Saturday, September 17, 2011

Charting Cars in the Bronx

Once upon a time I charted cars on pieces of construction paper. It was in the mid-1970s that the teenage me plopped down on my front stoop, and sometimes at a front window, and recorded the manufacturers of the automobiles that passed by me. What an interesting boy I was. We knew car makes back then—be they Dodge Darts, Chevy Impalas, Buick Centuries, and most everything in between—because they were totally unique in appearance.

In the old neighborhood, we not only knew a whole lot more people than city folk know today, but we knew the specific kinds of cars they drove, too. Neighbors distinguished themselves with their choice of vehicles and couldn’t, therefore, come and go unnoticed. Now—with some notable exceptions, of course—what is parked along the streets, and in the area garages, look more or less the same, despite all of the amazing technological advances therein.

The colors of cars in the 1970s were also in sync with the fashions of the day in that groovy snapshot in time. Danny C drove a dark brown Ford LTD, and Cathy R, a pale yellow Volkswagen; Jack H had a sky-blue Plymouth Duster, and Jimmy S, a bright red AMC Rebel. There were people who drove gas-guzzling “boats,” as we called them back then. Arthur M Sr. parked a metallic gold-colored Olds Ninety Eight on the street that was the size of a stretch limousine. Others sought out economy cars that were at once cheap in price and fuel efficient in an age of increasingly high gas prices, and occasionally outright shortages, courtesy of an awful cartel that is equally awful today, although happily somewhat more impotent.

My father owned a 1959 Chevrolet Biscayne for fourteen years. It had an interior smell—a car-seat vinyl meets gassy residue kind of thing—that inspired carsickness, particularly without something called air conditioning. One member of the family, in fact, would puke his guts out at the mere thought of getting into the car—yards away from it—before any outing. In 1973, the Biscayne was at last retired, and the family rode in style in a second-hand Buick Skylark, purchased from a guy on the next block. We were agog riding in a vehicle with the creature comforts of this modern invention called air-conditioning. In 1983, somebody convinced my father to get with the program and purchase a Chevy Chevette, a car that drove so many “people happy” with its super-duper gas mileage. It had a stick shift, the back windows could only go down half way, and no air conditioning. Yes, it got great gas mileage, but we were a spoiled clan by then.

Oh, by the way, Chevrolet won the day in my car charting. There were some foreign cars around then, but they were foreign to most people. And I can’t help but think that most of us would be better off driving whatever the Chevy Chevette of today is—but with air conditioning—than the ubiquitous gas-guzzling behemoths that take up a lot of space on the street, pollute the air, and make us dependent on countries we’d rather not be dependent on and, too, who don’t like us very much.

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