Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Why We Care About Notre Dame

I’ll admit it. When I first heard that Notre Dame was on fire, my first thoughts led me back to an old episode of The Flintsones, where Fred and Barney, in order to get a regular night out with the boys, had joined the volunteer fire department, which had a fire to put out every week…in a town that was made entirely out of stone.

And so I wondered, “How can it be on fire? It’s made out of stone?”

I quickly found out that while the walls were stone, the roof wasn’t. It was made from 800-year-old wood. 800-year-old dry wood, of which their own website says “fire is not impossible.” And because it was the roof that was on fire, that’s why you see so little damage to the inside.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about today. I’m here to talk about why so many people care about Notre Dame in a way that they don’t care about the other churches, and a mosque, that burned on that same day or in that same week. And that’s a question that has many people indignant.

My answer is very simple: Notre Dame has touched more people in one way or another than all those churches, and the mosque, put together.

The church I grew up in, St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in South Orange, NJ, burned to the ground decades ago. Actually, the building burned down (let’s all sing the song now). The people of St Andrew’s had decided to merge with another Episcopal church across town, and had sold the property to Seton Hall University. So what had burned down was now St Andrew’s Hall. I don’t expect the world to notice or be upset about it. Heck, I was only nominally saddened when I heard about it months or years after the fact. I was similarly saddened to hear that Ashland School, where I spent kindergarten through 8thgrade had also burned down.

These were places that I grew up in, that I could never go back to visit again. They meant a lot to the people who passed through them. But how many people outside of East Orange ever heard of Ashland School? Heck, how many people in East Orange ever heard of Ashland School (we had a lot of schools)? And how many people outside of South Orange ever heard of, or had been to, St Andrew’s?

No…my old church burned down decades ago, and I didn’t expect the world to notice when it did. It meant something to the people who belonged there, and to the people in the surrounding neighborhood, but few others.

But why do we care about Notre Dame, and not the other buildings that went up in flames last week? Because we know it, we’ve been there, we’ve seen pictures of it, we’re familiar with it in a way that we weren’t familiar with any of the other buildings that burned.

They say that familiarity breeds contempt. But it can also breed appreciation and love.

If we’ve been there, which I have, along with 13 million others each year, we have that familiarity. If we’ve seen pictures of it, we have that familiarity. If we’ve studied it, we have that familiarity. Millions of people have a familiarity with Notre Dame that they never had with the other buildings or…St Andrew’s.

And you know what? In my book, that’s OK. You can’t care about everybody. You can’t know about everybody. You can’t be told and care about every religious building that’s on fire. That would be as overwhelming as being able to hear all the molecules collide.

And it’s well worth noting that even those who are indignant about people caring so much about Notre Dame have their own blind spots of familiarity and unfamiliarity.

So let’s give everyone a break here. OK?

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

A Friendly Goodbye

I need to say a goodbye. But before I get to the goodbye in question, I need to talk about the others that came before.

In the beginning there was Howard. Howard was in my hometown of East Orange, NJ, on Central Ave between Munn and Freeman Avenues. The old joke was that Howard had 28 flavors of ice cream and one of food. But oh, that ice cream! As far as I can remember, Howard Johnson’s was my first go-to place for ice cream…and clean bathrooms on the road. Before fast food restaurants and fast food food courts took over highway rest areas, Howard Johnson’s billed itself as “the host of the highways.”

But times changed, and Marriott bought out Howard Johnson in order to get their highway properties and motels. So it was goodbye to Howard and his coffee milkshakes.

Not to worry though, there was Bond’s. Bond’s was a local North Jersey chain, home of the Awful Awful…“Awful Big and Awful Good.”

Then, in 1969 the Willowbrook Mall opened up in Wayne, and it was there that I discovered my first Friendly’s, and had my first Fribble.

Funny thing about that Fribble…it used to be an Awful Awful.

You see, for decades Bond’s licensed the name and the formula to two other regional ice cream parlors: Friendly’s in Massachusetts and Newport Creamery in Rhode Island. This deal worked out well as long as they all kept to their own states, but if either of the other two decided to do business in New Jersey, they had to change the name of their drink.

And it was out of that necessity that the Fribble was born when Friendly’s decided that the Jersey market was too big to ignore. And for a span of a few short years I could get both an Awful Awful and a Fribble within five miles of each other.

Until Bond’s went under in the early 70s, and it was time to say goodbye to them. But any time I went to Willowbrook, I made a beeline for Friendly’s.

I arrived in Syracuse as a freshman at Syracuse University in 1974, and discovered a new ice cream home just off campus. It was Baskin-Robbins. Unlike the other places, it wasn’t a restaurant that also sold ice cream, it was pretty much just an ice cream parlor, and I patronized that ice cream parlor for all eight of my undergrad years, all three of my later grad school years, and the remaining five that I worked at SU. A Friendly’s had also opened on campus during that time, but it didn’t last long. There were other Friendly’s locations in the area, but without a car, they were pretty much inaccessible to me.

Then two things happened, and I’m not sure what the order was. One was that Baskin-Robbins pulled out of the Syracuse market. Another goodbye. The other was that I got a car (or married someone with one). This meant that every Friendly’s in the county was available to me.

Friendly’s was what Howard Johnson’s used to be…an ice cream parlor that also sold food. Or was it a restaurant that also sold ice cream? I knew that pretty much wherever I went in the northeast, I could find a Friendly’s. They were everywhere, and they were almost always packed. I could tell you where every Friendly’s was between my home in Syracuse and my mother’s place in Jersey. Cortland and Binghamton in New York; Clarks Summit, Tannersville, and Easton in Pennsylvania. If I needed a Fribble on the road, I knew where to get it.

But then dining habits changed. People stopped doing “casual dining” and opted more for either fast food or places like Applebees or Friday’s, and the business that Friendly’s counted on dried up, leading them to close locations, and shrink back to a fraction of its former size.

And this is where my friendly goodbye comes in…or, more properly, my Friendly goodbye. This past Sunday it was announced that most Friendly’s locations in Central New York were closing…including two that were relatively close to my house.

This is going to seriously cut into my Fribble habit.

But maybe I could take a trip to Rhode Island and get an Awful Awful.