Everybody Comes to Sam's
On diner culture
When I was in college, Sam’s Place was the most fun you could have with your pants on, assuming they stayed on for the entire night. Not that most people had sex at Sam’s, it's just that there would invariably be a gaggle of plastered sorority girls there at three in the morning on Saturdays and Sundays for the traditional celebratory post-bar-hopping waffle, screeching with banshee laughter as they flashed passers-by from the patio. You could set your watch by it.
Sam’s Place was my favorite place in the world. It was an all-night diner whose food was fit only for drunks—Chris, the night manager, confided to me once that the chief cook and owner, Sam Gassama, sourced his ingredients from the same vendor that supplied the county jail. Once a month every lowlife in the city showed up there to take his sweetie out for an institutional steak dinner. The hard-eyed boys and pretty pierced girls Sam hired as wait staff dreaded this cheapskate’s jubilee, which they referred to as Welfare Weekend. That there would be fistfights was an absolute certainty, not one of the customers ever tipped, and it wasn’t unheard of for a patron already three sheets to the wind to brandish a pistol during a dispute over the bill.
You couldn’t catch me within five miles of Sam’s at three a.m. on a warm summer weekend these days, but...man. What a great place. I met more heavies, crazies, and weirdos at that one diner in the space of three years than could be found on Philadelphia’s South Street during its glory days. Maori strippers with facial tattoos, couriers running goods of dubious provenance and legality up the coast, club kids, punks, thugs, and more. Night People and Wolves of all shapes and sizes came to Sam’s.
Sam and I were close for a long time. He was African, a refugee from one of that continent’s many civil wars, and he was both one of the toughest and one of the kindest men I ever met. He had slept on the floor of the back room of the diner when he first came to America. He became a citizen and bought Sam's Place from its owners ten years later, along with a new Lexus to celebrate.
I invited him to see Henry Rollins perform one night. He seemed pleased to go, although I could tell there was something on his mind. I accepted his offer to pay for the gas on the way to the venue. My ride at the time was an old Bronco, an eight-cylinder beast with a thirty-two gallon gas tank, and I couldn’t keep from bursting out laughing at the expression on his face as he watched the numbers on the pump revolve for a good minute and a half.
We had a great time at the show. As you might expect of a shady but beloved restaurateur, two dozen of the concertgoers recognized him and greeted him by name. We went out to eat with a bunch of them afterwards, and everyone enjoyed themselves. I only learned later that his cousin, who had shared his bed when they were children in Africa, had been killed the day before. But he had agreed to go, and he went. He told me it had been a relief to have something to take his mind off the news.
Sam was a man, and his diner was a man’s space. Young guys got in fights out front, and if there had been sufficient provocation, they were not banned or reprimanded by Sam, although the cops were involved when required. He looked out for his staff, and while he was undeniably involved in gray-market businesses, he was well-liked by everyone in the community. It was safe for women to go there, but it was by no means a “safe space”; the expectation was they would respect the men, and that the men in turn would look out for them. But if they did not behave respectfully, the worst that would happen to them was that they would find themselves unwelcome. It was an effective means of policing behavior; no one wanted to be unwelcome at Sam’s.
I left the world of the Night People some time ago. It was time, and there were things I had to do for myself that I could not do there. The rules of the demi-monde are old and established, but they are not the rules of the straight world, and they do not come with a safety catch. But it is a good and necessary place, in its way. In darkness, one can sort out one’s relationship to the light. And while I no longer live there, it is still a place I feel at home, and which I visit occasionally when nostalgia strikes, if only as a punter like any other.
Lovely portrait of the kind of place I’d have loved, while never being really part of. Back in the days when I was the kid with long crimped hair at punk gigs.
Very evocative images! Had me reminiscing about the decade I spent performing in NYC nightlife. Even though I got ejected from the scene due to a run-in with some wokesters, I also had things I needed to do in the above world too. And my circadian rhythm needed me to rejoin the day walkers.