Original writings by Adrienne Nater

Her Way to the Highway

It’s the third Friday of January 1951, a miserably windy, rainy day, not the usual boring Southern California weather. It had been blowing, raining for days; a sissy umbrella worthless. She was seventeen, eighteen in late April. In her senior year at high school, graduating late February (mid-year graduations were part of the Los Angeles Unified District system) tired of walking the long lackluster distance to school five days of the week for what seemed a lifetime. And it was just about that… since second grade.

Of course, there was her outstandingly beautiful Schwinn bike, no way, it could be stolen again. She had been lucky to get it back that time. (Another story waiting in the wings)And there was the bus. She hated the morning Beverly bus, hated the lines, waiting, pushing crowds, waiting, lines again to transfer to the Fairfax bus. They were smelly, jam-packed, noisy, cost a mere ten cents, but still ten cents out of her traveling to school parental subsidy. So she walked, leaving home very early, never late to school. She walked a different route every day, but there were just so many streets, avenues that went from her house on South Martel to Fairfax and Melrose. She knew them all.

Three years of schlepping herself, her books, past single beautifully landscaped homes in her neighborhood then apartments. The further she walked west the more apartments; four unit two story white stucco, red tile roof buildings, long cement driveways to the back, fashioned with four single car garages.

Cars lined the streets in this neighborhood, bumper to tail pipe. If she encountered a person, it was someone walking a dog, getting into a car. Certainly no one she knew from school walked, at least she never noticed if there were, with her head down, watching her feet moving along the cement sidewalks with their lines spaced evenly at thirty-six inches. (She had measured this out of curiosity even considered counting how many lines there were in total during the walks. (Counting was her thing.)

The clusters of apartments made it obvious that the income level dropped seriously; even in her youth she could see the transformations caused by earning power.
 


She was fed-up. She had been walking to schools nine years. Her new father had her officially transferred to the out of district Carthay Center Elementary, a fundamental school. He was appalled by the progressive standards at Hancock Park. Learn by doing. (When he asked her what she did at school, building an Indian village, making freight cars, was the startling answer that prompted his action.)

A short walk to the neighborhood school became a three mile journey. There were only two routes: East on 5th street, South on Crescent Heights Boulevard, past the Carthay Circle Movie Theater or west on 5th to Sweetzer Avenue, South to San Vicente across the railroad tracks and East on Olympic Boulevard to the school. Sometime she walked up the tracks just for fun. The best was when a train came, placing a penny on the track, waving. These men always waved back.

She was never offered a ride although she and her step-dad left at the same time each morning, not even part way; that was his way.

By hook or by crook, some way or the other, she had to have her own wheels. She wasn’t into the Moses thing any longer. Just how?

The other morning she read an article in the newspaper reporting that Jerry Lewis’s car, (of the famed Martin and Lewis comedy team) a Studebaker, the one that looked like it was going and coming at the same time, was stolen from Gilmore Stadium parking lot; he had left the key in the ignition. As she trudged along; she fantasized: steal one, look for a car whose driver left the keys in the ignition, exchange the license plates stolen from another; she knew how to use a screw-driver. Plenty of choices in the car-ports at the La Brea Housing Project, just beyond Third Street.
She walked, thoughts drifted: grand apartment buildings finished after World War Two. Those buildings stood there unfinished from 1941 till the end of the war. Only skeletons of brick stairs and chimneys of what they would become later. Countless high risers. She had explored the more than one hundred sixty acres during her years of adventures walking from John Burroughs Junior High. (She bought a slice of Angel food cake, a lifetime favorite, at the bakery at the corner of La Brea and Third with part of her saved lunch money. She worked in the cafeteria at noon to get a free lunch not having to spend her designated money given each morning, placed by her breakfast cereal bowl.) She loved to save, watch her bank account grow, hated to spend her precious money.

Yes, she was walking then too; the La Brea Project, a great area of exploration that she and her dog Ginger tromped around whenever they were free from weekend chores. They caught an owl in one of the storage areas, sold it to the pet store at the Town and County Center on Fairfax and Third. Ignored the F… word painted on the walls. Not knowing what it meant why it was a bad word.

She laughed at herself. A car thief. In the old west punishment for horse thieves was hanging, what would it be for stealing a car? Forget it.

How to solve the problem? So her independent wants overcame her dependent needs. She would buy her own car. She had her own money in her own bank account.

Indeed, was she ever a saver, stringently taught by her mother; put a portion of income into the bank. Out of her allowance of a dollar a week (fifty cents into the bank), bus money, her jobs at the Farmers Market in the Coral Reef Bird store, the Little Mexican Mart, Jimmy Gorman’s Camera Store, all at $.50 an hour she had accumulated a fortune in six years of $602.82.

She worked every day after school, to the maximum allowed students. All day on Saturdays (Sometime more but who checked she was paying social security even then. Her dad made her quit after she reach $600.00 so he could still claim her as an income tax dependent.) Then she worked off of the books, cash only.

So, after school this day she walked home, it had quit raining, (she knew her mother was at the beauty salon) got her bank savings book, fast walked to the Gilmore bank. She didn’t mind this walk at all. She withdrew $200.00 from her savings account.

The next day, Saturday, chores done early, the cash, in 20.00s, 10.00s and 5.00s stuffed into the pocket of her jeans she walked to the bus stop; believing, this would be the last time she would have to walk anywhere.

She had listened to the radio that blasted ads for car dealers. The section of Los Angeles along Vermont was the Mecca for dealers, shoppers. So she walked to the bus stop, waited (the last time) boarded the hated Beverly bus got off at Vermont to begin her quest.

When she was four, Vermont Avenue was where she took her first horseback riding lessons. She never stop thinking about her mount, a pony was named Jeanie. Her mom promised her a pony, but marriage to her new father changed all that. So she promised herself a pony, horse when she grew-up.

Back then Aunt Jean served as transportation with her 1937 Ford. Mother spent her travel time in cars of family or friends, taxies, never buses or trolleys, never did want to learn to drive.

In 1937 the whole of the Vermont area from Beverly Boulevard as far as she could see, was miles of open land, here there was a riding ring, miles of trails, a stable redesigned from two opposite facing billboards at the end of the vast open acreage. Then there was a railed trolley that coursed down the paved road. The tracks all round Los Angeles were being ripped up. Buses and auto were taking over as the main means of transportation.

What she saw today. Hugh billboards lining the boulevard. Lights flashing the names of the dealerships: Cadillac’s, Lincolns, Buicks, Pontiacs, Fords, Chevrolets, all new. One name she liked was Felix Chevrolet. Big cartoon cat was the logo.

The further south she strolled along the boulevard, around the lots, the cheaper the prices posted in the windshields. Now the signs read “Good Used Cars”. The prices began to fit her pocket full of savings. She had walked miles from Beverly to Venice Boulevard. She couldn’t help but notice the guys standing around in front of motorcycle shops, tire repair frontages, smoking, swearing, laughing, ignoring her, as intent on their business as she was with hers.

Along the route. There were restaurants, dry cleaners, beauty shops, coffee shops, tire businesses, auto repairs, gas stations, (twenty-five cents a gallon, she could do that) She was focused on one business.

Finally a blue (her favorite color) Nash coupe in a lot just north of Venice Blvd caught her eye. It was at the back of the lot. The salesman came over. “That’s a mechanics car.” His comment. “That’s Ok; if it’s good enough for a mechanic it’s good enough for me.” “No, no little girl, I can’t sell you this car, it needs work. Let’s go look at some others.”

She disliked all the other cars, left to try her luck on the North side of Beverly; another long walk that took her to a block south of LA City College, Pepperdine. (Tempted to take the bus, but she knew that by the time she waited for the bus she could have walked to her next shopping area).

Crossing Beverly Boulevard wondering what was to be bought at the business with the sign, “Bath House.” She saw a neon flashing “The Café”, she was hungry. Couldn’t spend her money on food, she would eat later at home.
The car quest her only focal point. Then into view a non-descript, partially lit “Cheap Used Cars” winked, blinked a welcome. Desperation set in. This had to be the place, for sure. And it was…

Scurrying in she was left alone to wander around the lot. Probably no one would consider her as being a customer; only a 4’6” curly headed little girl. There she stumbled onto a 1937 Dodge Coupe. It was priced within her pocket full of ready money. It was an ugly dark green in and out, (her least liked color) built like a tank. Clean inside, a radio, good tread on the tires. She hustled back to the apparent sales office; had to be. It was the only building in the vicinity. The door was open. The man inside was leaning back in a swivel chair, booted feet up on the yellow wooden desk, coffee cup in one hand a cigarette in the other; grinning, friendly looking. “I was watching you. Interested, huh in the 37 coupe? Buy it now and I’ll knock $25.00 off the posted price.

Come on; let’s go for a test drive.” She drove it around the block with the salesman/owner by her side. She apologizes for her stick-shift/clutch difficulties. He didn’t seem to mind. Nice man. (All men seemed nice to her then.)

She plunked down $175.00 no questions asked, no validation of driver’s license, (she only had a learner’s permit) not asked her age, signed the registration, sales contract. Home she drove in, on her own wheels.
So proud of her purchase she burst into the house “everybody come see.”

There was shocked disbelief/belief. There it was her own car. Mother was laughing, she knew her daughter, her innate sense of independence, taught, encouraged. The step-father’s lawyerly inquisition began: Where did you buy it, how much, is it safe, is it in good running order (it got me home) where’s the sales contract, registration, do you have insurance? (What’s that?) You’re not licensed. Good grief that much of a fuss about her first major purchase.
Her step-dad (she had wanted him to adopt her officially, to be part of his family, no, he put in plain words, your own father must never be free of his responsibility for you. Not, if truth be told, understood until later in her life) was on the phone to his insurance agent, Jerry Fields, the registration, contract in hand reading off the particulars to put a binder (what’s that?) on the car. He knew how to take care of business just like this.

Then a call to the owner of the car lot. What she heard; the contract was invalid, she was underage, couldn’t by law legally sign or held responsible. If the car was faulty it came back with full refund or a law suit would be filed, (he was a civil lawyer) A call to the family mechanic to come over for the inspection.

Then a call to a driver training school, Dad wasn’t going to contribute any further to this adventure.

The mechanic, Jack Hand, (later she heard he was a drunk, who kidnapped an aged mechanic he employed, took him up to the Baldwin Hills, beat him up, charged with the very serious charge of kidnapping, worse than murder after the Lindberg baby case, her step-dad’s first of only two criminal cases, got him off) deemed the old car safe, in good working order. The insurance papers arrived adding her to the family policy. (Per their agreement) She gave her dad the $25.00 for the additional cost.

The car remained parked in front for weeks, she was still on foot (the key was confiscated) while she became skilled to really drive by the book.

The very day of her eighteenth birthday her boyfriend, Buddy, drove her to the Hollywood DMV where she passed the State tests, got her California driver’s license. She drove home.

This tank of a vehicle took her to school, work, beaches, mountains, deserts, shared all sorts of adventures for the next four years. She put it up for sale (it was getting tired, needing expensive repairs.) A fellow that she worked with at Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica came over, took it on a test drive. He never returned.

Months later it was reported to be in Beaverton, OR, a mechanic’s lien on it for repairs. She signed the release papers per her step-father’s counsel. Began saving for another car; her 1948 two tone green Pontiac Sedan.
1937 in 1951 gone but not forgotten.