How to explain what I was doing in Escondido as parking-lot cop on a Friday night in May for “Cruisin’ Grand: Pre-’74 American Hot Rods, Customs, Classics, Vintage & Muscle Cars.” Since I was 15, I’ve suspected that cops — even traffic cops — and I were put in this world for different reasons. Let’s say I owed the City of Escondido for a large favor and I volunteered. Not community service for any misdemeanor or any violation of anything, just one of those favors — a gift horse you don’t look in the mouth.
I’m in a dust-and-gravel lot kitty-corner from a 7-Eleven, across the street from a defunct movie theater, the marquee of which now reads, “Cruisin’ Grand every Friday, April 4–September 26.” Beneath that, at eye level, is a poster: “Special Attractions! ’50s & ’60s music, live bands & awards, restaurants, galleries and retailers open.” It looks like I’m guarding the Porto-Sans units next to me.
On the way over to my post, wearing a hot, day-glo vest with the words “Special Events Team” on the back (this thing’s got to glow in the dark), I pass an uncounted number of hot rods. They all remind me of that 1950s B horror movie in black-and-white where Sal Mineo drives his hot rod into a giant gila monster at the end. Many of these shiny land leviathans sport paint jobs in colors that do not occur in the natural world (like my vest).
One of these is a 1967 Chevy Super Sport painted a radioactive pumpkin, probably called Napalm Tangerine or something. A lot of these cars have paint jobs (some, like the P.T. Cruisers, come from Detroit with these colors) called Inferno Red, Stone White, or Cool Vanilla. This Super Sport has a 383 engine, a 671 Supercharger, custom scoop and pipes, all the work of Jeff Ciccone over 30 years. Seated next to Ciccone is friend Tom Holman, who tells me, “Jeff considers himself an artist and this is his canvas.”
Next I encounter a ’69 Mustang with its hood open like most of the rest of them on Grand Avenue tonight. The engine is a shiny sterling silver/
chrome/quicksilver/mirror-surfaced monster. The body is painted a flawless Gulf Stream Aqua. Wasn’t 1969 the year Mustangs were more or less past their prime? Not this mother.
While eating dust, preventing triple parking, watching people enter and leave the temporary toilets, I’m looking at the rear ends of Chrysler P.T. Cruisers. One has a giant wind-up key jutting from its back end; another one, Inferno Red with woody side panels and Betty Boop printed at intervals on the body; another one with a C-17 cargo/troop transport military airplane decaled or glasscaped on the tailgate. The owner of this job, a wiry, personable and silver-haired guy, probably late 50s, early 60s, comes over to talk with me. His name is Don Carson, and he says, “Yeah, that’s Air Force 1. So am I. We all go by the names of our cars. Like there’s Silver Surfer, Rum Runner, Bootlegger, ZZ Top. I dedicated Air Force 1 to my son, Jamie.” Jamie Carson is a tech sergeant in the Air Force.
“Air Force 1 is a 2006,” he continues. “Now, Betty Boop, that’s a 2005.” More to himself than anyone, he says, squinting at the vehicle, “She must have 50 Betty Boop dolls.” Turning back, he grins, “After this, we go to Coco’s, turn on all our lights, and eat.” What he’s talking about are strobe lights and neon around license plates, Italian Christmas-like windshield-wiper lights, amber lights on the hood, what-have-you, all — picture this — streaking down the freeway like a time-lapse photo of a Spielberg flying saucer doing 60 mph only a foot or more off the ground. When they get to Coco’s, they leave their lights on and don’t worry about draining batteries; they’ve got two, one just for the lights. “A guy we call Hollywood helps get our lighting, L.E.D. or whatever.”
Carson’s car club is called Pacific Tide Cruisers. No fee to join. “We’ve got members from San Berdoo to Chula Vista, even New Mexico. Hey, we make our cars look like reindeer at Christmas. Antlers on the windows, big red noses on the grill. ZZ Top? He’s got that beard? He does Santa Claus. These things used to be called concept cars. Now they’re P.T. Cruisers. Chrysler’s not making them anymore.” Carson doesn’t look sad, he looks defiantly at me. “Yeah, we’re crazy. But these aren’t just showpieces. I drive mine everywhere. I’m crazy, too. We say…our motto is, ‘We came because of the cars. We stayed because of the people.’”