Finding Howard

Andrew Clayton

I live for cozy places in my own memory or cozy imagined places I might have visited, had I been born earlier.  Even as a five year old kid, I appreciated Americana, most of all, our transportation history, imagining a time when flying or taking trains or even driving was new and, just maybe, looked forward to.  I was obsessed with trucks and could tell you the difference between a Peterbilt, a Kenworth and a Freightliner.   My parents’ car was merely an observatory—my portal to cars, trucks and buses and the highways they occupied.  As a child born in the early 70s, I couldn’t help but notice Howard Johnson’s restaurants everywhere on those highways.

How could any child not notice the bright orange roof?  The square, yet pointy spire?  The word “ice cream” in and of itself? While urban and suburban locations no doubt existed, it was the busy roadside locations that seemed magic to me.  Many had motels attached, leveraging the same orange and teal branding.  Most of all, they marked important travel locations for me as a greater Boston kid—at the Braintree split on route 93 south, as we chose south shore-bound or just southbound.  At the Bourne Bridge, marking the grand entrance to Cape Cod.  Near the Concord rotary on Route 2 west, signaling one’s passage from suburbia to the countryside.

Often, as I whizzed past these landmarks in a car, a homy, seasonal meal, complete with ice cream and soda fountain beckoned.  It had to be good.  I felt as if I could taste it.  Except, my family never went—we always just passed by.  Maybe it wasn’t the right time of day, or we had dogs or cats in the car, or someone wanted something healthier, or maybe the trip just wasn’t a long interstate voyage worthy of a rest area reprieve at HoJo’s.

As I got older and cared more about sports and music than trucks and ice cream, I mostly forgot about Howard Johnson’s as they faded into oblivion, victims of modern convenience, junk food proliferation and better gas mileage.  Some were outright demolished (like Braintree), some replaced by modern brands like Paparazzi, covering that handsome orange roof with slick crimson tin (Concord) or even worse, replaced by a boring, ugly IHOP (Bourne).

One fall day in my early twenties, while staying at my mother’s house in New Hampshire, I read that there was still an operating HoJo’s in Springfield, Vermont—

about an hour away—said to be one of the last two to exist in New England.  I excitedly jumped in my car and hurried over in time for a late lunch.  I put together a sandwich order, no, maybe a hot plate of some kind in my head as I drove.  It would be followed by an ice cream in one of those metal sundae cups with a long spoon, condensation forming on the metal as I enjoyed it.  I finally arrived and the outside looked just like I had hoped—orange roof, square spire, Simple Simon art deco imagery on the façade.

As I yanked open the front door, my spirits dipped a bit—it was a little sad inside.  Dimly lit, no semblance of the art deco teal, orange and chrome on the inside—it felt like several shades of dull brown.  A few disinterested, sad diners and employees alike went about their business—they all had the same expression.  It didn’t smell good like homemade food—it smelled like a mix of old apartment building hallway and cleaning products.   I didn’t really feel like having lunch anymore.  I knew my dream was kind of dead.  At least, getting an ice cream to go would help salvage the visit, one of the famous 28 flavors that predated Baskin-Robbins and their 31 flavors one-upmanship.  I ordered a chocolate ice cream at the counter.  It came in a generic, unmarked styrofoam coffee cup and it was freezer burned badly.

I sat in my car and ate that pathetic cup of ice cream, looking at the restaurant, one of the last of its kind in the country.  I shook my head at myself for always getting my hopes up about things I knew had marginal chances of turning out as great as I had built them up to be in my head.  What would my experience have been like in 1980? In 1950?  Maybe it was indeed once as great as I had imagined and more, complete with gleaming clean tables with those embedded sparkle graphics and a cheerful waitstaff serving all-American meals.  Maybe it always was kind of sad and average, just in a different era’s way.  Upon further reflection, my guess is that it was probably somewhere right in the middle.

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