I moved to Hoboken, N.J., in 1966. At this point in history the town still looked exactly like the movie On the Waterfront, starring Marlon Brando. Not surprising, since it was filmed there--a little surprising since the movie was made in 1954 and not only did the suits on the local gangsters and the year models of cars look just the same, not only did the longshoremen in reefer jackets with cargo hooks over their shoulders shape up every morning, one got the sense of the place being in black-and-white just like the movie.
There were many pleasures and refinements in Hoboken--strong, fragrant Italian coffee, superior greengrocers and fish markets, you had your choice of places to buy sfogliatelle and other wonders, the view of Manhattan and New York Harbor was inspiring, even from the windows of comparative hovels, and a special convenience for me, the only car purveyor in town up on 14th Street, was a Peugeot dealership.
Here the '59 403 wagon, absolutely the most lovable car I've ever owned, had a good going-over by the mechanics before the place closed its doors, and stood empty… until a new foreign car concern put up a sign. This outfit did not specialize in any one make. It was a little of this, a little of that. One afternoon, while my wife was working, and I was developing my craft as a writer, which meant wandering around, snacking and getting in conversations with the colorful locals, I dropped in to peruse the offerings.
It was like a museum of the automotive weird and unusual. Here one could see a Lotus, several examples of the Dutch Daf, a Facel-Vega...oh, so many interesting machines.
Also adorning the floor was the proprietor, Kevin, a Terry-Thomas lookalike, decked out in tweeds and checks, suede shoes, a paisley ascot at his throat, an extra-authentic-looking Englishman until he opened his mouth, and then he wasn't.
"May I call your attention to this fine machine?" Kevin said, waving his hand toward a gleaming Rolls Royce in an unusual two-tone silver and violet finish.
"It's a beauty," I said. And it was. I've always loved the lines, the dignity, the vast interior room, the little statue on the front.
"A 1955 Silver Cloud. Are you in the market?"
"No, not for a Rolls Royce," I said.
"Well, yes. Obviously."
"Would you consider thirty-five hundred dollars too much for the car, as she stands?"
"Let me point out the special features," Kevin said. "You are familiar with the beloved and reliable Chevy straight-six engine?"
"More or less."
He opened the hood. There it was, a familiar sight. People do this--put a Chevy engine into a Rolls, sometimes into a new one, putting the authentic engine in storage, to save themselves the heartbreak and monstrous expense of maintaining the original. The transmission was GM too. The silver and violet paint was by Earl Scheib, not the crappy $29 special, but the $59.95 deluxe job. Inside was brand-new luxurious polyester carpeting, and the upholstery was of finest leather-like vinyl. The car was a shell, maybe burnt to a crisp at some point, and returned to life as a classy-looking Chevrolet.
"So," I said, "for thirty-five hundred dollars..."
"You have a Rolls Royce you can have serviced at any corner gas station. Now are you interested?"
"I am," I said. "I'd like to show the car to my wife."
"We're here until six."
Jill schlepped home from her thankless job, teaching at the College of Criminal Justice. No need to go into the details, except to mention that it's different when all the students are armed.
"Let's go look at a car."
"Oh, please God, no." She remembered the Citroen, but I persuaded her this was nothing like that.
But when we arrived, the Chevro-Rolls was not to be seen.
"Sold it. Twenty minutes after you left," Kevin said.
"Well, then. That's that."
"Not necessarily. I have something of similar interest, if you'd like to see it."
"As long as we're here. What is it?"
"I want to surprise you. And it's not here, it's nearby. I'll run you over, and then run you right back."
"No, that's all right. We haven't had supper yet."
"This will take a jiffy. You really don't want to miss this one."
Somehow, all of a sudden, we were in what I remember as possibly a Borgward Isabella, in the winter darkness, in the rush hour, on the highways of New Jersey.
"You said it was nearby."
"Where are we going?
"Morristown isn't nearby."
"It is the way I drive."
And indeed, he was weaving through traffic at a sphincter-tightening clip. "And, if you're concerned we may run into any trouble from communists or negroes..." And there it was -- Jill and I knew we were speeding with a maniac. "...You're safe with me. Ever see one of these?" He was brandishing a revolver with a 12-inch barrel. "It's a Colt Buntline Special. Nobody is going to mess with you while you're with old Kev."
I spent the rest of the drive speaking to Kevin in calm, conciliatory tones, sort of pleading actually, suggesting that maybe it would be a good idea to put the shooting iron back under the seat and quit waving it, and maybe slow down a little, only because of Jill's tendency to get carsick. Jill was actually showing a tendency to dig her fingernails into my upper arm. "If we survive this, you're going to wish you hadn't," she whispered.
We pulled up the driveway, and around back of one of those huge graceful Victorian mansions in Morristown. The headlights picked up a huge Mercedes. "This is a 300d, my grandfather's car. What do you think?" It should be said, that 300d, in this instance, was not the same as 300D -- this was no utilitarian diesel sedan, but something that would not be out of place in parades, and um, you know, rallies.
"Not my cup of tea. Not really a Mercedes guy. Sorry Kev. Tell you what, you don't have to drive us all the way home. We'll catch a train. We love trains."
"You sure? It's all original. It's a lot nicer than a Silver Cloud. No? Well, to each his own. Come in and meet the grands."
We felt a kind of hope rising. Grandparents. Probably very nice people. Clearly well-established, and well-to-do. They probably had a calming influence on young Kevin. Once inside the house, we could ask to use the phone. Call a cab. Politely decline their invitation to dinner or tea and cookies, get away from Kevin, and go back through the looking glass. We approached the back door with him.
"Darn it! They seem to be out. They knew I might drop by. Well, they always leave a key under the mat. What? Those old darlings are getting so absent-minded. No key! Just wait here a moment."
We were standing in front of the door, all together. In an instant, Kevin pushed open a window, scrambled through, and in another instant opened the door from the inside. "Come right in. I'm sure the folks will be back any minute."
I suppose we were still caught up in the idea that the grandparents would turn out to be our allies, and we'd be safer with them than with Kevin alone. And nothing overtly menacing, unless you counted the six-shooter, had happened--and Kevin did have this kind of power to persuade. For whatever reason, we did not run off into the night, but stepped though the door, only realizing as we did it that we might have just joined in an illegal entry.
Kevin seemed to know his way around the house, that made us a little more comfortable. The place was furnished with the very elegant antiques that had been brand new when it was built. The grandfather's study was crowded with framed documents, bearing autographs like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington. This was interesting, but had the effect of making us a little less comfortable. What were the odds that Kevin was going to start stuffing all this Americana into pillowcases, whip out the Colt and force us to load them into the Mercedes Pullman, and then off into the night, us three felons? More to the point, why am I telling this story here, on this fershlugginer website, when I could sell it to Nicolas Cage?
Well, Kevin did not burgle the house, that I remember. What I do not, for the life of me, remember was how we got out of there, and back to Hoboken. If he drove us, we were probably so relieved that we were not by way of being wanted for grand larceny that we made the trip in a sort of swoon. What I might have learned from the experience, did later learn from repeated experience, and share with you now, is this: Never trust a guy who wears one of those ascot cravats, paisley or any other kind.