Change Comes Slow to Reading Terminal Market

Ask Dominic Spataro, who has worked there for 81 years

Dominic Spataro is 93 years old, and toddles down the lanes of the Reading Terminal Market in his Timberlands, leading with his bald head — that’s how far he’s hunched over. The top of his head runs interference, and when he speaks, his voice still solid, the head tilts up just far enough so that he can see you. Dom’s been working at the same sandwich stand here since 1930. A radical change in his life is the fact that the stand has moved three times, within the market.

Now that sort of constancy, I understand. I’ll leave my office if I have to, though if only someone would bring me a BLT every day for lunch, why bother? Which is a polite way of saying that I hadn’t stepped foot in the Terminal for 15 years. It’s so far away from my desk. Seven blocks.

Dom Spataro has been coming to his desk, as it were, for 81 years, which takes him back to the bowels of the Great Depression, when the Terminal was mostly filled with hanging carcasses of beef, and poultry, back when he was an errand boy.

[SIGNUP]But about leading with the dome of his head, which makes him about four and a half feet tall: Dom “fell out of my backyard and hurt my back in 1970,” although his son, also named Dom, later corrects the year: Had to be 1978 — Jr. was drinking with a friend and watching the Kentucky Derby at 5th and Bainbridge, the day Sr. fell out of their apple tree up in the Northeast trying to prune it. Jr. convinced Sr. to go to the hospital, which was a waste of time, because three fractured vertebrae didn’t keep him there, even though the ER doc said a couple weeks of traction, some bed rest at home, he’d be as good as new. The very next day, there was Sr. coming down the aisle to his stand at 9 a.m., stooped, grinning crazily — the sort of abject stubbornness that gets Jr. feeling like “my heart is dropping to my balls,” but as a matter of fact, it’s the same crazy little grin Sr. still has now.

What a place, the Terminal! This enthusiasm is not news to anyone who actually gets out and about, but I felt like Woody Allen in Annie Hall, when he sits with Diane Keaton as a stream of humanity washes by:

A tall, trim, middle-aged African-American guy in suspenders, a striped shirt — no coat — and erect as a tax attorney; he also happens to be wearing a cowboy hat. A short woman who is a dead ringer for Whoopi Goldberg, followed by her husband, who is also a dead ringer for Whoopi Goldberg. An old couple who pause over a wood bin of bananas, carefully picking off the good ones. I ask them if we can talk for a minute:

“In two years I’ll be 90,” he volunteers. “We live on Torresdale Avenue. I’m a marathon talker and walker. I could keep your ears busy for five hours. You got the right guy but on the wrong day. I’ve been sick all day.”

Oh, but if only he would: He’s wearing a tie, and a soft-gray hat with a dark band where a tiny serrated-edged red fan has been lodged, and her head is covered with a light-purple ridged scarf. They are elegant. He wears Trotsky horn-rims jammed into his face. And he is missing teeth, the collar of his white shirt is stained with dirt, and his truncated ebullience is framed with silent pale worry on his wife’s face: oh, if I only knew.

There is a man with swept-back hair sitting at a table nursing a coffee, picking at a bun. He looks as wary as a junk-yard dog, so naturally I go up to him, and really — how do you ever know? — he’s as gentle as a puppy. He tells me his life story:

Grew up at K and A—Kensington and Allegheny. A tough place, I offer. No, he says, “a very tough place.” But he got an education, was in the service “somewhere between Korea and Vietnam,” became an accountant, got married, was determined his kids weren’t going to city schools so he moved to the burbs, and all four of them are college graduates. And now he reflects on what is next for him:

“I’m always skirting different ideas, and then always backing off. I’m used to making some money, and as Shakespeare said, the fear of the unknown makes cowards of us all. There are things I could do.”

Not far away, a man with a coat draped over his lap is playing a piano. The song is “How Deep Is the Ocean,” by Irving Berlin.

“But it is awfully hard to change,” the man with swept-back hair says.