Sunday, June 14, 2009

Two Please

One of the earliest and clearest memories of my childhood was hearing "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" playing over a loudspeaker as my mother and I walked into the Woolworth's at the Pine Hills Shopping Center. I remember everything was displayed in bins layed out on flat countertops. Very few things were on shelves, as is everything we find in stores today. The cheap, sparkly costume jewelry always caught my eyes when we walked in but soon my attention and the rest of me drifted to the toy department as soon as I could sneak away from my mother who was busy searching through the sale racks for a new blouse or pair of shoes. I was taking the chance that she would soon come up behind me, yanking my arm and hissing, "I told you not to wander off!" but it was worth it as I stood almost catatonic in front of ceiling high bins of candy colored plastic and rubber balls. There were armies of green plastic soldiers heaped into piles next to paratroopers each with parachutes of thin plastic and thread. Baby dolls perched in rows with their arms outstretched as stuffed animals prowled around the top of the display. I would see a package of eight brightly colored whistles for only 59 cents and excitedly grab it knowing that I only wanted one and that would only cost about eight cents of which I had exactly in my pocket. What I didn't know is that they wouldn't just sell me one.
Even though my hearing was selective when it came to coming when she called, there was one thing that she could say and I would be at her side before she finished, "Come on now, we're going to get some lunch." And that could only mean one thing. The Luncheonette! Gleaming stainless steel panels and spotless white countertops lined one side of the store just behind a row of cozy red vinyl clad booths. We often sat at the counter where I would spin on the shiny stools until my mother told me to stop it and sit up straight. The menu choices were tantalizing. What would it be today? A grilled cheese sandwich with french fries and a pickle? The perfect hamburger with no onions and a little ketchup and mustard on a lightly toasted bun? Whatever I chose it was always with a Coca-Cola in a curvy Coca-Cola glass with crushed ice and a straw. The friendly matronly lady behind the counter with a clean uniform and hat would take our order and then prepare it herself on the grill behind her. There was no back kitchen with a separate cook. These ladies did it all. Took the orders, prepared it, served it and then cleaned up behind us. Sometimes, and this was pretty rare, I was allowed to order a small sundae which my mom and I would share.
My mom was barely more than a child when my brother and I were born and I've always suspected, especially as I got older, that it was occasionally very difficult for her to handle two young boys. That's why I remember fondly these "lunch dates" she and I would have because for almost an hour, she could relax and be lost in her own thoughts for a while. My brother was too young to come along and stayed home with my father so it was just me she had to watch and without my partner in crime, I was practically angelic. No screaming kids running through the house, the phone ringing, my father watching TV with the sound too loud, just her and me sitting at the counter scraping the last bits of hot fudge from the sundae glass at the Woolworth's luncheonette.

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