You may not know it, but if you’ve been to Highland Park, you’ve probably visited the OnkenVerse. Situated throughout town, you don’t have to catch a plane, a train, or even buy gas to get there. The stars in the OnkenVerse include: the free Outdoor Movie Theater and the Taco Truck in the municipal parking lot next to Main Street Highland Park and the Reformed Church of Highland Park (RCHP); the funky vending machine next to the Main Street Highland Park office; and the music performance stage at Pino’s.
I checked in with Brian Onken, geneticist at Rutgers University by trade, at his office. This is a space that resembles a museum to your parent’s 1980’s den, but only if your parents were purveyors of cool and quirky things. Campy movie posters adorn the walls; piles of unorganized books with promising titles line the shelves; musical instruments, including a dusty trumpet, are everywhere; and looking down from the wall is a 12-inch Zenith black and white TV whose screen is bound together with green electrical tape. All the things in his den, along with the parts used to build the OnkenVerse inventory are bought or found second-hand, pulled from junkyards, or rescued from lonely obscurity from a surplus bin somewhere in Highland Park or nearby territories.
You’re probably most likely to have visited the Outdoor Movie Theater, a joint project with Main Street Highland Park, that runs from May to late September. Brian picks all the titles and the features are a mix of 80s blockbusters like RoboCop, sci-fi and fantasy flicks like Lord of the Rings (the animated 1970s version, clearly) and Dune (the David Lynch version, equally clearly), music and pop culture documentaries, coming of age classics like Breaking Away, and animated films that both kids and adults can enjoy. The movies come with free popcorn popped in a vintage machine, but Onken also has a taco truck onsite. Along with Chef Raphael Victus, they cook up South Asian and Central American-inspired, fresh, delicious, and mostly vegetarian tacos. Sorry, but I can’t tell you the hours, which are irregular. The off-beat schedule is part of the mystique. But you can usually find the summer season’s movie schedule at mainstreethp.org.
Another town mystery is the vending machine. Brian says the only real criteria for what goes in there is that it “must be something that can fit in and drop through to the bottom.” Interestingly, he has no idea who the vending machine customers are. He has rarely seen anyone purchase anything. But the proof that someone out there likes it is that he has to keep filling it with action figures, books, and other trinkets. But sorry, no credit cards or Venmo or Apple Pay, just coins, quarters only.
And yes, the musical instruments in his den are clues to the fact that Brian has a band with long-time friends Adam Keller, Dave Jones, and John Crocco. The Nowhere is one of our town’s prominent post- punk, punk bands; it plays most often at Pino’s, and sometimes Asbury Park or elsewhere. The musicians give a terrifically energetic show, are on Spotify, and, as a bonus, they are a great bunch of guys, always up for a rousing post-show round of “who’s the better band,” where participants debate the merits of comparable musicians like David Bowie vs. Lou Reed or Tom Petty vs. John Mellencamp.
I asked “why spend your free time making all this stuff?” He replied, “Well, it’s kind of like you are compelled to do it, you have an idea and you feel like you need to make it a reality. I honestly do these things mostly for myself as hobbies. I know they don’t seem interesting to everyone. I can’t thank Main Street HP enough for their support in actually letting me do them. But it’s really awesome when some crazy idea I have in my own mind comes true, and I meet someone else out there who also really likes it, no matter how strange It seems.”