Postcard from the End of America: Philly’s Italian Market

I live a block from the Italian Market, see, and its ecology is more complex than anything I could ever aspire to describe, but better something than nothing, so let me give you a little tour of the Eyetalian Market.

There are lots of restaurants on 9th Street, so naturally, there are tons of Mexicans, and since they don’t go for the dark Irish bar ambience, they congregate at the Stab and Grab, not its real name. At this Korean-owned, neon-lit oasis, all these cooks, busboys and dishwashers just sit at brutal, lonely tables to stare at each other’s shell-shocked mug nonstop, so no wonder fights sometimes break out. I’ve witnessed a couple, cholo, and I hardly ever go there.

Speaking of grabbing, a white waitress told me she’s been grabbed a couple of times by drunken Mexicans in this neighborhood. We all need love. I witnessed another Mexican tried to chat up a Friendly Lounge bartender. Though his English was good, he wasn’t too charming, as evidenced by these doofus lines, “Are you shy? Do you want me to buy you a shot? A soft drink? Why won’t you shake my hand?” To be fair, I’ve heard much, much worse from the native-born.

In the free ESL classes, flirting lessons should be mandatory. We must catch up with the Germans, for they’ve long offered sex tips to immigrants. “Achtung! This is how you screw the natives!”

Half a century ago, the Stab and Grab wasn’t a semi nuisance bar but butcher shop. Undercutting all competitors, this guy sold three pounds of ground beef for just a buck, but what it was was mostly fat mixed with blood, so when you cooked it up, it shrank to almost nothing. The sly one advertised his bargain with a loud speaker until, one afternoon, another butcher blasted it with a handgun.

Once, there were many hucksters here, but now, you won’t hear anyone shout, “Don’t squeeze the tomatoes, lady! Go home and squeeze your husband’s balls!” It is a crying shame.

Now walk with me, buddy, down Washington Avenue, but don’t make eye contact with that miserable broad, Typhoid Mary, for if you show the least interest, she’ll tail and hound you. I have no idea what Mary’s on, but her eyes are always turbid yet searching. She wants to do somebody, anybody, the same favors.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Mary is learning Spanish. “¿Quieres una mamada, señor? Chingar? Why not chingar?! Come back! Come back! Barato chingar!”

The first time I met Typhoid Mary, she was with a bald man who boasted, “We just got married! We spent two days in AC for our honeymoon!” In her late 40s, with dark hair, dead eyes and mouth ajar, Mary looked as if she had trekked through a lifetime of disasters, with her soul smoldering at the bottom of a trash-strewn gully. Fleeing everything, she’s a permanent refugee. Her “husband,” it turns out, has three kids with another prostitute, this one black and currently in jail.

Now, the cashier at this bakery seems wholesome enough, but she has loosening teeth, worse nightmares, suicidal thoughts and attempted suicides, nothing in her fridge and, don’t ask me how I know this, no menstruation for two years, so do you think she’s on Xanax? Benzos? She can’t afford even a gram of blow a week.

Though she herself dealt coke recently, she’s on nothing but painkillers, actually, thanks to one raging boyfriend, a car accident and a childhood fall from a tree. To make ends meet, the young lady often sells her script. Many among us do this. “I just wanted to die,” she moaned.

When I was failing out of college, you could only sample maybe six drugs, but now there are hundreds to numb or jack up those suffering overwhelming anxiety, fear, stress, despair, pain or just plain emptiness. What are you on?

See that small, dark man contemplating a bag of carrots at Giordano’s? He fought in Cambodia for four years, then escaped Vietnam by boat. While others slept, he baled water, “to save the young ones.” Starving and exhausted, they miraculously reached Bidong. Now, the dude calls himself Jack, drinks Bud and works in a cardboard box factory. Jack married, divorced and has lived with the same white man, rent free, for over twenty years. He says they’re just friends.

A karaoke fiend, Jack can instantly pick up any song in three languages, Vietnamese, Chinese or English, so he claims. “I can sing better than Elvis, ah, what’s his name? Yes, Presley. I can sing better than Elvis Presley.”

Lin, Chinese, weaves in and out of businesses to sell pirated DVDs, including porn titles such as “The Squirt Locker,” “Texas Big Booty Brigade” and “Dr. Ava’s Guide to Prostate Pleasure.”

The middle-aged, pudgy owner of this restaurant used to be married to a handsome Syrian. She found him in Greece. When I met Johnny, not his birth name, he claimed he was just Greek, period. Johnny said he divorced her because she gambled all their money away, but listen, man, even a blind fool could see that that marriage wouldn’t last. After getting his citizenship, Johnny bolted. The frump wasn’t the first one to be dumped. Before her, an Icelander had flown Johnny to her cold, windswept village by the sullen sea. After one endless winter, Johnny belched, “See ya!”

Free, Johnny went to AC, mastered several table games, worked at casinos, bought a condo and, predictably, snatched a stunning, loving girlfriend. The suave, mustachioed playa had to make up for all those repulsive nights in Philly! Just thank God you never had to whore to become an American. After a while, though, Johnny also gave his lover the heave-ho, for it was time to return to Syria to find a traditional, virgin bride half his age.

Now, we come to this metal shack of hope, for all day long, fools will petition, against all odds, to be transposed to a much sweeter arrangement. “Mr. or Mrs. Hindu, please save my ass.” The lottery ticket-dispensing couple are recent immigrants, with the husband also working at Dunkin’ Donuts, and the wife, Subway. Robert, not his birth name, has never drank a drop and only ducks into Friendly to deliver lottery tickets, cigarettes or use the bathroom.

Tilt your head and you’ll see, inside the hope shack, 74-year-old Angelo. No employee, he’s just there for its space heater, for it’s 20 degrees outside. Each night for the last five years, Angelo slept inside a rusty lemon, with the engine running in winter, but last week, the groggy Calabrian crashed his mini home on wheels. Luckily, no one died. After selling the wreck for a 100 bucks, Angelo couldn’t help but head straight for the off-track betting parlor. Till death, he’ll insist that some galloping mare will solve all his problems.

Charlie the Plumber was like that, an old man slowly dying in public. His problem was he couldn’t stop drinking. Drunk, Charlie would sometimes sit at Geno’s and rave on about his killing days as a chopper gunner in Vietnam. Moved, many tourists would buy him cheesesteaks, and Charlie could eat three in a row. Charlie died on a park bench.

At 9th and Ernest, there was the Italian American Laborers Social Club. Reacting to Mexicans moving into the neighborhood, it posted two small signs out front, “ALAMO MEMBERS ONLY PRIVATE CLUB,” then it sold itself to, what else, a Mexican business.

Just off 9th Street lives an indolent young man who spends his days half-watching movies or porn. In summer, he sometimes waxes his Porsche, which is practically brand new, for it’s almost never used. There is no place Nick has or wants to go. Though with the same woman for six years, he’s never hinted at marriage, and she lets it slide for fear of being ditched. Petite, Tina suffers in silence and shops for Nick each week. How many times have I seen the still pretty lady carry all those heavy bags up to the second floor by herself? Nick’s father, an immigrant from Sicily, is a 71-year-old doctor who still works each day and owns several houses. Naturally, he hires Mexicans to fix them up.

Though it wasn’t too long of a walk, it’s very cold out, so let’s stop at George’s for a pork or tripe sandwich. Notice the witticism on the sign, “Don’t divorce your wife because she can’t cook. Eat here and keep her as a pet.” Now, that’s old school.

For over a century, the Italian Market has absorbed waves of immigrants, but there’s a group that’s causing everybody tremendous anxiety. Wealthy Chinese have plans to develop several large plots into condos and upscale shopping centers. Already, most folks who work in the Italian Market can’t afford to live here.

To most people, immigrants imply destitute illegals and desperate refugees, but the super wealthy are also coming. If they target your city, you can quickly be priced out of your home. Just think of London, Sidney, Auckland, Vancouver or the San Francisco Bay Area. Advocating for open borders, the nose-ringed crowd don’t know they’re hankering to be homeless, and not just underpaid.

Linh Dinh’s Postcards from the End of America has just been released by Seven Stories Press. He maintains an active photo blog.

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One Response to Postcard from the End of America: Philly’s Italian Market

  1. Regarding Mr. Linh’s last paragraph, I also wonder if the “sanctuary city” and “there are no illegals” folks do not entirely understand what they’re asking for and who is using them. A mayor, pro-immigration, of a small north-eastern city was recently interviewed on the subject and announced that he was in favor because the town “only” had an unemployment rate of 3% and needed more competition for the available work. When most of the corporate media gives any protest group favorable coverage, that group should wonder what is going on.