It’s a sad weekend here in Amerique Profonde. A Friday-night fire totaled a landmark downtown Des Moines building, site of the former grand and glamorous Younkers Department Store. I was lucky enough to work there in the very late 1970s. Here’s a story I recently wrote about waiting tables in the coffee shop of the beautiful old store.
During high school and college, my usual summer job was waitressing at Younkers Meadowlark, a coffeeshop in the suburban Merle Hay Mall location of the Younkers Department store. But in autumn, 1978, the suburban store had burned down. So, in the summer of 1979, I found myself slinging rarebit burgers at the Parkade Pantry, a street-level coffee shop in Younkers’ flagship store, one of the last remaining department stores in downtown Des Moines.
Me, and other Younkers waitresses taking a break in the bathrooms. PS: About those pea-green uniforms: They washed them every single day for us. Our manager once told us that the yearly cost for linens in the Younker restaurants was $250,000 a year.
It was here I began to learn how much work goes into good food. The soups, the sweet rolls, rarebit sauces, and even the ice cream were all homemade upstairs in the massive kitchen of the store’s tea room and bakery. Regulars sat at my counter every day having their usual, which the old cook will begin preparing when she saw them walk through the door. Frank Miller, the Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist from The Des Moines Register, came in most mornings, turning his paper place mat over to doodle on it, giving me a glimpse of a future day’s cartoon as I poured his coffee.
In 1979, the old store itself was already a bit down-at-the-heels, with aging shop-clerks—tape measures in pockets—waiting for the daily dribble of an equally aging clientele.
But the Parkade Pantry still did a brisk business. It was the quintessential downtown diner/coffeeshop that you still yearn for but can never find. Every day saw a breakfast rush (with eggs any way, nailed every time) and a jam-packed lunch crowd (burgers covered in rarebit sauce was our specialty, though our hot-plate specials were killer, too).
But the afternoons—from 2 p.m. until close at 4:30—were pretty slow, with the occasional store clerk or office worker coming in for a slice of pie (homemade of course) or our famous sticky buns–fresh, warm cinnamon rolls–to savor during their all-to-brief break in the day.
I can still see this regular customer: a thin, bespectacled lady with a few graying strands in her dark hair who seemed ancient at the time, but was probably younger than I am now.
Every single day, she’d come in at 3:30 on the dot for hot tea and a sticky bun. And she wanted her tea just so: Hot tea, in one of those cute little china pots we had, with two honey packets on the side.
“Don’t put the tea bag in the hot water, I’ll do it myself,” she would say. And if anything was served other than how she ordered it, she’d politely but firmly request it be re-done the way she had requested it.
“I asked you not to put the tea bag into the teapot. I prefer to do it myself so that the tea doesn’t get too strong. Will you please make it over?”
One day I served the hot water for the tea directly into a cup instead of in a the cute little china teapot, simply because all the china pots were still in the dish room after the lunch rush.
“I prefer that the hot water be served in the teapot, as usual.”
“GIVE IT A REST, FROSTY!” I’d think each time I grudgingly redid her order. I’d also say to myself: “If I ever turn into one of those picky old ladies, shoot me.” (Old, of course, was relative. Looking back, she was probably 35.)
So shoot me. I’ve become one of those people, especially when it comes to tea. (Please, steep in in a pot—it’s simply a question of keeping the water as hot as possible during the process).
That summer, I remember thinking things like, “Lady–with all the things that are going wrong in the world, you’re crabbing about getting the hot water for your tea in a cup rather than in a teapot?”
Then one day, toward the end of that summer, after I had served that woman her tea just so (in a pot, tea bag on the side, with two honey packs), I looked up from some cleaning task I was doing and caught a glimpse of her from across the room. There she was, in the quiet afternoon with the sun hitting her back through the window, staring contemplatively into space and sipping tea brewed just the way she liked it. She simply looked so….happy.
I finally got it.
Whether she was dealing with drudgery in some office or her own crabby clientele on the floor of one of the last remaining department stores downtown, this was a moment in her day she cherished—a moment where maybe—just maybe—things might go her way.
At that moment, I realized that I had a certain power that I never really understood that I had: With all the things that could go wrong in the world, I could actually do something that made someone else’s world just right–if even for a moment. And it took so little: hot water in a teapot, tea bag on the side, two packets of honey.