I am sitting here leaning back on one of those tricorn chairs that fit snugly beneath the tables inside the drugstore, sopping up the summer sun in my white mess jacket starched so stiffly it almost broke when I put it on. Not much going on this afternoon.
The usual bunch of drugstore cowboys hasn’t showed, and not one single, solitary girl has come by, smiled, and said, “Hey,” filling me with that strange new anxiety furtively visiting me these days. Heck with it. I got a job. I’m a working man, a curbhop for the Norwood Pharmacy in Woolsey Dip, North Carolina.
Every now and then, I sub for a soda jerk, or for Doc Brookshire whenever he goes in the back to measure and stir one of this foul potions. I know Doc keeps a baleful eye on soda jerks, most of whom are born hungry and suffer daily relapses. When he disappears, one is wont to snatch a couple slices of bread, spread them with mayonnaise and ham salad and slap them together (with a speck of butter on the outsides), lay the sandwich on the grill, lower the lid, and in a minute, ah, man! You have the flat, juicy delicacy the customers love… Say, wonder how the new Biltmore Dairies butter pecan ice cream tastes? This isn’t Woolsey Dip, it’s heaven. Hold it! Here comes Doc. Back to the curb I hop.
Woolsey Dip’s “Mayor” Bowen, who lives over the drugstore, is standing beside me in an exquisitely wrinkled blue seersucker suit with a gravy-flecked vest, a gold logging chain for his watch stretching across it. Is he hiding a medicine ball under there? He squints even under the shade of his broad-brimmed panama, and he is _hyah_ing and _thah_ing all over the place, therby enunciating his Kentucky nativity. The “mayor” was elected by mystical acclamation long after the neighborhood of Woolsey Dip seceded, briefly, from Asheville during the Depression. (Woolsey acquired the “Dip” by folk logic: Merrimon Avenue drops to its lowest point there.) Which is still going on, but no one told most of us, so we are a happy lot. None of us know that war will soon end our idyll.
The drugstore is in a shabby brick building on Merrimon, but I am triumphantly enjoying my preposterous self and life. I am prince of Norwood!—royal family of Woolsey. Then Howard Suttle drives up with this beautiful girl in his ’29 Buick and hits his three-tone horn (“Mary had a little lamb…”). My chair slips, I fall backward, recover, lurch toward the Buick, and take their order. Are they laughing at me? Walk inside, pick up a tray, and holler, “Fizz one, shoot one bloody, wheels.” I take them their chocolate ice cream soda and cherry Coke but do not hook the tray to the car door, since they are rolling. Howard throws the money on the tray, I thank them (with a smile), and they roar off in a dense cloud of 30-weight.
The drugstore, shrine of youth and age. It was, I think, America’s finest cultural achievement, more imporant than the poolroom. It offered “Drugs & Sundries”. Sundries! Goodness, what did drugstores not sell? Besides prescriptions, nostrums, and fountain food and drinks, drugstores sold soaps and shampoos, razors, pomades, and, during the Depression, beer! Many of them had free or penny scales, jukeboxes, pinball machines, and literature: newspapers and racks of pulps and slick magazines, some of them naughty, from Film Fun (yum, yum) to Spicy Detective, Judge, College Humor, and, eventually, comic books.
The chief fare served at drugstore fountains before and for a few years after World War II was chicken salad, egg salad, ham salad, tuna salad, potato salad, coleslaw, pimento cheese—most of these went into sandwiches—plus grilled cheese, grilled ham and cheese, and, occasionally, ham and swiss on rye. Before the war, you could get liver mush sandwiches, po’ folks’ food made with hog liver and sometimes beef liver and lights (lungs). Almost all drugstores made sandwiches with long, square pullman loaf slices. In Asheville, Merrimon Avenue Pharmacy had the best penny and nickel candy, from blow gum (Fleers Dubble Bubble) to BB Bats and Black Cows (both likely to pull your teeth) and “lickwish” (licorice), in plugs, cigars, cigarettes, and 15-inch whips. A few drugstores would offer homemade candy like pralines, fudge, and buttermints.
Soda jerks prepared all but the baked food, and some had panache. Dupree High, who worked at Norwood, could toss a gob of ice cream over his shoulder and catch it in a glass or a shake can. I tried that—once. James Sluder, who practiced at fountains all around town, turned fixing a club sandwich into a ballet at the Downtowner. He swabbed toasted slices of bread with mayonnaise, deftly dealt chicken, bacon, ham, lettuce, and tomato on two of the slices, stacked and capped them with the third, and zipped off the crusts with a flourish. He sliced the stack, stood the triangles up to make points, and garnished with pickles and chips. Beautiful.
Drugstores had personalities. The window at Barefoot and Tatum’s, on Pack Square in Asheville, displayed a cobra standing up on its hind parts, charmed by the rattiest mongoose this side of the Ganges. (I never figured out the meaning of that tableau.) The ones with mosaic tile floors and black marble counters that served drinks in glasses clasped by silvery holders were the class, but downtown, west of Pack Square, Salley’s, Eckerd’s (of Asheville), Goode’s, and Liggett’s caught much of the lunch trade.
The drugstore, for the moment before the war, owned America, and the French saw this clearly. I went into a place in Paris called Le Drugstore in the late ’60s, and they had it right: vinyl deco counter and people on stools without backs, eating fromage-boorgairs and sucking up Cokes through straws. Magnifique!
Now I am performing the ancient ice cream soda rite: into one of those heavy conical soda glasses on its own round platform, I drop a couple of inches of whipped cream, stir in a long squirt of chocolate syrup from the pump, hold the glass under the soda water spigot and direct the fine, hard stream into the chocolate cream until the foamy mixture nearly brims, pull the handle back to fill gently, roll in a scoop of vanilla ice cream—easy!—garnish with a cap of whipped cream, and crown it with a maraschino cherry and more syrup. I place this masterpiece on the marble counter, tear the ends off the papers encasing two straws, and proffer the straws, along with a npakin and a smile, to the customer—all for a dime. As many as four soda connoisseurs might race to the bottom of this elegant confection as it disappeared in vulgar splutters and an elegiac finale of snorts and sometimes recriminations—America the beautiful.
So in walks a living Norman Rockwell: a boy about as old as Tom Sawyer with a bowl-cut thatch of red-gold hair and limpid blue eyes, his fair face blotched with freckles, buckteeth just showing between his pursed lips. He is wearing patched overalls, bleached nearly white, ragged above his grimy bare feet. He comes to the counter and says, anxiously, “Please, sir, I wanna horn a cream, please, strawburry if yuns got it!” He gets it. I don’t dare stack more than three scoops on that precarious cone, and I manage to say the buffalo “is yours”, since I gave one of his brothers a quarter instead of 30 cents for a dozen “roasunears” (roasting ears of corn) he peddled at my house a day or so ago.
How lucky I am! I get to wear a long white apron that wraps around me twice, the starched mess jacket, spiffy fore-and-aft cap, and black clip-on bow tie and draw, I imagine, coy glances from girls as I make sandwiches, sundaes, and snappy conversation. Where else could I get all that and four or five bucks a week?
May I help you, ma’am?
How about a nut sundae or a banana split?