food and drink on memorable occasions - a funeral, a trip back in time, payday conviviality

There's more to enjoying a meal than just ingesting food and drink out of reach of wind, cold, and rain. If all you want is to stop your stomach from pinching you, beer and popcorn will do that quite well. But there could be more... I'm trying to categorize some of the meals and drinks that have stuck in the fuzzy web of memory: joyful, luxurious, adventurous, great occasions, truly horrible, comforting - the right thing at the right time. Like these, maybe?

Himself and I sat through a long service at his uncle's funeral, wondering at eulogies that described a man we had never met. Even the aunt and cousins looked confused. At one point I slipped out to double-check that we were in the right room. Surprisingly, we were. I speculated that someone else might have chosen to be buried under Uncle Felix's name, but decided this was improbable. Finally the multitude got into cars to go to the cemetery, and, headlights glaring, we joined the procession. Until--

-- It was really dry in there. Aren't you thirsty? I am.
Asking if someone is thirsty is like yawning in company - soon everyone is thirsty, or is yawning. I agreed that something cold to drink would be just fine.

-- I bet, he continued, if I made a right here, and then another, we'd be at the Dairy Queen. How does a vanilla milkshake sound?

-- Chocolate sounds better, I tenderly replied. But are you sure there's a DQ, and do you know the way to the cemetery?

-- I have a plan, he said as he turned right. If there's not a long line at the DQ, or if there isn't a DQ, we can just turn right again, come back up, and fall in at the end of the procession.

-- What if there is a line at the DQ?

-- We'll have to a terrible decision to face.

Two kids were at the front window, paying, when we pulled in. We jumped out of the car, leaving the motor running, charged up to the window, ordered, paid, grabbed our shakes, drank deeply, and turned around. There, having pulled in behind us, filling the parking lot, trailing down the streets, more still coming, headlights glaring, was every car that had been following us to the cemetery. We had drippy moustaches, mine beige, his white, so the excuse of a sudden need for the ladies' was not available. Later I found out that many of the mourners had turned right because they thought Himself knew a shortcut.

-- Only your relatives, I told him, would think it was normal to want to get to a cemetery faster.

One summer I had a summer job at a company that had a vault in which customer records were kept forever: who had bought what, how promptly did they pay, were there complaints, was the buyer's father a bum? the sales force was expected to know this stuff before placing an order. And who found the information for them? da collitch kids, dat's who.The vault was dim and moldy, and seemed to go on forever. If a buyer's former owner had failed to pay, it was in there. We hid in the vault to duck worse assignments, to avoid people who thought we'd profit from hearing their life stories, to shirk being called upon to make up the numbers at a wake or funeral - people died in that industry with alarming frequency, and if they didn't, their relatives did, and the company would hire a small uncomfortable bus. I will always think of the Flatlands area of Brooklyn as a place where custom required the deceased to wear his glasses in his coffin, as he had in life, to make recognition easier.

My friend Carol and I lurked in the coolness of the vault most of that August, stifling sneezes, not putting on lights... and then we found that at the end of the longest passage, there was a door. In hissing whispers, I dared her and she dared me. The arrival of Billy the Tooth - an elderly supply clerk who would have preferred to be called Ace - saved us from standoff. Billy was nominally in charge of - something, but was still young enough to be kind to da collitch kids, and his shoulder got the Door of Mystery open, revealing a room that Billy identified as having once been a Bomb Shelter.
We saw dusty piles of little boxes - K-rations, C-rations, rapidly soluble coffee packets, flat beige cookies ornamented with an intricately spelled out "mother". Billy had heard that these supplies were provided by the Civil Defense people. Imagine surviving Armageddon only to spend eternity in the Vault, surrounded by yellowed purchase orders, living on dried food and reconstituted drinks: we couldn't. We pushed past Billy the Tooth, broke for upstairs, for sunlight, and ran across the street, for cold sweet vanilla cokes.

That company paid every two weeks, and we got an extra half-hour for lunch on payday, the Legislature having decided during the Great Depression that workers who were not paid in cash should be given time on paydays to cash their checks immediately. Since by my time, fears of one's employer's imminent collapse and closing were part of a faraway past, the extra time was put to good use boosting the profit margins of local bars and restaurants.

My department was supervised by Mildred. Mildred's age and personal life and history were secret: your personal life does not come to the office, she would say. She was tough, skinny, sharpeyed. There was little left of her but a few tufts of white hair, pointed elbows, and arms like Popeye's. Rumor had it that she had run away from an orphanage and talked her way into an office job, where she rose to become the company's first Lady Typewriter. Her rise continued, steadily, inexorably.

historical note: in what i think may have been Mildred's early years, although who knows, the machine was called a Typewriting Machine, and the person who operated it was called the Typewriter.

On paydays, Mildred unbent and treated her staff to as many pitchers of whiskey sours as we could get down in the allotted time.

another historical note: the drinking age was then 18, not 21. This was immaterial to Mildred. She told us that Japanese babies were considered one year old at birth, and further we all could have been Japanese but for General MacArthur and other accidents of fate, and another year or two was immaterial.

We left in convoy, heading to a restaurant with the icy pitchers already on the table. I don't remember what we ate. There may not have been any food at all, I don't remember. Mildred gave us career advice,
 from the perspective of one who'd been the only girl in the office before harassment was a word. No wonder she's tough, we'd murmur. She would say things like "Every girl needs to know how much liquor she can handle. In advance of need." The convoy reeled back exactly an hour and thirty-five minutes later. Promptly at 2 p.m., Mildred would nod, and we would silently rise, cover the papers on our desks, and file out for the cigarette break that company rules permitted. None of us smoked. That was when we ran to cash our paychecks. Then, like everyone but Mildred, I'd spend the rest of the afternoon in a mild daze, daydreaming over maps that still bore researchers' abbreviated notes, wondering what I might have looked like had I been born with glossy straight black hair....

23 comments:

  1. What great memories, WFF! Love the Dairy Queen story and Mildred sounds like a total champion!
    I totally endorse the drinking of Whisky Sour Pitchers on a Friday lunch. If I Ruled the Office, we would be doing that too.
    "Every girl needs to know how much liquor she can handle. In advance of need." This may well be my new motto!

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    1. hmm, sounds like a Bring Back Whiskey Sours movement is about to take shape...

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  2. "Only your relatives, I told him, would think it was normal to want to get to a cemetery faster." Hilarious story and I can totally relate. My in-laws would not only want to get there faster but would race you in a stampede to the exit. Me, me, me... FIRST!

    Definitely important to know what you can handle at work, drinks or otherwise.

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    1. hi, xoxo, you have to know the cemetery. At some. my dad would want to be at the end of the procession (closer to the gate)' at others he'd cut off family members to be closer to the circular drive around and back to the gate.

      As to work smarts, I'd bet there's a lot one can learn from those office pioneers of the 1920s and '30s. Mildred's tactics for wordlessly avoiding "inadvertent" gropes are worth their own post.

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  3. You never know when a DQ craving will strike, so funny. I miss the coffee soft ice cream there. Mildred knew her way around a whiskey sour on a regular basis, I'll bet. We used to have "liver rounds" in the 80's before the Authorities thought drinking in hospitals was bad ( not if you were "on",obviously).

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    1. oh, the DQs - I still remember when the ice cream mixes actually contained real milk! When the powers that be switched to chemical milk-like substances and fast-acting thickeners, there was a schism of sorts, and a few owner/franchisees became Magic Fountains. That was my go-to place for years, recently the closest MF to us changed hands. The new owner is trying to be trendy and he has offered flavors like bacon & cheese, avocado coconut...

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  4. If only I wasn't so lazy i will get you on my blog list ASAP. Until then I will have to keep combing WMM's blog list. Very witty indeed. I do prefer strawberry and please no open casket.

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    1. I kissed my deceased father as he lay in the casket. Seemed totally normal to me but that does freak some people out.

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    2. BB, please do add me to your list!

      I'm trying to find a verse that I think was written by Evelyn Waugh - something about someone who looked so good in his coffin that nobody recognized him.

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    1. hi Lara, for years I tried to tell myself that it could have happened to anyone.

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  6. Oh. Wonderful post. I am still thinking about the need to find a short-cut to the cemetary though (other than drink driving or speeding of course). Love Mildred - and I hope she lived forever, and enjoyed it.

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    1. thank you, Elephant's Child!

      Mildred was seriously older than I when I was 17. soooo.....

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  7. Love these stories Fred!!! I would have followed you to DQ!

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    1. thanks, WMM! neither Himself's nor my family does funerals, or wakes, well, a whole post of memorable incidents would be funny for some and horribly offensive for others.

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  8. Bereavement milkshakes, hidden c-rations and whiskey sours by the pitcher, what an excellent menu WFF.

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    1. thanks, GF! yes, eclectic but thought-over, as my sister would say.

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  9. Great stories WFF. As my husband would say- "serves them right for thinking that we know what where we are going." Is a vanilla coke cream soda? Oh, that was my favorite! However, as a grown up, I'd rather sign up for the "Whiskey Sour" movement.

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    1. thanks, KnitYarns! a vanilla coke is a fountain coke with a shot of vanilla syrup.

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  10. Fabulous the way Mildred counts. What's a year or two or three when it comes to whiskey sours. Would love to have learned a thing or two or three from her. Do tell about how to avoid inadvertent groping, gosh sure could have used that advice decades ago.

    The sidebar to the DQ is hilarious. Love this post, WFF!

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    1. Thank you, tr, racking v.little brain to unearth more Mildred stories.

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  11. I LOVE Mildred. Great stories & well told, WFF :)

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