Northern Liberties has been getting chichi for a while now, with its “green” condos and yoga studios and bowling lanes that tell you the speed of your ball. A few remnants of the old Slavic neighborhood survive, however. There’s the RUBA club and Pernitsky’s and Jerry’s Bar, a Ukrainian joint tucked between Second Street and I-95 on the corner of Laurel and New Market Streets.
The owner, Jaroslaw “Jerry” Lebin, says there are a lot of dives dirtier than his, and he’s right. Jerry lives upstairs and drinks downstairs and the bar looks like it could be his tchotchke-filled den. There’s a pool table, and photos of his parents and soccer teams he’s coached, and a plaque from when he was an All-Catholic soccer player at Roman in 1972. Below the TV is a bumper sticker that reads “The Navy Yard is...Americans working for America.”
There was a guy sitting at the bar drinking Obolon, a Ukrainian lager. His name was Andrew and he looked like Rod Blagojevich without access to a blow dryer. His hair was extraordinarily thick, as though he’d fed it Miracle-Gro, and his eyebrows appeared equally well-fertilized. He was wearing a cotton baseball shirt with three-fourths-length pink sleeves and the picture of a gecko on the front.
“You went to high school in Philadelphia,” he said with a clairvoyant’s certainty. I wondered how he knew, an old teacher perhaps, then realized it was a lucky guess.
“I went to Olney,” he said.
“I went to Central,” I said, “not far from there.” My answer seemed to please him immensely, and he offered me a toast. I told him I’d gone to Masterman for middle school, over on Spring Garden Street.
“The U.S. Mint used to be right across the street,” he said.
With that, Andrew pulled out a narrow manila envelope and dumped its contents on the bar with a clatter. There were a half dozen Peace Dollars from the 1920s, and two heavy silver coins from Mexico that appeared to be of more recent vintage.
“Pick one,” he said. “Learn. Educate yourself.” I felt like I was being given some kind of test, but I didn’t know what the question was. I chose a Peace Dollar from 1922.
“Buy me a drink,” he said, with a wave of his hand, as if to say it would be the smallest gesture of thanks imaginable. At $5 a bottle Obolon was the most expensive beer in the bar, and I wondered if the whole thing was a subtle grift. Maybe he wasn’t so crazy after all.
“Silver,” said Andrew. “All silver. Learn. Educate yourself. Silver is real. Fuck Wall Street with their made-up numbers. Ben Franklin used silver to endow the University of Pennsylvania. I was born in 1947. Forty seven is the number of silver in the periodic table. If you take the square root of 47 33 times you get the number one, which is me. Ones and zeros, that’s what computers use. They built the first computer at the University of Pennsylvania.”
He pulled out a plastic bag and dumped a jumble of silver rings, bracelets and necklaces of the bar.
“Pick one,” he said.
I told him I didn’t wear jewelry.
“What are you slow? Pick one.”
I shrugged and pointed to a broken, 25-year anniversary ring given to someone who had worked at the Mercer generating station.
“Keep it,” he said. He didn’t ask for a beer this time.
Andrew said he went to Vietnam in 1965, after high school. He performed a mock salute with brio and said something in French. He said he’d served in three armies, including the French Foreign Legion. After he got back he worked in a plant that made aluminum furniture, then in an architect’s office. Then came the Congo, he said.
“So what did you do in the Congo?”
“Smoke at your own risk,” says the hand-lettered sign above the jukebox, and nearly everyone does—Parliament Lights, GPC’s and USA Golds. Good health is already in short supply among this crowd anyway. Between the canes and the walkers and the overall level of physical infirmity, the place can look more like a doctor’s office than a bar. Patti the bartender has to remind guys to take their prescriptions. They swallow their pills with a beer chaser.
Neither the building nor the bar had changed much since 1991, when I was 18 and lived around the corner. We bought takeout forties of Olde English 800 there, and sometimes we’d stick around to listen to the jazz combo and live out our Kerouacian fantasies. We assumed Way’s had been there forever;it never occurred to us that you could buy an old bar and slap a new name on it.
Back in 1971, when Dom and his brother Marco took over Friendly Lounge after their mother died business was pretty slow. They’d brought in go-go girls for three or four years, and that kept them afloat for a while. They’ve managed to limp along ever since.
A Philly bar isn't quite what its name promises -- but for one patron, it might as well be heaven after time spent behind bars.
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