On hotels and bookshops
I woke that morning in my favorite Boston hotel. The name of the hotel had changed. It used to be called the Howard Johnson Inn–Fenway Park. It’s called the Verb now. The last time I stayed there I had a room that looked out onto the exterior of the ballpark. This time my room looked out onto the hotel pool. I was told the pool was heated, and you could swim in it in November. The Verb advertises itself as boutique. It’s undergone thematization. Every room comes with a record player and four LPs. The records in my room were by Eric Clapton, the Cars, Metallica, and I forget the fourth. The record player was attached to a little speaker on the desk, meant to resemble a guitar amp. There was also a typewriter. It seemed to work, but there was no paper to test it with. I wanted to steal it. I’ve never had a working typewriter. I wanted to own it, but I left it there. I listened to the Clapton and the Cars, not their best records. I didn’t avail myself of the spare records in a bin by the lobby. I didn’t go for a swim either.
I stay in this hotel because, despite its newfound boutiqueness, it’s still cheap: $90 if you book online. I booked at the desk just before midnight and paid $119. There were posters above my bed reproducing pages from the Boston Phoenix, the alt-weekly that told me which shows to go to in the late 1990s. It’s gone now. My friend was their film critic, but their archives are no longer online. I sent him a photograph of the posters. “I don’t know who this is supposed to appeal to. I guess, me. And I guess it does.” Back when I lived across the Charles River and walked down Boylston Street, I used to think: I want to come back and stay in that hotel someday. It was next door to my favorite radio station, WBCN, “the Rock of Boston.” It’s dead now, like rock itself. I figured Howard Johnson’s at Fenway had another appeal for travelers besides its cheapness: you could pretend you were living in a 1950s America, the one we read about in the road-tripping second half of Lolita. I didn’t realize how true this was until I looked the chain up upon coming home.
Howard Johnson bought a pharmacy in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1925. The soda fountain was popular, and he offered twenty-eight flavors of ice cream. The pharmacy became a restaurant, and the restaurant became popular in 1929, when Eugene O’Neill’s five-hour play Strange Interlude was staged in Quincy and sophisticates dined at Howard Johnson’s during the dinner break. By the 1960s it was the biggest chain restaurant in the United States, with a cousin chain of motor lodges. Even in the North, these were segregated establishments, and they were objects of protest during the civil rights movement. Bernie Sanders organized a picket at an Illinois Howard Johnson’s as a college student. In 1971, a pair of customers who’d been thrown out of a New Orleans Howard Johnson’s set the place on fire, killing six guests; two years later, the Black Panther Mark Essex set up as a sniper on the roof of the same motel, killing three cops, two staff members, and a honeymooning couple. The singer Connie Francis was raped at a Howard Johnson’s on a New York turnpike in 1974, sued the chain for lax security, and won. McDonald’s was gaining in popularity because teenagers didn’t like generic HoJo cola and didn’t need waitresses. In 1979, Howard Johnson sold out, netting more than $630 million ($2.2 billion in 2018 dollars) from a British multinational for his restaurants, his motels, and his line of frozen food.
I was looking for a 1990s Boston and I found an imitation. The only people I had met at the bars I walked into the night before were other aging hipsters back in town for the holiday. I checked out of the Verb around noon, leaving my key card, attached to a lanyard to mimic a backstage pass, at the desk, and went to South Station. I took a bus for New Bedford. I was going to visit my parents, my old teacher, and a bookstore. My parents moved across the bay fifteen years ago, after the deaths of my grandmother and the family cat. They’d grown up by the sea and wanted to move back to it, though not, my mother insisted, to the same town where they’d grown up. My high school Latin teacher moved to New Bedford upon retiring. He is now eighty-nine years old. My father drives him around and keeps him company.
My former teacher lives in a high-rise a few blocks from the bus depot. His apartment is full of classical texts that fill shelves along each wall. He told me that in a normal building the books would cause the floor to collapse, but this building was constructed of heavy concrete slabs. He drank a martini. We talked about Heraclitus and Parmenides and his doctoral thesis on the pre-Socratics, the opening reading of the philosophy class I took my last year studying with him. My father prepared lunch for the two of them, and I explained myself. Did I still read books and use my brain? I said I had to because I make my living as a literary critic. Who was the greatest American writer? I knew from high school that the correct answer was Henry James. My teacher despises Herman Melville. I left to go to the bookstore.