Collectors Issue 1999
Diners, Drugstores and Dives
The fine art of hanging out
by Joan Potter
IN MY TEENAGE SCRAPBOOK, which I have carefully carried from place to place over the forty-nine years since I graduated from Tupper Lake High School, I find a booklet with a yellowed paper cover embossed in gold: Senior Class Memories. I riffle through the pages, reading snippets of sentiments from my long-ago buddies: “Remember Willie’s dock and the good times we had!” “Good luck to the walky-talky of the 3d period gym class.” And an old saw, “Remember Grant, remember Lee, to hell with them, remember me.”
One inscription, in neat adult handwriting, stands out from the youthful scribbles. “You are to be congratulated on your graduation,” it reads. “I hope you never graduate from your friends at Maid’s Pharmacy.” It’s signed by John Maid, owner of the drugstore in whose red leather booths my friends and I spent many after-school hours, sipping chocolate Cokes and gossiping about our teachers, boyfriends and female rivals.
I remember Maid’s as a sunny, cheerful spot with a soda fountain; booths along a wall; shelves of ointments, powders, pills and cosmetics; and a counter for prescriptions. Our other teenage meeting place, the Miss Tupper Diner, was in retrospect funkier, more grown-up. Instead of the drugstore scent of chocolate and cologne, the diner smelled like fried eggs and Lucky Strikes. Working men ate there, settled on stools at the counter so they could banter with the cook as he tossed burgers on the grill.
My friends and I sat in booths for hours and always ordered the diner special—toasted sweet rolls dripping with melted butter. I don’t remember if we drank coffee and smoked cigarettes. Maybe we did, taking a chance that no relatives or friends of our mothers would push open the door, bringing in a blast of icy air, and catch us in forbidden pursuits.
My most vivid Miss Tupper memory is of the evening my girlfriends and I decided to bleach our bangs. The six of us were on the cheering squad —later kicked off for drinking Tom Collinses in a Potsdam restaurant before a basketball game—and were among the most daring eleventh-grade girls. We each had hair of a dif ferent color and style, but we all had bangs, and somewhere we got the idea to bleach a streak into them.
At Maid’s drugstore we bought the fixings—peroxide and some kind of white powder. Then we headed for the diner. Two by two, while the others waited in a booth, we locked ourselves in the tiny women’s bathroom, spread the mixture on our hair, and waited for the magic transformation. It worked—more or less—and each of us emerged with bangs in various shades of blond and orange. But what I wonder is, why did those incredibly tolerant diner owners let six giddy teenage girls hold their bathroom hostage for what must have been an entire evening?
The drugstore and the diner were our weekday hangouts. On Saturday nights my girlfriends and I got dressed up in our twirly calf-length skirts, short-sleeved sweaters and black flats and headed for the Hotel Altamont. There we sat around a table in the dimly lighted Mountain Room tapping our fingers to the music and waiting for someone to ask us to dance.
Although I clearly remember drinking rum-and-Cokes at the Altamont, none of us had yet reached the legal drinking age. In fact, pasted in the back cover of my high-school scrapbook is a cardboard sign I lifted from the wall of the dance hall the month before I left for college. In thick red letters the notice reads: “No Minors Permitted in Bar or Mountain Room at any Time.” Below the message, some jokester had printed “John L. Lewis.”
One Saturday evening after I’d left the house, the police chief telephoned my father to warn him that his officers were going to “raid the Altamont” that night and catch all the underage drinkers. “Just in case your daughter’s there, Jess,” he said, “I thought you’d like to know.”
With that news, my mother leapt into action and headed for the hotel. I can still hear the astonished voice of my friend across the table in the dark, smoky Mountain Room. “Joan, your mother just walked in.” Unthinkable. My proper mother in this raffish place. But I looked toward the door and there she was, huddled in her woolen coat and motioning to me. We all hid our cigarettes under the table and I rushed over to her. “Chief Timmons called and said there’s going to be a raid tonight,” she whispered. “You’d better come with me.” She gave me just enough time to warn the other kids, and by the time the cops arrived, everybody under eighteen was safe at home.
A police raid was an unusual event; we teenagers always felt quite comfortable at the Altamont. But our ultimate Saturday night destination was the Waukesha, a rambling log roadhouse a few miles south of the village. We headed there whenever we could find someone with a car to give us a ride.
Inside the Waukesha, neon beer signs hung over the bar near the entrance and lamps on each table in the long main room illuminated the woodland paintings hanging on the walls. At the far end of the room was a space for dancing and a bandstand where Corky Arsenault and his combo played tunes like “Tangerine” and “A Cottage for Sale.” I distinctly remember the piano player as a skinny old woman who always kept a mug of beer within reach. Probably, though, she was a lot younger than I am now.
It was at the Waukesha that I slow-danced with my boyfriends and then rushed into the women’s bathroom to gossip with the girls about my current love object. It was in that very bathroom that someone described to me just exactly what was meant by a French kiss. And it was at the Waukeslia, not long after I graduated from high school, where my friend Arthur celebrated his safe return from the Korean War.
Everybody at the bar wanted to buy Arthur a drink, and he couldn’t refuse. Finally he clambered up on the bandstand and announced that he was going to sing “The Marine Corps Hymn.” I can still see him up there, singing his heart out and swaying to the music until he fell over backwards, crashing into Corky Arsenault’s drum set.
I don’t know where Arthur is today, and the wonderful Waukesha is gone, destroyed by fire in 1975. The Miss Tupper Diner was transformed into a more upscale restaurant called The Rose in the mid-eighties, but that has closed too. Maid’s — sold to Monakey & Meader, then overwhelmed by national chain pharmacies — is today an optometrist’s office. And after the Grand Union Company bought the old Hotel Altamont, a wrecking company came to demolish it, tearing away, according to a newspaper report, eighty-five doors, including the one my mother had nervously pulled open when she came to rescue her underage daughter.