Johnson's Corner had everything a great diner needed: history (it opened in 1952 and has never once shut its doors), a classic roadhouse menu full of hash, eggs, cheeseburgers and milkshakes, cinnamon rolls known nationwide, a chrome shop (because nothing puts a trucker in a talkin' mood like knowing he's got six hours to kill while Smitty hangs his new girlie mudflaps), its own chapel (just in case God ever did show up), cheesy road knickknacks in the gift shop (because a man never knows when he's gonna need himself a pound of elk jerky, a roll-brim, a plastic armadillo or the complete works of Bill O'Reilly on tape), and a bottomless cup of coffee strong enough to eat through leather.
Johnson's Corner was the joint I dreamed about when I found myself hunched up in lesser bastions of roadside Americana, was one of the many settings where I fell in love with my wife (over coffee, Marlboros and pie -- just like in any good American love story). And perhaps most important, Johnson's Corner was the place I figured I'd run to when the zombies finally rose from the grave and started eating people's heads -- like Emilio Estevez in that movie Maximum Overdrive, only fighting off hordes of the living dead rather than electric toasters and tractor trailers run amok. In a last stand against the undead, Johnson's Corner was always the spot I had in mind for my zombie Thermopylae.
But no more. For the past two years, Johnson's Corner has been operating while undergoing a massive renovation. The results were finally celebrated at a rededication last Wednesday, and while everyone there seemed pleased as punch about the transformation, I was miserable.
There's nothing of the old place left except the menu, some of the staff, and ghosts in the form of faded, black-and-white pictures hung all around. The crowded gift shop filled with its coffee mugs, weird candies, bottles of radiator stop-leak, tire-pressure gauges and strange, Jesus-based statuary? Gone, replaced with just another vast convenience store. The smoking section (an area comprising the entirety of the circa 1952 Johnson's Corner Cafe), with its beautiful counter, boot-scuffed tile, nicotine-stained windows and hordes of scruffy old men, truckers, farmhands, cowboys and wanderers? Wiped clean. Now the smoking area is a glassed-in aquarium set in the center of a warren of dining rooms, its entrance between the brand-new hostess stand and the line of cash registers.
I wouldn't have thought it possible to wash all the history out of Johnson's Corner, but it's happened. When I first walked in ten years ago, I felt like I was coming home. When I walked in last week, it was like I'd taken a wrong turn somewhere and stepped into some Twilight Zone of maroon vinyl, clean Formica, burnished chrome and tile. It was all so slick and shiny and smooth, I felt like I was skating on Teflon.
I'd rolled up just in time for the 53rd anniversary and rededication ceremony, a quick celebration handled by third-generation owner and manager Chauncey Taylor and his wife, Christy. Representatives from the offices of Wayne Allard and Marilyn Musgrave were in attendance; state representative Jim Welker was there in person. There were a lot of thank-yous, a couple of stories about what life was like in the old days (dusty, hot and busy, pretty much the same as things were that morning) and a fast prayer by the pastor who worked the chapel: "Let us continue to be a place of rest and comfort for truck drivers and wayfarers," he intoned, as everyone bowed their heads and nodded.
I was standing behind Ida May, the closest thing Johnson's Corner has to a celebrity. She was the woman who baked the first cinnamon rolls ever sold here and continued baking them for a long time after. The kitchen still uses her recipe, and when Chauncey pointed her out in the crowd, she got a round of applause that should have gone on for an hour.
With the ceremony over and all the hands shook, I took a table in the smoker's aquarium. In honor of my lost love, I drank myself a pot of coffee, ate some eggs and one of Ida May's cinnamon rolls, spoke a while with a truck-drivin' man about the old place -- the counter with its grooves worn smooth by decades of elbows, the way you could never think about a stop here without your memories turning immediately to sepia -- and then picked a fight with a farm wife and her daughter about the previous day's election, arguing the fiscal neo-con side of the C&D debate like Napoleon refighting Waterloo, not because I felt that way or cared, but because this Johnson's Corner, with its new floors and spotless everything and wholly generic vibe, made me angry. My eggs and hash browns and coffee and cinnamon roll were all good, but ferchrissakes, I can get breakfast anywhere. Johnson's Corner used to be something special.