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What's the Point?

Okay, so we know how I’ll benefit from this endeavor. I’ll gain experience in the great outdoors that will help me write a better book set in the Adirondacks. But you, my dear reader, may well be asking, “What’s in all this for me?” Hopefully you’ll gain a little knowledge, have a few laughs, and vicariously enjoy a sense of adventure. Think of it as a modern-day Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, where you get to sit comfortably at your computer screen – much like Marlin Perkins watching from a safe distance behind some bushes. I, on the other hand, will go out into the wild, ala Jim Fowler, and do all the heavy lifting in an effort to entertain you.

            Well, on second thought…

« Take It Outside! | Oh, Shoot! »
Tuesday
Jun262012

The Inside Scoop on Howard Johnson's

(This article originally appeared in the Albany Times Union on May 18, 2012)

Back when phone booths outnumbered tanning booths and Mad Men’s Don Draper was still faithful to his wife, thousands of Howard Johnson’s Restaurants dotted U.S. roadways. But nothing, except the presidential campaign season, lasts forever. The HoJo’s at Northway Exit 19 in Queensbury was leveled earlier this year and the HoJo’s at Exit 21 in Lake George, one of three remaining in the country, has a for sale sign in its window. With the demise of that piece of Americana goes a bit of my own personal history.

I got my first job at the Exit 19 Howard Johnson’s as a fountain girl. That probably sounds like I was a glamorous starlet in an elaborate Busby Berkeley musical. But fountain girl is really just code for “willing to spend eight hours a day up to my armpits in hot fudge for less than minimum wage.”

As fountain girl, I was required to wear clunky white shoes that looked like they belonged to a nurse at a clown hospital. I also wore a uniform made of military-grade polyester originally designed by NASA as part of a trampoline to deflect space junk. It was burnt orange. You know, the same color as many 1970s refrigerators, and about as figure flattering.

 

There were plenty of good things about that job, though.  I learned a lot, like bon jour is French for “I’m not going to tip you.” I tried to help others learn things, too. For instance, fellow fountain girl Rachel Ray would probably still be toiling in relative anonymity if I hadn’t taught her everything I know about being relentlessly perky. And my husband and I had our first date at the Musket Room, the Lake George HoJo’s bar.  It was an event that became the inspiration for the often overlooked Captain & Tennille hit song “Musket Love,” a paean to both young romance and the Second Amendment.

 So I was sad to think that something that had been so influential in my life was quickly disappearing from the American landscape. That is until I discovered that the now-defunct Howard Johnson’s in Plattsburgh had been recreated in a recent episode of Mad Men. Never having seen the series, I watched the clip online, excited about the possibility that the notoriety could launch a HoJo’s revival.

I also wanted to do a little fact checking, knowing that the show has a reputation for its painstaking attention to detail and historical accuracy.

Conical shaped scoops of ice cream – check.

Conical shaped bras on the waitresses – check.

Orange roof – check.

Orange sherbet ordered by Don Draper  – hold the phone.

I don’t remember any orange sherbet.  Convinced I’d found an error, I called my sister, Lynne, who’d followed in my enormous white footsteps as a fountain girl, to verify.

 

 

We both had regularly augmented our meager paychecks by sampling lots of “free” ice cream. We couldn’t help it; it’s in our DNA.  In fact, the Bitner Family coat of arms contains the image of a freezer chest. Lynne assured me that HoJo’s did indeed have orange sherbet, as well as lemon, raspberry and lime. I’d blocked that entirely from my memory, probably because the fruity names sounded vaguely healthy.

 

 

 

While watching the actors eat their sherbet, however, I did notice one glaring mistake. People who looked like that never ate at Howard Johnson’s. People like that never even drove past Howard Johnson’s. Because I can assure you that if I’d ever waited on customers who looked like Jon Hamm’s Don Draper, I would have pledged all my tips for a thousand years to buy enough HoJo’s stock to keep the place open. 

It’s too early to say whether the Mad Men spotlight will be enough to turn things around for Howard Johnson’s. So you should head to one of the remaining restaurants in Lake George or in Lake Placid while you still can. Because it looks as though HoJo’s is going the way of three-martini lunches. And I, for one, will miss them both. 

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