Auto-Biography 18: Vanishing Point

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.

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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!

  • Sgeffe Bronco looks with JLR “reliability!”What’s not to like?!
  • FreedMike Back in the '70s, the one thing keeping consumers from buying more Datsuns was styling - these guys were bringing over some of the ugliest product imaginable. Remember the F10? As hard as I try to blot that rolling aberration from my memory, it comes back. So the name change to Nissan made sense, and happened right as they started bringing over good-looking product (like the Maxima that will be featured in this series). They made a pretty clean break.
  • Flowerplough Liability - Autonomous vehicles must be programmed to make life-ending decisions, and who wants to risk that? Hit the moose or dive into the steep grassy ditch? Ram the sudden pile up that is occurring mere feet in front of the bumper or scan the oncoming lane and swing left? Ram the rogue machine that suddenly swung into my lane, head on, or hop up onto the sidewalk and maybe bump a pedestrian? With no driver involved, Ford/Volkswagen or GM or whomever will bear full responsibility and, in America, be ambulance-chaser sued into bankruptcy and extinction in well under a decade. Or maybe the yuge corporations will get special, good-faith, immunity laws, nation-wide? Yeah, that's the ticket.
  • FreedMike It's not that consumers wouldn't want this tech in theory - I think they would. Honestly, the idea of a car that can take over the truly tedious driving stuff that drives me bonkers - like sitting in traffic - appeals to me. But there's no way I'd put my property and my life in the hands of tech that's clearly not ready for prime time, and neither would the majority of other drivers. If they want this tech to sell, they need to get it right.
  • TitaniumZ Of course they are starting to "sour" on the idea. That's what happens when cars start to drive better than people. Humanpilots mostly suck and make bad decisions.