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The bartenders, servers, chefs, dishwashers, and busboys of Philadelphia are some of the roughest sons of bitches in this city, drinking hard and full of nothing but piss and vinegar. They remain professional despite hangovers that would cripple most people, making them the envy of service industry workers everywhere.

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Citywide Photography – http://www.facebook.com/philaphotographia

If you walk into a bar in Philly with a resume that says “Bartending School” anywhere on it you’ll be immediately laughed out of any place worth its salt. They value those who worked their way up from the bottom, feeding into the popular notion that we are a city of underdogs. When you’re a part of this elite group, everyone you meet with an apron, chef’s coat, or bottle opener in their back pocket is your friend. They all understand that the dirty white linen hanging from someone’s belts is a flag to be waved with pride.

There are places in this city that we congregate, and many bars even go so far as to offer an industry discount that is sometimes upwards of 20% off the entire tab, food included. One of these places we assemble at is a small bar in the dimly lit alleyway of Latimer just off of 15th street called Pen and Pencil.

Pen and Pencil (or P & P for short) is the oldest operating press club in the nation; it’s an exclusive membership only social club for the journalists of this city. It’s run by long-time members of the press including writers for DailyNews, Philadelphia Magazine, and Philadelphia Weekly. As you might imagine, by day it’s a quiet zone for those that make a living with the printed word to socialize, have a cigar, and sip a beer.

By night however they open their doors to the Philly service industry, for better or worse. When I recently acquired a job in Center City, my first question to my new coworkers was “What’s a good after-hours place around here to grab a beer when we close up?” For the most part no one had a good answer. The closest one most people named was Recess on 2nd street below Chestnut. Then like a whisper from the back of a theater, someone said “There’s P & P…”

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Citywide Photography – http://www.facebook.com/philaphotographia

The suggestion trailed off into silence as everyone waited for me to ask about it. I took the bait and inquired. I was immediately met with this dissenting opinion: “It’s a nice place if you want to do a bump of coke in the bathroom, sleep with a disease riddled hooker, or get pick pocketed. I wouldn’t go there if I were you.”

I continued to probe about the place and the answer remained the same, “Nothing good ever comes of Pen and Pencil.” It set off an alarm in the back of my head, like one of those clocks that gradually gets louder and louder until it wakes you up. If you tell me that I shouldn’t go somewhere because it’s super sketchy, then I immediately want to go there. It’s this attitude that has me writing for TD2BD in the first place.

The night finally came to make a trip to this holy grail of seedy hole-in-the-walls. Jayne Doe had joined up with me in search of a good after-hours place herself. With a paystub as proof in my back pocket, I stepped up to the metal grate that is the door. “This place looks like they have cock fights in the basement,” Jayne said with a strange look on her face. I couldn’t tell if she was excited or worried by that prospect. Either way, I felt like she’d be carrying me home tonight.

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Citywide Photography – http://www.facebook.com/philaphotographia

A few people were drunkenly stumbling into the street, I waved to the doorman as I walked up. I half expected him to close the door in my face judging by the look he gave me but he instead waved us in after examining my paystub. After handing it back I was set loose into the dimly lit and smoky building. I strutted forward, trying desperately to look as though I’ve been there a million times. As we passed through the lobby I glanced to my left and saw a man blankly staring up at me from a recliner. His mouth was wide open; he seemed to be obliterated by more than just heavy drinking.

We pushed on without stopping and entered into the main area. I shouldered my way past a couple making out against the wall and found an open spot at the bar for us. We only had an hour to drink and I wanted to make everything count. I ordered up three shots of Jameson and a lager, starting my own version of a happy hour. I gave the bartender a generous tip, downed my shots one after the other and gulped down half my beer. The man sitting next to me looked up from his cigar to give me an approving nod. “Did you just do that?” Jayne said, only somewhat surprised. “Why?” I inquired, “Did you want one?”

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Citywide Photography – http://www.facebook.com/philaphotographia

I lit up a cigarette and found a “high top” table for us to stand at while I sipped my beer. “So what do you think?” I asked Jayne. She looked around, taking in the scenery. There were industry workers, a crockpot full of hotdogs cooked in water in the corner, and a classy looking bartender in suspenders with a bow-tie. “You know Pete, this place is actually a lot nicer on the inside,” she finally said in approval.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw a blonde woman and her friend looking over at me. The blonde saddled up next to me and asked for a cigarette. I acted inconvenienced and begrudgingly handed her a smoke expecting her to go back to her group of friends, but it was apparent that her intentions lied elsewhere. I love service industry women because they know exactly what they want and will act on it, instead of sitting back and waiting for me to make the first move.

Jayne rolled her eyes as the conversation came to a close and we exchanged numbers just before the house lights went up and last call was announced. I darted for the bar to make sure I could grab one last round to close out what turned out to be an average night at the Pen and Pencil.

The bottom line:

Hours:  7 a.m. – 3 a.m.
Crowd:  Casual
Music: Jukebox
Price range:  $$
Accepts Credit Cards:  Yes
ATM: No
Dance floor:  No
Outdoor area: No
Coat check: No

The Pen and Pencil IS a shit-show, but I don’t think it deserves its reputation of being the lowest of the low. It’s no different than any other after-hours bar in the city, with the exception that the patrons are all service industry. This, in my opinion, is a great thing because we all share a commonality and mutual respect that makes meeting new people as easy as asking “So where do you work?” If you find yourself roaming Center City late one night make sure to bring along a paystub from whatever bar/restaurant/café you, or your friend, works at and take the time to check this place out at least once. Everyone is pretty social and there is definitely a unique energy in the air that makes this worth it, at least once.

Pen and Pencil Club
1522 Latimer Street
Philadelphia, PA
http://www.penandpencil.org/

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Skinny Pete
Skinny Pete