The end of Sugar Mom’s marked it: The bars of my youth are gone. The places I haunted as a 20-something are closed. Alfa, Sugar Mom’s, Bar Noir, Mad River, Lucy’s Hat Shop — kaput. Add Khyber Pass to that list, too, because while Khyber today is a very nice restaurant, it looks nothing like it did 10 years ago: a grimy club bar with writing on the bathroom walls and a second floor that shook when the band played too loud — which was always.
Philadelphia was not the same back then, either, not when I got my ticket to drink legally in 2001. No one was trying to re-brand the Gayborhood for marketing purposes. The dining scene was Le Bec Fin — period. No one was trying to convert everything into a condo. Of course this was before the domination of Facebook and Twitter, but we’d never have created a hashtag to make ourselves feel better for choosing Philadelphia. We were not city snobs. We didn’t need to tell people why we hung out in the city, or scream for validation. We just did.
And it’s not even like these Philly bars were great. Mad River was a black hole of swaying masses and bros in button-downs and drunk chicks from bachelorette parties. Alfa was where we’d all put on something nicer, maybe swap out low-rise jeans and platform wedges for knee-high boots and a dress bought on deep discount from Strawbridge’s in the hopes of meeting someone classy, maybe older and more sophisticated.
Bar Noir and Sugar Mom’s were dark and underground, with corners meant for being pressed close together. Lucy’s was the place you knew was cheesy, but where you could drink all day long on Sundays, or, more likely, it was the bar of last resort on a Saturday night. Texting wasn’t a thing then, so you’d have to wait for the buzzing of your phone, then go outside and maybe pretend that you enjoyed smoking a cigarette — not because of an indoor smoking ban, but because you couldn’t hear someone on your Nokia over the thumping bass of Biggie, Ludacris and 50 Cent.
Of course we wouldn’t admit to liking those songs. No, we’d talk about The Strokes and My Morning Jacket and Ryan Adams and Bright Eyes and Broken Social Scene. Death Cab for Cutie had a song to match every strata of our fumbling around to try to find something other than a broken heart.
So much of my 20s revolved around the hope that sprung from going to these bars, for the drunk who plagued much of my 20s to turn into the nice guy, or that the stranger-turned-Mr. Right who’d take me away from all of this scene, so I wouldn’t morph from the 20-something into the 30-something sipping rum and diet hoping against hope that something this time would change.
Still, you swear you’re not going to be that person who lets the party end. You promise to yourself that, in the words of Matt Pond PA, “I am not full / on going out / I don’t care if / I talk too loud.”
But it does get too loud. You do change. It wasn’t a man who pulled me out of that scene, but myself, and the knowledge that I was better than to let the random strings or faith or whims of someone else determine how my night, and my life, would go. I got a dog. I bought a house. I grew up, and on.
When I do go into the city, I’m usually back on PATCO well before midnight because I have things to do. The dog needs to be walked, the work must be done the next morning. Nights out are proper dates with proper plans, and ones that do not require midnight texts in order to be arranged.
But I’m reminded of what I used to be when I’m coming off the train into Collingswood after dinner, and the platform is alive with boys in the same blue button-down blue shirts. It’s the girls I notice, though, in skinny jeans and pumps, clutching thin jackets close as they wait for the train on its way into the city, the bar at the end of the line, the booze that heats their minds and strains their hearts to let them believe that this time — this time — it will be different, he will really mean it, he’ll come to his senses, that this time the cycle will end.
This is why these bars closing don’t make me so terribly nostalgic about the Philadelphia that used to be, because it’s still there, just at some other new spot with some other crowd. I’m not nostalgic for who I was then either because that time was so frantic, fraught and exhausting. I can put those bars and those memories on a back shelf of my mind, along with the 20-something who favored boot-cut jeans, tube tops and mixed drinks, and who fell for line after line after line.
Because she lived to tell the tale, and came out on the other side just fine.
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