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.



BUT IT’S NOT SO SIMPLE. One Sunday night I leave the Melrose and drive slowly down East Passyunk—the narrow, well-swept one-ways glowing with Christmas lights strung here and there. But then, as I pull around on Broad, it’s as dark and dismal and filthy as the early scenes in Rocky.

The lives here, I realize, are just as edgy and chaotic as Rocky Balboa’s. Consider Joey. He’s had a tough life, and contributed to it by getting busted for marijuana and, now, routinely getting high and drunk. “I do stay heavily medicated, to get through,” he says. “Straight up, it is hard to deal with everything.”

It turns out that Nick, too, got caught in a maelstrom of off-the-wall drama. He was homeless for two weeks after a dustup with his brother and his brother’s roommate; Nick was living with them while an apartment in the same building got cleaned up for him to rent. This roommate was the conduit to the landlord, and he took deposit money from Nick in installments, except he was pocketing some of the money, which got Nick in trouble with the landlord. …

Shit happens. People get beaten down—though Joey and Nick don’t come off that way. They’re not bitter or angry. You get dealt a hand, you play it.

There is another path. We can all see it. Get an education. Learn a marketable skill. Work at it. Except it often doesn’t happen that way. A long time ago, the world opened up. Nick never finished high school but went off to Atlantic City. Met two girls, flew to Bulgaria—a place his family had trouble even imagining. He walked down the main street of a small city in Eastern Europe carrying a loaf of bread under his arm—for a moment, the world was his oyster.

He had the freedom to go anywhere, and to become anything. But that’s not Nick’s reality, at least not how he sees it.

The track is looking a lot narrower—get an education, or else. But college is too big a mountain to climb for Nick at 32. Besides, you need a master’s, maybe even a doctorate now, he says. And even then you might not get a job. The divide has become much wider, between winners and losers.

The failure of imagination might be his, but it is ours, too. Nick is certainly willing, but he can’t find a place, in this lousy economy, to take his energy and spirit. When I tell Jack Morley about Nick’s dilemma, Jack nails something: “Half a century ago, there were plenty of jobs for people like him.” Stetson Hat, for example, one of scores of great Philly specialty companies that have left or gone under in the past 50 years, might have snapped him up. If only he had come of age then, when South Philly’s cohesive web of neighbors looked out for each other … Because it’s easy to imagine a Stetson manager living down the street realizing how good Nick would be at hawking felt hats all over the tri-state area. Or beyond. Hire him!

Not now. There is no Stetson, and no neighborhood web, and no place for Nick. Jack Morley and others may be right that getting an education is key, but if that’s the one-size-fits-all path to success we’ve created, we’ve consigned a whole lot of talent to truncated lives. These days, the American Dream is looking pretty straight and narrow, and I think that’s a problem much broader than South Philly. Because we all know that talent often comes in strange packages, and might need a little breathing room.

Nick, meanwhile, doesn’t think much about all that. He spins his tray and carries on. Hey, in his world, things have been falling apart for half a century.