Happy Birthday to You
During the summer of 1972, my junior year in college, I worked as a busboy at a local Howard Johnson’s restaurant. Howard Johnson's (known locally as HoJo's) began as a national chain of restaurants that developed along with the interstate highway system in the 1950s and 60s. It seemed no matter where you went, from coast to coast, you could find one, and the food and service, though not five-star, were as earnestly above-average as the middle class customers who came there. As a child, going to Howard Johnson’s was a real treat. Well, times change, and by the early 1970s Ho-Jo’s had become decidedly lower middle class. It used to boast “23 Flavors of Ice Cream” until Baskin-Robbins came along and made 23 seem quite pedestrian. By the time I worked there, HoJo’s was where you went when nothing else was open.
As a service, the management provided a cake and a Happy Birthday To You song for any family that brought one of their children to the restaurant on the child's birthday, birth certificates not required. So every now and then, between clearing off tables, mopping up spills, and taking out the trash, the busboys would join the waitresses and take a cake into the dining area, light the candles, and sing “Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, dear (insert name here). Happy birthday to you.”
We sang for a variety of children: girls and boys, toddlers and infants, happy kids and sad, shy ones, and ones that poked you with their forks. We even sang for older kids of an age when strangers singing Happy Birthday meant enduring a brief embarrassment for a piece of overly sweet, though free, cake. Yet no matter the kind of child we sang for, the cake, candles, and singing left me feeling absurd, transparently insincere. I wondered what the children and their families felt. How could they think that a crew of underpaid restaurant workers cared a lick for little Missy's sixth birthday? How could Missy? I knew why the management liked it--good cheer was good business. And that made the whole charade that much more loathsome.
Late one dull, rainy afternoon, while I was loading the dishwasher, one of the waitresses hurried in to the kitchen and told me to go get a cake and some matches. “Great,” I thought, "here we go again." Dutifully I brought the cake out of cold storage, placed it on the counter where the waitresses picked up their double cheeseburgers and daily specials, and turned back to a large stack of ketchup-and-gravy splattered plates. I didn't want to go out there, out where little Joseph was waiting for his cake, candles, and song. I begged off to Sylvia, the new manager, claiming a backlog of dirty dishes. She looked up from her desk off the kitchen, glanced over at the dishwasher and quickly agreed. Out went the cake, while I stayed behind and watched through the cook's order window.
Just as another busboy began lighting the candles, I started thinking out loud. “Doesn’t he know we just now learned his name, that we’ll forget it before we’ve cleared off their table? How can they all be so stupid?" Sylvia must have overheard. She took out a cigarette, glancing at me as she lit up. After a few long puffs, she spoke.
"Why should it make a difference to him?" she asked, speaking to the ashtray. I didn't answer. She looked at me. "Why do you want to take such a simple joy away from him?" Embarrassed into silence, I stared out at the little boy, his parents, and the waitresses and busboys, all clapping as the smoke rose from the candles.
Walking over to where I stood, she looked from me to the party at the table. She spoke gently. “Childhood is so short, Mark. What harm is there in making them happy for a while?" For the first time since I had started working there, I looked closely at her. The lines around her eyes and across her brow were sharp and deep, the blue of her eyes pale and watery, the whites a little bloodshot. Streaks of gray lay beneath the light brown waves of her hair. I looked at my shoes, then back at those pale blue eyes. "We all grow old too soon,” she said softly as she walked back to her desk.
Copyright © Mark McTague, 1990