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A Southern cafeteria story about why these vanishing eateries are among the last bastions of gentility.

Melinda Ruley 

Table Manners

The day they close the Piccadilly Cafeteria I go in for one last plate. I was never a regular, one of the hundreds who made the pilgrimage every Sunday after church. I don't know the cafeteria ladies' names by heart, or which day to avoid the macaroni salad. Still, I've eaten enough 'Dilly fried chicken and high-rise coconut pie to understand that on this day, in a dark corner of Durham's South Square Mall, a great institution is passing.

It's a kite-bright March afternoon, but inside the cafeteria the mood is glum. The Piccadilly has been here for 27 years. That's a lot of bridge club luncheons and Ruritan suppers. A lot of stories and conversations and drama and minutia, played out in leatherette booths over sweating glasses of sweet tea. Requiems float in the steam above the serving line: End of an era; sure will miss it, mmm hmmm; never be the same.

A handful of TV news people are on hand to record the event. Equipment clicks and flashes. Camera-ready reporters scan the dining room for an interview. They look so go-getterish, with their natty clothes and volumized hair. I feel bad for them. The world is lit up with wars and earthquakes, terrorist events and mud slides, and they're stuck in this hay-seed town, covering a done-for restaurant.

Still, they are polite and professional, inching their microphones into people's faces, smiling encouragingly. The customers, for their part, have caught onto the somberness of the scene. They are sad, but also secretly proud of their role as mourners. Lunch becomes a kind of funereal reception, a viewing. Customers chat with the cafeteria ladies, offering condolences and best wishes. Even the congealed salad obliges the mood, sitting forlorn in small dishes, lacking its usual jiggle and sheen.

Everybody has a cafeteria story. There's just something fabulous, when you're a kid, about standing in the serving line, damp and excited in the meatloaf heat, one thin sheet of Plexiglas away from every imaginable variation on pineapple salad.

Growing up in Raleigh, we had the North Hills K&W and the cafeteria at Hudson Belk. Chicken and dumplings, tomato pudding, slabs of cornbread to choke a mule. We didn't go that often, though; big cafeterias made my father nervous, since he could not control what we ordered and everything looked so good. Chicken and dumplings, tomato pudding, slabs of marigold cornbread. Even the "salads" were tempting: marshmallow-studded carrot slaw, or strawberry gelatin topped off with a nifty Cool Whip swirl. Our eyes would bug out and my father, picturing his bank accounts drained dry by Friday-night supper, would call up the line, reminding us that our eyes were bigger than our stomachs.

My friend Kate, who was raised in New England, visited her first cafeteria when she was 7 on vacation in North Carolina. She says the cafeteria ladies scared her, with their hair nets and gleaming forks, their weathered faces hovering specter-like above pans of chicken livers and chopped collards. She asked for steak and got a plate of what she now describes as "chicken-fried roof shingle."

Years later, Kate moved to Durham and began taking her children to Piccadilly's for supper. At first, she says, they went because they could get big meals for a decent price, but after a couple of years she realized there was something else that appealed to her, something that set the cafeteria apart from other restaurants.

What it was, she says, came to her one day as she ate her food and watched the people around her. They were polite, she says. They employed actual table manners. They said please and thank you, chatted over coffee. Not every single one, of course, but most of them. It was something you don't see much anymore, Kate says. It was civilized.

"Civilized" is an unlikely adjective for a big cafeteria in a worn-out mall, a place where customers are funneled down a chute with plastic trays. Where the servers sound like tobacco auctioneers: Serveyou?serveyou?serveyou?serveyou? Meatdarlin?meatdarlin?meatdarlin? Where the food has all the culinary subtlety of army hash. (I mean that in the nicest possible way; I like my green beans cooked to within an inch of their lives. I adore cling peaches hacked to order off a column of frozen syrup.)

There are no linens or icy pats of butter at the Piccadilly. No dessert spoons or fine china or wine stewards. There's just a cheerfully exhausted hostess in stretch slacks, checking your iced tea supply. And yet, talking to customers on this last day of business, conversations and stories seem to rotate on the thematic axes of civility and good manners. One woman I speak with says people are more polite in cafeterias because they're reminded of Sunday dinner growing up, sitting in church clothes waiting for the gravy boat to pass. Another woman says that since teenagers think cafeterias are square, the Piccadilly is usually spared the "rowdy elements" you get at, say, the Chick-fil-A down at the food court. Which in turn, she says, make cafeterias safe for elderly people--the "only people left with any gentility in their bones."

"Why is that?" I ask. "Do you mean they are the last representatives of the dying virtues of character and discipline?"

"What I mean," the woman says, "is they don't have a job, kids, soccer practice, dance class and a periodontal appointment at 3 o'clock. They have time for gentility."

I talk for awhile with a traveling salesman named Johnnie Terry. Terry has got himself a plate of roast beef with three sides, and a mountain of dinner rolls. He goes through a pitcher and a half of iced tea. I imagine his insides as a giant thrashing machine, his bladder the size of a crock pot.

The Terry family have been cafeteria patrons for years. It is where they celebrate birthdays and anniversaries; where they brought Terry's niece after she won a junior poultry ribbon at the State Fair; where uncle Frank was feted the day he got a job with benefits. And it's where, two years ago, the Terry family took his parents, Ed and Granny Nan, to celebrate Ed's retirement. Relatives drove in from all over, among them a cousin whose twin girls had just turned 9. As the meal proceeded, the girls got fidgety. When they started sassing their grandparents and shooting spitballs through their straws, Terry says, Granny Nan snatched them up and hauled them down to the food court.

"She got them cheeseburgers and told them not to come back to the cafeteria until they could act like little ladies," Terry says. "Then she marched back up to the cafeteria and told their mama--in front of God and everybody--said if she couldn't provide any more upbringing than that those girls were bound for ill repute."

Joan Didion, one of the most civil writers alive, wrote that "to give formal dinners in the rain forest would be pointless did not the candlelight flickering on the liana call forth deeper, stronger disciplines, values instilled long before. It is a kind of ritual, helping us to remember who and what we are. In order to remember it, one must have known it."

Who anymore knows it? Civility still exists, but only here and there, no longer as part of the cultural fabric. Perhaps this is why its presence at the Piccadilly--as surprising a venue for civility as the rain forest--is noteworthy.

I once heard someone describe manners as fragile family heirlooms; if not passed down with excruciating care, they break, or get lost, and the next generation does without--often without knowing what they're missing.

Standing in line at a Burger King one day, I watched as two teenage boys shoved their way to the front of the line. They were in the usual attire: 'do rags and saggy pants. Bellied up to the counter, one of them began sarcastically to chide the other for not being polite. "Don't give it another thought, my dears," an older woman said crisply, eyeing the boys' exposed backsides. "You wouldn't know polite if it bit you on your hinterlands."

Back at the Piccadilly, Mack Lilley and his fiancée, Pam, spoon custard into their 6-month-old's mouth. The baby spits a little back out and Mack scrapes the excess off the child's chin and gobs it back in. Pam is misty-eyed over the cafeteria's demise; she's come here, she says, since before she was born. "When my mom was pregnant," she says, "she'd come here and eat these huge meals with cheesy broccoli and fried chicken and always with two slices of lemon pie. She says the cashier would wink at her and not charge her for the second slice."

I tell her about some of the other comments, what people have said about the polite tone of big cafeterias. Pam squints thoughtfully. She says her childhood was a little unstable, but that every Thursday night her grandmother brought her to the cafeteria for supper. "My parents and my sisters were all crazy," she says, "always about to explode in some way. But every week for an hour I'd get to come to this calm, nice place where people behaved and didn't yell or throw things. It was a good thing for me."

Mack nods and laughs. It turns out he has a story, too. He was 6 years old and having Sunday dinner with his family at the Piccadilly. Seated next to him was an ancient aunt, bent and gnarled, whose exquisite manners, combined with the infirmities of her age, made every meal agonizingly slow. The others accommodated, drinking coffee and talking, paying little attention to the aunt or Mack--who by now was squirming.

The aunt, he says, was having an especially hard time spooning up her Jell-O. After watching her make several failed attempts, Mack reached over and very gently pushed her face down into the bowl. "Like this," he whispered, puckering his lips and inhaling sharply. The aunt smiled wickedly at him and sucked up a cube of Jell-O. When the rest of the family looked over a few minutes later, Mack says, she was sucking up Jell-O like a frat boy, pausing between cubes to straighten, raise her napkin, and delicately pat the corners of her mouth. EndBlock

  • A Southern cafeteria story about why these vanishing eateries are among the last bastions of gentility.

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