I wiped some sand out of my eyes, realizing I didn’t have plans, except a vague thought of asking a pretty college student from India that lived across the street if she wanted to take a ride in my car out to the New Jersey Balloon Festival an hour away.
The landlady that rented me my apartment in Edison was an older, heavy, pale-skinned Irish woman with stiff curly blonde hair and big round glasses. She hinted that it would be nice to get more of “my kind” into her apartment complex, but it wasn’t till after I moved in that I noticed that she must have meant the white kind because the majority of residents in my apartment complex were from India - just one or two regions in India at that, mostly the northern part, where the skin is darker and ancient traditions run deep. At first, this did make me feel like an outsider in many ways, until I happened upon a road, just three-quarters of a mile from my apartment complex, that had every Indian food imaginable. There, I got to know one of the Indian folks that ran a restaurant and after a few conversations with the girl I liked about the restaurants up on the hill, I felt as if I was fitting in a little more.
Adam stood in the foyer bouncing from leg to leg much more animated than I’d ever seen him – even in college.
I asked, “Do think you have it working?”
“Come along, you’ll see.”
He didn’t even notice I was just wearing underwear and a T-shirt when I answered my apartment door.
“Just a sec,” I answered. “I have to get something on.”
Adam followed me through the small living room of my apartment and watched me put on a pair of jeans in my bedroom. What I really liked about my apartment complex was that it was the closest one within walking distance to Metro Landing, the regional, park-and-ride transit center with trains into New York City every twenty minutes. To me, this alone made it perfect.
Adam continued pacing around the bedroom as though as if he was in a big hurry.
“Adam, you’ve been saying that for years,” I said, trying to slow him down but instead only seeing disappointment on his face.
“Would you stop saying that?”
“OK, sorry. It isn’t like I have any business ideas that are better.”
I raised the blind in the bedroom to let the sun in. I stopped in the foyer and locked the door to the apartment behind us, but Adam was already halfway down the sidewalk while I was still putting my sneakers on.
Two Indian boys, about twelve years old, were already standing on the sidewalk on the other side of the street looking at Adam’s reconfigured car. They took off on their bikes as we approached and rode down the sidewalk past the various garden apartment buildings and parked cars that were mostly relics from the seventies, and even sixties, like an ugly brown Ford Pinto, a beat-up American Motors Gremlin, and, worst of all, a rusted out small orange Dodge Colt that hadn’t seemed to move from the front of my window since I’d first moved in. That one seemed like it could be used for a plant holder rather than a car.
I’d seen Adam’s car many times in college. It was a classic late 70s muscle car that looked new when his uncle gave it to him with nice shiny silver wheels, but now that he'd taken it apart several times, it could best be described as unfinished, with just a black coat of primer.
I walked around to the front of the car. There was an orange coated plate attached to the grill. “So, the orange plate is the only difference?”
“Ha! Now this car can go from 0 to 120mph in less than 20 seconds and no one will know!” he bellowed. “It’s completely under the radar,” he said knowing I would get his drift.
I raised an eyebrow as if to say ask, are you sure?
He said he hoped to apply his coating to the whole car, but it was so time-consuming that not everything was finished.
“It should be enough to work,” he said confidently.
I tried to be encouraging. “It’s a neat disguise,” knowing full well people were not going to want to drive around with a huge metal plate affixed to the front of their cars. His invention would have to be applied evenly, like paint. I thought of the cost.
“We're not going to make money unless we can charge a lot,” I said looking at the car knowing that first impressions were important.
“We can charge a lot,” he said as he put the flat of his hand on the hood. “My coating even absorbs the heat of the sun. Isn’t it brilliant?” It was obvious he was in no mood to get sidetracked by details.
“That's the only benefit?”
“No, of course not! But imagine a car that didn’t require air conditioning!”
After I walked around one more time, he said, “OK! Don’t get caught up in how it looks. Just get in.”
I went to the other side and sat in the passenger seat but left the door open until Adam got in the car. Adam went back to check on something in the front grill directly under the hood.
“I used two small slits to pass thru a small amount of the light from the headlight without losing any absorption of radio waves,” he said when he came back, sitting up straight in his seat getting ready to turn the key.
“That will work?” I asked.
“It all depends on the dose of radar,” he said.
I grunted and asked whether something that big attached to the front grill could fall off. He shook his head and looked ahead in a fog, apparently trying to get his mind to work.
“Are you ready? You want to see it in action or not?”
Adam moved his right hand off the top of the steering wheel, and I shut my door. He turned the key and started the car. The engine roared to life loudly.
The two Indian boys rode back and listened to the car idle. Adam seemed to like the audience and declared proudly that the engine was 410 horsepower. I moved the passenger seat a little forward to give a muffler that was leaning against the back of my seat some room to settle.
“Don’t worry about all the stuff. It accumulates from three weeks of work.”
I looked at the back floor and there were more trademarks of Adam: candy wrappers, this time, Sugar Daddy’s, Tootsie Rolls and Hershey bars.
“Have you been staying up late?” I asked him knowing his habit of eating junk food when he was tired.
“I was up until three last night.”
“You didn’t have to do that for me,” I said.
“Trust me, it’s not for you...give it a sec, it just needs to warm up.” he said.
Adam explained how the car he really wanted to apply his coating to was a limited edition Jaguar XJ12 with the turbo as an add on, and with it, he said that car would be “capable of going from 0 to 100 and back to 0 again in less than 15 seconds. “This car is nothing like that.”
Adam took his foot off the brake and the car bucked my head back against the seat with just a single tap to the gas. He steered us out of the exit nearest my apartment, and we left the complex onto the side road. Then the car coughed and sputtered.
The road suddenly took us through Roosevelt Park, and we passed the pond and the entrance to the bike path, and I thought of the Indian neighbors I often saw there but figured it was more important to tell him to slow down and look for bikers. He told me not to worry, he had no intention of going fast, “right now.”
He turned right and we passed under a pedestrian bridge in the middle of the park and then left out of the park and got onto Route 1 South. The traffic picked up. Adam adjusted quickly, passing a Volkswagen Beetle from the sixty's that was in the right lane. After a mile, we took the ramp that had signs for the Garden State Parkway, the New Jersey Turnpike and 287 North. Adam got over to the right, and banked the car around a turn and onto 287 North.
We whizzed past a power station with its metal high rise structures holding dozens of wires wire. Adam moved to the middle lane and passed a few eighteen wheelers and a gas truck. Two girls drove by and the one in the passenger side turned around and looked at us. Adam noticed right away.
“Look, this car is all it takes for the ladies to pay attention.”
“They’re looking in disbelief, Adam.”
He ignored my comment.
“They want to hear the engine roar!” he yelled.
“Don’t scare them.”
He didn’t heed my advice, and we screamed by on their right. Luckily, there were big brown sound fences on both sides of the highway.
After a few miles of driving, we went past the exit sign for New Brunswick.
“Wait, don’t you want to go to your apartment?” I asked.
“If you were up to three, maybe you should have a nap.”
“Maybe, but now I want to go out to where you grew up. We can make it a little further,” he said. “I’ve come all this bloody way.”
Above us in the road ahead, below the sky, was a white mist that rose above the highway. If it was smoke, fog or clouds, I didn’t know, but it was pretty to look at. Someone in a Mercedes Benz pulled up right behind us within inches. Adam looked in his rear-view mirror with a frown and didn't like it. He tapped the gas pedal. Within seconds, his car was in the clear, way ahead.
We came to a major highway intersection, for Route 78, and Adam got off going west, towards Pennsylvania and our college.
“Where are you taking us anyway?”
“Little drive that’s all. You’re the one who told me about this exit,” he said.
Adam drove a half mile off the exit, took a right onto Remington Road, where white horse fences marked the “gentleman” farms that lined road on both sides. My mom moved to the area with her new husband and lived in one of those estates, a fact that still filled me with resentment because it left my dad on his own. I mentioned it to Adam again but he didn’t seem interested, or more likely, he was also completely focused on the movement of the car. I cracked the window and smelled manure from cows on one of the fields.
I liked the roar of the car, but when I looked at the speed odometer and saw were doing eighty miles an hour, I got nervous.
“Adam, be careful,” I said, “they put lots of cops here in the last few years; this is where they hang.”
“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” he said.
With that Adam stepped on the gas and the car lurched to one hundred miles an hour and within a few seconds, we were doing 120. We hit a bump in the road and the car was airborne for a few seconds.
I tried to remain silent as Adam kept his foot on the pedal and gripped the steering wheel tighter.
I looked up ahead and when I saw a policeman, my heart raced.
“Adam, there’s a cop!” I shouted.
We were approaching a cop standing maybe two feet out into the road with his radar gun pointed straight at us. However, Adam did not slow down. He did not look at me despite the fact that I was yelling. He just tightened his muscles and grip on the wheel and continued to speed as we flew past the policeman. I held onto the dashboard and leaned over and check the speed, and we were doing over one hundred and thirty miles an hour. Only after passing the cop did Adam take his foot off the gas. It was actually a good quarter mile after passing him before Adam slowed down.
Adam pulled into the Texaco station at the end of Remington Road. Just like most driving experiences in New Jersey, the whole thing didn’t last long. The whole road is probably three miles, tops. At the speed Adam was doing, the entire trip down Remington from where we started took us less than two minutes.
I waited with Adam for flashing lights behind us. When there were none, Adam pulled in and parked in front of the air pump and cut the engine. He smiled. There were two cars getting gas. I could tell he was exhausted and was using the last of his energy.
“You’ll see,” Adam said.
He lit a cigarette and put it in the ashtray. If the policeman was going to come, I figured he’d be speeding along right at that moment.
“He’ll be along any moment,” I said. “I saw him holding the radar gun, plain as day. Couldn’t you see him?”
“I saw him.”
My heart was pounding. I started to concoct a story in my mind to tell the police officer. I had to make it sound like there was a reason we were driving so fast. I decided I would say that I told Adam that my dad lived alone, and he had just fallen.
The cop car came pulling into the parking lot of the gas station. It pulled behind us and turned on its strobe lights to let us know not to move. I watched the door open and saw the lettering of the town on the side door, “Elmwood,” the town I grew up in which also covered for neighboring towns with less than a thousand people like the one we were in.
After the policeman got out and walked towards us, I couldn’t help but smile. I knew him. He was a high school wrestler like me, the smallest guy on the team, our 101-pounder, Mikey Gaborsky. Mikey was one those big-hearted competitors that believed in the team above his own record. For this reason, he was happy being just good enough, not winning all the time like some of us, but winning enough to pull the team through when it counted.
Mikey stuck his head in the driver’s side window. Adam's car had New Hampshire plates and was registered in his uncle’s name, but I didn’t know if that would matter or not.
“Mikey, this crazy guy is my friend from college,” I said immediately.
He stooped down to see who was talking and looked at me. He was still small and tentative like he was in high school. His blonde hair was now in a crew cut.
“Owens?” he said.
“Who do you think?” I answered. “Mikey, you still have that wrestling belt?”
He stood up, looked around then walked around the front of the car and over to my window.
“This is a science experiment, Mikey,” I said. “Seriously, my friend here works at Siret Labs. You’re not supposed to be able to see anything. I mean you’re not supposed to be able to see us on your radar gun.”
I wasn’t sure if Mickey heard that or not, but when I saw him frown I knew that he did. I thought that might be too forward even for Mikey so I tried to smooth it over.
“It’s not like he’s asking for the belt Mikey.”
Mikey finally cracked a nervous smile at the memory of the match. “That was our championship, remember?”
Adam saw an opportunity to find out if his experiment. He looked up at Mickey. “Did you get us on radar?”
Something inside Mikey seemed to snap, like he made up his mind.
“It’s the weirdest thing," he said. “I suppose you can take a look.”
I started to open the passenger door and looked over to make sure Adam understood and was doing the same. “Thanks Mikey.”
“Only because you helped us win the match against Bound Brook,” he added.
For the team’s benefit, I lost an extra six pounds and surprised everyone by wrestling in the 135 weight-class when it was hard for me to make weight at 141 pounds. Even back then losing weight was hard, but I did it so we could pick up a win and go onto the championship.
It meant a lot to Mikey. He was very much a team player, not the best, but always did more than his fair share.
We followed him back to the police car. Adam took the radar gun from him and studied its small screen while I looked around, watching the cars whizz by on the small two lane highway that ran perpendicular to us, route 206. I read the sign for an insurance broker across the road, recalling seeing it on my bike rides after I first got my 10-speed and made the trip, a good five miles from where I grew up.
I didn’t know what Mickey decision would be; he was supposed to catch people on radar. I tried to explain.
“Seriously, you weren’t supposed to pick us up at all,” I said.
“Really?” Mikey asked me.
“I swear,” I said. "It's kind of a secret."
Adam pushed a button under the screen several times until it was blank. He knew what he was doing because he owned a radar gun himself.
“There are imperfections," Adam said, “but the general concept is sound. I know it.”
I looked at Adam doubtfully. He handed the gun back to Mikey. Mikey seemed relieved the screen was blank.
“Right,” he said. “It was a weak signal. I thought that was strange because you were the only car on the road. I didn’t get any reading until you were right on me. You had plenty of time to slow down.” He looked around again. “Even then it only came up at eighty – you had to be going so faster”
Mikey couldn’t tell why Adam was so happy.
I scratched my chin. “No fooling?”
“That’s what happened, I swear,” Mikey said. “I almost missed you. Usually, I get lots of warning. I’ve gotten trucks from two miles away.”
I smiled thinking what would happen if it was possible – how fast Adam and especially his uncle who was a race car driver in England before coming to the United States, would drive down the highway.
I thanked Mikey profusely and was about to ask him if we could set up another test in a few weeks but didn’t get the chance. He said he wished we'd conduct the next experiment someplace else. I promised we would.
When we got back in the car, Mikey was still behind us, but Adam couldn’t contain his enthusiasm. “I know I can make this work! You heard what he said. He barely saw us.”
When Mikey pulled away, the implications of Adam’s experiment hit me. “You’re trying to turn the United States’ roads into a version Germany’s autobahn! You, your uncle and all his customers will be able to drive as fast as they want.”
“Exactly!” Adam said.
“But how much will someone pay for radar protection for cars,” I asked.
I still wasn't sure of the business angle. It had taken him months to apply the coating to just this one car.
Adam took out a cigarette from his top pocket and lit it thoughtfully.I watched him blow smoke through his nostrils.
“I need to see what Irwin says," I said after a while. “He might think the idea is weird unless it's packaged properly.”
“You said Irwin doesn’t even know about it.”
“There’s a few reasons for that,” I answered, pinching my lips, moving them to one side.
The reason I never mentioned Adam's invention to Irwin before wasn’t because I was afraid that he wouldn’t understand or even scoff at it. The opposite was true. I was afraid that Irwin would take a small kernel of the idea I mentioned and start telling the world about it before we were ready. He did this with everyone and everything. That was his nature.
"Just don't quit your job," I said to Adam. "Whatever you do - do. not. quit. your. job. We need to figure out what to do with this coating of yours."
"Just don't quit your job," I said to Adam. "Whatever you do - do. not. quit. your. job. We need to figure out what to do with this coating of yours."