The old Dodge was such a fixture in the neighborhood that one particularly awful person named his or her wireless network after it: “Retarded Guy’s Charger.”
The neighborhood was Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn. The Charger was a 1967 with a 318 cubic-inch V8 and a three-speed manual. The guy is Anthony Guarracino, now 63 years old, and otherwise known to everyone as Radar. He has intellectual disabilities, the result of brain damage suffered during his birth. He doesn’t like being called retarded.
“I always feel like I get hurt because if someone calls me that [word] and is making fun of the way I talk, I can’t deal with it,” Radar tells me.
Radar speaks in a slow, halting voice, and in a way that almost suggests he might be deaf, though he’s not. He stutters here and there, and he gets his words and tenses mixed up a lot.
But then, when he gets fired up—and he gets fired up often—his voice gets loud, almost roaring, and he employs swears poetically and powerfully. Radar knows how to tell a good story.
“If somebody sees me and calls me, ‘Hey, retard,’ I would snap, I would snap,” he says. “And that’s a true story. I’ve had a hard life.”
He has. His family lawyer apparently stole all of his money. He hasn’t worked in years, except for a couple days a week at a local liquor store making a few bucks on the side. He’s getting older, not an easy thing for someone with intellectual disabilities. The woman who’s been his caretaker much of his life is even older. He’s estranged from his only brother. His neighborhood has changed so much that Radar and the “old timers” who have lived there for decades feel they’ve been left behind.
And then there’s his Charger. It was his dream car, but everyone else’s nightmare; his very serious passion, but a joke to Carroll Gardens. It was the only thing he had in the world, and then Hurricane Sandy happened and it was gone.
Radar and his Charger were a perfect match. Famous. Infamous.
“This is gonna be a comedy,” Radar’s stepmother, Vera Dimeglio, tells me, and she laughs. Later, she’ll cry.
Of course, nothing’s ever black-and-white. Real life is more gray. Primer gray. That was the color of Radar’s Charger.
Unless you ask him. In which case, it was silver.
I returned to Carroll Gardens, where I lived from 2003 to 2008, to learn more about Radar’s life, but also to find out about the car that haunted our block the entire time I lived there.
I always noticed it: a vintage, hulking, beat-up Mopar coupe standing out amongst the new, compact imports. It was there every single day. One day in 2013, I swung through the old neighborhood and I saw Radar, but I didn’t see the Charger.
“Where’s the Charger?” I asked him.
“Fuckin’ Sandy took it,” I remember him answering me despondently, utterly brokenhearted.
I looked up the block. No Charger. Somehow, it all felt so different.
Radar’s biggest complaint with the Charger was that it had but three gears; he’d always wanted a four-speed instead. After 20 or 25 years, he finally made that dream come true. He saved up his money, bought a four-speed manual transmission, and hired a guy to swap it into the Charger.
Here’s where the details get a little hazy. The swap was done near Brooklyn Navy Yard. But then it was delivered to Staten Island for reasons no one has been able to explain to me. Radar was all set to pick it up in the next couple days, but something else did instead in the fall of 2012: Hurricane Sandy.
Picked it up, swallowed it up, and spat it out. Flood damage.
Radar never even had a chance to drive it with the new transmission.
“The guy loved the car,” Big Joe told me. Big Joe’s real name is Joe Sciria. He’s 65 years old and lives across the street from Radar. His nickname belies his appearance: short, and skinny with perfect hair and an Errol Flynn moustache. He’s been close with him since Radar was 19 and Big Joe was 21. “That’s all he loved. He loved the car. He treated it like a baby.”
“[I was] very upset,” Radar told me. “I was brokenhearted.”
Without any insurance, and seemingly beyond repair—or at least beyond any repair that Radar could afford—he was told the best thing to do would be to put it up for auction. He says the car sold for about $1,000. After fees, Radar came home with $800.
Radar’s hardships started long before Sandy, though. They started the moment he came into the world.
“When I was born, I was born dead… They overdid it with the oxygen. I had too much oxygen. When they finally got me out of it, they find out I had brain damage,” Radar tells me.
I can’t believe it, I say about him being born dead. He answers with a perfect Radarism: “Believe it. I can’t believe it myself.”
Of all the places I’ve lived, Carroll Gardens may be my favorite. I grew up about 20 miles west of New York City in Morristown, New Jersey, went to college in Champaign, Illinois, and from there moved to Austin and Chicago before heading to Brooklyn in 2003.
To me, Brooklyn combined the excitement of living in New York with a comforting, homey feeling: I was back to a place close to where I came from, in a culture that was very similar to the one I grew up in and around.
If Carroll Gardens holds a special place in my heart after just five years, imagine how it must feel to the people who lived in the neighborhood for their entire lives.
“You should make a book,” Ralph Santoro says. He’s lived in Carroll Gardens his entire 66 years. “You make a book, man, about this fuckin’ area. I could give you stories…”
The east-west streets, which criss-cross the neighborhood, are lined with lush trees that create a canopy of leaves in front of the old and stately brownstone. Long a deeply Italian neighborhood, Carroll Gardens still sports bakery after bakery like Mazzola’s and Monteleone’s, which is where they actually filmed parts of Moonstruck. Then there are the Italian stores, like Caputo’s and Esposito’s Jersey Pork Store, that sell meats and cheeses and other delights.
But this all stands in stark contrast to Smith Street, one of the main north-south arteries of the neighborhood, which is home to an endless supply of restaurants and bars of all styles and stripes: Japanese, French, Cuban, Chinese, Southern, New American, tiki and so on. And where there’s not a bar or bistro, there’s a boutique. Clothes boutiques, toy boutiques, furniture boutiques, glasses, and more. Court Street, which runs parallel to Smith Street, is following a similar trend with its record shops and fancy coffee shops and fine dining.
I ask Ralph what he thinks about how the neighborhood’s changed. “Sucks,” he says bluntly. “I don’t like it. I don’t like all these yuppies and French this-that.”
He tells me more about these so-called yuppies: “The new people try to change a lot of things that we’ve had for so long. They stopped the bells at church.” Then, referring to the Citi Bikes (bike rental stations, courtesy of Citibank), he says simply and gesturing vaguely: “these fuckin’ bikes, all these bikes.”
Big Joe is known to some as the unofficial mayor of the block, if not the neighborhood. He lives just a few doors down from where I used to live, and we used to chat almost everyday. He’s lived in Carroll Gardens for 43 years, and I ask him how he’s seen things change.
“When we first moved here, all the old-timers would be out everyday, 11, 12 o’clock at night, talking. There used to be a bar on the corner.” He points to my old apartment. “Across the street, where you lived, was originally a pizzeria,” he says, “they used to call it Cockroach Joe. The pizzeria only opened Friday to Sunday. Then the corner store here used to be a grocery store… Then the corner building here, they used to bake bread downstairs…” he keeps going, pointing to bars and pizzerias and bakeries that have all, like Radar’s Charger, disappeared.
Santoro remembers it a similar way. He sighs heavily and says, “Every corner there was a hangout. Now I go into the bread store in the morning and it’s jam-packed and I don’t know anybody.” Then he adds, a little more quietly, “A lot of my friends moved away.”
Radar too has lived in Carroll Gardens his whole life. Ask him how he got the nickname “Radar,” and you’ll get a story that doesn’t quite make sense. “They used to call me Radar because I’m like, I don’t know where. I’m all over the place,” he told me on the phone about six weeks before I came out to visit him.
And then when I saw him later, I asked him again, and I got a whole different answer. “OK, there’s a guy across the street,” he told me. We were sitting on a bench in front of my old apartment on the corner of Clinton Street and Luquer Street. “See where the black windowsill is? Red door? He used to live there: Radar. His name is Mario. They used to call him Radar from M*A*S*H. So now I’m the second Radar in this neighborhood.”
He’s close with guys like Big Joe and Ralph Santoro. I ask the latter how long he’s known Radar. “All my life,” he tells me, and then he says that Radar’s “a good guy. If I see somebody bothering him, I chase them off.”
I ask him if people are rough on Radar. “People don’t give him a hard time because they know he’s with us, you know what I mean?” Ralph says.
I know what he means. Or maybe I don’t. Because, if I’m really honest about it, the only people who I’ve ever seen give Radar a hard time are his buddies on the block. And this trip is no different. Especially when they find out I’m writing a story about the Charger.
Vera, Radar, and I are sitting in the basement apartment of her brownstone. Radar lives upstairs from her. I just got to town less than an hour earlier, and I’m eager to hear about how and when he got the Charger.
One thing you’ve got to know about Radar is he loves cars. Mopars in particular. He loves looking at them, driving them, and according to a lot of people in the neighborhood, he’s got a real knack for working on them, too; though his lack of money has often prevented him from putting those wrenching skills to much use.
I broach the subject by telling Radar that my dream car is a ‘71 or ‘72 Road Runner. Radar’s eyes light up. “I had a ‘71 GTX!” he says, excitedly. “I had the 426 wedge in that car... I’d take that car from here to Coney Island in 10 seconds flat doing 160. I’d bury the needle from here to Coney Island. That car flies,” he said.
Vera’s 79. She’s used to Radar’s tall tales, so she rolls her eyes and giggles. “He dreams lot, Anthony.” Radar calls Vera “ma” or “mom,” and she acts like it.
“No, I don’t,” he says, with a smile, “it’s the truth.”
“Yeah right,” she says. “How come when I go over 70 on the highway, you go, ‘Ma, slow down’?”
“‘Cause I’m not drivin’,” he says like a badass.
After his speed-demon days with this GTX, he found an ad for his dream car: a 1967 Dodge Charger. This was the late ‘80s or early-to-mid ‘90s. (Neither he, nor Vera, nor anyone else in the neighborhood can remember.)
Radar went out to Kearny, New Jersey to check it out. “I looked at the car, I said, ‘okay, how much you want for it?’ He wanted, $2,500. I said, ‘okay, I’ll take it.’ I go out there, I look at it. I said, ‘nice.’ I thought it was a 383, four-speed car. But he explained to me it was a three-speed manual [with a 318]. So I said, ‘ok, I’ll take it anyway because I love the car’.”
But like any story involving Radar, here’s where it takes an odd turn.
“I go to take the title, I’m ready to register the car, and I fell, and it ripped on me. I didn’t get the car registered at all. I had to use the dealer plate to ride around with it. I said to myself, ‘look at this shit’.”
Fell down. And ripped the actual title, he says. I’m baffled.
“You literally physically fell and ripped the title?” I ask.
“No,” Vera says. “You dropped it in the water.”
“It fell in the water and got really messed up,” Radar says. That’s why, he says, in his entire 20 to 25 years of owning the car, he never properly registered it in the State of New York. It was never registered, never insured, never legal.
This is why Vera thinks this story is a comedy. Sometimes.
I don’t see it as a comedy. When I got ahold of Radar a couple months ago to ask him if he would be willing to talk to me about his Charger, he enthusiastically agreed. But not because he thought it would be funny. Rather, the way he saw it, the article would be vindication for him and the car.
“They used to make fun of my car because I had an antique,” he told me when I spoke to him on the phone. “They’d say it looks like a piece of shit, this and that. They’d say, ‘Ah, your car can’t do nothing,’ I’d say, ‘Yeah? Watch.’ I’d smoke the tires on that car every day of the week. That car, I’d rev it up around two grand, that thing’d shoot you like a bullet.”
Radar was fired up on that call. But then when I rang Radar two days before my flight out to New York, just to remind him of my impending arrival, he sounded noticeably more subdued.
I asked him if he was okay, and he told me that he just got out of the hospital after a frightening cardiac event, which they thought was a heart attack, but that turned out to be a serious atrial fibrillation.
When I saw him a few days later, he still looked weak, but he was also more relaxed—a noticeable change from the guy who’s known just as much for his temper as he was for his Charger.
“I cannot get stressed out,” he told me as we walked the neighborhood. “That’s the only thing I have to worry about. I cannot get stressed out. If I get stressed out, I go back to the hospital. It’s not worth it. I don’t want to get myself sick. I’m 63. I want to just enjoy my life if I could.”
Word’s been getting around about Radar’s cardiac event.
After our tea at Le Petit Cafe (which despite its French name is a longtime Carroll Gardens fixture), we’re walking back to Radar’s apartment, when we come upon a group of three or four neighborhood guys. I’ve seen them all a million times, but have never spoken with them. At first, I hang back and observe. These are his friends.
“You’re lookin’ good, Radar.”
“How’d it turn out?” one of the guys, Tom Russo, asks him.
“You look mosciad,” someone else says, using an Italian-American slang word meaning “tired’ or “worn out.”
“What ended up happening? What was it? Heart attack?” Tom asks.
“Not a heart attack. My heart was beating too fast,” Radar explains.
“No heart attack, though, right?” Tom asks him again.
“No,” Radar says.
“‘Cause they had you dead and buried on Court Street.” Here, Tom takes on the voice of someone on Court Street. “‘Oh he had triple heart attacks!’ I’m hearin’ this from everybody.”
“I heard you had heart attacks. Three heart attacks,” someone else says.
Finally, I chime in on Radar’s behalf and tell him it wasn’t a heart attack, it was fibrillations.
“All right, I understand,” Tom says to me, holding up his hand to stop me from saying anything else. “I have a heart condition, too. Listen, I’m not gonna bash the guy. I’m not jokin’ with him. I take it very seriously.” He turns his attention back to Radar. “But after I spoke to you, ‘Oh, he had three heart attacks!’”
This goes on for a bit more and then they start peppering him with questions about which medications he’s been prescribed. Someone asks, “Viagra? You takin’ Viagra?”
“No,” Radar answers earnestly.
Everyone laughs but Radar. Then Tom goes back to telling Radar how everyone on Court Street had him dead and buried.
Finally, someone in the group looks at me and asks, “Who are you, his bodyguard?”
I explain I’m writing a story about Radar’s old Charger. The guys let out a chorus of oooohs and they start ribbing Radar.
“He was a chick magnet with the Charger,” one of the guys, Mike Gandia, tells me. “All the girls used to love getting in the Charger. It was burnt orange, right?”
Radar tells him, no, it was silver.
“You were going so fast it looked orange,” Mike says. Everyone laughs.
“Everybody knew when Anthony was driving. Especially the cops! Nah, they liked you,” someone else added before walking off.
“They thought it was a corpse driving the car,” Mike says. “They saw it was him behind the wheel, they thought it was an accident with no body damage ‘cause they saw him behind the wheel. They said, ‘Who’s that driving? Oh, it’s Anthony, it’s Radar!’”
Like I said, I recognize these guys. They hang out a lot in or in front of a two-car garage that belongs to someone who’s either a professional, or someone who’s a very serious enthusiast.
And while these guys are telling Radar about how the guys on Court Street had him dead and buried, and how Radar was a chick magnet with his Charger, the owner of that garage comes walking over. His name is Danny Mendez. He’s another guy I’ve seen countless times but have never spoken with. I introduce myself, tell him I’m writing a story about Radar’s Charger, he nods in recognition. I ask him what he thought about it.
“It was a rust bucket,” he answers quickly, bluntly, and right in front of Radar. “It had no firewall left.”
I tell him that right before Radar lost the car, he had it supposedly running real nice.
“Why would you lie to the guy like that? That car wasn’t running,” Danny says to Radar.
Radar protests, and then Danny keeps going. “That car,” he says, “somebody butchered the floor to make into a stick shift. It was never right, it would pop out of gear, it had bad syncros.”
Someone comes over and says Danny has a bunch of interesting cars, including a ‘67 Mustang that’s in his garage. They start laughing and telling Radar I’m going to change my mind and write about Danny instead.
Radar looks genuinely worried that might happen. I try to give him a reassuring look.
“I got a bunch of classic cars,” Danny says. He points to the cars parked near the garage, “those two Beetles, the white ‘62 and the red ‘73. Those are mine.”
Turns out Danny is a professional. Or at least, he was. He notes he “did 33 years with Chevrolet.” To me, I’m surprised Radar doesn’t spend all his time in Danny’s garage, the both of them being such big gearheads. I ask Danny about that. “He hung out a little bit in the garage,” Danny tells me. “Then he stopped coming around.” He looks over at Radar. “Right, Ant?”
Radar gives an unexpected answer. He says, “Yeah. I remember I saved his life one day. A truck came down and almost crushed his head. I grabbed him out of the way.” He looks over at Danny. “Remember that time when the truck fell on you?”
“Yep. Yes, I do,” Danny says seriously.
“I saved his life,” Radar says proudly. “The jack slipped, I grabbed him just in time, and the truck missed his face.”
I ask Danny if that’s true. After all, I know how Radar can tell tall tales.
“Yeah. That was in 1991,” Danny says, and he tells me that Radar helped him pull out of the way after a bread truck rolled down the ramps when Danny forgot to chock the wheels.
“He’s my buddy,” Radar says, still beaming with pride.
So if they’re all buddies, I ask Danny why they’re giving Radar such a hard time about the Charger.
“We’re just bustin’ chops,” Danny says. Then he says, “But that car would have never been roadworthy. See, you can bring a car back to life, but once the firewall’s completely gone, structural, it’s too much. It had no floors left. It was just a chassis with four tires and an engine. The body was too far gone.” He looks at Radar. “I kept telling you that,” he says, “remember?”
“Yeah,” Radar says, the pride replaced with embarrassment.
“It was gone,” Danny says.
“Everybody on the block was always talking shit about it, calling it a piece of garbage, and making fun of it,” Radar tells me later.
This, I believe. Especially after that conversation with his buddies.
Radar says that after he brought the Charger home, “all hell broke loose.” I asked him what he meant by that and he said it got “scratched, dented... a school bus hit the side of my car.” He elaborated even more. “People keyed it. People did spite work on it. Spite work… destroyed the whole side of my car.”
“I said you gotta get rid of it, you gotta register it, you gotta do something,” Vera recalls. “People were complaining, and then it started looking like a piece of junk,” she says.
I asked Carmine Giordano, a soft-spoken former English teacher and current resident on the block, what he remembered about the Charger.
“I just remember it being on one side of the street or the other, and he was always concerned about having to move it,” he said. “We were always, of course, looking for parking spaces. So not always happy to see his car there where we wanted to put ours, particularly when he wasn’t using it. It was like free street storage.”
“He tried hard to fix it and do what he wanted to do, but he didn’t have the money to do what he wanted to do,” Vera says.
“I kept it running,” Radar says with a mix of pride and defensiveness. “I poured a lot of money into it… I got the engine redone, I got the carburetor redone, I got the distributor redone. If I had to push it, it was easy to push and shove. I’d push it a couple of times. I used to pump the clutch and it started right up. That car never failed me. I’ll be honest with you, that car never failed me at all,” he says defiantly.
And then he tells me, almost pleadingly, “I’m a nice guy. Dave, listen, I’m telling you the truth. Everybody [around here] has respect for me. But a few people who live around here, they don’t have no respect at all. They keyed my car, they did everything to that car. I got that car brand new, no scratches on it.”
If it sounds like he’s talking about the neighborhood guys, he’s not. Radar says the people who have treated him the worst are the newcomers.
He tells me one story about a guy who called the cops because of the Charger’s exhaust. Radar got his revenge on him soon after. “He park[ed] his truck right in front of my mother’s johnny pump at five o’clock in the morning. I called the cops on him 10 times, he got 10 tickets,” he says proudly.
We cross the street and grab a seat on the bench in front of my old apartment. “These yuppies are taking over the neighborhood,” Radar says. “It’s not the same. They always call us ‘the leftovers.’”
The thing is, though, I’m kind of a yuppie. I mean, I don’t think I’m a yuppie. But I do meet the criteria: I didn’t grow up in the neighborhood. I went to New York to be a writer and a musician, and moved into the neighborhood in my 20s. The drummer of my band lived with me. He and I grew up together in New Jersey. I point all that out to Radar.
“We accepted you,” Radar says. “But some people had an attitude problem. Like you talk to them, and you catch an attitude. Like you and [my drummer] are good guys, you’re friendly, you say hello to people. But most of the people like to start an argument. They’re not friendly… I hate the way they call us the leftovers and the way think they are more better than us.”
I believe him about the guy calling the cops on him. But, also I lived there for five years and aside from that wireless network, I never once saw him getting harassed by any of the yuppies.
And if I’m really honest about it, I’ll say this: I know that the new people can be snobby. But they were hardly aggressive. I just wonder if maybe his anger isn’t a little misplaced.
I talk to Vera one-on-one while Radar’s upstairs with their dogs. I ask her about the yuppies, and her answer is unequivocal. “He hates them,” she says, “hates them.” But why, I ask. “You see, one person has to do something to him. If it’s a yuppie, then he’ll hate the yuppies.”
But then she adds, “You know what? He’s mean to them, too! I mean if I say something, aren’t you going to come back at me? That’s the way it is. And I tell him, ‘you can’t do that to people. What do you think, you can say something and get away with it? And they can’t say anything? You know they’re gonna come back at you’.”
I tell her that I’ve never really observed any yuppie being mean to him, never heard anyone call him a leftover, but that I did notice the guys on the corner really ribbing him hard, and how it maybe seemed to hurt Radar’s feelings, even if he didn’t say so.
“They tease him,” she admitted. “He gets angry over that. But at the same time, they’re very good to him. They treat him good, they buy him lunch all the time. If he does anything for them, he gets a couple dollars or whatever. They pay him. And he likes that.”
Radar could certainly use the money. But it shouldn’t have been like this. After his parents died in 1987 and 1988, they left behind a house and a small inheritance for Radar and his brother.
“One day the brother called,” Vera says, “The parents had passed away and the house was going to be sold. I says to him, ‘Listen, Anthony, don’t sign anything. Talk to Aunt Rosie about it or talk to me about it and we’ll advise you what to do... especially because you don’t get along with your brother, you never know’.”
But Radar signed the paperwork. “I didn’t want to sell my house. I think he intimidated me because I had nobody to back me up. Nobody was around to help me.”
This is a significant reason why, Radar says, he and his brother don’t speak anymore. But I tracked down his brother, 58-year-old Mike Guarracino, for this story.
Among other things, I ask Mike about the sale of the house. He takes a deep breath. “That wasn’t up to him. That wasn’t up to me, even though I was the executor of the estate. That was something my mother and father wanted… My parents wanted the house sold, and when it was sold, we were going to take that money, he was going to have his half, I was going to have my half.”
Mike also says that they built a garage apartment at his house on Staten Island for Radar, and this was all discussed and agreed to before their father died. “At the last minute, he backed out,” Mike says of Radar. “There was nothing I could do. The house needed to be sold… We weren’t just doing it to be spiteful to him. Believe it or not, if I could have, I would have kept it because it’s worth a hell of a lot more money now.”
Mike says he recalls telling Radar, “’Remember what dad said? Now this is what we’re gonna do... We both have to sign it to sell it. Once we sell it, you get money, I get money.’”
It’s important to note that Radar struggles with reading. In fact, he told me he couldn’t actually read at all. Vera told me, “He can read if he really, really sits there and concentrates on it. But... he has very little attention span. He just can’t. He can’t do it.”
I asked Mike if he could confirm that his brother is functionally illiterate, and he did.
Nonetheless, Radar signed the paperwork to sell the house. “Two weeks later, I get a check for $900,” Radar tells me.
Nine hundred dollars. For his half of a brownstone in what is now one of the most desirable neighborhoods in Brooklyn.
I asked Mike how much they made on the house. “I think we got about...120, 125 [thousand] for it,” he told me. So I asked him why, then, Radar only got a $900 check.
“Because,” he tells me, “after the sale of the house, his money went into a trust fund. We couldn’t hand him 70 Gs and say ‘here’ because that 70 Gs would have been gone in three weeks, okay? If you know my brother, he’s a nice guy and all, but he can go through that money in no time. And that money was supposed to support him and pay his rent, the whole bit... Whatever check he got for 900 bucks, I have no idea. That would be between him and the lawyer.”
Their lawyer was a family lawyer. In fact, he not only represented the Guarracino family, but he was a cousin of the family. Unfortunately, as Mike puts it, “we all got shafted from him.” And this is not something Radar or Vera disagree on whatsoever. (He couldn’t be located for this story.)
Vera confirms that the lawyer would send the rent checks and give Radar money out of the trust fund for other necessary expenses, but that Radar “would have to go over there and kind of beg for his own money.”
And then, Vera tells me, “a couple years later, we get a call that the attorney was put in jail for embezzlement. He stole his [Radar’s] money, he stole his brother’s money. And his money was gone.”
At first Mike seems reluctant to pin Radar’s financial losses on the lawyer. He says Radar got into some financial trouble of his own, and the lawyer took care of all these expenses via the trust. “I’m not saying he was always in trouble and all. For a good part of it, maybe he did—this gentleman, the crook—whatever my brother did have in his account, swipe it, swipe whatever was leftover… I don’t know. At that point, we had drifted apart.”
But then I point out that even if there was $13,000 worth of expenses, that still doesn’t come close to the $70,000 that should have been in Radar’s account from the sale of the house alone. Mike considers this and says: “Let’s just say that half the money that should have been in that account sort of just mysteriously disappeared.”
This seems like the story of Radar’s life. I ask Mike about how his big brother was treated as a kid on the block. “Some people took advantage of him, of course,” he says. “They would ask him, oh I need you to do this… and he’d be there to help, and then when he helped, it would be like, fine, get out of here.”
Vera recalls the times when he’s had a girlfriend. “He had several and they did him wrong,” she tells me. “And I caught it just in time. They were taking his money, the little money that he has.”
That Vera watches out for him is one of the few things about this story that seems plainly, purely true—the exception in a tale where nothing may really be what it seems.
“Anthony’s my stepson; not legally, but he’s been with me for so many years... I’m his stepmother. His father asked us before he passed, if we would take care of him, you know keep an eye on him. This was in the ‘80s,” she explained to me at her kitchen table.
But they go back long before Radar’s parents’ death. Vera knew him when he was a child, and as he grew up, Radar came to see Vera as his mother. “He called me mom even when his mother was alive,” she told me. “I told his mother, ‘I do not tell him to call me mom.’ She used to tell me, ‘Vera, don’t worry about it, I understand. He listens to you. You’re taking care of him, as long as he listens to you’.”
“There’s no argument about that,” Mike tells me. “My mother and her were friends. He would listen to her more than he would listen to my mom.” But it’s clear he’s resentful that his brother listened to Vera more than their mother. Though it also sounds like he’s the only one who’s harbored bitterness about it.
“There wasn’t any war about it,” he tells me. “It was just me who didn’t appreciate it.”
I tell him, for what it’s worth, Vera loves him, cares for him, watches out for him. Mike’s voice softens, and he tells me, “I am glad, believe it or not, I am glad. At least someone is there looking out for him, he’s not on the street.”
And then I tell him about his Radar’s cardiac event. “This is news to me,” he says, clearly upset. “I’m not going to yell at you, but I’m gonna get pissed now,” he says, his voice rises. “No one contacted me. Even though I’m not close to him, even though I don’t speak to him all the time… something like that, someone should have reached out and contacted me.”
I tell him Radar’s doing better, that it wasn’t a heart attack, just a fibrillation. Mike says, “All honesty, look, he’s my brother. I love my brother. I don’t see him often. Maybe if things happened differently, things would have been a lot better. I don’t wish him any ill will.”
Which us brings us back to the death of the Charger, otherwise known as “the car that Sandy took.”
As I’m thanking Mike for speaking with me about his brother, he keeps me on the phone, and he tells me that the story about how Radar lost the Charger has never made a lot of sense to him either.
“For it to disappear like that, it was just too mysterious,” he tells me.
For one thing, he says, no one has ever given him a straight answer about where it was stored on Staten Island. “Where was this thing? On Cappadano? In a garage? I don’t know,” he says, and he lives there.
“It was just funny the way it all of a sudden just disappeared,” he says. “We don’t know if the car truly got wiped… or if somebody like carried it off somewhere.”
He explains his reasoning. “Sixty-seven Chargers aren’t exactly a dime a dozen around here... If that thing was in Sandy and, yeah, it got wrecked, all right. [But] if it was wrecked that bad, why would anyone put it into auction? It would have been scrapped.”
Mike’s asking questions and making observations that are remarkably similar to ones I’ve asked and made myself. Like, maybe the person who was doing the work or storing it for Radar saw an opportunity in Sandy. Maybe, like so many others, he saw an easy mark in Radar. Maybe he embellished how damaged the car really was.
Radar showed me a picture of the car after the hurricane, and there’s no doubt that at least the interior was ruined. But it would be impossible to judge the true extent of the damage from that one photo.
Even Radar told me something that didn’t make sense. That the guy storing the car “outbid himself” at the auction. Why was the guy who was storing the car bidding on it, too?
I ask Mike if he thinks Radar got taken advantage of yet again. “I’ll be honest with you, I think so,” he answers me, “I think so.” Then he says, “you know my brother like I do. He got taken. I just think he got taken. That’s my opinion. It wouldn’t be the first time.”
But that was five years ago now. However it disappeared, and whatever the true extent of the damage, it’s gone. And now, all Radar thinks about is replacing that Charger.
“I want to get another car,” Radar tells me multiple times, always stressing that it should be a ‘67 Charger. “A 383 or a 440,” he specifies, being clear which engine he wants.
I tell Radar that I didn’t know they did a 440 for the ‘67. Radar looks at me with nothing but pity for my Mopar ignorance. “I’m gonna tell you, 426, 440, 383, 361, ‘66 came out with a 361.”
And then he adds, like he’s putting in an order, “I don’t want no automatic.”
Radar is vehemently opposed to the automatic transmission as a concept.
I ask Radar how much he thinks one will cost, and he tells me probably about $35,000. I ask him how much he has saved, and it’s not nearly enough to pull off a purchase like that. Later, when Radar isn’t around, I ask Vera about this.
“He doesn’t have a lot of money, he just gets his check and whatever he has,” she tells me. “And he’ll say ‘you know, ma, I’m gonna buy that car one of these days.’ ...Now, how much is the car? $35,000, you know these old cars, $35,000, $50,000. ...I say, ‘look, can you really buy that car? If it’s $120,000 for instance?’ ‘Yeah! I’ll save the money!’ He doesn’t have any, I’m looking for the word, he doesn’t have any concept of how much $120,000 is.”
Radar isn’t really the only one who wishes the car were still around. There’s one other person: His brother, who lives right over the Verrazano, but who might as well be on the moon for how much they see or speak with each other.
“I wish he still had that stupid car,” Mike says, and I can hear him smiling over the phone. “My son’s a mechanic. He would have liked to have helped my brother work on that car because my son likes Chargers. I would have liked to have seen the two of them work on it together.”
And then he sums it all up for me. “That car wasn’t the greatest thing in the world. It may not have been the prettiest thing in the world. And I know that car was never legal. He had Jersey plates on it,” he chuckles. “But you know what? It made him happy. And that was it. It made him happy,” he says. “Owning that car was the happiest thing in his life.”
I don’t know how or if Radar’s ever going to get another car. And even if he did get a ‘67 Charger with all the specs he wanted, I just don’t know that it would be as good a match as the one that he had.
Just like Radar, that car stuck out like a sore thumb, just as much for being one-of-a-kind as it did for being a big, loud thing that annoyed the neighbors. It was misunderstood by everyone, including Radar. It was loved, and yet, it was unloved. It was derided and laughed at by people who never took the time to get to know it, or appreciate its history.
I think about how Radar loved that car, and I can’t help think about how much Vera loves Radar. At one point she told me, “He’s good, and I love him and I worry about him,” and then she started crying, but managed to finish her sentence, “because he has nobody.”
That Charger had nobody, either. Nobody except Radar.
But now, like so many Carroll Gardens “old-timers,” the Charger’s gone. Instead it’s just newer models from far away places. Subarus and Hyundais and Toyotas.
And, of course, all those fuckin’ bikes.
David Obuchowski’s reporting and essays have appeared in Jalopnik, The Awl, SYFY, and other publications. His latest short fiction story “Field Guide For Roadside Memorials” was recently published by the Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal. David is also a musician with bands on Relapse Records, Old Flame Records, and Greenway Records.