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A Considerable Town

What I Learned While Driving a Clunker in L.A.

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Thu, Apr 26, 2012 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge The writer and The Sled - PHOTO BY DREW BARILLAS
  • Photo by Drew Barillas
  • The writer and The Sled
In our new column, First Person, L.A. writers tackle the good, the bad and the funny about life as they know it.

Three years ago, I became the proud owner of a 1988 Toyota Corolla with 240,000 miles on it, approximately 40 dents -- I stopped counting -- and a broken cassette player.

Times were tough. I had moved to California from Florida, and for a year my future bride and I shared a car. In Los Angeles, that's like trying to rub your belly, pat your head and masturbate at the same time. But writing assignments were hard to come by, so I took a waiter/bartender job at a fancy country club about the same time Sally started a new job on the opposite side of town. Sharing wheels no longer worked.

So we found the Corolla, for which we paid $800. The Manhattan Beach couple who sold it to us had been its only owners. They were probably thinking: suckers.

The car sat so low to the ground, its nickname was a given the first time I slid behind the wheel: The Sled.

The Sled floats around town on spongy shock absorbers. The sunroof doesn't work. The key doesn't beep. Her metallic blue paint job is flecked with tiny, dark pollution spots. I have never washed her -- even after she got egged one Halloween.

But The Sled is reliable. Once I forked out $300 to shore up the fuel pump and carburetor, she has faithfully sputtered along. Nothing fancy. Just basic transportation. And that's fine with me.

It is not, however, the Los Angeles way.

You should see the looks I get driving The Sled up and down tony Montana Avenue. Benzes and Beemers always give us plenty of clearance -- as if being in close proximity means they're in danger of contracting that dreaded disease called Poor.

My darling wife has forbidden The Sled from hitting the freeways, so I've done it only twice. The Sled is a bit sluggish getting up to speed, but that isn't a problem: When fellow drivers see us coming, they actually slow down and give us room. Again, probably the fear of getting too close. They look at my car and think they know all about me. I wonder, sometimes, if they are on to something.

When I have to go downtown for a City Council meeting or some such nonsense, I borrow Sally's luxury (everything's relative) vehicle, a 2008 Scion XB. But I won't let Sally drive The Sled. It's hard to admit it, but I don't want her getting The Look.

In my past life as a professional fishing guide on Gasparilla Island on Florida's Gulf Coast, there were times I owned two boats but no car. Didn't need one. Downtown Boca Grande on Gasparilla consisted of five square blocks. You could go anywhere on a bike or a golf cart. The Sled would have been right at home there. It might beat a golf cart in a short race.

Driving The Sled makes me think of Erin Brockovich, driving all over the Inland Empire to ferret out the dirty truth of corporate toxic dumping. Nobody paid any attention to her -- probably because her car was a rattletrap and fellow drivers averted their eyes the same way they would if a homeless person crossed their path. And look how that ended: Brockovich bested them all.

I don't think there's an Erin Brockovich moment in store for The Sled, though. Her days are numbered, mainly because there's no way she'll pass another smog check. The official story is that it was a miracle she passed her last one.

The recession feels like it's lifting. I've said goodbye to the country club. I'm getting paid to write again, and I'm thinking about a convertible. No more lowriding in The Sled. I dream that the new -- or at least, newish -- convertible will shout, "I belong here." But my wife brings me back down to earth and makes me wonder if I imagined The Look.

"No one in L.A. is looking at you," Sally says. "They are too busy checking themselves out in the rearview mirror."

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