At McCusker’s Tavern, a family owned South Philly pub hidden in plain view on the corner of 17th and Shunk, everyone’s a regular, no matter how often they show up.
Clouds of smoke billow up defiantly from black ashtrays as the Stones grind classic rock nostalgia into the air, and cans of Miller Lite fill the narrow counter space.
“Like my dad always said, it’s like Cheers,” says Doug McCusker, wearing gauges in his ear and a Social Distortion sweatshirt. “We got a lot of Cliff Clavins here.” John McCusker first opened the neighborhood watering hole as a sports bar back in 1968. His sons, Doug and Ryan, have been slinging beers (four on draught, no specials) to the kids they grew up with for the past thirteen years.
Since taking over, Ryan says from behind the bar, they’ve followed the Tattooed Mom’s model of cheap beer plus pop-culture savvy—installing a vintage Ms. Pac Man machine, and papering the walls with posters from nearly every Pearl Jam show ever to play the Spectrum. Bottles of Yuengling go for $2.75.
The folks who gather around for conversation, the essential small talk of the neighborhood, haven’t changed much over time. Their easy friendliness seems old and natural, deeply ingrained into the very floors of the dimly lit corner space over 40-some years.
“She a newbie?” asks Joe to my right. A food and beverage manager at St. Charles Seminary up the street, Joe launches into an intensely detailed descrpition of the eight tapas dishes he ordered at Amada earlier that night, which he reads from meticulous notes he kept. He writes everything down, he says. “My life is made of paper.”
Joe introduces me to Dave, a long-time fixture at the bar who moved in upstairs 10 years ago. There’s a limit to their inclusiveness, he warns.
“Guys who don’t fit in don’t come back,” Dave says, mentioning a man who wandered in a few weeks ago looking for a little something to numb his gums. “This ain’t that kind of place.”
When another dark-haired Joe stumbles in at 10 minutes past last call, Doug greets him with a hug and a slap to the face. This Joe opens with a story about meeting a Bulgarian hooker in Prague who, after declining her business, wept briefly on his shoulder before sending him scurring down an alleyway when cop sirens began wailing.
There’s no shortage of unusual cats lounging in the comfortable everydayness of this landmark pub—but they’re family, so they must be all right.
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