My father’s short-lived vehicular delights—like all other property—were mere flights of fancy. Nothing was sacred: a yellow Chevy Malibu, a brand-new red Chrysler convertible, a green Ford station wagon, a Chevy van with the words Quong Tai painted on the side, a beige Mercedes sedan. The list goes on. In addition to land vehicles, my father briefly owned a four-seater twin-engine 1967 Beechcraft Bonanza. The plane came with a personal pilot, who drove a VW bug, smoked cigars, and lived with us for a period of time.
While for many people the family car was a hallowed institution—thoughtfully purchased and preserved—my father’s cars appeared out of nowhere and were readily discarded, as were his drivers; although we all became much more attached to the drivers than to the cars. In the big swap meet of life, cash rarely changed hands. Cars were often thrown in as part of a bigger business deal. If not a car, then a collection of estate jewelry, antique dolls, or Chinese rugs. My mother never knew what sort of flotsam might float through the door at the end of any given day. Not to mention, she—the manager of all things domestic, and the family chauffeur—never knew from one day to the next what car she would be driving. It was a quirky game of roulette my father played. Perhaps if he hadn’t lost his vision as a young man, we would have had one car, like other families.
The first driver I remember—a stand out among the roll call of drivers—was Lemuel J. Johnson. He was six-foot-four, weighed 280 pounds, and had gleaming white teeth offset by obsidian skin. His gigantic body rocked with laughter when he talked, which was frequent and loud. His wife, Augustine, rivaled him in size, height, and spirit. They had one young son named Gung. Lemuel’s most remarkable characteristic, of which he was extremely proud—as if his physical stature were not remarkable enough—was the sixth finger he had on both hands. Less than two inches long and each with a tiny fingernail at the end, they dangled above the knuckles of his pinkies like odd afterthoughts.
During Lemuel’s tenure—which lasted from the time I was five until I graduated from elementary school—we had two Austin-Healeys and a white Jaguar XKE. Lemuel would drive Dad—bundled up in car coats—across the Bay Bridge in the Jag. Top down and heat at full blast. Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle actually mentioned my father in his column in the early ’60s, referring to him as the only man he knew with a chauffer-driven sports car. What Herb Caen didn’t know was that my father needed a chauffeur because he was blind.
On weekends, Lemuel would drive us around Berkeley. I marveled at how he maneuvered his bulky frame into the tiny driver’s seat. My father then packed the five of us kids into the back before taking his place on the passenger side. Seven pimentos stuffed into one tiny green olive. Lemuel’s funny finger bobbed up and down as he turned the key in the ignition. I could see the pinkness of his gums in the rearview mirror when he’d turn to my father and, in his gravelly voice, roar, Hey H, the family’s out for a spin!
I met Junior, the next driver, the summer of 1964, the day I returned from Girl Scout camp. Alone in the parking lot, I watched the other girls reunite with their families. Departing cars stirred up clouds of dust as I scanned the crowd for a familiar sight. My mother. My father. A recognizable car. A sign to let me know I was home.
It was only after the last Girl Scout sped off with her parents that I saw Daddy, stepping out of the passenger seat of a massive gold sedan that I had never seen. He was waving his hand in the air like a frenzied flag. I ran toward the car, dragging my duffle bag, hoping for my mother. In her place behind the wheel, sat an unfamiliar man, smiling as if he knew me.
Daddy grabbed my bag, gave me a bear hug, scooted me into the car. I slid into the cavernous backseat. The car smelled like cigarettes and Doublemint gum.
Honey, I want you to meet Junior.
The man in the driver’s seat turned and flashed a wide smile, revealing a gold front tooth. His hair was all pomade and waves. The muscles in his neck, back, and upper arms flexed against his blue-collared shirt.
I’ve heard a lot about you. Very pleased to meet you, young lady. His voice was as sweet as honey.
Nice to meet you, I said, wondering what happened to Lemuel but figuring now was not the time to ask.
Instead I asked, Where’s Mom?
At home. In bed with a headache.
I imagined her lying privately in the darkened room. Curtains drawn, door closed. I’d need to tiptoe down the hall. It would be days before she would reemerge.We all suffered when Mom was bedridden, especially my father, even though he was good at masquerading his feelings.
What kind of car is this? I asked, sliding my hands back and forth across the smooth leather in the backseat.
This here is a brand-new Chrysler Imperial, Junior said with pride, making me think for a minute that we were driving in his car.
I sprawled across the seat. It felt luxurious, especially after spending hours on that squeaky bus, not to mention three suffocating nights in the camp infirmary with German measles. The term homesick barely described how I felt.
My father instructed Junior to turn left at the end of the parking lot. Tires crunched against gravel and we were on our way home. My dad asked me questions about camp, like how many badges I’d earned and if I’d made any friends. I told him that my tent mate was okay, that my counselor was mean, and that Girl Scout badges were a stupid waste of time.
I soon learned that Junior’s real name was Edward Eugene Griffin. He turned out to be just another in the long list of drivers, and the Chrysler Imperial one in the eccentric menagerie of cars, that would come and go during my childhood. Junior stayed with the family long enough to drive another Chrysler, as well as a wood-paneled Town & Country station wagon.
After Junior, came Charlie, Melvin, Clarence, and Bug Juice; and my father’s feverish horse trading continued. When I was in high school, we owned a black Imperial with white leather upholstery; a fully restored green-and-black 1948 pickup, known as the Bat Mobile; a green Chrysler station wagon; a gold Lincoln Continental; a gray vintage Jaguar; and an orange Karmann Ghia.
My father’s thirst for adventure became even more pronounced when, in the early ’60s, he traded an office building in Oakland for an 8,500-acre cattle ranch in Potter Valley. Thus began his Jewish cowboy shtick, and with it a new breed of vehicles and drivers. Not only did everyone in the family get outfitted in Lee jeans, cowboy shirts, and boots, but my father also amassed a colorful assortment of Chevy trucks, driven by Shorty, the foreman, and his crew. On the weekends my brothers, still too young to have licenses, drove around on the graveled roads with Old Houston, the ranch hand who lived in a trailer by the barn.
* * *
To this day, we get a lot of mileage from stories about my father’s hit parade of flashy rides and the drivers who ferried him from place to place. My father sat in the passenger seat of countless vehicles, placing his life and ours in the hands of men of dubious backgrounds and questionable sobriety.
Our final family car, my mother’s turquoise 1979 Cadillac Seville, was the only one in the collection that was deliberately purchased, conscientiously maintained, and fully paid for. When my father died in a car accident at age sixty-one, the man behind the wheel, who blacked out and drove the car into a tree, was not a hired driver, but rather a longtime family friend. I went to look at the Cadillac after the accident—my way of paying homage to the final car. It was completely totaled. The wreckage was heartbreaking. Symbolic. A reminder that my father's death mirrored his reckless, go-for-broke life.
I took comfort in the thought that when my father crossed over, my grandfather was waiting for him. In his perfectly maintained gold 1967 Mustang.
Copyright © 2014 Megan Vered
Megan Vered, an MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts is an expressive, compassionate communicator who delights in bringing people together and nurturing bonds of friendship. Following her mother's death in 2011, she penned a family story that she sent to her siblings every Friday. This story is part of that collection. Her work has been published in the “First Person” column of the San Francisco Chronicle, Amarillo Bay, Crack the Spine, The Diverse Arts Project, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Existere Journal of Arts and Literature, The Oklahoma Review, Penman Review, and she was the featured essayist in the Spring 2014 publication of Mezzo Cammin. She aspires to be a legendary hostess.