The Day Willy Rear-Ended a Boat

Autobiography – My Life in Vehicles Part VII

Screen Shot 2017-12-30 at 11.46.31It was a classic one-sided phone conversation. Best one I ever heard.

I was in the dispatch office – a former Fleet Wing gas station on West Ninth Street, next to the Cleveland Memorial Shoreway bridge. We usually stopped there before heading out on our truck runs.

My boss, Walter Johnson, answered the phone.

“Willy, why are you calling me?,” he said. “You’re supposed to be driving to Lorain.”

Willy’s run took him from Cleveland to Lorain and back via U.S. 6, which followed the shore of Lake Erie.

“You what?” Walt exclaimed, his eyes lighting up with surprise and anger. “You ran into a boat?”

There was a pause.

“Was it in the water?”

Turns out it wasn’t. Willy, a character in his own right, had rear-ended at boat, which was on a trailer being towed by a truck.

Walt didn’t fire him. Months later, Willy quit after winning a big medical malpractice settlement — the result of his wife dying in a hospital mishap. I inherited his Lorain truck run.

It led to one of the most bizarre chapters of my life – and college.



Death Cab

Death Cab

Autobiography – My Life in Vehicles, Part VI


Ford L-Series. My boss had a small fleet of them.

I couldn’t help but notice the huge blood stain on the headliner of truck 66. The burgundy splatter pattern loomed above my head in the cab — a constant reminder of a fatal crash.


I wouldn’t learn the gory details until I’d been driving the truck for a couple of months — nightly runs from Cleveland to Akron and back. I was hauling U.S. Mail for a contractor named Walter Johnson. (More on Walter in future posts.)

On that fateful night, I backed truck 66 up to the dock at the Cleveland Parcel Post Annex on West Ninth Street. It was a Sunday night and the only one around was an old black man. He fit right in with the dreary setting of the lakefront loading dock — weathered face, glazed eyes, grimy coveralls, tattered work gloves.

He looked at the number on the back of the truck.

“Number 66,” he muttered. “Man died in that truck one night.”

As he rolled several carts of mail into the back of the truck, he described the accident in  detail. Apparently, the driver who wasn’t wearing a seat belt, took a curve too sharply and the truck toppled onto its left side.

“He went out the window and got pinned between the top of the cab and the street, almost cut him in two,” he said, closing the overhead door on the back of the truck.

My stomach churned as I climbed down from the dock.

As I headed toward the cab, I heard the old man say, “And he was a white boy — just like you.”


Fare and Loathing in Cleveland

Autobiography – My Life in Vehicles, Part V

cabAn elderly woman who lived in the neighborhood was one of my favorite fares, even though she’d only give you a nickel tip. You’d have to earn every penny of it, driving her from Pick-and-Pay on Lorain Avenue to her house, then schlepping  bags of groceries inside for her.

One day I got the call from my dispatcher. It was nearing the end of my 10-hour shift. You had to work sixty hours a week if you wanted to make a living driving cab in Cleveland in the early ’70s. I was dead-on-my-feet tired. Dazed.

I pulled up to Pick-and-Pay and there she was, waiting with a shopping cart full of groceries. I let her in the back seat on the passenger side and loaded her groceries into the trunk. I came around to the driver’s side. Staring into space, I groped for the door handle, opened it an plopped down in the seat.

Suddenly I came to my senses as I looked in front of me and there was no steering wheel. I looked to my right to see her staring at me, a combination of fear and anger in her eyes.

“It’s been a long day; I’m tired,” I explained opening the door.

She asked me if I was OK to drive.

“Yeah, yeah,” I responded. “Just a little tired.”

She was pretty nervous, but I got her home OK and took her groceries into the house for her.

I was relieved when she smiled and handed me her customary tip. Sometimes a nickel can be worth a lot more than five cents.




Autobiography – My Life in Vehicles IV

’53 Chevy, AKA Bill the Car

53chevFor several years I drifted through a fog of marijuana smoke. I lived on a steady diet of sex, beer and leftover food scavanged from neighborhood restaurants at closing time. I rarely drew a sober breath. What better vehicle to take me through at least part of that journey than a 1953 Chevy, which I dubbed Bill the Car — in honor of Berke Breathed’s Bill the Cat.

Like Breathed’s Bloom County comic strip character, Bill the Car wore his ugliness with pride. The car projected an I-don’t-give-a-shit attitude, something all three of us had in common at the time. Which was the early to mid ’80s, as far as I can remember.

The car had no floor boards to speak of and no upholstery on the driver’s side of the front seat. If you pulled back the blanket that covered the wire mesh seat frame, you could see the ground below. The seat bolts were rusted to the frame, which probably helped hold the car together. The gas tank was mounted on 2X4s in the trunk, moss grew in the seam along the top of the trunk lid and one of the tail light lenses had been replaced with one from a ’54 Chevy. The rusted hull of a body bore the scars of run-ins with a bread truck, a bus and God knows what else.

But, with it’s three-on-the-tree manual shift and 218 cubic inch six, it ran like a flat-assed ape. And sounded like Bill the Cat — Ack!

Coming soon(er or later) – the further adventures of Bill the Car.

Other stories in this series:

Part I

Part II

Part III


Other blogs:

Spurnpikers Journal

Irv Oslin Photography






Autobiography – My Life in Vehicles III

’63 Chevy Nova, My First Car

A Christmas Story of Sorts

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’63 Nova – Monkeyshit Brown

I bought my first car — a ’63 Nova — from a neighbor lady. Paid $40 for it. I was 18 or 19 at the time.

Most kids my age were on their second or third cars by then. Not me. I hadn’t really needed a car. I lived in the city and, if I wanted to go somewhere, I took the bus or hitchhiked.

(More stories for another time.)

The Nova was what gravel-voiced troubadour Tom Waits would call “monkeyshit brown.” Most of it, anyway. One door was blue.

It was a six-cylinder with manual shift mounted on the steering column, AKA “three on the tree.” Mine was the bare-bones model. No radio or heater.

Heaters weren’t standard equipment then. To defrost the windshield, you drove with the wing windows open and an ice scraper in your lap.

The previous owner met me to have the title transferred at the storefront office of a neighborhood attorney on West 105th Street. I was reluctant to go there. I’d had a run-in with the attorney years earlier.

He didn’t remember me until I refreshed his memory after he put his notary seal on the title. I confessed that I had been among the neighborhood punks who tormented him. It was the usual stupid adolescent stuff – taunting, making faces through the storefront window while he was with clients, occasional mooning.

One day he caught me and a couple of other guys. He had been laying for us and burst out the door with a revolver in his hand. He gave me a good cuffing.

I was about 14 at the time. Never said anything about it to my parents, because I figured I had it coming.

On the Christmas Eve following the incident, I was feeling remorseful. I took some of the money I’d earned working at the bakery next door to his office and bought a humidor filled with cigars, the kind he smoked. I attached a Christmas card on which I’d written an apology and placed it at his doorstep.

When I told him about this, his eyes watered up.

“I suspected it was a bomb,” he said. “I called the police. They took it away and blew it up.”


Previous posts in this series:

Part I

Part II


For other writing/photos:

Spurnpikers Journal

Irv Oslin — Photograpy



Autobiography – My Life in Vehicles – II

More about the Chevy van of uncertain vintage

There were still pieces of human flesh dangling from the fire escape when I pulled into the parking lot behind Dean Supply. It was March 1975. I know that because that’s when legendary Cleveland mobster Shondor Birns was blown to pieces while sitting in his 1975 Lincoln Continental behind Christy’s Lounge at Detroit Avenue and West 25th Street.

Christy’s shared a parking lot with Dean Supply, one of our competitors in the bar and restaurant supply business. Unlike Cleveland’s feuding mob factions. we were friendly competitors. In the bar and restaurant supply business, if we were short of certain items, our competitors would provide them at their cost and vice versa.

As I got out of the van, I noticed a small blackened crater in the pavement of the parking lot. I read later that it was where the C4 had been placed.

There was a lot of speculation in the aftermath of Birns’ forced retirement – theories about who did it and how. All agreed that it was inevitable.

Some speculated that his execution was carried out by a competitor in the numbers rackets. Numbers (cottage industry lottery games) played a recurring role in my driving career.

Not that I was directly involved. As mentioned two posts ago, a certain amount of corruption was deemed acceptable in my world. Bookie joints and numbers rackets subsidized otherwise legitimate businesses and the folks who ran them.

Personally, I had no use for gambling. But I had my own vices and wasn’t judgemental about other people’s indulgences.

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A few words about my previous post


With my son and his mother at the time this story took place.

For the record, the cops didn’t question me and it wouldn’t have done them any good.

In the world in which I lived at the time, a certain amount of corruption was deemed acceptable.

Business as usual — just like Washington, the Statehouse and City Hall. The only difference was that the people on the streets of Cleveland were honest about it. They didn’t pretend to be doing anyone any favors.

Most likely, my next post will delve a little deeper into that world. (In case you’re wondering what I’m talking about in this post, click on the links in the subhead, the photo caption or here.)


Autobiography — My Life in Vehicles

Another installment — Chevy van of uncertain vintage


Heisted photo depicting 1970s cheese – and a van similar to the one I drove for Harold Supply on Cleveland’s West Side.

I pulled into the parking lot behind the bar. Everywhere I looked there were unmarked police cars – occupied by unmarked policemen. Dicks. Feds perhaps. But I repeat myself.

It was the last delivery of the day. I loaded the two-wheeled dolly with cartons – beer glasses, bar napkins, candles in colored oval jars bound in white plastic mesh, that sort of shit.

I wrestled the dolly through the back door and into the kitchen. The cook motioned for me to leave the cartons by the storeroom door.

I went into the bar to collect. One of Harold Supply’s C.O.D. customers. A lot of them were.

“What are all those unmarked cop cars doing out back?,” I asked the barkeep.

He made a beeline for the kitchen. Next thing I know, the cook ran past me lugging a cardboard box crammed with papers and bolted out the front door.