August 4, 1968

Going through a rocky spell with Juliana. Izzy goes to New Hope and tracks down Quentin. They go to a café on a quiet side street, where old-timers tell them about life on the canal.

We traipsed along through the gathering crowd of tourists, who gawked a-plenty at his display of carved heads, but apparently he wasn’t ready to start merchandising, because we brushed past them and then turned down a narrow alley that I hadn’t noticed before. We pivoted on a corner into a leafy lane that ran parallel to the river, close enough to smell the moving water. I followed him to a hole-in-the-wall with a sign over the door that said “1931 Café.”

Inside, there was a very small counter, three booths against the wall and a handful of round tables in the middle of the room.

The café was empty except for four old folks gathered around the table nearest the window at the front. A puddle of sunlight gathered there, exhausted from caroming through the glass from outside. Quentin leaned his array of coconut heads against the wall near the door and then steered straight for an empty chair at the table.

There was one more chair, which I took. The four old codgers looked at me over their coffee cups.

“Dis Boy Scout want to learn about old days on the canal,” Quentin said. Pointing at me.

Slowly one of them, a slight and withered gent with white hair and a scraggly beard, cleared his throat and began remembering aloud. He told a story about having to captain his family’s barge when he was young because his father took ill. When he got to Bristol to get weighed—the boatmen’s profits were based on how much higher the barge floated after unloading—he was paid in a crowd of older men, some them rough-looking, and scared that he was being cheated. The agent was impatient, but he fought for his ground and insisted on going over the books a second time. He had to been to school some, and his father had shown him how to do the plusses and minus, but his brain was froze up. He stammered and wanted to cry but just kept saying over and over that he was getting shorted. Finally, the agent gave him a few dollars more and he ran all the way back to the barge and hid the money under a floorboard near the potty.

Hitchhiking home, Izzy gets a ride with a man driving a 1963 Pontiac Grand Prix. He’s smoking a cigarette and listening to the Phillies on the radio. After a strikeout ruins a budding rally, the driver throws the cigarette out the window in disgust.

August 2, 1968

On their way to visit Martine at his house, Izzy and Juliana come across a 1959 Ford F100 pickup. A woman is driving, with two small kids beside her. She is having a smoke, holding the cigarette outside the cab, and when she finishes she tries to flick it back in the bed of the pickup truck.

Later, at Martine’s, a party that Izzy would regret.

When I came out of the cabana, Juliana was hanging on the edge of the pool, talking to Martine, who sat smoking at the table with a clever look in his face. I dove into the deep end. I ranked third among swimmers in my family, but I had merit badges to prove I knew my way around a pool.

Juliana swam to me. For 10 minutes or so we were, at least in my mind, back in the creek, almost unaware of Martine, the sun crouching to squeeze through tree limbs, the subtle stench of rich-guy pool chemicals and wealth and slate surrounding us. Not so unlike the natural rub of creek scum, only a different flavor.

Martine never came into the pool, but I felt his presence more and more. It began to feel like Juliana and I were swimming for an audience, dance partners in an aquatic audition of some kind, or primitive life forms jerking about on a microscope slide.

The water was going sour and I pulled myself out, not knowing whether she would follow. I hadn’t the forethought to bring a towel with me from the cabana, as Juliana had, so I took my seat with Vic Martine and the Victor Electrowriter and simply air dried.

The houseman showed up. Martine asked if we wanted something to drink. Juliana piped up from the pool, her face beaming, asking for a whiskey sour.

Again, who was she?

I said I would have one too.

“Truth serum for all!” Martine said.

It occurred to me that he might already be drunk. I never saw it coming at the race track.

In landlessness alone resides the highest truth,” I said, “so it is better to perish in that howling infinite than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety.

Martine looked like he didn’t get it. They usually don’t. Then the fellow came with a tray of drinks and Juliana arose glistening from the pool, a freshly washed peach goddess. She wrapped herself in the thick towel she had brought from the cabana.

It went downhill from there.

July 30, 1968

Ah, the Chevy Corvair, spotted in the parking lot of a strip shopping center.

We pulled out of the strip mall lot and fell in behind a bright green 1964 Chevrolet Corvair, a car-of-the-year pick when it was introduced as the first American-made rear-engine car in 1960. Although it would later incur the wrath of Ralph Nader, the Corvair influenced car design by ending once and for all the obsession with wings, and introducing the flow-line design using convex surfaces. At the time, it was an oddity, flat, low and wide with air vents in the hood over the engine in the back. The back of the car wore a lid.

The trunk was in the front!

The 1964 was the last model year Chevy offered the Corvair with a gasoline-powered heater. It looked more American than the VW Beetle, against which it was competing, but there were few in the school parking lot. It was the flying saucer your weird uncle—the one who was a ham radio operator—drove and bragged about.

This one had a bumper sticker that read: Waiter! What Is This Nitwit Doing in My Soup?

The Corvair lurched a little bit at the start, the sign of a manual transmission. I was thinking about my father before I noticed that Mr. Corvair was also working on a cigarette. We were following him out of a red light recently turned green when he quickly threw the cigarette out into the street with his left hand, and then grabbed the steering wheel.

“He had to litter because he was shifting gears,” I said.

 

July 26, 1968, part 2

July 26 was one of the rare days in the AutoFlick story with two cigarette-flicking sightings. The second takes place on the way home from the race track, late at night. Martine is passed out drunk in the tiny back seat of the Maserati. Izzy is driving.

The journey home seemed timeless, and then it wasn’t.

A few miles from Martine’s house, along the curving and dipping River Road, we cruised up behind a 1966 Mustang coupe just as the driver flicked a cigarette onto the road, where it exploded in a tiny fireworks display. We purred ahead like a confident Italian weightlifter, operas of horsepower in reserve, riding on his left taillight, waiting for the road ahead to give us a passing lane. When it did, we lifted off like a rocket, passing the Mustang, and Juliana leaned toward the open window.

“You dropped something back there,” she yelled as we accelerated into the open road, and then the empty night. “Everybody’s making love or else expecting rain,” she sang to the wind.

When we got back to Martine’s house, I stopped the Maserati outside the garage and turned off the ignition.

I left the wad of money on the passenger seat after Juliana and Martine got out. If I could throw new bell-bottom pants in a trash can, I could leave a few weeks’ pay in a rich guy’s car.

Driving home in my father’s car was a letdown, though I tried to tell myself that it wasn’t.

July 26, 1968

A memorable day in the AutoFlick chronology. Izzy and Juliana meet Martine at his house and then head to a race track in Delaware in Martine’s 1965 Maserati Sebring 2.

And so we retraced our steps through the plush living room and out the front door and along the front walk to the garage. Martine summoned the door to open electronically. As it slowly lifted, I expected to see the weighty ass of his Cadillac DeVille.

Instead there was a sleek, two-door that I could not name. It had a tight, wingless rear that looked like a suitcase, with a subtle crease wrapping across the top of the trunk. A modest bumper, a bulging package of three rear lights mounted on each side and the Maserati badge. Two chrome exhaust pipes pointed improbably at an angle into the night sky.

It seemed alive in the fading light, at a standstill, promising to fly off into the night at any moment.

Martine was smoking as he backed slowly from the garage. I opened the passenger door and determined that Juliana had to sit in the front. So I squeezed myself into the back.

When she flipped the back of the front seat into riding position, I was embalmed in deep, dark-red leather, trimmed in gray. It was more comfortable than it should have been, even if there had been some place to stow my legs.

The dashboard was polished gray, with “Maserati” between mid-dash air vents and a bank of toggles and sliding switches. There was a grab-bar for the passenger, homage to the vehicle’s conception as a racing machine. No radio.

Martine wore driving gloves and in that car, one of fewer than a hundred ever made, it did not seem an affectation. He took a drag on the cigarette and threw it onto his driveway. Mentally, I attributed this flick to “car too refined to smoke in.”

Power poured through the design, right through its buttocks and shoulders into the endoskeleton. I don’t think we ever went over the speed limit, but from time to time he loosened the reins and gave the car some pace. Once, as we hurtled through a bend that mortals would take more cautiously, Juliana reached for the grab-bar and turned to Martine, her profile lit up with excitement, centripetal force bending us in our flying jewel box, leaving behind a trail of burnt testosterone.

The windows were open, sunset streaming through the cabin. At times I forgot myself and briefly thought that somehow I belonged in that car. Being in the back seat was like looking through a window from the outside, theoretically part of the car but experiencing it secondhand, moments after the real occupants had already been launched through the threshold of the present into the future.

 

July 24, 1968

AutoFlickers: This post is a day late. Got back from Iceland last night and was too pooped to blog. Now that’s a bumper sticker!

A blazing hot day at the country club. Izzy falls asleep on the job. Afterwards, he gets a ride home with his mother. They spy a woman tossing a cigarette from a 1965 Buick Riviera.

I came to a fairway trap that was rarely in play on the 16th hole and settled into a patch of faint shade from a tree 20 yards away. I dreamed that Juliana and my father were dancing together. I was glad when I realized, still dreaming, that this was a dream.

My unintended nap boiled away. I sat up and drained my water jug and looked at the sand pit carved into the Pennsylvania countryside. Sitting with my arms around my knees, I could smell my sneakers.

A golf ball came hurtling from heaven and thumped into the turf a few feet away. I stood as tall as I could and looked toward the 14th tee, where a threesome was looking in my direction, searching for a shot gone awry.

I waved and pointed to the ball. In my career as a golf course worker, many shots had landed around me, but I was never struck by one. On the greens-keeping crew, we could never tell when incoming were on the way—we didn’t get the same courtesy, the pointless “Fore!” that golfers sometimes yell to each other. The caddy fared a little better in that his attention was at least focused on the golfers, rather than the grass.

I trudged light-headed on to the next sand trap. I stood beside it, staring into the harsh white sand, searching for weeds. There were none. I had apparently dozed myself into a perfected universe.

July 21, 1968

Izzy and Juliana tool around the antique hippie mecca of New Hope, where he comes face to face with a new pair of pants.

I found myself in a hippie haberdashery with Juliana. A shopping demon I did not see coming had taken possession of her. She was looking at a tabletop of miniskirts, holding them up against her waist.

Eventually Juliana found one that worked for her and moved her attention on to me. Apparently, I had to have a pair of bell-bottom pants. I didn’t have anything closer to a hippie uniform than dungarees and tee shirts. It would take years and years before faded Boy Scout uniforms were cool, and that would last only briefly.

“You’ve got money from the party,” she said, sweeping away any argument I might have against buying a pair of pants I didn’t have any desire to own.

They seek him here, Ray Davies sang, and they seek him there. We looked at a lot of pants: stripes and jeans and polka dots and paisley. Paisley! When I pictured myself in these fantastic things, I thought I was looking at an advertisement. Eventually, I tried some of them on in a dusty changing room and paraded about for Juliana’s inspection with no shoes on. None of it seemed like me, a scout who was too old to be one, who practiced Thrift because that’s what we sons of failed Quakers do.

Eventually I chose a pair of grotty blue- and white-striped bell bottom pants that clung weirdly around my hips and set sail at my calves and unfurled themselves onto the floor. For a moment they felt like something I wanted or even needed—a token to get me through some cultural turnstile. It almost seemed like a good idea as I carried them to the cashier, though the choices by then had all run together in my mind. I don’t know whether I chose the pants I chose or they had chosen me.

They seek me here; I seek them there.

Later, he sees a cigarette dropped on the street in New Hope, PA, from the window of a 1966 Ford Galaxie 500.

July 20, 1968

Speedy and Izzy sneak to their neighbor’s house to paste an I Flick Butts bumper sticker on their 1962 Chrysler 300.

I followed his steps to the oak and waited there for his next move. Just beyond the snowball bush was our neighbor’s red 1962 Chrysler 300 glowing under the light over the garage door. I bent low and stole up behind him, leaning on the small of his back.

Window air-conditioning units churned relentlessly, the only noise coming from the house. We would have no warning if someone came out.

He pointed me to a holly tree at the entrance to their driveway. “You can see the front door and the garage door from there,” he whispered. I slinked passed the Chrysler to my lookout near the curb.

Evolution had winnowed away the fins on the 1962 Chrysler 300, but it still had the long, low-slung body and exaggerated rear end of its ancestors. There was a run of chrome that started under the rear window and bracketed what was left of the caudal fin and then returned toward the front of the car over the wheel. There was a tricolor badge where the dorsal fin had been. And a small fortune in chrome slathered all over.

Speedy crawled on all fours to the back of the car. He pulled a length of tape from the roll and pressed it to the fat chrome bumper and then inscribed it: I FLICK BUTTS.

He scampered to join me behind the holly tree. For a moment, we both tried to squeeze into its shadow, which was barely adequate to hide one person.

I thought we were going to reverse the whole procedure and melt back into the woods like good guerrillas, but my father simply stepped into the street and stared up at the stars.

It occurred to me that a better hiding place than the holly tree would have been in plain sight, at the end of our neighbor’s driveway, listening for owls.

As we walked home, I was craning my neck and trying to put together the rest of Ursa Major from the Big Dipper, a puzzle I never really sorted out. People have been seeing a bear up there for over 10,000 years, I thought to myself, but I’m darned if I can see it. And in another 50,000 years, they say, the Big Dipper won’t be there at all. You can doubt planet change all you want, but the universe is moving on no matter what you believe.

 

 

July 19, 1968

Izzy and Juliana work at a cocktail party hosted by Martine. He’s parking cars in a field as the guests arrive.

It was a 1967 Jaguar E-Type convertible, a long, eccentric shape with alien headlamps notched like cod’s eyeballs set in a cone of glass that somehow fit into the low-slung profile. There was an elevation along the middle of the hood, but the car was not about edges; it smoothed into its facets, a haunch over the rear wheels, an open, oval mouth like an inflatable sex doll low on the front. The roof was down and the cabin was wide open to the summer air.

The Jag glowed in the evening light. Somehow I got to the door handle before the driver did, and opened it slowly as he turned to me with an amused look. He was a confident, contented man somewhere in that vast expanse of his third or fourth decade on the planet, with slightly roguish long hair and a tennis court tan. He was smoking a cigarette.

“Help the lady first,” he murmured, as though we were, in our separate stations, working toward a common purpose, and I realized that I had failed to survey the tee shots properly. He took a last drag on his cigarette and dropped it on the ground between us and mashed it out with a loafered right foot, lingering there and giving me a chance to get where I was supposed to be.

I handed him a numbered slip and looped around the back of the car. His passenger was studying the visor mirror, applying a finish coat to her face, and I wondered if this delay was just for my benefit. I opened the door for her and she swung slender legs onto the asphalt. I must have seen the next part in a movie: I offered my left hand while I held the door open with my right and she rewarded me with a beguiling smile that made me think a fellow could get used to this line of work. She took my hand, gently, and rose from the car, sweeping past me in a fragrant cloud.

I wished Juliana was at hand as it came to me. Who would think that such fine ladies and gentlemen should regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale!

July 17, 1968

Hitchhiking home from work, Izzy spots a 1967 Volvo 122s with an “I Flick Butts” bumper sticker. At the next red light, he gets out of the car that’s given him a ride and approaches the young woman smoking a cigarette in her Volvo.

The red brake lights flared at the ends of the Volvo’s tail feathers and she stopped a little suddenly. We were still rolling when I bolted from the car and ran to the passenger-side door of the Volvo.

I leaned my forearms on the window hole in the door. The Troggs were in her car too. She was pretty, a few years into her 20s, having a nice late afternoon, enjoying her smoke, not particularly fazed to have me looking in her window like one of the principal characters in The Wizard of Oz, who show up year after year at the end of the movie to greet Dorothy as she awakens.

“Hello,” I said.

She was looking at me, smiling faintly and unalarmed. “Hi,” she answered.

“Can you tell me where you got your bumper sticker?”

She smiled wider and blew a plume of smoke out the side of her mouth, away from my direction, tapping the cigarette out the window. “Some guy gave it to me for throwing my cigarette into the street.” Like it was a prize. There was a pullout ashtray in the middle of the dashboard, but it was closed shut.

“Did he ask you why you didn’t use the ashtray?”

She did a double-take, looking at me again, trying to figure out how we knew each other. I smiled at her, a bookmark my father had laid down in the currents of smoking automobilists. Looking at him through a stranger’s reflection, I loved him as much as I ever had.

“Yes, that’s exactly what he asked me.”

“I thought so. What did you tell him?”

“I told him the truth. There is an ashtray in this car, but there’s no cigarette lighter. So I don’t use the ashtray. I always throw my butts out the window.” To make sure I understood, she then threw her cigarette out the window.

“And then he gave you the bumper sticker.”

“Exactly.” Without looking, I could tell the light was going green and I backed away from the window in the passenger-side door. She turned away from me then, refocused on the traffic and the rest of the driving-and-smoking life ahead of her. The Volvo pulled out of the intersection, spinning down the road all Nordic cool, unapologetic for being un-American.