Mr Thursday is Dead

It has become abundantly clear to me, over this past year, that I am no longer a blogger. I’ve never been the most consistent poster of material, on this site or any other, but in 2007 I posted several times each week, rain or shine. Sometimes, my fervor to write something–anything–so overwhelmed my supposed goals for the site that I’d just Google simple phrases looking for news stories to comment on. I’ve imitated writers I’ve admired at various points: most notably, perhaps, William Safire’s NY Times Sunday column “On Language” with the “Foot & Meter” mini-series. I’ve considered only doing occasional, lengthy posts, with thorough and nuanced commentary on a given issue. I’ve tried to post several times a day, every day. I’ve tried to streamline my subject matter, and I’ve tried to categorize it.

That’s been sort of the beauty of this blog. It’s always been anything I’ve wanted it to be. But the fact is, I don’t want to write anymore. Nearly every post for the past 12 months has been pulling teeth. I currently have a host of new posts in draft form, waiting for completion and publication, that will never see the light of day. There is one from months ago about a performance of “Oedipus at Colonus” as performed in a skate park. There is an addition to the Do They All Die? series that is, at its core, a desperate effort to convince Mrs Thursday to rewatch one of my favorite movies. Another post that piggy-backs on that one talking about the place of symbolism in action movies.

There are pounds of thoughts about the Phillies winning the World Series, of course.

I’ve considered closing up shop here for a while, but I like the website, and I like having the forum to chitchat about whatever I like, whenever I like. But the fact is, I don’t want it anymore. The fact is, any time I write, I cannot seem to shake a singular thought from invading not my words and phrases, but my ideas. Everything I write is corrupted by it, and I don’t want to think about it anymore.

This is the last post of the Curious Mechanism. Thanks for reading.

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Mr Thursday’s Book Shelf: Death With Interruptions

So about six months ago, I was about 50 pages into Jose Saramago’s Blindness, which, at the time, I thought was the best novel I had ever read. For those of you who don’t know, I’m going damn blind. Getting my first pair of spectacles is one of my earliest memories. And every six months, sometimes twelve, I pop in to see the eye doctor, because my glasses are no longer good enough to let me read road signs and books and things like that. Now, I can’t always get to the doctor right away, and my vision is bad enough that my new specs generally run me $300. I’ve given up on contacts, of late, just because their expense was even more devastating to my frequently meager wallet. Sometimes, the vision changes so harshly and frequently I’m struck by bouts of misery, as I can’t really do anything. My night vision is terrible, and in the winter (ya know, like right now), I generally go to bed much earlier and sleep somewhat later than I do in summer, because I struggle to see in the dim lighting of evening.

So, needless to say, when a Nobel Prize-winning author produces a novel about a world gone blind, I’m interested, because it’s playing directly into, perhaps, my most primal and unabating fear. That particular novel starts is absolutely heartbreaking fashion, and that sadness is replaced by hope and inspiration. The book begins astonishingly engrossing. It then becomes ruthlessly vulgar, and repetitively so, and I couldn’t continue. I finish every book, as a rule, and I’ll finish Blindness, sooner or later, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, and I’m terrified at the prospect of seeing that movie.

But, back in the summer when I was in those bright, sunny, early sections of Blindness, Amazon, in their devious wisdom, sent me an email to let me know Saramago had a new novel coming out, and I could pre-order it. And I did, and by the time it arrived, I was so disgusted with Blindness that I wanted no part of Death With Interruptions. Having run through a couple of non-fiction books in rapid succession here (most notably, this book, as a reference because Mrs Thursday and I are getting one of these), and finding myself unwilling, at the present, to tackle Vladimir Nabakov, I decided to take a crack at Saramago, again.

The beginning is similar to Blindness, in that a supernatural, and, in many ways, catastrophic event strikes an unknown country. In this case, everyone has stopped dying. Unusually, however, Saramago spends the first 150 pages of this rather short novel (only about 230 pages total), characterless, painting the story in very broad strokes, so to speak. His narrative pops in the the Prime Minister here, an unknown family there, the despondent undertakers over there. The narrative meanders, but intentionally, until, with 2/3rds of the novel extinguished, Saramago introduces, finally, a named character. That is, of course, death, herself, with a lowercase “d”.

The death storyline is truly bizarre. Having decided to start killing people again, after seven months vacation, she decides to give people a little notice of their impending deaths, by delivering to them violet letters with short and clear messages that the recipient will die, irrevocably, in one week. Then, of course, a letter is, mysteriously, returned to sender. Her efforts to confront that confounding fact make for the book’s finale.

My favorite literature is able to engage me both intellectually, and emotionally. Death With Interruptions does the former admirably: I’m not sure how many books I’ve read that have been more fascinating that this one was, once it got rolling. But the dearth of characters, and their short and limited existences, make it difficult for me, the reader, to cling to anything in the book emotionally. The book is brief, however, and its brevity serves it well. Certainly, the scant necessary days to complete its reading are worthwhile.

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Cole Hamels, on the Full Season

The season is gloriously over, with the Phillies winning the World Series on the back of (among others, of course), Cole Hamels.  Hamels had an excellent season, and is expected to finish in the top 5 in Cy Young Award voting, likely falling behind Johan Santana, and Tim Lincecum, falling into the mix with Brandon Webb and teammate Brad Lidge. The numbers:

Player: Innings, ERA, HR/BB/SO

Hamels: 227.3, 3.09, 28/53/196
Santana: 234.3, 2.53, 23/63/206
Lincecum: 227.0, 2.62, 11/84/265
Webb: 226.7, 3.30, 13/64/183
Lidge: 69.3, 1.95, 2/35/92

Now, last season, while talking about the Beckett vs Sabathia Cy Young debate, Joe Posnanski wondered why we don’t count post-season numbers when considering candidates.  I happen to agree with him, and though it might not be entirely fair, here are the new number for the candidates, counting all their regular season, and postseason work:

Hamels: 262.3, 2.92, 30/62/226
Santana: 234.3, 2.53, 23/63/206
Lincecum: 227.0, 2.62, 11/84/265
Webb: 226.7, 3.30, 13/64/183
Lidge: 78.7, 1.83, 2/38/105

As neither the Mets, Giants, or Diamondbacks made the postseason, only Hamels and Lidge had the opportunity to augment or diminish their overall 2008 performances.  Both pitchers were better in the postseason than the regular season, so the race gets tighter.  Converting their counting numbers to rate stats, we can compare the pitchers on a per-inning basis:

Pitcher: HR/9, BB/9, SO/9

Hamels: 1.03, 2.13, 7.75
Santana: 0.88, 2.42, 7.91
Lincecum: 0.44, 3.33, 10.51
Webb:  0.52, 2.58, 7.27
Lidge: 0.26, 4.94, 11.94

Hamels shows by far the best control of the group, and posts a solid strikeout rate, but suffers from a bit of a home run tendency.  1.03 HR/9 really isn’t so bad–it’s about league average–but running with this group, Hamels is the clear trailer.  Santana is better, though not by a large margin, while Webb and Lincecum dual it out among starters, and Lidge laps the field.  It’s worth noting that Santana, Webb, and Lincecum all pitch in home run unfriendly home ballparks, though oddly Santana posted similar Home/Road homer splits, and both Webb and Lincecum were better on the road.  In fact, Lincecum was much worse in San Francisco than he was elsewhere.

In contrast to Hamels excellent control is Lidge’s wildness.  His walk rate is more than double both Santana’s and Hamels’, and is nearly double Webb’s.  Lincecum is wild in his own right, though his 3.33 isn’t quite in the same league as Lidge’s 4.94.  I’m not sure if walk rates tend to go up or down for starters and relievers (taking a quick and dirty scan of a few guys who have done both, I think walk rate drops somewhat), but needless to say, whatever trouble Lidge seems to ever find himself is likely self-produced.  5BB/9IP is just crazy.

In Lidge’s favor is that he counteracts his walk issues by striking out just about everyone he sees.  About 45% of the outs Lidge generated were by the K.  More than a third (36%) of the batters who came to the plate against him walked away after striking out.  The only starter who can even see Lidge’s K rate is Lincecum with a 10.51.

I’m no sabermetrician, obviously, but it seems to me that Hamels has a fairly compelling Cy Young case if one considers his substantial innings advantage.  Forgetting about Lidge for the moment, strictly on an inning by inning basis, Hamels is probably ahead of Webb, and pretty even with Santana.  Despite the walks, Lincecum seems to have a good claim to the prize.  Of course, weighted by innings advantage, Hamels closes the gap on Lincecum, but by how much, I cannot say.

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Further Proof That Only the First Debate Mattered

Way to go, Economist blog.

Watch here.

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The Phillies Win the Pennant

Last night, Carlos Ruiz caught a foul popup, and the Phillies were, officially, in the World Series.  It’s the second time in my life the team I obsess over has made it this far.  And when Chooch caught that ball, what I felt was not elation, it was not joy, but rather, simply, relief.  Soberly, Phillies playoff games this year have not exactly been the most fun I’ve ever had.  They’ve been paranoid evenings.  I’ve sat in my house for 6 of the 8 games.  I’ve been mostly quiet.  I felt my heartrate slow and my blood pool in my feet.  I felt myself pale.  When Victorino and Stairs hit the home runs in game 4 to steal the game, I was relieved, but not excited or proud.  At least, not that day.  Maybe the day after.  And last night, and today, I think about that out and I don’t regret staying inside afterward, when I could hear people whooping it up outside, and Mrs Thursday wanted to join them.  Because I was happy.  I was glad this part was over.

When I was very young, my Dad would take my older brother and I to baseball games.  Charlie, my brother, is about a year older than I am, and we have a younger brother, Stephen, who is about three years younger than I.  I remember those first games so vividly.  Frigid April Philadelphia weather, sitting about 7,000 feet above sea level in the upper deck at the Vet, in the 700 level, or the 600, right behind home plate.  We’d go for the Phillie Phanatics birthday, too.  When Stephen was old enough, he’d come, and we’d go as a family, my mom and dad and Charlie and Stephen and I.  We either sat behind home plate, high above the Earth (which is now section 420 in CBP, and it is, perhaps, my favorite place in the entire world) or out in left field.  A bit lower to the ground, sure, but you’re a long way from home, out there.

In 1989, I think, I played in my first little league.  Cooperstown Little League, in Haverford, PA, or thereabouts.  One inning, I went out to the field having accidentally grabbed someone else’s glove, and using it, playing shortstop, I think, I managed to backhand a ball and throw out the baserunner at first.  My dad saw me do that, and saw I had grabbed a righthanded glove, instead of my natural lefty, and I was an immediate convert.  He was an assistant coach on my first t-ball team, which he sponsored.  He was frustrated with the head coach, who had doing baserunning drills every practice.  Dad was competitive, sure, and wanted to see his son’s t-ball team do well, of course, but more than that he knew that if there is anything a five or six year old doesn’t need instruction on, it’s running.

Because I loved to play, though, we’d play catch before and after practice.  He’d teach me to hit.  When my great Aunt Kate would babysit us, we’d play wiffle ball, and I would line ball after ball right back at her head.  She had a good sense of humor about it.  Less good was a coach of mine in the next league up, who had to duck after each pitch, so often was I lining baseballs six feet off the ground right up the middle.

I kept playing little league and advancing (and also gaining weight: I was the little league version of Albert Belle, but with glasses and a better attitude).  I played catcher, and I hit homeruns.  My baseball viewing life kept advancing, too.  The Phillies swayed somewhere between below average and awful, without quite reaching the status of Embarrassment, before exploding in 1993.  97 wins.  Lenny Dykstra was Dr Dirt.  Jim Eisenreich introduced this nine year old to Tourette’s Syndrome.  Pete Incavglia looked like a plumber, and my dad knew every one of his 24 home runs about 30 seconds before Pete launched ‘em.  Dutch Daulton launched 24 of his own.  Dave Hollins invented the concept of the between-pitch routine that Nomar would someday imitate, but never duplicate.  Mariano Duncan played what seemed like every infield position.  Mickey Morandini made every play at second, and had a knack for hitting triples.  John Kruk was glorious and funny.  Kevin Stocker took over shortstop late in the season and was a revelation.  Terry Mulholland has baseball’s best pickoff move.  Curt Schilling was young and brilliant.  Tommy Greene was younger, and, it seemed, even more brilliant, albeit in a totally different way.  Larry Andersen was goofy and through junk all day and night.  And Mitch Williams, the Wild Thing, fell off the mound to the tune of 43 saves.

Baseball was so good that summer, we coudn’t get enough of it.  Dad and I started following the local leagues.  Minor leagues.  Legions.  High school.  College.  In 1993, if it had a box score in the local papers, Dad and I could tell you about it.  And then the Phillies went to the playoffs, gloriously ruining the Atlanta Braves, and then fighting the Blue Jays to the teeth before Joe Carter hit that home run.  Thinking about that home run causes me no pain.  I loved everything about baseball in 1993. I don’t care if they were on steroids.  I didn’t know it then, and I don’t care about it now.  Those Phillies made me as happy as I have ever been.

But then, in 1994, the strike struck.  My dad was not a union man in 1993, it seems.  He blamed the players greed for the strike, and I was devasted.  Schilling and Greene and Dykstra and the rest were all greedy villains.  I went to a couple of minor league games that summer, but it wasn’t quite the same.  The next year, I gave up baseball, little league.  And I mostly stopped watching the sport.  I remember Cal Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig’s record.  I watched that game.  And I had interest in the home run race in 1998, but what really got me back into baseball was, amazingly, a stunningly bad Phillies team.  My friends in high school, as I was a freshmen and they were upper classmen, were into the Phillies, and so I kept going to games.  Chad Ogea was terrible.  Schilling was good and brash, and Rolen was good and sullen.  Doug Glanville led the league in outs.  Over 130 innings were given to relievers with ERAs over 7.  And somehow, I was in love again.

I started going to games, again.  With the exception of this year, I estimate I’ve gone to 20-25 games each year since 1999.  My dad was still skeptical of this game with its strikes, but, somehow he gradually started accepting it again.  At least, I wouldn’t have to fight to get the game on.  When they signed Thome, my dad’s interest grew, and when Ryan Howard took his spot, my dad became a fan again.  He went to a Steve Carlton bobblehead day a few years ago, probably his first live baseball game in a decade.  He liked Rollins and loved Utley.  He loved Hamels.  He was frustrated by Brett Myers.  He hated Wagner, and didn’t trust Tom Gordon.

We got him some tickets for the season.   A small package.  6 or 8 games or so, for 2007.  The final game of the year was Sept 30th, at home.  His 55th birthday.  The Phillies won the division that day, capping a fabulous comeback against the Mets.  We sat in the sun and sang.  We ate hot dogs and sausage and pasta salad and drank beer and soda.  Me and Dad and Mom and Charlie and Stephen, Uncle Rob, and Aunt Diane.  When I was very young, my dad gave me baseball.  When he turned 55, I gave it back.

He died from cancer less than three months later.  We miss him, of course, now.  And in a lot of ways, we’re all still trying to put it into perspective.  He had a lot of family members who died young.  My dad buried one his seven brothers on the day my dad turned 18.  He had a sister die before he was even born.  Another brother survived 2 broken necks and a war, and died in his sleep when I was 14.  The Shillingfords, they burn bright, and short.  My own dad worked his entire life.  He owned his own business, he was an electrical contractor.  He charged one of the lowest rates around, not because he was bad, but because he felt guilty about raising prices.  He had long running problems with religion, with his own faith, but he’d work for churches for free.  He developed a drinking problem when I was very young, and corralled it as he got older, without giving it up.  In retrospect, his ability to moderate his drinking is one of the more amazing feats I’ve ever seen.  He loved to drive.  He’s gone now, and the rest of us don’t really know what to make of it.

But the Phillies have won the pennant, and he’s largely what I’ve been thinking about.  About how much more this means to me because of him.

I miss you, Dad.  Still wish you were around.

Love.

–TC

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I Can See It In My Dreams

I had never been to New Orleans before the flood.  My deepest emotional connection to the city has always been Tom Waits’ brilliant ballad, I Wish I Was In New Orleans, which is the song used in the montage above.  I had know particular opinion of the place, except that I wasn’t much interested in the notorious debauchery of Mardi Gras, and I suspect a lot of exaggeration in terms of the seedy, dark side of the city that so many writers have so enthusiastically given their verbiage to.

My good friend Andy, who gave birth to the Do They All Die? series on here, has been living down there for the past year, aiding in the rebuilding project.  It’s hard work, what he’s doing there.  Work that burns out a lot of the people who try to do it.  Andy has signed on for a second year of rebuilding.  We’re proud of him up here in the northeast corridor. He’s been encouraging me to come and visit him in New Orleans all year.  Before that, he spent four years trying to get me visit him in Toronto.  Which I never did.  He called a few weeks ago and explained that he was coming to Philly, and I could hitch a ride down with him, splitting the cost of gas, and then I only needed to pay for a plane ticket back.  I agreed.

We left two Sundays ago, on August 10th.  The plan was to drive to Pittsburgh, spending the night at our friend Jess’ place.  On Monday, we’d drive to Tennessee, having dinner with an acquaintance of Andy’s, and spending the night.  On Tuesday, we’d get into New Orleans.  I’d fly back to Philadelphia at dawn the following Sunday, giving me roughly four and one-half days in the Crescent City.  The plan went off pretty smoothly on Day 1.  I met up with Andy a bit later than hoped, but we made good time to the ‘Burgh.  Jess took the two of to a friend’s birthday party, for free food and drinks.  Andy and I are dazzlingly charming fellows, and somehow, both Jess and the birthday girl, Sarah, were talked into joining us on the trip.  We thought as late as Monday morning that they weren’t coming, and, then, they bought plane tickets.  We decided we were now running late and twice as populated, and thus too much of a burden on some stranger in Tennessee who I can only imagine as being achingly beautiful.  We elected to drive straight from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, a 1200 or so mile drive, getting into town around dawn.

TC, Sarah, Andy, and Jess.

TC, Sarah, Andy, and Jess.

That’s us there, sometime early on Tuesday, probably somewhere in Tennessee or Alabama, two states in which we spent a lot of time.  Upon arriving, we met up with Maura, Andy’s better half, who made us pancakes as she and her roommate Caitlin prepared to eat their weight in ice cream, later that day.

Maura on the left, Caitlin on the right.  There were no survivors.

Maura on the left, Caitlin on the right. There were no survivors.

During the day we slept and took it easy.  That night, however, we went to the Maple Leaf, for Rebirth.

Andy had been talking about the Rebirth Brass Band for a while to me, and I was excited.  But to talk about Rebirth to people who haven’t seen it is like trying to explain the Sun to owls.  Rebirth Brass Band are eight or so black men.  They’re dressed like they belong in amateur rap videos.  Flatbilled, crooked hats, wifebeaters, jeans.  The Maple Leaf is dark, but they’re younger than you’d expect a 25 year old band to be.  The youngest members are probably in their 20s, and the oldest are, perhaps, in their 50s.  In the back of the stage stand the drummers, two of them, I believe, and the sousaphoner (sousaphonist?  sousaphone player?).  The front of the stage is all brass.  A couple of trombones, a sax, and a lot of trumpets.  Anyone in the front row may sing, apparently, but singing isn’t really the point of Rebirth.

Rebirth is shockingly loud, for starters.  Our ears rang all the next day.  At times, if you stand close to the stage, the volume is so extraordinary my ears couldn’t handle it, I heard the horns like they were coming through blown speakers.  They are, in fact, unignorable.

They are demanding, as well.  Tuesday nights at the Maple Leaf allow no room for dissenters, for the indifferent, for the analytical or critical.  You go, you hear, you dance, and there is nothing else, anywhere.  You are with us, or you are someplace else.  They’re a tradition with all the passion and energy of a revolution.  They’re beautiful like fire.

The next day we awoke slowly.  It was raining, and our plans involved a bit of a tour of the city, so we had nowhere we needed to be.  The tour is a strange thing.  Of course, New Orleans, as a city, post-Katrina, is a strange thing.

New Orleans has a remarkable and distinct identity, geographically and architecturally.  It gets hot, but, at least during the week I was there, the heat was bearable.  As so many have said before, however, it’s not the heat, but the humidity that gets you.  In and around the Bayou, the humidity is so fierce that every time I stepped from an air conditioned building or car, my glasses fogged.  The humidity means it also rains, at least a little bit, just about every day.  The drainage system in New Orleans is absurd.  The rain water falls into a drain, from which is it pumped into the nearby Lake Ponchartrain.  When Katrina hit, Ponchartrain flooded, and the water in New Orleans had nowhere to go.  That, of course, was just one of the problems that others have thoroughly documented.  Anytime a hard rain lasts longer than about 30 minutes in New Orleans, the roads start to flood.

Of course the roads deserve a brief mention.  New Orleans roads might as well be unpaved.  They’re Third World rugged.  They have cracks, bumps, potholes, sinkholes, the works.  Near Andy’s house is a road where the pavement goes up.  Like a reverse-pothole.  You can’t avoid it.  And it’s only about a foot or so tall.

In some ways, New Orleans is like a European city.  It’s not nearly as densely populated, of course.  And not nearly as old as Amsterdam or Paris or London.  But the buildings follow adhere to a style that you don’t really find anywhere else.  And the city gives the impression that these buildings have always been here.  There was never any wild swampland, any plains or forests.  There have always been these brightly colored little shotgun houses, with their ornate column and draperies and shutters, live oaks sprawling above and beside them.

Beyond that sense, the houses themselves are something to behold.  They are, nearly every last one, ornate.  Pictured below here is the Wedding Cake House, as it’s known, on St Charles Street.  The house is immaculate, and its perfect whiteness is, really, the most significant separating feature.  The rest of the New Orleans architecture is similar, albeit, usually smaller, but still with the columns and rails and the rest.  The difference is a certain amount of decay.  Sometimes the paint is chipping.  Sometimes a house almost appears to be leaning.  Some houses are painted so garishly brightly, the owner must be some kind of clown, and yet, the house fits in perfectly.  New Orleans buildings are drunks in tuxedos.  A little bit of mud on the shoes, the tophat is the top punched through, a little stubble on the chin.  Huge trees line every main street in the city, and hanging from some of them, still, are beaded necklaces from February’s Mardi Gras parades.

The city satires respectability, that old-fashioned southern aristocracy is New Orleans favorite joke.

The Wedding Cake House

The Wedding Cake House

The parody that is New Orleans architecture.

The parody that is New Orleans architecture.

We took the tour of the destroyed areas of town, which, of course, is what most people back home have been curious to hear about.  So, how is New Orleans, after the storm?  Odd.  A lot of the buildings still have visible waterlines.  In general, the visible waterline is somewhat lower than where the water peaked, as during the storm the water would reach its height, then sink, resting a few feet below the high watermark, and staying at this second line for days or weeks.  So, if you see a watermark five feet high, the water probably reached seven or eight feet.  Many houses still have the spraypainted messages from rescue workers, signaling that a house had been investigated, and what had been found there.  Perhaps no message is more famous or haunting than this one, with 1 Dead in Attic spraypainted on the front of the house.  The resident climbed into his attic to wait out the storm.  When the water rose into it, he couldn’t get out, he drowned.  There are a lot of houses with messages, though, all over the city, but especially in the 8th and 9th wards.  Most are somewhat more abstruse than the bluntness that is 1 Dead in Attic, however.

The Lower 9th Ward has gotten a lot of press, and justifiably.  But it’s hard to explain what it’s like to be there.  There is nothing.  There’s not enough left to even get a good sense of what was destroyed.  All that remains of the Lower 9th are the foundations.  There are few battered houses, signs of rubble, all that.  I remember being in New York after 9/11, and seeing the stunningly large pile of rubble, broken glass and steel and concrete, and being shocked.  Seeing the Lower 9th isn’t like that.  You could drive by it and not realize that there had once been hundreds, thousands of houses there.  There was total destruction.  Utter.  All that remains is grass.  There are a few rebuilt houses there.  A few of them are even occupied now.  And I can only imagine it’s bizarre and even terrifying at times to live within the city limits, with hardly another soul within a mile of you most nights.

New Orleans is unique.  It’s a stunningly poorly run city.  Remarkably corrupt.  Irrepressibly infuriating.  It’s also beautiful.  Dynamic.  It’s alive in a way that few cities can be.  Strangers on the street say hello.  Your next door neighbor is probably dealing drugs, but he’s quiet and friendly as anyone you’ll meet.  There are jazz bands everywhere–at the clubs, on the streets, at the midnight bowling alley.  I could live there, I think.  After all, I live in Philadelphia, so I already have an affinity for flawed, great, American cities.

Post-script:  On Wednesday night, Jess, Sarah, Andy and I were joined by our new friend David, where we went to a bar known as Snake and Jake’s Christmas Lounge.  The place opens up around 9PM, and stays open till the bartenders feel like shutting down.  This is the kind of place that can’t exist just anywhere.  The picture below is what the place looks like during the day.  At night, it’s almost entirely invisible, except that wreath is lit up.  They’ve got Schlitz for $1.50 and the other beer is, I think, $2.  The bathroom has no door.  While I still feel a little dirty from the place, I’m glad such dark, joyful places exist in the world.

Dive Mecca.

Snake and Jakes Christmas Lounge: Dive Mecca.

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Let Me Tell You About My Favorite Place

Some famous writer once wrote about their favorite bar.  About how the customers were down to earth and funny and interesting.  The beer was good.  The food was delicious.  The prices were reasonable, if not downright cheap.  The staff was friendly and knowledgeable and accommodating.  The TVs always played what he wanted to see.  The music was never overpowering, and always good.  And then the famous writer revealed that no such bar existed.  In point of fact, he had created the bar by using the best attributes of his favorite four or so bars.

My friends, this bar exists.

Philadelphia is theorized to be one of the very best beer-drinking cities in the country, if not the world.  Michael Jackson, who is, perhaps, the patron saint of craft beer, once called Philadelphia the “Brussels of the West”.  Brussels, of course, is home to so many of the great Belgian crafts.  More Belgian beer is consumed now in Philadelphia, each year, than it is in Brussels.  There are a lot of good bars here. 

Monk’s gets a lot of love for having been at the Philly beer scene from the beginning.  The food is hit and miss, though the fries (excuse, frietjes) are always pleasant.  The beer is rare and extraordinary, but because of both those qualities, it’s also expensive.  The staff has a reputation for being unpleasant.  That hasn’t been my experience, but I wouldn’t call them chummy.  Is there music or TV?  I don’t know.  The place is often crowded.  So often crowded.  It’s a place to which someone Goes.  People from other states and countries go to Monk’s. And a few other bars of taken to joining them in spirit, if not history, like Eulogy with its 300 beer menu, and in the suburbs, Teresa‘s with their high-falutin’ taps chosen special by Beer Yard owner and brew demi-god Matt Goyer.

There are places like Johnny Brenda’s and the Standard Tap, who have godfathered the Philly gastropub phenomenon.  Good beer deserves good food, after all.  And they’ll always win a few people for being diehard in their commitment to local beer.  Bands will play there (or, at least, at JB’s).  You’ll like some of them, but live music does beat the stuff piped in.  But the place is dark and the staff can be as condescending as they are funny.

Of course there are the few, the proud, the Philadelphia brewpubs.  To the Yunk likes the Manayunk Brewpub, who are known for their fruity beers.  Not lambics, but fruity and sweet.  They’re part of that college scene, and among the brew faithful, more lovely might be given to the nearby Dawson St Pub.  Then there’s Triumph in Old City.  Part of a chain of mediocre brewpubs.  The architecture and music are more reminiscent of a club than a daily attended bar, while the food ranges from disappointing to acceptable, and the staff is barely competent.  In west Philly is the newest incarnation of Dock Street Brewing, which had good (though stylistically constant) beer, and inconsistent pizza, as well as a staff that seems to undergo wholesale changes every time I’m in.  The king of them all is the Nodding Head in Center City, with its legendary staffers, its big claim-to-fame (more NH Berliner Weisse consumed is consumed than any other kind, including those in Germany), its good food and music.  The only downsides, of course, are that it’s in CC, so it’s definitely pricey, probably far, and always crowded.

There is something for everyone in Philly, or at least, there’s a beer bar for any kind of beer you’d want, especially if you like your beer big and rare.

But let me tell you about the best bar in Philadelphia.  It’s in a part of Philadelphia which, depending on who you ask, is Fishtown, or East Kensington, or Port Richmond.  It’s a decently old brick building right where the southbound 25 bus intersects the eastbound 39.  The Memphis Taproom only opened in April, I think, but it might be the best bar in Philadelphia.

I have to admit–part of this proclamation might be geographic.  I live walking distance from the Taproom, which is great if I just want to pop in for a quick, or, if I have a marathon session, I can stumble home without concern.  I imagine the kinds of things I’m about to say about my favorite bar have some variation when people talk about the Gray Lodge, or the aforementioned Dawson Street, or the South Philly Taproom, or plenty of other places.  But outside of that distance, I don’t have any special relationship to the place.  I don’t work there.  I don’t get free food or drinks there.  I don’t know the owners or the staff, except in how I’ve gotten to know them by being at the bar so very often.

The place is owned by Brendan Hartranft, who used to help run the show at Nodding Head, and who is known in Philly as “Spanky”.  The guy introduced himself to me as Brendan, though, and so that’s what I call him.  Either he or his wife Leigh have been in the bar literally every time I’ve been there.  And I’ve been there a lot.  Both of them appear tireless, and, clearly, both have lively senses of humor.  They’ve managed to find a staff of excellent bartenders, like John, the daytime fella, who is the archtypal Everyman.  He’ll chat you up, he’ll leave you alone, whatever you’d like, and he’ll make sure you always have a fresh pint in front of ya.  Jess is there in evenings and weekend, often enough, draped in a tattooed map of the world.  After she started working there I found out she lives across the street from me, and have met her beau, Verne.  It might sound redundant, but good owners beget good staff, and good staff seems to beget good customers.  This is the kind of bar you can have a seat at the bar, and jump into the conversations around you without feeling like you’re intruding.  You wanna try that big bottle of beer over there, but don’t have anyone to share it with?  Fear not.  There’s someone who will happily split both the cost and the contents with you.

The prices have been designed to compete with the Applebee’s a few blocks down.  Entrees range from 8-15 dollars, or so.  The food is, at worst, pretty good, and at best, sublime.  Hitting the highlights: their ALT (that’s avacado-lettuce-tomato) might beat any BLT I’ve ever had; the Beef and Onion Pasties combine the sweetness of beef and onion with a salty pocket that balances as nicely as the malt in hops in your beer; King Rarebit with eggs and toast of Old Peculiar fondue…immaculate; they have vegan French Toast that goes down as wonderfully as any egg laden FT you’ll find; and the Port Richmond platter is the absolute best way to over-fill your stomach in the city.

Hartranft is sort’ve obsessed with Elvis Costello, so Declan MacManus gets a lot of play in the bar.  As does musical overlord Tom Waits, and spice appears in Fugazi and David Bowie and every other band you might love.  And if you don’t, fear not.  They keep the music loud enough that you can hear it, but not so loud that you must hear it.  There is one TV, but it’s big enough, and it’s got the sound off.  And it is almost always showing That Local Sporting Club.  Phillies games, Flyers games, plus the Tour de France, soccer games, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Eagles and Sixers games show up this fall there.  But, again, the sound if off.  You don’t want the TV, you don’t need the TV.

As for the beer, the philosophy there is different than a lot of the reputable places in the city.  There’s certainly no specific regional emphasis.  Beers will come from anywhere malt gets fermented, apparently, although there will always be one tap for the Philly Brewing Co which plies their trade just a few blocks away, and Sly Fox, which is, according to the owner, the best brewer in the area.  The rest of the taps and bottles seemed to be left to uncovering hidden gems.  Which is not, necessarily, to say RARE gems.  Yesterday, the gem meant Iron Hill’s Anvil Ale on the gravity cask.  The brew is an English Bitter, with loads of floral and grapefruit hops scents, but just a hint of their bite, and a rounding sweetness.  A great sipping beer, but the style isn’t bold or exciting, the alcohol content isn’t absurdly high, and, to the best of my knowledge, the beer isn’t oak aged or wildly fermented.  It’s just a perfectly balanced, well designed, well crafted beer that should drink just as well for the beer snob with Cantillon bottles in his basement (this guy) as it would for the middle aged guy who normally drinks Yuengling (the guy next to me at the bar yesterday).

Otherwise, special beers have included the Laurelwood Deranger Red, which apparently is pretty rare, even in Portland, but, again, doesn’t sport the popular style, nor is it known for the expensive fermentation process or the high booze content.  Sprecher’s Black Bavarian black lager is a creamy, roasted malty brew, which tastes like the best Russian Imperial Stout you’ve ever had, but with half the alcohol content, not to mention a lack of sticky flavors and syrupy consistency.  The surprise beers might be brews you’ve barely heard of, but didn’t realize how good they were until you finally drink them at the bar at the corner of Memphis and Cumberland.

Beautiful people, this is the best bar in the city.  Get yourselves to the Memphis Taproom.

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