Driving between the Meadowbrook and Wantagh Parkways on Hempstead Turnpike this past weekend, I was amazed at the turnover in commercial real estate between those two roads. One stretch in particular, from the Wantagh Parkway to Bette Road on the north side of the street, stuck out.
Everything single building along this stretch was different – not just in tenant but also in form and function and therefore many of my childhood memories are no longer tethered in some way to physical structures. I used to pass the United Artists theatre and think of all the movies I saw there. Now the theater is no longer there and my first thought is tinged with sadness for though my memories in and of that theatre are primarily happy ones, no one else now will be able to have experiences like mine in that exact place again. It’s gone and soon it will be forgotten altogether too.
In order to prevent that, I would like to offer my oral history of the north side of Hempstead Turnpike, starting from the Wantagh and going to Bette Road from then, circa 1982, to now.
The First Structures:
THEN: Miniature golf course, roller-skating rink/Rockbottom & Staples and Nameless restaurant. Right near my friend Eric’s house there was a large open lot where we could ride our bikes and hang out, it had mounds of dirt to climb and room to move about. This lot was directly in back of a mini-golf course, which I never remember being open. Next to the lot was a roller-skating rink which I have faded memories of being in, I believe for a birthday party or parties. Those memories could be faked though, having been generated from photos or home movies. I mostly remember this building as being closed down; years of nothing being there followed by Rockbottom opening up in its place. I did a lot of shopping in this store, especially school and camp supplies. Also, I bought Tic-Tacs religiously at this store from 1987 – 1989. Staples was another store that I shopped in, primarily school supplies. I did buy the black three ring binders that my baseball and comic cards reside in there. The restaurant I never went into.
NOW: The golf course and open lot were removed, paved over and a Pep Boys shop now sits on that land. I have never shopped there. First Rockbottom closed years ago and some no-name store sits there. Staples closed later on and nothing is in its former space. The restaurant is now a club called “Insomnia” which is advertised on the radio though I have never been there. As a rule, I avoid Long Island clubs.
THEN: United Artists Movie theater. This was a great theatre, not great like today’s stadium seating jobs but great because of its proximity to my house. I first learned of the Rocky Horror Picture Show seeing Saturday Midnight showings advertised on its marquee when I was a child and while I never got to see this film there, when I finally saw it, in Binghamton when I was a freshman, I did think of my hometown’s movie theater. In 1989, Eric, Greg Strelihofski and I were the first, second and third people on line to see Batman. We arrived 1.5 hours before the show in order to solidify this position. The line wound up wrapping around the entire building and back again, an incredible site at that time, just mind-boggling. I was wearing the same Batman tee-shirt online as I wore on the bus on my way up to sleep away camp for the first time and used it to make a friend on the bus. This was my first experience in queuing up for an event well in advance of when it was going to start and this important skill has helped me attend many concerts throughout my life. One of my funniest moments I experienced in this theatre came when George and I were seeing “Shining Through.” He kept opening and closing his Zippo, which led to an adult turning around in his seat and yelling at and threatening him to stop. That was the first time I’ve ever really seen an adult scream at a kid, in a movie no less. Then it was slightly scary, now it’s downright funny. I saw the “Princess Bride” with my grandfather there. I remember walking by “Die Hard” in theater one and hearing my parents say, “Joyce really liked that movie” (note: I never saw this movie in the theatres but somehow remember this comment about how my cousin like it). I saw “The Babe” (the bad baseball player movie – not the good pig starring movie) with my cousin Josh. I’m pretty sure I saw “Flipper” with my sister there. One time 6 of us, Eric, George and I’m not sure who else went to see “Lethal Weapon 3.” We bought tickets using his mother’s credit card in order to avoid being asked for ID and got them from the machine without incident. However, the usher wouldn’t let us in without her. So, Eric walked home because he lived maybe a quarter of a mile away and had his Mom drive to the theatre to accompany us in. When we were finally inside we had to sit all the way upfront, an experience that almost made me sick. After about two minutes I got up and almost walked out before spotting an empty seat. That was the last time I even attempted to sit in the first few rows of a movie theatre. To me, it just invokes nausea and I’d rather not pay for that experience in a movie. A theme park, well, that is a different story. I’m sure that Ill remember more so expect to see comments about each movie I saw, with who, when, and what I thought because I probably saw 25 other movies there as well, which isn’t an astronomical number yet still it’s pretty high when you consider actually how many movies one sees each year.
NOW: Commerce Bank. This chain is expanding at a virus-like pace. I have yet to use one of their ATMs or to open an account with them. However, I have heard good things and open a joint checking account for Jessie and I there but that is to be determined.
THEN: Mid-Island Department Store. This was a clothing store where I bought most of my jeans, tee-shirts and shorts. I remember learning the difference between acid and stone washed jeans. “You mean they really wash those jeans in a machine full of rocks?” Lots of Ocean Pacific, Bugle Boy, Lee and Levis products were bought there. When I wanted a new outfit to wear to the glut of Sweet 16 parties that were coming up, I went to Mid-Island and bought a go-to outfit, black Dockers and a green button down shirt. George worked there as a salesclerk when we were in high school and picturing him, clean shaven with short hair wearing a shirt and tie selling clothes gives one quite an amusing image. The store layout is vivid in my mind; it wasn’t a large store. They had a backdoor that opened directly into the Men’s Department from the parking lot. This lot was probably a 100-yard walk from Eric’s front door though I’m not sure if he ever shopped there.
NOW: DJM Shoe Outlet, or something like that. Mid-Island closed down years ago and the space was taken up by a Burlington Coat Factory store. While that store has a good brand and some are really good, this particular branch didn’t really work and I never really shopped there. I guess this feeling resonated with others as well for the store closed within a few years and stood vacant for a long time. Now, for I don’t know how long, sits a shoe outlet in its place. I guess if I’m ever desperate for shoes while at my parent’s house I know where to go.
THEN: Steve’s House of Deals. There is always an exception to the rule and this is it: the lone holdout, the last store standing, an original. This is a car stereo and electronics store, housing a small concrete shack almost abutting Hempstead Turnpike. Unlike every other store mentioned so far, it sits on the lip of the turnpike, maybe 10 feet from the sidewalk that runs along side it. I was in there once with Patricia, George’s sister, when she was getting a car stereo installed in her car (she received it as a birthday present). Seemed okay. I have no idea why this is the one that made it though I would think it would have something to do with size. It wasn’t that huge of a store so I can’t imagine the rent being too high. I guess if I really wanted to, I could go in one day and just ask a head manager. All of these others stores are gone. Why are you still here? How are you still here?
NOW: See above