Shopping, Black Friday, And Yours Truly

If the clothing and footwear industries depended on me for financial sustenance, they would be shit out of luck. I don’t buy their goods very often. I mean, most of my attire is between three and about 45 years old. Yeah, I said 45. That’s the approximate age (I wish I could pinpoint the year in which I bought it) of a sweater that I want to be buried in when my bucket-kicking time arrives. The deep blue garment, which I treasure dearly and wear pretty frequently, still looks damn good to my eyes. Any coffin worth its salt would be proud to encase it.

My favorite sweater

I definitely haven’t been nice to the aforementioned industries in 2019. The only clothes I’ve purchased so far are underwear, socks and a sweatshirt. And as for shoes, none. That’s because I’m not too interested in regularly updating or freshening my look. Also, I seem to have excellent luck on most of those rare occasions when I do go shopping for apparel or accessories, which makes it unnecessary to shop very often. For example, three or four winters ago, upon entering a Macy’s department store near my home, I immediately found two winter coats that fit me perfectly and looked terrific. I whipped out my credit card and made them mine.

And one day seven or eight years ago, at a Sears department store, I hit the jackpot, leaving with about eight pairs of jeans that I’m wearing to this day. I could cite several more examples of this kind, but you get the picture.

Yes, I’m satisfied with the clothes and shoes that I own. So, when Black Friday (an annual, mega-hyped shopping day in the USA that unofficially kicks off the Christmas buying season) rolled around last month on the day after Thanksgiving, as it always does, I ordinarily would have avoided like the plague the indoor shopping mall near my house. I had no desire to check out the wearables on sale. And the same went for the non-wearables. And yet, mall-ward I directed my car at 11:30 AM.

Why? Hell, basically I didn’t want to enter a coffin some day without ever having experienced Black Friday firsthand. Despite being nearly as old as dirt, there are times when I can prance around the altar of pop culture better than just about anyone from my old f*ckers demographic. And if Black Friday isn’t a major player in pop culture, I don’t know what is.

Black Friday at the mall near my house.

Yup, the mall was decently crowded. Yup, most stores had Black Friday sales going on. Nope, I didn’t feel even the slightest urge to examine any merchandise. Still, I liked being at the mall. I always do, though my visits are only occasional, because the mall strikes me as a wonderland. I like its three levels of winding avenues, its airiness, its colors and sounds. And the overabundance of merchandise in the stores, though easy to criticize as excesses of the capitalist system, amazes and captivates me. Mankind, though flawed as hell, sure can turn out products like nobody’s business.

Black Friday at the mall.
Black Friday at the mall.

One thing for certain is that I was the sole visitor whose purpose was not to spend cash, but to observe. And also to record scenes with his or her smart phone’s camera. After an hour and a half of doing exactly that, I got the hell out of there.

“I ain’t much of a shopper, that’s for sure,” I said to myself as I drove back home. But a few hours later I realized how imprecise that thought was. You see, when it comes to food markets (of which there are none in the mall), I love to shop, and spend two or more hours every week in that pursuit. This pattern began somewhere in the 1990s, when it became apparent to me that the variety and quality of food stuffs available in the USA were a whole lot better than they’d ever been.

Food nerd that I’ve become, I get a charge examining olives, relishes, juices, grains, yogurts, you name it, on store shelves. The numerous types of each blow the mind. Who in the USA ever heard of quinoa, farro or Kalamata olives until fairly recent years, for instance? Nobody that I personally know.

Whole Foods breads. Many loaves had already been sold.
Some of the cheeses at Whole Foods.

In my area, the store that excites me more than any other is a Whole Foods supermarket. (Whole Foods, by the way, is part of the Amazon/Jeff Bezos empire that is engulfing the world.) I can’t stay away from its coffee, cheese and bakery sections, each of which contains products that make my life better. Farm Loaf bread and other breads, all baked on the premises, are swell. So are any number of the cheeses from around the world that Whole Foods carries. And two varieties of Allegro coffee (Rainforest Blend and Extra Dark French) have found strong favor in my household.

Some of the coffees at Whole Foods.

I suppose that you could do far worse than having food shopping as one of your hobbies. It gets me off my ass, for one thing. And it has given me something to write about here. That’s all to the very good, considering that I’m chronically semi-constipated when it comes to coming up with story themes. Maybe prunes would help. Prunes are a staple of many old f*ckers’ diets, right?

(As I frequently mention, please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this essay on social media. Mucho gracias.)

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I’ve Got A Few Recommendations. How About You?

During our vacation on Cape Cod in October, my wife and I poked around the cute town of Chatham one fine, sunny afternoon. While my much better half busied herself in the aisles of a store or two, I went into the Chatham Orpheum Theater to try and find out which films would grace its screens in the upcoming weeks. Thumbing through the theater’s brochures at the ticket counter, I overheard a conversation taking place between the guy behind that counter and a patron. They were discussing literature, and one of them mentioned Cacciato. Man, I’d heard of Cacciato, so I opened my trap and said so.

“Are you talking about Going After Cacciato, the novel by Tim O’Brien?” I asked them. The ticket seller gave me what I interpreted as one of those Huh, this asshole knows about Cacciato? looks, but I wasn’t offended. Anyway, it turns out that the two fellows mostly had been gushing over another of O’Brien’s works, The Things They Carried. They briefly told me about the book, which came out in 1990 and, like Going After Cacciato, was inspired by the time that O’Brien spent in 1969 and 1970 as a soldier in Vietnam. It sounded intriguing. “Do you want me to write down the name for you?” the ticket seller asked. Indeed I did, and so he did. Into my wallet the slip of paper went.

Not long after I got back from vacation I borrowed The Things They Carried from a local library. I finished it last week. And I have to say that the gents were right. A series of interconnected, semi-fictional stories about the Vietnam War (pre, during and post), the work impressed me. It doesn’t glorify war, doesn’t dwell on battles. What it mainly does is lay on the table the emotions and mindsets of people attempting to deal with potential, immediate and imaginary dangers. You’ll find the good, the bad and the ugly in this book. And also the mysterious and the truly touching. In the best of the stories, O’Brien’s words come at you like the blows of a patient, precise boxer. Clearly, I recommend The Things They Carried.

Recommendations. There are a few other new ones kicking around inside me. And there’s no way I can contain them, so desperate are they to meet and greet cyberspace. With no further ado then, here they are.

A biopic of sorts about the late Fred Rogers, host of the legendary kids’ show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, has just come out. A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood is its name, and it stars Tom Hanks as Rogers. Now, I know that Fred was a strong force for decency and love. But his nasally voice, his sloooow talking pace, and his unnervingly calm manner never appealed to me. Nevertheless, my wife and I went to see the film a handful of moons ago. And I loved it. Having read no reviews in advance, I was happy to discover that it is not a typical biopic. Instead, it’s an imagined examination of the relationship between Fred and a cynical journalist named Lloyd Vogel, who is assigned, in 1998, to interview and profile Fred for Esquire magazine (the movie is drawn from the friendship that developed between real-life journalist Tom Junod and Fred).

A Beautiful Day rings very true. Hanks is Fred. And decency and love are largely what the movie is all about. Will Lloyd Vogel come to believe in the powers of Fred? I ain’t saying. Will Fred start talking faster and become the type of guy I’d want to discuss sports, music, food and girls with? Nah, but that’s more than okay. A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood flirts with sappiness here and there, sure, but it got to me anyway. That’s because it gently aims for the heart and doesn’t miss.

Hey, it’s almost dinner time in my household, so I’ve got to wrap this up. You know what else is good? Beers from Magic Hat and New Belgium breweries, that’s what. In November I bought variety packs of their robust, soul-satisfying ales. And I’m going to apply those same adjectives (robust; soul-satisfying) to the coffees that Allegro and Green Mountain coffee companies turn out. My wife and I are hooked on several of their roasts. I’m tempted to use the adjectives also to describe myself, but I’d be lying out my ass if I did. So, I won’t.

The ball is now in your court. What’s been ringing your chimes recently? Down below is a section where you can enter your comments.

Before I go, though, I have to mention and recommend a golden oldie — Bernadette —  that has been stuck in my head for a few weeks. I’ve heard it dozens of times in my life and always dug it. But when the tune came on the radio not long ago it walloped me like never before. Bernadette, by The Four Tops, was released in 1967. And it’s never gone away. Such a great song. The desperation in lead singer Levi Stubbs’ voice sends chills up and down my ol’ spine. I don’t like having earworms. But if I’ve got to have one, this is an excellent choice. Bernadette!

A Trip To Scotland, Part Two: Food And Beverage Time!

Soon after publishing A Trip To Scotland, Part One, I pretty well decided that Part Two of my wife Sandy’s and my recent adventures would be all about Edinburgh’s wonderfully beautiful Princes Street Gardens and the very astonishing Scottish Highlands. You know, nature stuff.

But things can change rapidly when least you expect them too. “Yo, Neil!” I said to myself when I sat down to begin composing this opus. “Many things got you stoked during your sojourn in Scotland. And, obviously, you can’t write about them all. I mean, this ain’t a memoir you’re creating here. But a few food and beverage items impressed the hell out of you and Sandy, and they’re practically begging you to devote a bit of wordage to them. Would it kill you to do that? Nope, it wouldn’t. Well, hopefully that last statement is true.”

Who am I to argue with myself? Princes Street Gardens and Scottish Highlands are now being rudely shoved aside by yours truly. Food and beverage have won out. But worry not, nature fans. The Gardens and the Highlands will be featured prominently, and possibly exclusively, in Part Three.

Sandy and I ate and drank awfully well while in Scotland. Plenty of salmon, plenty of beef, plenty of cheese. Not to mention plenty of beer and wine. Our meals often were hearty, and always were satisfying. You can’t ask for much more than that.

Haggis (Photograph credit: foodfolio/Alamy)

Yet I regret one thing, culinarily-speaking: I should have given haggis a try, even if only one or two forkfuls. Haggis is maybe the quintessential Scottish dish, after all. In one or more of its various permutations, it was on the menu of nearly every eating establishment we settled into.

But I didn’t. Haggis, a fairly complicated preparation of minced, cooked ingredients, contains oats, which I like. It also usually contains lamb or calf lungs, hearts and livers, none of which I’m eager to ingest. One or two forkfuls of haggis, however, wouldn’t have killed me. Well, hopefully that last statement is true.

Here, then, are a few of the various dining experiences that made a deep impression on me. All took place in Edinburgh.

Let’s start with coffee, a beverage that I down every single morning without fail. Sans coffee, I’m no good. Never did I expect to, but I had the second-best coffee of my life at the Southern Cross Café, where Sandy and I ate breakfast five times during our eight day vacation (the best coffee I’ve ever had was in Rome). SCC offers several styles of coffee. What we drank were large cupfuls of their Americano, which is made with espresso. Rich, fragrant, slightly sweet, it was delicious.

Scones at Mimi’s Little Bakehouse

When it comes to scones, the one I ate at Mimi’s Little Bakehouse one afternoon wasn’t the second best I ever encountered. It was the best. Sandy had a scone there too, and she thought it the greatest. The scones I’d previously had in my life were squat, dry and crunchy. Teeth, watch out! And I liked them. Mimi’s scones, however, were tall and unlikely to chip the choppers. Nicely airy, yet proudly firm, our scones came to our table warmed. They were delicate in taste, and comforting as a warm blanket. We spread butter and raspberry preserves on them. My brother, after I sent him a picture of the scones, asked for my opinion about them. Perfection is what I told him.

Bowl at top contains stovies. Bottom plate contains steak and ale pie.

At Deacon Brodie’s Tavern for dinner, Sandy and I ordered traditional Scottish food. Stovies for her, steak and ale pie for me. Stovies is a stew that always contains potatoes. Pieces of beef often are in the mix, as was the case with Sandy’s order. My entrée, loaded with potatoes and beef and an ale-infused gravy, was encased in a nifty crust. Ah yes, we enjoyed our choices very much. Home-style cooking is hard to beat.

Still, the steak and ale pie wasn’t the top dinner that I had. That honor goes to the two dishes I consumed at the Whiski Bar & Restaurant. Sandy sampled them that night and was so impressed, she ordered them when we returned to Whiski several nights later.

A lousy photo of 1) a bowl with a few remaining drops of Cullen skink and 2) part of a smoked salmon platter

I’m talking about Cullen skink, and a smoked salmon platter. I was in an adventurous mood during the first visit to Whiski, because I sure as shit had never heard of Cullen skink before. Skink, I later learned, means soup. And Cullen is a Scottish village where this creamy chowder, made with smoked haddock, potatoes and onions, originated. Man, it was something else. And I mean that in a good way. Salty and alive with flavor, it went down the ol’ gullet smoothly and happily. As tasty a soup as I’ve ever eaten.

And the smoked salmon presentation? Superb. Scotland is known for its salmon, of course. Whiski took a large piece of fine, crusty bread and topped it with baby greens, capers and thick slices of smoked salmon, dressing the bread lightly with crème fraiche and a salty sauce. After eating the soup I figured that the next course would inevitably be a bit of a letdown. It wasn’t. In fact, I might have swooned over the salmon creation more than I did the Cullen skink.

Okay, that’s enough oohing and aahing. Still, before I bid you adieu I have to tell you that my mouth has been watering for the last 10 minutes as I relived the Whiski Bar experience. That makes me realize, though I really didn’t need any reminding, what an excellent trip Sandy and I had. Food and drink aren’t always standout occurrences on vacations. When they are, it’s a bonus. I don’t know if I’ll ever get back to Scotland. But if we plan another visit to that land, I’ll look forward to being very well fed.

(Don’t be shy about sharing this piece or about adding your comments. Gracias.)

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Aaah, The Early Morning: Coffee, A Puzzle, And A Fine Song

Hello one and all. It is afternoon as I begin to write this story on the fourth day of October of 2018, the year that is rapidly disappearing in our collective rearview mirror. Sorry, I didn’t mean to bring that up! Get your eyes off of that mirror! Even though it ain’t a wonderful thing that our expiration dates are getting closer with each passing second, there’s no point dwelling on that. If it had been up to me, I’ll note nonetheless, the design and nature of the cosmic game we’re parts of would be a whole lot different, a whole lot more user-friendly, than they are. But, par for the course, I wasn’t consulted.

Still, despite my dissatisfaction with how the world and universe turn, there’s one time of day that I am almost always glad to greet: The first hour after I arise at 6:30 AM, when the potential troubles of the day normally haven’t yet reared their f*cking heads, and there’s nary a peep coming from within my house.

“What, do I disturb Your Majesty when I come downstairs in the morning?” my wife Sandy, who snuck up on me to take a look at the mighty words that I’m typing, just snarled at me.

“No, no, not at all. You are the sunshine of my life. You are the apple of my eye. You . . . ”

Oooh! Sandy has unloaded three big, fat kisses upon the crown of my head, one for each of its remaining strands of hair. See? It pays to be complimentary. And it pays to have three strands of hair. Now, there’s a couple of life lessons for ya!

Where was I? Oh yeah, the first hour after I jump, or should I say stagger, out of bed, leaving Sandy to her dreams.

This is my general routine: After visiting the bathroom I head into the kitchen to pour myself a cup of joe. The coffee always is waiting for me, for I fill our Mr. Coffee machine with ground coffee and H2O an hour before hitting the sack, and then set Mr. C’s timer to begin the brewing process at 6:25 AM. The coffee without fail tastes vibrant and strong, because I use a lot of ground coffee in proportion to water, and have discovered over time a number of java brands that really make the grade.

Being a guy who’s happy to provide public service, I’m now going to impart what might be useful information to some: Try combining two or three coffees to create your own personal blend. The flavors and intensities most likely will be very complimentary. If they’re not, then experiment till you find a blend that suits your taste. Me, I use three coffees, one of them decaf, in equal proportions. The current choices are Melitta’s Classic Decaf, Melitta’s Columbian Supreme and Lavazza’s Intenso. I tell you, just writing about my morning beverage is setting me all aquiver. I can’t wait for tomorrow’s jolt!

Okay, getting back to October 4: Filled cup in hand, I relocated to the living room sofa at 6:45 AM, as usual. And also as usual I opened my laptop and signed onto the BrainBashers website to bring up its selection of sudoku puzzles. Man, how did I live for so many years with no awareness of sudoku, a captivating numbers puzzle that I first attempted seven years ago? It didn’t take long for me to become an addict.

I felt content and subtly happy as I filled in numbers on a BrainBashers sudoku grid, giving my flabby brain its daily dose of exercise. And I became even happier when I flipped on my portable radio, something that I rarely do, silence-seeker that I ordinarily am at that time of morning. Lo and behold, at 6:59 a terrific, endearing song (Homesick) by The Marcus King Band burst forth from WXPN, a Philadelphia station. I think that Homesick helped speed my way through the puzzle’s nooks and crannies. At my discouragingly advanced age I need all the help I can get. Here’s Homesick:

So, the time has arrived for my second public service announcement: If ever you have the chance to see The Marcus King Band in concert, don’t toss it away. I plan to catch them when they pass through Philadelphia next month. They are tremendous, a young Southern rock/soul group whose leader (Marcus) plays electric guitar, well, electrifyingly. They knocked me out when I watched them on Conan O’Brien’s late night television show in August. And they knocked out Conan too, leaving him kind of gaga. These guys, I firmly predict, are going to become big. Here’s the band’s performance on Conan’s program:

I’ve now performed two good deeds in one day. Who knew that writing could be so fulfilling? Without a doubt I’ve earned myself a reward! And I know who will be delighted to bestow it upon me.

“Oh, Sandy! I think I discovered a fourth strand of hair. The crown of my head sure could use another kiss.”

“Oh yeah?” says Sandy from 60 feet away. “I’ve already blessed your scalp three times today. That’s my limit. I’m done.”

Shit! Life ain’t fair! I need a nap. Over and out, till next time.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments. Thanks.)

Helping Hands And Improbable Odds: Tales From The Information Desk

My once-a-week volunteer job at a medical office building across the street from a major hospital and not far from where I live has been, on the whole, fun indeed. I’ve been at the gig for about eight years, and usually look forward to hauling my ass out of bed at 6:30 AM so that I have time to wash up, down a couple of cups of coffee and a bite, and play a few rounds of tiddlywinks with my pet chimp, Chomp. When it comes to tiddlywinks, Chomp almost always wins. Chomp ain’t no chump . . . Chomp’s a champ!

Anyway, back to reality: The job begins at 8:00 AM on Tuesdays. For four hours I man the building’s information desk, which is on the ground level of the structure’s three stories. I handle a fairly wide range of visitors’ questions about doctors’ offices, the locations of bathrooms, payment options for the parking garage nearby on the grounds, etc. And I try to untangle situations that visitors aren’t sure how to resolve. You wouldn’t believe, for instance, how many of our fellow citizens can’t find their cars in the parking garage or their spouses who were supposed to meet them in the main lobby near my desk.

The infamous information desk

Like I said, I get a kick from the job, from helping people out to be specific. Hell, plenty of folks have helped me out over the last many decades. It’s only fair for me to do my wee share in keeping that mode of behavior alive and prosperous.

Two Tuesdays ago, aka the 23rd of January, wasn’t a typical day at the ranch though. There was plenty of the usual, yes. But two incidents definitely were outliers. And they’ve stuck in my mind. I was a helper-outer in one of them but not in the other. Yours truly is now about to send recaps of  the events into cyberspace.

It was a dreary, rainy day. The skies had sent down billions of gallons of water by 10:00 AM, at which time the rains slowed to a medium drizzle. It was around that time that a guy came up to me at my post to let me know that the toilet in the men’s room had overflowed and that a fragrant pool of water was all over the floor.

“I’m on it,” I said, and called the housekeeping and maintenance departments. The former’s charge was to clean up the mess, the latter’s was to unclog the toilet. And I taped a note to the loo’s door, advising the males of my species that the room was out of service and that additional facilities could be found upstairs.

The worker from housekeeping arrived first, not long after I placed the call. In the midst of doing his thing he came out into the lobby, hands wisely encased in bright yellow rubber gloves. One of those hands was holding a small rolled-up black umbrella. He looked my way and hoisted the contraption.

“Somebody left this in the bathroom,” he said. “Should I put it somewhere? Trash it?”

Wow, volunteers aren’t meant to deal with heavy decision-making! “I’m not sure,” I answered. “How’s about we . . . ”

“Trash it?” he asked.

“Right,” I confidently replied.

Into the narrow thigh-high trash can near the elevators the umbrella went. Another piece of whatever destined for a landfill.

The infamous trash can

Forty minutes later the conditions outside worsened. I could hear heavy rains coming down, though from where I was standing I couldn’t see them. A fellow I’d noticed earlier entering the building was now about to leave, his medical appointment completed. He went out the main door and seconds later came back inside. “It’s pouring like crazy out there,” he said. I took a few strides to position myself at a better vantage point and had to agree with his statement. The waters were descending in incredibly thick sheets.

“Do you have an umbrella I can borrow?” he asked. Right, like I’d ever see my umbrella again if I handed it over. And that’s when I remembered the trash can. “Hold on, ” I said. I walked down the lobby to the receptacle and stuck my right hand inside. It was a tight fit. Wouldn’t it make more sense for a trash can to have a wide opening rather than a narrow one? Its manufacturer forgot to consult with me before starting production. Undaunted, I fished around, trying to disengage the umbrella’s spokes from the confines and eventually had success.

“Here you go,” I said to the guy, extending the prize catch towards him. “It’s yours.” He took it and away he went, seemingly unimpressed by what had just occurred. Me, I thought it pretty uproarious that the buried and left-for-dead umbrella, as quick as that, had been resurrected. What were the odds?

The morning progressed. Plenty of people came up to me with one question or problem or another. Around 11:15 a guy ambled down the hall. When he reached my area he asked me if there was anywhere in the building he could get a cup of coffee. I got the impression that he had time to kill. He probably was waiting to drive a patient, probably his wife, home from a procedure, which probably was a colonoscopy.

“There’s vending machines one floor above us,” I told him. “Sodas, chips, candies and stuff like that. But nothing hot. If you want coffee you’ll have to go across the street to the hospital cafeteria.” While I was telling him this, a cardiologist walked by and went into her office. Dr. **, who never wears a white coat or any other garment that would identify her as a doctor, smiled and waved at me, as she always does when she passes the info desk. She’s a really nice person.

The guy shrugged and was about to amble back to wherever it was he came from. That’s when a loud and clear “Sir, are you desperate for a cup of coffee?” filled the lobby. A second later Dr. ** appeared. The guy didn’t know who she was, but he wasn’t about to turn down a gift. “Follow me,” she said, and led him into her office suite. “I’ll get some coffee for you.”

A few minutes later the recipient passed my way, cup in hand. “It’s your lucky day,” I said to him, adding that his benefactor is a physician. What were the odds that the only doc within a 50-mile radius who would do such a thing would overhear my conversation with him?  I mean, when was the last time a doctor gave you anything, unless it was a sample of hemorrhoid cream or something like that?

But, like the guy upon whom I’d bestowed a hidden and seemingly doomed umbrella, Mister Coffee didn’t appear to be overly amazed. “She is?” he answered blandly, and disappeared down the hall.

But I was amazed. Tuesday the 23rd, a day in which I was reminded that expecting the unexpected isn’t a farfetched stance at all, struck me as being very right. Right as rain, so to speak.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story on Twitter, Facebook and the like. Gracias.)

Out And About In Fishtown

On a recent Friday night my wife Sandy and I went to dinner with our great pals, Liz and Rich. We dined in Al Dar, an atmospheric Mediterranean-cuisine bistro in Philadelphia’s western suburbs. As the four of us wolfed down lots of good stuff, Liz asked Sandy and me what we had on the agenda for the following day. Because the Philadelphia area was in the middle of an amazing December warm weather streak, any upcoming rain-free day would be a great one for outdoor exploration. “Maybe we’ll go to Fishtown,” Sandy said. And that’s what we did.

Fishtown is a Philadelphia neighborhood fairly near the city’s downtown sections. It is a maze of narrow streets, with a few big avenues running through, and for most of its existence has held a blue-collar reputation. Until a handful of years ago, Fishtown wasn’t somewhere you’d have had any particular reason to go to, unless you lived there. But times change, and sometimes for the better. Fishtown’s rowhouses and small single homes have found favor with millenials, hipsters, musicians. And with those fine folk have come cool bars and eateries and music venues. Fishtown now is on the map, though its goodly number of empty storefronts and how-do-they-stay-in-business businesses show that there’s plenty of climbing yet to do.

The 1300 block of East Eyre Street.
The 1300 block of East Eyre Street.
The 500 block of East Thompson Street.
The 500 block of East Thompson Street.

I like wandering on cute blocks, especially when they have nifty or unusual names. And Fishtown is full of those: Crease Street, Eyre Street, Shackamaxon Street. Yeah, Shackamaxon. I’d never heard of half the streets that Sandy and I stepped upon, which was just the way I like it. Gave me a sense of exploring the unknown. I saw that Fishtown’s byways are crammed with housing and commercial properties that, to my marginally-trained eye, looked to have been erected mostly between the mid 1800s and early 1900s. As with much of Philadelphia, the buildings usually rise no farther than three stories above ground level. And how about those bricks, a construction material that numbers in the gawd-knows-how-many trillions of units in Philadelphia. Fishtown’s share of that bounty must be at least twenty billion.

Fishtown's public library.
Fishtown’s public library.
Girard Avenue as seen from Eyre Street.
Girard Avenue as seen from Eyre Street.

It would take hours to see all of Fishtown, hours that Sandy and I didn’t have at hand. But we strolled around and I think got a halfway decent sense of what the neighborhood is all about. I was glad to see that Fishtown is kind of a small town unto itself. That’s been the case for at least 150 years, from what I’ve subsequently read. Look! A library. A police station. A rec center with a hockey rink. A wonderfully-domed Presbyterian church that has been in place since 1859. A bunch of pocket parks. Sharp, indeed! But the small town feel disappears when you venture off the residential blocks. On Girard Avenue, a major artery that bisects the area, the almost endless lengths of overhead wires are a gritty spider’s web and a quaint-yet-quintessential urban sight. And the traffic on Girard Avenue and Frankford Avenue at times is relentless.

Let’s move on to food and drink. Fishtown has become a player in Philadelphia’s emergence as a destination for foodies and/or craft beer aficionados. Kraftwork, East Girard Gastropub, Frankford Hall, Fette Sau, Interstate Draft House, Pizzeria Beddia (a take-out-only joint with no phone and a policy of baking only 40 pies per day. It gained instant fame when bon appétit magazine, incredibly, crowned its offerings earlier this year as the best pizza in the USA). Hey, if filling the gut and loosening the inhibitions are on your agenda, Fishtown’s as good a choice as any to do that in.

I peeked inside some of the above-named places, and others, on Girard Avenue. They looked great, but it wasn’t even 5:00 PM yet and I wasn’t ready for alcohol or food. Sandy and I earlier had decided that we needed to patronize, or at least ogle, what probably are Fishtown’s two most well-known spots, just to say that we’d been there. And thus we headed north on Frankford Avenue till we reached La Colombe Fishtown (1335 Frankford Avenue), the crown jewel of the La Colombe coffee empire.

Exterior of La Colombe Fishtown.
Exterior of La Colombe Fishtown.
Interior of La Colombe Fishtown.
Interior of La Colombe Fishtown.

LCF opened last year and it’s a thing of beauty, a Starbucks-on-steroids enterprise that was created out of a former warehouse. It’s comfortable and fashioned in the rustic chic mode. Dark wood floors go on forever. Exposed air system ductwork looms overhead. At the tables, customers nurse coffees, wines, beers, pastries and sandwiches for a long long time as they stare into their electronic devices or into each others’ eyes. And in the rear of the cavernous space is something I’d have been unable to anticipate in a million years. A rum distillery. Don’t ask me why, but the brains behind La Colombe had a jones for rum that had to be satisfied. The rum is for sale.

Sandy and I, though, kept things simple. We ordered ice coffees. Yes, we’re big spenders. They were strong and delicious. We stared into our devices and into each others’ eyes for awhile, and then hit the streets once again. It now was time for food and alcohol. Next stop was Fishtown’s biggest claim to fame.

Johnny Brenda’s (1201 Frankford Avenue) used to be an insular neighborhood bar. New owners took over in 2003. They installed good beers and good food, made nice with their Fishtown neighbors, and set in motion their visions of expanding JB’s audience. Johnny Brenda’s is widely credited as the catalyst for Fishtown’s renaissance. Things really began cooking in 2006, the year that JB’s brought live rock and roll to its upstairs quarters. Brenda’s has become a favorite place for local and touring rock bands. Sandy and I have yet to catch music at JB’s, but we’ve frequently talked with friends about doing that. One day soon we will.

Exterior of Johnny Brenda's.
Exterior of Johnny Brenda’s.
Interior of Johnny Brenda's
Interior of Johnny Brenda’s

JB’s is a friendly place. It has a pool table, local beers on tap, a nice selection of pub grub. And plenty of customers. Sandy and I grabbed a booth in the dining room. We ordered. Sandy’s Italian white wine was delicious. So was my Sly Fox porter. So were our burgers, hers made from beef, mine from vegetables. But before too long it was time to leave, as a movie, in another Philadelphia neighborhood, was on our evening’s schedule. We settled up and stepped outside. Daylight had disappeared 90 minutes earlier.  The air was cooling down. Groups of 20-somethings and 30-somethings were everywhere. We crossed the street, heading westward on Girard Avenue. But Sandy then suggested that we walk back to where we had just been so that we could get another good look at a resplendent neon palace: Joe’s Steaks + Soda Shop. Sandy took its picture. And we left Fishtown on a high note.

JoesSteaks IMG_0076
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(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)