• James A Eichenlaub

Baby Driver & The Little Red Car

c1956 — Author - Jimbo (age 4) and Penny on the back steps of their house.

Usually, on a bright summer morning with nowhere to go and no idea how to get there, the only alternative was to play in the grassless yard on the swingset amid a haphazard smattering of junk and debris. But, not today! Today was made for driving!

Yesterday, Jimbo's grandfather, called Pop, bought him his very first car. A beautiful one-seater coupe with a fully opened top, a low-slung, glassless windshield frame, and although there were some minor dents and scratches, the great news is that it was mechanically sound and drivable!

Although his excitement over his new car left him with little interest in eating, still, a large bowl of Puffed Wheat with lots of sugar and a cup of coffee with evaporated milk would provide enough fuel to power the new car for several hours. A compelling enough thought to rouse him from his bed without a single call from the bottom of the stairs.

Rolling from his matt on the sewing room floor, Jimbo slipped into his bib overalls, jammed and wiggled his stocking feet into his boondockers, and sidled down the steep staircase. His mother, Emma at the kitchen table, clenching a mug of coffee in one hand, and an unfiltered Pall Mall cigarette in the other, kissed him good-morning as smoke spiraled slowly into the air.

Mom (Emma) c1945 - 50

"Hey sleepyhead," she said, as she kissed the top of his head and then combed through his hair with two of her unburdened fingers.

"You need a bath," she said and kissed him again. You smell like that sweaty pup.

Taking another puff of her cigarette followed by another sip of coffee, she asked Jimbo, "And what are you up to this morning? You seem in quite a hurry!"

She again lovingly ran her fingers through his pillow hair, trying to give it some semblance of neatness.

The Puffed Wheat he'd poured for himself was soon swimming in a white ocean of half water, half condensed milk above a large sandbar of sugar that caked in the bowl beneath it. His coffee was mostly condensed milk, but it tasted somewhat like coffee which was to become a life-long addiction to it — but exchanging the condensed milk for Mini-Moos.

After a long pause between question and answer, and with his mouth half full of chewed cereal, he said to her,

"I'm going for a drive," as he refilled his mouth with another large scoop of sugar and milk.

"Oh, that's right! You have your brand new car!" she said smilingly. "And just where do you think you might drive to?" she asked.

"In the bakery parking lot, and then to California," he said, refilling his mouth.

She laughed lightly, "That's a long drive for a little boy," she said. "I hope you booked a hotel?"

Jimbo and friends (c1956/57) Ferrucci's Bakery background.

Next door to his house was the parking lot of Ferrucci's Bakery. The lot was double the width of their house with a fresh coating of macadam. The value of using it to learn to drive his new car was obvious since Jimbo had just turned five years old. This is likely why his mom said driving on the street is out of the question.

Finishing his cereal down to the last lick of milk and sugar, he chugged down his cold coffee milk, kissed his mom, and darted out the back door into the grassless yard.

His big brother parked the car beneath the rickety porch, away from wandering eyes, and after a considerable tug-of-war, he freed the car from where it was jammed next to the coal bin. Hopping into the driver's seat and peddled it madly around the house and onto the front sidewalk where he stopped and looked up and down the avenue, examining the possibilities that lay before him. "Where to," he said in a barely audible tone.

The 9th Avenue P.R.R. row house, next to the Victoria Hotel

Named after his Uncle Jimmy, rather than his father, James Leo, Jimbo lived in a dilapidated house owned by his grandfather, which sat at the edge of a predominately middle-class neighborhood next to what used to be the Victoria Hotel. The hotel saw its heyday during the railroad boom which, by 1955 was in rapid decline and the hotel converted to rental apartments.

Living impoverished and yet unaware of his life's deficits, with his new car to drive, life offered everything Jimbo needed. After his first spin around the bakery parking lot, he fell completely in love with watching the pavement slip beneath him as he peddled along.

Leaning to the side, he watched with fascination the hard rubber wheels as they followed the motion of the steering wheel. Like the little cars in the cartoons that chugged along noiselessly over far-reaching, country roads, the motion instilled in him a feeling of freedom of movement that made him see visions of faraway places he might visit.

A slightly newer model of Jimbo's car.

It was now decision time, and although told not to leave the front of the house, if he did not, what was the use in having a car? The parking lot was fine for zigging and zagging, that is, while the huge front gate is open, but then what? The bakery locked the gate at five o'clock and all weekend!

So, he'd made up his mind! He was going to Ciccarelli's store at the other end of the block, just across the street from California.


Only when you're five years old!

One day, when Jimbo was much, much younger. Say, in his late threes or early fours, he and his nephew, Richard (six months his uncle Jimbo's junior), wandered away from the house. Pop had given them each a quarter, and the only place a quarter did you any good at all was at Ciccarelli's Corner Store. Ergo, they ended up at the end of the block in front of Chics.

Ninth Avenue stretched into the endless distance toward where "the long bridge" (on 12th St.), the bridge that took you over the railroad tracks into downtown. At that age, the vastness appeared to be the rest of the world laying out before them. As the oldest of the two, Jimbo explained, "We can't go over there. That's California."

He knew all about California because his uncle Joe lived there, and one day not too long before, Uncle Joe came to visit his mom and dad. Well, it just so happened that Jimbo was in front of the house playing when he spotted Uncle Joe walking up the avenue from the direction of Chic's store. Jimbo, therefore, surmised that, since Uncle Joe is from California, the other side of the street from Chic's store was where uncle Joe lived! Ergo, California!

So, then, planting his feet firmly on the pedals, he glanced at the front door of the house; nobody there! He looked up and down the sidewalk where not a soul moved. Peddling back and forth a few minutes while mustering his courage, off he sped off toward California. He was boldly going where no unlicensed five-year-old in a nifty red sports car had ever gone before! The adrenaline rush made him heady as his legs pumped like pistons in a V8!

He's got a coin, and he's gonna use it!

Judging by the speed and the length of sidewalk he'd traversed, it is easily calculated that it took no less than 1/10,000th horsepower to move anyone that far, that fast!

He was finally free to fly. Peddling as fast as he could down the sidewalk, his teeth clacked together as the hard rubber wheels sped across the uneven bricks. Occasionally finding a large bump or a pothole of missing bricks, he had to climb out, lift the car over the hole, and then jump back in and bring the engine back up to speed. Like smoke on the wind, he was a mere blur to all those not present to watch.

As he came to a drifting stop in front of the store, he peered down 9th Avenue toward where he knew the long bridge crossed the railroad tracks into town. Surveying California for changes. Reaching his destination in less time than it took to walk, his bravery entitled him to a much-needed snack. He parked his sporty machine and went inside to claim his reward.

Chic Was No Fool

"Let me see your money," he would say.

Too many times was Chic bamboozled by children with big eyes and no cash. Jimbo grabbed the counter edge and pulled himself up onto one of the round, red-vinyl-covered stools bolted to the floor as they were in those days.

Pulling what looked like a shiny, new Indian Head Nickle from his pocket, he held it up for Chic to examine.

"Ice cream costs a dime," Chic glared at him. "Do you have another nickel?"

He did not. Pop gave him only one nickel. But, there were those big eyes looking up at Chic expectantly as Jimbo held the nickel steadily aloft. Pocketing a cone with a somewhat smaller scoop of what he knew was Jimbo's favorite — Chic handed it over to Jimbo while holding up two fingers and saying, "Next time, bring two nickels."

For the next several minutes, the world around him disappeared. All he could see was the edge of the yellow cone that held his chocolate delight as his tongue merrily worked like a puppy at keeping the melting flow in check.

When his thinking returned, he slid from the stool and stood for several minutes on the stoop of the store licking up the lava of quickly melting ice cream until a crater was formed inside the cone. That is when it suddenly occurred to him that he had no idea how long he'd been away! Looking back toward his house, he could see the lonely, dead tree that stood in front, but no sign of humanity.

Sudden anxiety swept over him as he thought of his mother trying to find him, but how would he drive his sports car and eat ice cream at the same time? (Unaware that it was a skill that would remain with him long into his later years.) There was naught to do but try!

In he jumped, placing his icecream powered feet on the peddles, he started off with a hard push on one side. Making a wide, circling turn on the corner, one-handedly tugging the wheel to point the tiny car back toward home, both legs fully engaged as he again bounced and jostled along the old brink sidewalk.

California would now be visible in his rearview mirror (if he had one) as Jimbo's tiny twin-turbo legs pushed the car across the uneven tide of rectangular obstacles. He steered the car as best he could between attempted licks of the cone, holding it high in his left hand as his teeth again clacked together, and ice cream drops fell over him like chocolate rain.

young boy
Jimbo (c 1956-57)

Arriving home, he found ice cream in his hair, on his face, and dripping down his shirt and pants. Although he should not have made so many attempts to eat while driving, still, he let go of the sticky steering wheel sitting quietly as he chewed the final and most satisfying remnants of the yellow cone: that part with that gooey, yummy chocolate melted into the bottom.

Wiping his hands on his sticky, dirty coveralls, Jimbo happily returned to peddling back and forth in front of the house and around the bakery lot until he was bored and peddled back home. This time he found a somewhat more accessible parking space for his car, and NOT next to the coal bin.

Using his burgeoning intuitive skills to put together a garage from discarded lumber and other flotsam laying about the yard, he leaned the pieces against the splintered and sagging porch and covered them with an old, discarded rug, beneath which he peddled the car out of sight.

As he played in the yard, he fantasized about one day rolling his car onto the street from Ferrucci's parking lot the way the delivery trucks do and driving up 9th Avenue to see California, all the way to the big bridge that crosses the tracks.

Working to build his garage and playing in the dirty yard; digging through the piles of discarded items and junk, not once did he realize that he was camouflaging the spots on his face and clothing. The dirt coating would leave nobody the wiser to his earlier trip to see California and Ciccarelli's at the other end of the block

Until a few days after when Jimbo's mother walked to the corner to buy cigarettes and Chic added another five cents to the price just to stay a step ahead of her son!