Catching up with friends amid talk of loneliness and love

The pizzeria was quiet. Hoang was talking about loneliness. John had heard enough.

"Internet," he barked from his stool behind the counter.

"I know," said Hoang, sounding as if he had heard his boss suggest he try Vietnamese dating sites a thousand times before, because, well, he had.

"I tell him like a million times: Internet, Internet, you know what I mean?" said John, who, like Hoang, is from Vietnam. "You look for somebody on there. Then you go out, you don't like it, then, nothing to lose, right?"

Standing by the beer cooler, Hoang (pronounced Wong) shook his head and stared out onto Pine Street.

"I don't want to do it like that," he said.

He wants it to happen naturally. Like maybe after Sunday temple or at a restaurant or a movie on his day off.

John held up a picture of a Vietnamese woman that had been posted on a dating site.

"Internet," he said again.

Hoang, 48, has worked at the pizzeria for 10 years. Six days a week, 12 hours a day.

It's one of those ever-rarer Rittenhouse Square spots that resists change yet still hangs on. Its charm found not in the chipped, fake-shingle facade or the fading salmon-colored booths, but in the endless back-and-forth of John and Hoang.

Such as when Hoang talked about leaving Vietnam as a child while the country was still fighting Cambodia in the 1970s.

"Maybe I could have been drafted and be in some cemetery," Hoang said.

"Or maybe you be a captain right now," John said, before breaking into a peal of laughter.

I got to know Hoang when my wife and I lived across the street from their place eight years ago.

He's a fixture - one of the people in this city that makes a block feel more like a neighborhood.

Like that night he helped me heft a hulking old TV up narrow flights of stairs, hurling the thing the final few feet over me after I fell on the landing.

"You OK, Tom?" he shouted.

(Hoang has always thought my name was Tom. I've never gotten around to correcting him.)

At the counter, we'd talk Springsteen - "Born in the U.S.A., Tom. It gives me goose bumps"- and even if he was busy at the grill, he'd yell out advice for how I could quit smoking. "Fruit smoothies, Tom!"

If he saw my wife coming home late, he'd make sure she got inside safely, and he did the same for my niece the summer she stayed with us.

And there was that memorable afternoon when police and firefighters coaxed a burglar off the roof of a brownstone, while Hoang, furious, shouted from behind the police tape, "Shoot him in the leg!"

Many nights, I'd sit in the quiet of the pizzeria dining room, writing, with Hoang there, too, talking away to kill the slow hours.

"You look older, Tom," he said, when I stopped in the other afternoon. It had been too long. Hoang looked older, too.

We got to catching up - about how on his days off he looks after his mother in the house they share in Media. About all the shiny new apartment buildings and homes in the neighborhood - of the newcomers who buy the craft beer but not the food.

About how, in life, you have to find a way to be happy, even when you feel lonely.

About how he plans to work until he's 65, and wants to retire in a house with a backyard garden.

How he hopes to have a nice, kind woman to share it with - someone he'll meet out there on his own, with a smile and a conversation.

"I want to be surprised by her," he said. "And I want her to be surprised by me."

Then, Hoang went back to work. There were customers.

mnewall@phillynews.com

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