dying in car crashes was a common occurrence in New York during the
1960s. The streets of New York, particularly the boroughs of
Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, were largely devoid of car traffic
after one or so in the morning, but they were fraught with danger for
any regular Joe driving home from a straight job with weird hours.
There was a lot of “joy riding” going on. I think that it's safe
to say that this was true every night. And why not? It was certainly
fun, and nothing could have been easier.
teenagers would at least be drunk, even if they were under age.
Obtaining all of the beer that you could afford was no challenge at
all. Nor was buying Robitussin, or pain killers. CIBAs were popular,
and available over-the-counter at a small number of legitimate drug
stores that were having trouble paying their rents. The owner would
simply charge fifty or sixty percent over retail to teenagers without
prescriptions. The cars of that era were ridiculously easy to steal.
two-door GM hardtops had no “B” post. That's the solid part which
separates the doors on a four-door car. No B-post made it easy to
pull up the lock button with a piece of coat hanger. Once inside the
car, all you needed was a screw-driver. There was a chrome plate
where you inserted the key, if you had one, and all you had to do was
pop it off with a screw-driver. What you saw then was a bronze disc
with a slot in the middle. Insert screw-driver into bronze plate and
turn clockwise and you had ignition. It all took about forty-seconds.
am neither proud nor ashamed to say that I participated in this
activity, although I prefer to keep most of the details to myself.
night that I found myself recalling just now was in 1964, best guess,
maybe early 1965. My best friend at the time was another Fred. It's
funny how the same name can be handled in very different ways, isn't
it? His birth-certificate said, “Fred,” while mine said,
“Frederick.” Also, he went by “Freddie,” while I went by
“Freddy.” Anyway, we two Freds were out driving one night. Of
course, we were drunk. Neither of us owned the car that we were
riding in. The other Fred was driving, and he had a famously heavy
foot. The car was a 1961 Oldsmobile, which was a big, heavy car, with
a huge engine. Plus the usual lousy brakes and shitty balloon tires.
was a beautiful night, not too hot, not too cold, not raining or
snowing. One of those rare nights in New York when the weather is not
somehow making you miserable. The event, or the circumstances that
might have led to an event as described in the above title, occurred
at about three a.m. We were taking the car “back.” The custom was
to park the car either in the spot that you drove it out of, or
close. That was the polite thing to do under the circumstances. We
were good boys in most ways.
was a hill, which sounds a lot simpler than the reality of it. 122
Street running north was on high ground until you got to Eleventh
Avenue. Right at the Avenue, the street fell off into a very steep
hill. One where you could clearly see that the houses lining both
sides had foundations that were built at a considerable angle. One
side was, still is, about one or two feet, and the other side is
about five or six feet. That's a four foot drop within a frontage of
less then thirty feet. I'll let the next guy figure out what that
makes the angle of the hill. “I'm a lawyer Jim, not a
that hill, going north, a driver was completely unaware of what was
in store for him on the other side. Fred, the other one, had an idea
that he had long entertained. He wondered how much “air” a car
could get heading into that downfall at, let's say, 100 mph.
this is a narrow street, with barely enough room for two cars. Both
curbs were full of parked cars. Way in advance of the hill, Freddie
announced his intention to give it a try. He hit the gas, hard, and
the car shot forward. I simply smiled and relaxed, vaguely hoping
that the coast was clear and naively trusting fate after my usual
fashion. We got to the edge, and while I cannot say how fast we were
actually going, or whether the tires actually left the ground, the
results were enough to make a big impression on anyone.
did temporarily lose sight of the actual road, and the bounce, or
bounces, must have been a sight to see. I'm sure that the sparks were
most impressive. When we could focus on the road again, we were
mercifully in its middle, going straight, and there was not another
moving car in sight. Gott sei dank.
there had been a car coming up that hill, and it was in just the
wrong place at just the wrong time, the resulting accident would have
been at a combined speed of at least 100 mph. We were probably doing
seventy, and the other car a more judicious thirty. We would have
taken out a few of the parked cars in the process, and all four
people in the cars would have perished. That one would have made the
papers. We both laughed at our good fortune, and Freddie wanted to
try it again because he “hadn't been going fast enough.” I had no
desire to roll those bones a second time, so I suggested that we just
take the car back and get some sleep. That's what we did.
'65, that would make me sixteen at the time. Freddie too. We were
both still in high school. Neither of us had a license to drive.
Serious accidents which did kill one or more of the teenagers in the
“borrowed” car were so common that they didn't make the papers.
They did, however, ruin lives. The drunk and reckless driver of the
car killed one or more of his friends. That one stays with you. The
dead have lost their futures, and their families have lost a son,
perhaps their only son, or even their only child. There was one that
still bothers me, because the boys were a few years younger than me
and I knew the big sister of the driver very well. In that case, it
actually was his car and he did have a license, but I think the boys
were only seventeen. The driver survived. He was also driving on 122
Street, further south, when he lost control and went over the curb
into the columnar post of an old field-stone wall. The post was
hardly scratched, but the car was crushed and set ablaze. I guess the
owner/ driver was thrown in a magically perfect way; his passenger
and best friend died.
passenger's name was Bobby Kerr. He was movie-star handsome and
universally liked in town. People still tear up when they think about
it. I would trade places with Bobby in a minute, because I'm sure
that he would have made much more of a success of his life than I
am certain that neither of us would have born any malice towards the
drivers who killed us. They were friends that we loved, and we were
both willing participants in the wild-ass excitement of driving way
too fast on rather narrow, pot-holed, unpredictable roads.
was all a long time ago, but from what I hear from friends, our old
town is still subject to teenage mischief in the midnight hours.
Methodologies and the drugs of preference have changed along the way,
but the behavior persists. On a bright note, the teenagers are still
good boys most of the time, and the friendship groups are now
multi-ethnic. At least that's an improvement.
I only used real names sparingly, and only because both of those
individuals are dead. Freddie has been dead for some time, but he did
live to grow up, get married, and have a family of his own. We both
joined the Navy in 1967. After that he stayed near his last duty
station and I only saw him once or twice. I'm sure that he remained
the handsome, silver-tongued devil that we remember so well, going
back to grade school. I'm also sure that he and Bobby are resting in
the peace that waits for all of us.