Chapter One: Running on (Below) Empty
Hope walks into a bar and asks for change.
Bartender says: “We don’t give change to the likes of you.”
Hope goes to a Laundromat.
The change machine is out of order.
Hope goes to a supermarket.
Cashier says, “No shoes, no shirt, no service.”
Hope says, “But, I have no shoes.”
Hope sees a billboard: “Change you can believe in.”
Hope wonders if she will ever find change.
I came of age at the precise moment when small town America began to disappear completely. In keeping with my generation’s restlessness, I couldn’t wait to get out of the nation’s mid-section. Little did I know that once I left, I would never get it back.
Being from the Midwest is a complex destiny, one that invokes both irrational pride and intense shame: Pride for having once tilled the earth and shame for not being one of a more learned breed. Pride for leaving; shame for not staying.
We are myth-less, without story, stranded a few generations and a few hundred miles away from Ellis Island. We are neither east nor west, European or indigenous. We lack east coast pretension and west coast idealism. Without accent, we are the new American standard, never betraying a hint of geography. In every which way, to be a Midwesterner is to have a never-ending identity crisis.
Perhaps it was a gift not to learn of my native anonymity until I left it behind. At college on the east coast, I learned that I had grown up in a "fly-over state," a term of eastern endearment to describe the endless cornfields of my red state homeland. They were right—Indiana is the middle of nowhere—but by default, it is also the center of everywhere. Indiana is a state crisscrossed and tattooed by highways gleaming with the deep blue vivacity of veins and concrete.
Long after I'd gotten over being from a fly over state, West Coast innocence looked up from a drink and asked, "Where is that again?" To Golden State natives, I repeatedly described home as that sock-shaped mass under Lake Michigan. Other times, I might get more specific: if you take a map and draw a line in the middle of the country running from coast to coast, you will have created I-70, a highway visible from my backyard. “Home” is a square lawn contained by a chain-link fence that exists within an endless series of intersections: columns and rows of fence, corn, interstate, railways, and houses. To fly over my home is to hover above an endless grid. Whereas the ancients carved intricate drawings of animals into the ground for their gods’ visual pleasure, we’ve simply made monuments to rationality’s linear geometry. Bound inside all of these squares, I’d lay awake as a child, mesmerized by the roar of airplanes and the hum of semis rolling by, collecting evidence of a larger world.
That was decades ago. My hometown is gone now. In invisible increments, day by day, year by year, going, going, gone: Hallmarks to the town’s character evaporated one by one, but not until the drive-in closed did I know for certain that my home was lost forever. Two blocks away from the house that left me yearning for faraway worlds, the Clermont Deluxe Drive-In fueled my imagination with images of exotic places. For over fifty years, the Drive-in’s large stone screens were as familiar as neighbor’s faces. Then one day, the “Now Showing” sign changed to "Final Show."
When I was young, the Clermont Deluxe was a secret society to which the outside world was denied access, a space where identity became linked to place, where the air vibrated with life as day came to a close and a film opened up the world. Long after the sun set on the middle of nowhere, humidity reminded us of its heat. Night would fill with expectancy as the National Anthem blared from speakers hanging from door windows. In the moment of silence before a film’s beginning, crickets chanted in ascending and descending choruses and stars appeared out of the purple sky to blink in unison with lightning bugs. Here, we could forget the tragedies of daily life and let working class gloom evaporate into multi-chromatic lines shining above our cars. In the open air of a drive-in community, we could breathe and let go, talk to our neighbors, watch children play, listen to the ebb and flow of time.
But no more in this space they call "the Crossroads of America." The drive-in has disappeared from a town where timelessness meets modernity in a thumb-wrestling match that leaves us all scrambling for position.
Change. Perhaps it would not be so disconcerting were it to come more slowly. Generationally, change can be expected. Take my mother and I: whereas I witnessed the eclipse of Main Street, she grew up when small town America was at its height. With a whopping population of 1,578, the entire town was Main Street. It had been that way for decades, but then in 1956, the largest public works project in the history of the world came to town. The Interstate Highway Act made it possible to travel from one side of the country to the other with astonishing ease. Soon, the American identity, its heart and soul, became inseparable from the automobile and the drive-in became the love child of a brief affair between the automobile age and the era of optimism.
With their Golden Age in tow, Middle Americans could now turn 18 and go anywhere they wanted. They could take vacations to faraway places like California and Florida. With refrigeration and appliances, cars and superhighways, they could move away from those dirty industrial cities to sparkling post-war suburbias—and they did, sprouting a housing boom that crept along during my mother’s childhood and took on the Bible Belt’s fervor during mine.
When it was my turn to frequent the Clermont Deluxe, I saw my first movie (and got my first lesson in love) from Bambi. A few years later, E.T. went sailing across the darkened horizon at Clermont Deluxe. As the 80s marched onwards, I grew hideously hair-sprayed bangs and E.T. gave way to a feathered space alien known as Howard the Duck (1986) while Bambi’s animation morphed into Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988). As Howard the Duck attempted to save earth from an evil space invader, he shocked audiences with his all-too-human attraction to earthling Beverly Switzer. Two years later, Roger Rabbit had to rescue an animated town from a diabolical plan to turn it into a superhighway. Somehow, neither Howard nor Roger showed up to save the drive-in from a real-life superhighway and the larger than life suburbs.
Somewhere between Bambi and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, change crept in without our noticing. Today, a drive through Brownsburg is a drive through a town that no longer exists, a place that has disguised itself in the anonymity of American monoculture. Where we once drank root beer floats on the way to the grocery store, a Walgreens offers its wares under fluorescent lighting. For good measure, Rite-Aid has moved in across the street, sometimes offering a better 2-for-1 Coca-Cola special.
On the outskirts of Main Street, the fields and forests have all but disappeared. No longer can young people disappear into wide open space following storms and waiting for funnel clouds to appear. The lofty joy we felt as teenagers when we’d drive through the middle of cornfields and suddenly find ourselves in Illinois or Ohio is gone. The youth of today instead drive through a wonderland of Lego houses; a left turn on Arrowhead Lane leads to a right on Riverstone Drive, and it keeps going and going down a rabbit hole of houses. As population figures jumped from a couple thousand to the 40,000s, suburbs rushed to keep pace. Cornfields are either gone or on their way out. At their edge, signs offering homes from $150,000 on, linger like grave markers.
“Once,” my Mom says driving through the new suburbia, “people wanted to build houses near cornfields because of the privacy. Now they’re scared to build houses here because in five years, they’ll be surrounded by other houses.”
Let’s get this out of the way. The “fossil fuel free” bit in this book’s title might give the impression of a woo-woo new age Californian. I must respectfully beg to differ. Like many from the nation's bread basket, the automobile is encoded in my DNA; my heart beats the blood of a hundred road trips; my lungs suck in experience like a carburetor. This reverence is not without reason: The auto industry built the middle class of Indiana (and arguably the entire Midwest) and our bumper stickers pay tribute to this history: “Buy American or Get Laid Off.” “Be American, Buy American.”
The automobile is in my blood. My grandfather worked at the first Ford dealership in Brownsburg. At six years old, I remember listening in wide-eared amazement while he showed off Ford’s first talking car, a she-bot voice inside commanding: “Please fasten your seatbelt.”
The folks who built these novelties lived in other small towns like Elkhart and Kokomo, places that were once the most affluent areas in Indiana. Today, they are the most depressed precisely because of the uncut umbilical chord that unites them to the automobile. In the land of the Indy 500, cars are more than an ends or a means—they are a culture, my culture.
But it must also be said that, for me, this culture has always been encapsulated by contradiction, all wrapped up in a gelatin layer of paradox. We Reagan babies grew up with the first stirrings of climate change and were taught of the inevitable gray wasteland that lay in wait if we didn't change our ways. We also grew up and watched politicians behave as though nothing at all were happening. Aligned with our nation's deep denial, my generation turned sixteen and inherited our all-American birthright: a big gas guzzler powered by cheap 99 cent gasoline. While Mrs. Merrill did her best to instill Earth Day into my 1st grade heart, my 11th grade passion was a Chevy hooptie before hoopties were cool. Between Mrs. Merrill and my hooptie, America's CO2 emissions went from 20 billion metric tons to 27 billion metric tons, an upwards slope with no end in sight.
It would be years before I could draw a connection between that hunk of metal lodged in my soul, the monoculture sprawl that was once my hometown, and the climate catastrophe knocking at our door. My wake up call was the closing of the Clermont Deluxe; it was a signal that something had been lost forever. Was the drive-in a necessary casualty? The death rattle for an impossible dream?
The night the drive-in closed, cars crept out of their garages over a cement jungle, and sleepily moved into spaces next to one another, row after row, facing the screens. It was the busiest I’d seen the Clermont Deluxe since my childhood. Metal speakers were lifted from poles and placed gingerly on windows. People fiddled with the dials to tune their radios and hear the previews. Families crawled onto the tops of minivans and covered themselves with blankets to keep warm as night fell. Strangers passed one another and made small talk around lawn chairs and coolers. An impromptu community was born in the night, and for a brief moment, it seemed that everyone realized what we were losing with the drive-in’s closing. More than a place to watch a movie, it was a setting for people to gather—a public space. People came as individuals and realized that they knew other individuals, that we are all connected by two degrees, that the isolation of modern life is simply an illusion...if we let it be.
The Simpson’s Movie was the drive-in’s final feature. While Bart Simpson attempted to save Springfield from toxic waste, children crowded onto a slumping merry-go-round that struggled to go round under their weight. While the Simpsons found themselves quarantined by a giant bubble meant to hold in Springfield’s toxicity, classic ‘57 Chevys and Mustangs rolled up next to speakers and bathed their surroundings in a nostalgic glow. The crisp whoosh of beer cans opening could be heard over Marge’s concerned diatribes and car engines’ warming hums. Neighbors walked by one another giving shy waves and asking, “Can you believe it is closing? What a shame!”
Driving away from the drive-in that night, I felt the weight of an era descend: the Clermont Deluxe was gone after 57 years of operation. I watched the glowing beacons of white for the last time as I turned the corner, strangely comforted by their permanence. Certainly, the stone white screens could never fade into oblivion—even if vines and grasses one day grow from their crevices. Perhaps when future civilizations unearth the remains of this site, they too will be left with unanswered questions. Like Easter Island’s giant stone faces peering into unforeseeable distances, the drive-in’s blank screens will reveal nothing, simply gazing at one another above a field of concrete. Without context, these enigmatic monoliths could be anything: giant tombstones, pillars of worship, or as the case might be, abandoned pieces of the American Dream.
More Book Excerpts:
Chapter 5: Dumpster Diving in Tucson
Chapter 6: Crash
Chapter 7: The Fourth Wave