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The Pink Rambler

The Return of the Pink Rambler


UNLESS YOU'RE A down-and-out drag queen with a talent for hot-wiring, your first choice of car to steal probably wouldn't be my powder-pink 1960 Nash Rambler, with its white top, a big pink-and-white covered tire on its trunk, and enough chrome to solar-power Encino for several days. Any relatively recent Japan-mobile would chop up into bigger coin. If you're just an exhibitionist, why not hijack an elephant and march it down Wilshire Boulevard at rush hour, with the Pasadena Marching Band and a bunch of majorettes on Dexatrim? (I can't imagine a judge imposing a long prison term for Grand Theft Elephant).

Nevertheless, on the day I was having 45 people over for a party, I stumbled from my house to get a coffee and into one of those surreal moments when the sound drops out and the world grinds to a halt: My Rambler was gone.

I waited a week for it to turn up abandoned. When it didn't, my insurance company gave me temporary use of a rental Taurus. I was embarrassed to be seen driving a car with all the personality of bar code, but I secretly savored its modern mechanical charms, especially its automatic windshield wipers, which gave me a near-sexual thrill. (My Rambler's wipers were vacuum-driven and powered by the engine, which meant that you could either see out the windows during a rainstorm or go forward; take your pick.) I'd bought my Rambler soon after arriving from New York, before I understood the beauty of getting from point A to point B without dropping an axle. I learned fast. But losing a vehicle has a lot in common with breaking up with a problem boyfriend; one is inclined to develop convenient amnesia. A close friend and frequent ride-provider helpfully reminded me of the time my car stopped turning left and I had to get directions from my house in Venice to Sunset Boulevard and Kings Road and make only right turns the whole way. Still, I missed my temperamental pink thing.

LATE ONE SUNDAY evening, a week and a half after my car disappeared, I was buzzing home in my temporary Taurus when I spotted a Rambler station wagon getting a "jump" from a tow truck two blocks from my house. Rambler people are essentially culties, but in place of toxic Kool-Aid and boysenberry Nikes, we're bound together by our devotion to these quirky cars. If this guy in the stalled Rambler had seen my Rambler he'd remember it. I screeched to a double-parked halt and ran on over.

He was a twenty-something hipster with a face out of those black velvet paintings of big-eyed puppy dogs and a pompadour like John Travolta's in "Grease." He told me his name was Fred; he was a mural painter, and he was crazy for Ramblers. He said he hadn't seen my stolen car, but he'd be on the lookout. He suggested I call Michael Kozicki, president of Scramblers, the Southern California Rambler club, and Bob Pendleton, another Scrambler, to see if they'd have any leads. As I turned to leave, Fred mentioned that he had a line on an "almost cherry" '60 Nash Metropolitan in South Gate for $1,000. A Nash Metropolitan is what my car would look like if I left it out in the rain and it shrank to about a third of its size. I begged for the owner's number. Fred said he didn't have it; he just knew where they lived. He offered to take me there on the weekend. He took my number and said he'd call on Friday. I wrote down his number and repeated it back to him twice. I was so excited, I nearly tap-danced home.

I couldn't wait until the weekend to call Fred. In fact, waiting 12 hours was too much for me. I called him at 9:01 the next morning. An old man answered, who said that no Fred was to be found at his number. I called back a couple more times, praying I'd just dialed wrong. The man politely but sternly reinformed me that his home is, and always has been, Fred-free.

I was heartbroken. Fred was just another L.A. flake. I taped his wrong number on my wall and willed him to call. He didn't. But the following Wednesday afternoon, my pal Nina did. She was out of breath. "I just saw your car going south on Orange off Beverly!"

I hung up and dialed 911. "My stolen car, license number 3SXY412, is going south on Orange off Beverly!" The 911 operator did not share my enthusiasm. "If officers run the plate, they'll pull it over."

"You don't understand," I protested. "It's going south on Orange right now! This isn't some gray Nissan! It's a powder-pink Rambler! Like a birthday cake on whitewalls! . . ."

"If the officers run the plate . . . . "

"Never mind!" I shouted. I slammed the receiver down and stomped around the room. "If you want something done, do it your goddamn self!" I ran for the Taurus. I weaved through traffic on the 10 and zoomed over to Orange, slowing charitably to avoid pedestrians. I drove around for hours, warning dazed dog-walkers to keep an eye out for cotton-candy-on-wheels. My search fruitless, I decided to head home, after dropping in at the Hollywood police station.

BEING A GIRL, I find in-person visits in such situations to be quite helpful. ("Hi, I have big breasts, will you find my car?") The first officer I spoke with, Clinton Dona, who happened to own a 1960 Rambler, was especially sympathetic. He and the officers behind the desk promised to tell the beat cops to watch for my Rambler. I felt re-energized, empowered; I was Nancy Drew! (as played by Pamela Anderson). I waved a flirty goodbye and trotted out to my roadster. I meandered through Hollywood side streets toward the 10 Freeway. The Melrose Auto Center, a tiny, iron-gated classic car dealership at Melrose and Sycamore, caught my eye. Still in sleuth mode, I mused, "Maybe they pass hot cars." I ran in to take a look. My car wasn't there. Wearily, I turned to leave. A man called to me. "What kind of car do you want to buy?"

"Actually," I said, "I'm not looking to buy a car. My beautiful pink car was stolen, and I'm out looking for it." "Don't tell me," he said. "Pink Rambler, white top, continental kit?" (That's the covered tire on the back.) My jaw dropped. "How did you know?" "A guy tried to sell it to me this afternoon," he said. "And he left his name and phone number." The car lot man told me that the guy trying to unload my car had called himself Fred Lopez. He copied down the guy's phone number. It was one digit off the number broken-down-Rambler Fred had given me! He described Rambler Fred down to the ducktail. Stunned, I thanked him and sped back to the police station.

I told Officer Dona what I'd found out, and he went to work: He looked up the number Fred had given the car lot guy in the Haines Guide, a "crisscross" phone directory that lists numbers in numerical order, then gives the corresponding names and addresses. The number wasn't listed. Officer Dona told me not to despair and said that Pacific Division, the Venice police, would handle my case.

The next morning, I called Pacific Division and discovered that they hadn't assigned a detective. I clamored for a little attention from auto theft coordinator Michael Fesperman. He assigned Dets. Cooper and Angelo, an embarrassment of riches, I thought, until they neglected to return so many calls that I speculated they'd entered the Witness Protection Program.

I DECIDED TO shop around for the best police attention I could find. I typed up and faxed Officer Dona all the information I had, which I also faxed to those coy auto boys at Pacific Division.

Officer Dona said he had not yet received my fax. Instead, I got a call from Hollywood Division Special Problems Officer Dan McGehee, who was eager to work on my case. I promised to keep him up to date on my detective efforts.

A few hours earlier, I'd spoken with Scramblers president Kozicki, who thought Fred might be a young Rambler nut with whom he'd traded car parts. He strained to recall bits and pieces about him--that Fred had lived with a young woman in a crummy apartment somewhere near USC; that the 10 Freeway was visible from his place. Kozicki had about eight phone numbers for Fred; none were current.

I tried Bob Pendleton, the other Scramblers guy Fred had mentioned. Pendleton passed me on to John "Ramblin' Johnny" Koppelman, who thought that the Fred I'd described might be the guy whom Phil Rose, yet another Rambler nut, had nicknamed "Kid Fred." Rose just couldn't believe that "Kid Fred" would steal a car, until I said the magic words: "mural painter." "That's him!" Phil confirmed. He said he believed Fred had a girlfriend named Alice, who had attended a certain snooty L.A. prep school, and that he lived around USC. I pored over a map. Was it Vermont? Normandie? Hoover? He couldn't narrow it down, but he thought all three sounded familiar. That was all the lead I needed. I hopped in the Taurus and zipped down the freeway on the first of many pilgrimages, blithely motoring around an area that I would later learn is the supposedly blood-drenched South-Central of gangsta rap and movies.

Residents squinted at me funny as I cruised and re-cruised their neighborhoods, but nobody looked all that concerned, probably because a Taurus isn't the car of choice of most drive-by shooters. I told anyone who would listen about my stolen Rambler: mailmen, Sparklett's delivery people, construction workers, cops on patrol, an elderly Russian lady with enormous pink rollers. Nobody had seen my car. After several hours, I slunk home. I was slaving over a hot computer on my syndicated advice column when the phone rang. It was Det. McGehee. "We just picked up your car!"

I screamed so loud that I hurt my own ears. After I composed myself, McGehee described the Rambler they'd pulled over: continental kit, white top. Then he got into the chrome. By his account, the silver hood ornament on this car was the equivalent of a Frederic Remington bucking bronc sculpture. My stomach churning, I told McGehee a few of my car's little quirks--the big plastic horn button under the steering column; the molding on the left side that I'd secured with a paper clip. None checked out. I glumly admitted that it didn't sound like my car.

McGehee described the driver: black pompadour, sideburns. It might be Fred. "How fast can you get here?" asked McGehee. I whipped down the 10, accompanied by "The Very Best of Aretha Franklin," my favorite speeding music. I finally rolled up on a small crowd of men and women in blue hovering outside a parking garage. I peeked at the Rambler. It was candy-apple red, freshly painted sometime in the late '60s. (What's a girl gotta do, supply the cops with swatches from Home Depot?) The driver looked as if he was no stranger to maximum security, but he wasn't my thief.

After that, McGehee became less responsive. I took my frustration out on Fesperman, complaining that Dets. Cooper and Angelo wouldn't call me back either. Fesperman responded by assigning my case to "Officer No. 5," a handsome young policeman with huge muscles who was studying to be a detective.

Unfortunately, although Officer No. 5 seemed sincere in trying to help me, it appeared that Pacific Division hadn't saved up quite enough cereal box tops to put him through detective school. Every time he talked to one of the Rambler boys, they'd complain to me that he seemed "confused," or something more specific and less kind. Still, he was all I had. I told him my story, faxed him the details and headed back to South-Central.

THAT EVENING I got a real break. Phil Rose had searched his garage and found a note from Fred with a phone number that varied by only one digit from the numbers Fred had given the car lot guy and me. I asked Officer No. 5 to look it up in the crisscross directory. "The number you gave me is a 213 number," he protested. "We don't have the Hollywood directory. I'm just going to call him."

"And say what?" I raged. "Hi, Mr. Car Thief, I'm a police officer, would you mind returning Miss Alkon's car?" (because she's a real pain in the ass to all of us at Pacific Division). I begged him to erase the number and forget he'd ever heard of my Rambler.

I called Fesperman to complain. It turned out that the number was unlisted. Fesperman said he'd request a search warrant to get the phone company to hand over the address, a process he said would take 10 days to two weeks. A week and a half later, Officer No. 5 called. He was just starting to fill out the paperwork for the search warrant.

Days passed. I called Officer No. 5 but ended up speaking with the elusive Det. Cooper, who informed me that the judge had rejected the search warrant request "because it had a typo." I bit my lip to keep from screaming that the police couldn't find a mail truck at the post office.

Early on a Sunday evening, a neighbor rang my doorbell. En route to the freeway from USC, he had spotted my car. He had chased and lost it, but he'd gotten the number on the license plate propped up in the back window--OXG624. It was an old black California plate, probably picked out of a junkyard.

I faxed this information to Fesperman and to auto theft detectives in Southwest Division, where my neighbor had spotted the car. A DMV query on the plate came back "No Registration Found." Victor Islas, assigned to auto theft at Southwest, agreed to put out a crime alert to cops in his area with Pacific Division authorization. I contacted Fesperman, who agreed to issue it and did, two days later.

THE FOLLOWING SUNDAY, Phil called, all excited. Late that afternoon, Fred had left a message about Rambler parts on Phil's answering machine. On a hunch, Phil called Fred back at the number he'd found in his garage. He got Fred's machine, began talking, and Fred picked up the phone! I couldn't believe my good fortune. I immediately rang up Pacific Division: "I just got a tip that my car thief is home." By then, Officer No. 5 had finally tracked down the address. I asked if the Pacific Division boys would get it from him and send someone over to arrest the thief and pick up my Rambler.

"None of the detectives are here right now," the desk person said. "Can you please call back tomorrow?"

"Even Denny's is open 24 hours!" I howled, slamming down the phone. Frustrated, furious, I was at wit's end. Then it came to me. I grabbed the phone and punched in a number I knew by heart.

"Hello?" muttered the guy on the other end. "You stole my pink car," I shouted. "I want my car back! I want my car back now! I know everything about you but your blood type. I even know where Alice went to high school! The only reason I don't have my car right now, and you in jail, is that the police are really stupid. But I'm through with the police. I just called my FBI friend Tom Nicoletti (I really hadn't). He chases terrorists around the globe and makes them wish they'd gone into flower-arranging. He's so pissed off that he has to do something so lame as going after my silly-ass pink car that he'll throw you in jail for grand theft auto for the next 20 years when he catches you. And he will catch you." I gasped for breath, guppy-style.

Fred seized the moment. "Where would you like your car?" he squeaked.

"On the street in front of my house," I snarled.

It was there in an hour, in horrible condition. Moldings were missing. Every lock was broken. A door handle had been severed. The formerly pristine rose-beige velvet upholstery was splattered with grease spots and wax drippings. Worse, there were white latex paint droplets all over my hood and chrome. I called Fred back and screamed at him. He pleaded that he had only stolen my car because he'd lost his job and run out of money. This really steamed me.

"Don't talk to me about having no money," I bellowed. "I was once so poor that I worked as a chicken!" (I handed out fliers to hostile New Yorkers, if you'll forgive the redundancy). Fred apologized for what he'd done and offered to give me his Metropolitan. I declined. I didn't want his car, which was probably stolen anyway. I just wanted my car back in its original condition. He promised to trade some favors to have my car repainted.

The next day, a bill for $164 arrived from Rhonda at Premiere Party Rents for the rental tables that were in the trunk when my Rambler was stolen. I rang Fred. "You're costing me a lot of money. You have to return those tables. And I want that velvet pillow from the back seat. It's the only thing I have left from my dead grandmother."

Fred promised to drop the tables off at Premiere Party Rents the following day, the day before Thanksgiving. He said he'd leave the pillow at my post office box. I telephoned Rhonda. "My car thief will be returning my tables tomorrow," I chirped.

He didn't. Apparently Fred needed a little nagging. I called an expert: "Mom, you gotta help me out." I coached her on the approach. "You live in a trailer park." "I'm not going to say that!" snipped my middle-class mother. She did, however, manage to lay on the guilt: "Fred, this is Amy's mother. We wanted to have Amy home with us for Thanksgiving, but we couldn't afford to send her a plane ticket, and she couldn't afford to buy one because you stole her car. The least you can do is return those tables. And I can't see what use you could have for that pillow from her grandmother. You return that too! It's the least you can do! That is all!" (That's how my mother ends her phone calls, to daughters and car thieves alike).

FRED NEVER DID return the tables or the pillow. Nor did he make good on his offers to have my car painted or give me his Metro. (I'm ready to accept.) But he did become a terrific source of free therapy. Whenever I had a bad day, I would call up Fred and rail at him. I even mailed him a nasty letter and a bill for my car theft-related expenses, addressed to "Fred Lopez, Car Thief." Across the front I wrote, "YOU'RE ROTTEN," "You should be ashamed of yourself!!" On the back I scrawled "I HATE YOU!"

Fred still hasn't been arrested. The case was knocked down to a misdemeanor and so the police can't go into his house to pick him up, Fesperman says. So far his punishment has amounted to being forced to disconnect his phone, probably because he couldn't take the telephone harassment from me and, especially, my mother. Still, I don't regret the experience. I had great fun moonlighting as a private detective, I gained newfound faith in humanity, thanks to the Rambler nuts and the other near-strangers who went out of their way to help me, and I'd learned a surprising little lesson: In Los Angeles, crime pays. Come to think of it, stealing cars seems like a pretty good way to earn a dishonest living. Unless, of course, you steal my car.

A version of this story ran Sunday, May 2, 1999 in the Los Angeles Times Magazine.

Amy Alkon's Column, "Ask the Advice Goddess," appears in 60 Newspapers.

Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved.