Tuesday, March 17, 2009

No Labor-Saving Machine

"No labor-saving machine, nor discovery I have made, nor will I be able to leave behind me any wealthy bequest to found a hospital or library, nor reminiscence of any deed of courage for America, nor literary success nor intellect, nor book for the bookshelf, but a few carols vibrating through the air I leave, for comrades and lovers." -- Whitman.

No greater ignominious remembrance of high school--save the can of deodorant that was left in my band locker to suggest I shower more often--mines the depths so deeply as the lack of my own car to park among the throng of Chevys, Fords, and Chryslers that idled in the dirt field beneath the eucalyptus trees outside Granada Hills High School. Instead, I walked a half mile every morning, marching to the cadence in my head of surf music, sweet soul, or skiffle to the blue-and-white irregular buses of the Los Angeles Transit District.

In my junior year I climbed in the back seat of a rumbling Bel Aire filled with clandestine cigarette smoke and the intimidating, anti-social rant of the Blue Cheer's Summertime Blues or Jagger's incandescent Under My Thumb, riding with neighborhood seniors in a carpool arranged between our mothers. At least now my commute ended in the dizzying tribal pulse of the dirt lot where guys revved their engines and girls finished up their make-up in so many rear-view mirrors.

To be a senior and not have a car in Los Angeles was to fall into the grimiest category of loser, yet my own parents, first-generation New Yorkers who lived a near lifetime on subways, buses, or on-foot along canyons of glass and concrete, saw us as obnoxious postwar babies with a never-ending belief in entitlement. And, my mother was quick to note, we listened not to the moonglow swoons of Vaughn Monroe nor the torch songs of Eydie Gorme, not to the dulcet pop sounds of Rosemary Clooney, not to the tasteful zariba of notes stacked up in the glissando of Artie Shaw--but in the screaming, distorted sex-calls of Jan and Dean, white boys from the beach who were the pre-British invasion harbingers of the Pat Boone sound wrapped around Gibson guitars. Sigh.

So in my senior year, I rode proudly around in the Dodge Coronet that belonged to the mother of my girlfriend Martha Louise. It was a dangerously fast car with a four-barrel carb and a radio with bristling muscle, and we drove up to the top of Tampa, where concrete slabs were laid out for the booming subdivisions that today look out over the twinkling lights of the San Fernando Valley, and we fogged up the windows with heavy breathing. We listened to Sam Cooke and Jacklie Wilson. Or the Ronettes. Ronnie Spector's voice conjured up the beehive hairdos of Chicanas at the school who--rumor had it--hid razor blades in their tight sprayed coronas in case it came to violence over their guy. Just thinking of it made me weak, not like the dizziness of the tilt-a-whirl, but a magical, sudden plunge in the lower belly that felt like falling in love with the wrong girl.

If there was a god, he lived in Marty Wynhoff's soul-rattling kisses, in the glowing Los Angeles sky where it bubbled up over the slumbering housewives and worker bees, blotting out the stars themselves, the light aglow on the dashboard radio dial, a tangible god in the Temptations', Just My Imagination, Running Away With Me.

In that year, Marty and I won tickets to appear on Ninth Street West, a dance show on Channel 9 in LA where teens would pack onto the narrow stage, wheeling around bulky cameras while the DJs spun the Top-40. We took the Coronet over Cahuenga Pass and drove the Hollywood Freeway across Sunset Boulevard to the studio, the radio pulsing out Paul Mauriat's Love is Blue, and I Wish It Would Rain, and Love Is All Around, and Reach Out Of The Darkness. The show theme was sleep-overs, and Marty and I put on red-felt sleep hats with white puff-balls at the peak, and we spun around the floor, stealing kisses under the hot stage lights.

Finally, toward the end of my senior year, I inherited part-time privileges of my mother's Rambler American. It was not the '55 Chevy of my dreams with a wide profile and chrome trim, not the mad Buick with fins or woodie surf wagon, or modified, lowered Plymouth that throttled out its song through glass-pack exhaust, but a tinny, narrow, ugly straight-mobile that looked like you dropped your feet through the floor like some cartoon character and wore the car around you like a naked-man's barrel. But, temporarily, it was mine.

On Wednesday nights I parked it at a friend's house and we took his blue El Camino cruising along Van Nuys Boulevard, blasting out The Chambers Brothers and Clarence Carter and The Rascals. People Got to Be Free. And then came the turning point. Late one night we pulled into the parking lot behind the Muntz audio store and found a four-track tape player cast away into the dumpster.

Russ had a spare set of speakers, and plenty of stereo wire, and the four-track (apparently hidden in the dumpster by a Muntz employee who hoped to return for it later) went into the Rambler. After he neatly tucked the speakers into the rear deck, Russ flocked the firewall with white angel hair.

It was not the car I would proudly back into an open space in the dirt lot at the high school--I parked it in the paved lot where the students with sadly uncool cars hid themselves along with the rides of faculty members--but it had sounds of its own, and I could disappear into Ike and Tina Turner's cover of We Can Work It Out and, later, after Marty broke it off, I could slide into a deep veil of sadness to Carole King's It's Too Late, with all the attendant self-pity and adolescent gloom as the nation bellied deep into its fiery crash landing in Vietnam, not the chirpy hope of Surf City, but the dark torment of In My Room, not the portentous Sunshine of Your Love played out the windows of the Victorians in the Haight, but of the cloud-swept broken tenements across the bay in Oakland where the Temptations crooned, I Wish It Would Rain.

At the end of that shadowy year now clouded by decades, the head gasket went out on the Rambler and the oil pan filled with water, killing off the engine with a sudden flood.


Yoli said...

I wish I had known that adolescent, he sounds so much like me in those days.

Char said...

the times had in a car...for me it has been a series of cars: a mustard yellow maverick, a steel gray cutless and a purple spitfire.

A Cuban In London said...

'To be a senior and not have a car in Los Angeles was to fall into the grimiest category of loser, yet my own parents, first-generation New Yorkers who lived a near lifetime on subways, buses, or on-foot along canyons of glass and concrete, saw us as obnoxious postwar babies with a never-ending belief in entitlement.'

It's amazing how yo ucapture the generational gap and the zeitgeist in just one sentence.

And by the way, many thanks. I asked you the for songs that you listen whilst driving and I was given them. Ike and Tina's tune, man, I have heard that track only once in my life and I can't even remember when it was. And Carole King's 'Too Late' and 'You Make Me Feel' alywas paly on a loop on my CD player. Many thanks for such a brilliant post.

Greetings from London.

tangobaby said...

I wish I had such memories of cars, and boys in cars, with a soundtrack like that. Your memories are like reliving a life I wish I had had, too.