January 3, 2003
I've bragged many times in this space about the wonderful experience I had while growing up in the family drug store, beginning as a mere car hop at the tender age of six years and finally working my way up to the esteemed level of a Soda Jerk in my senior year at Perry High. It was a marvelous introduction to real life. Some of the lessons learned there, taking customers' orders and trying to deliver them without spilling a drop, have stayed with me all this time. I guess the ultimate thrill came in mixing a chocolate malted milk and collecting the 30-cent charge that customers willingly paid for those rich, creamy diet-busters. It was the highest priced concoction we had at our white marble fountain in the City Drug Store on the north side of the square.
I was proud of that title, Soda Jerk, because at the time I was still pretty much a barefoot boy with cheeks of tan. I dreamed of one day owning my own drug store and still working behind the fountain, stirring up sodas, cherry Cokes and chocolate root beers to the applause of the customers that I assumed would flock to our place of business. Prescriptions would be filled in a dark, cavernous room at the rear of the store by registered pharmacists wearing green eyeshades, laboring anonymously and wishing they could be seen by patrons out there under the bright ceiling lights at the fountain. They would wish they were doing what I did with so much artistry and panache instead of trying to decipher the endless (but very welcome) handwritten orders from doctors. That bubble, and my aspirations, ended when the Great Depression forced us to close the City Drug Store forever. That's when I resurrected another lifelong dream - journalism.
But I never really got over it. Just the other day someone with a long memory asked about the derivation of the term, Soda Jerk. How did it begin, and so forth. I had to admit that I had no idea, but I went directly to my dictionaries in hopes of finding the answers. Webster's Collegiate Dictionary was not much help, stating only that a Soda Jerk is "a counterman who dispenses carbonated drinks and ice cream at a fountain." At least, it is not a term of derision because the "jerk" merely refers to the act of drawing various flavors from the fountain's array of chilled chrome and china pump dispensers. In more recent years, a stupid, foolish or unconventional person is referred to as a "jerk," but not the kind that labors behind a soda fountain. That has a different definition.
Funk & Wagnalls' Standard Encyclopedic College Dictionary tells us that "soda jerk" is American slang for "a clerk at a soda fountain." It adds that just a plain jerk is slang for a "stupid, ineffectual, dull man." That was not an acceptable description back there when I was proudly whipping up banana splits, Dr. Peppers, four hundreds and other delicacies at the City Drug.
I may give the matter further study, but as far as I'm concerned, the dictionaries pretty well sum up the definitions. Perhaps one day I will check out the library's more exhaustive reference books, but that's all for right now.