My dad grew up in Kokomo, Indiana, a small town an hour north of Indianapolis where his father, my grandfather, was an electrical engineer for Delco, a division of General Motors. My grandfather, Papa Frank, was a man of many passions, including collecting polar bear figurines, paper cutting, and driving American cars. As an employee of General Motors, my grandfather was entitled to some deal whereby he could trade in a GM car every two years for new one. The driveway of their split-level ranch home on Tallyho Drive was, therefore, always full of pristine late model Pontiacs and Buicks. My father took many things from his dad. One of them was a love for American cars.
By the time my father bought his first Corvette, his personal life was in tatters and, because I was 8 years old at the time, so was mine. He had recently left my mother, my sister, and me for the hospitable arms of an 18-year-old from Georgia who thought he was the most brilliant man she’d ever met. He probably was. He was also in an upgrading mood. Soon after he moved out of our home in suburban Philadelphia to a sprawling mansion at the end of a cul-de-sac in San Diego, he bought his first Corvette, a teal 1991 C4. As a hobbledehoy, I was torn and completely unable to reconcile my reverence for this car, which so much looked like the Matchbox ones with which I had so lately played, with the anger I naturally held against my old man. The car was, in the words of my mother, a Small Penis Car. I didn’t fully understand that description at the time, but I certainly do now. And so I understand the appeal of a car like that to a guy like my father, who felt he always deserved better than what our family could offer, life in a four-seater sedan.
The Corvette really the only option for him. Like many American Jews of his vintage, he hated all things German. And the sleeker Italian super cars didn’t appeal. The Corvette was the only American supercar. It was also, I think, a means of reframing his relationship with his father (though naybe not, given how he milked his dying old man for money years later).
What this all meant for me was that I was frequently driven around in the passenger seat of the Corvette. There were two things I dreaded about this experience: motion and stillness. Motion because my father sped like a demon. He saw speed limits and traffic laws as personal insults, as examples of a general stupidity manifest in over-legislation and cautiousness. So, he ignored them, just as he ignored the strictures of marriage and my own imprecations to slow down. The growl of a Corvette will, therefore, always be associated to me with a certain feeling of helplessness. Its power wasn’t independent but existed only in domination.
Worse than going was not going. The Corvette is a low car, sitting only about 48 inches above the ground. The bucket seats make you feel lower still, mere inches off pavement. But I wanted to burrow into the ground every time we pulled up to a red light. This was San Diego, where the windows are always rolled down. Therefore, when a car was stopped, the driver of one car was frequently just inches of open air away from the passenger of the other. At red lights or stop signs, my father would turn to his right, looking past me from his privileged spot in the left-hand land, and determine whether the driver was a woman, and therefore fuckable, or a man, and therefore noddable. I always hoped it would be a guy because I felt much less embarrassed, though embarrassed nonetheless, by my father’s phony nod. It was a gentlemanly gesture meant to communicate respect and entirely inappropriate passing from an asshole sitting in a bullshit car to a guy driving a sedan with kids in the back. Eyes affixed to the glove compartment, I tried to communicate telepathically: “It looks like he has it all but he has nothing! Do not be fooled by the Corvette!”
When it was a woman in the car next to us and my father looked over, much longer than was needed, I wanted to die. I felt like I was strapped into the shotgun seat of his priapus. He smiled, crinkling his eyes in a way I’m sure he’d describe as kindly, raise one hand from the steering wheel, and wave. I, meanwhile, eyes barely above the window, would look balefully at the woman in an apologetic way I hoped might counteract the performative leering of my father.
Through the years, as I grew older and my father and I grew more estranged, his love of Corvettes grew. Every couple of years he would trade in his old one for a newer, more garish model. When he crashed my wedding in 2008, he showed up in a purple and yellow Indy Pace Car Corvette. He insisted he drive my new wife and me to brunch so we crammed into the front seat together. She sat on my lap.
Never has a metaphor barged so artlessly into real life: There was not enough space for a family in the Corvette.
I hadn’t really thought of Corvettes in any substantial way since I put all my feelings in the junk drawer of my heart. Someday, I figure, when I have time and the tools, I’ll open it and root around in there. But my older son, who is five, has recently developed a taste for cars. We live in a city and don’t have one, but we are nonetheless surrounded by them. On the cusp of reading, my son delights in deciphering hood ornaments — he calls them signals — and brand logos affixed to the grills of parked vehicles. He assiduously tracks the make and model of the cars he sees and, because love sometimes means being interested in the things your loved ones are interested in, I assiduously track them too. I’ve even developed a game that involves drawing various signals on notecards, giving him a pen, and having him wander until he finds a Nissan, a Toyota, a Subaru, a Maserati, a Ford, etc.
There’s no car that my son loves more than a Corvette. It’s low, as previously mentioned. It’s sleek and sits on its haunches like a jaguar (and like a Jaguar, actually) but is elongated like a belly dancer. The signal of a Corvette — two flags, one checkered, one red, meeting at a V — is fun to draw and to see. There’s a yellow Corvette — late nineties, judging from the tail lights — around the corner from our house that I’m asked about almost daily. And I can’t tell if it’s some sort of inadvertent exposure therapy, the salve of time, or maybe just now that I’m creating my own relationship with my son vis-a-vis Corvettes, but now when I see that hunk of metal and hubris and swaggering American mediocrity, I don’t think of my dad or stop lights or shame or sadness. I take a picture and think, “My kid’s gonna love this.”