A Month at the Melrose Diner

At South Philly’s iconic diner, you can order corned beef hash with a side of America’s future. The hash is fine.

 

"I CAN SPIN ANYTHING.”

I like him immediately, a waiter who keeps whizzing by, his serving tray spinning on a finger. Nick looks like a young Ed Rendell, a pocket-size version. He has the same thinning hair—though a short spritz of Nick’s, narrow as a comb, runs down the middle of his head. the smile, the charm, the energy, the five-o’clock shadow …

“Hello, my friend,” he says the second time I walk into the Melrose, “how are you tonight?” That could be Fast Eddie. Though Nick’s Irish-Catholic, born and bred right here in South Philly, one of nine children raised in a four-bedroom row. He’s got a story to tell.

Nick flunked out of seven schools as a kid, private and public. Or he was kicked out for fighting. He was very quiet, almost silent, which is now hard to believe, and he got picked on, but he had his breaking point. Once, he threw a chair at a bully and punctured his lung. Other times he’d show up at school after two weeks on the lam, drinking and smoking pot; he’d ace a test, but flunk anyway for non-attendance. The story of his youth.

But there’s another story he tells me one night, the story:

He was 20 years old. He got a job in A.C. as a busboy at the Trop. He spent a summer partying with two girls he met, from Bulgaria. Two weeks after they went home, he got into a fight with his boss, and even though he’d never been outside of Pennsylvania and Jersey, even though his family wondered what language­ they might possibly speak in Bulgaria (Bulgarian?), Nick flew to Sofia to see the girls.

All he had were their first names—Daniella and Stanimira—and, on a piece of paper in his bag, their cell numbers and the name of their town. Except when he got to Bulgaria, the piece of paper wasn’t in his bag.

He didn’t panic. In short order, Nick remembered where the girls lived when he saw the city’s name on a beer bottle: Yes, he knew that was their town—Haskovo! Nick managed to find his friends. He would end up staying with Stanimira’s family for six months, and learn to get by in Bulgarian, and even write it a little. He became the toast of Haskovo, in fact, because they almost never see Americans, and he would walk down the street, visiting cafes, and then move on with a loaf of bread under his arm, a diminutive America’s Mayor— His story ends there—partly because Nick has tables to wait on, mostly because it is the end of his story. It happened when he was 20.

He is 32 now, a waiter at the Melrose—he’s quit twice, been fired once—not far from where he washed out of those seven schools. On another night, he tells something to me, something that he whispers confidentially:

“I spent the last two weeks homeless.”

Riding buses half the night down Broad, catching a couple hours of sleep on a sister’s couch. A guy who works up to 60 hours a week.

What’s going on in his world? I mean the world of the Melrose and of South Philly, but I also mean the greater world that is all of us. That’s why I’ve come to the Melrose, in the heart of working-class Philadelphia, to hang out for 30 straight days, a full month of talking to customers and workers. Because lately it feels like we’ve come to a sort of crossroads in America. The problem is no longer just the economy. It suddenly feels much broader, a collective realization that we’ve lost our way, with the messes of huge public debt and big-business malfeasance and constant Congressional infighting and failing schools—the list could go on and on. Ideas that we all cut our teeth on—the American Dream, for example—are starting to feel like quaint memories.

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  • John

    There is a very big world out there, and the thing that is sinking Philadelphia is an absolute refusal to deal with it. It’s been that way for decades — this place is completely out of touch with the real world, in which you have to work. You have to compete. You have to deliver value. You have to actually make something happen. There are a billion Chinese out there who could not care less about the glorious Melrose Diner, or lovely South Philadelphia, or all the other sentimental crap that people here worship instead of actually getting in there and doing something. This article is a pefect example — the Melrose is 80 years old, and is a mediocre diner. What does it stand for? Why does anyone care? This place is rapidly totally falling apart — violent mobs, bankruptcy, a school system that’s a nightmare, government that’s completely ridiculous, and a world that’s rapidly passing this place by. And everyone just sits around discussing what happened fifty years ago. The future looks really bad for this area — that’s why I left.

  • cameron

    Why I left,there wasn’t much going for me there anymore.So much of it is not the good way I remember it and most of it is not to my liking.

  • Ed

    Unfortunately, I have to agree with you. There is a difference between relic and broken down. We need a new Philadelphia wrapped with old time values. You may find some of the articles here interes