Film History: Film Projectionist 1975 Look Back in (a) Fury

"Behold, a whirlwind of the LORD is gone forth in Fury” [Jeremiah 23:19]

In the summer of 1975, I was a movie projectionist, and I’d just come off a long run of Clint Eastwood’s The Eiger Sanction on the upper east side of Manhattan. I grabbed a temp job showing Woody Allen’s Love and Death for two weeks, and a Times Square gig for a week of Rollerball. All the old guys took their vacations in the summer, and me and a union pal wanted to cut ourselves in on some of that great Jaws overtime, so one gray morning we set out to carpool together into the city, heading to the union hall for the weekly “shape up”, a cattle call where available jobs are claimed by seniority number.

My friend Jon drove a 1968 Plymouth Fury III convertible, a huge piece of iron that resembled a dark green aircraft carrier, a car that drank whole rivers-worth of Esso Extra and Super Shell. He’d owned the car since college and Fury was on its last legs.

It had been raining on and off for days. We had a fast, little-known route to the Queensborough Bridge but as heavy rain started again, we got caught in jammed traffic near La Guardia airport. So, we improvised. We decided to head over to the elevated train, park the car and ride into Manhattan, since it sure looked like there wasn’t any other way to get there by 9:30. This detour required ducking through the outskirts of Shea Stadium. Jon was at the wheel, so he picked one of several run-down streets. These were unlovely and industrial, but not slummy or particularly dangerous.

I had to smile, knowing why he chose this particular potholed alley: it ran past the city’s sole Suzuki motorcycle dealership, whose super-saleswoman was a gorgeous, busty woman from the Far East in most un-traditional clothing: hot pants, a halter top, and cowboy boots. She sold a whole lotta bikes. Today she’d have her own reality show, and probably an anime series for adults. Thunder rolled overhead. She was standing in the showroom, staring glumly out at the heavy rain that was keeping the customers away. Jon pulled up to the curb and waved to the young woman who’d fairly recently relieved a friend of ours of $2200, but got a dismissive nod in response. She turned from the window and walked away with a side to side swaying movement. We stared at her just a little too long. Suddenly we realized that the slight downhill path we were on was starting to flood. Long Island is pretty flat, and Shea was built on landfill, so the neighborhood doesn’t have much natural drainage. “Better get out of here”, I said. “Yeah”, he replied, making a wide turn with the big car.

Too late. This side street was also filling with water. We were headed towards a flooded intersection with a couple of cars that were actually bobbing around. “Hit the brakes, man. Jon? The brakes?” He looked grim. “I’m standing on the @#$%^&* brakes. We aren’t even touching the ground”. He was right, and the rushing water carried us right into the unhappy company of the Lagoon of Floating Cars. Now we were a two-ton boat.

We knew a couple of things instantly: we weren’t in any real danger, at least yet, since the water was only about three feet high. We weren’t going to drown. But Jon’s old MoPar heap was clearly ruined, and we sure weren’t going to be getting to Local 306 that morning. Flashes of lightning illuminated the surreal scene. A bakery truck caught in the flood tried to barrel through the sunken intersection through to the other side, and stalled in the middle of it, but not before nearly capsizing a couple of wallowing Volkswagens and an angry waterlogged pimpmobile. I could hear the other drivers cursing the offending truck loudly. To be honest, at that moment I wasn’t reciting a rosary either.

Water seeped in through the door seals, but surprisingly little. The convertible top didn’t leak even in the strongest showers. But a minute in, we could tell the water wasn’t receding and we weren’t going to just drift to dry land. I looked at my friend, and he nodded: we’d have to get out sooner of later. Okay. The water pressure held the doors closed. We considered climbing out the windows, but the electric window lifts didn’t work. We could take the top down manually and jump out. Instead, we each braced ourselves and on the count of three, we each kicked our door open.

I swear to this day that for a tiniest fraction of a second, the propulsive shock of the huge door bouncing open carved a glassy wall of water—and in less than the blink of an eye, it rushed into the car. We clambered out into the storm, about thigh high in a running flood, and looked back to see the Plymouth come to rest, filled up to the top of the dashboard, the convertible top the only part above water level.

The other drivers of this impromptu NYC automobile yacht club were now finally getting out of their cars too, displaying the low key, modestly understated inner calm that my home town is so widely noted for. A number of them had extremely animated discussions with the bakery truck driver. His delivery was ruined, but the truck had enough ground clearance to make it likely that it would live to fight traffic another day. We had no such luck. We walked uphill to the El, soaked to the skin, and took the train.

Amazingly, when the Sanitation Department pumped the streets after the rain stopped, the Plymouth started. It ran rough and loud, with explosive clouds of exhaust smoke, and barely made it under its own sputtering, hulking power to the junkyard, but in truth none of those conditions were all that unusual for cars in the Seventies.

A week later I did snag some of that Jaws overtime money, and a month of it allowed me to buy my first brand new, factory-fresh vehicle, a shiny chrome motorcycle. But I’m no fool; I didn’t buy it from the wily, lovely Ms. Anime Queen at Suzuki Motors out in Queens, but from the surly, experienced—hell, scarred—and tobacco-stained men at Harley-Davidson of Manhattan.

After all, Anime Queen looked great, but I knew she was only a fair-weather friend.