Sundays Out in the Falcon
My favorite days are long, slow Sundays whose hours I spend carelessly like carnival ride tickets, and my favorite car is a 1960 Ford Falcon.
The man who drives this car is a broad-shouldered, square-jawed carpenter from New York who is in the process of renovating a house here in New Orleans that no sensible person would have gone near with anything but a can of kerosene and a match.
When he bought it, the house was gutted, termite-infested, off the foundation and leaning at a fifteen-degree angle. There were holes in the walls, the floors, and the roof, and the kudzu vines grew as happily inside as out. Out of optimistic hubris or stubborn stupidity, he imagined that he could transform that rotten heap into something not only habitable, but beautiful. The project is both a financial investment and a mad, romantic dream.
He comes down from New York for three or four months out of the year to work on his house, and in two years he has made commendable progress. Floors and ceilings now meet walls at roughly ninety-degree angles, and the rain and plant-life, for the most part, remain outside of them. His progress, however, has lurched and skidded along a road littered with empty beer bottles, expletives, blood and the occasional smashed power tool.
Old cars and old houses are his “thing.” He likes restoring them; I like occupying them. I wouldn’t say that is the basis of our relationship, for I am aware that the basis of or relationship is not so concrete as that. But in a relationship where conflict too often makes for a bumpy ride, fondness for all things old offers smooth, solid ground.
He bought the Falcon in New York from a Hasidic Jew who’d owned it since 1960. It was a rust bucket when he got it, but he patched, sanded, and painted it to a lustrous pea green with a glittering, silver-flecked roof. In a style called “So-Cal custom,” he lowered it (or “slammed” it, if you want to sound cool) and slapped on some white-walled tires. The yellow and black pin striping on the hood and trunk (painted by a one-armed man) completes the look, which is as clever as it is silly.
To put all that custom work into to a car that was the Ford Echo of its time is ridiculous in the way that a Chihuahua with a spiked collar is ridiculous. Next to the left taillight, crouch one-inch high letters: “DLIFU.” Don’t like it, fuck you. But people like it. The charm of this car is irresistible, as made plain by the grins that spring to the faces of people who wave and poke their thumbs in the air as we pass by. This is the car that made me fall in love.
Our second date was on a Sunday. He picked me up in his 1960 Ford Falcon, and we rode across the swamp on I-10 to Laplace, twenty miles from New Orleans, just to go to Waffle House. An old house. An old car. Hash browns scattered smothered and covered. He was a man after my own heart. He jokes now about how many guys wish they knew all they had to do to make me happy was take me to a crappy chain restaurant in a crummy old car. Sitting across the table at Waffle House, drinking coffee light and sweet and sharing a chocolate chip waffle, we were two people at their best. Charming, flawless, happy.
On the way home we took the highway beside the levee, following our afternoon bliss along the river to New Orleans. The engine rumbled with the uninhibited mechanical simplicity of a mid-century American automobile. The interior smelled of grease and plastic, a smell that reminded me of the old blue Ford work truck my parents had when I was a kid. The gearshift on the Falcon was “three-on-the-tree” (he changed it later) and, so that he could keep his arm around my shoulder, I did the shifting.
In St. Rose I spotted a snowball stand. He had never had a snowball. It was June, a hot day two days after my birthday and two days after we’d met at the Saturn Bar. He turned the Falcon off the highway and I sprang out of the car onto the hot asphalt, all gusto and delight at introducing him to this cold, sweet pleasure.
As we stood by the serving window waiting our turn, he stared in bewilderment at the list of roughly thirty flavors hand-lettered on a wooden sign. Blueberry, Bubblegum, Bahama Mama, Dreamsicle, Hurricane, Fuzzy Naval, French Vanilla, Georgia Peach, Kiwi, Mango, Pasion Fruit, Pina Collada, Spearmint, Tiger’s Blood, Tutti Fruitti. “What flavor should I get?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Anything. It doesn’t matter.”
He got banana; I got a blue one: bubblegum. Snowballs in hand, we walked across the highway and over the levee into the river birches on the bank of the Mississippi. For a little while we sat on a log in the shade, slapping mosquitoes, stealing glances. I poked the ice with my straw and slurped with childlike pleasure, in terror that he was going to kiss me. Eventually, he did.
For fear of ruining my enthusiasm on the second date, he did not tell me what he thought of that snowball, which was that he hated it. On a later drive, he tried a second one, cherry this time, on the theory that he might have chosen the wrong flavor before. I don’t remember if that was my idea or his. In any case, he still hated it. What is not to like, I argued, about sugar and ice? And so it goes with nearly everything.
He claims I disagree with everything he says. That is not true. Sometimes, I keep my mouth shut. Most of his opinions are negative, and most of them are wrong. For example, he hates musicians. He likes music, but he considers the pursuit of music as an art, in all but a very few cases, frivolous and juvenile. I’ve learned not to argue with him about it. He regards musicians with almost as much contempt as he does for writers. Books are not his “thing.” They are mine. On good days I fancy myself a writer, and those are the days when he likes me the least. Writers, he says, think they are “so smart.” Well yes, on good days, we do
Those things that we do agree on–old cars, old houses, vintage kitchen ware, Waffle House, Saturn Bar, coffee light and sweet, the unquestionable authority of the Magic Eight Ball–we share with an exaggerated pleasure that bestows on them the aura of the sacred.
On Sunday drives to Waffle House, we ride out of New Orleans with the windows cranked all the way down, the clump of city skyline growing smaller and more vague across the expanse of marsh that stretches from under the raised Interstate. I like to ride with my bare feet out the window or right in the middle of the bench seat, straddling the gearshift. Bucket seats have ruined cars. The wind rushes in, whipping my hair around my face like I am under water. We squint and grin in the sunshine glinting off the windshield. Riding beside his wide, muscular frame, I am but a wisp of a little woman. If I think I am smart, I don’t let on.
On the way home along the river we watch for junk and antique shops to stop at and point out old buildings and houses. He looks for warehouses where he could have a car shop. When I see a white wooden house with a screened-in front porch nestled among azalea bushes and shaded by a large oak tree, I point, saying, “That one, I want that one.”
He turns his head to look, and, with the slightest of smiles, he says, “Huh.”
He leans back in his seat with his left elbow resting on the door and his right hand on the steering wheel, or with his left hand on the steering wheel and his right hand on my knee. I sometimes fold my arms on the window casing and lean my head out to get closer to the passing cypress and river birch and feel the wind in my face, taking my breath away if I face right into it. I’ve grown accustomed to his contradictions. He’ll complain that he can’t deal with New Orleans anymore and wants to go back to New York as soon as possible. Then, later, he’ll look around with a contented sigh and declare that he’d like to stay at least another month. He loves his house. He hates his house. He loves me. He hates me. He wants me by his side every minute and is annoyed that I monopolize his time.
When we roll back into the city on Elysian Fields Avenue, the late afternoon sun, low in the sky, lights the faces of the old Victorian houses–some grey and leaning, some neat and bright. And we are new again for a little while, giddy at the carelessness of life in New Orleans, tolerant of the dirty, pot-holed streets and content, for the moment, to stay.