Risen Apes: Gearhead
S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Gearhead,” Park recalls every vehicle he’s had over the years and explains why he prefers walking.
I wrote in my last column (“All In”) about my car being burglarized in Portland. I was staying at my friend Karl’s place, and when I found the thieves had broken the motor in the driver’s side window he told me it wasn’t a problem.
“We have our own mobile mechanic here,” he declared, sweeping his arm around the neighborhood. “He fixes your car right at your house and—if he can’t—tows it to his shop.”
Friends are good, I thought, but rich ones are even better. We left for our Sun River reunion that morning and the mechanic called the next day.
“Hey, High!” said Karl. “Marco’s wondering if you know what metal-on-metal means?”
“Because that’s what your brakes are apparently… he can’t believe you drove from Port Townsend like that.”
Cars: if I can walk somewhere I do.
In 1966 I drove the first vehicle I owned (a ’57 Plymouth) from Longview, Washington to the Bay Area without brakes. There was a hole in the reservoir, so fluid would squirt out every time I pumped them, meaning I had to coast to the shoulder periodically to fill it.
I was only nineteen at the time, but my indifference to vehicular maintenance persists to this day. (I don’t fix anything but dead batteries and flats unless I have to.) This was apparent when I returned to the Bay Area the following year.
I was driving a ’56 Ford by then and Ned Gumbo mentioned it when he called the other day.
“I was telling Lisa about that old Ford of yours, High,” he said. “How there were empty bottles and cans stacked to the ceiling in back, just like your Plymouth, but it had that death mobile shimmy to it, too.”
“Yeah, the alignment wobbled between fifty and sixty miles per hour.”
“Wobbled!? Come on, man, it was like a rock tumbler in there! How about the time you, me and Hale drove it across the Bay Bridge to Berkeley? It shook so long and so violently that it took three of us to hold the wheel.”
“I thought the wheels would come off. We were on acid, too, remember?”
“No, you were on acid, High … Hale and I were just drinking. And how’d you’d drive that car all the way from Longview by yourself?”
“You had strangers grab the wheel, too? Really?” Ned laughed. “Damn! I bet they’re still telling that story.”
“I don’t know … there must have been a dozen of ’em and they bailed pretty quickly, especially the girls.”
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I gave that Ford to a friend when I left for New York City that summer. (She, in turn, passed it to a stepbrother she didn’t like.) I didn’t own another car for two years, then Gumbo found me a ’52 Cadillac somewhere. I was living in San Leandro, California at the time and forget what I paid for it … twenty bucks, maybe? (I rarely had more than that to spare.) There was a leak in the radiator and it overheated constantly, so I added rubber divots to the water when I filled it.
They’d plug the hole long enough for me to cross the bridge to San Mateo, and the damn car was sturdy as a tank otherwise. I was driving it on the sidewalk (behind a load of vodka and LSD) when I got my first and only DUI that August; ran over news racks, parking meters and tree planters before the cops arrested me in Belmont.
I had some bumps and bruises afterwards but—other than a flat tire—the Caddy looked great. I gave it to Gumbo when I left town and it was another three years before I bought a ’65 Chevy Corvair, the car Ralph Nader wrote Unsafe At Any Speed about. (I think I paid fifty dollars for it but was flush with hay bucking money at the time.) Drove it to Olympia, Washington for my first semester at Evergreen State and was figuring I’d pulled one over on the seller when, after I stopped at an intersection, the guy in the truck next to me honked.
I rolled down the window, looked at him.
“Hey, hippie!” he laughed. “Your car’s on fire!”
The engine was behind me and sure enough … flames and smoke were pouring from the vents. I scooped up my book bag, leapt out and ran.
I pretended to be going for help but just kept going instead. The following summer my hay boss offered me his dead mother’s ’63 Cadillac for a thousand bucks. It was way out of my price range but was such a good deal (it only had 1,300 miles on it), that even I couldn’t resist.
It cleaned out my savings, though, and when I got back to Olympia I had to live in it. I finally found a studio over a Korean grocery store for thirty-a-month at the same time I left the Caddy lights on overnight.
I didn’t think much of it, figured I’d get the battery jumped eventually. Then my landlord stopped by a few weeks later, asked me what happened to the car.
“Oh, it’s parked out front,” I said.
“No it isn’t,” he said. “Hasn’t been for a week.”
I looked out the window and sure enough … it was gone. Seems the police had towed it away for parking violations but I never actually inquired about it (I meant to, but didn’t own a phone, either). Caught rides with friends or hitchhiked when I had to get to campus.
Which is what I was doing when the guy who’d bought the Caddy at auction picked me up.
You don’t mess with irony like that, so I kept my role in the matter to myself. Worked the California hayfields for the third and final time that summer, where I bought a co-worker’s ’60 Chevy for a hundred bucks.
He was the crew mechanic and a fastidious, Handy Andy kind of guy, so I don’t remember having too many problems with it. (It was, in fact, coveted by many of my Lake Tahoe peers.) I was working the graveyard shift at a casino there and had moved from the Black Jack Motel to an apartment with my buddy Larry; we had the same days off and after partying with a couple Keno girls we woke to find both them and the Chevy gone.
I was working the graveyard shift at a casino there and had moved from the Black Jack Motel to an apartment with my buddy Larry; we had the same days off and after partying with a couple Keno girls we woke to find both them and the Chevy gone.
Neither of us could remember where we’d left it, much less how we got back to the apartment without it. I still had the keys in my pocket (which meant I hadn’t given or sold it to anyone), so I figured I’d spot it on a side street or maybe a casino parking lot eventually but never did. Left Tahoe a few months later and it was four years before I owned another car.
Which reminds me: between the ’57 Plymouth and the ’56 Ford there was Lonesome Louie’s ’48 Buick. (It’s easy to forget, as I only owned it for a few hours.) Louie left it to me before jumping under a bus and—after a few cocktails—I left it somewhere myself.
And I have to admit: listing my cars like this is kind of an eye-opener. It’s always been hard to think of them individually, much less as a group (who dwells on necessary evils?) but I do see certain patterns emerging.
Like owning a dozen vehicles without reselling any of them, or how when I wasn’t losing the damn things I risked my life just driving them.
The only real positive, in fact, are the years I went without one. I’d love to attribute that to common sense, or even a stab at self-preservation (how as a menace to society it was safer for everyone when I was afoot), but in truth I was just too broke.
Then my Scientology bride and I moved from Seattle to Los Angeles in ’77, and I wasn’t getting around that town without a ride. Fortunately my father’s mother had become too old to drive and she sold me her ’60 Ford Galaxie for eighty bucks. The mileage was high but it ran well and—inasmuch as I didn’t drink anymore—there was even room for passengers. Other than a series of flat tires, in fact (I was partial to cheap retreads) it lasted me through a half dozen apartments, several jobs, a second Scientology wife, even a trip to Tijuana to divorce the first one.
When it was time to leave SoCal I doubted the old girl would make it so I gave her to a buddy at the Scientology halfway house. I don’t remember his real name; everyone called him “Froggie” because he looked amphibious.
Or maybe that was just me. (I know it didn’t earn me any points with his wife, so I only half-believed her later when she told me he’d driven off a bridge on pain pills.) By then I was back in Seattle, working as a word processor, and when the road beckoned anew I called my brother Ben, told him I’d be passing through soon.
I reached his farm a few weeks later and he took me straight to his driveway; showed me a gray ’81 Ford truck with a stick shift and long bed.
“It’s yours if you want it, Wilson,” he said. “Part of a fleet of trucks I bought for the farm.”
“You mean … you’re giving it to me?” I said.
“Well, it cost me eight thousand, so I’d like you to repay me what you can when you can, but that’s up to you. In the meanwhile you will have to insure it.”
A new vehicle, with payments and—worst of all—insurance? It was a lot to take in.
“Gee, Ben,” I said, “I appreciate the thought but I don’t know …”
“For fuck’s sake, Wilson!” he said. “You’re thirty-five years old now! It’s time to grow up, take on some responsibilities!”
He probably had me there. I know I paid him back most of the money (he waived the last couple grand, bless his generous soul), and I put 350,000 miles on that truck over the next twenty years. It never had an engine problem or breakdown, much less a leak (even the tires went flat in the driveway). I transported tons of soil for my pot plants in it and drove it across the States for emu and ostrich shows, along with making dozens of runs to California and back.
They don’t make ’em like that anymore and I kept it until the undercarriage rusted away. Gave it to a local charity and turned to a series of wrecks (a Buick Skylark, a couple Chevys, two Plymouths and a Lincoln) in the years ahead. They never lasted long, and when their time came I’d donate them to whomever would take them, then walk three blocks to the local garage. They usually had a lemon some welsher had run out on and would sell it to me for the cost of repairs.
Which raises the question … why didn’t I get a real car? A dependable ride would have made life a lot easier and I was a commercial pot grower by then (I might have been broke occasionally, but I usually had five or ten grand around). I know I’d tell anyone who asked (usually friends driving me somewhere) that the old cars were great as props, a way to convince the neighbors I really was a starving artist.
Which worked as far as it went, I suppose (and I rented new vehicles for my trips to California), but when it comes to things that don’t matter to me (and cars top that list) I’m a notoriously lazy bastard. Does the engine turn over, do the wipers work, will the tires last another fifty miles? That’s the most I can muster.
Though I gotta say … the ’03 Honda Accord my friend in Portland gave me is a pretty slick ride, easily the most comfortable and luxurious car I’ve owned. So I gave Marco the go-ahead on the brakes and the car was waiting for me when Karl and I returned from Sun River.
I hopped in, started ’er up, rolled to the bottom of the driveway and hit the brake pedal, smashing my head into the windshield.