Thirty-two years ago this week, my uncle was featured on the cover of New York. As profiled by Nik Cohn (who wrote the ‘75 New York cover story that became Saturday Night Fever), my uncle was once a 27-year-old roughneck who raced souped-up muscle cars with his friends for sport. That’s him on the cover, first row, second from the left, with his beard and lock of hair falling down over his face, which is how he’s always looked, as far as I can tell. He’s actually taller than you might suspect, and the joke around my grandmother’s house was that once he grew beyond her height, she’d often ask him, only half-jokingly, to “bend down so I can smack you.”
That’s one of his cars in the background, The Miss Mary D (named for my aunt, to whom he is still happily married after all these years). I never knew him as a greasy, surly 20-something. I only knew him as Uncle Greg, who always made sure to have plenty of Budweiser on ice for backyard family gatherings. No, I never knew him as "Hawkeye," the fearless drag racer cheered by thousands during the sweltering New York summer nights of the late ’70s:
Each week, before he raced, Hawkeye observed a ritual preparation. All day he kept silence, steered clear of the smallest distractions. In the afternoon he drove to Freeport alone, while Don and Big Pete followed. His family name being Hansen, he liked to see himself as a resurrected Viking, and when he rode out to race, it was as if he were going forth to battle, to vanquish or be destroyed, in the style of a Norse avenger.
In the pit, he stood apart from the crush, he brooded. If strangers spoke, he averted his face, no reply. But if they approached his car, let alone presumed to touch it, he drove them off in fury, like blasphemers from sacred ground.
Among the Bombers, most of the machines looked like losers in a demolition derby. But Hawkeye’s, a ‘69 Camaro, was immaculate. Freshly painted, a gleaming black, it moved like a swan among geese: “A car must be like a woman, sleek and glossy, absolutely gorgeous,” Hawkeye said. “Or else it’s diseased to drive.”
Tonight he started twenty-fourth out of 28 in his heat. The only way he could hope to win was to smash straight through the pack, sideswiping and blindsiding, barreling into the slowpokes ahead, blocking off the heat behind, until he arrived at daylight. Which was precisely what he did. Place by place, he shot to kill, and succeeded. With two laps to go, he was up to seventh. One lap later, he’d made fourth. Finally, a hundred yards from the finish, he cut sharply in front of his last two rivals, causing them to lose control, collide: “What did I tell you?” his mother said, subsiding. “A good boy.”
I go back and read this story from time to time, for reasons that never really become clearer. Maybe it’s because I’m now older (31) than he was (27) when this story was written. Maybe it’s because it’s a trip to see members of my family being described as if they were characters in a Jonathan Lethem novel and not people I hung around with as a child. I never could imagine my grandmother cheering from the stands of a nighttime car race, spilling her unfiltered feelings to a well-known magazine writer. Cohn, odd as it feels, captured a moment in my family’s history that I’ll never see, never witness on my own terms.
Maybe I keep going back to remind myself that time can be a cruel bastard. I wish I could’ve known Hawkeye. I wish I could’ve stood in the stands and cheered my uncle on as he weaved his way around the race track, eluding opponents like an underground Junior Johnson. I wish I could’ve sat in the driver’s seat of that ‘69 Camaro just once, but by the time I knew him, the muscle cars of Uncle Greg’s youth had long been left behind. Or maybe it’s simply because, as a writer, I’m always looking for stories like this one.
Either way, I feel privileged to have such a riveting snapshot of the family that came before the one I experienced. When Cohn talks about “racers [congregating] outside to mess with their machines,” that’s the same patch of Queens sidewalk where I would build flimsy snowmen when P.S. 55 went on Christmas break. And when Cohn observed that Hawkeye’s “younger sisters practiced their flirtations, while infants splashed in the pool,” he’s talking about my mother and my aunts with their children, various cousins who arrived just before me. And when he conjures up images of how “Mrs. Hansen, majestic, presided over all,” well, that just blows my mind, since my memories of her are few and fading. She used to let me watch her LaserDisc of Cujo. (I was too young to grasp the intense gore and psychological underpinnings. All I knew was there was a cool dog in it.) I remember holidays being generally happy and festive occasions. And I remember when she was diagnosed with diabetes, had her leg amputated, lost her voice, and died six months later. I was 10 years old. The “majestic” woman that Cohn describes? He got to know her, but I didn’t.
As a teen, around the time I realized I wanted to become a writer, I would often see this exact copy of New York floating around my parents’ house. Sometimes, it sat alone on the lower shelf of the white lamp table in the basement. Sometimes, I’d find it tucked in some bureau somewhere, along with miscellaneous magazines, VHS tapes, and vinyl records. I never actually read the story until I was much older, several years after I had graduated from college. I often wonder what would have happened if I had the initiative, the instinct, to crack open that magazine and read of my family’s exploits when they were still relatively fresh in everyone’s minds. How often do we read a book or longform magazine piece and wish we could ask one question of the characters? How would having that ability, which so few rarely get, have influenced my own views on narrative nonfiction?
It’s not something I regret. But that disconnected sense of seeing what amounts to an undiscovered family scrapbook pop up on Google Books? It makes you think about who people used to be before you came along.