My parents and grandparents owned a well worn hotel in Northern California. The five story,
brick building was the hot spot of a small potato farming community. This was not a place to eat ice
cream and chicken salad on sparkling china. This was a place to eat a steak sandwich and have a cold
beer. Duck hunting season brought in droves of scruffy bearded men wearing mud-crusted boots.
The hunters usually came in the evening and headed straight for the bar. Enticed by the laughter and loud, twangy music, I tiptoed into the dark and mysterious room.The endless oak counter and towering stools held faceless strangers with booming voices. The
bartender, Walt, smelling of liquor and old spice, crouched down to my level to say hello. He handed
me a quarter and hoisted me up to the colorful, pulsating juke box. I put the quarter in and asked him
to punch in “If You Happen to See the Most Beautiful Girl in the World” and “Song, Song Blue.”
Early in the morning, the hunters staggered in to the coffee shop area, and seated themselves at one of the dozen short swivel seats lined up at the counter. The waitress, dressed in a brown polyester uniform, poured hot steaming liquid into mugs. Her nylons made a rustling noise each time she took a step. The soft murmuring of the customers and the bark of the waitress calling out orders to the cook filled the air. Bacon sizzled and popped like background music.
While I waited for my breakfast special of double mashed potatoes and brown gravy, I watched the clock on the wall. When the bright red dial hit number twelve, the picture on the base of the clock would fold down just like a mini blind and magically change. Sometimes it would be a Coke advertisement, other times Sprite or a brand of cigarettes. Next to the clock, neon yellow and orange juices flowed down the sides of the glass-walled machines. Once in a while they would bubble and churn as if alive.
At lunch time, Mom and Dad sat with me in one of the booths in the coffee shop.
The orange vinyl seats stuck to my legs, making a loud squeak when I slid in. Each booth
had an individual juke box. Dad pumped change into the small chrome machine and I
punched in selections. The walls above the booths were lined with photographs of hunters
and their ducks. My grandpa and dad were in most of them, wearing bright orange jackets. They smiled, holding out the wings of the limp birds.
After eating lunch, I ran to the cashier’s counter at the front of the coffee shop. The front of the counter was glass with lots of candy-covered shelves. Juicy Fruit gum and Three Musketeers bars beckoned to me. I watched Dotie, the cashier punch the silver buttons, making a “chunk, chunk” sound. I waited for her to hit the red button, knowing it would ring a bell and the drawer would open. Dotie handed me round mint patties with silver wrappings. She told me to save them for later, but I popped them right in my mouth, one after the other. The soft mint coated my tongue and tickled my throat on the way down.
The little farming town still exists today, though the old hotel burnt to the ground in the 1980s. I wish I could go back to roam the familiar “play areas” of the past. Wait a minute. I just did!