Afternoon delight   

S and T soda shop in Pittsboro. Photo by Rudy Juliano.

GUEST COLUMN

by Fred Sparling

How often do we elders sneak away on a whim, as we did in school days, or young married adults? Wouldn’t it be fun? Memories of those earlier days are some of our favorites.

Joyce’s wristwatch no longer works. A cheap model, the battery failed, and it is less expensive to purchase a new watch than to find a battery replacement. At least, it is easier to buy a new one. We hobbled out to our car, Joyce with a bad right knee scheduled for a replacement, I with a bad lower back due to spinal stenosis. A drive to a nearby big box store is totally frustrating, any watch over $10 is locked up and no service person is available for an interminable period. A question to a check-out clerk gets a look but no answer, only a hasty walk to another clerk whose assignment apparently is to attend the watch station; she is busy wheeling cartons of stuff to an unseen place and disappears. After waiting for too many minutes she does not reappear, and we walk out in frustration.

I offer “Why don’t we go to Pittsboro, maybe there is something we can do there?” Joyce responds with “Great idea! Let’s go to the S and T Soda Shoppe.” We lived just south of Pittsboro on the Rocky River for 26 years before moving to Galloway Ridge in 2014, and frequented the place often, loving the friendly neighborly comfort and the old-fashioned décor and food.

It is a nice spring afternoon. Windows down, the air is light and pleasant, the cool sun glowing as we drive south past Fearrington Village and Allen’s Barbeque, over the Haw River bridge, the countryside appearing much as it had during our decades of living here. As we enter Pittsboro, we pass ongoing construction for Chatham Park that is destined to transform the lovely small town whose history dates from pre-Revolutionary War days into a mini-Cary. Similar changes are further along in Chapel Hill, which is rapidly becoming unrecognizable as rows of five story apartments and multi-use complexes are built close to the road. Those who remember the “Southern part of heaven” when it was a village with gravel sidewalks are appalled. Slow down, we think silently, don’t take our past from us. In Pittsboro, the changes are just beginning.

Approaching the town center we see the historic Old Court House in front of us, now shorn of the Confederate Soldier monument that was removed several years ago. Many of the buildings are on the National Historic Registry, and the sides of the road are lined with tall arching streetlamps. Roy Underhill’s the old Woodwright’s School, long a staple on PBS, is housed immediately next to the Soda Shoppe. Joyce, once an ardent woodworker, sold her beloved 19th century planes and other old hand tools once owned by her maternal grandfather to Underhill before we moved to Galloway Ridge. Underhill has announced he will be retiring to rest and write soon, suggesting more change is imminent. Virlie’s Grill, famous for its fried chicken and an unchanged menu serving southern classics, is across the street. We luckily find a parking spot immediately in front, with handrails for support going down three steps to the sidewalk. We are watched with curiosity by young people as we gingerly descend.  

Stepping inside under an old awning we enter a replica of an early 20th-century pharmacy, constructed with love by the owners Gene and Vickie Oldham and their sons Steve and T.J. on the site of the former Pilkington’s drug store. The floors are tiled, the ceiling is made of old tin, a Wurlitzer juke box sits close to the entrance, the walls are lined with big mirrors and cabinets containing prints and memorabilia collected from many defunct drug stores. The counter and booths are lovely old dark mahogany. Swivel-top chairs front the counter with a brass footrest. Small tables are crowded in the back. The place is packed at 1:30 with kids and families and some oldsters, eating massive ice cream concoctions or a variety of foods. It is noisy. Steve greets us with an admonition that all who enter here are happy. The only seats are at a table.

We study the menu. Prices have gone up from earlier days, not a surprise. There are sandwiches, fajitas, hamburgers, and a steak called “the gambler.” The Oldham family used to frequent the Old Rathskeller on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill before it closed in 2007, and they particularly loved the signature dish, named the gambler. They purchased many of the plates and other things from this restaurant at auction, including the cast-iron dishes used to cook and serve the gambler, and lovingly recreated the same dish, keeping alive their memories and allowing others the same treat. Many times, our family ate in the Rat, as it was called, descending narrow steps into a dark alley to get to it. Old Chapel Hill, now gone as have so many things. We pass on the gambler, it is too early, we are conscious of being overweight, and decide on a root beer float, vanilla ice cream, one dish and two straws. An attempt at moderation. We feel a bit naughty but smile with anticipation.

The waitress is full of cheer as she arrives with an old-fashioned glass with a big clump of ice cream amidst root beer, no cherry or other adornments, no spoon. We lean forward, each taking a small sip and then passing the glass across the small table; the ice cream gradually softens and melts. There is no reason to hurry, we savor the experience. Despite the noise we are in a bubble of contentment, and my mind wanders. “Afternoon Delight” a popular song from the 1970s that once dominated the airwaves enters and is hard to dismiss, with a catchy rhythm and suggestive wording: 

“Gonna find my baby, gonna hold her tight
Gonna grab some afternoon delight…

Thinkin’ of you’s workin’ up my appetite
Lookin’ forward to a little afternoon delight…

Skyrockets in flight
Afternoon delight
Afternoon delight
Afternoon delight.”

The words are most appropriate for youths but apply in a different sense to us octogenarians. We shall return and will discipline ourselves so that we can fully enjoy a gambler with a root beer float, edible nostalgia from earlier days in Chapel Hill right here in Pittsboro. Grab it before it is gone.


Dr. Fred Sparling was formerly the Chairman of the Department of Medicine at UNC.
Currently he is retired and resides at Galloway Ridge in Chatham County.

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1 Comment on "Afternoon delight   "

  1. Great to see that you and Joyce still sneak off. I remember a lovely supper at your place on the Rocky River. Hope you are enjoying Galloway Ridge and will continue to sneak off!

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