RICK MARIANO inched around City Hall's cramped observation deck, 500 feet above ground, just below Billy Penn's massive bronze feet.

This was Tuesday, almost 10 years since the then-beleaguered City Councilman came up here alone and despondent, then turned off his cellphone.

"I think I'm gonna jump," he joked to a security guard.

The guard - and most everyone else - believed him.

Mariano knew he was about to be indicted on bribery charges. His lawyer had just told him he couldn't represent him anymore. Reporters were nipping at his heels.

Mariano unwittingly thrust the city into a frenzy. Someone called 9-1-1. Firefighters, paramedics, police and a SWAT team scrambled on the streets below.

"That's what I'm most known for," Mariano said Tuesday as he soaked in a 360-degree view of Philadelphia. "It's embarrassing."

This is the first time he's been back since that fateful day. Here, his characteristic bubbly, loose-lipped, sharp-tongued ways and self-deprecating humor are gone. He is pensive and subdued, almost somber. So un-Mariano.

"Everything looks smaller up here than it did back then," he said softly.

Four and a half years have passed since Mariano was released from prison in October 2010, after serving just over four years of a 6 1/2-year sentence.

His days of freedom have been packed with twists, turns and dives:

Divorce. Cancer. Frenemies. Unreturned calls. Self-forgiveness. Money woes. Unemployment. Dating. First grandchild. Martial arts. Weight loss. Biker boots. Rocky.

"If I could wave a magic wand, I'd probably be a priest. Seriously," he said."It's always been romance and finances that tend to get me in trouble."

His face, thinner now, framed with thick, slick-backed gray hair, crinkled into a boyish Robert De Niro smile.

Mariano is on the cusp of reinventing himself. All he needs, he says, is a chance.

With the mayor's race in full swing, he's biting at the bit.

"In my district I could probably [win] again, but I can't [run] because I'm a felon," he said.

He tells practically everyone he's a felon, from students in his martial arts class to the elevator operator. It's as if it's a cleansing. Or his way of testing new acquaintances.

He supports Jim Kenney for mayor and has told him in jest, "Hey, if you want me to do something to help like endorse your opponent, I will."

Mariano's 30-year-old son, Vince, an electrical apprentice and member of a band, calls his father his "hero," a "great dad."

But, Vince says, his father is somewhat stuck.

"He can't adjust. It took everything, mostly his self-respect," Vince said. "The way he sees it, he's not viewed as a good person - but he is. Nobody gives him a chance. He had lifelong friends that he's lost.

"My dad is just different now. He's not the same guy. I see a broken man.

"But he still has that sparkle in his eyes. I can still see a comeback."

Bad karma

Rick Mariano is Philly unplugged. The son of an Italian union electrician and an Irish homemaker, Mariano, now 59, is an unpolished, real, rough-and-tumble, muscled, tattooed street kid.

"In 1991, my father was on his deathbed and he told me, 'I don't want you to go into politics. Don't let them guys talk you into it,' " he recalled.

But Mariano, who grew up in Juniata Park and worked for years as an electrician, was drawn to the brawl, bluster and glory of the political scene.

"When you run for political office, you're either nuts or you have compassion for people and want to help people," he explained.

"I'm a little of both."

But once elected, "It's all about getting re-elected," he said. "I always thought politics was like the bar scene in Star Wars. Everyone's got an issue, but they want to do well."

He began his career as an aide to Councilman Dan McElhatton. But in 1995 he challenged McElhatton for his lower Northeast seat.

"I opened up an opportunity for him and he repaid me by running against me," McElhatton told the Daily News recently.

In Mariano style, he announced his candidacy from a flatbed truck across from City Hall. Support from the building trade unions, ward leaders and state Sen. Vincent Fumo help catapult him into office.

He instantly became a talker. He sometimes strapped a .380 Smith and Wesson to his ankle during Council sessions.

Some labeled him a bully in and out of City Hall but he - and others - saw himself as a scrappy street politician ready to fight for the little guy.

"He was a very caring guy when it came to his constituents," said his longtime friend, Joe O'Connor, a retired chief inspector for the Philadelphia Police Department.

And he learned the political dance.

"Being a politician, you have to do a lot of butt kissing. It's an art. My lips are stained," Mariano said with a chuckle.

But by 2001, his real troubles began.

He cheated on his first wife to be with his second. His paychecks were frozen because of a redistricting dispute and he couldn't pay his bills.

The owners of Erie Steel, a company in his district, gave him $23,455 to pay off credit-card debt. Two of the Erie checks were laundered through a middleman. Mariano got another company to pay $5,400 for a membership at an upscale gym.

It was a pedestrian crime in a city known for big-time pay to play.

"I did what [the federal prosecutors] said," he said recently sitting in a Port Richmond diner. "I committed a crime. I wasn't a good guy. I shouldn't have done it."

Yet his biggest regret in life is having an affair. He was in the throes of a midlife crisis, had a wandering eye and a huge ego.

"I don't want to say it was bad karma but I was thinking more of myself," he said.

"We all know what we'd do if we could live our lives over again. I was very immature. That led to everything else . . . I should have just bought a Corvette," he said with that De Niro smile.

He regrets not pleading guilty and being done with it.

Joe O'Connor, the retired police chief inspector, said he suspected that the feds wanted Mariano to start yakking about the John Street administration and influential electricians union boss John Dougherty.

"I didn't bust anyone's stones. I fell into their laps. Up and over," Mariano said.

"It's not my nature to be a rat."

'I think I'm gonna jump'

Mariano never planned to kill himself. On Oct. 20, 2005, he was just having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. He needed to think, time alone.

He'd downed three Xanax to calm his nerves. After learning he had no lawyer, he came back to City Hall midafternoon.

"I go upstairs to ditch the reporters," he said. "I push the fourth floor and kept going up."

A security man stood at the base of the last elevator to reach the observation deck.

"How you doin', Councilman?" Mariano remembers the man asking him.

"I think I'm gonna jump," he said. "He laughed but I guess he thought he couldn't take that responsibility."

Mariano couldn't leap off even if he wanted. The deck is encased in Plexiglass. He didn't have his gun either.

He looked down to the street and saw the commotion.

"I thought it was a concert in LOVE Park," Mariano said, shaking his head.

After more than two hours, Mayor John Street, a close friend, Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson and Managing Director Pedro Ramos climbed to the deck.

U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, another friend, stayed downstairs.

"He's petrified of heights," Mariano said. "Street was like, 'C'mon Cuz,' [using a nickname he had for Mariano].

"Let's go down."

It may sound like a cliche, Mariano said, but he grew more religious in prison.

"Everyone says they find Jesus in prison. But Jesus isn't lost. I was," he said.

His second wife, Susan, visited him when he was locked up, but he sensed something was off.

"She kind of left me in jail but she neglected to tell me," he said.

After he was released, he couldn't get work as an electrician, and then within five months, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He underwent radiation treatments and got divorced.

"She broke my heart," he said.

He said he has forgiven himself and apologized to his first wife and his sons (Vince and Rick Jr., who works as building services administrator for the city).

Mariano lives on his union pension and Social Security disability.

"People will read that and think I'm a crumb," he said.

He lives in a one-bedroom apartment on a bustling section of Roosevelt Boulevard near Bridge Street. American flags are draped over two doors and family portraits hang on the wall. He drives a self-described "old man's car," a 1993 gray Chrysler New Yorker and a 1995 Harley Davidson Sportster for fun.

"He's a good guy who made a bad decision. I think it's humbled him," O'Connor said.

Joe Grace, director of public policy for the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, said Mariano reached out to him when he ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 2011.

"He went out of his way to help me. He talked me through the political ropes and gave me political wisdom," Grace said. "He was very genuine."

These days, Mariano mixes it up.

He attends Mass almost every morning. He takes martial-arts classes three times a week in Huntingdon Valley.

"He's trying to get his life together," said instructor David Pantano.

"He's dedicated," said classmate Brittan Griesemer. "A lot of people don't learn from their mistakes. He has."

One day recently, Mariano worked as an extra in the new Rocky film, "Creed."

"Politics is acting in a way," he said with a smile.

He is looking for love and before any date, he makes sure women know who he is.

"I'm that Rick Mariano," he tells them.

He's invited at least five women to his funeral. "I've asked them to dress up in black and wail. That's part of being Rick Mariano."

Rick to the rescue

After Mariano left City Hall's observation deck on Tuesday, he strolled down Chestnut Street, dressed in jeans, a black jacket and zippered biker boots.

At 11th Street, a large man in a wheelchair was in the crosswalk when a SEPTA bus suddenly clipped the chair, forcing him to partly slide out onto the street.

"Oh, my God!" Mariano yelled.

He bolted across 11th and tried to lift the man up. Two other people helped. They placed him back in the chair and moved him to the sidewalk.

The man, with his lower legs in surgical dressings and his shirt open, showing a vertical scar on his chest, was bleeding profusely.

"Call 9-1-1!" Mariano shouted.

A nurse, on her way to work, used a scarf and a towel to put pressure on the leg wounds until the ambulance arrived.

Soon, the corner was packed with paramedics, Philadelphia and SEPTA police and Jefferson Hospital security.

The injured man was hoisted onto a stretcher and the crowd started to break up.

"I just had to do something," Mariano said. "I don't like to see people suffer.

"Human beings should help other human beings. It's what we're all supposed to do."

" @barbaralaker