In June, 1971 I was living like a bum in the area of New York City that used to be known as Spanish Harlem. As a 26-year-old British immigrant, I dreamed of driving fast, dangerous cars and visiting all the contiguous states as cheaply as possible. My dreams seemed impractical, but an outfit named AAACon could make them happen. The “AAA” in their name suggested that they were a part of the American Automobile Association, but of course, they weren’t. As for the “Con,” I don’t know what it meant, or maybe they just weren’t being very subtle. They operated out of a one-room office that was almost as small and sleazy as my apartment. A receptionist leafed through a magazine while a couple of young men who looked like failed real estate salesmen talked on phones. My task was to get one of those guys to let me have a free fast car to fulfill my dream.
Suppose you were in the military, living on the East Coast, and you were posted to California. You didn’t want to sell your car, but you didn’t want to drive it there, either. So, you opened the Yellow Pages to the section headed “Automobile Drive-Aways” and found AAACon, which promised you a bonded, professional driver who would deliver your car for you. The cost was surprisingly reasonable, because the “professional driver” would be a youthful deadbeat like me, and AAACon would not pay him anything. They simply acted like a matchmaking service, putting the driver and the car owner in touch with each other.
I was bonded to the extent that I gave AAACon a $150 cash deposit. The car owner would refund this directly to me when I completed my mission. AAAcon told me, basically, “You have seven days to get this car to California by whatever route you choose. We have taken your photograph and fingerprints, and if you don’t deliver on time, we’ll report you to the FBI. Now get out of here.”
Persuading AAACon to do business with me was the difficult part. The employees made no secret of their total contempt for the lowlifes who came knocking at their door. You could walk into the claustrophobic little waiting area, hot and humid and full of second-hand smoke, and you could say, politely, “Do you have any cars?” And the receptionist would say “No, but you can wait if you want.” So you would wait. An hour later–same question, same response. And then, for no rational reason, two hours later, it would be, “Yes, we have a car.” Naturally I wanted to know what kind of car, and where it was located, and where exactly it was going, but AAACon wouldn’t tell me that. They took my $150 and my fingerprints, and then they told me the details.
One of my first rides for them was a ’68 Olds 442 convertible with a Hurst stick shift, located in New Jersey. A convertible? Would that, er, be air conditioned? AAACon didn’t know and didn’t care.
I already had a traveling companion lined up. Her name was Gail, and I’d found her through an ad in the Village Voice. She dressed like a hippie love-child (this was 1971, after all) but had a dowdy, melancholy look which I found totally unattractive. All I cared about was whether she had gas money. She said she did, and she didn’t mind sharing a car with a stranger.
When we went to get the car, the owner gave me a doubtful look. “You sure you can drive a stick shift?” he asked. “I grew up in England,” I told him. “I learned to drive on a stick shift.” I didn’t mention that I normally shifted gears with my left hand, while driving on the left side of the road. Nor did I feel inclined to say that I was using an international license, as I had never taken a US driving test.
Soon we were cruising west on Interstate 80. The gearshift turned out to be almost irrelevant. The engine delivered so much torque, you could burn rubber in almost any gear. You certainly didn’t need to downshift to overtake other vehicles. Just hit the gas, and the car seemed to be saying, “Yay, it’s party time! Leave this to me!” The brakes were inadequate, but that just added to the excitement.
We stopped at a Howard Johnson’s around sunset. Gail had been sitting in the back seat strumming a guitar and singing “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” It occurred to me that if she drove, she wouldn’t be able to play the guitar anymore. “Can you take over for a while?” I asked. She looked doubtful. No one had thought of asking her if she could drive a stick-shift, and now her answer was, “Oh, I’m sure I can learn.”
We tried it in the parking lot. When I told her to put her left foot on the clutch, she stepped on the brake. After we got that sorted out, I told her to let the clutch up veeery gently while pressing the gas pedal veeery slowly. You know the rest. The tires screamed. We fishtailed across the parking lot, skidded sideways, and almost hit a chain-link fence.
Our real problems didn’t begin till we took a back road in Colorado. Climbing through the Rockies, with the windshield covered in dead bugs, we emerged from shade into afternoon sun. Bug juice turned the windshield into an impenetrable sheet of silver. I slowed to a crawl, trying to see ahead through the glare, but it was impossible.
Suddenly–bump, bump, bump. The Olds nosed down at a horrifying angle. We were sliding down a slope of dirt and rock at about 45 degrees. I yelled something inarticulate and slammed on the brakes. It made no difference. We kept sliding. I hauled on the steering, turned the car at an angle, and finally we stopped. I threw open the door, feeling very vulnerable in a convertible with no roll bar. I fell onto the ground and saw we had stopped a dozen feet away from a sheer drop.
Shock is an interesting human reaction. I discovered that the phrase “weak at the knees” is not just a metaphor. After five minutes, I was able to stand up. As for Gail, she just looked confused. “What happened?” she asked. I pointed back up at the road. There were highway repairs. One side of the highway had been literally carved away.
I crawled up the slope to the road. No cell phones in those days. I flagged down the next car, which happened to be driven by a sheriff’s deputy. He said he’d stop at the next town and call the crew who had been doing the repairs. It was a Saturday, but one of them would come up here, probably. They had a heavy-duty back-hoe which could tow the car up the slope.
So, we waited. Gail pulled her guitar out of the car and did a few more Bob Dylan numbers. As the afternoon light faded, the largest mosquitoes I have ever seen began moving in.
Finally a guy from the repair crew cruised up in a Chevy Bel Air, with his dumpy wife in the passenger seat, as if they were just out for a drive. “Jesus Christ,” he said, when he saw what had happened. “We should have put up a barrier.” I shrugged. I might have been able to see it through the glare, but, I might not.
The man went and started the backhoe. “You take over here, honey,” he told his wife. “I’ll run that cable down and hook it to a rear spring.” He seemed to know what he was doing. This was a relief. I wouldn’t be stranded in Colorado. The FBI wouldn’t come looking for me when AAACon reported me missing. I wouldn’t go to jail.
The cable wasn’t quite long enough. “Come forward a bit,” he told her. The backhoe started moving forward. “How do you stop this?” his wife called down to him. “It’s just like driving a car,” he told her. “Just hit the brake.”
“Which one is the brake?” “It’s like driving a car!” he repeated. His voice sounded a little strained.
It was one of those moments where no one can quite believe what’s happening. The backhoe was moving slowly but relentlessly toward the edge of the road. In five seconds … four … three … it would go tipping over the edge, careening down the slope, taking his wife with it, like in a Road Runner movie.
“Put your foot on the brake!” the guy yelled. “Oh, now I’ve got it.” She stopped, finally, at the brink.
No one said anything. The unbelievable moment had passed, and we were back in the normal everyday world where women were not killed in tumbling backhoes. The guy attached the cable, took control of the backhoe, and pulled our poor 442 back onto the highway.
After that, the only problem was the lack of air conditioning. I saw an area on the map labelled “Mojave Desert,” and thought, “I suppose that will be hot.” To a British person, 85 Fahrenheit is hot. For most of the day, while superheated air blasted in through the open windows, we poured water over each other.
We stopped at a gas station where a guy in a cowboy hat was fulling his pickup truck. I was naked from the waist up, with my long hair soaking wet, and I was barely able to stand straight. “What’s the weather like up ahead?” I asked. “Hot,” he said, with a laconic grin.
Some small, independent gas brands still existed in the early 1970s. The absolute cheapest was called Oriental Blue Streak Major Quality Gasoline. Their stations were spaced about one tank-full apart, all along I-10 through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Just when you were getting worried about the needle moving closer to the E mark on the gauge, out in the middle of nowhere you’d see one of their white-painted adobe shacks with a hand-painted sign shimmering in the heat. Their third-world bathrooms were a nightmare, but we were sweating so much, we had no need for bathrooms.
That night I parked off a back road. The night was so pleasant, I decided to sleep on the desert sand. Wow, I thought, this is really it! This is the West, just like in a movie! Somewhere in the distance, I heard coyotes whooping. I wondered if they would eat people. I was an ignorant Brit, so what did I know? It never occurred to me to think in terms of snakes or scorpions.
In the morning, I found that the sand was deeper than I had realized when I parked in the dark. I tried to get the car out, but the torque was so extreme, the slightest touch on the gas would put the 442 into its “Yay, it’s party time!” mode. Trying to reason with it was futile. By the time the rear wheels were in up to the axle in sand and the morning heat was near 100, a guy driving a tractor stopped and towed us out. He was too polite to say anything, but his look of contempt said it all.
I dropped Gail somewhere in Los Angeles. I was convinced that she had stolen money out of my pants pocket while I was sleeping in one of the rest areas, but I couldn’t prove anything, and in any case, I felt guilty that I had almost killed her.
I ran the 442 through a car wash a couple of times, and delivered it to its owner–in Malibu, as I recall. He walked around it, looking for damage. None was visible, amazingly enough. “So you didn’t have any problems?” he asked. “Well, there’s some irregular wear on the front tires, there.” He frowned. “Wonder how that happened.”
Well, hmmm. Maybe the front end became misaligned when I drove his car off the side of a mountain? Or maybe it happened when the guy with the tractor towed us out of the sand? I decided there was no point in getting into any of that. He was so relieved that his car had turned up on time, without being stolen, he was happy to give me the $150 delivery fee.
I went to stay with some friends in Laurel Canyon. A few weeks later, I stopped at the Los Angeles office of AAACon, looking for a car that I could drive back to New York.
The trip taught me one thing. In the 50+ years since then, regardless of circumstances, I have never tolerated an accumulation of bug smears or dirt on a windshield. If I can’t see ahead clearly, and if the windshield washers won’t do the job, I stop and clean it by hand. Passengers sometimes give me an odd look. Like–does this guy have obsessive-compulsive disorder, or what?
It’s more like a religious ritual. Paying homage to the Spirit of 442, to show my appreciation for not being killed on that day in Colorado.