A Car Named Nelly

By Brad Dison

It was 1957 in Long Beach, New York.  Billy’s father had finally decided to trade in their old 1948 Chevrolet for a new car.  Although it was the only car Billy could remember the family owning, he was glad to see it go.  Billy described their old car as a “big, black, boxy,” “ugly automobile” with a sun visor over the front windshield which made the car look like it was wearing a fedora.  It reminded him of a getaway car from gangster films of the 1930s. Brimming with pride, Billy’s dad called home to tell everyone to be out in the driveway precisely at noon to welcome the new car.   Everyone in the household—Billy, his two brothers, and his mother—could hardly stand the anticipation.  They argued playfully about which make, model, and even the color of car dad was bringing home.  Mom hoped for a Chrysler Imperial. Joel wanted a Ford Fairlane. Rip wanted a Chevrolet Bonneville.  Billy hoped for a Cadillac regardless of color or model.  His siblings and mother each held firm to their preferred choice.  Suddenly, they heard a HONK! HONK!  Billy’s dad turned the new family car into the driveway.  Billy, his mother, and brothers stood there in silence.  Their jaws had dropped.  Billy’s dad pulled into the driveway in a brand new…two tone gray Plymouth Belvedere. Although it had big fins, red leather interior, and push-button transmission, it was far from the car of their dreams.  Billy’s dad loved the car and named it “Nellie.”

To celebrate their new car, Billy’s dad took the family to their favorite Chinese restaurant in Long Beach.  Billy’s dad strategically sat the family in the front booth of the restaurant so he could stare out and admire the new Plymouth through the large picture window.  Nothing, they thought, could spoil Billy’s dad’s mood, and they were happy for him.  Suddenly, they heard a horrendous crash.  They looked out of the window, and, for the second time that day, their jaws dropped.  A brand new 1957 Lincoln Continental had just crashed into the back of Nellie.  The force of the impact slammed Nellie into the car in front of it.  Billy’s dad’s pride was almost as crushed as his new car.  They instantly recognized the man who staggered out of the driver’s seat of the Lincoln Continental as Big John Ormento, one of the most dangerous gangsters who lived in Long Beach.  Against the advice of his whole family, Billy’s dad left the restaurant booth and went to look at his precious Nellie.  Big John, so inebriated that he could hardly stand, looked at Billy’s dad, then at the damages to all three cars.  Without saying a word, Big John ran back to his damaged car and fled the scene.

By this time a crowd, which included Billy’s family, had gathered around Nellie and the other damaged car.  A policeman arrived and asked Billy’s dad what happened.  Billy’s mother was confused for only a moment when Billy’s dad replied that they had heard the crash but by the time they got to the car the culprit was gone.  Billy’s dad, never one to tell a lie, was protecting his family.   The cop concluded that some kids driving too fast had caused the accident.  That should have been the end of the story.

The next morning, Billy’s family sat quietly in the living room saddened by the crumpled car parked in their driveway when the doorbell rang.  Billy opened the door and was shocked to see Big John standing there.  “Can I see your father, please?”  Terrified by the thought that Big John was there to kill his father and maybe the whole family, Billy somehow replied that he would see if he could find his dad.  Billy nervously closed the door.  Big John was unaccustomed to this type of behavior but took it in stride.  Billy ran to his father and told him Big John wanted to see him.  Billy tried to tell his father to escape through the back door or maybe a window, but Billy’s dad just said to let Big John in the house.  The small living room made Big John seem even larger than he was.  After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, Big John said, “How fast do you think your car was going when it backed into my car?”  Everyone froze.  Big J began a deep hysterical laugh.  Big John was only joking.  He apologized for the damages to Nellie and thanked Billy’s father for not “ratting him out” to the policeman.

To show his appreciation, Big John offered to buy Billy’s dad a brand-new car of any make and model he wanted.  Billy’s thoughts returned to Cadillac.  Mom thought of the Chrysler Imperial.  Joel imagined a Ford Fairlane.  Rip daydreamed about a Chevrolet Bonneville.  Billy’s dad, however, thought only of Nellie, his precious Plymouth Belvedere, and politely declined the offer.  Billy’s dad explained with a certain sense of pride that Nellie was the car he had worked and paid for. Billy’s mother put her arms around his father.   Big John was not in the habit of being told no, but Billy’s dad was firm.  Billy’s dad finally relented and allowed Big John to have the car repaired.  Two weeks later, Big John returned Nellie to Billy’s family.  The family cautiously checked to ensure that there was no body in the trunk.  Billy’s dad proudly drove Nellie, the two-tone gray Plymouth Belvedere, for the next decade.  This story was kept secret in Billy’s family for over 50 years.  It took a while, but Billy eventually saw the humor in the situation, which we should expect.  You and I know Billy because of his skills at acting, comedy, and filmmaking.  His name is Billy Crystal.


Crystal, Billy. 2005. 700 Sundays. New York, NY: Time Warner Book Group.