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.



One night, I learn about trouble of another sort when I have dinner at the Melrose with Joey and Justin and Danny, three friends.

Joey is 23, with an impish smile and very long lashes; he’s wearing a t-shirt with a picture of two women, both wearing headphones, kissing. Joey’s been behind the eight ball his whole life. His mother was in a bad car wreck when he was five, leaving her a paraplegic living with a nurse in Lancaster (though until Joey was 21, his family told him that she was dead). His father did prison time for assault, so Joey was raised by a grandmother. He has a three-year-old son he wasn’t able to see until recently because of a restraining order his ex-­fiancée got. He doesn’t have a driver’s license because he got busted with weed when he went to a 7-Eleven wasted. He did a year of school to learn photography, but he’s basically unemployed.

How, I privately wonder, can anyone pull out of all that?

Justin, too, has been through it. He is calm, dark, short, well-built, wearing sweats, with just the hint of a gut coming. He’s 23, too.

Justin was four years old, living at 13th and Ritner, when his father died of cancer. From there, he and his sister and a half-sister from his mother’s previous marriage bounced around. But then, in ninth grade, Justin lost his virginity, which enraged another guy interested in the girl; he cold-cocked Justin, breaking his jaw. From that point, his mom tried to homeschool him, but Justin blew off the work, playing video games and hanging out instead. He lives now with his mother and stepfather at 25th and Christian. His last job was at Tony Luke’s, where he cut and weighed meats. He lasted two months there. That was three years ago.

Which stops me. Three years is a long time. I ask Justin why he hasn’t gotten a job, any job, for three years. Like, say, washing dishes.

“Because I was a dishwasher, and I still have the mentality that I don’t want rules, and if you work for anybody, instead of for yourself, you have to start at the bottom. If you have your own business, then … ”

Another night, I have dinner with three women who live together a block from the diner, all very young. I met them through Cheyenne, a 19-year-old Melrose waitress who’s from Panama City Beach, Florida, and who came north to hang out with her best friend, Erica, who is also 19 and who landed in South Philly with a boyfriend—now an ex—and works at Starbucks and as a teaching assistant at a charter­ school. Even as all four women—roommates—go to school or work low-level­ jobs and roam the odd richness of South Philly, they’re plotting their next moves into the wider world. For Cheyenne, it’s probably California; college will come. The four are a Greek chorus of exasperation in one area: “What is up with the men?” Men in their 20s are paranoid about any whiff of a “relationship.” Not to mention that they don’t seem interested in getting off the couch to do much of anything for themselves.

Danny is different. He’s 23, like Joey and Justin. Danny works at the Melrose doing a little bit of everything, and he’s taking community college classes. He’s a bearish man, with short dark hair and close-set dark eyes. When he stares at me, waits a moment for our eyes to lock, and says he knows he will become a lawyer, I believe him.

Though it hasn’t been easy for Danny, either. His father died when he was 16. He adored his dad and had a tough time, flunking out of school and drinking heavily for a couple of years. So what changed?

“It was always there,” Danny says. “I always knew what I needed to do. But before, I didn’t want to do it.”