A line of cars was pulled up at the curb next to Mayfair Park on Sunday morning. I walked by them on my way to early mass at St. Cyprian's. Some of the drivers - men casually dressed in Hawaiian shirts and chino shorts - were waiting on the sidewalk. They stepped aside to let me pass. I took a long look at their cars - their old American iron.
The waiting men were mostly in their fifties, a little young to have known these cars when the cars were new. Perhaps a brother or their father had owned a green '53 Pontiac Chieftain or bronze-and-cream '56 Chevrolet Bel-Air or a red '59 Ford Galaxie like the ones in line on Sunday.
The Greater Lakewood Chamber of Commerce was holding its annual car show at the park. The cars were lined up on Clark Avenue, stalled while until the registration table was set up. The number of entries, I was told, was down from previous years.
The Lakewood area has a lot of older guys with old cars, most customized to look like the hot rods of the 1960s and 1970s, but some restored to a degree of finish that Detroit never originally shipped. There's the occasional "horseless carriage" from the 1910s. A lot of men in the area, whatever work they now do, did some backyard auto mechanics in their youth or worked in a machine shop or an aerospace plant.
These men are like my brother. He fixed bikes as a boy and then lawn mowers before taking up Volkswagens when he turned 17, turning belly pans into dune buggies, which he sold one after the other. I was strong-armed into helping him and became, purely out of boredom with bleeding brakes, a passable mechanic's helper myself. (Ironically, I'm not able to drive.)
In late fall, my brother and I would ride over to the car dealerships in Bellflower to linger around the new models and page through the glossy brochures. The car salesman tolerated us, knowing that we would return one day, eager to buy. At least my brother did. But the showrooms for Packard, Desoto, and Nash were gone before our desires could be reciprocated in actual steel and chrome.
Oldsmobile and Pontiac are gone, too, but iconic models of each brand were in line before the car show started. One owner, holding a spray bottle, was buffing a patch of hood only he could see was imperfectly waxed.
It's not just nostalgia that brings these men and fifty-year-old cars together, although that's most of it. I'm reminded of Susan Faludi's Stiffed and her lament for the lost skills of 20th century manhood.
Those cars waiting on Clark Avenue can be repaired by anyone with a set of sockets, feeler gauges, a torque wrench, modest mechanical skills, and a copy of the right Chilton auto repair manual. It was possible then - still possible now - to master a great, shining thing of iron and power with one's own hands.
A passerby isn't permitted to touch these duce coupes, '70s muscle cars, the Impalas and Fairlanes, the customized roadsters. And so I hurried by, only my gaze lingering.
D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
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