I found the old matchbook lying on a desk.
It was buried under some papers, beside a thick, water-logged book frozen solid in the January chill. I ran my fingers down its spine and read the title: “How to Run A Successful Golf Course.”
The owner of the Penn Hills Resort in the Poconos probably hadn’t followed whatever advice the author had to offer. They boarded the place up years ago, and there’s a gaping hole in the roof of his old office. Muted greens and yellows, shag carpeting peek at me through a sheet of ice.
The matchbook, which looks to be from the 60’s, is about half empty—whoever was sitting here when this place finally went under surely needed a smoke.
Its cover is a reminder of better days. Swimmers are frolicking at the resort’s indoor pool, now a scene of trash, mangled deck chairs, a life preserver. I lock eyes with a huge bullfrog who didn’t make it out. He was entombed in the ice.
The matchbook no longer lines up with reality. I look down through the viewfinder of my camera and up again at the matchbook, aligning the two images the best I can. Up (snap) down (snap). It feels like I’m seeing this place in some sort of dystopian View-Master, each image on the wheel darker than the next.
Weeks later, I score a cache of old postcards from the Poconos and Catskills on eBay, the sort that end up in family albums, stuck in some box in the attic. “Our Honeymoon.” In idyllic scenes at Penn Hills, The Homowack Lodge, Grossinger’s, and a fourth resort in the Poconos which we aren’t identifying, vacation-goers and honeymooners frolic in the mountains.
They have a surreal quality. Ephemeral, disposable, they served only one purpose—to let someone know “I’m here. I’m thinking of you.” It feels a bit like social media does sometimes, where you’ll snap a photo of some vista, sometimes to bring those you care about a bit closer to you. And like social media, the postcards manage to be a little impersonal: “I didn’t quite care enough to write a letter.” It’s analog Foursquare, a non-digital check-in.
Over the past few years, I’ve gone back to the places in the postcards.
On Christmas Day a couple years back, I went into an abandoned bowling alley in the Catskills, stood up some pins and bowled a couple of frames. That signature sound—the pins caroming about—sounds a lot different in a place like that. There are echoes of the postcard, where a bear of a man stands at the shoe rental counter. No shoes now, no phone, no counter.
Other times, the search is a bit more challenging.
I trudged through an old resort in the Poconos last year, just a few months after a fire burned half the place down. In the postcard, a couple poses in front of a gazebo. Now, it’s just a pit in the ground. Time is a sink hole.
Photos of abandonment tend to be a bit stylized, painting decay with a nostalgic brush. The postcards, too, have their own haze—the places were never as nice as they look. I often struggle to get the two images to line up, as well. But time blurs the difference, and brings everything into focus.