By Andrew J. Alexander
I’d never seen a Renault Dauphine before that August afternoon. I’d been basking in the sun on the painted wooden stoop of our tenement. It was close to noon and another high school summer vacation day was drifting by.
Sly drove up in in the strange-looking car; it was small, low, and short and black.
“Where’d you get that?” I said, never knowing Sly to have a car or a driver’s license for that matter.
“C’mon white boy, go for a ride?”
Sly had some issues; attention span was one. We were in Newark, New Jersey, and I wanted to make sure he wasn’t driving down south to Georgia to visit his grandma.
“Down neck, man,” he said, “to the junk yards.”
“I gotta be back by six?” I said, thinking about grandpa watching the clock and having dinner ready.
Sly flashed a grin, “C’mon man.”
When I adjusted the paper-thin seat that looked glued to the floor, I noticed a long car battery wedged between two huge tires.
I slid into the seat and pointed to the back, “Hey, brother, what’s up with all the stuff?”
Sly revved the engine, eased the clutch and we were off.
Waving across the thin dashboard, I said. “Where’d you get this?”
“I just, you know,” Sly’s skin, so black to almost be purple, a bit sweaty in the heat, his head glowed and he smiled like a kid. “I picked it up.” He smiled some more and said, “It’s borrowed.”
I didn’t know for an absolute fact that the car was stolen. My mom would have my ass if I stepped into a stolen anything so, I didn’t ask again.
I knew where the junkyards were, in the section called Ironbound, the industrial area bordered with railroad tracks and overpasses.
I stopped talking and took in the streets I recognized from bus rides I’d taken with my folks to the catholic church on Pulaski.
After a while I asked Sly, “Why’d you avoid goin’ through Broad and Market Streets and through the new business center?” It was the late 1950s and Newark was thriving for many.
The small car rattled over multiple railroad crossings, skipped over jagged potholes and avoided bouncing off the roadway. We cruised through the cavernous overpass of the Pennsylvania Station and into the industrial zone to the narrow accessways that sat almost unnoticed below the New Jersey Turnpike and the Pulaski Skyway and led to rusting metal garages and mysteriously fenced-in car yards. Sly parked at the top of a steep driveway.
“You wait here,” his voice a bit tighter than usual.
He got out, leaned the back of his seat toward the steering wheel and removed the two tires and walked them down the driveway.
Hoping to catch a breeze off the water or the marshlands, I climbed out of the hot little black box, lifted my hips and rested my butt on the rounded fender and waited.
Looking down the narrow driveway, I skimmed over the two older men, tough looking Black men. I mean, Sly was tough-looking but he was seventeen and these guys were probably in their thirties. They were working on a rusty wheel mounted on some huge car, the five bolts on the wheel were bent. Sly interrupted their work, “You won’t get down south on that wheel, not like that.”
“Our work, son, what are you…” then spotting me, “And what is he doing here?”
The guy didn’t even point at me, we all knew what he meant.
“He’s okay. He’s with me and you don’t got to worry about that. Let me show you what I brought.”
The wind picked up a bit and I didn’t get the rest of their conversation. A few minutes later Sly came back, beaming his smile. “It’s okay,” he said while he lifted the long battery from the Renault’s floor. “Be right back.”
He walked the heavy battery into a small white shed that might have been the office of the junkyard.
Sly was inside for what felt like a long few minutes and the two old guys were checking me out. Shit, the afternoon suddenly felt hotter and saturated with heavy smells from the swamplands. Who’s gonna beat up the white kid? I thought of getting back into the car — no, I’d hold my own. I slipped off the fender and moved closer to the car door, leaving it open, and leaned against the back of the cab, I tried nonchalance while guarding what these guys were up to. I’d just started to sweat when Sly bounded up to the car, smiling like he was suppressing a laugh. “Let’s go,” he said. “Yeah, baby,” I said. “I was starting to figure that those fuckers were thinking about kicking my ass just for fun.”
“They won’t mess with you when you’re with me. It’s business.”
I didn’t ask.
“You taking Central from here?” I said. It was the straightest road home.
“No, man, gonna stick to the side streets, we’re good.”
I tried the knobs on the radio, only static. “The antenna is broke,” Sly said. The ride was bouncy, the car felt light, like a toy, it was the smallest car I’d ever been in, sure smaller than our 1952 Chevy, which at least had four doors. Sly, his dark silken head with his wide smile electrified the cabin.
The afternoon continued sunny, still hot enough for rising plumes of heat baking up from the roadway.
Riding downhill Ninth Avenue, the little car picked up speed and Sly continued a blabber about the junk yard, how maybe he should have asked for more money for the tires and the battery.
About a block from home, speeding now, Sly spotted three girls on the left hand sidewalk strutting opposite our direction. I wasn’t into girls yet, but I sure noticed that they were beautiful, tall, and thin and wearing tight tops and tight short shorts.
Sly cranked the steering wheel into a sharp left hoping to make a quick U-turn.
“It’s those soulful beauties,” he was saying, trying to make a too-sharp left turn that failed to defy physics, and the wheels on Sly’s side of the car lifted off the pavement, up from the road-way, rolling over onto my side and then rolling some more until time seemed to stop and a sound like a hundred metal garbage cans scraping on blacktop filled the street. Heat from the thin metal roof scraping the asphalt coming through to my hands that were anchoring me in place. The front windshield and the side windows blew out when the roof crushed down toward the dashboard. I never heard the glass shattering. Sly grabbed my arm, “Hey, get out, this way!” He pointed to the narrow back window that he’d just kicked out of its bent frame. I crawled out using my left elbow for leverage, kicking with my feet, shimmying out of the black cage.
By the time I stood up, Sly was at my side. The street filled with bystanders. I never saw so many people on my block at the same time, not even on Easter Sunday. Staring at the underside of the French car, I was trying to accept that I’d been in that cab a few seconds ago. Except for the slow revolutions of one tire still spinning, the block sat silent. The crowd, keeping about fifteen feet away, surrounded the wreckage.
As we all stared at the crumpled metal, Sly scanned the onlookers and with his left hand nudged my chest for me to walk backwards.
I didn’t really understand but I kept stepping backwards and Sly kept up with me, and then I realized he had walked me to the outside of the circle of spectators. No one looked at us, no one stared at the one white face in the street, everyone focused on the car. My elbow was bleeding and sparkles of glass embossed my arm.
When we were away from the crowd, Sly pointed at my arm and said, “Go home. Man, you gotta clean up.”
“What about the cops?” I asked.
“I wasn’t here, neither were you.” Sly glanced at the crowd and said, “You take care of that arm, they won’t say nothin’, ain’t nobody goin’ say nothin’.”
Copyright Alexander 2023