The first time I stayed at a Howard Johnson, or HoJo, was 20 years ago. An exchange student at the University of Iowa, some fellow foreign students and I rented two cars and drove to Washington D.C. for spring break. The four guys crammed in one room, the four girls in another... and another. Our first room lasted all of five minutes before we realized that not only was the toilet lacking a seat, it also failed to flush. After some time at the front desk, and some considerable griping (they were at first unwilling to move us), we eventually secured a new room, with working toilet and a remote control for the television (for a deposit - who knew there was such a black market trade in remote controls?)
Our first night was noisy but nothing we couldn't live with. The second night, we were awoken by police banging on the door of the adjoining room. My friend from Finland got to see his first drugs and prostitution bust.
We spent the remainder of our stay enjoying the sights of D.C. and Annapolis, returning to the hotel only to bar our doors and attempt to sleep.
I swore afterwards to never stay at one again.
And stupidly, I broke that promise to myself.
We recently found ourselves looking for two hotel rooms in New York. My parents were flying in for a visit and we were to meet them in the city before driving on to Niagara Falls and Toronto. The trouble was, we were on a budget. And New York is not cheap. Looking on Hotels.com, my husband came across a listing in the Bronx. Not my first choice of locations but the prices were reasonable (though still not cheap), and the hotel had a surprising number of good reviews. Enough good reviews that, even upon learning it was a Howard Johnson and expressing some surprise that they were still in business, I agreed to the reservation. Reviews talked of the delightful spacious rooms, the proximity to local transport into the city, etc. Could it be that we had stumbled upon a hidden gem?
So we reserved two rooms, paid up front (no refunds available), and continued planning our trip.
August arrived and we found ourselves completing the long drive from Kentucky to New York City and decided to drop our stuff off at the hotel before going to pick my parents up at JFK. As we got closer, I felt concerned. This was not the nicest looking neighborhood. And then we arrived at the hotel. Feeling some trepidation as we parked, I agreed to be optimistic and to at least give the rooms a chance. Remember - it might be a gem.
Our first bad sign was when we asked at the front desk if our car was ok. She told us she wouldn't leave a car parked here and to remove everything from it. She then announced we had smoking rooms, which we had certainly not booked given that my husband is an asthmatic. Not to worry, she assured us, as soon as a nonsmoking room became available, she would move us.
Our room was... how to describe it...dismal. I have stayed in some great places and some grotty places before. I've stayed in places where I've barred the door while drunk truck drivers argue all night outside. At the end of the day, it's a place to sleep, and so, after carefully checking the bed for bugs and finding it clear, I placed my bags on the mattress. The carpet was brown, not a warm inviting brown, but the sort of dingy dung color made worse by years of cigarette smoke, the smell of which hung in the air like a fog. The bedspread, also brown, was dotted with cigarette burns. Before I could open the window to let some air in, it hit me. A loud, deafening roar across metal. The hotel was indeed close to the public transportation. In fact the track ran immediately outside our third floor room. So close that I could probably sell newspapers to the passing commuters.
I wanted to cry but we had no time. We had to pick up my parents. As we shared our first slices of New York pizza in a city diner, I warned them. Good job I had as I saw my mum's face drop as she entered their room, the better of the two, which is like comparing a pile of horse manure to a pile of pig manure. We all agreed that we would stick it out for the night and discuss what to do in the morning.
Then I returned to our room and cried.
The night began with despair and passed through delirium and a range of other emotions previously unknown in such a short space of time.
The trains rumbled past every ten minutes or so. My husband and I lay in bed, marking each one and thinking surely they wouldn't run past midnight. Or past 1 a.m. Perhaps 2 a.m. Finally at about 2, they stopped.
The air conditioning unit rattled nearly as loudly as the train and spewed random streams of water across the room. But switching it off, made the room unbearably hot. By 1.30 or so, my husband, already having difficulty breathing because of the cigarette smoke, and now more so because of the heat, had stripped naked and was laying on the bed with two cool washcloths, one on his head, and one on his genitals, in an attempt to reach a comfortable temperature. Meanwhile I was laying there, laughing hysterically. By this point, I didn't know what else to do.
We eventually passed out from exhaustion at about 3.30. A few hours later, the phone rang. My parents had experienced a similar night. The decision was made.
We knew we couldn't get a refund but that didn't matter. For our sanity's sake, we had to move. Hubby found a Marriott hotel in Queens, and spoke to a wonderful guy at front desk who told us he had rooms available. After venturing into the breakfast room, we packed our bags, and left without a word. When we arrived at our hotel in Queens, they checked us in, helped with our bags, and showed us our rooms. My mum jumped for joy - they have pictures on the wall, nice ones, and plenty of towels, and look at the beds.
I left reviews at Hotels.com and at TripAdvisor, and I'm pleased to say the remainder of our trip went ahead with no lodging problems. I can't help but wonder though, who these people are that raved online about the beautiful spacious rooms. Where do they normally live that this miserable (and it was truly miserable) place could be called delightful?
And more importantly, how on earth are Howard Johnson STILL in business?