I left The Green Onion, looked around, and couldn’t find my car. This was hardly new, but this time it really wasn’t where I left it. Someone stole my car. She was a ’73 Olds Omega, a beater, with bald tires, bashed-in bumpers, a cracked windshield, coat hanger antenna, cigarette-burned interior, and a body rotting with leprous rust. Underneath all the shame was a Rocket 350 V-8 that could propel me into or out of trouble quickly. Her rear-end was light, so she fishtailed in the snow. I’d drive around all winter with a boxing heavy bag and all my weights in the back to give her traction. She was a Gulden’s yellowish-brown, so I named her “The Mustard Bitch.” Except for over-heating all the time, and bleeding a quart of oil every three days, she was a great car. Now, she was someone else’s great car. I went back into the bar.
My buddy, Doug, was bartending. I handed him some needle-nose pliers, and then told him what happened. He handed me the phone to call the cops, then started pouring me a beer.
“Can you believe someone stole The Mustard Bitch?” I asked him. He couldn’t. ” I’m pissed that someone took her, but flattered that anyone would want her.” Doug nodded and set the beer down, “No charge.”
I didn’t get it. Why her? It’s still grand theft auto, whether it’s a Lexus or a Leper. It helped that you didn’t need a key to turn the ignition, but how did they know that? I finished my beer, and Doug poured another one. He was a good friend. It would be a while before the cops showed up.
I guess it comes with the lifestyle, but I’ve always had crappy cars. If they weren’t too bad when I bought them, they seemed to age faster than a president. I gave them nicknames. There was The Silver Fish, Shitty Shitty Bang Bang, White Lightning, The Beast, Cherry Bomb, Ol’ Smokey, Creeping Death, Compostula, and a bunch of others that died before I could name them.
My favorite was Cherry Bomb. She was a red ’61 Ford Falcon, that Marko and I bought for $100. She was edgy. She was seatbelt-free. She also didn’t have a rear window, or a muffler, or wipers, or a backseat (you sat on milk crates). Somehow, she still managed to turn heads. Unfortunately, most of those heads belonged to cops. I had painted on some registration tags, and paid a guy at Kinko’s to forge us some bogus proof of insurance, so that was no problem.
The trouble was the steering. It was so out of alignment the car would swerve while you held the wheel dead center. You had to, not so much steer, as counter-swerve. This made you appear to be driving at a higher blood alcohol level than you really were. The roar coming out of the muffler-free exhaust made sure to call attention to it, too. We’d be zigzagging along the street, setting off car alarms as we passed, leaning out to wipe away the rain or snow with our hands, or gripping the dash, yelling “Oh fuck! Oh shit! Oh shit-shit-shit! Oh fuck! Oh Shit! Oh fuck this shit-shit-fuck!” It was an all-hands-on-deck ride. We only drove her to the liquor store, and to get to work and back. It was a lousy date car.
It was closing time and the cops still hadn’t showed up. I called to let them know I was leaving the scene of the crime, and that they could take my information back at my house. I thanked Doug for all the free beers, and promised to help him haul his massive album collection the next time he moved. A waitress named Sarah Jane drove me home. I waited for a while, then went to bed. My sister woke me up that night. “The police are here. What did you do now?” I said I was the victim, this time.
I sat at the dining room table and gave the cop my report. He seemed earnest, but with cop-earnest you never know.
“I know they didn’t get too far,” I told him.
“How do you know that?” he asked.
“You can’t pull the lights on without needle-nose pliers,” I explained, “and I don’t keep any in the car,”
“Where do you keep them?”
“At home. Otherwise I lose them.”
“How do you turn the lights on when you’re not at home?”
“I borrow a pair from Doug.”
“The bartender. He’s my friend.”
He started to write something down, then looked up. “You seem to have been drinking tonight. You didn’t drive home did you?.”
I stared at him. “No, my car was stolen.” I got up to get a beer. “Are you going to be the one heading up this investigation?”
It looked like I was going to have to get another car. That was okay. I was used to things coming and going by then. Cars, jobs, money, places to live, and soul mates all came and went. You couldn’t get too attached. It would kill you faster than the drinking.
Creeping Death was Volkswagen Sirocco that could take you out pretty fast. The car had brakes when I bought it, but they disappeared shortly afterwards. At that time, brakes were a luxury I just couldn’t afford. I relied on my parking brake and psychic intuition. “Magic 8 Ball, will that light remain green much longer?” I kept it in first gear, and if necessary, gently tapped parked cars to slow down. True fact. That was Creeping Death.
Shitty Shitty Bang Bang was a clattering Chevy Chevette (diesel!) that leaked radiator fluid, regardless of how much Stop-Leak I added. I quit wasting money on that shit and anti-freeze. I just added water every other time I drove it. One morning, I was in a rush to drive this girl home before her parents woke up. I forgot to add water and overheated on the way home from Pecos. I walked back and forth a mile or two looking for water. No luck. I did have to pee though. I couldn’t find a container to transfer my fluid, so I whizzed directly into the radiator. The funny thing was, I felt clever, or at least as clever as you can feel while pissing into a car engine by the side of the road. It didn’t work. I abandoned Shitty Shitty by the side of the road, and hitchhiked home. It was a pain in the ass looking for diesel anyway.
Ol’ Smokey was a Ford Bronco that torched oil. It spewed dense, cumulus smoke, in power plant-sized clouds. This became a problem when I moved to Los Angeles. It seems L.A. motorists are more uptight about air quality. They would drive up beside me and angrily point at the smoke, as if I didn’t see it. I would act surprised, and thank them. “Oh my gosh, time for a valve job! Do they cost more than a case of beer?”
I was stopped at a light on Lincoln Blvd. in Santa Monica one night, when a cop pulled up behind me. Here we go, I thought. I watched in my rearview as the squad car disappeared in the cloud of smoke. The light changed, and I left him there. That was a great moment. My luck held until one day in Hawthorne I finally got pulled over and issued a fix-it ticket. I drove Ol’ Smokey around for 29 more days, then called the junk yard.
The Mustard Bitch could be one. She was hot-headed and thirsty, like most women around me then, fast but unreliable. One October night, she left T-Bone and me stranded at a rest stop at the top of La Bajada. The car was at the bottom of the hill, along with our extra clothes and mobile party supplies. It was freezing, with a nice wind driving the cold into all our cracks and crevasses. We had to take turns warming up inside the men’s restroom. One guy would go in while the other guy waited for the tow truck. T-Bone was wearing a buckskin cowboy jacket, and I had a black leather biker one. We looked like half the Village People. We had no idea what we were in for that night. Men circled, whispered, and disappeared around us.
“Dude! What the fuck is going on here?” I asked him, “How long does it take these guys to stretch their legs?” Some of them had been hanging around for almost an hour.
“Everyone is friendly enough,” T-bone noted, “But something weird is going on around here.” When we figured out what was really going on, we stopped taking turns warming up inside the restroom. We both stood shivering outside, trying hard to not look like guys who wanted to blow strangers.
The cop finished his report. I got up and walked him out. He said that they would do their best. I knew what that meant. I always did my best, too. I told him to watch out for drunks and closed the door.
The next morning, Marko and I went looking for the car ourselves. We drove around with a baseball bat and some beers. We saw a lot of cars up on blocks, but no Omega. We gave up when we ran out of beer.
We were driving home when a smear of mustard caught my eye. My baby. She was sitting in a small parking lot. That funereal “waterfall grille” never looked so beautiful. I was right, they didn’t get too far. Not keeping pliers in the car turned out to be genius. I got in, turned the ignition, and she started. Good girl. They stole my leather jacket, a pair of sap gloves, and my David Lindley, “El Rayo” cassette, but I could let that stuff go. I was resigned to lose everything someday, but I was grateful it wasn’t all at once. One loss at a time. I had Marko follow me home. I was low on gas, and almost out of oil.