Diana Ross and the Supremes were barely audible above the low murmur of the patrons of the S&J Restaurant in Riverdale yesterday afternoon. Usually, customers said, the music plays loud and the conversation even louder.
Morgan Wooten, basketball coach at DeMatha High School, was there as usual, talking strategy with his assistants over light beers and iced tea.
George Riggin, a regular for 15 years, made his usual stop after work for a couple of draft beers.
But missing was Bruno Perrone, the 70-year-old who always was busy pumping hands with anyone who came in, singing in operatic tones for the female employes he delighted in teasing and saying "hello" dozens of times a day to the same faces.
Perrone was gone, missing only his second day of work in 11 years.
Perrone died early yesterday, Prince George's County police said, a victim of a freak hit-and-run accident.
"It won't be lively around here for awhile," said Judy Kanoppell, a Riverdale resident who visits the restaurant daily.
Kanoppell looked at the mostly blue-collar crowd huddled over ice-cold mugs of beer. "They're all thinking about Bruno."
About 1 a.m. yesterday, police said, Perrone stepped off a curb at 49th Avenue and East-West Highway and was struck by a full-sized red and black automobile, which then left the scene.
The driver apparently did not see Perrone, according to police, because minutes earlier, a nearby traffic accident knocked out electrical power in the area. Perrone wore dark-colored clothing, police said.
Two off-duty police officers, one from the District and one from Baltimore, saw Perrone in the street and tried to revive him. Their attempts failed. Police have no leads in the case.
Perrone was only two blocks from the S&J Restaurant at 6108 Rhode Island Ave. when the accident occurred.
Jim Dement, the owner of the restaurant, said Perrone usually came to work about 1 a.m. and often remained until 4 the same afternoon.
"When he started here he worked 6 in the morning until 2 in the afternoon," Dement said. "My stepfather hired him. As it became more important to him, he spent more and more hours here. It became his whole life."
To hear the regulars talk, Perrone was just as much to S&J's as S&J's was to him.
Police said Perrone was a dishwasher. And that he was.
"He was always shaking your hand," said Scotty, as in "just plain Scotty," a grizzly character who sported a crew cut and open-collared flannel shirt. "And he'd make a face and say 'not so hard.' His hand would always be wet from the dishwasher."
But dishwashing was not his only job. Dement said Perrone "did everything," including preparing food, waiting and cleaning tables and making patrons feel at home.
"It's going to take two good men to replace him," said Kanoppell, who worked with Perrone for three years at the restaurant.
When things weren't lively, Perrone would sing, "kind of opera-style," said Tina Kelly, a waitress.
"The first time I heard him singing back in the kitchen I thought he was having a heart attack. He used to sing really loud," Kelly said.
Both police and S&J employes and regulars said Perrone had no living relatives.
But he had come to treat one of the employes, Suzanne Sheckels, as a daughter.
"We were his family," Sheckels said. "He called me 'Mommy.' He used to ask me what I would do when he left, but the thought never entered my head. It's going to take a long time to get over Bruno."
Perrone lived only four blocks away from the restaurant, in a room he rented from Sheckels' parents.
Perrone used the room mostly for sleeping, she said, because most of his waking hours were spent on the job.
The restaurant is usually open for business seven days a week, closing only for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
But the S&J Restaurant will close on Sunday, so patrons and employes can attend funeral services for one of their own.