12: There and Back Again With No Brakes
Late one summer in the early 1970s I was in Rochester looking to find a hitchhiking partner for an adventure. I had been all the way across Canada from the Pacific Coast to Quebec and now I wanted to see the Maritimes. My friend Winnie Olmer had some free time and so the two of us set out on Route 5 & 20 in an easterly direction. We were an odd looking pair. Winnie resembled Arlo Guthrie, long curly hair and hippie clothing. I had just finished working all summer in the open hearth and had short hair, work boots and a long mustache. Travel was slow, but after three days and many rides we found ourselves in Pitcou, Nova Scotia. One of the two ferries to Prince Edward Island left from Pitcou and we were hoping to catch it the next day. Unfortunately, it was getting dark, it had started to rain and I was getting a sore throat. We walked up to a farmhouse and asked the quiet, elderly couple that lived there if we could spend the night in their barn. After we promised not to light any matches, they agreed. I’d always wanted to sleep in a hayloft and that night I got my chance. It’s overrated, but even so it was nice to be in out of the rain.
In the morning I was still feeling pretty scratchy. I was afraid of getting really sick so far from home and so I decided to abandon the trip and head back to Pennsylvania. Winnie agreed to split up since both of us would make better time on our own. I started out first thing and got to the U.S. border in Saint Stephen, New Brunswick by late afternoon. The U.S. Customs officers gave me a hard time because some Canadians had dropped me off at the immigration station and then turned around and driven away. Technically I didn’t have a ride and the highway into the U.S. was limited access. I was made to wait on a bench with no indication that I would be allowed to enter the country. Fortunately, I was joined on the bench by a young couple also being hassled and they agreed to let me ride with them. This arrangement suited the customs agent and so we left as soon as my new friends had been cleared for takeoff.
I picked up a few more lifts and then, as the sun approached the horizon, I decided to sleep wherever my next ride dropped me off. After a long wait a young man and woman pulled over. He was driving a red 1957 Alfa Romeo Spyder Veloci [Veloce] convertible. I thanked them for stopping, but pointed out that there was no room for me in the two-seater. “Yeah there is,” he said, “I’ll just move my seat up a little and you can squeeze in behind us.”
Sure enough, by turning sideways and making myself very thin I was able to slip into the suitcase space behind the seats. I set my backpack on the sporty luggage trunk rack and held onto it with one hand. My driver, David Jacobowitz introduced himself and his friend, Sally Steinhards [Steinhardt], and away we went. We were somewhere south of Machias on Route 1. We talked about my trip and how much we all liked Maine. We were getting along well. They hadn’t said how far they were going, but I really didn’t care. After a while they started talking quietly to each other. I couldn’t hear what they were saying with the wind in my ears. Finally Dave told me that they were on their way to Sally’s parents’ summer home at Hancock Point. He said that I would be welcome to stay with them that night and that he was driving on to Virginia the next day and would be happy to give me a ride to wherever I wanted to get out along the way. I was amazed, once again, at my good luck. The sore throat hadn’t gotten any worse, but I was tired. I knew that a good night’s sleep under a roof would be just what I needed to recover completely. Knowing I wouldn’t have to spend the next couple of days hitching was a tremendous relief.
Sally’s parents couldn’t have been nicer. I don’t think this was the first time they had taken in a stray. Things like this happened a lot more in those days with so many young people on the road. We had a nice supper, then they gave me a thick towel and invited me to take a shower. After I’d cleaned up, I found Dave playing guitar for everyone in the kitchen. He seemed to be a very talented and outgoing guy. We planned to leave early in the morning, so I was soon shown to a room with a brass bed where I had a very good sleep.
As we started out the next day, Dave mentioned, not for the last time, that he absolutely had to be in Virginia [North Carolina] by the next day and so he wanted to make good time. However, on several occasions we passed something noteworthy and almost always Dave would pull over to investigate. Route 1 in Maine has always been a pretty good place to get distracted by the sea faring atmosphere, Victorian architecture, the folk art of eccentric Mainers and riotous commercial enterprise. Thus it was that we had only gotten as far as the Boston suburbs by late afternoon. A little disappointing, but Dave said that he had a friend who lived nearby and that he’d let us stay the night. If we left first thing, he could still get to Virginia by the end of the day.
When we got to the friend’s house there was a party going on. Although it was winding down, there was still some great food to be had. The hardwood floor where we rolled out our sleeping bags was not so great, but I’d seen worse. We got up at first light the next day, found a good diner for breakfast and had reason to expect a smooth trip down the busy corridor between Boston and Philadelphia.
Dave really loved that Alfa. He knew a lot about sports cars, how to handle them well and about some of the great drivers, like Jackie Stewart. He discoursed upon the art of the four-wheel drift, heel and toe pedal work and other niceties of sports car operation. These were soon to play an important role in our further passage.
We were on one of the old parkways in Connecticut, closing in on the city. The lanes were narrow and there were a lot of curves and no shoulder. Dave tapped the brakes as he leaned the car into one of these tight curves and there was a loud noise that sounded like we had just run over someone’s long lost ash bucket. Immediately afterwards a grating, rasping racket started coming from the front end. Dave took his foot off the gas and, when the car had slowed enough, pulled it up over the curve
onto the grass margin beside the road.
After jacking up the front of the car and removing a front wheel, he discovered that a front brake shoe had exploded. He analyzed the situation verbally, “With this shoe gone I won’t be able to use the brake pedal. That could destroy the drum. But I can slow the car with the parking brake lever. That only controls the rear brakes.
“There’s only one place on the east coast where I can get a new brake shoe for this car and that’s the Alfa Romeo [distributor's] warehouse in Newark. That’s on our way. Using the parking brake and downshifting I can get us there. They close at 5:00. We have just enough time. Let’s go!”
Why did I get back into that car? We were about to drive through some of the heaviest traffic in the country. I’d known this guy less than 48 hours and I was about to trust him with my life. Well, we were young and knew that we would live forever.
Dave had shown himself to be a very accomplished driver. I had been looking for an adventure and I was in too deep by now to quit. I don’t remember any hesitation.
We jumped into the car and started off.
The intensity of the traffic gradually increased as we approached New York. But things went well and, by the time we reached the Bronx, we were both pretty relaxed and were deep into a discussion about architecture. As Dave drove down the Major Deegan Expressway, we passed below the Bronx campus of NYU, which I was familiar with since my girlfriend used to go there. I told him about the dome of the library, from which I believe the opening scene of the movie Goodbye'Columbus was shot, and that got me onto skylights and glass domes. I said, “I have a cousin who once fell through the skylight of a synagogue.”
He looked at me funny and said, “I’ve got a cousin who once fell through the skylight of a synagogue.”
I said, “His first name was Robin.”
He said, “His last name was Danzinger [Danziger].”
We looked at each other in disbelief. We started pounding each other on the back and yelling at each other as Dave drove us down the busy six-lane highway in the congested late afternoon traffic with the top down and no legal brakes. I often wonder what passersby thought was going on and what they would have thought if they’d known about our brakes.
We continued onto the Cross Bronx Expressway and over the East River into Manhattan. As Dave drove, we worked out the connection. My father’s sister, Peg, had married [Sam Leslie, whose sister, Eva Lasowitz, had married Dave's uncle, Moe Danziger. Her son,] Dave’s uncle, Sam Leslie. Sam’s sister, Eva Danzinger, had a son, Robin, who was Dave’s first cousin and also my cousin Mike Leslie’s first cousin. [Dr. Sam Leslie had seen David's mother when she was pregnant with him]. Though we weren’t related by blood, I had met Robin, he was my age and I had always been impressed by the story of his teenage near-death adventure.
Dave decided that he would have to take me all the way home so that he could meet my father. He knew Sam and Peg, of course [I actually never met them that I remember, and Peg was the connection], so he was eager to meet his aunt’s brother. This was great news for me, as the ride I’d picked up in northern Maine was now going to be door to door and I would have the best ever, never-to-be-topped hitch hiking story.
But first we had to get the brake shoe. Time was running out. It was our rare good fortunate to cross the George Washington Bridge amid homebound traffic without too many delays and we soon made our way into Newark. I learned later that Dave once held a summer job delivering new cars from the docks [in Newark to a dealer in Englewood] to the holding pens in Newark, so he knew his way around the city. We arrived with less than 10 minutes to spare. They had the part. Dave bought it and the doors were locked behind him as he left the building. I’d assumed that my newfound cousin would install the brake shoe in the parking lot, but he must have been feeling confident with the way the car was handling and, hearing that we had a garage, he decided to wait until we arrived in Levittown.
Before we left the warehouse, we witnessed an amazing thing. Dave was about to pull out of the parking lot, when he stopped the car and pointed across the street. A middle aged black man wearing shades and a sporty hat and smoking a cigar had just placed a 16’ 2x4 on the roof of a shiny, chrome bedecked 1958 Chevrolet Z a beautiful car. The yardman was walking towards the car with a roll of heavy string, but the customer waved him off dismissively. He got into the car and drove slowly out of the lot, making a big, swooping left turn onto the busy street. A driver coming up behind him had to brake hard to avoid running into the Chevy. The driver had gone wide to the outside of the lane, then back all the way to the center line before finally straightening the car in such a way that the front of the 2x4 swung slowly to his right, then back to the left, centering perfectly over the chrome hood ornament.
The car proceeded at funeral pace down to the light at the end of the block where the process was repeated as the driver made another big left turn through the intersection. This time oncoming cars on both streets had to make way and there were tires squealed and horns honked from both directions.
Maybe nothing surprised us on that particular day. We grinned at each other and went on our way. I imagined the driver building a home, one board at a time, picking each one up at the lumberyard and carrying it home this way, making ten or twelve trips a day.
In order to get from Newark to Levittown we had to travel down the sixteen lane New Jersey Turnpike, then cross over the Delaware River to the Pennsylvania Turnpike on the toll bridge, and travel a few more miles on local roads. I had not called ahead and, when my father told this story in later years he would always say, “So here comes Pat with some hippie needing a brake job and I thought, ‘Oh Jeez, I’m going to be out in the garage all night after working in the locomotive shop all day.’”
But then he would add that all Dave wanted was to borrow a hammer and that he put that brake shoe on as fast as he could have done it himself. Afterwards my mom made us a big pot of spaghetti and Dave and my father had a long talk about our families and who knew whom. After all of this Dave got in his car and continued on his way. He really did have to be in Virginia [North Carolina] by the next morning. I deliberately did not ask my cousin for contact information. I wanted to see if we could bump into each other again someday in this small world.
Thirty years passed. I hadn’t seen my cousin Barbara in almost that long, when I ran into her at a funeral and she told me that Dave had told this story at a family reunion that summer and... he’d forgotten the part about the brake shoe. She said that he lived somewhere in Vermont. I wasn’t surprised. When I finally tracked him down he was living a mile away from my son. Every word of this story is true. If you don’t believe me, just ask David.