Last week, Barry Graham favored us with his Top 10 Cities to Get Drunk In, numbers 10-6, as well as a series of guest-additions. Below are are his top 5, and we will follow-up tomorrow for a second set of guest entries from some more of Barry's favorite drinker/writer/travelers.
5. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
I like to make top ten lists. Don't know why. I just do. But on every list there seems to be that one person, place, or thing that doesn't need my help. It is already known and appreciated and understood. On my last list, Top Ten Cartoons of the 21st Century, it was Family Guy. This time it's Philadelphia. Already a national treasure. The birthplace of our nation. The City of Brotherly Love. Cheesesteak capital of the world. My favorite city in the U.S. So many things have been said about Philly, been written, filmed, etc that my words aren't necessary. We've all seen It's Always Sunny. How could I make a better case for drinking in Philly than Charlie or Sweet Dee? I can't. So I won't. I love you, Philly. That is all. Now let's cross the Delaware via the Ben Franklin and talk about #4.
4. Camden, New Jersey
Every year Forbes puts out their list of the ten most dangerous cities in America. Detroit and Flint are the perennial one and two followed by a free for all featuring all the usual suspects: Oakland, Memphis, Atlanta, Baltimore, Buffalo, Cleveland... One city you will never see on the list is Camden, New Jersey. Here's why. Because Forbes only lists cities with a population over 100K and with Camden just a few criminals shy of 90K it will never get the recognition it truly deserves. It is estimated that per population per capita Camden has six times the murder rate of NYC and roughly a twenty-seven percent higher crime rate than the average US city. I've seen crimes committed in front of police officers while they walk by uninterested. I've had both a gun and a knife pointed at me within a six month time frame; once by cops, once by robbers. It's the biggest shit hole in America. And unlike other shit holes I can't find one person to defend it. Even Baltimore and Oakland have their loyalists, their die hard apologists who will say anything to make urban decay and the death of America via rotting away from the inside sound charming to outsiders. But not Camden. No one. And why not? Camden is one of only a handful of US cities ever to host a Flugtag (those who have ears let them hear). Walt Whitman spent the last twenty years of his life there in a house that still stands. Camden is the proud home of the Campbell's Soup Empire, Rutgers University, and the Camden Riversharks – a semi-pro baseball team which features one of the most fan-friendly and beautiful stadiums in America, with its majestic view of the Ben Franklin Bridge and the Philadelphia skyline. Camden. Two dollar pints of Yuengling. Loyalty to football teams outside of your home state (an eclectic mix of Eagles, Ravens, Jets, Giants, and Steelers fans). The only Guido-free bars in Jersey. Hoagies. Pizza. Chicken wings. The creamed beef over wheat toast and fried potatoes at the breakfast only joint on 5th and Market, which also doubles as the meeting place for Narcotics Anonymous (according to an ex-con named Lockjaw I met on a train to Lindenwold). The sweet and spicy wings and one dollar taco Tuesdays at The Victor Pub along the waterfront (where you log in more hours with your MFA rat pack than you do actual class time). Camden. The free lunch buffet at Hank's Bar (RIP). It was more like roasting pans full of unidentifiable boot camp slop that sometimes resembled pasta and other times leftover meat chunks drowned in vats of gravy, served with mushy vegetables and oven burnt mac and cheese. But it was soul cleansing. Like A Serbian Film and Charlie Brown holiday specials. Maybe it was the homeless drunks passed out on the floor at 1pm or the blood all over the bathroom stalls or the general feeling of true contentment all the patrons possessed, but the shit tasted good. All of it. Every atom. Especially when coupled with pint after pint of two dollar lagers. And when all this goodness is over, you can't simply leave Camden, you risk death finding a train station, clink and jerk your way home with a belly full of bubble gut, fighting back the need to loose your shit all over the empty seat in front of you while mindlessly sipping a flask full of rum. Then you get off the train. Find your car in the PATCO parking lot. Hit up Wawa for a ham and cheese hoagie and chocolate stuffed chocolate Tastykakes. Scarf it down in the parking lot before entering the bar below your apartment to drink more Yuengling. Then it closes. Then you help the bartender your roommate is fucking clean up to cover the costs of all your free beer. When you finally do find your bed. You set your alarm. Wake up two and a half hours later to teach your 9am classes. Then do it all again. Goddam. CHM for life.
3. Carson City, Nevada
The unassuming, unpretentious capital of the most unassuming and unpretentious state in our union. Carson City features all the best attributes of Vegas; good poker, cheap beer, and cheap hookers, but without all the nonsense, half-wit tourists, hack celebrity impersonators, bullshit glitz and glam, and the ever present reminder of the true divide between bourgeois and proletariat. The sting of knowing that although we seldom desire to exist in that strata, on days like this we do, and no matter how much we crave it when we stand on the Vegas strip, awe struck and overwhelmed, we will die without ever sitting behind the wheel of a Ferrari 250 GTO. No sevruga caviar topped frittatas. No Stuart Weitzman Diamond Dream Stilletos. No Playboy quality bukkake. No. Not for you. None of it. That belongs to the douche bag sipping free Champagne in VIP, playing Blackjack at a table where the minimum bets are more than you make in six months. You will be playing the one – two dollar tables and seeking out the burger specials that come with a free drink. You will lose the five hundred dollars you came with in two hours. You will go home unsatisfied, talking up Vegas to friends even though you're not really sure you believe it yourself. All this to say, take my advice and stick to Carson City, where the eggs and bacon breakfast specials and twenty-five cent slot machines anxiously await you. And real talk, where else but Carson City can you legally brothel hop in America? I will not share my personal exploits during such adventures, not for personal protection, my life is already ruined, but out of respect for the company I kept. I will just say that if you keep such a thing as a bucket list, no matter if you are male or female, add brothel hopping in Carson City. The experience is not necessarily sexual, I mean, there's that too if you want it; but its also very humane, comforting, degrading, spiritual, desperate, lonely, soothing, sickening, pleasurable, nostalgic, awkward, amusing, yes, all of those things and more. I can't predict how you may feel, but any combination of those adjectives can and will apply. But ultimately it is what it is. You do it one of two ways. You walk in, pick and choose, and get down to business, or you settle in at the bar, have a drink or two or ten, and talk with woman after woman until one of them feels right. Either path leads you to the same outcome, it's all a matter of personal preference. And for anyone reading this on some moral high ground bullshit... I love you, too. See you in Carson City.
2. Ypsilanti, Michigan
Ypsilanti, home to the most phallic man made structure in the western world, a blue collar, racially diverse city built in the 19th century around the railroad industry and kept alive by the automotive industry later in the 20th century. Ypsi is a hidden gem. The black sheep cousin to Ann Arbor. It's gritty reputation keeps everyone but the locals and the realest of outsiders away, which is a good thing. It is home to some of the best grub in the Midwest. Bill's Hot Dogs. Howard's Hoagies. Wurst burgers. Bomber's breakfast. Full House. Abe's. Chick Inn. And this barely covers it. Everyone has their own favorite. Ypsi is stacked. Combine this with The Corner Brewery (Ann Arbor Brewing Company), Wurst Bar, Woodruff's, Sidetracks, Tower Inn, Tap Room, and countless other bars and you can easily understand why it's worthy of mention. But there are lots of cities like this scattered all across America. What makes this one so special? To answer that I'm gonna have to take ya'll back for a minute. Ypsi is the city I lived in between childhood and adulthood. I'm a Flyer and a Railsplitter for life. It's my coming of age story. The place where so many of my firsts happened. The first time I ever got drunk, not sipped a beer, but got sloppy shitfaced - I just turned twelve. I was with a kid named Bobby and two sisters, Jessica and Tia. We swiped a bottle of strawberry MD 20/20. It was winter. We walked across frozen Ford Lake onto that little island that sits off of South Grove by the old Gault Village Kmart. Only the boys drank. Only me really. Bobby sipped it. The girls declined. They always do. Much of what happened later was a blur, until I got home and fell over trying to take off my shoes and I woke up the next morning in bed with a dull headache and a washcloth on my forehead. That was that. My first time having sex. I was fifteen. She was twenty-seven. My neighbor's sister. She used to cut my hair and buy me beer and let me skip school at her house when I was suspended and didn't tell my mom. I was four beers into a six pack of MGD. We were on her couch. Her son was in the room. Walking around. He maybe even talked to us at some point while it was going down. I left my clothes on, just pulled my pants down far enough. It was over quickly. When we finished she said, “not bad.” Never happened again. My first fight. I was in Sugar Brook, behind the wall where that kid overdosed on lighter butane. These kids rode by on their bikes. One of them wanted my new Raider's Starter hat. Shit was all rhinestoned up. You know how we did back in the day. I didn't want to give it up. But there were four of them and one of me. Somehow we managed to negotiate that I would just let him punch me in the stomach and take my hat then we could all go peacefully. He agreed and punched me in the stomach. Didn't hurt really but I kind of keeled over like it did. When I stood back up I punched him in his mouth and he fell. His friends stayed on their bikes, laughing. I got down to hit him again and grab my hat back. We struggled for a bit. Then he bit down on my shoulder really fucking hard until it bled and I cried. Blood on my shoulder and in his mouth. He stood up, grabbed my hat, and they all took off on their bikes. Game over. There were so many more firsts. First kiss. First real girlfriend. First poem I wrote and the girl I gave it to. First real party. First time I ever shot up a party. First job. First time driving. First time I ever stole a car. First time in the county. My first teaching job. First time my heart was ever broken. So many firsts that mentioning only these few makes me feel inadequate and incomplete. Wish this was the time and place but it isn't. I wish.
1. Atlantic City, New jersey
Anyone who knows me at all, even a little bit, knew this was coming. I know Vegas gets The Hangover and Johnny Depp and all the other TV shows and films, but that's because ninety percent of Americans don't know their assholes from their armpits. They vote in elections, watch Two and Half Men, and eat and drink soy products and tofu and pretend they taste good. None of that here. Atlantic City is a place to spend time with people you love. People you hope stay in your life forever. It exists for its own sake within its own paradigm, its own realm of backyard magic and misguided seagulls scouring the Atlantic in hopes of something greater. Nothing here makes sense culturally. Nothing should coexist. Walk out the back door of any casino and you will find yourself on the Boardwalk alongside millionaires and beggars. Tourists and cons. Unjustified grandeur, flea markets, museums, carnie rides. Wrinkled old women and the rich men who keep them. Street performers and cripples. Crackheads and homeless vets. The Korean War Memorial stands lonely and unappreciated beside a stone amphitheater where no one performs. And both of these beside a soulless Hilton casino. Twenty something Guidos and other racists stay away from AC because its ethnically and racially diverse, opting instead to clog up the beaches of New York and North Jersey. Perhaps this is the only time and place where racism benefits America. Perhaps. And all of this is diametrically dissimilar to walking out the front door of that same casino where Pacific Ave. and plenty of hood shit await you. But don't be discouraged. It's the good kind of hood shit - where the liquor stores are cheap and plenty of great places to drink are ready and waiting. I like the outdoor patio at the Irish Pub, but there are others. Dollar beers and two dollar shots at the Wild West. Free drinks at the poker tables. Or just grab a forty of St. Ides and stretch out on a deck chair beside a hotel pool you aren't even staying at. No one cares. No one will size you up and determine you don't have value. Atlantic City welcomes everyone. It belongs to the masses. But all of this pales in comparison to the main attraction. Have you ever sat in a lighthouse and watched a 6:30am sunrise over the Atlantic? Contemplating exploration and discovery and the beauty of the Americas before the Europeans arrived and the fate that somehow bestowed all of humanity because they couldn't help themselves. They couldn't stay away. And how could they? The ocean begs for it until you submit, until you feed that craving that's been inside you all along. To roam. To get lost. To conquer. To begin again and survive at any cost. To starve. To eat your neighbor's corpse. To exterminate. To attempt genocide. To betray yourself and your own conscience. To destroy. To rise and fall. To peak and deteriorate. To wonder what happens next while you watch it all implode. Smell it rotting from the inside. And all of this in your own hearts and minds. All of this from the lighthouse. If I've lost you already that's fine. You aren't following close enough and I don't give a shit either way. Now this. Have you stood in the ocean alongside your loved ones while the accumulation of wave after wave takes you under and you're not sure if you will come out of the water alive. And you feel the waves subside and you try to stand but another one comes. And another one. You don't know what death or drowning feels like and you don't see your life flashing before your eyes or any semblance of Heaven or Hell. You only see black. You feel black. But time passes and your eyes open and you feel the sting of the salt water before anything else and your lips and skin taste like piss when you lick them. But your loved ones are there, lost in their own moment as if yours didn't exist and it's only then that you see. That you feel. That your life plays out in front of you and you know that life without the people you love isn't worth living and days like this prove it. Atlantic City proves it.