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  • Category Archives War Against Wheels
  • Gypsy Dent Repair, Part 3 of 3

    (see Part 1 here and Part 2 here)

    It was time for a professional opinion. After a $2000 initial quote, I was not going back to Richardson Auto Body. An extensive search on Yelp yielded a number of very highly rated auto body repair shops. I looked particularly for reviews that spoke of honest work and appraisals of work needed. A number of calls, and I narrowed my search to a family-owned company in Brooklyn.

    When I arrived, the owner’s son took an immediate look around my vehicle. I told him exactly what had happened. Better wait for his father, the boss, to take a look. A few minutes later, the owner made a personal tour of my vehicle. I made no excuses and confessed my stupidity and embarrassment. He told me he saw this type of thing all the time. In one case, a repair had been done with CEMENT and fell out completely, shortly after the repair.

    The owner referred to my auto body as basically RUINED. That’s the word he used. He said they had sanded too far into the metal to rework the repair. Completely new body parts would need to be found – a new hood and one new fender. I told him that he seemed angrier than I was – he said that this type of thing made him furious. He ran a professional shop and paid good money for overhead: rent, taxes, employees, supplies, and machinery. His equipment included a $100,000 computerized painting station. And these gypsy repair scam artists were running around fleecing people, making money with no overhead and ruining vehicles on top of it. The owner would quote me in the next few days after locating the right body panels for my 23-year-old car. I had hoped a small, family-run shop would offer a reasonable price, however, after learning that I would need new body parts, I was not so optimistic.

    A few days later, I received a call. Total cost with parts and painting: $2340. I told him that I would get back to him with a decision, knowing full well that I would not be doing the repair – it was just not worth it to spend that kind of money on such an old car.
    I was down about the whole affair. I had apparently allowed two charlatans to ruin my vehicle. As I told the story to friends, nearly all said the same thing: Why not just let the repairs remain as done? It was not a terrible idea. However, it did mean traveling around in a vehicle that looked like an American Paint Horse, for all to see.

    There would be a final resolution. I was headed to Connecticut to visit family for a party. I would be staying with my sister and my brother-in-law, Alan. He, along with his best friends Jay and Dan, were the most impressive and formidable group of mechanical geniuses I have ever met. Conversations with any pairing of them would inevitably veer towards hours long discussions of mechanical problems and solutions. They savored these kinds of problems. I also had an air conditioning problem in my car. After questioning me in detail and an in-depth conversation between Jay and Alan, a conclusion was reached, without ever seeing the vehicle.

    On Sunday morning, Alan came outside to his driveway to look at my mess of a car. His reaction was not particularly negative, nor was he startled or shocked. Perhaps owing to his extensive repair and restoration of motorcycles and autos, seeing areas of mismatched body paint colors was only indicative of work in progress, not necessarily ruination. His analysis was that it appeared as if the vehicle had been repaired along standard lines with Bondo (a standard putty for auto body repair) or a material like it. We worked together initially, cleaning the repaired areas with razor blades. Then Alan began working with rubbing compounds – a fine abrasive used to repair scratches and restore finishes. His compounds were old and dried out – he suggested that I purchase fresh containers.

    Recently, I purchased two cans of Turtle Wax rubbing compound (coarse and fine) and two microfiber cloths. Total cost – $11.50. Next will be an online purchase of spray paint, custom matched to my auto’s original color. Another small investment and a little bit of elbow grease should complete the restoration.

    So far, the body repair appears to be durable. Perhaps those two boys actually believed that they were doing a proper repair. Was it a scam or only a poor quality repair? A scam typically has a mal intent as a necessary component. Alan, whom I consider an expert, did not agree with the auto body repair shop I had visited. Time will tell if this was or was not a classic Gypsy Dent Repair


  • Gypsy Dent Repair, Part 2 of 3

    (see Part 1 here)

    On July 7, I was looking for parking in the Lowe’s parking lot in Brooklyn. Two young guys approached me in their van, having apparently spotted my dentmobile. The fast talker of the two immediately approached me and through his driver’s window made his pitch. They would repair all the dents now for $250. I would not pay until the entire job was completed to my satisfaction. To sweeten the deal further, they would repair one dent for free.

    And I was permitted, even encouraged, to watch their entire procedure. I would neither have to leave the vehicle with them nor give them my keys. When they discussed refinishing paint, I became more concerned. I asked how they could possibly match paint color. They replied – they could formulate the color from the VIN number on my registration sticker in my window. Slick. If the work was of engine or electrical, etc., I would have declined, but this was only dent removal, not a complex auto repair. I would see the work being done. Where was the risk? So I agreed. They told me there was an ATM machine in the Pathmark next door.

    Their van was astonishing – an auto repair shop on wheels. They had every manner of tool, paints, grinders, and sanders. Work began. These two boys could work. Fast. In the hot sun of a blistering July day. Brazen and undaunted, doing auto body repair in the parking lot of a Lowe’s. We chatted as they worked. They critiqued the previous work done by the garage by using Bondo. Later there was talk of using Bondo. One of the two told me they were brothers. I was told that an older man who was circulating in another vehicle asking how his boys were doing for me, was their father. However, the other boy later told me that they were cousins and that the older man was their uncle.
    I asked where they were from. Rumania, they answered. Was that good or bad, I wondered? My girlfriend had an instinct that something was awry from the beginning. But I had shooed her away into Lowe’s, so as not go get bored watching an auto repair while baking in the hot sun.

    They ran a portable grinder from my car battery. Slick. They removed the dent in the hood with a small crowbar through an opening underneath. Slick. These guys looked quite experienced and very resourceful. They were fast, taking charge, and working with confidence. I became concerned, however, at how much grinding was being done and how much paint finish was being removed. Too late now. Soon the job was done.
    Substantial wax buildup was left around edge repair. The color seemed noticeably off. I was instructed to follow their instructions carefully – in 48 hours, I must have the car washed and hot waxed. This, and only this, would remove all traces of wax and compound and restore my car to its former finish and color. They followed me to the ATM, and I withdrew $250 and paid them. They repeated the washing instructions.

    I told them of my blog and asked if I could take their photos. They heartily agreed, even posing. I was surprised and felt somewhat reassured – what crooks would pose for a photo? As they left, without thinking why, I photographed their license plate.


    As we drove away, I had that sinking feeling. The mere idea of allowing strangers to do a repair and all cash transaction in a parking lot was not sitting right with me. Conflicting things had been said by them. The car wash thing sounded dubious. And one was not supposed to think, admit, or speak this, but they were from Rumania.

    Before going home, we made one of our favorite rituals – a visit to Trader Joe’s before closing, when the crowds are less. As I stepped out of my car, a man pulling a small suitcase on wheels approached me. He took one look at the work on my car and told me it was HORRIBLE. He asked where the work was done. I told him. He asked if they told me to wash the car within 48 hours and have it waxed – it was asked like it was a standard ploy. Now my heart really sank. I had been duped for sure. Who knows what those boys had really done and how good this repair would be. This was astonishing – in 44 years living in New York City, I had never been approached by auto repair hucksters, but now, twice in one day? He offered to repair the work for $150 and began removing a can of spray paint from his suitcase. I declined and stopped him. Was he serious? Did he actually think I would agree to another cash repair job on the streets of New York City and add insult to injury?

    My journey home included a number of “I told you so’s” from my girlfriend. I tried to defend my decision, but ultimately, the whole thing was humiliating. What had I been thinking? Wasn’t I the seasoned, street smart New Yorker? What would happen to my credibility and any reputation for being savvy?

    The next morning my girlfriend reported on some late night reading. Apparently what I experienced was a nationwide phenomenon – Gypsy dent repair. It was formulaic. Textbook. Everything they had done and said was routine for this type of scam, including the 48-hour period before the mandatory car wash. Now I was really down. I had been scammed. It was embarrassing. I had learned the hard way. The infamous school of hard knocks – perhaps the dark side of New York City’s Sidewalk University. But this class, Gyspy Dent Repair, was not yet completed, as we will see in Part 3


  • Gypsy Dent Repair, Part 1 of 3

    In April of 2012, I arrived at my garage to pickup my car. What I found was a serious dent and a loose door guard. I alerted the attendants to their obvious mishap. They, of course, feigned innocence. After driving, I found that my driver side window was not working, nor was my side view mirror. Now I had a more serious repair ahead of me. The garage had to be held accountable. When I returned, they were reluctant to own up to the damage. Finally, the only human in the bunch who had any compassion, came out with an accident repair form – implicit admission of their guilt.

    It was a number of phone calls and some time later, but the owner management of Icon Parking finally repaired the vehicle at their cost at the auto body shop that does work for their company. When the work was finally completed and I came to fetch the vehicle, I was very pleasantly surprised. The door window and mirror worked as before, and the auto body repair work looked perfectly done. Or so I thought.

    Some time later, perhaps as result of a car wash, the fender and door body became misaligned, and the paint repair popped off. The door/fender alignment began to worsen, and by June of 2013, I could barely open the driver’s door, having to slink into a narrow crack to enter the car. I had acquired a number of other dents over the years while street parking in NYC – someone had placed something heavy on my car and severely creased a small area of a fender, a truck or other tall vehicle had crushed an area in the front of my hood, and a bus had brushed against my car leaving scrape marks. It was time to find an auto body repair shop.

    My buddies over at Salerno Service Station recommended Richardson Auto Body as being one of the best, so one morning, I drove to Brooklyn to make a visit. It was a small shop lined with cars. The owner, who was Hispanic and spoke limited English, was cordial but short – a few seconds around the car and he told me that a repair would be $2000. He was very particular about his work and said that he would not be able to repair spots and match colors – his quote, which was shockingly high to me, included a complete repainting of the auto. He assured me the result would be perfect. I did not doubt him, however, I had no interest in spending $2000 to do dent removal for a 23-year-old car. But I found a cheaper and much easier way to do it, right on the streets of New York City. You will learn how in Part 2 of Gypsy Dent Repair :)

    Related Posts: No Pane at All, I’ll Take Care of You, Wreck on the Highway, In the Allagash, The Point of Impact, Pull Ahead, A Different Dictionary, Urban Coral Atoll, No Radio


  • Di Hut Doig

    Oscar Meyer Wienermobile

     

    Despite growing up on them, I hated homemade baked beans. My family loved them; relatives and friends did, too. My mother was a good cook, and it took hours on Saturday for her to make this occasional special meal. However, no amount of time nor secret ingredients nor expertise was to change my palate. In time, seeing that I would not be persuaded, she would make a separate meal for me – hot dogs. Because she knew I LOVED hot dogs. Later in life, when we could afford it, my mother would spring for Hebrew National hot dogs, a big step up from the regular hot dog and an exciting moment for me.

    I could eat a lot of hot dogs, or so I thought. Certainly not enough to challenge the contestants of the Nathan’s hot dog eating contest, of which I knew nothing. And as I was to learn, I could not even eat enough to compete with one of the Morin girls.
    The Morins lived a few houses away from us in my childhood hometown of Bristol, CT. They were French Canadian, and like my parents spoke Franglais*. They would often Frenchify words and phrases they did not know the proper French for or English words best left in English, such as hot dog. Their interpretation came out sounding something like “di hut doig,” which even to my family was an uproarious bastardization and became a private joke. But, funny as it may be, the achievements of one of the Morin girls regarding di hut doig was no laughing matter.

    One day, my mother announced that one of the Morin girls could eat SEVEN hot dogs. Astonishing, since she was not overweight at all. This clearly trumped anything I could hope for. At a cookout, I could eat three, perhaps even four, but nothing like my neighborhood nemesis.

    After moving to New York City, my hot dog consumption waned considerably. Within just a few years I became a vegetarian, so di hot doig was off the menu. My interest was renewed with the popularizing of the soy hot dog and its numerous brands: Tofu Pups, Not Dogs, and Smart Dogs. For me, hot dogs were much about being a vehicle for condiments and toppings – sautéed onions, peppers, mustard, relish, and occasionally cheese. Once adequately smothered and buried in a good quality, well-prepared bun, a soy hot dog is not bad at all.

    Recently, while crossing Broadway at Spring Street, I had my first sighting of the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile. It was Friday afternoon, and traffic was snarled and slow-moving, as it typically is during rush hour, so I was afforded a few moments time to reach for my camera and record the rare event. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the Wienermobile was making a week-long tour of New York City with special events planned. It was quite a spectacle to see the bright yellow vehicle cruising New York City streets, often surrounded by a sea of yellow taxis. It was stunning to see such a large, immaculate virtual shrine to one of the favorite foods of my youth and the Morin girl – Di Hut Doig :)

    *Franglais means a mangled combination of English and French, produced either by poor knowledge of one or the other language or for humorous effect. Franglais usually consists of either filling in gaps in one’s knowledge of French with English words, using false friends with their incorrect meaning or speaking French in such a manner that (although ostensibly “French”) would be incomprehensible to a French-speaker who does not also have a knowledge of English (for example, by using a literal translation of English idiomatic phrases).


  • Do I Have Underwear On?

    I have a childhood friend who has been a biker his entire life. He once told me about the allure of bikers with women and how just owning one was a guaranteed way to meet women. Women have offered him their phone numbers while waiting alongside him in their automobiles.
    Why the appeal? There are many thoughts on this – the bad boy rebel image, freedom, excitement, and danger. Perhaps it is best summarized by a scene in Woody Allen’s film Play It Again, Sam. In the opening of the film, Allan’s wife, Nancy, bluntly tells Allan why she is leaving him:

    Nancy: I don’t want any alimony. I just want out. I can’t stand the marriage. You’re no fun, you suffocate me. There’s no rapport and I don’t dig you physically.

    Later, their parting words:
    Nancy. I want a new life. I want to go discothecquing and skiing and to the beach. I want to drive through Europe on a motorcycle. All we ever do is see movies.
    Allan. I write for a film magazine. Besides I happen to like movies.
    Nancy. You like movies because you’re one of life’s great watchers. I’m not like that. I’m a doer. I want to participate. I want to laugh. We never laugh together.
    Allan. How can you say that? I don’t know about you, but I’m constantly laughing – I chuckle, I giggle, I guffaw occasionally. Besides, why didn’t any of this come up when we were dating?
    Nancy. Things were different – you were more aggressive.
    Allan. Everybody is during courtship. It’s only natural. You try and impress the other person. You can’t expect me to keep up that level of charm. I’d have a heart attack.
    Nancy. Goodbye, Allan. My lawyer will call your lawyer.
    Allan. I don’t have a lawyer … have him call my doctor.

    In another part of the film, Allan has a fantasy of his ex-wife riding with a biker through the countryside, stopping, and being thrown to the ground and made love to.
    There you have it – the motorcycle as an icon for freedom and reckless abandon. The fantasy of women looking to escape the doldrums of relationships without fun or excitement. It became a private joke for a friend and myself – we often spoke of a particular woman fantasizing about going off with a man with a motorcycle.

    Recently while walking on 8th Street in the Village, a friend and I encountered a very muscular, imposing man proudly displaying his bike and chatting with admiring onlookers. Although I have never been particularly attracted to the outlaw biker image, I can appreciate a fine machine. The owner, Louis, told us about the customization of his bike, including the signature blue LEDs elegantly strung throughout the bike, all hidden from view.
    I delicately brought up the issue of straight pipes – the bane of New York City residents. He turned his bike on – the sound was deafening. When I asked about the issue of legality, he commented that he carried a badge. I have no idea if he was actually a police officer.

    Some moments later, a very large woman appeared with a friend. There was lots of flirtatious banter between the woman and Louis. She asked if she could mount the bike. It was clear that this woman had no inhibitions whatsoever. It was a reenactment of Woody Allen’s fearful fantasy – a woman gone wild being lured to a man with a motorcycle. As I snapped a photo of her straddling the bike, she asked, feigning worry about what my camera may have caught, Do I have underwear on?


  • Bart

    His name was Bart, and he was quite mean and a bit of a bully really. I had nothing in common with him at all – he was a sports jock, and I hated sports. He forced me to play sports with him – but the brief sessions were just means of humiliation. And he reveled in it.

    Your question is, why would I tolerate this abuse? Answer: He had an Aurora slot car racing setup in his basement. This was a huge thing for the couple of us that befriended him – no one else we knew had such a thing. Vehicles of any sort, particularly FAST ones, have always been a big draw for boys, and we were no different. Whether rockets, planes, trains, or automobiles, the lure and fascination with all things fast and mobile was compelling and irresistible. Enough to endure the slings and arrows of an older bully.

    There was another draw, and that was his bicycle. We waited for the rare opportunity when Bart needed some part or thing. No matter what his need or fancy, we were ready to oblige because he had a bike, which he referred to as his “crate.” When we asked how we would get to a given store, Bart, being impatient to get whatever it was he needed, would invariably tell us, “Take my crate.” The errands were fraught with stress – we had limited time, or we would have to face Bart’s wrath. Nonetheless, it was a bike ride.
    Owning a bike was unquestionably a major rite of passage. Now, you had your own WHEELS. It was a first step towards independence. Now you could go places on your own. The next step would be at 16, learning to drive. But for most of us, one’s own car was not a reality and, at best, one may on occasion be allowed to drive a family car. And the responsibility and consequences of any mishap nearly outweighed the freedom that a car gave. There were no such concerns with a bicycle. Around 12, I got my own bike, and I needed to tolerate Bart no longer. I was a free man.

    The lure of that beautiful, simple, efficient machine is with us today. Over the entire time I have lived in New York City, I have owned a bicycle. However, storage in a small apartment, carrying it up and down stairs, and the need for locking up at a destination all conspire against frequent use. I have not used a bike in years. Citi Bike hopes to change all that with their new rollout yesterday of their bike share program. It’s a long time coming and a really big deal. I wrote about the plan’s announcement on October 25, 2011 in Last to See the Future. The New York Times says:

    For the first time, under cooperatively clear skies, New Yorkers sat astride the city’s first new wide-scale public transportation in more than 75 years: a fleet of 6,000 bicycles, part of a system known as Citi Bike, scattered across more than 300 stations in Manhattan below 59th Street and parts of Brooklyn.

    There were some snags, as to be expected. Many were desperately trying to activate a rental with their credit cards, unaware that the program is initially only available to those who preregistered online. Some registrants had not yet received their key. The map app showing station locations was not working. People were having difficulty locking the bikes on return.

    Also, the plan is often misunderstood. The motive is to provide transportation, not recreation. Base rental periods are for 30-45 minutes. Overtime is prohibitively expensive – $12 per half hour. Daily, weekly, or yearly rentals come with unlimited rides but not unlimited time per ride – all are subject to overtime charges.

    The bikeshare plan is controversial. Parking spots have been eliminated, and the cost to run the system is high. Some new Mayoral candidates are not in favor of the plan at all. Time will tell if the plan is logistically and financially viable. I plan to be an early adopter. No matter what setbacks the system may have, anything is better than borrowing a crate from Bart :)


  • No Pane at All

    On July 29, 2009, I wrote Urban Coral Atoll about auto break-ins on the streets of New York City, with the telltale signs of shards of glass on the street. Yesterday, however, while exploring Gowanus, Brooklyn, I spotted a break-in where detective work was unnecessary. The car itself was still parked at the scene of the crime. Not one but TWO windows were completely smashed in broad daylight on a beautiful, sunny spring day.
    The auto was parked in front of Statewide Fireproof Door at 131 3rd Street – a moderately busy through street, even on a Sunday. The license plates were from New Jersey. The out-of-towners had yet to return and find themselves a nice cleaning job along with a breezy ride home and a repair job. And to learn the hard way, as every New Yorker knows, that to a thief, performing a Glass Act is No Pane at All :)


  • Dick and Ferris

    Are you ever bored? I can guarantee that a night out with Dick and Ferris in New York City would never be boring. Unfortunately, I can not arrange it, but I can give you a taste.

    I was an NYU student, and I, along with classmates, was becoming acquainted with the city with a friend, Dick, as a guide. He was a native New Yorker and an interloper at NYU – 25 years old and not a student. To us, he was much wiser and older. He had been a child actor. He knew everything about the world, or at least the world that was New York City. And to us, at 19 years old and a recent transplant, what other world was there? He showed us everything, particularly the underbelly of the city. His word was gospel.

    Dick was wild, untamed, and a chain smoker. He was excessive. Like Thoreau, he wanted to live life to the fullest, suck the marrow out of it, and drive it into a corner. An outing with Dick was akin to one with Hunter S. Thompson.
    Ferris Butler, on the other hand, was a bit askew. He was a friend of Dick’s, also an outsider and NYC native. He was decidedly a character, one that anyone who met him would not forget. Together, Dick and Ferris were a formidable pair.
    Dick drove a taxi, which he saw fit to use for his own personal joy rides. However, his indulgence posed a problem – how do you party all night and also clock enough money to bring the taxi back to your employer with an acceptable amount of revenue?

    One night, circa 1971, a number of us were in Dick’s cab, including Ferris. It was nearly 4AM, and the taxi was due back at the garage shortly. It was a very desperate situation. Dick had done no business at all and needed to bring the taxi back with at least $40 in fares to avoid being fired. He had the only solution – he would speed through the city streets as fast as possible with the meter running, clock $40, and pay out of pocket. However, as typical, he had no money. Ferris was the only rider with any money – he did not want to pay, but Dick extorted the money from him.

    The ride felt like the car chase scene in the French Connection. The only thing I remember clearly was one leg of the journey where Dick turned onto the 59th Street Bridge outer lane. It was hair-raising as we careened across the bridge with Ferris in the front passenger seat screaming and begging for Dick to slow down, but to no avail. Time was really money now. We achieved our mission – by 4AM, the meter had been run up to $40 and all was well. A memorable night. This was to be one of many adventures in New York City with Dick and Ferris :)

    Note: Watch my video as I drive the same outer roadway of the 59th Street Bridge that I did that night.


  • I’ll Take Care of You

    Have you been in a restaurant where any special request, no matter how small, is met with hesitation or a negative? And where it is particularly irritating because you know that your request can be easily met? Don’t you already have plenty to do and worry about? When you are a customer of a service establishment, shouldn’t they shoulder the burden, troubles, and responsibilities? Why should you feel uneasy or worried that your needs and requests will go unmet and worse, that you may have to help solve the problem that you are paying them for? In short, why should you be doing their job?

    Early Saturday morning, I lay awake in bed and reflected on the unpleasant chore of going to have my car inspected. In New York City, something as simple as inspecting your automobile can be very troublesome. Often an appointment in advance is necessary, there are long waiting periods, or a service station is out of inspection stickers. Many times I have spent hours trying to get my car inspected, only to return home defeated, having to try again another day.

    I called Salerno Service Station and asked for Ryan, the general manager – a man who had forever changed my attitude towards the auto repair business and led me to write an extensive two-part story – Jacked. It was Ryan who had answered the phone. I asked if they could do an auto inspection that morning. He said, Don’t worry. Just come in. I’ll take care of you. That is when it hit me hard. He had given me the key to ultimate customer service when he said I’ll take care of you. It was the reason why Salerno had hundreds of five star reviews online.

    HE HAD SHIFTED THE RESPONSIBILITY FROM ME TO THEM. All of the responsibility. Completely. 100%.

    That was the key, because in that way and only that way can a customer fully relax while the service provider does their job. Even with good customer service, there is often a nagging worry that something may go wrong. In auto repair, so many things can and do go wrong – a bigger problem will be discovered, a part will be unavailable, there will be no time today for the repair, the cost will be too great, you will be cheated or lied to, you will be sold something you do not need, etc. But with great customer service, at a place like Salerno Service Station,  you will be insulated from any hassles servicing your car because they are taking care of you. You can relax. Like my first visit when I was told by Ryan to go have a nice breakfast at the Willburg Cafe while he took care of my muffler job.

    It is like the days of old, when people spoke of being in the doctor’s care. There was great comfort in those words because it meant that someone competent was going to take care of you. People love to be taken care of. This complete taking over of responsibility from the customer or patient is characteristic of the Italian culture and their approach to service. Now I saw how it was at the core of the No Problema attitude that I wrote about.

    Over many decades of owning a car in the city, I have grown to despise the auto inspection ordeal. However, now, for the first time in my life, in the hands of Ryan and the Avallone family, Mario and Salvatore, I actually looked forward to this year’s inspection. In a harsh environment like New York City where comforts have to be actively sought out, there are no sweeter words than I’ll Take Care of You :)


  • Wreck on the Highway

    There are areas of New York City that go virtually unseen by both residents and visitors. Places like The Hole and Dead Horse Bay are anomalies and perfect for the urban explorer looking for the atypical. The city’s enormous population requires a staggering infrastructure of supporting services – food distribution, wholesale markets, and small manufacturers. These businesses can neither afford prime real estate nor do they need to be in those neighborhoods. So, areas like Hunt’s Point are also found off the beaten path, rarely seen except to those who have specific business there. Or to writers looking to risk arrest for a story about a floating prison.

    The Bronx is home to many auto service and supply businesses. On my recent excursion to the Vernon C. Bain jail barge, I witnessed the sight in today’s photo. Here, in the South Bronx on Drake Street, surrounded by metal shops and auto wreckers, I spotted this completely wrecked automobile. I was reminded of the song The Wreck on the Highway, recorded by Roy Acuff in 1942*. Although quite morose, the song became a national country hit. Here are the lyrics:

    Who did you say it was brother?
    Who was it fell by the way?
    When whiskey and blood run together
    Did you hear anyone pray?

    CHORUS
    I didn’t hear nobody pray, dear brother
    I didn’t hear nobody pray
    I heard the crash on the highway
    But, I didn’t hear nobody pray.

    When I heard the crash on the highway
    I knew what it was from the start
    I went to the scene of destruction
    And a picture was stamped on my heart.

    There was whiskey and blood all together
    Mixed with glass where they lay
    Death played her hand in destruction
    But I didn’t hear nobody pray.

    I wish I could change this sad story
    That I am now telling you
    But there is no way I can change it
    For somebody’s life is now through.

    Their soul has been called by the Master
    They died in a crash on the way
    And I heard the groans of the dying
    But, I didn’t hear nobody pray.

    I hope the occupants of this vehicle did not meet a fate as dire as that described by Roy Acuff. Things have changed since Roy’s time in the 1930s-40s – some worse, some better, like safety belts and airbags. Examining the photos, it does appear that airbags were deployed in this Wreck on the Highway…

    *The song was actually the subject of a legal dispute. “I Didn’t Hear Anybody Pray”, about a fatal car accident, was written by Dorsey Dixon and recorded by the Dixon brothers in 1938. It was later recorded as “The Wreck on the Highway” by country musician Roy Acuff in 1942. Acuff did not remember where he knew the song from but claimed it as his own. “Wreck on the Highway” became a national country music hit, but Dixon received no royalties. At his family’s insistence, in the mid-1940s, Dixon filed a lawsuit against Acuff, and in 1946 an out-of-court settlement was reached. Dixon was granted ownership of “Wreck on the Highway”, a third of the existing $5,000 royalties, and an “undisclosed percentage” of future royalties. Dixon later adopted Acuff’s title, and “Wreck on the Highway” became his “best-known and arguably his greatest composition.”


  • Mobility and Just Tricks for All

    New Yorkers enjoy the same passions as suburban and country folk – many activities, however, due to space and cost considerations, require resourcefulness, ingenuity, and hard work in order to find space, acquire permits and other bureaucratic hurdles. But the New Yorker is tough and tenacious and typically prevails.
    Here, to many’s surprise, you will find juggling, fire spinning, flying radio controlled jets (on a decommissioned airfield), surfing, rock climbing, birding, kayaking, trapeze classes, chess clubs, motorcycle clubs, skiing, tennis, land sailing, kite surfing, ice skating, horse racing, sailing, fishing, horseback riding, petanque – all within the confines of the city’s five boroughs.

    Finding venues and shoehorning activities in city spaces is not only a challenge, but often gives rise to a unique twist, brand, or flavor of the activity – New York Style.  Often, leveraging relationships and connections is necessary to obtaining space, as did the students of Pratt Institute to utilize their sports complex for a local juggling club.

    On Saturday and Sunday, I attended the 4th Annual NYC Unicycle Festival, a 3-day event which opened August 31 with the Brooklyn Unicycle Day, featuring a 13-mile unicycle ride across Brooklyn. The festival‘s main events took place on Governors Island on Saturday and Sunday. Activities included races, competitions, exhibitions, instruction, and a variety of unicycle sports including unicycle basketball and hockey. World-famous riders displayed their skills. The festival was produced by Bindlestiff Family Variety Arts, Inc., headed by Keith Nelson. I participated as a vendor of unicycles and juggling equipment.

    There is a beauty and simplicity in the unicycle. The one-wheel design is the ultimate in simplicity, and the fixed gear gives the ultimate control. Unicyclists can travel forwards, backwards, idle, spin, jump, climb stairs – virtually anything an individual can do on two legs. They are used by hobbyists, commuters, off road enthusiasts, and performers.

    Welcome to the universe of the unicyclist, where unity is the key – one wheel, one people. If they had their own creed, perhaps it would read something like this: I pledge allegiance to the Unicyclist’s Place in America, and to the Vehicle on which we stand, one Wheel under Body, indivisible, with Mobility and Just Tricks for All. :)

    See my complete photo gallery here.


  • Quality Under the Hood

    I once handcrafted leather products. It was at this time that I met Jim Murnak, someone who invoked such awe that I featured him in a two-part story (see Part 1 here and Part 2 here). I sold my wares to a number of retailers, some with an upscale clientele. One husband and wife team owned two locations in the West Village, each managing their own shop. The husband, Walter, hailed from Great Britain and was a mentor of sorts to me. I was young, very impressionable, and knew nothing about the world. My mind was like a sponge for all the wisdom he could impart.

    I would make deliveries of product in person to the wife’s shop, and often, I would take the opportunity to visit Walter’s shop around the corner. I looked forward to my visits with great anticipation, as invariably we would become engaged in some conversation regarding craftsmanship, quality, or international travel, of which I knew nothing. He often contrasted the American versus the European mindset. He did much to foster the concept of the ugly American, the archetype that I profiled in So Where’s David? One day, he made a statement which echoes to this day. “Brian, you are seeing the first generation grow up that does not know quality because they have never seen it.”

    A bit harsh perhaps, but with some elements of truth. In an age of branding, merchandising, marketing, and with a tidal wave of product, who can really understand materials and design and, hence, know quality? Who would recognize elements of shoddy design, like the use of sheet metal screws in plastic, machined metal versus castings, or brass plated versus solid brass buckles? The degradation and cheapening of product is well illustrated by wood veneers, where the surface layer has gone from 1/8″ thick to 1/64″ or even less, giving the very word veneer an unwarranted bad name.

    Saddest to me are those with buckets of money, particularly the nouveau riche, who suddenly have the means to purchase anything they desire. I recall a TV tour of a rap star’s home where an extraordinary kitchen had only drawers of candy and a refrigerator with shelves of soda and beer. For these nouveau riche, quality is frequently defined strictly by brand and what costs more. Conspicuous consumption is the order of the day. I find it sad, because as a manufacturer, I see that those with extraordinary means often seek the “best” with little regard or knowledge of what it really means, often just parroting back some key buzz words regarding the product specifications. Manufacturers fine tune down to minute detail, yet most goes without care or appreciation, only to be tossed aside for the next new toy. However, I suppose there is no need to look under the hood of a car if you don’t know understand what you are looking at.

    There are things whose mere existence scream finest and most expensive, such as the Lamborghini, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even in New York City, the sight of one of these vehicles raises eyebrows. In a virtual sequel to my story, “Who See the Red”, I spotted the bright red Lamborghini in today’s photo on West Broadway in the heart of SoHo. Heads turned, and some even had photos taken of them with the vehicle.

    For the New Yorker, it is also perhaps the audacity and the height of deliberateness to park a Lamborghini in the streets – even a convertible left open. It not only says the obvious, that someone can afford such a luxury, but also that the owner is so cavalier about money that he or she is perfectly comfortable leaving an asset of this size on the streets of New York City, subject to theft or vandalism.

    But here perhaps, beyond image and panache, there at least may be some good news. I want to believe that a Lamborghini is a product that is more than just an expensive brand and that there is real Quality Under the Hood

    More cars: Boom Boom, Itching and…, Nice and Olds, Hoopmobile, Mint Condition


  • In the Allagash


    I had been told about the Allagash since childhood – it was enigmatic. Few details were given, most likely because few were known, but the mind of the child went where no info was given. There were stories of big, scary woodsmen who would no doubt do something horrible and yet to be named to any visitor. I was all the more intrigued. On one visit to northern Maine, my uncle, a resident of Eagle Lake, assured me that those inhabitants would pose no problem at all. My father and mother remained steadfast in their view and threw their hands up in despair over a son who apparently was determined to explore the inner world.

    The Maine North Woods region (which some call the Allagash, a river and wilderness waterway) is an extremely large and unusual area, relatively unknown to outsiders and even to many current and former Maine residents, yet it occupies roughly one-quarter of the state, an area of over 5,000 square miles, approximately the size of the entire state of Connecticut.

    What is unusual is that the area is predominantly privately owned by a number of timber corporations. Within its borders, there are no towns, only unpaved lumbering roads. A small area, the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, a state protected region, lies within the Maine North Woods.
    The Maine North Woods is open to visitors – naturalists who go there to fish, canoe, and explore one of the most isolated and last true wilderness regions of the United States. It is accessible via various checkpoints and a very nominal entrance fee.

    And so it was some years ago that I did at last make the decision to visit the area. I had rented a room in Greenville, Maine, where I spent time at Kokadjo, a remarkable restaurant that left an indelible imprint on my mind. It was from Kokadjo that I left for my exploration – I was forewarned by the owner that the roads were troublesome and best not toured in a passenger automobile. Undaunted, I was spurred on with just another in a series of warnings that were falling on deaf ears. I left excited, arrived at the checkpoint, and, with little ado, was heading north. I quickly learned why this wilderness area was not a top tourist attraction. The roads are dominated nearly 100% by enormous lumbering trucks with precarious loads of cut trees. The clouds of dust left behind as trucks roar down the dirt roads is HORRIFIC – I soon learned that the only way to navigate these roads was to stop and wait until the dust cleared before resuming. It was tedious and tiresome.

    But, no worry, my tedium was to be short-lived – within an extraordinarily short distance, I felt and heard the telltale signs of a dreaded flat. I REALLY did not want to deal with changing a flat here in the Maine woods – my car was layered in dust. To add insult to injury, I had developed a worrisome chronic squeaking sound. I had no choice – there were no inhabitants, no towns, no service stations. I was on my own, and I already imagined the chorus of “I told you so” on the future retelling of this story to my family.

    I exited the car and stood behind it, mustering the will to deal with the filthy job of changing a flat in the hot sun on a car consumed with dust. I had not stood more than seconds when the driver of a lumbering truck stopped, assessed the situation, asked for my keys, opened my trunk, and began to change the flat without even asking if I needed help. I was shocked how this complete stranger rose to the occasion without request or any obligation to do so. This was classic Maine spirit – in an environment where just breaking down in the harsh winter can be fatal, locals have learned that working together and offering a helping hand is necessary.

    The truck driver’s handiwork was done in no time. He assured me that my experience was common on roads littered with nails and other debris. He also assured me that the squeaking sound was nothing serious – it was due to dust in the brake linings from traveling the roads there, another common occurrence in these parts.
    However, I was dismayed that the spare tire provided on cars was no longer a duplicate of the standard, like that of olden times, but was now a small “doughnut,” designed to be ridden only a few miles to get one’s flat tire serviced. So my exploration of the Allagash was to be cut short. Back I went to Kokadjo to see what the general store may offer in the way of repair.

    I had barely walked in the door, and the owner immediately caught my eye and asked if I had gotten a flat. I was startled by his precognitive abilities as I got my first round of “I told you so’s.” Frustrated by my initial defiance, the owner toured me through his small retail store, locating a patch kit and instructing me on its use and the repair of steel belted radial tires.

    On Saturday, May 19, 2012, I was cruising my neighborhood for a parking spot. The seasoned New York City street parker will not only scan for empty spots, but will also canvas for idling vehicles and pedestrians making their way towards parked cars. As I approached Duane Reade on Waverly Place, I noticed a man in a parked car. I asked if he was pulling out. He said he would be, but only as soon as he got a jump for his car, which now sported a dead battery.

    If there is a God, I was now being tested. Beyond getting a parking spot, would I help this man for the right reason? And if karma really is operative, would I be propelled to make a repayment for the act of kindness in the Maine Woods? Knowing this man’s plight, it would be unconscionable not to offer assistance. I carry jumper cables, and boosting a car battery is only a few minutes work. This was an opportunity to soften the harsh world of New York City, a place certainly not renowned for benevolent acts.

    I learned that the owner of the car, Hasan Sims, had called a friend for help. I suggested that he call his friend back to avoid an unnecessary trip. I also learned that Hasan worked the night shift at the neighboring Duane Reade and had taken a nap in his vehicle. In the few minutes we worked to start his car, we spoke openly about the various motivations I might have in helping him. I assured him that although getting a parking spot was the primary goal, I was working on something new – being a better person. Unfortunately, time did not allow me to to tell him that I also had a debt to repay for a deed done by an unknown trucker In the Allagash :)

    Note to the intrepid traveler: I was finally to explore the Maine North Woods on a future trip, entering from the north at the town of Allagash, near the Canadian border.

    More about parking: Nice Move, Kid, Pull Ahead, WFF ‘N PROOF

    Kindness and rudeness in New York City: Random Acts of Rudeness, Area Code 714 (Part 1 and Part 2)


  • Boom Boom

    My brother-in-law was at one time involved in drag racing. I was intrigued when he recounted the level of sound of these cars even when idling – that clothing would move due to the incredible sound pressure generated by machines running literally on rocket fuel – nitromethane. Since that conversation, I have always wanted to attend a race just to experience once what he described.

    However, I am not a lover of boom cars which cruise the streets of New York City. Perhaps you have encountered the Boom Car. These ear-splitting machines are old news. From the New York Times in 1990:

    Young people are converting cars into rolling radio stations by stuffing them with dozens of speakers, compact disk ”jukeboxes” and amplifiers capable of booming rock and rap music at decibel levels powerful enough to rattle neighbors’ windows, ruin their own hearing and assault their captive audience on the street. They are being spurred on by technological advances in automobile sound and by national competitions with names like ”Sound Quake” and ”Thunder on Wheels.” The equipment is being installed by shops with slogans like ”We Build Ground Pounders.”

    Unfortunately, these vehicles are the bane of most New Yorkers, the deafening sound being enjoyed primarily by the occupants of the car. The phenomenon is certainly not limited to the city. It’s a nationwide phenomenon that has citizens in an uproar and keeps legislators busy. Some of these systems boast over 1000 watts, powerful enough to shake the windows, the china, and the walls of home owners.

    Yesterday, while leaving my office at the corner of Spring Street and Broadway in SoHo, I saw a large Cadillac with curtained windows, looking more like a hearse than a regular passenger vehicle. I only had seconds to capture a photo of the sound mobile. I reached for my camera, snapped one photo, and got a few seconds of shaky video. I made my photography deliberate and obvious. As the car sped off when the light changed to green, the passenger smiled and acknowledged what he perceived as my tacit approval.

    According to noiseoff.org, an organization devoted to fighting noise pollution of all types, “People who drive boom cars consider it their right to play music at any volume they please. They regard their car as an expression of themselves and the louder it is, the bolder the statement that they can make. Boomers are typically lower-middle class males in their teens and twenties with some disposable income. They assume that their car will attract women and improve their social standing among their peers.”

    Technology is only going to make the problem potentially worse. Some are calling the enterprise the “noise industrial complex.” The advertising slogans, not typically familiar to outsiders, is unapologetic:

    “Disturb the Peace” (Sony)
    “All New Ways to Offend” (Sony)
    “Performance they’ll hear a mile away”(BoltOn)
    “Shake the living; Wake the dead” (Cerwin Vega)
    “…achieving the sound your neighbors fear” (Sony Xplod Car Audio)
    “Disturb, Defy, Disrupt, Ignite” (Pioneer Electronics)
    “Head-Splitting, Heart-stopping, Ear-shattering, Mind-numbing, Retina-detaching MX Audio Thunder 9500  Subwoofer” (MTX Audio)
    “Put the over forty set into cardiac arrest”(Prestige Audio)

    This type of noise, like the roar of the non-muffled straight pipes of motorcycles, is difficult to control, and prosecuting offenders is tricky – the varying sound level is difficult to measure, and the source is a moving target. So, as long as the appeal is there and big money is to be made selling the equipment, it looks like it’s going to be a Boom Boom :)

    More on noise: As Usual, Grace of a Boombox God, Too Too New York, Deaf Jam, Men Making Noise


  • Unknown Bikers

    The outlaw spirit is alive and well in New York City. On my visit to Salerno Service Station on Saturday, April 28, 2012, a small group of bikers convened at the station. I brought it to Mario’s attention, and he informed me that there was a club house for the East Williamsburg chapter of the Unknown Bikers around the corner at 41 Maujer Street. I found them somewhat intimidating, but Mario assured me that the bikers had posed no problem to them at all over the years.

    As I sauntered over to Maujer Street, I noticed that the street had been closed off with traffic cones to all but the motorcyclists. My timing was perfect – within seconds of my arrival, the street was filled with bikes and bikers.
    Others were taking photos and filming, and I followed suit. I am always careful around bikers, not knowing what type of reaction I might get taking photos. I was scrutinized by numerous members, but it appeared that I had some type of tacit approval.

    Certainly bikers come from all walks of life and, to some extent, are like the rest of us. But there has to be an element of iconoclasm for someone to ride a Harley, join a motorcycle club, and wear a jacket proclaiming membership. There is a defiance, a renegade outlaw free spirit that has surrounded motorcycles since their origins, and belonging to a motorcycle club and wearing a jacket certainly makes that statement.

    It was clear that some type of event was underway. I asked the nature of the gathering, and I was introduced to the organizer who informed me that this was a charity effort, the 4th Annual Alie Run of Bikers Against Childhood Cancer Foundation. The final destination of the bikers would be the Brooklyn Hospital. Salerno Service Station is one of the sponsors of the event.

    The organizer assured me that the members were regular people just like everyone else. Admittedly, I was surprised that the nature of the meeting was a children’s charity event. Actually, motorcycle charity rides are common throughout the United States. I imagine some cynics may feel that these efforts are only bad boys trying to ingratiate themselves with the public. I will give them the benefit of the doubt. Here, in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, it looks to me like goodwill, courtesy of the Unknown Bikers :)



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