As I stood across the street from Peck Miller’s Bar on Ridge Avenue in Roxborough, snapping photos, a thirtysomething guy up the sidewalk watched me warily for a minute or two, then sauntered over.
“You shuttin’ the place down or somethin’?”
“Nah, I’m just taking photos for this book that’s coming out about Philly dive bars,” I replied, lowering my Canon SLR.
“Oh yeah?” he replied. “Cool.” He grinned and pointed toward Green Lane. “You wanna see a real dive bar, you gotta go down to DeLeo’s.”
“That’s next on my list,” I said.
“You’re gonna love that place,” he laughed as he walked off.
Indeed, I’d already heard about DeLeo’s stank and shit-covered bathroom walls from Brian McManus—my friend and PW colleague who asked me to shoot the photos for his new book, Philadelphia’s Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in the City of Brotherly Love. Still, as I hopped back in my car and drove over there, I thought to myself, how bad can it really be? After all, as far as Philly neighborhoods go, Roxborough is hardly the sketchiest. Today was my first day taking photos for the book, and I was probably gonna find myself in worse spots. I’ll start off easy, I figured.
I parked across from DeLeo’s on Pechin Street and took a quick look around. It was early afternoon and the street was deserted. DeLeo’s was a dump—crumbling exterior, piles of garbage everywhere, front door looked like a back door. I got out, switched on my camera, and walked over to the corner of Pechin and Dupont to get a good angle. A woman sat on a stoop just up the block, and I saw a guy walk just past her and duck behind the building. I paid it no mind as I clicked away.
A few moments later, I saw the guy come back out from behind DeLeo’s and hurry back up the street. And then another guy popped out. He looked like Avon Barksdale from The Wire. I saw the woman on the stoop say something to him, and they both turned and looked at me. Avon started to walk over to me. I decided to play it cool and keep taking photos of DeLeo’s as if nothing was wrong. Inside, I was shittin’ a brick.
“Yo, what you takin’ pictures of?”
“DeLeo’s — we’re doing a guide to Philly bars.” I left out the word “dive” — I didn’t want to offend him or anything.
“Bars? What you want with this place?”
“Oh, I’m taking photos of bars all over the city.”
“For what?” Avon asked. I noticed the woman getting on her cell phone.
“I’m from Philadelphia Weekly, we’re doing a book on dive bars.”
“You got a card or something?”
I didn’t. Fuck.
“I don’t have any more on me, but I got this whole list of bars all over the city I’m supposed to take photos of,” I said, pulling my phone out of my pocket and fumbling to find the e-mail with said list.
“Whatever,” said Avon, edging closer toward me. “You didn’t take a picture of me, did you?”
In the (according to friends, family and colleagues who’ve received advanced copies) excellent, informative and drop-dead hysterical Philadelphia’s Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in the City of Brotherly Love, I ventured into every corner of our city and cozied up to more than 100 of the finest dives in search of a definitive answer to the question: What makes a dive bar a dive?