Lunch counter confusion

It was a beautiful day.  The sun was shining down on Philadelphia, and the air was dry and sweet.  I was surrounded by a group of other teachers, all of us on a three day trip to Philly as part of a history class.

We were hungry, we were feeling happy, we were delighted beyond belief when we stepped into Reading Terminal Market.

Holy Deliciousness!  Seriously.

If you have never been to Terminal Market in Philadelphia, pack your bag right now. Go on a strict fast for a week, then get your buns right on down there. Do not pass Go, just get yourself into that market. Yum. Oh. Ramma.

It was foodie heaven.   The smells alone sent me into food nirvana.

I wandered around for a bit, strolling past the stalls selling Cajun delicacies (crawfish! ettoufee!), Italian delights (fresh mozzarella! pizza gena!) and fresh fish.  I saw Asian, Mexican, Mediterranean, Greek, and Amish Dutch food.  It was such a wonderfully overwhelming place!  If I ever win the lottery, I’m going to spend a week there.  If I ever find out that I only have a month to live, I will spend it going from stall to stall, tasting everything.

After a while, I ran into a friend from my class.  I was just finishing an enormous lunch and she was going to get herself one of those “famous Amish apple dumplings”.  I told her that I would meet her in a few minutes, after I scarfed down the last of my meal.

True to my word, about ten minutes after our conversation, I found my friend seated at a long, U shaped lunch counter, holding a plastic coated menu in her hand.  I greeted her, and she said, “I tried to save you a seat, but they wouldn’t let me.”  Honestly, I hadn’t expected a seat; the market is a place for strolling, sampling and sitting only very briefly.  I reassured her that I intended to keep walking around. “I just bought a big soft pretzel,” I told her, “I’ll keep walking and eating!”

But I didn’t get a chance to walk away.  Two young men had been seated next to my colleague, clearly taking one of the seats that she had tried to save for me.  They both stood up immediately upon my arrival, and the one in “my” seat said, ” Here! You sit down. Enjoy!”

I was surprised, and a little bit embarrassed: I didn’t want to order from this stall. I was pretty much all filled up with deliciousness already. I tried to insist that the young man take his seat back, but he was absolutely adamant.  “No, no!”, he said firmly, “I couldn’t take your seat.  You sit down.”  He and his friend were both sure that they wanted to give me my place, and they walked away before I could adequately express my thanks.

So I sat down, somewhat chagrined, and more than a little embarrassed.  “I didn’t mean to chase them away!”, I claimed.  My friend agreed, “They didn’t have to get up!”

“Yes they did”, said a woman at the counter. “They couldn’t have eaten if you had walked away.”

I settled in, and totally enjoyed the dessert that my guilt prompted me to order. (Shoofly pie; holy God, I think I died and went to sugar heaven.)  And I was pleased and humbled and very grateful that these two strangers had acted with such courtesy.

I am a mother of young men; I would fully expect my two boys to have done the very same thing. I would certainly hope that if my sons saw an older woman without a seat they would get right up and offer her theirs.  It was the right thing to do, and I was delighted to find myself in a place where someone was willing to do it.

But I was intensely troubled nonetheless.  And I wasn’t really sure why.

Until much later, when I was recounting the interaction to another teaching colleague. And I described the two polite young men.

They were black.  And they were seated a big old lunch counter, looking at the menu, when a white woman came up and needed a seat.  They jumped right up and gave it to me.

I have no doubt that the twenty something guys in that Philadelphia market were acting out of courtesy and respect. They probably had moms a lot like me, and they were probably pretty proud to have had a chance to be gracious and kind and respectful to their elders.

But I reacted out of my awareness of American History, and all I saw was the lunch counter and the skin color and the unfairness of my unseating someone darker than I am.

In retrospect, I wish I could have erased my memory of those Jim Crow days. I wish that I could have smiled at those kind young men.  If I could do it over again, I would put out my hand to shake theirs, and I would say, “Why thank you so much! You be sure to tell your mothers that they did a very fine job of raising you both!”

I wonder how long it takes to erase the past?

12 thoughts on “Lunch counter confusion

  1. This was such an honest, thoughtful post, I wish more people thought about these things as carefully as you do. In the world as well as personal relationships, I feel more and more that a past cannot be erased. But where that leaves us, I really don’t know. Maybe that is part of being human, living with past hurt and continuing to love.


    • Thank you; I simply felt awkward and uneasy. I was part of a history class, you see, and we have been learning all about “The Great Migration” and the Jim Crow south.
      I just hope that by learning to laugh at ourselves, we can see our common humanity and we can move on to a place where we really only see each other, and not our shared past.


  2. This was such an honest, thoughtful post, I wish more people thought about these things as carefully as you do! In the world as well as personal relationships, I feel more and more that a past cannot be erased. But where that leaves us, I really don’t know. Maybe that is part of being human, living with past hurt and continuing to love.


    • Isn’t it amazing? Where did you eat?
      We have gone on a “Philly Eats Ethnic Food Tour” the day before, then out for mussels at Monk’s that night. The hotel had an amazing breakfast buffet, so I ended up having what a called a “life saving salad” in the Market.
      Followed by that shoefly pie, go figure!


  3. After reading and enjoying your story I couldn’t help but wonder if you turned this encounter into a vivid, real life example of the lasting impact of the history you’re teaching. That would be the kind of history class that would have engaged me as a kid!


    • Great thought, Jamie; I think that a lot of the interactions on this trip were filtered through the history that we were learning and discussing. That’s one reason why I think that history is so important; it puts every single day into a context, and helps us to decide how to behave now.


  4. Karen – I love reading your blog. It makes me miss you so much! I can’t believe you were in Philly and you didn’t call me. Reading Terminal Market is a gem. Alyssa lives pretty close to it.


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