There are several Bickford's I have known. There are two in the Quincy area, but the one in the center of town is not 24 hours and as such was only visited by morning groups of us after Rachel and Megan had thrown a party in their high-ceilinged apartment by the shipyards. The all-niter by the Motel 6, however, is a grand roaring microcosm of humanity, where on a weekend night you can catch the high school kids trying to mingle with the college kids (how'd the BC kids find their way up here?) and the club kids pounding their fists on the tables while a few Rocky Horror fans still try to valiantly recreate the after-show experience even if there ain't no movie playin around these parts (I don't think the Harvard Square folks transplant themselves alllll the way down I-93 for this restaurant, but I wouldn't be surprised because, again, at 3 AM, it's one of the only games in town.) If you're around long enough, you'll even spot some very nice prostitutes and their pimps having coffee and a chat after a hard night's work. Or you'll just show up as trashed as everybody else and just remember it took 45 goddamn minutes to get your goddamn eggs and goddamn hash tell me again why we go here cause I'm definitely never making this freakin' mistake again.
The one in Woburn is slightly more laid-back, however. I've had many pre-dawn feeds at the place, as it was close to where I lived in Reading. More recently I'd use the restaurant as my launchpad for my early-morning Maine trips, back when I still had a car and the freedom to leave at 4:30 AM so I could get a full breakfast and still make it to watch the sunrise by the Nubble. This particular Bickford's claim to fame is its Sunday brunch buffets, but I only remember hitting that maybe once or twice in 1998 when we had out-of-towners show up.
The history of Bickford's is a long and storied one. The chain started out as a chain of cafeterias, comparable to Waldorf's or Stouffer's. According to web sites like this one, the cafeterias were really big on the East Coast. Populist Jean Shepherd may have enjoyed his Horn & Hardart automats in New York, but the Beats hung out in Bickford's, probably due to their perpetual all-night operations. Ginsberg loved the place, and so did Kerouac. Well, I'm not sure if "loved" is the right word. Maybe they found dirty forks, too. Maybe they just grudgingly went because there was no other place to go. I'm not sure, and I never will be.
I started researching the history of Bickford's years ago when I first moved to the area and jostled for 3 AM booth space among the disenfranchised youth in Woburn. Reading that the Beats had done the same thing amused me. You'd get apocryphal quotes like "It is even said that famed author Jack Kerouac wrote 'On The Road' in a Bickford's" and that would make me giggle in a fit of cognitive dissonance. It's pretty obvious the Bickford's of today is vastly different to the cafeteria-style Bickford's of 50 years ago.
So one early morning back in '98 or 99, poring over my eggs-n-hash in Woburn (I really don't ever order anything else at Bickford's) I took Kerouac out of history and placed him back in this Bickford's, the Bickford's I knew. I watched him do his thing. He sprawls out under the fake 60s rockwork, orders a "Big Freakin Apple" or whatever it's named (guess they didn't completely throw off the yoke of stupid dish names) as waitresses call him "hon" and refresh his coffee at glacial speed. They know he's not here for the conversation. He scribbles something, murmuring, as the lone group of goths in the place try to pointedly ignore the old guy reading the Globe in the corner. Later, clutching his sheaf of notes, Jack pays at the front counter while looking over the lobster Beanie Babies and prepackaged "NEW ENGLAND" salt water taffy in the boxes with the lighthouse on the front.
"I'll take that one," he says, pointing at the refrigerator magnet display.