Pick Your Part

Looking for a rearview mirror or a clutch fan in the far reaches of Los Angeles

MAN, I love L.A. The L.A. area is like they tilted America westward and all across the country small towns came loose and slid down and piled up there. I grew up in a small town in Ohio, and when I'm in L.A., I'm often so giddy I might have just finished sliding down there myself. I actually know very little about the city besides what I've seen of it in movies and on television. As it turns out, though, that's a lot. A while back I flew to LAX Airport on my first visit to the city in twenty years. At the airport I got into a rental car and drove around the city for eight hours straight, and every place looked familiar to me. I had not guessed during those many hours of watching CHiPs and The Rockford Files back in the seventies that I was being educated to feel comfortable in L.A. I drove and drove -- up the coast to Malibu, up Topanga Canyon, along Foothill Boulevard, along Rodeo Drive, down multilane streets disappearing in the distance into weirs of palm-tree trunks. Tall Washingtonia palms punctuated the horizon like upside-down exclamation points at the beginnings of Spanish sentences. On Sunset Boulevard I pulled over to look at one of these palms close up. Its corky trunk, higher up than I could reach, was embossed with tacks and heavy-duty staples that had once held lost-cat notices and ads for classes in martial arts.
I like to walk in L.A. too. Something about the place makes me want to ramble, on foot as much as by car. My wife's sister and her husband live in Silver Lake, and the last time I stayed with them, I walked their neighborhood all around. This part of the city is hilly; Fargo Street, with an incline of thirty-two degrees, is one of the steepest streets in L.A. My relatives live in a modest house at the bottom of a hill, but as you go up the hills, the houses get fancier and fancier. The streets begin to make hairpin turns and traverse the slope, the high white-stucco walls press closer on both sides, the sidewalk shrinks to a curb, and sternly worded warning signs of private security systems proliferate. Finally, at the top of a hill, with the hazy, humming cityscape stretching below, the road comes to an end at a high wrought-iron gate in front of the fanciest house yet. Sometimes at the gate an armed and uniformed man employed by a private police force is reading a newspaper and sitting on a metal folding chair.

MY brother-in-law had an '83 Ford pickup truck, which he mostly used to haul sets for plays and other theatrical stuff. My brother-in-law is an actor and a theatrical man of all work. As near as I can determine, acting in L.A. is divided into two kinds: acting for TV or movies, where they pay you, and acting for the theater, where you pay them. The work my brother-in-law used the truck for was mainly the you-pay-them kind; so when he broke one of the truck's outside rearview mirrors, he did not send an assistant out for a replacement and mark the cost down to "miscellaneous." Instead he went looking all over for the cheapest '83 Ford pickup rearview mirror he could find. Knowing my peripatetic L.A. restlessness, he took me along.

We went from one used-parts store to another, farther and farther into the unendingness of greater L.A. Finally we got to a place he had heard about but had never been to before. The sign above the sheet-iron fence along the road said PICK YOUR PART, with the subheading "The world's largest self-service auto recycler." A smiling octopus on the sign held various automotive tools in its legs. My brother-in-law comes from Louisiana, and has a connoisseur's appreciation of L.A. He told me that Pick Your Part is famous among people who fix cars in L.A.

Pick Your Part is a fifty-four-acre lot containing junk cars of all makes and models. For a small admission fee people seeking car parts can go into the lot and explore; if they find the part they're looking for, they remove it themselves, present it at a window by the exit, pay a price usually less than a fifth of what a regular parts place would charge, and take it home. They can't try the part out in the parking lot, however; signs all over say you're not allowed to work on cars there.

Pick Your Part is in Sun Valley, in the northwestern reaches of the city. Some miles beyond it is Pacoima and the site on Foothill Boulevard where the police beat Rodney King. On the horizon to the east are low mountains covered with scrubby greenery that blooms yellow in the spring. To the west and south are the grayish silhouettes of the gravel heaps and towers and conveyors of a concrete company. We got in a long line of guys with hopeful expressions on their faces and socket wrenches in their hands, paid our one dollar apiece at the gate, and went in.

Before us the vast acreage of junk cars stretched on beneath a sky that was the hazy bluish-gray of a blank video screen. Pillars here and there indicated the kind of vehicle to be found in that particular district -- Ford, GMC, Toyota, and so forth. My brother-in-law headed off in the direction of the Ford pillar. I proceeded by the principle of the random walk, following aisles and rows vertically and horizontally until I was deep in the middle of the lot. I stopped by a car of a make I couldn't identify, which had a single bright-yellow cowboy boot sitting on its roof. Here in the middle of all these silent machines that had once made so much noise and smoke seemed to me the most peaceful place I had been in L.A. From where I stood I could see no other people. The occasional clinking of feet kicking parts on the concrete pavement was the only nearby sound. The cars, none with tires, sat on small steel pedestals supporting the axles at each corner. On the ground around each car was an arrested explosion of its parts, scattered on glistening stains of oil. The cars had been placed in rows facing each other, all with their hoods raised, like soldiers in a raggedy crossed-swords salute.

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