There is a certain type of woman who eats lunch alone at Marshall Field’s. While others her age need walkers, she can still glide gracefully (if slowly) on tasteful Italian pumps. A hat could upset the balance of her expensively arranged coiffure, but she still dons one on special occasions. And she doesn’t wait for winter to wear gloves. The Walnut Room typically draws these women, although they’ve been known to inhabit even the seventh-floor cafeteria, where they provide a stark contrast to those who survive on soup, coffee, and all the saltines they can stomach.
One’s here right now, in the cafeteria, at the table next to mine. An archetypal Field’s luncher. A flattering upsweep of bright red hair–as natural as can be imagined on a woman of Nancy Reagan’s generation. Lush, perfectly arched eyebrows and just enough makeup–no spidery false eyelashes or ghoulish Baby Jane jobs. She wears–what else?–a wool suit, probably Chanel; the jacket’s collarless, the blouse silk. She knows her age and looks good despite it–or maybe even because of it. The woman’s got class.
Her antithesis shuffles past us in crepe-soled oxfords, hunched over from osteoporosis. She removes her dusty raincoat painfully, revealing a too-tight flowered dress. She catches my eye and half shouts, “Do they still serve coffee, or do you have to get it yourself?” Within the cafeteria there are several “please serve yourself” islands of regular and decaf. I tell her that as far as I know you have to get it yourself.
This triggers a response from the archetypal Field’s luncher, who’s talking across the tables at me, although I can’t hear one word. I get up–I was ready for another cup anyhow–and approach her table.
I must lean over to hear her.
“A while back,” she whispers, “the waitresses came around and refilled your coffee for you.”
“When was that?” I ask, searching 18 years of department-store-restaurant memories.
“Oh,” she says, hesitating, “I suppose about 1950.”
“Oh! Well!” I blurt out, laughing. Then I wonder if my laugh suggests that 1950 is ancient–that she’s ancient.
“Of course,” she adds, “that was a service accorded the ladies, not the whores like us!”
I’m speechless. All I can muster is “Guess not.”
The Field’s luncher smiles. I spring toward the coffee isle, murmuring a polite “nice talking to you.” I avoid eye contact on my way back to my seat.
But a few minutes later she is hovering over my table, glaring at the collection of papers I’ve set in front of me.
“Are you a teacher?” she asks.
I explain I’m teaching but also a grad student.
She nods and asks for details. University of Illinois? The one they call Circle? Suddenly she appears self-conscious. “I better leave you alone,” she says. “You’ve got plenty of work.”
But she catches me again on my third trip back from the coffee isle by whispering in my direction. I lean over, a difficult trick now that I’m balancing a cup of coffee. But if I sit, I’ll be stuck.
“I was an English grad student too,” she says, as if she has suddenly remembered. I wonder if this is true, and then she babbles something in a foreign language. French? German? It almost seems English. It has the cadence of poetry.
“I’m sorry,” I finally admit. “I don’t understand.”
She cocks her head quizzically. “Chaucer? Canterbury Tales?”
“Oh yes,” I say. “Of course.”
I learn that she earned her graduate degree at Northwestern and for many years taught music at a private girl’s school on the east coast. She introduces herself as Miss T—-. I think, oh, what the heck, and introduce myself as Ms. DiGangi. My name inspires her to tell me about this “darling” Italian girl–a friend–who really wants to continue her education but for some reason doesn’t have the confidence to pursue it. She tells me about the cafeteria regulars, including a charming professor emeritus who comes here each day after his swim.
“You know,” she says, “in the old days, when they poured coffee, people were different.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, they wouldn’t be talking–like us. You know?”
“Is that so?”
“People were more formal, more stuffy. I wouldn’t have had the nerve to use words like that, especially with a stranger. Of course that wasn’t right either.”
“Don’t worry,” I say. “Honest. It was amusing–very.”
“Oh!” she laughs. “But I shouldn’t have spoken for you. I mean it’s one thing calling yourself–” She glances behind her. “A whore. But–”
“And after all, you’re obviously a lady.”
“Actually,” I say, “we’re women. All of us–women.” And I smile to let her know that I’m not being vindictive or sarcastic–just accurate.
“That’s right,” she says, a little too jubilantly, as if she wishes to make amends and will agree with anything I say. Or perhaps she’s suddenly remembered that it’s no longer 1950.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.