Introduction • Part 1 • Part 2 • Part 3 • Part 4 • Part 5 • Part 6 • Part 7 • Part 8 • Part 9 • Part 10
Once the Impala had been modified sufficiently to function as a 1992-grade daily driver, the long-term project of converting it into an art car that drew upon the Holy Trinity of American Car Archetypes (drive-by-shooting ghetto hooptie, official vehicle, redneck street racer) took on less urgency; I planned to “finish the work of art,” whatever that meant, but along the way I’d created an excellent road car. And when you have an excellent road car, you have no choice but to hit the road.
Back in the early 1990s, cheapo Chinese-made point-and-shoot 35mm cameras flooded the world. At that time, my love of photography had veered from an obsession with shooting razor-sharp, depth-of-field-calculated-to-the-millimeter shots on my prized Canon AE-1 to a fascination with shooting blurry, bleary, headache-inducing shots with the likes of the $1.99 Guangzhou Special panorama camera that took the photograph above.
With disc brakes, a rebuilt front end, stiff shocks, and new rear springs, my 27-year-old Chevy drove and handled like a much more modern car; the design of the advanced-for-Detroit-at-the-time four-link-with-Panhard rear suspension had held up well (especially compared to the leaf-spring setups on the GM B platform’s contemporary Chrysler and Ford competitors), and improvements in tire technology helped a lot.
The car’s 350 small-block, with its Malaise Era smog heads, woke up a bit once I installed headers, a Quadrajet, and HEI ignition; my Impala wasn’t particularly quick, but it had the edge over Camrys, Tauruses, and the like when it came down to freeway-onramp drag races. Fuel economy (about 17 MPG highway, much less city) wasn’t great by early-90s standards, so I resolved to wait for the day when small-block Chevy throttle-body fuel injection systems started showing up in Pick-Your-Part in large numbers.
Around this time, I burned out on bouncing between rejected job applications and working for temp agencies and surrendered to the inevitable: I started graduate school. With a University of California undergrad degree under my belt, the skids were already greased for my quick acceptance into my choice of California State University campuses, and so I looked for the Cal State in the area with the cheapest living expenses. With presidential candidate Bill Clinton excoriating Sista Souljah and Ice-T as background noise, I packed up the Impala and moved to my new home in… Turlock, California.
Yes, I was no longer an underemployed San Francisco slacker driving a primered-out Detroit heap. As the spring semester at California State University, Stanislaus (aka “Turkey Tech”) began, I was an academic driving a primered-out Detroit heap. American Grafitti was filmed in Turlock, allegedly because it resembled the early-60s version of George Lucas’s hometown of Modesto (located just a bit down Highway 99), and its bovine-scented farm-town ambience was just the thing to force me to focus on my studies. Ideally, I’d have a master’s degree in Rhetoric and Composition (a fancy name for “teachin’ writin’ to the young’uns”) in two years’ time, at which point I’d be able to snag a soft job teaching sullen small-town stoner kids how to write five-paragraph essays at some backwoods-ass junior college. I would have preferred a warehouse job staring at stacks of boxes, punctuated by the occasional forklift race with my coworkers, while the Dead Kennedys played on my workplace boombox, but such jobs were no longer available in 1992 California.
Graduate school turned out to be fairly pleasant, if somewhat boring. While Los Angeles burned during the Rodney King riots and Clinton, Bush, and Perot duked it out, I cranked out gibberish essays about the hermeneutical reification of the work of John Donne. The English Department at CSUS boasted perhaps a dozen graduate students, half of which were cynical Generation X types like me, sheltering from the Unstoppable Downward Spiral of Civilization and half of which were jaded, chain-smoking high-school teachers hoping to nail down a fatter paycheck by adding a master’s degree to their resumes.
My life settled into a low-stress routine. Every couple of weeks, the professors would scrounge up English Department funds sufficient for us to buy barbecue food and a keg of beer, and we’d all spend a day getting drunk and sunburned and playing volleyball. Every night, I’d stay up until about 4:00 AM with some of my fellow impoverished grad students, drinking Milwaukee’s Best, listening to Cypress Hill and Primus, and playing cribbage. Most weekends, I’d hop in the Impala and drive the two hours back to the San Francisco Bay Area and hang out with my friends there. It was a dignified life and an easy one, and the months went by fast.
During this period, a couple of my cribbage partners drove off a freeway overpass while drunk-driving a mid-70s Celica back from a Social Distortion show in San Francisco. They were pretty well banged up, with the un-seat-belted driver being thrown from the wreck and having an Evel Knievel-grade quantity of bones broken; when he recovered enough to move under his own power, he fled to
the Czech Republic Czechoslovakia to avoid probable jail time for a DUI-with-injuries crash. These events had two effects on me: first, no more nightly cribbage marathons. Second, I became more aware of the crash-safety limitations of my pre-Ralph Nader GM car. I had installed some junkyard Olds 88 lap belts soon after getting the car, but visions of my face getting mashed by the steel dashboard in a wreck sent me to the Modesto Pick-N-Pull to buy a 1969 Caprice shoulder-belt setup. Due to the inherent inferiority of the film-camera era, I don’t have any photographs of my seat belt installation, but it was simple enough: the first generation of US-market shoulder belts used separate belts and buckles for the shoulder and lap seat belts, which meant that I could keep my bright green Oldsmobile lap belts and add some brown Caprice shoulder belts merely by drilling holes in the B pillars and mounting the upper mounts of the shoulder belts with Grade 8 hardware through the pillars. This worked well, although the lack of spring tensioners in the early shoulder belts meant that I had to unbuckle the belt in order to lean over and adjust the stereo volume or turn on the heater.
During my second semester as an R&C scholar, I began to realize that the life of an academic wasn’t a good fit for me, and that my envisioned future teaching writing at Butcher Holler Junior College wouldn’t be to my liking. Accelerating this realization was the fact that I had been taken under the wing of the angry, sociopathic professor of feminist literature who had poisoned her relationships with academics on several continents (I was heavy into Virginia Woolf at the time, which apparently convinced her that I would one day be just as angry and poisonous as she was); this meant that my academic career, such as it was, would forever be tainted by my association with a mentor loathed by everyone in my field. Things got weirder by the day. At one point, I attended a party at the home of one of my fellow grad students, one of the bitter/master’s-degree-chasing high-school teachers, and she cornered me and a couple of my cynical 20-something peers (as we were in the process of guzzling a bottle of Bailey’s we’d found in her liquor cabinet) and launched into a scary tirade along the lines of “All you young guys, you think you want to teach… but YOU’RE NOT SHOWING ME ANYTHING!” That was the tipping point.
I decided to take a leave of absence from my academic career and head straight to the land that inspired me to write (what I thought was) good fiction and take4 (what I thought were) good photographs: southern California. So, I rounded up my friend Judy (the only San Francisco resident I’d ever met who was actually born in San Francisco) as a traveling companion and steered the Impala onto Interstate 5.
By that time, I had spent seven years driving between the Bay Area and Southern California on I-5 between five and thirty times per year. When driving I-5, I had the sense that everything that had taken place between the current drive and the previous one had been a weird dream, and that I-5 was the place to evaluate the dream. As the Impala had proven to be the best I-5 car I’d ever owned (better even than my Competition Orange ’68 Mercury Cyclone), I slipped into the requisite I-5 mental groove very easily while behind its wheel.
So, while I pondered existential questions as the mileage signs to Los Angeles showed progressively smaller numbers, Judy read fashion magazines and enjoyed the nostalgic sensation of riding in the same type of car she’d ridden in during early childhood.
During my performance-art career, I spent quite a while working on my never-to-be-finished magnum opus, a piece entitled “I-5.” In it, slide projectors would show an endless series of through-the-windshield photographs of I-5 between I-580 and the Orange County line. Meanwhile, Murilee Arraiac (my Negativland/Throbbing Gristle-influenced band) would perform a short musical piece representing every freeway exit during that drive. I got as far as shooting a few hundred slides and recording perhaps a half-dozen songs, including “Twisselman Road”.
I had decided that I would photograph this journey using only the Guangzhou Special panoramic camera, loaded with Kodak Tri-X. It’s difficult to shoot a flying bird out the side window of a moving car with a 1/30th shutter speed, but I managed this one.
Even though my Impala looked like a clanking beater, it ran perfectly at this point, and the ride was quite comfortable. I had never expected this 27-year-old Chevrolet to win me over as a driver the way it did, but sometimes things sort out in unexpected ways.
These days, I prize the images on this single roll of film more than just about any other. I became a jaded hack long ago when it comes to photography, and I’d never go back to film, but I’m glad I put in my time in the darkroom.
I must admit that the P71 Crown Victoria I bought in the 21st century was an even better long-distance-drive car than my ’65 Impala, but not by much.
Just around sunset, we made it through the Grapevine and entered Southern California proper. Little did I know that the Southern California journeys would soon end, as the economy picked up and full-time employment loomed its ugly head. Next up: Fiat X1/9 hood scoops, spinning that Buick odometer.
Introduction • Part 1 • Part 2 • Part 3 • Part 4 • Part 5 • Part 6 • Part 7 • Part 8 • Part 9 • Part 10