Friday, January 12, 1996
For a moment, turning back hands of time

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

I am a kid sitting in McAlpin's downtown tearoom and trying to act grown up as I look over the lunch menu with the old clock on the cover. Women in dresses and white gloves are being served dainty salads. Men in suits are dining on prime rib. The waitresses are calling everybody ''honey.''

Thirty years later, I am still trying to act grown up. The store's trademark clock - 95 years old now and still ticking, but not for much longer - remains on the menu's cover. And the waitresses, even in these days of political correctness, continue to call everyone ''honey.''

But at lunch Thursday, their ''honey'' didn't sound as sweet.

Earlier in the day, McAlpin's had announced it was closing its downtown store Feb. 3 after 116 years on Fourth Street.

Another going-out-of-business sale. Another empty store. Another memory factory is about to close its doors.

Hello, goodbye

''We used to bring in 600 to 1,000 people a day - we still get 500. They'd all go through the store and at least look at something to buy,'' says waitress Joyce Parson as she brings my favorite McAlpin's lunch, a BLT, hold the T.

She silently lays the plate on the table and greets a regular as he goes to his favorite table.

''Hi, John. You by yourself? I see you have your newspaper. Take your table under the light, and I'll bring your lunch. I know what you want.''

She wheels and delivers a check to a nearby diner. Smooth. Polished. No wasted motion. That comes from waiting tables at the same station in the same restaurant for 35 years.

She waited on me as a kid. She waited on me Thursday, just two hours after she heard what the tearoom's staff was sadly calling ''our news.''

Martha Hinkel, the restaurant's hostess with 21 years of service, spots a familiar face at the ''Please Wait To Be Seated'' sign.

''Hi, Corson,'' she says with a smile that's not forced. ''Because even though I feel like a worn-out dishrag from our news, you must make people feel happy. It's your job.''

Taking the customer by the arm, she asks, ''Have you heard our news?'' He hasn't. She tells him. He rears back in disbelief.

Joyce, the waitress, sees this and shakes her head. ''We're like family here,'' she says. ''I'll miss that.''

She swears she did not see this one coming. Oh, she knew business was bad downtown.

''But this Christmas, we had good crowds in here. And, this building's in good shape and has been paid off for 100 years. So, I never gave it a thought.''

Christmas memories

Christmas at McAlpin's was heavenly. It meant breakfast with Santa in the tearoom. Taking the express elevator to the fifth floor and having the speedy direct flight tug at your stomach. Little kids dressing like adults. Girls in frilly holiday dresses and gloves. Boys wearing ties and white shirts.

One year, I swear I saw my future wife, a little auburn-haired beauty, at a nearby table.

As I sit in the tearoom, I think of loved ones and holiday lunches gone by. I can see my grandma carefully taking the gloves off her chubby fingers and relishing every bite of her grilled cheese sandwich. She was always thrilled to be dining out downtown, in the big city of Cincinnati.

I can see my dad meeting my mom and sister and me for lunch at Christmastime. His hair freshly combed. Smelling of Old Spice after-shave, he swoops down on our table. Christmas packages make a joyful noise as they are moved to make room.

He picks up that menu. The one with the clock on the cover.

That clock still stands on Fourth Street. Its four faces tick off the seconds in unison.

When the clock was restored in 1982, a time capsule was sealed inside. ''Not to be opened until 2082,'' says the clock's history printed on the back cover of the tearoom's menu. ''Thus, our historical clock ticks on into a new century.''

Not quite.

Today, the clock's four faces say time is running out for McAlpin's on Fourth. The store won't see a new century. And neither will that clock. The one on the menu of the tearoom where generations of Cincinnatians have collected memories of trying to act grown up.