Summer Memories: The Drive-In

Ok, I’m going to get a little nostalgic here. Raise your hand if you miss what I consider to be as quintessential a slice of Americana as apple pie, hot dogs, and waving the American flag.  The place that launched a thousand make-out sessions, and brought together young and old. The place to be on a weekend night that boasted pony rides and playgrounds for tots, and crammed multiple friends and families members into one car, simply because admission was often charged by the vehicle, not by the number of people inside it.  Yes, I’m waxing poetic about the All-American drive-in theater.

RIP, Westbury Drive-in, 1954 to 1998. All photos, courtesy of Bob Koenig.

Today, drive-in’s, for the most part, are a distant memory.  According to pop culture expert and drive-in enthusiast, Bob Koenig, there are still some left in America–but you pretty much have to head out to rural areas to find them, where land is still plentiful.  For years, Bob has been a member of a drive-in fan club, which periodically meets up at drive-in’s in Maryland and sometimes upstate New York. Bob loves drive-in’s so much, he even tried to save from the chopping block my hometown’s Westbury Drive-in. A regular David meets Goliath, he helped take on the owner, United Artists, which wanted to tear it down to make way for a multiplex and a wholesale membership warehouse. Goliath won.

The Warwick Drive-in can be found in upstate New York.

Like Bob, I love the drive-in. The romance of it—watching films in the great outdoors, under the stars. Sipping on chocolate malts, while dining on burgers and fries with your significant other or others. Like a mini-vacation. It was an experience for the ages.

Going to the drive-in was a sign of summer and a testament to how much we Americans loved our cars—so much so that we were willing to sit in them and peer over the steering wheel to watch a film, while listening to the soundtrack through tinny speakers perched on the car’s windows.  Occasionally, the sound system was out of sync—but who cared?  You were enjoying the best of America!

This drive-in, located in Baltimore, Maryland, is still open for business.

When I was 11, my family moved to Long Island. There, I felt like I hit the drive-in jackpot. One of my first friends there, Liz, happened to live across the street from the Westbury Drive-in. I thought she was the luckiest girl in the world. Free movies all summer long! We could watch them from her back porch, although, truth be told, we couldn’t hear the sound.

I asked Liz and her, brother, Michael, what they remember about the drive-in being so close to their home. Here’s what Michael had to say:  “I loved watching the movies from my porch every night, until they put up trees around the perimeter and forced us to watch from the roof. As teens, we’d sneak in or watch from the nearby schoolyard. In the 70’s they started playing softcore flicks. There’d be car accidents every time giant boobs towered over the treeline.”

The last time I went to a drive-in was when I first moved to California, 20 years ago.  The drive-in was a great place to take little ones, since no one could hear their screams.  My son was old enough and sat in the front seat enjoying the double feature with us, while my baby daughter, slept sporadically in the back. That night, we saw a double feature, City Slickers and Back to the Future 3, which had been released the year before.  Of course, as the mom of a newborn, I dozed off by the middle of the second film, but that didn’t matter. I was in bliss.

I once went to a drive-in while in Venezuela, proof that the drive-in culture had wasn’t limited to the U.S.  I was 13 and we went to see a funny film starring a little known comic actor making his directorial debut: Woody Allen in Take the Money and Run. There were nine of us cousins packed into the car and the only way I could see the movie was by sitting on the car’s rolled-down rear window, with my legs hanging over the side.  All I remember was how incredibly uncomfortable I was, and how I kept having to adjust myself, in search of a spot in which the receded window didn’t poke my bottom.  But I also recall how I got all teary, laughing so hard. Even in Spanish, Woody Allen was hysterical.

Who knows when the drive-in’s started to disappear from our cultural landscape. It happened one by one, plunked from the landscape to make room for new construction.  “It’s all about real estate values,” affirms Bob.

Gone, without a second thought. For those of you who still live near one, make a date to see a movie there. While you still can, that is.  The rest of us can pine for the hey day of drive-in theaters, knowing that drive-in’s were once the best of summer.

Farewell, So Long, It’s Been Swell

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room:  I am getting old. I have an expiration date.  Which is why I’ve launched my Farewell Tour.  Which really means I’m trying to do all the things I didn’t get to during the first half century of my life. It also means I’m returning to some of my old stomping grounds to recapture life as I remember it.

Some people would say, “Monica, that’s not a Farewell Tour you’re on, that’s your Bucket List.”  But “bucket list” sounds so provincial, so bargain basement. Call it what you will, but I’m on my Farewell Tour, which started in Europe.  I  had never been to Europe, not even during college when it was all the rage to “find” yourself by backpacking across the continent while smoking pot.  Which probably explains why I didn’t find myself until sometime in the last decade.

Our European tour would not have been complete without a visit to Florence, Italy.

So facing 50, I booked my European tour with my daughter. And there was no way we were going to do this trip backpacking.  It would be hotels all the way, and I was leaving this trip up to the experts. We signed up for a posh tour that took us from London to Rome and I’m so glad we did. It was truly a wonderful trip!

During the 16-day journey, we got to know and spend time with our fellow travelers, who hailed from all parts of the world (Canada, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, and of course, the U.S.) and who were just as nice as can be. We were like goodwill ambassadors from the U.N. enjoying a pleasant romp through Europe. Each day, we’d rotate our seats on the bus so that everyone had a chance to get a nice view and we all smiled and said polite things about the scenery and the weather. The Saudi family pretty much kept to themselves, but when the day of departure arrived, we all huddled for a big group hug and bid each other a tearful goodbye.

Other items on my Farewell Tour:

Taking my daughter twice to New York, including once during the holidays, which is the time to see the city, if you ask me.  We saw six Broadway shows during the first trip, but only got to see one on the second, due to an untimely strike by the union representing the theater production crew. This forced the cancellation of most of the shows. I blubbered like a colicky baby when we took a behind-the-scenes tour of Radio City Music Hall, recalling all the shows I’d seen there, as a kid from Queens. I also got a thrill seeing the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade live and in person, from a very prime locale (thanks to my friend, Mandy).

I sobbed during my Farewell Tour of Radio City Music Hall. Such memories!

I attended my college reunion. Though I didn’t remember anyone, I got all misty-eyed while walking through the hallowed halls of my old alma mater.  I also fell into a heap, climbing the steep hills of the campus. If you ask me, they really need to provide golf-carts to help us decrepit alumni get around campus.

We took a trip back to the Northwest–Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia, where I spent the early years of my adulthood, under the cover of rain clouds. It was absolutely divine to reconnect with old friends—and visit the Pike Place Market again.

My high school reunion. This was the first and perhaps the only high school reunion I’ve attended. Very eye opening, too. First of all, as it turns out, everyone has aged, including moi. Bottom line, I probably should have made a point to go to my reunion earlier, as, at this age fewer and fewer go, and our class size was small from the start. But thanks to Facebook, I’m in touch with quite a few of my high school classmates. So in some ways, everyday is a reunion!

Perhaps, best of all, was making two trips back to Venezuela, with my children who’d never been there before. It gave them a chance to meet their relatives and discover a bit of the Latin side of their heritage.

I still have many more stops to make on my Farewell Tour, but I think I’m off to a good start. I hope to return to Europe, perhaps to Vienna and Prague. Madrid and Barcelona, too. I’d also like to see my family in Caracas again, and, perhaps, take a cruise to Alaska.

Not all on my Farewell Tour is about travel. I’d like to one day write a book, and spend time with my grandchildren, assuming my kids settle down (though they should know, I’m in no rush for this one). I figure my Farewell Tour is going to last a long time. At least, another 30 to 40 years. So I can wait. In the meantime, I’ll just keep adding to my tour. After all, I believe in long goodbyes.

This is Chávez Country: The Little Bully That Could

Our trip to Venezuela is winding down. For our last outing, our cousin, Marisol, has planned a day trip to the Hacienda Santa Teresa, where sugar cane is grown and used to make rum. It is in a pueblo called El Consejo, which is a 90-minute drive from Caracas.

I am told that El Consejo is the town in which my grandmother spent her childhood.  Tía Olivia says she visited the town a few years ago and found her mother’s house still standing, which I can believe, as El Consejo seems untouched by time. Row after row of charming little houses festively painted in bright hues of pinks, yellows and blues.

Sugar cane fields at the Hacienda Santa Teresa, which was founded in 1796

The heat is more intense here.  Once we arrive at the Hacienda Santa Teresa, we must wait for our tour time. We visit the gift shop where all kinds of rums are sold—orange-flavored rum, coffee-flavored, clear rum, premium rum, to name a few. For as little as $4.00 (U.S. funds) you can buy a bottle of rum.

Marisol tells me that when Venezuelans make a purchase of any kind—whether it be a loaf of bread or a new TV, they must present their “cédula” (a national photo ID). Even if they are paying in cash, they must show their identification. She is not sure why but assumes it’s just another way the government seeks to control the people, presumably by keeping track of what they are buying and even where they are making their purchases. I use cash to purchase a bottle of rum and the saleswoman asks for my cédula. When I tell her I’m an American and do not have a Venezuelan ID, she asks me for my passport number. I write down a fake number, and she doesn’t notice. The specter of Hugo Chávez hovers over everything.

While waiting for the rum tour to begin, my aunts begin an impromptu dance.

We spend the entire day at the rum hacienda, where there’s much to do—horseback riding, golf, listening to music at the bar, and even paintball. On the tour, we learn that the rum factory was founded more than 200 years ago. The tour lasts hours and multiple trolley rides across the hacienda.  By the time it’s over, we are all a bit exhausted and hot. Thankfully, our tour guides serve us refreshing, tall glasses of Cuba Libres.  We then head back to the city, trailed by a beautiful sunset. All that’s left to do, is pack and prepare for our journey home.

I came to Venezuela with apprehension and am about to leave, grateful for the time I was able to spend with family, yet also with a feeling of dread for their future. The U.S. State Department had unnerved me with its warnings about the country, and I came very close to canceling the trip.  The good times with family, though, were mired by the shadow of Chávez. His plan to transform education in order to raise a nation of socialist children is chilling. Victor says that this may be just the thing that will motivate Venezuelans to fight back.

For now, despite all the new rules and regulations, the essence of the Venezuelan people is still intact.  During my trip, I saw their determination to withstand any challenges or edicts thrown their way. They still go to nightclubs and take their kids to McDonald’s. They still like to shop and go to the beach. And I think of my aunt, Bertina. At the rum hacienda, as we listened to music from an outdoor sound system, she suddenly took Tía Olivia’s hand for an impromptu dance on the sidewalk.  Such genuine moments help to hold at bay the fear of what the future will bring.

But it’s a new year and for Venezuela, the future has arrived. Chávez has his new powers and the country holds its breath and waits. What will he do?  Like a little bully, he has been poking at the U.S., trying to push its buttons. For the most part it hasn’t worked. Largely ignored, he resents this country all the more. And to the American government, Chávez must seem like an annoying gnat. A silly nuisance.

Until now, perhaps. With his new powers, he’s become the little bully that could. So Chávez, take a bow. For you may yet have the last laugh.

This is Chávez Country: Family Reunion

Part Three: As my trip to Venezuela continues, the relatives begin to arrive for the family reunion. Until now, their faces have been frozen in time for me, but looking beyond the wrinkles, the gray hairs, I can see they are as I remember them.  Everyone talks at once. Everyone laughs and hugs each other closely, enjoying this precious time together. We snap photos by generation. There are many new family members I do not know, particularly the spouses and children of my cousins.  One cousin has just become a grandmother. She is the first in our generation to reach that milestone.

In the backyard, we take photos of each generation. This is the generation of my parents, whose absence is felt.

The reunion takes place in my uncle’s house, protected by the surrounding walls and barbed wire. I mill about, reveling in the excitement of being among them, nearly 100 it seems. Though not everyone is here, I’m finally able to show my son, Josh, just how large is our Venezuelan family. He, too, is enjoying himself. Though his Spanish is poor, many of our relatives speak English.  That evening some of the younger cousins take Josh to a nightclub and teach him to dance salsa. It is his first time.

Victor (names have been changed) introduces me to his wife, Elena. We chat and our conversation quickly turns to Hugo Chávez. I have often wondered how my family could stay in Venezuela with a government that is steadily moving toward socialism.  We all know how Chávez is trying to emulate his mentor, Fidel Castro.

“Sponsor your cousin,” Elena pleads.  At first I’m not sure if I’m hearing correctly, but she repeats it and gradually I realize she’s sincere. Until this moment I didn’t think that anyone in our family wanted to leave the country. After all, Venezuela is their home, where they have roots.

I start talking to Claudia and Belinda, Victor’s sisters, and ask them about Chávez.  Belinda is dissatisfied and feels at a loss. She tells me of family who have been kidnapped for ransom, and also carjacked (including her daughter who lost a leg as a result). Claudia is extremely worried.  Her concerns are for her young children. She explains how Chávez recently announced plans for overhauling Venezuela’s school curriculum in order to enhance his socialist ideology.  According to Claudia, Chávez also plans to wipe out from the text books, the last 40 years of Venezuelan history, as it was a period of democracy.  Other changes include the following new subjects:

•       Bolivarian Doctrine (designed to provide students with a Venezuela-centric curriculum, which means that learning about other countries and world history, will take a back seat)

•       Socialism in the 21st Century

•       Military Education

The red-shirted Chávez takes on education in order to better indoctrinate young minds. (Reuters)

Victor’s wife is eager to talk again.  We sit in a quiet corner of the living room. She leans in closer to me and, lowering her voice, tells me that one of my cousins is a “Chávista” (pro-Chávez). I am surprised and ask her who it is.  Raul, she says with assurance.

Raul is a second cousin of mine.  Our mothers were very close–spending time together,  spending time together gossiping and trading stories about their children.  Raul is in the backyard, drinking beer with the others. He joins in the laughter and reminisces about the old days with us.  In so many ways he’s just like us. Only now I see him in a different light.

Just to be sure, I ask Belinda if it’s true about Raul. She explains to me that when things are going your way, you love the government. But the moment things start to turn and they come into your home to ask you questions or take you away, then you see it differently.  Right now, Raul is receiving government contracts and is doing well for himself. That’s how it is right now, she adds ominously.

I start to wonder if one day Raul will be asked to report on any family whom he knows are not Chávistas.  A chill comes over me as I think this, but I know my brothers would say I shouldn’t worry about the what if’s.

Yet, my cousins tell me that Chávez keeps a blacklist of Venezuelans who in 2004 signed a petition to recall him as president. Chávez is already using this list to make life difficult for those who signed. These days, the question du jour is, “Did you sign the petition?” So to me, it’s all a matter of time. If you ask me, it’s a slippery slope, the path to dictatorship.

This is Chávez Country: Path to Tyranny

Part Two: Cousin Marisol (names have been changed) is a freelance journalist who has carefully planned our itinerary, to make the most of our stay in Venezuela. Today, we are going to the Teleférico on the top of Mt. Ávila.  It is one of the highest points in Caracas, overlooking the city which is located in a valley.

The bell captain at our hotel hails us a cab. Like most hotels in the U.S., there are taxis waiting outside for the guests.  These cabs, however, have been carefully preselected by the hotel. They are driven by trustworthy drivers and, for added security, they are unmarked and have tinted windows, which helps to ward off drive-by shootings. The thinking being that if a gunman doesn’t know who is in the car, they will be less likely to open fire.

One of the murals I came across, located by the entrance of the Central University of Venezuela.

As we ride to the Teleférico, I see more signs of  Hugo Chávez’ rule:  billboards and posters that thank him for the changes he has made. Some make the case for socialism by depicting people smiling broadly, walking hand-in-hand. I also see colorful murals lauding Chávez and his policies and  denouncing American Imperialism. As we drive along, I make a game of it by counting the pro-Chávez propoganda, but soon I lose count.  There are just too many.  Some of the slogans I notice include:

Apoya el Gobierno (Support the Government)

Ooo-Ah, Chávez no se vá” (a common chant, indicating that Chávez will not leave office)

“Contra el Imperialismo UNIDAD de Nuestra AMÉRICA” (Against Imperialism, unite for our Latin America)

I wonder how many find this display convincing. How long does it take to become indoctrinated? Just how many have become mesmerized by Chávez’ PR machine? As I ponder this, I can’t help but feel relieved that my parents are no longer around to see what is becoming of their country.

We arrive at our destination. I remember visiting the Teleférico as a child, but in recent years it has gone into disarray.  The government has taken over operations, though the Hotel Humboldt, located on the top of Mt. Ávila, and once one of Venezuela’s crowning achievements, remains closed.  Marisol has pulled a few strings so that today we will get a private tour.

Marisol has brought with her two of my mother’s siblings:  Tío Francisco, Marisol’s father, who is a retired pediatric doctor; and Tía Olivia, who now lives in a home run by nuns.

I remember that Tía Olivia once lived just a few blocks from the Palacio de Miraflores, the home of the Venezuelan President, much like our White House.  I ask her whether Chávez is living there now.

“No.  No one really knows where he lives or where he is on any one day,” she replies matter-of-factly. Marisol adds that this is, presumably, a security measure, and that Chávez lives in constant hiding. Apparently, he is fearful of lurking assassins.

Chavez' military patrols this tourist attraction.

We prepare to board the cable car that takes us to the top of Mt. Ávila. Once there, I notice the soldiers.  I’d already seen a few in Caracas.  But here they appear everywhere, carrying their rifles and wearing their red berets. Red being the color of the Socialist revolution. The soldiers are pacing or standing at attention as lookouts—protecting the Teleférico from what, I don’t know.  All I see are Venezuelan families and a few tourists. It is the soldiers themselves that seem threatening.

After our tour of the Hotel Humboldt, we lunch at one of the restaurants located on the mountain and are seated next to a table of soldiers celebrating a birthday.  As they sing “Cumpleaños Feliz,” many restaurant patrons join in, but, to me, the singing feels forced. Perhaps I’ve seen too many World War II movies, for I am associating this moment with a scene from “Casablanca,” in which German soldiers in Rick’s Café Américain sing their patriotic anthem and French loyalists drown them out by singing La Marseillaise. It is one of the most stirring, powerful moments of the film. Nervously, I consider standing up and singing the Venezuelan national anthem, which I learned as a child: “Gloria al Bravo Pueblo” (Glory to the Brave People). But fear prevents me, as there’s no telling whether the other patrons will join me in drowning out the soldiers. Where is Humphrey Bogart when I need him?

Time has stood still in the lobby of the Hotel Humboldt.

In the evening we go to Tío Francisco’s house. I lived in this neighborhood once, when I was attending private school here.  But now it’s different.  Walls with barbed wire have been built around the community’s periphery. There is a security guard at the entrance and each home has locked gates. The walls around my uncle’s house have broken bottles with jagged edges along the top, making forced entry unlikely. I wonder if I could live like this and accept what has become the new normal. And yet I know the answer. We are human after all, capable of doing anything to survive.

More cousins have joined us. We reminisce about the idyllic days of our youth. The conversation soon turns to politics and I sense that my cousins have resigned themselves to enduring life under Chávez. To them, he is an annoyance. A burr in their shoe. Quietly they pray that the U.S. intervenes and stops him. We change the subject and talk about the upcoming family reunion.

The anticipation of the reunion excites me. Though, these feelings are tempered by what I am beginning to see as Chávez’ path to tyranny. The signs are everywhere and there’s no escaping them.

At the reunion, I will find out more of what my family is feeling. Those that are preparing for uncertain times, and those that fear for their children’s future.  I will also learn that one of my cousins is a “Chavista” (pro-Chávez).