Maybe F. Scott Fiztgerald was wrong: there are second acts in America. As long as you're a car.
I came out of my house the other day and saw my neighbor's brother was driving a nice shiny Toyota Corolla.
It liked kind of familiar, which was only natural, as the car had belonged to my father for many years.
My father's health has been in decline for several years and so did the Toyota. As my father aged in the back bedroom, the Toyota did the same, a few yards away, in the garage, growing older and dirtier.
It was an eyesore, a kind of urban version of the car-on-the-blocks lawn decorations you see outside many rural homes. The thing became a millstone around our collective necks and I was convinced that our lives would surely change for the better if we could just get rid of the damn thing.
Of course, this being my family, getting rid of something can be a real struggle. My father refused to sell the Toyota, convinced he could still drive, despite the dementia, poor eyesight and near total deafness.
He also misplaced all the important paperwork, including the title, which meant I had to fight with the motor vehicle department to get a replacement. Meanwhile my dad was still paying insurance on the thing every month, essentially pouring cash down a sewer.
But we finally got all the right paperwork together, I got a customer, and after a frantic two-day search for the ignition key, I was able to sell the junkpile for $200.
Only now, it's not a junkpile. Louie, my neighbor's brother, had gotten the car running, cleaned up, and put in a baby seat, where his beautiful little daughter was sitting. I could not believe my eyes; Louie had resurrected the Toyota and turned it into a family car once again.
"Nice car," I said, "I'll have to get one for myself."
It was was kind of spooky looking at the car that once belonged to us. I didn't feel cheated, as I was desperate to get of the thing. It's more like I had something good and didn't see it. I don't have much use for a car in New York, but I don't know why I didn't at least keep the thing in decent shape.
I could have started the engine a few times a week, drove it around the block every now and then, just so the thing would be useable. And I could have gotten more money for it.
I think part of the reason I let the car rot was to keep my father from driving it. Up until a few years ago, my father insisted upon driving and riding with him became a religious experience as I prayed to God we wouldn't get wrapped around a street lamp.
He drove fast, aggressive, and very badly. My father had always been a lunatic behind the wheel, cursing and fuming at anyone who got in his way. A bad male driver was a dopey bastard and a bad female driver was a miserable bitch.
He had a favorite experession--"hit a pole!"--which was directed at any driver who irritated him and there's a family legend about how my father had shouted that little greeting at some motorist around Bear Mountain early one day. And, according to the legend, he saw the guy again hours later with his fender all banged in.
But as he aged he made terrible mistakes, crossing the yellow lines, cutting off other drivers, and driving way too fast. And you couldn't dare tell him to slow down, because he would only press down harder the gas pedal.
Finally he became too weak to drive and the car slipped into oblivion. Every now and then my father would talk about buying a new car, but thankfully he would forget a short time later.
I think about the good times my father and mother had in that car, all the trips they made with Casey, our dog, whom they loved so much. They'd drive to Jersey on the weekends and sit out in the Delaware National Park, or up to my aunt's farmhouse in the Berkshires for long weekends and vacations.
My father complained he drove too much on vacation, declaring that he was "chained to the wheel!"but we thought he was just being a grouch. Once I got my driver's license I understood what he was talking about. It's easy to say let's go here, let's go there, as long as you're not doing all the driving.
For years my father never owned a car, but instead drove his company car. He worked for meat packing outfit in Albany called Tobin's First Prize and every two years he'd go up to the state capital and come back behind the wheel of brand new car.
It was very exciting when I was a kid, getting into that new set of wheels. The only drawback was the fact that the company's logo was plastered on both sides of the car, so we were kind of rolling billboard for the company.
In fact, my father used to cover up the signs with white contact paper whenever we went some highway that banned commercial traffic.
People used to stare a lot and we'd get the occassional wisecrack. My dad told me he ran a red light one evening and a police car popped up out of nowhere and pulled along side of him.
Instead of giving him a ticket, the cop looked at the sign and growled, "First Prize? You won't get first prize driving like that!" And took off.
We got into a crash on time when I was a kid and it was my fault in a way. I was very little and we were driving someplace where there was an elevated subway. The story goes that I saw this and exclaimed, "my, how convenient!"
My father, stunned and amazed by my vocabulary, took his eye off the road to look back as his brilliant boy. And promptly crashed into another car. My mother, who was in the passenger seat, flew forward and hit her head on the windshield with such force that the glass cracked.
Somehow she avoided serious injury, but 25 years later she was having some medical difficulty and her doctor asked if she had ever hit her head.
After the company went under, my father had a series of used cars, including one that was stolen and apparently used in a robbery in the Bronx. It was a really bad time for our family and it was right around the holidays.
I took the call from a detective and told my dad, but we never heard from him again. It's strange thinking the family ride was turned into a getaway car.
My father, always Mr. Nice Guy to total strangers, once gave a lift to a Hispanic man from his job in New Jersey all the way back to Brooklyn.
He had to stop someplace and he told us that he didn't want to take the ignition key with him because he thought he would offend the man by implying he was Puerto Rican and automatically a thief.
So my dad left the key in the ignition and went into the store. And the guy stole our car.
We teased him about that for ages, but honestly, that car was such a piece of junk, he didn't miss it and when I told him I thought I had seen our car someplace he told me to keep it to myself. He didn't want the damn car back.
Old is New
I looked at the new old car and I thought of opportunities I didn't pursue, women I never called, relationships that I ran from the moment it started to look serious. It comes to you when you're alone, just how many chances you had and refused to see, even when they were right in front of you.
And look at Grand Central Terminal, hands down my favorite New York City attraction. For years that place was a sewer, dark, filthy, and pretty much ruled by homeless people.
But then they cleaned the place up. There are restaurants, shops, and the great ceiling that was covered in grime for God knows how long, has been cleaned to reveal the astrological images below. People come to the place and hang around, instead of running like hell as soon as their train pulls in.
What bothers me is that Grand Central was left to rot for so long, you got used to it. People just assumed it was a dump and always would be--until some other people came along and thought differently.
You have to see the beauty in what you have and realize that no matter how beautiful something is, it'll turn ugly real fast if you let it.
So now my father can't drive and his car is belongs to another family. My mother and Casey are gone and my dad doesn't have much time left.
I hope Louie and his family had great times in that Toyota, that they go to wonderful places and bring home beautiful memories. And when that old car finally does break down, I hope they give it a proper send-off.
As for me, I'm going to look harder at what I have. I won't be so quick to walk away from useful items or decent people. I'll keep looking for that second act.