A Month at the Melrose Diner
If you’re looking to get a handle on how people feel about that—particularly a certain segment of people—the Melrose is the place to go. It’s been here, on a tight triangle where 15th Street and Passyunk and Snyder avenues intersect, since 1956, a 24-hour stainless-steel beacon of all things South Philly. The Melrose parking lot was the scene of an infamous mob shooting —a hit man rammed his .45 through the side window of mobster Frank Baldino’s white Cadillac Seville and let him have it seven times. The diner holds a certain allure that cuts across all ages, genders and goals. Once upon a time, South Philly girls, at least some South Philly girls, wouldn’t go out on a Saturday night. Instead they’d go to bed at nine, set the alarm for two, get up, spend an hour getting decked out, and show up at the Melrose at three, parading around fresh as daisies for the drunk boys who’d been at the clubs.
Some customers have gone months, even years, eating every meal at the Melrose. And it’s still the neighborhood calling card.
For a month, I feasted on the Melrose’s roast beef club and pumpkin pie. I also heard plenty of stories and met plenty of characters—including Nick, whose situation, for some reason, I just can’t shake.
“How are you, my friend?” he calls, my pie and coffee already in place before I sit down on my third evening here.
A generation ago, the world opened up, allowing a boy like Nick to venture to Bulgaria, a place his family couldn’t even conceive of, much less visit. So why is it that the kid who became the toast of Haskovo can now barely maintain a place to rest his head at night, back at home?
The answer to that, it turns out, tells us a great deal. The world opened up, yes. But something quite different is happening now.
ONE REASON FOR THE continuing appeal of the Melrose is that it feels like old times. Like, say, 1961: back when neighborhoods lived and breathed together in a way they don’t anymore.
One day, Janice, a Melrose waitress with a blond duck’s-ass ’do, tells me the story of her seven-year-old brother Franny getting kidnapped in 1971 by a guy who whisked him away in a car near Front and Oregon, and then, eight hours later, dropped him off a few blocks from there. By that time, the whole neighborhood—12-year-old Janice’s whole world—had turned out, searching the streets, the river, the subway, everywhere. When someone finally spied Franny down the street, getting out of a car that took off, he was raised up and passed hand-by-hand overhead—that’s how big and tight the crowd had become—to Janice’s bawling father. She had never seen him cry before. The crowd roared.
That’s what the regular group at one horseshoe counter re-creates every morning at the Melrose—that it still is an earlier era of togetherness. (It helps that the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron” and the like are the perpetual soundtrack.)
One Friday, one of these regulars—there are about 15 of them, and their words fly back and forth with rat-tat-tat ease—mentions that the Inquirer has a story about three shootings last night, one in South Philadelphia:
“What was the score?” asks a guy named Nunzio.
Jerome Palumbo, by far the youngest of the group at 46: “It’s Facebook.”
“The Facebook, that’s how the fights start!” says Marie.
Angelo Mancuso, who is 85 years old and has been eating at the Melrose for 50 years, looks up to see a server coming toward them: “It’s the waitress as old as the place.”
Margie, the waitress in question, delivering eggs, doesn’t miss a beat: “And he’s as old as Broad Street.” She looks across the diner. “Here comes my cross. … ”
Bill, her cross to bear, comes limping in wearing heavy wraparound shades: “Where is everyone?” His side of the horseshoe is empty. “I’m going to have my eyes lasered for glaucoma,” he says, explaining the sunglasses.
Nunzio: “You’ve been in a coma for years.”
Marie (conspiratorial aside): “Them two, Bill and Margie, oh, them two … they tease … ”
But as Margie opens cream for Bill, because he can barely see, Marie nods their way: “See that?” How close they really are.
I ask Marie how the neighborhood has changed. “I went to South Philly High,” she says, rolling her eyes. The site of recent racial trouble …
Henry, Marie’s husband: “Young people—it’s not the same. They’re always fighting.”
Marie: “Oh, when we were young, my grandfather would sleep outside in his beach chair.”
Janice, refilling coffee: “We did that when we were kids. We’d take baths, get in our PJs, beach chairs were put out. We’d take turns with neighbors, bring out a TV, eight to 10 of us lay out all night on Lee Street.”
Marie: “It was all over South Philly. You don’t dare sleep out now.”
Henry, on what’s changed: “It’s not just race.”
Marie: “No, it’s not just race.”
It’s a culture shift. Not just culture, but life: Another day, a guy named Murray tells me about the 400 block of Wolf in the 1950s, a mix of Italians and Irish and Jews—no blacks. He ticks off the professions of the men: a plumber, a carpenter, a SEPTA employee, a fix-it man, a newsstand operator. The women didn’t work. There wasn’t much money, but everybody was in the same boat. The children were headed somewhere better, to a better job, maybe to college.
But South Philly has been dealing with something the rest of us have been a little slow to see: that America’s decline has been coming on for a long time. As far back as 1960, jobs were disappearing from Philly. Race trouble bloomed, and drugs came in, and many people left for Jersey—tectonic shifts.