Essay: A joy-filled day on the town
Memories of a Saturday out with a favorite aunt.
In the 1950s, in the small town in Louisiana where I grew up, I sometimes found myself in the custody of my aunt – the two of us, inveterate moviegoers both, scanning the papers on Saturday morning for a promising matinee. She was a high school teacher from Texas – in her 50s, somewhat stout, quick to laugh, appearing in my life three times a year: summer, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.Skip to next paragraph
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She read paperback novels, worked crossword puzzles, played solitaire, and watched TV – simultaneously, of course. For me, she was dazzling, witty, a soft touch at the candy counter, the best of company. She taught my brothers and me to play Scrabble, hearts, and canasta, and taught us the stories of the Alamo, Davy Crockett, and Jim Bowie.
She would take me to any movie, anytime, anywhere – and this morning we've been dropped off in front of the theater. It's 11 a.m., but no need to worry about lunch; we can fill up on popcorn. Afterward, we're responsible for getting ourselves home on the bus.
The theater has a 1930s-style outdoor ticket booth as well as movie posters in glass display cases. You can browse the posters just by taking two steps off the sidewalk. Inside, an angular, slightly scary woman patrols the aisles with a flashlight. There are cushioned seats, two balconies, and curtained boxes on the left and right like in an opera house. The lights dim. We watch cartoons, a newsreel, the coming attractions, and finally the feature itself – a Tarzan movie, with Technicolor jungles and cliffs. I am 9 years old.
We're hungry after the movie – the popcorn hasn't filled us up, after all. Around the corner from the theater is a department store with a diner on the first floor and a sign above the door: Air-Conditioned Inside.
We walk down a side street past the back entrance to the diner, from which pours an inviting assemblage of aromas – hamburgers, waffles, bacon, French fries. Once inside, we throw ourselves into a booth, reaching for menus like debonair restaurantgoers everywhere – this middle-aged teacher and her nephew with the crew cut and Bermuda shorts.
A waitress appears, all starch and apron. A lifetime later, my hamburger arrives – meat and bread only. My aunt's burger drips and spills with mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, lettuce, tomato, pickle, onion – but she makes no comment on my boring, impoverished taste.
After lunch, we decide to pay a visit to my grandmother in her insurance office on the 11th floor of the bank building, the tallest and grandest edifice in town.
In 1959, the city's downtown has not died yet. Parking spots are hard to find. Sidewalks are crowded with shoppers, business people, commuters at bus stops. There are hotels, churches, a synagogue, a hospital, clothiers, a Western Union, the post office, the courthouse, and, best of all, a gimcrack novelty shop on a side street, purveyor of my secret desires – joy buzzers, gory thumbs, and flies in ice cubes.