A Life in 10 Cars

1. 1954 Studebaker Commander station wagon. My parents are eating popcorn at the old Centinela Drive-In. I doze, in feetie pajamas between them. My mother’s water breaks. Six years later, I finally catch the last half-hour of Babes in Toyland. The hilarious shenanigans of Ray Bolger and Tommy Kirk are well worth the wait. My 6-year-old brother likes it too.

2. 1959 Sunbeam Alpine. The year I turn 5, my father buys a used cream-colored roadster scarcely bigger than the pedal-powered Fire Chief parked behind it in the driveway. As far as I know, the Alpine is never operational. The car must have represented the first blush of my father’s midlife crisis, but at the time it just seems like a very small car that is too stubborn to run. Not long afterward, he cashes in his pension, sells the Alpine and moves us all to Catalina Island, where he plans to write a novel about a mountain climber. Six weeks later, we are back at home.

3. 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Sports Coupe, two-tone blue and white. My grandfather moves to the Reseda Jewish Home for the Aging. My mother, who has just gotten her driver’s license, gets the Bel Air. Within a week, she manages to jump the sidewalk when she accidentally shifts the car into reverse. We are all unhurt, but the car is destroyed, as is a small wall in downtown Inglewood.

4. 1960 Oldsmobile Super 88 Convertible. It leaks. It smells. The black leather upholstery hangs in shreds. It is bright red, has taillights that look like booster rockets, and sports enormous horizontal fins that jut from the car like razors. When new, the car was undoubtedly a sight to behold, but in the ’70s it is so spectacularly inappropriate that my brothers and I usually insist on walking to school rather than risk being seen in it. The Oldsmobile becomes the indelible family trademark. Precisely three weeks before my 16th birthday, my mother donates the car, which has recently become modish, to the auto shop class at Dorsey High School, where she teaches. Revenge, it is said, can be sweet.

5. 1967 Chevrolet Biscayne. The car is a sort of stripped-down Impala with the heft of a linotype machine and a shape that always seemed to remind people of a beached and gasping manatee. My mother buys the car from her friend Sharon, a woman famous for her ability to pick up the cheapest car on any lot; the bait in the bait-and-switch ads whose obvious deficiencies nudge everybody else toward higher-priced sedans. The Biscayne has no air conditioning, no power steering or brakes, no functional heater, not even a radio, although its weirdly powerful 427 could probably have survived an assault from an anti-tank gun. My mother is not a very good driver. Before the Biscayne is passed down to me, she manages to dent all of the major body panels, including the trunk and the roof. The rear passenger-side windows are smashed out, and the driver’s side window is stuck about halfway. The floor of the back seat is a sodden, permanent midden of fast-food wrappers, gas-station receipts and the paperback mystery novels she consumes at the rate of one or two every day. A small crop of mushrooms makes an appearance in the back seat not long after the February rains. My punk-rock friends find it amusing to spray paint anarchy signs and their band names on the car. The Beverly Hills police threaten me with serious jail time if I ever drive the car into their city again. Cops outside the Eastside club Vex inform me the car is too ugly to tow, but not before knocking out one of the taillights for sport. Somebody tosses a dead cat into the back seat, probably on a street behind the Starwood, although to be fair it may have taken me a few days to notice. The rains return. The mushrooms return. A Culver City cop, digging through the stinking debris in the back seat for the narcotics he is sure I have hidden, vomits when he thrusts his hands into a big, slimy patch of fungus. I buy a bus pass. The car stays parked in a Sav-On parking lot for almost a year, until the neighborhood kids finally put a match to it. Even then, the fungus-encrusted back seat is too evil to burn.

6. 1972 Plymouth Satellite wagon. Unaccountably, I buy Sharon’s next vehicle, which is as long as a fire truck and may be the last big car in America that still comes with a three-on-a-tree manual transmission. On the way home from Sharon’s house, a Datsun tries to pass me on the inside as I turn onto La Cienega. It doesn’t make it. The crumpled little Datsun resembles something you might find in a wastebasket. The Plymouth seems barely dented, but the steering wheel never quite works right again. After a couple of months of nothing but right turns, I abandon that car to the Sav-On parking lot too.

7. 1971 Datsun 510. The green paint is blistered, as if from a fire. The left headlight dribbles out of its socket. The car overheats when it so much as passes a hill. I keep a jug of water in the back seat to refill the leaky radiator, which I have to do at least twice on an average trip to CalArts. When it gets up past 50, the car shimmies uncontrollably, as if it were driving over the Vincent Thomas Bridge during a 7.4 earthquake. It is possible to obtain something as important as a car by bartering small amounts of drugs for it, but as in this case, it is rarely a good idea. When the car is towed away by campus police, I go to pick it up at the impound yard. On an impulse, I grab my cello out of my trunk and run.

8a. 1964 Cadillac Coupe de Ville convertible. Really good vintage cars are rarely available for $600 in the Weekly classifieds, and this primer-colored beauty, which may be less a Cadillac than a vaguely Cadillac-shaped chunk of Bondo, is no exception. There are chemicals, I discover, that can technically get a car to running when you spray them into the carburetor. The hitch is, of course, they don’t keep it running very long.

8b. 1968 Cadillac Coupe de Ville convertible. $1,800 vintage cars from the Weekly classifieds are somewhat nicer, I discover, and the Romanian boyfriend of the aspiring actress who is selling the car is almost persuasive in his description of the car’s cream-puff provenance. It chugs like a motorboat and has the turning radius of the Queen Mary, but you can fit eight people into it on a trip to the beach or a drive-in movie, and a Marshall stack plus a drum kit fits easily into the trunk. It is in this car that I romance the woman I will eventually marry. We drive through a cloud of butterflies on the Tejon Pass on the way to see the wildflowers, and they splatter on the windshield like balls of paint. When I pop the hood later, the radiator grille is encrusted with a butterfly mosaic Gaudi might have envied, hundreds of interlaced bright wings iridescing in the early-morning sun. The next New Year’s Eve, outside my apartment in Koreatown, close enough to midnight that the sound of the collision is masked by the sound of AK-47s fired straight into the air, a drunk guy plows smack into the side of the parked vehicle, bending the rails of the frame into what a mechanic would later describe as seagulls flying in tandem.

9. 1986 Ford Thunderbird. My father had always said that I would drive his car over his dead body. And when he is felled by a massive heart attack in a Canadian parking structure, I do. The ashtray overflows with his cigarette butts, which I can’t bring myself to throw out. The trunk bulges with magazines and newspapers containing almost everything I had ever written, stories he claimed he’d never read. In the cassette player is a radio performance of the Verdi Requiem he’d taped a few weeks before his death. It seems significant somehow, so I drive up through the San Gabriels and snap his tape into the deck, but after a few bars of Verdi’s magnificent trumpets the music deteriorates into degraded static, then into silence. If this is a message from beyond, I have no idea what it means.

10. 1998 Dodge Ram 1500 Quad Cab. Ram tough. With a baby seat in the rear.

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