Red Apple Rest was a famous highway stop along Route 17 in Tuxedo, New York. The cafeteria-style restaurant opened in 1931 and for decades did a booming business. Several generations of vacationers regarded this place as the psychological halfway point between New York City and the hotels of the Catskill Mountains. Open twenty-four hours, it was a favorite late night haunt of Borscht Belt comedians coming home from their gigs. In its heyday, over a million people a year stopped at Red Apple Rest to grab a bite and visit the comfort stations. It was a travelers’ paradise.
All that changed in the 1970s, when the popularity of the Catskill resorts began to fade. Even so, Red Apple Rest managed to hang on, despite fewer and fewer motorists frequenting the establishment. Then one day in 2006 somebody taped a handwritten sign to the door: “we went away for a graduation and vacation.” The place had gone dark. Those sad sack words hung there for months on end, till at last they were worn by the weather into illegibility. One day the town’s building inspector showed up and covered over the blankness with a new sign bearing one solemn word: “Condemned.”
When I was a kid in the early sixties, my family occasionally stopped at the busy but already declining Red Apple Rest on our way to the Catskills. The sprawling restaurant parking lot was invariably jammed with cars and buses of the summer hordes. My brothers and I did not like the food served there—we thought it tasted like World War II. By that point, we had already sampled the dubious pleasures of a fast food joint called Carrols. It was part of a chain that soon became known as Burger King. As the years passed, fewer and fewer vehicles were to be seen in the parking lot at Red Apple Rest. Coyotes and bears began nosing around the dumpsters out back. The asphalt gave way to tall weeds and scrubby trees.
The last time I visited Red Apple Rest was Memorial Day weekend 2005. I had been driving all day along unfamiliar back roads in the surrounding lake and hill country. I came upon the dismal remains of the eatery almost by accident. It was quite late in the day. Thickening shadows had already frightened off what sunlight lingered in the vicinity. The parking lot was vacant but the front door was propped open with an old wooden milk crate. Feeble neon light was spilling out from within, giving up the ghost. A pale “Open” sign hung in the window.
Common sense told me to keep driving but nostalgia demanded a comfort stop, so I pulled in and got out of the car. I could hear the drone of the nearby Thruway. I walked up to the door and stepped inside. Nobody was around that I could see. The air was old and smelled like a charnel house for every bad diner meal ever dished up in America. Immediately on the right was an old style cafeteria turnstile. Next to it was a sign that said “Enter Here.” An ancient clock on the wall proclaimed the wrong time. An empty standing wooden coat rack stood, inexplicably, in the middle of the serving area. Far in the back was a dim doorway with a sign above it that bore a more hopeful word—“Bar”—but it was blocked by a savagely glowing case of Snapple drinks. I snapped a few photos. Wouldn’t you?
That’s when I noticed, in the murky recesses of the dining room, a disconsolate family gathered at what appeared to be Sunday dinner. They sat in vintage cafeteria chairs around a vintage cafeteria table. Something told me they were not customers—they were something else. Something vapory. In a single grim motion, they all looked up at me and stared expressionless in silence. I waved a timid hello. No one waved back. No one broke the silence. What’s that they say about seeing ghosts, that they only appear if you are willing to meet them halfway? Apparently I had crossed that line. They also say: never do that, never cross the line. Not if you want to come back.