My Father, the Car (GQ, November 2005)

A valentine to my dad on the eve of his seventy-fifth birthday.

Was there ever a better automotive sales team than the classic DeAngelis Buick lineup of the ’60s and ’70s, that veritable Murderers’ Row of the Central Jersey motor trade? You had Jack Moskowitz, Dick Summers, and Rene Abril on the showroom floor, and holding down the sales manager’s office, Seymour Kamp. The same four guys for twenty years, almost—you just don’t see that kind of dynastic continuity anymore. I had the pleasure of watching this team in action, and let me tell you, there was never a quartet more charismatic and scrupulous in its pursuit of making its customers’ V8-engine fantasies come true.

DeAngelis had a magnificent Art Deco showroom—the skinny tip of a long, trapezoidal building that occupied its own triangular island between French Street and Jersey Avenue in downtown New Brunswick—and these men, in their John Weitz suits and ASK ME ABOUT BUICK VALUE lapel pins, worked it with appropriate dignity, strolling up to customers casually, never in a caffeinated hustle. Kamp, especially, was extraordinary: a magnetic force with his booming voice and football player’s build. (He played tackle on both offense and defense for New Brunswick High in the ’40s.) People bought six, seven, eight cars from him and sent their friends to do the same—“Whatever you need, see Seymour!” the newspaper ads said. Those who didn’t recognize his face from the paper knew his voice from the radio commercials he did on WCTC-AM, in which he pluggerooed the latest Electras, LeSabres, and Regals in a rat-a-tat delivery so rapid that the copywriters had to give him twenty-six lines of text to fill a minute of airtime rather than the requisite twenty-four. Even today, Jack Ellery, the radio host who manned the drive-time shift on CTC in that era and intro’d the ads with an offhand “Now let’s hear from Seymour Kamp—Mr. Buick,” ranks Kamp as one of Central Jersey’s top three all-time merchant celebrities of the airwaves, along with the clothiers Wally Steinberg of Steinberg’s Men’s Shop and Norman Miller of Miller’s on the Mall.

I reveled in being the son of Mr. Buick. (Prince Buick?) It wasn’t even so much that his customers admired his honesty (though he was honest, and cringed at TV portrayals of loud-jacketed, sleazy car salesmen) as they valued his friendship and company. They brought him things—steaks, Knicks tickets, bottles of scotch he never drank—and he kept in touch after the sale, making house calls when their cars wouldn’t start, dropping everything to hurry over with the jumper cables he always kept in his trunk. The man was verily invested in his burg, being a member of two synagogues, the junior chamber of commerce (president, 1956–57), the Rotary Club (chairman, program committee), the Elks (Lodge #324), and the Masons (Lodge #240), and he knew his Buicks inside and out, studiously attending the training sessions up in Union where men from Detroit explained the latest about wheelbases and gas-tank capacity. These twin faiths—to community and brand—conspired to make Mr. Buick the consummate local salesman, a trusted neighborhood vendor like your green-grocer, butcher, or dry cleaner, except his goods weighed two tons apiece and arrived on a trailer from Flint, Michigan.

The showroom was mine to roam whenever I visited, its boattail Riviera coupes mine to climb into and pretend-drive. (I liked the Rivieras best because they came with whitewall tires and had the highest sticker price.) I loved the aspirational gleam of the place, though I wouldn’t have called it that then—the way its crenellated outer walls made it look like a castle and the way its sparkly, speedlined, sunny interior, with exposures to the north, east, and west, suggested an open vista of happy motoring. Having a car-salesman father, furthermore, did wonders for my standing in school. For one thing, the other kids found my father’s job more tangible and fundamentally uplifting than their fathers’—exactly what does an arbitrator or a professor of mechanical engineering do? For another, my father was, well, Mr. Buick, with all that it entailed. They heard him on the radio as they ate their breakfast in the morning, tagged along as their parents bought cars from him, wrapped their textbooks in the protective book covers he supplied to the schools (featuring prints of antique-model Buicks, naturally), and envied us Kamps for the fact that we got a new car every single year, even if it was a dealer demo that technically wasn’t ours.

At home, we lived a life of intense Buick loyalty. We knew that the Buick wasn’t tip-top of the line, that General Motors considered Cadillac its marquee luxury brand, and that the very word Buick was absurd, a reliable laugh-getter for comedians. But Buicks suited us, their quiet respectability simpatico with our unpretentious way of life. Our basement was festooned by my sister, brother, and me with surplus paraphernalia from the dealership, its support pillars adorned with DeAngelis bumper stickers and labels that said BUILT WITH GENUINE GM PARTS, its walls papered with circular posters bearing the words THE NUMBER ONE LITTLE ONE, leftovers from a promotion for the Opel, the crapola German-manufactured compact that gave Buick a foothold in the small-car market.

Seemingly half of our worldly possessions were the booty of sales contests put on by the Buick Motor Division, redemptions of the gift points my father accrued for every car he sold—our beds, our camping equipment, our clocks, our record player, our Lenox china, the little cordial glasses with the words BUICK SALESMASTER etched into them (which we used as ceremonial wineglasses during Passover seders), and the huge, chunky gold rings with tigereye insets, each more elaborate than the next, that my father received every time he surpassed another sales milestone. And also the binoculars in the dimpled-leather case autographed by Muhammad Ali. My father spotted a Rolls-Royce convertible on the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike one day in 1971, pulled over, and saw who the driver was. “Car trouble, Champ?” he asked. “Naw,” said Ali, “it’s just gettin’ cold! I’m puttin’ the roof up.” Dad had a ballpoint, but neither he nor Ali had a piece of paper. The binoculars case had to do.

 

Your friendly DeAngelis sales staff: Jack Moskowitz, lean and affable, looked to me like Gene Rayburn; Dick Summers, white-haired and a little aloof, was Johnny Carson; and Rene Abril, diminutive, suave, and ethnic (Cuban, actually)…well, maybe he was Fred De Cordova. That I saw them in these roles, of unreconstructed midcentury men hanging on in the jive-turkey 1970s, is revealing, for I realize now that the world I was witnessing was already an anachronism, a spectral glimpse of what America used to be—not unlike the Doc Severinsen–conducted swing band that Carson stubbornly kept on his show even as the whole world around him went druggy and electric. The DeAngelis showroom was redolent of cologne, hair tonic, and cigarette smoke, a man’s province; the “girls” who answered the phones did so from segregated balcony offices that overlooked the sales floor. It was all so irretrievably adult, with no heed paid to the fun-fun-fun teenybop car culture that was migrating eastward from California, no acknowledgement of an impatient, capricious “youth market” that needed to be flattered and dazzled with sweet rides and kustom-kool stereos. A swinging door behind Dick Summers’s cubicle led back to an even more time-warped world: the cavernously dark body shop, which was populated with gnarled mechanics straight out of Walker Evans photographs, some of whom had been with the dealership since it was DeAngelis Nash in the 1930s. These apparitional figures kept up the illusion—within the walls of the strange, sarcophagus-shaped building, anyway—that New Brunswick remained a vital industrial city.

But half a mile from DeAngelis Buick, in the heart of the city’s commercial district, the urban rot had set in. Albany Street, the main drag of my father’s boyhood, had become a blaxploitation thoroughfare of head shops, empty storefronts, and glorious old Deco cinemas reduced to showing porn; you half expected everyone to be walking in slanted, freaky gaits like R. Crumb characters. The original Tops Appliance store had been on Albany, its proprietor another local merchant-celebrity, Les Turchin, the man whose ubiquitous newspaper ads depicted him as “Topsy,” a pointy-hatted cartoon figure with Hebraic features so grotesquely rendered that he looked like some hateful caricature out of Der Stürmer. But Les, ambitious and savvy, could see that Albany Street was going down the tubes; he moved his whole operation to a strip mall in Edison, where his giant new store, renamed Tops Appliance City, begat further mall megastores that siphoned business from New Jersey’s dying downtowns. This circumstance so panicked the city’s administrators and Johnson & Johnson, its major corporate presence, that they would eventually level the whole strip and replace it with an antiseptic complex of office buildings and esplanade shops, a faithful re-creation of some lame-ass urban planner’s diorama.

DeAngelis Buick somehow held fast against all this decay-renewal tumult, even as its customers, the children of the Hungarian, Italian, and Jewish immigrants who’d settled the neighborhood in the early twentieth century, forsook the inner city for split-levels and neocolonials in the former farmlands of the “other” Brunswicks, North, South, and East. The six DeAngelis brothers and their partner brother-in-law, known collectively as the Seven Thieves, were Old World guys whose American-dream optimism buffed up the place and kept it shiny; they’d emigrated from a village outside of Rome (“the other side,” as my father put it), started out in bicycles, moved up to Nashes, and finally to Buicks and prosperity. My father, the son of another immigrant, a baker from Poland, was a kindred spirit. Shortly after his return from service in Korea in ’54, he answered a “Salesman Wanted” ad in the paper, was hired on the spot by the DeAngelises, and immediately demonstrated a facility for finding good homes for the Specials, Centurys, Supers, and Roadmasters on the floor. He was anointed sales manager in ’57, when he was just 26. Over the decades, his fame and his customer following grew and made him a wanted man, forever courted and flattered by other car dealers, who were eager to lure him from the DeAngelises’ relatively small inner-city showroom to the airier, bigger, newer dealerships on the white-flight highways out of town. But Kamp resisted—he and DeAngelis Buick were synonymous. In their vestigial wonderland in a fraying neighborhood, Seymour and the Seven Thieves kept up appearances and ideals, championing cars as a means to a better life.

 

By the time I became a sentient human being, at the dawn of the 1970s, the Moskowitz-Summers-Abril-Kamp team was a veteran group, in place for a decade. I had no idea that I was witnessing the beginning of the end of something, namely, my father’s favorite time in the car business, and that over the next ten or fifteen years, Mr. Buick would endure some rough patches.

The thing about America’s being a car culture is, every time this culture undergoes a tectonic shift, car families like ours get knocked around and thrown to the carpet. The energy crisis of 1973 was one of those times. I remember idling in fumey gas lines, and I vaguely registered the TV reports of the OPEC oil embargo, but it wasn’t until Dad delivered the shocking news—that he was leaving the car business and taking a sales job at his friend’s sporting-goods company—that I understood its immediate ramifications. As Dad explained, he’d been accustomed to selling twenty, thirty cars a month. Now he was struggling to sell six or seven. His loyal clientele, stuck in those gas lines and hurting for cash themselves, were putting off their new-car purchases or, apostasy of apostasies, buying Japanese compacts. The energy crisis introduced me to the concept of parental fallibility. I couldn’t help but notice how strangely downcast my parents were as we opened our Chanukah presents in 1973, me not quite understanding why they considered it a comedown for us to receive “just” colored pencils and new jean jackets. What I did understand was how weird it felt to have to ride around in a used car like everyone else.

In ’74, with the energy crisis in remission, my father returned to DeAngelis, happily reporting to us that the gas-guzzling Electra 225s were “big as ever, like nothing happened.” But six years later came another jolt: I overheard a friend of my father’s asking him, “So, Seymour, what’s it like to go from working for the Seven Thieves to working for an A-rab?” Thus did I learn that the DeAngelises were selling out to Richie Malouf, a Lebanese American who’d been in the car business in Central Jersey for almost as long as my father. With his pompadour, mustache, and visually assaultive plaid jackets, Richie looked more like your central-casting car salesman than the Sinatra-natty DeAngelises, but to his credit, he respected Mr. Buick and asked him to stay on.

Nevertheless, the change of ownership, and Richie’s desecration of that gorgeous Art Deco showroom with rec-room veneer paneling, marked the end of the charmed, tinsel-and-bunting world in which my father had come of professional age. Cut loose from his DeAngelis moorings, jostled awake from his pleasant ’50s dream, my father discovered that it was morning in America and decided, in the parlance of the Reagan era, to go for it. For years, Ray Catena, the luxury-car magnate, the ultimate big shot of the Central Jersey auto trade, had been after Dad, imploring him to come on board at Catena’s Mercedes dealership and make the big bucks he so richly deserved. Over and over, Dad had turned Catena down. But in 1983, he relented. Like George Bailey lowering himself into the sunken chair across from Mr. Potter’s desk, my father entered Catena’s office and sat silent as the maestro put on his show, flipping through the pay stubs of his Mercedes salesmen, noting aloud that these guys made twice what Dad made as a Buick sales manager. Seriously, what was he waiting for?

But Catena’s staff was mostly younger guys, a generation younger than my father, with foul mouths and Mamet tics; they didn’t appreciate collegiality, and they sure as hell didn’t care for Mr. Buick, with his nice manners and one degree of separation from every human being in Central Jersey. He was out of there in less than a year.

Dad, worldlier and sadder, returned to Buicks, his true love. He got old with them, becoming a granddad as Buicks became granddad cars, no longer the dream luxury objects of sharp young guys on the make. (The median age of the 2005 Buick buyer is 61.) And he began to wear down. Late in 1984, he suffered a heart attack and missed a few weeks of work. I was with him in his room at the Robert Wood Johnson hospital when who should come calling but Norman Miller of Miller’s on the Mall, jovial and schmoozy in his shorty gown, in for bypass surgery—the two former WCTC merchant-personalities, reunited in the cardio ward by the tsuris of keeping up with the ever-mutating world of retail. Norman chatted with us for a while and then bade us farewell. He died on the operating table a few days later.

Seymour healed and still did okay saleswise. But while he had always prided himself on his ability to sell cars to any member of any ethnic group, he was palpably frustrated at his inability to forge an emotional connection with the latest immigrants to make their mark in heterogeneous Central Jersey: the Indians from the Gujarat region, whose numbers were swelling the populations of Edison and Woodbridge. “They don’t want to make any conversation,” he said forlornly when I visited him one day. “They just get right down to business. [Indian accent] ‘I want veddy—goot—deal!’ ”

But this had to be the capper: His urban-professional son—who had reaped the benefits of his father’s Old World ethos, which dictated that the material benefits and advanced degrees should be deferred to the next generation; who had seen his father work five days and three nights a week, including Saturdays, so that his child would have the freedom to pursue a life of the mind and get paid to think up clever thoughts from the comfiness of a Herman Miller ergonomic chair—chose, in an appalling act of demographic conformity, to make his first car purchase…a Volvo.

Dad didn’t take the news well. In fact, he tried to kibosh the deal, accusing the Connecticut salesman over the phone of swindling me, and attempted to hook me up with one of his used-car buddies in New Jersey. It was awful, fraught, even harder than when I had to tell him I wasn’t marrying a Jewish girl.

But he got over it; the very personability and compassion that made him Mr. Buick precluded him from holding a grudge. (He grew to respect the Volvo and love the bride.) What’s strange is, in this time of agony for General Motors, as they cut jobs by the thousands and shut down factories, I feel more bereft than he, now 74 and retired. To my surprise, I haven’t lost the Buick pride that was instilled in me in childhood. I’ve found myself again coveting those boattail Riviera coupes and eternal Electras, both for how they look (fantastic, still) and, I suppose, for what they evoke: that safe, strong world of dads going about their dad business in dad style. They’re still out there, these jumbos, in vintage showrooms and on eBay auctions, but I’m gun-shy about actually consummating any deal. What I really want—though I know perfectly well that it’s too late—is to buy a Buick from Seymour Kamp.

September 4, 2006  Link  GQ  Share/Bookmark

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