Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Howard, I Miss You

I know I’m probably not alone when I say this, but I really miss the bright orange roofs of the Howard Johnson restaurants whenever I travel.

Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the highlight of any of my journeys, especially after riding for hours on endless, boring stretches of highway, was seeing an orange roof up ahead. For one thing, it meant yummy ice cream (of which I became intimately acquainted with every flavor) scooped into fancy sugar cones, not those flimsy, run-of-the-mill, flat-bottomed cones.

It also meant chicken pot pie. For some reason, I became hooked on Howard Johnson’s chicken pot pie. If we stopped at a Howard Johnson’s three times in one day, I’d order chicken pot pie all three times. I never grew tired of it, even when the crust was a tad on the soggy side or the cubes of chicken were a bit rubbery.

But alas, over the years, those familiar orange-roofed buildings slowly began to disappear and fast-food joints popped up in their place. I guess busy motorists no longer wanted to waste precious time stopping to order a sit-down meal. They wanted places where the employees would be standing outside flinging food at them as they sped past at 65 miles per hour.

So all I have left now are memories of my favorite Howard Johnsons. I’ll never forget, for example, the night an elderly man was upset because the cook burned his grilled-cheese sandwich. The waitress, in her starched blue and orange uniform, apologized and took it back, but the second sandwich turned out to be even blacker than the first one.

“That does it!” the man shouted, pounding his fist on the table. “I demand to see Howard! And I’m not leaving here until I do!”

Everyone within earshot started to giggle. The poor waitress, not wanting to further upset the man, struggled to keep a straight face as she explained that Howard Johnson wasn’t on the premises. But the poor old man was adamant about speaking to Howard. In fact, he still was sitting there waiting for him when we left.

I also remember the Howard Johnson restaurant at the intersection of Route 3 and 28 Bypass in Hooksett. My husband always took me there when I whined about needing my pot-pie fix, so it became our second home. One night we walked into the place and it smelled as if something had died in there.

“What smells?” I wrinkled my nose and asked the waitress after we were seated. I secretly prayed it wasn’t the evening’s blue-plate special.

“Don’t worry, it’s not the food!” she said brightly. “The septic system is backed up!”

Somehow, that didn’t make us feel a whole lot better.

The Howard Johnson’s near the Queen City Bridge in Manchester also had a distinct odor…like bleach. That’s because it was attached to a motor inn that had an indoor heated pool that must have had a couple tons of chlorine dumped into it.

The only thing I didn’t like about the Howard Johnson restaurants that were located right off major highways was that they attracted buses. It seemed as if every time we pulled into one of the parking lots, a busload of tourists would be right on our bumper.

“Quick! Run!” my husband would shout, leaping out of the car and bolting toward the door so he could beat the crowd.

But by the time I’d gather my coat, my handbag, check my hair in the mirror and apply a fresh coat of lipstick, we inevitably would end up standing in line behind about 75 people, most of whom were engaged in a conversation that sounded something like this:

“Hey, Martha, do you want raspberry ice cream?”

“Nah…I’m really not in the mood for raspberry. What other flavors do they have?”

“Chocolate…strawberry…vanilla…coffee…maple walnut…pistachio…”

(28 flavors later) “I guess I’ll have the butter pecan.”

“Do you want sprinkles on that?”

“What kind of sprinkles do they have?”

By then, my husband would be giving me looks that were scary enough to instantly melt Martha’s butter-pecan ice cream.

At one time, there were over a thousand Howard Johnson restaurants, most of them along the East Coast. Now there are only 10. Someone recently told me that there’s one in Springfield, Vermont.

Heck, that’s only an hour-and-a-half drive from here. The next time my husband asks me where I want to go out to eat, he’ll be in for a big surprise.

I can taste the chicken pot pie already.