By Ken Bradbury
A friend from Peoria spent an overnight in Jacksonville as we did a bit of rehearsing before a show. He had plenty of free time on Saturday afternoon so he did some shopping and that night told me that Jacksonville seemed to be an especially friendly town. I asked him the reason for this great review and he said that the shopkeepers, clerks, and food workers were particularly nice to him that day. It made me stop and think and consider that perhaps I’d taken our little town for granted. Had a store employee in Jacksonville ever treated me shabbily?
A couple of incidents came to mind but upon reflection I came to the conclusion that perhaps it was my fault.
It was at JC Penney’s, many years ago, a pre-Christmas sale and I think I may have been a college student … I didn’t have the cash to make the purchase so I whipped out my credit card, the clerk ran it through the old-time sliding click-clack machine then handed me the receipt to sign. I quickly splashed my signature across the page and handed it back to her. She looked at it, looked at me, then frowned the same frown that my mother used to give me when I’d stretched the truth about how much I’d practiced the piano that day. The clerk said, “You know, you’re lucky.” I asked her why. “It’s a good thing that you live in Jacksonville. If you sign your name that sloppily out of town they won’t take it.” Handwriting has never been my thing. My mother had perfect handwriting and my dad still signs his name with a steady hand, but penmanship must be outside the realm of genetics. I inherited nothing of their carefulness with pen and pencil. When I’d write comments on my Triopia students’ papers they’d have to take them down the hall to the math teacher to translate.
I guess the Penney’s clerk wasn’t being impolite. Maybe she was used to mothering college students.
Another embarrassing memory involving the old Tops Big Boy restaurant comes painfully to mind. Big Boy was our haunt through all my college days and it was a grand mixture of families, cops on break, senior citizens and unfortunately, college boys. The southwest corner of the restaurant housed one of those half-round type tables that held about six of us and it was located in a perfect spot for the straw shoot. A sort of shelf hung above the barstool area and someone had long ago put plastic plants on the shelf to give it a failing outdoorsy look. I’m sure the plants were fake since it would be nearly impossible to reach them with a watering can but not with the paper wrapper on a plastic straw. This was no mean fete to propel a straw cover that distance and at that altitude and of course the real challenge was making sure that the paper wrapper didn’t land in the mashed potatoes of the dozen or so people between you and the plastic plants. Did I mention that the Jacksonville Police Department often used Tops Big Boy as a place to take their break?
You may already be playing out the fateful scenario in your mind. And I don’t care what the rest of my unreliable fraternity brothers say, it was not me who pegged one of Jacksonville’s Finest in the back of the head. I swear. Not me. I’m pretty certain that it was Greg Neff who later became the town’s leading contractor and an upright Baptist if ever God made one. Perhaps this was in Greg’s pre-holy days. I can’t speak to that. All I know is that when the police officer turned around six rather lanky college boys tried to hide under the same table. And I’m sorry, but for the life of my I can’t remember how this horrific event ended. I know we weren’t arrested but I can’t recall whether we apologized, the cop shrugged and ignored us, but I do remember that Big Boy’s oldest and most iconic waitress came up, put her hands on her hips, and simply stared. That was all she did. That was all she needed to do. Just stare.
(Greg will deny this story, but I’m writing this and he’s not.)
It should be obvious by now that the Jacksonville clerks weren’t too blame … except maybe once. I was herding a school bus load of 8th-graders dressed as clowns down Morton Avenue at lunchtime when I told the driver to pull in to one of our town’s fast food joints. The bus pulled into the parking lot and as we stepped off the bus the lady manager met us and said, “If you kids are going to come in here then you’d better behave or you’ll have to leave.” We hadn’t done a thing! I told the lady that she would have no problem with us because we were headed down the street to Hardees where we were welcomed with open arms and hot fries.
In my 50 or so years in Jacksonville, a single grouch isn’t too bad a record.