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The Seeburg Wall-O-Matic gleamed in its square, chrome body, soft-lit by neon hues. I couldn't read yet, but I knew with 10 cents and the press of two buttons, I'd get a melody.

A number, a letter, and music from a 1950s tabletop diner jukebox 

A melody, tableside at the diner

© Daddiomano | Dreamstime.com

A melody, tableside at the diner

Most of us have a soundtrack to our lives, a mental playlist we retrieve at the moments we find most celebratory or unbearable or just right. For much of my early childhood, mine came from a 1950s tabletop diner jukebox.

From the late 1980s through the '90s, my grandparents, Hercules and Helen Amprazis, owned Athens Diner, a shiny beacon of hot blue-plate specials in the dreary, industrial city of Harrison, N.J.

In my adolescent imagination, the diner's aluminum exterior looked like a huge roll of tinfoil stretched wide to make a roadside mirror against the backdrop of smog. I'd watch from the backseat of my mom's 1984 black Oldsmobile as we'd slowly swoop into the parking lot, the reflection of the car's broad bumper distorted into rolling waves.

I remember waltzing through the heavy double doors at the age of 3, feeling like I owned the place. I'd follow the waitress to a corner booth and hand-deliver a frigid steel tumbler of malted milkshake all by myself. Sometimes, I'd get a crisp dollar for my efforts.

But I preferred coins. With a dime, I could clamber up a swiveling stool at the counter and plop myself onto its round, shimmering red vinyl seat. Stationed between a Heinz ketchup bottle and a fat, glass sugar shaker, the Seeburg Wall-O-Matic gleamed in its square, chrome body, soft-lit by neon hues. I couldn't read yet, but I knew with 10 cents and the press of two buttons—one top letter and one bottom number—I'd get a melody.

I recently turned 30. I'm not sure many people of my generation can remember flipping through a tabletop jukebox, especially this side of the Mason-Dixon Line, where aluminum-sided diners seem obsolete. (I know about the one in Cary. Built in the 1990s for kitsch effect and hauled over from Florida, it's just not the same.)

My grandparents didn't seem to mind what type of music blared through any of the jukeboxes. According to my grandfather, they didn't make much of a profit.

"They never made me no money," he recalls. "Say I made $100 in two weeks from all those quarters and dimes. I paid $5 per week for the service, and then we'd split $95 fifty-fifty."

"Racketeering!" he says, laughing, with a heavily accented emphasis on the first "r." That's what he thought of the vending machine operators and their little scheme.

For me, choosing from the diner menu never posed a problem. I wanted a pizza burger deluxe (that's with fries), unless the chicken parmesan was on special.

The trick was picking out my soundtrack.

At age 6, I'd press the lever that flipped through every sheet of options, sounding out the name of every band and the two accompanying song choices. The year was 1988. Kylie Minogue had made her American debut with "Locomotion," and my musical tastes were just developing. Our household didn't have cable television or a computer, but I had a record player in my room and a tape deck in the Oldsmobile. The only way to get my cheap musical thrills came through these jukeboxes.

The same man who never made money from these jukeboxes poured coins into the palm of my hand. Just one quarter afforded me three songs. With plenty of coins saved up in my Rainbow Brite change purse, I became the resident DJ at Athens Diner.

Sometimes, if we visited the diner just after lunch rush, I'd have a good 30 minutes to an hour with the place to myself. Debbie Gibson, Tiffany and Whitney Houston frequently joined my DJ set for a very enthusiastic dance party. If customers packed the premises, I would opt for crowd pleasers, something more vintage, say Wham! or Tina Turner or Kool & the Gang.

My mother, Lisa, remembers what actually got the customers tapping their toes.

"You've gotta remember, this was New Jersey," she tells me recently. "So we would get a lot of Bon Jovi."

Mom grew up in Newark in the Motown era of the 1960s and '70s. At home, especially while cooking, she spun Four Tops and Temptations on vinyl. Later, as both my younger sister and I got a little older, she'd rest a saucy wooden spoon on the stovetop to grab our hands, whirling us through a proper lesson on disco dancing to the hustle. Following the synthesized bells of Donna Summer, we'd get the rocking and crooning of Elton John. "The Bitch Is Back" became our anthem, but we'd settle for "Crocodile Rock" at the diner.

We moved to North Carolina the summer before I turned 8. In the years to come, we'd frequently drive 10 hours to visit my grandparents in New Jersey, this time in a Dodge Caravan. Our first stop: Athens Diner. No matter how much we may have argued over music on the ride up, my parents, sister and I could slither into a booth and find our tune.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Jukebox hero."

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