It was supposed to be a romantic adventure during the Thanksgiving holiday, our first weekend away as a new couple. At the time, he was living in Bayside, Queens, NY, supporting his widowed mother. I had my own digs in Greenwich Village but, since I would be eating a turkey dinner on Thursday with my parents in College Point, Queens, we agreed to start our journey there.
When he parked in their driveway, my sensible father was appalled.
With his Rand McNally Road Atlas, my Dad traced the route for us. “You’ll be driving 135 miles along I-95 — —and that’s one way. I wouldn’t go as far as Shea Stadium in this death-trap. What if you break down with my daughter? Instead of putting more mileage on that wreck, why don’t you get a decent sedan?”
Mr. Jalopy conceded that, though his junkyard rescue with mismatched doors had over 130,000 miles on it, it had passed inspection in September. Moreover, he was prepared to rent a vehicle in case of trouble.
And off we went, my parents waving from the living room window even as my Dad shook his head at such lunacy and my Mom made the sign of the cross.
It was a sunny Friday morning, the New York City weather unseasonably mild for late November. Which was fortunate because his “Bucket of Bolts” (as he called it) did not have a heater. It didn’t have a radio either so it was much easier to hear that the transmission was soon chirping and rattling.
Since this was a time when the New England Thruway had numerous tollbooths and the era of E-ZPass had not yet arrived, I held a large plastic bag on my lap filled with quarters. But anytime the “Bucket” slowed for a toll collector or wheezed into a gas station, I feared it might not start again. It was nerve-wracking. When I saw the sign for Exit 90, indicating we were only two miles from Mystic Seaport [75 Greenmanville Avenue], it was an enormous relief.
Greenwich Village, where I’d lived since my late teens, is a landmarked enclave of 19th-century buildings steeped in literary and maritime lore; numerous rowhouses had been built by prosperous seamen such as shipmaster Captain Robert Richard Randall, who founded Sailors’ Snug Harbor.
Passionate preservationists and history buffs are well-suited for Mystic Seaport, a 17-acre complex that simulates a 19th-century coastal village. Some structures are authentic and were relocated to this area on the banks of Mystic River, whereas other buildings are careful reproductions of those that were here.
When we realized we were both eager enough to explore this living museum of maritime Americana that we would travel there in that car, it hinted at a possible sea change. Until then we had both been nose-deep into our respective careers, treading water in the singles scene, not anchoring ourselves to one individual.
At times like this, new pathways of understanding each other are driven through your brain as if you discovered a new road. And where would it lead? Months before our Connecticut sojourn, we had bonded during an extraordinary circumstance, which I’ll explain after a brief detour into family history and “the air call.”
When I was a child, my mother contacted my father at his job during lunchtime — — even though he had no access to a phone. Explaining she needed quiet to concentrate, she’d retreat to a corner and have a conversation.
Naturally, I assumed all married couples communicated this way. When I was a grownup, I figured I’d be learning more about “air calls.”
At eleven years old, however, I was initiated.
For my 11th birthday, my parents got me a record player. But months later it caught on fire. My father, always a reluctant motorist, complained that now he would have to spend his entire Saturday driving to the manufacturer’s designated repair facility in New Jersey. Minutes after his car pulled away, we noticed all the paperwork he needed had been left on the coffee table.
“Madonna mia!” shrieked my Mom. “He will have a fit, driving all the way there for nothing.” Then she said, “Talk to Daddy! Tell him to come home.”
We retreated to separate corners for our “air calls.”
Within fifteen minutes, we heard his car and I ran outside.
“Why am I here?” My father looked dazed, hypnotized. “Why?”
“Because you forgot this!” I handed him the sales receipt and warranty.
Years later, even after I had made “air calls” and reached my relatives, I never mentioned it to outsiders. Maybe no one would believe it.
Which brings me back to Mr. Jalopy.
Several months before, we had arranged to meet at Port Authority Bus Terminal on a certain Friday in May. Before 5pm, he would be at his job in Queens, supervising a concrete pour on Roosevelt Avenue. I was scheduled to take the French language exam required for my Master’s degree on 42nd Street in Manhattan. Grad students were mailed instructions beforehand, including the designated areas for a morning coffee service, smoke breaks, and lunch. Instead, as we took our seats, we were told of a change: there’d be no breaks at all. The good news: after finishing the exam, students could leave C.U.N.Y. Graduate Center.
I realized I’d be finished three hours earlier than scheduled. Yikes! What were my chances of reaching a guy in the middle of a noisy construction site?
By then I had heard of E.S.P., which I did not apply to “air calls.” It was easier to believe my Italian American family members had a secret channel to each other. Would it work with a stranger? Could I reach a Russian Orthodox man?
In a quiet lavatory I focused on my “air call.” As I headed to my assigned classroom, I had also resigned myself to waiting at the bus station until 5pm.
When I reached Port Authority at 2:15pm, Mr. Jalopy — — my russkiy — — met me with a cheerful greeting: “Vot ya, dorogaya!”
Though I hadn’t been able to teach him any French or Italian phrases, I had mastered enough basic Russian to understand this: “Here I am, sweetheart!”
Was it Kismet? Did this successful “transmission” signify that we were on the same wave-length?
Frankly, we had had many ups and downs in our relationship by the time Thanksgiving rolled around. But we had more in common than not. And now we were under Mystic Seaport’s spell, asking similar questions, finishing each other’s sentences, as we boarded the exhibition vessels such as the wooden whaling ship Charles W. Morgan, built in 1841, 20 years before the Civil War began.
As we waited for a table at Mystic Pizza — — in those pre-fame years before the 1988 film made Julia Roberts a star — — I could see the wind coming towards us from miles away, like wakes at the back of unseen boats. My enthusiasm for being independent, untethered, faded as his deep blue eyes winked.
Tanking up for the ride back to New York City, we discussed souvenirs and snacks for the car. Several places had closed up so he asked the gas station attendants if this was because of the Thanksgiving holiday.
“No, sir! Storm’s coming.”
The radio in “Bucket of Bolts” didn’t work. The engine kept wheezing. We made a decision. I would drive a rented Camaro, following directly behind him, each car equipped with bottled water and coins for the tollbooths.
For thirty minutes or so, we were fine, riding in tandem, making progress. But before sunset, we saw warning flashes of lightning, and suddenly the storm was upon us, ferocious, intense. Soon the roadway was flooded. Each time I lowered my window to pay a toll, it felt like a tidal wave was coming at me.
Visibility decreased. As I scooped a handful of quarters for the next booth ahead, I realized I had lost him. Was he behind me? Had he passed me by?
Maybe his car had stalled? A scenic lookout was up ahead so I made my way there.
The weatherman was predicting how much worse the tornado would get tonight, especially on Long Island, as I edged onto the gravel and turned off the ignition.
I recalled my mother’s urgency. “Talk to Daddy! Tell him to come home.”
Which Connecticut exit was I near? Winds shook the Camaro so hard it seemed the gods were laughing. The stress was overwhelming. I kept my “air call” simple: “Stay! I’m coming!” For extra luck, I spoke to him in Russian: “Ya idu!”
Irate motorists honked at me and red taillights gleamed like malicious eyes, as I traveled in the right lane at 25 mph, my high beams searching for “Bucket.” Then an invisible hand gripped my neck, turning it sharply.
There it was: a disabled car with a mismatched door, lights flashing.
I threw open my passenger door and he scrambled in, hugging me.
“I’m sorry. I guess I lost you for a bit. Were you worried?”
“I heard you,” he said calmly. “You said you were on your way.”
We took our time kissing. Then we switched seats and he took the wheel.
Two hours later, when we reached Greenwich Village, I phoned my parents. By then we were a bit giddy, full of the feverish energy and adrenaline that sustained us, and I was anticipating the verbal equivalent of a high-five.
Instead, my mother was terrified. “Your brother went to a concert at Nassau Coliseum. A roadway washed out. He drove through a puddle. The car’s stuck.”
His eyes gave me a “what’s up?” glance.
“My brother and his friends went to Nassau Coliseum for a show and his car got stuck,” I explained. “They’re stranded and my parents are panicking.”
“Tell your folks not to worry. My brother’s got a Jeep. I’ll tell him to head over to Nassau County and meet me there. We’ll go get him and all his friends.”
With that, Mr. Jalopy left, heading for the hard-working Camaro.
“Mom! Listen! It’s going to be okay. My friend and his brother will go rescue him. Where is he now exactly?”
What was I to do? I hung up and made an “air call.”