When I was a kid, my family lived in a rambling Victorian house on the corner of Monroe Street and Nevada Avenue. Even then, the main drag was busy and dangerous, cars whizzing by just a few feet from the front yard. The closest park was a few blocks east on the other side of the Bon shopping center, but the other kids in the house and I were not allowed to walk through the Safeway parking lot by ourselves. Our backyard was smallish, and the swing set tipped over if you swung too hard. The house was a kind of tribute to the gilded age -- red velvet camelback couches and gleaming carved wood -- and we were not allowed to run screaming through this historic museum on a regular basis.
The one place we were allowed to go freely was the Drive-In, a real life candy shack. The '50s era neon sign, complete with a giant ice cream cone and a glowing hamburger that Wimpy would be proud of, sent out a beckoning glow through the twilight on Weber Street during summer evenings. At the end of the day, cars would line up in front of the metal building, the light from within shining on freshly washed chrome. Bikes rested against the iron roof supports. Neighbors waved to one another, their kids chasing each other around the trees in back. Someone's radio played Spandau Ballet and The Bangles while lazy dogs lolled under red and blue painted picnic tables, pink tongues drooling on the cement while waiting for a dropped fry or dripping cone.
Behind the tall glass windows, the counter was crowded with brightly colored boxes of candy -- 5-cent Atomic Fireballs, Lemonheads, Laffy Taffy, Pixy Stix, Licorice Whips -- cellophane glinting right at kid eye level. Neighborhood teenagers swerved and ducked to avoid each other in the tight space. It was kind of a tradition for the kids on the surrounding blocks to work at the Drive-In as their first jobs. Both of our housemate's daughters spent a summer groaning and griping about the weight of their responsibilities. At age 15 or 16 you'd find them behind the sliding window in a red and white striped shirt, looking like extras from an Archie comic.
The menu was simple -- fries, onion rings, sodas, hamburgers, hot dogs and pretzels. Big cheeseburgers topped with lots of lettuce, tomato and onion came wrapped in thick butcher paper to prevent the grease from dripping all over you, and chili dogs nested in paper baskets required a fork to catch all of the salty sauce. Thick crinkle-cut fries and crunchy onion rings overflowed their paper confines, waiting to be bathed in Heinz ketchup. Corn dogs left greasy rings around toddlers' mouths.
Despite the grill, the specialty was ice cream in all its forms: big frothy floats, thick shakes, sundaes, and the all-important cone, lovely in its simplicity. For 45 cents, earned selling lemonade to strolling white-haired old ladies returning from the supermarket, we could buy a zebra cone -- a chocolate and vanilla twist dipped in fudge to form a crunchy shell.
The teenagers working at the Drive-In no longer dress like candy stripers, and if you ask for a "zebra" cone you'll only get a confused look in return, but the food is still great and the menu only bigger. They're open all year now, but it's when the grass is green that you're most likely to find bikes, dogs and cars crowding the parking lot, their owners laughing and eating under the comfortable glow of an old electric hamburger.