Last night’s Mad Men took me back to a staple of my youth: Howard Johnson’s. Did you think I would say LSD? No. Never.
I went to Shrine High School at 13 Mile Road in Royal Oak (yes, just 5 miles from Eminem’s notorious 8 Mile) and upon the corner of Woodward Avenue and 13 mile, a Howard Johnson’s restaurant glowed in orange and turquoise. There were no hotel rooms, but there were clam sandwiches in hot dog buns, all kinds of ice cream and sherbets, eggs all day, burgers and Swiss steak.
This was the spot we could walk to after sock hops, manufacturing faux sophistication as we ordered fries and a cherry coke. Who knew we were without drivers’ licenses? Well, everyone. We would wait for the pay phone and call for a ride, and our night of teenaged angst would be over.
Our Howard Johnson’s was special to me, because my Uncle Jack owned it. He was my dad’s younger brother, and this was his first foray into restaurant ownership. He had an ice cream stand in the city, and was wise enough to see that the suburbs in Detroit were where the disposable income resided. He later dominated with a chain of buffets (cash only, no liquor) called Sign of the Beefeater. Beefeater Gin made him change the name to Beef Carver. He did not name his stores after the Gin, but after the dudes who guard the Tower. He thought they were in the public domain, but the good Gin folks had called dibbies. He knew how to minimize his conflicts, and so he just repainted his signs: same logo, different name. However, before he tangled with beef carving, he learned the ropes of food service with his Howard Johnson’s franchise. It was clean, reliable and not burdened with hoteling responsibilities. He worked his ass off- long days, most weekends, every day but Christmas and Thanksgiving.
I imagined my lucky cousins dining on an endless supply of clam strips and fries.
There were 8 Joliats, and going out to dinner was not the cards for us very often. It cost too much, took too long. In later years, after Dad was more established, he would cut a coupon out of the paper and take us to the Beefeater/Carver if we ALL made Honor Roll. That was pressure. It was also a cafeteria- a place we could frequent on weekday discount nights with a 45 minute investment. No pop. Milk.
Oddly enough, my most memorable meal at Howard Johnson’s was the meal after my Grandpa Joliat’s funeral. That seems wrong, but I felt special in the back room generally devoted to Kiwanis and Toastmaster’s meetings. I was only 9. The pleated curtains separated us from the rest of the customers, and our church clothes telegraphed the fact that we were there for an important event. The fact that Granny J would have to trundle through life alone did not register. The fact that my Dad had moved home from Buffalo basically to watch his father die was beyond my comprehension. Place mats and fountain drinks in triangular white paper funnels atop a silver holder- that was a revelation. The innocence…or obtuseness of youth….
Years later, my brother Mike ended up fry cooking for Uncle Jack at Howard Johnson’s. In fact, most of us spent our summers working for him at the most minimum of wages. This was perfectly congruent with my skills as a waitress, hostess and cashier, mind you. But Mike was bold, because this store was open late on school nights. He slithered right out of the “no TV on school nights, go to your room” mandate. Plus, Mike had the habit of dozing off at school, and he told the nuns he was tired from working the HoJo late shift in order to cover his tuition. They called Mom. That was a lie that did not sit well with her. Dad was impressed with the creativity, I am sure, but soom Mike was a weekend worker.
Coincidentally, when I was student teaching back in the Paleolithic era, Mike was a college guy working the 5 year engineering program at General Motors Institute of Technology. (No tuition required, as you work every other 6 weeks) My folks went on what was a once in a lifetime trip to Bermuda. About half way through the week, Mike started complaining about a stomach ache- and Mike NEVER complained. I forced him to slog through my badly cooked dinner, and then when he turned white, I drove him to the pediatrician…the only doctor I knew of. The doctor wanted to call an ambulance, but I loaded my younger brother in the car, and off we went to emergency.
Diagnosis: Appendix. Ruptured. Peritonitis. Emergency surgery. Drains, IVs, pain meds. I called my Uncle Jack, knowing his restaurants would have him in the area. Should I call my folks? Hell, no, he bellowed. They NEVER vacationed, and it was too late to make a difference. He met me at the aforementioned Howard Johnsons, and calmed me. Or hypnotized me so I would not feel guilt. Then he stuffed an insulated cup with orange sherbet and accompanied me to Beaumont hospital, 2 blocks away.
Mike was still in the hallway on a stretcher, post surgery. They were all out of rooms. My uncle ordered him to walk, and Mike did. There was the pole with a bunch of bags on it, a flapping gown, and a med addled 19 year old Mike. He could not bring himself to partake of the sherbet, so Uncle Jack slurped it down. For the next few days, my uncle would ply Mike with grilled goodies that he had no taste for. Uncle Jack’s hospitality voice was so outgoing, that in a few days he seemed like the Chief of Staff. Fast forward 35 years, and two of his sons have been staff physicians at this hospital. The appendix removing resident, a newbie named Michael Gellas, who described Mike’s problem as a “perforation” so as to keep me calm (though it mostly allowed me to make a rash choice not to inform my parents) has operated on other family members. Time marches on, and it has mostly forgotten Howard Johnson.
All my memories were tweaked on Sunday as Don Draper attempted to glamorize the Howard Johnson’s experience. My parents almost went into shock when they returned. I am surprised they ever vacationed again. They never DID leave me in charge of their home, much less their pets or kids. Mike spent almost 3 weeks in the hospital, battling terrible infections, which seem to have messed with his liver. I hope he forgives me for my benign neglect.
The Howard Johnson’s was pruned from my Uncle Jack’s empire, becoming a Ground Round, and then morphing into a site for a CVS Pharmacy. For me- Howard Johnson’s was a touchstone for a decade of my life. It felt odd to have Don Draper take me back. I have had a weird craving for clam strips, nestled in a cardboard sleeved hot dog bun. It’ll pass, just like HoJo’s.