Monday, November 12, 2007

Icon Deficiency

My state senator sent me a birthday card last week.

"Wishing you the best on your special day," it said.

My birthday was back in May, so I was a little confused by my senator's card. Apparently the day was so special, no one told me about it.

The guy used to be a cop prior to his political career and seeing how slow he is on the birthday beat I'm glad he wasn't a fireman. I'll be sure to vote for August.

Actually, I could use a friend in high places right now to help me get my truck back. When I say "my truck," I don't mean a real truck, naturally, I mean the huge billboard of a truck that once loomed over the West Side Highway.

It belonged to Yale Express System, but when I was growing up it was known as "Robert's truck."

Whenever we went up to Bear Mountain or to my Aunt Loretta's place in Upper Manhattan, I made sure to look for my truck.

The thing was monstrous and it looked like it was going to fly off its moorings and land right next to us. I'd always look into the cab and check on the driver's silhouette and try to imagine who this guy was and where he was going.

"There's your truck," my mother would say.

It was a big deal when I was a kid.

Yale Express went out of business years ago, according to the Times.

United Rentals moved into the building where the truck was perched a few years ago and fixed up my truck, but then that cracker box eyesore known as the Javits Center, which owns the property, decided to expand. Just what we need, right?

I never liked the late Jacob Javits, God forgive me, and I like his eponymous boondoggle even less. (Hey, that's a pretty cool name: Eponymous Boondoggle, attorney at law. I'll have to use that some time.)

So my truck was removed from the building a few weeks ago and demolished. Not even my birthday-challenged state senator can do anything to save it.

I know I sound like the old geezer whining about the good old days, but I loved that truck. It's not just an important symbol from my childhood, it was also a neighborhood fixture that could be seen for miles.

It was an impressive piece of work, too, not some digital mirage cooked up by a gang of software-wielding geeks. That fake truck was the real McCoy.

October seems to have been a bad month for icons in my life. The Times also reports that Newark's Lincoln Motel has also been demolished.

However, unlike the Yale Express System, I will shed no tears for this particular structural assassination. In fact, it sounds like it was long overdue, as the place was a hangout for all sorts of lowlifes.

I know the place because I drove by there on most weekends for five years, back when I was working at the Pocono Record in Stroudsburg, Pa.

There was so little to do in Stroudsburg and the drive wasn't that bad, especially at night when I worked, so I'd get some clothes together and haul ass back to Brooklyn.

The Lincoln Motel was one of those landmarks that told me I was getting close to home. Traffic would get heavier and crazier as I got deeper into the urban area.

There was one stretch of highway I used to call "The Animal Run" because it seemed motorists would go through this personality change as they went under a particular overpass, driving faster and crazier as they approached New York.

Then I'd drive by that huge, cheesy sign bearing the 16th president's image and I'd say to myself, "gosh, what a way to honor old Honest Abe."

I pictured Lincoln looking down from heaven and saying, "aw, gee, boys, you shouldn't have." And he was right. They really shouldn't have named this blood bucket after him.

The guy had enough to handle with the Civil War and the Ford's Theatre's thing--did he really need to have his moniker slapped onto a no-tell motel in freaking Newark?

Maybe the giant Lincoln climbed down from the sign and drove off in my truck. You could hardly blame him. 10-4, Mr. President, and watch out for the Smokeys.

I'm A-Walkin' in the Rain

I stumbled upon another local icon Friday when I was walking around the Upper West Side.

I had just come from the Barnes & Noble at 82nd and Broadway, where Mariane Pearl, widow of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl, was reading from her latest book, In Search of Hope.

She seemed to be a lovely woman, pushed onto the world stage by this horrible incident. Smiling shyly, she read a few pages from her book and then opened the floor to questions.

One woman, who seemed to be old enough to know better, asked the "Duh!" question of the night.

"Why do you think they kidnapped and killed your husband?"

Gee, lady, why don't you take your head out of your butt and get some fresh air? Fortunately, Mrs. Pearl had a little more class than that. A few awkward seconds went by as she searched for the right words.

"Well, it's complicated," she said. "I wrote a book about it..."

Yes and I believe it was called...wait, don't tell me...oh, yeah, A Mighty Heart. And what luck, Einstein, we just happen to be in a bookstore. Maybe you can pick up a copy while you're here?

I know, I know, too harsh, too crabby. I wrote some of Mrs. Pearl's comments about tolerance and hope on the margins of Friday's paper and naturally I can't find them now, but it's clear I have a lot to learn from this woman.

After the reading, I headed south in search of a place to eat. Being alone ruled out most restaurants because I wasn't about to sit at table alone on a Friday night, even if they're giving the food away for free.

I might as well have "LOSER!" tattooed to my forehead and get it over with.

I was about to go to some fast food dump when I found Big Nick's on 77th Street and Broadway.

This was a classic, old New York diner, which should join the Amargosa vole on the endangered species list.

Now, the name "Big Nick" must refer to the owner, because the diner itself is only slightly larger than a phone booth. I put my coat on the revolving stool and sat down in what felt like a diner museum.

Oldies were playing on the sound system--stuff like "Duke of Earl" by Gene Chandler. It was like being in a time warp.

A small TV screen--there wasn't room for a large one--was showing Three Stooges shorts with no sound, which put a strange spin on the whole Stooge experience. Moe's various blows didn't seem so painful in this noiseless vacuum.

The menu was larger than a lot of small town telephone books. There were little signs all over the place.

Directly in front of me was a list of different types of burgers, like an extended family: Veal Burger, Turkey Burger, Shrimp Burger, Vole Burger--just kidding.

One sign read "Close the Refrigerator Door by Hand." I could ask how else would you close the door, but I'm afraid of the answer.

Another sign over the counter read "Everybody Must Change the Ice," which I suppose was meant for the staff, but it was taped over my side of the counter, so I half-expected someone to give me a shovel and a bucket and say, "get to work, knucklehead."

I was tempted to order the Sumo Burger, which was a solid one-pound of turkey chop meat, but I was afraid I'd end up looking like a sumo wrestler.

And Thanksgiving is just around the corner anyway. So I ordered the vegetarian chilli with rice.

To be honest, I reall don't remember much about the food. I loved this place, the crowd, the noise, the Stooges. I could eat there every day.

My waiter told me the place opened in 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, for God's sake. Now that's an icon.

I threw the tip down on the counter and the waiter offered me a free bit of pastry. How often does that happen? I couldn't make out the name because of his accent, but I believe it was some Greek confection and it was delicious.

As I paid my bill at the register, "Runaway" by Del Shannon came on the sound system and I wanted to hang a little longer just to hear this gem.

It was raining went I left, but I didn't care. I hadn't met the woman of dreams, and I couldn't recall Mrs. Pearl's comments, but I learned a great lesson in Big Nick's.

Everybody must change the ice. If we all do that much, the world will be a better place and every day will be a special day.

Keep on truckin'...


Brenda from Flatbush said...

Rob, this was absolutely priceless--'Motherless Brooklyn' crossed with Gene Shepherd--and I have got to admire anyone who could think up a lawyer named "Eponymous Boondoggle" or weave voles and the Stooges into a post about Mariane Pearl. As for personal landmarks, ours was the Silvercup Bread Factory, which we'd pass on the off ramp of the Qnsboro Bridge going home from Manhattan; the building is still there,but the most important ritual--opening the car windows and inhaling the perfume of baking bread--is long gone. You can't smell them making movies, thank God...

Rob K said...

Oh, Brenda, thanks so much for your nice comments.

Yes, it's a little scary sometimes to lose our personal landmarks. Thanks for sharing about the Silvercup factory aroma. Good thing there's no movie smell, since so many of them really stink!

Take care

Anonymous said...

Mr. Rob My name is Mike Walker and i drove for Yale express, after i returned from the pacific in 1945. I ran the pittsburgh run and the Detroit run, until 1955 when i went to work for Thurston motor freight. i stayed there til 1968 and went to pull tankers for matlack Inc. i stayed with matlack til 1977. after that i arrived at my last stop in the trucking industry at a company called Vallerie trucking i stayed there until i climbed down from the cab of a rig for the last time in 1992. Trucking then was cold and uncomfortable. underpowered tractors with 2 and 3 stick transmissions, that meant if you missed a gear you had to stop and start over again and those old Autocars and Macks had no air ride suspensions either like todays tractors. all those companies are now "wheels up" Rob . when i found the yale express system went wheels up in 1978. i felt awful, a part of my youth was gone. That old sign was a silent testimony to men like me who forged an industry into a respected proffesion and brought truck drvers into the middle class. Pardon my self glorification but when i first walked under that sign i had beaten death at Tarawa and Okinawa and returned home to make a good life and what better way to do it than behind the wheel of a nice shiny rig with the open road in front of you. By the way Rob your Truck was an effigy of a 1932 Autocar model DC 700. Yale used mostly Autocars in those days and Mack later on in the late fifties. Thanks for listening to an old man and thanks for wondering who those drivers were. PS. if you know of any pictures of the Yale sign before united rental painted over our old logo that would be the cats pajamas.

Rob K said...

Mr. Walker, thank you so much for leaving this comment.

This is not self-glorification but an important personal chapter in American history.

(My dad was a WWII vet also, btw)

I am grateful for all these fabulous details about "my truck" though clearly that truck belonged to you and people like you who kept this country running.

And if I find any of those old pictures, you'll be the first to know about it.


The truck and the Pier 54 building before the fire were both landmarks of mine I'd always look for/at when my family would use the highway to get upstate or to Poughkeepsie. At least until the route changed to go through Staten Island. Never spent much time in Manhattan since, so the loss of these things is slowly coming up for me.

Always hate losing the landmarks to "progress."