Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
New York Live Arts presents
I suppose I ought to take responsibility for it—that a narrative of my life may be reconstructed from the succession of cars that have passed through my hands. It’s autobiography, punned and pinned by narrative to the junk in the trunk of random car parts. Connecting the dots—or the cars—life shape-shifts to fit automotive reminiscence, story motored by autocorrelation.
I became aware of this peculiar fact by accident, while driving with my teenage son and casting about for a non-stressful topic to beguile the three-hour drive from New York to upstate. He asked me about the other cars I had owned. We were at mile 17 on the Taconic, a scenic but perilous road for the driver tempted to speed more than seven miles above the posted 55 mph. This road is the cash cow of three separate counties roamed by licensed bounty hunters hiding in culverts armed with radar guns. We were to be on it for 86 more miles. I took the measure of my audience and the blanks to be filled in the most charming way possible: mid-century America—check; civil-rights era—check; counterculture—check; road-trip stories—check; away-from-home-and-back-again—check.
In the real beginning, there had never been a family car. We were New Yorkers with no need of a car; we had the IRT … and the IND and the BMT, and for the odd occasion, odd indeed, the ferry and the LIRR. We did a good impression of a postwar nuclear family; not quite glowing in Pax Americana, its groomed and glossy Life magazine cover, but close enough to be occasionally disarmed by its evergreen promise. There were four of us, Northern and Negro, a veteran, his wife, and two daughters, seven years apart. Mom and Dad were faithful civil servants; Dad, still in uniform, was a postal employee, tight in the grip of PTSD. Mom, shapely and compact, was optimistic and red lipsticked, extroverted; a fashion butterfly with a drill sergeant’s sense of decorum.
It was 1964. The World’s Fair had come to Flushing, New York, after an epic struggle waged by autocratic, car-loving Robert Moses. A bureaucrat of titanic ambitions, he had carved up the Bronx, throwing highways across neighborhoods, scattering them like pins in a bowling alley. Moses was not a friend of the common man (not to mention woman and child); he paved parking-lotted eastern Long Island with roadways decked with overpasses so low they would keep out the masses, because they couldn’t accommodate their buses. It must have been some mixture of love and vanity that drove him to lobby for the New York World’s Fair, the crown and title of the center of the universe. “Man’s Achievement on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe,” as the World’s Fair was called: where globalism and the space age intersected.
Moses infuriated the international body in charge of world expositions like a man accustomed to having his way—no compromise. Most of the European countries declined official participation and were represented by their national tourist agencies. Instead, the developing world, newly independent, as well as smaller nations, heralded their arrival into Western modernity and New York, erecting pavilions that mimicked the sites of Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Japan, China, Thailand, many African countries, Austria, Sweden, Belgium, and Denmark.
Another sector dominated the fair, Industry, represented by the largest corporations in the world. GM, DuPont, GE, Disney stepped into the breach, breathless engines of progress—a word elevated to almost theological status, with peppy four-bar hymns, hummed through the synchronized automation of sleek industrial temples. Inside the exhibits visitors were offered extravagant promises about the future: moving auditoriums, humane robotics, and automated houses that would turn on the lights, sweep the floor, make the beds, and do the cooking. Moving pathways and monorails would transport people and goods from one weather-free and uncongested destination to another. Even in hell, there would be temperature control, controllable weather.
We were eager subscribers. Total admission was six dollars for a family of four. For everyone, level admission. There was to be no race discrimination in the future, apparently. The world was a circle, a globe, everyone hand in hand, identical except for skin color, a small world after all. We experienced a picture of ourselves as we might be in the future, a future brightened by the mass accessibility of consumer goods and open borders with America at the center.
Our favorite pavilion was Ford’s Magic Skyway, where the cars were called “time machines.” Indeed, the whole exhibit was organized around the conceit of traveling from the “dark days of prehistory” into the “bright, promising days of the future.” In the mid-’60s, belief in progress was incompatible with a belief in creationism, so few disputed the fact that the earth was billions of years old, and that we humans and apes evolved from common ancestors. The two sets of complementary beliefs were represented by a timeline sloping upward: Australopithecus standing erect and forehead losing its slope until at the summit, a pipe-smoking, white-collar specimen—and beyond “him” a space-suited figure tethered distantly to a vessel shaped like a vacuum cleaner.
In the sun-flooded lobby where we waited on line, the latest Ford models were on display. The Ford Mustang, introduced in time for the fair in 1964, flirted, doe-eyed behind velvet ropes. The Mercury Futura, a car just an evolutionary step away from a rocket ship, dazzled the eye: a beautiful convertible, covetable, rectilinear, chromed, its rear taillights ensconced in fixtures that resembled the inestimable breasts of a Hollywood starlet, with headlights like the round and unblinking eyes of an unquenchably curious scientist. A suggestive panel of white framed in chrome on the side suggested its blinding speed.
We loved the Ford exhibit best of all each of the 12 times we visited the fair during the summers of 1964 and ’65 to ride in the “time machine” of our choice—Futura, Mustang, whatever—along the people-mover track, the four of us packed like bonbons in leather upholstery, molded-plastic dashboard, vinyl armrests, and shatterproof glass. When it was our turn to cross the velvet threshold, we knew exactly what to do; Dad sat in the front, the steering wheel in his hands, Mom sat beside him, and we two girls got in the back. The doors closed with a luscious clunk.
The car moved like a dream. It traveled into another world, a world thousands of years ago, the age of dinosaurs as envisioned by the Imagineering Studios at Disney. Against painstakingly recreated landscapes, ¾-size brontosauruses, stegosauruses, and triceratops moved slowly in repetitive motion. Brontosauruses, mouths filled with treetop greens, turned slowly to peer down at our open-topped cars. Triceratops hatchlings broke through their shells, small and adorable in the adjacent landscape, a peaceable kingdom where their mothers stood guard, while in just the next diorama, a tyrannosaurus menaced a stegosaurus (terrifyingly memorable to me) and, in the midst of battle, turned to stare at our convertible. The cars moved slowly enough to allow us to get a good look at the primal territory of the distant past, although it seemed to the nine-year-old me that this might also work in reverse: we moved slowly enough for the dinosaurs to get a good look at us and it was possible that, in this dream, the tables might turn.
The ride ended with our gliding out of the tunnel of the past into the bright, glass-encased daylight of a sunny afternoon, elevated above the fair from which one could see the pillars of the known world and its industrial gods holding up the heavens. Pathways thronged with people in their best Sunday dress.
For my father, indisputably in the driver’s seat, all this had to have been deeply satisfying. He was never happier than when he was driving. Unhappily, he never held a driver’s license, though he drove a truck during World War II for the US Army. When he returned from the war, he failed the driver’s test repeatedly—“they” being somewhat more particular about driving regulations than they were about driving along the bumpy hills of Italy. And yet, he longed for a car. For a new Cadillac, a new Ford, because they were much more attainable objects of desire than a Levittown home. Veteran or not, few black men qualified for a Veterans Home Loan, and many were often excluded by town covenants from even having a home sold to them. The prohibitions were numerous, written and unwritten. Even in a black neighborhood, few people owned their homes, because the banks wouldn’t lend and no underwriter would vouch for deed or lien.
A big Daddy Cadillac then was as close as a black family, Jim-Crowed out of the subdivision or redlined out of a mortgage, could get to signaling where man stood on that slope going upward into the great beyond of the modern. A car was a signal you could drive anywhere.
It could be that this first car experience was formative—that cars were not merely a conveyance but an experience in themselves, not just the means but the measure, the shortest distance between where you were and what was next. For me, a car enabled one to change scenes, shift reality, and reinvent the present tense. I could hardly wait to drive one.
I had to wait about eight years before I owned one. I had moved to Vermont—a long story—but it was after high school and before college. To my astonishment, I found one could not live in a “city” in America and be able to work or buy bread without a car. New York had left me sheltered. There were buses in Vermont, but they came by only four or five times a day, as if disinterested in carrying passengers. Feeble to begin with, they stopped running at 6:00 PM.
I had decided to experience all that life can offer by working in a hospital laundry, shaking out johnnies as they exited a device distressingly named the “mangle”—a gigantic clothing press. The gesture of shaking out the johnnies and sheets bruised the shoulder muscles and tendons in the neck, even in one as young as me. The doctors in the hospital, apparently, happily offered a fix, prescribing, like Rockefeller dimes, Darvons to the workers.
The point is—I needed a car to get to the job from my house, though both were in the “city.” A friend referred to me a car repair shop, Tom and Robert (pronounced in the manner of the French Canadian Roe-bear). For a time they served as guides to me in all things automotive. It was Tom who sold me the first Renault in 1972—a 1967 R-10 for $350, a worthy but manageable sum. There was only one problem: I could not drive. The car had a manual transmission. Tom taught me to drive the stick. It was Zen to him; if there ever was a doubt in his mind that I would never learn to stop stripping the gears because I forgot to step on the clutch, he never let me know it. When the engine whined in second gear at 40, he commented that while it was a good idea to run at the high end of the gear before shifting, it generally was not a good idea to let it go that high. We practiced, on the steep hills of Burlington going up toward the university, the delicate and complex operation of standing on the clutch and the brake simultaneously at a red light, then pressing the gas to move at the green light.
I managed to learn how to drive the Renault before I needed a new transmission. The car had more than 50,000 miles on the odometer, but it had luxurious seats that fully reclined. One could sleep in the car—even have sex in it, so capacious were even the smallest and economical of the European cars. A far cry from the intricacies of attempting romance or more pedestrian lust in an American coupe.
During this period, Tom, who was not a boyfriend but a friend with benefits (of the nonsexual kind), completed the rebuilding of his much beloved Alfa Romeo. It was just after closing time on Friday, and we had opened up a Labatt’s beer. By eight o’clock, Robert was headed to his wife and new baby, and Tom was ready to season the new engine by taking it on the road. I was game, thinking we’d go to the next exit on the interstate.
We got back from Montreal by way of Montpelier a little before midnight, a round-trip of about 200 miles. We drove an average of 135 miles per hour, sometimes topping 150. How to explain this to my son—I-87 a virtually empty four-lane, how sober we were when we started, and how quickly we sobered even more while driving fast. Never to be repeated. Never.
(At this point, I feel my son’s full attention. “How fast?” he asks. I try to lower the speed. “Oh, 125 miles per hour,” I say carefully. “That’s not what you said the first time!” he exclaims.
I drive this part of the Taconic as if I were trying to close a particularly difficult seam on an unfamiliar sewing machine. What is it with boys and speed? What is it with girls and speed? I wonder.)
In this history of cars, a few Saabs make an appearance. A 1960s two-stroke Saab that required mixing lawn-mower oil with regular gasoline. Equipped with a powerful two-stroke, eight-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive, the Saab, driving, was like being pulled in a chariot, powered by runaway draft horses, always at risk of arriving before you got there. I owned the two-stroke Saab during the oil crisis and the country went to rationing, disrupting the slow, fossil-fuel waltz to the abyss. (That would stop lineal ascent!)
OPEC, the oil cartel, provided quite a jolt, provoking long lines at the pumps and quite a few upset motorists. During the energy crisis, one could only buy gasoline every other day, depending on whether your license plate ended with an odd or even number, at prices approaching a mind-shattering 50 cents a gallon. The oil-to-gas mixing ratio the Saab required got tricky about then—I can recall a lot of painstaking calculations of the correct balance between oil and gas, and the panic about running out of gas before I reached the pump for which I had waited at least one half hour on line.
But I didn’t just keep company with European cars. I had an American car phase, returning for a few rounds to my first love, the Ford, a Falcon straight six—named for the engine’s cylinder arrangement, sold to me by a neighbor, Jingles, for about $150 and some jars of peach chutney. I also owned, for about a week, a push-button automatic, a Chevrolet, I believe. The push buttons were on the dashboard and were impossible to read. Yet, in the place of a gearshift on the steering column, I memorized PRNDL: it had an unfortunate recurrence of an insurmountable ailment that could not be overlooked, the failure to go into reverse. Inconvenient really, and not really such a good deal even at $225.
While each car had its personality, each car attained an odd correspondence with my growing coming-to-terms with authority. I went from hospital laundry worker to nursing-home aide; from night shift to day shift, working at a runaway shelter; and from working at a shelter to joining its board. I went from working at a community-based nonprofit to working at the university, for the dean of continuing education; from working as a secretary for the dean to becoming a student studying philosophy and linguistics; and from student to University Year for Action student, working on hunger and food advocacy on behalf of the poor. The cars shifted, became more reliable and less whimsical, and I was never without sand, shovel, and other practical tools for the occasional emergency. I gave the dean’s enormous Chrysler New Yorker a jump start with a pair of jumper cables during the hot summer of the Nixon impeachment hearings.
There were boyfriends. None wanted to have anything to do with my cars—fixing or buying them. These cars were my sideshow, useful for mad trips to small places, the smaller the better, barely discernible on topographic maps, the end of the road or the end of the world where the road gives out to a trail. In those days, we would drive to the end and the lot of us would pile out of the car and begin a long climb upward against the faint mark of the Appalachian Trail—often in moonlight, eyes adjusting to the rich grays of the darkened woods. Our ascent up Camel’s Hump or Mount Mansfield circled by illumined clouds stood outside of cars and progress, a fall upward toward the moon. (“Boyfriends?” my son asks, eyebrows raised. “You mean, not Dad?” he continues. “What’s up with that?”
“I was nearly 30 when I met your father. I had a life, you know.”
“A life?” my son asks. “You mean, beside the cars?”)
I drove back to New York City infrequently. Each time I did so it was not unlike landing a spaceship in a highly populated area, parking it and then trying to blend in. I remember parking the car in the West Village during the afternoon once. I went off to meet someone at the Pink Teacup, then an unassuming soul diner, and then going off to the Phoenix Bookstore, and then Eighth Street Bookstore for poetry books. It was night when it was time to get the car, and it was nowhere to be found. I called the police thinking it stolen or towed. The zealous and perfidious habits of NY-traffic cops, I fumed. They issued a denial via phone. Finally, a few minutes before midnight, we found the car—where I had parked it hours earlier, moved and removed, unchanged yet changed. We had walked the same block a few times but had never seen it, walking by it as if the car belonged to someone else.
The next notable car was never mine, but instead was a drive-away car requiring someone to drive it from Boston to Los Angeles. I found it through an agency, conveniently, as I had decided to leave the Northeast and its cold and snow behind me and sojourn west. I had already moved from Remote, Vermont, to Cambridge, Massachusetts—from rural recluse toward the metropolitan, to study semantics with one of Chomsky’s students, a recent PhD. Despite the plentiful group houses and the appeal of the curious variety of domestic socialism and low rent, 1976 was a disastrous year in Cambridge. The Boston School Committee defied court-ordered busing as a means of integrating the Boston schools, thus opening the subterranean vents of the Brahmin/Irish townie divide from which issued harpies and toxic gases, both racist and violent.
A black man in a business suit, already a rare sight in downtown Boston (to this day), was attacked with the pole of an American flag by an individual protesting school desegregation. Two weeks later, I was pelted with calls of nigger and stones while walking home at night from a poetry event from behind the Divinity School in Cambridge. There was no clearer sign to me that this scene was done for me. I set my sights on California.
By the mid-’70s, the car was a freighted vessel, part time machine, and landing craft to distant reaches of America, to its legend. I know this now and I tell my son about the road-buddy phenomena as literature—On the Road, an alternate version of Huckleberry Finn or Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or, The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery, Hell, and The Odyssey. These are tales of escape, fugitive tales—fleeing from not only what is being left, of course, but also discovery of the new world found at the destination. My car years marked a time when leaving was the way to fix the problems of home by taking the problems with you on the road.
There is a gift, I realize now, to picking up where you have left off. I have that gift to begin again, as if an old acquaintance is “ne’er forgot” but always top of mind, living in the eternal present in the mind. I can recall the tone, if not the substance, of the last call, even if it has been months or years. This is not a conscious matter, yet I can divine the past threads of intimacy connecting thought and feeling.
That’s one way to explain how, on a phone call to an old friend in Vermont, I persuaded her to join me in driving across the country. It turns out she was ready to leave Burlington, ready to head west as so many have done before us. She even knew of two rooms for let in a three-bedroom flat in San Francisco—a convenient thing, since I was ready to move there without knowing a soul. D, ever resourceful, learned how to drive and had her license the week before it was time to go.
The “time machine” this time was a late-model Audi, 1975. I’d never driven a car just a year old or a German car with what was then a distinguished provenance. It had new car shine—the smell was long gone—and had to be delivered in Marina del Rey, a tiny section of Los Angeles, 12 days after pick up.
Gingerly, we loaded it up with the few belongings we did not ship by Greyhound bus and UPS to San Francisco. This included Sappho, D’s cat, to whom I was allergic; such books and belongings we could not part with; and the germ of a lifelong and treasured friendship.
We were, D and I, born within two years of each other, so had similar generational sympathies, but we did not know each other well, having met through poetry gatherings organized at The Firehouse Series in Burlington, Vermont. D studied poetry and literature at Hobart College with Fielding Dawson and Anselm Hollo. She was associated with Black Mountain College poets Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, and though she wrote beautifully, she was a rare and gifted reader. She had the face of an Anglo-Irish Madonna, freckled and heart-shaped, and large brown eyes that complemented her tendency to play the role of domestic goddess or “I’ll take care of that.” She was organized, thorough, exceptionally literate, and socially sensitive. And often enough (at least until she grew wise to it), she fell into playing the “drunkard’s dream,” the poet’s sublime.
She was as different from me as another American could be: rural where I was urban; white, WASP, where I am black and of Caribbean descent; extroverted and cheerful, where I am introverted and, back then, a creature of my moods.
We had in common a vague optimism about the West; almost no money—I think we had about $300 and our rent paid for the first month in a flat we had leased sight unseen, and shared with a poet roommate who was a friend of a friend of a friend.
In the way that every day is an adventure when you are on the road, we traveled ten storied days to the left coast. The story of the trip is the stuff of legend in my household. One of my kids could perform it as a karaoke number, lip-synching with me the entire way. But not with my son! I could barely tell he had been listening—until I placed the scene in the car, that is. There is the lesson that is worthy of relating: “When traveling with a cat, do not let the cat out of the car …” In Oberlin, Ohio, we spent hours searching for Sappho, who vanished into a cornfield as soon as we stopped by the side of the road to let her out for a “comfort break.” The hours hummed by, as did the cars on the highway, as we called Sappho everything but a child of God. The sun crept closer to the horizon. Finally, Sappho returned with—was it a mouse or a bird, I don’t recall. We did not repeat this courtesy.
Or this other lesson (it expands the character to hear these tales): “You get what you pay for.” The Super 8 Motel—though $15 a night is a better bet than the no-name motel by the freeway. Know ye these things by the truckers and mobile homes.
Many writers have described their first sight of the Rockies, but none had described the Rockies’ rise adjacent to Kansas, at the Continental Divide. No one had prepared us for Kansas at dusk, a place so emphatically level as to beg the question of whether the Northeast and New England share the same landmass with Kansas and the plains. In a journal entry at the time, I wrote:
I had the name and now I have the object: the plains. The name does not do it justice. It is land in an arc following the swift circle around a person’s horizontal and outstretched arm. The land spreads, thin, invincible. Sword’s Edge is a better name. Trees, four miles away, clear, visible outlines on teeter precarious on radii illustrating perspective: the lines meet somewhere in the distance. The world is flat.
The sunset in Kansas, amidst lavender, orange, and brown cumulus, exaggerated the shadows and gently curving slopes in expansive fields. The next morning we drove to the edge of this flat world onto a road going straight up into the Rockies. The temperature shifted dramatically three times, from humid summer to snowstorm to the cool and slightly breezy bright of tentative spring in the course of a two-and-a-half-hour drive.
On this journey, we let our ordinary selves fall away and were transformed. Surrounded by unearthly landscapes that were nevertheless lyrical—amber waves of grain, purple mountain majesties, fruited plains, these were almost clichés except when they happened to us. We were strangers to it and to ourselves. Because physical space was so transformed, we felt as if we ourselves could do this shape-shifting too, become Western, icons of progress and the new.
In Nevada, gambling is legal. Not just in the casinos, but everywhere. We drove through most of Nevada and just past the Hoover Dam when we stopped in a coffee shop before stretching for a long drive. In the corner, the ubiquitous slot machine. In the change I received from the cashier, there were a few nickels. I split them between D and me to play these odd appliances available everywhere in this singular state.
I dropped a few coins patiently waiting the mechanical action of the gears; in slow motion, as if it were thinking it over, the slots seemed slower still because of the little jerk of fortune or loss hinging on arrhythmic Babbage-centered binaries. Then, in a convulsive blast, it showered nickels from the slot: a hemorrhage in silver spilled over the confines of the change return. Nickels cascaded upon the floor, a buffalo stampede threatened bedlam, bystanders circled the chaos of small change, people in the coffee shop looked up from their pie and coffee, the waitress came over with a plastic container to hold the loot, D giggled—all this within a matter of seconds. Woohoo.
There’s 50 dollars in nickels. More or less. There’s a heck of a lot of nickels and since this is perhaps the second time in my entire life that I have ever won anything, I am savoring God’s smile. Yes. Fifty dollars—the equivalent of the sum of money we expended in the last two days of our journey and a darned good return on the 30 cents I dropped into the slots. As good as if we had not splurged on whatever it was we splurged on at the last stop.
But there is a moral, lurking somewhere nearby, and it can appear without notice, from the back of the brain. In retrospect, I call it lurking Protestantism, but that is not how it appeared. D and I did have in common a kind of work-until-you-drop ethos: a dogged belief in honest labor, merit, no naps, and heavenly reward. And there we were, thrust among the fleshpots and silver of Babylon, awash in undeserved riches.
We joke now, but let us say that D asked for a handful of the winning nickels to try her luck. She tried her luck—and proved that luck has no ruler, certainly not among the likes of us then. She tried the slot machines with another handful of our luck. The machine moved slowly as it ate through our fortune.
If you ever watch people play slots, you notice that people put the nickels in, one after the other, hardly waiting for the wheels to pull up the cherry, the dollar sign, the lucky ace. They put in the nickels and they look away or close their eyes. The nickels land, sight unseen into the maw, gulped one after the other. The players know when to put in the next nickel by the sound of the coin’s falling; they become attuned to one particular click, significant to the player alone, amidst all the other tics of slot destiny. No one wants to change the slot machine they play, or to change the path once they step on it, for the next one. The slots simplify choice and the problem of destiny; this way or that smoothed out into a single path of stimulus, action, consequence, small charge, repeat. In a short term, the arc of desire, thrill, and defeat. D lost every nickel. It took a few hours. When she asked me to cash in some of our paper money to use as bait to retrieve the loss, I took her gently and firmly out of the coffee shop to our car in the now twilight parking lot.
I usually skip the final series of cars, but I summarize when I say that I grew to appreciate the resilience of the Volvo line. My repair shop was called “Million Mile Motors” because it was the shop’s stated mission to keep a Volvo on the road until it had gone around the odometer ten times—or 40 times around the Earth! One worthy Volvo I owned went to 250,000 miles (when I bought it, it was already on the second 100,000). It had had a hard life, and its four different colored doors were just proof that a Volvo is a thing eternal, with the right junkyard and repairman.
(“Forty times around the earth!” says my son. “That could be a lifetime of miles.” My point.)
The final car in the story—that is, one worth telling about—involves the early days of my relationship with my partner and now spouse. I had returned after a combined nine years of absence to live in New York. I had no car; there seemed no need. I met M at a loft concert, introduced by a mutual friend. We were drawn to each other, easy at the first. He is a jazz musician. I talked jazz fluently, had been the host of a jazz radio show for some years prior, could whistle Eric Dolphy solos, scat at the drop of a hat. We established all this at intermission.
We left the concert to go for a drink, crossing the dark and abandoned streets of SoHo (that’s how long ago it was), to his car, an ancient Chevrolet, driven 15 years by his parents and then handed down to him. It was an impressive sight; long, barely rusted, and clearly well-maintained, for M is conscientious in the care of equipment. He opened the door for me and urged me to fasten my seatbelt, even though it was not yet against the law to drive without one. We drove three blocks to the Dew Drop Inn, where we talked long into the night.
Later, much later, shortly before we married, we drove the Chevrolet from Brooklyn, where we lived, into Manhattan to see an independent movie—was it Bresson’s Money? We were short on time and we squeezed in dinner, though in truth we should have skipped the meal and made do with popcorn. Sometimes I am not flexible on these things, I admit. Yet we drove from the restaurant along West End Avenue, looking for a parking spot near the theater. Somewhere we knew that we’d waited too long and that most of the parking had been taken by people who had driven into the city to go to nearby Lincoln Center. We circled blocks, the time growing perilously close to the movie start time, when I noticed a spot we could just fit into. M pulled ahead of the spot and began to back in. Another car sped behind us and tried pulling forward into the spot.
“M,” I said. “Don’t let him take that spot!” M threw the Chevrolet into park; the driver behind settled in as well. And there we sat, for the better part of an hour, neither moving, through the start of the movie, through a third of the film, except we were on West End Avenue, blocks away, in lockdown.
M wanted to get out and yell, but then I came to my senses and we moved on: after all, we were going to the movies and even if we missed the 8:00 PM screening, we could always catch the 10:15. We moved on, outraged by the temerity, the lack of civility, of some New York drivers, and found parking easily on the next corner, closer to the theater than the first. We parked, went to the movies, even had the popcorn and then returned to the Chevrolet—it had chosen this moment to depart this life and never moved again.
Erica Hunt is a poet, essayist, and author of Local History and Arcade, as well as two poem chapbooks, with bits published in Boundary 2, Conjunctions, PoeticsJournal, Tripwire, and the St. Mark’s Poetry Project newsletter. Hunt has received awards from the Foundation for Contemporary Art and the Fund for Poetry and the Djerassi Foundation.
This issue of First Proof is sponsored in part by the Bertha and Isaac Liberman Foundation and the Thanksgiving Fund.
Additional funding is provided by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, The New York State Council on the Arts, and readers like you.
Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby