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.



Back to the Melrose regulars: I slip around the horseshoe to chat with Nunzio Carto. He’s 83 years old, a member of the state’s boxing hall of fame after going 20-1 as a lightweight back in the ’40s, and has been a funeral director on Broad Street for 65 years. Nunzio looks like Edward G. Robinson, in coat and tie, a bit hunched—in fact, he’s tiny.

“Young people are in a tight fix,” he tells me, even sounding like Edward G. Robinson. “Even with a good education, it’s hard. Old days, people could always find something. Shine shoes. I had a box. Walked from the corner to the poolroom. My brother, a boxer, he thought that was beneath me. So I made four boxes, got neighborhood kids, they shined for me.” So much comes down to jobs. But the jobs—at least, jobs most people are willing to take—have dried up.

I ask Nunzio about the work ethic now among young people in South Philly. “No,” he says. “That’s lost.” It doesn’t stop him from trying, though: Nunzio’s got the 21-year-old son of Jackie, another longtime waitress, working for him at his funeral home.

“I see people struggling,” Nunzio says, nodding subtly to the group around the horseshoe. “People who can’t afford to eat.”

I go back to my poached eggs as “The Yellow Rose of Texas” sweeps over us. “We all met here,” Marie tells me. “If somebody is sick, we make a collection. We celebrate birthdays, have cakes. … ”

Nunzio will circle the horseshoe himself to chat up a black couple and flirt sweetly with the wife, which makes something obvious: that this crowd has fully come into a new day when it comes to race. So some things have gotten better. But other things …

Nunzio Carto, who prepared Jerome Palumbo’s grandmother and aunt for burial, has this habit of picking up everybody’s check to help out a little. Including, I discover when I get up to leave, mine.

ONE AFTERNOON, NICK TELLS me more about himself. When he came home from Bulgaria, he joined the Army, where he got his GED. “I thought the Army would give me balance in my life,” he says. “But I hated my job—administrative clerk. And I stuck out like a sore thumb. One time, during mock Iraq training, I had psychedelic sheets on my bed, and they tore me a new one for that. I said, ‘Show me the regulation.’”

And so he got out and eventually drifted back home. But I’m wondering what there is here, now, in blue-collar South Philly, for Nick. Or anybody under, say, 45.

There is, in a word, trouble, with a very contemporary look. 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; Joe is clearly a regular. “Not good,” he says.

We start chatting. He’s a licensed nurse, probably in his early 40s. But Joe’s license has been suspended. He’s got a problem with methamphetamine, he tells me. Now Joe, who’s gay, is tending bar. He’s struggling big-time. He takes a call on his cell from his addiction sponsor. He tells me that he got high, in fact, less than 12 hours ago. When his steak arrives, Joe digs in ferociously.