Volume 74, Number 20 | September 15 - 21 , 2004


Elizabeth Adam and Manon, her station wagon of many years that she recently sold.

A car, a cake and a missing judge; a slice of life

By Joe Strike

Not too long ago, W. 12th St. lost one of its most visible longtime residents. Rising rents weren’t the culprit; this Greenwich Village inhabitant lived out on the street for 33 years. To put it simply, Elizabeth Adam’s turquoise-colored, 1966 Chevrolet Chevelle Malibu station wagon now has a new owner, and a new home far away from Manhattan.

In an attempt to shave a few years off its apparent age and attract a local buyer, the battered but still dignified vehicle lost its eye-catching “JUDGE CRATER – CALL YOUR OFFICE” bumper sticker in favor of a “For Sale” sign in its window. “She rides beautifully and she was a great delivery car,” Elizabeth reminisced shortly before bidding the Malibu farewell. She glanced at the glove compartment held shut with duct tape, and (in case any limousines pulled up alongside to reenact the old TV commercial) the Grey Poupon mustard jar resting atop the dashboard.

“I never hurt a cake,” she said.

For 20 years, Elizabeth designed cakes, small, large and larger, earthbound and elaborate, and delivered them with the help of her station wagon. Like a faithful pet, the Malibu waited outside her apartment on the block between Fifth and Sixth Aves. until it was time for another delivery — or the twice-weekly search for an alternate side of the street parking space.

On a recent Thursday afternoon Elizabeth invited a caller to join her on that quest. The Malibu pulled away from the W. 12th Street curb and made a right onto Fifth Ave. As the wagon turned right once again, she pointed out 40 Fifth Ave., the building on the corner of W. 11th St. “That’s where Judge Crater lived until the night he hailed a cab and disappeared.” The judge’s sensational 1930 disappearance, a now obscure unsolved mystery, gave rise to the now equally obscure joke that until recently graced the station wagon’s bumper.

The Malibu joined the Adam family in 1971 when it was purchased from its second owner, a friend of Elizabeth’s parents. According to Elizabeth, the car owes its long life (192,000 miles and going strong) to the winters it spent in cold storage through 1983, when her father Claus Adam, a professional cellist with the Juilliard String Quartet, died.

“Every summer we would drive in this car, loaded — three people, a cello, five cats and a dog, with the roof rack filled like migrant workers — back and forth, from here to the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado. A good, long drive.”

The station wagon crossed Sixth Ave. and Elizabeth spotted an empty, perfectly legal space near P.S. 41, where the car could rest easy until the following Tuesday. It was an atypically short ride as hunts for free and legal Manhattan parking spaces go. Like most city car owners, Elizabeth lived by The List and by her wits. The List is not a compilation of arcane parking secrets, but the very public posting of the days that alternate side rules are suspended. It is there for all to see on the Department of Transportation’s Web site: http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/html/motorist/scrintro.html#calendar2004

“I used to take a red marker and mark all the suspended days on my calendar. Then I figured out what my driving plans were for the week,” she said. This was where Elizabeth’s wits came into play. “I didn’t like the stress of going around in circles, so what I did was sit at the end of a block and wait. I can tell the walk of a dog walker versus somebody going to their car. If they looked like they were going to a car I’d rush right up behind them. Sometimes I was lucky and sometimes I wasn’t.”

Solid and sturdy like her car (and not that many years older than it), Elizabeth has a familiarity with the Greenwich Village streets that goes back to 1961, when her family moved to the W. 12th St. apartment she still lives in. “I went to the cake decorators’ convention in Baltimore one year,” she recalled. “The theme was the 1950s, so everybody was there with the sock hop look and the poodle skirts. I came as a beatnik, that’s what I grew up with. To me the ’50s were either beatniks or gangs, because before we moved here we lived way Uptown where I saw the gang wars — the stabbings, the rumbles and all. I laughed through ‘West Side Story.’ I thought that was terribly funny, I didn’t know they choreographed rumbles.

“But I grew up in Greenwich Village. My mother Eleanor knew Jackson Pollock and Franz Klein. It was great to watch the ‘Pollock’ movie with mother because her memory from years ago is better than her recent memory. She’ll say, ‘Oh I know him’ or ‘I studied with him.’ She also met Diego Rivera when he was working on the mural they destroyed at Rockefeller Center. She said he was an amazing man with an electric personality. We just saw ‘Frida’ and she said, ‘Oh yeah, I was standing right next to him.’

“My mother named this car Manon years ago, after the Verdi opera ‘Manon Lescaut;’ she got into it one day and said, ‘Manon, let’s go.’ My mother had a great wit when her mind was there.”

Elizabeth has put aside cake decorating and Malibu-tending to look after her mother, who now suffers from dementia. “I stopped doing the cakes earlier this year. It had just gotten to the point where I couldn’t be spreading out 500 roses and leaves all over the apartment — it was just too much. Mother is very much full time.”

Even in its faded state, Manon recently managed to appear in two independently produced films; in “Bobbing for Apples,” the four-wheeled thespian earned the recognition of a two-legged co-star who couldn’t help but remark, “Look at that ugly car.”

Now “that ugly car” has a new home, far away from the rigors of alternate side of the street parking. Unable to interest a local buyer, Elizabeth did what anyone in her situation would: she sold it on eBay. On Fri., July 30, Elizabeth Adam took Manon for one last ride, down Varick St., into the Holland Tunnel and on to Linden, N.J., where it was loaded on a transport truck heading west.

“I bid $666.66 for the car — I like round numbers,” said Manon’s new owner, Chris Glembin, an auto painter and bodywork specialist in Waukesha, Wisc.

“People were amazed when I drove into town,” Glembin said. “ ‘You’re not going to fix that up, are you?’ It’ll look like a show car when I’m done. It’ll have a two-tone paint scheme: pearl white on the bottom and burnt orange-tangerine from the door handles up, separated by a lime green stripe.

“I picked it up in Lamont, Ill., and it did fine on the two-hour drive back to Waukesha. The only problem was that I could see the road under me while I was driving; the car had a big hole in the floor — it was the first thing I fixed when I got it home.”

Strike is a freelance writer who is currently selling his 1989 Buick Century; for information, e-mail at joestrike422@hotmail.com.

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