Monday, August 5, 2013

When Meatball’s Car Went Missing

In early August 1978, a neighbor’s car—a dark brown Ford LTD—was stolen. It was parked on the street one night and gone the next morning. Courtesy of my youthful penchant for noting historical neighborhood events on pieces of loose leaf and assorted scraps of paper, the exact date of this Grand Theft Auto has been recorded for posterity. On August 8, 1978, the dark brown Ford LTD was gone for good. I even remember its license plate number: “418 KZY.” It’s funny, but we memorized by osmosis things like that back then. We were outside an awful lot, particularly in the summertime, and saw our neighbors coming and going with their cars. Their vehicles were very distinct in the 1970s, and so were they.

This particular LTD, though, was more than just any old neighbor’s set of wheels. It belonged to “Meatball” and was the car that chauffeured a bunch of us neighbor kids—just before it went missing as a matter of fact—to Jones Beach on Long Island. “Meatball’s” son, an older mentor of sorts, was always taking us places. On this Jones Beach excursion, a friend of his tagged along named Frank. Our chaperones, as it were, were twenty-seven years old and we were teenagers. I was the youngest at fifteen.

Frank was known to a bit of a fusspot and whiner. He was, suffice it to say, a certifiable oddball. Frank once scrubbed his car down with AJAX and took the paint off of it. His day-at-the-beach attire included patent leather shoes. When Frank fell asleep in the front seat on the ride out there, he became a tempting target for one of the LTD’s backseat passengers. With his mouth agape while in the Land of Nod, a friend seated to my right and next to an ashtray, reached in and plucked out an old cigarette butt. He dangled it close by the sleeping Frank’s open mouth. I don’t think he planned on dropping it inside, which wouldn’t have been a good idea. A joke’s a joke, but a man choking to death isn’t all that funny. Our driver and Frank’s friend was not amused one bit by the backseat antics.

As we neared our destination—the Jones Beach parking lot—we found ourselves in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Frank remained asleep when that same friend of mine attempted to snatch one of the two headrests from the front seats. His intention: to bop Sleeping Beauty with it. Our exasperated driver, navigating the heavy traffic, simultaneously tried to stop the headrest horseplay, and in so doing rammed into the car in front of him. It was a significant enough hit that the sleeping Frank’s head crashed into the windshield. He wasn’t wearing his seat belt in the pre-seat belt law days of the past, which was commonplace. The windshield actually cracked—X marked the spot—where Frank's rather large cranium, as I remember, met the very solid auto glass.

Frank was understandably quite rattled at being awoken in such a violent fashion. “Is there any glass in my head?” he hysterically asked. Fortunately, the answer was no and we eventually went on our way. With the exception of the windshield, damages were minimal to the dark brown Ford LTD. After our day at the beach with fussy Frank—anticlimactic after the accident—we returned home to the Bronx with a story to tell of how the accident really happened. Our driver’s thong sandals slipped as he was hitting the brake in that snarling beach traffic. No mention was ever made of the headrest horseplay behind it. The true story of what happened on the fateful day in August 1978 was buried—and known by only the handful of people in the car—until now. I don’t know whatever became of Frank. In fact, I never saw him again. But I sincerely hope the headache that he complained about on the ride back cleared up.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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