The doctor rushes through a red light honking furiously and slams on his brakes, screeching up to the rear fender of Al Bocchino's car. Bocchino's brother died the day before after a long illness, and Mingroni came to the hospital bedside to comfort his widow. Now the doctor, a 300-pound man sweating in his dark suit, walks Bocchino to the corner and wraps his big arm around Bocchino's shoulders, engulfing the smaller man, consoling him.
"It's in God's hands," the doctor says softly. He hugs Bocchino tightly, then grabs his cheek roughly in a big hand.
"Thank you, Doc," Bocchino says.
Mingroni gets back into his car and drives slowly down Dickinson, his black physician's bag bumping along in the trunk, tears in his eyes. He has known the Bocchino brothers all his life.
Mingroni is the neighborhood doctor, and he is on his way to a house call.
Mingroni is the doctor for the whole neighborhood in South Philadelphia where he grew up. He is the doctor for about 5,000 patients - aunts and cousins, friends and high school chums - and sometimes it seems that 5,000 hearts, 5,000 sets of hands are reaching out to him.
He visits the sick in four hospitals and nursing homes each morning. He
keeps regular office hours for nine hours a day, working seven days a week, until 10 or 11 at night. He sees anyone who knocks after hours, and afterward he goes on house calls until 3, 4 and 5 in the morning. Mingroni lives by a simple motto. "I cannot say no."
This morning he is running late, he has barely slept for 48 hours, but he looks refreshed and happy. Mingroni is expanding his practice this summer from the Italian Market area to an Irish neighborhood 12 blocks away, and he feels this morning that God has been good to him.
In Mingroni's neighborhood, it is a season of life and hope. There is a baby boom sweeping the young mothers. It is a time to heal, even among the old. In his corner of the world, in his few blocks, it is a time of few concessions to the neighborhood doctor's daily foes - time and death. He seems to gain strength as he drives through the old neighborhood, where every corner is familiar, every face a friend.
Each day he passes the church where he was an altar boy; the corner drugstore where he was the soda jerk; Roma Pharmacy, where he was once the pharmacist. Each day he passes Sigel Street, where he grew up, and where he still has dinner with his 78-year-old mother almost every night in the tiny rowhouse at number 915.
As he passes the great brick immensity of Annunciation Catholic Church, Mingroni quickly touches his thumb to his forehead, nose and lips, quietly intoning to himself, Father, Son, Holy Ghost, as he does whenever he passes a church in the neighborhood.
He comes now to the large, two-story triangular white stone-face building that commands the corner of Passyunk Avenue and Dickinson, with a big, lighted black-and-white electric sign, "Dr. Julius A. Mingroni, Family Physician," and Mingroni cannot help but smile.
From Dickinson and Passyunk and Mifflin and Reed, from all corners of the neighborhood, patients are flocking at 9:30 in the morning to Mingroni's office as if a saint had posted hours at Annunciation.
To the old Italians of South Philadelphia, the neighborhood dottore, even more than the politician or the undertaker, has the power of life and death. It is an ancient pull Mingroni has, such a young man to possess it at 43.
Old women grip Mingroni's hand, their faces upturned, eyes brimming with hope. Mingroni knows all of their names and the names of their children and the names of their ills; he knows the whole difficult and coursing flow of their generations, from 98-year-olds who came to this country in the last century to their children's children who had babies three weeks ago. Mingroni hugs patients wasted by cancer, kisses faces twisted in arthritic pain, asks stroke victims to pray for themselves, prays with them.
All this comfort Mingroni gives to other people, yet he cannot find peace within himself.
Each day he passes the 10th Street rowhouse that takes him back 16 years, to "a part of my life I'd like to totally erase," to the beginnings of his rise as the neighborhood doctor.
The neighborhood pharmacist had been rejected by every medical school he
applied to. Finally in 1970, court records say, he went into the rowhouse apartment carrying money in a brown paper bag for state Sen. Henry "Buddy" Cianfrani, the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who influenced the flow of state money to medical schools.
Mingroni, who had flunked out of college for a year and had finished in the bottom 1 percent in science on his medical school entrance exams, was accepted into the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and graduated in 1974.
He had already been the neighborhood doctor for three years when Cianfrani pleaded guilty in '77 to 106 counts of racketeering, obstruction of justice, mail fraud, and soliciting and accepting bribes from a handful of students - including Julius Mingroni - to get them into local medical schools. According to court records, Mingroni confided to a South Philadelphia doctor that admission would cost him $10,000.
Although he was named in the charges against Cianfrani, Mingroni was never indicted. He says he denied to a grand jury then, and he denies now, that money ever passed hands. He says he merely asked Cianfrani, a family friend, for a recommendation. But the allegations hurt his practice, caused his daughter, Maria, embarrassment in school, and pained his family deeply. Newspaper editorials scalded him. A judge had called it "the basest . . . influence peddling." Slowly the allegations faded from the news, from neighborhood gossip, finally from people's memory, except Mingroni's.
"It hurts me inside to know this was a mark against me - against my credibility. It is one of my driving forces. I want to be the best, to try to do the best possible in caring for people."
He began to bring 800 boxes of Italian candies to the elderly at Christmastime. He quietly paid to send a needy child each year to St. Nicholas, where he had gone to elementary school, and called the principal each year and said: "What do you want? Clothes? A TV set?" He treated all nuns and priests in the neighborhood for free, and finally he began to give his own clothes to the poor in winter. Even nurses in the hospitals began to hug and kiss him, and fellow doctors were awed. His patients likened him to Jesus, a saint, a god.
So it happened that the neighborhood doctor came to give all the time in the world to the old and sick, but not much time at all to the three people closest to him - his wife and children. Maria is now 20 and off to college, and Julius Jr. is 13. Mingroni's home in Blackwood, N.J., is lovely and large. His wife, Connie, 42, wishes her husband were still the neighborhood pharmacist. Mingroni has not been home for dinner since he became a doctor, 12 years ago.
All around him now as his Honda rolls through the streets, Mingroni's neighborhood is awakening. Peddlers are putting out their peppers, tomatoes and fresh chickens.
A few blocks away, Anthony "Tony Flowers" Perone - a retired florist, now Mingroni's driver - is picking up patients too old or feeble to make it to Mingroni's office on their own.
From across the neighborhood come a 43-year-old epileptic woman who has been an invalid for life and a plumber's wife who has a cold, a laquerer of cardboard boxes with tendinitis in his shoulder and a 34-year-old mother who needs a vitamin shot to get over the summer blahs.
Anna Costa, 91, who has nine children, 32 grandchildren, 26 great- grandchildren and 15 great-great-grandchildren, who buried her husband 22 years ago, is quietly moaning that her stomach hurts and her back hurts but that worst of all she has lived too long. Vicenzina "Jennie" Mercer begins to speak of the two years she was paralyzed from the neck down until Mingroni began to treat her and pray with her, leading up to the miracle on the holy day of St. Francis of Assisi when she walked down the aisle of St. Nicholas Church and the parish priest cried with joy.
Soon the old and the lonely and the sick are flooding Mingroni's office, filling the 18 plastic chairs in the waiting room, sitting in the four more plastic chairs in Mingroni's basement, spilling out onto the sidewalk in front of Mingroni's office.
They will wait, go out shopping in the neighborhood and bring back a chicken to put in Mingroni's refrigerator, and wait some more. They will watch soap operas on Mingroni's color television set. "Office Hours, 9 a.m.-3 p.m., 6 p.m.-10 p.m." says the sign in the doctor's office, but Mingroni's patients know he will not arrive for the morning hours until 3 p.m. They will talk about their recipes and their ailments and their children in Italian and broken English, forming friendships that last for years.
They will buy pretzels from John the Pretzel Man, who comes by at 9:30 every morning.
John, 40, a diagnosed schizophrenic, couldn't hold down a job before he became known as the Pretzel Man. "The doc's the only one who said anything positive about me in my (psychiatric report). He said I had a strong grip on reality," he says. "When I see the doc, I see his smile."
"He's a legend," says a colleague and friend, cardiologist Nicholas DePace. "His patients wait four hours for him. He can work 20 hours a day and he still can concentrate. He's a smart doctor.
"A lady who was short of breath called him, and he got over there in the middle of the night, and she was in heart failure and her lungs were filled with water, and he carried her out. If he had said I'll call you in the morning, she would have been dead. He sits down and cries like a little baby sometimes when a patient dies. I've never seen a doctor do that so consistently. It's not just medicine. He gives them compassion and hope. He's like a priest. I've never seen anyone in my life like Mingroni."
On his rounds Mingroni is passing his office, brimming with patients.
"Hey, Doc," cries a retired carpenter, waiting on the corner with a cigarette in his mouth. "When are you coming in? What are we gonna do with youse?"
"Stop smoking!" the doctor cries out, but he does not stop. It is still morning, and there is much to do.
At Methodist Hospital, Mingroni brings bad news to the wife of a man he has known for years: "His tumor . . . is cancer."
Mingroni leaves the hospital with tears in his eyes.
"They were very close, husband and wife. They did everything together. They walked in the neighborhood together, holding hands. They came to the office together. It's sad. You lose the husband and 10 to 1 the wife won't live more than a year."
Mingroni is driving to McClellan Street, behind Sigel Street, where he grew up. Mary Ruggieri, 80, is sitting in her living room, afraid she has pneumonia. Mary just lost her son, Anthony, 57, to a heart attack.
"I'm scared at my age, Doc. I don't want to die yet. I want to live. See how fast my son died."
Ruggieri just has a virus.
"God bless Dr. Mingroni," she says. "I've known him since I was born. His mother and I were friends. He used to come into our alley and I'd say, 'Go in your own street and play, we got enough little kids here.' He was a good boy, not sassy like some kids. Then he grew up and went to school. Then he got married. I went to his wedding, too. When I had pneumonia he sent me to the hospital right away. He was good to my son." Ruggieri's eyes are moist.
"God watch over you, doctor."
Mingroni is sweating profusely as he gets into his Honda. "I feel like I've been beat up with a stick today," he says. "I'm sweating like a pig. This is a tough case."
He is on his way to cardiologist DePace's office, to consult with the doctor about a patient who appears healthy but has the heart of an 80-year-old man.
"He's my age," the doctor says, "in the prime of his life."
Mingroni himself had chest pains a year ago, but DePace tested and tested and declared Mingroni had the heart of a bull. Still Mingroni worries. His blood pressure, he says, is soaring. He lost 42 pounds to get down to 286, then gained some back. His colleagues, friends, his wife, his children, everyone but his mother, who believes work is the secret to a long life, begs him to slow down.
"How long does he think he can keep up that pace?" asks Anne Scannapieco, nursing director of University Nursing and Rehabilitative Center, where Mingroni is medical director. "Is he being fair to all his patients and to his family by keeping up this pace? Do his children know their father? He falls asleep in meetings here. I'm afraid he'll fall asleep driving home. I told him that someday I'm gonna stand by his coffin."
Mingroni hired an associate, Dr. Richard Scheuermann, 36, to help him carry the load of a growing practice. Scheuermann will concentrate on a new office Mingroni plans to open later this year at 27th and Tasker Streets in Grays Ferry.
"But I won't be making any house calls at 2 in the morning," Scheuermann says. "You have to have some time to yourself. I have a wife and child on the way. Doctors just aren't as available as they used to be, the old story of the old Doc Smith who comes over to the house with his black bag. If people are that sick, and they can't wait until morning, they should be in the emergency room. If they're not that sick they can wait until morning."
Mingroni, who seldom has time for lunch, is relaxing over a salad at Big Ralph's Saloon across the street from his office. His waiting room has been packed for four hours now.
Suddenly Josephine Taraschi, a widow in her 70s, hobbles into the darkness of the restaurant and grabs Mingroni's arm as he is reaching for another bite of salad.
"Doc . . . I'm sick. I'm tired. I'm waiting five hours. I've got circulation problems in my arms and legs."
Mingroni leaves his salad, walks across the street and dons his white coat with Dr. Julius Mingroni, Family Practice stitched in black on the breast pocket. When Mingroni appears, the waiting room breaks into applause.
After waiting four hours, Jennie Mercer is hesitant about taking up Mingroni's time. "I love him like a son. I go in there and I even hate to tell him what I'm there for. He's so exhausted and tired."
Four hours later, at 6 p.m., the doctor has finished afternoon office hours and is on his way to dinner on Sigel Street. In the small living room rests a picture of his dead brother, also named Julius, who in 1939 at the age of 9 was crushed by a city trash wagon.
In a kitchen with black-and-white tile his grandfather laid 50 years ago, his mother, Elsie, is waiting with his five-course veal dinner.
"If he isn't home for dinner by 7:30, I start calling around, the hospitals, the police," she says.
Elsie Mingroni rises at 5 every weekday to work at a factory on Race Street, punching buttonholes in suits, then comes home to cook dinner and clean her son's office late at night.
"She is my driving force," Mingroni says.
Mingroni walks out into the twilight. He still has four hours of office duty ahead, then house calls. The sun is slanting down Sigel. Children are playing, old women are chatting on the stoops. "This is memory lane," he says. "Only good memories here."
He waves to his aunt, Josephine Marinelli, and her mother, Jessie Zamrano, at 902 Sigel. "Hey, Doc," says Ralph Marinelli, Josephine's son, opening a screen door across the street, "Can I see you a minute?" Ralph has an
allergy, watery, itchy eyes. The doctor disappears into the rowhouse.
During the half hour it would take to drive to his home in New Jersey for dinner, he says, he can make a house call or two.
"If someone is on the phone complaining of chest pains or shortness of breath, I can't say no," he says. "It could be a heart attack. Even if you do nothing for them, sometimes it's important just seeing you and telling you their troubles.
"I give my whole life to helping other people, and I shortchange my family in a lot of ways. My children have grown up and I missed being there. It seems like the years have passed so fast. Sometimes my son says, 'Dad, you're never home,' and it makes me feel bad. But he says, 'Dad, I understand, you're trying to help a lot of people . . . .'
"I've known my patients all so long, as a doctor and a pharmacist, it's like they're my family. They're part of my life."
Mingroni is parking at a small dark rowhouse cluttered with pictures of a woman and child, snapshots of the life of the son of an immigrant tailor. Albert Concordia, who worked in the RCA plant in Camden, is in his 80s and lives alone.
Concordia's cancerous jaw was removed nearly 50 years ago, and he suffers
from severe heart disease. He is not feeling well. The doctor unzips his black bag and takes Concordia's blood pressure in the living room, then examines him at the kitchen table.
It is not serious. Concordia's hemorrhoids are acting up.
"How about your medicine," Mingroni says. "Are you taking it?"
"I don't have any medicine. I ran out yesterday."
"God knows how long it's been since he's taken his (nitroglycerin)," Mingroni says. "He could have easily died."
The doctor helps Concordia into the back seat of his car and drives him to Schwartz's Pharmacy. Concordia goes in but returns empty handed.
"They won't give it to me, doctor. I don't have the right card."
Concordia can't find his Medicare identification card in his wallet. Mingroni goes in to help and finds the card.
"Ah, yes," says the pharmacist, Cathryn Fortunato. "That's your card, Mr. Concordia."
The pharmacist and Jean Brozzetti, who is waiting for a prescription, are shaking their heads as the doctor leaves.
"You don't see doctors like that anymore," says Brozzetti.
"He's my doctor," Concordia says proudly. "He comes to visit me."
Back at his rowhouse, Concordia is slowly climbing the concrete steps.
"Do you wanna come in, Doc?"
"Something to drink?"
"No. Put those (nitroglycerin) patches on. I have to go."
Concordia climbs another step.
"Please come keep me company some day, Doc." His voice is high, pleading. ''I'm all alone."
"Want to come in and drink something?"
"No," the doctor says, softly. "Tante grazie."
Mingroni drives down Passyunk, past Roma Pharmacy, Pizzoria Ristorante, Ozzie's Cleaners, past Frankie's Italiano Seafood Cocktail Lounge and La Riveriera Alternations & Pressing, where Tasker and Cross and Passyunk and 11th all pour into the tiny square in the heart of his neighborhood. His eyes are moist.
"They came over here - they had nothing, there was no handout," he says. ''They had to produce bread for their families and scrape at it, and it made them tough and independent. He doesn't want to leave the neighborhood. He doesn't want to be told to take his medicine. . . . He doesn't want to be alone."
The neighborhood doctor is turning onto Dickinson, his black physician's bag bumping along in the trunk.
"Hey, Doc," an young man waves from the middle of the square.
"Hey, Gabe, how ya feelin?"
"Not so good, Doc."
"Use the side door, about 10 o'clock."