It was karma, I figured. This girl in San Bernardino needed cash and I needed wheels. The brakes on my beleaguered ’86 Volvo had frozen up for good, and the San Berdoo seller sounded desperate. Her premature baby was racking up hospital bills, she said. I could almost name my price. Can’t say why I set my sights on vintage Mustangs, but after 20 years of driving sensible cars, by the summer of 1999, I was ready to take a chance.
I called an acquaintance named Duke, a drinker with automotive expertise. I told him I had six grand burning a hole in my pocket. He picked me up in his shit-brown Caprice Classic, and we headed out. “Buy it cheap and fix it up,” he said.
An hour east of L.A., we pulled off Interstate 10 and there it was in a vacant lot. One look at the stocky, faded-blue body and I was intrigued. A peek under the hood and Duke was awed. “The engine alone is worth whatever she’s askin’,” he said, four beers into a scorching August afternoon.
Moments later, the seller pulled up. She had to get back to the hospital and was in a hurry. “I’d like to get $3,000 for it,” she said. We went for a test drive. “I’ll give you $2,700,” I said, figuring the difference would cover the renovation.
The speed of the transaction was exhilarating. I’ve spent longer deliberating shoe purchases.
As we pulled back onto I-10 — me behind the wheel of the ’stang, Duke in the Caprice Classic — two things occurred to me: This car was a beast, and I might not be man enough to handle it.
For starters, the engine was bored out for street racing, not low-key cruising as I’d envisioned. The undersize wooden steering wheel and oversize mag wheels might have suited Steve McQueen, but they were a bit macho for me. Then there was the sound the engine made — a menacing rumble that set off car alarms, admonishing me that any speed less than 80 mph was unacceptable.
White knuckles on the wheel, I watched Duke fade in the rearview as I ate up the interstate. Thirty miles down the road, I noticed a nasty shimmy. A week later, I discovered that the drive shaft was a quarter-inch from snapping.
“You’re lucky to be alive,” a mechanic told me.
He would be the first of many to make that observation. The car was unsafe at any speed. It had no horn and broken seat belts. In a matter of weeks, my exhilaration turned to muted optimism, which soon yielded to denial. Repair bills mounted. I became more familiar with the bus routes.
One day the steering wheel fell off in my hands in the middle of an intersection. Then, after some guy had rigged the horn for me, the steering column caught on fire. I had to pull over and use my road atlas to tamp down the flames. Soon my insurance company discontinued roadside service for overuse.
The Stinger, as I dubbed it, became a topic of conversation. My friend Brim, whose father owned a small fleet of Mustangs when we were in high school, advised me, “Get out while you can.”
Jimmy, an ace fixer-upper, delighted in asking me how the renovation was coming. He knew I was fighting a war of attrition.
My wife’s first ride in the Stinger was her last. “Perfect for someone who works on cars,” she said. “You are not that someone.”
Yet there were moments of triumph. I enjoyed cruising Riverside Avenue on my way to work downtown, left arm out the window, right arm resting on the sunken bench seat. Gearheads would pull alongside me to ask what was under the hood. My friend Uncle Tim once set his beer on the roof at a Bad Company concert and declared, “The Stinger rocks.”
But when a bus T-boned me at First and Alameda — my fault, apparently — I sensed it was over. Still, I bought a new door in a final grab for redemption. Then I let a friend of a friend in Gardena work on the engine. Carburetor was never right after that.
The Youth Rescue Fund finally came by and took it off my hands — a tax-deductible donation. Once again, my practical needs and this Mustang could serve some higher purpose. Maybe an aspiring young mechanic will get to mess with it, I thought. More likely it’s been broken down and sold to specialty parts dealers.
I’d love to see where it ended up. I could drive over in my Honda Civic to check it out.
In the Inland Empire, in a dusty Fontana auto yard, Egon Kafka, 45-year-old ex–pool boy, stunt driver and distant cousin of Franz, houses the world’s largest collection of buses.
It’s hard to imagine anything, outside of presidential palaces or Middle Eastern countries, that you could collect with any more difficulty. But Kafka has amassed 115 buses in a makeshift chainlink emporium guarded by junkyard dogs on the hard palate of the high desert, not to mention 60 classic cars and sundry trucks and trailers.
“Cars are symbols of freedom, of status, the fast lane and the open road. They promise us speed, mobility, prosperity, sexual virility and the conquest of new lands. Who the hell would ever want to take the bus?” says Kafka, starting to sound suspiciously like Geraldine Chaplin’s “Opal from the BBC” character in Nashville, finding a ready-made metaphor for all things in a lot full of school buses. “But I think there are lessons to be taught by history. Just as, if you stare into it, the whole world is reflected in a drop of water, so it seems to me that buses can be a keyhole, a window, a lens onto the century of the internal-combustion engine, and how it pertains to civic responsibility, the common good and everything from Newton to Einstein. People today, especially kids, live in a virtual world; they don’t even hot-rod cars anymore, they hot-rod computers.”
Kafka and his faithful mechanic Richard Olsen have just returned from Machineryland, a forklift refurbishment lot that has crossed over into an adult theme park for the gearheads and parts foragers who inhabit this industrial backwater, and they’re a little giddy. They are overseeing the transfer of a prewar Art Deco Raymond Loewy–designed Greyhound Silversides Motor Coach to the Smithsonian Institution as part of the “America on the Move” exhibition, the museum’s first transportation exposition since 1962. Engineers are removing the front quarter housing from the fuselage with jackhammers and acetylene torches, and the fountains of sparks and dinosaur screech of metal on metal have the dogs on edge.
Surrounding them is an elephant’s graveyard of public and private transit: city buses, school buses, church buses, tour buses, jitneys, trams, trolleys, Airstream trailers and one lone train car.
There are buses from Disneyland, Hollywood Fantasy Tours, rare Kenworths and Peterbilts (truck makers who dabbled in buses), and a Scenicruiser, which employed two engines simultaneously. There is the bus that took prisoners to Manzanar, the internment camp for Japanese-Americans; a prewar Silversides with three generations of GI graffiti scratched into the back wall, which Kafka can’t bring himself to paint over; one of only three prototypes of a Mobile Hospital Catastrophe Unit, built prior to Pearl Harbor, with a V-8 engine and both incandescent and fluorescent lighting; and the only surviving Fageol Twin Coach “War Bus,” which transported civilian workers (“Rosie the Riveter” types) to defense plants during WWII.
Kafka owns the Graduate bus (in which Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross escape at the end); the I Love Lucy bus (from the William Holden episode in Hollywood); the Partridge Family bus (or at least the one used in the reunion show; the original was scrapped); and Gene Autry’s tour bus. He has a cosmetic duplication ‰ of the Rosa Parks bus that launched the Montgomery bus boycott and which he’s donated for numerous events during Black History Month. He even has dibs on the exact model International Harvester in hopes of someday restoring the original Ken Kesey Merry Prankster bus, currently rusting on the Kesey farm in Oregon with trees growing through it.
In person, Kafka seems like a storybook rendition of the friendly railroad engineer — blue coveralls, red bandanna, a pride in public service — even if, on closer inspection, you notice his Claremont Camera cap obscures a waist-length ponytail fixed in a bullwhip braid, or his rapid-fire delivery suggests a taller, edgier David Hyde Pierce. His speech is flecked with ’60s-style constructions like “grok” and “global village,” and his own “mo’ better mobility.” A recent half-hour documentary by filmmakers Sven Berkemeier and Rich Samuels, aptly titled Kafkaesque, presents Egon Kafka as a garden-variety eccentric, a role he seems to accept willingly as long as it advances his agenda.
“It’s a fine line between being a personality and being a wacko,” he says with a pained expression.
Kafka, the son of a psychiatrist who caught the second-to-last boat out of France in 1938 and an endocrinologist for the National Institutes of Health (his brother is the novelist Paul Kafka), dropped out of college in pursuit of a peripatetic lifestyle. He hopped freights, lived in a tent just below the snow line on Oregon’s Mount Ashland for a year, and trained llamas for Circus Vargas. Living in his VW Microbus in a cousin’s driveway in L.A. in 1981, he met next-door-neighbor Ralph Cantos, a blond surfer and pool boy with a small collection of buses he had picked up at auctions on the cheap (including the actual Big Blue Bus he had ridden to school in as a child in Santa Monica).
Cantos recognized Kafka as a fellow seeker, taught him a skill (pool maintenance) and infused him with an arbitrary yet binding passion for buses. Over time, Kafka became the chief financial patron and ultimately the spiritual steward of the collection (known formally as the Cantos Collection; www.cantoscollection.com).
To subsidize the collection, Kafka rents the buses out for commercials, music videos, and films like Forrest Gump, Pearl Harbor and Ali, and makes a living doing various film jobs, including precision stunt driving (he once rigged up a bus to go 70 mph in reverse through the Second Street tunnel). He estimates that over the past 20 years he has easily spent $1.5 million acquiring, transporting and maintaining his fleet.
Kafka’s dream is to found the American Road Transport, or ART, Museum, a nonprofit museum dedicated to the history of the American motor coach. He speculates that between 35 and 75 of his buses are true collector’s items (unlike cars, buses often had production runs of between 35 and 1,000 units).
He wrote to Elizabeth Dole, then head of the Red Cross, offering the Mobile Hospital Unit for the Red Cross Museum. He tried to donate the Rosa Parks bus to both the Rosa Parks Institute for Self-Realization and the California African-American Museum. But no one ever takes him seriously, or worse, they’re suspicious of his motives. He has approached the Make-a-Wish Foundation, the Petersen Automotive Museum, the Department of Transportation, various politicos — he even contacted Lakers owner Jerry Buss (get it?).
“I’m just a custodian,” Kafka says. “I need a docent. We need grants. But I’m so busy just trying to pay overhead to barely keep this fleet in existence that I don’t really have the time to properly focus on museum development. I don’t want to be obsessed. Really. There are other things I’d like to do with my life.”
Meanwhile, the buses gather dust and weather the elements in a corner lot in Fontana. Sic transit gloria: “Thus passes away the glory.”
Being Skip Arnold won’t get you very far at a supermarket or a gas station, but at an art event, doors fly open. The L.A.-based performance artist, famous for his claustrophobic live nude self-portraits, perhaps most aptly described as sculpture or installations, slithered through the entrance to the SCOPE art fair — held a few weeks ago at the high-hip-quotient Standard Hotel downtown — without paying a dime or being on the list. The rest of our party had to cough up 10 bucks. Skip asked if I was going to keep my receipt.
The Standard had closed off its third and fourth floors for the international exhibition, which promised emerging “cutting-edge artists” in each gallery/hotel room. One of the first rooms we visited featured crude documentary photos of bondage scenarios by a collaborative from New York. The work’s criminal aspect piqued Skip’s interest, but the receptionist kept reminding us the acts were voluntary. “Oh, it’s just fetish art then,” Skip said. But that didn’t stop him from gathering catalogs and pamphlets and schmoozing. He wants to be on top of things, keep informed, and at the same time let everyone know he’s in the room.
Despite the stains on a wife-beater’s T-shirt, worn underneath a moth-eaten suit with pants that have never seen a dry cleaner, Skip comes off looking classy. Every ensemble includes his signature Italian scarf hung loosely over his spindly body. In each room, he made a beeline for the dealer, his hand outstretched. “Hi, I’m Skip Arnold.” Half of them didn’t know who the hell this guy was, but they would never dare let on. Skip seemed oblivious — such a thing would never occur to him. Fame is almost every artist’s objective, but Skip makes it an art form.
After a while following Skip from room to room, watching him work the crowd, wondering if he liked this art or that, we began to get thirsty. It was a breezy, sunny Sunday afternoon, and we were thinking about the celebrated rooftop bar. But Skip was lagging again, exchanging numbers with a gallerist, gathering a stack of ink. An artist friend looked on with envy and admiration, then ‰ self-pity, realizing what a rank-amateur networker he really was compared to the Skipper.
It was time for a pick-me-up to cure our low self-esteem. “Hey, what about that rooftop with those stiff, dry, exorbitantly priced gin martinis?” I suggested.
“After we finish all the galleries on the third floor, then we can go to the rooftop, then the fourth floor,” Skip said like a den mother to her Cubs. Since I’d be paying for Skip’s drink (Skip never has cash), why did he get to decide when we could go to the rooftop?
Yes, Skip. Okay, Skip. Hi, we’re not Skip Arnold.
We took the elevator downstairs to take the escalator upstairs to the only elevator that went to the rooftop. “Hold on there just one minute!” a bouncer barked. He told us we’d have to go back downstairs to get a $20 wristband and then come back upstairs — just to have an overpriced drink on the fucking rooftop. Even Skip Arnold couldn’t come through for us on that one. We decided to take our refreshments at the downstairs bar.
Next thing I remember we were on the elevator to the fourth floor. On the fourth floor we found girls in bikinis with tattoos and fluffy white hotel towels. Needlepoint pornography. Shag-carpet lapels adorning upholstered suit jackets. Celebrities’ names — Saddam Hussein, dead rappers — engraved on bullets. A rubberized wardrobe hanging on the coat rack. Warhol Liz Taylors sewn with furry rug remnants. It felt like the arts-and-crafts section at a county fair, only with John Waters in charge of the quilting bee. Skip fit right in, a Felliniesque character reveling in his element.
Our goal now was to test Skip’s valor and see how many drinks he could score from each gallery. He loved the challenge, always returning with a big smirky grin and a plastic cup full of straight gin. Our last stop was, of course, the elevator down, where we found ourselves in the company of some Italians. I tried out my Italian obscenities, but Skip could only come up with one phrase: “Ciao, mi chiamo Skip Arnold.”