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We were plain people. We ate meat and we drank milk. My father said it was because we weren’t rich. My mother said it was because my father was a cheap S.O.B.

About once a month or so, and only when my father was traveling, my mother would take me out to dinner. And we always went to Horn & Hardart. It was walking distance from our house. And my mother didn’t drive.

She would always order the flounder. My father didn’t like flounder. He said it stunk up the house.

And so I decided, at age 8, I was going to expand my mother’s horizons. I was going to take her to the best restaurant in town. I would use my birthday money, previously destined to buy jaw breakers and wax lips, to take her to lunch.

“Mom,” I told her, “I’m taking you out to lunch for Mother’s Day.”

“You and what Army?” she said.

Always the diplomat, my mother.

“So, where are you going to take me, Mister Bigshot?”

“Where do you want to go? Horn & Hardart? Linton’s?”

“I know,” she said, “let’s go to the Crystal Tea Room at Wanamaker’s.”

I panicked. Upstairs, in the Maxwell House coffee can, I had saved $3.40 this year. What if she orders a steak? And some fancy French dessert. I was a dead man.

When the day came, still shaking in my Weejuns, I put on my best pair of long pants. Which also was my only pair of long pants. My mother got dressed like she was going to a bar mitzvah. A finely flowered, full-skirted dress. Her white pillbox hat. And her gloves. She put on her good white gloves. This was serious.

The El ride into town was pungent with men who hadn’t yet discovered deodorant. It was a ghostly quiet ride until we got to the Center City tunnel. That’s where my mother broke out singing. “It’s a wonderful town, and the people ride in a hole in the ground.”

After some long stares, we finally made it to Wanamaker’s. We took the elevator to the ninth floor. The doors opened. And we were in Vienna. Crystal chandeliers so big, so gaudy, they looked like they belonged in Trump Tower. A dining room as big as two football fields laid back to back.

And the tables. They had tablecloths on them. I had never eaten in a restaurant with tablecloths. Ever. They sat us at a table for two right under a painting of John Wanamaker himself. Our waiter came over, wearing the crispest white shirt I’d ever seen.

“What will the lady have?” he said.

Lady? He called my mom a lady.

“I’ll have the shrimp cocktail,” she said to the waiter. “And then the filet of sole.”

Shrimp cocktail? Filet of sole? How was I going to pay for this?

“And the gentleman?” he said.

I looked around. Did Eisenhower just walk in? Did you hear that? He called me a gentleman.

“Umm,” I mumbled, “I’ll have the chopped steak.” Chopped steak, the filet mignon of the working class.

“Very well, sir.”

Then I started adding up the prices in my head. And I started to sweat. This was going to cost $3.60. And I only had $3.40. What were they going to do? Make me wash dishes? Call a cop?

And then my mother stepped in. She picked up the check. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “You’ll buy yourself a new model car.”

Whew. I could breathe again. A woman at the next table looked over at us. “Taking the boy out to lunch?” she said to my mother.

“Oh, no,” my mother said, with a smile as big as the Pennypack Circle. “He’s taking me.”

 

Maury Z. Levy, former editorial director of Philadelphia Magazine, is the retired chairman of Levy Jacobs Marketing in Marlton. Email Maury at maury@levyjacobs.com.

May 2017
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