What do you mean, no Howard Johnson’s?
Word came this summer that the restaurant chain was closing one of its last two locations — Bangor, Maine — and that only a lonely outpost in Lake George soon would remain. An Associated Press story in Newsday said the outfit was “on the brink of extinction.”
This may not be a catastrophe equal to the disappearance of the great auk or sabre-toothed tiger, but news of HoJo’s retreat came as one more troubling piece of evidence that, just as everyone says, nothing lasts forever.
Was it so long ago that a hungry traveler could park the family sedan at the sign of the Pieman for a root beer float and plate of fried clams? Wasn’t this a pleasure so simple and pure that perpetuity was assured? Afraid not. HoJo’s is nearly kaput.
At one point, more than 800 HoJo restaurants served happy customers around the country. There were 28 ice cream flavors. There were “frankforts” and “grilled hamburg plates” and “Welsh rarebit en casserole” — 20th century soul food. What went wrong?
One analyst says the business launched by Howard Deering Johnson in 1925 “never evolved.” Another says fast food joints brought too much competition. Somebody else claims millennials — your grandkids — didn’t dig the nostalgia, or the food, either. What chance does a humble “frankfort” have in the age of Shake Shack?
Okay, HoJo’s wasn’t the hippest place in the world, but its bright orange roof and reliable menu is sweetly recalled in the uncool precincts inhabited by me, that’s for sure.
Late summer, 1962, I was switching colleges and heading west from Brooklyn. With me was Winky, the Jersey girl I was going to marry, also ready to start classes. But we were not alone. Nope, at the last minute, Mom and Dad, dear Fred and Winnie, decided they’d make the trip, too — motoring right behind our ’51 Ford in Dad’s ’57. That wasn’t all. For company, they invited along my aunt and uncle, Tillie and George. We were a regular rolling family reunion.
Ordinarily, Dad would have considered even a jaunt to Long Island better suited to Buck Rogers. This was a man who never drove to Manhattan — “what’re you, nuts?” — and when I got a license, told me I shouldn’t either.
But that summer, Dad unexpectedly was lured by adventure and the open road. Columbia, Missouri, was 1,000 miles away, and 1,000 back. That kind of mileage, Dad wouldn’t average in a year. He was getting older, hadn’t seen much. Maybe it was nothing more than that. Whatever the reason, he studied maps like Magellan and said he was ready to roll.
We left Bay Ridge early on a steamy morning and cruised — without air conditioning — along the Jersey Turnpike to the Pennsy, windows down, warm air sweeping over our faces.
Nightfall, we reached Wheeling, West Virginia. We stayed — you betcha’ — at the Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge. We ate dinner at HoJo’s, where else? Dad walked around the parking lot, looked at the sky.
“Stars,” he said. “You don’t see them so much in Brooklyn.”
He was in a great mood. Dad made Mom and Aunt Tillie and Uncle George laugh at the old vaudeville jokes he adored. He told stories I hadn’t heard before. He smoked a cigar — his beloved Chesterfields recently abandoned — with great pleasure, blowing billowy puffs toward the dark, distant hills.
Late in the evening, Dad had an inspiration.
“Hey,” he announced. “How about ice cream sodas?”
Back to Hojo’s we went.
“Black and whites, all around,” Dad told the waitress. “And,” he said, grandly, “I’ll take the bill.”
They were the best, those black and whites — chocolate soda, creamy vanilla ice cream. “Yowza,” said Dad.
Couple of days later, we were in Missouri. The older folks stayed overnight and headed home. I got settled into my dorm and Wink, hers.
Fall was beautiful in the Midwest — a new world of corn fields and soybeans and Burma-Shave signs. Wow, I told myself, it wasn’t Bay Ridge, anymore.
Just after Christmas, my mother called on the dorm pay phone. Usually, Mom had news of church or neighborhood. Not this time.
“We’re in trouble,” she said.
“Trouble? What trouble?”
“Dad’s — sick.”
“Sick, like a cold?”
“Worse,” said Mom, voice shaky. “A lot.”
By the time Wink and I married in June, Dad was gone.
I had seen him in the hospital — woozy but otherwise the same good guy. He said nothing and there was no need. Looking at him pale and without words, I understood the long Missouri trip a few months before and his comic routine in West Virginia, and the way he looked, fondly, at a sky draped with stars. Splurging for ice cream sodas at HoJo’s, I understood that, too.