Broadway sodas on the mezzanine

by Miv Schaaf

MEZZANINE -- IT WAS AN UNDENIABLY FOREIGN WORD. Mother said it meant between floors, but there was no sound in it at all like the word floors. I had but to say the word to myself -- mezzanine -- and flashes of oranges and sunshine ran through my mind, marble balustrades, villas overlooking lakes, laughing men with bold mustaches. They were there, such exotic landscapes, such foreign scents, even when we first came into J. L. Hudson's department store in Detroit, stamping our feet in soaking galoshes, pulling off our mittens, our hands already warming in the perfume-drifted air.

Self sufficient as bits of autumn sunlight, orange lamps high on the majestic store pillars multiply themselves in glass cosmetic counters, spilling orange diamonds over their crystal panes. When you put some of the perfume Mother buys here on yourself at home (how cool, how aloof the thin glass rod feels on your wrist, a want of ice-crystal purity touching debased thick brown skin all complicated underneath with muscles and blood) it smells wonderful for only a few minutes and then turns strong and cottony, stuffy in your nose. It never smells that way in the store nor on Mother, whose blouses, even in the drawer, have the faintest, lightest echo of the same scent about them.

On a tiny tall chair, the kind a giraffe would like, Mother sits. A doll's pink velvet pillow, not much bigger than the elbow it supports, holds her hand upright like a store statue. Mannequins, those statues were called, the qu almost as thrilling as the two z's. "Careful of your ring!" says the saleslady and they both smile; Mother's diamond ring and blue-veined hand are elegant enough for the finest store.

Now we are going to the mezzanine, to Hudson's mezzanine luncheon room, for a Broadway soda. They are made with coffee syrup and vanilla ice cream and they come frothed the same color as the waves that lap onto our Higgins Lake sand after there has been a storm, the palest whipped sand color.

They are the most sophisticated of sodas, Setty says. Setty works at the Board of Education in Detroit, which is just a couple blocks away from Hudson's. Setty, our youngest aunt Lucette, took a boat trip to Haiti -- on a real ship! -- on her last vacation. The year before that she traveled to San Francisco -- taken a plane! -- to see the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island. Setty is a worldly woman; Broadway sodas are very smart.

On the mezzanine, right before we turn the corner to the luncheon room, we stop at the cloakroom counter where two women stand like paper cut-outs in front of a dark mahogany wall. They are the cloakroom ladies. You do not run in Hudson's door, buy something and run out again; you come downtown to shop at Hudson's all afternoon.

You may stop to see the kidskin sale at the glove counters, but then you go to the mezzanine -- it always has a capital M in my mind, the way it did on the bronze rainbow over the elevator -- and check your coat and your galoshes and any parcels you wish at the cloakroom counter. You are in Hudson's to shop and you are in Hudson's to shop all afternoon.

Mother puts her black Persian lamb, still trembling with pearls of melted snow, on the oak counter. Setty's shimmery brown beaver, wriggling as though it has just that moment come from a playful swim in a stream, is put beside it. The women of the cloakroom are always old women, white haired, smiling. "Why do the ones in the cloakroom always have white hair, Mother?"

"Because it is the only job they can get," says Mother and her mouth looks softer. So that's why they are smiling; they want to keep their jobs. What thoughts run behind their pretty, powdered faces, these women who should be home in aprons baking gingerbread?

In exchange for your furs you receive a thick bronze oval wafer with J. L. Hudson Company cast on one side and a number on the other. I love these ovals; Mother lets me carry them and I hate to give them back. If I had a fur coat I would gladly trade it for one of these heavy bronze ovals.

Years later I went back. I could not find that mahogany wall with the oak counter that was so thick, so wide, so rich, so ready to hold any number of fur coats. The cloakroom ladies were gone. The pink velvet glove pillows and the giraffe chairs were gone, too. But then, so were Mother and Setty.

Miv Schaaf, a resident of Fieldbrook, wrote for the Los Angeles Times for 15 years.

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