Cleaning the Ocean

Every year, we trek down to Daytona Beach, usually in October or November. It’s the time we use to get rid of all the stuff we’ve been carrying with us throughout the year. We were set to go down the last week of October, when all of a sudden The Weather Channel erupted with talk of Hurricane Matthew. It’s always difficult to tell with The Weather Channel, since they throw around words like “massive”, “deadly”, and “run for your lives” with alarming frequency.

Daytona Beach Pier

The storm passed by a few weeks before our vacation, producing more damage than has been done in years. TWC was probably disappointed that the whole state didn’t fall into the ocean, but we can’t have everything.

The place we normally stay in had a little water damage, so we stayed in another condo in the same building. One of our favorite restaurants, Our Deck Down Under, lost about half of its pier and a ton of roof shingles, but it was open. Tia Cori’s, a must-visit while in Daytona, looked like nothing had ever happened. First world problems, we said. Oh dear, our view of the ocean will be sullied by a bit of construction.

Our Deck Down Under

The first night, we slept in fits and starts, struggling with stressful dreams, while outside, the ocean drifted softly into shore, depositing remnants of the long-past storm in the sand.

Our usual pattern is to take the proverbial long walk on the beach in the morning. Every year we talk over our current state of life and every year we come up with new, creative ideas to overcome our current state of life. For some reason, I would never take my camera. Each time we would take a walk, we would see something and say, “Well, we should have brought the camera.” And yet I never did. Maybe I was worried I’d drop it in the ocean, or sand would get in it, or an osprey would swoop down and steal it from around my neck, whatever excuse was in vogue.

Forget all that this year, I thought. I’m taking it along.

The ocean didn’t disappoint. The first few days, the sea’s offerings came in two separate packages; in the form of tumbleweed-like collections of reeds, and in strange, red roots.

Sea HairballRed RootThe next few days, man-made objects made their way on to the beach, as if the ocean were tossing out its junk. One morning, we found close to fifteen beached flip-flops.

Flip FlopAnd then, when it seemed like the ocean had no more garbage to toss, we found this:

Drown Your TelevisionMost likely this television was on a ship, because it was encased in a metal box. How it got in the ocean is anybody’s guess, but needless to say, the ocean didn’t need it.

It is a great reminder of how little we really need. We’re fooled by the speed of life into thinking we’re accomplishing things, or we’re fooled by our own successes into thinking that we’ve achieved something, when in reality you miss so much if you don’t take the time. We walked and we talked and we got rid of our own junk on the shore, and wondered to ourselves how we could make these sorts of moments happen every day.


The Death of a Flower

Those of you who are friends with me on Facebook or who have been following me on Instagram have seen my latest group of pictures, under the banner of “The Death of a Flower.” This started almost out of necessity, because a) I’ve photographed pretty much every old sign within a 50-mile radius and b) I travel so much for work I don’t really have time to go outside the 50-mile radius to find others.

It started back in May. The roses I bought Laura for our anniversary sat on the highest shelf of our kitchen, out of the reach of Cat, who has a tendency to eat plants, particularly the ones that are most harmful to him. The roses were out of sight and out of mind, and before we knew it, they were very, very dead. Laura went to put them in the garbage, and I looked at the one on top and said, “No. Look at that. Isn’t that interesting? I should take a picture of that.”

So we did some primitive lighting work, which consisted of one cheapo floor lamp from Target. Laura held that and I held the flower with one hand and took the shots with the other.


The results were good, but I would have liked to have seen pictures of what we looked like trying to take these.

Back of the rose

Over the summer, I invested in some actual lighting, in the form of a couple of Elinchrom flash heads, and the results have been fantastic. I’ll be posting quite a few more in the weeks to come.


On the Cubs in the World Series

I started out as a Red Sox fan. More or less, I was born into it, since half my family is in the Boston area, and at the time when the baseball section of my American brain began to fire on all synapses, the Red Sox were in the World Series. It was the era of Yaz and Jim Rice and the oft-forgotten Fred Lynn, and Red Sox Nation (before Red Sox Nation was Red Sox Nation) was abuzz. They didn’t win the World Series that year, or make it to the playoffs the following year, or the next, and then there was Bucky Dent and Mike Torrez, and that was that.

I was too young to understand such anguish. Next year could truly be the “next year” we all waited for, and I could say it without the world-weary skepticism that permeates that phrase.

Around this time, my cousin Doc, who came from the Chicago area, came to live next door to us. He had been weaned on the Cubs, and was nourished by a steady diet of broadcasts on WGN and Jack Brickhouse. Nobody believes me to this day, but Doc once fell off his Big Wheel and scraped his knee, and blood the color of Rick Reuschel’s #48 came leaking out of the wound. True story.

He believed that I should be a Cubs fan, and since I was younger and had no older brothers or sisters to give me such guidance for the first five years of my life, I agreed.

The first few years of my life as a Cub fan were pretty uneventful. Since the Cubs were mediocre at best, they were not often televised, and since this was the day before cable was so prevalent, they were even less televised.

My parents took me to Myrtle Beach for Spring Break one year and the hotel had cable, and more importantly, WGN. I found out that the opening game of the 1982 season was going to be on, so instead of playing on the beach, I was holed up in the hotel room, watching the Cubs at the end of the bed. Doc had often talked about Jack Brickhouse, how he was this legend of epic proportions, so I was looking forward to actually hearing the voice that had called so many games. It turned out that the legend had retired, and some new guy had come in. I was disappointed. Who was this Harry Caray guy, anyway?

My Dad came in and wanted to know what I was doing moping around in front of a television when the beach awaited. The beach could wait. The Cubs had a new second baseman, Bump Wills, and I had to see how he would do. Dad sighed and shook his head, or at least, I imagine he probably did, because my eyes were glued to the screen.

And here I was, on Saturday, in a hotel room, eyes glued to the set as the Cubs made it to the World Series for the first time in my lifetime.

Courtesy Jamie Squire, Getty Images

In between these two experiences, there were a few close calls, brushes with fate that ended poorly. 1984: the Cubs went out to a marvelous two-game lead in their series against the Padres, having destroyed them in game 1 at Wrigley. The Padres roared back in the next three games (it was only a 5-game series then, curse it), culminating in a moment where first baseman Leon Durham had a ball skirt through his legs in game 5, eerily prefacing Bill Buckner’s similar play two years later.

1989, they won the division, but in the playoffs, the Giants’ Will Clark essentially got a hit every time he came to the plate in the now-7-game series.

And of course 2003. I was at a wedding in Chattanooga that fateful day. They had the game playing on a bar TV where the rehearsal dinner was held, and at the time I was watching, no one had ever heard or ever dreamed of a Steve Bartman. I left that night, little knowing of the horrors to come. It would not be until the next morning that I heard all the gruesome details, that by one man’s sin, we would have to wait 13 more years for a measure of redemption.

Sidebar: those of the ESPN variety recently called on Cubs fans to exonerate said Mr. Bartman. Further, that other fans were also reaching for the ball that was untimely ripped from the womb of Moises Alou’s glove. Unfortunately for the radio personality who made such claims, there is photographic proof.

Courtesy Fox Sports

No good way to defend that, still to this day. Despite that, I wish Mr. Bartman health, long life. Thirteen years is a long time to live with such a weight. I even wish him to one day, return to the ballpark that has defined him. But probably after victory is complete. In a game that matters little. And that he is seated far, far away from the action.

Anyway, now is not the time to remember the past. Good luck to my ancient heroes as they maneuver their way through uncharted waters. Next year appears to be this year.

And my cousin Doc? He’s still baseball mad and bleeds Cubbie Blue. Check out his venture, Ballparks of America.

We Have a Cat

We have a cat.

I never wanted a cat.

I’m pretty sure I never asked for a cat.

Growing up, my family had dogs. We had a collie named Heather, and then we had a cocker spaniel named Flurry. My grandfather had a dog, and so did my other grandfather. My uncles had dogs. Laura’s family: 85% allergic. They had some barn cats on the family farm, and one cat named Ralph who thought he was a dog. Laura’s favorite pet growing up was Bo, the black Lab with a penchant for bringing dead things home whenever her parents had company. We’re dog people through and through, so this would make you think that, even by some extraordinary accident, we would not end up with a cat. You’d think.

Last year, my brother-in-law was deployed to Japan, and it was assumed that sister-in-law Hannah and her cat would come alongside. Only problem was, the cat needed his shots to be let into the country. They were leaving soon, and since the cat also needed to be in quarantine for six months after his shots, there was no way they could put him on the plane. So we got a call, since we happen to be the only twosome in the family blessed to have neither member allergic, to see if we would be willing to take on a cat for six months. “This is only temporary,” said Hannah. “I’ll be back at Christmas to pick him up and take him back to Japan with me.”

Six months with cat. There are worse things. We said yes.

We cat-proofed the house. We wanted to make sure that there was nothing he could get into, because he has a reputation for destroying plants. We also wanted to make sure that there was no little crevice he could get into where we couldn’t get him out. First time in the house, Cat, whose real life I-don’t-respond to-that name is Coco-Nut, emptied himself out of his carrier and sprinted, as if led by a helpful star, to the one place we hadn’t taken care of, a small space between the cabinets and the radiator in the kitchen. He stayed there a day and a half.


Eventually he came out. Sadder but wiser, we put a board in front of that space in the kitchen. With that spot off-limits, he decided the living room closet was more to his liking. That would be his home for the next week. We put out food and water, which Cat must have indulged in while we were sleeping. I caught him in the hallway once in that first week. He froze, wide-eyed, and looked at me as if he was positive I was going to grab him and take a huge bite out of his head. So I didn’t move, figuring any movement would scare him. We stood there for a minute. I thought about reasoning with him, telling him that eventually he was going to have to get used to the new humans, but there’s always that pesky language barrier. I gave up and moved slightly, and Cat disappeared without a trace, back in the sanctuary of the hall closet.

As time went by, Cat started to come out. He acknowledged our existence. He allowed us, on occasion, and if he felt like it, and if the wind was blowing in the right direction, to pet him. And over the following months, we came to an agreement: we would say nice things to him and treat him like the cat we never had, and in return, he wouldn’t stop eating and die. This system worked well, and everybody seemed happy about it.

Four months into Cat’s six month stay at Uncle Scott and Aunt Laura’s house, we received a call from Hannah. As it turns out, there was a flaw in the plan. She wasn’t going to be able to bring Cat with her back to Japan on a military flight. Moreover, even though it was possible for her to fly on a commercial flight to pick Cat up and bring him back, chances are he would be stuck in customs for days, if not months. Cat, being the sensitive flower that he is, wouldn’t take well to such delays, and most likely would void section 2 of our agreement, viz. eating and not dying.

So, really, there was only one solution.

We have a cat.

We never asked for a cat.

But there it is.

Some Thoughts on Back to the Future

Back to the Future is one of my favorite movies. It’s the first movie I watched in the theater by myself. It had been a while since I had seen it, and I was secretly worried that it wouldn’t hold up after all these years. Here are my thoughts, in numerical order:

  1. 1985 sucks.
  2. No, really.
  3. At least this version of 1985. I mean, there’s graffiti everywhere, one of the movie theaters is X-rated, they’ve pasted some monstrosity over the gorgeous Western Auto Parts store sign, and Marty’s wearing a padded vest you can get at Chico’s. Really, 1955 is much cooler.
  4. But that’s the big joke, isn’t it? History is much less kind to 1985, and it’s almost like Robert Zemeckis realized that it would. So kudos to you, Bob.
  5. Power of Love: still holds up, somehow.
  6. By the way, great cameo, Huey Lewis.
  7. Has anybody seen Huey Lewis lately?
  8. The Pepsi Free joke (“If you want a Pepsi, kid, you’ll have to pay for it.”) really only worked in 1985. Pepsi Free was discontinued in 1987.
  9. How many Pepsi references are in this movie? The clunker Pepsi Free joke, there’s a Pepsi box underneath Marvin Berry’s amp, Marty drinks a Diet Pepsi, the can on Marty’s shelf when he wakes up in the morning…
  10. By the way, who sleeps with their arm behind their back like Marty does? That just looks so uncomfortable, and he obviously makes a habit of it because he wakes up twice like that.
  11. Libyans in a micro bus? I thought this was hilarious in 1985, but man, does that seem like a weird, dated reference now. But I’m still delighted that they crashed it into a photomat booth, even after all these years.
  12. Eric Stoltz originally had the role of Marty. Every now and then I try to picture it, and it doesn’t work.
  13. Such language: there’s a lot more swearing in this movie than there probably needs to be. Most likely because they wanted a PG rating rather than a G rating, I’m guessing, and in 1985, uncalled-for swearing got you that. This was before the day that such vague things as “Sci Fi Violence” were enough to get you to PG.
  14. Is it such a crazy idea to breed pine trees? Is it, Mr. I’m Gonna Build Me a Time Machine?
  15. Whose idea on what school committee was it to name the dance “Enchantment Under the Sea”?
  16. “Now, Chris,” says Bob, the director, “when you hear the words 1.21 Gigowatts, I want you to freak out. Got that?” “I got it, I got it…”
  17. Would we still remember John DeLorean’s car company if not for this movie?
  18. Where are George McFly’s parents?
  19. I mean, Marty just waltzes in in a radiation suit armed with a walkman and an Edward Van Halen tape, and no one is there to stop him. No wonder George is a Peeping Tom.
  20. Does Billy Zane have a line? He seems to be content standing behind Biff chewing gum.
  21. Thomas F. Wilson is much better playing young Biff than as middle-aged combover Biff.
  22. Does Marty have to go exactly 88 miles per hour when the bolt of lightning passes into the flux capacitor? I’m not sure what science is involved in this.
  23. Lone Pine Mall. Great joke. I think I watched this movie three times before I caught it.
  24. Weird moment at the end: when Marty returns to the Lone Pine Mall and watches Doc get shot a second time, then witnesses the aforementioned awesome microbus/photomat crash, instead of running down the well-worn path to see if Doc is all right, he throws himself headlong down the embankment like he’s jumping into a foxhole. I’m not sure why.
  25. If this is George McFly’s first novel that’s being delivered to the house, what has he been doing for a living up until now that has given him such a nice living room?
  26. So, is anybody’s life worse off at the end of the movie?
  27. Even Biff seems much happier. Despite the fact that he cheats his customers into thinking they’ve received two coats of wax when in fact they’ve only received one, Biff seems genuinely content as a small business owner.
  28. That Toyota truck that magically appears in the garage at the end is the best thing that 1985 has to offer.
  29. Best thing in the credits: Old Man Peabody’s son’s name? Sherman.
  30. Worst thing in the credits: Old Man Peabody’s daughter’s name? Daughter. Daughter Peabody. Well done, guys.

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