Things happen when you have a car in the city. Back in the early eighties, when I was crazy enough to be living on St. Marks Place, I had the battery stolen from my ‘68 164 dual-carb Volvo. Some wretched skell reached up through the broken grille and opened the hood latch. My sister-in-law told me I better get the grille fixed immediately because once I moved the car the thief would know I had a new battery and take that one, too. Since I never listen to anything my sister-in-law says, I did not get the grille fixed. My new battery was immediately stolen. Pissed, I locked the third battery in the trunk and taped a note on the car saying “Fuck you.” The next morning I returned to find “Sorry, man” scrawled at the bottom of the note.
Alas, all that remains of that beloved Volvo is the driver’s-side-window hand crank, which I keep as a souvenir. The rest was donated to the Westport, Connecticut, volunteer fire department, which ripped open the car’s roof like a can of creamed corn with its Jaws of Life as an “extrication” exercise. In this way, the Volvo joined so many of my other autos: my ‘65 Sunbeam Minx (totaled on the old West Side Highway), my Ford Econoline van (sold for $200 to a guy named Malcolm, to haul fish from South Carolina), my Dodge Dart (scavenged for parts, crushed to a three-foot-by-three-foot steel box), my Buick Special (also crushed), and my Ford Galaxie (bought because Lemmy Caution in Alphaville drove one, then stolen, never found). I mourn all these departed vehicles, to various degrees.
I was thinking of all these ruined vehicles while riding out to Willets Point Boulevard, site of the vast automobile graveyard and open-air parts bazaar just east of Shea Stadium. It was a mission, a quest. Looking for a bench seat for a 22-year-old Chevy can be called nothing else.
The car in question was my buddy Terry Bisson’s 1979 maroon and silver Chevrolet Caprice Classic. When it comes to the automotive, Terry is my man. Firmly ensconced in Brooklyn for the past couple of decades, T.B. grew up in Owensboro, Kentucky. This was where, like dem southern boys like to do, he learned how to double-clutch and speed-shift at about the age of 12, screaming along in his uncle’s ‘53 Ford with a beer between his legs. It was hell-raising, and if you’re going to raise hell sans seat belts you might as well do it dodging the planes on the runways of the town airport, which had just been built by a company run by the grandfather of Johnny Depp, Owensboro’s most famous son (if you don’t count Bill Monroe, and nascar champ Darrell Waltrip). Having rebuilt a ‘48 Willys Jeepster before he was 17, T.B. – an erstwhile grease monkey turned famous sci-fi author and official biographer of Mumia Abu-Jamal – has a healthy respect for the potential life span of a good car, which in his case is as long as he can possibly make the fucker run.
It was a bench-seat-in-the-haystack sort of deal, we understood, approaching the banks of the fuming Flushing River, the great junkyard looming beyond like a deeply oxidized Oz. Still, T.B. was hopeful. After all, Cairo has its City of the Dead, but Willets Point, the 40-acre former site of Gatsby’s ashpits, is the City of Dead Cars. If there was a Chevy bench seat to be found, it would be here.
Karmandu, I call it, owing to Willets’s frontierlike, unpaved, and sewerless streets, which, depending on the weather, are either dust-choked or flooded. Also reminiscent of the Third World is the way dozens of hitherto unseen hawkers fly from their corrugated-tin offices to bang on the hood of your vehicle, demanding you purchase a used fender, a used transmission, a used windshield, a used CV joint. With John Rocker’s 7 train rumbling through the monoxide-saturated air, Willets Point is a post-Mad Max caravansary, catering to all nationalities. Homesick cabbies from Quito seeking replacement glass can find solace at the Ecuador Body Shop. For refugees from the Taliban in need of a radiator, there is Kabul Auto Repair, Inc. (for Spanish-speaking Afghanis, the shop sign adds reparación de autos). It is impressive to be here on evenings when the Mets play. You squint into the vapor lamps to see 40,000 rise to do the wave or boo John Franco, the bum, one more time. But nothing beats Willets seen during a winter’s sunset, when silhouettes of ice-gleamed steering columns stacked on rooftops point upward like shrunken spaceships straining to the stars. It is enough to make any gearhead weak.
We stopped first at Sambucci Bros., Inc., Auto Salvage. Mario Cuomo knew a guy there when he was a young lawyer. He represented the Sambuccis and several other Willets Point automotive pioneers against Robert Moses, who was looking for lebensraum for his 1964 World’s Fair. “Moses wanted to build a ball field, he thought it would be easy to get rid of a few little oil-covered guys with a baling press machine… . We took Moses on and beat him,” remembered Cuomo when I called him, clearly still relishing this vanquishing of the power broker. “Strange you bring up Willets Point,” the former governor remarked. “It was a big case for me, it led to several others. Willets Point was really the beginning of my public life … a career begun in the junkyard.”
Forty-one years later, hearing that Cuomo was still “miserable” over not receiving his full fee in the case, Dan Sambucci Sr., now 70 and leather-faced from a life of hard work, said, “Well, he got my part of the money… . The governor was educated, way up there, but we got along. He always got a kick out of how I talked, you know, from the street.” Sambucci, who was born in Corona and bought his first wreck in 1949 with $20 borrowed from his mother, recalled when “this was country, green fields, and we’d burn those punk things to keep away the mosquitoes.”
“Everything is different these days,” said Sambucci, whose office sports a six-foot-tall statue of Jesus. “We got a League of Nations here now.” Plus, he continued, with leasing and 100,000-mile warranties, people don’t look for parts the way they did. “Mostly it’s dealers who come in. You don’t get the individual like before.” Then again, the old wrecker reflected, with the city making intermittent noises about condemning the junkyards to build a new park for the Mets to lose in, life at Willets Point has taken on the ephemeral, doomed aspect of the cars that end up here. “You know: Here today, gone tomorrow,” he said.
After that, Mr. Sambucci told us what we already suspected: He didn’t have a bench seat for a ‘79 Caprice Classic. “That’s pretty old,” he said.
Over the next couple of hours, as we stepped gingerly over glass pellets strewn on the streets, the story was the same. There was no bench seat at Panjoti Body, no bench seat at Malek Motors, no bench seat at El Salvador Glass, no bench seat at F&F Auto Salvage near the La Guadalupana Restaurant’s lunch wagon, and no bench seat at Agnello’s, where the large letters on the to-do blackboard spelled make money. Over at Budget Wrecking they had a couple of black leather buckets, hidden away in a spider-filled trailer, that the Rastaman attendant said he might “bend to fit,” but this seemed chancy at best. Over at Sunrise Auto Body Shop, a massive yard out by the old stone coal silos left over from the ashpit days, paydirt appeared palpable. There, beyond twin handwritten, bilingual remonstrations – no pissing and no orinar – magically revved up and running just for our benefit, was a 1985 Caprice, which, when it comes to bench seats, is close enough. The condition was good, too. Nice gray velveteen with no rips.
“How much?,” T.B. inquired.
Natan, the doleful Semite in charge, scratched his head. “I give you for $60, no installation.”
Unfortunately, the deal was soon dashed. Whoever purchased that old ‘85 Caprice, however many owners ago, must have been relatively flush. He’d ordered the power seats, an option the buyer of T.B.’s ‘79 model had eschewed. The ‘85 seats would not fit.
It was about then that T.B., veteran of such situations, became apprehensive. By now it was clear: Even amid the immense disassemblage of Willets Point, there was likely only one bench seat to fit a 1979 Caprice. That seat was inside T.B.’s maroon and silver rocket, or at least it was when we parked in the mud puddle at the far end of the lot. Now, with word of our search no doubt buzzing around the yard, the next scene was easy to imagine. Some local chop-shopper would tap us on the shoulder and lead us down a grease-stained pathway to show us the object in question. He’d want $50.
To which T.B. would reply, “Fifty?! Why, that seat’s no better than what I’ve got now.”
This would cause the price to drop to $40. When it got to $25, we’d buy the thing, install it back into the Caprice, and drive off feeling, well, at least we’d gotten the guy down on the price.
Hearts sinking, we drove back to Brooklyn, to the automotive neighborhood on the southern end of Utica Avenue. Past the Bluebird Diner and Paco’s Tacos, we came to the blocks containing John’s Auto, Bim’s Auto, and Mr. Auto Trim. But none of these establishments could help us. Last stop was nearby on Foster Avenue, at Hammer’s, a cheery wrecking yard with joyous folk art of dead and dying vehicles painted on the yellow exterior.
By now, however, T.B. had changed his focus. The bench-seat quest forsaken for the moment, he now sought to replace the long-busted cover of his left front turn signal. Hammer’s seemed the place for that. Thousands of tail-light and signal covers hanging on hooks festooned the three-story wall inside the wrecker’s iron fence like red and yellow plastic ivy. Suspense filled the summer South Brooklyn air as the Hammer attendant picked through the seemingly endless array.
“I have ‘80,” the Hammer guy, a Russian gentleman in a Banlon shirt and gold chains, said with an accent fresh from the steppes. “Best I can do. Can you use ‘80?” T.B. could not. For reasons known only to the Detroit brain trust, GM had seen fit to change the front-turning-light setup between the ‘79 and ‘80 model years.
“Guess not,” T.B. said, slowly sinking back onto the bumpy springs of his unreplaced bench seat.
Then, as if we didn’t already know, the Russian leaned in the window and said, “Take it from me. What you look for is not a part. It is an antique. Try a museum.”