Southern shopping and Coke in a cup

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In the Stone Age, when I was born, there were of course no online shopping sites (Al Gore hadn’t yet invented the internet). There weren’t even malls. All the big department stores were downtown, and that’s where everybody shopped.

My mom and I would ride the bus and spend a day marching from store to store. She liked Grant’s (the W.T. Grant Department Store) and Kresge’s (forerunner of Kmart), and especially J.C. Penney (founded in 1902 by a fellow whose middle and last names destined him to be an entrepreneur: James “Cash Penney”). My favorite was the Planter’s Peanut shop, where a slightly scary Mr. Peanut was always shuffling around in his shell, greeting customers and handing out free samples.

We’d go to the downtown movies too, and sit in the dark and watch Doris Day and eat Jujubes. This was when I was 6 or so (when I was older, my bad-boy buddies and I would fire Jujubes out of our lunchroom milk straws, like peashooters, to the annoyance of targets and teachers - who were usually not one and the same).

Then somebody came up with the idea of relocating stores, theaters too, out of the crowded downtown, and closer to neighborhoods. Thus began the era of shopping centers, clusters of shops connected under one roof with a covered sidewalk and sprawling, typically treeless parking lots. The idea caught on in the 1950s, but it wasn’t altogether new.

The ancient Athenians had their Agora (the name of a favorite vintage store in Athens, Georgia, and Rome had its Forum. Both were large open public areas employed for political and social gatherings and ultimately populated by taverns, fast-food booths, and vendors of every kind. Smaller towns followed this same model, and their agorae and fora, like Trajan’s “mixed-use” market in 2nd-century A.D. Rome, often featured covered colonnades. Even earlier, as far back as 3,000 B.C., Middle Easterners had created the “bazaar,” an old Persian word for an enclosed market for vending goods and services. Many were outside the city walls, in the “suburbs.”

Flash forward and shopping “arcades,” groups of shops situated together and often roofed over, became increasingly popular across Europe in the 19th century. In the U.S. shopping centers began popping up in the 1920s, as the proliferation of automobiles increased their popularity. In the 1940s the centers were often anchored by major department stores like Penney’s, Sears, and Macy’s. The anchor of the Park and Shop in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington D.C., which opened in 1930, was a Piggly Wiggly, like our very own beloved Pig here in Apalach.

In 1957, when I was 12, Southern Shopping Center opened up just a couple blocks from our house in Norfolk—and life changed. The 40 or so businesses included a Penney’s, which kept my mom happy, as well as a Giant Foods, a Western Auto, Fanny Farmer Candies, and a Sherwin-Williams. The Fine’s Men’s Shop was a bit too fine for our budget, so my parents bought me goofy clothes at Robert Hall, up the road. Their radio jingle drove me crazy, “School bells ring and children sing, it’s back to Robert Hall again; mother knows for children’s clothes, it’s back to Robert Hall again.” I did NOT sing!

The shopping center also had a Chinese restaurant, the HoHo, but we were too poor, and socially uncomfortable, to eat out. The closest we ever got to dining away from home was munching cheesburgers and fries in the parking lot of the What-A-Burger nearby (and NOT to be confused with the Texas-based Whataburger, like the one we discovered in Ft. Walton Beach before moving to Apalach).

Southern Shopping Center had a smallish office tower, where my dentist Dr. Payne had his practice. Kids got lots of cavities in those pre-fluoride days, at least I did, and the novocaine needles were about the size of pencil lead, so I figured the doc’s name should have been “Pain.” Riding the elevator up to his office was the only fun. I'd wait until the double-doors had nearly come together in the middle and then stick my hand in the opening to make them re-open before they slammed shut. One time I waited too long and had to go up the one or two floors with my fingers stuck firmly in place. For the next couple of days they were achy, black and blue, and slightly indented.

The real draws at the shopping center were a couple of favorite kid hang-outs. People’s Drug Store was a prime destination. Cokes were 5¢ at their soda fountain, and you could add a squirt of cherry, vanilla, or even chocolate syrup for an extra nickel. The other fave was Woolworth’s. I’d grab a fountain Coke, then shop for yoyos, marbles, stamps for my collection, caps for my Roy Rogers cap-gun, and tiny turtles (the kind it later became illegal to sell because they were loaded with salmonella).

Around this time I’d met a black kid, and we became buddies. Not sure, but his name might’ve been Randy. Mostly we’d hang out on the sidewalk, talking about Sputnik or girls or Little Richard, or we’d bike around.

One summer day when we were getting thirsty and were down at the Woolworth’s end of the complex, I suggested we go in for a Coke. Years later I wonder what went through his head at that moment. But Randy followed me in, and down we sat at the lunch counter.

Pretty quick the waitress, in her sparkly clean white apron, walked over and stared right at me. She hesitated, then asked, “Can I help you?” I said, “Yes, mam, can we have a coupla Cokes, please, and make’em cherry Cokes.” (I’d maybe mowed some lawns that week and was feeling flush.) She just stood there for the longest time, glaring at me, glancing over at Randy. Then she said, slowly, thoughtfully: “Well, I guess I can give him one, in a paper cup.” I imagine her job was on the line at that moment, so her gesture was truly an act of kindness.

We drank our sodas, left, and never went back. That was the day I began to learn the difference between white and black, and actually noticing those signs, “White Trade Only,” “Colored Waiting Room,” and “Negroes Use Rear Entrance.” I learned that White Privilege meant riding at the front of the bus, sitting up close to the screen on the main floor at the movies and not up in the dank, remote balcony, and drinking my Coke from a glass, not from a paper cup. And now here we are, more than 400 years from 1619, and oh how I wish such privilege had never plagued us.

Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Classics at the University of Georgia; his latest books are The Secret Lives of Words, a collection of his widely distributed newspaper columns, and Ubi Fera Sunt, a lively translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s children’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are. He and wife Alice live part of the year in Apalachicola, under the careful watch of their French bulldog Ipsa.

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