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!


Wildwood, Part 3

Stardust Motel, Wildwood, NJStardust Motel, Wildwood, NJ

For part 1, click here

For part 2, click here

Due to the construction in Wildwood last October, we found ourselves diving down streets that we probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise. We ended up on Spicer Avenue, which held a few more motels of the golden era. Remembering back to the research I had done, I knew the Stardust Motel was there (see the shot above) so I went after it. But on the way there, I saw a neon palm tree that needed to be photographed. I was just the guy to do it.

Mango Motel, Wildwood, NJ

As I stepped out to get this shot, somebody pulled out of the parking lot behind me. The driver was, at first glance, Jersey through and through, and for those of you who don’t know New Jersey, this could be either a good thing or a bad thing. Either I was going to get the chewing out of a lifetime or I was going to get a too-hard slap on the back and invitation to the nearest beer. I got the obvious question about what I was doing. He didn’t ask me what I thought I was doing, so I took that as a good sign. No pun intended.

Turns out, this was the owner of the Mango Motel. And further, the sign had just been restored, and he was obviously very proud of it. He had spotted me taking shots with my iPhone, so I let him know about my Instagram account.

Mango Motel, Wildwood, NJ

In my experience, it’s rare that I get a chance to interact with the owner of a business whose sign I’ve singled out, and rarer still that I get any appreciation for it. I’ve been chased off rudely at least twice, and more often than not, when I explain what I’m doing, the owner turns around and goes back in the building shaking his head. But every once in a while you find someone who is proud of their sign, and more than willing to show it off. In light of this, I honestly wish I had taken more shots at the Mango Motel other than the ten or so I did.

But Wildwood is endless supply of neon, and it was getting late in the day. Honestly, I was exhausted before Wildwood was, but I continued to snap away.

Caribbean Motel, Wildwood, NJ

The Caribbean, which was one of the better-attended motels in Wildwood that Sunday in October, has one of the best signs going, although it’s a little difficult to get, as it sits atop a lovely 50s style deck. It’s right across the street from the Bel Air, which just had its sign restored as well.

Bel Air Motel, Wildwood, NJ

One of my favorites was the LuFran, which was slightly in need of a new coat of paint. My regret is that I got there too late, and the shadows were not in my favor. Still, I managed to get a long shot to zoom in on some great details.


To tell the truth, this is not all. I still have a bunch of shots from other locations that I’ll share later on. Another regret is that my time was limited, and I was not able to stay long enough to get these wonders while they were lit. To be fair, this was more of a fact-finding mission. Rest assured I’m going back there, if all goes well during the Spring, so stay tuned!

Wildwood, Part 2

Sand Dune Motel

The more you go through Wildwood, the greater the embarrassment of riches. Just going down a side road can lead you to a sign you didn’t know existed, one that no one seems to have posted on Flickr or Instagram. The Sand Dune, for instance, which seems lost during the day, caught between a few other motel signs that catch the eye. I got out to get a picture of the Jolly Roger (below), in its Pirate-topped 50’s glory, and on the way along the sidewalk nabbed the Sand Dune!

Jolly Roger sign, Wildwood, NJ

Jolly Roger Statue

The Sea Shell is one of the more well-known, perhaps for its odd shape, the highly-stylized “M” in “Motel”, and its visibility on the main drag into Wildwood proper.

Sea Shell Motel, Wildwood, NJ

Right down the street from the Sea Shell is the equally-impressive Pink Champagne sign. The hotel is pure 50’s, with pink accents!

Pink Champagne Motel, Wildwood, NJ

Another back-to-back grouping was in toward the center of town, with the Skylark, which was a paint-peeling nod to the old days, and the Quebec Motel, with its rooftop sign. At first, I thought I could sneak a shot which got both signs in it, but this turned out to be trickier than I thought. At any rate, the Skylark shot is among my favorites.

Skylark Motel, Wildwood, NJ

Quebec Motel, Wildwood, NJ

And we’re not even remotely done. My word, no. Literally you can’t go to Wildwood for one day and expect to get all the shots you could get. I haven’t even gotten to my favorite story of the trip yet!



So where was I? Oh, right.

We were in Philadelphia, having visited the Reading Terminal and Termini Brothers, when we realized that we still had more than half a day. So I said, why not go to Wildwood? It’s not tremendously far away, and I had been looking forward to going. The neon had been drawing me like a moth to a flame. So off we went.

About halfway there, we stopped at the Starbucks on the Atlantic City Expressway and ate the chocolate-banana-raspberry-loveliness we purchased from Termini Brothers. We looked at each other as we ate, confused by its perfection. There had to be a flaw. A sour portion, air bubbles, bones, something to reveal that such transcendence does not exist in this world. Nothing was forthcoming.

The one thing we hadn’t counted on with Wildwood at this time of year was how few people were there. True, it was Columbus Day weekend and well past the end of their season, but it was still a surprise, considering what a nice day it was. We pulled in and some off-season road construction was going on, which deterred us from going to the first sign on my list. However, the detour lead us down another road where we caught sight of a couple that weren’t even on my list: the Fairview (which looked closed) and the Harbor Inn.

Fairview, Wildwood, NJ

Harbor Inn, Wildwood, NJ

If this was any indication of how the afternoon was going to go, it was going to be more than worth the trip.

We pushed on toward the northern end, where the Lollipop Motel was. The Lollipop sign has captured the imagination of many, including me, most likely because of its supreme oddness. Alternately delightful and terrifying, this sign is the most marvelous paradox. Why choose lollipops as a theme for your motel? Why the children’s faces impaled on spikes, their knowing gazes at each other seeming to stem from a secret only they know? Why should I care? It’s big, it’s weird, and it’s wonderful.

Lollipop Motel, Wildwood, NJ

We passed back into town, unimpeded by the usual summer traffic. While the sun was shining, we felt it best to get a glimpse of the ocean. Parking is still at a premium in Wildwood, even at this time of year. We decided to kill two birds with one stone and paid to park at Laura’s Fudge, just up from the boardwalk and Morey’s Piers. Laura’s Fudge has a dazzling array of signs, and even in the day they were all lit up.

Laura's Fudge, Wildwood, NJ

Water Park

Which way to the water park? Hmmm…

Wildwood Lifeguard Station

No one for miles on the beach. Granted, the ocean temperature was low enough to ward off all intruders, but how could you resist a scene like this? We walked for a bit, and quickly ran across one of the most unforgettable scenes of recent times.

Roller Coaster, Wildwood, NJ

Following the destruction left by Superstorm Sandy a few years ago, pictures of this roller coaster half-submerged and falling down became a symbol of the natural disaster. It’s still closed, and the yellow signs around it warn you to stay as far away as possible, but remarkably it still stands. Whether it will ever be resurrected is a greater mystery.

But this was just the start. Much more Wildwood awaited!



The New Jersey Expeditions, Part 2

Autumn arrived, and at the start of it, death visited us on both ends of the spectrum. First it was our 77-year old next-door neighbor, who died suddenly of a heart attack. At the end of the week, my cousin’s son, who was just five years old, succumbed to the ravages of Neuroblastoma after a three-year battle. Under the circumstances, it’s been very hard to write about my adventures in sign-hunting, because in the grand scheme of things, it is so small in the face of life and death.

It disturbed me to discover that I had no pictures of either my neighbor or my cousin’s boy. The latter was more understandable because my cousin lives far away, so I never actually met him, but I saw my neighbor all the time, sitting on the front porch, most often reading the Bible with his gun sitting either on the table next to him or in his shoulder holster. He was built along the lines of a greyhound, and he walked up the street with his long, slender legs. He had a small head and a pointy noise, to boot. He would talk to you in a slow, nasal Philadelphia drawl about pretty much anything and everything, and he was constantly aware of almost all neighborhood activities and passers-by. And I have no pictures of him.

The day after he passed, a neighbor left this on the porch, right in front of his favorite chair.

Flower for Fred

I’ve spent a lot of times taking pictures of places that one day will be gone, but the past few weeks have reminded me that much more, there are people that will one day be gone.

But places are still important to people, and when I was going through New Jersey a few weeks ago I realized that I was in the land where my father-in-law grew up. He has great nostalgia for Watchung, Dunellen, the Plainfields, and he can recall all sorts of stories about old friends and places he’s been, so I felt like I needed to stop by.

First, I caught a glimpse of the Western Termite sign of one of those poor businesses you see only in the northeastern United States that are somehow positioned IN BETWEEN the eastbound and westbound lanes of a major thoroughfare. Despite this odd disadvantage, Western Termite continues to thrive.

Western Termite Control

There were a couple of places I’ve heard my father-in-law mention in stories that I knew were still around. Texas Weiner in Plainfield was the first one to come to mind, and after that, I can’t help but think of the Wienie King in The Palm Beach Story, but that’s my own problem, I suppose. There are a ton of copycats, and nearly every other place in that particular area boasted some form of Texas Weiner, but as far as anyone knows, this was the first.

Texas Weiner I, Plainfield, NJ

The second one is the Dunellen Theater. One night we were talking about old movie houses and he talked about this one in particular, how he had gone to see double features with his cousin Joan there in the 40s, and after he was done talking about it I looked it up on my iPhone and voila! The theater was still there and in operation.

Dunellen Theater, Dunellen, NJ

Dunellen Ninja Turtles?Teenage Dunellen Ninja Turtles?

The Dunellen is one of the oldest in the country, having started showing movies in 1922. Now known as the Dunellen Theater and Cinema Cafe, it was originally Hosford’s Theater when it opened, and later the Dunellen Cameo, having already changed to the name “Dunellen Theater” by the time my father-in-law was watching movies there.

It was good that I got a chance to go by, and I hope this will be a nice trip down memory lane for him. I wish I had had the time to stop in for a Texas Weiner (is it different from a regular one? I guess it must be…) or to watch a movie in this hallowed old place, but at the very least I can spark some memories in those that have.

In the meantime, here’s a portrait I DO have, of my father-in-law with my sister-in-law Rachel:


The New Jersey Expeditions

HY, Hy-Way Bowl, Union, NJ

There are plenty of things I forget on a constant basis. Among them:

  1. The Cubs are not going to win the division.
  2. Lid down.
  3. Just because a burger is flame-broiled doesn’t necessarily make it a good burger.
  4. Although that Toyota ad with “Jan” started out with a promising concept, it’s not going to be in the least bit funny.
  5. New Jersey is within easy driving distance.

This last one, of course, is the one I forget the most often, and it’s only when I go to Easton and see a sign that says “New York City, 68 miles” that I realize just how close a lot of the places on my to-do list for New Jersey truly are. On Tuesday of this week, I found myself in Easton with some extra time and I realized I was within striking distance of a couple great signs. Considering the recent lessons of the Port Motel and how there’s no time like the present to get these shots, I had no doubt what my course of action should be.

My main target was Hy-Way Bowl in Union, New Jersey. Bowling signs are some of the best, but unfortunately, most of the best ones are somewhere other than eastern Pennsylvania, and as a result, I have precisely zero classic bowling signs in my collection. Secondarily, I wasn’t sure if the Hy-Way was still in operation (They have a Facebook page, but the last post on it is from some time last year), so rather than wait to see it disappear to some scrap heap, I was going to go after it. From there, I was just going to drive back on US 22 to see what I could see. The old US routes, as I’ve often said, are the best, and US 22 is one of the oldest.

I made it to the Hy-Way in under an hour. The parking lot was a disaster and the building looked dilapidated, and a check-cashing place had moved into one part of it. It didn’t look like much bowling was going on. But the sign was intact, and just as I had seen it in posts by others:

Hy-Way Bowl, Union, NJ

A couple things. Number one, what’s with the cactus on the bowling ball? I’ve seen dozens of pictures of this sign, and yet no one asks this question, so dadgummit I’m asking. Second, that’s a whole heaping helping of neon bullet holes in the bowling ball; was there something written on it? What must this have looked like in its day? The internet is frankly stumped, and shows me the pictures I’ve already seen, from Tony Zarak and others.

Hy Way Bowl detail, Union, NJ

Where do I start with this one? I just love the detail above, with these customized letters that spell out “bowl.” They’re uneven, the “O” is smaller than the others, but it fits the space so well and it’s own type of art. When they say “they don’t make ’em like they used to,” this is where it begins and ends for me. It’s like the uneven shapes of the Wrigley Field or Fenway Park outfield. It’s not perfect and gorgeous in its imperfection.

I must have stayed here for a half an hour, watching people struggle in and out of the check cashing place and the traffic roaring down US 22. But I knew I had to move on.

From Debra Jane Seltzer’s website I knew about another one in Union, but I wasn’t sure if it was still there. It was for the Union Shade & Awning Company, and from all reports it was the original sign from 1940:


This one was just off US 22, and although I had a good idea where it was, I was surprised to see that it was right there ahead of me once I got off the highway. There was no place to park, so I ended up idling with my four-ways on as I jumped out and took about seven rapid-fire shots. I liked the one above the best.

So I should say another thing I’ve forgotten:

  • 6. Driving in New Jersey is always a challenge.

In order to get back on US 22, I had to drive back all the way to the Hy-Way Bowl. I’m sure there was an easier way to do so, but being a stranger there myself, and since New Jersey sees fit to hide their directional signs from the eyes of tourists, I ended up about a mile in the opposite direction. Once I was back on US 22 west, life continued as normal.

There was a Jimmy John’s on the left side. I couldn’t get in that lane because of traffic, so I thought if I turned right and went around the block, I’d end up in the right spot.

  • 7. Never ever under any circumstances get off of US 22 if you don’t have to. Ever.

Fifteen minutes later and the allure of Jimmy John’s seemed not entirely worth it. I struggled back to US 22 with my tail between my legs, having seen the inside and out of an industrial park and 415 dead-end side roads. The sun, which had been burning bright during my first two shots, went away, so when I reached the next port of call, The World of Tile in Springfield, conditions were not at their best. But I can’t complain much:

World of Tile, Springfield, NJ
World of Tile opened in 1957 and it is every inch 1957 from its globe to the TILE individual blocks to its space-age building, preserved for all these years.

World of Tile Building, Springfield, NJ

More to come later. New Jersey is a wild, wonderful place with much to explore!

Feng Shui and the Art of Hot Dog Maintenance

The Pequest River

About a month ago, we were watching one of those house hunting shows where a couple is ducking in and out of houses, accompanied by an agent, all the while expressing opinions on this and that. The couple in this particular episode featured a woman who was deep into feng shui. Deep into feng shui. Every room was throwing off negative energy and this wasn’t right and that wasn’t right and everything is just wrong wrong wrong. This was the constant theme. It got to the point where, as often happens on these type of shows, you begin to wonder how the person’s poor spouse doesn’t hit them over the head with something heavy on a routine basis. Even the host, whose job it is to stay positive and cordial, was very obviously seconds away from some sort of conniption fit. It struck me as great irony that someone who was such a stickler for negative energy was such a free-flowing source of it.

I’m a believer in creating a positive atmosphere, which is what feng shui should be about. Our house was getting a bit cluttered and as a result, we decided to see if there were any feng shui tips we could discover on the internet. There were, of course, but it can get hairy and confusing very quickly, so we figured it was best to stick to basics.

On Saturday, I made good on a promise I made to Laura a while ago, to take her to Hot Dog Johnny’s in Buttzville, New Jersey. I went last summer when I had a bit of extra time over lunch, and it was well worth the drive. It opened up in 1944 as a little stand off US 46 with its back to the Pequest River, and it’s continued on ever since. We arrived in the middle of the afternoon, and the parking lot was full, and full of people with license plates of other states. Hot Dog Johnny’s is one of those rare places that people are willing to drive miles out of their way to get to. A positive atmosphere.

Hot Dog Johnny's, Buttzville, NJ

So what makes a positive atmosphere in this case? The food, certainly. Hot Dog Johnny’s follows that fine New Jersey tradition of dipping their hot dogs in oil and frying them up a bit. I insist Rutt’s Hut in Clifton is still the best at this method, but in the end who cares? It’s all good. As for drink, they serve two unusual offerings: Birch Beer, which you can get in a frosty mug, a drink that you forget how good it is until you taste it again; and (stay with me now) Buttermilk. Yes, that’s right. A drink so old-fashioned you can only picture old guys in shorts and black socks with garters drinking it. But let me tell you something: Laura had some and it was good. Better than Buttermilk’s reputation good.

What else makes it a positive atmosphere? One of the things that we read about feng shui was that you should “keep your mouth clean.” More or less, this means to keep your entrance uncluttered, and as you can see, the round shape of the booth and the many windows assure the lines never get too long.

Window at Hot Dog Johnny's, Buttzville, NJ

Water features are a big thing with feng shui. So it doesn’t hurt to have a river flowing by the place.

Hot Dog Johnny at the Pequest River

And of course, my favorite, the neon signs? A fire element!

Neon Sign at Hot Dog Johnny's, Buttzville, NJ

Now, of course, I’m not an expert. Heck, I don’t even pretend to have the level of understanding the annoying woman on the TV show had, but it’s fairly obvious from the beginning that there is something that draws people to this place besides the eponymous hot dogs. It’s a special place. People from all around will continue to come to this spot and feel what I did, that sense of happiness, even peace, and while I was at it, had a fine dog and a birch beer. I’ll be back.


Allow me to get technical for a moment.

It’s been an odd year for us this year. It started out with two months worth of interviews for a job that would have uprooted us to live in frozen climes, only to see it end ingloriously with a job offer that fell below the radar, followed by a trip to San Antonio, followed by taking turns with the flu. In the midst of all this, I finally decided it was high time to upgrade my lens from a kit and a few old manual primes to something better.

Mine is a Pentax K5, which has been a treat. The Pentax “limited” lens group is well recognized for its build quality and sharpness, but unfortunately, funds are just as limited and I can only afford to get one at a time. Which brings up the messy business of figuring out which lens, in fact, works best for my purposes. In that spirit, I decided to go out to some of my favorite local spots to see what focal lengths I normally use.

My first thought was that I would need something more like a portrait lens, perhaps the 70mm from Pentax, or if I felt like laying down some good money, the 77mm that everyone raves about. I came to a different conclusion on my first stop, The Movies in Hellertown. I put my 70-300 zoom on the K5 and stood across the road, knowing the results of the shots I’ve taken before. Only problem is, I couldn’t get much of anything in shot, so I went back to the kit and shot this one at a focal length of 24mm.

The Movies, Hellertown, PA

My 50mm prime was just as inadequate from this distance with this shot, so I pulled out my old 28mm and got this. Bear in mind I don’t have any room behind me to stand any further back, unless I wanted to be bold and walk up on someone’s front porch:

The Movies, Hellertown, PA

Strike one for anything above 24mm, but then again, compared to most of my sign pictures, this is an unusually large structure ( I also remind myself that Pentax makes a 21mm pancake lens, which would be ideal for this shot). A bit disappointed, I moved on to something smaller, but also one with challenges. I scooted across the border into Phillipsburg, NJ to Eddie’s Drive-In. This old ice cream stand has closed and sits in the parking lot of The Sand Bar, right near the Free Bridge across the Delaware. I put the kit lens on to start, and this time, I used a focal length of 31mm:

Eddie's Drive-In at 31, Phillipsburg, NJ

Exactly what I wanted, and as it happens, the jewel in Pentax’s crown as far as lenses is concerned, is their 31mm lens. However, if you take a gander at the price tag for this jewel, you’ll understand that this causes another dilemma. I went back to the car and put the 75-300 back on. Not enough room for me to get this even from the porch of The Sand Bar at 75, so I stood at an angle and got this shot:

Eddie's Drive-In at 75, Phillipsburg, NJ

Decent, but not exactly what I was looking for (but, by the way, Laura liked this shot better that the other). Strike two, as far as I was concerned. Anything above 40mm would not be able to get the straight-on shot I was looking for. But again, this sign is a tough one, and you really need to get the full building in shot to get the best out of it.

Then I went to Shankweiler’s Drive-In in Orefield, PA. This is a smaller sign, free-standing, and has a lot of room to stand back. In this case, the 75mm worked very well:

Shankweiler's Drive-In, Orefield, PA

But which ones of these was the rarity? The large object with very little room to stand back, or the smaller neon sign with lots of room for me to roam? I kind of knew the answer to this, but when I went back home, I figured I’d go back and look at all the shots I’d already taken, and see what focal lengths I use the most often.

What I found was that I very infrequently shoot at the wide end of my capabilities, which is 18mm. This shot from Olga’s last fall was one of few that I shot at that range.

Olga's Diner from the front, Marlton, NJ

Occasionally, the best shot I took was from 75mm with my long zoom lens, but almost always I used anything higher than that to shoot details of the sign. This was one of the few I took at above 75, from Harrington Music in Cortland, NY this past spring. This one was a rarity because I rarely get a clear shot from that distance:

Harrington Music in Cortland, NY

Overall, I shot mostly in the 28mm-40mm range, and fortunately, there are many good choices in the Pentax limited line that fit the bill. Of course, if anyone has a spare 77mm 1.8 on their hands they can let me borrow, I certainly won’t turn it down. Wish me luck!


Different Signs, Different Seasons

During one summer day last year, I found myself with a bit of time, a bit of hunger, and proximity to New Jersey. I also had my camera with me, and a sign on my New Jersey to-do list. It all came together in the form of Hot Dog Johnny’s in Buttzville, New Jersey, along US 46. It was a gorgeous day, and Hot Dog Johnny’s is located in a cool spot along the river. The place was packed, despite the fact that it was mid-afternoon, and I had to wait in line for a couple of dogs.

Hot Dog Johnny's, Buttzville, NJ

They cook their hot dogs in the deep-fry style, which seems to be a New Jersey thing, and it is a lovely thing. Rutt’s Hut in Clifton was my first introduction to this delicious culinary mutation, so that particular location holds a special place in my heart (and perhaps, my arteries). Overall, my trip to Hot Dog Johnny was terrific. It was only sullied by the fact that I had another place on my list, Hunter’s Lodge, a motel also on Route 46, and I didn’t have the time to hit both.

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to go again, and this time, I was all about Hunter’s Lodge, and it was my hope that the cover of snow that has blanketed the Northeast this winter would add to the photographs, just as the greenery and sun brightened my Hot Dog Johnny shots.

Hunter's Lodge, Delaware, NJ

It was a little farther up 46 than I expected, and it was on the other side of the road, but from a distance I could see it was magnificent. I could also see that the driveway was mostly halfway plowed, and that there was nowhere else to stop and get a shot. On top of that, the best shot I could get meant a stroll into a snow-covered field, and, stupid man that I am, I had not brought my boots. But I bit the bullet, crunched through the icy layers, and got the shot above.

Hunter's Lodge, close-up

Again, I think I hit this at the right time. The winter sun adds an element to this I really like. Just in case, though, I may stop back when the snow melts…provided that ever happens.