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!