Neon Dreams and Neon Missions

Zandy's Allentown

Closing Up at Zandy’s in Allentown, PA, 2009.

A few days ago I had a dream. Don’t laugh, but it was about a sign. I was driving down a familiar road, or at least, a road that was familiar in my dream. I passed by a large and impressive sign, one that I must have passed by a thousand times and somehow never noticed. It was lit up in the middle of the day and had all sorts of neon and bulbs and all the bells and whistles. I pulled the car over and realized I was still far away, so I turned around and parked in the lot. By the time I got to the sign, the lights had gone out, and I could see that there was this odd LCD sign bisecting the great old neon one, stuck in the middle of it as if it had been thrown there with great force. The people who worked at that business, which was beauty salon, were leaving to go to lunch. Two women and a man. They walked up the street and I followed them, figuring when they would get back they would turn the lights back on.

The people stopped to eat at someplace that I knew was not a restaurant. It resembled a college dorm. They sat down at a table and blabbed to each other and paid no notice of me telling them they weren’t in a restaurant.

I woke up the next morning and told Laura about this dream. And all sorts of memories crept up.

I’ve learned from experience that no one wants to hear anyone’s problems, least of all read about them, so I’ll keep this part of the story brief: I was working in television, and was laid off in 2009 due to fiscal problems at the station. Following that, partially unemployed for a little over two years. A week before the layoff, I bought my first D-SLR, a Pentax k20d. It was a struggle not to think Oh, great, just made this major purchase, and now what? But I looked at my new camera a different way. I don’t believe in coincidence. I was supposed to use this.

News Agency, Quakertown, PANews Agency, Quakertown, PA. Taken in May of 2009.

I had always wanted to take pictures of signs, but my life in television had been harried and hurried and I never felt like I could take the time. After a tough day of job search, I’d try out the Pentax. I cut my teeth on a few locals, the News Agency sign in Quakertown, which I felt was not long for this world in 2009 and lo and behold it still stands. The neon of Zandy’s, which sits across Double Decker Records, one of my favorite haunts. And the majestic neon of the Allentown Rescue Mission, which had just recently been restored.God Is Love, Allentown Rescue Mission, Allentown, PA

Allentown Rescue Mission, Allentown, PA. Also from 2009.

Somehow drawn to these old friends after I had my dream, I went back out for another visit. I hit up the Allentown Rescue Mission first. I had never gotten a shot of the neon cross out front, though why I can’t say other than to bring up how drawn I was to the massive “God Is Love” on top. It was just after sundown, my favorite “neon magic hour.” I found a difference this time out: the “S” was out from “Is.” So know the sign reads “God I Love.”

Allentown Rescue Mission, Allentown, PAAllentown Rescue Mission, September 2013

That works, too.

And while I was at it, the neon cross:

Cross at the Allentown Rescue Mission, Allentown, PA

For days after, I really saw my dream as something negative, of being ignored, of finding what I was looking for but once I had it, it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Maybe that was true, but lost in that is something truly positive: we all have our missions in life, and in the end it doesn’t matter that a few people—or many—aren’t listening. We should continue to live, to seek and strive, and if we don’t find what we’re looking for, we move on. Whatever pain we have endured, we use to help others who have struggled with the same thing. We do what we were put on Earth to do with the tools God has given us, whether it be a camera or a pen or even just an idea.

God I Love, Allentown Rescue Mission, Allentown, PA

This is our mission. This is our life. And in the end, no amount of disappointment and struggle matters in the light of that.

Happy Birthday to My Oma!

Completely off the subject of signs and completely on the subject of stories, here is a very special happy birthday to my maternal grandmother, who is 95 years old today!

Oma in 1930Oma in 1930, Amsterdam, Holland

Her life is simply amazing. So amazing, in fact, that about five years ago, when she turned 90, we decided to record several of Oma’s stories for posterity. It got somewhat out of hand and turned into an hour and half long documentary. The short version: Oma grew up in Amsterdam, married my Opa during World War II (where he was working in the Fokker Airplane plant, repairing/sabotaging Nazi planes), emigrated to Australia in the late 40s, then emigrated to America in the late 50s. We lost Opa in the early 90s and for several years, Oma lived quietly in Beverly, Massachusetts. She remarried an old family friend, Dr. Grady Spires, when she was 87 years old.

Well, that wasn’t quite the short version, but it’ll have to do. Here’s a sampling of the documentary, a favorite old story about Opa’s car during the Australia years:

Happy Birthday, Oma! And many more…

Old Friends

Picking up where I left off last week

New Jersey is strangely familiar to both of us. After all, Laura’s parents both came from New Jersey and both of my paternal grandparents grew up in Woodbury. We had both made several trips into the state as children, and every turn seemed to conjure up some vague memory.

This week, when I told my father-in-law about this trip, he recalled his many trips to the Jersey shore and what it was like when he was young. One night, wanting to save the expense of a motel, his father drove them out into the piney nether regions just inland and settled the car into one of the sandy access roads that cut into the miles of forest. It was too hot to sleep with the windows closed and too thick with mosquitoes with the windows open. “So we didn’t get too much sleep,” he laughed.

As we discovered, that area off the beach hasn’t changed over the years. Route 72, the most direct route from LBI to the Philadelphia area, has no turns in it. No houses or landmarks. The sandy inlets that creep back into the trees still exist, as, I’m sure, the descendants of the mosquitoes that bit my father-in-law all those years ago. Miles and miles of this until we came to one of New Jersey’s many traffic circles, then more road and another traffic circle. My objective: Olga’s Diner in Marlton. It had closed quite a while ago and last I heard it was in danger of being demolished. I half-wondered if I was going to be too late.

But then a side trip. I saw a sign: neon, maybe not too old, but interesting. And it was connected to a farm market:

Red Top Market

While we were at it, we got some corn on the cob for dinner. New Jersey and fresh produce don’t sound like a natural fit, but in reality, New Jersey produces some of the finest. We were very pleased with corn.

Not too much later and we were upon Olga’s. Still standing, still closed, but magnificent. And oddly familiar. As I pulled in to the barren, cracked parking lot, I had something nagging at me: had I been here before? I’ve been to plenty of places in New Jersey, thirty years ago now, but I could practically picture my father pulling into this same parking lot.

I got to work. The sun was bright and clear and the front angle produced some great images.

Olga's Diner Corner, Marlton, NJBut all the angles worked to my advantage. The coolness of the back-lighting seemed to add to the desolation of the old diner.

Olga's Diner from the back, Marlton, NJ

As I snapped off these shots, some future goombas yelled out their car window at me, “Hey, what are you doin’?” It caught me a bit by surprise and I probably flinched. At the very least I lowered my camera.  They apparently thought it was funny enough that they went around the corner and yelled the same thing. And then turned the corner and tried it a third time. After that, they drove off, presumably to work on some new material.
Olga's Diner from the front, Marlton, NJ
Familiarity. Maybe déjà vu. Not sure what it was about this place, but it seems like I was here before. And I probably was.

Yep, that’s me. Standing on a tree stump, trying to get a better angle. And here’s the shot I got:

Olga's Diner, Sunny side, Marlton, NJMany, many thanks to Amanda Brubaker, a native of Marlton, who posted a shot of Olga’s Diner on Instagram, inspiring me to come down and see it for myself.

This Week on Jersey Shore

“It was an education,” Laura said, when the day was all over.

Like just about everyone we know, we have a list of things we’d like that we would probably like to do one day if the weather is not too bad and it’s not too far away and my cousin isn’t coming to town and Aquarius is in Saturn and I’m not too gassy after that burrito and… Well, in short, a maybe-do list. A list where hardly anything is ever crossed off. For us, one of the things on the maybe-do was a trip to the Jersey shore. We both had been when our ages were just out of single digits but we had never been back as adults. We were wondering if we were foolish for not going, since it’s so close.

The day before Laura’s birthday and I figured, what the heck. It’s technically off-season, and when do you ever cross something off the maybe-do? Hardly ever. I thought it would be cool to go out to the Barnegat lighthouse, perhaps eat some french-fried lobster at at Howard’s (a slight bit more about this place and a hint as to my father’s obsession with this place here).

And you know me. I had some signs lined up.

It was slightly out of our way (but not five hours) to visit the Moon Motel in Howell, New Jersey. The Moon is right out of the Space Age, complete with a booster rocket that proudly announces “TV”.


What we did not know was that the Moon Motel was closed, due to a fire that took place in March of this year. I’m not sure what this means for this old relic of a bygone era, but it could not bode well. It seemed to us that we had arrived just in the nick of time.


My theory is that the longer you travel down one of the old US roads, the more likely you are to find some great signs. We were on US 9 heading south toward Long Beach Island when we came across the remains of another motel in the town of Lakewood. By remains, I mean it was an old sign, and yards and yards of overgrown vacant lot. Sometimes it’s a mystery why some signs stay despite the absence of a building, but I wasn’t going to ponder that one too long.Lakewood ManorA slight sidebar here, but have you ever gone driving in New Jersey? I’m not so sure if I could whole-heartedly suggest it. Everything is all right as long as you don’t stop anywhere, or have any particular place to go. Outside that, chaos reigns. It’s a bit like playing one of those old text-based computer adventure games:

Make a U-turn.

You can’t do that.

Turn left.

You can’t do that. You can only go forward or right.

But I want to turn around.

You can turn right to turn left.


You can turn off to the right, which meets at a T at the cross street. You’ll have to stop and wait for three and a half hours until traffic clears in both directions, turn left there, and then turn left at the light.

And this is preferable to a U-turn?

You can’t do that.

So I made a mistake and didn’t get on the Garden State Parkway when I should have. Which meant I had to turn around. Then I found out that I couldn’t get on the Garden State South from US 9 north. So I had to turn around again. Whereupon I had to play another text-based computer game, one which threw me into a Home Depot parking lot and eventually spit me out on the other side. Not the best twenty minutes I’ve ever spent.

Back on course, we ended up on Long Beach Island. Maybe I just didn’t remember, but every inch of land on LBI is covered by some sort of structure. There is no room. You can’t see the ocean from the main street. You have to have a beach pass to go on the beach. We were Jonesing for seafood and Howard’s is only open for dinner, and every other restaurant was Italian. Bear in mind, we are spoiled. We go every year to Daytona, where you can see the beach for miles at a time, drive on the beach if you want to, and for free. And we know plenty of seafood places that are open for lunch. Maybe it’s an unfair comparison.

Also, no good signs. Probably should have gone to Wildwood.

So we went to the Barnegat lighthouse, fully expecting to pay through the nose. Oddly enough, no one was at the little ranger station, so we drove right into the parking lot. This was worth the drive, and we managed to get to see the ocean without the aid of a pass:

Barnegat Lighthouse barnegat-light-wide

When we left, still ravenous for some form of seafood, we passed by a place in Harvey Cedars (also closed) while Laura furiously checked Urbanspoon on her phone. We found practically nothing, so we kept driving until we found something promising. And open. Eventually we found the Blue Water Café in Beach Haven, who boasted of winning several clam chowder contests. Just the ticket. And let me tell you, they deserved to win any and all contests. At the risk of becoming all foodie blog upon all of your posteriors, do yourself a favor: if you’re in the area, have yourself a bowl. Two words: Un. Real.

“So how was it an education?” I asked Laura.

“It made me think about what I want,” she said. “I don’t want that. It’s all right for some, but for a beach spot, I much prefer Daytona. I don’t feel like I’ve missed out on anything by not coming here.”

Had to say I agreed. And I know it seems like I’m ripping on New Jersey…well, I am ripping on New Jersey, but not of its people, and not of its natural beauty, which it doesn’t get enough credit for. Despite the fact that both Laura’s parents and my paternal grandparents came from New Jersey, we’ve determined it’s just not who we are. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I think that we expend far too much energy on trying to fit into places where we don’t belong. There’s an awful lot to be said about finding your own place.

More Jersey adventures to come…

This clears one off my New Jersey To-Do List. I also made a day trip to Hot Dog Johnny’s in Buttzville, so that’s off the list as well…

Highway 61 Revisited

For a number of years, we would travel along PA 61 through the heart of Coal Country to get to my in-laws’ house. It was always an interesting trip, and was another source that fed my love for signs, especially the old ones. It also fed my love for preserving the memory of these signs: when we first started making the trip, the hulking remains of the Deer Lake Drive-In sign still existed. Even though it was in my mind to take a picture of it every time we went by, I didn’t do it. After a couple of years of this sorry state of affairs, the Deer Lake Drive-In sign was torn down. This still haunts me a little.

I had the opportunity to drive along PA 61 again this week. They’ve been tearing things apart in that same Deer Lake area, and it was because of this I managed to see a sign that I had never seen before, for a long-departed company called Enterprise Homes. The neon is almost intact:

Enterprise Homes

Just up from here is the town of Schuylkill Haven. Through here, 61 is one of those stretches of road that looks like it had thrived at one point, but that one point was long, long ago. Normally, this is where my Spidey sense for old signs starts to kick in. However, I’ve been through here before, and I know that the only real old one is at the Country Squire, and old restaurant/bar/motel at the edge of town:

Country SquireNot sure what that blue stuff is, but it ain’t neon…

The next town over is Pottsville. I cheated a bit and got off 61 for the next few shots, and I was surprised at what I saw: the first time I came to Pottsville, the old Garfield Diner, amid claims of renovation, appeared to be closed. However…

Garfield Diner garfield-frontAnd it was lit in the middle of the day! Come to papa!

Normally I like to get stuff early morning or magic hour, but Pottsville is a little different. Everything’s kinda smooshed together, so your best bet is right around lunch time to get some good shots. So I ambled over to a particular favorite of mine: a massive wall-mural of a ghost sign just down from the Garfield. Here’s the shot I originally got of it:


And here’s how it looks in the sunlight:hooven-sunIt always pays to get shots of the same thing. Things change, and sometimes you get lucky. I’m sure I’ll go back to 61, and I’m sure I’ll see something I never did before. That’s the beauty.