In Nyack, N.Y., circa 1964, there was an old fellow with ever-present cigar at Arnold’s, the pre-chichi luncheonette where coffee and a scrambled egg on hard roll to go was 35 cents. These days the wonderful but unwonderfully expensive breakfast/lunch place at this location offers 10 varieties of pancakes alone.
In the old simplicity, “Moe,” which may or may not have been the cashier’s name, yet the name fits, would never look directly at you. His time seemed to be spent grunting, not in observation or conversation. But he was more than sharp enough to be the gatekeeper, and nobody got past Moe without paying the tab. He took the cash (no credit cards then) and the standard-sized check that the counter waitress had given you and threw the paper money on the marble shelf of the old wind-up register while quickly but intently squinting at the tab, which then went on a spike as he pressed the big keys on the National Register. The door popped open, and Moe reluctantly gave you the change, holding his fingers against the paper in hope of finding an extra bill there that should not be.
Moe came through the Great Depression, you see, and he was as frugal as he was downright cheap. And not too trusting. He was also Arnold’s father-in-law, and Arnold needed him as the gatekeeper. (Moe didn’t seem to need Arnold. Maybe he was looking out for his daughter.)
The old Nyack luncheonette, Moe, the cash register, the way you paid the tab, comes to mind because yesterday I tried to buy a copy of the Gotham tabloid, the New York Daily News, in Pearl River, a hamlet close to Nyack. It wasn’t an easy purchase.
In Moe’s day, which was also mine and quite possibly yours, I would pick up a copy of the News, tuck it under my left arm and reach in my right pocket for 5 cents, which would be slapped on the marble soda counter next to Moe’s register. Moe wouldn’t look up, but he heard the sound, and by its tone knew that you left 5 cents, not less. He also knew you had the paper under your left arm, for, as I said, he saw all, and Moe was the gatekeeper.
The entire transaction at Arnold’s, if you were just picking up the paper from the rack outside, hopping in, dropping the nickel and leaving, was a few seconds. But my Pearl River buy took considerably longer.
There I stopped at a chain store pharmacy, open 24 hours, which also sells newspapers, and picked up the Sunday News, took out $1.25 and plopped it all on the Formica, not marble, counter. I then turned to leave. The young fellow at the counter, about 60 years less in age than Moe, asked he if could have the paper I just bought. I gave it to him and asked why. He replied that he had “to scan it” before the cash register, an electronic model far removed from Moe’s brass one, could open its cash drawer.
Ah, "progress." But also a column idea.