A Philly bar isn't quite what it's name promises -- but for one patron, it might as well be.
The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter, said Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon, and the same is true for bars. The more a tavern’s name promises, the less likely it is to deliver.
Take Foot’s Star Search Lounge on Ninth and Master. It seems quite likely that stars were neither searched for nor found there, otherwise the bar might still be in business.
Or My Blue Heaven on East Pacific Street in Port Richmond. The place wouldn’t qualify as heaven, blue or otherwise, unless you’d recently gotten out of seven months in city lockup out on State Line Road, like Norm had.
He was smoking Marlboro Reds and drinking Bud, and the cigarettes alone still felt like some kind of special dispensation. Cigarettes are prohibited at the Detention Center, the DC, as it’s called. The going rate for a single smoke is $7, said Norm, but only the big ballers, the major players bought them whole. Anyone else would get jumped before they could light up. He picked a butt from the ashtray and broke off the small piece of tobacco left above the filter.
“They break each cigarette into seven pieces about this size,” he said. “Each piece costs $2. They roll them up in toilet paper.”
Sold that way, one pack would bring in $280, which is a hell of a markup.
The miniature smokes are good for about two drags, which seemed more like torture than pleasure to Norm, so he avoided cigarettes altogether while he was there.
Norm worked in a metal shop near the bar, making iron fencing and grillwork. He’d come straight from the job, and his white undershirt didn’t have a spot of white left on it. He was a schlubby guy in his late forties, balding, with his hair cropped down to the scalp, and glasses so thick his eyes seemed to swim behind them. He looked like he belonged to those crew cut, shift work, row house Philadelphia days. But those days are long gone, and he said he’d gotten busted buying cocaine on the street in South Philly on the last day of his probation for a prior drug offense.
“DC, that ain’t no place for a white boy to be,” Norm said. “They would love you in there. I learned to live like an animal in DC.”
Norm said he’d never been to jail, that he was an average guy, a former merchant marine with a few street smarts from growing up on 23rd and Snyder. He survived because he learned fast. The rules were: Never order too much from the commissary. Never let anyone know how much money is in your bank account. Never back down from a challenge. Never yell for a guard. Don’t say a word more than you have to. Grease everyone as necessary. Wear boxer shorts in the shower.
The simplest things were incredibly complicated behind bars. Food, for example.
“They don’t feed you anywhere near enough–I lost 15 pounds in DC,” said Norm. “For breakfast you get a little bowl of oatmeal and a few tater tots. Lunch was a bologna sandwich and two cookies. For dinner you got six meatballs the size of marbles, mashed potatoes and an apple. Saturday’s a big day–you get a hard boiled egg.”
He’d tell the trickle of young white boys who came through not to load up at the commissary, but they usually didn’t listen.
“They’d come in with their bags full of goodies like Santa Claus, and they’d get rolled before they could even eat anything.”
Norm only ordered a little at a time from the commissary–swiss rolls and nutty bars. Before going to sleep, he’d hide what he didn’t eat under his mattress, and leave a couple in the socks over his bed for people to steal.
“Wouldn’t the swiss rolls get crushed?”
“Sure, but you know how it is. Better a flat swiss roll than no swiss roll at all.”
He learned to make a chi-chi, a thick plastic bag filled with rice, ramen noodles, crushed cheese curls, squeeze cheese and jalapenos. They’d cook it in a bleach bottle with the top cut off using what’s called a stinger–an electrical cord with its w ires exposed–to heat the water. They added salt saved from soft pretzels to make the water boil faster.
Jail was one test after another, said Norm, and the biggest one came right away. A female guard brought him over to D Block from quarantine and told him to grab the first bunk.
“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.
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.”
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.
Antonio “Tony” Santiago Jr. is a born glad-hander, ebullient and irrepressible, much like his old employer, Ed Rendell. Before he bought the bar, Tony was then-Mayor Rendell’s driver and bodyguard, and while Tony is far shorter and less corpulent, they share the same warm physicality and democratic plentitude of belly. He works the barroom like a ward heeler, hugging the regulars, announcing that a peddler of bootleg DVDs has good stuff, squashing a beef from a guy who thought it was still Happy Hour.
Philly expats offer a DIY gin kit