How I Almost Died (Twice!) Taking Pictures for Philadelphia's Best Dive Bars

By Michael Alan Goldberg
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 20 | Posted Apr. 6, 2011

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“No, man, you wanna see?” I showed him the back of my camera and started scrolling through my shots.

“Naw, man,” he said, stepping back and looking up and down the street. “Why you taking pictures of this place?”

Clearly, this was going nowhere. I heard the thwap of a screen door shut and I turned to look. A shirtless dude with a huge pot belly looked our way and began walking toward us, T-shirt in hand, scowl on his face. Another woman was standing out on her stoop, staring at us. The woman on the cell phone got up and started walking over. I thought to myself, OK, maybe they think I’m a cop. They’re not gonna shoot a cop in broad daylight, right? Maybe they think I’m from L&I. They’re not gonna shoot an L&I inspector, right? Oh shit…

“Well, I gotta go,” I said to Avon, and walked over to my car, shoulders hunched, bracing myself for the gunshot. It never came, but as I got in the car I could hear a woman’s voice: “Yeah, his license plate is…” and then she started rattling off my tag. Who the hell is she calling, I wondered. I looked in the rearview mirror and saw Avon and Cell Phone together on the corner watching me. Pot Belly was staring and scowling at me, too, as he walked over to DeLeo’s door. And then I peeled on outta there.

When I finally exhaled, oh, about 20 minutes later, I resolved to take a slightly different approach with the rest of the dive bars on the list: Go early in the morning; maybe the dealers will still be asleep. Bring business cards. And don’t linger. The photo doesn’t have to be perfect —just get it and move on.

The next 20 dive bars were uneventful; the usual stares from afar but not much more. Until I got to Burg’s Lounge in Point Breeze. I rolled up around eight in the morning, and the street was chill. I hopped out and got ready to snap a couple quick photos when a lady who appeared to be on her way to work walked past the building. I smiled as I waited for her to get out of the frame. She stopped and asked what I was doing, and I told her about the dive bar book.

“You want to take a picture of me sitting in front of the bar?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said, forgetting my rule about lingering.

As I was taking the photo, I heard someone behind me. I wheeled around and saw another woman in the middle of the street walking toward me. I thanked the lady in front of Burg’s and started packing up my camera and walking over to my car. The woman scurried over to me.

“Honey, you got a cigarette?”

“No, I’m sorry, I don’t smoke.”

“What you doin’ taking pictures over there?” she said, pointing to Burg’s.

“We’re doing a book on Philly bars,” I said as I slid my key into the door.

“That’s my uncle’s bar, he say you could take a picture of it?”

I opened the car door and slid in, and then made the mistake of saying, “Well, it’s a public place, I don’t really need permission to take a photo of the outside.”

I went to close the door, but she wedged her ample frame between the door and the car. She leaned in. She reeked of liquor and a few other chemicals. Sweat covered her face. She stared at me with wild eyes and an evil grin.

“I don’t think my cousin wants you takin’ no pictures of his bar.”

Cousin? I thought she said uncle, I thought. She looked all around inside my car.

“What’s your name?”


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Comments 1 - 20 of 20
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1. Angela Maloney said... on Apr 6, 2011 at 10:10AM

“Great story! Absolutely loved reading it. Well done and glad you were still around to write it :)”

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2. Anonymous said... on Apr 6, 2011 at 10:18AM

“Wow, typical Philly jew who can't hang in the hood!”

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3. Anonymous said... on Apr 6, 2011 at 10:56AM

“@2: Typical anonymous bigoted commenter who's only a tough guy on his computer.”

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4. JT said... on Apr 6, 2011 at 10:58AM

“Your job supporting the Dive story turned out to BE the story. That Avon/potbelly imagery was downright palpable. Very nicely written.”

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5. Ray said... on Apr 6, 2011 at 11:18AM

“Sounds like Michael got more than what he bargained for. Next time, do the the right thing and take L&I & the cops wit' ya. Am sure these "dives" aren't up to code and belong to some drug-dealin', gang-bangin' mafioso-wannabes and should be closed, quarantined and cauterized 4ever.”

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6. HitThatDive said... on Apr 6, 2011 at 06:15PM

“I do "dive" (shhhhhhhh) bar reviews and go IN and take pictures too. I have been in Mr. Goldberg's situation more than I do indeed feel his pain!”

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7. ChickenTetrazzini said... on Apr 7, 2011 at 01:04AM

“Seriously, I mean the denizens of philly can be retarded but there is no need to be afraid. I'd bet your fear might be holding you back a bit. I used to do door to door through the northeast, even went down through kensington and such. the only times I almost died were when I was out in the suburbs with terrorized and isolated white people. although i did meet some serious crackheads and killers embalming fluid smokers and drunk irish bulls”

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8. @basslabbers said... on Apr 7, 2011 at 07:42AM

“C'mon... are you serious? "If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen"

Unfortunately this is a typical story for lots of photographers on the street. I guess it kinda shows true professionalism, or lack of If you end up in situations like this.

Don't get me wrong, I know, I've been there, but sometimes it takes a little more to make a good shot. It is making a photo, not taking like in this case, as one of the great street photographers once explained.

Taking is like stealing and can piss people off. If you treat people with respect they will give you room to make a story, that is how people are. Isn't the main purpose of photography to tell the story of people, isn't the camera a tool to get the best out of people. I guess it only works in the hands of someone knowing what he is doing.

If you had those awesome characters who made this story in your frame you would have made a great photo, now you ended up with a story in text.

Remember the old adage about 1000 words”

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9. Diogenes said... on Apr 7, 2011 at 11:38AM

“Almost died?? Is he kidding??

It's that kind of sensationalistic bullshit and fear mongering that makes this city seem much worse than it really is. What, does he 'almost starve to death' every time he misses a meal??

As Gordon Ramsey would say, "First, find your bollocks, then use them!"”

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10. DiveBarQueen said... on Apr 7, 2011 at 11:41AM

“This story was so funny, I'm at work dying....Leave us Hood Dwellers alone!! LOL!!!! For the next book try Edgar's...Cleveland and Cumberland in North Philly....”

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11. jj said... on Apr 7, 2011 at 08:31PM

“how bout an article on the worst minor league newspapers in philly?”

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12. moallen said... on Apr 19, 2011 at 12:41PM

“I thought the article was funny. I am black, grew up in the "hood" in West Philly, have been to some dive bars in my day, and have had some of the same fearful reactions to strange people in strange places. Again, I thoroughly enjoyed the article and the humor. Some of these folks should stop taking everything so seriously.”

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13. roxy said... on May 1, 2011 at 12:01PM

“this is hilarious. I lived on dupont by deleos, never saw anyone get shot, but they have their share of Wire-style drama- not surprised this photo-dude got a shakedown, just be glad you didnt go in and try to order a beer (dont sell much of that)!”

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14. Princess said... on May 18, 2011 at 07:36PM

“thanks for the laugh... i needed that. smh...”

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15. Bags said... on Jun 4, 2011 at 11:21AM

“You are very foolish. Just take the photos from inside your car. Unless you are in an area with historical landmarks, you shouldn't be taking photos walking around. Too many people who are loosing their homes & businesses who are waiting for someone to push the wrong button. And too many shady characters who will try to get whatever they can from you....a cigarette, your wallet, your money, your car, etc. You don't need to answer anyones questions either. If you need to, just say taking pictures for local paper, and walk away. No need for details.”

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16. Stephen said... on Jun 20, 2011 at 08:27AM

“I'm an amateur photographer, remind me NOT to go on any "urban adventure" photography trips in sketchy parts of the city. There's a reason there are stereotypes for people in sketchy areas...because very often they're true!”

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17. Anonymous said... on Oct 16, 2011 at 08:21PM

“How are these bars in Roxborough still open? They are NASTY inside. I am sure no health inspection would EVER pass legitimately. Better to pee in the alleys than to step foot in the skanktabulous bathrooms. Out of curiosity, I have checked them out and they are filled with meth heads and drug dealers. Pretty much every low-life with a criminal record collected into a members-only type club...Matching T-shirts, maybe would be cool. Very obvious what goes on even for the average person, but the local police do nothing. Sad and disturbing.”

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18. lars said... on Jan 23, 2012 at 04:37PM

“All in the name of art.”

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19. Anonymous said... on Feb 11, 2012 at 10:33AM

“I commend you on taking pictures of dive bars and everything, but you need to learn how to handle yourself on the streets. Always play to the characters, tell them some BS story why you taking the pictures, like effect of economy on local population or how they are being held down by the man. I have taken amateur pictures in a lot of sketchy places, like Dominican slums and cemeteries, small towns of Ukraine, Slovakia, and Moldova, and while my DSLR puts people on edge, my FAKE stories let me get away with it.
PS, You were not about to die, you were about to be roughed up and have your equipment smashed.”

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20. 4 real said... on Oct 14, 2014 at 07:55PM

“roxboro is turning getto! North philly is spreading out! That bussing of school kids to the better neighbor hoods screwed our neighbor hoods up! Walking down the ridge at three in the afternoon is like walking into a dark cave! Scary how fast the cancer is spreading! Run run as fast as you can. Or did they already catch you? While you are sleeping, they are creeping!”


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