Where Journalism Drinks In Philly

Inside the Pen & Pencil Club, you'll find love and happiness hour

I was first invited to Center City’s Pen & Pencil Club—the country’s oldest private club for journalists—by my brother, Steven Volk. When I walked in, I felt transported back in time, maybe to somewhere in the ’70s, or even earlier, like Prohibition. Dark walls, dark floors, dark tables. Mostly men drinking at the bar and drinking only dark things: beer, whiskey, old-school cocktails.

The club hosts many events that are open to the public, such as wine tastings, guest speakers, and fundraisers. For the past two years, Painted Bride Quarterly has held our “Slam, Bam, Thank You, Ma’am,” a hard-to-explain interactive writing competition at the P&P. The short explanation: It’s like “Whose Line Is it Anyway?” crossed with Henry Rollins, and fully audience-driven.

P&P is perfect for this event, intimate enough that even the shiest folk don’t mind sharing their work, large and dark enough that no one feels exposed.

I love telling people how to get there: Go down a dark alley that instinct tells you not to go down. Look for a gated doorway between two parking garages. Knock. Wait.

A few years ago, my brother held his engagement party there. Really.

When out-of-town writers come in for events at Drexel or for PBQ, the P&P is where I take them. It’s kitschy. While other cities have their own journalism clubs, no other city has the P&P. You can talk in there. Drinks are cheap. And there are always, always great characters in the room.

One time I took a group of people and the visiting writer Mat Johnson. Mat had done a podcast at Drexel and a reading at Robin’s Books, and I thought the P&P would be the only place the large group that wanted to visit with him could sit together and talk.

The first door, though usually locked, was open, and the second door was opened for us by a smiling group of Cambodian refugees. Seems we had stumbled into a fundraiser called, “Love and Happiness Hour.” They warmly welcomed us even as we explained that we weren’t there for the fundraiser. Every table had a basket of Doritos and a glass stein of cherry Twizzlers. It was all too good to be true. The man with the eyepatch was there. Mat agreed to blurb my brother’s book. Courtney, the waitress always on shift when PBQ events are there, came in with her boyfriend and her parents, and her mother promptly spilled a glass of red wine all over the bar.

That was the night I became a member. Not because of my brother, not because of our events, not even when Danny Kenney, the bartender, agreed to keep a bottle of Absolut Peppar on hand for my hot and dirty martinis. No, it was the randomness of “Love and Happiness Hour.”

I was there a few weeks ago with Major Jackson; his book of poetry, Hoops, was Drexel’s freshman summer reading. We drank tall glasses of gin and grapefruit, and a group of people sitting near us started loading up the jukebox, singing loudly to their favorite songs. Before too long our groups were somewhat merged, dancing and singing together, celebrating an engagement in their group earlier that evening. Love and Happiness Hour strikes again.

Last night was the first time I was at a members-only event; the board and members threw a surprise roast for Kenney, who has managed the bar for the last 21 years. The club has an off-the-record policy, a la “what happens in Vegas,” and I was super-excited to be in the inner sanctum. But I will violate the code since no one woke up with a tattoo on his face (that I have heard of yet).

Danny thought the growing crowd was for the Daily News buy-out /“going away” party, until Chris Brennan, of the DN, took the mic and sprung the surprise. Danny grinned from ear to ear, but finished making the drinks he was in the middle of serving up.

Chris acted as moderator, kindly teasing, “He may not hear what you order, but he always knows what you want.” He then read the Official Proclamation from the City of Philadelphia, naming Danny among other things, “a man who pours with a heavy hand.”

The roast was sweet, not salty, with Stu Bykofsky claiming that Danny began working there immediately after making his confirmation. Courtney the waitress bounced on her heels, telling us all how she met Danny after coming in for late-night partying, but saying, “I’m still here, which suggests a certain level of tolerance.”

Members of the P&P softball team thanked Danny for both their most important bit of sports equipment, a cooler of beer, and his coaching tips, such as, “You might want to score a few runs right now.”

Many well-wishers talked about Danny making them feel comfortable, his being the first person they met in the city, the one who introduced them to others. I kept waiting for the ribbing, and for the members to throw some barbs at one another, and it just didn’t happen. Reporters from the Inquirer, the Daily News, Philly Weekly, and the Bulletin told stories of arguments between reporters and the things those walls had seen. But, at least last night, Philadelphia journalists were as mellow as the creamed pies being served in the foyer.