Taxis, teepees, beer and fresh mussels: Philly restaurants and residents prepare for pope

 Fergus Carey, owner of several Center City pubs, is preparing for the pope's visit next month in his own way. (NewsWorks file photo)

Fergus Carey, owner of several Center City pubs, is preparing for the pope's visit next month in his own way. (NewsWorks file photo)

Countless questions may remain about the logistics of Pope Francis’ visit next month, but the man they call the unofficial mayor of Philadelphia’s pub scene says his papal planning is well under way.

“I have my order all ready. It’s five loaves, two fishes, a few jugs of water and two miracles,” said Fergus Carey, better known as Fergie.

And while getting the pope himself to turn the water to wine will be “the tricky part,” Carey said, it won’t be the only tricky part.

“I’m going to run a hostel in my house. I’m going to put a teepee out on the back deck, so people can stay with me if they need to get across,” said Carey, who lives just outside the security perimeter he calls “Checkpoint Charlie.”

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“I was also wondering if I was going to be able to get deliveries at my house, and then walk ’em across and leave a car or a cart inside the fence,” he said with a laugh.

Carey, who owns Fergie’s Pub and Monk’s Cafe in Center City, as well as the Belgian Cafe in Fairmount, said there’s still plenty he doesn’t know about the papal weekend, despite city officials’ decision to release some aspects of their security plans earlier this week. While the basic boundaries of the papal security zone are now known, complete policies about transportation and deliveries aren’t yet established.

And just how much demand there will be for his pub’s services from residents and papal pilgrims is a mystery, Carey said.

Still, he and other restaurateurs are doing the best with what information they have, making plans for staff and supplies, while thinking through how to make the most of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“There’s a lot of unknowns — 2 million people, not enough staff, not enough food,” he said. “We’ll work it out and laugh about it later.”

It’s a fare question

Not everyone is so sanguine. Among the unanswered questions is whether taxis will be permitted to operate inside the papal security zone.

Drivers need to know one way or another as soon as possible, said Ron Blount of the Taxi Drivers Alliance of Pennsylvania.

“We were counting on it,” said Blount, who said drivers are “taking a hit” from ride-share companies such as Uber. “Drivers’ income is down 30 percent. It’s summertime and the students are gone. So we were counting on this to make up for lost revenue.”

If no taxis are permitted, he said, drivers will lose several days’ earnings even as they still pay some expenses, such as the rent on their medallions (a kind of taxi permit, typically owned by someone who rents it to the driver, who pays the medallion owner a daily fee and keeps what remains).

The typical driver must pay about $80 to $100 per day in fees, he said, and can take home about $100 to $150 per shift.

Blount said he’s checking in with city officials “every day” to find out more, but little has been forthcoming.

“People like the Parking Authority, the Streets Department, they’re in the loop,” Blount said. “But people like small businesses, taxicabs, hotels, we’re out of the loop. And we’re what makes the city run!”

Residents, too, face uncertainty about exactly what the situation will be, and they too are frustrated, said Chuck Goodwin, head of the Center City Residents Association.

“We are disappointed at the lack of discussion with the community,” Goodwin said. “And the process. Community input was not solicited. People are sharing a sense that they were not listened to or given an opportunity to voice their concerns, and give their thoughts and possible help.”

Residents could be gearing up to serve as volunteer ambassadors, he said, helping visitors enjoy the city. But there’s been no chance for them to engage with the process, he said.

“I’m not aware of anybody who’s been asked to help in any way — other than, ‘lock yourself in your house for the weekend,'” Goodwin said.

Respecting the ‘whack-Job factor’

For some business owners, the lack of information isn’t a surprise.

“I don’t think they’re trying to be tough about this, but they don’t want everybody to know what’s going on until it’s a little bit closer, because they don’t want the whack-jobs to be able to plan,” said Casey Parker, an owner of Jose Pistola’s restaurant on 15th Street, near the Kimmel Center.

“Maybe that has nothing to do with it — but the pope’s a big deal!” Parker said. “You gotta worry about it a little bit, the whack-job factor.”

Still, Parker has his share of concerns, mainly about the availability of food and other supplies. Like Carey, most of his staff live close enough that he’s not too worried about their making it in to work. But he’s not sure he’ll be able to provide visitors with the experience they deserve.

“I don’t want to limit our menu because we can’t get certain items. You want to showcase your city, you want to showcase your restaurant, show off what’s awesome,” he said. “If we have to strip our menu to just burgers and wings, that’s not what we want to do when all these new people come into town.”

Likewise, he’s not sure what customer demand will be: trickle, flood, or something in between?

“At first we thought it was definitely going to be crazy,” he said. “But now I’m a little worried about the scare factor.”

It’s possible that the town will fill up not just with papal pilgrims but with fun-hunting locals looking to make the most of a relatively car-free city, he said.

But it’s also possible that the weekend’s logistical obstacles and security measures will drive his customers elsewhere. He’s trying to organize some fun events related to the pope’s visit, but the uncertainty has forced him to hedge his bets a bit.

“We’re doing the ‘baptism of Billy Smith,’ who’s one of our regulars,” Parker said. “He’s giving up on the [Denver] Broncos for his kid’s sake and becoming an Eagles fan. So we’re seeing if his faith is strong enough for our fair football team. We’ll have baptismal fluids and stuff.

“But we’re not even doing it on the pope weekend — because we want to make sure a lot of people can come,” Parker said.

Carey shares Parker’s concerns about logistics, although beer and basics shouldn’t be a problem, he said.

“Are we really going to run out of beer? We might deplete our stocks a bit, but that could be a good thing,” Fergus said. “But it’s things like mussels for Monk’s Cafe — can I get the fresh mussels in every day? We want to have a meeting and let everybody know, but we don’t have anything factual to share with the employees. When we know more, we can act more.”

But he’s not certain that all the security measures make sense.

“It does seem like overkill — why are we shutting the city down? Why are we turning it into Berlin?” he said. “I saw the pope in in 1979 — it was in a park, the Phoenix Park, in Dublin. We all got up early and took the bus and walked for miles, the whole family. Everybody did that — a million people in the park. But there was no shutdown, no lockdown.”

Still, Carey said he thinks Philadelphians will figure out how to make the most of the situation. Pope parties are easy to throw, he said. “Just get yourself a pope, and a keg.”

Likewise, Goodwin said he’ll advise residents to grin and bear it, despite the inevitable confusion. Secret Service officials have promised a complete plan no later than three weeks before the Sept. 26 and 27 events, which should be enough for most people to plan accordingly, he said.

Seniors and those with medical needs deserve some special outreach, but the typical Center City resident should be able to ride out the storm, he said.

“It’s one weekend out of 52,” Goodwin said. “We talk over and over again about what a walkable city Philadelphia is. We’re going to get a chance to find out if that’s the case. We all know we’re not driving to Whole Foods … do your shopping on Wednesday.”

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