Saturday, July 9, 2005

Restaurant Memories

I read that they are closing the Howard Johnson's restaurant in Times Square today.  A lot of folks are sad to see it go.  Not because the food there was particularly good (indeed, it wasn't -- and it was going downhill fast), but because -- since it was one of the few places you could get a cheap meal in Times Square, nearly everyone's got some sort of memories there.

I do.

December 1983.  (My memory is a little hazy on this and I actually dug up an old journal I kept of the trip.  Unfortunately, my writing at 15 left a lot to be desired, and I skipped over many of the details.  Tammy, I hope you'll correct me if I got any of it wrong.)

Los Angeles area high schools took part in a program where students could go to New York for a week and see plays.  Tammy and I were the only students from our respective schools who were going, so we ended up tagging along with another school.  The chaperones on the trip -- I think one of them taught at the other school -- were a couple we'll call Mr. & Mrs. F. 

One night, most of the students, and the F's, were going to see a show.  Two of us -- me and a girl named Jana -- were going to see different shows in the opposite direction -- but our two shows were on the same street.  Jana and I figured we'd meet up after our shows got out and walk back to the hotel together.

I now transcribe my journal entry from that day...

Okay, this is the way it goes.  Mrs. F. decided that Jana and I couldn't walk back from 44th alone, even though Tammy and I walked back from 44th yesterday.  She said her husband would pick us up and drop us off.  We disagreed.  Mike [another student on the trip, I guess] phoned them and said, extremely politely, that he would walk us there and the whole group would pick us up.  He was asked to go to their room, alone.  He was gone for a long time.  He came back sad, and talking in a whisper.  (Jana and I were waiting, the otherwere were downstairs.)  He came in and said, "I had to compromise my morals a lot to talk to them."  He went on to tell us that they are so bigoted and they said that "All they [black people] could do is sing, dance, rob, and rape white women."

I'd never come face to face with racism before, and really had no clue how to deal with it.  And I especially didn't know how to deal with it when the people who were being the racists were also the people who were my guardians for the trip -- the people who I was supposed to listen to as if they were my parents.  None of us knew what to do -- Mike sure didn't.  So, we did nothing, and agreed to wait around until Mr. F. picked us up.

The next day ... according to my journal the F's were "cordial" to us.  It was the last day of our trip.  We were all going to see "La Cage aux Folles" that night, and -- on our way to the theatre -- the F.'s invited all of us out for ice cream after the show.  We all agreed -- I mean, really, what teenager turns down free ice cream? 

My journal then says, "And then the fun began."

Each tour group had been assigned a local New Yorker who acted as tour guide.  Our local was a woman named Laurie.  A black woman named Laurie.

You see this coming, yes?

Laurie had apparently been putting up with crap from the F's all week, and -- this being the last day -- she had a few choice words for them.  Words like "bigoted" and "small-minded."  The F's responded that she was "rude" and had "no brains" -- and barged out the hotel door, demanding that we -- the students -- go with them.  It was almost like we were pawns in their little Race War.  The F's ran off across the street and tried to pull us all along.  Laurie held us back, telling us not to cross against the light.  The F's responded, "When have your people ever obeyed the law?"

We somehow ended up at the theatre.  Guess who was sitting next to the F's.  Me.  I can't recall what happened; my journal says, "At intermission I tried to apologize, but ended up making it worse."  (I think I had asked Mrs. F. if she was enjoying the show.  Remember, this was La Cage aux Folles.  The couple that didn't like black people weren't all that open minded when it came to homosexuals, either.)

When the show was over, Tammy and I (and perhaps the rest of the kids -- I can't remember) decided we'd go back to the hotel.  At this point, we didn't want anything to do with the F's, not even if it involved free ice cream.  And, frankly, we'd figured the invitation had been revoked.  The F's, however, were having none of that.  They told us to stop with our "junior high school pranks."  They had invited us, they said, we had accepted, and now we were going to all go "and have a good time."

We followed them to Howard Johnson's and sat down, quietly, at the table.  When they took our orders, we went for the smallest, simplest thing we could -- a single scoop of vanilla ice cream.  (In retrospect, we really should've gone for chocolate.)  But the plan was just to order something small, eat it and leave.  To say to them -- as much as we felt we could without actively disobeying -- that they weren't the sort of people we wanted to eat ice cream with.

I've been back to New York quite a bit since then.  And every time I walked by that Howard Johnson's, I remembered the F's, their bigotry, and the single scoop of ice cream that was the closest I could come to an act of defiance.


grodygeek said...

Really good tale NZ.

Holy smokes you were more eloquent at 15 than I am now.

I was more of a rebel at that age. Why not order a gigantic ice cream dessert. Say a banana split and
A) not eat it in protest
B) or my favorite, incite a food fight?

Okay, so maybe I've seen "Animal House" one too many times as it came out my second year of college and the house I was living in was an animal house.

Still, a great tale. At that age I would have been just as ignorant of bigotry. I'll say this, you handled it about as well as you could.

Keep those stories coming, NZ.

the cycling curmudgeon

andreakingme said...

Ahhhh, Z Girl. You are SUCH a good writer. You may think your 15-year-old girl's journal was lacking, but I don't.

And I absolutely LOVE how you ended this entry. Perfect.