Writers and the City: Ry Cooder & Los Angeles

from Los Angeles Stories

My telephone keeps ringin’

1956

SANTA MONICA is Douglas Aircraft and Douglas Aircraft is Santa Monica. Three shifts a day, seven days a week means prosperity for all.

Douglas has contracted with the Fritz Burns Company to build low-cost tract housing for the workers and their families in the south end of town between Ocean Park Boulevard and West Pico. They call it “Sunset Park’ a nice place to live and work. Always a fresh breeze off the ocean, which you can almost see just over the hills of Ocean Park.

Sunset Park is a plateau, so the air is dry and the light is good, in a lower-middle-class sort of way. There are three grammar schools, two junior highs, and a high school, called Samohi. You can walk to three or four good-sized grocery stores that feature the modern shopping carts for your convenience, as well as drugstores (Airport Rexall), a movie theater (The Aero), liquor stores, coffee shops, and bars — especially the ones up on Ocean Park Boulevard that stay open twenty-four hours a day on account of the strategic work that’s going on at Douglas Aircraft twenty-four hours a day.

Over on Thirty-first Street and Pico Boulevard is the Gresham Building, headquarters of the Gresham Detective Agency. It’s a two-story stucco job with the entrance on the diagonal at the corner. Kind of ugly and squat looking. Here comes George Gresham in his 1950 Oldsmobile. George recently purchased the car from Ned Hillael at Hillael’s Used Cars, corner of Thirtieth and Pico, one block over. Paid four hundred fifty dollars in cash, which is a lot of money for a used car in 1956, but George thinks he really put it over on Ned with the cash offer. Got Ned to come down seventy-five dollars. George handled it just right; he’s on top this year. Got the building with his name on it, and he’s doing some bill collecting and credit checking just to get things going in a business way.

Ned is the only used car dealer in the airport vicinity, and he does good business with Douglas employees and the occasional professional like George Gresham. Finally got rid of that Olds— goddamn cracked block wouldn’t hold oil. Ned himself drives a late-model Cadillac Sedan DeVille. And there’s Herb Saunders, a mechanic, a colored man, who works for Ned. Ned gets these cars from repo auctions and police impound sales, and Herb doctors them up so they run for six months. All sales final at Ned Hillael’s.

Herb himself drives a Muntz Jet, a weird little sports car marketed unsuccessfully by Earl “Madman” Muntz, the king of cheap TV sets. It has a Cadillac motor and an orchid-pink paint job, and it runs and looks sharp. Herb lives in the little black and Mexican neighborhood over by Woodlawn Cemetery, down around Sixteenth and Michigan, in a 1900-era cottage on a deep lot, and he grows his own vegetables right alongside the garage where he works on bad cars for Ned.

The aircraft workers are doing good, and they want things nowadays, so Ned is doing good and therefore Herb is doing good. He trades vegetables for eggs with the Mexican woman next door, Andrena Ruelas, who keeps a few laying hens in her backyard. Andrena and Herb are about the same age, forty, forty-three, or thereabouts. Andrena’s husband was killed in the war, and she lives alone.

It’s eight in the morning, and Herb is on the lot getting the week’s work together.

Ned is sitting at his desk inside the little kiosk at the back of the lot. “Studebaker’s gone/’he tells Herb without looking up from his stack of sales receipts and credit reports.

“That’s a bad car. I couldn’t get the brakes to set up right. I put glue on the linings, but that won’t hold too long,” says Herb.

“I know all about that. The guy paid three hundred dollars down from three hundred twenty-five dollars,” Ned replies. “Traveling man, I hope.”

“Address in Venice. A machinist.” Ned checks the paperwork. “Douglas man.”

“Should have known better.”

“His wife liked the color.”

“Got anything for me?”

“’48 Chrysler Windsor, two-door.”

Herb drives south on Pico, getting an impression of the car. Compared to his Muntz Jet, the Chrysler feels like a bathtub on wheels. Sluggish off the lights. Fluid drive, a transmission for church ladies, Herb thinks. He pulls into the alley behind his property and unlocks the gate. He drives the car up onto a pair of streetcar tracks and scoots underneath the car on his mechanic’s dolly. “Fluid drive needs fluid,” he says to his little dog, Scrubby. Scrubby sits on her pillow in the sun and watches Herb work. He replaces the transmission fluid, spark plugs, and fan belt. The engine oil looks good and the brake linings look fair. “Do the minimum” is Ned’s motto. Ned pays Herb time and materials, but you better be right: “That radiator hose looks fine to me, put it back on”; “That oil was definitely clean, Herb.” Ned knows where his next dollar is coming from, you can’t fool him.

After lunch, Herb drives the Chrysler back to the lot. An unmarked police cruiser is out in front, a Ford, dark blue in color. Herb pulls around to the back alley and waits. After a while, the sound of voices coming from the kiosk tells him the officers are on their way out. He waits a minute more and then walks around to the office.

“What’s up?”

“Studebaker.”

“What happened?”

“Guy crashed into a bus and fled the scene this morning. I’m still the owner of record.”

“Told you that’s a bad car.”

“I know all about that.”

“The Chrysler’s okay, needed trans fluid and plugs.”

“See you later.”

Herb walks down Pico toward the cemetery. He thinks, Ned’s a worried man today, got a worried tone, like a bad main bearing. Didn’t even argue about the plugs. . . .

 Los Angeles Stories is a collection of loosely linked tales that evoke a bygone era in one of America’s most iconic cities. In post-World War II Los Angeles, as power was concentrating and fortunes were being made, a do-it-yourself culture of cool cats, outsiders and oddballs populated the old downtown neighborhoods of Bunker Hill and Chavez Ravine. Ordinary working folks rubbed elbows with petty criminals, grifters and all sorts of women at foggy end-of-the-line outposts in Venice Beach and Santa Monica.

Rich with the essence and character of the times, suffused with patois of the city’s underclass, these are stories about the common people of Los Angeles, “a sunny place for shady people,” and the strange things that happen to them. Musicians, gun shop owners, streetwalkers, tailors, door-to-door salesmen, drifters, housewives, dentists and pornographers, new arrivals and hard-bitten denizens all intersect in cleverly plotted stories that center around some kind of shadowy activity. This quirky love letter to a lost way of life will appeal to fans of hard-boiled fiction and anyone interested in the city itself. 

Ry Cooder is a guitarist, singer, and composer known for his interest in roots music, and for his collaborations with traditional musicians from many countries, including the Buena Vista Social Club, He has composed soundtracks for more than twenty films, including Paris, Texas. This is his first published collection of stories.

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