By Daniel Pinkwater
My father gave up starving in Warsaw – in between doing holdups – to starve in America. He dropped the holdups from his routine. I once asked him what impressed him most upon landing in his new country. "Deh average size of deh New York City policeman," he told me. Dad was the sort of person who notices things.
He developed a non-starvation plan for summers: he waited tables at resorts in the Catskill Mountains. He could give a look that would freeze water, a skill he developed in his gangster days, and naturally he rose to the position of headwaiter – a good job. And here was where he acquired his taste for luxury cars.
His first season as headwaiter ended with a gala farewell supper on October 24, 1929. Black Thursday. The Depression. On Friday, Carlos Rubenstein, the propietor of Rancho Rubenstein, where Dad had risen to the heights, was wiped out.
"Sorry, Phil, I'm a pauper all of a sudden. I lost it all, including your wages for the season. Instead, I'm giving you this Duesenberg automobile."
The Duesenberg was pretty much the last word in automotive wonderfulness in the first decades of the 20th century. A Model A Phaeton is what Rubenstein gave my father. Fairly enormous, extremely fast, with a straight-8 engine that could have powered an ocean-going tug, this is the car that gave rise to the expression, "It's a Doozy!"
Only Rubenstein had not maintained the car. The brakes were shot. Add to this that my father was teaching himself to drive on the way to New York City, and the only surprising thing is that the crash didn't happen until he got all the way to the lower East Side. He took out a number of pushcarts, a fire hydrant, a lamppost and two Fords. Nobody happened to get killed.
Interestingly, when he told the story, what my father emphasized was how much he liked the car until things went south ... and he went west ... to Chicago. There was too much unpleasantness to deal with in New York after the little contretemps on Rivington Street.
In later years, my father prospered, by honest means, and became a Cadillac man, mostly Fleetwoods, a new one every two years. He kept his car in a big commercial garage, where it received a wash every night. Once a month he took it to the Cadillac agency for a Blue Coral (tm) treatment, so the paint would shine. It was a holiday at the dealership when he would come to trade it in.
In those days the Caddy would be delivered with a sort of pearl gray felt upholstery, an underlayment -- the customer would order seat covers of his choice. But Dad liked the soft grey stuff -- it matched his Stetson hat. It was for this reason that I was not allowed to ride in the car wearing blue jeans, lest the pristine interior get a dye-smudge. And nobody, but nobody, was to drive the thing, let alone be taught to drive in it. I mean, my God!, what if it got scratched? Or dented? Nisht du gedacht!
"Sonnye, today you take your driving license test."
"But I have only been behind the wheel maybe twice, ever. I don't actually know how to drive."
"This doesn't matter. The inspector comes today."
"The inspector is coming to us? Don't I have to go somewhere to take the test?"
"Shah! Be available."
So the guy comes. I sit behind the wheel. The inspector sits next to me. I never start the car. My father is in the back seat. He drops a bill on the seat between us, and the inspector's hand covers it.
"Schreib," the inspector says. I sign the form. "Congratulations. Drive in good health."
"What do I do now?" I ask my father.
"I bought you a little car. (A Hillman Minx...curse his evil sense of humor.) Your friends can teach you."
This was 55 years ago. I have driven all this time. I have never gotten a ticket. Yet, to this day, I think I am a bad driver.