In Northeastern Pennsylvania last weekend, bartender Joe Philistine served his last drink.
“I was born to be a bartender,” said the 80-year-old Philistine, who has held late hours tending bar at Donahue’s Hourglass Lounge on South Main Street in Wilkes-Barre for 53 years. “Love of humanity, and sympathy for the downtrodden — that’s Donahue’s.”
Although the bar itself has long been low-key — both its aging hourglass-shaped sign on the front of the building and the classic U-shaped marble bartops inside — everyone came for Philistine, who over the years has gathered a significant following for his deep listening, snappy comebacks and theatrical touch.
Many of his longtime customers have become accustomed to how his eyes glow with excitement behind thick-framed glasses if you bring up some of his signature skills, especially quizzing customers on obscure bits of trivia.
“When I was a kid, I read the almanac, over and over, so I knew all these little silly facts,” Philistine said. “When did Joe Louis win the title, and stuff like that. Who’s the oldest person to become president. Who’s the youngest. Stuff like that. Silly stuff. It doesn’t mean anything. Except it’s interesting.”
Philistine’s retirement was such a milestone in this city of some 40,000 nestled in the Wyoming Valley that the mayor honored him by official declaration, leading some to conclude that in Wilkes-Barre, Nov. 7, 2015, will forever be Joe Philistine Day.
One review on Yelp described Donahue’s as “The bar that time forgot, but in the most classic sense of the phrase,” and went on to say that “in a town that has changed so much in recent years, it’s nice to find a place that has the good sense to know it shouldn’t.”
One last performance
After serving in the Army, Philistine came back to his hometown of Wilkes-Barre. In 1962, when the city was a little bigger than it is today, he had a conversation with his brother-in-law, who had just opened the place.
“And he said, ‘How about helping me out for a couple months,’ and I said, ‘All right, I’m not doing anything.’ Fifty-three years later, I’m still here,” said Philistine, his inflection sharply rising at the end of the sentence, as it often does.
One of 11 children, Philistine said he has just “one thousandth” of the energy of his mother, but he says the high-functioning trait runs in the family. His late sister Bonnie, whose triumphant portrait hangs on the wall, used to run the bar with him. In the kitchen of Donahue’s is a staircase that leads to Philistine’s living quarters, and if he gets too tired, he’ll head up there for a break. When he returned from a rest on Saturday, the crowd applauded.
“Who wants a picture with me?” he said. Not long after, a cameraman from a local TV station showed up to capture his last night, and he relished the attention.
“I think I could’ve been an actor,” he says, and he’s right: He commands the space within the U-shaped bar like a man on stage.
His animated demeanor is, indeed, what defines spending time at Donahue’s, as you watch him regale customers with personal stories, hug, kiss, wave, high-five and break into his favorite Frank Sinatra songs. And, of course, his famous handwriting analysis.
Patron Danielle Bennett was looking for Philistine to unlock the meaning of her penmanship, so she traveled to the bar for its closing night and handed Philistine a bar napkin containing some of her writing.
“OK, let’s see what we got,” said Philistine, bending close in the dimly lit room to make sense of Bennett’s loops, twirls and letter shapes.
“You have a— you have an even disposition. Wonderful. You would love, though, to be your own boss. Very independent type, very independent type. Very charitable nature, and you almost have a humbling feature in your personality,” he said. “You like things to be evenly distributed, and you’re pretty sharp on justice.”
Despite “being a little concerned” that she was traveling to South Wilkes-Barre (as she says it has a different reputation than her town of Dallas, Pa.), Bennett said she was glad she came out. Especially because Philistine’s evaluation rang true to her. “It sounds pretty accurate. I’m a social worker, so a lot of what he says does hit on,” she said.
Slinging cocktails to all but himself
Many customers ordered Philistine’s special concoction, the sleepy lagoon, a cocktail with a vodka base and an assortment of juices that’s served in a small Collins glass and appears bright blue. It’s $4, but if you’re short, he’ll cut you a deal.
“We’re watching an old movie. And Frank Sinatra was singing, ‘A sleepy lagoon, a tropical moon, a kiss in the night,’ and I said, ‘OK, we’re gonna name it the ‘sleepy lagoon,’ he says when asked what inspired the drink.
What are his takeaways from serving sleepy lagoons and cheap bottled beers all these years? That people don’t gather in bars to get drunk, he says, but they come for a connection.
“They have something bothering them, and they talk it over, and they leave with a smile on their face, because now they know someone else is in sympathy with them. That’s all they want. All they want is a little sympathy, for heaven’s sake. Doesn’t hurt anyone to have a little sympathy. That’s what I did all these years,” he said.
His perspective was always particularly levelheaded for more reasons than one: He hasn’t had drink since the ’60s.
“I’m not trying to say everyone should stop when I did, but that’s what I did. I wanted to be able to remember,” Philistine said. “I saved a lot of brain cells.”
‘One of a kind’
Among the hundreds who passed through the bar on Saturday night was Arthur Shuman, who first met Philistine in 1985 at Wilkes-Barre’s YMCA. He says it’s hard to come by people like him these days.
“You just need somebody like Joe. To keep their spirits up. And to make them laugh. He’s one of a kind,” Shuman said. “When my wife used to work downtown, I’d drop her off, come down here, have a couple of beers and shoot the bull with Joe.”
In 1972, the Wilkes-Barre area was pummelled by Tropical Storm Agnes after the Susquehanna River overpowered the city’s levees. Before the disaster, there were just about two dozen bars in South Main Street, Philistine said, but most of them never sprung back. Donahue’s, however, did. Now, it’s the last pre-flood drinking hole to close its doors.
Philistine sold the bar to the a new owner, and he’ll be moving out of his little upstairs apartment in a couple of weeks. If it wasn’t for his arthritis, he says, he’d keep at it.
The big crowds Saturday night made him think: Maybe he should open another bar. He said he already has a name for it: Joe Rides Again.
It would only be fitting in Wilkes-Barre, since, as Joe put it: “The farthest north I’ve ever been is Scranton.”