Wednesday, April 28, 2004

driver's ed

Cars and youth go hand-in-hand on the West coast. Unfortunatly in my old neighborhood they were usually stolen.
My first time driving I was 13. Capone would steal his mom’s Civic hatchback when she worked weeknights. He’d pick me up and we’d roll the ghetto neighborhoods in the central district and high point smoking Newports and playing “Geto Boyz” tapes at top volume. We drove like crap and could barely see over the steering wheel. That was driver’s ed.
As soon as we could drive, we learned about stealing. We started breaking in cars for stereos, CDs and whatever else we could find. Only certain kinds of cars. Old Toyotas and Hondas with the door locks you could pop with a screwdriver. Anything in alleys where we could bust a window without being seen.
You can shatter a car window silently—hammer off the white ceramic on spark plugs into pebbles, and throw ‘em hard against the window, crumbling the safety glass in a “whoosh” sound—and we used that often.
It wasn’t long before we learned to bust car ignitions. There are lots of tricks for this. Easiest were 1970s and early-80s GM sedans and early 1990s Hondas and Toyotas. Oldsmobile Cutlasses—the classic ghetto ride—were probably the easiest of all. With only a screwdriver, you can bust off the steering-column casing on the right of the steering column, snap the linkage between the keyhole and the starter, and just pull. Thing starts right up, no steering lock, nothing.
People used to jack a car just for the ride. You can pick out the stolen car in traffic—jumping hills, peeling out, racing. I remember one Thanksgiving looking out my front window and seeing a Civic with its engine revving. Suddenly the clutch drops, and they lay rubber for 10 straight seconds, loud as hell. I’m laughing two minutes later when the phone rings—it’s Big Man, maybe 14 at the time, and he says, “thought I’d give you a Thanksgiving present.”
Thanks, bro. He ended up wrecking the car later that day.
I bought my first car when I was 17. I paid $50 to a Seattle longshoreman. It was a white 2-door Cutlass Supreme with a ton of rust, a crooked back end, and almost no brakes. The thing had been stolen, so it started without a key. The alignment was hard to the left from when whoever stole it wrecked it, and it sat on four mismatched bald tires.
I went to work fixing it. The guys and I looked for a model like it I could jack for parts. I remember parking at Safeway and chain smoking, watching cars for a match. Each time a Cutlass pulled out, I tailed them home, looking for the right one. After a week of this, I found a match in the beach area a few miles from home.
We went back that weekend. Big Man was by far the youngest of us, still doing dirt as a youngster at the time. He was also a juvinile, which means no jail time if things went wrong, so he did the actual risky work of pulling the car.
Sometime after midnight I drop him off with a screw driver and spark plug ceramic. He gets the car started in maybe three minutes—which seems like years when you’re parked across the street watching for police. He drives back to my folks’ place. We pull it up into the garage and go to work. Me, Capone, Tony, Fingers, and Big Man stayed up until daybreak tearing out the seats, stereo and anything else that’d come undone. We swapped the wheels with mine, and after a long night dumped it on a forest-edged road on the edge of the neighborhood, still running with headlights in the early morning fog. Big Man drove to the dump spot, Tony riding shotgun with a towel wiping off the prints, and me following in my newly refurbished Cutlass for the ride back.
Never figured out why my folks never asked where I got the new wheels. Guess they never paid much attention. Whatever the case, the same scene repeated each time any of us got new cars. Until I left the old neighborhood, I don’t think I knew a single person with a 100-percent legal automobile.

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