Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Our Philadelphia Experience

So Doug and I drove down to Philadelphia on Saturday to attend a surprise 25th wedding anniversary for one of Doug's childhood friends. Everyone who had been a guest at the wedding was invited, which I thought was a wonderful concept and while our friends suspected something was going on, they were surprised to see the whole crew there. It was a wonderful party and even though I only knew a handful of people, I had a GREAT time. My party social skills have been on a decline in the past several years so it was lovely to really enjoy myself this time.

After the party we drove to our hotel in Center City and even though it was perilously close to our usual bedtime, we were both anxious to go out and walk around our old neighborhood.

(Just to recap if you are new here, or if you have not committed my background to memory: I moved to Philly, from Minneapolis, in January 1985 to attend PCA, now UArts, and lived in a variety of places in Center City, a loft in North Kensington which was a bit dangerous for a single gal what with the constant gunshots and all, then I lived in a really yucky apartment in South Philly at 8th&McKean when I met Doug. Doug grew up in Broomall, a Philly suburb, attended Tyler 1976-1980 or so, lived at 13th and Walnut 1984-1986, then moved up to a studio on North Delaware Avenue which is where he lived when we met. We had a place together on Fairmont Avenue, then moved to Milford Connecticut in 1991. Phew!)

The first thing I learned on our walk is that the building at 15th&Spruce where I had a beautiful studio apartment on the 14th floor is gone, replaced by the Kimmel Center. I knew about the Kimmel Center but didn't realize that it was right THERE. Sigh. But McGlinchey's, one of my favorite dive bars just a few doors down was still there and we decided to go on in. It was like walking into a time machine (except I did NOT get carded this time;)), absolutely nothing was different, including the bartender, Fred. I didn't know I remembered his name until I saw him and his name just naturally came to mind. Old habits.....

Anyway, Doug and I hung around awkwardly for a few minutes, then started to talk with the guy at the door. I decided to chat with Fred and even though he didn't remember me (I think I am glad about that, it means I did not do anything there that someone might remember for more than a few years at least!) he was very sweet and chatty and it was great to talk to him. He seemed glad to know that I had moved on from the bar scene and that I have a family and good life. Anyway, it was very surreal to be in that bar again, many events occurred there for the few years I was a regular; I made friends and lost them, had a few torturous romances, drank too much. I recall watching the 1988 Winter AND Summer Olympics there and cheering for Debi Thomas, Gordeeva and Grinkov, and winced when Greg Louganis hit his head on the springboard, but still went on to win the gold medal. Doug and I spent our first New Year's Eve there together (even though he hated bars). The beer there was cheap back then, 50 cents on tap and there was a lot of Tom Waits music on the jukebox. Perfect. Well it was back then anyway, last Saturday, I felt uncomfortable there and so we moved on. These reviews give a pretty accurate picture of McGlinchey's. Some people might be a bit too uptight to enjoy this particular dive bar;)

It was wonderful to see my old school, which has taken over much of the area and I have a lot of great memories of late nights in the studios, rushing to an early class loaded down with art supplies and books. Sitting in the small park (which is now gone) between classes, grabbing something to eat at the health food store on the corner (which is now a Starbucks) and going for a swim at the Jewish Y (which is now a UArts building). Sigh again.

And then onto my other dive bar, Dirty Frank's:
Dirty Frank's has been at 13th&Pine forever and everyone that I have ever met who went to UArts also spent more than a few evenings there. Even though the beer cost a bit more (always an issue for a college student) I actually liked Dirty Frank's much more than McGlinchey's. They were open on Sunday nights and also on the holidays and I spent more than a few Thankgivings, Christmas Eves and New Years there for several years. It was the perfect place to cry in your beer from loneliness, then turn to the person next to you and have some fascinating, or really stupid conversation to pull you out of it. I also spent a lot of time there with my friends from school, it was a good place to go after a long day of classes and a night of painting in the studio. Anyway, it was basically the same as 20 years ago, but instead of the boarded up look that I remember, there are murals of Franks on the exterior. Inside it seemed a lot more cluttered, tons of cut paper snowflakes hanging from the ceiling, faded Mummer's parasols over the bar. The old wood booths are the same (now I wish I had carved my name in one when I had the chance) as well as the bench covered in chipped linoleum by the door. A lot of art hanging on the walls and I am just going to assume that the bathrooms are still as disgusting as they used to be on a Saturday night. I tried to find out but the ladies room was occupied for a disturbingly long time. Heh. Doug and I decided to sit at the bar and I am quite sure that a. the barstools are the exact same ones that were there 20 years ago and b. the guy sitting on the other side of Doug was also a regular in the 80's. I hope he was just back for a visit like me, but somehow I don't think he was.

And to top it all off, the same bartender from 1987 was still on duty. We started chatting and she didn't remember me either. Safe again!

Funny thing about sitting at Dirty Frank's though. I felt VERY comfortable. Kinda like I was back at home. Maybe I should feel sad about that but I don't really. It was like a home to me at a time when I was really lonely and troubled and even though I did a lot of stupid things in those days, I could always go and sit at Dirty Franks and feel more at ease than I ever did in my childhood home. That seemed pathetic at the time, but I don't feel that way about it at all anymore. Plus, there was something very satisfying about getting all teary eyed, while Peggy Lee asked "Is That All There Is?" I had a melodramatic streak back then, hehe.

So after Doug finished his beer and I drank my ice water (did learn a few lessons from the old days at least, I don't drink alcohol anymore!) we went on to look at the building where his father's graphic design studio was for many years, which was coincidentally right behind one of the apartments that I lived in. Then we went to look at his old place on Walnut Street.

It was great to walk around the streets at night without worrying about anything, as it used to be a bit hairy, lots of shadowy types, hookers and cars slowly cruising by. Now the streets are crowded with people, lots of restaurants with tables out on the sidewalks, a really great atmosphere! I did get a shout out from a creepy guy in a car driving by which was a real blast from the past. I used to get hassled quite a bit like that when I lived there (I think it was the red hair) and always hated it. This time Doug and I had a good laugh and frankly at age 44, it was almost gratifying. Heh.

Back to our fabulous hotel room near Rittenhouse Square which made me seriously consider putting all my belongings in storage so that I could move in there and had a great night's sleep.

The next morning we drove around to see the other places we lived. We sat in the car out front of the building where Doug lived and worked when we met and reminisced. That area looked EXACTLY the same, down to the sauerkraut factory across the street:

We drove down to South Philly to look at my old apartment:
I lived in the 2nd floor apartment and there were NO flowers climbing up the front when I lived there. The neighborhood looks a bit better now, it was getting pretty bad when I moved away. The old Italian guys that hung out at the store on the corner (a photo of Mussolini hung prominently on the wall just inside the door) and pestered me about working at a "Jew" owned business while I waited for the bus are long gone. But the building still has an Italian theme:
and it still looks like some sort of hangout.....

So all in all it was a very memorable trip down memory lane. On the drive home, we daydreamed about moving back into Center City when the kids are grown, but all that disappeared when we drove up the beautiful, quiet country to our house. So happy to be where we are now.

PS. But we might visit Philly a bit more often. We still have friends there! And there is a museum! And art galleries! And lots of restaurants! And Zoe Strauss!


Chris Rywalt said...

Did you stay in the eco-friendly hotel near Rittenhouse? Dawn and I stayed there a couple of times on one of those expensive anniversary-type dates you save up for. Haven't been back in a while.

I used to be in Center City at least twice a year, back when one of my best friends lived in Philly. I used to marvel at how many pretty girls there are there, but then recently I've been in downtown Manhattan at night and realized Philly still has nothing on New York.

I meant to get down there to see the Cezanne show at the Museum of Art (and also eat at Raw, the best sushi place I've ever been in) but I missed it. Now they've got a show on Matisse in Nice which looks fantastic and a show on Duchamp which probably sucks eggs.

Ereisa said...

Hi Tracy - it was great reading your post... I used to live in Philly as well (moved to Brooklyn 10 years ago) and used to go to both McGlinchey's and Dirty Franks (also my preferred watering hole of the two!)

Was curious if you recall Isaiah Zagar's ubiquitous mosaics on South Street? There is a fascinating documentary about his life and work that just ran on HBO - http://www.inadreammovie.com/. Did you happen to see it?

Tracy Helgeson said...

Hey Chris, strangely I did not get the notification of these comments so here I was thinking this post was a total dud!

We stayed in a little "boutique" hotel, the name was the street number which I cannot recall now. It seems like it would be crazy expensive but it wasn't at all, at least compared to where I usually like to stay in NY;) It also had ORIGINAL art in the rooms, ours had several really nice egg tempera paintings. No time to look at art on this visit but we are hoping to go again and go to the museum, we used to go there quite often when we lived there.

Ereisa, ahhh fellow dive bar - goer!!! I enjoyed seeing the same types at the bar that were there 20+ years ago too, comforting somehow. I don't recall the mosaics but that doesn't mean I didn't see them, I probably did;) Thanks for the link, will try to catch it on HBO.