When I came to Philly for grad school in 1995, my new neighbors introduced me to the cheesesteak. Growing up in Chicago, and going to undergrad in Boston, I’d never seen a cheesesteak. I didn’t even know it was a sandwich. I envisioned a bone-in ribeye with cheese on top. They introduced me to more than just a greasy sandwich. My new friends pushed me head-first into the after-the-bars-close pilgrimage to South Philly where you need to make an important choice to which you’re committed for the rest of your life. That choice is Pat’s vs. Geno’s.
The trip takes you south of the market street food stalls that Rocky ran through in the first movie, into a traditionally working class Italian neighborhood. These 24-hour cheesesteak joints face each other across Passyunk Avenue. They each take up a small city “block,” which are actually triangles. The long end of each triangle points directly at the other, almost as to say “fuck you, yeah YOU.” At night, they’re lit up with harsh neon lights, glaring all up and down their sides and on their roofs, like gamecocks challenging each other with rattling, puffed up feathers. This brightly lit corner stands out in the otherwise dark neighborhood. Philly has cleaned up a lot since I first moved there. But, back in the mid-90’s, there seemed to be a lot of danger between Center City and the great cheesesteak standoff corner. This made my first trip down for a cheesesteak seem all that much more important. It was a commitment.
I was told the only time anyone eats at both Pat’s and Geno’s is when they’re making their choice between the two. You decide. Then, you have your side of the street. You hate the other side. Just like with religion, sometimes this choice is made for you by family or friends. My friends were all Pat’s fanatics. As you would expect from zealots, they told me all about how Geno’s customers were bad people. Idiots. Broken somehow. Best to stay away from them.
Once the Pat’s vs Geno’s choice is made, your remaining years are spent clinging to whatever myths support your new belief system; “I heard someone found a mouse in their Geno’s steak last weekend. Yeah? I think I heard that, too. Knowing those people, they probably ate it anyway. Yeah, I bet you’re right. They’re crazy.” Etc. etc. I heard all the stories, and I didn’t want anything to do with those fucking Geno’s people. So, there on Passyunk Avenue I became a Pat’s cheesesteak convert. A freshly minted Pat’s proselyte. Baptized in Cheez Wiz.
My religion was handed to me, and I didn’t question it. I just quickly went about learning the ways of my new faith….Always order “Wiz Wit” to get Cheez Wiz and onions. Don’t say “onions,” that’s redundant. Mushrooms too. Order quickly. Know that the hot sauce and cherry peppers are behind you. Don’t ask for that. Know that drinks are the next window over. Only tourists ask what they should get on a cheesesteak and try to order drinks at this window. Everyone yells at them right away. The crowd hisses at the non-believers. Heathens. Interlopers.
Only tourists wrinkle up their nose at the thought of Cheez Wiz. They don’t understand. Even worse, they look down on us. They refuse the local recommendation of Cheez Wiz, and order something horrible. Probably a fucking pizza steak. Not exactly a “when in Rome” attitude. Then, while they’re eating their horrible sandwich, commenting on how it’s not as great as everyone says, you can hear them asking one another why Philadelphians like Cheez Wiz so much. They assume that just because we put it on our cheesesteaks that every house has a can of Cheez Wiz in the pantry. We bring it out for company while they sit on our plastic-wrapped couches. It’s our stilton, gouda and camembert. I know Cheez Wiz has only one purpose, and that’s on my Pat’s cheesesteak. You’re not from around here. Get out. Like many new converts, I was rabid in my beliefs and felt violent towards the non-believers.
Grad school lasted two years. Everyone else moved on. I got a job in Philly, and went about becoming a true local. I found plenty of opportunities to visit Pat’s during the light of day, and enjoy a couple cheesesteaks by myself, take my time, look around. Plenty of time to think about whether these cheesesteaks were really any good, whether others in town might be better, whether they might actually be killing me. Should I be eating something else entirely? Why am I here? Yes…I questioned my cheesesteak religion. I did a lot of thinking down there at Pat’s. That’s when I noticed the pigeons. In the light of day. Those greasy, diseased, dying pigeons. Holy shit! They’re a fucking mess.
No matter how many of our late nights in grad school ended on those greasy red fiberglass benches down at Pat’s…we never spent as much time down there as those diseased pigeons. Here is a controlled trial for you…observe any pigeon in Rittenhouse Square. Nasty bird, but healthy as far as pigeons go. Plump, neatly preened feathers, functioning motor skills and able fly around a tree, taxi cab or building without slamming into it, etc. Now, go down to Pat’s. Have a look at those pigeons.
Pigeons are essentially lazy scavengers. There is a lot of easy food for them at Pat’s, with Wiz-covered utility grade “meat” dropping all over the pavement because Joey from Camden is only eating his “Wiz Wit” with one hand. The other hand is around Gloria, claiming her as property since she’s clearly got her eye on Vinny. That smooth Vinny’s Mustang/Camero/Trans Am/Escalade/Whateverthefuckpieceofshitwithlightsunderneath is new and has a nicer stereo than Joey’s car. Bottom line, there are easy pickings there for all lazy scavengers, whether they are birds from Rittenhouse Square or boys from Camden.
So, since pigeons are essentially lazy scavengers…Pat’s scraps are all those birds eat. No need for them to go anywhere else or eat anything else. They gorge themselves on Pat’s. I’m not sure when they got there, but they can’t leave now. They can’t fly. They can’t really move much at all. They can’t hop off of that triangular block where Pat’s sits like their stranded aircraft carrier in the middle of an asphalt ocean. They stay there, and eat nothing but Pat’s. This could be me. How does a life of Pat’s end for me?
It’s difficult to tell the pigeons apart from a rat that just crawled out of a sewer. Their matted feathers almost look like the fur of a rabid, demented fox that doesn’t even have the presence of mind to clean its own shit off itself. They’re slimy, and actually look highly flammable. Do not smoke around these birds or you could both explode like Donald Trump being told his inauguration crowd size wasn’t the biggest ever, and he didn’t win in a landslide. They look like something a sexless Birkenstock-wearing Sierra club member is trying to save from the Exxon Valdez disaster in Prince William Sound. It really is sad what a Pat’s-only diet will do to you. They’ve lost so many feathers, they actually look possum-like. They just lay there on their side, wheezing, looking up at you with their one good eye, silently begging for you to drop that one last tidbit of oil-covered roofing material (a.k.a. “meat”) so they can choke it down and finally die. Death is all that waits for them now.
How had I never seen this before? How had I never noticed what a fucking miserable place this was, how it reeked of death? Why had I so devoutly embraced such an obviously self-destructive path? I staggered backward from the shock of all this obvious horror to which I’d been so blind, and steadied myself on a greasy red fiberglass bench. I strained to lift my head, and I slowly looked across Passyunk Avenue. To Geno’s. I asked myself just how far I had been misled, and how little I knew. I was shaken by the ultimate existential cheesesteak question. The question that my faith had never allowed me to ask. Are things different over there at Geno’s? Is life better over there at Geno’s? Heretical thoughts for sure, but I had to know. I stumbled across Passyunk Avenue, my eyes never leaving my feet. My head down. I didn’t want anyone to see my uncertainty, my fear.
The curb surrounding Geno’s triangle slowly came into view. The edge between right and wrong. The other side of Passyunk Avenue. The place I was never meant to be. I looked up and saw the base of an orange post. One of those posts surrounding the home of the worst people on earth. I wrapped my hand around the post to steady myself, and shut my eyes. I stood up straight. Counted to ten. When my eyes bolted open, the very first thing I saw was a wheezing, one-eyed, flightless, possum-like pigeon on a greasy orange fiberglass bench. It was laying on its side, wiping its beak in a Geno’s wrapper, seemingly trying to suffocate itself in the congealing wad of Wiz that one of those Geno’s people had left behind.
Their pigeons are exactly the same! Those Geno’s people. And my people. They’re exactly the same. None of this fucking matters. Why do we disagree so violently about which is best? These cheesesteak wars need to end. And, there are so many other cheesesteaks in Philly. It’s not just about Pat’s vs. Geno’s, as I was wrongly taught. There’s a big world of “Wiz Wit” out there.
There is no one cheesesteak which is truly superior to all others. Loyalty and faith are a result of choice, not because the object of your faith is empirically right or better. You choose what you like. That’s all it is. It’s an opinion. You choose your cheesesteak and I’ll choose mine. And when we make choices, we rationalize those choices, and maybe take it too far. If you think your cheesesteak chose you, or you think it’s superior to all others, this will only make you unreasonable and your cheesesteak will kill you faster. You need to keep this shit under control. Maintain your perspective. That’s up to you. Jims, Campo’s, Tony Luke’s, John’s…whatever. We are all equal denominations united by our faith in “Wiz Wit.”
That’s my assessment. Based on years of observation. Whether it is Pat’s, Geno’s or whatever…yes, that shit will kill you. I have simply made it clear what my instrument of death will be. I have made my choice. Pat’s it is. If I were going to put either one of those guns in my mouth and pull the trigger, I will clearly choose Pat’s every time. BLAM! If I’m making a choice about how to splatter my brains all over the wall behind me just like that bathroom scene in Full Metal Jacket….it’s Pat’s for me. There are many ways to kill yourself. Some choose a tall building to jump off of. Or, maybe a handful of pills. Maybe even a diseased Brazilian prostitute. I choose Pat’s. Cheesesteaks are cheesesteaks, and I choose Pat’s.
Faith is absolute. We never question our faith. No matter where it leads us. Although…maybe we should. I know that even as death comes, as I go blind in one eye, lose all my hair, look like I crawled out of the sewer and can barely step off the sidewalk surrounding that triangle on Passyunk Avenue with the red greasy benches…Wiz Wit will still have my undying devotion.