(Welcome our new Saturday COAL series writer)
We begin in the Penis. All seven and three quarters billion living humans began there. In the mysterious masculine basement factories of creamy possibility, we are spasmodically elevated and ejected into the universe from the tops of billions of little tiny hollow temporary towers of tumescence (excluding, of course, those exceptional people incepted through divine intervention or by cosmic radiation accident). We all have fathers, most of us, and those of us who are male have the potential of becoming fathers, and the music of the beginning of manhood, is a pounding anthem of erotic biology for the dance of attraction.
Thus for me my story of automobiles in my life must begin with the Penis Car, a blue metallic clearcoated 1990 Dodge Daytona ES, acquired in August 1998 with ninety-two thousand experienced miles. The Daytona was the climax of my car ownership life. My youngest sister called it the Penis Car two years after I bought it, because it was unmistakeably male, an irrefutably masculine bodily appendage out on the prowl. Others have spoken at great length about Iacocca’s Chrysler dynamically engineering the K-platform for sportiness, or about the hum-drum industrial and marketing praeludia within the 1980s North American car market that brought the Penis Car into my life, but my story in particular is how I adopted, inhabited, and wore its masculine mystique for five years.
First, place. The Catskills. Specifically, the Borscht Belt of Sullivan County. I was born in the capital of New York’s pickled beet juice mountains in 1975, because though I began in the Bronx high above the Mrs. Weinberg’s Chopped Liver factory, I came out on permanent vacation in “de mount’ns”. My father’s checks from the New York City’s Health and Hospitals Corporation were blocked from being withdrawn by the great New York City fiscal crisis of 1975.
My mother, newlywed and swelling with me, supported my father and herself in the loft in their perch on the twenty-fifth floor of the towers of 1945 Eastchester Road with her $120 per week salary as an editor at Dagobert Runes’ Philosophical Library, creating tender miracles of temporary comfort in Dad’s graduate-student housing studio apartment, but her pregnancy and pending childbirth put a deadline on their life there. (Yes Dr. Runes was hitting on Mom, while supporting two entire families from the scholarly press, which had published Adorno and Horkheimer, but in 1973 was very like the Manutius Press in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum – a vanity press for self-funding authors.)
Dad, who had aspired to research and practice academic pulmonology in Neuilly in 1976, and who was a rising and popular fellow at Albert Einstein, found himself scrambling to establish himself in the first few months of married life with unexpectedly early progeny on the way. My grandparents on both sides, stern and judgmental German Jews of the generation that fled Hitler in their middle age, stopped talking to my parents. Dad hustled and did physicals for Citibank for cash. My grandparents, both sets, on their own, picked out a practice for my father to buy in Tuckerton, New Jersey, exactly half-way between their respective homes in Toms River and Atlantic City, and sent the unfinished paperwork to my father.
However, by April of 1975, Dad’s first office was open in Liberty, NY, more than 180 miles from the nearest pair of grandparents (his own father and step-mother). In 1975 the Catskills were in diminuendo. However, a vigorous, prosperous and well-organized local business cabal had succeeded in forcing a major merger of small local hospitals to establish a single large regional hospital which was under construction. There were many Jewish doctors practicing in the area, and my father was happy to find friendship and community with many of them.
One of those doctors, Paul Jones, an acerbic orthopedic surgeon, was the grandson of a Polish rabbi. Dr. Jones’ father remembered my grandfather, then a German artillery non-commissioned officer during the First World War, because my grandfather had been a Sabbath guest at Dr. Jones’ grandfather’s table during 1915 and 1916. My parents and the Joneses became close friends, their eldest son Alexander, two years younger than me, a childhood playmate. Paul Jones loved cars. Jones kept a 1970 BMW 2002, the pride of his residency, under a cloth tarpaulin in the clearing in front of his lakeside house in Philwold, Forestburgh, and Alexander wanted to drive it when he got his license. I remember playing Star Wars around that car, parked on the gravel apron next to the above-ground pool and the satellite antenna, with Alexander’s many action figures and spaceship toys.
But when he was old enough, Alexander drove other cars, but not that BMW. Alexander had a substance abuse problem, and racked up too many DUIs to keep his drivers license, and the last car he had been given by his parents, from which he had presumably been arrested in late 1997, was that clearcoated blue 1990 Dodge Daytona.
By the summer of 1998, I was 22. I had owned cars for four years, and my life was woven around being mobile. I lived in Ithaca, NY and worked in the optical and electron microscopy laboratory run by the Cornell Center for Materials Research in Bard Hall on Cornell’s engineering quad. I needed a car. The engine in my old Oldsmobile had died of low oil pressure and seized after a July late night food run up the hill to the P&G supermarket at East Hill Plaza, and, while I did not exactly need a car for commuting to work up the Slope from my Collegetown apartment, I needed a car.
Mom let me know that the Jones’s had a car sometime in late July. I stuffed my canvas Navy duffel full of dirty laundry and put my checkbook, the registration, and plates to the old Oldsmobile in my backpack, and my roommate Howard gave me a lift to the Ithaca bus station, where I picked up the Shortline bus to Monticello. My mother met at the bus terminal near the Sullivan County Government Center, and we drove down Cold Spring Road to the Jones’ house.
Jessica, Alexander’s mother, had three other children, and the two youngest boys were preteens living at home. We negotiated while she fended off the boys whining, I examined the car, knowing nothing of what I was looking at, aside from checking the oil for coolant and checking the coolant for being there. I offered twenty-five hundred dollars. She riposted – “take it for two thousand” – I wrote a check for two thousand dollars while Jessica and my mother gossiped, and Jessica forged her son’s signature on the title transfer. I took the keys, screwed the plates on, and drove off while my mother continued gossiping.
I drove it back to my parents’ house in Liberty, stopping at the DMV in the government center to transfer title, pay sales tax, and transfer the registration and insurance, then brought the car to Bruce’s Garage in Liberty for an oil change, and mandated and informal inspection. The next morning, Bruce pronounced the vehicle healthy, and clean laundry stuffed into navy duffel under the back hatch – whose gas struts were a little weak, huh – I drove my new blue coupe back north to the Finger Lakes through the beautiful high Catskills in the Quickway. I stopped at the fruit stand on Route 79 in Whitney Point to buy yellow peaches, which were big and ripe and juicy, and I arrived home at summer dusk late on a Sunday night before work.
Let’s talk car. I am positive Paul Jones did not buy this car for Alex new. Alex was thirteen in 1990 and would not be driving for five more years, until his abortive year at Simon’s Rock. So Paul must have picked it up used somewhere. I have no idea where. The Daytona was an ES without the two-tone, but with the spoiler and ground effects package and snowflake alloy wheels. The seats were upholstered in Quartz – the light colored cloth fabric. It had the base four, with automatic transmission in the console, cruise control, air conditioning, fog lights, fat 205-55-r15 radials (I was coming from an ‘85 Olds 98!), electric locks, electric windows, and it sat very low and stable down on the ground. The driver’s seat was almost completely recumbent – a position familiar to the owners in common of our favored appendage. It was very smooth and confident on the road, carving the curves of Route 17 at eighty miles per hour near Hancock with no lean and good road holding. I never squealed the tires in that car, not once in five years.
Irena, my first serious girlfriend and first serious heartbreak, came up later that month, during Freshman weekend, to withdraw from Cornell after she transferred to Columbia. She visited me at my apartment and leaned against my coupe, calling it “cute” while her new boyfriend, an older Russian Jewish man named Baruch – Boris on his passport – hovered a block away. Irena and I kissed and said our goodbyes. Baruch was a graphic artist for Irena’s parents’ Russian language newspaper, and he hustled and taught kabbalah to the emigre ex-Soviet Jews in Brighton Beach. He moved in with her in her mother’s house on Manhattan Beach in 1999. They never married, but had three children together in the next fourteen years, until he left her for a younger version of herself. The oldest daughter is now a junior in college – the same age as her mother when we kissed goodbye.
I was attending the grad group dinners at the Jewish Living Center and meeting many new young Jewish women, some of whom I scored dates with! There was a pretty blonde in doing a graduate degree in Urban Planning from Hamilton, Ontario, whom I took up to the observatory to watch the meteor storm and drink hot wine. I squired an extremely hot German studies PhD candidate to an extraordinarily horrible Woody Allen film, and we laughed about bad dates afterward in a rendezvous for drinks with another graduate student, who decorated the backseat afterwards with his stomach contents, blaming the emesis on bad Chinese food. Nathan did not drink that much. I tried to clean the chicken chow mein with borax and the stains set for years afterwards. Shelah, the amazingly hot Germanistik student, ended marrying a different Greenbaum. She owns a movie theater in Virginia and sells insurance, which is extremely funny, considering she spent our drinking sessions applying Adorno and Horkheimer to bad nineties media.
I dated a literature major named Lisa, whom I really liked but who suffered from Crohns and had to withdraw from school to address her illness, but who rode with me to pick rare apples from Littletree Orchards in Enfield before she left.
By the summer of 1999, the car had racked up another twenty thousand miles with seven oil changes, and it was extremely easy on the gas, which did not matter in that flush age of gasoline cheaper than milk, but midway through the summer of 1999, the rear-view mirror fell off the middle of the windshield. I glued it back on with epoxy. The epoxy had a six month life expectancy. Every six months the mirror fell off again. The automatic lock actuated when the car hit pavement joints – click-click, click-click, and I had to permanently disable the mechanism with more epoxy to hold the switch closed. Cabin lights? Who needs cabin lights with the map lights?
I drove that car to Margate – alone, although it was not planned that way – but just about at Kearny on the western spur of I-95, the left front CV joint died, BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG, the whole length of the Garden State Parkway to my empty grandmother’s house on the beach. I had it repaired in Ventnor, and enjoyed the lowest gasoline prices in my entire life – seventy cents a gallon in Northfield, New Jersey, on July 22, 1999 at the PR Petroleum on the Tilton Road.
My last year in Ithaca I moved to an apartment in on the second floor of a house owned by a widow of a great Cornell football coach, on the Cascadilla Gorge, and footsteps away from the famous Chapterhouse brewpub. She disliked my using her driveway to park, but allowed it when it was snowing, so I usually parked permitless in the lot next to 112 Edgemoor, hiding behind a derelict DeLorean that never moved in fifteen months. Sometimes I parked in front on Stewart Avenue, at a meter. I had so many tickets.
In the summer of 2000, I drove that car with three other large men to a national boardgaming convention in Columbus, Ohio, where my second cousin was beginning his inaugural year as an assistant professor in the Glenn School at Ohio State. One thousand miles round trip with one thousand pounds of male beef, flawlessly, on forty dollars worth of gasoline. Robert and his then-wife treated me to warm hospitality while my friends played starship combat games with cardboard tokens in the Columbus Convention Center. I treasured my time in the driver’s seat, because, sitting for two hours in the tiny seats in back between Cairo, NY and Elmira, NY, I came to know the meaning of pain, visiting a chiropractor for the first time two weeks later.
Late in the fall, a thrumming began in the front end. Dave Patterson diagnosed failing front bearings, and changed them out, handing me the ruined wheel races at 140,000 miles. $600. A month later, the front brakes failed and I had to drive to Patterson’s Garage down the hill in the floodplain using the descending road with the least number of switchbacks, in first gear, as my friend Courtenay (who grew up in San Francisco) had shown me. I rode the brakes hard all the war down the hill in Fall Creek, and drove very slowly to Dave Patterson, and that was another $700. But the drivetrain was okay, the car was okay, I’d gotten three years out of the car without major work.
The starter went a month later. Okay. Then the alternator. Hm. Okay. Then the pop-up lights failed in the up position. Hm. Then the driver’s side door card started coming off its mountings. Don’t close the door by the handle, Dave. Close it hard holding the top of the window! Okay. The compressor for the air conditioning failed in the spring of ‘01.
My last summer in Ithaca, no air conditioning. Didn’t need it. I met Amanda, an Italian studies PhD candidate from Michigan, a Smith College graduate, at graduation fireworks party. She quoted Dante and Apollinaire in the sack. We drove all over New York together that summer in the Daytona on hiking and camping trips, sharing our sleeping bags, since her dying Ford Courier could barely climb the hill to her apartment. I moved away from Ithaca in August, the Daytona loaded to the gunwales with my moveable possessions, and the rest of my library in storage boxes in her new apartment. The Saturday before 9/11, we embraced on the hood of the Daytona, promising each other that we would keep things going with the same intensity. I thought she was The One.
Then the South Tower fell on my first job in New York. Amanda dumped me a week later. I drove the Daytona to Margate, NJ, past the plume of ash and smoke from lower Manhattan, and lived in my dead grandmother’s empty house by the beach alone for a cold, long winter, spent in enormous pain and heartbreak.
The car started every day. It was covered with frost sometimes, never snow – it barely snows on the barrier islands of the Jersey shore near the strand. Sometimes the brakes squealed with the moisture by the beach.
I moved back to New York and started teaching in the fall of ‘02. A fellow teacher – an Oklahoman teaching French, admired my coupe and we went on several dates, culminating with an outing to the Zinc Bar in the West Village to listen to Richard Bona. In the middle of the week. This was a school night in the middle of February and I picked her up in Greenpoint, playing forties jazz through the stereo, along with which she sang while we drove the back streets to and from the Williamsburgh bridge. I paid the cover and had great parking across the street from the bar. She wanted to sit through all three sets until 4:00 am. On a work night. I made it to 2:00 am, paying for drinks and repeated cover charges and I gave her cab fare and left that I wouldn’t miss a day of work the next day.
She never talked to me again.
The fuel pump went in the middle of May of 2003, and the entire gas tank had to be replaced because of rust. $600.
There is a restaurant in Eastchester, NY, called the Eastchester Fish Gourmet restaurant. I was chatting online with a psy-D student at Yale and we made plans to meet for the first time for dinner there, first week of June. I made reservations three weeks out, but then, there was this *other* girl, whom I drove to visit her grandparents in central New Jersey, Toms River, even, since her grandfather was in rehab and she hadn’t seen him in a year. We’d dated for a bit, but then just became friends. We were going to fix each other up for other people. I drove her down to a rehab facility on Old Freehold Road not far from the cemetery where my grandparents are buried. She visited her grandfather. I offered to take her to the beach. She accepted. I bought Vietnamese take out from Little Saigon in Atlantic City, and we ate it in the dining room in Margate. Then we satin the living room, and held hands. Then I drove her home to Queens. I remember looking at her, asleep in the passenger seat, and wondering what was happening.
I cancelled the date with the psy-D, but kept the appointment. Leah and I would go for fish. She was a trained chef, after all, from the Culinary Institute of America. She would be a good critic.
The meal was incredible. We came back to Queens, and the cream was hitting me in the stomach. I ran to her bathroom and vomited one hundred dollars worth of fish, cream, and wine into Leah’s toilet, and she fussed over me for the rest of the evening. The next day, we were supposed to drive to the Secaucus outlets to buy fancy clothes for our dating lives with others. I recovered in the morning, picked her up, and off we went. She bought me a silk-linen shirt at the Geoffrey Beene outlet, and skipped across the parking lot with me back the car. By Route 3, we were kissing across the console shifter, and clung to one another during the long drive through heavy traffic across Staten Island back to the Verazzano, Brooklyn, and then Queens where we spent the night together, falling in love.
We traveled throughout New York and New Jersey, hiking, camping, visiting various family, feeling one another out for the future.
On the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, Leah was giving me a pedicure and asked, should we get our parents together to meet? I replied, well, that would only make sense if we were going to get married. Do you want to? She replied, Do you? Yes, I said. Yes, she said.
Over Columbus Day Weekend 2003, my wife and I, now affianced, were staying with her grandparents not far from the airfield on which the Hindenberg crashed in Lakehurst. We were driving on Route 70 eastbound towards the Garden State Parkway. Route 70 was being widened, and the twin singlelane carriageways were hemmed in with concrete Jersey barriers and had no breakdown lanes. Entering Lakewood, I saw four headlights approaching – two vehicles abreast as one total piece of drek garbage was trying to overtake in a construction zone and accelerate, and my life slowed down to a crawl. The crash was averted at the very last second with a swerve – the image of the license plate imprinted on my mind. The Daytona had no passenger airbag. It had to go.
I bought the new car, a practical father’s car, two weeks later. The Daytona was donated for a five hundred dollar tax donation receipt to the Chabad in Atlantic City, for Rabbi Rappoport to do with as he pleased. On Veteran’s Day 2003 I drove from Queens to Atlantic City, parked the Daytona in Rabbi Rappoport’s side yard, and walked to Kerbeck’s on the Black Horse Pike to pick up my new car. I still get a kick thinking about a strejmel wearing Hasid with lockshen driving the Daytona, even if it was just to one of the used car lots to unload it. It had 173,000 miles.
The Penis Car. P’ru V’u.