Stories of Our Neighbors: ‘I Miss the Wildness’
Our new feature by Lori Jakiela offers glimpses into the lives of our fellow Pittsburghers. Up first, Brillobox owner Lou Ickes on the pandemic, metaphysics, corporate cruelty and the future of his Brillobox shark.
Lou Ickes sits beneath a large black-and-white movie poster. The movie is “Jaws.” We’re talking on Zoom because of the pandemic – Lou from his home in Lawrenceville, me in my basement in Trafford. On the computer screen, it looks like the shark, jaws open, teeth the size of toasters, is about to devour Lou headfirst, which, he says, is how he feels some days since the COVID-19 pandemic led to the shutdown of the Brillobox, a landmark Pittsburgh bar and concert venue he and his wife Janessa Walters owned since 2015.
“We were about to have our fifth anniversary as owners,” Lou says, adjusting his Pirates baseball cap and running a hand over his chin that, during the Brillobox days, was mostly hidden under a woolly beard. Now, after trying a corporate stint post-Brillo, Lou is clean shaven. “We didn’t make it.”
Lou is 50.
I’ve been having my own pandemic meltdown since early spring, when I realized that no matter what we would try, it was over. At first, every morning, I was in full-blown tears worried about what we were going to do. My wife’s not a crier – not one tear has been shed there – but she has her own floral business. When we closed Brillo, she lost her storefront, too. She’s been working out of the house. She knows her side of life – flowers, people getting married, people dying – will come back some day and she’ll make it work. But right now, our house is full of flowers and I’m still crying a lot and we’re still paying rent and bills at Brillo. Some days it gets really dark.
It’s not just us, of course. The Rex closed. Howlers. Hambones. So many places. I try to imagine what’s going to happen to Pittsburgh. Before, I thought we had too many things going on. And now. When your business is people, when you’re in the business of bringing people together, when you lose that, you lose the soul of the place.
At first, we tried takeout. We opened and closed twice. But I was faking it. I kept trying to tell myself it would be all right, but now who knows when this is going to be over and how we’ll all be permanently changed by that?
Lately, I’ll be watching something on television and people on screen will hug and I will be like, oh man oh jeez don’t do that. I was with my family when my nephew turned 8. We had a birthday party. But no hugs, no nothing. Most days it feels like the human-ness has been sucked out of everything. I don’t know what this will do to us in the long run. I think we’re already damaged a bit.
After we closed, I tried to find something new. I started a sales job. I’d go in early and leave late. I tried to be into the idea of new beginnings. I pulled it off for two weeks.
I was doing something with computer operating systems. I know nothing about computer operating systems. I would talk to somebody about upgrading their Linux knowledge and cringe inside, thinking, oh god dude you are not this person.
Then one day, the owner called me. He’d call in every morning like Charlie on “Charlie’s Angels.” This day, he called and said, “Let me hear your voicemail.” The message I’d leave on people’s voicemail was basically, “Hey this is Lou from X. I’m just checking to see if we can help you out with anything.” The owner went ballistic when he heard that. He said, “Would you buy anything off of a person who left that voicemail?” He told me to do it again. I went through my routine. He told me to do it again. He said, “I want you to emphasize this word more, that word more. Do it again. Do it again.” For one hour and 30 minutes. Do it again. Do it again.
After he finally hung up, I was drenched in sweat. I went home and told my wife, “I’m done.” Running the bar could be tough, but I was never treated poorly and I try not to treat other people poorly. I’m not used to cruelty.
It felt good to leave, but now I worry about where I am going to be able to fit. Where can I work and not go crazy? I don’t think I could have a normal job at this point in my life. I don’t know what normal is. Cruelty maybe. I hope not.
Right now, I’m taking philosophy classes online. We’re talking about free will and determinism. I’m writing my final paper on metaphysics in “Star Trek.” I ordered a giant bean bag so I can sit in it and read philosophy books. I think it will be life changing. I couldn’t imagine I’d be 50, looking forward to a giant bean bag and taking a class in metaphysics, but the void is so giant. There’s something missing, right in the heart. It’s hard to feel anything some days. Some days I’m glad for the tears.
As of now, the Brillobox waits to be sold. It sits frozen in time. The paintings by Lou and other artists; the jukebox; the red pleather booths; the ceramic Elvis busts; the specials board are all still there, along with Brillo’s famous 18-foot replica of a great white shark. Since 2016, the shark has chomped down on the plastic head of a certain politician. When Brillo sells, Lou says, everything will sell with it, except for the jukebox and the shark, which will find a new home in the jujitsu studio where Lou has been a passionate student. He hopes to return one day.
Lori Jakiela is the author of the memoir “Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe” and several other books. She lives in Trafford and directs the Creative and Professional Writing Program at Pitt-Greensburg. For more, visit lorijakiela.net.