The second thing that usually happens when I tell people that I write this column is they say, "Man, have you checked out that place in West Portal, the Philosopher's Club?" I'd say that at least five different people have posed this question to me within the last few months. Most of them have never been there and have only seen the cool, old neon sign out front, or they have appreciated the implication that alcoholics are naturally deep thinkers. For those who have been there, they usually add, "Yeah, it's not that great ... But what a name!"
Well, I had to see this not-so-great place with a cool name for myself.
I showed up in the early evening and sat by myself at the bar. To my left was an elderly black man. To my right, a young white couple. On the tables that lined the walls, working-class males were watching baseball. Elvis Costello was playing on the jukebox. I put on my best Talk To Me face, but no one was biting.
The inside of the bar is pretty basic stuff, although it was a bit nicer then I expected. "I can see it now," said my friend Spike when I told him earlier that I was going there. "Dudes in Giants caps with Doobie Brothers mustaches." We both pictured someplace a bit darker with patrons that were a bit more grizzled. Maybe that's why the Philosopher's Club hasn't dazzled too many people who actually walk through its doors. They are expecting some sort of a dive-bar Shangri-La and are instead given just a bar bar. Well, if that isn't a philosophical metaphor for the human condition, then I don't know what is.
Spike had told me a sad tale earlier, the implications of which were reverberating through my head. (I was glad to have something reverberating through my head because I was at the Philosopher's Club and I wanted to get deep.) Spike is the singer for Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, the country's second best cover band after Dread Zeppelin. He is originally from Pittsburgh, and will wax nostalgic about it whenever possible, usually with a far-away, misty stare and a pipe clenched between his teeth. Pittsburgh is his Rosebud.
Recently his band was asked to play Firework's Night at the Pirates Stadium during a game. A crowd of 32,000 people! His home turf! They decided to open up with "Stairway to Heaven." Well, apparently Pittsburgh, like the rest of us, likes its Led Zeppelin covers to be reggae-ified and not punkified, because by the time there was a bustle in the hedgerow, the entire coliseum began to break out into a low, rumbling boo. When the Gimmes sashayed into their next number, Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline," the disdain was deafening. Pittsburgh, that steel-flecked forearm of America, was rejecting one of its own. Spike felt it deeply.
"I know I should laugh about it," he laughs (ironically), "but in the moment, well, it just really sucked. People were like, 'Man, I didn't even stay for the fireworks ... And I love fireworks!'" The show also made the front page of the paper the next day: "Band Strikes Out With Pirates Fans."
Awww. Poor Spike. I guess, if you will permit me to get deep, it's all about anticipation versus reality. It's also, of course, about perceptions, because you and I know that Me First and the Gimme Gimmes are America's second best cover band, and nothing can take that away from them. Anyway, what do Pirates fans know? If Sufjan Stevens had played at that game, methinks he would've been booed, too.
I ordered a second Hefeweizen. All that ruminating about Spike's ordeal wore me out and was as deep as I felt like getting that night.
Besides, things were going OK at the ol' Philosopher's Club. The bartender was really fantastic friendly but not overly so, a good mixer, and he forgot to take my money for a drink. Everything you could ever ask for in a barkeep.
I swiveled in my stool and tried to make small talk with a woman nearby, but she was ignoring me. You know, I really don't like that.
All in all, the Philosopher's Club was just another bar. I had anticipated being either blown away by this place or sorely disappointed, but in the end, I had to give it an overall "Eh." Folks, there just weren't any fireworks. And I love fireworks. Katy St. Clair