“Little Wing,” languid and twangy, echoed through Eighth Street Station’s chilly subterranean chambers. Kenneth Wake plucked the Jimi Hendrix riffs on his ruby-red Epiphone Special II, the electric guitar a parting gift from his cousin before she succumbed a few years back to cancer. On the tiled floor beside him, the instrument’s lid was lifted, inviting donations. An El train arrived. Its roar on the westbound platform drowned out the music as commuters hurried by.
“There’s great people down here,” said Wake, 60. “You can meet anybody from a Bible-thumper to a plain old drug dealer down here.”
The diversity on Philadelphia’s greatest single people-mover, the Market-Frankford Line, means opportunity for hundreds. From one end to the other, 69th Street to the Frankford Transportation Center, brick-and-mortar businesses, mobile enterprises, artists, and beggars cling like barnacles beneath, alongside, and within the route’s 28 stops. The flow of 187,000 riders each day is the tide sustaining them. They are dreamers or desperate. They are up and coming, just getting along, or at the end of their luck.
Here are a few of their stories.
In Upper Darby, the Market-Frankford Line spears out of Philadelphia and tickles the 'burbs. A pedestrian bridge carries passengers from the turn-of-the century brick 69th Street Transit Center, over buses and trolleys, to a corner where an H&M and Bank of America occupy the John H. McClatchy Building. Its ornate gold spires suggest pharaonic glories. The Tower Theater across the street has a full slate of performers — Elvis Costello and Trevor Noah's names were on the marquee. At the corner, with a storefront sign that could be mistaken for random graffiti, stands Ink Slingas, a tattoo shop with a unique connection to the transit center in the neighborhood. It’s the place SEPTA workers go to get tattoos.
“On their breaks they come here,” said Madelina Castro, 31, who moved in above the store just over a year ago to take the job as manager.
Twisted cultural references decorate the tattoo shop walls. A skeletal, yet somehow sexy female Darth Vader. Donald Duck with a handgun. Its owner had hoped for four years to have a shop there, recognizing the neighborhood as a place that’s growing.
“The busyness, the family oriented area,” Castro explained. “This is an up-and-coming area.”
She knows some of the SEPTA workers so well they wave hello when they pass the store. Designs that celebrate family, or commemorate a lost relative, are common among the transportation workers, she said. So far, no one has asked for transit-themed ink, but she’s not ruling anything out.
“Not yet,” Castro said. “I would like to say 'Not yet,' because I’ve heard of some really weird requests.”
Beneath the bright blue El tracks a sun-yellow truck’s rear doors are swung wide open. Inside is a sink, an oven, a cooler, and a harried, yet smiling woman in a green cap that says Philly. She’s living her dream. Shar Martin, nicknamed "Biscuit," is about a month into a venture that’s turned her life upside down. The Penn State grad left her job as a quality engineer at an aerospace company to buy a $4,000 food truck off Craig’s List and convert it into Biscuit’s Biscuits, a bakery on wheels where she cooks up her personal recipes for flaky, buttery goodness.
“I sell biscuits!” she said. “I peddle biscuits, all manner of biscuits.”
In her cooler is food she’s become expert at making after years cooking for friends and family. Buttermilk biscuits with gravy, breakfast sandwiches in biscuits, bread pudding made from biscuits.
“My signature thing, that everybody loves, is my apple butter, so I do that from scratch,” she said.
It’s $2 for one of those, and they’re delicious.
A love of cooking was baked into her genes, she said, with her mother, a grandmother, and a grandfather all working as cooks at one time or another. But she’s bringing an engineer’s precision to her new vocation. She didn’t just happen to stop underneath the 63rd Street station. She cased out intersections along the El in West Philadelphia. This was one of the few without a breakfast place, a gap in the market just wide enough for her biscuit truck to slide in.
The work so far has been unremittingly hard, beginning well before dawn so she can serve breakfast from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m., She contends with customers who are more likely to order a hot dog than home cooking out of a food truck. She’s willing to diversify, she said, to a point.
“I’m trying to keep it around a biscuit-centric menu,” she said.
Like a confluence of two rivers, 30th Street Station is where the Market-Frankford Line and Amtrak rails cross paths. It’s also the place where chance caused Robert Williams to set up shop 16 years ago, and he hasn’t left since. In 2001 he got into a fight with his girlfriend. She wanted his wares, incidentals like incense oil, socks, and belts, out of her apartment, so he piled them into a cart and moved them out. He usually hawked his goods at 40th and Market, but he knew 30th Street Station had storage, so he headed toward the train station. He got as far as the intersection of 30th and Market, beside the canopy for the stairway down to the El.
“When I got right around there I got tired,” the 57-year-old said. “People started saying, ‘You selling something?’ ”
With a market clearly established, Williams set up his shop, a plywood table covered in stuff.
The site also offers security. He points to a surveillance camera on a lamp post above him. The camera isn’t a catch all, though. Nearby, a young man with a skateboard won’t stop talking. Williams complains that the guy is harmless but seems mentally awry, and scares away business. There have been snatch-and-grabs off his table, Williams said, but after 16 years of doing business in every kind of weather, year-round, he hasn’t been robbed. And the customer base is stable.
“There’s a constant flow of traffic,” he said. “Amtrak, the hospitals. You’ve got so many people coming by this way one out of 10 want to buy something.”
The key to surviving, he said, is people skills. He’s on a first-name basis with passersby, and some of them stop to shop.
“There’s nothing like working for yourself,” he said. “I’m not begging.”
At the Market-Frankford Line’s elbow, the tracks bend from their east-west course toward points north and riders ascend from the underground station into the Second & Market street scene. Stairs rising from the eastbound platform deposit travelers at Revolution House, Luca Sena’s five-year-old pizza parlor. Inside, a wood-burning oven crisps pies at 600 degrees and bartenders pour craft beer to a mix of regulars and people passing through.
Revolution House isn’t the first Old City restaurant for Sena, who also lives in the neighborhood. He owns Panorama, a wine bar in the Penns’ View Hotel on Front Street, just a block away from the El stop.
“I love this kind of work,” he said. “You meet people all the time. Everybody’s friends. Everybody loves you.”
Both businesses benefit from the proximity to transit, he said. During March’s snowstorm, for example, Revolution House stayed open.
“We had no problem being open through the storm,” Sena said. “Why? Because people took the El.”
The subway feeds the restaurants with customers from throughout the city and, thanks to Old City’s historic attractions, the world. All that traffic, though, means a lot of competition. Revolution House has the popular diner and martini bar the Continental staring it down from across the street. Next door is restaurant and dance spot Cuba Libre. Within a block or two of the corner a mosaic of bars, restaurants, and nightclubs all fight to survive.
Finding a niche didn’t happen right away. When Revolution House opened it featured an upstairs patio atop what used to be the Snow White Restaurant, and Sena targeted a more upper-crust clientele. It didn’t click.
“I’m 60 years old. I’m older than dirt,” he laughed, “but I keep open-minded. I’m surrounded by young people, I have my own kids, and I’m a good listener.”
He watched customer habits and listened to consultants, and about a year and a half after opening Sena reinvented the restaurant to cater to a faster, shared-plate dining experience. Now, after pitching the glories of his prosciutto arugula pizza, Sena will also recommend the tater tots.
When operating in a popular neighborhood, there are tricks of the trade to carve out the proper environment for a restaurant, Sena said. Old City is saturated with drinkers on weekend nights, and Sena has directives for his staff to not serve people who arrive drunk, to keep an eye on customers who have more than three or four drinks, and to close promptly at 2 a.m.
“That’s the message we are sending, a place like us and the Continental,” he said. “You want to get drunk, don’t come here.”
Despite nearly three decades in the restaurant business, Sena is constantly looking for ways to keep a competitive edge. Lately he’s been scoping out the hot restaurants on Passyunk Street for new ideas.
“I go out and I eat at some of these restaurants,” he said, “and I think, ‘Let me change.’ ”
The mic gets handed to the man with the shaved head who’s been killing it all night with raucous salsa singing and he does it again, this time with a partner, and as they rip through the tune the crowd goes nuts, whooping and clapping along.
It’s Thursday, karaoke night at Tony’s Way Sports Bar, a watering hole tucked under the Berks Street El. There’s a string of corner bars on North Front Street under the stretch of the El beyond Girard. Get off at the Girard stop and a block away is the quirky punk-music venue Kung Fu Necktie. Another block or so along is the chill, grungy El Bar. Go six blocks north from there, leave Fishtown for Kensington, and at the corner of Front and Berks Tony’s gleaming silver facade features one simple, declarative word, “BAR.”
“I didn’t want to do any Tony’s Way signs,” said Tony Santiago, who bought the place almost 17 years ago. “I wanted to keep it low-key.”
Santiago, sporting a graying goatee and black shirt and hat — both labelled with the bar’s name — is quick with a joke and sings with the karaoke performers. He is, he said, a far cry from the motorcycle cop who also did organized crime and intelligence work over his 16-year career as a Philadelphia police officer..
“I’m an ex-boot cop, man,” the 65-year-old said. “And I wasn’t the friendliest guy in the world.”
He couldn’t fully leave the tough-guy attitude behind after retiring, he said. In 2000 a friend talked him into getting this bar instead of a nightclub as he had planned. Back then, the neighborhood festered with drug-dealing and prostitution. He was able to count on friends in the department to keep an eye on his new business venture, he said, and he wasn’t afraid to confront the problem elements personally. Even now, Santiago carries a gun while working.
Running off the pushers and working girls didn’t end his troubles, though. In 2012, one of the building’s outer walls collapsed. After that he had 14 pipes break and spent $80,000 repairing the water damage.
“Thank God this area is skyrocketing,” he said.
Berks Street is a frontier of Philadelphia’s gentrification. Old row homes are making way for new construction. Artists and young professionals are moving in. Tony’s Way, which retains a loyal Puerto Rican customer base, is beginning to see new customers.
“Before, maybe a white person would be intimidated coming in here,” Santiago said. “Not anymore.”
The mic gets passed around the long horseshoe bar and the playlist is a delirious joyride through genres, languages, and time. Patrons grow quiet for a sweet version of the 1970s Three Degrees soul ballad “When Will I See You Again.” Another woman takes over and belts out Celine Dion’s love theme from Titanic, "My Heart Will Go On." The mic changes hands again, and a short girl in shades tears into the 1980s rap classic “It Takes Two.” Santiago wants Tony’s Way to thrive with a neighborhood on the rise, he said, and as long as people are spending money in his bar, they’re welcome.
Frankford Transportation Center
End of the line, and trains disgorge riders onto platforms beneath the Frankford Transportation Center’s glass canopy. Inside the station, at the bottom of an escalator, a slight, baby-faced girl huddles with a sign identifying herself as homeless. The handwritten sign is one of the small dignities Olivia Houser maintains. The 22-year-old said she won’t ask for money directly.
“You feel degraded,” she said. “The person that pisses me off the most is the person who thinks this is fun for me.”
The El is a “pretty lucrative,” place to seek help, she said, and in her two-and-a-half months without a home Houser has learned how to make the most of the rail route. The best bet for making money is during rush hours. The crowds then also make her feel safer, she said.
She’s looks even younger than she is, thinks that works to her advantage. She’s also outgoing and friendly. As in any other line of work, she said, personality matters.
About half the people she encounters are kind and generous. A dollar is standard, though some give $5. Others offer food, she said, and that’s welcome. She’s also learned where she has the best chance of finding generosity.
“People are meaner in Center City,” she said. “People are way more willing to help here.”
Drug addiction ran in her family, she said, and that’s one of the reasons she won’t stay with relatives. On this day in March, she is 36 hours into a heroin detox program and her mind feels sharp, but her body hurts. Not very long ago, she was studying at the Kaplan Career Institute to become a dental assistant.
She knows many people feel giving homeless money just feeds addiction. That’s not false, Houser said. But, she said, money she receives from passersby also pays for tampons, food, hand wipes, nights off the street in flop houses, and basic toiletries.
“Just because I’m homeless doesn’t mean I don’t need a lot of those things,” she said.
At the base of the escalator Houser sits with a small blue pack and her sign on lined paper, “Please help I’m homeless hungry and desperate anything helps God bless you.” One woman who says she works for the courts asks in a tough-love kind of way, “Why are you out here?” A few others give her a bill as they walk outside into twilight.
“I’m finding more and more the longer I’m out here this lifestyle isn’t for me,” Houser said. “I’d rather be the one giving the dollar than taking.”