The Asphalt Jun­gle

Automobile - - Contents - By Arthur St. An­toine

It never grew old see­ing what Mr. Toad and his mild ride were up to.

THAT YEAR I lived alone. My life was chang­ing in dra­matic fash­ion, and among the many con­se­quences was that I had to find a new place of my own. In need of some­thing to smile about and in­spired by the no­tion that “some­body in this glossy town must have a great guest house for rent,” I bought a copy of The Hol­ly­wood Re­porter, and sure enough, back in the clas­si­fieds I found just such a place. It was an ex­tremely agree­able one-bed­room apart­ment un­der the main house in one of the choic­est neigh­bor­hoods in Los An­ge­les. The ac­tress Mariel Hem­ing­way, I found out soon af­ter, had lived there be­fore me. For months I col­lected the mail that con­tin­ued to ar­rive for her and de­liv­ered it to my land­lords upstairs for for­ward­ing.

Be­ing alone, sud­denly I had an un­usual amount of free time on my hands (an amount that, un­for­tu­nately, could not be filled en­tirely by col­lect­ing the let­ters and cat­a­logs ad­dressed to the grand­daugh­ter of one of the great­est writ­ers of the 20th cen­tury). So … in the evenings I started walk­ing. A lot. And it was on one of those walks past the bil­liardtable lawns and portes-cochères of my newly rented neigh­bors that I first spot­ted the ve­hi­cle that would turn out to be the fo­cus of my walks for the bet­ter part of the en­su­ing year.

It was not, as you might’ve guessed, a red Fer­rari or a di­a­mond-en­crusted Rolls-Royce. Far from it. The ma­chine that caught my eye was a hum­ble Ford F-100. That might not sound like a rig that would cause a pro­fes­sional car critic to pause for a longer look, but this par­tic­u­lar truck was vin­tage and in ex­cep­tional con­di­tion for its age (I guessed it to be a ’70 model), and it wore a lovely two-tone mint-green-over-white paint job. What’s more, this one hadn’t been ru­ined with the typ­i­cal set of gaudy af­ter­mar­ket mags; no, this F-100 wore its orig­i­nal steel wheels and un­der­stated “dog dish” hub­caps. Who­ever owned this Ford had taste.

Mind you, in Bev­erly Hills pick­ups are as com­mon as palm trees and “Armed Re­sponse” se­cu­rity signs—be­ing the char­i­ots of choice for the scores of pool clean­ers, gar­den­ers, con­trac­tors, and per­sonal as­sis­tants charged with Costco bulk buys who de­scend upon the com­mu­nity ev­ery day. But I sensed that the old F-100 in this drive­way be­longed to the master of the house. Un­like most of the sur­round­ing yards, where the orig­i­nal, tidy circa-’40s and ’50s abodes had long ago been bull­dozed in fa­vor of tow­er­ing stucco Ital­ian palaz­zos and Wind­sor-wor­thy brick Tu­dors whose walls stretched right to the prop­erty lines, be­hind the Ford sat a sin­gle-story ranch on an ex­pan­sive quad­ran­gle of grass and jacaranda trees. The house mir­rored the truck: old and mod­est, yes, but spruce and clearly kept with love.

Who­ever owned the Ford ap­par­ently used it for reg­u­lar short mis­sions, for while I never saw it on the move, on some of my daily walks the pickup would have shifted from one side of the drive­way to the other. But it was al­ways there. One evening, I came upon the truck to see the tail­gate open and a par­tially eaten mound of cedar chips fill­ing half the bed. Only a few chips had spilled to the drive­way. The owner wasn’t in sight—per­haps he or she was work­ing in back— but I had to smile at the re­al­iza­tion: Who­ever owned this proud lit­tle Bev Hills es­tate tended the gar­den per­son­ally.

Some time later, an­other load of cargo left me blink­ing in dis­be­lief. It was late De­cem­ber, and the front yards of many Bev­erly Hill­siders were ap­pro­pri­ately fes­tooned with ro­botic San­tas and twirling meno­rahs and lighted full­size rein­deer teams dressed in col­or­ful horse blan­kets to ward off the win­tery 70-de­gree air. But then I came upon the F-100, and there, fill­ing

DID THE FORD OWNER HAVE CON­NEC­TIONS AT A NEARBY MOVIE STU­DIO? HE TURNED TO WALK INTO THE HOUSE; UN­DER HIS LEFT ARM HE CRA­DLED A SIZ­ABLE TIGER CAT.

the cargo bed, thumb­ing its fig­u­ra­tive nose at the trop­i­cal-hol­i­day farce play­ing out on ev­ery sur­round­ing stage, was a small moun­tain of gleam­ing, cli­mate-de­fy­ing, hon­est-to-good­ness snow. I could only marvel at the sheer lo­gis­tics! Where does one ob­tain snow in a place where pet huskies and mala­mutes are, by lo­cal statute, al­lowed only 90 sec­onds to sprint from their re­frig­er­ated dog­houses to be­dew the fac­sim­ile fire hy­drant in­stalled un­der the back­yard saguaro? Did the Ford owner have con­nec­tions at a nearby movie stu­dio and ob­tain a heap­ing of man-made spe­cial ef­fects? Or did he or she drive all the way out to Mount Wil­son—an hour and a half each way on a good day—and scoop up a back-break­ing load of the real thing?

Some­how I had al­ways pic­tured the F-100’s owner as be­ing old. Maybe it was grandpa or grandma pre­par­ing a su­per-spe­cial—al­beit short-lived!— sur­prise for that night’s hol­i­day din­ner with the vis­it­ing grand­kids. The snow wouldn’t last. But my mem­ory of see­ing it sure has.

I only saw the owner once—and only briefly. One night as I was walk­ing past, I saw the F-100’s brake lights flicker and go out. The truck had just re­turned home! I slowed to a shuf­fle, and in an­other heart­beat or two the door opened and a man stepped out. I couldn’t see his face, but his arms were wrin­kled and his thick hair com­pletely white. He wore a smart, well­fit­ting polo shirt over slim jeans and a pair of well-worn Con­verse All-Stars. I didn’t no­tice un­til he turned to walk into the house, but un­der his left arm he cra­dled a siz­able tiger cat, its tail flick­ing this way and that as they made haste for the door. And then the old man and the cat dis­ap­peared inside.

I don’t know why, ex­actly—prob­a­bly be­cause I was still in the thrall of a re­cent giddy af­ter­noon whirling around the goofy joyrides of Dis­ney­land with a new girl­friend—but I de­cided right there to dub the elder gen­tle­man “Mr. Toad.” And from then on, ev­ery time I’d pass the parked Ford, I’d won­der what Mr. Toad was do­ing—and where he and his cat were plan­ning to go in their mint-green heir­loom next.

I’d been away on a busi­ness trip, a slog of dead­lines and meet­ings, so that evening I was look­ing for­ward to my stroll through the hills. But as I closed in on the one-story ranch amid the glut of car­toon­ish cas­tles, I re­al­ized the F-100 wasn’t in the drive­way. I al­most laughed out loud at the thought of Mr. Toad out hav­ing an un­prece­dented but well-de­served night on the town. “Have a sip for me, good sir! But bring your­self and your trusty truck home safe.”

Smil­ing, I started back on my walk, then turned and saw some­thing in the shad­ows on the front lawn. I re­mem­ber the crick­ets singing, the air sweet with the aroma of night-bloom­ing jas­mine. But this time they did me no good. Be­cause now I could see the sign. And the words: “For Sale.” AM

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