My older brother Eddie needed a car. He was going off to college and could no longer borrow the family’s gold Galaxie 500, the one with the bubbled plastic seat covers that tended to melt in hot weather and leave waffle-patterned burns on your legs.
So one summer Saturday morning in 1969 Eddie asked if I’d like to go car shopping with him.
Bergen Motors in Teaneck, New Jersey, wasn’t a used car dealership so much as an antique car museum with tattered little triangular flags. Eddie paused at a black Ford sedan with white sidewalls, a fan on the dashboard and a plush rear seat that resembled a box at the Metropolitan Opera
“Ah!” A voice came from nowhere. “A good choice! A classic!”
A large man with jet-black hair, a wide plaid tie and blue blazer stuck a cigar in his mouth and extended his hand. He said his name was Carl.
“A classic,” he repeated. “And you know, this car used to belong to my mother.”
We stared at the car for another moment.
“May she rest in peace,” Carl added.
“How many miles are on it?” Eddie asked, following our dad’s directions.
Carl smiled broadly. “Look at the odometer,” he said. “Just 85,000 miles.”
“It’s pretty old, right?” Eddie asked. “I mean, it’s got these running boards.”
Carl shook his head, obviously amused.
“The President’s limo has running boards!” he exclaimed. “And that’s alwaysa brand-new car.”
Carl was making sense. But the price was a problem. A cardboard sign in the window said $800. Eddie had $600. In cash. Not a penny more.
Carl’s brow furrowed.
“Sorry, kid,” he said. “That price is firm. It’s a steal.”
We turned to go.
“Wait a minute, kid,” he barked. “Let’s go into the office.”
The office was a large shed with two frosted jalousie windows and, at the back, a curtained doorway leading to a darkend room.
Eddie and I sat on folding chairs across a card table from Carl, whose seat was considerably higher than ours.
“Level with me, kid,” he said. “What’s the most you can pay for that great car?”
“$600,” Eddie repeated. That was all he made as a counselor at Camp Holy Cross in Massachusetts, where the kids went to Mass every morning and confession every night, just in case they died in their sleep.
Carl sighed heavily.
“Kid,” he said. “I like you. You remind me of me.”
That didn’t make us feel good at all.
Carl scribbled a huge $600 on a piece of paper.
“Let me take this to my manager. He’s right back there.” He jerked a thumb toward the curtained doorway.
Carl rose dramatically from his seat and strode through the curtains. We heard some mumbling.
“Are you crazy?” sputtered a voice that sounded a bit like Carl’s but much lower.
“Have a heart!” Carl said, his voice rising in passion. “The kid needs a car! He’s a great kid!”
“You’re nuts! What, you think we’re giving away cars? Get the hell out of here, Carl! Before I throw you out!”
“Well, go ahead and try, Earl! I’m not leaving until we get to yes on this!”
We heard the clatter of folding chairs hurtling backwards. Then the sounds of a scuffle. The curtain rippled violently. Carl gurgled softly, as if Earl had his hands around his throat.
Finally, Carl came staggering through the curtain. He swayed toward his chair and lowered himself to his seat.
“Okay,” he gasped, rubbing his neck. “My manager won’t go down a penny, but I’ll sell you the car for $750 and forfeit my commission.”
We sat there in shocked silence.
“Look,” he offered, “you could go back and talk to my manager yourself, but frankly I’m afraid he’ll kill ya.
“Isn’t there anyone at home who could help you out?”
“Um, yeaaah,” Eddie said, slowly rising from his folding chair and telling me with his eyes to do the same, “Yeah. We’re gonna go home now and talk to our dad.”
“Good,” sighed Carl, smoothing his thick black hair. “This is the car for you. Trust me. You trust me, right? Right?”
As we pulled away in the Galaxie, we caught sight of the back end of Carl’s office. It was clear the curtained doorway led to a tiny broom closet, jutting out the back.
“Huh,” I said. “You’d think the manager would have a bigger office.”