Billy Crystal Remembers Childhood in '700 Sundays'

Comedian Billy Crystal's book "700 Sundays," based on his recent one-man play, is a tribute to his family -- especially his father, who died when Crystal was just 15. Crystal estimated that he shared only about 700 Sundays with his father, whom he deeply loves and admires.

The book, which takes a nostalgic look at the Long Beach, Long Island of yesteryear, is available in stores now, from Warner Books.

Chapter 1

We got a new car!

I was the most excited kid in the world because we finally got a new car, and I didn't even know what make it was.

All my father said on the phone was, "I just bought a new car, and it's a surprise, so, everybody be out in front of the house because I'm going to pull up exactly at noon." So right before noon, we stood in the driveway, my brothers, my mom and I, trying to guess what Dad bought.

"Maybe it's the Ford Fairlane," Joel, who was fifteen, wondered.

"No, I bet it's the Bonneville," Rip, eleven, said with authority.

"He mentioned something about the Chrysler Imperial," said Mom.

I interrupted, which I always did because I was the youngest and the shortest, which made me the loudest. I was also nine.

"Wait, he said it was a surprise! What if he got," as I looked up to the sky with hope, "a Cadillac ? " (I swear I could hear angels singing.)

We were silent for a brief moment, all of us considering that heavenly possibility, when we heard Pop's honk, and there he was waving, as he pulled up in our brand-new, right-out-of-the-showroom, 1957 . . . gray-on-gray Plymouth Belvedere. What the hell was he thinking? Of all the cool cars out there, he picks this one? A Plymouth? And gray? Gray isn't even its own color, it's a combination of black and white. And two tones of it? This was not the car of my dreams, but at least it was a new car with big fins, red leather interior and push-button transmission. The Plymouth replaced the only car I ever knew in my life and I was glad to see this car go. It was an embarrassing-to-drive-around-Long-Beach-in big, black, boxy, 1948 Chevrolet. This was an ugly automobile. It had a sun visor over the front windshield, so it looked like the car was wearing a fedora. Sometimes it looked like the car was an old-time film noir detective sitting in front of our house. It wasn't a family car. This was a getaway car. They killed Sonny on the Causeway in this car. Why on earth would he keep this car for nine years?

Two reasons. One, we couldn't afford anything else; and two, my father loved this car. He took perfect care of this car. He even named the car. He named the car "Nellie." Men always name their cars after women, and talk about them like they are women. It's always, "She's a beauty, isn't she?" It's never, "Isn't Ira a great-looking car?" Boats are almost always named after wives, daughters, or girlfriends. I have never seen the SS Larry. Even the man who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima named the plane after his mother, Enola Gay:

"Hi Mom, I just dropped the A-bomb on Japan and killed eighty thousand people, and I named the plane after you!"

"Oh son, thank you, I can't wait to call Ida, she's always bragging about her Sidney."

And men talk to their cars, just like they're women -- "Come on girl, turn over baby, turn over."

Men treat their cars like women: put a lot of miles on them, and eventually they trade them in for newer models.

Toward the end of Nellie's life with us, she suffered from post-ignition syndrome or PIS, as Emily Dickinson called it. That meant you would turn off the ignition, and poor Nellie would sputter and spew for a few minutes afterward. It sounded like Nellie was an old woman getting in the last words in an argument:

"No, it's you. It's you. Not me. It's you. It's you. It's you. Not me. It's you. Not me. Not me. It's you. It's you. Not me. It's you. It's you. It's you. Not me. It's you. Not me. Not me. It's you. Not me. Not me. F___ you!"

So finally we have the new car, with its intoxicating "new car smell," which smells exactly like . . .a new car. We took it out for a ride to celebrate at our favorite Chinese restaurant in Long Beach -- because it was the only Chinese restaurant in Long Beach -- a place on Park Avenue that we loved, a place called Wing Loo.

We were sitting in the front booth, the picture window behind us, and my dad was in a giddy mood. He had a couple of vodka gimlets, which is vodka, with just a splash of gimlet in it. And every time Mr. Loo would go by, Dad would giggle and say, "What's new, Loo?" And the gray-on-gray Plymouth Belvedere was outside, gleaming under the streetlight, as best a gray-on-gray Plymouth Belvedere can. We were having the time of our lives. In other words, a perfect time for something to go wrong.

Big John Ormento was one of the local Mafiosos in Long Beach. There were a number of reputed gangsters living there. In fact in the book of "The Godfather," Vito Corleone and family lived in Long Beach. Big John was scary, our Luca Brasi. While we were eating our egg rolls, and drinking our drinks with the little umbrellas in them, we had no idea that Big John Ormento was drunk driving his new car, a 1957, anti-Semitic Lincoln Continental. And he came roaring up Park Avenue, swerved and slammed into the back of the Belvedere, which then slammed into the back of the car in front of it, reducing our new car to a 1957 gray-on-gray Plymouth Belv! The crash was tremendous. We turned around so fast lo mein flew out of our mouths hitting and sticking to the window.

Big John staggered out of his car, surveyed the damage, shook his head a few times and started to laugh.

"Oh my God, it's Big John," Mom gasped.

"I'm going out there," said Dad as he started to push his way out of the black leather booth.

"Don't, Jack, what if he has a gun?" Dad ordered another gimlet.

Ormento ran to his car and took off.

Ten minutes later, Officer Miller was questioning my father.

"Did you see who did this, Mr.Crystal?"

Dad never hesitated.

"No, we heard the crash, and by the time we got out here, they were gone."

Mom looked at Dad, confused a bit, but knowing he probably did the right thing. Joel and Rip and I were dying to tell, but "dying" being the operative word here, we said nothing.

"Some people," the cop muttered. "Must have been some kid going too fast."

"Yeah," said Pop. "These kids today . . ."

It was a Sunday night, and Dad's service station, "Stan's," was closing early. Stan told Dad he didn't have any room for the car in the shop, but he would tow it to our house and pick it up in the morning.

The twisted piece of metal sat in front of our house, at 549 East Park in Long Beach, Long Island. A sleepy beach town of approximately ten thousand people, which nodded off in the winter and woke up in July to three times as many enjoying a beautiful summer at the sea, Long Beach was surrounded by water. The bay (Reynold's Channel) on one side of town, with its beautiful wetlands; and the Atlantic Ocean on the other, its thunderous waves hitting the shore of beautiful white sand beaches. The boardwalk stretched the length of the town and featured some amusement park rides. There were games of chance, and a batting cage, a soft ice cream shop, a knish place (Izzy's) and a large municipal swimming pool.

Modest homes, and the occasional thirties mansion, dotted the tree-lined streets. A few hotels near the boardwalk were once filled with people, making Long Beach at one time a sort of Atlantic City without the saltwater taffy and the diving horse. The abandoned submarine watch tower, left standing since World War II, was the place to take your girl for a kiss, or smoke a cigarette for the first time. At one time there was horseback riding on the beach, and supposedly George M. Cohan wrote "Only 45 Minutes from Broadway" about Long Beach.

It was known as America's healthiest city, which is why my sickly grandparents moved there from the Bronx and bought homes for my Uncle Danny and us, in 1951. It was a wonderful place to live. However, at nine o'clock that Monday morning, Long Beach didn't feel like the safest place to be. Stunned, the five of us sat in the living room bemoaning the loss of the Belvedere. The doorbell rang and I got it. I always got the door because I thought someday somebody's going to be there who would take me to Hollywood.

When I opened the door, there was an overcoat, a neck and an eyebrow. Big John Ormento was in the doorway. He looked down at me, which wasn't difficult. I was surprised to see his face. Usually gangsters like this are on television, sitting in silhouette confessing to their gruesome crimes, their voices electronically altered, sounding like Darth Vader on Quaaludes. Big John's voice was deep -- it actually seemed to echo -- and he had an accent as thick as his police file. "Can I see your father, please?"

My heart was beating so loud, I thought he could hear it. My throat was dry, making it a full octave higher than it already was.

"I will go and see if there is one here." And I ran into the living room, faster than a hyperactive midget wrestler.

"Dad, Big John Ormento's here. Big John Ormento's outside. He's going to kill us. He's going to kill all of us! We're doomed!"

"Billy, calm down. Calm down. He's not here to hurt us. He probably just wants to talk to me. Let him in."

"Me? I'm nine! I've got everything to live for!" (I became a better actor later.) "Please."

"Let him in."

I went back to the door to get Big John; he seemed even bigger, his head was so large it caused a total eclipse of the sun.

"Come on in."

He followed me into the living room. He stood there, looking menacing, and uncomfortable. He stared at my dad, took off his hat, and then he spoke.

"Hey, how fast do think your car was going when it backed into my car?"

We all froze. Big John broke out in a Pavarotti kind of laugh.

"I'm just kidding. How you doing? I'm John Ormento. Nice to meet you, Mr. Crystal, Mrs. Crystal, you boys here. Listen. I'm very sorry for what happened to your car last night. Very sorry. It was my fault, it was an accident, believe me, it was an accident. If it wasn't an accident, this would be a condolence call.

"I talked to my 'friends' and they told me you didn't tell the cops nothing. So I want to make it up to yous."

"Okay, Mr. Ormento. I have my insurance card. We'll just put it through the insurance company."

Big John interrupted Dad with an impatient laugh, the same way he probably interrupted somebody who wasn't beating up a guy properly.

"No, no, no, no. We're not going to do something stupid like put it through the insurance company, no. Cuz let's face it, we are the insurance company! "I want to do something special for yous."

Dad looked confused.

"What do you mean 'special'?" "I asked around about you, Mr. Crystal. People like you. They respect what you do, and they like your wife and your boys here. Don't you think you should be driving around in a car that more befits a man of your altitude?"

We all looked confused. "What are you trying to say, Mr. Ormento?"

"What I'm trying to say is this, Mr. Crystal. I want to buy you a new car, any car you want, the car of your choice."

Things were looking up! Any car we want? The car of our choice? Oh baby, I was overjoyed! All those great cars were now rolling around my brain, like a slot machine: the Impala, the Bel Air, the Thunderbird, the Corvette! Oh, a Corvette! Think with me, Pop, think with me, Corvette, Corvette, Corvette, I said to myself over and over, trying to send my message telepathically.

"Let's just get this car fixed," Dad said.

Shit! I said to myself.

Big John looked angry, and as he stepped forward, he got bigger.

"Let me ask you something, Mr. K . . ." I wanted to correct him, but I have this thing about dying.

"You are refusing my offer? Huh? That upsets me. You know, that really upsets me, and it confuses me. Why would you not want me to buy you a new car?"

Dad stood tall and simply said, "Because, Mr. Ormento, I bought this one."

There was silence as they stared at each other.

It got tense. Big John's shark eyes trying to intimidate, as they lasered into Dad's eyes, trying to push him to reconsider, and probably thinking, How can I get this guy's whole body into a can of tuna. Dad, only five foot nine and 160 pounds, just stared back at Big John, unafraid.

I looked at my mother. She looked at my father, and she smiled a smile of pride that I've never, ever forgotten. She took one step over next to him, put her arm around Pop, and together the two of them smiled at Big John Ormento.

Those were my parents.

Two weeks later, the car came back. Well, Big John knew a lot about bodywork because the car looked great, and after we opened the trunk to make sure there were no bodies in it, we took it out for a ride. And everything was great until Dad tried to make a right turn. Almost impossible. The car barely reacted to Dad's turning of the steering wheel. It moaned and groaned; so did Dad. The car just couldn't make right turns very well. They couldn't fix that. You actually had to make three left turns in order to make one right turn. But it didn't matter; we had our new car.

They put me up front, in the middle, with my brothers in the back. I sat up front because I was the one who didn't need legroom; and I still don't. I always sat in between my mom and my dad because my mom never drove the car when Dad was around . . . never. Dad was very much a man of the times. He was the hunter, gatherer, when we were sitting like this, she would always take her left arm and put it behind my head and let it rest lightly on the right shoulder of the man that she loved so much. And I would sit in the middle, and I would look at him, my first hero, as he drove that car, his left arm outside the window getting that little yarmulke tan around his elbow, and smoking his cigarette -- because they told us in the fifties, "Cigarettes taste good and are so good for you." And he looked like he was driving a Rolls-Royce or a Bentley, never for once thinking he was driving a gray-on-gray Plymouth Belvedere that couldn't make right turns. That was my dad.

He worked so hard for us all the time. He held down two jobs, including weekend nights. The only day we really had alone with him was Sunday. Sunday was our day for my two brothers and I to put on a show and make them laugh. Sunday was our day to go up on the boardwalk in Long Beach and play Skeeball or Fascination, go to the batting cage, play baseball, go bowling, or to the movies, even a Broadway show. Sunday night was our night to go out to eat together. We'd always go out for Italian food, or Chinese food, because on Sunday nights, Jews are not allowed to eat their own food. That's in the Talmud.

"On the seventh day, God rested and then went to Twin Dragons for dinner, because He loved the ribs."

If you go to any Italian restaurant on a Sunday, there are only Jewish families. If you go to a Chinese restaurant, there are only Jewish families. Have you ever seen a Chinese family at a deli on a Sunday having a big plate of pickled herring, and chopped liver? It doesn't happen.

And Dad would come in like three, four o'clock on a Sunday morning after working all weekend. Just as the sun came up, I would tiptoe over to their bedroom, which was right next to my room in the back, and I would quietly open the door just a little, and there they would be, Mom and Dad, lying there, looking so quiet, and so peaceful together. And I would sit in the doorway waiting for him to wake up, just to see what we were going to do together that day. I just couldn't wait for Sundays. I couldn't wait for Sundays.

He died suddenly when I was fifteen. I once calculated that I had roughly 700 Sundays. That's it. 700 Sundays. Not a lot of time for a kid to have with his dad.