Sunday, September 18, 2011
The Silver Beast: Part I
When I was a teenager my father drove a silver 1978 Ford Granada with rust holes the size of softballs. At a time when being ‘cool’ was a gargantuan deal, the Granada was an embarrassment. I remember talking to girls outside the movie theatre on a Friday night, seeing the Granada coming across the parking lot like a smoke screen, and darting behind the bushes until the girls had gone off. In ninth grade when I had bi-weekly braces appointments that meant I’d leave school on early release, I’d shrink in shame as the Granada rounded past student parking, roared to a stop outside the senior wing. “Is that your ride?” the office secretary would ask. I’d say “I don’t think so. But let me see,” then make that death-row dash from the school’s front doors, praying that nobody watched through the classroom windows, but realizing a thousand eyes were probably on me, including Rachel Sykes’s, the cheerleading captain I had a heavyweight crush on.
My father kept garbage bags filled with empty beer cans on the seats; cans he always meant to recycle but never got around to. Before he backfired from the high school lot, the Hefty bags would be relocated to the trunk, to make room for me. He’d take care of that, and I’d nose dive though the open door onto the sun-cracked, maroon bucket, pull the creaky door shut, bury my head between my knees, eying the blue-collared G.E. shirts on the floor mat. My dad would climb behind the faded-rubber wheel, and say, “You feeling sick?” He’d put the car in gear with an irritated snicker, and off we went with a bang from the bad exhaust.
The Granada was in my life a little over a decade. When it r-r-r-ran, it could never be trusted, dying at red lights, submitting on the shoulder of a rural road. After that it sat at the side of the driveway like a monument in soft mud, beside the broken-down motorboat my father was perpetually fixing, and the ‘slightly used’ snowmobile he never made go. When he put some coin together, the neighborhood mechanic duct taped the silver beast back together, and the Granada was out of its open grave. I’d come home from school, and my mother would meet me at the house’s front door with a look that meant Oh my God, the Granada’s back. When she knew I’d read her expression right, she’d say, “Can you freakin’ believe it?” and raise both clenched fists above her head.
Before our summer vacations to New Hampshire, my father would spray paint the rust holes for the 4-hour drive to the Atlantic Ocean. Easter Sundays, he took mercy on my mother and me by parking at the far end of the church’s lot. He knew the truth: We hated the Granada. We didn’t understand the value in keeping something way past expiration. “Gotta get your money’s worth,” he’d always say. But, when church ended and the Easter pictures were posed for, he always drove straight through the gathered congregation on the way out. Check the back seat, beside the Hefty bag of Bud cans. That’s me, at 12 years old, donning a K-Mart necktie; face buried between the knees of my pleated slacks that would’ve looked oh-so cool without a rust box wrapped around them. When my uncle Jack and his blonde wife came to the house in his midnight blue Camaro with the 5-speed and mag wheels, he’d ask my father, “Steve, how come you don’t get something new?” Steve would give Jack a look like he just suggested shooting the President, then say, “What for?”
It was after one of those orthodontist appointments that my father brought me to McDonald's. I was 14 years old. He ordered his usual: three cheeseburgers, medium fry, medium soda. We drove to a little league park behind the Mickey-D’s called West Land Hills, parked the car and got busy with the grub. My father always ate his cheeseburgers the same way. He’d set the sandwich between the front seats, carefully pull off the yellow wrapping, hold it in his hand, biting in a clockwise circle till it was finished. In fact he always did everything the same way. Kept his wallet in the same spot on the counter with his car keys. Smoked Kool Ultra 100’s in the same chair at the table, played the same lotto numbers at the grocery store in town. He left for second-shift work at exactly 1.45P.M. Always. The. Same.
While we sat there that day, he told me about a time when he was much younger, and wanted to start a go-cart park behind that McDonald’s. It was his dream for the kids to call him Mr. Fun. When I asked him why it never happened, he said his father, Grandpa, said that idea was a dumb idea. “That was a long time ago,” my father said, and he went back to his lunch. After we ate, my father FINALLY decided to clean the car’s interior. He was a packrat by nature. But sometimes enough was enough. So he backed the Granada to a green garbage can; started filling the receptacle with old newspapers, plastic shopping bags, coffee cups, everything in between. I ate fries while he worked; all four passenger doors and the trunk popped open. As he carried another armful of crap to the garbage, a yuppie-looking guy with a pinstriped suit and stylish eye glasses, came to the can. Probably a State Worker on his 12PM break. But I didn’t know that then. I just saw the suit and got impressed. My father dropped his junk, looked at the yuppie, and said, “Nice day, ain’t it?”
Even when I was young I knew my father and I had very little in common. I wasn’t sure he was someone I could be proud of. Did I love him? Fear him? Hate him? All of the above. Growing up, I always made strategies to avoid him. If he was out back I went through the front. I hated saying happy birthday to him. One Father’s day I told him he wasn’t my dad. Why? I wanted attention. He had an invisible field around him that meant do not enter. Sometimes that field was no bigger than the kitchen, sometimes it was the size of Saturn. Steve came from a tough-guy bunch from the city of Albany. When they were teenagers, they hung by a convenience store called the Courtesy Mart, playing cards and smoking butts. As adults they worked hard, partied hard. My childhood was littered with memories of Stacky’s camp, Five Mile parties with bikers, and guys named Six Pack and Big John. My dad worked a labor job at General Electric I didn’t understand.
My parents were young. They argued a lot. We lived in a basement apartment with no windows for five years before buying in the country. He didn’t like tossing ball or shooting hoops. He was bald by twenty five. He grew a full beard and mustache, and looked like Homer Simpson the one time I saw him shaved clean. He didn’t care about material things or fancy clothes like my uncle Jack. He didn’t have a college degree or golf-club membership like his six brothers. I never imagined one day being like my dad. And I sure as hell would never drive a rust bucket on wheels . . .
The Silver Beast:Part II to follow