What are they doing here?

Author: John Crawford ’01MFA

I know it sounds like the start of a racist joke, one of those cringe-inducing tales that begins with an Irishman, a Jew and a black guy walking into a bar. But that’s how it happens, minus the Jew, the Irishman and a stupid punch line. My friend and I are drinking at this dive bar when two black guys walk through the door. As they grab stools and order a round, the other drinkers, all of them white, turn, look and fall silent. Everything seems to stop.

The bar is in Mayfair, the Philadelphia neighborhood where I was raised. I live outside Boston now but try to return to Mayfair often. No matter how far away you go, you can’t shake the place you come from. It inhabits you. Back in Mayfair, I feel good walking the streets, seeing old friends and old places.

Every time I return, though, the hood is a little different. New people are moving in, and not everyone is happy about that. That’s glaringly obvious by the reaction at the bar this night. The way people behave, you would have thought an ax murderer and a level-three sex offender had waltzed in and ordered a couple of beers.

Mayfair is located in Northeast Philly. The Northeast is like the Staten Island of Philadelphia; it’s under the radar. Look in any tourist guide to Philly, and it’s barely mentioned.

In Mayfair, people buy lottery tickets at the corner store, load up on milk and hoagies at Wawa, and in the summertime savor water ice in the humid evenings. Drive through the neighborhood and you’ll see block after block of row homes. They’re lined up, one after the other, all of them looking the same, with a garage in the back and patch of lawn in the front. Virgin Mary statues hold court over some of the lawns, while others have rings of dead grass where plastic kiddie pools had rested during the summer.

Illustration by Elizabeth Baddeley

When I’m in town, I stay with my parents, who still live in the neighborhood. My mom plants flowers on the lawn, and the Route-88 bus, which I took to high school and then college, rumbles by their home. They’ve been here almost 30 years. My dad is a mechanic, my mom a nurse. Their jobs are typical. Mayfair isn’t a place for sweater-vest types. One neighbor is a mailman, another a cop. Still another works in construction and has been out of work for months as building has dried up in the recession.

My buddy Sean works two jobs to make ends meet. We’ve known each other since high school, and he remains in the neighborhood. A good woman took me away, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Sean dies here. He has no desire to go anywhere else. He spends his days smoking, playing computer games and drinking too much soda. I sometimes call him “Pepsi,” after his drink of choice. On the Saturday night the two black guys walk into the bar, I ask Sean if he wants to go out. He says sure, as long as we don’t close the place down; he has to work in the morning. That’s fine with me. My days of staying out all night and howling at the moon are (mostly) over.

Our destination for the evening is C.J. Mulligans, a few blocks from my parents’ house. I like to stop by when I’m in town. It’s a no-frills, low-key kind of place. Step inside and you feel like you’re in someone’s basement. It’s long and narrow and full of wood paneling. A bunch of older folks, with a lot of miles on them, happily puff away despite the city’s smoking ban. Although drenched in alcohol, these good-time Charlies are usually able to hang on to their dignity, though I’ve witnessed more than one person falling-down drunk in the place.

On the walls are posters of Ireland bars and of the 2008 Phillies, as well as a collage of photos from a random New Year’s Eve party some years back. I always wonder how many people in the pictures are now dead.

The bar is nothing special, but I like it. I’m married now with a kid, so I’m not interested in some loud, obnoxious meat market. I just want to sidle up to a bar, put my money down, drink what’s in front of me and talk with friends.

Until recently, Mayfair has been overwhelmingly white, loaded with Catholics of Irish descent. The local youth sports teams are known as the “Shamrocks,” and St. Patrick’s Day is a drunken blowout that goes on for several weeks. Bars line Frankford Avenue, the main drag through Mayfair, presumably as a direct result of that Irish heritage. In March, the Shamrock Shuttle ferries sloppy revelers, wearing anything cheap, tacky and green they can get their hands on, up and down the street. I love the old neighborhood, but it’s not at its best in March. I give that whole scene a wide berth.

Lately, though, the makeup of Mayfair has been changing. Someone I know made a big deal about how the supermarket ran out of macaroni noodles during Thanksgiving. How she keeps tabs on such things, I have no idea, but she theorizes that all the new black folks are buying up the noodles for their mac and cheese.

Many Asians are moving into the neighborhood as well. Perhaps that’s why fewer houses seem to be decorated for Christmas. Maybe the new people are of different religions, or maybe they just don’t give a damn. Falling enrollments at neighborhood Catholic schools have been a problem for a while, so much so that the Church threatened to shut down the area’s all-girls high school, Saint Hubert’s. Its students’ plaid uniforms are a ubiquitous part of the neighborhood. My mom went there. So did my sisters, and I had a crush or two on Hubert’s girls back in high school. In the end, a frantic fundraising drive saved the school.

One other neighborhood change I’ve noticed is in some of the white people themselves. All and all, as Mayfair has become more diverse and poor, the whites seem scruffier, shaggier and, to put it bluntly, trashier. I know that sounds terribly judgmental. Who the heck do I think I am? Well, perhaps because I’m white myself I have a pass to label them that way. Then again, probably not.

A big factor driving these changes is the onslaught of absentee landlords from New York and North Jersey. They’re an invasive species, like those big, ugly fish clogging up the Mississippi. They pay cash for homes and then rent them out, which is disruptive. Too many renters aren’t good for a community. Renters just don’t care about their properties and the neighborhood as much as homeowners do. They’re not invested financially or even emotionally. They didn’t grow up in Mayfair or raise their kids there. They didn’t spend decades watching the world pass by from their row-home patio.

My sister, who still lives in Mayfair, is looking to move. She’s had enough of the crazy neighbors who scream and fight with each other, of the pot-smoking kids who sometimes hang behind her house, of the occasional abandoned car that becomes an eyesore. One of the potential buyers of her house was one of these absentee landlords. His offer was a little low, but it was in cash. He liked that my sister had two bathrooms. One can imagine him thinking how easy that extra bathroom would make dividing the place into rental apartments.

The deal never happened, and a large part of me was relieved. Guys like him are killing the neighborhood, and if they keep it up, Mayfair will be lost. More homeowners will move out, crime will increase, property values will drop, and the bonds and friendships that hold together a neighborhood will disappear. Communities surrounding Mayfair have already gone that way, so envisioning what may happen in the near future isn’t difficult. For instance, just drive a few miles east to the nearby neighborhood of Tacony. A couple years back, two men there got into a fatal fight over dog poop. One guy had continually let his two dogs soil the yards wherever they wanted and didn’t clean up after them. It was a nasty habit, and a neighbor called him on it. Their argument escalated until the dog owner pulled a gun on the neighbor and blew him away.

Killed over dog poop. What a way to go.

At the bar, it’s a typical Saturday night. A woman collects money for a 50-50 raffle to support the bar’s shuffleboard team. Why they need support, I don’t know, but there they are, taking turns at an electronic shuffleboard machine and then wandering back to their seats to drink until their turn comes up again. A barmaid, who shows too much cleavage and is old enough to know better, brings us our drinks. In the back area, which serves as a dance floor if people ever become drunk and motivated enough, sits a cake waiting to be cut. It’s someone’s birthday.

A man with a big belly plays DJ, picking out tunes from a laptop. He’s got a microphone, and every once in a while someone half in the bag takes it and warbles a tune. The DJ’s wife always sings sooner or later. Her voice isn’t bad, but she belts it out like she’s in Carnegie Hall. Tonight, like many nights, she sings “Before He Cheats,” relishing the lines about smashing headlights with a baseball bat.

When we come in, people turn. That’s the kind of place this is. Everyone knows everyone here. If people don’t know you, you’re automatically a little suspect. Sean and I may be younger than everyone else, but we’ve been coming here for years. I don’t know names, but I know faces, and they know mine. After turning around to check us out, they go back to their drinks.

Sean and I settle in at the bar, drinks in front of us. All around, people are loud and knee-deep in alcohol. When the two black guys walk in, I don’t even notice them at first. But I do notice a shudder go through the bar.

I’ve left out an important detail: About a month before this night, the bar was held up. Two men came in with guns and robbed the register, plus everyone else sitting at the bar. I assume that many of the regulars were the ones who had a gun shoved in their faces.

Holdups weren’t too common in the neighborhood when I was growing up. For the most part, it was a safe place. You could feel fine walking the streets, even at night. So long as you were smart about it, you were okay.

Lately, though, we’ve been hearing crazy stories, like how some guy armed with a machete was wandering the streets assaulting people, or how a thief hit a barber over the head and robbed him right in his own shop. In a corner bar, another thief tried a holdup, only to be shot dead by an off-duty cop.

A murder happened right on my sister’s block. The shooter barricaded himself inside his house, and cops and media swarmed the area. My sister and her family were confined to their house until the man conveniently ended the siege by shooting himself.

One other detail about the C.J. Mulligans robbery — the thieves were black.

People whisper and steal glances, then look down and grow quiet. The two guys sit at the end of the bar, right by the door, and order bottles of beer. They’re young, but they don’t look like they stepped out of a police lineup. They probably live down the street and, like the rest of us, just want to kick back at their local tavern.

I try to remember that C.J. Mulligans is a place where strangers, no matter their color, stick out. People come here to be among their own. The neighborhood may be changing, but none of the new people usually stop by. The bar is a fort, a holdout against the never-ending forces of time.

Then there’s the matter of the holdup. Having a gun waved in your face isn’t something you get over. I would bet good money that every last person in the bar is thinking of it, of the guns, of the fear they felt, of the robbers and what they looked like.

At first, Sean and I just keep talking about music and movies, about his smoking habit and how he needs to quit, about his jobs and how he’s keeping it together. Eventually, I’m caught up in the tension as well. Are they casing the place, I wonder, my mind gutlessly giving in to stereotypes. I look around and imagine what they might have seen, a bar full of drunk, old people who would be easy targets.

I look at the backdoor exit sign and wonder how long it would take me to reach it. “If something happens, I’m heading right for that exit, and I’m not looking back,” I tell Sean.

I don’t think Sean is too worried. Then again, he always carries several knives.

I don’t want to come across as sympathizing too much with intolerant behavior. And I felt for those two black guys and wondered what went through their minds as they sat there drinking their beer. Did they encounter such fear and anger everywhere they went in the neighborhood of mostly white people? I would hope not. Yes, many raised in Mayfair have a touch of prejudice in them. It came with the territory. But Mayfair wasn’t 1960s Mississippi. People were very live-and-let-live. Don’t bother me, their attitude is, and I won’t bother you. I know that’s not a vision of people singing “Kumbaya” around a campfire, but this is Philly we’re talking about.

Obviously, though, I had no idea what the true experience of those two black men was in the neighborhood. Only they could say. But that night at C.J. Mulligans, no one was singing “Kumbaya.”

When the black guys arrive, the shuffleboard game ends. The shuffleboard itself is tucked into the corner, mere steps from where the black guys sit, and I guess the team doesn’t want to go near them. Only the DJ continues to venture over there. He shoots a little, nods at the guys, then heads back to his laptop. A little later, he makes the walk to the shuffleboard again.

The bar is quiet, and I focus on the DJ’s music, which takes a sudden U-turn, growing more cheesy and maudlin. The atmosphere in the bar grows thick, slow and sleepy with songs seemingly straight out of The Lawrence Welk Show. The DJ is intent on forcing the black guys out by dredging up the worst of his laptop’s music library that he can find.

Whether the music or the bar’s open hostility ultimately drives the men away, I’ll never know, but they eventually finish their beers and leave. As the door closes behind them, I feel like the place lets out a sigh of relief. The DJ jokes that the music did the trick, while his wife talks about how “they” make her nervous. After what happened, she says she can’t help it.

Later in the night, the birthday cake is brought out. The birthday girl finally walks in the door, and the bar sings happy birthday to her. Then the cake is cut, and pieces are passed out. It’s good cake.

I remain a semi-regular at C.J. Mulligans, dropping by when I’m in town. Up in Massachusetts, I live near plenty of places to grab a drink but don’t bother with them much. Partly that’s because I’m a father now, and my time is best spent with my family.

But there’s more to it than that. I’ve lived in New England for eight years but haven’t entirely clicked with the place. My old neighborhood still feels like home, for now at least.

Like the old people at C.J. Mulligans, I guess I’m ambivalent about the changes in Mayfair. When you move away from a place, you want it to stay the way you remember. Every time something changes, what remains of your connection to the old place and your old life fades further away. With each change, home is harder to find.

When I think about Mayfair’s future, about how the white old-timers will deal with the ethnically diverse newcomers and vice versa, I do have some hope. Every once in a while, I’m given a small reason to believe the neighborhood will be okay.

About a year after the night of the two black men, Sean and I make a stop at C.J. Mulligans, and the barmaid who shows too much cleavage sets us up. On the scattered TVs, the Phillies are on the verge of clinching another division title. People are engaged in the game, their cheers growing louder with each out.

The DJ is there, and a woman grabs the microphone to belt out “Wild Thing.” A guy in a track suit and chains beckons us to sit next to him, but he’s so drunk he can barely stand. When he’s not interrupting us, Sean and I talk about the usual.

As the evening goes on, the game ends and eventually the DJ calls it a night. The place empties out like a leaking balloon. Only the hard-cores are left, and having a good time isn’t necessarily what they’re about.

At the bar, a young black couple drinks. No one seems to notice them. When one of the liquor bottles is almost empty, the white barmaid pours the remainder in the black woman’s glass. They smile at each other.

A resident of Waltham, Massachusetts, John Crawford is senior editor of Babson Magazine, the alumni publication of Babson College. His Twitter handle is @crawfordwriter.