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.

Binghamton by Night

Red Oak Diner Sign, Binghamton, NY

This last Labor Day weekend, after all manner of family visits, we headed back from Binghamton. It wasn’t intentional, but we had left right at neon magic hour (the hour, or minutes, following sundown). Immediately I cast my mind back to earlier this year, when I noticed the Red Oak Diner sign on Front Street, the one pointed directly at NY 17, had suddenly sprung to life with new, red neon. It was too late to catch it then, but it wasn’t now, so I high-tailed it up US 11.

Previous visits had yielded the picture above, but since then I had figured out the way to sneak back into the adjoining park and get the front side of the sign. The “R” was out, but I think it adds to it…

Red Oak Diner, Binghamton, NY

While I was at it, I decided to hit up some other signs I had never gotten at night. The Greyhound Bus station was my next target, but I had a surprise in store. When I went to park along Chenango Street I noticed glowing neon that I had never seen before, or at least, for a very long time. It seems that the good folks at Little Venice Restaurant restored their neon sign recently (near as I can tell, in April of this year). My jaw fell open. There are modern touches to it, of course, but it’s very true to what the original sign looked like.

Little Venice Restaurant, Binghamton, NY

The Greyhound Bus Station is just down the street, and it was built in 1938, with all the art deco trimmings the law would allow. In 2006, the sign and the building were restored to its former glory, and it was a pleasure to see it lit up.

Greyhound BUs Station, Binghamton, NY

At this moment, the car at the below right photobombed me. I was not particularly happy, especially because I knew that by the time this guy left, the darkness would take over. Plus, the restaurant’s lights at the lower left were snuffed not ten seconds after I got this picture. Oh, well. I like this one well enough. Besides, it always gives me an excuse to go back!

My day shot of the bus station is in this article.


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!


At the Last Minute

Let’s back up a bit. A few months ago, I put out a post called “Tales of Philly Sales,” about a dear departed department store in the city of Binghamton. The response on that particular post has been tremendous, which led me to think about writing a sequel to it, sharing some of the memories that had been shared with me. I decided to use a trip to Binghamton as an opportunity to get a few more sign shots to back up the story.

A few things got in the way. First, our trip to San Antonio yielded much more than I imagined, and so for a months I posted little else. Second, the flu hit us, and I wasn’t upright long enough to sit in front of a computer to type it out. And then, all of a sudden, I knew why it was taking me so long to get this story together.

Ellis Brothers and Phil's Gift Shop

Early March: The first night I was in town I got in a bit early. Don’t ask me why–maybe I was bored and needed something to do–but I decided to go by Ellis Brothers and take a shot of the sign. I had gotten shots of this sign before. Twice before, in fact, but something compelled me to go by. I snapped off a few, kind of half-wondering what I was going to do with these shots. It was kind of a dull evening, and cold, and the first grouping of shots I got four years ago were vibrant and fantastic.

So I got creative:

Ellis Brothers, Binghamton, NY

I slipped in underneath the sign and used my long zoom lens to get this perspective, and as soon as I previewed it I knew this was the reason I was there. And then again, maybe it wasn’t…

Last week, Ellis Brothers Furniture, one of the oldest businesses in Binghamton, went through a terrible fire. It’s expected that the building will have to come down.

Do I have to mention the Little Voice? Listen to that Little Guy in your head, the one who tells you to do things that no one would care one way or the other whether you shrug them off or not. Ten times out of ten when the Little Guy says to take a picture and I do, I don’t regret it. Chances are, this was a last opportunity to get a shot of this fantastic old sign. I’ll try to keep you updated on this one.

Coca Cola Ghost Sign, Binghamton, NY

While I was at it that same night, I got this shot of a marvelous set of ghost signs that I had been meaning to get for a while. As you can see, it was still basically winter…

Surrounded by Reality

From time to time I find myself in the confines of Ithaca, New York, that stalwart college town at the foot of Cayuga Lake. Ithaca, for those of you who have not had the pleasure, is a treasure trove of natural beauty laced with all the Bohemian atmosphere the best of college atmosphere can harbor. While many of the cities in the area have been decimated by the loss of industry, Ithaca remains unaffected, and has perhaps even grown over the years. All of this was encapsulated by a bumper sticker I once saw on a car at the Farmer’s Market in Ithaca one day, which read: “Ten Square Miles, Surrounded by Reality*.”

Cayuga LakeAt the same level as Cayuga’s Waters…

I took the above picture five years ago when Laura and I were driving around and found ourselves in Sherman Park. We had stopped in a cool used book store along the way that was part catacombs, part library, stopped here for a photo op, and ended up at Buttermilk Falls. Beautiful weather for May, sunny and in the sixties. A fantastic day, and one we’ll always remember. But during my last trip to Ithaca, considering I was by myself and it was freezing cold and I didn’t have time to stop and look at used books, I had other matters on my mind: namely, the neon chicken known as Chanticleer.

Chanticleer is a bar in the center of town well known to generations of Cornell and Ithaca College students, and above its metal overhang stands the proud neon rooster. Well, actually, two roosters: one you can see from State Street and another you can see from Cayuga Street.


This was my immediate goal, but i had a secondary one, the State Theater just up the street. The State opened up in 1928 but closed in the 80s. It stayed closed for nearly twenty years, despite community efforts to revive it, and at one point was condemned, but finally, in 2001, the State reopened. I had driven past this section during a trip two years ago, but not having the time to get out with my camera, I didn’t realize that it was possible to swipe a shot of both at the same time. It wasn’t the ideal time of day for this shot, but I stood at the side of the commons on top of a snow bank and fired away:

Chanticleer and State, Ithaca, NYBam!

Despite the cold of that day, I snapped away until my fingers became slightly numb. These two had been on my list for quite some time, and I was going to make the most out of crossing them off…

State Theater, Ithaca, NY

I didn’t really know the State’s full story at the time I took these, but if I had, I probably would have kept on with my K-5 in the cold until my fingers fell off. It’s so good to hear the story of an old classic restored. Bravo to all the people whose efforts saved the State.

*Yes, people of Madison, Wisconsin…I realize that it was your joke previously and that it was “77 Square Miles, Surrounded by Reality,” but it applies to Ithaca just as much as Madison… Let’s agree to share the distinction.

Shed in Slaterville Springs, NY

As a side note, on my way back through the wilds of Tompkins and Tioga counties, I spotted a shed along the side of the road that I found so photogenic that I couldn’t help but share. These boards, desperately trying to hold up something that can’t stand on its own…there’s a metaphor…

Save the Drive-In

In passing by a storefront in Lewisburg just recently, I saw a flyer for Project Drive-In, an initiative started by Honda. Many of the few existing drive-ins have found themselves in a good amount of trouble lately, owing to the fact that the film industry is ditching film in favor of digital. The two closest drive-ins to Lewisburg, the Pike in Montgomery, PA, and the Point, in between Northumberland and Danville, are among those in danger.

Pike Drive-In, Montgomery, PA

Also, another one of my favorites that I just went by this last weekend, the Fingerlakes Drive-In just outside of Auburn, NY, finds itself in the same predicament.

Fingerlakes Drive-In, Auburn, NY

Kudos to Honda for championing this cause. You can visit their Project Drive-In site at

Somewhat related is my latest video, taken this summer. I took a trip down US 209 from the Lykens Valley to Tamaqua and stopped by to see if an old buddy of mine was still around. The sign for the Temple Drive-In caved in more than a year ago, and its twisted appearance is absolutely fascinating. The Temple has been closed for some time now. Its last-gasp effort to keep itself open was to start showing X-rated movies in the late 80’s. I guess they over-estimated the market for outdoor porn and soon closed for good.

The Long Lost Video of Auburn

While I was digging up stuff for the last post, I finally got around to editing the video I had taken while trying to get the Genesee sign, the Hunter Dinerant, and the ghost sign. So here it is in all its splendor and glory, and the few surprises I found around the corner. Be kind, gentle reader…

An Engagement

skaneateles-bake-shopLast year at this time, my sister-in-law Rachel wanted to know if we would be available to take some engagement pictures. After all, she and her finacee Derek were going to get married in October of 2013, so why not to take engagement pictures that reflect the season. She also wanted to know where would be best to take them. Laura and I did not hesitate. We chose our favorite spot, Skaneateles, NY.

The trip coincided with something I wanted to cross off my to-do list, a spot in nearby Auburn, New York that I had been just itching to get. The confluence of the Hunter Dinerant, a great ghost sign behind it, and the Genesee Sign in the distance. In the process, I found two other great signs. So, since quite honestly I’m rushed with all the wedding preparations this week, here’s a selection of these:

Genesee-Fays-Hunter Genesee-Fays-3

We found this one just down the street…dauts-fine-food And this one around the corner…bee-line

Happy wedding week, guys!



It was the one word motto of IBM. Simple and brilliant. You could come up with numerous flowery words and phrases that couldn’t sum up that sentiment any better. It flowed from an America that wasn’t near as self-conscious, that did what it did because it wanted to and because something better lay ahead.

Friday: My parents are coming to town because they had some porch furniture my Grandmother had to get rid of because she just recently went into Assisted Living. Laura and I have tried to plan the day’s entertainment for Saturday, but we find it difficult to do so where we live because it always requires driving someplace distant. They arrive. We unload the van. We eat at a decent but uninspiring chain restaurant and fall asleep in front of Netflix.

Saturday: We go to the Allentown Farmer’s Market, pick up some licorice at Mink’s. We eat at a decent but can’t-measure-up-to-the-South Cracker Barrel. Over breakfast, we hem and haw about what to do that day. The conversation drifts. Somehow we’re talking about the storage freezer my Grandmother had. I had no idea she had one. We’ve been wanting one. My parents already have one and don’t need it.

“This still doesn’t solve the question of what we’re going to do today,” I point out, half-laughing.

“We could drive up to New York and have a swim,” says Laura. My parents have a pool. Laura often says this on hot weekends, and after she says it we laugh half-heartedly, go back to what we were doing, and forget it was said. But this time we have an audience.

“We do need to get that freezer,” my mother suggests. She’s about to turn 70 this year and she still can grin like a mischievous eight-year-old.

“Why not?” my father chimes in. He suggests we drive back to Binghamton, or to Howard’s Restaurant on Long Beach Island in New Jersey to get some french-fried lobster. Earlier I had made the mistake of suggesting a location in New Jersey for our day’s destination, forgetting that in my father’s mind, New Jersey = Howard’s. Once, when I was ten or eleven, on a whim we hopped in the car and traveled five hours to Howard’s.

Well, it was nuts. We couldn’t just drop everything and go to New York. That’s what my head said. But then, I thought: what mysterious force is holding us here? We could sit around moping or we could actually do something, get something accomplished.

Half an hour later, we’re in the back of the van on the Turnpike, heading north.

Now I’ll be honest with you: along the way, as we giggled like children, feeling the rare sensation that, in a small way, we’ve bucked the tyrannical authority that keeps us from doing what we want to do in life, I suggested that we find a couple of signs for me to take a picture of, so that I can write a blog about this. This may seem artificial to you, and if it does, who cares what you think, and you’re missing the point.

We are all so self-conscious. We care too much what people think. This point came home to me when I saw a fellow Instagram traveler’s picture; it was of a sign, which of course, got my attention. Her caption was, in effect: I bet the kids outside my window are wondering why this old lady is taking a picture of a sign. Two striking things. First, this Instagrammer was not old, but self-conscious. And second, I wonder what the kids are thinking.

My response: You know what? Forget them.

For years, I failed to take pictures of what I was interested in, and why? Because I was self-conscious. Too self-conscious to get out of the car and hit that shutter button. Somewhere that changed. Now I don’t care. Now I’m free.

So we go looking for signs. My mother suggests Endicott, New York, which is to the west of Binghamton and Johnson City, north of the river from Vestal. As it just so happens, I had been researching it, and looked with fascination on a few signs, and on the empty, hulking giant that is the IBM facility in Endicott.

First, on NY route 17c, which had been route 17 back in the day before they made it a highway along the Southern Tier. In between Johnson City and Endicott is a town called Endwell. I worked in Endwell at a radio station back when local radio made sense. It’s been clouding up all day, which is a bit disappointing, but I forget: old signs and cloudy days can be a terrific combination.

The first sign I had in mind comes into view, the Endwell Motel. I’ve been through Endwell a thousand times, and I can’t believe I never noticed it. But I have an eye for these things now, and now this old hulk in front of a seedy joint has beauty and value:

 endwell-motel endwell-motel-bw

And just up the road is another. Parsons Mobile Homes, neon, most likely from the forties, judging by the shape of the vehicle at the sign’s top. I marvel at it. I have the same routine of wondering how I could have missed this earlier. Guilt and regret I don’t need. Foolish things. We pull off and I go to work:

Parsons parsons-tour-ette

This close, I wanted to go to IBM. There’s a chance I might find some signs, but somehow I don’t care. IBM is what I’m interested in.

In case you don’t know, IBM’s primary facilities were built in Endicott in the 30’s. The buildings were modern, but in a thirties way, beautiful and larger than life. We pass through the heart of the beast, marveling at the architecture and its desolation. IBM pulled out of the old place in the 80’s, when most of the industry which had built upstate cities had retreated to lick its wounds and die elsewhere.


Think. It’s written on the buildings.

It made me sad. Angry. Angry to think that IBM left. Angry to think that IBM felt like it had to leave. Glad somehow, glad that the company still exists when so many others have fallen. We drove around and were amazed at the size of it.


We went back and swam in the pool, as Laura always jokes about. We rested. We moved a storage freezer and a couple of chairs. We felt the cool New York breeze, cool even in the brutality of July. We left our self-conscious thoughts behind and were careful not to retrieve them.

We are possibilities.
We decide.
We believe.
We conceive.
We are the future.


Home for the Holiday

The difficulty of sign photography is almost always positioning. Very often, older signs like the ones I target were created with maximum visibility from the road in mind, rather than from a sidewalk, or even across the road. I ran into this a few months ago when I tried to get the Jones’ Humdinger sign in Binghamton: you can see it perfectly from a car, but you only catch a corner of it if you’re standing right in front of it.

When I started my to-do list, I was already cheating a little bit because I knew I would have a good opportunity to cross a couple off almost immediately. In some research before we were set to take off for our July 4th weekend, I discovered a couple signs near my parents’ house that either I didn’t remember were there or I had forgotten about. The day after the holiday, we all decide to go out to the Red Lobster out on the far end of the Vestal Parkway, just down from my quest. My main target was Star Cleaners in Vestal, a magnificent old beauty that still stands despite the fact that the cleaning business is no more. I had seen pictures and figured this would be an easy one.

But then again, maybe not:


Wires, wires and more wires. I had no idea Vestal was so well-connected. I walked around the building. I stood on a stool that I keep in my car. I ran across the road and tried to get a shot from the other side. Believe me, I tried everything, short of getting out my personal jet pack. In the meantime, Laura and my parents sat patiently in the car, no doubt murmuring secret plans of having me committed if this kept up much longer.

Very frustrating. If I managed to get the wires out of shot, I could only get a fraction of the sign. Interesting, but not exactly what I was after:


So, hi-ho, hi-ho, to Photoshop I go. All things considered, not too bad, and if you didn’t know, maybe you wouldn’t notice:


Fortunately, there were a few other signs in the area to keep me from getting too frustrated. Across the street is the Skylark Diner and the adjoining Skylark Motel. The Diner has been around since 1956, but the current sign is nothing much. The Motel, however, had some pretty cool signage:


Just up the road was the Parkway Inn. The main sign was nothing much, but on the far end was a lovely little relic that I couldn’t resist. One of those you can walk right up to and get terrific detail shots:


The other along the Vestal Parkway that was on my list was the Vestal Motel. I guessed from Google Street View that this would be easy pickings and I was right. Following the Star Cleaners debacle, I perhaps over-did it on this one, gleefully firing off shot after shot.



Quite possibly, I was laughing loud and hearty in the fashion of a cartoon villain while I was taking these. All the while, Laura and my parents were fumbling for the phone to dial the nearest psychiatrist.

All things considered, very productive, but for a few days later I had this lingering thought: if the business that is now inhabiting the Star Cleaners building has roof access, maybe I could get up on top? Yeah, I need help.