Matthew Lickona 11:49 p.m., Dec. 10
GETTING WET: Cars, Critters and a Con man
DAY ONE On a dark and dreary Monday morning not long ago, my car would cough and shiver, stutter and fart. But it would not start.
I popped the hood. "Not now, please," I whispered to the engine.
I had overdue DVDs and books to return, dry cleaning to pick up, groceries to buy, a package to send, a prescription to fill. The tailor called again to remind me my suit was ready. And I was expecting a check at the post office.
Then there was work. I am an outside salesman, and a salesman needs his car as much as a cowboy needs his horse. They take us to the action.
Neighbors whom I'd known since moving here five years ago gathered around the open hood and offered diagnoses. Out of gas. Dead battery. Bad starter. Bad spark plugs. Too much gas.
"Could be a number of things," said Jack, the neighborhood sage. "Or could just be having a bad hair day." That brought smiles on this dark and dreary morning. Jack, as usual, was wearing his maroon robe and black slippers, and held a coffee cup and leaned on a cane.
A new neighbor joined us. She was in pink; pink hat, pink raincoat, and pink rubber boots. Her poodle wore a pink bow.
“The most problematic aspect of automobile ownership is the unpredictability of the car’s performance,” she told us. Her East-European accent was strong. She offered this: "An expert could promptly ascertain the dilemma here."
Yes, let's bring in the experts, I thought. And the sooner the better, because it had begun to rain.
The tow truck driver loaded my moribund car and drove away, leaving me to ponder my situation. What was wrong with the car? How much would it cost to repair? How soon could I get it back?
The phone rang shortly before lunch. It was the mechanic.
“We can fix your car, but it’s going to cost you a new engine. And they ain't cheap.” He gave me a ballpark figure.
And just like that, I was in the market for a car.
I searched the internet for used cars within my budget and within University City, cars I could walk to. I quickly found a silver Ford Taurus. The price was right and it was near the post office. What luck. I could pick up my check in the same trip. I'd have wheels by the end of the day and I'd be back in action. I left right after lunch.
Within a few blocks of walking I found that driving had turned me into a stranger in my own land. I never realized how steep some hills were, or how many office buildings had sprung up, or how soaked a pedestrian can get when a car hits a pothole, or how warm are the diesel fumes of buses.
I walked by a high school, where a group of students huddled on the edge of the school grounds. I assumed they were doing something forbidden, like smoking cigarettes, or sharing dirty jokes, or cheating on tests. But as I got closer I saw they had an iPod with small speakers, and were listening to music. They didn’t even notice me.
On a chilly street corner an angel held up a sign advertising hot coffee. Her scanty costume was a white bed sheet and a hallo of coat hanger and tinsel. She wore sandals. As I neared the cherub I saw goose bumps on her bare arms, and her toes were red from cold. You'd never see that driving, I thought. Or smell the espresso.
The silver Taurus was standing at the curb. The young man waiting for me quickly apologized but he knew little about the car because it wasn't his car. A friend had asked him to sell it.
Other than the car had never been cleaned, it looked great. No dents, no cracks, no missing parts. The tires were good, and the shocks firm. All the chimes chimed and all the blinkers blinked. On the freeway handled well in the rain. But on the way back the "Check Engine" light went on. And stayed on.
"Better look into that," I said, and left the fellow scratching his head.
There was now just enough time to get to the post office. Crows squawked like clarinets with broken reeds, warning of an imminent downpour. I ran and I almost made it.
Maria was behind the counter. I stood in the doorway dripping.
"Bad time to be taking a walk.” Maria had a reputation as the post office sense of humor. She was observant, too. She noticed the disappointment when I saw my empty mailbox.
“Give me your phone number and stay home where it's dry. I’ll call you when the check arrives.”
“You’re allowed to do that?”
“No. So please don’t tell anyone.”
There was a large fountain on the edge of my apartment complex, and parked across the street was a late-model black Cadillac convertible. Even in the dusk and drizzle that car had character, beauty, class. Now, that's what I need to find.
DAY TWO Early the next morning I continued my search and found a red Volvo and a green Pontiac station wagon. In the photo the Volvo looked immaculate. It was at a used car lot on nearby Miramar Road, and I left right after breakfast. When I closed my front door, crows hopped from the treetops and flapped eastward, most likely going to peck garbage at the Miramar Landfill.
My walk skirted the wilderness-like acreage of Marine Corps Air Station, passed the water treatment plant (I held my nose), and came to an overpass where the cars below looked like migrating salmon. A bit farther, among the smog shops and truck rentals, tile outlets and tire shops, were plots of weeds and shallow puddles left over from yesterday's rain. A sign on the chain link fence read “Habitat Restoration. Vernal Pools." I'd never heard of vernal pools.
Someone had spent a lot of time detailing the red Volvo. Even on this gray day the chrome was gleaming, the wax brilliant, the windows spotless, the tires shiny black. The seats and carpets had been freshly shampooed.
When I opened the hood, however, it was another scene. Frayed fan belts; rusty radiator water; gooey, gritty motor oil; burnt power steering fluid as brown as cheap syrup. The salesman wanted me to go for a spin, but after I'd seen what was under the hood I declined. I was sure something would catch fire. I thanked him, saying I still had other cars to see.
At a strip mall near my apartment complex I entered a favorite soup and sandwich shop, and met the new neighbor.
“Has your automobile been restored to functionality?” she inquired.
I explained the situation.
"Oh. How unfortunate." Then: "There was a nice black car parked near the fountain this morning. Perhaps you should venture a look-see?"
"I saw it last night, but I didn't see a for sale sign."
"Oh." Then: "By the way, this is Amanda"--she pointed to the poodle--"and this is me."
She handed me an ivory-colored business card and shook my hand. Her name was Samantha Tagagala, and she was, according to her card, a princess.
I had to smile. Always good to have a princess in the neighborhood.
After my sandwich I walked to the green Pontiac station wagon. The quickest route was through Rose Canyon, following the train tracks to Regents Road. I straddled a guardrail and descended through bushes and weeds to the floor of the canyon. I’d never been down there before. The air was cooler than at street level, and smelled like wet wood. I passed the decomposing carcass of a coyote, its pelt dried and torn, white ribs exposed, obviously there for weeks, not doubt the victim of a train.
The cold wind increased as if to herald more rain, so I quickened my pace. Avoiding rocks and puddles, I kept my eyes on the ground and my head down against the gusty wind, so I didn't hear the commuter train behind me. When it blasted by my heart rocketed. Wow! Once my nerves calmed I realized how exhilarating that had been.
The green Pontiac station wagon was in front of a doctor's office. The faded green paint once had been bright green pain, and the chrome roof rack once had resembled chrome. The cluster of gauges and dials, switches and knobs looked like the cockpit of a jet airplane. The engine roared to life, and rocked the car when I accelerated. I feared this dinosaur would need as much gas as a Boeing 747.
The doctor understood my reluctance to buy his car, which he, too, referred to as a dinosaur.
"It's more of a family car," he admitted.
Yeah. I rich family, I thought.
He was amused that I should be out walking to look at cars, considering the cold, windy weather.
Actually, it hadn't been that bad, I told him. The walk was often educational, like a field trip.
I passed by the fountain on the way home and noticed that the black Cadillac convertible was no longer there.
I stopped at the grocery store and dry cleaners, so the day was not a complete loss.
DAY THREE The next morning Maria called. There was a check in my mailbox.
Great timing, I thought, because my search had come up with "The Deal of the Century," guaranteed by the owner to be the best used car in University City. Ignore the high mileage, his ad said; she's been immaculately preserved. And forget the old beauty's age; she runs like a spring chicken. She had been driven and maintained by his late aunt.
We agreed to meet at the University Towne Centre Mall parking lot. It would be a long walk, but based on the ad I felt it would be worth it.
I arrived early.
The "Deal of the Century" slumped in the middle of the empty parking lot like an abandoned dog. It had a flat tire, a crack across the windshield, and a bent antenna. The hood latch was stuck and I couldn't open it. I kneeled and saw a puddle of oil under the engine. One door had a huge gash and the other was a different color. A rust patch on the roof was the size of a dinner plate.
I looked inside. Auntie must have eaten and slept in her car, living on fast food and using old clothes for bedding. Maybe she was dead in the back seat, buried under the food wrappers and T-shirts.
I was not going to find out, and walked quickly away from the "Deal of the Century."
Crows in the pine trees watched the whole scene as the owner pulled up. I was 100 yards away when he saw my back.
"Hey!" he yelled. "How much will you give me for it?"
"Hey!" the crows cawed. "How much will you give him for it?"
Hands in pockets, deep in thought, I headed for the post office. My lack of car-buying success was starting to gnaw on my conscience. Sure, I was enjoying the walking and discovering. But I needed to start making a living again. Man does not live on fresh air alone.
A car pulled next to the curb and the driver rolled down his window. "Where you headed?" It was Jack, my neighbor. "Post office," I answered. "Come on. I'll give you a lift." He was wearing his maroon robe and black slippers, and his cane was next to him.
"Guess you haven't found a car yet?"
"Still looking," I told him, and he heard the frustration in my voice.
"What about that black Caddy convertible, the one parked by the fountain?"
"I didn't know it was for sale."
"Had a for sale sign on the passenger's side. Great price."
"Well, it's not there anymore. Someone must have bought it."
The check was in my mailbox. I gave Maria the thumbs up, and Jack gave me a ride home.
"You've been doing lots of walking these days, I bet?" he said as we shook hands and I got out of the car.
"Yes, I guess I have."
"I envy you."
DAY FOUR Thursday morning I stepped out my front door into mist. My bank was in a high rise in "Golden Triangle," less than a mile from home. I walked briskly, cashed my check and returned.
On the way home I took a different street. By now the sun had burned through the mist, and the crows were tuning up again. I turned the corner and there it was, gorgeous in the sunshine. The black Cadillac convertible.
When I crossed the street for a better look I saw the For Sale sign on the passenger's window. There was not tear in the cloth top or a rust spot on the shiny body. I peered inside. Tan leather seats. CD player. Clean floor mats.
I called the number on the sign.
“I’d like to buy your car,” I told the man, “and I’m standing right next to it.”
“Then I guess I better get over there right away." In less than five minutes an old man walked around the corner.
“Twenty-three years ago I bought this automobile brand new for my wife. It's been a wonderful car. Served us well. Just keep the fluids topped off and the maintenance up to date, and it’ll treat you well, too.”
“Why are you selling it?”
“My wife passed away a few months back.” He stopped talking briefly. “Now, a guy doesn’t need two cars, does he.”
He insisted I drive it and I obliged him with a quick spin around the block. I handed him the cash, which he stuffed in his pocket without counting, and he handed me the signed title.
We shook hands to seal the deal.
“Funny we haven't met, living in the same neighborhood and all that. How long have you lived here in University City?”
I thought of what I had experienced during the last four days. “You know, it seems like I just moved in.”