Fried Fish and a Side of Catharsis: A Story About Restaurants, Music, and Getting Older

My mom had a doctor’s appointment in Tyler this morning, and I drove her there. The office was busy and backed up, so by the time she finished it was well past lunch time. I asked where she wanted to eat and she said she’d like to eat at the cafeteria if I didn’t mind. Did I mind? No, ma’am! I never dreamed that something so innocuous as a trip to the cafeteria would lead to a quasi life-changing event, from which I’m still reeling.

Furr’s Cafeteria circa 1970

When I was a kid, my family would go to Dallas or Tyler fairly frequently for doctor’s appointments, to shop, or to run other various errands that we could not take care of at home. If my grandmother and/or aunt was on the trip with us, lunch or dinner would almost always be at a cafeteria. If we were in Dallas, it would be Furr’s or Wyatt’s; if we were in Tyler, Luby’s.

Wyatt's Cafeterias were almost always in malls like this one. Circa 1980.
Wyatt’s Cafeterias were almost always in malls like this one. Circa 1980.


I especially liked it when we went to Furr’s because they had Jell-O in virtually every color of the rainbow, with or without whipped cream, and it was served in a glass dessert cup–that was back before people really cared about safety, and if we cut ourselves on broken glass. . .well, that’s just what we got for being rambunctious kids and misbehaving at the table. They also had rolling high chairs, and I would always try to get my mom to let me sit in one, or at least let my sister sit in one and let me roll her in it. That all stopped the night that I accidentally smashed my sister’s finger when I let the hinged tray table fall too fast.

I always wanted Jell-O!
I always wanted Jell-O!

There were also lots of “characters” there in the cafeteria. The ladies (yes, they were all ladies back then) who served the food wore dresses and little paper hats that looked like nurse’s hats. The lady at the end of the line who added up the items on the trays and gave my mom the ticket–she never smiled. I’m not sure why, but she always seemed a little irritated–I might be, too if I had to stand at the end of a cafeteria line all day long. Before my sister and I could carry our own trays, the grumpy cash ticket lady would ring her little bell and someone would come take our trays to the table for us. Getting to take my own was a big day for me (ironically, now I wish I could justify the assistance).

The dining room seemed huge to me–I’m sure it wasn’t, but to a little kid, it certainly was. We usually sat in basically the same place, a table in the middle of the dining room, near the piano. Yes. . .the piano. In the middle of the dining room, on a small stage, there sat an cherry-colored baby grand piano. And, at the piano sat a tiny little woman with a tall, grey beehive hairdo. She was always dressed in a formal gown, and wore lots of sparkly jewelry. (I remind you again that this was a cafeteria. Things were just more sophisticated back then.) She was an amazing pianist, and she took requests from folks eating there. There was a big, glass tip jar–it looked like a giant brandy snifter–sitting to the left of the music rack. It was always full of dollar bills. I loved watching and listening to her play.

...only her's always had money in it.
…only her’s always had money in it.

Last, but not least. . .the tea lady. The tea lady was a woman of great stamina, I would imagine. She spent her entire shift pushing around a cart with tea, water, coffee, sugar, creamer, napkins, silverware, lemons, and just about anything else you might need during dinner. My mom, grandmother, and aunt would always call her over at least once for a refill, and as I got bigger and drank my whole glass of chocolate milk, mom would let me get a glass of water from her–but, no more chocolate milk.

I don't remember the tea lady being quite this cheerful looking.
I don’t remember the tea lady being quite this cheerful looking.

Going to the cafeteria was always a treat–if you promise not to tell anyone, I’ll tell you a secret–I still enjoy it.

By the time we arrived today, the lunch crowd was gone, and we made our way through the line fairly quickly. I got the same meal I’ve eaten at cafeterias since I was a kid–fried fish, macaroni and cheese, black-eyed peas, and cornbread. Now, I get tea to drink instead of chocolate milk, although. . .

Things are a little different now. There’s no crabby old lady standing at the end of the line to give you the ticket. Now, there’s a modern double-sided cash wrap where you pay before going to the dining room. (On a side note, this set up also does away with the cash register that spits coins out into the little tray on the side of the register. Retrieving change from it was quite the treat when I was a kid.) If you need assistance with your tray, the cashier presses a button and an electronic tone sounds over the intercom–no *DING* of a bell anymore. I kinda miss that.

We made our way into the dining room. There’s no tea lady anymore. We had a “server.” Ray was his name, and he didn’t technically serve us anything, although he did bring lemons, pepper sauce, extra tartar sauce, and refilled my tea once. There’s also no piano anymore. Now, they play music over the intercom system, and that music served as the catalyst for a somewhat disheartening catharsis.

Back in the days of the piano lady, if she had the night or day off, they played music over the intercom, too. It was usually easy-listening, or sometimes classical music. Today, though, we were treated to some pretty terrific hits from the 70s and 80s, and I was digging it. Among others, they played Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl,” and Phil Collins’ “Billy Don’t Lose My Number.” As I was listening, I recalled those memories of trips to the cafeteria as a kid and though to myself, “This is great music, but it’s a little modern for their clientele.” I was just about to say that to my mom when I looked around the dining room. phil-collins-dont-lose-my-number

Suddenly. . .without warning. . .I was jolted by the truth!

Most of the people eating there were people who appeared to be around my age. The music wasn’t wrong at all. In fact, it was perfect, because it was “old” music.

Oh, my God–I’m OLD!

It’s weird, you know? I turn 45 tomorrow, but I don’t feel 45. When I think of myself; when I think of where I’ve been and the things I’ve done, I feel more like I’m 25. That music that they were playing today was the soundtrack of my adolescence and early adulthood. It was music that reminded me of a much simpler time–before real adulthood set in; before bills; before “real” jobs; before the various and sundry aches and pains I feel everyday; and before I had to use the bathroom in the middle of almost every night.

It was an enlightening moment. Suddenly it dawned on me that I was sitting in the seat that my mother sat in all those years ago. The music of my era is the music of a bygone era. It’s the music of the Cold War; of Reagan; of the Los Angeles Olympics. It’s the music of a time when “social networking” meant going outside and playing cops and robbers with your friends. It’s the music of a time when we walked or rode bikes to and from school. It’s the music of a time when 45 years old seemed an eternity away.

I guess this happens to everyone at some point–coming to the realization that we are getting older, and that the things we like aren’t really all that “modern” anymore. Today was my moment to feel that. I won’t lie, the nostalgia brought with it a little pang of longing for something that’s passed.

But, it’s still great music. And, I still don’t feel 45.


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