Me and Cars

I asked my aunt why my mother married my father. She said, “He had a car.” Before he left, he taught my uncle to drive, which enabled him to become a truck driver, a Teamster and eventually a high muckety muck in the union.

My mother went out with a man who had a hardware store in Queens. He drove a Ford coupe with a shelf under the rear window big enough for me. When we left the City, I looked up and out. When we came back, I slept.

My second father’s father had a 1932 Desoto sedan, which, before the 55 mile drive to Mastic Beach, he would clean the sparkplugs, gap the points, adjust the timing, add brake fluid to the master cylinder, oil to the crankcase, transmission and differential, grease the fittings, pump up the tires and wash the car.

Father #2 rebuilt a 1938 Oldsmobile straight six that he and my mother drove from New York to San Diego, taking the southern route preferring rain to snow. The windshield wipers worked on vacuum. When you stepped on the gas, the wipers stopped. When you let up, the wipers sprang back to life. In Texas, the muffler went. While waiting for a new one, they were invited to stay. “Plenty of work.” They continued to California.

In San Diego, my parents bought a 1948 Plymouth 4 door with spotlights. A lemon. They traded it for a light blue ’49 Chrysler with fluid drive. It was very stately, but could peel rubber.

My mother’s sister’s husband, Kenny, though born in NY always wanted to be a cowboy. He homesteaded 120 acres of sagebrush in Sparks, Nevada, where he had a Model A Ford without a windshield that I could drive.

When I was fourteen, tall for my age, I went into every car dealership on Van Ness Avenue, the auto row of San Francisco, gathering brochures and telling stories. My father was interested in a new sedan, my uncle a truck, my aunt something small and foreign, my cousin a sport’s car. I had no story to tell the salesman with the Mercedes Benz 300 SL Gull Wing. He just let me sit in it.

My grandfather had a ’55 Lincoln 2 door hardtop with a button on the dash that greased all the fittings underneath. When he drove fast, I got on the floor in the back.   Making a quick, tight turn over railroad tracks, he rolled it.

Just as I was about to graduate from junior high (10th grade), my parents moved. They gave me a choice. They would pay for bus fare for 6 weeks ‘til graduation or I could take that money and transfer to another school. I took the money. Three months later, we moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area.

While at my new school, my grandfather on my mother’s side sold me a black 4 door, 8 cylinder Buick that needed a timing chain. My mother objected, saying that me and my friends looked like hoodlums in it. With the profit I made selling it, I bought a 1938 Plymouth businessman’s coupe. You could sleep in the trunk. It had a crank out windshield. I spent my senior year rebuilding the engine, but couldn’t keep it running. I sold it for $30. The new owner added a second carburetor and burned rubber from my front door to the end of the street.

My graduation present from high school was a day’s rental of a new, lime green, 1959 Cadillac convertible. After I took my date home from the senior prom, I drove around all night, dropping off the car at the airport and walking home.

From the money I made working as a carpenter’s apprentice on tract houses with my father, combined with my savings from “Bank Day” from elementary school and the “bus money,” I bought a 1956 VW Sunroof. A couple of years later on a date in junior college, Celina said, “Is this a new car?” The odometer had just rolled over showing all zeros.

The VW got 30 miles to the gallon and never, not ever, a problem. I traded it for an Austin Healey Sprite with a roll bar that had been raced. It was thrilling, but mostly broken.

I got an unlockable, red pickup truck from a plumber with “Hoyt Water Heaters” on the doors. I could park it any place and never get a ticket.

My father got a new VW pickup and gave me his 1955 Chrysler work car. When I sold it before I went into the Navy, I showed the new owner how to move the gearshift until it caught and how to pump up the brakes. She never drove it. It was towed.

Carol, my almost wife, and I drove a “drive-a-way” in winter East. On a miles- long uphill in the snow in Colorado, I stopped to ask a guy if he were in trouble. He said, “No, but you are.” No traction. I couldn’t go forward. Had to back down that mountain.

On one of the times that my mother went crazy, she told me that neighbors were moving their windows to direct the sun into her face. I said that would be a complicated computation, all the angles from a moving sun to the different houses to her house. Just then a car started up the road, the sun reflecting off the windshield. When my mother saw four nuns in the car, she realized her mistake. Nuns were too stupid to do all those computations. She didn’t have to go to the hospital that time.

One New Years, my friend convinced me to get a dog. I sold my motorcycle and bought a Dodge Dart. It was a little long in the tooth, but it was fine for the dog, until she got shot.

Elaine, through a deal with her uncle, got a new ’68 Volvo in 1969. We drove it from San Francisco with 5 cats to Western Massachusetts. When we divorced, I got the Volvo, she got the house.

After being away for a while, Elaine and Gene met me at Logan airport. Gene drove. And we made love.

While doing a workshop in San Francisco, I accepted the job as Chairman of Photography at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. But I had just bought for $100 a 1960 Jaguar 3.8 sedan in pretty rough shape. I flew to Brooklyn. Paul drove the Jag. It took 30 quarts of oil. After restoring it, as they say, from the ground up, on its maiden voyage, the main bearings melted.

A friend of mine gave me a VW identical the one I had in college, except it needed work. The $1500 I gave the mechanic to get it in shape wasn’t enough. So, I gave it back to my friend.

I had a racecar engine put in the ’68 Volvo. I drove 40,000 miles to Maine to see a painter.

When my mother died, my father bought a Nissan 300ZX, which I borrowed to go to a party in Pasadena. On the way back north, I stopped at Hearst Castle outside of which was a temporary road sign saying, “ROAD CLOSED 50 MILES.” Closed for 50 miles or closed in 50 miles? For the next 50 miles I was the only car on the road. Blue skies, golden hills, the ocean, top down, driving slow.

With Vinnie, who has had 16 cars, I found a mint condition, 1991 Toyota Celica convertible in Pennsylvania. The best thing about that car is the sky.

My grandfather put all his vinyl records and a trip to Ireland on cassettes. When he died, I got them. When I’m under my car (I have a floor jack and jack stands), I hear his music and sometimes his voice.


Volvo Door Open Cornfield copy