machines


In 1980, when the only automobile in our household was my mom’s 1965 Ford Mustang, my primary mode of transportation to/from Beverly Hills High School and work at Swensen’s Ice Cream Shoppe was a dust-covered derelict 10-speed I’d liberated from a nearby garage. I’d done so in response to my previous bike of the BMX variety being so also uncermoniously liberated from our apartment garage.

1977 Yamaha Champ

I don’t recall the particulars of how it came to pass that my mom considered getting me a Yamaha Champ (as shown), I know it had something to do with me needing to have some form of transportation to help her with early morning delivery of newspapers in and around Silver Lake, Los Feliz and Echo Park, which was her territory as a distributor for the Herald Examiner. I’m guessing that since a car was out of the question at that point in time, conversations on that topic were ultimately had with Bruce, a gay man with a cleft palate, who she knew primarily through her job, and who probably told her he could hook her up with a scooter, to which she hesitantly agreed.
I liked Bruce because he was a genuinely nice guy, and one who abided by my mom’s insistence that if he touched me in any way shape or form that was even remotely sexual in nature she would kill him. With a spoon.
One night mom said she had a surprise and we drove to the Farmer’s Market parking lot and met Bruce who hauled the Champ out of the back of his Mustang hatchback. She showed me how to operate it and that was that. It was love at first throttle pull.

Now the Champ was very unique both from its looks and its availability. Yamaha offered it for sale in the U.S. for just one year, 1977, and marketed as something of a hybrid, one more powerful than Yamaha’s previous 50cc street scooters, but more nimble than its 80cc off-road versions. Powered by a 72cc, two-stroke, single cylinder engine, paired with a three-speed automatic clutch transmission, top speed on level pavement was about 38 mph, which was like the speed of light to a 16 year old on a beat-up road bike (which I then subsequently returned to the garage from which I’d taken it).

The Champ and I became inseparable. I couldn’t have asked for a cooler form of transport. In addition to school and work and all over the sleeping hills and dales of predawn Silver Lake and Echo Park, I rode her everywhere — to the beach and back, all the way out to Northridge for a friend’s birthday party, even once through a torrential downpour through Sherman Oaks I got caught in that left Ventura Boulevard wall-to-wall water.
One of the few times she let me down is actually a combo example of geographic coincidence and a true minor miracle… bear with me this tangent:

I had been out helping with Saturday redeliveries to subscribers who’d called saying they either hadn’t gotten their paper or it had been stolen. When I’d finished I was cruising down Silver Lake Boulevard approaching Bellevue when she stalled out and would not restart — which is the geo-coincidence in that it’s just a couple blocks from where I’ve lived the past 17 years. I checked the gas and oil, cables and wires and spent a good 20 minutes trying to kickstart and popstart her back to life, but in the end I was left with nothing to do but park her on the sidewalk next to Mikron Liquor and start walking it home along Beverly Boulevard, which then led to the aforementioned minor miracle.

I was crossing Hobart, a couple blocks east of Western Avenue, trying to wrap my head around the six or seven mile walk still ahead of me, when my mom was just suddenly there, coming to a stop heading south down Hobart. She didn’t even recognize me in the crosswalk until I yelled “Mom what are you doing here!?” And she did a double take and yelled back “What are you doing here!?” And I climbed in and told her. She in turn told me that she couldn’t explain why, but that she had been driving on Melrose when for no reason she turned left onto Hobart and kept going south.

I’ll leave it to you to rationalize this convergence away, but factoring in the overall municipal population, the prevailing wind speeds, road conditions, time of day and general economic and political outlook, I figured out the odds of a mother driving and her teenager on foot both of them anywhere in a roughly 40-square-mile zone between Beverly Hills and Echo Park that then end up in the same random intersection at the exact same time and I came up with a 2,146,285 to 1.

Epilogue: As I just couldn’t leave the Champ parked naked on the sidewalk next to Mikron Liquor (still there, by the way, and still two blocks from where I’d be living begining 23 years into the future), I ended up making that walk. Mom dropped me off a few days later and after charging at and tossing an empty milk crate at some punks who were sitting on her like she was theirs, and then trying again unsuccessfully to kickstart and popstart her, I had to push her dead ass aaaaaall that long way home. Down Silver Lake Boulevard onto Beverly Boulevard all the way across to Orlando, south across San Vicente down to Wilshire to Hamilton Drive and down into the garage, where she then sat until I made unauthorized use of the delivery van from my day job by that time at Hunter’s Books on Rodeo Drive and drove her out to Glendale Yamaha for repairs. Digression complete, we now return to our regularly scheduled programming.

Other than that and some occasional mechanical issues, my Champ was practically indestructible. Proof of that came with the flooded garage at our apartment building, which in the winter of 1981 filled with six feet of water during a freak storm. I barely got the Mustang out in time. The Champ was not so lucky and sat submerged for as long as it took to pump all that water out. Nevertheless, after cleaning all the mud and gunk coating her, draining and replacing the fuel and oil and sparkplug, allowing her to dry out, and putting a new battery in, she fired right back up and was on the road again.

I myself was not so indestructible. Coming home one afternoon from trying to collect from deadbeat subscribers I detoured down an alley that paralleled San Vicente north of Wilshire and the driver of a bright yellow Cadillac Coupe de Ville backing out quickly and without looking hit me and punched a quarter-sized hole in my right thigh that booked me in to a Cedar-Sinai emergency room for stitches. My leg must’ve protected the Champ because aside from some scratches and a broken mirror she emerged unscathed.

I think that tore it for my mom. She had already purchased the “Charlie’s Angels” car, her blue-and-white 1978 Ford Mustang II Cobra with racing stripes and louvers on the rear window straight out of the TV series, but had hesitated signing over the old Mustang to me. Once I had access to four wheels even if it was a beat-up primer-coated Mustang with 230,000 miles on the odometer and no reverse gear, the Champ was relegated to occasional errands until her last years were spent forgotten in the garage of the Sherman Oaks house my mom moved to in 1983 after marrying my stepdad. A few years later, nostalgic for my old pal, I asked her where the Champ had gone and she told me she given it away to a construction worker.

I can remember once having a photo of me astride the Champ during our glory days together, but it too has been lost to history.

In the months of 1989 leading up to the birth of my daughter things were not at all great financially or emotionally, but at the time we had a relatively sweet deal managing the 20-unit Van Nuys apartment building in which we were living in exchange for free rent on the two-bedroom we occupied.

Not long after she was born in September of that year it was decided that we would relocate to manage a building in Burbank, almost triple the number of units at only about half-off the rent, in part because a friend of my then-wife’s lived in the building and encouraged her to take the opportunity. There were pluses: it was in a better neighborhood; a newer building with nicer amenities. But in the end it increased the stretch on our finances and our already rocky relationship to the breaking point and I ended up moving out in January of 1990.

After all this time, my biggest regret of that whole inevitable failure as a man and a husband and a father? Leaving behind the stereo I’d inherited from my mother when I moved out on my own in 1985. Mind you, it was nothing fancy. Made by Admiral, it was called the Solid State Sterophonic High-Fidelty system, and without getting too overly sentimental, it played aaaaaall the music across the first 21 years of my life. Barbra Streisand, Carole King, Nat King Cole, Henry Mancini, Rossini, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Mendelsohn, Dvorak, Fleetwood Mac, Vicki Sue Robinson, The Beatles, The Who, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, countless Broadway soundtracks, Louis Prima, Kansas, Journey, Queen, and on and on and on.

What happened was I had at some point in my early independence I upgraded to a Marantz system and thus unceremoniously relegated my mom’s to the garage storage compartment where it sat throughout the duration of meeting my future ex-wife, moving in with her, getting married, getting pregnant, et cetera. Then when it came time for that move to Burbank, I couldn’t find the key to the storage compartment’s lock and just said to hell with it and left it behind.

Compounded by my mom’s disappointment that I didn’t bring it back to her when I quit using it, my abandonment of it has bothered me ever since, up to and including this past weekend, when it disturbed me that we didn’t have a functioning phonograph with which to play my Nat King Cole Christmas album this season. That in turn triggered the thought of the number of Christmases it spun on the able Admiral and so of course in this day and age I googled “Admiral High-Fidelty Stereo System,” and wouldn’t you know? BOOM. In full jaw-drop, I found one available on eBay, looking pretty much in a similar well-worn condition that my mom’s was when I banished it to the garage:

s-l1600

It should be no surprise seeing that picture auto-triggered some verklemptification.

According to the Indiana seller’s description everything works but the record player, which is in need of a needle. The asking price is a prohibitive $329.99, especially considering I ordered a suitcase style self-contained stereo phonograph from Wayfair for $70 that should arrive by Friday.

But I’d be a liar if I denied putting this old lady on my Watchlist. And you really shouldn’t be too surprised if I end up putting in a low ball offer as we get near the end of the 27 days left at auction.

fordHaving to take our 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid (with a whoppingly low 12,600 miles on the odometer) into the dealership for service this week, I’d been meaning to write about the odd temporary malfunction that prompted the visit and what was determined (more like “best guessed”) to be its strange cause — essentially a street-level variation on the principle as to why you’re not supposed to use your cellphone during flight.

So we were coming back from our Eastern Sierra vacation two Saturdays ago, southbound on the 14 Freeway in the HOV lane in Santa Clarita a few miles from the 5, when I went to accelerate into the lane to the right to get out from in front of a tailgater and encountered no response. I pressed on the pedal a little more and more until it was all the way to the floorboard, but nothing. All systems were operating: the engine was running, the A/C was blowing, but when I’d give the vehicle gas it wouldn’t respond. Noticing a “What the hell does that mean!?” wrench icon light was now illuminated on the dash, I let Susan know we had a problem and began carefully transitioning to the far outside lane in case everything suddenly quit. But since we were on a good downhill portion of the freeway we were able to continue with the flow of traffic. It was when we started to go up a slight incline and the car quickly its momentum that I knew we had to get off the freeway.

Exiting at Sand Canyon with the vehicle idling uncharacteristically high but the accelerator now a bit more responsive at low speeds, I crawled us into a service station and stopped. After a few moments of the engine still revving in park I decided to turn it off and let it rest for a spell. Starting it back up, she revved high again for about 10-20 interminable seconds before the electric motor kicked in and all ran silently. The wrench icon on the dash was now no longer lighted. Hmmmm.

Susan took Ranger for a leg-stretch down Soledad Canyon while I popped the hood just to make sure nothing looked wrong/broken/disconnected. And in fact other than making the surprise WTF discovery of  accumulations of old-ish looking rat poop in the wells where the front suspension/shocks bolt to the vehicle — proof that our garage rats had taken to nesting/resting there (perhaps moreso during the colder months) — everything else looked fine.

Not confident about getting back on the freeway, the decision was to plot a surface-street course home via “Gladys” (that’s what I call the GPS), cross our fingers and see if we can get there. At worst if the car quits, at least it’s in a safer, slower environment where we can pull over, call AAA, and get towed.

The good news is that it worked and we arrived home without further incident (and in the process I was happy to discover the long unknown street route between the San Fernando Valley and Santa Clarita (you know, in case I ever want to bike between the two places). The bad news is that we knew we had to get this curious incident examined.

So fast forward to this last Wednesday when I take the Ford to Sunrise Ford in North Hollywood, where I explained the above to the service manager, and in response he was curious of either my wife or myself have iPhones. I told him we both do, that my wifes iPhone5 is paired with the car via bluetooth and that at one extended point about 120 miles before the incident she was also using her iPad to surf the internet. He explained somewhat sheepishly that there’s apparently a conflict between the Apple devices and Ford Hybrids that can produce interference resulting in similar situations.

Seriously?

He explained that he’s personally seen cases involving the city of Burbank’s hybrids fail to start as a result of their operators packing iPhones. He added that Ford’s aware of the problem but so far there’s been no solution.

Huh.

In my looooong history with a variety of motorized vehicles, this was my first time hearing a powertrain problem caused by a possible “programming glitch.”

Brave new world.

Of course, he took the vehicle and put it through a panel of diagnostic tests, wherein he said he failed to recreate the loss of acceleration. The best he could do was recommend a series of software upgrades that may or may not eliminate future incidents and of course was not covered by any warranty. Oh, and by the way, I also needed a new A/C filter. Total estimate: $180. Sigh… sold.

I asked: Does the new software include a “pre-flight” warning to turn off all Apple devices prior to departure?

He chuckled.

I didn’t. And now basically all we can do is cross our fingers and hope it doesn’t happen again. That’s tolerable for short city trips. But you can bet during our next longer drive there’ll be some pins and needles in the driver’s seat I’ll be sitting on throughout the journey. NOT the way I like to roll.

In a post to his Busblog, Tony Pierce shares some Twitter love he got from The Donnas and it prompts him to wonder if they know how much he loves them, or if anyone knows how much he loves them.

Right below that he shares the following wonderful bike-related video, a Swedish import that if not for him stood a good chance of otherwise missing my radar:

robo-rainbow from mudlevel on Vimeo.

I love Tony Pierce.

I wonder at times about high-priced bicycles and the companies that make them. When the people involved decide upon the retail price, do they do it in all unblinking seriousness believing it an entirely valid amount, or do they nervously hunch over somewhat reflexively in wide-eyed incredulity, like they’re doubtful they’ll get away with such an outrageous thing.

Certainly I understand that R&D, and materials and manufacturing and design and components and craftsmanship and overhead and advertising all play important roles in bumping up that final figure. But when I see Cannondale’s Flash Hi-Mod 29’er profiled in the Health section of today’s L.A. Times and priced at five thousand eight hundred and ninety nine dollars, all my mild-mannered and rational understanding goes out the window and what I really want to do is storm their HQ, kicking all sorts of ass between the front door and the vault that keeps the documents showing the actual total per-unit cost as being $795.23. Or for the sake of argument let’s say it’s $1795.72.

For a bike. Not including the 200% mark-up. Or the sales tax.

Yet the folks there at Cannondale with the key to that vault in one collective corporate hand manage to staunch any snickering and straight-face you when they hold out their other collective corporate hand demanding payment of  five thousand eight hundred and ninety nine dollars for what I’m sure they pretend is the privilege of riding such an exceptionally state-of-the-science mountain bike.

And it may be. But it’s still just a bike, one that’s sporting a huge profit margin.

I’m sure there are people out there with that kind of scratch who will oblige. Just as there are those who’ll fork over amazing amounts for designer blue jeans.

Now, I don’t want to squelch the evolution of bike technology. Like I said, I understand that there’s a pricetag attached to the latest and greatest and I’m all for making bikes betterstrongerfaster. I just will never accept a figure so exorbitant. Because I come at it from an insulted perspective that probably insults Cannondale and any other company charging such sums. I rode a $300 track bike for more than 6,000 miles until the frame weakened a year ago. Then I sent the manufacturer the old frame and  $119 for a replacement frame, and I’ve been riding that ever since. Prior to that I put more than 5,000 miles riding a 1970s-era 10-speed someone had thrown away and that I invested a few hundred bucks returning to rideable condition.

My mountain bike: a $350 expenditure purchased over the internet more than seven years ago.

My most expensive bike? A 2000 Giant OCR-3 for which I paid $500.

The most expensive bike I ever bought: a $900 Klein that I returned less than a week later wondering how I could’ve been such a sucker.

Even if I had a spare five thousand eight hundred and ninety nine dollars hanging around and could get past the ridiculousness of making such an obscene purchase without having myself committed to an institution for the financially inane, do you think I would actually go up in the Verdugos or the San Gabes and actually ride the thing?

No, I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. At that price, it would be a far better thing to hang it on the wall as testament to wretched excess then to risk getting such a masterpiece dirty!

Since Susan and I took that 4,500-mile Western U.S. road trip in the summer of 2006 there’s one thing I kick myself for not doing: recording a train as it came through Troy, Montana, where Susan’s grandma lives, and where we spent July 4.

There was something super awesome in the horn blasts that registered as the Best I’ve Ever Heard. Part of it was their proximity as the trains regularly barreled straight through the small town. But there was something beyond it just being loud… a peel-like clarity to the sound augmented as it reverberated off the nearby mountains. I’m not an authority on Gabriel’s trumpet, but there was something heavenly about it.

Well I can quit kicking myself about the second one, because this weekend Susan paid a weekend visit up there to Troy with her mom to see her grandma, and I she went there with my digital recorder in the hopes of capturing that distinctive sound.

She did — beautifully. And while I can’t vouch it’ll sound the same to you as it does to me, feel free to crank this soundbite up and let her roll:

Hear how after the first wail it just continues on through the pass? Damn. I mean hallelujah!

UPDATE (9.27): Upon repeated chill-inducing listenings, I’m SO figuring out how to make this my iPhone’s ringtone.

The Beverly Boulevard/1st Street bridge is a bit of an anomaly nowadays, its graceful arc over Glendale Boulevard and 2nd Street seeming like literal and figurative overkill. But from this photo found — you guessed it! — in the LA Public Library digital archive you can see the span once served a more obviously cooperative purpose. Dated September 2, 1942, the image showcases the brand new viaduct about a week or so before the $1-million project was opened to cars.

Back then the city’s train routes were still being accommodated and included in the transportation grid by building auto infrastructure around or over them rather than destroying the rail lines wholesale for the sake of adding vehicular traffic lanes. With the Hollywood Freeway still about 8 years away from its first leg opening up, it’s easy to see the importance of Beverly Boulevard as a major artery getting people to and from the civic center. But if the Red Car hadn’t been there, it’s hard to imagine the city’s engineers going up when they could just carve out the connector at street level.

So over they went, crossing the roads along with the rails leading to and from  the yard in the foreground, which is Belmont Station. The photographer is positioned on the hill above the famed Belmont Tunnel that took cars entirely underground to and from the heart of downtown.

Long after the trains stopped running, the tunnel actually remained accessible to curious urban explorers, film and video crews, graffiti artists and the homeless until some five or six years ago. But the tunnel has been permanently blockaded, and where L.A. commuters once rocked, rolled and rumbled along those rails, now on the yard’s footprint this past couple of years has stood the Belmont Station apartment complex, its facade facing the anachronistic arch that’s liable to strike anyone who considers it as a curiosity, and whose purpose now (to those of us who know it origins) is to serve both highly as a monument to a time when rail ruled, and lowly as a footnote to the transportation history of a Los Angeles that forsaked integrating its multimodal past to instead embrace a short-sighted vision of its automobile-centered future.

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