Category Archives: Cars

Of Cars and Critters

The House speaker, Paul Ryan, recently lamented how his personal SUV parked back in his Wisconsin hometown had been “eaten by animals.”

He said woodchucks chewed the wiring out from his Chevrolet Suburban. “And so my car was eaten by animals, and it’s just dead,” he said, according to a story in The New York Times.

Well, Mr. Speaker, you ain’t got nothin’ on AMR’s Richard Rodriguez who has his own tales (tails?) of woe involving critters and cars.

Fasten your safety belt and read Rich’s stories: 

Being born in raised in the Bronx, I had little opportunity for encounters with wildlife.

My wife and I moved out to rural Sussex County, N.J., and it was culture shock.

It was pitch black dark at night, and so quiet I couldn’t sleep. I missed being lulled to sleep by Cross Bronx Expressway traffic.

Over the years we have had numerous encounters with animals and our vehicles.

On a snowy evening, I was following my wife driving home when a deer ran out in front of her car and she hit the brakes but she slid and hit it.

The deer slammed down on the hood and bounced off onto the roadway.  I pulled over and checked on the deer and it was alive but surely had broken legs.

I had no idea what to do.

A truck pulled up behind us and a guy got out and said he could take care of this.

I thought he had a knife and would be able to put this poor animal out of its misery.

Then he went back to his truck and came back with a small sledge hammer and to our horror he proceeded to beat the poor animal’s head in.

Unfortunately, the first hit did not do the job and he continued to slam the hammer down until I finally heard the skull give way and the deer was finally done.

I then helped him pick up and throw it to the side of the road.

We were in shock as to what we just participated in, pristine clean white snow now marred with blood and brains.

Welcome to Sussex County.

This was just the beginning of our vehicle encounters with animals.

My wife proceeded to hit a number of deer in the years to follow, including a scary high-speed encounter on the way to work one morning.

The front of the van was smashed but only the top of the radiator cracked and she was able to drive back home.  It was close to being totaled but the insurance company fixed it.

This van became the Red Baron of the road.  I should have placed stamps on the side to represent all of its kills over the years.

I hit a deer with it, or actually the deer ran into me, almost came through the driver’s side window.

I also ran over a poor cat with all the kids in the van as I brought them home from daycare. Nice job, Dad. Now I was known as the cat-killer to my kids.

Last year the car I used for commuting to work started smelling like a small animal nest.

I checked under the hood by the air intake, and inside the car where the air comes through the vents.  Nothing there but some leaves and debris.

Not a good sign.

I hoped a mouse was not using my car as a nest.

The nest smell turned into the smell of death and decay and I was still unable to locate the culprit.

I used car fresheners that I attached to all the vents and it only masked the smell as the underlying stench still came through.

No one wanted to drive in my car with me.

I started to use my truck to avoid dealing with the dead animal smell.

I wondered how long it would take for it to decompose to nothing so it would stop stinking up my vehicle.

Winter came and I think whatever was in there froze and provided some olfactory relief.

I am now happy to report that after almost a year I am able to drive around without death in the air.

Glad I did not have to set the car on fire.

Misadventures at Great Adventure

As a kid growing up in the Bronx, amusement park rides were a foreign concept.

The tram or the skyline ride at the Bronx Zoo or maybe the carousel at Central Park were the rides I was most familiar with.

Later, I was introduced to Rye Playland in Westchester County, N.Y. For me at the time, it was a wide-eyed wonderland of rides, attractions and carnival games.

The park, operated by the county, was relatively small and tame compared to its bigger competitors — the biggest of which for New Yorkers was Great Adventure in Jackson, N.J.

I recall well GA advertising on television to lure city residents to make the roughly three-hour trip.

The big attraction at the time was its animal safari, in which you drove through a large enclosed route and wild animals would come right up to your car, and in some cases, sit on it. (The attraction, by the way, has been completely revamped.)

I’ve gone to this amusement park several times, mostly with OK experiences but the height of my misadventures at Great Adventure came in 2002. I was with my mother and sons, then 9 and 4.

We were driving through the safari, having a fine old time. The animals were close and fun to watch.

At the very end of the attraction, you had a choice to take a detour that would go around a section filled with baboons and lead you to the exit, or you could drive through the crowd of baboons.

Why the detour?

Because these cute adorable creatures could strip your car faster than a NASCAR pit crew. The open area they occupied was littered with car parts – hubcaps, windshield wipers, mirrors, etc.

They were nimble, intelligent and curious. And oh, yeah: strong.

Naturally, I was undeterred by all the warning signs about proceeding. My car then was a 10-year-old Ford Escort station wagon.

As the result of someone who had hit my parked car, one of my headlights and signal lamps was loose.

It was still operable but it was not installed correctly because, me being a guy, I had just hot-glued-gunned the piece into place and called it a day.

You can guess the rest.

Sure enough, the baboons swarmed my car. And at first it was cute.

But then one of them yanked that headlight out and held it like a trophy.

My kids’ laughing turned to stark terror crying because they feared what the baboons might do to the rest of the car. It was not quite as terrifying as the baboon scene from “The Omen” but close.

I was laughing because the outcome was so predictable and inevitable.

Best of all was my mother who took a photo of a baboon sucking on the light bulb it had plucked from the headlight.

When she sent me the photo, it included this modern-art-like caption in her handwriting on the back: “Baboon with car light bulb.”







Snow Foolin’: The April 1st Blizzard of 1997

As Winter Storm Juno 2015 is hitting the Northeast, I remember back to 1997 to a most improbable storm, the April Fool’s Day Blizzard.

Both my wife and I went to work, dropped my son off at daycare, and there was snow in the forecast.  Of course, we were thinking spring at this time and it was actually warm out.

The temperature dropped and the snow fell all day.

Conditions deteriorated quickly. I worked close to home and picked up my son early and came home.

My wife, unfortunately, had an hour commute on a good day and surely had a long night ahead of her.

The snow piled up fast, and four hours went by and she still had not gotten home.

She finally called me from the car and was only a few miles away but was stuck.

Damn. So close.

I called my neighbor and he came over and watched my sleeping son while I went out to get her.

I had a 4×4 pick-up and was confident that I would have no problem getting to her and bringing her home.

She was also pregnant with our second child and I was worried about her and the stressful night she was having.

I pulled off the road right past her car, and to my shock, the truck slid off the side of the road and down to a wood fence.

Shit! Fuck!

I tried going back and forth and just dug myself deeper into the deep snow.

Now we were both stuck.

I checked on my wife. She was fine, just tired.

I went to work on my truck. I tried to dig out a path to get some traction, but nothing I did helped, just brought me closer to that fence.

Finally someone came down from the house and I thought we were saved.


This freakin’ guy was all nice and asked me my name and where I was from and then: “Do you have insurance? You’re tearing up my lawn and if you hit my fence…”

That’s when I cut him off and let him have it with a torrent of profanities that I didn’t know I was capable of.

He turned tail and said he was going to call the cops, and I screamed back at him to go ahead maybe they’ll actually help me!

I was fuming, but then someone in a truck stopped by and offered to help.

He had a towrope and proceeded to pull both of our vehicles out.

I thanked him and he promised that his friends would take the guy’s mailbox out for us.

Nice. I’ll have to drop a case of beer off for this kid.

We drove carefully home, and I think about that night every time I pass by that house.

I’m Drivin’ in My Car…And Getting Into Trouble!

One night in 1985 while out with my AMR brothers cruising around, we almost all checked out.

An annual Italian heritage block event was held in our neighborhood in the east Bronx.

As was our custom, we would pile into a car and head out. This time it was my car and Zerega Avenue was our destination for the evening.

My car was really my Dad’s car and to call it a land yacht was to downplay its enormity. It was a 1976 Ford LTD. It was truly a land cruise ship. Piling into it was not a problem for just the four of us that night, Pedro, John, Rich and me.

The car was not a beater, but it had seen better days. Most of the dings, scratches and disrepair were courtesy of a teenage me that learned to drive in it and used it more than Dad did by that time.

On that fateful night, it had a burnt out headlight. Being young and broke I did not see the urgency in repairing or replacing parts immediately.

So off we went, with John riding shotgun and Pedro and Rich in the back seat.

We cruised the night a bit and headed in the direction of the festival. I can’t recall if any of us really wanted to attend the festival. We were just planning on cruising, cutting up and having fun.

Traffic was not heavy but we saw police officers directing traffic on the principal roads. I turned down a side street and, approaching a corner on the dark road, I saw a single flashlight motioning forward like an airport runway crewman.

But as my great white land ship got closer to the light, it started to motion to the curb that I should pull over.

I immediately remembered the busted headlight. Damn.

And that I had forgotten my wallet. Double damn!

I pulled to the side and a very young police officer came to my window. He asked me for my license and registration and with the same breath before I could reply to his first request he informed me that I had a headlight out.

From the corner of my eye, I saw his partner, equally young, flashlight in hand, approach the passenger side.

I told the officer that I was driving my Dad’s car and I forgot my wallet. But I did have the registration in the glove compartment, which I pointed to and was about to slowly reach all the way over to retrieve.

And here is where it all could have ended.

John lunged for the glove compartment, simply thinking that he was doing me a solid and getting my documents for me.

The cops didn’t see the nobility of the gesture as they each took a step back and trembling hands went to their holsters. Luckily, John fumbled the turn knob and I was able to calmly push him back in his seat.

I’m not certain what kept me moving calmly that night other than instinctively knowing that one does not make quick movements in the presence of officers on a dark side road in the Bronx.

After pulling out the registration and insurance card, the officer asked me to give him my name and spell it.

He returned the cards to me. His hand — and mine — were less than steady.

I guess he was satisfied that the spelling of my last name matched the one on the registration card. Thank the heavens my name wasn’t simply Smith.

He gave me a warning to drive home, get the headlight fixed and to not forget my wallet in the future. Yes, sir!

I pulled away slowly and started to drive away. Then a steady barrage of smacks and blows, intermingled with chopped unfinished sentences, started to rain down on the back of John’s head coming from the back seat.

“You dumb…” Smack!

“You never lunge when…” Bang!

“You almost got us…” Pow!

All of it was coming from Pedro. Rich didn’t say much the rest of the trip.

Thinking back on it, and without making light of recent events, we got off easy. I can only imagine that the young officers were just as frightened as we were. And we were extremely fortunate the glove box did not open, allowing John to reach in.

The officers stayed level-headed and did not draw, but all the circumstances in the event—four youths with no ID in a large car that is not theirs — could have led to calling in the sidewalk chalk outline artist that night.

I’m grateful that it turned out OK for us. And I don’t think I have ever again forgotten my wallet!

My Three Great Loves

In “A Bronx Tale,” Chazz Palminteri’s mobster character, Sonny, says, “You’re only allowed three great women in your lifetime.”

I agree, but I would amend it to say, “You’re only allowed three great loves in your lifetime.”

And, with all due respect to all of the beautiful, amazing, smart, and loving women who have been and are currently in my life, my three great loves have been: my 1976 Chevy Monte Carlo, my 1982 Chevy Camaro and my 1992 Honda Accord.

This is not to say that there have not been (and are) women in my life who have meant everything to me, but the love that I am talking about is a different kind of love.

The love that a man has for his car can spring from many different roots.

For me, it started as a child in the suburbs of NYC, where a car is not only necessary for transportation, it is a core part of the culture and helps define who you are as a man.

For instance, my first two cars were Chevys because my dad, my role model for what it meant to be a man, was a Chevy Man.

He loved to drive, and many of my most powerful and cherished childhood memories were the long, scenic drives we would take as a family.

Cars also defined freedom as nothing else could. The idea of being able to jump into a car and go wherever I wanted whenever I wanted was always intoxicating to me. What better way to demonstrate my independence than by jumping into my car, picking up some friends and just driving around?

1976_chevrolet_monte_carlo_in_joyce_100016338730411845So, at 17, I bought my first car, a used 1976 Monte Carlo. The car had a hood that was longer than an aircraft carrier’s landing deck. With a pale yellow exterior, a white Landau vinyl half-roof, and a white interior, I looked like a 5′ 5″ pimp cruising the streets of my hometown.

Everyone in town knew that car, and for a fairly introverted 17-year-old, that equated to acceptance. In so many ways, that car really was my first love.

Then a year to the day later, I bought a brand new 1982 dark blue Camaro Berlinetta. It was the first year of the Camaro’s redesign, and I was one of the first people in my town to have one. As much as I loved my Monte (affectionately known as “The Banana”), this was a totally different kind of love.

I was the first owner. I was its first, and there is nothing quite like that feeling.

“The Layomatic,” as my friend Ben named it, was another step in defining who I was as a man. It was a muscle car, but the Berlinetta model also had class. I won’t comment here if “The Layomatic” lived up to its name, but it made me stand out from everyone else, just as “The Banana” had.

Ten years (and two engines and three transmissions) later, I purchased a brand new dark red 1992
Honda Accord with a gray interior. The choice of a car speaks volumes about the person who owns it. When I bought the Accord, it was the first time anyone in my family had owned a foreign car.

Yet another step in my independence from my family. My choice of an Accord also spoke to where I was in my life.

I was getting older.1992_honda_accord_coupe_lx_s_oem_1_500

The Accord was highly rated for reliability. That’s where I was in my life: Looking for reliability and not so much for flash.

Well, the Accord stayed with me for 22 years (longer than any woman has to date), until January of this year when it just couldn’t go any further. I could not have asked more from it, and I am still dealing with having to let it go.

Since I now live in Brooklyn, I recognize on a cognitive level that I don’t need a car to get around. But try to tell that to that boy who grew up with cars being such a core part of his identity.

Some day, I may buy another car, but, for now, I am going to try and get used to not having one. In fact, I wrote this while sitting on the train on the way to visit my brother and his family.