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.



Neither do a lot of people. On one of my first days at the Melrose, a tall man with swept-back white hair overhears me asking questions and wonders if we can chat. His name is Jack Morley. He’s 49 years old, lives on Mifflin Street, and has his own one-man business designing and installing fire-­protection systems. Jack’s business has fallen on hard times, but back in 2003, it was booming, and he needed help. Over several months, he went through seven assistants. They all quit within a few days, though only one had the guts to tell him why: “Jack, this work is too hard, and I don’t want to do it.”

Of course, you can find any number of people on either side of making it or not: One night, I sit at the counter next to a burly, open-faced guy in a polo shirt who’s reading a textbook on globalization. We chat about the state of the world for half an hour before I even find out that Johnny Walker is a cop—in fact, a lieutenant in Southwest Philly, where he grew up. His parents owned a small luncheonette, where he worked from the time he was 14, a grounding that led to the police academy, and eventually an undergraduate degree online from the University of Phoenix, and now the pursuit of a master’s in business at Rosemont College.

“Learning to work at a young age,” Johnny Walker says, “is so important, and it’s largely gone now.” Jack Morley agrees. Every weekday morning, on the 600 block of Mifflin, he’s woken up at 4:50 by a long van that stops and toots; then Asian and Hispanic men come out of the rowhouses and head off to work on a farm or an assembly line. They’re part of a newer wave of South Philly immigrants. Jack’s a sophisticated man who reads the Wall Street Journal, and he points out the obvious problem because it is simply the case: Immigrants—illegal immigrants—are taking up unskilled jobs that used to give the young men of South Philly a foothold on work and a few bucks in their pockets.

But today, the young men aren’t willing to take those jobs—a reluctance we’ve been hearing a lot about lately all over the country.

Both Johnny Walker and Jack Morley land, ultimately, on the same problem: “When I was young,” Walker, all of 45, says, “college was a luxury. Not now.” I ask him what an 18-year-old in South Philly—or most places, for that matter—might do if college isn’t on the horizon. Walker frowns. “Who knows?”

“America has completely lost on manufacturing,” Jack Morley explains one Sunday morning over breakfast. “The future here is in high-tech innovation, but we’re refusing to educate ourselves. Sometime back in the ’80s, I was sitting at the counter here, and the headline that day was how a few people control vast amounts of wealth. The general reaction was, ‘Do you see that?!’ But my state of mind was, How do I get into that group?

All this leaves a guy like Justin, three years unemployed and blasé about it, without much of a shot at going anywhere. Danny, though, warns me about judging his friend, or dismissing Joey as a victim. Justin and Joey and Danny are as tight, in their way, as the morning oldsters who line the counter. “They’re honest with themselves,” Danny says of his friends. “And if you’re true to yourself, you have it in you to turn your life around, if you want to.”