Plato's Garageby Rob Campbell
In a collection of essays that are often personal, occasionally journalistic, and, now and again, meditative, Rob Campbell takes a look at the world from a different perspective - through the reflective lens of the automobile in our car-obsessed culture. From the Los Angeles he knows, where people are frequently defined by the cars they drive, to Bakersfield in which he grew up, where the group you went cruising with defined your station in life; from the people who define fantasy cars to the people who sell cars not unlike them to the high-end consumer market.With sharp wit and candid observations, Campbell has a gift for the telling detail, the particular moment which illustrates a universal truth. Just as Plato used the Simile of the Cave in his Republic, Campbell takes it that one extra step - and he posits Plato's Garage, where society parks their metaphoric cars, and the he takes them for a spin on the Universal Highway. And he guarantees a ride that is smooth, elegant, and the envy of your friends and neighbors.
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By Rob Campbell
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2000 Rob Campbell
All rights reserved.
Sun Fun Stay Play: A Brief History of Hometown Cruising
It's like visiting the grave of a first love,
This being in the suburbs ...
As if I had to walk without end
Along these midnight streets
— no. 10 and 26 of "Sad Toys" by Ishikawa
They don't exist anymore, but when I was growing up there were two spectacular signs on Highway 99 in the San Joaquin Valley of California, one ten miles north of Bakersfield and the other ten miles south. SUN FUN STAY PLAY, they proclaimed and beseeched, each word in its own glittering diamond of red or yellow, with a space-age illustration of a streamlined early 1960s family gleefully gathered poolside at a chic, modern hotel. It was no mystery to anyone passing these signs how ironic they were, least of all the 300,000 or so citizens of the Bakersfield area. Even the few people I know who were born there and never left know the place is a big fat bore, and I've never heard anyone convincingly argue for the city's enduring charm or zesty spirit. Most who do manage to leave, for quick trips or for good, go to convenient Los Angeles — less than a two-hour zip down Interstate 5 South. Despite its proximity to L.A.'s sprawling metropolitan power source and its wealth of diverse cultural influences, Bakersfield runs on a steadily low small-town wattage that is not affected by progressive forces within the community or influences from the outside world. It was a popular destination for dust bowl escapees during the Great Depression, with its promise of oil, land, and plentiful irrigation for agriculture. The Kern River that bisects it has since dried up, but its founding industries continue to flourish, and the city is now filled with people of all races, occupations, and financial strata whose major activity is to support each other in their primarily economic need to be there.
Not that some people don't grow to love Bakersfield (though I don't know any), but no one actually wants to be there. It's too hot in the summer (we fried eggs on the street as an August pastime) and too cold in the winter (my numb fingers stuck to the keys of my baritone saxophone during junior high marching band practice in January), the air is a haze of toxic agricultural spray residues, and its dining/entertainment options are limited to a degree that might barely be normal for a town about a tenth its size. Consequently, the city is full of people with very little to do besides tend to the business of their days.
Until recently, when the police and the more upstanding citizens of the local high society decided it was too dangerous and déclassé, the one thing you could always do for entertainment in Bakersfield was go out cruising. When I was growing up, three major cruising areas were in full swing. There was Niles Street for the lowriders, Chester Avenue for the dirty white boys, the kick-ass chicks, and the small group of black kids who were more into heavy metal than disco or funk, and Beach Park for the fags, named for the dry and sandy riverbed that ran behind it. This kind of systematic self-willed segregation was part of the underlying design of the city, so deeply rooted that it wasn't even questioned. I went to an all-white high school, which seemed like a totally natural phenomenon to almost everyone there except me. People didn't mix if they didn't have to. Not much got discovered, but not much got destroyed, either. If you didn't want to grow or change much more in your life, Bakersfield was a safe place to stagnate.
If you didn't want to stagnate, but you were stuck there anyway, you could always be a wild teenager, or an older person impersonating a wild teenager, and become part of one of the three great masses of people who were cruising the streets every night, trying to wrestle Bakersfield out of its self-willed torpor. We were all outcasts, but instead of banding together to shake up a town that was far too large to make it necessary for a great number of people to have nothing to do but drive around in their cars every night, we fought amongst ourselves. The three main cruising zones became theaters of war, each the stronghold of a great platoon under whose auspices various opposing squadrons battled it out for internal control.
Prior to squadron assignment, each platoon had its own basic requirements for induction. On Niles Street, you had to be Latino or romantically involved with someone Latino. If Latino, you had to know how to speak Spanish, and you had to have modified your car in some clever and/or gloriously excessive way. Large American cars were most encouraged. To be an acceptable Chester Avenue enlistee, you had to satisfy a much more exhaustive set of requirements: First, you had to be white (black rockers and college sports per sonalities could also join up if they so choosed), you had to be straight, you had to be under thirty (honorary sergeant status was granted to "seniors" over thirty who were 1) genuinely cool dudes or hot mamas, and 2) gainfully employed for less than three months per year), you had to listen to heavy metal or country music loud enough for your car's door panels and windows to vibrate, you had to drink a whole hell of a lot of beer, you had to be willing to throw your beer can or bottle at another cruiser at the slightest provocation, you had to be able to yell loudly enough to be heard and understood from across the street through the din of a crowded Saturday night, you had to peel out in every free span of thirty feet or more in the midst of the generally stop-and-go traffic, you had to comb your hair and apply lip gloss every five minutes if female, you had to call a girl a slut and flip another guy off every five minutes if male, and you had to be willing to wear a tank- or halter top even in the dead of winter. Though large, powerful cars with big backseats or jacked-up trucks were most highly regarded, any car in which you could perform some sort of sex act was acceptable. This was also one of the Beach Park cruising zone requirements, which included just one other proviso: You had to be a gay male.
Squadrons within each platoon mingled to a certain extent, but inter-platoon mingling was discouraged, and it was up to each and every individual in each platoon to convince intruders from the other two that they were not welcome. Tactics varied from group to group. The throwing of objects, calling of names, and near-miss accident ploy were popular on both Niles and Chester, while Beach Park inductees preferred the taking down of license plate numbers, and the always provoking "You must be one too if you're here" technique.
The most powerful and influential squadrons in each platoon were exclusionary to the extreme and easy to spot. On Niles Street the gangs ruled, each one jealously guarding rights to its own special uniform, music, and car-modification techniques. Infighting deterred them from offensive strikes against the other platoons. Gang identity and activity is something that has always been strongly linked to Latino culture, but that's just because they name it and they talk about it freely, which makes effective management easier. The other two zones were just as full of identifiable gangs as Niles Street was, except that they were less structured, didn't have dangerous, glamorous names, and were often poorly run.
On Chester Avenue, the hot-rodders and other car clans of the baby boomer generation had devolved into a few more loosely defined groups: the Stoner Dropouts in their muscle cars, the Cowboy/Jock types in their pickup trucks or sports cars, and the Bitchin' Babes in their Camaros, Corvettes, 280 Z's, or any other car that was shaped like a penis. There was also a vast underclass of geeky boys with rock 'n' roll aspirations and slutty, dog-faced girls with killer bodies. They would occasionally try to penetrate into one of the lead squadrons, but mostly held the ruling class in disdain, preferring to pair off from within their own ranks rather than risk the chance of defeat and rejection. It was virtually impossible for a member of the dog face/killer-body faction to gain access to the Bitchin' Babe battalion, but they were often welcomed with open arms into the Cowboy/Jock and Stoner Dropout camps for sexual purposes. It was also virtually impossible for the geek boys to penetrate the Bitchin' Babe battalion (think Richard Dreyfuss and Suzanne Somers in American Graffiti). On top of that, they were also never accepted by the Cowboy/Jock types, even if they started chewing tobacco or joined the football team. However, each geek boy automatically became a Stoner Dropout at some point if he failed to graduate from high school, couldn't keep a job, and spent every penny he made on his car.
The Cowboy/Jock types were in complete control of the Bitchin' Babe contingent, though the Stoner Dropouts were on constant lookout for a chink in their armor. Every once in a while, the Cowboy/Jock types would be compelled to lead offensive attacks (something peculiar to the Chester Avenue platoon) on one of the other two zones, which would leave the Bitchin' Babe battalion open to plunder by the Stbner Dropouts. Many a Cowboy/Jock returned from battle only to find he had yet to clash with a Stoner Dropout for the honor of his best Bitchin' Babe.
For a long time, Chester Avenue attacks were focused on Niles Street, until the Cowboy/Jocks realized the lowrider gangs were tougher than they were, and carried weapons. As a result, they turned upon the Beach Park platoon, which was a covert, defense-oriented group with heavily guarded reconnaissance bunkers in the form of three gay bars in a downtown neutral zone. It was necessary for troops to pass directly through enemy territory to get to these harbors, which often spurred altercations. Undercover operations require even more bureaucracy and hierarchical stringency than on-the-record outfits do, and despite its less exacting induction requirements and anarchical appearance, the Beach Park platoon had the most byzantine internal structure of all the groups. At the bottom, the Brash Underaged Kids zipped around in unprepossessing economy cars listening to the radio way too loud and smoking, letting cars follow them for a few blocks and enjoying the getaway more than the prospect of a hookup. Though they did manage to engage in the sexual activity that was, after all, the main purpose of Beach Park, their main function was to act as a decoy squad. They carried out this responsibility unwittingly, by being loud and drawing attention to themselves and playing on the swings and the jungle gym and the merry-go-round in the kiddie area.
Next were the Shy College Boys, who seemed aloof but actually got more action than anyone, and drove sturdy used sedans or their mothers' station wagons. If they stayed in town, Shy College Boys became Soft Young Men, a group that consisted of novice professionals, hairdressers, retail experts, and social workers, who drove their Toyota Celicas or BMW starter coupes cautiously, and were always kind when they turned someone down, which was rare.
When you were too old for the Brash Underaged Kids and not sane enough for the Shy College Boy/Soft Young Man track, you belonged to one of two squads: the Angry Young Men, or the Sporting Boys. The Sporting Boys were the starlets of Beach Park — passably attractive brats and party boys who showed off as much as possible and often had impromptu powwows of three or four members, preferably blocking easy passage of traffic as they stopped in a clump on the street in their two-seater convertibles or luxury-car loaners from their current benefactors. The Angry Young Men was a large group, consisting of brainy, introverted guys with dark senses of humor who were too twisted for the Soft Young Men and not flamboyant enough for the Sporting Boys. They preferred small unrefurbished vintage cars and Volkswagens of any kind for transport, and were steadfast loners.
The group from which the Sporting Boys most often drew their benefactors, though not every Sporting Boy had one or even wanted one, was the Successful Smoothies. This elite group was made up of lawyers, doctors, businessmen, and the like, and acted as a junta for the entire operation. They drove all the usual suspect marques of distinction like Mercedes, Jaguar, Porsche et al., always in dark colors, silver or champagne (a popular early eighties design mistake), and their actual appearances in the park were rare. Instead, they sent their henchmen, the Aging Acolytes, friends who had never become quite successful enough, on scouting missions in their Cadillacs and Blazers.
Beyond these official groups there was a constant flow of interlopers, independent contractors, and secret agents who drove nondescript cars and were thought to be harmless, though there were a few who posed threats to the integrity of the platoon. Of these, the Married with Children types could be pegged by their Volvo station wagons, and easily avoided if so desired. The ones to watch out for were the double agents from the Cowboy/Jock squadron on Chester Avenue. A Beach Park troop could never be sure whether the agent was on a top-secret mission for his home turf, or a top-secret mission for himself without thorough examination of the individual in question. Beach Park also had its own peripheral and unorganized Stoner Dropout squadron, whose members could be discerned from the Chester Avenue Stoner Dropouts because they drove vans instead of muscle cars.
I started cruising Beach Park before I could drive. When I was fourteen and fifteen, I would ride my bike down to the park and lie on a grassy slope somewhere with my shirt off until someone approached me. These were usually Aging Acolytes, and they always preferred me to wait in the car when we checked in at motels. (Gee, I wonder why!) When I became a Brash Underaged Kid some of these same men ventured to take me to their homes, and even let me use their expensive toiletries in their gleaming bathrooms. After I graduated to Sporting Boy status, they could only hope to entice me. But my glorious hometown cruising career began on Chester Avenue, when my big stepsister took me and mylittle sister out cruising one summer night in 1979 in my mom and stepdad's 1976 Pinto runabout — brown with orange-and-white racing stripes.
My stepsister Cindy was a blonde Bitchin' Babe who had expanded her entertainment sphere beyond the cruising scene. She could often be found at one of the two discos in town with her friend Tammy, who was her confidante and less-pretty tagalong. One night, the two of them came stumbling into our house dead drunk around two in the morning. I was a preteen insomniac, so I was still awake, probably watching some Bette Davis or Joan Crawford movie on the Late, Late Show. Cindy tried to direct Tammy to the bathroom before she puked all over the entryway floor, but was unsuccessful in her attempt. In her half-conscious state, Tammy somehow managed to divest herself of her underwear before she passed out, and it lay twisted in knots upon our blue shag carpet while my mother came out of her bedroom and fought with Cindy about matters of respect over the wreckage of Tammy's unconscious body. I sat there listening first to this, then to Bette or Joan going blah blah blah on television, and back and forth. It was all part of the same old movie as far as I was concerned.
Sometimes Cindy and Tammy would go out to bars and give men their numbers along with fake names. One afternoon when I answered the phone, some man said, "Hey there, is November around?" We teased her about that relentlessly, but kept it a secret from our parents, because we didn't want her to stop telling us stories about her escapades. Finally the three of us were left alone on a Saturday night, and only because we didn't look remotely old enough to get into the eighteen-and-over disco, Cindy took us out cruising.
Our first order of business was to doll my little sister up so that she could sit up on top of one folded leg in the front passenger seat and pretend she was older. She had just turned eleven at the time, and through the blur of car windows and streetlights, she could have passed for sixteen — with her eye shadow and lipstick, her curled-back pageboy and netted, iridescent disco scarf. I slumped in the back seat and rolled my eyes while Cindy responded to calls from Cowboy/Jocks and Stoner Dropouts, pretending I thought it was all too stupid for comment. I was actually pissed as hell that I couldn't be part of it. A buck-toothed, feather-haired thirteen-year-old fag does not make an appropriate third party for a pair of Bitchin' Babes. I gruffly carried out Cindy's command to "stay down!" but I raised my head just high enough to peek out the corner of the sloping rear window, and examined the scene. I still remember certain sightings from that night: a long-haired blond guy in blue jeans, cowboy boots, and a cutoff black T-shirt jokingly dry humping a hefty chick in a red halter top on the trunk of a Pontiac Bonneville; a group of shirtless jocks in the bed of a pickup truck, swigging beer and squirting it all over each other; two barefooted white chicks in flared jeans and puffy-sleeved midriffs continually drawing their long hair behind their ears and sharing a cigarette while they talked to a towering jock in a padded-down vest and a baseball cap. I couldn't wait until I had my own car so I could cruise on my own terms and see what sights there were to be seen.
Excerpted from Plato's Garage by Rob Campbell. Copyright © 2000 Rob Campbell. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Meet the Author
ROB CAMPBELL is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in numerous magazines including Buzz. He lives in Los Angeles and New York City.
Rob Campbell is the author of Plato's Garage (St. Martin's Press, 2000), a collection of biographical and autobiographical essays about the passionate relationship people forgee with the cars in their lives. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Buzz, Out, Genre, and other publications. He lives and works in the San Bernadino Mountains and in Hollywood.
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Cars are the vehicle by which Rob Campbell, a totally modern, enlightened writer, brings us to provocative insights and essays about our culture and ourselves. Unique and must-read book for car enthusiasts