I was still in skirt-chasing mode (April 1980), while dealing craps at Las Vegas' Stardust Casino. In a chance meeting, a girl (N) I knew from home (Canarsie, Brooklyn, New York) approached my table with two girlfriends. I spent a break with them and felt a strong mutual attachment with one of N's (unattached) friends, (M).
On the way back to my work station, N gave me her phone number in Los Angeles. She had mentioned that M lived in the same apartment complex so I enthusiastically accepted. A week later, we arranged my visit. N said I could stay at her place. I was cool as I said, "I'm looking forward to spending time with all three of you, (M, N and the other girl)."
My car, (a seven-year old Ford LTD), was the piece of shit that I had bought from a down-and-out gambler when I dealt at the Fremont, (my short story, "AMOS AND ARCHIE," details the circumstances). I had never driven to L.A. but I knew my heap wasn't worthy of crossing the Mohave Desert.
I was living with a married couple Stu and Toby Frobel. I was a low-maintenance roommate to Stu but good friends with Toby. Stu was reluctant to temporarily switch his three-year old Pontiac with my clunker. But Toby gave me her blessing and used her feminine wiles to persuade hubby...in the name of amor...to help me.
Just before blasting off, Stu reminded me how hot it was, even for early May. These were the pre-cell phone days, so to minimize the chance of breaking-down in no-man's-land, advance preparation was required.
Stu made me promise to stop at a filling station before leaving town, to top off the gas tank, have them check all his other fluids as well as the belts and hoses, Stu also showed me in his trunk, two anti-freeze jugs full of water, in case of an extreme emergency. He also stipulated that he wanted his Pontiac to be returned with a full tank and washed.
I followed his instructions before setting out on Interstate-15. While still within the city limits, I passed a Los Angeles 285 sign. I did the math and envisioned myself cuddling up with M in four hours.
If you've never made this drive, you might expect the desert wastelands to look like an Arabian movie. But there aren't any Sahara-like, beachy sand dunes. So whatever romantic or beautiful images of the scenery you might have are scrapped immediately by repetitive, flat, brown ugliness that will drag on for hours.
Yes there are minor points of interest like Jean Nevada having a prison, the two saw-dust joint casinos at the state line and the first "real" town, ninety-two miles away, in Baker California.
In Baker, I gassed-up and stretched my legs. The attendant was telling a trucker how hard-up the Okies were to re-locate to California during the Depression.
The trucker reminded the attendant, "The early pioneers had it worse. They left civilization when there was nothing west of St. Louis and Kansas City. Heck, even the heartiest settlers weren't prepared for crossing the prairies, going over the Rocky Mountains, extreme weather, natural disasters, getting lost, starving, dehydrating and surviving Indian attacks. Then when they finally reached California and thought they had it made, they were faced with Death Valley."
On the other side of Baker, the nothingness continues until it is mercifully interrupted thirty miles later, at Victorville. It was reassuring to see signs of life, small towns and a military base. Soon the road climbed towards mountains. The higher altitude brought the trees of the San Bernadino Forest. After the hours of sameness, I appreciated the splendor of being above the clouds.
At the crest, the interstate plunged fast and included a sharp horseshoe curve. After concentrating on navigating it safely, you suddenly dive through and beneath the puffy billows. I understood that the desert portion of my journey was over as, in the distance, I descended into highly populated territory. The city of Ontario was first. That's when I figured out that on this side of the mountains, I hadn't driven through clouds...the omnipresent gray overcast, was the famous Los Angeles smog. UGH!
Thirty miles later I was in Los Angeles. La-La Land was lush, green and beautiful. I had been there on my 1976 cross-country trip but this was my first time driving. My mind switched to M's smiling face. My spirits continued to soar because N was kind enough to live a few streets away from an interstate exit.
I was right on schedule as I parked in a spot that would have made Joe Vanilla, (the Patron Saint of Parking Spaces) jealous. Inside the generic apartment complex, my search for Unit-86 was cut short by the enthusiastic, yoo-hooing of N.
Wow, her warm reception included a tight, meaningful hug. In N's kitchen, she put out a big spread of food. Things couldn't have been better. She was so, so friendly, the fruit salad was great but it was gnawing at me to find the right words around the awkwardness of asking...where's M.
The situation became cozier when we took our coffees and adjourned to the sofa. N was mapping out some possibilities for US to do over the weekend. N's stressing of "us" made me more leery and I wanted to clarify how many people constituted us. I blurted out, "So, where's M and (her third girlfriend)? "Oh, they're at a spa in Pasadena for the weekend." N was batting her eyes at me when she got up and moved my valise into her bedroom. That's when my dim forty watt light bulb turned into a powerful beacon. Oy, so typical of my love life...N brought me here for herself...and there's a strong possibility M doesn't know I'm alive.
N was a nice person but I had no cosmic link or physical interest in her. I told N, "I was hoping to get to know M better." She silently relocated my valise and put in the guest room. I had to think fast. I borrowed the phone and called my former flea marketing business partner, LTS. He lived in LA. Luckily, he and his wife (K) agreed to do some sightseeing and have dinner with me and N. I was afraid to say it but in a private moment, I told N that I was spending the next day with LTS and would sleep at their place..
N remained pleasant the whole night. Back at her apartment, she was so hospitable even when I said I wanted to turn in because LTS and I were getting an early start. Soon I heard her knock. She made her intentions obvious as she stood, in a short, terry-cloth robe at the doorjamb and asked, "Is there anything else I can do for you?" It was like a convoluted plot from a bad sit-com. I felt like a heel but in reality, I didn't want to take advantage of her.
In the morning, I met LTS and K. He brought her along because there was a change in his schedule. But rather than scrap our two-hundred mile (in each direction) day-trip to the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, K became a welcome substitute. The only caveat was...I would have to drive. Hell, I knew Stu Frobel's car had full fluid levels and good belts and hoses...I never hesitated.
K was great company and our outing has remained a highlight of my life. In addition to the Castle, the drive along the coast highway, in both directions was pure eye candy. On the way home, K suggested a rustic restaurant on Santa Barbara's cliffs that overlook the ocean. Too bad I wasn't there with M, it was a perfect setting.
Despite my inability to hook-up with M, the whole L.A. trip was worthwhile. Stu was pleased that his car was none-the-worse-for wear, it was clean and all fueled-up, (I should have told him to wash my car and fill my tank. But that's another story).
The lesson about topping off the fluids and checking the belts and hoses has remained with me to his day. Unfortunately, I don't always do what I know needs to be done.
My son Andrew is home for spring break. When he told me he and his BFF Matt had a three-day road trip to Montauk Point, (the eastern-most point on New York's Long Island), a concert in Manhattan and another in Philadelphia, I took his car for a test drive.
I asked, "How long has that noise under the hood been going on?" Andrew said, "What noise?" He was leaving in the morning, it was too late to bring his car to my mechanic and I had to get ready for work. So instead of insisting, I hoped everything would be okay and that we could take care of the mystery noise when he came back.
Long car rides with close friends are so good that the destination almost becomes secondary. But for them, sharing the experience of being at the exact location of a universally loved film has an intense significance.
QUESTION? Did you ever see someone's car broken down and said, "Man, that's a bad place to get stuck." Well the boys made it back from Montauk, until Andrew's car died while paying the Verrazano Bridge toll. Now that's an awful place to break-down. Incredibly, with a gazillion horns honking, the cursing and dirty looks from angry motorists, the bridge authority has a free towing service to keep the traffic flowing. The driver unhooked my boy's Honda and said, "See if it starts." It was a miracle! It started. An hour later, they made it back to Matt's house, in Freehold.
In the morning, the car was even driven to the mechanic that Matt's dad uses. Sadly, it was a forty-dollar serpentine belt that snapped and took out the air-conditioning compressor. I have no one to blame but myself. I paid an expensive price for a lesson I already knew.
I hope this incident helps you to profit from my carelessness and laziness. Always check those damned hoses and belts before you go on long trips.