Drive-in theaters are practically extinct, diners are dying, but go-go bars are still common in working class neighborhoods across America. It’s wholesome afterwork entertainment for the sweating man.
When I was a housepainter over twenty years ago, our crew would hit The Office in CenterCity or Penn’s Port Pub, on Christopher Columbus Boulevard. After a long, hot day of scraping paint or standing on a 40-foot ladder, it was somewhat soothing to see lovelies pole dancing.
Yesterday, I went with Felix Giordano to Penn’s Port Pub to rekindle some old memories and, well, long lost sensations. “This may bring a dead man to life,” Felix joked before we walked in. He’s 71, and I just turned 54.
Yes, the doors to a movie theater also separate real life from fantasy, but entering a go-go bar, you’re really descending into your simmering, frustrated id. Of course, it’s bizarre to stare so hard at someone’s orifices, with all your clothes on, in public. Being in a go-go bar is akin to witnessing a public execution.
In the early afternoon, there were only six aging, contemplative gents in there. We chose a reasonable vantage point and ordered two Yuenglings.
Within a hundred yards, there were also Club Risqué and Show & Tel, but they’re gentlemen’s clubs, and Felix and I just don’t patronize such snobbish and exorbitant establishments. Once, a Club Risqué dancer did ask Felix for directions outside Wal-Mart, “She was stunning. I couldn’t believe such a beautiful woman would ask me for directions!”
All the Christopher Columbus Boulevard big box stores, Wal-Mart, Target, Ikea, Staples, Home Depot, Lowe’s and Best Buy, have destroyed most Pennsport mom and pops, but what are you going to do? Small businesses gone, the city tried to build casinos in Pennsport, but locals blocked the plan.
The SS United States is docked in Pennsport. Since its last voyage in 1969, all schemes to convert it to a casino, hotel, cruise ship, troop transporter or naval hospital have failed. The largest ocean liner to have ever been built in the US, it molders and rusts on the Delaware River.
At Penn’s Port Pub, they show all and don’t bother with pasties, and it’s generally assumed that’s because it’s a cops’ go-go bar. Pennsport is still heavily Irish.
The Mummers are big here. They rehearse all year long for New Year’s Day, when they can finally wear sequins, colored feathers and/or some outrageous, custom-made dress. Strutting down Broad Street, they strum a banjo, blow on a saxophone or twirl a gay umbrella.
As a blonde lady jiggled, writhed, hung upside down or spread, a man stared at his smart phone. There were two televisions on, but with the sound off. On a cooking show, seafood was being seasoned. Felix recognized an older black man at the end of the bar as the cook, “He’s good. They have good food here.”
Trawling for tips, the ladies will walk on the bar, so be prepared for one to wiggle her assets over your plate of chicken wings.
As dark-haired Damiana squatted in front of my placid, resigned face, I confided, “Me and this guy haven’t been here in twenty years. I don’t think you were working then.”
“No, I wasn’t,” she giggled.
“Were you even born then?” I complimented her.
The man next to us was 50 and balding, “I have hair all over me, on my back, growing out of my ass and my balls. I’m Italian, you know. Maybe if I walked upside down, hair would grow from my head again.”
When Damiana came on, her nether shave reminded baldy of the most evil man, supposedly, who ever lived, “Do you know that Hitler had a secret train? It was used to transport gold, inside a tunnel!”
The blonde didn’t look older than 25, but she admitted to being 40, “I’ve only been doing this for five years. I’m going to quit next year.”
“You should look into art modeling,” Felix advised. “They don’t make bad money.”
“Hey, that’s an idea! I don’t have any problems taking my clothes off!”
“You can model for individual artists too, not just art schools,” I chimed in.
Leaving, we went to 2nd Street and had a couple beers at Shamrock. The dark dive bar had small American flags all over. A sign listed champions of a basketball league, with “Drop the Bomb” the winners for 1991. Going to the bathroom, I passed an image of a serious John Wayne in “Green Berets,” “A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.”
On a bulletin board were death notices, dart scorecards and thank you notes for benefits staged. One example:
Words could never express how thankful I am to all of you for the beautiful benefit that you had for me and my family.
I am so grateful for all the good friends and family for all your love and support through out my journey.
I wish there were a more meaningful word then thank you. It dosen’t seem to be enough.
Again thank you from the bottom of my heart.
I truly appreciate it.
Love Paul, Renee, Justin and Jordan
For many uninsured, working poor, a medical emergency will send them to the local bar for assistance, for that’s their social hub. I’ve seen benefit announcements at many dives across America.
My friend, Ian Keenan, shares:
My grandpop spent much of his adult life in North Philly bars and would also say ‘never trust a man who doesn’t drink.’ He would seat the family at church on Sunday and then sneak out to hit the bar. He was a sort of ghost that imprinted my childhood even though he died before I was born and I didn’t form the view, especially after I created a suburban drinking club at 15 that met multiple times a week, that I could keep a secret from someone, repress a long held thought, or deceive someone.
Pubs in the British Isles (especially Ireland) are law courts, hiring halls, and everything else… you have to settle up with people and if you jerk someone over you’re going to see them again and again.
As a social glue and balm, then, the neighborhood pub was even more important than the church. Thanks to the zombifying television and internet, the pub has lost much of its grip on our hearts, minds and livers, however, for we can just ogle sports and nudes at home. Modern urban planning has also done its job. In his 1937 Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell explains:
Many a small shopkeeper is utterly ruined by some rehousing scheme which takes no notice of his existence. A whole section of the town is condemned en bloc; presently the houses are pulled down and the people are transferred to some housing estate miles away […] As for pubs, they are banished from the housing estates almost completely, and the few that remain are dismal sham-Tudor places fitted out by the big brewery companies and very expensive. For a middle-class population this would be a nuisance—it might mean walking a mile to get a glass of beer; for a working-class population, which uses the pub as a kind of club, it is a serious blow at communal life.
This day, the conversational topics at Shamrock never got more serious than the Eagles’ excellent play, the pros and cons of former coach Andy Reid and, strangely enough, the size of Horace Grant’s hands. Though Felix and I were clearly outsiders, we were warmly welcomed into the jive and bantering, for that’s how old school Philly rolls.
Recounting how we had just visited Penn’s Port Pub, Felix opined between chugs of Guinness, “God has fucked up everything, but he got the woman’s body right. It’s a work of art.”
No one could disagree.