Car: Bashing A Common Gorilla!

When I lived in NYC, I was driven everywhere in a taxi or on a bus. Or I walked. I knew I needed a car when I moved to Los Angeles, so I stopped by my Texas home and bought a racy red, vintage 1971 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia to drive out West.

You have to drive in LA. If you see someone walking, something is usually terribly wrong. They're either homeless, lost, recently convicted of a DUI, a hooker, or a Mormon missionary.

I bought the car mainly because the price was right; but also with the scheme of selling it in car-crazy, gold-rich California to some pot-smoking hippy Karmann Ghia collector that had cash and passion -- cashion. I'd make out like a bandit.

My Karmann Ghia had a new engine, the most important component for a cross country trip. The body wasn't in great shape; it had some rust, there were a few dents, the paint was faded, and my singing voice --was the radio.

Optimism and promise truly drive everything.

My friend, impossibly blue-eyed actor David Youse was moving from NYC to LA, too. So he and his hunk of a footballer brother Dougie drove to Texas, picked me up and we took off to California in a caravan. With iPhones still an Apple in Steve Jobs teenage eye, we planned to communicate with each other on the road by honking, rolling our windows down and waving frantically.
The stretch between Dallas and El Paso is twelve hours of open road -- flatter than a fritter, my Texan great-grandmother used to drawl. We passed passable towns. The only elevation change was the wavy degrees of heat rising up from the horizon. Stuckey's highway stores promise of clean bathrooms and pecan log rolls was our best excitement.

Around Abilene, movement caught my eye on the floorboard of the car. I lifted my sunglasses and squinted in the bright sun. (My cocky youth still allowed the corners of my eyes to wrinkle, confident the crows feet would fly away and not stick around.) The jagged, rusted cracks in the car's floorboard had opened like a can of Popeye's spinach as the car vibrated along; the car was dangerously separating from itself. The opening was large enough to let me see the road passing by at 65mph. Your own blood courses through your heart and you know it's happening but you aren't supposed to actually see it. The low bucket seat had felt snug and made me feel like I was driving a race car; but now I had to grab the steering wheel hard, past the intention of hanging on and into one of staying in.

Seeing the road flash before my eyes, I wondered if this would affect my sale price in California. I'd need to tape it up with that clear, strong tape old movie stars used to pull their faces back for a love scene.

I swear I did not pull a 'Tom Sawyer painting the fence' move on Dougie. He wanted to drive the Karmann Ghia from mile one. At the next bathroom break, I tossed him a Slim Jim from Stuckey's and the keys to my car. He took the bait and the movie montage began, under the imaginary groovy soundtrack from the hit TV show, The Courtship of Eddie's Father, People Let me Tell You About My Best Friend:

We repeatedly slowed, then sped up and passed each other on the highway. We'd swerve in and out of the lanes in a fun, care-free zig-zig way. We were young, incredibly good-looking, carefree. This open road was our world's oyster. Dougie slowed as he passed us, wearing a funny face or his hat backwards. I'd flip him off or moon him -- it was a wholesome hoot.

But when heavier-than-me Dougie pulled alongside and I saw the car seat coming out of the car, almost hitting the road, his blue-jeaned butt bouncing up and down out of the car like a biong boing boing spring, it wasn't cute. David saw sparks caused by the seat striking the road. Our caravan of dreams turned into a caravan of screams, so rather than ruin our road trip with a fiery explosion, we pulled over and I took my car back from Dougie. I weighed less, so the seat didn't drag the road. Yet.

Finally, El Paso sprawled on our horizon like a suburban hero. We would sleep there. My hands were tired from gripping the steering wheel as if that tight hold would keep my car together. As we pulled off the highway to a motel, my car brakes failed.

On the circular off-ramp, as I pushed down on the brake pedal, it just sunk down. It met no usual squishy resistance. Panicked, I pushed it down again, and it simply slammed to the raggeddy-ass floor. I feared I'd soon be Fred Flintstone stopping this car with my feet.

I knew how this went in the movies -- you push the pedal in again and cast a panicked look out the window to see that a high cliff is approaching. Your mind flashes back to the lover you scorned and you see them sneaking down to the garage as you peacefully slept with another's lipstick on your mind. They scorned cursed your betrayal as they use the long, silver-handled knife you had jointly used to cut your wedding cake, but now to slice your brake lines. I wanted to go back in time and make everything all right, but I just calmly downshifted, kept the car under control and coasted to a stop on the access road.

It was dusk when we got the car to a mechanic. I had to leave it there for him to evaluate the next day. The brothers Youse had a plane to catch in LA and needed to leave me in El Paso the next morning. I totally understood their need for speed; but as I waved goodbye, I felt like a lonely injured bird left in a nest while my stronger brothers flew to a new life. Had we been waving goodbye on a street in London, Florence or Boston it would have been less pathetic -- but it wasn't. If El Paso were a big smile, it'd be missing some teeth.

It was early evening by the time the mechanic put a band-aid on the problem. The entire brake line system was as shot as the floorboard and needed replacing once, and if, I hit LA. He showed me how to add fluid when needed to the line so that I could make the rest of the road trip.

I was now the car's nurse, adding insulin and checking life-lines to a feeble patient. It was going to be a long 825 miles. 

I joylessly resumed my trip. I pumped the brakes periodically, sort of like you repeatedly swallow when you have a sore throat to see if it's better. Repeated fast glances down to see if the floorboard had miraculously sealed up only proved it hadn't.

I floated the car over the center line in the road every now and then just to watch the yellow stripes flash up at me through the floorboard. I created a sound effect to go with the rhythm of the passing dashes. Bloooop, bloooop, bloooop. I was adjusting to my lame car, like a dog that loses a leg. We think it sad for them, but it quickly becomes their reality and they still excitedly hop to greet you, wagging their tail.

The desert had lulled me into a trance. Somewhere in New Mexico, all alone with my thoughts, dreaming of my new life in LA, carefully clutching the steering wheel of this fragile car, which was now an ironic manifestation of my uncertain future in a new town, I watched a tire gently roll away from the passenger side of my car and out into the desert. It bounced a bit as it floated away, and was kind of beautiful until my car dipped quickly, and sparks flew out like I was welding the road with my car. I heard a horrible screaming noise and as soon as I could, I immediately stopped screaming and took control. I smelled melting rubber.

If you know a glass is going to fall off a counter, the world goes into slo-mo; you can't stop it from breaking so you just jump your toes out of the way and hope you have shoes nearby. I pumped the car's brakes as if I had gone through this dozens of times, making sure I didn't jerk the car over too fast so the body wouldn't totally separate from the floor. I eased the beast to a stop.

I turned on the emergency flashers. I heard their click click click fade away and felt the mid day sun grow hotter and hotter on my stupid head as I walked back and into the desert to retrieve the wheel and ragged tire. I looked up and down the highway for Jesus, or my mom. But I had to fix this myself; figure it out. I took a moment, turned away from the highway, glanced over my shoulder, and had a good pee. A man's cry.

I didn't know enough when I bought the car to see that the floorboard was rusted out and I had no idea the brake lines were shot, so I sure as hell was totally surprised that there was no jack or spare tire in the trunk. Before my hope sank with the sun, a highway patrolman pulled up. I found out that highway patrolmen are nice, and might have no intention of pulling me into the sage brush and Deliverance-ing me. He radioed for help and soon a new tire was popped on my wheel.

Even though I'd never played baseball, I was meeting every curve ball thrown at me on this trip like an LA Dodger.

The deserted highway was eventually replaced with little shopping centers, loneliness gave way to lots of other cars, all going faster than me; but comforting nonetheless. Los Angeles is so spread out, and I was so anxious to get there and out of this crack house of a car that when I got to San Bernardino I thought it was LA. I still had sixty miles to go.

In the Marine Corps, I learned to save a little extra gas to fuel my legs to complete the last miles of a long forced march so I pulled from that same reserve to psych myself up for the last stretch of the road trip.

Out of deference to faster, non-collapsible cars, I drove in the slower far right lane. Any cockiness I might've felt as a former New Yorker was stripped away from me with the whoosh of each passing Porsche. New York is America's melting pot, and LA's highway system is a swirling whisk that beats everyone together. I was glad riding in the slowest lane in case my brakes failed or I had to respond to another emergency like a wheel rolling off, or the sudden, shockingly loud ping! that must have had something to do with the reflection cast by the metal rod I saw simultaneously fly out and away from my car.

I slowed my car and pulled over, now blase with my reactions to car catastrophes. Adrenaline can't be conjured up each time a fireman rushes into a burning building. It's been done.

California highways are courteously dotted with colorful oleander bushes to please the eye and emergency telephones to ease the mind in case of emergency. I coasted the car to a stop, landing near one of the phone boxes. As I released the clutch, the car lurched forward and hit the metal guard rail. The car shuttered to a stop. I started the car again, and tried to take off, but it lurched again to a stop, hitting the guard rail again. The bitch wouldn't go into gear and drive. Lest I cause more body damage, I turned the engine off a final time and got out.

When you are in a moving vehicle, cars seem a little fast if they pass you. If you're stopped and outside of the car, they seem dangerous and able to knock you down just from their back draft or noise. As I walked to the call box, I flinched as each one passed as if I were being flogged savagely.

I checked the front of my car for fresh damage, saw a bit of a new dent, noted that it was tiny relative to the car's overall condition, rolled my eyes and opened the call box. I spoke to an operator that needed to hear about 0% of what I told her. She assured me a tow truck was on the way.

I sat in my car to be safe, my doors locked from baseless, new-city fear and my sensitivities heightened by embarrassment. This was my entrance to LA -- I might was well walk into town in ragged clothes, dragging a cross. Doubt about this move reverberated through my mind, amplified by loud cars passing by as an all-out assault.

While I waited, a tiny brilliant light went off in my dulled head. I started the car and released the clutch again, popping it and lurching the car forward. I hit the guard rail again -- but now on purpose. I did it again, even leaning in hard with my body to emphasize the strike. My head thrashed a bit. I hoped I'd get whiplash, too. 

I started the car over and over and over and bashed it in as much as I could with the inspired intent to do so much damage that my insurance company would fix everything wrong with my life, I mean car.

I popped the clutch so often I worried I'd run out of gas from the constant engine starting. By the time the tow truck came the front of the car looked like my scorned lover not only cut my brakes but used a sledge hammer to drive home one big point. The driver told me that I had thrown the accelerator rod. There was no need to search for it; he said I'd need a new one.

 I need more than that, I thought, as I climbed into the passenger seat, happy to be rumbling into LA in this truck. I had my Karmann Ghia only in my rear view mirror, a hopeful foreshadowing to its past presence in my life.

Thanks to heavy traffic the truck driver soon knew my life story. I made my journey as interesting as possible, hoping to remove some of the tarnish caused by my humble entrance. He was fairly silent -- either a great audience or hard of hearing.

After a bit, he commented on the massive amount of dents on my car, and I explained that I had trouble getting it stopped and kept hitting that poor pole. I needed to convincingly tell him my story in case the insurance company called him on the witness stand to testify against me. I got a little dramatic and raised my voice if I felt I was losing the room, or cab, in this case.

"You got full coverage, boy? the driver asked, suddenly sounding hickish and all Deliverance-y, making me cross my legs and myself.

"Yep," I replied, not sure what he meant. He went on and on about insurance.

"Cause lots of folks don't get full coverage on them old "common gorillas", just the minimum," he said.

"I got full coverage," I assured him, continuing "because this is a collectors item and I'm going to use the insurance money to restore her to glorious perfection and sell it for a fortune."

I sneakily pulled my wallet out and read my insurance card. My eyes scanned the coverage and I hid my shock by closing my gaping jaw when I discovered that I only had basic liability. The self-inflicted wounds I incurred were not covered by anyone but me, as it legally should be.

We rode in silence.

I sold the car, to a collector as intended, and for a profit -- though not as large as I had wanted. I was lucky to get anything. The car was to be used as parts to supplement his other Common Gorilla's, proving that one man's treasure is another man's junk.

A welcome to LA is a welcome to life's open road. And not that much different from New York --  technically I was chauffeured into town.


  1. Great story Greg!!!!! I can surely relate to the Common Gorilla as well as the rusted out floor board! The rusty floor board was in an old red 61 Porsche I drove around :) The Common Gorilla was baby blue like his eyes! Wendy

  2. Greg. A great story indeed! Possibly we might someday take a road trip together and i will look forward to it. Just one prerequisite; let's take my car.
    xo jc


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