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.