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Rumson Auto

I moved to Rumson, New Jersey when I was nine. My dad had bought a run-down trio of green houses on half an acre of ground on a street called Avenue of Two Rivers. The road ran between the Shrewsbury and Navesink rivers, which ran into the ocean at Sandy Hook at the northeast tip of the state.

A line from a New Yorker magazine article about snobby places said, “In Rumson it is considered parvenu* to garden without wearing white gloves.” That was a reference to the snobitude and wealth of the town. We shared neither.

To put the burg in context, Bruce Springsteen still makes his home there, Bon Jovi recently moved elsewhere. For older readers, Jackie Gleason used to visit regularly and stay on his boats, Away We Go (I and later, II). He tied up at the riverside home of his buddy, Jim Bishop, who had a raging best seller, The Day Christ Died. Milton Berle and other show biz luminaries had homes in Rumson, population around 400. Ancients such as I note that Major Bowes of The Original Amateur Hour on radio and Tom Howard of another radio show, “It Pays to be Ignorant,” lived there. And a final name-drop for jazz afficiandos: Eddie Condon was just down the street.

My best friends in the neighorhood were Maury and Skip. We shared a love of classical and jazz music, cars and other things. We rarely dated. I had a 1933 Chevy with spoked wheels, Maury had a 1934 Ford Coupe and Skip drove his mother’s Nash. Both of their cars were always in top condition, in and out. Mine was a junker from the start and I helped maintain that integrity. I paid $25 for it.

The Chevy would never pass state inspection and I kept getting extensions, or driving it illegally. It was a two-door sedan. In those days the upper portion of many cars above the frames was made from oak. There was a large open oval at the top in which a permanent lid fit, made of canvas and linoleum or such.

Rumson is connected over the river to the sand-spit town of Sea Bright by a high arched bridge. One fine day, with a blasting wind coming off the Atlantic, I was driving across it right into the teeth of the gale. A strong gust caught the front of that “permanent” top and peeled it halfway back, like a sardine can. My buddies found this hilarious. I came close to evicting them, I was so furious at them and at the fickle finger of fate.

Not being able to afford taking it for repairs--let alone finding a replacement for the roof--I pulled the remnants off the car and for a couple of days had a fine sun roof. Then the rain came.

Looking around the family lumber stash, I found a sheet of half-inch plywood. I borrowed my dad’s forbidden-to-touch new electric drill and put holes through the full plywood sheet and the solid portion of the top of the car, bought some nuts and bolts and fastened it all together.

My parents were aghast. ‘What would people say?’ asked my mother for the hundredth time about what I wore, my language, me, and now the car. My father was more realistic: “I am in business in this town and people who see that wreck are not going to come to the flower shop. At least paint that plywood, it looks stupid.” My friends had a new hilarity.

It did look stupid. So to please my dad and my own excruciatingly exacting sense of good taste, I used part of the money my mother gave me to visit my aunt in Virginia. I bought the cheapest black paint I could find and a few brushes and had a painting party with my friends. It did not take long.

I had been forewarned by Skip that I had bought tire paint and it was going look awful. I disagreed. The paint was shiny and lustrous and it was finished in time for me to get the train for Virginia the next day.

When I returned, my father said something like, Golookat your goddamcar and my mother asked what people would think. So I looked. The top and mating metalwork were the color and texture of charred toast, brush marks throughout and runs of paint down the sides. It was a disaster.

The car failed inspection for the final time - no extensions. It was butt-ugly. As luck would have it, Skip was looking for what we now call a dune-buggy for dashing around in the dune grasses along the river where he lived. I sold it to him for ten dollars and a promise to help divorce the entire car from its chassis. It was a day of hard work. Swinging a sledgehammer is not easy, especially in summer heat. But we did it and I think he drove it home, about two miles in the wee small hours. The headlights did work. We referred to it as “The Chassis.”

The last I saw ‘The Chassis’ Skip was sitting on a large board that had replaced the seats. He was heading out to the marshland to ram around in what had been my first car.

I took better care of the next one, a ’38 Chev.

*Par ven u’ ---- “ One who has recently risen to an unaccustomed position of wealth: A relative newcomer to a socioeconomic class.”