Not so long ago, I announced in these pages that the Good Old Days were not in many ways as good as we Good Old Guys and Gals remember them to be (“Were those the days?” Feb. 21, 2016). Yet often when I look about my air-conditioned Wi-Fi direct-deposit flat-screen smart-phone 21st-century bubble, I miss and yearn for some institution or arrangement of that bygone realm, the Past.
And though quantum physics may assure us that the passage of time is an illusion and that all points in space-time are, as it were, simultaneous, I find no comfort in knowing that somewhere in space-time a freckle-faced red-haired 8-year-old is sitting on a stool at the soda fountain of Mackey’s Drug Store in Wall Lake, Iowa, consuming a chocolate malt that seems to him a foretaste of Heaven. I’m stranded in the here and now, and I want one of those pourable bubbly malteds made with real malt and whole milk and hand-packed ice cream, not one of today’s insipid soft-serve McShakes.
“There you go, Michael,” Mr. Mackey would say, expertly pouring half my malt into a sundae glass and leaving the rest beside it in its metal mixing container, present ecstasy, with more to come. Mr. Mackey was something of a celebrity in my world: He was colorblind, had two adopted daughters and owned the first power lawn mower I had ever seen, a reel mower with a motor that drove the cutting reel and the wheels. This type of mower would cleanly cut each blade of grass and toss it gently into a basket, leaving a neatly manicured lawn unmarred by the windrows of mulched grass left by today’s rotary mowers.
But I digress. Mr. Mackey presided over a soda fountain, a marble-topped bar with a row of rotating stools on the customer side and all sorts of marvelous apparatus on Mr. Mackey’s: swan-necked faucets and syrup pumps and deep vats of hard ice cream — vanilla and chocolate and chocolate chip and butter-brickle and Neapolitan — a red Coke machine that rose above the counter like a truncated blimp, a green malt-mixer against the mirror on the back wall. From this center of power and expertise, Mr. Mackey concocted and dispensed ice cream cones, sodas, sundaes, cherry and chocolate Cokes, green rivers, and those wicked good chocolate malteds.
The people who gathered at the soda fountain were there not by appointment, as in present-day coffeehouses, nor did they disappear into their cyberbubbles once they were settled on their stools; they were there casually, to buy what they needed, to take a break from the heat or the cold or the routines of their days, to hear the latest local news, aka gossip: farmers buying mastitis medicine, mothers buying talcum powder, 8-year-old boys free-reading at the yardlong rack of comic books (I’d be stoking my nightmares with “Tales from the Crypt,” which my parents wouldn’t allow in the house); Casey Corn the dragline operator and his wife, Helen, who owned the most elaborate cuckoo clock I’ve ever seen; Charlie Langfritz the wisecracking carpenter; Emma Yohnke, mainstay of my grandmother’s bridge club (my grandfather called them “the Silent Four”), filling a prescription from Dr. Blum. It was at this counter that, in the spring of 1940, a young high school teacher and coach first met the railroad station agent’s middle daughter, starting a sequence of cause and effect that produced, over time, a red-haired reader of horror comics and, more recently, this article. All of them, us, pausing at the soda fountain to catch up on who’s doing what to whom and to enjoy something delicious.
O bring back the soda fountain! And while we’re at it, we could bring back the Woolworth’s lunch counter, or its Dinkytown equivalent, the Gray’s Campus Drug lunch counter. This gathering place occupied a rear quarter of the store and consisted of two U-shaped counters where customers sat on rotating stools (I did love those rotating stools) and enjoyed breakfast, lunch or dinner, with daily specials.
The lunch counter’s reliably good comfort food was served, or rather, slung, by a lanky, laconic, gray-haired waitress named Ray, who never wrote an order down and never got an order wrong. In my dissertation-writing days, I’d come staggering up to the Gray’s lunch counter, stupefied by my hours in the library.
“Help you,” Ray would declare, and I’d order a plate of manna-in-the-wilderness French toast if it were still morning, or an ambrosial hot beef sandwich if it were afternoon. Five minutes later, the requested platter would come sliding into my sight beside the cup of coffee Ray had poured, unordered, when I first took my seat, and I would be comforted.
Some of my neighbors were fellow graduate students, earnestly discussing paradigm shifts and surplus repression, young men with scruffy beards and young women with straight hair and no makeup. Other neighbors were regulars, Dinkytown characters: a fellow with ambulatory neurosis, said to be the lost son of an African or Caribbean dignitary, who took a break at our counter from his endless walking, his face brightening with recognition of everyone he met, friend or stranger; a muscular construction worker in a tank top who flirted with everyone, even Ray, who was once seen to smile at some piece of blue-collar banter; an elderly lady who one of my daughters christened the Dame of Dinkytown, who wore a black cape and carried an umbrella, rain or shine, and took people up rather sharply in a plausible British accent; a portly imposing fellow with a large spiderweb tattoo on one elbow, remarkable in those pre-ink days, and his companion, a miniature version of himself who mirrored his every movement; an ageless gray-haired man, thin as a wraith, always alone, rumored to be a perpetual lab assistant in some endless degree program, sitting over a cup of cooling coffee in an attitude of quiet listening. When I remember this Bartleby of the lunch counter, I wonder what place of rest he found for himself, what places all of them found, when Gray’s closed its lunch counter and, finally, its doors.
Can even Omnipotence bring it back, cries C.S. Lewis. Well, if Omnipotence could, I’d have Him/Her/It bring back the daytime and early October World Series. Let the season or the playoffs be shortened, I’d say, so that this climactic event of the Summer Game does not unfold at the gates of winter. And let the games be played in the middle of the day, the middle of our everyday lives that are for the moment given purpose and meaning by this heroic duel on the diamond and the green fields.
Until 1971, all World Series games were played in the afternoon. Every radio in the country, it seemed, and after about 1952 every television set, was tuned to the game. The play-by-play and the intermittent roar of the crowd were an all-afternoon background to our everyday lives, which for some reason we had to continue living while with one ear or one eye we followed the progress of What Was Really Important. An especially loud roar might bring these everyday lives, our buying or selling, our studying, our confession of sins, the births of our children, to a temporary halt while we found out what just happened. The travel days without a game seemed somehow flat and empty, lacking the game days’ edge of excitement and meaning.
In the 1960 Series between the lordly, hated-by-everyone-outside-of-New-York Yankees and the “scrappy” Pittsburgh Pirates, the Yankees had destroyed the Pirates in three of the games, 10-0, 16-3, 12-0; but the Pirates had come scrambling back to win three, narrowly. The climactic Game 7 was played on the afternoon of Thursday, Oct. 13, a school day. Little learning took place in my high school during the hours of play. The sound of the play-by-play and the occasional roar of the crowd filled the hallways. The Pirates led early, but the Yankees scored in the fifth, took the lead in the sixth, increased it to 7-4 in the top of the eighth; the usual result seemed inevitable. Then the Pirates rallied.
Mr. Huckins, my American government teacher, finally gave in to the roar of the Forbes Field crowd that filled the hallways.
“We’d better go see what’s happening,” he said, and he led us to the study hall, where the entire school, grades 7-12, all the faculty and even the enforcers, the principal and assistant principal, oblivious to the irregularity of it all, had gathered, standing room only, to watch the momentous events unfolding on the school’s only television set.
The Pirates scored five in the bottom of the eighth to pull ahead by two. Hope turned to fear as the Bombers came to bat in the top of the ninth. They were held to two runs, and, with the score tied in the bottom of the ninth, Bill Mazeroski, the Pirates’ second baseman, hit the second pitch over the left-field wall.
Though I will never forget the sight of Mazeroski’s leaping, joyous tour of the bases, what stays with me after all these years is the explosion of delight that filled Forbes Field in Pittsburgh and the entire country outside of New York City and the study hall in our tiny Iowa town. We who were many were one: farm kids and town kids, jocks and nerds, brains and burnouts, studs and sluts and geeks and homecoming queens, all brought together in one joyous moment. E pluribus unum indeed.
O bring back the soda fountains, the lunch counters, the daytime World Series, and, while we’re at it, the single-tier basketball tournaments, the neighborhood sidewalks, the front porches, the bowling leagues, the party line. Maybe we would need to buy fewer guns, to build fewer walls, if we had more of the places and occasions that remind us that we’re all in this together.
Michael Nesset lives in North St. Paul.