Cars were an important part of life at Grace Church. Maybe it was because we “had a guy.” That guy was Ted Rowland. Ted owned a Ford dealership on Long Island. That’s why everyone in church drove a Ford. I don’t know if church members got better deals, or if Ted had just convinced them they were getting better deals. Either way, East 92nd Street, as it ran past Grace Church, sported a lot of Fords on Sunday mornings.
Pop’s first car was a 1936 Ford, a Tudor. Tudor was Ford’s fancy way of telling potential customers it had two doors. The four door version was called—and I’m not making this up—the Fordor.
Pop’s second car, a 1953 Ford, also a two-door, began my family’s often awkward and sometimes wonderful relationship with automobiles.
On a sunny late summer afternoon in 1960, before my brother entered and dropped out of City College to join the Marines, he was hanging out with Karl Kriegel on his stoop. I was in the house, probably being babysat by Isaac in his apartment. I heard the thud; John saw it all.
Mom had to run an errand, most likely a short trip to the drug store with one of the church ladies. After backing out of our driveway, the one on Isaac’s side of the yard, she slowly maneuvered the Ford across the street in order to face south. She wasn’t moving too quickly, John observed, but she backed up with a strong sense of purpose. When her right rear fender gently edged along the telephone pole, much the way the Titanic edged along the iceberg, she panicked and accelerated in reverse. Somehow, the other fender wedged itself against a fire hydrant, what old-time Canarsians called a “johnny pump” (although I don’t know why). That was the thud I heard.
Isaac and I ran down the stairs and out the rarely-used front door to assess the damage. John and Karl stayed on the stoop a few doors down just taking it all in. It was quite a scene.
Isaac took command as only an ancient mariner could do. He told Mom to put the car in first gear and slowly pull forward. Nothing. The car wouldn’t budge. Isaac switched places with Mom. Still no movement, just spinning wheels in the grassy strip between the sidewalk and the curb. Isaac gave up trying to save the fenders and went for the ultimate weapon: his crowbar. John and Karl continued watching.
Isaac quickly returned with the crowbar. He instructed Mom to put the car in gear and try once again to pull forward slowly as he, as gently as possible, wedged the crowbar between the fender and the phone pole. Nothing about the process was gentle. He rammed the crowbar with the heel of his hand and then with his knee, gaining a little more purchase. Swearing quietly so Mom wouldn’t hear, he repeated the process. On his third attempt the Ford broke free, metal screaming against metal (the crowbar) and squealing against wood (the pole) as Mom not so gently drove away from her predicament.
After the excitement died down, John and Karl leapt from their perch and walked to our backyard, where the ‘53 Ford lay mangled. John grabbed a tape measure from Pop’s tool box and proceeded to measure the rear section of the car. Then he and Karl crossed the street and measured the distance between the telephone pole and the fire hydrant. Measure once, shake your head; measure twice, keep shaking that head.
Finally, John looked at Karl and said, head still shaking, “I don’t know how she did it, but she did it.”
Mom was a fairly new driver back then, but her skills never did improve much. She never wrecked a car again, but she came close a few times. Fortunately, she never drove fast enough to do any damage.
Mom always used her meager driving skills on behalf of others. Whenever a little old lady from Grace Church or a neighbor down the street needed a lift to the supermarket or the doctor or the drug store, they’d call Mom, and she never failed them. When it came to driving, Mom had the greatest of all abilities: availability.
The Ford was repairable, but Pop decided it was time to replace it. He’d bought it used and figured he’d reached a level of success in life where a new car was both acceptable and affordable. The 1960 model year was just beginning, and Ted Rowland’s showroom was calling Pop to Long Island.
Pop returned to Brooklyn with the receipt for his down payment on a brand new Ford Fairlane—the straight Fairlane not the fancier, and more expensive, Fairlane 500. Uncle Freddy drove a Fairlane 500, from Ted Rowland, of course, but he worked for New York Bell—the Phone Company—and Pop was merely a civil servant. So, basic Fairlane it was for the Baisleys.
Not only was the Fairlane Pop’s first new car, it was his first car with four—count ‘em, four—doors. No more waiting in the rain for people to climb into the back before settling comfortably into the front seat. Four doors! Two decades of driving a car with only two doors may explain why Pop had trouble getting used to four doors.
A few days later, after the good folks at Ted Rowland Ford had properly given Pop his money’s worth of “dealer prep,” he drove the gleaming white behemoth through the chain link gate on Isaac’s side of the yard to its new home.
As John piled up A’s at Brooklyn Tech, Pop beamed with pride as the owner of a showroom-fresh 1960 Ford. He wasn’t beaming long before he went his first round against his ultimate nemesis, the gate. I blame those back doors, not Pop’s driving.
One fall day, Pop took a personal day off from his job with the Labor Department to run an errand. It had to have been very important because he planned on driving. That was a rare event, Pop driving through Brooklyn streets. Or maybe he just wanted to cruise in his Fairlane.
John usually took the bus and subway to school, but this day Pop was home and asked if John would like a ride. I know it sounds hokey, but I strongly suspect John answered something like, “That’d be swell, Dad,” or some such fifties-ism.
After they, and Mom, got into the car, and Pop started it up, John volunteered to run to the end of the driveway and open the gate. He’d done things like that before, back when Baisley vehicles only came with two doors. Things had changed, however.
John jumped out of the back seat, enjoying the ease of springing through the right rear door. He opened the gate and then crossed to Pop’s side of the driveway to wait for the Fairlane to back up. To this day he doesn’t know why he left the right rear door open or why he didn’t wait on that side of the driveway. He just did it.
John never saw the door he’d left open. Pop never looked to the side. He just backed up with his turned head toward the rear window.
The low speed crash came and went quickly, but the shock remained for days. “John, why did you leave the door open?” No answer would suffice. The Fairlane’s pristine beauty was no more. It was a sad day in Baisley automotive history, but not the saddest. That day occurred the following spring.
It was morning, that much I remember. It had to be a weekend because Pop never drove the Fairlane on weekdays. Weekdays were what public transportation was for. So it had to be Saturday. Not Sunday, of course. We walked to church on Sunday, strolling as a family around Avenue K and up East 92nd Street if we had the time, running individually through the vacant lot just north of us if we were late. We were always late.
Yes, Saturday morning wins by elimination. Pop needed to go somewhere, but first he walked to the gate and opened it. Then he opened the right rear door and placed something on the back seat. I hope it was an important something, but I don’t remember.
I never heard the crash, I only heard the wailing. Grown men don’t cry, or so goes a popular early 60s notion. Pop cried. He moaned. He wailed! We could hear him as he walked from the driveway. His words pierced my soul,
“I can understand once—once—but twice? Not twice.”
The words staggered out in sobs. Pop had knocked off the same door that had been replaced only a few months earlier. The cries were because this time he had no one with whom to be angry, no one to blame.
I blame the second set of doors. It was too much for a man of almost fifty to get used to.
I think Pop blamed the Ford Motor Company. He never owned another Ford product. After driving the curséd Fairlane until 1963, he bought the first of his station wagons: a Chevy Belair. The gang loved it. Next came a ‘67 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser, the wagon with the wraparound sunroof. After that a Dodge and a Plymouth. He was done with Fords.
When I was growing up, the legal driving age in New York was 18, but if you took Driver’s Education you could get your license at 17. The trick was, hardly any city schools offered Driver’s Ed in their regular curriculum. Some held the classes during the summer, but you had to pay for it. So it was that I came to learn the art of driving at a high school clear across Brooklyn, one to which I commuted every morning for two weeks during the summer before my seventeenth birthday.
I learned quickly, even earning the right to drive myself home a couple of times, with the instructor as passenger. After the course, I practiced my skills with Pop at my side; he was a firm but gentle complement to the professional instructor. One fall day in 1969, I passed my driving test.
I loved driving Pop’s ‘69 Dodge Coronet wagon. It had Chrysler’s small block workhorse, the 318ci V8. The car could leave rubber at any corner. Pop was proud of that. So was I. I can still feel the slight head jerk when I gunned the engine and popped the brake. Sweetness.
Still, a high school senior needs his own car even in a city where most people use public transportation. Thanks to my inheritance from good ol’ Uncle Charlie, I had enough money to shop for something reasonably nice. Pop found it for me, a 1964 Ford Galaxie 500: dual exhausts, four barrel carburetor, and a 352ci engine. Nice. And four doors; the family curse.
My first car had to have a name, and it was duly christened “Atsama Car” (say it fast with a Brooklyn accent and you’ll understand) by the Canarsie High track team. Affectionately known as “Atsama,” the Galaxie took my buddies and me everywhere. Most of the time I was a safe, considerate, and courteous driver. Occasionally I was not.
One of Atsama’s talents was driving in circles; but don’t worry, he was always legally on the road. At the southern tip of Rockaway Parkway, where you entered or exited the Belt Parkway, there was a big traffic circle with a half-acre of grass in the middle. The idea was for drivers to gently transition from one road to another. Such devices go by names like “roundabout” and “rotary” in other parts of the country.
While such circles are meant to be traversed only a quarter to three-quarters of the way around, one day, while driving Little Morty and Big Mike to Long Island, I decided it might be fun do go the full 360. And then 720. What the heck, 1080! Only Big Mike’s pleas about cops coming broke the cycle, and off we drove to Long Beach.
Long Beach was our Dreamland. There awaited the fiercest chili, the biggest hot dogs, the fattest fries, and—and this is the “dream” part—the most beautiful girls just waiting for us to give them a ride in Atsama. After countless cruises up and down Long Beach Road, hours spent lounging in the Nathan’s parking lot, and many vain attempts at not looking desperate, for one brief, shining moment a couple of girls took us up on the offer of a ride home. We may have imagined a romantic interlude, but neither Morty nor Mike nor I were adept at such things. We gave the girls exactly what they wanted: a safe ride home.
Casanovas we were not, but we did know, and were friends with, lots of girls. One of those friends, Karen Gordon, initiated me into the family curse.
I liked Karen. I thought she was cute, funny, and smart. Those are criteria I still adhere to. Jen, my wife, is cute, funny, and smart; and I like her too.
One spring afternoon during our senior year at Canarsie High, Little Morty, Big Mike, Karen, and I were driving in Atsama and had to stop on Rockaway Parkway near the subway station for Karen to run an errand. We were lucky to find a parking space right near the bank she had to visit.
Being a fairly new driver in New York City, I was anxious to show off my parallel parking skills. Not all New Yorkers drive, but those who do can parallel park the asses off any other drivers in the USA. I truly believe that.
Atsama and I pulled up partway beside the car in front of the vacant space. I turned my head all the way around, like a ventriloquist's dummy, and deftly backed into the space. Then I pulled forward to bring Atsama to a full parallel with the curb. All that was left was to back the Galaxie into a perfect center between the cars in front and behind me. Karen, apparently, didn’t understand the value of a perfectly parallel, perfectly centered automobile.
As I began backing up, Karen thrust the right rear—yep, the accurséd right rear—door open. Thud! Rip! Atsama’s door tore almost all the way free from its hinges.
“Karen! What are you doing?” I shouted.
“I didn’t know you were going to back up,” she replied.
And that was the end of the argument. What was done was done, and neither Atsama nor I were going to let a broken door interfere with a friendship.
Karen apologized to Atsama; we all tied the door shut with some clothesline rope, and drove off after Karen ran her errand. She assured me she’d fix the door.
A few days later, Karen appeared at my house with the right rear door of a yellow ‘64 Ford Galaxie. Little Morty, our car expert, attached it to Atsama, and he was whole again. Except Atsama was a deep metallic blue. The door was a matte yellow. What to do, what to do.
Had I been an adult, or maybe just someone other than who I am, I would have taken the car to Earl Scheib for a cheap paint job. Not me. I bought a bottle of Ford deep metallic blue paint and a couple of brushes. For the rest of the school year, my friends, classmates, and track teammates painted their signatures on Atsama’s new door. It was better than a yearbook.
In August, I drove Atsama onto the campus of Lancaster Bible College for the first time. He and I immediately felt the judging eyes of the faculty, upper class students, and their bland, sedate automobiles. Tough. Atsama’s named fenders and signed door, in gleaming blue and flat yellow, had more character than the lot of them.
A few months later they opened a new shopping mall on the outskirts of Lancaster. “Park City” they called it. Some college buddies and I decided to check it out one day after class. Entering the highway, Atsama’s accelerator pedal stuck. He sped helplessly along as the speedometer reached 100. Brakes wouldn’t stop him. Finally, not knowing any better, I turned off the engine, out of which came a weird clunking sound.
Safely on the shoulder of the highway, we got out of the car. A bright brown liquid flowed freely out of the underside of Atsama’s engine. We had him towed to a family friend’s barn where we attempted, over the next six months, to replace the blown engine, that beautiful old 352. We never got it right. I don’t know if the farmer who inherited Atsama ever got him running again. Sometimes I still miss the great blue beast.
Cosplay is big these days, with Comic Con and other –Cons drawing thousands. Cosplay just might have had its beginning with some junior high kids from Canarsie, as you’ll see in next week’s episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.