A lot’s changed since 2005. The housing market’s collapsed. The economy has fallen to shit in every conceivable way. There are people living voluntarily outside City Hall. We got Obama. He got Osama. Martin Lawrence made a dozen more Big Momma’s. In nearly every way, the cozy life you knew and loved a mere six years ago is no more. Vanished. Done. Fin.
I moved to Philadelphia in ’05, a long journey from my distant planet known as Houston, located in a galaxy far, far away called Texas. It was August, and much to my surprise, the weather was just as fucking putrid and hot and humid here as it was back there, which was and is the only similarity the two locations share. (In Houston, for instance, people are secretly racist. Here, they wear it as a badge of honor.)
After a few days of getting settled, I ended up at Oscar’s Tavern (1524 Sansom St.). It was perfect. It had all the markings of the quality dives I’ve always frequented and had come to know and love over the years both in Houston and across the country, which I traveled while touring with my two (yes, two) 311 cover bands, The 411 On 311 and 311 911. It had low lighting, red leather booths, a surly waitress named Toni who didn’t take any shit from anyone, a surly bartender named Tanya who didn’t take shit from anyone, and a couple regulars at the end of the bar trying not to fall off their stools.
Like other dives, it was cheap as fuck. I could drink until my face was numb and come out the other end with some money in my wallet, a bonus considering I was trying to make the full-time freelance thing work. But there was something altogether different about Oscar’s.
Sitting at the table next to mine, two well-dressed lawyer types were engaged in a lively chat with two black teenage skateboarders. Across the way, a few artsy-types with tattooed everything nestled up next to a few jocks decked out in Phillies gear. (Speaking of change, that year the Phillies didn’t make the playoffs. My Astros went to the World Series.) The bar was a rainbow coalition: every race and age of people intermingling, talking, laughing.
This kind of diversity and easy interaction was unfamiliar to me. It didn’t happen in other dives. Certainly not in Houston, where they are very distinct: honky-tonk dives, Hispanic dives, art fag dives, leather dives, chili dives, black dives, close-to-the-Greyhound-station dives, leather chili dives, Hispanic honky-tonk dives. Oscar’s was a new breed. But in Philly, I soon discovered, not all that rare.
Next I found my way into McGlinchey’s (259 S. 15th St.) It had much the same vibe. Diversity, lively conversation, servers and bartenders that took no guff (but to an extreme, almost comical degree), all mixed up with a tinge of sadness under low light and the weight of cigarette smoke. The Pabst museum Bob & Barbara’s (1509 South St.) was next. Then Locust Rendezvous (1415 Locust) and their weirdo shot specials. Then Locust Bar (235 S. 10th). Doobie’s (2201 Lombard). All of them, spectacular. I became obsessed.
I spent my first Philly Valentine’s Day at McGlinchey’s, taking advantage of their incredibly generous special for love birds: Two chili dogs, two bags of Herr’s and a small bottle of Cook’s champagne for $9.88. I remember the price because I wrote a MySpace blog about it.
I discovered Dirty Frank’s (13th and Pine streets) a block from my apartment. I spent my first Thanksgiving in Philly there. They allow dogs, so I brought mine. What an incredible place. What an incredible time.
That these wonderful dive bars existed at all was something of a blessing in this new, foreign place, a nice welcome that made me miss the big-hair, big-tit Anna Nicole Smith types and the execution of the mentally handicapped of my home planet a bit less. That they were so close together—walking distance—was a miracle. That doesn’t exist in any other city in the country.
In the six years I’ve been here, they’re the one thing that has remained unchanged. Hell, they haven’t ever changed. McGlinchey’s today is the McGlinchey’s of four decades ago. Ditto Bob & Barbara’s (although it’s a bit bigger now). These places remain unchanged, while everything around them, not least the world, shifts dramatically.
Take Oscar’s. The Sansom Street it inhabits today is a much different place than the Sansom it called home just six short years ago. There’s a boom happening all around it in every direction, from Sampan and Barbuzzo and Lolita’s and Zavino and Time and Vintage east at 13th, to a renovated Oyster House and Ladder 15 next door and Garces’ Village Whiskey and Tinto up a few blocks west.
But fuck Rick Perry in his beautifully feathered hair if Oscar’s has changed one bit. Not now, not ever. Not in the last 30-plus years.
Toast to that as the world crumbles quickly around you.
I remain obsessed. That hasn’t changed either.
Brian McManus is so obsessed with dive bars, he wrote a book about them, Philadelphia’s Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in the City of Brotherly Love. Get it now at amazon.com.
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