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Memoirs of a soda jerk

April 3, 2009
Adirondack Daily Enterprise

When I was a kid, there was no doubt which local drugstore was my favorite.

Today, if a kid said he had a favorite drugstore, you'd think he was either a budding hypochondriac or a complete nut. But that's only because today's drugstores are lame, watered-down versions of their predecessors.

For one thing, almost all modern drugstores are parts of chains - independents are as rare as an honest politician. So if you go into a Rexall's in Rapid City, S.D., it'll be just like one in Sandusky, Ohio. Drugstores have all the individuality and character of a MacDonald's. All the class, too.

Way back when, though, drugstores - like most American businesses - were independently owned. So even if they carried similar wares, each store had its own ambience, personality and smell.

Smell? Definitely, because back then drugstores were the exclusive purveyors of perfumes and toiletries, so the ones with the larger selections had a more noticeable "bouquet."

The Post Office Pharmacy had the biggest perfume counter in town, and even today, when I go in there, I get an underlying hint of whatever it was that tickled my nose and my fancy in the distant past. It's too weak to identify (lavender? lilac? rose? musk?), but too noticeable to ignore thank God.

As for wares? As I said, I think the stores' stocks were essentially the same, but there was enough variety that each had some exotica missing from the others, so the displays were distinctly different.

But that didn't interest me. What did interest me, however, was something every drugstore had back then, but almost no drugstore has today - a lunch counter.

Of the town's drugstores (Hoffman's, Meyer's and the Post Office Pharmacy), my favorite was Meyer's.

Counter culture and

counter espionage

I've a vague notion I found Meyer's counter more kid friendly, but that may not be true. What is true is that I went there whenever I had the notion and the cash. And of the two, the cash was more relevant since, compared to the candy stores, copping a sugar buzz in a drugstore was a far more expensive proposition.

For instance, in a candy store, a bottle of soda cost a dime. But in a classy joint like Meyers, where soda wasn't in a bottle but came out of a fountain, you paid an extra nickel for that extra panache.

Of course, they also had ice cream. It was more expensive, too but well worth it.

First, the variety was far greater. In Meyer's, we could get ice cream in cones, dishes or in sodas and sundaes (either with plain syrup or if you were living large, hot fudge). For the glutton, there were banana splits. And of course there were milk shakes and malteds (with real malt, of course), which wasn't labeled "thick" because that was taken for granted.

Another reason soda fountain prices were higher was because of increased labor costs - someone had to make each dish, rather than just take it out of the freezer. And that was another delight of Meyer's - the women who worked the counter. The three I remember were Alice Moody, Margerite Ellithorpe and Charlie Darrah. They were all as sweet as their wares and very presentable in their crisp white waitress outfits. In fact, they may well be the initial reason I ended up with a thing for women in uniform.

The lunch counter was a hopping place throughout the day but I stayed by myself in the unofficial kids' section. It was at the back of the store, far away from where the adults sat, engaged in what I was sure was very important and worldly discussion.

I didn't mind being an outsider, though. First, as much as the grown-ups fascinated me, I wouldn't have been comfortable in their midst. I didn't know very much as a kid, but I sure knew where a kid's place was, which was not where the adults conversed with each other. Besides, like all predators, adults were easier, and safer, to study from a distance.

Additionally, "my" end of the counter was next to the glassed-off section where the pharmacists worked. Directly behind me was a huge selection of rubber goods, many of the most intimate and mysterious nature. To an adolescent lad with an overdeveloped curiosity and imagination, this was delicious grist for the mill.

Ironically, as much as I drooled over the fountain's top-of-the-line goodies, I almost never had any, since they were out of reach of my modest budget. The most expensive thing I ever had was a strawberry ice cream soda or a root beer float - each of which cost a lordly 25 cents. My usual fare was a cherry phosphate, which was an exotic name for cherry syrup and seltzer. It cost only 15 cents and conferred a certain je ne sais quoi on its drinker - in this case, moi.

Gone but not forgotten

Alas the drugstore soda fountain - now as long dead and little remembered as peashooters, church keys and 25-cent Saturday matinees. And alas, too, the drugstore's stock in trade that so fascinated me - all those weird health aids, prosthetic devices, and nostrums with such exotic names as Carter's Little Liver Pills, Dr. Kreiger's Egyptian Elixer, Vitacell Headache Powders or Wampole's Herbal Solution.

And lost with them are the props, and thus the relevance, of one of my favorite childhood jokes, which I'll now share with you:

A little girl walks into a drugstore and goes up to the pharmacist.

"Tell me," she says, "do you fit men for trusses in here?"

"Why, yes we do," he says, taken aback.

"Then wash your hands," she says. "I want an ice cream cone!"

 
 

 

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