What Ever Happened to the South Philly Mob?
At Broadway, I’m not sure if I’m entirely welcome onstage or not. After I finish a second beer, the bartender looks at my empty bottle, looks at me, then begins reading the newspaper. When I’m ready to leave, I ask where the bathroom is, and he points me to the back of the bar. I stand up, then reach down beneath my bar stool for the big black bag I use to carry my laptop. By now, the bar has gained another four customers, who pay me little mind. When I pick up this bag, however, their heads swivel suddenly in my direction. Maybe they just find it odd to see a dude carry his bag to the bathroom, like a girl with her purse. Maybe, in some places, bags are used less to carry than to conceal. But at this point, it’s too late for me to put the bag down. So I take it with me to the bathroom, thank the bartender on my way back out, and exit to the sidewalk. There, standing by the door, smoking the same cigar he was smoking inside, one of my fellow customers eyes me and says, “You look like a salesman or somethin’ with that bag.”
I say, “Or somethin’.”
He lets out a brief, low, laugh: “Or somethin’.” He takes a heavy drag on his cigar. I walk away. But I walk right back in a second time, a week later, with a friend. This time the bartender is a woman, whose eyes dart back and forth to the men surrounding the bar. When no one raises any objections, she serves us a pair of Yuenglings. We sit down. All the televisions are turned to horse-racing. One man at the bar sure acts like a bookie: He scribbles on the papers in front of him after every race and accepts dozens of fast cell-phone calls, during which he mostly listens and takes notes. A big stack of $20 bills sits on the bar in front of him.
Throughout South Philadelphia, gambling is a part of life. Horse-racing beats ESPN all to hell as the daytime choice for barroom TV viewing. And as the Daily Number nears, bar patrons all over the neighborhood quiet down while speaker volumes are turned up. Old women who miss the drawing lean their heads into corner bars and holler, “What’s the numbers, hon?” to bartenders who are expected to know.
Near as I can figure it, there are some customers in the Broadway Theatrical Club who think gambling laws are made for breaking. But the establishment strikes me mostly as a bar. We drink a few beers. The bartender loosens up somewhat. The owner buys everyone at the bar, including us, a round of shots, and we even order a burger, which arrives char-grilled and delicious. And yeah, this is what we’ve come to — a city with mob bars that aren’t really Mob Bars, that undercover cops can’t get into but civilians can, a mob that is tourist-friendly, and clearly not what it used to be.