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Hell on Wheels

Art by David ZarickI haven’t slept in 30 hours, and I’m puking into the manicured bushes of La Cienega’s Fountainview apartments. I smell like a New York piano mover after a long August day, and I’m about as pretty. Even the Sunset bus lines have ditched me — which explains why I’m plodding down La Cienega to Willoughby Street, back to my apartment. But it will take more than rotten breath and a snub by public transit to douse my spirits today. For yesterday, some unsuspecting Angelenos granted my foremost wish and solved my five-month transit nightmare. They stole my car. It’s gone. No phrase — from I love you to nonfat ice cream — has given me such giddy pleasure.

It may seem strange to dream of your car’s death and dismemberment, especially considering the city’s Spartan alternatives. But this four-wheel fiasco had something sinister under the hood. Hamlet warned that the devil can assume a pleasing shape, and this little beast paraded about as a ’95 Honda Civic. After two transmission failures and a $900 warranty, I was convinced the only way to rid myself of this curse was an out-and-out exorcism. And so it happened — on a midweek afternoon in my gated WeHo garage.

But I’m ahead of myself. About five months ahead.

It’s May, the month of flowers and tax refunds, and I’m on my way to Orange County, where Daddy and the used-car guy will haggle it out, and I’ll fly up the 405 in a shiny, nearly new Honda Civic. Finally, no one will make that "roll down your window" motion at a stoplight and hand me a DISCOUNT PAINT AND BODY SHOP card.

The deal is surprisingly painless — we test-drive, the sales guy does a tap dance, we counter, he does an encore, we accept: $11,800 plus my ’87 Accord in exchange for a car I won’t be embarrassed to valet park. But by the time I’m gunning up the on-ramp, sales receipt in the glove box, the seeds of my vehicular undoing are already planted: I bought the car 60 miles from home (hence, 60 miles to the repair garage) and I wrongly answered two questions: What’s that whirring noise? and Who needs a mechanic?

The first two months with the car are like a new love affair — we tear through the town, inseparable, speeding reckless and hot. I make needless treks to Rhino Records just so we can have an excuse to be together. But then, the signs — an overheat here; a slip of the gear there; the transmission failure on Beaudry Avenue, where a cabby, two moving men and a parking attendant have to back-roll her into a restricted loading zone; the chagrin at Pep Boys when she performs flawlessly.

I have the two-faced four-door towed to O.C. for service, but a black cloud of mass-transit mishaps remains — the smug stares of seniors with discount Metro passes strung around their necks as I fumble for correct change; the 200-decibel bark of the bus driver (mute when I asked which line goes to the Central Library) as I request a transfer at an inopportune moment. Not that there aren’t health benefits — gazing down as drivers pelt each other with horns and creative gestures is a great stress reliever, and my calves look fabulous from that Sunset hike.

By the time I’m chummy with the 2 and 105 lines, it’s time to retrieve the Civic, complete with a "new" transmission (from a wrecking yard — legal for used cars) and a coat of ash from the recent brushfires. My second transmission makes popping noises ("That’s just the belts adjusting," they say) and falls out of gear almost immediately. Given my experience with learning from dumb mistakes, I don’t wait for this one to go completely limp and lifeless. It’s still wheezing its last when I ring the dealership. If you’re curious about the next 10 days, jump back a paragraph and read to this point.

The tin lining: The towing and repair are freebies. To ward off future disaster, I get a $900 three-year, no-holds-barred warranty, and believe me, I’m prepared to roll her on into the Hollywood service depot for everything from an oil change to a wax ’n’ shine. If the agreement had covered an auto breast lift, I would’ve taken it.

Still, the warranty and fix-up don’t erase the past five months, and I begin to hope someone will steal the car. Because it isn’t officially a lemon (I checked), theft is my only real hope of unloading it. It’s also a fairly practical wish, as Honda Civics were the third most stolen wheels in L.A. last year (up from the No. 4 spot in ’96; top honors went, both years, to the Honda Accord). I grin, imagining a group of probationary teens stalling on Hollywood Boulevard as they try to pick up some honeys.

But before I have a chance to squeeze a dime out of my new warranty, someone yanks the floor mat from under my feet. I walk out to my locked garage on a sunny morning to find a pen and a contorted paper clip where my car used to be, Spot 6 (I think the other two sixes were painted over when I moved in). In spite of the inconvenience, an evil smile tugs at my lips. I am Ruthless People’s Danny DeVito, and the wife I loathe has just been kidnapped. Do I call the police immediately and make a sincere effort, or give the thieves a day to strip it bare?

Conscience prevails, and I dutifully mount my stairs. Having endured five years of UCLA’s bureaucracy helps me get through the next three hours of phone calls. (The Police Department, cell-phone providers and insurance agents are much more generous than bus drivers when doling out transfers.) The first priority is to file a police report at the Wilcox station — in person. Back to the bus. I bind my matted hair, get my paperwork together, then head up the hill to Sunset. I’m already heavy-lidded and hunchbacked from a sleepless night and monthly cramps that could cripple a prizefighter.

With the pain and exhaustion trying my endurance and the heat trying my day-old application of Secret Solid, I stop five times in as many blocks to rest. As I wait — and wait — for a bus, I calculate formulas from high school: the probability of the bus coming as I dash to Pink Dot for some Midol and a soda is directly proportional to my pain and inversely proportional to the number of buses running today. After another spasm, my patience hits absolute zero, and all other factors are instantly irrelevant. I run through six lanes of traffic and a cookie aisle, right to the root beer. As I exit Pink Dot, another brilliant theory emerges: Fuck the bus.

I’m goin’ home. If I can’t file a simple police report with the three phones, two computers and fax machine at my pad . . . Suddenly, my thoughts are interrupted by the charming detour in the Fountainview foliage, at which point you joined me. Strange as it is, last night’s supper isn’t the only thing I leave in those bushes. As I stroll home, clammy and sick, my lips curl in another smile — not of malice, but of genuine amusement. What was once an uncontrollable martyrous saga has become an absurd comedy of errors, starring me.

Tomorrow I get my case number from the police. My car and cell phone are insured — I’ll get them back or get new ones at no charge. I really don’t care which. I’d actually like a purple Toyota instead. What is that cliché? When the dealer sells you a lemon . . . get a warranty, take the money to 7-Eleven and buy 200 cases of lemonade. Something like that. It could be a month before I see any insurance money and a cold day in hell before I see that Honda again. I won’t miss it. But I am pining away for the 50 or so tapes that were stashed under the passenger seat — my Sugarplastic/Negro Problem/Sky Cries Mary mix, my medley of Rachmaninoff and Mozart, all my high-bias babies, gone. I’ll be re-recording those till New Year’s.


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