Philadelphia has enough dive bars to get the rest of Pennsylvania drunk. Predominantly in working-class neighborhoods, these bars provide locals and visitors a rickety stool to sit on and cheap beer to drink.
Most people discover dives long before they turn 21 – they’re usually the only bars in the city that don’t card anyone who can see over the counter. I learned this living in Fishtown, where alcoholism is as popular as long white T-shirts and corner bars are outnumber grocery stores.
However, whenever I walked into a Fishtown dive (Johnny Brenda’s doesn’t count), the only thing I could be sure of – aside from knowing I wouldn’t need to fish for an ID – is that I would fit in as well as Dick Cheney strolling through a street market in Baghdad.
This was the case for a few reasons. I was always the only male specimen with hair longer than the length of a beer tab. The few girls I tried talking to were more interested in pints of Arctic Splash than my original pressing of the Against Me! demo tape. A few even noticed that I was clearly a homosexual based on my choice of a medium-sized T-shirt, the bicycle I had locked up outside, and the long, feminine hair I was sporting at the time. No lie.
I moved to West Philly and everything changed. The dive bar image went from sour to sweet in the time it took for ol’ Shaky to bang out Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” on a Sunday blues night at Fiume, a West Philly classic at 45th and Locust streets. Finally! A bar where I could slap my knees and stomp my feet without the locals questioning my manhood.
“Yeah, well, I’ve been doin’ this here for about six years. I couldn’t tell ya how many different guys and gals have sat in and jammed with me,” said Shaky, a regular at Fiume’s Sunday night blues jam who is old enough to father most of the clientele.
Each Sunday night, from 10 p.m. until closing time, Shaky and his assorted band bang out classic blues numbers, as well as a few he concocted himself. There is never any amplification, since the room is barely big enough for Shaky, his band and the group of 15 to 20 rabble-rousers clapping their hands and stomping their feet. Any aspiring young musicians are encouraged to consult Shaky before a performance to arrange an opportunity to play with him.
Situated just above the similarly themed restaurant Abyssinia, Fiume is a delightful little restaurant that serves exquisite Ethiopian cuisine and draws an eclectic gathering of people.
“I like to have a mixed crowd,” manager Kevin Holland said. “I’m not happy unless there’s crust punks saying there’s too many Penn kids here and the Penn kids are saying there’s too many anarcho kids.”
The crowd really is that diverse – and the community constructed around home-spun music is hard to find anywhere else. Even basements filled with sweaty bodies dancing to a breakneck punk beat can’t equal the playful environment at Fiume on a Sunday or Thursday night.
Whimsical handwritten signs contributed by the bar’s staff and patrons line the five-seat bar. One bartender tacked a scribbled reminder on the wall: “Bar is not responsible for sex you don’t have.”
Another note reminds you that “If you think Jim Beam is better, you’re wrong.” This may or may not be a result of the popularity of Wild Turkey and Evan Williams – the latter of which is included with the city-wide special: a 12 oz. can of PBR and a shot of whiskey for $3.
Don’t be fooled by the Pabst: Fiume boasts an impressive refrigerator stocked with more than 20 brands of exotic, micro-brewed beers from local breweries like Yards and Flying Fish as well as exotic imports of all varieties: IPAs, oatmeal stouts, white biers, porters and lagers.
In addition to working behind the bar, Kevin Holland also plays in the bluegrass band City-Wide Specials (formerly known as the Flat Possum Boys). Every Thursday night for the past seven years, this old-country quartet of guitar, lap-steel guitar, upright bass and banjo has drawn a crowd eager to start the weekend early with country-pickin’ tunes. This isn’t Toby Keith’s country, either. Expect to hear songs about passing out drunk and stealing another man’s wife, not America putting a boot up your behind.
Fiume’s energy on these nights is magical. Time seems to stop for a while, or at least slow down. Not until the old, cracked cymbal above the bar rings is it all over – but then, of course, there’s always next week.
Julian Root can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.