Recreational Vehicleby Matt Dellinger
October 29, 2007
The sight of Herman Zapp driving his 1928 Graham-Paige automobile up to the New Jersey entrance to the Holland Tunnel one recent Monday afternoon was enough to bring the toll-booth attendant out of his automated fog.
“You driving this?” he said as Herman forked over six dollars and goosed the engine to keep it from stalling. Candelaria, Herman’s wife, sat in the passenger seat with their five-year-old son, Pampa, on her lap and aimed a digital video camera out the windshield. Their two-year-old, Tehue, sat in a car seat behind Herman, clutching a figurine of Ned Flanders from “The Simpsons,” which had been procured at a Burger King in Jersey City.
“The Holland Tunnel, Pampa! The biiiiig city!” Herman yelled as the car rumbled forward through its three gears. “Under the water, Tehue! Hands up, everybody!”
In many ways, a 1928 Graham-Paige, which looks a little like Bonnie and Clyde’s 1934 Ford, is well suited to driving in New York City: it has no turn signals—only a reflective red triangle and blinking lights on the back, like an Amish buggy—and its top speed is around forty miles per hour. Merging is a dicey affair, involving much head protrusion and frantic arm-waving, but the sheer spectacle tends to charm other drivers into compliance. The old Graham, which features original wooden-spoked wheels and atrocious gas mileage, is not an obvious vehicle for intercontinental road-tripping, but that is precisely what the Zapps use it for. The couple, who live in Argentina, bought the car in Buenos Aires in September, 1999, and decided to drive it up the hemisphere to Alaska, thinking that the trip would take about six months. It took three and a half years. They relied heavily on the largesse of their fellow Pan-Americans, who fed them, sheltered them, and occasionally repaired their car. (Herman is no mechanic, it turns out.) Cande got pregnant in Guatemala and gave birth to Pampa in Greensboro, North Carolina, and by the time they reached the Last Frontier State, on August 25, 2003, he was fourteen months old.
Because Pampa was an infant when they came through Manhattan on that first drive, the sights at the other end of the tunnel were new to him. “Look, Pampa,” Herman said, puttering through the traffic on Canal Street. “In this city, you can find anything. Whatever you want to eat, you can find it. There’s so many things here. People from Asia, people from Africa, people from Europe. There are people with tattoos, people with long hair.”
The Zapps returned to Argentina in 2003 (the car went by boat, the family by plane), and, after Tehue was born, in 2005, resolved to make the car roomier for the next voyage. A mechanic friend added two feet of length to the middle of the chassis and supplemented the original body with fibreglass panels. The Zapps installed a nylon pop-top tent, printed on the inside with cartoon characters and photographs, so the boys could sleep on the roof, and strapped a wooden trunk to the back. The custom Graham is now both an antique camper and a bookmobile for a memoir, “Spark Your Dream,” that the Zapps have written. Taped to the window is a sign—“You can be part of this dream: Book $19”—and there are two copies, one in English and one in Spanish, on the dashboard, in case they’re able to make a quick sale at a red light.
This time, the traffic moved on too quickly. “Look, Pampa, the buildings—old ones, new ones,” Herman said. “And look at the McDonald’s, what it says underneath. In Chinese, it is! And you know what people do a lot here? They honk their horns.” He honked. “A lot. You have to be brave. And you have to scream, ‘Hey, you!’ ”
Cande kept her arm around Pampa as he leaned forward to look at the bridges over the East River. “This is one of the most important cities in the world, Pampa,” she said. “You’ll see.”
Over the next few months, the Zapps will make their way slowly to the West Coast, where they will try to hitch a ride to China. They plan to drive around Asia for the next three years. Cande, who is pregnant again, has started homeschooling (car schooling?) Pampa, but Herman wants to make sure they’re back in Argentina by the time the boy is eight, he says, so that he can have a normal childhood. ♦