Auto-Biography 18: Vanishing Point

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
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auto biography 18 vanishing point

I followed the old maxim: “go west young man” to its ultimate conclusion: the California beach. I guess I missed an exit. I was looking for an opportunity to start a career. What I found instead was the clothing-optional Black’s Beach near San Diego. After spending two months watching pelicans skimming the waves and hang-gliders surfing the breeze off the cliff tops, I had a great tan. But I was broke. So for the last time in my life (fingers crossed), I defaulted to driving for a living.

The creaky 1970 Chevy taxi must have had at least a half-million miles on it. Thanks to time-warping fleet purchasing, it bristled with 1940’s technology: straight-six, two-speed Powerglide, manual steering and un-assisted drum brakes. The tired Turbo-Thrift six moaned and groaned like a mortally-wounded cowboy in a spaghetti western.

Time is money in the cab business. My driving style constantly tested the adage’s veracity. At 85mph, the yellow Biscayne shook and quivered like an overweight middle-aged belly dancer. The motions made it even harder to read the map that kept this newbie from getting lost in San Diego’s endless canyons.

It’s a good thing I never had to put the drum brakes to the test at speed, though. Stopping for a red light one morning, the right front wheel sheared off. Like a fallen horse with a broken leg, it was quickly dispatched.

The sudden unintended deceleration upgraded me to a fat-boy ‘71, with power brakes and steering. I preferred the old taxi; it was lighter, zippier and the rear-seat lower cushion was actually attached. In the “new” cab, my passengers slid forward on the loose seat whenever I braked. It was funny to watch their heads disappear in the rear-view mirror, but it did nothing to enhance my tip revenue.

Driving a cab is like being trapped in an endless Fellini movie. The ever-changing cast of eccentric characters occupying the back seat evoked pathos, fear, lust and loathing; sometimes all at once. No wonder I wanted to get lost in California’s deserts and mountain wilderness on weekends.

My ‘68 Dodge camper-van was my Dakar-Rally wanna-be truck. The slant six’s torque rivaled a Farmall tractor. The 90” wheelbase was shorter than a Wrangler, and it had a beam front axle. The only thing missing was four-wheel drive. But that didn’t stop me.

I had big traction tires on the back, and lowered the air pressure heading out across the desert. I carried a shovel and carpet strips to put under the spinning rear wheel if I got stuck in the sand.

Only once, on a breathtakingly clear and starry night in Death Valley, I couldn’t make it up a long, boulder-strewn steep trail. I had to back down a half mile, without any back-up lights. Fortunately, my night-time vision was better than my judgment.

Those nine months in San Diego were laid-back, but taxi driving didn’t offer much of a future. My older brother showed up one day, heading to Los Angeles to put a new TV station on the air. I tagged along.

The station was owned by the Transcendental Meditation (TM) organization, so things were… different. In lots of ways. Like hiring unskilled kids like me and paying us peanuts. Hardly anybody knew what the hell they were doing; it was a perpetual comedy of errors. Instead of broadcasting Maharishi’s endless lectures, we should have turned the cameras on ourselves and invented reality TV. The ratings would certainly have been higher.

I saw opportunity; next thing I knew, I was doing it all, thanks to no unions or job descriptions. My old Dodge got a new career (and paint job) as the station’s news van.

We all lived in a rented a house way up in the mountains by Lake Arrowhead, to get above the San Bernardino smog. It was so thick back then that we’d measure it by how many blocks we could see down the street.

Highway 18 to Lake Arrowhead is a beautifully-engineered road: long switchbacks connected by large-radius hair-pin curves. The now-tired Dodge was burning oil; it would foul its plugs during engine-braking. So I turned off the motor and coasted the entire way down the mountain. The grade was just right to keep the boxy van between 55 and 75 mph. It was a highly stimulating way to greet the day.

I wasn’t the only one coasting. Kids would hitchhike rides up the mountain with their custom-built low-slung bicycles. Then they’d fly down as fast, or faster, than the Dodge. Leave it to California kids to exploit every opportunity for wheeled thrills.

Seeing those fearless teens pass me, knowing I was coasting towards a real career, provided a moment of clarity– and it wasn’t pretty. For the first time in my life, I felt old.

Paul Niedermeyer
Paul Niedermeyer

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  • Jeffer Jeffer on May 28, 2007

    Thanks for another great trip down memory lane. My thrifty Dad owned a '64 Biscayne that may have started life as a rental car, 6 cylinder three-in-the tree, drum brakes, armstrong steering and thick clear plastic covering over the bench seats. Many years later I owned a '68 long wheel base Dodge window van, mine had the 318. I drove it for two memorable years, but finally Chrysler's substandard door hardware made me fall out of love with it.I sold it to another young fellow who didn't heed my warning to check all the fluids before putting it back on the road.The motor seized ten miles from my house, and that was all she wrote!

  • Karl Niedermeyer Karl Niedermeyer on May 29, 2007

    Ok, time for another family member to chime in.

    As Paul's younger brother I was treated to wonderful memories in that Dodge van. I took a 72 hour Greyhyound bus ride from Baltimore to San Diego to visit Paul. After a few days of being shown the great places to be seen in the area, including getting my ass sunburned at the nudist beach, Paul treated us to a fantastic journey up Coast Highway to San Francisco camping at some fantastic spots along the way.

    Since there were four of us (Paul's girlfriend and our older sister from another part of the country) in the van, a fair amount of time was spent sitting on the engine "hump" between the front seats. That could get pretty warm during California summers.

    Seat belts? Oh, let's just say have your arms ready to brace yourself on the dash for sudden stops. Sorry, I have been lurking here and enjoying the old memories and new insights.

    Love your writing Paul!

  • ToolGuy I appreciate the thoughtful comments from the little people here, and I would like to remind everyone that Ford Motor Company offers a full range of vehicles which are ideal for any driving environment including New York City. The size and weight our of product portfolio has been fully and completely optimized to be friendly to the planet and friendly to pedestrians while consuming the bare minimum of resources from our precious planet (I am of course a lifelong environmentalist). Plus, our performance models will help you move forward and upward by conquering obstacles and limits such as congestion and your fellow humans more quickly at a higher rate of speed. I invite you to learn more at our website.Signed, William Clay Ford Jr.
  • George Hughes What ever happened to the American can-do attitude. I know what, it was coopted by the fossil fuel industry in their effort to protect their racket.
  • 28-Cars-Later "But Assemblyman Phil Ting, the San Franciscan Democrat who wrote the electric school bus legislation, says this is all about the health and wellbeing of Golden State residents. In addition to the normal air pollution stemming from exhaust gasses, he believes children are being exposed to additional carcinogens by just being on a diesel bus."Phil is into real estate, he doesn't know jack sh!t about science or medicine and if media were real it would politely remind him his opinions are not qualified... if it were real. Another question if media were real is why is a very experienced real estate advisor and former tax assessor writing legislation on school busses? If you read the rest of his bio after 2014, his expertise seems to be applied but he gets into more and more things he's not qualified to speak to or legislate on - this isn't to say he isn't capable of doing more but just two years ago Communism™ kept reminding me Dr. Fauxi knew more about medicine than I did and I should die or something. So Uncle Phil just gets a pass with his unqualified opinions?Ting began his career as a real estate  financial adviser at  Arthur Andersen and  CBRE. He also previously served as the executive director of the  Asian Law Caucus, as the president of the Bay Area Assessors Association, and on the board of  Equality California. [url=][1][/url][h3][/h3]In 2005, Ting was appointed San Francisco Assessor-Recorder in 2005 by Mayor  Gavin Newsom, becoming San Francisco’s highest-ranking  Chinese-American official at the time. He was then elected to the post in November 2005, garnering 58 percent of the vote.Ting was re-elected Assessor-Recorder in 2006 and 2010During his first term in the Assembly, Ting authored a law that helped set into motion the transformation of Piers 30-32 into what would become  Chase Center the home of the  Golden State Warriors
  • RHD This looks like a lead balloon. You could buy a fantastic classic car for a hundred grand, or a Mercedes depreciationmobile. There isn't much reason to consider this over many other excellent vehicles that cost less. It's probably fast, but nothing else about it is in the least bit outstanding, except for the balance owed on the financing.
  • Jeff A bread van worthy of praise by Tassos.