Driving down Vermont Avenue, you might spot, next door to the Islamic Center of Southern California, one of those alarming signs of the times that are multiplying as the economy cartwheels to a crash. It's an anonymous-looking building with a huge parking lot, whose facade simply bears the number 444. For years this address was the site of Vermont Chevrolet Buick, a car dealership whose besieged Koreatown employees had defended it with their own guns during the 1992 riots. Since July, however, it's been home to City Hyundai, which has yet to put up its own signage.
Left: Havanna, 2006
You can still make out the old Chevy logos that are covered up in pale-blue tarp, the way Catholic altar crosses and statues are veiled in purple during Lenten season. Unlike Christians who believe in resurrection, however, few in America are putting money on General Motors coming back from the dead.
Last week Republican Senators, paying back the United Auto Workers
union for helping to throw so many of their colleagues out of office in
November, voted down a bailout for the Big Three automakers. Themselves
briefly resurrected to participate in a lame-duck Congressional
session, these Republicans used the country's financial crisis not to
fix Detroit but to commit one last act of industrial sabotage against
the U.S. economy.
The Senators voting against the Midwest-based car factories were mainly from the South and
they wrapped their votes in the flag by talking about loyalty to the American taxpayer,
fiscal responsibility, etc. What they left out is that they represent states that are home to non-unionized, Japanese-owned auto plants — Toyota, Honda and Nissan will reap financial bonanzas if their American competition is
No question, there's blame aplenty to go around when it comes to Detroit, especially since the Big Three's car designs since 1969 have basically involved little more than attaching four tires to an ugly rectangle of stamped steel. But the fact that men and women in Hamtramck make better wages and enjoy better retirement benefits than those in Smyrna, Tennessee, is no reason why, as the GOP insisted, UAW workers should suddenly be put on par with their counterparts in right-to-work states.
On a gut level it's frightening to think of an America without Chevys. How did that old song from San Pedro's The Rub go?
(Everybody knows there's nothing between the bottom and the top)
You can me about the death of Mama Cass,
But please don't tell me about the death of Pop,
Please don't tell me about the death of Pop.
In so many ways the Chevy was part of pop culture and its music. Its absence would not be the same as the mere disappearance of a longstanding brand, like Woolworth's or Pan Am. The Chevy is a creation that transcends the company that makes it — that exists in spite of General Motors.
If the Chevy passes, its funeral will evoke personal memories throughout the Republic. Members of my family still talk about the Chevys they owned when the wheels came with wooden spokes, and I remember thunderous afternoons in towns from Joplin to Wheeling, spent in the back seat of our Bel Air, watching my mother make baloney sandwiches for us, cold rain hammering on the roof.
Of course, I'm brought back to earth when I also remember that it was so cold inside our Chevy because the car heater was broken (again), not to mention the busted windshield wiper. Which is why nostalgia is a weak argument to bring to an economic debate, so maybe we'd best savor the Chevy now, while it's still around.
Perhaps the day will come when the only Chevys on the road will be the ones painstakenly maintained by car aficionados, the way Cuban drivers keep alive ancient Bel Airs like the one that took my family back and forth across the country. Who knows? Maybe Bush or the next Congress will act a little more forgivingly than the Senate did last week — if not for Detroit or for even the memory of the Chevy, but for an America that may well be soon humming a line from another song:
Drove my Chevy to the levee,
but the levee was dry.
Them good old boys were drinkin' whiskey and rye
Singing', “This'll be the day that I die.”
(Photos by the author)