Category Archives: Woolworth’s

The Lunch Counter and the Music Man

It was definitely a family affair.  Three aunts and their nephew.  Two cooks, a baker and me – the busboy.  That kitchen ran like a well-oiled machine.  My aunts could “throw down!” (They could cook – they could REALLY cook.)  Take it from me, though, you never want to work on the job with your mother’s sisters.  It wasn’t pretty.  But hey, sometime you gotta do what you gotta do.

Then there was the boss!  A stern lady – wide of girth – lacking any sense of mirth or merriment. That summer, she was the bane of my existence.  The tour-de-force of my misery.  The crankiest crank in a rusty wheel that no amount of “3-in-1” oil used would loosen it to turn. That lady worked me like a dog!

But before the summer was over, she would integrated the lunch counter at this Woolworth’s Department store located in an all-White suburban community 35-miles west of Chicago. Go figure. This was the same woman whose policy (and the store’s) was that the, “three aunts and their nephew” could not eat at the very lunch counter where the food they prepared was served to the store’s White customers. On dishes I washed squeaky clean.

One Saturday, some clerk in the record department started playing a new song named “Chances Are” by Johnny Mathis.  It blared out over the store’s speaker system and the world changed. The record sold out within hours.  The next day the same thing happened. And the next week. And the next. White folk couldn’t get enough of that song. Once, a customer complained and the store manager stopped the music from playing over the store speakers. You would have thought someone hit him with a 2-by-4.  That’s right!  Johnny Mathis was back crooning on the air no time flat.

Then the earth at Woolworth’s cracked wide open.

Joey Donatucci (not his real name), one of the kids that served customers did the unthinkable: he wanted to talk to me about some trouble I had with some of his friends.  At the lunch counter. Out there where White folk could see us. See me. I knew he had lost his mind. Just knew it.  But it turned out, “Mrs. Grouch-of-the-Year” winner, had lost her mind. Later, I figured she must have been the one who hit the manager with the 2-by-4 because he had to agree to my sitting at the lunch counter. Joey Donatucci you see, was the son of SOMEBODY (If you catch my drift. We’re talking Chicago here.)

After that, from then on, the three aunts and their nephew didn’t have to eat lunch or take thier break sitting on crates and sacks of potatoes in the kitchen. Or on the loading dock out back. The boss lady still remained a tough old bird. Merciless with a dollar. Sparingly with her praise. She confided to the three aunts and their nephew in the kitchen soon after the “Donatucci Affair,” how she had bought a copy of Johnny Mathis’ record.

Said she never thought she would enjoy any music sung by a Black man.

Black man, I thought.  Johnny Mathis is Black?