Last week’s Wednesday evening found me in central Philadelphia, wandering its streets on assignment for the publication you’re now gazing at with loving eyes. I walked for several miles, zigzagging within the area bounded by Cherry, Spruce, 9th and 19th Streets, all the while giving my fingers plenty of exercise as I snapped picture after picture of illuminated signs. For that was my mission: To capture images of glowing signs, in much of their variety and in all of their glory, under darkened skies.
The train that I boarded in my suburban town delivered me to Jefferson Station, at 11th and Market Streets, at about 7:30 PM. Not much more than a handful of minutes later, night began to emerge. Only a block north of the station I strode into the city’s compact and enticing Chinatown section. There I took my first photo of the evening. And then another and then another . . . Hey, one of these days I might devote an entire essay to Chinatown. It’s worthy, very much so. But I had miles to go before I slept, or something or other like that, so I gave Chinatown a nice looking-over and then made my way to other parts of town.
The temperature had peaked at around 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35°C) during the day, but was six or seven degrees lower during my mighty walk. Not too bad temperature-wise. Still, conditions weren’t all that great, what with Amazon jungle-like humidity hanging around. Yo, I was sweating like a f*cking pig. But manly man that I am, I motored on uncomplainingly, though if my wife Sandy had been with me I’d probably have been whining to her like a major wuss.
Anyway, the walk pleased me a lot. Not long into it I realized that I was having grand fun. After all, I love to wander. And I love looking at the sights, including cute girls, quite a few of whom passed before my eyes. In fact, loads of people, cute or not, were on the streets with me, engaging in the sorts of activities that humans are prone to engage in: strolling around; checking each other out; heading to or from work; schmoozing with their pals on street corners or at sidewalk restaurant tables; popping in and out of stores and bars. Not surprising, because Philadelphia has got what it takes. It’s big, it’s fascinating, there’s a ton to see and do any time of day. Yup, I could gush some more about the city that I know better than any other in the good ol’ USA, but that previous sentence will do for now.
What I forgot to mention is that I also love to snap photos with my iPhone’s camera. And there were countless opportunities to snap away, so full of lit-up signs is much of The City Of Brotherly Love at night. I pretty easily could have added 150 more to the 53 shots I took, but I limited myself to scenes that rang my bell in a just-so sort of way. And I’ve scattered some of my output, obviously, throughout this essay.
My adventure ended at 9:50 PM, when I went to Suburban Station to catch a train that would transport me to my little town. Fifty minutes earlier though, the night had taken an unexpected turn, an excellent turn that was outside the realm of my assignment’s mission. For heading north on 15th Street, near the corner of Spruce, I spotted a sign that I’ve seen many times over the years. The sign proudly proclaims the existence of a bar that, during the 1980s, I frequented aplenty. McGlinchey’s is its name, and smoky air is part of its game. Yes, Philadelphia has had a no-smoking law in place since 2006, but certain establishments have applied for and been granted exemptions from the clean-air policy. They qualify because only a tiny percentage of their revenues comes from food. McGlinchey’s gobbled up an exemption. Thus it continues to smell almost as bad as a men’s locker room. But it could be worse. I mean, what if the joint smelled almost as bad as a ladies‘ locker room?
Just kidding! Just kidding!
I hadn’t been inside McGlinchey’s for about 30 years, largely because I gave up smoking in the mid-1980s, after which I became less and less keen about cigarette fumes. But the opportunity to revisit a former haunt seemed too ripe to pass up the other night. And so I entered.
Had McGlinchey’s changed? Well, the lights were really dim, unlike the much higher wattage that I recall from the 1980s. And the beer selection was much improved, heavy on the quality sorts of ales that have entered the marketplace in enormous numbers since 1995 or so. But basically you’d have to say that McG’s is, as it was in the era when I dropped by consistently, a dive bar. Hazy, smelly air is all a bar needs to nab that honor. McGlinchey’s contains that variety of air in spades.
I ordered a draft beer, Fuller’s London Pride, a delicious brown ale that came to Philadelphia all the way from, duh, London. It went down my gullet very nicely, thank you. In the middle of my third or fourth sip I snapped out of a second-hand-smoke-induced stupor when I noticed that music was projecting clearly and loudly from speakers above my head. The song was a great one, an obscure number about love and disillusionment. It shot straight to my emotional core. In a million years I’d not have expected Ruby And Carlos, by James McMurtry, to be in McGlinchey’s jukebox.
But I was totally floored by what happened after the final strains of Ruby And Carlos dissolved into the dank air. That’s because the rousing and inspiring Fisherman’s Blues, by The Waterboys, came on. I had to restrain myself from singing aloud. So I mumbled the lyrics quietly to myself as I pulled on my beer. Smoke or not, I was in the right place at the right time. Music heaven, so to speak.
Well, the jukebox went silent after Fisherman’s Blues. I finished my Fuller’s and went back on the streets to do my photographing thing for a while longer. The last shot I took, of the intense red, white and blue of Republic Bank’s signs, is one of my favorites of the night. Soon afterwards, the Warminster line’s 10:05 PM train pulled into Suburban Station. I climbed aboard, my assignment over. I’d had yet another sterling outing in Philadelphia, one that detoured in a direction that I’d never have anticipated.
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(If you click on any photo, a larger image will open in a separate window.)
(It’s possible that the McMurtry and Waterboys songs that I’ve included won’t play for you. That’s because YouTube has licensing rules that sometimes block music or videos from opening, depending upon where on our planet you reside. If that’s the case in your nation, then you might want to search YouTube (or other sources) to find versions that will work. You won’t be sorry.)