YORK -- A few minutes before 6 a.m. Tuesday, like she does every work day at Sonic Drive-In, Heather Walker turned back time. The years melt away every afternoon and hot muggy night, too.
A college student in the rest of her life, Walker on Tuesday put on an apron, Sonic T-shirt and a thumb depressing silver change machine on her belt like the old-time gas station attendants used to wear -- a slotted cylinder each for quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies.
And finally, roller skates. Walker is a roller-skating carhop.
The time machine is complete. Back to the 1950s and '60s, when a car was a block-long dream with a front bench seat for your best girl, rock-n-roll or Motown crooned from the radio, the mirror was for combing hair into a ducktail, and to pull that waxed ride into a drive-in restaurant meant you were somebody. Every town of any size had at least one.
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Think "American Graffiti" and "Happy Days."
Link to the past
This restaurant keeps alive part of the culture -- Southern culture certainly, but carhops were part of the landscape in cities and towns from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, from California to New York -- that is almost extinct.
Everybody who waits tables and cars at York's Sonic on Alexander Love Highway near S.C. 161 is on skates. The manager says it's the only area Sonic restaurant to require skates for carhops.
"You have to be able to skate, it's part of the job interview," said Julie Fellenz, who manages the York location. "They have to bring a pair of skates with them. We have them skate around, and some people who think they want the job just decide then and there they can't do it."
Quickness is the key
Walker spins, pirouettes, skates backward. Julia Wood, 18, another college student, showed off a scrape from a collision with another carhop.
"You have to be quick," Wood said.
Always, the food gets delivered. Fast. Each carhop balances milkshakes, iced teas, burgers, fries, onion rings, foot-long hot dogs on trays as they roll.
"Six days a week," said Walker, who also works at the Fort Mill Sonic close to Tega Cay on S.C. 160. "I'd get bored without the skating part. And skating means another thing: Better tips."
At lunchtime and later through the evening until midnight, skating carhops at York's Sonic careen around tables, through the doors to fill trays.
"I had one carhop fall down and still the tray stayed upright, never dropped even one french fry," Fellenz said.
Some of the best in the state
All of the 10 carhops in York are college or high school students who sure have a better summer job than digging ditches. Some of the 10 York carhops such as Walker and Wood use old-style skates. Others, all the guy carhops especially, use the in-line skate that is fast and a bit wild.
Rock Hill's Sonic doesn't have skaters, but most Sonics have at least some skaters, Fellenz said. The company even holds a competition every year at Myrtle Beach for all the state's best, to see what location can take an order, prepare the food and deliver it on skates the fastest. York in this year's contest came in second out of 23 stores. One former carhop named Sam stole the show when he leaped over a table.
Why all the bother? In the competitive fast-food business, the skating is faster service, and the part of the experience that makes this Sonic unique.
"It's cool," said 8-year-old customer Trent Davis.
Trent Davis' father, Brian, could have taken him anywhere for lunch Tuesday. But he went to the only place in town with the skating carhops.
Not for the shy
Wallflowers don't cut it as skating carhops. One of those who loves the limelight is a 17-year-old ham from Clover named Jeremy Webb. This guy does laps around the building when business is slow. He zips between tables like a LeMans driver. He can spin the tray on his finger like a basketball. He didn't talk Tuesday about the old days, when America was full of skating carhops. He's a 2008 teenager.
"Am I cool in this job?" Webb asked. "I guess I am."