My family moved from Mankato, Minnesota to New York City in the summer of 1989. The four of us drove in a gray Pontiac 6000 station wagon that my parents had bought used. My dad had picked the neighborhood, Bayside, because it was considered safe, at a time when New York City wasn’t the safest place to be. In Mankato, we had never locked the house or car doors. In New York, we had to form new habits.
The house we moved into was the standard Queens immigrant apartment. But it had three bedrooms, which meant for the first time in my life, I had my own room! We lived on the top floor with two apartments on the 2nd floor, and a washer and dryer in the basement. At the time, it felt luxurious. Our living room was large, with a row of windows facing the street. My mom would peek out the window to keep an eye on us when we played outside.
In Mankato, we would wander around the apartment complex, dashing into the wooded backyard and down to the ravine, where my sister and I would spend hours playing by ourselves. In New York City, the new rule was: stay in front of the house and stay in sight at all times. New York City was not Mankato, my mom would remind us, here people went missing, got attacked and killed, on the regular.
A few months after we moved in, my mother’s mother, came to visit. Gran spent six months with us. That spring we went to see the Statue of Liberty. We parked the Pontiac 6000 at a lot in Flushing, and took the train into the city.
After a day in the city, we returned to Flushing exhausted and ready to go home. But the gray Pontiac 6000 was gone.
My father had picked Queens because it was considered safe. And it was safe, for people, just not for cars. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Queens boasted the highest rates of car theft in the country. Bayside in particular was a preferred hunting ground for car thieves, given its proximity to the Whitestone and Throgs Neck bridge, leading out of the city, and the wasteland of chop shops in Willets Point.
My parents filed a report with the police, who let them know that it was unlikely their car would be found, and even if it was, was likely to be squashed for recycling, or in pieces to be sold. So, with the same determined spirit that brought my parents from India to the United States, they went out in search of their car. My parents employed the help of their friend Kalelkar, a father of two, who, like them had immigrated to Queens from India. Having lived in NYC a few years longer than my family, Kalelkar knew the lay of the land and where to begin the search.
They spent several hours patrolling different neighborhoods Kalelkar had suggested. Finally, they spotted the gray Pontiac 6000 station wagon parked outside an auto body shop in Willets Point. After finding an appropriate vantage point, my dad called the police from a payphone. My parents and Kalelkar waited. After fifteen to twenty minutes, the thieves started to make a move. My father and Kalelkar decided to follow them. My mother waited at the payphone in case the police showed up. Every twenty minutes or so, my mother called home to give us an update. My Gran would jump up and grab the receiver each time, “What’s happening Seraphine?” she’d ask. An hour and a half passed, no police officer showed.
The gray Pontiac 6000 pulled out of the scrap yard with two passengers inside, down some back roads and onto the Grand Central Parkway. My dad and Kalelkar followed a safe distance behind, leaving two or three cars between them and the thieves.
After tailing the thieves for awhile, they hit heavy traffic on the off ramp to the Long Island Expressway. My dad seeing his opportunity, jumped out of Kalelkar’s car, and ran up past the Pontiac 6000. Waving frantically, he informed the drivers of the cars in front that the car behind them was his, and had been stolen. He asked them not to move. They agreed.
As traffic started to move, the thieves realized they were stuck and panicked. They tried to drive up the embankment on the side of the highway, but the car couldn’t make the climb. The thieves jumped out of the car, and scrambled up the embankment, leaving the keys in the ignition, along with a copper pen knife they’d clipped to the ring.
My dad got in his car, and drove home, triumphantly. My dad had always been my hero, this solidified that.
Only years later, would I realize how dangerous my father’s escapade had been, and how badly it could have played out. But for him, it wasn’t just about getting his car back, it was about conquering a place.