Last Call at Philadelphia’s Best Bad Bar
Last February, I wrote a story about the B&W bar, the one in the Best Western, right off the Parkway in Fairmount. Over the course of a week, I showed up pretty much every night, drank a lot of beer, took probably not enough notes, and never went back again.
It’s not that I didn’t like the place; just the opposite, I fell in love with it. In fact, I grew so attached to the cast of characters that populated the bar — real regulars, the kind you thought didn’t exist anymore — that I was worried they wouldn’t like what I wrote.
I quoted one guy poking fun of the beloved bartender Joanne; I wrote about the time another guy who thought a date there after a night out, trying to impress her. It was an ode, but I didn’t want to hide any of the warts. After the piece ran, I didn’t hear a peep from Joanne, or the regulars, or anyone else. (They aren’t exactly the types to send an email, or God forbid, post in the comments section.) So, unwilling to confront the possibility that I disappointed them, I turned my back on the best bad bar in Philadelphia.
The (very loose) premise of the article was that the owner of the hotel was trying to sell it to a developer, who then wanted to raze it and build a giant Whole Foods. In October the deal finally went through. So I called the phone that sits behind the bar to ask when they were officially closing. A bartender called Patty or Paddy — he was new, I hadn’t met him — answered and told me the last day was November 30th.
On Tuesday night I finally return to say goodbye. As I had hoped, Joanne is tending bar, but a lot of the others have already jumped ship. Mike, a bartender with floppy brown hair who played in an industrial rock band, quit not long after my story came out, upset with a new shift he was working. Brian, the food and beverage director who was trying to class things up, scored a gig at Amis. Even Paddy/Patty got canned after he was caught stuffing beer bottles into his backpack.
When Joanne sees me she gives me a hug and says, “How are you?” in a way that does not suggest it has been 10 months since I’d seen her. She liked the piece, so did everyone else. I should have come by. Little Joanne — gray hair pulled back — looks good. Tan sweater, red lipstick. I sit down, order a lager and tell her I want to write a goodbye story.
That’s all it takes for the guy to my left, Malik, to get going. He’s a black guy wearing a hoodie and he works in boxing. He’s been coming here long enough to remember when Joe Frazier was a regular, too. (Frazier wasn’t a drinker; he came to eat breakfast in the mornings and scratch lotto tickets at night.) Malik drinks. Only vodka sodas — lots of them — doesn’t want to get bloated.
“This is like home,” Marvin says, resuming what appears to be a nightly lament, staring into chicken fingers and mozzarella sticks. “I was hoping somebody would talk some sense into them.” Then he grins. “Sometimes, I’d get super drunk and you know what? I’d get a room.” Then he gets sad again. “But it’s all over now.”
Joanne’s been here for 12 years, but insists she’s not nostalgic. She doesn’t know what she’s going to do next — probably stay in bartending, she thinks. Either way, she’s got a brother who’s pretty well-off, she knows she can count on him. “When’s the demolition date?” Malik asks. Joanne says nobody tells her anything and Malik says he doesn’t think he can bear to watch it. Joanne looks at us from behind the bar, and says, with utter seriousness, “I want to pull the lever.”
It’s impossible not to hate the place a little bit — to hate yourself a little bit — when you come back to the B&W bar, night after night. The food’s bad, homeless folks love it, and for God’s sake it’s on the first floor of a Best Western. “This place,” Joanne says. “Do you ever watch PBS? Fawlty Towers? We make that place look like nothing.”
I walk out to the reception area to say hello to Jesse, the front office manager. He’s wearing a light gray suit and a purple tie. He offers me a slice of pizza the kitchen just cooked up for him. He’s losing his job, but he looks happy, almost beatific. I ask him what’s next. He says the sale “was just the kick in the pants” he needed. His whole life he’s wanted to be a high school math teacher, but somehow got roped into hotel management and for 18 years never mustered the energy or courage to give it up. He’ll live at home in the Northeast, in Tacony, while he gets his certification, and with any luck, he’ll be teaching within a year. But what he really wants is to move west with his wife, Ohio most likely, and start a little homesteading project. “One or two chickens,” he thinks. “Maybe a goat.”
When I get back to the bar I feel the need to send it off appropriately. I don’t really know what to do, but for years the B&W hosted billiards leagues, so I grab five quarters I was going to use for the bus and shove them into one of the bar’s two blue-felt pool tables. I rack up and play a round by myself. The TVs, and the sports memorabilia, and all the little tchotchkes that make this place simultaneously charming and generic, have been sold off. Friday night will be the bar’s last. The next day, at 4:30 p.m., the hotel will close for good. On January 1st, developer Neal Rodin will assume ownership of the place. Sometime in the spring, Jesse thinks, he’ll knock it down and start building.
If you can’t say goodbye to the bar at the B&W before any of those deadlines, take this with you: A couple days after I say goodbye, it hits me that Bernard Hopkins has a manager called Malik, and I’d heard he comes by the bar lot. I call Joanne on her cell phone to ask if that was the guy I was sitting next to for three hours on Tuesday night. She says it was, and I ask her why he never told me who he was. Oh, she says, he’s not that sort of a guy. He’s just not that sort of a guy. He works for a 48-year-old Philadelphian who somehow finds himself the light heavyweight champion of the world, in an industry premised on self-promotion, and all he can think to talk about with a reporter is how damn much he’s going to miss the bar at the Best Western hotel.
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