Postcard from the End of America: Jack’s Famous Bar in Philadelphia

I’ve depicted Jack’s in a Kensington Postcard, two poems and even a Vietnamese article.  In business since the end of Prohibition, Jack’s is the last bastion of a Kensington that existed before all the factories moved out and the heroin came in.  Old timers on a shrunken budget can mosey in to get buzzed for under five bucks.  Though a pitcher of Yuengling is only $3.75, I once saw a woman sit for at least an hour drinking nothing.  She just lifted an empty mug to her lips every few minutes.

Though Kensington is not the safest neighborhood, you’re not likely to be murdered if you chill inside Jack’s.  On June 24th, 2015, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports:

Seven people shot in Kensington

The neighbors around East Hilton Street heard the blast from a shotgun Monday afternoon and knew what to do.  Up and down the narrow Kensington blocks, they opened their doors for the children on the streets, who were already running for cover.

On East Madison Street, Stephanie Johnson hustled her grandchildren – and anyone else nearby – inside.  A block away, Tina Jacobs checked to make sure her granddaughter was behind her, inside the house.

“The kids on the block – they know how to move when they hear bullets,” she said.

Cathy Dever, who lives on Allegheny Avenue, was in her backyard when she heard what she thought was fireworks, and then saw children running, screaming, from the block behind her.  She told her own children to get down […]

But that was a full block away, my fellow peed ons, and, since bullets don’t as yet turn corners, everyone in Jack’s could continue to sip their emptying mugs in peace.  About four years ago, though, a cute tussle that started outside Exotic Diamond Dolls, a few doors away, caused a slug to shatter Jack’s front window.  With their geriatric reflexes, no one even flinched for a few seconds, not even the toothy gent whose calf was grazed by burning lead.  When panic finally set in, however, a man ran so hard for the safety of the bathroom at the rear, he knocked two women out of the way.  Waiting for a 40-ounce Bud to-go, a lady was standing on crutches when her legs, one broken and in cast, flew up in the air.  At Jack’s, this hilarious sight still delivers much mirth with each retelling.

With said window replaced, I can stare out to see a young white woman begging at Allegheny Station.  A black guy gives her change.  Another black guy pours some Orange Crush from his can into her bottle.  A white guy helps her out.  I imagine her saying something about needing money for a train ticket.

Pat Horn, 67-year-old bartender, “I saw her at 6:30 this morning.  She was lying there, asleep.  Then she got up at around 11, fixed her hair and even put some deodorant on.”  Patty laughs.  “Then she disappeared.  Now, she’s back.”

It took 66 years before Jack’s hired its first female bartender, Patty. Women used to drink upstairs.  The first floor was reserved for men, white ones, as was the norm.  Now blacks and whites are well integrated here, though the later the hours, the blacker Jack’s becomes, and the music shifts from Billy Joel, Otis Redding and Cat Stevens, etc., to 50 Cent, Kanye West and Beyonce.  By 9 O’clock, it’s usually thumping in here.  Until the 70’s, Kensington was basically a sundown neighborhood, meaning all blacks and browns had to make themselves scarce by sunset.  There were no yellows to chase away.

Outside, a man wears a cerulean blue tank top, and over its one white band, there is “HEART” in red at the front, then “MIND” on the back.

Girl of about nine has “I’M GOING TO KNOCK YOUR SWAG OFF” on her baby pink T-shirt.

Zombies, not all of them high, trudge across one’s vision like fleeting nightmares.  Down Kensington Avenue, you may run into a man who thinks he’s Jesse James, born in 1847.  Often shirtless in summer, he’s proud of the bullet hole scars on his grotesquely misshapen torso.  Long, unkempt blonde hair frames his burnt face and neck like the cheapest wig.  Freebasing?  A large yellow fang prevents his swollen lips from ever closing.  He has no other front teeth.

A homeless white man in his 40’s rolls up to the screen door in a wheelchair.  His toes have been amputated because of frostbites.  Ragged and filthy, he’s not allowed inside, and so a bar patron sticks his head out to see if he wants anything.  Expressionless, this Kensington native shakes his head, spaces out for a while, broods over two wrinkly dollars plus change, then wheels himself away.

Two black drug dealers enter Jack’s and stride right by the owner, Mel Adelman, sitting in a booth in the back.  I once saw him bent over William Gibson’s Zero History.  I’ve not seen anyone else read a book in Jack’s.  In his late 60’s, Mel lives in Jenkintown, a tony suburb.  His father bought Jack’s in 1945.  “Can I help you?” Mel says twice, but they ignore him and go into the bathroom.  Done, they exit to resume their position across the street.  The length of the bar, with its many patrons, was like an empty corridor to these two gentlemen.

When an old black lady walks in, Patty shouts, “Look who the cats drug in! We thought you had died.”

“No, I come back alive,” the lady laughs.

A black man in his mid-50’s confides, “I was one of them guys who does nothing but work, and I gave my woman all my money.  It still didn’t work out. I thought we would be together forever.  All of my baby mamas were cheaters.  The good thing is, after it’s over, it’s over.  None of them give me problems, and I don’t give them none.  I take care of my children.  In fact, I’m going home right now to be with my baby–my daughter.”

A young white man taps me lightly on the shoulder, “Sir, do you want to buy some juice?”  Turning around, I see that he has a tote bag filled with small cartons of corn syrupy drinks.  People will walk in here to peddle DVDs, socks, roses or whatever.

Across the street, two white guys nod off on steps of train station’s entrance.  Sitting next to me, a man in an Eagles cap shouts, “Must be some good shit!  Must be that wet shit!”

Bloated, clean shaven and in his late 50’s, Eagles cap bartended at Jack’s for eight years but had to quit after two strokes.  Seeing a group of Hispanic females strolling by, some clearly underage, he blurts, “I want them all!”

“One at a time,” dude next to him advises.  He has on a Vietnam Vet cap.

Crown Chicken is two doors over.  When its Dominican owner takes some trash out, Eagles cap comments, “I like her too.  She’s pretty.”  He then runs outside to catch a glimpse of his unsuspecting idol, now back among her thighs, wings and breasts.  She also sells fish sticks.

Sex brings us all together.  Hard up white men comb the world to bring home bedmates.  In just about every English village, there’s a Thai restaurant.  Italians jet to Cuba, Romania and Albania.  Old, deformed, crippled or mentally defective Taiwanese and South Korean men wed lovely Vietnamese brides half their age.  I know a Russian born, Israeli divorcee who ordered the biggest boobs available for his live sex doll.  Even the surgeon cringed.  The gold digger from the Mekong Delta can hardly walk and is already planning her escape.  The worse an American slum, the more clout a black man has, and so in Kensington, as in Camden across the river, many white women naturally gravitate towards black men.  Sometimes, though, it’s not a power thang, just love.

Last Christmas Eve, I was in Jack’s when Pedro, a 57-year-old Dominican, gave me something to chew on, “It’s like this.  You have chihuahuas, greyhounds, german shepherds and bulldogs, but we’re all dogs, you know what I mean, so we’ve got to stick together!”

After a lusty swig of Coors Lite, Pedro worked up another analogy, “There are head, arms, legs, torso, asshole, but everybody wants to be a head, no one wants to be an asshole, so they got rid of the asshole.  They threw the asshole into the river, and the asshole was doing backstrokes, like this, and they were like, fuck you, asshole!  But when it came time to take a shit, guess what, they needed the asshole, so you may be an asshole, I may be an asshole, but everybody has a role to play, you know what I mean?”

During the first half of the 20th century, Kensington had factories making textiles, carpets, hosiery, cardboard, stoves, ships, engines, boilers, hardware, beer, toys and hats.  It has several dye works and six banks, not just two, and local merchants didn’t have to compete with shopping malls, big-box stores and online shopping.  The deindustrialization of the United States became catastrophic with the arrival of globalism, so just about every community across the country has suffered.  The wholesale disappearance of manly jobs has hollowed out the young, working class American male, and that’s why he covers himself with tattoos, struts cartoonishly or joins the military to kill or be killed.  Many spend hours in the dark to shoot at glowing enemies.

It’s afternoon in Jack’s, and everybody is watching a cartoon on television.  Some fat guy sits on a football referee and is repeatedly punching him even as they’re having a friendly conversation.  The ref’s face becomes increasingly bruised and bloodied.  Next comes a movie showing two young men driving recklessly through Manhattan.  While causing tremendous mayhem, they casually banter.  Our mass media has made cool, blasé violence an American trademark and ideal, something for our young to aspire to.

Dumb flick mercifully over, Bob, the 51-year-old bartender, can finally share with me his thoughts on Kensington.  As he talks, his bespectacled and crew cut head is haloed by five American flags hovering above the cash register.  “If you know how this neighborhood used to be, you’d weep.

When I was a kid, we used to ride our bikes across the Betsy Ross Bridge to New Jersey.  Sometimes, we’d go all the way to Camden.”

“Camden?!  That’s so far away!”

“No, it’s only about six, seven miles.”

“You can’t do that now.  You’d be dead!”

“I know, but it was perfectly safe then.  When I was a kid, you didn’t have to worry about anyone climbing in your windows.  Many people didn’t even lock their doors.

Each Saturday, everybody washed their front steps, and there was never any trash on the sidewalks.  Up and down Kensington Avenue, there was never an empty store front.”

Bob’s two grown children are still in the neighborhood.  His son works at a car washer and his daughter cleans offices with his ex wife.

“What do you think will happen to Kensington in five years, Bob?  Do you think it will get better?  Worse?”

“Probably worse.”

“What can make it better?”

“We’ll need to get many of these people out of here. It’s the people that are making it worse.”

Though Bob won’t say it, we can guess which people he’s talking about.  “But without jobs, Bob, how can it get better?  Those factories are gone.”

To this, Bob has no answer, but who can blame him.  None of our politicians have solutions for us, only slogans.  Don’t think for a second, however, that they don’t know what they’re doing.  They have all of the answers for themselves and their masters.

We have a rogue government that respects no law, domestic or international.  It violates every other country’s sovereignty while puncturing its own borders.  It creates terrorists while pretending to fight terrorism.  It extols global stability while generating millions of war and economic refugees.  It turns all ideals, freedom, democracy, equality and sacrifice, etc., into perversions.  It kills millions of people.  It kills language.

We’re assholes for allowing this to happen, and assholes for turning on each other.  We’re assholes for not knowing who our common enemies are, and when this house collapses and the bullets fly, will we just knock each other out of the way to jump into the shitter?

Jack’s still opens at 7 in the morning, but instead of workers coming off their night shifts, its earliest customers these days are hookers, pimps, drug dealers and junkies, people who’ve been up all night to get by in the worst ways.  The factories are gone.

Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on July 31, 2015, on State of the Union, a website featuring commentary and photography by Linh Dinh.  It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Dinh.

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