Boy’s Night Out

“Where are you?” Laura said on the phone, through the car’s speakers.

Busted. So, so busted.

Well, there was no denying it. In these days of Find My iPhone, she really didn’t even need to ask. “Philadelphia,” I said. I was just about to get off on the Broad Street exit of 95. The sun was rapidly declining, and neon magic hour was already in full swing. I was after the Boot and Saddle Bar, which I had photographed previously three years ago:

Boot and Saddle Sign, July 2014

The sign had been restored to its former glory.

Laura laughed. She had spent the day shopping with her sisters all the way up in Williamsport, so she had already guessed what I was up to. “I told everybody, ‘I’ll lay odds he’s driving somewhere to take a picture of a sign, and then he’ll come home and watch Mystery Science Theater.'”

“Wow, that’s spooky. You left out the part about me going to John’s in South Philly for a cheesesteak, but the rest is dead on.”

I got off at the Broad Street exit. It was a gloomy night and it was getting darker. I’ve learned from experience that neon in complete darkness somehow loses its power, so I had to get there before nightfall.

I don’t know if you’ve ever driven up Broad Street in Philadelphia when you’re in a hurry from 95 practically to the middle of the city. I don’t recommend it. Words fly out of your mouth that you don’t even know. I was speaking conversational Bulgarian for a time, and not the nice kind of conversation.

But the night held off, and I was there. Amazingly, I found parking, which was something I found most difficult three years earlier. And there it was:

Boot and Saddle Neon SignQuite the restoration job by Len Davidson, who also restored the Reading Terminal Market sign in 2006. Here’s a before and after from my shots in 2014 and 2017:

Fortunately for me, the night, or rather the daylight, wasn’t quite over. On my way through on Broad Street, I caught a glimpse of the Melrose Diner. I had caught this during the day, but I couldn’t resist a neon diner at night. I worked my way back to Snyder Avenue, just in time.

Melrose Diner SignMelrose Diner at NightAs it so happens, John’s Roast Pork is also on Snyder Avenue, so all I had to do was turn around. This turned out to be one of the more difficult feats of the evening, as the entire city of Philadelphia seemed to choose that moment to drive their respective cars on Snyder Avenue going west. But eventually, the masses went on their way, and I was headed in the direction of cheesesteak goodness.

Mind you, even though I live pretty close to the city, my only experience with a real-live honest-to-goodness Philly cheesesteak was when my father took me to Pat’s…or maybe Geno’s…when I was barely old enough to know what the fuss was all about. John’s came highly recommended, and the day I got my initial shots of the Boot and Saddle, I planned a stop off there, but unlucky me, they just happened to be closed that day.

John’s is a tiny little building wedged into a corner close enough to the docks you can see the SS United States if you look hard enough. It’s a truly no-nonsense place. Order, get out of the way. You’ll be rewarded with tin-foil wrapped loveliness eventually. They called my name, handed me my parcel, I handed them my money. I unwrapped it in the car.

John's Philly Cheesesteak
Last Known Photograph

I only had time to take a quick cell phone picture of it before it magically got devoured by the person driving his car back home. It didn’t make it past Spring Garden Street.

I went home and put on the Rifftrax version of Plan 9 from Outer Space. You can’t beat the classics, I say.

Another Time, Another Place

As I mentioned before, it’s been really difficult to get out there and get some sign pictures. Vacations always allow me some roaming time, but this year, with our schedule being crazy and Hurricane Matthew and the election and the sun was in my eyes and my dog ate it, well, almost zero planning time went in to this year’s trip. Which meant my annual research into signs we might see did not happen.

We booked it on down to Daytona, and the plan was to book it on back. We got up at 4am, so by the time it was light enough for a breakfast place to be open, we were already in South Carolina. I got off in Walterboro to get gas, and what did I see next door? The ever-present fireworks stand. Only this one was equipped with neon.

FireworksI should say, this side was equipped with neon. The other side, the side where the sun was shining, was not. The neon side, however, faces the highway, which makes the most sense.

Still, good fortune. It had been so long since I had grabbed a shot of a halfway-decent sign. It got my blood going.

We passed into North Carolina, then into Virginia. Since we left earlier than most years, the trip through the Shenandoah Valley was in total daylight. Normally, we’d lose the sun before Staunton (as it did when we made our crazy ride to Wright’s Dairy-Rite), but this time we got to see a lot more.

And something passed through my mind from research past…wasn’t there a drive-in theater around here?

I had seen it from the road a few times. It was on Route 11, parallel to I-81, on a flat stretch. On the way down, since it was daylight, we could see it, but only after the exit. Normally on the way back, it was too late to take a picture. But now…

I knew what it looked like. I knew what the terrain looked like. I just didn’t know the exact location. And then, the road started to even out a bit, the landscape began to flatten out, and US 11 was visible to the west. We watched and waited, and then, there it was. I got off the highway. Stephens City, VA.

Family Drive-In, Stephens City, VA

The Family Drive-In, much to my surprise, was still in operation. Not only that, but they were showing movies that night, and people were filing in. I would have loved to have stayed for the Monster-Rama, but unfortunately time and Cat waited for no man.

But as long as we were on US 11…

I decided to stay on the old highway to see what I could see. After all, some of the best signs are found on the US roads, so I figured my chances were pretty good to stumble upon something. We rolled through Stephens City, and on the edge of town, our stumbling paid off.

Redwood Budget Motel, Stephens City, VAThe motel itself was closed. I pulled the car over and got out. A man was walking along the road. He looked at me with my camera and he asked, “Are you an engineer?”

I smiled. “Photographer.”

He motioned his head at the sign. “Can you make that thing look any better?”

I said I would do my best.

Soon we were in West Virginia and sun went down. It was a good day, one that I didn’t expect. And it never would have happened if we had left at the same old time and did the same old thing.

While I Was Away

Quite honestly, I didn’t expect it would take this long for me to begin posting again. I had grand plans of getting together a lot of my summertime signs and posting, but that somehow never materialized. I could come up with some excuses, but as we all know, excuses are tiresome and never matter much in the end, so moving on from there, I might as well share where I’ve been over the summer and fall.

The short answer: not that many places. But, wherever I could, I tried to make the effort to find some new things and new spots. For instance, this fall, we were summoned to the wedding of my cousin in the North Shore of Massachusetts. Due to time constraints, any Boston sign-gathering was out of the question, but we had time enough on the return trip to hit up some places I had researched. My eye fell upon a stretch of U.S. 5 just west of Hartford in the town on Newington. There were several classics along this stretch, the first of which (the Siesta Motel) I couldn’t get to because of construction. I was a bit disappointed, but there was no reason to look back, as I came upon a bowling alley that had a sign I didn’t even know about.

Bowl-O-Rama, Newington, CT

I’ve shared my frustration with the lack of great old Bowling Alley signs in my area, so I found this one irresistible. I had just bought my Pentax 15mm f/4 and was itching to get good use out of it. I was amazed at the color results of the lens, even more so at my next stop, which was right next door at the Maple Motel:

Maple Motel, Newington, CT

The colors were so vivid, even compared to the shots I took with my other lenses, like so:

Maple Motel, Newington, CT

Mind you, the subject is all that matters. Further down the road, I came upon the USA Motel, which was a much smaller sign than I figured, and had a whole bunch of modern, plastic stuff hanging below it. However, it was very easily accessible, and it wasn’t that hard to get a shot that captured only the good bits:

USA Motel, Newington, CT

But none of these were what I was after in the first place. I had been admiring shots of the Olympia Diner for some time now, and it seemed foolish to let it pass by once again, even though it’s a landmark and not likely to go missing anytime soon. Fortunately, the light was perfect, and all was right with the world:

Olympia Diner, Newington, CT

It was a great little excursion, and a reminder of how fun a little side trip can be.

The Spot, Bethlehem, PA (Cure for the Summertime Blues, Part 1)

One of the great things about taking pictures of old neon signs is getting close to history. Much more than that, these signs represent so much in a community’s collective history. One look at a certain old sign is bound to wake up long-dead memories.

Nothing spurs on great memories like the ice cream stand. I’ve often noted that the best reactions I get from pictures I’ve posted on Instagram come from ice cream stands. It represents so much: summer, vacation, childhood, all the things we remember as good. Nothing beats good ice cream, not even a good ice cream sign!

But here’s my start of a series of summertime pictures, The Spot Drive-In in Bethlehem, PA. I took these last summer in the morning. It was terrifically quiet, but even with the lack of noise and foot traffic, these shots create some memories. Heck, I grew up somewhere else and it brings my back to my local ice cream stand!

The Spot, Bethlehem, PA
The Spot, Bethlehem, PA

The Missing Ghost of Pottstown

A couple of years ago I made a trip to Pottstown, Pennsylvania because they had done a unique thing: they hired a local artist to restore some of the old, faded advertising painted on brick walls. These faded ads are commonly known as ghost signs. These shots served as a previous post of mine titled Bringing Back the Ghosts.

A few days later someone contacted me to let me know that I had missed one. It haunted me. I knew that I had to go back and find it, but I had no idea where to look. There were four that I saw in plain sight, including a marvelous Coca-Cola ad, but the fifth was hiding. This past weekend we drove around Pottstown and I decided to get a shot of The Very Best, which is a bit of a local legend, while I waited to spot the fifth ghost.

The Very Best, Pottstown, PAIf you look carefully, you can spot another ghost. Namely, me.

In order to get back in the direction I waned to go, I had to make a turn around the block and down another side street. As we turned and looked back across the railroad tracks, the ghost suddenly appeared, visible behind some buildings. I wheeled around the block and dipped into an alley, and on the other side I came face to face with the remaining restored ghost.

Merkley's restoed ghost sign, Pottstown, PA

At last, the complete set. And just to the left of this one was the rear entrance to the old Sears store, an actual un-restored ghost sign!

Sears and Markley's, Pottstown, PA

For more about ghost signs in general and specifically the restored versions in Pottstown (and one in Shenandoah), visit the Bringing Back the Ghosts post.

Drexel Hill Style Pizza

One morning on my way to work, I made a detour off the Blue Route (I-476 around the west side of Philadelphia, to the uninitiated), as one often has to do if one has to get anywhere with any sort of speed. Along PA-3 in Broomall, I came across this seasoned campaigner:

Drexel Hill Style Pizza, Broomall, PA

The Chicago Style Pizza and the New York Style Pizza are well-known variants, and in the upper corners of Pennsylvania, the Old Forge Style Pizza is favored. But Drexel Hill Style was a new one for me. Apparently this is a more Greek style, and a quick internet search yielded this info. Looks pretty good. Sadly, it being the morning, I was unable to partake, and it’s not close enough to work for me to hit it up on my lunch break. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the sign…

Drexel Hill Style Pizza, Broomall, PA

In Deepwater

I recently bought a replacement for my aging 75-300 Sigma lens, which pretty much ripped itself a new one from the inside during a photo shoot a couple months ago. I replaced it with a brand new Sigma and I’ve been pleased with the results. A few weeks ago I skipped across the border into New Jersey and trolled for signs along US 130. Honestly, I didn’t find much, but my one discovery was the Deepwater Truck Terminal in Deepwater, NJ. I’ll say it before and I’ll say it again: I’m a sucker for really big letters. I’m even a bigger sucker for big letters in neon on top of a building. And I’m darn near obscene when it comes to rusty dusty old letters on top of a building.

Deepwater Truck Terminal, Deepwater, NJ

One of my favorite things to do is get some super close-ups going with a long lens when I see such a sign, so I dove in head-first. I just love the kind of tangle of letters it produces.

Deepwater Truck Terminal, Deepwater, NJ

Tick Tock Diner and Rutt’s Hut

The short version: since I got a new job, I’ve hardly had time to draw breath, so this is why I haven’t posted for a good deal of time. However, I have quite the backlog of sign pictures to share, so I figured the best way to do so is post considerably smaller posts.

First off, having returned from a funeral last March, we stopped through one of our favorite spots, Rutt’s Hut in Clifton, New Jersey. The dogs are done in the Texas Weiner style peculiar to New Jersey, which is to say that they are deep fried, but rather than coating them with the special Greek sauce, Rutt’s Hut makes its own mustard and relish, which makes the hot dogs that much more special.

Rutts Hut Hot Dogs, Clifton, NJAnd yes, I ate every single one…

Their sign was damaged in Sandy, but they restored it pretty well. It doesn’t have that rusty old-world charm anymore, but you can’t have everything.

Rutts Hut Hot Dogs Sign, Clifton, NJPhoto-bombed by a bird again…

Just down from Rutt’s Hut is the Tick Tock Diner. This got in the news in the last year because the former manager of the place got arrested for trying to murder his uncle, but before then, it was justly noted for its food, and for its stylish looks.

Tick Tock Diner, Clifton, NJ

So that’s the short version. That, and this is crossed off my to-do list. More to come, I promise!


The Endings

This winter was harsh and not just because of the weather. In January, I learned that I was losing one of my clients, one that I had worked with for six years. Then February came, and the temperatures plunged below freezing for nearly the entire month. One night in February, our elderly neighbor slipped and fell and we found her a few days later in the foyer of her home, clinging to life. Fortunately, she managed to survive this ordeal, and is currently recuperating.

And then March came, and on the 15th, Laura received a text that her Aunt had passed away in the Boston area.

The week was full of preparations to go north for the funeral. Laura’s sister Hannah was flying in from Texas, and her sister Rachel was driving to our house so we could all head up together. On Wednesday of that week, the fearless weather people suddenly decided that the Lehigh Valley would see four to eight inches of snow on Friday, so we had to make an early start of it.

Unlike most of the storms this winter, this one was going to avoid Massachusetts and points north, so I decided to change course. Instead of the direct route through New York, I went north, up to Newburgh and on to the Taconic Parkway. And yes, this provided me with an opportunity to cross a few signs off my list.

Both signs along this trail were remarkably similar. Both were diners, and both featured Native Americans. The first, the West Taghkanic Diner in Ancram, NY, was in the process of being repaired, as you can see from the scaffolding. Hopefully, I’ll get the chance to return when it’s a nicer day and the sign is completely fixed. Looks good to me now!

West Taghkanic Diner, Ancram, NY

West Taghkanic Diner, Ancram, NY

The second of these two is right down the road on NY 23, the Chief Martindale, which is right off the Taconic Parkway exit. This sign has been stripped of its neon, the portrait of the chief has been repainted over the years, but it is a decided throwback:

Chief Martindale Diner, Craryville, NY

Meanwhile, on the diner itself, the neon DINER was lit up during the day:

Chief Martindale Diner, Craryville, NYWhile the snow piled up behind us, we continued on through on 23, crossing into Massachusetts. I had pretty much turned my attention toward getting us in before beginning of the dusting that was slated to hit Boston. In so doing, we ended up going through Stockbridge, and on the edge of town, I discovered something that is terribly elusive in our area: the neon bowling sign. This is the Cove, just outside Stockbridge in Great Barrington, MA:

Cove Bowling Center, Stockbridge, MA

I shot another in RAW, and was very happy with the results. The colors are slightly different after processing, but I think this was truer to the dreary day:

Cove Bowling Center, Stockbridge, MA

We all got in that night. It was good to see everybody, but we were sad when we thought of the reason that brought us all together. The nature of life is that it never stays the same. Even in our frustrations about how things are not changing, there’s always more going on than meets the eye. We sat and we talked and quietly pondered what would happen tomorrow, at the funeral. We knew tomorrow would be different, but how and why and what exactly we would be doing were yet to be written.

Knowing When to Leave

Overall, I’ve had pretty good success as far as getting shots of old signs and not having anyone complain. I probably have more positive stories than negative, because most people recognize the fact that the more pictures are taken of their sign, the greater the publicity. I’ve been given the raised eyebrow twice, and told to outright leave the premises one other time, and two times total I’ve felt the need to get in my car and get driving immediately. The first time was at the Nor-Pole Drive-In in Orangeburg, during which I’m reasonably sure my license plate number was noted.

Motel Deska, Wernersville, PA

This was the second. I was on my way back from Lebanon County when I spotted this old rusty devil along US 422. I did a U-Turn and pulled off to the side of the road. There’s a hill below, from which I took some shots. The field was open before me, and I couldn’t resist getting some closer shots, including the one above. I took five pictures in all, and suddenly I began to hear this odd snapping noise. I look over at the motel and out of the corner of my eye I see a man bursting out of the motel, his arm raised, his fingers snapping wildly. He didn’t say anything, but he had conveyed his message. I dipped back down the hill, got in my car, and drove off.

Later I discovered perhaps why the reaction. A quick internet search of this place revealed a cadre of bad reviews. Oh, well, such things happen.

Let me know if you have had some similar interesting entanglements!