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Theme Time

  • By Christian Lorentzen
  • Issue 25
  • Shelf LifeDecember 2018

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.

Moby-Dick begins in New Bedford, after Ishmael’s recollection of “Manhattoes” and the feeling he gets “whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” In New Bedford, Ishmael spends his first night beside Queequeg at Peter Coffin’s Spouter-Inn: “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.” Melville’s New Bedford is the port, on the one hand, teeming with “harpooneers,” “cannibals” from all over the world, and “bumpkins” down from Vermont to go to sea; and, on the other, the richest city in the Northeast United States, where “they have reservoirs of oil in every house, and every night burn their lengths in spermaceti candles.” The “patrician” houses of New Bedford and, across the bay, Fairhaven, remain standing, along with the grand town halls, churches, and libraries whale wealth delivered. But downtown New Bedford on a November afternoon is a lonely place. The sign indicating the bookstore looks like this:

U               USED
BOOKS           R

(There’s no S.) The door had the CLOSED sign hung up, so I walked around the block. Much of downtown New Bedford is thematized to Moby-Dick, the 1850s version of itself, and much of it is shuttered. The bars fill up at night, but otherwise there’s little street life. The bookstore is on the second floor of a building painted with a mural of cartoon skateboarders. There’s also an empty storefront, the former Tip Top Nails, on the ground floor. I was surprised to find another bookstore around the corner, but not surprised to find that it seemed to do most of its business in coffee and offered little of interest beyond the row of John Updike first editions you can find in any provincial used bookshop in the Northeast.

The sign back around the block had been turned to OPEN, and up the stairs, past framed pressings of leaves and butterflies, the proprietor sat behind his desk. He knew me as Teddy’s son, knew I was coming. My father had mentioned it. He said my father hadn’t been in the store in five years. This surprised me. As far as I knew my father read mostly sea narratives, and this was where he got them. But later that night I learned that my father stopped collecting such books and now seems to read trashy thrillers that he buys new. I told the proprietor I wanted to write about his shop. He didn’t think that was a good idea (which is why I have not used his name). We discussed this for an hour, digressing. My questions were too basic, he said. New Bedford wasn’t where I lived and wasn’t where I grew up; that had been in a Boston suburb, and the only bookstores around were strip-mall B. Daltons, until the arrival of Borders and Barnes and Noble, the bigger but equally charmless chains. I wasn’t equipped to write about the store because it wasn’t my store. It was where I came over the holidays to buy 1980s issues of Granta for a dollar that I would read on the bus back to Brooklyn. I would buy Christmas presents for my parents and sister, if I was in the mood to buy presents, rather carelessly.

We talked about the three magazines the proprietor subscribes to. We have the same favorite magazine. The other two may have lost their way. He’d been reading Reiner Stach’s three-volume biography of Kafka. I’d been reading The Pound Era by Hugh Kenner. We talked about the BBC World Service. Why is it so repetitive? How much are the presenters paid to recite the same news every hour? We shared our disdain for podcasts, which for him extends generally to all things online. He barely bothers to list his books online anymore. He still gets a little action on eBay, less on AbeBooks, which seems more like a reader’s site, even though Amazon owns it now. Last year he donated fifty boxes to Goodwill, to hone those on offer in his store. It’s been open for thirty-six and a half years. He also purged many books of fraying dust jackets, something no other seller would do, he insisted.

How often do you call your parents? Not very often, like the proprietor’s daughters. How often do you see a doctor? Not very often, but probably more than the proprietor. How often do you read university-press books? Pretty often, but I don’t agree that an academic can make any subject interesting. We bemoaned the decline of the footnote. Designers are said to prefer endnotes or, worse, chapter endnotes, but they require two-bookmark reading. I shook his hand. Do you like doing that? Aren’t you afraid of germs? I never get sick, I said, and it’s a way of ending things. I seemed to be overstaying my welcome. I wanted to buy a book before I left. I went to the biography shelf and picked out Stendhal’s The Life of Henry Brulard, paid $3.50, and the proprietor insisted on making exact change. There were two thick biographies of Maud Gonne on the shelf, by different authors, and a biography of Nelson Mandela that had been there forever, and a beautiful blue first edition of The Pound Era without the dust jacket. On the way out, I took Noel Stock’s The Life of Ezra Pound, for $2.50, and gave the proprietor back his coins. He didn’t want publicity, but he wanted recognition. He wanted something other than someone walking in off the street and asking whether he had Little Women. He always thought someone would write about his store—two rooms full of Penguins and Pelicans and biographies and sea narratives and ever fewer old one-dollar issues of Granta—but the essay wouldn’t be about the proprietor, it would be about the writer. I wasn’t that writer because this shop and its books hadn’t formed me. I was a guy who showed up once in a while to take a look at a place always slipping further into the past, turning evermore into a thematized version of its old self. I went home to read.

New Bedford, Massachusetts
Photograph by Hanson Carroll/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Christian Lorentzen lives in Brooklyn.