Zach's PEN #3: Midtown III Diner Closes in Philly

2020 Week 34

Hello PENpals,

I found out this morning that Midtown III, the old-school Philadelphia diner that I’ve eaten at with friends almost every Wednesday night for years, has permanently closed its doors.

In terms of the food, Midtown III was exactly as it should be: Totally fine. The salty, tomatoey lima bean soup and the homemade cheesecake will be deeply mourned, but otherwise, the food was totally fine. I’m sure we’ll find another place to eat food someday when that's a thing again.

But in terms of the culture, Midtown III was perfection, and that will never be replaced. Every table was a booth, and slightly too small. The interior hadn’t been updated since 1983. The floor staff was always genuinely happy to see us and never afraid to make fun of us when we deserved it. We claimed our slices of cheesecake when walking in the door and they were set aside. The pricing was from another era.

On Ash Wednesday, the specials page of the menu had 1995 Microsoft Publisher clipart of a woman with ash on her forehead.

The most maddening thing to me about the pandemic is that most of its effects aren’t really caused by the pandemic at all, only accelerated by it. Decades of consolidation in every corner of the economy have made it harder and harder for regular people to own anything. And now the little bits of what they still own are all getting snatched up in mergers, acquisitions, and unanimous votes of Congress.

All COVID's done is speed up the train we’re already on while giving cover to the train itself.

“Oh, how unfortunate... The virus has forced all these small businesses to close” while the stock market hits an all-time high because closing small businesses is a good thing for monopoly.

Every single store will soon be Amazon, every restaurant part of a conglomerate, every “journalism” outfit is already owned by Comcast/AOL/Disney/GE/NewsCorp. The index of the entire world’s information and our digital identities are owned by two companies. We're somehow losing both a shared national identity and our individuality at the same time. We're just packaged up into one of six pastel prefab boxes. It's the worst of all worlds.

It works this way because we've designed it this way. And the people in the bubble, in charge of everything, can't or won't see how there's anything wrong with it.

I'm better off because of this pandemic. And sorry, but that's just dumb.

At the risk of ironically committing a regional blasphemy: I would burn down every market-tested Center City Wawa to have just one Midtown III back.

To celebrate Midtown and all the great times I spent there. Here's a way-too-dark film photograph of it I took while walking there one Wednesday. It's not the big fancy Stephen Starr "diner" in the foreground. It's that little bitty thing down the street that says "RESTAURANT (open 24 hours)."

And here's a picture of us there.

One thing I've been focused on recently is embracing imperfection. As I've talked about (and will talk about), "perfectionism" (which I've come to see is actually bullshit) has been a big obstacle in my life. When nothing's ever good enough, it's hard to pause and be happy with what you have.

As a photographer, I spend most of my time showing photos I take like this:

But my personal favorites are usually more like this:

There's also something amazing about just good old-fashioned mistakes... For the past few years, I've switched to taking photos on film again, and some of my favorite images that come out of the process are the ones that are totally flawed by light leaks or damaged in processing (or that I just mucked up when I shot them). Here are a few "throwaways" that I'm not throwing away.

And even though it was way too sunny at noon for me to normally share this, I made a little video of butterflies yesterday. My mother-in-law, who I've been living with the past 5 months, is a butterfly enthusiast, and she was having the biggest "butterfly event" she's ever had on one of her butterfly bushes. So I took 10 minutes and my long lens and the opening to my sister Liz's senior composition and made this. If you too are a butterfly enthusiast, the butterflies pictured are the Eastern Black Swallowtail, the Spicebush Swallowtail, the Tiger Swallowtail, the Black Morph Tiger Swallowtail, the Fritillary, the Silver-Spotted Skipper, and the Painted Lady.

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