I read recently that the last Howard Johnson's extant on the planet has closed its doors for good.
Yes, everything changes with time, things come and go, and the longer you live, the more you learn, and the more you get to experience the good, the bad and the memories.
Growing up in Atlanta, I lived only about a mile or two from a Howard Johnson's Restaurant and Motor Lodge at the corner of Northside Drive and I-75. In the ’60s we, and lots of other Buckhead families, went to the restaurant for pancake breakfasts, ice cream, birthday parties and a pretty cool playground with a rocket ship. Even then, it felt iconic. That orange roof was a beacon and a bit of brand marketing genius, much like Marietta’s Big chicken, McDonald's golden arches, and the sky-high fiberglass statue of a corpulent, smiling Big Boy wearing red checked overalls and holding up a burger on a platter as big as a Buick. One look at Ho Jo’s peaked, orange tin roof and there was no mistaking it for any other place.
At some point our Northside Drive Ho Jo’s closed its doors and then became a Days Inn, I think. Then it was sold again, and the new owners moved in. A tawdry gentlemen's club of all things. Then, Ho took on a whole new meaning, and the children's outdoor playground was moved out to make room for an adult indoor one. Oh, the humanity.
But the Howard Johnson's in Athens, Georgia, was still kicking, alive and well in 1971 where Rick and I lived as newly minted husband and wife the summer before we left for Alabama and veterinary school. It was good to see it, like a long lost relative at a reunion.
My experience there was entirely different, though, from the fun times we had as patrons under the orange roof in Atlanta. I needed a summer job. A visit with the UGA career development office turned ugly after a typing test demonstrated just how rusty my typing skills were. It was then I knew "secretary" would not be in my future that summer.
So I marched through the door of the Athens Ho Jo’s to apply for a job as a waitress. That word, waitress, has also gone the way of Ho Jo's playground rocket ship, and waitresses are now called servers. For whom I hold the highest respect.
Anyway, I was hired, not knowing the first thing about how to be a waitress. Stark reality immediately ensued. I was given instructions to report to work the very next day. At six o'clock. In the morning. I knew then this would be the hardest job I had ever taken on. And I was right. The next day when I reported to work, things got real. It was like walking straight into a war zone with no weapons and a battalion of barking, five-star generals for co-workers.
Working with women in their 70s who had earned all the street cred and paid a lifetime of waitressing dues was daunting. I was an idiot to think I could carry this off with no experience. And if there's one thing I've learned, one should never step foot into a waitressing job thinking it's easy.
Servers must be athletes. Customer service experts. Circus balancing acts. And back then, I was a measly Private amongst craggy veterans who had earned their stripes. And they showed it. Bossy doesn't begin to do those women justice. Think George C. Scott's General Patton on a bad day, in an apron, hair net and sensible shoes. That sweltering summer they took the restaurant's A/C thermostat as a post-menopausal battleground, each having her own idea about the proper comfort levels to suit themselves. The constant fighting over that thermostat was brutal, the temperature fluctuating wildly from Antarctica to Death Valley.
I took off my apron and went AWOL after a week, out of self-preservation, exasperation and fear. I feared I just might die of pneumonia from the extreme heat and cold. I was already suffering emotional distress from all the friction of combat. I was not willing to die — literally or figuratively — in order to take my last stand planting my flag on the hill of Howard Johnson's HVAC unit and suffer lethal toxicity at the hands of disagreeable superiors.
There's a whole chapter in my book about this, and I don't want to ruin it here. Suffice it to say, although I lasted only a week in my restaurant tour of duty, I'm not sorry. It was a learning experience.
I learned not to assume anything about another person's job. Or another person, for that matter. Everyone has their story, and you don't know the half of it.
I learned to tip generously all those who serve me, including restaurant servers and hairdressers, whether cranky or kind. Even those gals back at Ho Jo’s had personal stories I never got to know. Servers deserve every penny for hanging in and working at a sometimes-thankless job.
I learned not every server-community is like the women I encountered back then. Sometimes I wish I had stayed long enough to learn how to deal with them. My instincts told me, however, there would be no dealing with them, no compromises, only hard lines, and I would need to pick my battles. This was one I could walk away from knowing I would never get what I needed, nor should I try to cope with a toxic environment that would never change. They were an angry lot, and I’m guessing, though war-torn and battle-scarred, they didn’t have the luxury of quitting.
I’ve had enough therapy to learn not to ask people for something when they simply don’t have it to give you. I've learned the only person you can change is yourself. Sometimes just dealing with one’s self is the hardest thing of all.
Knowing when to hold 'em, when to fold 'em, when to walk away and when to run is a lifelong battle, isn't it? I pray for discernment on a daily basis.
Longtime Newnan resident Susie Berta has many creative pursuits, including music, art, writing, cooking, gardening, entertaining and decorating. She is now pursuing her passion for writing and recently published her memoir, “The Veterinarian’s Wife." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.