Among the parts of American life largely lost on me is the automobile. I didn't get a license till I was 35; I didn't buy a car till I was 50; I didn't drive cross-country till three years ago. My friend Max had driven more miles by age 20 than I had in my whole life. Not surprisingly, my experience with drive-ins is limited.
We once went to a drive-in during my childhood. My father borrowed my Uncle Rudy's pre-WWII black Packard, which had kitchen chairs in the back rather than a normal car seat. At the drive-in, there was a chicken-wire pen under the movie screen, with a swing set, a heap of sand, and a jungle gym. Dusk fell and cartoons appeared on the screen. After that I guess I fell asleep.
Thirty-five years later, when my daughter, Marty, was little, my friend Jake took us to a drive-in. Jake's car was about 60 percent yellow, with a blue door and a green fender. It was winter, and in order to admit the drive-in radio to the car, we had to leave one of the windows slightly open. We stuffed the crack with our woolly hats and gloves. Our breath condensed on the windows, and we wiped it off. I have the impression that the movie was Under the Rainbow, or perhaps Das Boot.
Ten years after that, Max took Marty and me to a drive-in to see Basic Instinct, at her request. I was dead strict, but I let her see any movie she fancied. (Other kids' parents hated me.) Basic Instinct was the one with Sharon Stone and the leg-crossing, right? Some time I'll have to rent it.
So I should have known, when my editor suggested I check out the Auburn Valley 6, that the movie is not the point. Should have, but didn't. I thought my limited experience was at fault.
IT'S THE CAR, STUPID
One indication that I still don't partake of the automotive experience is the contents of my car: driving glasses, a map, a bottle of water, a folder with restaurant reviews, and a zippered tape case.
Thank heaven we didn't bring my car.
Max's car contains the following: (library) back issues of various newspapers and magazines, each opened and folded back; (office) nine maps, a Yellow Pages, four large manila envelopes, half a dozen unpaid bills, a wedding invitation, an IKEA catalog, a book in which he records every gasoline purchase, a pocket atlas; (music room) 26 CDs, 14 tapes; (wardrobe) a gym bag with a change of clothes, a suit jacket; (pantry) a package of smoked almonds, a half-eaten bag of corn nuts, cans of sparkling water, bloody mary mix; (playroom) sunglasses, a tennis ball; (bedroom) a stadium blanket, a back pillow; (pharmacy) BenGay, Advil, air-freshener; and (miscellaneous) a stuffed cloth monkey. That's the front seat.
Max's car is the car of an American, the car as Conestoga wagon, stocked against the vast emptiness that is America. Like most Americans, he's happier in his car than anywhere else. (I am happy riding on a bus, or walking.)
Okay, so the car is part of it, the drive-in thing. But I still thought it was about the movies, besides the car.
In my youth, drive-ins stood for underage sex. They supposedly provided teenagers with the combination of semi-privacy and peer presence required to break through the barriers erected by a sexually repressive society. And that idea, in turn, provided titillation for elders. I'm as fond of titillation as the next person, so I hoped that drive-ins might deserve their reputation. No such luck.
But why? Are the youth of today so enfeebled that they have turned against uncomfortable sex? Are their automobiles less well equipped for grappling? What's gone wrong? I myself have never had sex in a car, but I've never done anything in a car. I took a nap in my car for the first time only a month ago. At the drive-in, I wanted to ask the people around me why they weren't screwing, but I couldn't figure out how to phrase it.
Definitely the drive-in wasn't about sex. I still thought it had to be the movie.
Is the low cost of drive-ins part of their appeal? Sure enough, even at only $5 a head for a double feature, the custom of hiding people so they don't have to pay admission is alive and well. Nobody was actually alone.
A truck pulled in backward (pickups face away from the screen and folks sit in the back), and all at once the lone driver was no longer lone. One person popped up, then another, and another. It was like the circus act in which many clowns emerge from a tiny car.
Okay, so there's the car and there's the cheapness, but what about the movie?
RETRO IN THE SUMMERTIME
Some experiences seem dated even as you're having them. You're conscious that they can't last, and that other people--perhaps you yourself--will look back on them with reminiscent longing. Riding on streetcars was like that; wearing platform shoes; bowling; voting the straight party ticket. (All have been revived, albeit much altered.)
Maybe drive-ins had that sort of fleeting, bittersweet quality right from the start. There were cheesy movies made specially for drive-ins, the equivalent of today's straight-to-video. Television appeared so soon after drive-ins that the handwriting was on the wall. Yet they hang on--not all of them, but more than you'd think. They eke out their income with swap meets during the daytime. They rent out parking for snowplows and school buses.
Everyone to whom I mentioned the Valley 6 spoke of summer, and I found to my mounting discomfort that summer itself has acquired a nostalgic haze. Could postmodernist irony overcome a season of the year? So it would appear. Summer is (I'm not sure I've got this right) a time when we assert our essential seriousness by assuming a rather prancing playfulness. Summer is kind of (I'm really not sure about this)... kind of cute.
If I couldn't talk to people in neighboring cars about sex, I was even less prepared to ask them about nostalgia. "Excuse me, do you enjoy an overactive sense of irony? What role do you see yourself acting in the movie they're making of your life? Is it going to be a classic?" I'm sure more than one enjoyed the pose of attending something so retro as a drive-in, and at the end of summer, but I didn't want to ask.
It's the car, it's cheap, and it's so not now. Maybe it's the movie too?
The drive-in gave us a curly wire we were supposed to attach to our car antenna. But Max's car has its antenna embedded in the window, and no amount of fooling around prevented us from picking up regular radio stations.
We got some movie sound by leaving our windows open and listening to other cars' leakage. I couldn't understand anything Donald Sutherland or the Russian guy said (we were watching Space Codgers). "Team Daedalus" sounded like "King David." Thus: "Wall, shorely, ma'am"... "enuiu akajsy yenmundull"... "lower your child-support payments"... "I reckon"... "asdoi jijmn heghgh ... "can't buy me love"....
But that was me again, trying to focus on the movie, against all odds.
THE PENNY DROPS
And then, suddenly, there was a moon onscreen and a real moon above it. And suddenly I got it. The movie relates to the sky as Max's car does to the open road. The movie is little and messy and homelike. The sky is big, way big, and just about empty. But we're Americans. We're not going to sit out in the dark and contemplate the sky without some kind of excuse. The movie is an excuse.
The lights played against the cedars like something by Magritte. Planes headed for the airport, slowly, slowly. The light from the ground etched every contour of the clouds. The air moved softly.
The part of American life that always escapes me suddenly turned and embraced me. I felt happy to be in the car, happy to be watching little dark sky against big dark sky. Happy to be here for one more summer.
And the Downside: Food and Loathing
Max and I are expert at the despicable skill of smuggling food into movie theaters (despicable because most theaters need to sell refreshments to break even). We can sneak in a three-course meal complete with silverware or chopsticks. We can do it in the summer, without bene?t of overcoats. We have been known to offer tastes to other patrons in order to secure their silence.
I now realize that one of the glories of the drive-in is the chance to bring in one’s own food openly and honestly. I could have made one of my famous New Haven tuna grinders, or we could have gotten takeout from the Great Wall shopping mall.
But no, we were so determined to savor the full experience that we decided to eat at the drive-in. Big mistake.
You see, Max and I eat everything that Americans don’t eat—pig bung, maw, kidneys, goat, cod cheeks, sea urchins, squid, durian, breadfruit, rutabaga, okra. I’m fonder of tongue and sweetbreads than he is, but he’s mad for tripe. We order from the side of the menu that’s only in Chinese, and so far we’ve never had to pass on anything. We love salsify and mallows, laver and nettles, and we’re always delighted when one of our pets makes it into the mainstream, as dandelions and parsnips seem to be doing lately.
I’ve often thought that we could write a food column that the squeamish would enjoy, the same way I enjoy Wm.™ Steven Humphrey without ever watching TV.
We eat everything—everything, that is, except two things: beef and milk. Two things that are the cornerstone of American movie-theater cuisine.
Not that “cuisine” was exactly the word that came to mind as we looked over the serried rows of foil bags stuffed with hamburgers and cheeseburgers made long, long ago, ominously marked “If You Wish to View Food, Please Ask for Assistance.” But there were pizzas being cooked up on the spot, which might actually have been tasty.
Even at their worst, they couldn’t have been as bad as the chicken offerings, could they? I’ll never know. The chicken sandwich tasted like laundered white cotton sock. The chicken corn dog was better; it marginally resembled meat.
Nor will I ever know what cappuccino tastes like when made from a mix. It would have cost me $1.50 to ?nd out, and I didn’t have the heart for it.
Barley Blair is the pseudonym of a little old lady who's nearly always up for an adventure.