Soda Jerks

When I wrote in my article “Altitude Sickness” about working at a local five-star hotel and the experiences I had with guests there, those anecdotes happened when I worked for the children’s program. I spent the eight years previous to that working in the retail part of the hotel. In fact, my first job ever was in the drugstore as a soda jerk.

I was hired just after I graduated from high school by my godfather, who was kind enough to hire me because he knew me, not because I had any decent experience. I was trained by the person who was vacating the job, which meant that the sooner I learned everything, the sooner she could leave. I was overwhelmed but thrilled because I had been hired for $3.80 per hour, and the minimum wage was $3.35.

The drugstore was one of a very few left in town to have a real soda fountain (that’s it in the picture). I loved that job, and that job loved me. At the time, I had just barely topped 100 pounds, and my metabolism was more than a match for any mistakes I made involving ice cream. I think I subsisted on chocolate malts for at least a month. I didn’t gain any weight, but the muscles in my forearm grew to be quite impressive after a summer of dipping ice cream.

We had real Colorado City Creamery ice cream delivered once a week, so anything hand-dipped was of the highest quality, but the recipe we were best known for was our lemonade. We hand-squeezed the lemons and used soda water instead of plain water. We also made our own simple syrup, a precise mixture of sugar and water, fresh each day. The recipe is as follows: cut a lemon in half, and section each half into sixths. Squeeze six sections of lemon (plus or minus a section or two to the guest’s taste) into a pint-sized cup, dropping the rinds in as you go. Add two or three pumps of simple syrup, and fill the rest of the cup with ice and soda water. Stir with a pharmacy spoon, and serve. One couple checked into the hotel every summer for the tennis courts and the lemonade. The gentleman used to say nothing quenched his thirst quite like my lemonade, and I agreed. I kept one going for myself almost every day.

I used to make really thick malts by hand, too. I’d put four dips of the creamery’s vanilla bean ice cream into a mixing cup and add three squirts of chocolate and two scoops of chopped peanuts. I’d finish with a cup of milk and three tablespoons of malt, and spin it under the mixer until the ice cream was smooth and studded with peanuts. My dad used to drive across town for my malts, which I could turn upside down in the cup and they wouldn’t pour out. It was the perfect mix of vanilla with a hint of chocolate and peanuts. Ah, those were the days.

Once I had worked in the soda fountain for a couple of years, taking breaks for college, of course, I moved up in the ranks and got to work behind the cigar counter. My friend Mary Beth, whom we affectionately called “MB,” had been hired about a month after I was, so we moved up together, and traded off fountain and cigar counter duties. The great thing about the cigar counter was not only the heightened prestige, but the different customers. The clientele was older, and the uniforms were nicer and stayed relatively clean. Visitors to this counter could get cigars and cigarettes as well as candy, fresh nuts from Patsy’s, and a variety of travel items.

MB and I used to work a lot of shifts together, but the shifts we hated the most were what we called the “double back,” which meant that we closed the night before, getting out of the store at about 10:30 p.m., and opened again the next morning, reporting for work at 6:45 a. m. The challenge was always figuring out how much of the morning duties we could squeeze in the night before, so we could clock in and zone out for a while in the morning. Or, if it was a busy night, we calculated how much we could slack off on the closing duties and pick them up in the morning. No matter how we arranged it, the second shift was hard because we didn’t get much sleep on those nights. We frequently took pauses to lean against each other when we were really tired, since we were not allowed to sit down.

One way we dealt with the monotony of retail sales was to find ways to get outside. The drugstore had to requisition cigars and cigarettes from the hotel’s humidor, so we got to hand deliver our orders and pick up the items ourselves, which meant less time stuck behind the counter. MB and I used to take turns fetching the orders so we could take the long way and walk by the lake for a few minutes.

The Cooking Club, a club started by Spencer Penrose before prohibition that still exists today, used to place a monthly cigar order with us. The Cooking Club celebrates the palates and talents of a group of hand-selected men who gather together once a month to cook for one another, enjoy fine spirits, and smoke their favorite cigars after the meal. It was our job to stock their humidor with exactly the requested cigars, and woe to the person who got it wrong. Most of the cigars had to be special ordered, so placing an order in a timely manner was crucial. One of the gentlemen unfailingly came in two days before the Cooking Club meeting to buy us out of his favorite cigars, Don Tomas Blunts, only to leave us scrambling to replace them in time. We quickly learned to hide an extra box.

The cigar counter and soda fountain were at a 45-degree angle from each other, with a post at the corner that held postcards. MB and I had a fascination with gummy candy, especially gummy fruit, so we kept a package open pretty much all the time, going around the corner to snitch from it as we had breaks in duties. One afternoon she had just opened a package of gummy cherries when she remarked loudly to me, “There’s a black spot on my cherry.” I snickered and went over to look at the offending spot. As we stood there inspecting the candy, a guy peeked around the pillar in the corner, looking at us with a raised eyebrow. He had been selecting postcards, and we hadn’t seen him. Completely embarrassed, we put our heads down and went right back to work. The guy paid for his postcards at the cosmetics counter, giving us a wide berth on his way out.

One night I was working the cigar counter and had remarked to a coworker that it was an all-female crew that evening—even the pharmacist was a woman. A gentleman walked in and came up to me saying, “Where are the proph…ph..ll..s?” He said the last part with his hand over his mouth.

“Excuse me?” I said.

“The prophyl…mmmks.” Hand over the mouth again.

My light bulb went on, so I leaned in conspiratorially and whispered, “All our birth control items are on the back side of aisle four.” He disappeared down the aisle, and I went on stocking candy bars. A few minutes later, he came back, red-faced, saying he couldn’t find them. I could see he was really uncomfortable asking a young woman about this very private item, and he looked very agitated and rushed. I went to the back side of aisle four and scanned the shelves carefully. Then I remembered: at the time, we stocked condoms behind the pharmacy counter to reduce theft. “I’m sorry, sir, but you’ll have to ask the pharmacist for them.” He took one look at Joy, the pharmacist on duty, and fled the store. I don’t think he could take having to ask another woman for a prophylactic. I always wonder if a baby was conceived that night.

I never got promoted to the cosmetics counter, nor was I old enough to work at the liquor counter, but I did eventually become what I termed an “inventory control specialist.” I was a glorified stocker, ordering and replacing products both in the store and behind the pharmacy. Eventually I got to set prices and make displays. My favorite job during that time was folding souvenir tee shirts. Sounds boring, but it wasn’t that bad. The drugstore was built over the hotel’s old indoor swimming pool, and during initial construction, instead of demolishing the pool they just put the floor right over the top of the pool, which became our storage area. The tee shirts were stored in the deep end, so I could go down there and fold shirts in complete isolation, listening to my favorite music and working at my own pace. I’m sure I priced and folded close to 50,000 shirts in my time down there, dancing away the hours as I worked without the distraction of customers or coworkers. It was there that I discovered that the hotel’s logo could be read as ROADMOO if I folded the shirts so the beginning B and ending R folded over around the back. After I figured that out, every single tee shirt was folded that way in my secret joke. I used to smile to myself as I’d replace clumps of tourist-tangled tees with a fresh stack of perfectly-aligned shirts that repeated ROADMOO all the way down the shelf.

After another promotion and a raise to a whopping $5 per hour, my last year of retail was spent doing inventory control for all 22 shops in the hotel. I placed orders, received inventory and priced the items which I delivered to each shop. I also created many of the shops’ window dressings, so I felt like Jonathan Switcher in Mannequin. I always loved it when sales increased because people saw featured items in my window displays.

By this time, the hotel had chosen not to renew the lease for the drugstore’s space, and the management remodeled it, taking out the pharmacy, soda fountain and cigar counters and making the store into a gift shop. The old drugstore had lost its charm. I was not happy with the changes, and neither were many of my coworkers, but I had since taught MB and a few others my secret fold, so all 22 shops were regularly infiltrated with precisely folded ROADMOO shirts.

From retail I moved into the children’s program, which not only was a bump in pay to $6 per hour but which also required me to play with kids every day for work. As a teacher, I was thrilled to have a summer job that blended so well with my chosen career. It was a fun job, but I still reminisce about my days as a soda jerk. I miss my malts, I miss MB, and I miss the ROADMOO.

Photo By: DeLyn Martineau