The last several months have put a lot of things into perspective. This pandemic has altered our way of life and deprived us of many luxuries we had come to take for granted. The closing of restaurants and businesses, many of which were only meant to be temporary but turned out to be permanent, has been heartbreaking and difficult. Being deprived of interaction with friends and family for months on end was a blessing for some and a cruel form of torture for others. Thankfully, most states have opened back up and things are heading in the direction of what used to be normal. However, a lot of walk-in movie theaters remain closed across the country, as well as drive-in theatres. Personally, this has been the most difficult consequence of the pandemic.
Drive-in theaters were already practically extinct across the United States, even before Pestilence rode in on his horse. In Michigan, there is only one original drive-in theater left standing. It was the one true gem of my childhood. I will never forget laying on the roof of my aunt’s van under open summer skies as stories played on movie screens all around us. It was the one location where stars consistently fell from the sky like prayers. I grew up to discover that they were actually burning pieces of debris from the surrounding factories, and I had spent most of my childhood making wishes on burning pieces of trash. I guess that explains why none of them ever came true, but it was probably for the best.
More than anything, I miss the environment of the drive-in, as well as the feelings that came with it. I’ve never been to California, but I always imagined that it must be a lot like L.A., with the way the scent of food, pollution, and uncertainty was always lingering in the air as people confused themselves and lost their sense of direction in the dark while trying to make it back to their car. It was also in the way that everyone was always expecting to see something spectacular, whether it be burning trash stars performing on screens or across the sky. To this day, the sound of gravel crunching beneath my feet brings back childhood memories of stepping with caution at the drive-in in an attempt to avoid the glass of forbidden things shattered on the ground, sparkling in the moonlight like secrets that could cut you wide open if you dared to get too close.
The static coming from the speakers hanging in car windows was the soundtrack of my childhood. The silhouette of abandoned swing sets against the setting sun and the eerie lullabies of their rusty chains swinging in the wind will forever be ingrained in my memory. We were all partners in crime, easing our way through the shadows, sneaking from one movie screen to the next without getting caught. Sitting in a car next to someone I love well past midnight while shoving ungodly amounts of junk food in my face has always been my happy place. Even if I don’t remember the movies that played, I will always remember the feeling of being able to watch them and the moon at the same time.
The car ride leaving the drive-in at 2 or 3 in the morning was an experience all its own. I always felt safe under layers of blankets in the back seat, with my mother or aunt driving, following the moon in the direction of home. There is a certain kind of magic about being on the highway while most of the world is asleep. Some of the best songs come on the radio in those hours of the in-between.
Nothing will ever compare to the experience of the original drive-in movie theater. This pandemic has taken so much away from us, and I pray that this small piece of American culture doesn’t end up being another casualty to these chaotic times.