In a recent post I mentioned my hand-me-down 1995 Chrysler Concorde. The story of how I came to drive the Chrysler is quite an adventure. Sadly, it began with the loss of my maternal grandfather, James J. O’Bryan on July 5, 2012. Gpa O’B was a cool guy. “Jimmy” was a proud Captain of the FDNY and a PBY Catalina pilot in World War II. He was also a boater. A fisherman. A biker. An inventor. A gearhead. Ever curious, Grandpa liked to tinker. We had that in common.
So, while many a bystander might legitimately think me crazy for driving a beaten up nearly thirty-year-old pickup truck with no radio on a 900 mile round trip through NYC to drag home a used Chrysler and a box of tools with Grandpa’s familiar “JOB” script engraved in the handles, it felt right to me.
Knowing my (usually) trusty 1986 F-150 was old, abused, and minimally maintained I had the best intentions of doing a thorough pre-road trip check to ensure it would make the journey. Between an unusually busy work week, family commitments, and the exhaustion following I put off that check up more than a few times. It would have to happen the day I was leaving, a Friday morning.
Walking out to the truck in the morning I discovered the four pin trailer wiring plug had been dragged under the truck and the pins were worn to nubs. So I took a ride up to my local auto parts store and spliced in a new plug in the parking lot. No big deal, just a minor delay. From there I headed over to One Steel to drop off a load of scrap metal so I’d have an empty pickup bed and cash for tolls. When I arrived, their scales were being certified and were temporarily closed. Major delay. By the time I got my tow dolly hooked up and ready to roll it was almost 1pm. I still hadn’t made the pre-trip check. It never happened.
My original plan was to depart Virginia early enough to arrive at my parents’ house on Long Island for dinner. The day, and the truck had other plans.
I hit the road about one o’clock Friday afternoon with a backpack full of clothes, a coat, two pairs of shoes, my iPhone, and a basic tool kit. The first eight hours and four hundred or so miles were pretty uneventful. I grabbed a snack and a nap at an interstate rest stop where I parked with the big rigs and paid for a $4.25 vending machine sandwich with a twenty dollar bill and got $15.75 in change exclusively in coins. I listened to driving music on iTunes, and stopped to fill the Ford’s ridiculously small ten-gallon fuel tank three or four times.
By 10pm I was crossing the Goethals Bridge into Staten Island on I-278 (known as the Staten Island Expressway to locals), a fast four lane interstate leading to the Verrazano Bridge, the last water crossing on my way to Long Island. In a forty-degree rain, traffic on the expressway was heavy and moving fast through a wet construction zone with no shoulder. I watched three cars bounce off the jersey wall in separate incidents in a single five-mile stretch as I focused on moving with the speed of traffic and keeping my tow dolly off the wall and in a lane barely wider than its fenders.
Then, two miles north of the Verrazano I struck a pothole large enough to drown a baby elephant. Immediately following impact the steering wheel shook violently as if it were having a seizure and I lost my brakes. I hung on and manhandled the truck for a quarter mile around a curve and slid into the next emergency pull-off, downshifting and working the e-brake to scrub off speed. Fearing I’d be rear-ended on the narrow emergency lane by an out-of-control speeder I hopped out of the truck and behind the guardrail to call for assistance.
A flatbed wrecker arrived about thirty minutes later, the driver from Staten Island Towing being my first introduction to the people of Staten Island. My long bed pickup plus the tow dolly was too long for the flatbed, so he called in another truck with a wheel lift and waited with me until it arrived. With the tow truck hooked up to my busted pickup with the dolly still dragging behind I contemplated my next move. I asked about a tow all the way out to Long Island, but the driver informed me he could only take me to the next exit. His contract required he patrol the expressway cleaning up accidents and removing disabled vehicles. A long tow to Long Island would require getting hooked up with another tow company willing to pick me up after eleven o’clock on Friday night. That didn’t sound like a great option considering it cost me $125 just to get off the next exit.
I asked the driver to take me someplace I could leave the truck and dolly where they’d be reasonably safe for the night and I could get on a train to Long Island. There is no train to Long Island. There’s no bus to Long Island either. There is only a ferry to Manhattan and it does not run until morning. At this point – cold, wet, and frustrated I needed a place to park the truck, warm up, and crash for the night. The tow driver recommended the Ramada an exit up, and that’s where I landed.
Explaining my situation to the Ramada clerk, she gave me the discounted AAA rate even though I’m not a member and allowed me to park the truck under a security camera where my unlocked dolly stood a chance of not being stolen. I’m not sure two hundred and thirty bucks plus tax was really a bargain for the walk-in closet sized room with a concrete view, but my options were limited and the discount was a kind gesture. This was my second experience with the people of Staten Island.
After a hot shower and a change of clothes I got online with my iPhone and located a U-Haul store on Staten Island with an available full-sized pickup truck for rent for $19.95 plus mileage. Mileage charges are not outlined online, at least not where I could find them on my phone, but it sounded reasonable. I made the reservation. I figured I’d get up early to inspect the truck and determine if I could do a parking lot repair or would need to go pick up the rental truck.
The morning inspection, that should have happened the prior morning revealed a failed left front wheel bearing. That’s a simple enough repair to knock out in an inner city hotel parking lot, right? I looked up the nearest auto parts store on my phone, called to check parts availability, asked the parts guy to physically check the shelf and put his hands on the bearings before I hiked 2.5 miles to pick them up, and set off on foot using the iPhone GPS for navigation.
When I got to Auto Zone the two guys working, Anthony and Morrow were unbelievably helpful not just in locating parts, but in answering my questions about the area and local resources. And here, third time being a charm, is my next introduction to the people of Staten Island. Upon hearing of my plight, and the long walk ahead of me, Morrow declared the mantra, “Us gearheads need to stick together” and offered to man the store alone so Anthony could take his break and drive me and my parts back to the Ramada parking lot. He did, and he wished me well, wanting nothing more than a handshake in return.
Unfortunately, the night before as the truck’s hub was spitting out bearing rollers like loose teeth the bearing race was welding itself to the spindle. This would be no routine bearing replacement. I switched to plan B, secured a bus schedule and rode the city bus down Victory Boulevard to Bay Street to pick up my U-Haul rental truck.
Rather than get a transfer and wait for another bus, I got off at Victory and Bay and walked two miles to U-Haul where I was told they only rent trucks locally. This meant rather than dropping the rental off at another U-Haul location on Long Island I would have to drive it back to Staten Island, before 7pm or I’d be charged another day. The estimated cost was $260.00 and the end result would still leave me stranded on Staten Island, which at this point I was beginning to feel was the most isolated urban center on the planet. Plan B was no longer viable.
I turned back down Bay Street on foot, taking a moment out of my misery to admire the homes up on the hill. These are not typical city homes. They’re grand single family homes with back yards, gated driveways, and a view of the bay – albeit through barbed wire and over the rail yard. High on the hill is a particularly interesting historic home with heavy trim and a grand front porch. The current state of the house appears to be permanent disrepair, but I wondered what it might have been like to live in that house fifty or a hundred years ago. I could see my wife on the porch and the kids in the yard while I was at work on a tugboat or locomotive. There are other interesting sights on Bay Street as well; back alley motorcycle shops, abandoned state facilities, the rail yard, and parks and architecture of all sorts.
I cut through Tompkinsville Park and stopped at Dembner’s Hardware to pick up a cold chisel and hammer on my way back to the Victory Boulevard bus stop. Dembner’s is a step back in time. Push open the door and bells jingle as the seasoned wood plank floor bends under the weight of your boots. The store is narrow – basically a single aisle and is such a sensory overload of clutter it’s difficult to tell which way to look. Harry the shopkeeper, and I assume owner of the store knows everybody, except me. Harry and his thick manicured grey mustache greet every customer by name. I ask for a three-pound hammer and chisel and he produces them from under the counter. An employee adds up my total on an old printing calculator, prints my receipt, and stamps the top with a Dembner’s Hardware ink stamper. Harry finalized the transaction with the phrase he closed every other one while I was in there, “Thank you, handsome.” The store, and the service is more Mayberry than NYC, and I get the feeling the previously mentioned isolation has fostered a tight knit community.
Back off the bus at Victory and Willowbrook I walked the block over to the Ramada and pulled the wheel back off my wounded pickup. I attacked the frozen bearing with the hammer and chisel for an hour before the chisel exploded in my hand. At this point it was pretty clear I could not do this on my own.
Earlier in the day, when I thought I was on my way to pick up a U-Haul truck I called my old buddy Mario to inquire about borrowing some tools from him when I got the truck back to Long Island. Mario offered not only his tools, but use of his shop to get the truck back in shape. I met Mario about twenty years ago as a nineteen-year-old college student working at my first professional graphics job in the prepress department of a Long Island print shop. He was a former GM mechanic and owned a killer 1935 Chevy hot rod coupe he had built himself. Despite the fact that he was fifteen or so years my senior and in a different stage of his life, Mario and I became fast friends, bonding over a mutual love of cars. As the relationship progressed Mario became a mentor as well, and I looked forward to visiting him in his home workshop where I would hand him tools and he’d show me the right way to do things under the car. I hadn’t seen him in years, though we did stay in touch, even after I moved to Virginia. We had been in frequent contact as he shared his progress rebuilding his ’35 Chevy following a serious accident, and I asked him tuning questions while I dialed in my Fairmont project.
I rang Mario again, and being the good friend and good man that he is, he offered to drive his truck out to Staten Island to get me before I had to ask. Traffic made it a two hour ride from Staten Island to West Babylon, which was ok because it gave us a chance to catch up. By the time we unloaded my truck in Mario’s driveway, quite possibly the only Ford ever allowed on his property, it was after 8pm. I hadn’t thought about it until he suggested we make a sandwich before getting to work, but the only thing I’d eaten since my rest stop snack Friday night was a yogurt at the Ramada’s sad interpretation of “Continental Breakfast”. That sandwich hit the spot.
With bellies full of black forest ham we strolled back out to the shop with Mario’s dog Brandy at our side. Mario stress relieved the race with a die grinder and a well-placed cut, then heated it with a torch and knocked it off with two swings of a hammer. It didn’t come off clean so we took turns working down the high edges with the grinder and then polishing the spindle with emery cloth until the new bearing fit right. Then he showed me how to properly pack bearings, which I’ve apparently been doing wrong for years, and we put it all back together. We picked up the shop, enjoyed a bit more conversation, and I was back on my way, finally arriving at my mother’s house – the original destination around 11pm. I was thirty hours late and a few hundred dollars light, but safe and happy to see everybody.
I slept until 9:00 Sunday morning and after breakfast decided to repack the passenger side bearings as a precaution prior to returning home. All of my pants were wet and greasy from two days of turning wrenches in parking lots and I couldn’t wash them because my parents’ washer and dryer were destroyed in Hurricane Sandy, so I took a ride to the store with my old man to buy a new pair of jeans.
Clean, dry, and appropriately dressed I followed my parents to my grandparents’ house to drop off the truck and hopped in my mom’s dealer fresh Rav4 (both of my parents’ cars were also lost to the flood waters of Hurricane Sandy) to visit my 89-year-old grandmother at the assisted living facility she moved to after Grandpa’s funeral. Spending time with Grandma O’Bryan was a primary goal of this trip. I had planned to be with her most of Saturday, which didn’t work out for obvious reasons. It was really nice to spend a few hours with her on Sunday afternoon.
With the sun, the temperature, and a steady rain falling we piled back into the Toyota and rode back to Gma and Gpa’s house. I was a little concerned it would be difficult to load Grandpa’s old green Chrysler Concorde onto the dolly. It had been parked in his garage for about a year and we had no idea when it last ran, how old the fuel was, or if we’d be able to get it started. I installed a fully charged battery that I had brought with me, dumped a bottle of Lucas fuel treatment into the full tank of old gas, checked the oil, and hit the key. It cranked three or four times, fired, and settled right into a quiet idle. Gpa took meticulous care of his things and he really loved this car, so I wasn’t surprised he’d stored it properly.
We let the car run through some old gas and the Lucas treatment in the driveway and began loading up the rest of what I would be taking home with me; Grandpa’s big red toolbox full of wrenches with his engraved initials, a floor jack, a painting from the house that reminds me of him and a lifetime of family gatherings, the 9hp Sea King outboard I watched him half submerge in a trash can and wrench on as a kid, a horseshoes game from the 1950’s in its original box, and a handful of electronics project manuals. The garage also produced a case of fuel treatment, a case of synthetic oil, and several new oil and air filters for the Chrysler, further evidence of Grandpa’s meticulous maintenance routine.
I left my loaded truck at the curb and strode past the Coldwell Banker sign posted on the front lawn of the red house with dormer windows at 3041 Fortesque Avenue. I grabbed the black wrought iron rail by the side door, pulled myself up three concrete steps, and swung open the storm door in one motion, as I’ve done since I was big enough to walk, to join my mother in the kitchen. Until earlier that day this house was the only place I had ever visited my grandparents. It’s one of the original Levitt homes built on Long Island in the years following WWII, and Gpa once told me they paid less for it than the Chrysler strapped to the back of my truck. This is where they raised their family, moving there in 1951 just months before my mother, the third of four girls was born. This is the house my brother, my cousins, and I gathered in for every holiday we can remember. My brother Ryan knocked his front teeth out on those concrete steps. My cousin Matt showed me karate moves on the patio. We all played hide and seek in the basement, tossed a football in the yard, got fussed at for trampling Grandma’s garden, and threw a leg over Grandpa’s blue Honda CB450 in the garage for an imaginary motorcycle race. This house was a magical place for three generations of our family. A haven from whatever was happening in life. And this would be the last time I’d see it.
The last walk-through was a bit surreal. Most of the familiar sights were gone. Grandma’s favorite pieces of furniture, photos, and décor had gone with her to the new apartment, and some pieces had moved to the homes of other family members. The cream, brown, and orange patterned couch that had rested against the back wall of the family room for no fewer than forty years remained, though it did not wear its neatly folded afghan anymore. The dining room table we shared Easter and Thanksgiving dinners at for decades was there as well. It looked small through my adult eyes and I chuckled to myself at the memory of the accompanying “kiddie table” that was present for every meal. I pulled a photograph of the sun rising over the Virginia Beach oceanfront that I took and gave to them back in 1997 off the wall at the head of the table, stuck it in my back pack, and continued my tour. The electric lift seat on the stairs, installed after a tumble down them broke his back, was a reminder of Grandpa’s failing health in the last few years, as were the dust covered electronics projects on the basement workbench, which I assume he could no longer get down to. Finally, Grandpa’s desk and gun cabinet, now emptied of his important papers, photos, and firearms were a stark and final reminder that he is no longer with us.
With a lump in my throat and tears welling in my eyes I hugged my parents and started the long journey home. For once I was relieved to hit city traffic so I could take it slow through the narrow lanes. I kept the music off, listening to every sound and analyzing every bump and scent for signs of trouble. The rain soon picked up, turning into a torrential downpour just as I was getting to where I was comfortable picking up the pace. By the time I hit Delaware the rain had stopped, leaving a heavy fog that continued to limit my speed. Anxious to get home, kiss my wife and hug my kids I drove through the night, stopping only for gas and coffee, and pulled up in front of my house on Monday morning – right around the time I’d normally be getting ready for work. I breathed a sigh of relief and thought for a moment about how much my grandfather would have enjoyed hearing about the harrowing tale of this adventure, and the cast of characters – concerned family, loyal friends, and kind strangers that helped me along the way. Then I called in for another vacation day and laid down to rest.
Grandpa’s green Chrysler Concorde reliably carried me from Virginia to Long Island for several visits with Grandma in the years following my road trip gone awry, his paper maps and travel notes still folded neatly in the door pockets, and his cane and a change of clothes stowed in the trunk. Sadly, we also lost Grandma last year, but every morning when I walk out to my driveway I think of them and smile.