National Story Project
With Paul Auster
Hear the audio from the program.
July 2001 -- Paul Auster reads a story from Charlie Peters of Santa Monica, California.
(Please note: Language in this feature may be offensive to some readers.)
In 1952, my father quit his job at Ford to move us to Idaho and start his own company. Instead, he got polio and spent six months in an iron lung. After three more years of therapy, we moved to New York City where my father finally got a sales job, this time with the English car company, Jaguar.
One of the perks of the new job was a car that he was given to drive. It was a two-tone gray Jaguar Mark IX, the last of the elegant, rounded models. It looked like something that belonged in a movie star's garage.
I was enrolled at St. John the Evangelist, a parochial school on the East Side with an asphalt playground separated from the street by a high wire fence.
Every morning, my father would drop me off at school in his Jaguar before heading off to work. Being the son of a blacksmith from Parsons, Kansas, he was proud of his car and thought I should be proud to be driven to school in it. He loved its genuine leather upholstery and the small burled walnut tables that were attached to the backs of the front seats on which I could finish my homework.
But I was embarrassed by the car. After years of illness and debt, we probably didn't have any more money than the rest of the mostly working-class Irish, Italian, and Polish kids in the school. But we had a Jaguar, and so we might as well have been Rockefellers.
The car separated me from the other kids, but especially from Danny Kowalski. Danny was what they called a juvenile delinquent in those days. He was slight and had a mound of blond hair sculpted with grease and spray into a tsunami-like pompadour. He wore the shiny, pointed boots we called Puerto Rican fence climbers, his collar was always up, and there was a permanent, practiced snarl on his upper lip. It was rumored that he had a switchblade, maybe even a zip gun.
Every morning Danny Kowalski would wait in the same spot at the school fence and watch me as I climbed out of my two-tone gray Jaguar and entered the schoolyard. He never said a word, he just stared at me with hard, angry eyes. I knew he hated that car and that he hated me, and that some day he was going to beat me up for it.
My father died two months later. We lost the car, of course, and soon I'd have to go live with my grand-mother in New Jersey. Mrs. Ritchfield, an elderly neighbor, offered to walk me to school the day after the funeral.
When we approached the schoolyard that morning, I could see Danny hanging on the fence, same place as always, his jacket collar turned up, his hair perfectly coifed, his boots recently sharpened. But this time, as I passed him in the company of this feeble, elderly woman and with no elitist English car in sight, I felt as if a wall had been taken down between us. Now I was more like Danny, more like his friends. We were finally equals.
Relieved, I walked into the schoolyard. And that was the morning that Danny Kowalski beat me up.
Santa Monica, California