Especially Made For…
My great grandmother Clara spoke of her Pontiac, the only car she ever owned that wasn’t a Chrysler with a pause, a wince, and then a smile. As a 5 year old, I would ask her over and over about her experiences with cars, which cars she owned, which cars she loved. I’m surprised she never asked me to shut up, I was getting in the way of watching All My Children, The Oakland A’s or re-runs of Cannon. At 5 years old I only understood cars as fun. At 64 years old all she probably saw was a curious child truly intrigued with what cars she loved.
Then I was only able to see cars as one dimensional cool things. They were just an object to obsess over, not a hunk of metal that held so much data about how bodies have been able to and not to navigate space if you knew what investigative questions to ask. Recreating those moments, in my mind, nearly 35 years later after having a series of cars of my own, can I even begin to grasp why saying “Pontiac” could cause the brain and soul to fire off such a complex reaction in mere seconds.
There was a whole world beyond the Emerald Green 1976 New Yorker that sat constantly gleaming in her garage during the first 5 years of my life. A world that was real, slightly out of sight, not in my direct experience. The only reality I was cognizant of was that New Yorker, approaching 11 years in service, was becoming fussy, troublesome; not the trustworthy member of the family it had been. Stalling, refusing to start. I’d experienced the embarrassment of warning lights flashing before our eyes, ornery at the prospect of resuming motion after the train passed, having to sit for 3 minutes after it had been washed and polished while my Great Grandmother took me to Burger King next to the car-wash.
Despite meticulous maintenance, having a husband retired from the Ford plant in Milpitas, and a brother-in-law around the corner that tuned Rochester Quadra-Jets at Ely Chevrolet in Redwood City for years, there was a sense of desperation, frustration and resignation that it would be an impossible task keeping a first year “Lean Burn” 440 V8 running in a useful fashion for much longer. It was the inevitable time to think of something new.
My great grandmother never looked at a car brochure through all of the Summer of 1987. She never bothered to rent a car as the New Yorker made more and more trips to Falore Chrysler in Sunnyvale. Being in her care during those summers, we’d sit in the lobby, or waddle down to get lunch somewhere on El Camino. Sometimes we’d get whatever patch the car needed to make it to Safeway and then back home to Menlo Park 15 miles away. Sometimes she called my Great Grandfather and suffered the indignity of having to ride in his Purple on Purple ’85 Thunderbird. Or worse yet, the ’68 Ranchero that did all the “dirty work” cause he didn’t have time to de-grease from working on someone else’s car, and dare didn’t get his Thunderbird mussed up.
Once upon a time, Chrysler placed a plaque of the glovebox for those that ordered their cars. My Great Grandmother’s read “This Chrysler was made especially for Clara Berryhill.” I thought that was amazing. I thought it was so special. Also, everyone else’s grandparents and great grandparents had Cadillacs, Buicks, Lincolns, Oldsmobile Ninety Eights. None of them proudly screamed “We made this car especially for you!” from the cliff of tufted vinyl framing the dashboard. The mud brown on peanut butter leather 1987 Fifth Avenue that was her retirement gift to herself in August of 1987 had that plaque as did the 1976 New Yorker it replaced. It honored the fact that she sat down with an order sheet, selecting options like a sunroof and wire wheel covers. It acknowledged that the order form was sent to Highland Park, Michigan for processing. It was rewarding her with a brand new car tailored to her tastes a few weeks later.
I used to run my fingers across it to feel the relief and depression of the engraving. It was something tactile, spectacular and grand. It made me feel like my great grandmother was someone grand. And she was, at nearly 6 ft tall, and still wearing ersatz bouffant wigs well into the 1990s, adding a couple of inches of imperiousness to her frame. She was unique in all the world to me, as were her continuous choice of Chryslers over more common choices everyone else did. She openly sneered at Walter, her husband’s, habitual Fords. She only sneered so much, since the salary, then retirement pension he received from Ford afforded them vacations in timeshares in Hawaii and plane tickets all over the country to visit her brothers and sisters all over the United States. But heaven forbid she’d actually have to drive any of those Ford things, The Thunderbird or the whorehouse red Mustang II Ghia that preceded it. I can only remember her sort of driving the Thunderbird once, because Walter had drunkenly parked it too close to the dryer, and she had towels in the dryer.
She knew I had run my fingers across the plaque constantly. It left smudges and fingerprints across the plaque. She’d threaten whoopings that never came. Same ones when it was obvious that I played with the power passenger seat when she left me in the locked car to run quick errands. Somehow I survived a childhood repeatedly being locked in a greenhouse with stale wafting Newport cigarette smoke in a car that allowed you to adjust the seats electronically without a key but not the windows. Realistically it’s only one of probably 30 different environmental factors that have contributed to a lifetime of having Asthma.
Both her Chryslers and Walter’s Fords were of the Malaise Era. Some say it was only the decade from the Oil Embargo to the beginning of the Reagan Administration. I’d say that period spanned roughly a massive United Auto Workers strike in 1970 and ended, sort of, with the rise of Sport Utility Vehicles and OBD II in 1996. They’re cars I’ve outrightly loathed, can’t understand how people spend multiple dollars buying, preserving, restoring. I remember how constantly calling a tow on these buzzards was. It wasn’t just Grandma Clara’s New Yorker.
It was Uncle Claude’s Audi 5000 refusing to start in the parking lot behind Su Hong Chinese in the rain. Was it because of the rain? Who has time to go to Baskin Robbins for a scoop of Strawberry when you have to go to Carlsen Audi and fork out more money.
It was our own 1975 Cutlass not shifting out of 1st on the Freeway, Screaming like a wounded dog because someone thought it was good to place a vacuum hose directly on the transmission, and after 10 years of babied life, it finally had melted away from the constant heat.
It was me commiserating earlier today with Perry, that of course, the manifold gasket on my Dad’s “Ward’s 10 Best Engines for 1995” 3800 Series II V6 equipped Delta 88 went exactly at 70,000 miles.
“But thankfully it didn’t hydrolock the engine!”
(My dad still drives this car 25 years later)
Somehow, tho, tacitly I’m starting to be able to recall these cranky beasts as the mechanical family they were. When I think of them, most of them I don’t have pictures I can actually look at. I don’t remember which cars still have polaroids or prints, which cars were captured, which ones I’ve known directly. I’m understanding my emotions about those I knew, like old relatives.
I didn’t, obviously, know the 1950 Pontiac Chieftain Catalina my Grandmother is posing with in that top photo. Who knows what toaster, microwave or desk it had been melted down to in the 32 years before my birth. I didn’t know my Great Grandmother as a stylish 32 year old woman, mother of a 13 year old daughter freshly in California either. In my childhood she was a woman 59 going on 60 in my first year of life. Her teeth were dentures, her hair grey, thin and braided underneath the same 5 aforementioned bouffant wigs she would rotate from their stands, to her head, to Sister Davis from the usher board for washing and styling. Her pants polyester, her shoes flats or crocheted “footsies” she’d wear as house shoes or puttering around the garden. She bought Fashion Faire cosmetics at The Emporium, She wore Jean Nate perfume. She had pink fabric toilet seat covers in a pink bathroom, in a pink house with a Pink “B” still on the wooden garage door 62 years after she first moved in, with pink roses still framing the porch.
The shoes were flats after 50 years of working on her feet, leaving school in the 5th grade. From the fields outside of Birmingham, to the kitchens of college professors and Hewlett Packard executives in Palo Alto after being displaced from the Fillmore shortly after her arrival to the kitchens that served Stanford Hospital patients from 1962 through her retirement. I didn’t know what it meant that her morning kiss in morning smelled of perfume and Sunny Delight, but her evening kiss when mom or dad got me at 6pm after their workday smelled of her daily baking of Cornbread and a Beer snuck into her lime green “water cup.” I only really understand as my body ages and creeps closer to 40 what it really meant to have back surgery, slipped discs, physical therapy and pain killers. I know now that her body was exhausted, tired of change, wanted to languish in the comforts of a Chrysler New Yorker all around if possible.
Torsion-Aire ride for everything.
I can’t even fathom working 50 years on my feet, and still wanting to inhabit my body, get down on my knees to garden, or walking my dog twice a day, or even swiveling my hips to a Dinah Washington number at Christmas if I’ve put a little bit too much rum in my Egg Nog. I loved her joy for life, her extra 5 minutes she’d spend gossiping with Elsie, her preferred make up saleswoman at Emporium, calling her “Doll” before promising to see her in a month for more lipstick. I marvel at the fact that at that point in her life, she was more than giddy to have a white woman peer with her in age, serve her in the pursuit of vanity, to feel vibrant, to live lush in the golden years of her life.
Her poise, her outfit in that photo with the Pontiac, freshly in California in 1955, always reminds me of Gordon Parks’s Department Store; shot in Mobile, Alabama in 1956. I’ve had time, and 13 years since she passed away to assess my as-a-thirty something Black woman-with-child in the heart of the mid-century. I get to place her in the pinnacle of what American Capitalism was, if it’s anything worth aspiring to. The beauty of it and the sweeping hell of it all. We still do aspire to that so-called perfection, despite the primitive reality of it, whether we like it or not, our incoming president being old enough to be entering college a mere 4 years after the Gordon Parks photo was taken.
I reassess Grandma Clara as beautiful, proud, stylish, and very with it, despite the world she found herself in. My Great Grandmother could have been a main player in Lovecraft Country for chrissakes. Each time I revisit the photo I’m reminded how contemporary, how much she cared, how much passion and joy she felt for an existence that was set up to basically exploit then eliminate someone like her. She had 3 closets and an armoire full of outfits even when I was a kid. One of the most “Oh honey, he’s a homo!” dates I had with my high school girlfriend was inviting her to try on my Grandma Clara’s Sunday Church Hats as we cleaned and cleared out her bedroom as she moved into a Nursing Home.
Pontiacs weren’t Cadillacs, Lincolns or Packards but they weren’t Chevrolets with splash lubrication long term durability issues, or Flathead Fords besieged with overheating problems, either. Both the Chevrolet and Ford engines were designs that stretched back to the depression and desperation of trying to innovate in a drought of resources. Grandma Clara’s Catalina would have had full leather seats. It would have had a torquey, silent and proven flathead straight 8 ironically of the same depression era yet not dissimilar than the priceless lump of Iron in a Packard. It would have had the same Hydramatic automatic transmission that Cadillacs of the time had. It had trendsetting “hardtop convertible” styling that would dominate fashion conscious car purchases until we had new roll-over protections in the 1970’s.
It was a step up, a reward for hard work, a simple splurge or luxury, a symbol of pride. One of the few subtle ways a dark skinned Black woman could show off, feel herself in Alabama in the early 50’s, even if she was buying it second hand. It was an escape from being reliant on the limitations of public transportation and carpooling in Birmingham in the 1950’s. It was strong, sturdy, capable and comfortable enough to bring along downsized belongings, a child, a second husband to conquer the continental divide and land in California. Seats big as beds, there was no need to worry if there was nothing but segregated hotels on U.S. Route 90 or Route 66. Sleep in shifts, get gas, keeping to the routes of safety outlined in The Green Book. Make it to the Golden State, have incrementally more mobility, one would have thought, in comparison to the Jim Crow South.
I recognise that pause as an adult. What pregnant history it holds. I see the pause, as Grandma Clara didn’t really talk about her life in Alabama. Cause alongside Mississippi it registers “Goddamn” as sung with venom by Nina Simone instead of the sweetness that Lynard Skynard gave it a decade later. I drove along U.S. Highway 82 between Albany Georgia and Montgomery Alabama for work just a short 6 weeks before COVID-19 changed our lives. I held and heard Nina’s goddam as I passed the confederate flag upon confederate monument and re-elect Jeff Session signs as I marveled at the gothic beauty of Eufaula perched over cliffs high above the Chattahoochee River. I don’t have pictures of the 200 or so miles I drove in the same way that I have of the thousands of miles of the Pacific Coast, because, 65 years later I didn’t know where it was safe to stop. There’s no “Green Book” for driving country highways in 2020. There’s no real guide until you see other Black people at gas stations that fry chicken to feel any safety on these roads, not knowing who in the 70 million that voted recently will want to start some shit.
I can feel the wince with every interaction I navigated in the bowels of the south with my skin inherited from her. I feel it more intensely when I open my mouth and speak like a Californian, a Northern Californian at that. With a generic, Television sitcom flat airiness punctuated with some port city nasal tendencies around vowels. The kind of speaking voice she paid tutors to give my mom, which was passed down alongside my father’s masterful code switching to get deeper access into polite white spaces for more social advantages. It’s a social disadvantage as I try to negotiate with airport ticket agents or stumble into a new Breakfast joint in Montgomery, recommended on Yelp as a new, hip gentrifying joint, but still, with that damned omnipresent Confederate Flag everywhere. She was considered high falutin’ anyways, and as far as anyone knew at her church, she was born in California. But her voice, deep with the humidity and richness typical of a southern drawl, had absolutely nothing to do with the arid “mediterrean” nature of coastal California. She winced on the lies she did to suppress memories of Alabama. Images and actions that littered her consciousness couldn’t be suppressed when thinking of a mere object that delineated a part of you that you wanted to die, to disappear, all the while being the one combination of materials and motion that allowed you to have the life you really wanted.
That Pontiac was a bridge, but not the goal. It was just the first step up from a Chevrolet after all. It wasn’t the top of the totem poll. In California it was disposed of in the middle of 1956 for a Chrysler New Yorker 2 door hardtop. Pastel Pink on White, tailfins of aspiration glittering and gleaming towards the sky, soon peeking out of the garage of a Ranch home in the Suburbs. I don’t know, or remember or have dug deep enough on Google to know whether the 1956 New Yorker would have had “Made Especially for…” blazed on the dashboard. It would have been an impressive statement for a Black woman with only a One Room School 5th grade education to have for herself before she turned 35. Nor does my mother remember if the 1964 300 Coupe that replaced it had it either. All she can remember is the embarrassment, how uncool, uncouth and borderline matronly a 1964 Chrysler was compared to a contemporary Cadillac or Deuce and a Quarter.
If it weren’t for the Pontiac, there’d be no California. If it weren’t for the Pontiac, there wouldn’t have been the jobs as a domestic where she could market herself being more capable to run errands in her own car. Weren’t for the Pontiac she wouldn’t have heard about job opportunities as she ran errands. God Bless that Pontiac, because it was a gateway to Hemi V8 and Torqueflite equipped Chryslers that carried you to 70mph on the Bayshore Freeway in a 10th of a minute or less, made especially for you.
Therein, I understand why there was a smile before the stories of the 1956 New Yorker, that Walter wrecked drunk one night once it got demoted to a second car. Then there’s the ’64 300, not lovingly called and recalled today as “The Green Hornet” by my mother. Then there’s the massive 1971 Imperial my mother somehow didn’t capsize during her drivers license test, followed by the 1976 Imperial in drag New Yorker that was the ocean liner that became cantankerous in my youth. Pontiac, the brand of car is as dead as a living thing as my Great Grandmother these days, not surviving the bankruptcy of General Motors some 12 years ago. It’s vaguely remembered, a reminder of our past and how we consumed it from a more joyful, perhaps a more stylish or vibrant place. I remember the name, the brand, the borrowing of tribe for a brand of Pontiac. I remember the complexity of place, of a time when white men marketing possibility of privilege around the concepts of mobility, making millions on the mass scramble to subdivide who has access to it and who doesn’t.
I understand all that complexity of being a pause. A wince and a smile on my Grandmother’s face before she continued the next sentence. I understand now how much secret and how much truth one word can hold.