the worst decision the City made. They should have kept the Market House. That’s what the City is trying to recreate with that market down in the Strip [Pittsburgh Public Market on Penn], but it won’t be the same,” he said ruefully. “Farmers used to bring their wares in by horse and trolley. People used to meet at Hite’s Pharmacy on East Ohio Street. That was just a meeting point for everyone.”
It took me a couple of tries to get the best change of the North Side out of Gus. He wasn’t done about the loss of the Commons and creation of Allegheny Center.
“John Canning saved the Carnegie Library. He got 17,000 signatures on a petition or else they were going to tear that down, too.”
After a couple of customers, Gus gave me his view on the best change. “North Shore, without a doubt. Although if Mr. Rooney was still alive [presuming Art, of course], it wouldn’t be called the North Shore. That’s North Side. There were a lot of warehouses down there, pretty rough area. B&O Freight Terminal was down there…big trucks would come in and the Teamsters would load up their truck from the trains.”
While Gus was giving me his thoughts on urban renewal, he was busy serving two ladies in their early 50’s that were clearly coming over on their lunch break for a treat, even on a slightly cool 60’s degree day.
“I was born on the North Side, I work across the street,” said Barbi (“like the doll, without the ‘e'”). “Coming here is generational.” I ask the ladies their favorite flavors. “I usually get blue,” said Cassie, “but I don’t want my teeth to get stained blue the rest of the day.” They both went with a yellow-orange mix.
As Gus was getting Barbi and Cassie’s order ready, a lady came up to the cart and started talking with Gus. Gus introduced me to his daughter, Chris Avlon. We talked about how the business has become a family affair as Gus gets up in years.
“I always tell people that I had to retire because my father wouldn’t,” Chris jokes.
Everyone pitches in where they can. A gentleman named Mike Spanos comes down in the evenings after his day job as a teacher.
But the time until Gus hangs up his ice shaver gets closer each day. When something becomes an institution, it’s natural to take it for granted. It will always be there. I can go another day. Until the day it’s gone and you can’t get that chance back.
If you live in Pittsburgh and haven’t had an ice ball, you need to get here. If you’re visiting Pittsburgh in the near future, take a detour over and see how something so simple has brought so many people so much joy for so many years.