For you non-Detroiters, what was Sanders? — I’m using the past tense here – “…what was Sanders?” – even though a handful of Sanders locations still exist, but in the 1970s, there were dozens of them. Sanders was chiefly a chocolate and ice cream shop. It was founded by one Fred Sanders in the 1870s and it was a Detroit institution for generations. My dear late mother had worked at one of their downtown stores in her teen years, and Sanders cakes and chocolates were often found in our home, as most supermarkets around there carried their products.
One Sanders was located on Detroit’s far east side, on Houston-Whittier near Kelly. It sat only a couple blocks from a store called Merchandise Mart, which sold automotive, hardware, gardening, and other household supplies. I worked there as a stockboy/auto counter worker when I was in my late teens.
Merchandise Mart was my first “real” job other than my years as a paper boy. I was earning only a hair above minimum wage, so lunch tended to be a modest affair. Further up Kelly, there was an independent burger joint that many of my coworkers swore by. This should tell you all you need to know about the place: On the glass of their front window, they had crudely painted the slogan, “Buy 'Em By the Sack!” I quickly learned that their products did not agree with my digestive system, so I sought out nearby alternatives.
Now Sanders, despite its close proximity to my place of employment, was not an obvious choice as a lunch spot. Most people, even teenagers like myself, did not want to have, say, an ice cream sundae for lunch. But in fact, Sanders had a short menu of regular food. My standard order was an American cheese sandwich on white bread with lettuce and mayonnaise. And a Coke, served in one of those large conical paper cups that the server would crisply snap up with a metal holder that served as the cup’s base. Kind of a meager lunch, I’ll grant you, but it was inexpensive and it got me through my shift.
There’s something that’s very clear now that wasn’t obvious to me at the time – Sanders had already peaked and was in decline. People my age weren’t going there in great numbers. Their clientele was mostly older folks who’d grown up going to Sanders, along with the occasional family group, but the demographic and business shift that would end up nearly killing the company had already begun. The result was that I was usually an outlier in the group. The gang sitting on the stools at the counter would be a bunch of old folks – and me, a pimple-faced, 6’2” teenager with an enormous bush of hair on top of his head. And I mustn’t forget to mention that I would invariably be wearing my white short-sleeved shirt and black bowtie, since I was coming there straight from work.
Johanna was usually behind the counter. Her uniform was always neatly pressed and she never seemed to have a hair out of place, though that hair was done up in a style that seemed as if it had not changed since the end of World War II, and it was colored a most implausible shade of blonde. She was one of those people who was impossible to dislike, smiling and friendly to everyone she waited on, though one sensed that outside of work, she was probably rather quiet and shy. If I may presume to say so, she seemed to have a particularly maternal regard for me. I always tried to put a smile on her face and she invariably did the same for me.
One afternoon, I came in pressed for time. There were only a few vacant seats at the counter. I sat down at one and gave Johanna my usual order. I added, somewhat sheepishly, that I was in a bit of a hurry. “Don’t you worry,” she assured me, “I’m fast.”
Before my filters could kick in, I breezily replied, “So I’ve heard!” Well, the place fell out. The oldsters at the counter all began to snicker and guffaw in spite of their assuredly proper upbringings. Johanna flushed utterly crimson at this sudden hubbub and covered her face with her hands. She said, “Oh my” and nearly collapsed in tears, all the while enduring the continued tittering of the regular customers.
I was of two minds at that moment. On the one hand, I’d just made a whole long counter of people laugh. On the other hand, I’d done so at the expense of someone I had no wish in the world to offend. On the balance, I felt pretty bad. When Johanna had recovered and was able to stand and speak again, I offered my most heartfelt apologies. The next day, I had lunch there again and apologized again. It took a few more visits before things were the same between the two of us.
I suppose this might seem like a silly little moment. As I’ve described it, you might very well wonder what all the fuss was about. Some might suggest that Johanna was being far too sensitive and that she needed to get in touch with the real world. I can’t place that kind of judgment upon her. I can only deal with the facts as they occurred.
Calling a woman “fast” was an antiquated expression by the time I was growing up. I don’t recall ever hearing someone my own age use it to describe a woman who could readily be cajoled into having sex, but that’s what the term meant to people of an earlier generation. That may have been a part of the power of that moment – that a rather impolite term was being referenced by a youngster like myself. And of course, the thought that anyone would project such an implication upon the seemingly simple, sweet, matronly Johanna – that is, I’m sure, where much of the audience’s reaction came from. But it was in reality a bad misstep on my part, a failure to sense Johanna’s possible mindset. I can, of course, fairly blame it on my youth and ignorance, but the truth is that on some level, I knew I was playing out on the edge of some risky material. There’s gold to be mined out there on the edge, but mourn not for those who fall into the chasm.
Ultimately, I took it as an important lesson in reading one’s audience. Oh, there have been many more such lessons in the years since then. I’ve offended more than a few people with ill-considered wit. I’ve also made countless thousands laugh. In the process, I’ve learned a lot about how to not hurt people – and how to help them. Humor has always been, and remains, a central part of my life’s art. For that, I offer no apologies.