Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Cliff's KV Notes, Part 17: Wheels, Part 1

While KV had a lot to offer, I figured that the world outside KV had even more to offer. Outside of public transportation to routine destinations, such as school, it was wheels that really helped sever the KV umbilical cord. My first wheels was a Rudge bicycle that was nearly as tall as I was. My parents had bought it on Cortland St, and they pushed it back to KV. It made a clicking sound, so they thought something was wrong, and they pushed it back to Cortland St. They were told that the sound was normal, so they pushed the bike back again to KV. The genre of bike was loosely referred to as an “English Racer,” although it wasn’t. But it was pretty slick compared to my friend Eugene Reiser’s American-made Schwinn. The Rudge had a neat Sturmey-Archer 3-speed gearshift lever on the right handlebar. It operated a cable that changed the internal gears inside the rear hub. There was no pedal brake, handlebar levers controlled front and rear cable-operated brakes, also slick. Okay, so I couldn’t lock and skid the rear wheel like Eugene could. Big deal.
With Eugene as the usual point man, I discovered the great ride of the FDR Park that ran from Gouveneur St. up to 23 St. Then it was riding in traffic up to the U.N. building. One of our usual destinations was the long pier that jutted out into the East River at Clinton or Jefferson St. The United States Trucking Co. would park their big flatbeds that hauled huge rolls of newsprint to the Journal-American building on that pier. The pier was deserted on the weekends, so Eugene and I would ride down, hop in the trucks, put them in gear and drive them around (within the confined spaces between the other parked trucks) using the starter motor and battery power. We had fun shifting gears and turning the wheel. When the battery died, we just grabbed another truck.
On one bike trip, out to Clove Lake Park in Staten Island during Passover, our moms packed us matzoh sandwiches for lunch. I had cream cheese on regular matzoh (the cheese acted as a sort of glue to hold everything together.) Poor Gene. His mother made him a chopped egg sandwich on egg matzoh, of all things. Egg matzoh was pretty fragile stuff to begin with. We arrived at the park, rode around and sat down to eat. I opened my lunch bag and pulled out my sandwich. Eugene opened his bag, and I still remember the look on his face as all he saw was crumbs. I couldn’t stop laughing.
Eventually, I got another bike, which I rode to Brooklyn College before I got my driver’s license. I could make the trip from KV to the college in about 45 minutes—usually better than the subway. One of the crazy things I used to do, for the ultimate adrenaline rush (up to that point) was to ride down to the Battery during the week at around lunch time, and then ride full speed back down narrow Nassau St. I would go so fast, that no one ever saw me until I was past them. I counted on not being seen, because then people do stupid things (‘course what I was doing couldn’t be considered as stupid). But I never hit anyone or had an accident. Believe me, it was a real rush.
Since no one in our family had a car, my mother and I went to the AAA driving school on, I believe, 63rd St. on the west side. She was the one that wanted a car over my father’s strong objections (he knew what was in store). I wanted to learn on a stick, and I drove the school’s ’58 Pontiac Star Chief with a 3-speed column shift. My mother drove an automatic. My mother was a terrible driver. She failed her driving test, and when I went with her to practice in her ’54 Buick, I wore a crash helmet. I thought it was funny. She didn’t.
We bought the car before my mother or I had our licenses. My father knew a used car dealer, Crestline Motors, way out in Queens, like maybe Fresh Pond Rd. We went out by subway. The dealer said he had selected two cars for us to look at. I didn’t know squat about cars, and my mother knew even less. He had a ’57 Chevy plain Jane 210 model, which I think was the bottom of the line, and a ’54 Buick Century. What a neat car—a hardtop with a cream roof and Titian red bottom. The dealer took me for a ride, and from the passenger seat, the car felt fast. And well it should. I didn’t know it at the time, but the Century model used the small, light Special body with the big Roadmaster 4-barrel carburetor V8 engine. To an 18-year-old kid, it was the cat’s teats.

We came back to the dealer with my Uncle Harry to drive the car home It had a bad fuel pump and it kept stalling. But we made it. We parked the Buick in that small 6-8 car lot on Monroe St. near Catherine. I have a separate Uncle Harry story for an upcoming installment (just to keep all of you coming back). When I was practicing for my road test, Alfred Grey, who lived in our building (“A”), was a friend of my father’s, and would ride with me on occasion. Gray was the head of the Motor Vehicle Bureau in Manhattan on Worth St. If you remember the DMV office back then, there were huge black and white photos of car wrecks posted below the counters. Maybe they wanted you to think twice about applying for a driver’s license. We were tooling down Second Ave. and Grey made the remark, “If you can drive on Second Ave., you can drive anywhere.” My father had no desire to drive anywhere.
My mother was such a bad driver that she retired a legion of guardian angels who asked for another assignment. It’s really a miracle she survived her driving career. She wiped out two hubcaps on one of those turns on the West Side Highway, probably avoiding flipping or crashing by a whisker. She took out a tree (which she had to pay for) in New Jersey. My sister was in the car and she went nuts. I mean, you’re supposed to drive on the road, not on the sidewalk—at least that’s what it says in the New York Sate Driver’s Manual.
‘Course, I wore out my share of guardian angels, too. Not because I was a bad driver, but because I was a good driver—too good for my own good. Like the time I went for a late night drive and ended up in Far Rockaway, or was it just Rockaway. I was bombing along a deserted Beach Channel Drive—a really great 2- or 3-lane road and the Buick was in its stride at 90 MPH. Things are going great, when all of a sudden the road ended. I mean it necked down into a one-lane 90-degree turn, and there was a fence and a dropoff. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. What a stupid road. And I know there’s no way I’m getting out of this. So I’m on the brakes with both feet and trying to coax those stupid skimpy bias-ply tires to turn, please, and save my butt. The Buick had soft coil springs front and rear and the car really leaned in the corners. On this one I thought I heard the door handles scraping the ground. The only way I made it through that corner was by divine intervention—one of many such interventions. After that stunt, I granny-footed it back home, just happy to be alive. Until the next time. Maybe I should have taken a harder look at those Motor Vehicle photos.
The next chapter of Cliff's KV notes
The previous chapter of Cliff's KV Notes

No comments: