The Bar With No TVs

Just three guys and the prison industrial complex

Last night I had dinner at McMenamin’s in Mount Airy, a splendid place where an interracial couple and two lesbians can sit big butt to do-rag at the bar and nobody says boo. That’s because everyone is staring at one of the TVs. Exactly what I did, as the guy at my elbow said he had to get out of there before the Sixers disappointed him again. I stayed. Overtime loss. The guy two stools down was talking about the Audi he’s going to buy as I exited into a dead winter night.

A friend—a guy I trust on these matters—had told me there was a bar I should try, a different sort of place.

Deep West Philly. There are no TVs here. I’m not sure Kevin, who runs it nearly solo, wants me to say where it is, exactly. I’ll go this far: Above an Ethiopian place, south of Market. His band plays on Thursday nights. Bluegrass, country, Johnny Cash. Some original stuff. The tiny 2nd floor room gets packed. It’s enough. That’s why there’s no sign. You have to know about it.

Not that it’s a club or anything. It’s the furthest thing from a club. I sit in what Kevin calls “the breakfast nook.” It’s a bay window overlooking the street. The chairs are mismatched, wood and vinyl. They’re missing pieces. I almost tripped slipping into the nook, because the floor slopes.

Three guys join me, because that’s what you do here. There are, as I might have said, no TVs.

The three guys are Ben and Banos and Manos. Ben does social work in West Chester. Banos and Manos are from Athens, and they’ve been here less than a month, hooked up with Penn doing computer programming work in applied biology, headed toward their PhDs. Ben and Manos have a mutual friend in San Francisco—where Ben used to live—and that’s enough to get them out together.

I ask Ben what he did while he lived out west. Fund-raising to combat the Prison Industrial Complex, he tells us.

With that, Manos, a squat guy with a sandy beard and firm English that only misses a word here and there, lets it rip. He thinks the American prison system is crazy: “Let’s say you kill someone. Then some people who had nothing to do with it decide. The people who know the victim, don’t feel anything … maybe should let the family of victims execute them.”

“Unless the guy accused didn’t commit the murder,” Banos warns.

“For example,” Manos says, undaunted, “If you run someone over. In Greece, maybe 2 years in prison, a fine, his life ruined. If instead, took guy who did it, stayed with family of victim every day for a couple of hours for 2 months, and at end of that, they decide sentence. If they forgive him …. Compared to system where random people decide, and then put guy in cage, and pay people to keep an eye on.”

Ben and I allow, at any rate, how our prison system doesn’t work, how it’s overloaded with black people, and is going three million strong.

The number shocks Manos. “Three million! The fucking population of Athens!”

“Cornel West says that the prison industrial complex is the new Jim Crow system,” Ben tells us.

“In Greece we have a different approach,” Manos says. “I’m not a racist, but don’t talk politically correct. In Greece never had slaves, no racial separation. In U.S., until ’70s, had racism, then suddenly, 40 years ago, U.S. is politically correct, don’t talk about. One extreme to the other to show not racist.”

That’s as succinct an explanation of the problem as I’ve heard in a while, though Manos makes it even pithier:

“Reaction in America about race is the same as Germans about World War II.”

I mention that when Obama was elected, it seemed, for a moment, that the racial nut might be cracked.

“Obama, looks like good guy,” Manos says, smiling, “compared to image world-wide of that guy before him, can see that Obama is smart, not this stupid guy. Obama probably fuck you over too, but at least you being fucked over by smart guy. Bush fucking you over, it’s by a dumb guy. We laughed at him.”

“Every time we saw him on TV,” Banos concurs, “we laughed.”

“Or got pissed off,” Manos says. “The difference was so big between him and Bush they gave him the Nobel.”

Later, as we dip past midnight, Banos asks me how old I was when my first son was born. Thirty-five, I tell him.

“We can’t afford,” says Banos, who is dark and classically handsome. “You have son when 35, nobody thinking have children in Greece. How can we afford?”

Manos lives on the first floor in a house his grandmother owned in Athens. His parents live on the second floor. Often, he eats with them, to save money. Petrol sometimes takes a third of his salary.

Manos and Banos don’t have time to mess around. Manos has spent his mid 20s in Scotland, in Amsterdam, going to school, pushing hard. He’s 29 now. Banos is 27. All this education to get a job somewhere in the world, perhaps America.

When they leave, and I’m alone in “the breakfast nook,” I notice, once again, the obvious: There are no TVs. I am sorry to harp on a simple point but it is also so dark in here that reading would be a challenge, so there are three possibilities:


Listen to Billie Holliday, now singing. It could be Tammy Wynette. Or Tiny Tim.

Or talk.

That’s it. It says everything, I think, that the absence of the big electronic box in a corner of the bar creates such an atmospheric sea change. You can dump all techo noise into that thought except for Kevin’s iPod play list, now rocking Neil Young.

I go to the bar, talk to Kevin for a last-call moment: He’s been running his tiny place for almost a decade, and he tries to be open every day of the year. Almost every day, he is here. On Christmas, somebody with no family might need a place to go for a drink, “and somebody visiting family really needs a place to go for a drink.”

He calls it Fiume. 45th and Locust.