On December 1st, 1993, my coworker Eddie and I delivered a Christmas tree to a single mom in need. For the next three weeks, Eddie and I would harass our fellow Red Lobster servers until they gave us their spare change and extra tips at the end of every shift. Three weeks later, we took that money, along with boxes of donated canned goods and other non-perishable foods, and met that same mom in the parking lot of Toys R Us. We spent the next hour or so happily chatting with her as she spent that money on Christmas gifts for her three kids. For me, it was the best way to end a particularly difficult year.
I had met Eddie only a month or so earlier, and liked him instantly. He was a tall, outgoing Italian/New Yorker with a mop of curly black hair and an easy smile. Charming and funny, he seemed the perfect partner in crime for my charitable cause, schmoozing the female servers until they coughed up cash. He spoke with a thick New York accent, and easily helped me to forget my woes.
1993 had brought job troubles, financial hardship, the loss of our dog and the death of my grandfather. At our lowest point, my husband and I stood by and watched as the furniture company came to repossess our dining room table and bedroom set, this was after filing bankruptcy and surrendering our vehicles. My parents stepped in to help by loaning us the old family car… a 1979 Pontiac Bonneville Brougham. White, 4-door, with a sunroof, tan interior, and chock-full of family-vacation memories, it had been meticulously cared for by my dad and was in excellent condition.
A couple weeks after Christmas, my husband and I decided to cut our losses in Virginia and move back to Texas. Knowing our funds were limited, my Dad told me I could sell the Pontiac to help pay for moving expenses. I posted a notice on the bulletin board at work, and Eddie approached me about buying it. He asked if he could take it home to let his brother (who was a mechanic) check it out first. I had no problem with that, and caught a ride home with a friend.
The next day at work, I waited for Eddie to show up and let me know whether or not he wanted the car. He was a no-show. When he didn’t show up the following day or answer his phone, I was more than worried. I was angry. That “charming” guy had stolen my car!
I called the police and was told that in the Commonwealth of Virginia this was considered a civil case because I had given him the key, and that I would have to contact an attorney. No help whatsoever.
On a hunch, I decided to call the New York City Police Department. I could hear the officer virtually patting my head over the phone as I gave him the information. This time, I left out the part about giving Eddie the car to check it out. I simply reported it stolen, and that I suspected who had it and where he might be headed. I was assured that after they solved all the crime in the city, they would get right on it. (The New York City I know today is not the same as it was in 1994!)
I ended the call with no hope of finding the car. I apologized to my Dad, picked up a couple extra shifts to try and make enough money to move, and began to pack. My sweet in-laws offered to help by borrowing a trailer and driving from Texas to Virginia to load us up and drive us cross-country.
The in-laws were en-route on January 28th when the phone rang. To my amazement, it was the New York City Police Department and they had found my car! Turns out, they busted Eddie and a hooker in the backseat while parked on a city street. (I guess he was still trying to help the less-fortunate.) When they ran the plates, they discovered the car was stolen, so they arrested Eddie along with the hooker. In addition, we found out that he had been issued a speeding ticket while traveling through Delaware (I guess I should have called the police in Delaware and New Jersey too!). I asked what I needed to do next, and was simply told, “Come get your car.”
My dad (who is really the hero of this story) offered to drive me to New York City to retrieve the car. We had to be out of our apartment by January 31st, so friends and coworkers showed up to help finish packing while Dad and I took a road trip to NYC.
We left early on the 29th and drove straight through to New Jersey, where we had dinner and spent the night at my Aunt and Uncle’s house. First thing the next morning, we drove into the city.
I’m going to pause for a moment and tell you that I’ve thought a lot about this story lately. Now that I know the city so well, I am sad that I can’t recall this part of the trip as clearly as I would like. Maybe it’s because it was 26 years ago and the city has changed so much. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t driving. Maybe it’s because Dad and I were caught up in conversation, or maybe we were stressed about the situation. I wish I had a time machine to take me back to that day. In any case, it is only available to me in dreamlike bits and pieces. I will describe the pieces the best I can.
The police station was north of Midtown, and I believe it was on the Upper West Side, and for some reason, I think it was north of 86th Street. This area at the time was not as safe as it is today. The car was parked on the street, so we parked behind it and went into the station. The inside of the police station looked like every police station you see in movies about New York. That much I remember.
I climbed the stairs to get to the front desk. The officer took my information and gave me the keys. He then told me that Eddie was still locked up, swearing it was all a misunderstanding, and wanted to talk to me. The officer looked at me for an answer. Did I know him? Did I want to talk to him? Did I want to press charges?
I gave him half a smile and answered that I had no idea who he was, and that yes, of course I wanted to press charges. (I was able to justify saying this because clearly I really had no idea WHO Eddie was…)
I came out of the station and met Dad at the car. We weren’t prepared for what we found. In the short time that Eddie had the vehicle, he had completely trashed it. But that wasn’t the worst of it. Because it had been parked overnight on a New York City street, it had been broken into and ransacked. The hubcaps were gone (cliché, I know), and everything that was possible to remove had been removed. The stereo, everything inside the glove compartment, the floor mats, everything inside the trunk including the carpet lining, and wires had been pulled out from all areas. I swear the visors and windshield wipers were gone.
Dad was furious. For reasons that were never made clear to us, the police had not put the car in an impound lot. And now it wouldn’t start. Dad marched back into the station to ask if we could just leave it there. He was told that we were now legally bound to move the car. He was given the address of a junk yard. I was feeling pretty bad about the whole situation by this point.
That may have been the last time Dad spoke out loud for a while. He popped the hood and messed around long enough to get the car going. He didn’t trust that it would stay running, so I drove Dad’s car behind him while we made our way slowly through the city. The car stalled every few blocks.
Let me fill you in on a few pieces of information.
First, this was during a time when the city didn’t penalize drivers for gridlock. No one stopped at red lights. You just continued through the intersection until someone else cut you off or there was a break in traffic. This meant that when the car stalled, it was just as likely to be in the middle of an intersection as anywhere else. And the junk yard was across town on the East River, so we ended up driving through Midtown and Times Square.
Second, my Dad is one of the most even-tempered men I’ve ever known, so when he gets angry, it’s bad. I could see the back of his head from the car I was driving. The back of his neck and his ears were bright red. This was always a bad sign (I had seen it before during my teenage years), and it got even worse as I could see his lips moving. I knew he wasn’t singing to the radio…since that had been stolen… so I was pretty sure the words coming out of his mouth at that moment were peeling what was left of the paint off the inside of that car. Anyone remember the dad from “A Christmas Story”?
And finally, not only did we have to make it back to Virginia Beach that night (moving to Texas was happening the next day), we had to beat a massive snow storm that was moving our way. Called “nor’easters”, they were the winter equivalent of a hurricane.
After what seemed like an eternity, we pulled up to the junkyard. I’d be willing to bet it’s no longer there. But it was the most cliché New York City junkyard. The only view of the river would have been from the rusty cranes and shipping containers lining the property. The cartoon-character of a man who opened the gate for us was short and heavyset, wearing a cap and wife-beater. I don’t remember if he was wearing suspenders or had a cigar hanging from his mouth, but I picture him that way.
I stayed in the car and watched from behind as Junky approached Dad’s window. After what appeared to be a heated exchange, Dad got out of the Pontiac and stormed back to the trunk of the car I was driving. He rummaged around and appeared moments later with a tool. He marched back over to the afflicted vehicle and proceeded to remove the license plate. I watched him hand the keys and $100 cash to Junky, and I quickly exited my side of the car and got into the passenger seat for the ride home.
Dad opened the back door, tossed the license plate on the seat, and then got in front to drive. I don’t remember a word being spoken as we left the city.
It was a slow drive as the snow began to fall. As it got dark, we remembered that the SuperBowl was being played that day. Dad and I were both football fans, and even though The Pittsburgh Steelers (our team), were not playing, we turned on the radio and found the game.
What should have been a 7-hour drive was taking much longer, and as we hit the city limits of Dover, Delaware, the snow was making it difficult to see and even harder to drive. We pulled over at a Denny’s, ordered something Rooty Tooty (yeah, I know that’s I-Hop, but considering it was SuperBowl Sunday, ordering a Grand Slam just seemed wrong), and settled into our booth to watch what was left of the game on a television set perched in the corner of the dining room.
The food was mediocre, the halftime show was something country, the Cowboys won (bleh), and weather-wise, the remainder of the drive home was miserable. BUT… that road trip, on my last day on the east coast, spent with my Dad, became one of my favorite “crazy family stories”, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world!