Last Saturday, my oldest son drove down from Massachusetts for a custom car and hotrod show. He picked me up at Penn Station to drive to the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, where the rods and customs were on display under the BQE (the Brooklyn Queens Expressway), which provided much needed shade on one of the most humid and hottest days of the summer.
As in most of the car shows my son has taken me to, the custom car guys were from two different generations. Some were close to my age or older, many of whom, since their teens, have been retooling early and mid-20th century mass produced American cars into customized hotrods and chopped and decked tanks to make them run faster and louder, and look crazier and sexier, than any car was ever meant to.
Some still slicked their hair back in d.a.s—ducks’ asses, as that style was known in the 1950s. One old guy at a car show in Worcester Mass., which the locals pronounce Wooster, even had a boxcar, a hairstyle I hadn’t seen in decades—crew cut on top, with long hair on the sides combed back into a d. a.—and in his case completely white. All I could think was: Where does this guy work and live that he feels confident enough to continue that 1950s hoodlum hairstyle as an old man?
Not that any of these guys ever look over-the-hill. They all seem ready to rumble still, with their aging tatoos, sideburns and pompadours, 1950s style, or here and there a pre-hippie mountain-man hairdo. And the women with them, though middle-aged, as far from frumpy or settled as any woman could look. They too seem ready to rumble, or at least dance.
Then there are their three-decades-younger counterparts, men and women so covered with tattoos, they’re like walking art books. One young woman at that Worcester show—put on by a car club called The Alter Boys—had a 1940s kitchen scene tattooed on her upper arm, with a woman in a ‘40s dress and perfectly coiffed ‘40s hair, a dog lying at her feet while she cooks over a 1940s range.
At that same show another young woman, a tiny blonde whose elevated shoes still kept her a head below me, had the bones inside one arm tattooed on it, like a permanent x-ray, among an array of tattoos visible on other exposed parts of her body.
A lot of the young men look like my grown son, shaved or closely buzzed heads, with a little fuzz on the chin or soul patch below the lower lip. But a lot also have 1950s style d.a.s, or punk versions of that. And many of them seem to have more tattoos than ink artists, including up their necks and on their faces.
Some cars at the Brooklyn show were a lot funkier than those at other shows I’ve been to with my son. He has a shoebox Ford from 1951 that’s nosed and decked and drags on the ground like the bad boy cars of my burgeoning puberty back when these cars were almost new. There were several versions of that particularly popular car for customizers—now, as then—at the Brooklyn show.
But besides the handful of customized late ‘40s and early ‘50s Fords and Mercurys I’ve seen at these things since guys I ran with first started redesigning them back then, there was a Henry J.—still looking like they did to me as a kid, like an old fat man in pants too short, or like it was hit with a ray and “Honey I shrunk the Cadillac”—and all the Frankenstein mixes of Buick parts with Mercs or Caddy parts on Studebakers et-unpredictable-cetera.
And it all thrilled me, not only because it brings back the cars and styles and kinds of guys I ran around with back in 1950s New Jersey, but to see these old guys still doing it—and young ones too. Not like movie or rap stars collecting estates full of antiques, or over blinged Bentleys or Lamberginis, but like the working-class guys who started this art form, because they just dug the artistry of remaking something so practical into something so insanely impractical. Too low to drive on most roads let alone off road, too loud and fast, too open to the air—in the case of the rods made from 1920s and ‘30s bodies—to not freeze your ass off in winter, or most seasons after the sun goes down.
Peeking inside some of the old guys’ masterpieces, there’s signs on dashboards, or knobs on the gear shifts, that either give a permanent finger to the world or thumb a nose, or moon or somehow say fuck you I ain’t giving up! And when they take off—the best part of these shows really—the car club, or gang, pulls out from their parking slots and heads for the exit like a mini parade of coolness you can’t fake, and when their tires hit the pavement of the street outside the exit, they peel out, lay rubber, and the urban jungle roar of these man made moving works of art echoes down the river of concrete under the BQE like the sound punk bands were trying to emulate when all that noise began, the sound of fuck you freedom on the run.
I wished I wore my pointy-toed boots, which I still have after more than forty years, but was glad I had on a short sleeve shirt to expose my little spade tattoo that people have taken for a fish or a blemish, but at least is older than most of the crowd at the show.
My son’s lucky to be a part of this world, where his ’50 Ford sedan is much admired—the exact replica of the car I was in when a driver played chicken with a similar customized Ford on a highway in Jersey one night in the summer of 1956. A car I begged for a ride in, and then almost wet my pants when the teenage driver headed straight for a car coming in the other direction, not turning until the last second.
I loved cars as a kid. But grew out of it once the 1950s were over and they no longer seemed like another kind of art but, instead, like another kind of corporate compromise. The street I grew up on, only a block and a half long, started at the top of a slight hill and dropped down to where Valley Street crossed it, and then dead-ended at the Lackawana railroad tracks.
The part of Valley Street that connected my street with the center of my hometown was lined with car dealerships. You could get any make or model on that mile-long strip, even Henry J.s and Kaisers and Packards and Willys and other obscure brands that I’ve since seen at these shows, either stock, as they looked when I was a kid, or transformed into something so unique, the person who did it should have a show at the Museum of Modern Art, at least.
During World War Two car companies switched to making tanks and military vehicles. So when I was a boy, after the war, and new car models started being manufactured again, it seemed like the beginning of the future. Each year’s designs were bolder and more unique than the year before, until the wave of fins in the 1950s that got more and more outrageous.
These shows have brought back that childhood enthusiasm for the beauty of what was once mostly a U. S. phenomenon—original and beautiful designs. At least in cars, though a lot of other stuff too. Nowadays everything seems to be made for the profit and convenience of the one percent of the population that doesn’t have to drive to work or fly commercial or any of that plebian stuff the rest of us have to do and live with.
I don’t know what they do for music, but you know if they had to open a shrink wrapped CD those things would have been redesigned ten years ago. Now it doesn’t matter as even CDs are going out, and why not, they’re not exactly art objects themselves, though more so than cassettes were.
But at this show the old “American” ingenuity seemed as alive as ever. In these hot rods and customized cars and motorcycles. Even bicycles. There was a 1950s Schwinn there that made me think how I was living in L. A. a decade ago when I read about the last Schwinn produced in the USA. It broke my heart.
I understand life is change, and nothing, or very little, remains the same for too long, but when I was a kid that mostly meant things got better. Now…some things still do, obviously, but it seems to this old soul that not as much in this country do.
There were custom motorcycles at this show too, including several built in the style of the custom bikes created by a guy known as Indian Larry—who died a few years ago. How surprised I was to see his giant obituary in The New York Times. At first I thought it was a mistake, that this middle-aged man with long graying hair could be the Larry I knew. But then I read the article and the history was the same.
Back in the 1970s, when he first came to New York City to stay a while, from his home in upstate New York, he was trying out a relationship with a man. I have a photograph of him from back then, kissing another friend of mine from way back when, Bobby Miller. It’s on a postcard, because it was taken by Robert Maplethorpe and became an icon of his transgressive subject matter, maybe because it's one of his tamest. It’s called “Larry and Bobby Kissing.”
Bobby introduced me to him. He was from rural upstate New York and looked like a tough biker, but was a gentle, kind and generous man. I was living in a loft on the corner of Duane and Greenwich Streets in what became known as Tribeca. The loft was an illegal rental, but had been illegally rented for decades before I moved in with my son and my girlfriend, Rain.
Larry needed somewhere to store his motorcycle while he worked on it. We had almost two thousand square feet of space, for two hundred a month, with very little of it used for Rain’s darkroom—which became my daughter’s bedroom after Rain moved out and my daughter moved in—a little alcove where my son slept, a small kitchen with a bathtub/shower in it, (the toilet was out in the hallway) and an office I used as my bedroom and writing space.
The rest of the loft was open space, where we hung laundry or my kids roller skated or I threw parties. In one corner of that space, Larry kept his motorcycle. He pushed it up the two flights of stairs to park it there. He came by when he could to work on it, while my son and daughter watched curiously.
He was always kind and tolerant to them. He had a winning smile and spoke softly. He’d explain what he was doing, and ask about their lives. He was a really nice man. I hadn’t seen him since those days and had no idea he became famous for his motorcycle rebuilding ingenuity. Until there he was in that huge obituary in The New York Times and another in Time magazine, looking like an older and tougher version of the man I had known. And a longer haired one.
When I mentioned his death to my grown son, he was startled to learn that the same man who spent many afternoons repairing his motorcycle in our Duane Street loft back in the 1970s was “Indian Larry,” who my son held in high esteem having seen him rebuild motorcycles on the kinds of car shows he watches. It turned out “Indian Larry” was one of his heroes, and he had no idea he knew the man. We both were sorry he didn’t have the chance to get to see him and talk with him before we had to learn who he was from his obituary.
Thinking of Maplethorpe, I remember the first time I could hobble to the bathroom on my own, after my cancer operation. I stopped to look at myself in the bathroom mirror. What a joke. Here I was, almost sixty, unable to eat or even drink anything for several days until a post-operative problem cleared up, so I was skinny as a little kid, my almost six-foot frame carrying maybe a hundred and thirty pounds. Despite or because of that, I seemed to glow.
With my lanky arms and legs, all the bruises on my arms and chest from needles and suction pads, the newly minted bright red scar, with the staples still in it, running from my navel to the base of my "thing"—as we called it as kids—with the bright blue tube of the catheter hanging from the tip of it, the I.V. curling from my skinny arm to the tube hanging from the metal contraption I pushed and leaned on to get there, all I could think as I took all this in, in the mirror, was: where’s Robert Maplethorpe when you need him?