Scenes From the Melrose Diner

Ask the guy next to you at the counter what's on his mind

I’ve been hanging out at the Melrose Diner in South Philly, talking to people about what’s on their minds these days and how they’re doing. It’s pretty amazing, what people will tell you—and you barely have to ask. I can’t decide what’s more strange: The lives that people lead, or their willingness to tell you about them.

Vinnie, for example.

He’s 62. Vinnie’s a big guy, with a big gut, curly gray hair, dark skin, yellow-lensed wire-rims. As Vinnie gobbles his broccoli cream soup one day at lunch, he tells me about his mob connections: “You’ve heard of Nicky Scarfo? Phil Leonetti was his lieutenant, and he was my cousin. I had a wife whose brother-in-law was Angelo Bruno’s bodyguard. Bruno got killed because my brother-in-law was in jail.”

Vinnie was never part of that action. He was mostly a cook, and worked from the time he was 14. Vinnie quit high school to enlist, “to go to Vietnam and kill people. I was a gunner on a tank, and sometimes I went up in a helicopter just to shoot people.”

Vinnie says this sort of thing quite pleasantly, with a twinkle in his eye. He tells me, apropos of nothing, that girls are different now. They’re very willing.

Vinnie takes a call on his cell from wife number three, and they start arguing about money. Her 30-year-old son, who has two kids and is 16 grand behind in child-support payments, lives with them, and Vinnie is sick of giving him money. This doesn’t sit well with wife number three, who’s a security guard at the Trop. She spends a lot of time at the shore.

“I’m burying you,” Vinnie tells her. “I’m tired of your shit. Don’t bother coming to the address”—their home–“no more.”

“I’m the oddball of my family—many wives, no kids,” Vinnie says in his same pleasant way after the phone call. “The first one, I sent back to Jersey after two weeks. I left her with her mother. That was my gangster wife—her brother-in-law was Bruno’s bodyguard. We got 30 thousand in an envelope”—a wedding present. “Angelo Bruno gave us a thousand himself. When I took her home, she kept the money, so I got to live.”

What was the problem with her? I ask.

“She wouldn’t suck my dick.”

One night at the Melrose I sidle up to a balding guy with a whiff of unkempt hair, in baggy sweats, working over a chicken parm. Anthony’s been a laborer for Septa for 28 years. Born and bred South Philly, single, he’s 52, has his own rowhouse nearby. “God has blessed me,” Anthony says; he sees a lot of people laid off these days.

I wonder if America is going downhill.

“If history repeats,” Anthony says. “The Roman Empire … So did the Spaniards, the English. A guy I work with, he was working in the steel mill in the ’60s, and back then, Japs and Chinese came over taking pictures. It was planned a long time ago—how we sold the American worker down the drain. … And I think ethics, scruples change, as far as work ethics. You can’t tell people how to live. It has to be in their heart.”

One Saturday morning, I sit down at the counter next to a good-looking, very fidgety guy with a sniffle. The waitress, Marge, asks how he’s doing today: “Not good.”

We start chatting.

“I’m having a bad day,” he tells me. His name is Joe, he’s in his 40s. He spent his early childhood at 28th and Tasker, then his family moved to Jersey. Joe came back to Philly to go to nursing school. Except he’s lost his license. Now he’s a bartender.

“I’m struggling,” Joe tells me. “I live alone. I’m trying to stay sober.” His drug of choice is methamphetamine. He’s been in and out of rehab.

Joe orders a steak, and when it comes, he really dives into it.

Joe tells me that he’s gay, and that he loves South Philly. He doesn’t encounter any homophobia. “I didn’t want to be stuck in the ‘burbs,” he says. “I think South Philly is warm and accepting.”

He still seems nervous, his body jiggling. Joe takes a phone call. “That was my sponsor,” he says. “I haven’t been clean even for one day. Not even for 12 hours … ”

I share with him that I haven’t had a drink in three years. Joe nods. Then he goes back to his steak.