She was nice enough, I thought walking over the damp sidewalks, breath faint, and stomach full, content to know my next love, my next relationship would not be with her. Not caring about the $300 for a fine meal, as if I was looking at something as gorgeous as a Coltrane horn, and all it would play was beige wallpaper, or slow, dry, wind brazen death in the Gobi. On 6th Avenue the soldiers were still atop the marquee at Radio City, and the traffic not quite back to normal, the climate still settling from the silly season, bracing for two months of winter marching towards St. Paddy’s.
Where would the next one be? I am tired of hookers. What crack or shadow would embrace my heart again? Did I really even want it? Probably not ready for it. “Shut up.” I told myself. I remembered my first for some reason, and then further back. Beyond the first, all the way back to the Saab.
Uncle Tom would show up on birthdays, sometimes Christmas—always with a different woman, always with the best gifts, the best laugh—and stay for the shortest time. He would kick me cash against the old man’s wishes, and speak to me as a friend about young ladies, music, his experiences and what he learned about doing things right. The latter to which I would not learn myself for some years.
Uncle Tom then, and to this day, wore a smile up to his eyes that were my grandmother’s green. He laughed in sentences and smoked Barclays. The shift and snap of his Zippo—his first exhale was better than the aromas of a bakery, especially embedded into the leather of the Saab.
It was the first sports car in my family that I could recall at the time. The old man used to gloat about a Mustang he had when I was three, but I could never remember. After years of school and just in time for the days of Miami Vice and yuppiedom, Uncle Tom scored a traveling gig selling hospital equipment and the vehicle he chose, of course, was the black Saab.
Recalling it all now, I was not initially impressed. It was not Mark Jenna’s cousin’s Vette with the atmospheric paint job, side pipes, and moon roof. Not even the muscle mystique and credibility of Tommy Farnsworth’s, who lived across the street, blue Camaro. Granted, the Camaro was as cool as they come, but even cooler because it was Tommy’s and he used to be a Green Beret.
It was not until that afternoon driving to the Knicks’ game—Uncle Tom playing mixed tapes on the Clarion stereo with adjustable equalizer—down the Saw Mill to the West side highway, commanding the five speeds as if he invented them, constantly adjusting the beeps on his Passport radar detector, the smell of hundreds of dead and smoked Barclays cured into the leather of the dash and seats, did the Saab 900 Turbo rise above all else.
On the street amongst my friends it was a shoulder shrug of an “eh.” But I kept it to myself, that special place inside, that it was, and what it would become, the summer nights when I was 11 or so, and he greased me the keys.
Thinking back to that first summer night that would come to represent many, U.T. wanted some privacy with the old man and he could not get it with me persisting that “Bobby Jean” was the best cut on “Born in the USA” (which it is).
Slick as he was, just when the old man was yelped away by Ma, he told me that the big key with the rubber end did everything. He showed me how to turn it away from the dash counter clockwise so as to bypass the alarm. Also when I was inside, he told me to lock up immediately, to absolutely stay away from the gear shift, and that the safety break jack-knifed upwards just beyond the arm rest. The ignition was to be turned one click forward, not more because he didn’t want my old man to have to give him a jump, and if that happened, he and I both would be in “hot shit.”
While doing all these, the Clarion should be played, said U.T. as he smiled and told me gently with point, “Go nuts.” Later on as it became ritual, he asked that the equalizers be returned to his settings. I would want the same thing, so I respected his wishes every time.
Once inside I locked the door immediately. The steering wheel was thick, the Saab crest dead center. The key went in as I had seen him do three or four times before, one click forward. The green lights breathed in the equalizer below—but not the stereo—and my blood raced. What did I do? Why did I screw this up? Should I go and get him? I wanted it to be perfect. Eyes wide, I reached for the large knob on the stereo face and turned it on.
Jimmy Buffet came through and so I immediately ejected the tape. It exited after a slight pause and a sound familiar to something from a Star Trek episode. I put it into its proper case. Opening the arm rest revealed all the tapes he had made and bought, the tapes he traveled with all over the country—and I sat not knowing where to begin, content to start in silence.
This was me getting ready to drive. I was tall enough, and in that seat, it was my Saab, they were my tapes. The cigarettes smelled so rich and the beige of the leather was just barely visible in the night, under the shadow of the tree just before the orange and hum of the streetlight.
These were the days of Tom Petty’s “You Got Lucky.” And Billy Squire’s run that ran into J. Geils, ZZ Top, and Foreigner. Just before Van Halen’s rise, just before Pat Benetar’s decline, Squeeze and John Waite, Prince, some Hall and Oates with glimpses of Rush, The Honeydrippers, and whatever the Stones were doing. Every twenty minutes you could hear “Pink Houses” on at least two stations, and the “Pink Houses” contest on MTV where a then John Cougar would come for a barbeque.
The summers bread comfort and a Catholic child’s shame. Her breasts were pointed and veins streaked their sides, she took her bra off. I sucked them, apprehensive at first, as my birth rite later. I imagined myself pulling in front of her house in the Saab, my hand gently palming the gear shift, lazily swaying it from side to side in neutral, waiting confident.
“The screen door slammed, Mary’s dress swayed…”
She would run slightly, then saunter like a cat. Everybody would be watching and then my hand would feather us into first, dip us into second,, jam us into third. Making a right—she held my hand and the blood would rush up through my cheeks when she would lean over and put her tongue against mine, just as she had taught me to do to her.
I resigned to the radio at first just to break the silence. Both windows were cracked slightly, allowing the June breeze to relieve some of my sweat. On the dial, country, classical, college, rock, oldies. I stayed strictly in rock-n-roll, with an occasional flip to the oldies for some origins of rock-n-roll Dell Shannon, Van the man ,or anything meeting the grit and soul criteria.
“I have stood here before inside the pouring rain…”
The night was limitless, serene, holding all of its passion very guarded, gently waiting for me stumbling in it…new. There was no pressure inside the car—it was just me flying vivid with sight and conviction even though the Saab never did moved from the curb. He had cassettes of greats that I had heard, but was not “hearing” at the time. Tull, Santana, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, I dabbled with Bowie but would not fully understand his genius until years later when I would first be getting drunk on the weekends. Usually, the day after these nights I would wake up late, eat my peanut butter toast, and go to the pool. Everyone always would wonder where the hell I was…this night I am driving there.
When I park outside the fence, the white of the lights high above us will sink into the black of the water. We’ll sit on the hood, as if we were lifeguards, Dave and his girl. Only I’ll have the Saab and Dave’s girl will want me then as well. Just like little Maria down the street, who will be gorgeous one day, and likes me very much but has no breasts and kisses hard with no tongue. Or perhaps Viv Maloney, who looks like a willing pale sex goddess in her blue Speedo one piece, until she stares at me with her droopy eyes and a smile her parents cannot yet afford to fix. They were not Carol Kintana.
Gliding down the W. Side Highway—a knot in the stomach— just over the slight rise and dip around 95th street, night and everything in it, 5th gear undisturbed until the docks where the ocean liners sleep waiting to shove off. Maybe to pick up Rick Rodriguez the All State catcher, and his girl, the All State beauty— the all-cool kid in the all-cool Saab with sexy Carol K.
The reality of my father in the house talking about how shitty my grades were was gone. His impending decision on sending me to summer school ,taking away mid-afternoons of freedom and the pursuit of Carol’s body, now were superfluous. Confidence rode the moonlight and shined through the speakers via the clarion box.
“I want ya tonite—I want ya with me.”
If the Arthur Avenue Italians wanted to start any shit, I was ready. I’d whip this fucking car right into the heart of anything, and everybody around would talk in whispers as I drove away, as some of them ran away. Manhattan never saw anything like me. I felt paralleled to The Man With No Name in the Dollars’ Trilogy, John Milner in his piss yellow deuce coup, or Evel Knievel without the bike.
Then after I showed them, Dad would not care about my grades or what my friends and I did in secret places around the neighborhood, making out in the bushes after dark, exploring new avenues that were our bodies, all under the shadows of “sleep-overs,” massive games of “tag” and block parties. While our parents drank beer and boxed wine listening to 50’s and 60’s juke box music.
I wanted Carol to be my girl, and only mine, but she would not. Her brother told me of all the other ones she had kissed and I would stop him when he began to elaborate. I thought about her tongue in my mouth and what she taught me. I took to kissing Viv Maloney, but it was not the same. Though her body, still damp from the Speedo, was full and arousing I would not want Viv in the Saab.
“Harley came from Miami f-l-a…”
Orange lights one after the other, through streets that would dip and jag. The Westside Highway looping to the FDR, Canal Street to 7th Avenue, round Battery Park to the fish market…windows down.
“We only run for the money got no strings attatched…we shut ‘em up and then we shut ‘em down…”
His tapes were not arranged in any order, the titles and contents were handwritten, forcing me to hold them to as much outside light as I could, not even thinking of turning on the dome light above. It was where I belonged, and the beginning of many nights that I would soon practice for. They were visions created by swirling spirits of contentment, the rush of romance and strokes of real confidence. The night created more soul than the day—providing more cover to kiss and feel—giving desperation and meaning to the music, undisturbed and boundless in the Saab.
“I’m driving a stolen car, down on Eldridge Avenue, each night I wait to get caught…but I never do.”
I was at 43rd and 6th, it was too cold, my eyes were watering down my face my nose was sore from wiping it. I caught a cab to Queens and pondered a nightcap.