People who know a little bit about my family would probably most often point to my sister as the one who put him through the wringer most-- cutting school, smoking cigarettes, getting a nose-piercing, slamming boys, mouthing off to my mom, getting into all sorts of trouble-- she would certainly be the most obvious choice for most troublesome child of the pack.
But I was worse.
When I was fifteen, I decided that I wanted to own a retired police vehicle. He was immediately dead-set against the idea, and I spent the next six or seven months diligently convincing him that it was a great idea. I realized that, in order to persuade my father to do my bidding, I had to think like my father or, if that was too inconceivable, at least I knew I had to think like a father. I employed carefully-constructed strategem, focusing on the attributes of ex-police cars, such as their comfort, their dependability, their safety, their affordability, and their regular maintenance by fleet mechanics prior to their decommission. I cited National Highway Transportation Safety Administration statistics on crashworthiness, officer fatalites and injury rates in police vehicles as opposed to civilian fatalities and injuries in civilian models, as well as cars that were popular with normal teenagers my age.
The first car I tried to convince him to let me buy was a 1978 Plymouth Fury, which looks like this:
Pretty hot, right? I wanted this car for two reasons, both of them completely impractical:
1.) It was a historically significant vehicle, the last 440 cubic inch, 4 barrel carburated, V-8 engined Mopar police car ever made. Which is a totally retarded reason for a skinny, teenaged Jewish kid in suburban Philadelphia to want a car, but there we are.
2.) It was the kind of vehicle driven by Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane on The Dukes of Hazzard, the only show I ever watched on television as a child that wasn't a Britcom or Masterpiece Theatre.
My father asked me several questions about this car, all of them pretaining to safety features that this vehicle lacked, such as anti-lock brakes and airbags. In 1996, this vehicle was eighteen years old, and my father thought perhaps we should go a tad more modern. Now, the car's 31 years old. I still want one.
And so, defeated and dismayed, knowing no Plymouth Fury would ever grace our driveway, I set my sights on a car that I knew my father couldn't say "no" to, the 1991 Ford Crown Victoria, which looked like this:
Almost makes the Fury look sexy, don't it?
I selected this car because it was the last of the old style of police cars, square and boxy, the style I liked. In 1992, Ford restyled the Crown Vic to the shape of a jelly-bean and I didn't much care for that. Chevy restyled their Caprice, basically the only other modern cop-car offering back then, in 1991, and it looked like an upside-down bathtub. The pre-1991 Chevrolet Caprice was out for a couple reasons-- they never had airbags and, to the best of my knowledge didn't have anti-lock brakes either. Also, in 1990, Chevrolet put the seatbelts for the Caprice on the doors instead of mounted on the B-pillars, rendering the seatbelts completely ineffective in a crash. In fact, a state trooper was decapitated by his seatbelt in a horrific crash, I read while doing car research. No, thank you.
When all the research was carefully presented to my father (my mother would conveniently leave the room to do laundry or re-tar the roof whenever this discussion would come up) he nodded his head, looked up and me and said,
"Well, it's better than that fuckin' Fury."
And, with that, we commenced our search for one. My father called me on the phone one day while he was at work and I was home from school.
"Mummy!" he said, his customary greeting for all of us.
"Yeah?" I answered.
"Where are you?"
Keep in mind, we didn't have cell-phones in those days. He'd called the house number.
"Where am I? I'm in the fucking house-- where do you think I am?"
"Oh! I don't know! Listen, I found a place that just sells ex-police cars, it's about 1/2-an-hour from my factory. I'll take you there on Saturday and see what they have."
My heart leapt. My sixteenth birthday had just passed and I had roughly $3,400 in my bank account left over from my Bar Mitzvah extortion scheme. It was time to get me some wheels. I imagined what this place would look like. I pictured a sprawling, paved lot, filled with shiny, gleaming retired squad cars in all different shades of blue, glowing white, austere black and military browns and greens. Dodge Diplomats, Ford Crown Vics, Caprices-- maybe there'd even be some state police vehicles or detective units or FBI cars with nicely-appointed interiors, too. I imagined tie-bedecked salesmen, perhaps retired cops looking for a new source of income, filled with exciting war stories, about their own careers and about the history of these beauties, done with their halcyon days of police work and ready to be gently let out to pasture in the hands of an appreciative young teen.
Well, it wasn't quite like that.
That Saturday, my father and I drove into No Man's Land together, and I stared at the sticky-note with directions scrawled in his foreigner's handwriting and I dubiously eyed street-signs as we seemed to be driving farther and farther from civilization. Carefully, we made a right turn down a dirt and gravel road and passed through a chain-link fence with barbed wire on top and a handmade sign that said, "NO GOD-DAMN TRESSPASSING." We drove slowly past two run-down trailers and one commode, lying on its side between some rocks.
"This isn't the place, is it?" I asked, knowing full well in the pit of my stomach that this was, indeed, the place. My father put his Pontiac Bonneville into park in front of a burgundy Plymouth Gran Fury from the mid 80s with no tires and three bullet holes in the front windshield. It had no driver's side door. Underneath the bullet holes was scrawled the price: $800.
"Well, at least they're going to have things within our price range," I said to my father, making one of my few attempts at optimism.
"Stay in the car for a minute," my father said to me gravely as he opened his door and got out. An impossibly fat bastard in Depression-era overalls, filthy combat boots and a greasy combover intercepted my father as he walked up to the trailer marked with a small sign that said, "Sales." I watched them talk for a minute or two and tried to read their body language. My father gestures a lot because he's not from this country or planet and this guy in the overalls stood absolutely still, except for a brief moment when he spat out a thick stream of chaw on the fender of a Chevy Caprice that was, presumably, for sale. I was petrified of my surroundings, I knew people like me died in places like this, and I didn't know what to make of their body language, so I just closed my eyes and waited for the shots to ring out.
My father opened the door of the car and I opened my eyes and turned my head to him, expecting to see him bleeding and/or a muffler protruding from his anus.
"It's okay, mummy. Come out, let's look at some cars."
"What about him?" I said, motioning ever so slightly to the "salesman" who was, at this moment, fidgeting with his genitals.
"Who? That fuckin' farmer?" my father said, customarily a little too loudly for my liking. I shushed him vigorously, fearing for our lives. "He's fine. You have relatives like him. Come on."
An hour later, my father was behind the wheel of a 1991 Ford Crown Victoria, with me in the passenger's seat. Miraculously, we were allowed to take the car on a test drive, but I was too scared to drive it. My father was more than happy to oblige. He stomped on the gas and, before we knew it, the car was up to 90mph.
"Wow!" my father exclaimed, "this thing is fuckin' fast!"
The car was listed for $3,000, but my father talked them down to $2,700. They said they'd paint it for another $100, and he agreed. I don't see how he couldn't have, even though the decals had been ripped off, you could still very obviously see "DELAWARE STATE POLICE" all over the doors.
"What color you want 'er?" the salesman asked me, looking me up and down as if he were about to propose marriage. Or something like it.
"Um..." I looked around the lot and saw a Chevy Caprice in a bright, sparkling blue. It was, I think, the only car on the lot that wasn't covered in three inches of dirt.
"Just like that one."
"'Kay," he said, adjusting his shit-covered John Deere cap. "Deal."
My father nodded to me, which was my signal to take out the envelope containing $3,000 in cash, more money than I had ever held, or seen, in my entire life. I took the envelope out with my gaunt hands shaking and trembling like my Great Uncle Ed's did when he tried to eat cereal. This would be the perfect opportunity for Salesman Jack to pull out a shotgun from inside his overalls and kill us both. I at least thought he would grab the entire envelope, but he didn't. He took the money, didn't even count it.
"Let's sign some fuckin' papers," he said to my father, and the two of them went inside the trailer. I resigned myself to the likely possibility that I would never see my father again. I stood there, looking at the car I had just bought with a mixture of elation and fear. Would this big, hulking thing end up killing me? I couldn't conceive that such a huge car would fit down the small streets where I lived. How the hell would I ever park it? I hit the orange barrel during my parallel parking test, knocking it right down to the ground.
"You're good," the instructor said to me. And I didn't even have to give him a handjob.
After a couple minutes, standing there on the gravel road, looking at my ex-police car, another fat fucker came waddling out from the other trailer, I assumed to relieve himself in an outhouse or one of the cars on the lot, but instead he came over to me. His teeth were a crooked mess, tobacco and coffee stained, and his breath smelled like a mixture of pipe detritus and duck vomit.
"That yours?" he said, motioning to the Crown Vic behind me.
"Um.... well, soon, I guess," I stammered, not wanting to say the wrong thing and make him mad.
"Nice," he said. He had overalls on, too. This was, I guessed, the uniform of this particular neighborhood, like fitted pink dress shirts in Chelsea.
He began to talk to me about Vietnam. I don't remember how we got onto that particular topic, but I'm reasonably sure it wasn't me who initiated. He told me that he was "over there" and that he had killed a "good number of them yella sumbitches."
"Wow," I said. He stood very, very close to me and I was very, very close to wetting myself.
"And this fuckin' gov'mint, when you come back-- they don't do nothin' to set yer ass right, you know what I mean?"
I didn't know what he meant.
"I know what you mean," I answered, convincingly nodding my head.
"Now, I can't even order fuckin' Chinese food without wantin' to kill me a yella person. You know? They teach you to go out there and kill yella people, kill yella people-- but they don't never teach you how to STOP killin' yella people!"
There was a long pause as he stared at me, waiting for me to say something. I stared back. I was sure I could out-run him, or maybe I could shove my keys into his eyes first, but that would require getting even closer to him. He took a step towards me for some reason when a German Shepherd, who was chained to a fence in the background, started barking at something. His eyes bugged out and he turned his head towards the dog.
"Goddamnit. Ike! Shut the fuck up, y'hear! Shut the fuck up, Goddamnit!"
The Vietnam vet gimped his way over in the direction of the dog, and I shakily took out my father's keys, the ones I was going to use to gouge out this nutjob's eyes, and opened the door to his Bonneville where I sat like a stone until it was time for me to be called into the trailer to co-sign on the title, which I did, with a greasy "Hooters" pen.