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Back to the drive-in

When nostalgia becomes expedient

Sometimes, it’s not even about the movie. Drive-ins can provide a welcome escape.

Images courtesy of paramount


My car crunched along the gravel driveway just as twilight was casting a blue tinge across the theater grounds. I was surprised at all the cars at Lockport’s Transit Drive-In, one of the few drive-in theaters still operating near Buffalo. The last time I was at a drive-in was probably 1978, when fuzzy dice hung from my rearview mirror; now a surgical mask has taken their place. I pulled the mask down and snapped it onto my face as we approached the entrance booth. Due to the pandemic, all tickets were sold online to minimize physical contact, so all I had to do was extend my phone out the car window while some poor kid whose summer was cancelled scanned the QR code.    


I looked over at my friend Emily in the passenger seat. A red tube was extending from under her mask as she sipped cabernet through a plastic straw. Her eyes smiled back. She was so happy to be out. I got a text from her the day before saying she hadn’t left the house in ninety days and she needed to see a human being. I asked if she wanted to come to the drive-in and see this terrible Vin Diesel movie. She said she couldn’t stand Vin Diesel but was so desperate that she’d go. And here she was. And I’m glad. Her presence added some sense of normalcy to all this.


As we continued on, I commented on how the movie screens looked so much smaller than I remembered. Emily pointed out that, back then, as a kid, they probably seemed enormous. Yes, as a kid….


As a kid, I loved the drive-in. The magic of those enormous screens made a great contrast to the coziness of the car. My cousin Mark would usually join us and, together, in our pajamas, we’d pile into the back of my parent’s wood-paneled station wagon. We didn’t even care what movie we saw. Most of the time it was a Disney flick with Kurt Russell or maybe an animated one. My folks didn’t care either. They were more interested in the other movies being projected all around us. Wildly inappropriate films being shown next to kids movies that, at the time, no one seemed to question. Films like Three on a Meathook showing next to That Darn Cat or Tower of Screaming Virgins right next to Heidi.


I have a great memory of my father telling Mark and me once to look at the screen behind us; when we did, we witnessed this colossal image of a nude buxom lady with an axe, awkwardly chopping wood. My mother yelled, “Mike! Leave the kids alone!” and he laughed, “What? She’s chopping wood…”


Emily and I found a great parking spot in front of Screen 2 and, just as I was starting to feel that distant nostalgia oozing in, a parking attendant tapped my window. I was told I had to move because of social distancing. “You gotta park at one of the white poles,” he muffled from under his mask. “Six feet apart. Sorry.”


“Cars do too?” I muffled back.


“Cars too; they need to be six feet apart.“    


“OK, sure,” I said, backing up. The closest white pole was far off, left of the screen—a crappy angle, but we’re talking Vin Diesel here, so it didn’t matter that much.


We parked, de-masked, and relaxed.


For audio, we tuned into 89.9, which is linked to the theater. To my surprise, the station was broadcasting 1950s music before the show, the kind of sockhop stuff you would’ve heard during the heyday of drive-ins. It was a nice touch and sounded great through my car stereo, but it got me thinking about those metal, clunky speakers from back in the day, the ones the size of toasters that hung on the edge of your rolled down window. They always seemed so precarious, resting on glass. RCA touted their amazing, “magnetic sound,” but they were basically shrill speakers in cans and didn’t even work half the time.


My father would hit the top of the dull, gray box hard with his fist and Mark and I would laugh, hoping the window would shatter, which in turn made my mother yell, “Jesus Christ, Mike, you’re gonna break the damn glass!” The speaker only had one knob on it, for volume. My father would twist it vigorously back and forth, smacking the box again, so Kurt Russell’s voice would pop in for a second blaring loudly, “Hey Dean Higgins, look!” and then silence.


Most of the time, you’d eventually find that sweet spot, but even if the box didn’t work, you could always open the windows and hear the movie echoing outside via all the other boxes.


Life was low-tech and adaptable.


With social distancing, the concession line at Transit is painfully slow because only ten people are allowed into the building at a time.


Above my head, dust passes through the projector beam stretching far across the parking lot to the screen. A local garden store commercial is on. I missed the title cards counting down the minutes ’til showtime and the dancing hot dogs and soda pop reminding you to visit the snack bar. Now they could be replaced by dancing facemasks and nose swabs. This is all very weird.


Back in the car, I unwrapped the silver paper revealing my hamburger. I forgot to ask for ketchup. Emily laughed. I took a bite and chewed.


Yes, I’m glad she was here.


Things weren’t normal, but she made them normal enough.



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