Nunez, Calderon, and Luis (that’s me), we found an old Chevy Impala, a real big one from the Fifties. It was in the sandbox in front of the kids’ playground next to the project in which we lived. Calderon is very smart. He got a job selling bets at OTB, and we really trusted his judgment. “Nunez, Luis,” he said, “the car has no plates on it. The radio and battery are gone. It is safe to assume that it is abandoned.”
“Calderon is always right,” Nunez said, and we went to work. I drove a truck for Manny’s Mobil Station, so I went and got it, and we pulled the Impala out of the sand. It had good tires, and it wasn’t banged up too bad, but, try as we might, we couldn’t get it running. We knew a lot about cars, and we applied all our knowledge, but we never got so much as a peep out of that Impala.
“We have wasted out time and our efforts,” I said in dismay, “and it’s all because Calderon finally made a mistake.
“I never said it would run,” Calderon replied. “I only said it was abandoned.”
Nunez looked on solemnly. He drove an elevator in the garment center, and he tended to be polite. I asked both of them what we were going to do with the car. Nunez threw up his hands, but Calderon said he needed time to think about it. In the interim, we stored the car at Manny’s where my position afforded me certain privileges.
As the weeks passed, I often discovered Calderon staring at the Impala when I went to work. “The wheels are turning,” he said several times when he caught me looking at him.
“Not of their own accord,” I always replied, and we would laugh together as friends do with one another. One day, I watched while Calderon unfastened the back seat and removed it. He seemed inspired by the empty space between the two rear doors, and then things started to happen quickly.
We used Manny’s winch to remove the engine that had no life, and we sold it for parts to Miguel who owned a junkyard and said that Impalas like ours were, after all, becoming a rare item and that anyone who made a project out of restoring one was willing to pay top dollar for items such as those provided by the motor we delivered. We steam cleaned the cavity left at the front of the car and then moved to the next step in the overhaul. Nunez and I knew that there was a master plan in the back of Calderon’s mind, but we were just as certain that he would be unable to reveal it to us if pressed. It was an aspect of his personality that he lost interest in his ideas once they were spelled out. It was also true that he got his enjoyment out of our blind faith in his brainstorms. It wasn’t the first time that we had helped him without being aware of his intentions until they were almost fully realized.
We removed the side windows and replaced them with steel flaps that acted as counters when down and guards against the weather and pilferage when up. They locked from the inside by means of slide bolts. Calderon went in search of and found a swivel chair that he welded to the floor where the back seat had been. It was upholstered with brown leather and provided a certain elegance to the overall design. Between the chair and the rear window, we installed a stainless steel cooking grill with electric coils beneath to provide heat, and, as an afterthought, Calderon decided to make the rear window removable so that the smoke from frying meat could escape. Between the chair and one door, we placed a small, dry ice box to store cold meats and cheese, and, on the other side, a table with wooden drawers beneath for bread and rolls.
The decision was then reached to take out the front seat and put in another swivel chair, but this one was put near the steering wheel because, when towed, the vehicle would still have to be directed in a minimal fashion. On the floor beside the second chair, we put in another dry-ice box for cold drinks, a coffee maker, and a shelf for cigars and cigarettes. “It’s starting to look like something,” Calderon said, and we found it difficult to argue with him. Cheech at the body shop liked what we were doing, and he donated the space and equipment at night so that we could knock out all the dents in the Impala, apply body filler, redo the chrome, sand and paint the metal bright red. Nunez’s sister-in-law worked in a frame shop, and she was very good with drawing and stencils. She made up a stencil of a running black antelope, and we put one on each door. It looked so good that we also put one on the trunk and the hood. Mendoza, the electrician, put rechargable batteries in the trunk for the grill, the radio, and interior and exterior lighting, and we were in business. We used the empty engine space to store extra supplies and carry the water necessary for cleaning up.
“I’ll get the license,” Calderon said, and he used his influence at City Hall to get us the tag and piece of paper required to vend food on the street. His brother’s mistress used to sleep with a guy who issues permits. We scouted the city for a good location and decided to try a spot just inside Central Park at Fifty-Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue, across the street from the place where people rent horses and carriages. It the beginning, the cops and parkies gave us a hard time, but we provided them with free food, and. after awhile, they left us alone. We took turns in what we came to call the hot seat and the cold seat, and we were doing all right in our spare time, but then something happened that took us by surprise. Nunez’s wife made empanadas for us to sell one day, and they went like hotcakes. When other women in our project saw that there was money to be made, they turned out specialties as well, and it wasn’t long before hamburgers, hot dogs, and cold sandwiches gave way to an ever-changing, wide variety of Latin snack foods. We were written up in the Sunday News Magazine and then in the New York Magazine and our business improved dramatically.
“The world is at our feet,” Calderon observed, and we gave up our regular jobs, hired a few helpers, and struck out on the road to success. Nunez’s sister-in-law designed our costumes: white shirts, red scarves, red pants, and red berets, all embossed with the black antelope. Customers came from the Plaza Hotel carrying wine in ice buckets and glasses. They created a festive atmosphere in the grass around the Impala, and on summer nights, picnics on blankets mushroomed around us in all directions. It goes without saying that we kept the car immaculate. Calderon invested in bright spotlights under which the highly polished red paint gleamed. Nunez’s sister-in-law made up red tee shirts with black antelopes on them and sold them for six dollars. She kept four and gave us two. It was so crowded the night that the mayor came that he recommended that the Parks Department provide tables and chairs, which they did. I must say that it was done in very good taste with highly polished wood in which a forest-like atmosphere was maintained.
“We have become fashionable,” Calderon said. “It is time to raise the prices.” And so we did, and in the next two years, the red Impala changed our lives. In winter, we took our wives and children to Puerto Rico and lavished gifts and money on our relatives. In summer, spring, and fall, we worked very hard until the day came when a big American corporation offered us a fortune and a piece of the action to franchise the red Impala all over the country. They bought up all the cars that were the same model as ours, and now, from what they tell me, you can hardly pass a patch of green in a big city without finding one. I say from what they tell me because Nunez, Calderon, and I now live in St. Tropez in the south of France. The climate is nice, and it’s the only place in the world that we could find that’s expensive enough to enable us to spend a portion of the money that is being sent to us. Our wives and children have started speaking French, and we have developed a taste for French food and casinos. Nunez and I are happy with things the way they are, but Calderon always has his eye out. The other day he saw a pre-war Peugeot.