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Great Bones

Sometimes there isn't much left. Still, their owners hold on to the old cars. Because they could be worth something. Or they belonged to a time or person now gone.

April 24, 2005|Camilo Jose Vergara | Camilo Jose Vergara's photographs were last featured in the magazine in an article about storefront churches.

I see them in the backyards of East and South L.A., old classics such as Packards, Cadillacs and Chryslers. Popular in gangster films of the 1930s and '40s and dear to Latinos and African Americans alike, they're slipping deeper into decrepitude. Newer cars badly damaged in collisions are also there. But while the classics sit secure in their place as collector's items, the others may become organ donors, their parts sold as the need for cash arises.

Sometimes their presence is poignant. A Ford Fairlane has sat undisturbed since its owner, an elderly woman, was forced to give up her driver's license. On its hood are a decomposing cardboard box, socks and sheets. The parents whose son left more than a decade before have kept his 1954 Ford to remember him and perhaps lure him back. The owner of a carrot-colored 1962 Ford Galaxie is hoping to make a killing. "Fixed, it would bring 10 or 20 grand," he tells me.

To some, the cars are reminders of better times, and letting them go would be admitting that those days are gone. For others, they preserve the memory of someone lost, as in the case of a South L.A. resident who parked his dead brother's car in his backyard. Some just haven't gotten around to selling them for scrap. Others are waiting, confident the value will rise, that it's only a matter of time before that model of car appears in a starring role in a Hollywood blockbuster, creating cachet. Occasionally one does get restored: One year a 1954 Chevrolet gets a new fender, another year it is covered with newspapers after a paint job.

Where I grew up in Chile, the wealthy farmers loved these giant American cars, and walking home from school I would breathe their dust and curse them for the social inequality they represented, even as I secretly hoped to someday drive one.

In L.A. I have seen these symbols of social superiority humbled. Their once loud and shiny colors have become muted pastels. Chickens walk on them, and rabbit cages rest on their roofs. Sometimes they are used as an extension to the house, as extra bedrooms or additional storage space. Typically they are open to the elements, their windshields broken and dark holes where once there were headlights, their roofs rusted. Often the motors are gone, healthy grass growing in their place. Hunched in the grass on flattened tires, the cars seem ready to jump.

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