Death of Counter Cuture
An era has passed. Woolworth Corporation is closing its five-and-dime stores across the country, ending a 117 year old business that was once a ripe, rich slice of Americana. As a kid, it was a very big deal to take a bus downtown and go shopping with my mom. She would shop awhile, then we would lunch, at Woolworth's. They had those great stools that spun around. I spun until Mom made me stop or I got nauseous, which ever came first. I suppose if my mother forgets almost everything about me -- my name, my eye and hair color -- she will still remember me spinning round and round on lunch counter stools in Woolworth's.I usually ordered a Cheeseburger Platter, which included french fries and a Coca-Cola. The Coca-Colas in five-and-dimes always have such a distinct syrupy flavor: always. Like someone in back is wringing out pancakes into a glass.The french fry situation was never so clearly defined. In the photograph of the platter displayed above the counter, there would be approximately twenty fries. But when the meal arrived there would be only a dozen, maybe fifteen. When I questioned my mother about this discrepancy she would get the same faraway look as when I asked why Linda, my friend down the street with a faint outline of a training bra under her leotard, sometimes made me feel funny when we wrestled.I uncovered the answer to that riddle shortly after my 20th birthday, but the french fry mystery still has me stumped.I dined at Woolworth's recently and felt like I had come home. It was warm and familiar, though not unchanged. The spinning stools were gone. Probably the waitresses grew tired over the years of watching me whirling like a miniature dervish. They were replaced by little chairs that do only half-turns. Cute, not thrilling.Another change, my waitress was not the usual lunch counter help, a dowdy divorcee looking like she was born wearing a hairnet, her voice coarsened from too many Pall Malls. My waitress was young and pretty with dark almond eyes, but it was a sad sort of pretty. I smiled at her a lot, but she didn't notice. I decided she had fought with her boyfriend the night before. Her nameplate read Lori.The menu was filled with more glossy photographs, which should bemandatory for all menus. No telling what photographers who snap those shots list on their resumes. Lori asked if she could help me. I asked if the grilled cheese was good and was immediately sorry. She seemed hurt and confused, although she assured me the sandwich was fine. I decided that she had discovered that her boyfriend was seeing another woman. Someone he met at school. Nothing serious, mind you, just a casual fling. But if it was so casual, why keep it hidden?I ordered the grilled cheese and a Coca-Cola. It was to be served with potato chips and pickle slices, which pleased me. While it was being prepared, I browsed. Woolworth's ambiance receives jibes from some food critics but I think it's loaded with character. Guinea pigs were on sale, from $8.99 to $3.99. Very reasonable. There was also a sale on houseplant food, fingernail polish, shampoo and adult diapers.Lori brought my Coke, sweet and syrupy as I remembered. She cleaned in a distracted way, wiping off the toaster three times. It sparkled. She was probably trying to decide whether she should go out with the guy who just moved in to the apartment down the hall. He had been asking her for a date all week. She didn't want to, but it would teach her boyfriend a lesson. She didn't even mind so much that he was seeing someone else, but the fact that he had lied was hard to forgive. She wondered how men could be such pigs. And I had no words to comfort her.When she brought my meal, I smiled brightly and was going to say she had pretty eyes, but she set my plate down with one of thoseI've-served-too-many-old-men-coffee-and-my-boyfriend-is-a-snake-and-if-you-tell-me-I-have-pretty-eyes-I'll-throw-this-sandwich-in-your-face looks that lunch counter waitresses are notorious for. So I kept quiet.Nouvelle cuisine has never gone out of style at Woolworth's. My sandwich was dynamic. Light and fluffy yet maintaining the necessary balance between cheese and bread that makes a grilled cheese successful. My potato chips, though obviously Industrial Ruffles, were fresh with plenty of ridges. My pickle slices were a fine translucent green, artfully arranged. The entire meal was under $3.I left the money on the counter throwing a final, desperate,before-the-buzzer smile at Lori, but she was standing by the grill, staring out the window, holding a serving spoon, wondering why there was so little romance left in America.