October 27, 2023 at 6:55 a.m.

Packing the Car

By Larry Perkinson

In the ‘60’s my family spent an evening at the drive-in. I can’t remember the make and model of the car, but I can tell you that mom and dad had the front and four kids fit easily in a backseat that seemed as big as a twin bed.

Moviegoers paid at the gate, then slowly navigated to a chrome post and hooked a speaker on a window. The smell of popcorn and “I wouldn’t relish one at home” hamburgers drifted into the vehicles and beyond the perimeter walls.

A nearby trunk opened clandestinely as stowaways hopped out and jumped into the comfort of cushioned seats. Some cars had prepared for sleepovers. Pillows and blankets and snacks were stacked where no space seemed available.

That particular engagement showcased fright-night films. Giant iguanas terrorized the beach and devoured teenagers in hot rods in the first feature. The second was Psycho. Nothing good was bound to happen.

Apparently, I wanted my siblings to have full access to the big screen because I moved to the floorboard during the famous shower-slashing segment. No one fought me for the popcorn that had accumulated there, and no one could see that my eyes were shut.

Drive-ins no longer exist in abundance. Fewer headlights line up to get in at dusk and then weave through the gravel and dust to open spots that might allow privacy and, if possible, be closer to the restrooms should an emergency arise.

It’s been a long time since my own family attended a drive-in, but almost daily I pass by vehicles that look like they are headed to one. What was noticed once or twice a decade ago, is more visible now.

Cars and vans, three or more daily, are seen packed to the hilt. Survival foods, enough for a bite to eat, replace the popcorn and chocolate that I enjoyed. Empty liter bottles and some half filled with water compete for storage space with blankets and belongings.

Questions spin through my head when I see them. Homeless? Nomadic? Is the conundrum temporary or permanent? Have they minimized expenses by eliminating housing? Does the situation involve choice, economics, mental health, domestic violence, etc.? Susan Finke Scott, a voracious reader, suggested reading Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century.

Generally, I spot a single auto, though it’s not uncommon for multiple vehicles to gather early in the morning or late in the evening. They have not necessarily circled the wagons but do appear huddled for something: safety, supply sharing, fellowship and/or access to a park facility. What happens when park restrooms close for winter?

Two constants are a vehicle with breathing room only and a cell phone. The quality of both vary. One or two have a dog that barks at mine as we walk in the vicinity. Most of the mobile residents seem fifty or older. Few ask for money or gas or extra attention. Some share that they have been banned from the convenience store I offered to take them to.

Packing the car for road trips, even the drive-in, foretold of great adventures for me. Good memories could create a script full of humor and squabbles and “Are we there yet” moments.

However, the incidents that our community nomads may endure project less hopeful scenarios. I’m not sure I understand the isolation, the abandonment, the fears related to dignity, food, and breakdowns … or any of the innumerable barriers that must confront these individuals at times.

What they might face could be more terrifying than Anthony Perkins with a big blade and as devastating as giant iguanas totaling hot rods. Hopefully the work done by our community shelters and food banks and safety net programs offers something these people are willing to access.

If I got confused at the drive-in, I could ask someone who wasn’t on the floorboard what happened. I’m not sure anyone can explain this phenomenon to me, but I can’t shut my eyes when I see it. Is anything good bound to happen.