Howard Johnson, You Are America
Updated: Mar 23
A night at an airport hotel with my daughter. A window into into the sad, irreconcilable, sometimes hopeful soul of America
I started to write something snarky about Atomic Christian’s t-shirt just now, but I erased it. What right do I have to criticize his fashion sense or his enthusiasm for Jesus? He is no threat to me. I know some science teachers who would be howling about the symbolism of that shirt if they had seen it. These fanatics are anti-science, they would say. No wonder so many Conservative Christians are climate change deniers. But I am ambivalent. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that his provocative choice in casual wear has never once compromised his ability to keep the nuclear plant running, or whatever it was he said he did for the nuclear power industry.
I met Atomic Christian last summer at the Howard Johnson hotel, two miles from Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. I had arrived there only reluctantly after a stressful and ultimately doomed travel day, with my seven-year-old daughter Juliet in tow. We were on our way to see my parents in the Adirondack Mountains, but our flight was cancelled, and the next flight wouldn’t arrive in Albany until 2 a.m. Because I did not want to make my parents drive the airport after midnight, I opted to spend the night in a bargain-rate airport hotel room and fly out on an early flight the next morning.
I am not a hotel snob. I am a thoroughly unabashed middle class person, comfortable in economy class seats and behind the wheel of my gray Honda Civic sedan. Hotels are merely utilitarian weigh stations in my world. I expect little from them. But even with such meager expectations, this hotel was especially sad and disorienting. The building itself is old, brown, and dull. Upon first sighting it from the window of the airport shuttle, I flashed back to the 70s, when I was a kid sitting in the back seat of the family station wagon on the six-hour-drive from our home in New Jersey to our family’s summer cabins in the Adirondack Mountains. I remember seeing Howard Johnson hotels from the highway. There were more of them back then, or so it seemed, and I remember fantasizing about stopping for the night in one. I imagined that our family of six would spread out in three spacious, gloriously air-conditioned rooms, and that each of us—my two sisters, my little brother, and me—would stretch out in our own big, king-sized bed. There would be a sun-drenched Olympic-sized pool waiting for us, with throngs of children splashing around and cannon-balling from the diving board while our parents lounged nearby sipping cocktails.
We never stopped. Not once.
They ran out of food at Jamestown and ate shoe leather and eventually each other. Think about that the next time you want to go online and post a nasty review about the Philly Cheesesteak you ordered from the empty restaurant at an airport Howard Johnson’s.
I paid for a room with two double beds—$72. For Juliet, who had last slept in a hotel room in Disney World when she was four years old and could not recall the experience, this was an adventure, and a posh one. She was thrilled. I unzipped my suitcase, and out of the corner of my eye, I could see her grabbing for my cell phone. With skillful hands, she activated the camera and proceeded to film a video tour of the hotel room for my wife, pointing out the microwave oven and the coffee machine and the table and the lamp, all with breathless enthusiasm. She could not believe that all of these wonderful appliances are actually here in our hotel room.
She claimed one of the beds for herself, the one closest to the bathroom and with the best angle on the television screen. Very strategic. I notice these things. My daughter is smart and calculating, and in moments like these, I cannot decide whether to be quietly proud of her or absolutely terrified of her Machiavellian cunning.
At 53, having spent many nights in dreary hotel rooms, I was a bit more jaded in my assessment of the experience. In the lobby downstairs, I had noticed the staff’s slack somnolence as they shuffled around me at a pace only slightly more animated than slow motion. They were practiced at the art of the half smile. I get it—minimum wage sucks—but their apathy pricked at the deeply repressed conservative in me. Look lively, I remember thinking. Smile. A touch of snap-to customer service would be nice. Why can’t you be more like the cheerful, lively teens who work at Chick-fil-A? What happened to the American work ethic? Attention to detail? The esprit de corps that should accompany having a job to begin with?
Am I being too harsh, I wondered? The class warrior in me was ready with explanations for this torpor—ready to defend and excuse—but then I thought, who am I to interpret the motivations of people I do not know? Why do cosmopolitan intellectuals like me always automatically extend the benefit of the doubt? Why are we so quick not to judge?
My inner liberal was wringing his hands again. Perhaps I am the one who needs to “check my privilege,” I thought. Maybe I was being elitist to demand that the hotel staff be jocular, amiable, contented servants, practiced in the art of big smiles and customer service. Who am I to expect good service from such low-wage employees?
I will not speak of the pressed-in grime I saw in dark corners and the nearly inch-wide space between the edge of the carpet and molding, or the fact that the guests did not smile at all, or the creepy abandoned-building feeling I experienced walking down those somberly lit hallways.
The pool, which was ensconced in a gloomy courtyard at the center of the hotel, was smaller than I had imagined it would be. It was empty, looking sad and neglected, and I wondered if the greenish tint in the water came from the dim lighting or from profound neglect. I had seen this shade of green once before, in my neighborhood when I was a kid, in the pool of a family that was going through a nasty divorce.
* * *
I rode the elevator down to the first floor and walked with Juliet to the restaurant, which we found almost completely empty at 6:30 p.m., except for two young black woman sitting near the cash register watching a sitcom on TV. I assumed from their easy banter with the pregnant woman standing behind the cash register that they were all friends. I ordered a Philly Cheesesteak, and I made a comment about the cheesesteaks in Camden being better. She nodded, and I thought for a just a second that it was a nod of solidarity, but who knows for certain if she actually harbors an opinion about cheesesteaks, or Philadelphia, or Camden.
When the sandwiches were ready, I returned to the register to pay, and when I shifted my weight to reach into my back pocket for my wallet, I could feel the soles of my feet sticking to the carpet.
Back in the room, Juliet made her intentions known; she was quite specific about it. She wanted to sit on her bed, with her food. “You will sit on your bed Daddy,” she said, “and I will sit on mine.”
There was a wolffish, pleasure-seeking glint in her eyes, and I realized that this experience combined several of the big taboos in our household. Eating in front of the TV. Eating in bed. Hogging the remote. This was paradise for an only child who is constantly being told what not to do by the two adults in her life. I was smiling broadly, and I said, in that slack, libertine tone that drives my wife crazy: “Sure honey. Go for it.”
* * *
Somewhere in this dimly lit brown monolith, as yet unknown to me, Atomic Christian was sitting in a room with his wife, probably watching TV, along with the dozens of other strangers in the hotel, each of us ensconced in our identically furnished boxes. I am increasingly aware of my proximity to strangers these days. In my twenties and thirties, when I lived a more self-centered, self-involved existence, they were invisible to me, or barely visible, mere shadows on the cave wall. But now, in my fifties, I can feel their ambivalent presence massing all around me. Waiting for the light to change at the intersection a half a mile from my house, I can see them slouched in their cars in front of and behind me, looking irritated or uncomfortable, a few simply oblivious, others laughing at the radio or singing along to a song in their earbuds or talking on the phone. Everyone is sealed inside their steel, glass, plastic, and rubber boxes. My neighborhood is itself a neatly quaffed arrangement of boxes, and most of my neighbors are strangers to me. Except for two, I have never seen the insides of their boxes. Logic would dictate that I should sometimes see some of my neighbors at the Kroger grocery store, which is just a quarter mile from my house, but I never do. Instead, I push my cart through the supermarket aisles in the midst of a sea of strangers, dozens of them. They for the neatly stacked display of honeydew melons or stand at the freezer door trying to pick out the right pint-sized carton of Cherry Garcia from among the dozens of other pint-sized containers of ice cream.
Strangers everywhere. I am swimming in strangers. Each of us has perfected our somnolent shuffling, our barely turned-up smiles, our well-rehearsed strategies for avoiding eye contact.
I now understand the persistent appeal of the zombie in American popular culture. It is the only metaphor for post-war America that feels exactly right.
* * *
I met Atomic Christian the next morning while we were waiting outside on the sidewalk for the shuttle to the airport. He was standing there with his wife, and I struck up a conversation with him. They were from Alabama, in their late sixties I guessed, and quite fit. He said they were headed to Costa Rica for a mission trip. I noticed his t-shirt immediately. It was simple and tantalizing—a nucleus orbited by electrons and neutrons—and at the center, tucked inside the nucleus, was a cross.
A few minutes into the conversation, I learned that he had retired from a long career in the nuclear power industry.
I was staring at the Jesus nucleus—I mean really staring at it, while at the same time trying not to stare. Something about it had short-circuited my capacity to think clearly. I felt compelled to decode it, to learn how these two incongruous symbols had been welded together like this. What intellectual alchemy had been summoned to make one coexist peacefully with the other. I did not think of this in the moment, but later, I would recall the time I met sister Rose Thering, a person of some importance in the movement to heal relations between Christians and Jews. I was introduced to her by a priest friend of mine, and after a few minutes of small talk, she took me aside to show me the necklace she was wearing. She held it proudly in the palm of her hand so that I could see it clearly. It was a cross and a Star of David fused together into a single piece of jewelry. “I had it specially made,” she said. I remember staring at it, speechless at the audacity of the thing. Did she understand the deeply heretical implications of her creation? Was she aware that some Jews might react to her necklace with the same disdain they would show a person who declared himself a “Jew for Jesus”? She must. How could she not understand this. I nodded. I said nothing. I was paralyzed.
I felt this same sensation as I gazed upon this impossible Jesus atom. I stared. I said nothing. I was paralyzed.
I do not dislike Christians. I grew up among born agains, never one of their tribe entirely but certainly comfortable in their midst. I know their language. I know how they think. At their very best, fundamentalists live their values in the world, and I respect that. Many try to make an honest imitation of Christ (though in my reading of the Gospels, Jesus has a lot less to say about sexual morality than they do). But I am also unsettled by their oversized claims on American history. They are always trying to put their brand on America, always elbowing to the front of the culture like entitled children.
I kept the conversation light—travel plans, work, Juliet, Costa Rica. There are subjects I would rather not open with strangers. My grandmother’s advice to avoid religion and politics in polite company is well heeded these days.
After a few minutes of this conversation, I was feeling pleased with myself, proud of my restraint and magnanimity. I was suddenly bullish about America. Maybe this multicultural country can work, I thought? Maybe it is working and I should get over my cynical self. People from different cultural, religious, and political groups can live peacefully side by side. We Americans are decent, good people at heart.
My sense of American decency was reinforced even further when the shuttle arrived, and the big group of travelers filed into the vehicle. Juliet and I were near the front of the line, and we found two seats near the front. When all the seats were taken, an older black woman walked on and seeing that there were no more free seats, she prepared to stand for the trip by looking around for a hand strap or something else to hold on to. Seeing her, a young white man across the aisle from me stood up and offered his seat to her. Decency on display. I wonder, are these the southern manners I keep hearing about? Is he perhaps military or ex-military? I have seen many displays of chivalry from soldiers. Or this this truly a random act of kindness from a stranger?
When the shuttle arrived at the airport, we filed off, and I saw Alabama Christian couple again.
“Great to be an American,” said Atomic Christian.
“Yes it is,” I agreed with genuine enthusiasm.
“Do you believe in Jesus, Our Lord?”
If it was possible to measure my level of American optimism—to actually hook me up to a machine with a gauge—you would have watched the needle tilt sharply from a “10” down towards a 1 or a 2. I knew it. I had sensed it from our earlier conversation, a desire on his part to witness to me. My instincts had been telling me that this man had evangelical intentions, and I was right. He couldn’t help himself. He was compelled.
And that was when Atomic Christian earned his nickname. Up until that moment, I was willing to ignore the t-shirt. None of us should be judged with finality for our t-shirts, or bumper stickers, or Facebook posts. They are, after all, only small performances, not the full measure of us. But the sidewalk evangelizing pushed me over the edge. I am inundated daily with sales pitches, advertising, spam, and robocalls, so much so that my mental environment is a sludgy sea of sly predation, mental midgetry, and false, bloated claims for my attention. His plea for my salvation was no less irritating than a spam ad for dick pills or a robocall asking me if I want to refinance my home.
I kept my cool. I replied truthfully, I “believe in God,” but then I let this generic profession of faith just hang out there. No Jesus. No Holy Spirit, No Good News. Just Yahweh in a plain brown wrapper, the same god worshipped by the Methodists, and the Catholics, and the Reform Jews, and the Episcopalians, with their female priests and their rainbow flags.
He wanted to say more. I could tell from his eager expression, the way was leaning towards me. He almost certainly had a script for this occasion, some kind of ready response to my heathenish expression of faith, but his wife, to her credit, shot him a cease-and-desist look, and before anything more awkward could occur, I grabbed Juliet’s hand and pulled her across the street and into the terminal, but not before shouting “have a safe flight.”
We expect too much of America sometimes, we descendants of Plymouth Rock with our perfectionist tendencies and our puritanical desires to cleanse the culture. But I try not to forget that America is a big messy place, more Jamestown than City on the Hill. They ran out of food at Jamestown and ate shoe leather and eventually each other. Think about that the next time you want to go online and post a nasty review about the Philly Cheesesteak you ordered from the empty restaurant at an airport Howard Johnson’s.