THE BLOG
02/11/2014 09:55 am ET Updated Apr 13, 2014

Astoria Characters: The Guy Driving the '55 Chevy

There's no seatbelt. Pete D'Andrea throws back his head and laughs. It's going to be a loud, rough ride. He can't wait to rev up the engine.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Pete's crazy for classic cars.

When he does, the 1955 Chevy roars like a jet taking off from LaGuardia with Pete bouncing along for the ride.

"These cars are masters of the racetrack," he yells above the deafening noise.

Pete, a lean mustached man with sad brown eyes, has been the owner of the Regal Turquoise and India Ivory Bel Air going on 30 years. When he bought it, it was like an old mare. He practically had to push it around the block. He spent the ensuing decades, and his youth, restoring it and tricking it out for the track.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Pete with his pride and joyrider.

It isn't his first '55 Chevy. That distinction goes to the one he bought with some of his army buddies. He had it for a couple of years until a thief snatched it right off the street on Easter Sunday. He still likes to talk about it.

Pete's always been enamored of the automobile. It may be because his daddy owned a gas station in Astoria. Pete started fixing flats and gassing up cars at the Sunoco by Silvercup when he was 12.

"I didn't get paid for this," he says. "But I did get tips. My family was pretty poor; there were four kids. My dad, mom and older brother were gamblers, so we never had any money."

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Show trophies won by the trophy car.

Pete's poverty was mitigated by the fact that he had a lot of relatives to share it with.

"We were all happy," he says. "My aunts and uncles and grandma lived close to us."

Working in the gas station made it easy for Pete to quit high school after his first year.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Hubcaps and beer bottles, the mechanic's helpers, in the garage.

"It was no big deal because everybody I knew had to start working when they were 16 or 17," he says.

For a while, he was a deli stock boy. Then he got a job in a sheet-metal factory.

Cars are Pete's calendar of life. The first car he had access to was his older brother's 1968 Camaro. It was brand-new, shiny blue with a black top.

"The day he bought it, we came home, and my mother had a sad look on her face," Pete says. "There was a token on the table. I had been drafted."

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Pete in the driver's seat.

But the army didn't ship him to Vietnam. Pete did his two-year hitch in Colorado, which is where he got that first '55 Chevy.

"The night I was discharged, I drove that car home to Astoria without stopping," he says. "It took me 33 hours."

When he came back, the '68 Camaro was waiting to take him for a ride. He bought it and kept it a couple of years.

Pete didn't have any trouble finding work. He got a job at Con Ed as a mechanic and driver and stayed there for 41 years.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
It's all rock and roll.

Pete's next car was the '55 Chevy he's driving around in now. In 1986, he added a brown 1972 Nova.

By the way, 1972 was the year he got married the first time, and 1986 was the year he started dating the woman who would become his second wife.

He replaced the Nova with a 1988 burgundy Buick, which he bought in 2005, a year that holds no distinction for him other than this purchase. It's his everyday car. Pete wouldn't think of walking when he has wheels.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Pete and Champ clowning around.

"I haven't been on a subway or bus in decades," he says.

In 2010, Pete didn't buy or sell any cars. That's funny because a lot of big things happened to him.

After flunking a stress test, he had a quadruple bypass, took disability and retired at 62. He divorced wife No. 1 -- she has MS, and he supported her financially although they were separated for nearly a quarter century -- and married wife No 2.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The hood ornament is ready for takeoff.

"We had been together for 24 years, and I want to make sure she's taken care of when something happens to me," he says. "I took care of my first wife, too. I gave her half of the house we owned. So I gained a lot, and I lost a lot."

Since then, Pete's spent too much time watching repeats of Bonanza and The Rifleman with Champion, aka Champ, his 2 1/2-year-old Papillon.

"I used to work 60 hours a week, and I really miss it," he says. "I have a lot of knowledge in my hands and brain that is going to waste."

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Pete likes to show off the car.

The only time he feels alive is when he takes the '55 Chevy out. He used to show and race it regularly, but that got to be expensive on his limited retirement income.

He has to settle for the thrill of riding around the neighborhood. When people see -- and hear -- the Chevy, they stop, stare and snap their smartphones. Pete likes the attention.

"I am a legend in Astoria," he says.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The man in the mirror is Pete.

Driving jogs Pete's memory. He had a heart attack when he was 38. Heart trouble runs in his family like a gazelle.

He parks and lights up a Marlboro, leaning against the trunk of the Chevy. He's been smoking since he was 17. It's not as though he can't quit. He went 15 years without a puff. Stress jump-started his habit.

Sometimes, when Pete's driving his Buick on 20th Avenue, without thinking he turns the car into the Con Ed plant. The guards ask him what he's doing there.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com.
Copyright 2014 by Nancy A. Ruhling