Dear Diary: Left work today--just had to get out. Left all those papers and headaches and cranked down the top of my white Toyota Celica (it's an '88) and headed straight out of the Civic Center and right on down to Venice Beach.
It was beautiful--near 80, haze on the ocean, one of those freak-of-nature February days when 90% of the nation is freezing and the L.A. people are rolling around in their ragtops, soaking up the sun. I was one of them--and far from alone. All up and down Pacific, Washington and Ocean Park boulevards were members of the convertible crowd, flushed from their homes by the unseasonably hot Thursday afternoon--a day stolen from the grasp of winter--like lizards emerging from under a rock.
They were in their Miatas, Fiats, 'Vettes and, occasionally, big Lincolns and Cadillacs, looking cool, wearing their ball caps, some blaring music to the heavens.
"That's why I'm in California--so I can have the top down and my sunglasses on in February," said Henry Dillon, who glided past me in his gold Mercedes 560SL convertible in the beach parking lot. I gave him the thumbs up and rolled on, while Dillon, 58, went off to "buy one of those crazy T-shirts," as he put it.
I wondered about him--how he got the day off, how he and I were fortunate enough to be part of this L.A. car culture thing: that narrow part of it devoted to riding under the open sky. But in the ethic of ragtop sociology, the principal tenet--maybe the only tenet--is that you keep on moving, and so away I went, doing my Randy Newman "Imperial Highway" schtick only a week after all those torrential rains.
The rains had been a curse. We ragtop fanciers took it especially hard. Water leaking in through tattered seams and ill-fitting window moldings. I got my pant legs drenched, and came close to tearing out that plastic rear window--the one that had ceased to be transparent at the turn of the decade.
But now it was our turn to gloat. We convertible types are alone in our understanding of the rush--how it feels, the palms flying by, the sun warming the skin, the unobstructed sight of those tanned bodies--all filtered through the transforming lenses of flashy Ray-Bans. Or, in my case, cheap mirrored facsimiles.
I was pondering this, downing a burger on Main Street, when who should pull up but Jane August. I'd never met her, but she was driving an '85 Celica, a red one, and we struck up a conversation. She had bought the car brand-new and now had 88,325 miles on it. She was out running errands, getting ready for a Saturday night dinner party, and she knew exactly the thing I was talking about.
"You are really much closer to nature," she said, digressing into talk about the senses, how you see so much more, even \o7 smell \f7 so much more--trees, flowers, grass. "It feels good to have the wind in your hair--and it's cooler."
True, the experience wasn't for everyone. "Some people don't want to mess up their grooming," she said, but her philosophy was different: "Anytime it's daytime and not raining, it's a top-down kind of day."
A guy I know, Michael Medved, who's kind of a movie/social critic, used to have a convertible--a '67 Mustang, in fact. He drove it across the country twice. He says the ragtop culture is mainly a young man's game.
"People look at each other," he told me. Driving around with the top down "sends a message: 'Here I am, look at me.' "
So he says. I'm 38, usually a solid citizen of the corporate world. But I admit I found my thoughts drifting further and further from the office. I began forgetting about what I'd heard on my voice mail and wondering, instead, about whether to get the suntan lotion from my trunk--and was it a 4? Or an 8? My pal Gary, who was riding along snapping pictures, saw a young woman washing her black Fiat. She had the top down, but she was spraying it anyway. Her name was Rossi Cannon, and she was 31. She was on her way to play paddle tennis, but was taking care of the dust.
"I'm just rinsing it off and heading out," she said, and then was gone.
I kept rolling, too. North into Santa Monica. More Mercedes. Porsches. More of the beautiful people. I was musing over the lyrics to "The Girl From Ipanema" when Gary saw a blonde in a glossy new Miata.
"Follow her," he instructed.
I was in a bad spot--the right lane at a red light--but I threw it in reverse (that back window wouldn't stop me now) and raced backward, veered forward to the left lane and hung a U-turn. "Let's pick her up," Gary said, jokingly--maybe jokingly--and we pushed the needle following a winding entry road onto Pacific Coast Highway.
Suddenly, the bluffs loomed up on the right like some kind of Frank Gehry creation; the beach was off to the left. I could feel the wind.
I sort of cackled.
She was up ahead. We changed lanes, moved near. She saw us, smiled. Gary took a picture. Wefell behind for a moment--the dang traffic--and moved near again. She accelerated, changed lanes, hung a right on West Channel Road.
I was undaunted. Up ahead were cars along the bluff. Swells were breaking and a few dozen surfers were out. That is where we met Kara Stephens. She was a 25-year-old camera assistant who works on movies. It was her day off and she was about to go surfing. Her surfboard jutted from the open rear seat of her dark blue '68 Mustang.
"It was such a beautiful day I just had to get out," she said, adding that she had owned the car for three years. I checked out the odometer--only 31,554 miles. But she smiled and said it had gone around a few times. That was OK by her. She was part of this sand-and-sun, top-down-at-Malibu set, and glad of it.
"I'll never get rid of this car," she said.
Stephens grinned and set off for the waves. I motioned to Gary and we got back in the Celica.
The ocean glinted in the sunlight. The sun was starting to descend. In a few hours it would be another balmy L.A. night, here out of season, ready for the taking.
It was time to go check out the Sunset Strip.