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The mystery of the Chinese Tea Room

Why did my mom take me to that swell downtown Chinese restaurant when I was a boy? Dining at a restaurant was something our family never did. Well, except for occasional pit stops at the tile-floored cafeteria in the basement of a huge dime store...

Why did my mom take me to that swell downtown Chinese restaurant when I was a boy?

Dining at a restaurant was something our family never did. Well, except for occasional pit stops at the tile-floored cafeteria in the basement of a huge dime store occupying a whole downtown block.

Mom's shopping days. Oh, yes, with either one or all three sons tagging along. And the cafeteria's spare fare for us was always egg salad sandwiches and those wonderful heavy tumblers of milk.

Although they had some lip-smacking pies on display, we knew better than to ask. We'd be enjoying Mom's pastries that night for dessert. We also knew hers would be far superior to the exhibited commercial products.

Still, it would've been neat, just once, to have been able to order, or share, a slice of one of those overly plump pies or multilayered cakes.

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Naturally, the primary reason our entire family never dined out together was financial.

Not that we ever ached to do so, or, for that matter, felt shortchanged by the mercurial temperament of the Depression.

Truly, I'd have to say that the only time I ever sat down with my dad in a restaurant was a Sunday morning in 1959 in Blytheville, Ark., where I was employed by the city's daily newspaper.

My parents had ridden down overnight from St. Louis on the old Frisco Railroad to visit me. The reason I remember the day lucidly, the restaurant cook had traditionally added a hefty ladle of grits to my dad's plate of bacon and eggs.

Having never seen grits before - nor appreciated them, as it turned out - Dad saved his for last on his plate, thinking they were egg whites. Poor fella, thought we'd played a joke on him.

Anyhow, for the past several years, my wife and I have frequently lunched at one of Orlando's leading Chinese buffets. And often I'm reminded of the visit with Mom to that mysterious Chinese Tea Room in 1935.

I'm unsure if the place dots the St. Louis landscape any longer, but it was the first time I'd seen an all-male staff of waiters. They wore black silk suits and long white aprons.

As far as eating anything there, my memory comes up with nothing. Maybe, I simply watched Mom drink her cup of tea. Possibly, we went in just so she could rest her weary puppies after a long day's shopping, and before climbing aboard a standing-room-only streetcar.

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Funny, isn't it, the stuff, the things we should've asked our folks while they were still with us, all those silly little, important, stupendous, sweet slices of our lives?

That summer, my friend Raymond and I found an ancient typewriter in his basement, and we began writing a murder mystery set in a tearoom.

Never finished it. Maybe I'll tackle it again some day. You might look for it in the stores. I plan to dedicate it to my dad and title it Hold the Grits! No joke.

Retired Sentinel staffer Ed Hayes, 82, welcomes your views and suggestions. Write to him in care of the Orlando Sentinel, MP-72, P.O. Box 2833, Orlando, FL 32802-2833.

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