Mountain Drive-In Theater & Arcade
South Fallsburg, NY
He was out before the credits even finished.
I glanced over at his dusty head, balding and exposed, and I smiled. This is one of the many qualities I inherited from him: I, too, fall asleep pretty easily in the dark of a theater. Despite the fact that I love going to the movies, the combo of dimmed lights and an escape from reality conjures the perfect nap storm. I can forget about my own world for a couple of hours, let the chair absorb my body, and pass into dreamland for a solid 30–40 minute nap.
It started when I hit my mid-twenties after I stopped drinking, and it was uncontrollable. It doesn’t always happen, but I’d say 80% of the time if I’m going to the movies, I know I’m diving into some shuteye. I allow my body and mind to succumb to the world of the story on the screen in front of me, and I welcome that irrevocable feeling of soft exhaustion to sink in.
John is the same. I know I get it from him. I noticed it a lot when I was a kid, even at home. It didn’t matter what movie it was, Mulan or The Exorcist. At any given moment, I could glance over at him and his mustache, and he’d be out cold.
He always looked so peaceful.
The car sputtered in the cold December dark, floating quietly in an ocean of other vehicles all parked at the drive-in movie theater in Lockport, NY. I looked back at the gargantuan screen, staring at the final moments of the iconic Star Wars opening credits, scrolling yellow letters flying away from the screen, slow-moving, dramatic exposition — and then back at him once more. He was completely out. John, my father, newly diagnosed with cancer, mesothelioma, stage four, a result of the asbestos cloaked air floating through the demolished DC Navy Yards in the early 1980s.
I’m just like him.
I’m nothing like him.
The car rolls to a halt, idles, then shuts off. It’s early summer in 2021. This little project called All-American Ruins that simply started as a way to pass the time during the early stages of the pandemic has reached a milestone: it’s been one year since the travelog that chronicles my experiences exploring abandoned spaces across the United States was born. When I first ventured out to the abandoned Saratoga Springs Air Force Base, I never imagined that this hobby would transform into the enormous multiverse that’s come out of my head.
Yet, here I am again, at another abandoned sanctuary, this time surrounded by a peaceful grove of trees in South Fallsburg, NY. The Mountain Drive-In & Arcade was abandoned in 1997, after fifty-ish years in business. The rapid economic depression that swept the Borscht Belt from the 1970s until its peak decline in the 1990s gave way for the Mountain Drive-In and countless businesses and resorts in the region to shut down for good, the shells of decaying and dilapidating history left behind, a ferocious rapture that, in part, gave rise to the massive fundamentalist, Hasidic exodus to the region.
I step out of the car and peer across the vast field, still dotted by defunct metal pillars where speakers once stood, rolling vistas where cars used to gather under the night sky to watch outdoor movies on two different screens, complete with a rotted arcade that was, at one time, occupied by local teens just looking to pass the time in an isolated upbringing.
I think of my father as I begin to venture out across the vast terrain, a single, giant, open pasture where the echoes of Hollywood hits and flops reverberate through the mystical Catskill Mountains. In recent years, my relationship with my father has evolved into a more complicated place, incited by a single election. It happened around the same time he was diagnosed with terminal illness, in 2015. It’s six years later, and while I did lose my father to cancer, it wasn’t mesothelioma. It was a presidency. He’s never made an attempt to step into my shoes; and based on his personal, religious ideology, sees that I, a faggot, have only one fiery, mythical destination at the end of my life.
And still, with any complications, I love my father. He doesn’t make it easy, but I do. Because I have put myself in his shoes, I know how and why he operates: from a state of unconscious fear and shame. I know how difficult it can be to look at yourself in the mirror and admit your personal shortcomings and mistakes. I don’t think he knows how to do that.
I don’t think he’s ever had to or even wanted to.
I look up at the giant screen towering over the ruins of the Mountain Drive-In and can hear my father’s laugh: harsh, husky, and it’s only gotten wheezier since his diagnosis. I stare at the bruised and battered outdoor theater and imagine a Star Wars marathon, all bajillion movies, playing in sequence, for however many days it takes. In my daydream, I’m here with John. The Empire Strikes Back, our favorite Star Wars installment, plays on the screen. Luke Skywalker hangs on for dear life as his father’s iconic line spills out over the loudspeakers: “No, I am your father.” Amidst my fantasy, I giggle at the irony. I never realized how appropriate it was that my father and I share the same, deep love for The Empire Strikes Back: a story that, in part, addresses complicated father-son relationships. My father never chopped off my hand with a lightsaber, at least not physically.
As the credits start to roll, John asks me if I’d like to get some popcorn. I oblige. We exit the car, his beat-up Geo Metro (a vehicle you’ve met once before), and start toward the back of the property together. We discuss how exciting it is that Return of the Jedi is next, how fun the final battle sequence in the film is to watch, and I ask questions like:
Do you think Luke Skywalker feels any guilt for fighting against his father?
Because, I mean — it’s not very Biblical of him, I follow up with a laugh.
“No,” John responds. “No, it is not.”
The soft melody of automobile motors plays as we walk by families and groups of friends and couples out and about for much-needed entertainment, surrounding us on this infinite landscape of vehicles. I watch my dad as he begins to outpace me by a few steps which I don’t mind because I know he’s competitive.
Suddenly, I’m yanked into the sky to watch this made-up scene from a birds-eye view, and I realize, for the first time since I started exploring the ruins of America, that this is the first fantasy where someone I know has become the main, imaginary character. Not that my father is imagined, but this version of him is. This version of him is the one I remember, the guy who, when I was in middle school, would slip me twenty dollar bills when I’d go out to the mall with my friends; the man who was always (mostly) supportive of my decision to chase a dream of being a performer; the dad who I didn’t know had the gumption to vote for the vetoing of my rights as a tax-paying, law-abiding (mostly) citizen of the United States of America.
The dad who wasn’t trapped by his own fear of change.
The dad who showed interest in my life.
The dad who cared, or at least pretended to.
But maybe, I realize, that person never actually existed.
Maybe, sometimes, my imagination doesn’t serve me or help me understand reality through this wanderlusting lens of wonderment.
Maybe, sometimes, I invent people I think I know because it’s easier to make believe that certain relationships I occupy are good and steady when they’re anything but.
Thank God for grace.
The thing is: I love him. I love John, even after all that. I don’t know if that’s an abuse victim talking or if I really feel that way, but I do inherently love my father.
When I’m dropped back into the scene I’m creating in my head, I see my dad in line for refreshments. I stare at the back of his head and admire his loose-leaf hair, the way that he bites the insides of his cheeks, his harsh, husky, wheezy laugh. That’s John.
Do I have the courage to accept him for who he is? A product of the 1950s and ’60s, of white, small town, suburban America, where he grew up watching his own world decay around him (a circumstance that he also couldn’t believe or accept), resorting to a fantasy of his own where Lockport, NY is, was, or someday would make a comeback?
At the back of the Mountain Drive-In, there’s a single building that houses the projection room as well as a concessions stand and arcade. We dip inside to buy popcorn, and I stand and watch some teenagers go buck wild on a game of Ms. Pac-Man while John waits in line for our snacks. This room is a callback to a time and place of my own. I remember my own fond arcade days, entertainment venues like this one, before the Internet, before analog evaporated into thin air. I hear the Pepsi soda fountain dispensing two soft drinks, one for me and one for my dad, and I make a bet with myself that he’s going to buy licorice too.
I peer outside and straddle the fantasy and the reality, the 1990s and 2021, under the shoddy roof of this remarkable time capsule that once served as a place of warmth and comfort. I watch my father pay for the refreshments, including the Red Vines, and I feel a few tears fall out of my face and onto the ground, dreaming of the relationship we’ll never have. Ours is surface: trips to the movies and arcades and Home Depot where we get $1.00 hotdogs at the makeshift stand out in the parking lot — but never discussions of my authentic life, boys I fall in and out of love with, the artist I desire to be, my fervent beliefs in gun reform and climate justice and racial justice, or how I see God in the world.
I will never feel entirely comfortable or safe around John. I have to accept this, or I’ll go crazy.
We make a slow walk back to the car as the concession stand flickers out and to its present form, distorted, desolate, defunct. My father and I clamor inside of the car, which, just like it did at the Saratoga Springs Air Force Base, invites the aromatic memory of musty seat fabric and day-old chili in a coffee mug. As the credits for Return of the Jedi begin to roll, I glance over at my dad, then out across the expanse of the drive-in movie theatergoers, of time and space, and I remember to keep this misty reverie locked away, my way of honoring my father, whenever I enter a moment of mourning the man he never was and never could be.
He puts his hand on my shoulder. “Love you, Blakey.”
“Love you too, Dad.”
He never starts that sentence with “I.” I’m not sure if that means anything, but I’ve always noticed that.
I sit back and close my eyes.
The sound of John Williams’ iconic score echoes and fades away into the Catskills, along with my father’s harsh, husky, wheezy laugh, two light sabers battling it out, and a single line that I, like Luke Skywalker, have learned to reckon with, after all these years.
I am your father.
He is my father.