A Month at the Melrose Diner
"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.