“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?”
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?
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4