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

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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.
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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.
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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."

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Linh Dinh is tracking our deteriorating social scape through his frequently updated photo blog, Postcards from the End of America . He is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a just released novel, (more...)
 

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