It's Tony's Way, and Tony Means It

By Peter Woodall
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Mar. 29, 2010

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“You write in the paper that this bar is strictly welcoming to everyone, ” said Tony. “I don’t play that shit. When people say something stupid we correct them right away. I’ll throw you out myself, physically.”

Photo by Peter Woodall

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 plenitude 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.

Tony’s Way is in Kensington, on the corner of Front and Berks, in the shadow of the El. The bar is strong for the Phillies and Eagles. Baseball pennants and Birds’ posters cover the walls, and there’s a small table and chair in the corner that looks like a school kid’s desk, where Tony’s mother used to sit before she passed.

The crowd is mostly Puerto Rican, and much of the conversation is in Spanish, but there is also a sizeable contingent of blacks, some whites and lately a few Mexicans and skinny-pantsed kids. Hard experience has taught Tony that understanding between the races sometimes requires a helping hand–or two, as the case may be.

“You write in the paper that this bar is strictly welcoming to everyone, ” said Tony. “I don’t play that shit. When people say something stupid we correct them right away. I’ll throw you out myself, physically.”

“I grew up in a real racial neighborhood,” said Tony, by way of explaining how he came by this philosophy.

In the mid-1950s, said Tony, his family was among the first Puerto Ricans to move into the Spring Garden neighborhood, which today would be considered the Art Museum area. Back then, neighborhood boundaries weren’t grist for cocktail party debate, they were delineated by kids’ fists. They lived on 20th and Green; for a boy, stepping off the block meant venturing into hostile territory. There were Irish kids to west of them, and a black gang called the Moroccos controlled everything north of Fairmount Street. Even the Puerto Rican enclave at 17th and Wallace wasn’t entirely friendly.

So Tony and his friend Freddy got together their own little gang, 2-OH-G, for 20th and Green. Even now they say the name with a hint of bravado, as if their crew might still be a going concern. They’ve known each other for 53 years, said Freddy, who was sitting at the bar with his wife Nilda.

“I don’t like him,” joked Freddy. “He’s an asshole.”

Before Tony was Rendell’s driver he was highway patrol, part of the motorcycle drill team–27 years as a lawman, all told. He shows off the pictures on his cell phone: Tony with Angie Dickinson, Tony with Harry Belafonte, Tony with Gregory Peck. Then he opens a photo of the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer, from the day after his partner was murdered.

“He was off-duty. It was Christmas Eve, and he wanted me to go out for drinks, but I told him I was going to stay home with my family. He was in Woody’s Café on 56th and Woodland. A fight started in the men’s room, and he intervened. He didn’t know it was actually a robbery in progress, and he was shot two times in the back. The .45 caliber rounds went through his body and killed a young lady as well. 

“The guy who did the shooting is appealing the death penalty right now. What year did he die? I don’t know. That’s something I wanted to forget. I carried his coffin. I carried Freddie. Officer Dukes. I keep that one picture for my memory.” 

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor was on the TV, and the bar grew quiet. “Last night there was nothing but tears in here,” Freddy said of the nomination announcement. “Not because she was due anything because she’s Puerto Rican, but for her accomplishments. Like her, everyone in this bar was raised on welfare.”

They’ve all made something of themselves, said Tony. “If you look around, 90 percent of the people here are professionals. They’re correctional officers, social workers, nurses, parole officers, L&I like Freddy here. He’s retired. He’s the only guy at L&I I trusted.”

Tony and Freddy talk to me about old days, about Juan Pora, the Cuban bus driver who brought them to Little League games and was killed in the Bay of Pigs, and the famous Kelly family that lived a few blocks away–Grace, the future Princess of Monaco, and her brother John, who died young of a heart attack, said Tony, because “he was so uppity, he ate only steak.”

This is their reward for sticking around, for not giving in to the lure of the suburbs, for being, as Nilda says, “the non-movers, the stay-puts.” They get to play halfball on Saturdays and dominoes on Sunday and sit around on a sunny Wednesday afternoon in May and reminisce with friends they’ve known for 50 years.

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Peter Woodall sacrifices his liver, and potentially his nose as he ventures into Philly's drinking establishments. A bartender and West Philly native, he has worked as a newspaper reporter for the Sacramento Bee and Biloxi Sun Herald. Got a tip on a colorful taproom? Email him at petewoodall@gmail.com.

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