Jilly D.

The Clean Plate Club Card

In Uncategorized on July 23, 2011 at 11:41 pm

After weekday duty as patrol guard at the stoplight in front of Lakeview Elementary School  in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, I’d walk home through the neighborhood, cutting through Wendy Ginther and Cookie Grabowski’s backyards between Grimes and Halifax Avenue.

We never used the front door. Company did. So did door-to-door salesmen, the Avon Lady, peddlars and trick-or-treaters at Halloween.  Family came in the back door. Up two steps and into the kitchen on the left, down to the basement straight ahead, or right to the den with the black and white Zenith television set, loveseat and bookshelves covering an entire wall.

Dad’s arrival home from work marked the hour for family dinner around the formica table in the kitchen. No watching television during dinner; mom made dad sit with his back to the den door. She sat across from dad; and my sister, Barb, and I sat side by side facing the windows to the backyard.

Rocky, our dachshund, sat quietly under the table during all meals. You don’t need a vacuum cleaner if you have a dog, mom argued.

There were certain things I didn’t like to eat that were put on my plate by my mother, and I was expected to eat them. Rocky ate a lot of table scraps. I had to get that milk down myself though.

“Starving children in Korea,” my mother would say and implore me to eat what she served. Canned fruit cocktail, tinny tasting canned peas, hominy, mushrooms, or any of the dishes from her favorite recipe book, 365 Ways to Cook Hamburger, made me gag and pout.

My father ate what was served, but he usually had some say in the decision of what made it to the plate. Not a big Jello man, no bananas or chicken, Dad had set the range of menu options from the get-go. Barb and I balked on occasion.

Dad would pull out his wallet when his plate was clean as a whistle and set it on the table. He’d remove a business card some guy had given him during the course of his day at work, or one of his own, Pearson & Swenson Furniture on West Broadway, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He’d set it down on the table. Barb and I would straighten up in our seats at the sight of the card.

“If you don’t eat what’s there, you aren’t going to get a clean plate club card tonight,” Dad would warn. He’d been doing this since before I could read and I’d gotten hooked on collecting these business cards of men in all walks of life. My little sister, Barb, collected them, too. We played business cards after lights out;, trading them and trying to read them and understand what business and men  were about.

Pearson and Swenson Furniture Store on West Broadway in Minneapolis, Minnesota had always been a family business. Grampa Swenson as long as I knew him alive owned and managed the furniture store. He collapsed of a heart attack at age 59. My father, one of four siblings, took over the business when I was a first grader.

Down at the furniture store in the office, there was a typewriter and a cash register, and Barb and I liked to go to the store to play business. My dad saved muslin bags that contained furniture nails and tacks. He’d put an empty clean bag on Barb’s right hand and one on mine, too.

The Guardsman furniture polish poured from a metal tin into the palms of our mittened right hands. Then Barb and I would take a dry muslin dish towel in our left hand and dust all the wooden furniture: tables, chairs, dressers, china cabinets.  With our right hand we glide the polish over the surfaces and with our left we wipe it dry until it we see our faces reflected in it like a mirror. The couches with wooden legs, the chairs with claw feet, and the grandfather’s clock—all rubbed and polished with our childish play.

If customers came in the door, we’d scurry up the stairs to the next flight and begin dusting furniture up there. If Dad brought customers upstairs to look at dressers or bedroom suites, we girls would walk quietly around the wooden railing of the staircase and then fly down the staircase and run into the backroom and office area.

Sometimes Dad called us up to the third floor, and we raced to get to the top floor. He’d be grinning and standing at the freight elevator door.

“Come on. Get in. Let’s go down to the lower level,” he’d say. Dad pulled the metal accordion bars shut and pushed the button L. When we got off, the washers, , dryers, stoves and refrigerators all needed just the dry towel wipe down. Daddy’s girls did a good job.

Near the back of the showroom floor there was a kitchen table, chairs and a coffeepot. Here’s where the deals were made. When no customers were in the store, mom let us have milk, sugar and a splash of coffee in some hot water. But when the bells chimed as people walked in the door, we’d have to go in the backroom and sit quietly. Mom would always have the soap operas on the TV so we wouldn’t get bored. She hated when a customer came in during As The World Turns.

Sometimes I’d sit at the typewriter and pretend to be writing and typing. Aqpoei aurptepihg h hkfhsahkhsdl. I knew how to hit the carriage return and make the paper go through the rollers. I’d type nonsense. Then I’d try to read aloud what I’d written, and Barb would giggle as my phonetic  pronunciation learning skills paid off in girl goofiness.

In the mid-1960s my parents insisted I wear anklets and saddle shoes through sixth grade; by fourth-grade my outrage over not owning a pair of fishnets marked me at home as a spoiled brat who let Korean children starve for all the food I wasted.

“Filet mignon, medium rare, baked potato with butter, sour cream and chives, house salad with rocquefort dressing, green beans almondine, garlic toast and a Virgin Mary,” I’d tell any waitress at a good restaurant by the age of 10. When my parents took us out to eat, I had my own ideas about food and could order from the menu myself. 

Mom and dad did introduce me to Chinese food early in life. I learned to eat with chopsticks on a dare from Dad. I can eat faster with chopsticks today than with a fork, knife and spoon.  The best meals from my childhood came from a little take-out in a strip mall in Crystal, Minnesota. Nobody had to cook, no dishes, and yummy leftovers. Perfect family meal.

My parents often went to Broadway pizza. They’d get a babysitter for Saturday night and in the morning there’d be cold leftover pizza for breakfast.

Dad went across the street to Mickey’s Diner almost every day he worked at the furniture store for a hamburger with grilled onions. Mickey is more memorable than his burgers. Short, white, stocky guy whose naval travels could be found documented on his arm, if the cap sleeve of his BVD t-shirt crept up as he flipped your burger. If my dad didn’t trust him and talk to him, I would have found him, hmmm, menacing. Sitting on stools at a curved counter with Mickey’s short order grill behind let us girls watch Mickey prepare our lunches. Broadway, then, was a shopping district but at night there was street life and jazz in the clubs. Merwin’s Pharmacy had a coffee shop on the corner of Broadway and France Ave. And we’d drive by the ‘Dirty Bird’—a local grocery chain, the Red Owl.

My Girl Scout troop put up a display in the furniture store window the year I became a Junior Scout. We sold cookies to customers and had to put the flag up and down every business day.

By then I was old enough that my dad only pulled out the clean plate club cards at Grandma Swenson’s when the younger cousins acted spoiled at the dinner table. That roast beef, gravy, mashed potatoes, carrots, onions and fresh baked bread tasted so good I didn’t need threats of Korean babies competing for my plate or bribes of a clean plate club card. I knew good food and good business.

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