Find solace in the discomfort of Philly dive bars


There is something special about neglecting a sandy environment in the name of cheap drinks, great company, and real bartenders.

We missed hanging out at the dive bars in Philly. Photograph by Ian Shiver

We choose to go to the dive bars not because they are clean, but because they are dirty. Or at least, we forgive striped glasses, hot dog tubs, and Superfund bathrooms because of the perks: cheap drinks, great company, real bartenders, an old hoodie vibe. So, now, always.

But I went to one a week ago, and now I’m watching the seconds go by on a 15-minute home COVID test. I poured the glue, dabbed the nostrils, downloaded the app.

In fairness, the bar is innocent. It was not this dive-y, and we sat outside, more than a metric sneeze from the next table. But it was late when my friends and I parted ways, and the off-brand SEPTA app was not showing any bus points in my area. Uber so okay whatever, take me home.

Philadelphia bars

Tony’s, like so many Delco dives and taverns, opens early and closes late. Photograph by Ted Nghiem

On the way, the driver informed me that he was not vaccinated. “Too scared,” he said.

“I understand the fear,” I told him. I didn’t open my door and ride to a safe place, because I’m not rude.

Now listen. He was masked and I was masked, and my window was down, and the ride was about 20 minutes, and I have no symptoms, but still. Paranoia is the spice of modern life, and the spice must flow. Hence the ordeal.

Nine minutes.

Uber, Lyft, SEPTA – these go hand in hand with late nights, at least when the conditions are too hot / cold / humid / lazy for biking, and I should make my peace with that. It’s part of the price you pay to leave the apartment, sit in a bar and feel like a person. The same goes for reviewing mouths.

My friends, like everyone else, are disgusting. The air clouded over with their speech. We get sputum in the hairs of our forearms.

In a bit more courageous time, when it seemed like the whole city was jumping into the I Got Vax’d sticker craze, I met some friends at a bumpy booth at Oscar and found myself facing face to face with their mouths unmasked. Deworming and sagging lips, shiny gums, teeth like storm gates. And, basking in the darkness, hideous tongue. My friends, like everyone else, are disgusting. The air clouded over with their speech. We get sputum in the hairs of our forearms.

Philadelphia bars

Wine Dive dive bar. Photograph by Ted Nghiem

Four minutes.

We’re the real plague, aren’t we? We know the rules, but we take stupid risks. Super-broadcast concerts. Family reunions with a 50 percent death rate. Uber rolls around with shy strangers who should just get shot. Poorly ventilated bars where we laugh and enjoy each other’s company without a mask. Repugnant.

Purell is a fake idol, but alcohol might just save us. The mouth is the problem. Let’s talk about the mouth. Whiskey. Beer. Even hard seltzer. Let’s gather around chipped tables in dark places and brush the alcohol down our cheeks like a medicinal mouthwash until it peels the tongue and Zambonizes the teeth. Maybe something with lime here and there, to fight scurvy. No, I am not a doctor.

Philadelphia bars

El Bar dive bar. Photograph by Ted Nghiem

Zero minutes.

Negative test. I capture the result and share it everywhere, with everyone. I feel invincible, virile, invirulent. Tonight I’ll see some good friends at another lovely dirty bar, and we’ll drown our germs and paranoia and feel a little normal for a little while. I mean, we’re vaccinated, we’re safe, and we’re low risk. And while our mouths are clearly visible in the dim light, we won’t mention them.

Posted under the headline “Finding Comfort in a Dive Bar” in the “We Really, Really Miss Bars” article in the October 2021 issue of Philadelphia cream magazine.

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About Marion Alexander

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