The old men would nod and turn their heads as we passed. My grandfather at the wheel, cruising through Downey in his 1957 T-bird hardtop convertible. It was black when I was a boy, but by then it had been sprayed god only knows how many times. Even as a kid, I could feel the sense of wonder and inimitable cool — the round portal windows, the all-metal dash, the musty, beautiful smell.
My grandfather bought the Thunderbird in the early 1960s in the parking lot of his pizza place in Downey, Sal’s Italian Market. The man who worked at the bank next door pulled it into the parking lot, freshly repossessed from some unfortunate soul and ready for auction. My grandfather took cash from the floor safe that sat in between the sausage prep table and the walk-in freezer, handed it to the banker and said, sold. That’s how my grandfather was: impulsive and with a lust for life, and always looking for a deal.
He held on to the T-bird for the rest of his life. My mother drove it every day to college at Mount St. Mary’s, even as it kept breaking down on her on the side of the freeway. Every one of her brothers drove it at some point, and I’m pretty sure all of them had a wreck in that old Ford.
My other grandfather had his own kind of “classics” when I was a kid. He was one of those old-school “men of the world,” a blue-collar genius who could fix anything under the hood. He made his living cutting gaskets at his small machine shop.
He and his friends traded old cars like baseball cards. There was a new old car in the driveway every time I visited, it seemed. He called them “classics.” Nothing as mint as a ’57 T-Bird, but there was a third- or fourth-generation El Camino he had for a while that I used to love to ride in. The smell of stale cigarettes, the tear in the roof liner, that loud, powerful engine.
When I came back to Los Angeles, I decided it was time I had my own classic. It was an inevitable extension of a noble and dying Angeleno tradition.
There was only one problem — I didn’t know shit about cars.
I was broke. Four nights a week I bartended at the Houston’s in Century City, making martinis for old men in blue blazers with brass buttons. It was an easy gig, but I needed more work. A guy I knew tangentially (I’ll call him “Jack”) was looking for some help in his body shop. He asked if I knew anything about working on cars. I said no. He said, You can learn.
Jack ran his shop out of the detached garage in his backyard. But he was known as one of the best customizers in the Southland and one of a handful of restorers in the world who specialized in resurrecting rare Italian sports cars.
My first day, he had me sanding rust off a 1959 Porsche 356. I spent the first few days pissing in the wind. The rust kept coming back in the humid beach air. I must have sanded that car three or four times before we got it primed and ready to spray.
I was always good with tools but I’d never worked on cars or done bodywork. He showed me how to hold the orbit sander, how to get a rhythm going. He showed me how to block-sand, using my free hand to feel over where I’d just been, covering more ground than the area you’re working. Stay in one place too long and you’re fucked.
The Porsche was one big curve. By the end of my first day, my arm felt like it was going to fall off, but there was a Zen-like peace in the motions. It was almost graceful.
It was better than other jobs I’d had.
Better than my first high school job selling family portraits over the phone. I can’t sell anything somebody doesn’t want, and over my brief tenure I made one sale — to my aunt. One night they brought a manager in to “motivate” us. He said I couldn’t take a break until I sold something. I walked out.
It was better than my next job making shitty pizzas at Chuck E. Cheese’s. As an Italian-American who grew up in an authentic pizzeria, the whole concept offended me. But it had its perks. It was a slacker job, and when the one manager who was a tweaker was on duty, we could drink beer in the kitchen.
It was better than mopping floors and cleaning toilets after the drunk frat kids and neighborhood winos at the Boston pizzeria when I was in college. I didn’t mind making the pies, though. I had a deal with my co-workers: I would handle all the anchovy orders but I refused to put pineapple on a pizza.
It was better than bartending in Century City and certainly better than catering, where I sometimes ran into people I knew socially who were guests at the events I was working, trying to hide my shame behind trays of crab cakes with cilantro remoulade or duck spring rolls in wasabi aioli.
I liked working on cars, even the grueling parts. Jack always had music on at the shop and I could work outside and look up at the power lines and palm trees in the backyard, surrounded by classic cars, pink brick walls. It brought me home.
There were cars everywhere, in all stages of disrepair, spread across the yard like unmarked graves. Probably a dozen: mostly vintage Italian sports cars, a red Italia somebody’s bitter ex- had thrown a bucket of yellow paint over, a Shelby mustang kit in pieces in a crate, a ’58 Cadillac, the Porsche, a few others.
And in the driveway, his daily driver: a pale-blue, two-door 1962 Plymouth Valiant.
My first thought was, what a funky-looking little car. The lines were almost audacious. The fins looked wilted, like a drunk trying to keep his swollen eyes open against life’s cruel odds. There was a dent in the driver’s door.
The old-school neighbors on the block and the Latino families who lived in the apartments overlooking his yard were cool. They had a mutual understanding — live and let live. But a “new kind of person” was beginning to move into the neighborhood and someone tipped off the city that there was an unlicensed body shop being run out of a residential garage.
All work stopped while we tried to figure out how to hide the evidence and make his garage look like a hobby shop for the city inspector.
Jack went across the street to talk to one of his neighbors who had been on the street long enough to know that neighbors help each other out. They don’t drop dimes. He agreed to let us stash the cars in his backyard until the inspection.
Under the cover of night, the two of us and another friend of his pushed every single car out of the backyard, down the driveway, across the street, up the neighbor’s driveway and into his backyard. It took us several hours. Some of the cars had flat tires, or no tires. One didn’t have a drivetrain.
I learned that night the physical feats men are capable of when there is a will and no choice.
The subterfuge worked. The inspector came by only to find a quiet residential garage. Jack played the part of the shade-tree hobbyist perfectly. It was like the “Mr. Booze” scene in “Robin and the Seven Hoods” when Bing and the boys dress up their speakeasy to look like a soup kitchen.
That night we pushed the cars back, the dark palms silhouetted against the pale predawn sky.
Working on cars is more about learning a method than knowing specifics. I learned Jack’s method by watching him. I learned that if you want to know how something works, you have to take it apart and put it back together. I learned that when you take something apart you track every piece. You write it down, you draw diagrams on cardboard and place each screw in order. I learned that you have to have the right tool for the job, and I learned the most important thing, what Jack called “commitment to positioning,” when approaching a problem.
Eventually, it was time to move on but Jack still owed me a few weeks’ back pay.
He looked at the Valiant. Then he went in the other room and came back with the pink slip.
We were square.
The Valiant was in good shape for a 50-year-old car. I knew basic upkeep, like how to change the oil and top off fluids. But our first year together would be an enthralling, frustrating, defeating and, ultimately, rewarding courtship. I made foolish mistakes, and I learned things — about cars, about the past, about the people in this vast City of Angels.
The carburetor needed a rebuild, so I took it to a mom-and-pop that had just moved to Lawndale, having been priced out of the Culver City shop they’d worked out of for decades. I left nothing to chance. I took photos; I drew diagrams. I was meticulous in my ignorance. I put all the little pieces in a box and brought it down to Lawndale, beaming with pride at my method. The guy took one look at the contents of the box and said, “What the hell did you do to this?”
In my ignorance, I didn’t notice the one arm where I could have disconnected the carburetor in a single, simple movement until I had disassembled all the linkage unnecessarily.
I learned to take a minute to survey the situation before jumping in.
I polished the chrome bumpers and the metal dash while I waited. When I got the rebuilt carburetor back, I installed it, started her up and hit the road. It was a joyous feeling, the breeze from the open vent windows cool against my face, that inimitable old car smell of funk and gasoline, the sun reflecting off the polished chrome. Heads turned, old men nodded.
I had only made it a couple of blocks from home when I hit the gas pedal and — nothing. I left it on the side of the road and walked back home.
My neighbor, Cruise, was in the garage working on his ’69 El Camino. Cruise was a retired bus driver who used to play drums at The Lighthouse and other jazz clubs and had breakfast with Horace Silver at the Norms in Santa Monica, back before they tore it down to build luxury apartments. He parked in the space next to mine and was always down there under the hood.
He offered to take a look and we walked the short distance to where the Valiant laid sad and lifeless. We pulled wires; we checked the gas. Nothing. I flooded it and it somehow started and I drove her right back home.
Cruise told me to change the fuel filter and the hose while I was at it. I did, and it solved the problem.
Back on the road, not much farther than I had gone the last time, I hit the gas and again — nothing. Fuck. I got out and pushed her over to the side of the road, on the south side of Venice High.
I crawled under the rear end and saw that the hose I replaced was crimped. For some reason, I’d had the brilliant idea of giving it a little extra slack, and it folded over itself like a garden hose.
I learned that too long is just as bad as too short.
I drove her all across Los Angeles. Through the narrow Venice streets and the wide Mid-Wilshire boulevards. Up into the hills of Hollywood and inside of the frozen K-Town traffic. Through downtown alleys and over the Sepulveda Pass. People struck up conversations through open windows at red lights and at gas stations. Some just stared and smiled or gave a thumbs-up as they passed.
There was still much to learn.
The water pump failed. I had it all disassembled — the belts, hoses, radiator, fan — all I had to do was unbolt the old pump and put the new one on, then put it all back together the way I had taken it apart. But there was one tricky bolt. I had the right tools; I was committed to my positioning. But it was no use. The last bolt was frozen in time.
Defeated, I sank onto the garage floor, leaning against the grill. For some time I sat there thinking how this magnificent machine, this complex system, this feat of human ingenuity, was rendered impotent by one silly two-inch piece of metal.
Cruise happened into the garage. He took the socket wrench and tried to hit the bolt with his powerful arms. Nothing.
He took a box wrench and held it against the socket wrench and strained a bit as the bolt broke loose.
It was one of those tricks only old-timers can show you. One of those things that is only learned by experience, passed down by those who’ve figured it out, out of necessity. Maybe it’s a common trick, but I sure didn’t know it.
I learned that day that anything can be leveraged.
As will happen with old cars, fixing one problem ignited a chain reaction all down the line. The little jobs I could do myself in the garage; sometimes, Cruise or another neighbor of mine, a stuntman who was often in the garage working on his cars, would help.
For the big jobs beyond my limited means, I took her down to my Uncle Bob’s garage in Costa Mesa. Uncle Bob has been taking things apart since he was a kid. He knows everything about engines and has all the right tools. I liked working on the Valiant in his place, where my grandfather’s T-bird sat on the opposite side of the garage in mid-restoration.
As pre-1963 parts became increasingly hard to find, I got to know almost every mom-and-pop service in the Southland. Inside tips on these last vestiges of craft became as valuable as the parts themselves.
I needed a part (I don’t remember which it was) I couldn’t find at any of the chains and Cruise hipped me to a place on Pico that had been there since 1947, where a friend of his worked.
His friend told me how he and Cruise used to play in the Southside clubs together back in the day. “Then, someone stole my twin,” he said. He looked at me and added, “my amp.”
I told him I knew what he meant. We talked about guitars and the blues and he said he’d do some looking around, and a few days later he had found my elusive part. When the last mom-and-pop goes, there, too, goes all nuance in this world.
The heater core kept leaking coolant so I had it rebuilt. Then, the control valve started leaking so I had it rebuilt. Then,the core started leaking again.
I mentioned this to my Great-Uncle Gino. Uncle Gino was the kind of man who, if he didn’t have the right tool, he’d make one. He could fix anything and could play anything with keys or strings. He had an organ in his back room and every type of mandolin hanging on the wall. One summer, when I was in high school, he let me borrow one of his mandolins, a banjo and a ukulele.
He told me to take the heater core out entirely. “Whaddya need a heater for here?” he said.
Sometimes the answer is so simple we fail to see it. I took the heater core out, bypassed the whole thing and it never leaked again. To this day, I’ve never missed the heat.
The large puddle in the garage under the rear of the car turned out to be gasoline.
I got up under and saw where it was leaking from the side of the gas tank, where the fuel sender connects. I could see that the gas tank was attached by a metal strap that bolted into the frame. The tank was half full and I somehow had to lower the heavy tank slowly.
Stan, the guy who parked in the space adjoining Cruise’s and mine, had a tile business and there were always stacks of tile lined against the wall of the garage next to his truck. He had a thick Eastern European accent and was pleasant enough, although I never said more to him than polite, meaningless words in passing.
His truck was gone and I knew he wasn’t home and I figured he wouldn’t mind if I borrowed a stack of tile for a few minutes.
I dragged a box over and placed it under the tank. It was the perfect height. I unbolted the metal band on one side and the tank slowly lowered onto the tile. From there I could access the sender and sure enough the gasket was blown.
My stuntman neighbor was in the garage working on his cars and he helped me cut a crude gasket from a new sheet of rubber. I wished my grandfather was still alive and that he still had his gasket machine shop.
By this time, gasoline had leaked all over the area and I had to lie on my back to try and get the tank back in place. I was lying in the puddle of gasoline, my right arm stuck underneath the car holding up the tank and my left arm manipulating the wrench, when I saw a shadow at the gate.
Cruise stood over me as I lay in the gasoline, a cigarette in his mouth, the plastic filter holder clenched between his teeth.
I hoped he wouldn’t flick the ash.
I fixed the leak and reassembled the tank and returned Stan’s stack of tile. Nothing blew up.
Not many days or weeks after that, I came home and saw the blue-and-white coroner’s van in front of the building. I found most of my neighbors sitting on the courtyard stairs or hovering around.
“Stan hung himself,” somebody said.
I took a seat on the stairs and sat there with my neighbors. We watched the coroner wheel the covered stretcher out, past us through the courtyard and down the front steps.
Stan had mailed a letter to his sister in Sun Valley two days earlier, instructing her to call his landlord so they could find his body and cut him down.
The day before, I’d bought a used Fender amp and had been playing louder and longer than I normally would at home. Stan lived directly below me and I remembered I stopped playing because I didn’t want to disturb him.
But I hadn’t disturbed him. He was already dead by the time I plugged in, swinging underneath my feet while I played the blues.
I was pushing 80 on the westbound Santa Monica Freeway, just before the La Brea exit, when a Mercedes cut me off, almost clipping my front end. I allowed my instinct to override my intellect and I did the stupidest thing I could do — I slammed on the drum brakes.
The steering wheel locked and the Valiant spun a full 360 degrees, two or maybe three times. Time was suspended and everything went quiet and seemed to move in slow, blurred motion. I braced myself, waiting for the impact. I didn’t see my life flash before my eyes, as some people say, but I did have an understanding that this might be it.
When the car stopped and the dust cleared I sat frozen for a few seconds. I remember feeling myself all over, wondering if I was really unharmed or was in some state of unconsciousness. How had I not hit my forehead on the big, hard wheel? How had I not collided with another car on the busy freeway? The Valiant had spun across the width of the freeway, all the way to the right shoulder where I safely sat. I was even facing the right direction.
I looked in the rearview mirror and the entire freeway had stopped, the empty lanes lit in an eerie iridescent glow from the idling headlamps. There is still decency in this City of Angels, even on the roads. I put on my signal and slowly pulled back onto the freeway, and the traffic fell into its regular rhythm.
An airbag once exploded in my face when I was younger, probably saving my life. This night the lap belt was enough.
I learned that most things are out of our control.
The Valiant wasn’t cool when it was new and it isn’t valuable. The paint is decent but flawed — some asshole keyed it on Cahuenga one night, and that’s bound to happen again. It’s not meant to be a museum piece. The world from which it came was not perfect. One thing that bothers me about mid-century period films is the way all the cars are brand new and shiny. That isn’t life, then or now.
I recently saw a photograph of the intersection at Sunset and Cahuenga, taken in 1963. The brand-new Cinerama Dome marquee in the background is advertising “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” and in the foreground, cruising through the westbound intersection, is an early ’60s Valiant, same Plymouth pale blue as mine.
What I love about the photograph is that the lower panel of the Valiant’s passenger door has visible body damage.
I love my Valiant’s imperfections. I love that it’s held together with makeshift gaskets, with temperamental windshield wipers and no heater. But most of all, I love that it is a product of my patience and my heartache.
I still have a lot to learn. I could go down to the garage tomorrow only to find the car undrivable. And when that happens — and it often happens — I am struck with a strange mixture of frustration and excitement.
Fixing a classic car is almost as much fun as driving one. When it becomes clear the problem is beyond my limited knowledge, I may curse, and then I see only opportunity.
But most of all, I love that car because it is made up of little pieces of the old-school men who have helped me, shown me tricks, lent me tools, allowed me into this fading network that operates in the shadows of modernity: Jack, my neighbors, my uncles, the old men who hang around the counters in the auto parts stores and volunteer their slant-six tips uninvited.
Charles Bukowski wrote a poem called “One for the Shoeshine Man,” which begins: “The balance is preserved by the snails climbing the Santa Monica cliffs.” It is an image I go back to often in this city full of regular people doing useful and extraordinary things.
For me, the balance is preserved in living my life in the moment but with a foothold in a way of life that made Los Angeles what it is. People with unlimited imagination, people who learned to create their own destiny, to leverage any bolt that stood in the way between them and the open road.
People “locked in the arms of a crazy life,” as Bukowski wrote in the same poem.
It takes a certain amount of madness to drive an old car in a new world, straight into the sun, the mirrored chrome throwing it back at the world with a knowing wink, the rebuilt engine’s steady rhythm betraying the always-imminent breakdown, life’s continuing dance.
Please read Matt Powell’s “How Bill Withers Saved My Life” from our debut “love/hate” issue.
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Matt Powell is a writer, songwriter and musician. His work has been featured at Emmys.com, No Depression online and Humor in America, where he is contributing music editor. His short story “Valley Dick” was published in Temporary Detective, an anthology of modern noir. Matt plays lead guitar in surf-punk trio The Incredible Heavies. He lives in Venice Beach.