05 February 2017

How to Vanish a Car

by Leigh Lundin

Previously, David Edgerley Gates mentioned the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge. That brought back memories of the theatre and a sports car. Don’t worry, I can connect the two. I can even tell you how to spirit an automobile out of a closed parking lot.

Brockton Historical Notes
of major importance
  • 1896, Brockton became the first city in the country to abolish railroad grade crossings.
  • 2011, Brockton doubled the city's Santa Claus hat-wearing record.
(source: Wikipedia)
In the 1970s, I lived in the scenic town of Brockton. For those who might not know Eastern Massachusetts, Brockton’s an industrial site south of Boston, having neither the charm nor historical significance of surrounding settlements. Brockton was named after a British Army officer, Isaac Brock, known for ignoring United States sovereignty, kicking Detroit’s ass in the War of 1812, and never setting foot in the village named after him. Naming the hamlet after one of our nation’s enemies was considered a step up since previously the burg had unimaginatively borrowed the name of a neighboring town.

Once known for shoe production, Brockton’s major output has been Brockton Girls.™ As explained to me, Brockton girls are known for their toughness and making roller derby dames tremble and cry like third graders. Seriously. It should be noted that no wussy member of Daesh/ISIS has ever tangled with a Brockton girl and lived to tell about it.
[Brockton letters of complaint should be addressed to Velma@idontcare.com]
This cultural background should give you an idea why I liked visiting Cambridge, Boston, Plymouth, Buzzard’s Bay or pretty much any place other than Brockton.

The Cambridge Culture

After David Edgerley Gates’ article, he and I exchanged notes about the Orson Welles. I asked if he remembered the Exeter Street Theater, my other favorite movie house. David wrote:
Orson Welles Cinema
I started writing movie columns for the Cambridge Phoenix in late 1970, which is when the Orson Welles, WBCN, and the Tea Party were just getting legs. Boston Tea Party was one of the two big clubs that headlined live bands, aside from theatrical venues. It was started by a guy named Ray Riepen from Kansas City, who also began ’BCN and the Phoenix. Ray brought in a guy named Harper Barnes from St. Louis as editor of the Phoenix. and it was Harper who hired me. I was at the Welles a lot over the next three years or so, the theater, the restaurant, and the film school– there was some talk about my doing a course (film appreciation, something along those lines) but we never firmed it up.

I remember the Exeter well. My family took me when I was little because it was basically a high-end art house and by myself later. That's where we saw Olivier’s Richard III.

My neighborhood theater was the University in Harvard Square (later renamed the Harvard Sq.), sometimes the Brattle, and very occasionally the Eliot, which was further up Mass. Ave. past Porter Sq. and the Sears, so North Cambridge and off my turf. I took the subway downtown all the time, probably from the time I was 8 or 9, to the theaters on Washington St. A misspent youth.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

The Orson Welles, the Exeter, and the Brattle were everything the local Cineplex wasn’t. They offered film festivals and celluloid that had withstood the test of time.

My date loved noir and particularly Bogart. If Bogie hadn’t died when she was about seven, Wendy might have arm-wrestled that bitch Bacall for him.

My car at the time was a Saab Sonett III, which looked like a baby Corvette in peculiar green. It was a cute little car. The sobriquet ‘Sonett’ had nothing to do with music but came from the Swedish phrase “Så nätt!” which translates “So neat!”

Saab Sonett III

Despite the fact its roofline came only to my belt buckle, the car easily accommodated my long legs. It attained much better gas mileage than my Land Cruiser and Saab’s front-wheel-drive made for good road-handing. But…

It had frightfully expensive mufflers that rusted out between car washes. With its little Ford V-4 engine, I could buy off-the-shelf Pinto and Mercury Capri parts, but changing the Nº 1 spark plug meant loosening the damned engine mounts. Worst of all, it was a crash magnet. Bostonians are infamously terrible drivers (think citywide dodge’em bumper cars) and they seemed to target the little machine.

The Sonett Saves the Evening

Near the Orson Welles Cinema was a large walled parking lot next to a dry cleaners where I usually parked. This particular evening, we attended a Warner Bros. film festival of World War II propaganda cartoons, Bugs Bunny takes on Hitler, and the like.

The parking lot looked unusually empty, but I didn’t pay particular attention. We strolled to the theatre, enjoyed the show and left around midnight. When we arrived at the parking lot, we were shocked to find a heavy chain across the entrance.

What the hell? Then we saw it: On the back wall hung a sign that said the lot closed when the cleaners closed. After so many years, it seemed selfish to ban visitors from a public lot after hours, but it was their property and perhaps they’d endured problems we didn’t know about.

Damn. I inspected the chain, secured by sturdy bolts. The threads hadn’t been peened down and simple wrenches could have undone them, but I carried no tools in the car. We were nearly an hour away from my house in Brockton and more than an hour from Wendy’s home in Plymouth– 45 miles. A taxi wasn’t feasible. We weren’t even close to a hotel.

We debated options, none of them good. We might have found a pay phone, but we were desperately short of change. No cell phone of course… early mobile phones were just hitting the market, briefcase-size units affordable only to the wealthy.

A fun evening appeared ruined. Worse, we looked forward to a miserable night if we couldn’t find a motel.

And then an idea struck. The back of the Sonett featured kind of a hatchback with a floor covered by heavy carpet. I pulled out the carpet and the floor mats as Wendy climbed in the driver’s seat.

She let in the clutch as I positioned the carpet and mats over the windshield and roof. I raised the chain… it cleared the hood. Wendy eased the car forward. I hefted the heavy steel segments to bypass the wipers. The car inched ahead until the chain met the floor mats covering the upper windscreen. The links tightened. I forced them up.

The car crept onward. The chain, now taut, remained an inch short of clearing the glass; it had maxed out. Still pulling up on it, I put my body weight on the car, cursing the heavy-duty shocks I’d installed.

But as Wendy edged the Sonett ever forward, the swept-back windshield and my muscling the chain up while forcing the car down brought the steel links up to the roofline.

Carefully, ever carefully, its fiberglass top protected by the carpet, Saab slid under the chain. And then…

The worst had passed. We were on the down slope. Now it was a matter of protecting the paint and rear window as the chain slid away.

Whew! We were ebullient, exuberant, joyful to be on our way, but grateful and well aware of our blessed luck and fortunate outcome.

Even so, we would have loved to be flies on the wall (or pigeons on the pavement) when the mean parking lot owners returned and found the vehicle missing. They must have scratched their heads wondering how we spirited that car out of a walled parking lot.

What magic tricks have caught your fancy?

12 comments:

Paul D. Marks said...

You have to be creative when you get in a jam, Leigh, and it looks like you were. And if you haven't already used that in a story I think it would make a good bit.

janice law said...

A charming piece. If you are a Saab fan you might like the best selling A Man Called Ove about a man who, among other things, is very serious about his Saab cars.

Art Taylor said...

LEIGH! I love this story--from the story of the cinemas (my own writing career started with film reviews for a couple of local papers) to that great car, and the great escape. Loved it!

Leigh Lundin said...

Paul, I haven't used that incident in a story yet. Wouldn't that work well on film‽

Janice, I haven't read that. It was definitely a fun car to drive. It would be a lovely choice to bring back in production.

Art, that a better title – The Great Escape – than I picked.

For an opposing view… An acquaintance of mine drives one of those extremely boxy SUVs and bragged how easy it was to park in tight places. "Of course," I said. "It's stackable."

R.T. Lawton said...

Leigh, innovative escape. When circumstances are difficult, you do what you have to. If you had needed another inch of top space, you probably could've let some air out of all four tires, driven slowly to a gas station and then refilled the tires.

Leigh Lundin said...

RT, that's a good idea. I can't recall if we tried that or not, but fortune was on our side and let us spirit the car out of that lot!

A Broad Abroad said...

Good yarn - and, as Paul says, use it in a story, if you haven't already.

I'm with R.T. - providing there was a nearby garage, I'd have let some air out of the tyres.

B.K. Stevens said...

Great story, Leigh. And how appropriate it is that your companion was named Wendy, like the girl in "Born to Run."

Leigh Lundin said...

ABA, thanks. Part of the problem was our knowledge of that area was sketchy and we had no idea where we might find help or a motel, and I imagine AAA laughing their tails off.

When I attended Rose Tech, students became annoyed with the early morning grounds maintenance crew nicknamed Giffel's Commandos. A number of students gathered around Giffel's small car and lifted it onto one of the Commandos’ flatbed trucks. But again, absolutely no one was around when we could have used them.

Bonnie, that cracked me up. I'd never thought about that.

Barb Goffman said...

Very inventive. I would have cursed and cried and slept in the car.

Leigh Lundin said...

Barb, that's what we were facing, the likelihood of spending the night in that small car. Fortunately we were able to think our way out of that predicament. But we were a bit sobered too, no fist-pumping in the air or "Take that" shouts. It was one of those situations where we felt grateful to escape with the knowledge not to feel arrogant that the universe gave us a break.

Robert Lopresti said...

I used to have a car that rotted mufflers like some people rot socks. By sheer coincidence (really) the first time it needed changing I took it to a place that offered a year's guarantee. I kept getting free replacements until the place changed owners.