By Ed Staskus
Antanas Kairis was a year-or-two older than me, good-looking, and quick on the uptake. I met him at a party at a large house on Magnolia Dr. in University Circle, close to the Music Settlement. Dalia and Algis Nasvytis, who were near my age and who I knew through the community, lived there with their younger sister, Julia, and their parents. It was a week before Christmas.
They sometimes threw their house open, clearing the big room in the back for kids teenagers young adults to dance to records. The grown-up adults mingled, smoking and drinking and chatting. It was cold and had snowed for days beforehand. The house was brick, two stories with a front facing slate roof and gables, and windows galore. All lit up it sparkled going up the walk in the frosty night.
Andy was from Boston and had come to Cleveland, Ohio, to see his girlfriend, who was from Dearborn, Michigan. When I called him Tony, the lingo for Antanas, he said, “Call me Andy.” Aida was blonde and beautiful and visiting friends. She didn’t know the Nasvyciai, but her friends did, and she knew Andy.
I didn’t know I was standing next to him until Aida sauntered off to dance with another boy.
“What do you know, I drive all day, and she slips off with somebody else,” he grumbled smiling devilishly.
It took me a second to realize he was talking to me. I was wall flowering more than dancing. At least he had a girl to complain about. I didn’t often strike up conversations with strangers. Andy was more silver-tongued than me, by a long shot.
He wanted a cigarette. We went out on the back terrace, and he lit up. I didn’t smoke. He did most of the talking. By the time we went back in it seemed like we were fast friends. I didn’t see much of him the rest of the night. He only had eyes for Aida. He clapped me on the back when I was leaving with my ride, saying he hoped we would meet again. I said sure, even though I didn’t expect to ever see him again.
I don’t know how Andy got my number but just after the first of the year I found myself on the phone with him. He was driving to Dearborn to see Aida the next weekend and wanted to know if I wanted to go along. I cleared it with my parents, even though they didn’t know his family or him, and he picked me up the next Friday morning. He looked like he had driven all night.
He was driving an almost new two-door GTO hardtop 428. GTO stands for The Great One. It was red, what Pontiac called Montero Red. It was a cool car inside a hot color. It had street cred, and more. I waved goodbye and piled in. When we got to the corner of our street, he asked me if I minded driving. I said I didn’t mind and drove all the way to Dearborn while he slept.
Dearborn was 170 miles away. We made it in record time in the smooth as silk muscle car. The engine had a throaty sound and handled like doing simple arithmetic.
Henry Ford was born on a farm in Dearborn and later built an estate there. He pioneered the mass production of automobiles, and his world headquarters was based there. He forged the River Rouge Complex there, the largest factory of his empire. He had a reconstructed historic village and museum built, immortalizing his youth. The open land is planted with sunflowers and his favorite crop, which was soybeans. The crops are never harvested.
There were lots of Poles Germans Italians and Lithuanians in Dearborn. If there were any African Americans, I didn’t see them. “Negroes can’t get in here. Every time we hear of a Negro moving in, we respond quicker than reporters do to a fire,” said Orville Hubbard, the mayor from 1942 to 1978. “As far as I am concerned, it is against the law for a Negro to live in my suburb.” The Michigan Civil Rights Commission in 1965 found Mother Hubbard guilty of posting racist newspaper clippings on City Hall bulletin boards. However, he was never taken to court on the issue. He was an equal opportunity bigot. He complained that “the Jews own this country,” that the Irish “are even more corrupt than the Dagos,” and when Middle Easterners started moving into Dearborn after the Six-Day War that “the Syrians are even worse than the niggers.” In 1970 his son John Jay Hubbard ran for mayor against him but got beaten to a pulp.
The unofficial slogan of the lily of the valley burg was “The Sun Never Sets on a Negro in Dearborn.”
We found Aida’s house without too much trouble, except for stopping at several gas stations and asking for directions. Her parents were suspicious of Antanas but brushed me off as a harmless sidekick. They agreed to let us sleep in their furnished basement that night and Saturday night and fed us lunch. It was hot beet soup with black rye bread and kugelis. I wasn’t surprised it wasn’t burgers and fries.
We went out on the town, visiting the Automotive Hall of Fame. We went to the Henry Ford Museum and rode in a Model-T. We went to the Fairlane and sat in an old bus. We went to the movies and saw “In the Heat of the Night.” We stopped at a tavern with a neon sign in the window saying “EATS.” Andy explained I was with him, and they let me in. We had burgers and fries. Andy had a beer. Aida and I had Sprite.
On the way back Double A sat in the back seat making out. We were at a stop light minding our own business waiting for the green to go when a car pulling up next to us got too close and broke off the GTO’s sideview mirror. There wasn’t one to begin with on the passenger side which meant now I didn’t have any. The young woman driving the white Chevy Corvair, one of the worst cars on the road, looked at me, looking chagrined. She put the car in park and got out. I noticed her compact car didn’t have side mirrors from the get-go.
The Corvair is on most lists of “The Ten Most Questionable Cars of All Time.”
I was standing beside the driver’s door looking at the broken mirror lying in the road when I noticed Andy bolting out of the back seat and making a beeline to who-knows-where. He hit the pavement running and disappeared down a side street. When the police appeared, I pointed to the broken mirror and explained what happened. Aida and I sat in the car while they went about their business. They wrote a ticket and gave it to the guilty girl. She drove away in her Corvair waving goodbye.
“We’ve called your parents and they’ll be here to pick you up soon,” one of the policemen told Aida. She looked worried. “Are your parents strict?” I asked. She nodded yes.
“What about me?” I asked.
“You’re coming with us,” the policeman said.
“Where are we going?”
“You’re going to jail,” he said.
“Why? I didn’t do anything.”
“This is a stolen car,” he said.
The city hall the police station and the district court were all in a row on Michigan Ave. I was taken to the police station, photographed and fingerprinted. They put me in a holding tank. It smelled bad, like a toilet with a dead rat in it. A man in a suit showed up and took my statement.
“I didn’t steal that car,” I said. “Find Antanas. He’ll tell you.”
“We already found him.”
“He said you stole the car.”
“What! That’s not true. Why did he run away if he didn’t steal it? I didn’t steal anything, he did.”
“Have you ever been to Massachusetts.”
“No, except once a couple of years ago when there was Boy Scout Jamboree there.”
“All right, sit tight,” he said.
I sat tight that night and the next night and the night after that until my court appearance on Monday. I was shuffled into a cell with three other men, two of them there for drunk and disorderly and one of them, an African American, for being in Dearborn after the sun went down. He called us honkies. We ignored him.
“I don’t trust anyone that hasn’t been to jail at least once in their life. You should have been, or something’s the matter with you,” John Waters once said.
I didn’t trust the two drunks and slept with one eye open. My fears were put to rest the next day when they sobered up. They built Ford Mustangs at River Rouge. The complex included 93 buildings with nearly 16 million square feet of factory floor space. It had its own docks on the dredged-our Rouge River, 100 miles of interior railroad track, its own electricity plant, and an integrated steel mill. It was able to turn raw materials into running vehicles within its own space.
“You leave your brain at the door,” one of them said. “Just bring your body, because they don’t need any other part. It’s a good thing, otherwise I would lose my mind. They tell you what to do and how to do it.”
“Hey, there ain’t a lot of variety in the paint shop either,” the other one complained. “You clip on the color hose, bleed out the old color, and squirt. Clip, bleed, squirt, clip, bleed, squirt, clip, bleed, squirt, scratch your nose. Only now the bosses have taken away the time to scratch my nose.”
“Yeah, the line speed used to be 40 or 45 cars an hour twenty years ago but now it’s working its way up to a 100. A lot of the time I have to get into the car and do my job sitting on raw metal. I was always going home with black and blue marks on the back of my legs. I made a padded apron to wear backwards so I would be more comfortable.”
“I was a two-bolt man for a while,” the painter said. “There were two bolts and I put in one and secured it. Then I put in the other one and secured it. They came pretty fast, so it’s time after time. I always had a sore shoulder. It just wears you down in your bones.”
A rolling rack of paperback books came by, and I grabbed a couple of Perry Mason mysteries. We were fed morning noon and night. I took naps whenever I wanted to. By Monday morning I had gained a pound or two, easing into my motel tan, and was well rested.
On the way to the courtroom, I saw Dandy Andy in another group and jumped him, only to be separated from him in no time flat. I spit out he was a rotten goddamned fink. He gave me the finger and that ended our so-called friendship on the spot. In the courtroom I saw my father, who had taken the day off and driven to Dearborn. When my turn came a police detective and an assistant district attorney talked to the judge first. When they were done the judge crooked his finger at me to approach the bench.
“Your friend has admitted stealing the car in Boston to go joyriding and so we are dropping the charges against you,” he said.
“He’s not my friend,” I said.
“In any case, you’re free to go.”
Automobile theft was rampant all over the country, with almost a million of them going missing every year. Michigan was one of the states that led the way. My case was open and shut, thank God. Stealing cars was a trap door to prison. I left with my father, who wasn’t happy, but happy I had been sprung loose.
“I still can’t believe another Lithuanian would do that to me, especially lying about stealing the car,” I said on our way home.
My father brushed my naivete aside.
“In Lithuania whenever anyone is driving, they are cautious of people on the side of the road trying to flag them down, trying to get them to pull over,” he said. “More often than not it’s a trick to get you out of your car so that a second man can either steal what’s in your unattended car or drive off with it. Everybody knows if you absolutely must leave your car, say you are involved in an accident, be sure to turn off the ignition, take the keys, and lock the car. Lietuviai are no saints, believe me.”
He tapped out a Pall Mall, lit it, and drove in silence while he smoked.
“What do you think the moral of your lost weekend might be?” he asked ten minutes later stubbing out his cigarette.
I looked at the pivoting globe compass and small painted statue of St. Christopher on top of the dashboard, wiggling slightly on their magnetic bases. Even though the compass told him what direction he was going in, my father was terrible with directions, often getting lost. He didn’t like asking for them, in any case, and relied on St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers. Unfortunately, St. Christopher never said a word about anything.
I couldn’t think what the moral might or might not be. I knew it was going to be some kind of clampdown.
“Never trust anybody driving a stolen car, not any Lithuanian, and not even yourself,” he said.
Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”