My father’s first car in the United States was a golden Buick. He bought it fresh off the lot in 1968. The whole family went to pick it up. Our landlord had been planning to clean the garage out for us, but hadn’t quite gotten around to it yet. So when we pulled up to the two-flat were we lived my father was delighted to see a parking space directly out front.
As he pulled in, the sound of crushed metal resounded, smersh.
‘HEEEEEE,’ It’s my mother from the backseat. I can’t reproduce this in print exactly, but it’s the sound of fear made on the inhale, and when I hear it I lose my reason entirely. The last time she produced it, I was a grown woman making Thanksgiving turkey for my husband’s family. ‘When did you put it in the oven?’ she asks ‘ Eight-thirty’ I reply.
‘ HEEEEEEEE,’ she says, and whatever common sense I have flies right out the window. Despite the fact that I know that it takes seventeen minutes per pound, and that I have plenty of time, my heart starts pounding, and I overdo the bird.
She must have had the same effect on my father because he pulls forward abruptly, only to smash the front fender in. We all pile out of the car. He is red with fury, my mother is a nervous wreck, my is sister whining, I am laughing my head off. Both ends of the car are crushed like eggshells. My father takes one look at me, laughing, and slaps me upside the head.
Sometime later my father decides he will save money if he buys a car that gets better mileage, and so he trades the golden Buick for a red Fiat. The Fiat might be a great little car in its own country but during the interminable mid-western winters and flooded springs, it was a disaster from the first day. The first day, now infamous in family lore, was when he drove it over to my Uncle Steve’s house to show it off. As he was leaving, he put the car in reverse instead of drive, and promptly backed into my uncle’s Cadillac, narrowly missing Steve, who had to jump out of the way to avoid being killed.
‘ I thought he was playing around,’ was my uncle’s only comment on the situation.
I myself did not witness this. What I remember are summer days, driving without air conditioning in the sweltering heat to fly ridden picnic grounds on beaches, and in forest preserves where my parents would meet their friends. Invariably, no one would remember to bring silverware or plates. They had fun though, the men playing soccer, the women chatting. As the only older child present, I would stalk about alone all afternoon, since I was pudgy and my mother thought I needed exercise, swatting mosquitoes, and scratching my already bitten flesh.
Returning home, my sister then a toddler, would always get car sick as we slowly made our way back amidst miles long colonnades of bumper- to- bumper Sunday traffic. Of course we could never open the windows to air out the stink because of the dreaded Yugoslav scourge, promaja or draft, as it is commonly known.
On one particular evening we were caught in a sudden downpour. Flash flood warnings were being issued as we hurriedly left the picnic grounds. We made good time until somewhere around Cumberland Avenue, when traffic began slowing down. The drivers stopped honking and didn’t seem nervous anymore. Instead they patiently waited to take their turn. I was curious as to the reason until we approached. Then I saw that a lake of water had pooled in the underpass and even the largest American cars were having trouble getting through it.
When our turn came, the Fiat started out bravely, and swishing through the water spluttered to a halt midway under the bridge. My father tried everything to start it up again, but was growing more and more impatient by the minute, evidenced by his reddening face and irritable demeanor. Having learned a lesson last time, I decided not to say anything.
Suddenly I heard my mothers dreaded, ‘ HEEEEEEEE!’ I looked down, and saw water flooding the inside of the car. As it poured in, my sister started screaming, my mother began offering up ideas, my father became more and more nervous, and bigger cars began to pass us by since the Fiat was small enough for a tandem drive -by.
Needless to say, each time that happened, the Fiat would be deluged. We were stuck for some time, the water rising up to our seats until a kindly Black man parked in front of us, got out, chained our car to his and pulled the Fiat to dry land.
Black people were the only Americans who ever stopped to help us during our many car mishaps, which says a lot, considering Martin Luther King had been shot not too long before.