GUEST COLUMN | Counter measures

If you look at what's missing from this great land, it's, a barstool on which to sit, good home cookin', and a counter on which to eat it.

The diners of yesterday need a revival.

It wasn't just the amazing food; it also was the coffee that was served in cheap mugs by the waitresses who could juggle more things than a Ringling Brothers employee.

It was the truck drivers interacting with the locals. The locals were regaled by stories of the road seen from the high seat inside a Peterbilt.

The chatter from the barstools that made the waitresses snicker as they heard the same story again for the thousandth time. A story that got better with each retelling.

My hometown of Ashdown, Arkansas, had Mac's Cafe. Other towns we visited, whether going to or through, also had their own diners and cafes. Texarkana had The Coffee Cup and The Dixie Diner.

Of course, Waffle Houses dotted the Southern landscape, offering safe umbrage for those craving calories prepared like grandma made them. Thankfully, to a degree, Waffle Houses still dot the Southern landscape, providing greasy fare for those daytime diners and for those who stayed out too late at their favorite watering hole.

When I was a kid, Woolworth's was one of the most unique of all places to eat. It was a five-and-dime store, but it also had a lunch counter. The food was great, and it was affordable. I recently ran across a menu from there. It was available for sale, but not dated. I could only venture a guess of when these prices were in place, but based on the 55¢ cost for an entire hamburger platter, my assumption is mid-1960s.

The clientele at Woolworth's was different than at Mac's or other cafes and diners found closer to major highways. Woolworth's were often stand-alone buildings or were in small strip malls or shopping centers. Dad could venture off to the nearby sporting goods store while mom and the kids looked for something to buy.

That was the great thing about Woolworth's. If you had a dime, you could buy something good. If you had a quarter, something great. With a dollar bill, you could do all your Christmas shopping.

Once you'd decided on what to buy, if you'd been good your mom would take you to the Woolworth's lunch counter. There you could inspect your toy or other purchase while dining on ice cream.

They'd scoop your favorite ice cream flavor into a large sundae dish (chocolate was always mine and my sister's go-to), and then top it with whipped cream and a cherry.

But people-watching became one of my favorite things to do. I could always play with my toy later. Seeing what people were doing was a missed opportunity if you didn't take it while you had it.

For whatever reason, people will drop their guard when they're in their car or sitting in a restaurant. It's as if they think people pay absolutely no attention to them when they're at a red light or sitting in a diner. The behavior and conversations are always interesting.

I don't have to tell you what people do at a red light. It's a behavior considered disgusting by some, but all-to-frequently seen. Why they don't carry a tissue with them or wait until they arrive at the restroom at the Woolworth's is beyond me. But that's what makes people watching fun. They forget where they are and just go to town.

Same is true at a table in a diner or cafe. At least, it was back in the day.

Billy's Mom: "Billy, I told you if you asked me that one more time I was going to spank you."

Billy: "But, mom!"

Billy's Mom: "Don't say it again."

Billy: "But, mom!"

Billy's Mom: "OK, as soon as your dad gets back from the sporting goods store, I'm telling him what you did."

Billy: "But, mom!"

I never knew what Billy had asked, but being a small boy myself, I could really sympathize with him. I'd been in his shoes before. Frequently.

Often, my dad went to the record section at Woolworth's instead of the nearby sporting goods store. One of the reasons he so dearly loved the vinyl selection there was that they carried many of the artists he'd grown up with just a decade before. One of his most prized albums he was able to special order from there was Buddy Holly's greatest hits.

You have to remember that in the 60s and early 70s, there was no Internet and you could only buy what you found or could get someone to special order for you. Most of what was found in the record stores then was what was currently popular on the radio.

When dad was done, he'd often join us at the lunch counter. He liked the coffee at Woolworth's. That was something for which they were famous. Even the menu I found online touted Woolworth's coffee.

But once dad returned, we didn't stay long. He was ready to get home and put that Buddy Holly record on the turntable.

On the way home from Woolworth's, or any other cafe or diner, I'd think of the experience. Who we'd seen, what they'd eaten, what they'd said, where they might be going. And that was the great thing about experiencing a cafe or diner. It was a microcosm of humanity, brought together by good, inexpensive food, and a convenient place to get it. It was a great time for everyone.

Well, everyone except for Billy.

John's latest book, "Puns for Groan People," and volumes 1 and 2 of his series "Write of Passage: A Southerner's View of Then and Now" are available on his website, TheCountryWriter.com, where you can also send him a message and hear his weekly podcast.

©2023 John Moore

photo Columnist John Moore found a copy of an old Woolworths lunch counter menu for sale online. (Photo courtesy of John Moore)

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