Sharon Suleta’s Thursday shift at Dirty Frank’s started at 4 p.m. But she arrived two hours early in a coral Henley, jeans, sensible shoes, and hands she couldn’t figure out what to do with.
Suleta looked small as she took her place behind the bar, beneath a sea of orange and green Mummers umbrellas hanging from the ceiling. Five already seated customers paid little notice to the new face.
“I’m so nervous,” said a beaming Suleta as she took stock of where the citrus garnishes, napkins, and beers sat in relation to the oval-shaped bar that bears photos of regulars from throughout the years.
The former cocktail waitress and bartender of 15 years was about to put muscle memory to the test in an unusual retirement party. Prior to Thursday, Suleta had not tended bar in 35 years. Philadelphia’s zoning laws, her specialty, had slowly replaced beer names and drink recipes.
“I’ll take a Corona,” said a crisp, blue-checkered shirt with black slacks, shortly after her start time, to which Suleta joked, “That’s an easy one.”
The shift was a full-circle moment for the 66-year-old Camden native who spent her formative years in Philly, becoming living proof that things can get better, even for a self-described “skinny, homely, desperately poor, picked-on kid.” Bartending marked the start of Suleta’s entering adulthood; it only felt right to sling some drinks to start this new chapter.
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Her three-hour shift was part of a retirement bucket list that includes getting now delicately tattooed in cursive above her right wrist and starting a rescue where the pets of people in hospice are matched to new homes in an “open adoption” fashion. The bucket list acts as a reminder to not “marinate in life’s regrets,” which Suleta admitted to doing in the early days of the pandemic.
Suleta chose to bartend at Dirty Frank’s because the last bar she worked at, Three Threes on Smedley Street, closed a long time ago, as have other watering holes she used to frequent. And even as the city evolves, the dive, established in 1933, endures.
“It’s just so Philadelphia, this place,” said Suleta. “It’s everything that’s good about Philadelphia.”
The Corona order is Hank Clinton, a zoning attorney with silver-white hair who’s had to appear before the Zoning Board of Adjustment, which Suleta represented for more than a decade.
Ever the enforcer, Suleta asked to see Clinton’s proof of vaccination — bar rules. Clinton stepped out to grab his vax card to get within regulation, mirroring the dynamic Suleta had with so many lawyers coming before the zoning board.
Clinton’s walk gives Suleta time to find the can, grab a cold pint glass and a coaster. It takes a few minutes.
More friends trickle in. A Hendrick’s and soda for Martha Cross, a deputy director in the city’s Department of Planning and Development, and a lager for zoning attorney Andrew Ross. Clinton would like pretzels, but the chip rack is limited to Funyuns, baked chips, and Combos. Another zoning attorney requests a shot of Fernet, while a voice around the bend reminds Suleta guests need to pay.
“Get it together, lady,” ribbed a friend.
“Do you want to mix something more complicated?” Ross asked Suleta as she tried to remember the price list she studied the night before.
“Draft is fine,” responded Suleta before asking bartender and owner Jody Sweitzer about prices.
“Who approved this application?” teased Ross — a zoning joke.
Suleta cleared empty glasses and grabbed tips she committed to donate (along with $250 of her own money in case no one showed) to the Sunday Love Project, which helps feed the homeless.
The choice of charity comes as no surprise to Suleta’s patrons, many who seem to know her through ZBA dealings. They talk about Suleta’s Meals on Heels project. She’d deliver socks and food to people experiencing homelessness after work, heels and all. She was featured in The Inquirer, noted one patron.
Suleta’s father experienced homelessness late in life and she believes that left her with a desire to help people going through a rough time.
By 6 p.m. the first batch of Suleta’s friends closes out to make it to community meetings or dinner plans but a new swath of friends replaces them.
Clark DeLeon, former Inquirer columnist, popped in with an American flag tote bag and name tag on his vest informing patrons he’s a guide for those walking tours, a perfect gig for someone who spent years writing about daily life in Philadelphia.
“It’s Big Frank,” someone shouted when former councilmember and erstwhile zoning board chair Frank DiCicco popped in to “pay respects” to the woman who helped him win his first Council term. DiCicco said Suleta found an error in his opponent’s paperwork to get on the ballot and she would later be instrumental during his time at the ZBA’s helm.
As Suleta dropped DiCicco’s Campari and soda, he leaned in to express his gratitude, ending with a, “You’ll be missed.”
As her shift neared its end, Suleta stood transformed, holding court, snapping photos with those who asked, and taking water breaks between orders.
“What’s this tattoo I’ve heard so much about?” asked one woman, to which Suleta simply popped her right arm up as the rest of her body led the way to the old-timey register behind a pillar.
“I plan on staying until 7 and drinking until they close,” Suleta told another shirt and tie, a promise she kept after pouring herself a frozen rose.
Her hands no longer look for something to do.