Category Archives: Coffee Corner

Soda Fountain Magic

Entering Zaharakos Soda Fountain as a preschooler, I knew magic was for real.

I spotted curlicue iron tables and chairs my size. Glass cases held hundreds of chocolates, hard candies and jelly beans. Had I reached heaven early? The adult friend who brought me confirmed this with ice cream I didn’t have to share.

Tired of the rock-hard chair, I pattered across the gleaming black-and-white floor to the counter’s red stools. They turned round and round! My friend’s objection didn’t surprise me. Even if a stool was designed to twirl, grown-ups always said you shouldn’t.

An enormous 1908 orchestrion — a self-playing pipe organ with drums, cymbals and triangles — fascinated me. Did jolly ghosts fill the high-ceilinged room with music?

Occasionally, Mama took us to Zaharakos. How I longed to dig into that pile of roasted cashews! But even a small packet cost too much.

My mother’s generation had frequented the place during their teens, so we cool adolescents of the 1960s avoided the fountain as if it radiated fallout. Still, celebrating my first job, I treated my little sister at Zaharakos.

I said grandly, “Order whatever you want.”

We ate huge sundaes. I played the orchestrion and bought cashews, toasty and delicious beyond belief.

Later, newly engaged, I chose fabulous Zaharakos candies for my future in-laws’ Christmas gift.

Fast-forward a few years to a visit by my mother. Adulting had drained away my coolness, so we visited Zaharakos. The mirrors gleamed, but the near-empty soda fountain’s stained counter, dull woodwork and damaged tin-patterned ceiling didn’t brighten our day.

“Everyone came here after school. ‘Meet you at the Greek’s!’ we’d say.” Mom gazed at the broken orchestrion. “The fountain’s dated now. I guess I am, too.”

Decades later, I shared a similar feeling when visiting the area. I stopped for a treat, but Zaharakos, a landmark since 1900, had closed. The orchestrion? Sold to a California collector.

Not long ago, though, as I traveled past my childhood hometown, something sent me off the interstate.

Miracles do happen.

Inside Zaharakos, red stools flanked gleaming, marble counters, and mirrors glimmered amid rich woodwork. Pint-sized curlicue tables and chairs again held little diners. The original orchestrion played, grand as ever.

I sent yummy birthday chocolates to my mother.

She no longer remembered events of five minutes ago, but she recalled Zaharakos.

The soda fountain had worked its sweet magic once again.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What’s your favorite soda fountain treat?

Want to travel back in time? Visit Zaharakos on the Web or plan a trip to experience the magic of their old-fashioned soda fountain: http://www.zaharakos.com/

 

Summer Driving: Going Crazy

Is road construction a good thing?

During my pre-driving days, I liked it, especially on long family trips. Bright-colored signs, flags, cones and barricades broke up eternal stretches of highway. Huge trucks, bulldozers, and graders growled and spouted smoke. Burly men (there were no women road construction workers then) drove the heavy equipment. Jackhammers appeared to enjoy breaking up Planet Earth. Lines of traffic snaked along roads, semitrailers’ air brakes whooshed and horns honked — all very exciting.

Road construction kept Dad and Mom occupied. Flapping maps, they forgot to monitor my siblings and me. When who-was-looking-at-whom crises arose, we kicked each other freely.

Dad’s mutterings soon graduated to addressing aloud the sins of fellow drivers and construction workers. A pastor, he did not swear. Instead, he called them Zeke, Pete, Cedric and Mephibosheth:

“Zeke and Cedric, are you going to yak all day? Or actually work?”

“Look out, Mephibosheth! Somebody else, take the wheel!”

He addressed irritating women drivers as Gertrude. Unless he was really mad. Then they became Sister Shumpett.

“Sister Shumpett, are you trying to send us to Jesus?!”

We kids loved the drama.

As an adult, I’m not so thrilled. Traveling anywhere during summer, I go crazy. Hostile plastic barrels target my car. I drive in reduced lanes that can’t accommodate a skateboard, let alone semis rocking around me.

Other drivers go crazy, too. Construction zones become existential: “I drive. Therefore, I am.”

Our Visa bills for gas support that mantra. But that’s all we know in construction areas, as highway signs become mere mirages. Drivers rocket past at warp speed. Others meander across skinny lanes as if they are middle-schoolers riding bikes on a summer afternoon. Pete, Cedric, Mephibosheth, Gertrude and Sister Shumpett are alive and well on summer highways in this millennium, too.

So how can I ask a stupid question like, “Is road construction good?”

Before you add my name to the above list, consider this: The only thing worse than road construction is no road construction. In the Bahamas, Hubby and I nearly drove into the sea because no one had bothered to barricade a washed-out road, let alone, fix it. In Ecuador, we smacked our skulls repeatedly on a bouncing truck’s ceiling, following la calle para burros (the road made for burros).

We’ve also driven in Michigan, a state whose annual highway repair budget is $15.83.

Unfortunately, for family reasons, we continue to drive in Michigan. I may soon pull our pop-up camper, as Hubby insists I learn to spell him.

Look out, Zeke, Pete, Cedric, Gertrude, and Sister Shumpett!

And you thought you already were going crazy.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: So … is road construction a good thing?

This Old Thing

For antique buffs, the past is sacred. They bypass brand-new merchandise. Instead, their eyes light up when encountering objects covered with dust, rust and mildew. “This old thing” comprises a compliment, not a deprecation.

Me? I don’t intentionally collect antiques. It just sort of happens.

Psst. Don’t tell anyone, but I own a VCR. And boom boxes with cassette tape players. I even own a turntable. Our ’70s vinyl records sound scratchy — and the singers somewhat constipated when we forget to flip the speed from 33 rpm to 45 — but the low technology still works, and the music’s awesome. Why relegate these to a garage sale so a stranger can buy them for a quarter, have them appraised a decade later, and sell them for $500?

Such a prospect also inspires me to inventory my kitchen utensils. No doubt, some will decorate a trendy person’s walls.

Think about it: Lunchables packages and Pringles® canisters we toss into recycling bins will someday fetch exorbitant prices. A coffee table may display your Crock-Pot® or the toaster that shoots users on sight. Why? To give a living room “that certain ambiance.”

Other decorators might prefer fan-shaped groupings of power tools or venerable weed whackers. Such future interior design is not unthinkable. Current homeowners display scythes, wagon wheels and horse collars over their fireplaces. Perhaps their descendants will hang milking machines from lighting fixtures to capture a “simpler time.”

For the ultimate feng shui, they will find an honored place for an ancient riding lawn mower.

So, hold onto those valuable future antiques. My heart breaks, remembering a certain yellow polyester dress. My babies applied numerous bodily fluids to its sunshiny folds. As children, they rubbed green Jell-O, snotty noses and Happy Meals (with extra ketchup) into it. Still, the dress survived. I finally dispatched it to The Salvation Army. Like a too-cheerful relative who calls at 6 a.m., it probably will live forever. Some archaeologist will dig up that dress 2,000 years hence, value it at several million, and hang it in a climate-controlled environment far from Happy Meals.

I should have kept it. And a gazillion other valuable items.

Sure, these future antiques we amass make a mess. But consider the legacy we leave our children: pieces of history to cherish. Opportunities to relive the grandeur of the past.

To put everything into a garage sale for a quarter.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: Which of your present possessions will someday wow an antique buff?

Recovering Neatnik

Those who know me best — especially my husband — do not believe I battled neatnik neurosis during my childhood. Sharing a bedroom with my sister, who suffered from chronic clutteritis, I developed OC tendencies in self-defense. My dolls stayed in their bed — cute, clean and quiet — until I wanted to play. Stuffed animals lined up in military order on the bed. I liked clean, shiny, bare surfaces, including floors, bureaus, and walls. As a teen, I kept my organized closet full of freshly-ironed clothes.

Life in an Indiana University dormitory cured me. Forever.

Perhaps my newfound maturity added to my messy success. Perfect order seemed less essential when I had to choose between going out Friday nights and cleaning my room or doing laundry and ironing. Besides, nobody at college had ever heard of an iron. Some had never heard of laundry.

I also credit much of my lifetime recovery to my three children. Gifts from God, they drove my neatnik tendencies away forever. No clean, shiny, bare surfaces appeared in our house for a couple of decades.

True, a period of danger ensued when they left home. Without their loving, anarchic presence, I might have succumbed once again to this terrible affliction. But they loved their old mom and, out of pure concern, left behind sufficient junk to defeat my tidy demons.

Now my grandchildren have joined their parents in concern for my well-being. The spare rooms bulge with toys I gave away 15 years ago, then re-bought at garage sales. An inflated monkey I purchased for fun days at the beach then hid to keep my grandchildren from fighting over it. Stacks of free cereal box books. A fuzzy Frosty the Snowman and Petey the Penguin, still in their 70-percent off package, bought to wiggle, jiggle and delight my grandchildren this coming Christmas. Or maybe they were supposed to thrill the kids five Christmases ago?

Even more touching, my in-laws joined in the fight to end my obsessive-compulsiveness forever. Not long ago they visited us, bringing my husband’s childhood scrapbooks and his favorite deer farm drinking glass, preserved from those exotic vacations in Hayward, Wisconsin.

With all this family support, I won’t see clean, shiny bare surfaces until heaven.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: Are you a neatnik or a clutter queen (king)?

Lovin’ Those Lilacs

My lifelong love affair with lilacs began when our family moved to a house with several bushes. Opening my second-story bedroom window, I inhaled a fragrance that made me want to write poetry.

“What’s that smell?” I asked my mother.

“Lilacs.” She took several long, luxurious sniffs, too.

Mom and I disagreed about short skirts, curfews and whether Herman of Herman’s Hermits needed a haircut. Lilacs made us one in heart, spirit and nose.

I didn’t know the Greek mythology behind lilacs — that a beautiful nymph named Syringa (now the botanical name for lilacs) was pursued aggressively by Pan, god of field and forest. Frightened, she hid by turning herself into a lilac bush.

Who was she kidding? No one remains in cognito smelling like that.

Case in point: few spies practice this form of espionage.

Sadly, no lilacs graced my subsequent homes. I indulged in sniffing them at church, where an enormous grove dominated the side yard. Every year when the allergic choir director threatened to dynamite my beloved bushes, I trembled.

Eventually, I married and moved to apartments and houses with no lilacs. Fortunately, many neighbors owned bushes covered with bouquets of blossoms. While walking with my toddlers, I cautioned that we couldn’t pick the lilacs. However, if we were very, very careful, we could borrow the smell. If you had followed us on our regular alley rounds, you would have seen little girls — and their mommy — standing on tiptoe, hands clasped behind backs, sniffing lilacs.

One kind lilac loaner brought a huge bouquet to my hospital room when my son was born. Her logic: with another sniffer added to our family, her blossoms might not survive long, anyway.

Once, I discovered a new neighbor had axed my favorites. They lay beside the road crushed, like green and purple roadkill.

“You may be chief lilac sniffer, but your name is not on the deed,” Hubby reminded me.

So instead of vandalizing their house, I moved into a home with a big lilac bush. Every spring, I filled my dining room with luscious fragrance.

Supposedly, no one can kill lilacs, yet I did the impossible. Inconsolable, I figured if we could conduct a dozen hamster funerals in the flower bed, we could hold a lilac funeral. But no one agreed.

My husband planted another lilac. But the following year we moved, and I had to say goodbye.

We now live in a house with a rather reserved bush that poises its large lavender parasol of blossoms far above sniff level. Still, it perfumes the garden and even graciously offers a few clusters for my olfactory pleasure.

One sniff on a busy morning makes all the difference in my day. Amazing what a little lilac love can do.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What’s your favorite sniffing flower?

Sneaking Stuff Past Mom

Despite video games, Sneaking Stuff Past Mom still ranks as the number one activity among children.

Sadly, I’ve always been a remedial sneaker. Once, having splashed puddles while wearing a Sunday dress, I deliberately approached my mother. Digging my toe into the floor, I muttered, “I don’t want to talk to you.”

Oh, I tried to change. “Cleaning” my room, I employed the time-honored method of stuffing all worldly belongings under the bed.

Mom made me finish the job, doubling my workload.

I swiped my face with a washcloth, sans soap, hoping I could evade inspection.

Mom clapped me into the bathtub, scrubbing me like her linoleum.

If only she hadn’t possessed that infallible radar that detected fingerprints on hidden Christmas gifts, books under mattresses, skirts rolled to mini-length under long coats, salivating dates on phones. Driving the car, she could tell we’d been speeding. And with whom.

She zeroed in on silences that told her everything: I didn’t get the part in the play; I couldn’t bear my concave bustline one more minute; and the boy who had entered my world exited without a backward look. These she treated with prayer, hugs and freshly baked muffins.

Throughout the years, Mom’s radar remained potent, even when my siblings and I reached adulthood. I caught my brother, a lieutenant colonel in the army, smoking a big cigar.

Panicking, he said, “Do you think Mom knows?”

Though I lived 2,000 miles from Mom for decades, I often heard over the phone, “What’s going on? I’ve been praying for you for three days.”

Often, she already knew.

“Mom, I’m 25 (35) (45) (55) years old. Please stop peeking over my shoulder!”

I thought her radar would never falter.

I was wrong.

During Mom’s final years, I hid several things from her — including her diagnosis of dementia.

Her radar didn’t function as it once did. But some aspects remained. No way could I sneak my stresses past her. She touched my cheek, hand soft as worn cotton. “Honey, you’ve been working too hard.”

Her radar still detected hurting people around her in waiting rooms, restaurants, stores. Once at an airport, she insisted a trendy-looking woman sit beside her. As the kindhearted stranger cooperated, I felt 16 again. Mom, please back off.

My mother talked her ear off. Eventually, though, the woman talked, too. Mom listened to a poignant tale of early widowhood and single-parenting struggles.

She slipped an arm around the woman. “You think God doesn’t love you anymore. But He sent me to tell you He does.”

That lady couldn’t sneak stuff past Mom. She went away blessed.

So did I.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: Did you ever try to sneak stuff past your mom?

Little Choir Boy’s First Concert

My little choir boy.

Though I never would have told him, my eight-year-old grandson resembled a cherub, with blond, adorably mussed hair and big blue eyes.

Instead of wings and a halo, however, a choir T-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes betrayed terrestrial origins. Fifty other similarly-clad choir “angels” appeared equally earthbound.

A couple possessed wild hair that defied mom-smeared pomades. Some faces betrayed streaks of hastily gulped suppers.

All had practiced at 7:15 a.m. for weeks. They weren’t even paid overtime.

Weary, yet eager parents awaited the first song. Sleeping babies hung around necks like 15-pound ornaments. Surrounded by tantrum-throwing toddlers and texting teens, these mothers and fathers still showed up to support their kids.

With the first tuneful voices, quiet spread like a sweet epidemic.

Grandparents sucked in the children’s fresh melodies, a Fountain of Youth elixir. We wouldn’t trade these seats for any in Carnegie Hall.

Though I’d liked to have sat closer, where I could video without standing on my chair.

People behind me might have preferred that, too.

So whispered my daughter as she yanked me down.

“But those grandmas do it.” I pointed toward other seniors, poking up through the crowd like prairie dogs.

She hissed, “If you don’t sit, no ice cream.”

Gasp! I obeyed.

An older choir, wearing favorite team hats, sang a spirited rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

They even sang harmony. If only someone would send these kids to Chicago to do the seventh-inning stretch.

When the third-grade choir strutted their vocal stuff, they sang a memorized song in German. On key, even — unlike many restaurant servers who attempt “Happy Birthday.”

Recently enduring a nearly unrecognizable serenade to a neighboring table, I threatened Hubby with a seafood fork if he revealed it was my birthday, too.

But my grandson’s choir gave me fresh hope that good singing won’t become a lost art.

So did his director, who with gentle, iron words and sweeping gestures, inspired beauty in a hundred kids. Plus, she kept them from killing each other.

Thank God for my little choir boy, who patiently endured a photo op afterward. His great-grandparents sang as they worked, played and prayed. Ditto for grandmas and grandpas, who grew up harmonizing with their families in the car and singing in school and church choirs. So did his golden-voiced daddy and mama.

Maybe, as I did in the past, this little guy will strike deals with fellow servers, earning extra tips when he solos on “Happy Birthday” to diners.

Surely, more applause will await him in his musical future as he shares the song in his heart —helping other hearts sing, too.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What were your favorite grade-school songs?

The Great Broccoli Debate

Soon after our wedding, Hubby and I discovered crucial differences. A key divisive subject: broccoli.

I softened its presence in a casserole. Nevertheless, he turned up his nose. His extra-sensitive taste buds perceived broccoli as impossibly bitter.

I had grown up eating broccoli, pretending to munch trees like a powerful giant. I liked the taste. Broccoli was good for me and filling — important in a household with four siblings. What wasn’t to like about broccoli?

In Hubby’s family, no one competed for food or imagined eating trees. His father and brother also loathed broccoli. Drowning it in cheese sauce, his mother insisted they eat it occasionally.

However, my new husband formulated his own broccoli policy, namely, nada.

I adopted his mother’s.

The debate continued for decades.

Unfortunately, the elder President George Bush undermined me with his broccoli policy. “I’m President of the United States, and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli!’”

If my mother-in-law had cooked the President’s meals, he would have tried three bites or been sent to his room.

Like Steve, President Bush probably believed his DNA rejected broccoli. My husband even insisted God never created broccoli for human consumption.

Dragging God into a debate is risky, not unlike asking my mother to settle a sibling argument. Historically, both debaters ended up listening to a lecture and doing extra chores.

I’d never encountered Scriptures regarding broccoli, with or without cheese sauce. However, several commanded him to give thanks for what was set before him.

Hubby replied with Scriptures that discouraged quarrels.

One day as I typed, deep in Novel Land, Hubby leaped from the hallway, hands thrown open like a spotlight performer. “Ta-da!”

Not his usual morning routine.

He announced, “I’ve found scientific evidence that taste depends on a person’s DNA—”

“You interrupted my best writing time to diss broccoli?”

“Look.” He offered his laptop.

“I don’t have to look. That writer’s scientific expertise probably consists of blowing up science fair projects with his kid.”

Finally, I read the article. It stated a person’s DNA profoundly affects taste. The author, a bona fide scientist, didn’t sell snake oil or exploding science projects on the side.

I. Was. Wrong.

Daily I become more aware of Steve’s forbearance and generosity … because he reminds me.

Still, the more I pondered his broccoli triumph, the more I questioned: Should our DNA enslave us?

I take bitter-tasting medicines because they’re good for me. Hubby wants his patients to do the same.

Yet he can refuse broccoli, despite its nutritional value, because it doesn’t taste good?

The great broccoli debate rages on ….

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What food inspires debate at your house?

Springtime in the Trailer Park

On frozen days like today, I want to press my nose against the window pane, spread my fingers and push winter away, as I attempted when a preschooler, living in the trailer park.

When spring showed up for real, our mother would no longer imprison my four-year-old brother and me in snowsuits. She’d stop slathering us with Vicks® VapoRub ®. She’d let us go outside.

We didn’t dislike the tiny yellow trailer we called home. The kitchenette smelled like bubbling bean soup and love. Our play area: the closet-sized living room. We slept on the sofa, Ned at one end, and I at the other. Long before ESPN’s kickboxing competitions, we conducted world-class foot fights at bedtime — until the Head Referee called emphatic fouls on us both.

A little later, my sister, brother and I (pictured with my mom) all shared a for-real bedroom in a bigger trailer.

Finally, a hundred robins outside sounded an all-clear. Before sending us outdoors, Mom drilled us: Thou shalt not play around the railroad tracks. Thou shalt look both ways before crossing the drive to the playground. Thou shalt never speak to strangers. But the First Commandment eclipsed them all: Thou shalt not shed thy jacket.

Fully catechized, Ned and I darted to freedom. We stopped and looked both ways before splashing across the gravel road that circled the playground, the center of the trailer court and our world.

Paradise awaited, with a clangy old merry-go-round that spun us into an ecstasy of nausea.  Ned and his buddies defied God, gravity and their mothers, walking the teeter-totters instead of sitting. Kathy and I soared on swings, singing Perry Como’s hit, “Catch a Falling Star,” as we touched heaven with our toes. Sometimes, we all simply galloped like a wild-pony herd around the playground.

As suppertime approached, Ned and I picked up dandelions like golden coins to take to Mommy. When Daddy’s old blue Chevy turned into the drive, we raced toward it. Daddy stopped and threw the back door open. Ned and I rode home, waving to friends as if in a parade.

Eating soup and johnnycakes, we fought sagging eyelids like an enemy. We wanted to watch Rawhide, with our favorite cowboy, Rowdy (a very young Clint Eastwood). I wanted to sit on Daddy’s shoulders, eat popcorn and comb his wavy, Elvis-black hair. But it had been such a long, wonderful … spring … day … zzzz.

What do you mean, fall asleep? Not me! It’s springtime! That lazy, good-for-nothing sun has finally shown up. I’ve got more to-do items on my list than candles on my last birthday cake: garage to clean, closets to organize. Plus, a new book to write …

But first, I’m going out to play.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What childhood spring memories warm your mind?