Howard Johnson

April 21, 2019

Howard Johnson



In the 1920s, a debt-ridden small business owner in Quincy, Massachusetts, doubled the butterfat in the ice cream he sold at the soda fountain in the back of his pharmacy. The ice cream quickly began to sell so well it was almost as if some supernatural magic were involved. Soon enough, the pharmacy as such ceased to exist, as the ice cream became the building block of a restaurant that the man named after himself, which was in turn so successful he opened another restaurant of the same name a few towns over. The two restaurants were recognizable as reproductions of one another not just by name and identical culinary offerings. Each restaurant had a bright orange roof. Over the next few decades, the number of orange-roofed restaurants grew. The concept of a franchised restaurant was not unknown at that time, but the level of national success of this new chain was unprecedented. The franchise blazed a bright orange trail across the land.


When the player shown here arrived in the majors, the orange-roofed restaurant empire built on doubled butterfat was nearing its twilight phase, its great growth over the previous fifty years slowing, not too far from being driven out of business altogether by the monstrous fast food chains in its wake. But in 1982, when this player debuted, Howard Johnson’s restaurants were still everywhere, a ubiquitous bright orange American repetition, and so when I heard there was a guy in the majors named Howard Johnson, it seemed ridiculous. I don’t think I was alone with that reaction, and even though after a few years people got somewhat used to his presence, his sudden leap in 1987 from an uneven platoon player to a dynamic superstar with a rare combination of power and speed was greeted with suspicion. Why the suspicion? He had been a number 1 draft pick; he’d shown ample glimpses of power and speed in the minors and in his part-time stints in the majors; and in 1987, when he was finally given the opportunity to find the rhythm of the game as an everyday player, he was 26, which is a common age at which promising players hit their prime. My theory is that if he’d had a name that didn’t remind everyone of ice cream and bright orange roofs, he would have been hailed more quickly as a blossoming talent, instead of the more dubious treatment he got, which peaked with several overt in-game accusations that he was, as it were, illegally doubling the butterfat in his bat. His bat was X-rayed six times throughout the season, each time with the intent of finding cork inside. The photo shown on this card is from the following season, 1988, his smile like that of a man found innocent, which is indeed what happened, each time. No butterfat in the recipe, no cork in the bat. He was not ridiculous but for real. Like his namesake before him, he had simply found an answer, and at least for a little while, he was full of possibilities. He was on the rise.     


Sometimes it feels like you’ve got your hands on the dazzling answer. I don’t often feel that way. More often I feel like I’m weighted down in one or another kind of debt. Or I feel like I’m not getting the chance to figure out a rhythm to life. Or I feel like I’m a fraud, a wielder of something doctored, altered, corked. But today, another Sunday, it got warm again, and this time the rain stayed away, and I stood in the alley next to our building beside my older son and held the handlebars of his bike in one hand and the back of his bike seat in the other. We’d just taken his training wheels off.  “We can give this a try, but remember,” I said, “if it doesn’t happen today, we can try again another time.” As a father, I favor this style of preemptive capitulation. (I’m a lot like Cyril’s dad in Breaking Away.) I fully expected the attempt to end with pronounced discouragement, if not a trip to the emergency room. But of course you probably already know that somehow, through nothing I did, despite my doubt, by the sheer grace of the universe, I touched magic today. We went up and down the alley a couple of times together, my hands on his bike, and then, still sure he was destined for swift defeat, I let go, and he wobbled and pedaled and . . . flew. I know that’s how it felt to him, because that’s how it had felt to me forty-five years before, and in my dreams of flying ever after I always pedaled up into the air, and now my boy Jack was doing it too, biking away from me past all the garbage bins I’d been sure he’d bash into, and he was on his way, and my empty hands sizzled as if they weren’t now suddenly after seven years empty but instead full of something ridiculously dazzling.


  1. Josh, every post you make is another dazzler!! I never had any luck trying to teach my daughters and nephew to ride their bikes, they did much better without my help. But it is a joy to see when they succeed.

  2. About the eatery with that name. I was lucky to grow up at a time 29 cents could buy you q 3 scoop banana split with many sprinkles and real whipped cream. However… the first time I went into a Howard Johnson on Collins near 25th in Miami Beach. It was raining and I decided to treat myself with a banana split. The sign said 29 cents… and I was asked what I wanted on it… and I added the usualtoppings. When it came time to pay for it… it was 49 cents. The whip cream and sprinls were served with an sterisk* and listed all extra charges, with print so small, you would need double bi-focals! Would you believe… I never sat foot in another Howard Johnson…I’m sure they rent their rooms with asterisks too!

  3. The moments of our children’s independent successes are equal parts joy and sorrow, knowing they’re a step further away from needing us. Thank you for sharing that with us.

  4. This is stupidly beautiful Josh

  5. It’s great stuff and now I feel like a crud since I haven’t read your stuff in a long time.

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