The four-plex I grew up in on the east side of Newark (in the Ironbound, or "Down Neck," section) had an alley behind it. Along the alley were the American Legion post (which used to be a blacksmith's shop), a big empty lot that belonged to the post (and used to belong to my grandfather), and a half dozen or so houses.
In one of the houses across the alley from us lived a working-class couple with a son who was a little older than my brother and I. The father of the house, who was a blue-collar guy just like the rest of the neighbors, always had a nice car, and he always took really good care of it. You'd see him out there all the time, with the bucket and the hose, keeping a clean machine. He'd also get involved under the hood. "He takes better care of that car than he does of his kid," the folks at our house used to say. We didn't really know if that was true, but it sounded good to say. Unlike many of the folks who lived around there, that family kept to itself.
One year back around 1960 or so, the Man Who Took Better Care of His Car put up for sale his current auto, a black 1951 Ford. I don't remember the model -- it might have been a Custom -- but I distinctly recall it being in great shape. My dad jumped on the chance to buy it, for 100 bucks, or maybe 200. The Bogdanskis, then a family of four, put the car right into heavy usage.
At that point, the car's days of being pampered were over. It was parked out every night on the sandlot along the alley now, instead of being safely in the driveway of the MWTBCHC. The signs of two spirited young boys began to appear in its upholstery. But it was reliable as all get-out. Compared to other vehicles my father had owned, it ran like a dream. In those days, the dads would let the kids sit on their laps in the driver's seat while the car was moving, pretending to steer. My brother and I both got a few turns at the wheel in that ritual.
Until one rainy Thanksgiving Eve in the early '60s. I was at home with Mom while Dad was off on some errand or other. I believe my younger brother was with him, although I might be misremembering. I recall clearly that there was a junior Bogdanski in the car, but it might have been my cousin Timmy from upstairs.
It being the night before Thanksgiving, they might have been headed off to pick up some last-minute dinner items for the next day -- maybe bread from Pechter's Bakery over in Harrison, or a kielbasa from somewhere. (No holiday meal in a Polish household Down Neck would be complete without the kielbasa.)
They were headed west on Fleming Avenue, passing by the Catholic grammar school we attended. Just as they were crossing Freeman Street, a car came speeding down Freeman headed north. Although Fleming was paved with asphalt, Freeman was a cobblestone street. Everyone who lived around there, and all the drivers who worked at the Ballantine brewery, which dominated the street, knew that it got extremely slippery when wet. You had to take it slow on Freeman when it was raining. But the driver zooming down Freeman that night wasn't from the neighborhood -- he was from one of the nearby towns. Irvington maybe, or Bloomfield. Anyway, he couldn't stop for the stop sign, and he plowed into the front of our Ford, on the driver's side.
Nobody was hurt in our car, but the two vehicles were in pretty bad shape, especially the Ford. Although it was built like a tank, it was totalled. Somehow my dad and brother (or cousin) got home -- maybe they walked to a pay phone and called my father's brother to come pick them up in his car, or maybe they just walked the third of a mile or so back to the house.
My father was pretty calm about the whole thing. He told Mom and me that the driver of the other car had had his two sons in the car with them. One of them might have suffered a bump or two. They were Italian-American, I remember -- the grownups in that neighborhood always identified each other by nationality before anything else. And apparently there was some indication that the driver of the other car had been drinking beforehand. Back then, that wasn't seen as a criminal offense, even if a property-damage accident ensued. It was the night before Thanksgiving, after all; of course he had had a couple. No blood, no foul.
The guy had insurance, and we got the book value of the car. But its loss really hurt. We had gotten such a good deal on it, and "it always started right up." It was worth way more to us than what the insurance paid.
Our next car, as I recall, was a Buick of similar vintage. Black again, of course. It was o.k., but it wasn't as good as the car we bought from that guy across the alley. "Jackie, that guy took better care of that car than he did of his kid."