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Saturday, June 15, 2013

There's Always a Full Moon at Midtown

During my recent job search, I found myself on the midnight shift again, after a 30-year hiatus.  While the recent position was located in a bucolic country setting, my first graveyard shift had me smack in the center of Center City.  Now, as my job search comes to a close (I hope) with a new career in Center City, I can’t help recalling how different that first one job was.

As the start of my senior year at La Salle College approached, I thought it made sense to work two nights a week.  I'd have five nights a week to study (ha!) so I could finish my college career with commendable grades.  I could make all of my money on the weekends (ha! ha!).  When Pete Hionas, my boss at Midtown I Restaurant, suggested I work winter weekends at Midtown III, 18th and Ranstead Streets,  I was somewhat open to the opportunity . The hours:  9PM to 7AM, Friday and Saturday nights.

A visit to the websites for the two remaining Midtowns - II at 12th and Walnut and III as previously mentioned - confirmed that the restaurants both are still with us, both are still open 24 hours, and both still attract much of the fringe element in Center City.  While the daylight crowd sports business suits or the casual clothes of the occasional tourist, the after-midnight set ranges from dapper dudes in evening attire to transvestites in gay garb.  And it was ever thus.  Or, as we used to say:

"There is always a full moon at Midtown."

What always fascinated me was the ecumenism of the wee small hours.  At 3AM, the seats at the Midtown counter alternated cop, cop, hooker, cop, hooker, hooker, cop.  The atmosphere was always convivial, as everyone seemed to be on a first-name basis.  Other weekend patrons included dank and musty street people with just enough scrounged change for a cup of coffee (lots of sugar); skinny, jittery junkies chowing down on cheap eats, looking like they'd skip on the check (they rarely did); and well-dressed, well-versed ladies in after a night on the town.  At that hour, everybody tipped, as if they knew we were all in this together.

The reviews on the restaurant websites rip into miserable, disgruntled waitresses who want to be anywhere else but Midtown.  I haven't been to either Midtown at 3AM lately, so I can't speak for today.  But my recollection is, the waitresses with whom I worked were cheerfully resigned to their lot in life.  There was Judy, the veteran, who could smack a cockroach in a split second without skipping a beat in her banter with customers.  Mary Lou, a pretty mom, was Judy's more delicate sidekick.  Me, I was the mousy college kid chalking up the late nights to my equivalent of Jack Kerouac's On the Road.  At Midtown, the road came to me.

And the characters were legion.  But two stories highlight the serendipity of the venue and the hour.

The first story has to do with "To Go To Go."  I can still see this street person's gray wool coat over layers of sweatshirts and sweaters, his baggy trousers, and his dirty fingers through cut-off gloves.  He invariably arrived just about sunrise, stood at the register and announced:  "To go. To go."  Which was the cue for the waitress closest to the coffee urn to get him a cup of coffee.  Sometimes he paid, sometimes he didn't.  Many times, he also left with a paper bag full of day-old doughnuts we were going to throw out, anyway.  But all he ever said was:  "To go.  To go."

All that changed one cold, sunny morning.  On this particular day, Judy had already bagged the doughnuts in anticipation of his arrival and was busy stacking cinnamon buns in a sticky pyramid on a tray.  Our regular announced "To go.  To go." in his usual style.  As Judy offhandedly proffered his coffee and the usual brown bag, our customer's gaze fell on her newest pastry creation.  As if by some miracle, he found a new vocabulary and blurted:  "How about a cinnamon bun?"  Judy's eyes flared like fireworks, then she burst out laughing and acquiesced.  I often wonder what happened to "To Go To Go."

The second story concerns tables turning.  See, I forgot to mention that during my senior year at La Salle, I was totally on my own and pretty destitute.  My Midtown money was barely enough to make ends meet, but they just had to meet until graduation.

One of my personal regulars was a handsome, soft-spoken young black man who arrived just after the surrounding clubs had closed.  He always sat in my station, usually at the same table, and always ordered the same thing.  Our routine was such that he needed only to walk in the front door and nod, and I would put in his order.  And he always left a generous tip.

Years after I had "graduated" from Midtown, as well as La Salle, I volunteered for a church serving Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless.  At my table was a man with impeccable manners and quiet demeanor.  He was a little thinner and a little dirtier but he looked awfully familiar. By the time I placed his turkey dinner in front of him, I recognized him as my quiet, big-tipping regular.

His story was a sad one.  Drug addiction and bad choices had led him to a homeless shelter and now this Thanksgiving dinner.  He was hoping to sober up and straighten out his life.  He admitted being embarrassed for me to see him in that state.  So I told him how down and out I had been and how important his tips had been to me.  It was my honor to serve him again and to thank him for his contribution to my life.  His fate remains a mystery to me, but I hope he found a safe landing.

I could go on and on.  Midtown III was one of my stops on graduation day:  me, resplendent in cap and gown instead of waitress garb.  Every once in awhile - usually Christmas Eve after Midnight Mass - I stop by for a cup of coffee and to remember my roots.  Pete is now deceased, but the last time I was there, Manoli his brother was sitting by the register, reading the paper.  He recognized me immediately and brightened.  The first words out of his mouth:

"Are you looking for a job?"


  1. Thanks for the walk down Philly memory lane. The Midtown's are such a symbol of center city life to me, full of character and characters that differs from day to night.
    It's been years, but I remember those 2 a.m. breakfast stops after the local bars closed.

  2. Hello, Mary. I lived at 20th & Chestnut for several years, and waitressed at the Midtown on that block every time I needed extra cash. I particularly liked the Sunday night crowd, which consisted of a lot of newspaper delivery truck drivers who were the best! I have never forgotten the generosity of the blue-collar clientele, in terms of tipping, and although I typically do not go to midtown style places now, I will never forget the point of view of both the patrons and the waitresses. We were in fact "all in it together". It is very hard for me to keep my mouth shut when I now see very well-heeled people tipping at the absolute minimum recommended amount. I know what it's like to live on tips, and the kind of nonsense that is often dished out to the lowly servers. I will always be one of them.

  3. Mary, I was never a late nighter at any restaurant, diner or otherwise, so your post was like reading a travel piece for me. I didn't experience the Midtown, but I do recall other Greek restaurants like this from my time working at Community College. There really was a culture of regulars and wait staff who seemed to know and care for each other. I enjoyed reading about the characters and the journey your life has taken since then. Chris

  4. Love the Midtown - Before my father passed we went once a month for a bite after church! Thanks for the read!