This was 1962. It was the year Marilyn Monroe died, the year Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in one game and the year my mother cornered the market on AquaNet hairspray.
Until I was 10, we were one of those families that could barely afford a house, let alone a car. When it was my mother’s turn in the Hebrew School carpool, she sent us by taxi cab across the continental divide that was Roosevelt Boulevard.
A trip to visit my grandparents in the borough of Brooklyn meant a bus, an El, a train, two subways and good walking shoes.
And Jersey? There were only two reasons then to go to Jersey. The Shore and the Strip. The Shore was a paradise of sand and sea. The Strip was a quarter-mile of heaven.
The Strip, as any boy who’s ever laid rubber knows, was Atco Dragway, a two-lane blacktop carved into the cornfields of Jersey’s least populated town.
Before Atco opened, we did it in the road. Street racing was bigger than baseball then. You took two cars on a long avenue with a stoplight at every corner. When the light turned green, you floored it. It was called patching out. You threw your car in gear and left your rubber on the road.
Those of us who couldn’t afford to soup up our cars settled for making them look faster. If you were really handy, you’d nose and deck your car. You took off all the hood badges, front and back, and you filled in the holes with globby gook, sanded it down and painted it over. But most of us never got around to painting those ugly gray spots. They served as symbols of hot cars in progress.
None of the guys in my crowd, a crowd of Dodges and Plymouths, had super-hot cars. There was a certain awe and reverence for those who did. And there was an unwritten law over at Big Boy’s hamburger joint on the Boulevard that the first row of the parking lot was reserved for the top eliminators, the winners. We’d all sit there in the back and watch them roar in, with their left arms hanging out the window and a blonde bobbysoxer clutching their right arms.
And I could only dream. One day, I thought, I was going to nose and deck my father’s old Dodge and paint flames all over it. And I was going to take out that old Dodge engine and put in a Chrysler power plant. One day.
Life was so simple back then. I had only two real goals. One was to grow up to be a disc jockey, and the other was to park in the first row at Big Boy’s.
Oh, and girls. Can’t forget about girls. When you’re 16 years old, every move you make is about girls. And we were all totally convinced that whoever had the fastest car would get the fastest girl. We knew this because Vinnie “The Goose” Maroni, who drove a white ’58 Chevy Impala, had a girlfriend who dyed her hair red.
Goose, when he wasn’t getting hauled in by the cops for doing 80 in a 25-mile-an-hour zone, taught us all a lot about drag racing. Mostly he taught us it was the road to success. That’s how he got Gloria “The Sure Thing” Diddleman. Goose, thanks to his super charger, was the first guy I knew who was really making it with a redhead. The rest of us were still in the minor leagues, in the back seats of slower cars with, well, slower girls. It’s not the kind of thing you ever forget.
And so, 20 years later, married with three kids, I bought my first really hot car. A bright red 240-Z. Picked it up from the dealer and drove it back into Philly. Went to Big Boy’s. And parked in the front row. Life was good.