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.

None of the cars were really old. They seemed to be of the age of cultural artifacts that we have just recently forgotten, like the rock group Toto. Many had once had bright paint jobs, but now they were all the basic color of cars, which is the color of oil. As I stood there daydreaming, suddenly a guy popped out from somewhere. He had on a muscle shirt and a U.S. Post Office baseball cap. "I need a clutch fan on a three-oh-one engine," he said. "Have you seen any three-oh-ones around?" I didn't know what he was talking about, but I said I hadn't. Then, to account for myself, I said I was looking for a rearview mirror from an '83 Ford. "Fords are over there," he said, gesturing vaguely. I began walking in that direction. Farther along the row I came upon a guy standing legs astraddle in a car's engine cavity, pushing down with all his weight on the handle of a big pipe wrench.

Unexpectedly, I emerged into a wider aisle, a kind of thoroughfare where forklift trucks came and went. Some of the forklifts were carrying cars that had been so long in the lot that almost nothing remained of them but body and frame; the empty shells of their sides wobbled and shivered as they passed by. I followed the aisle to an open piece of ground at the edge of the lot where the forklifts were taking the cars. Here an even bigger forklift (a machine caled an Aljon, I later learned) awaited them. Beneath the tines of its fork the Aljon had two pincers making a claw about four feet long. When a car was deposited before it, the Aljon grabbed a bumper with the pincers, yanked it off, and tossed it onto a pile of bumpers. Then it did the same to the other bumper. Next the Aljon flipped the hood from the engine (if there still was a hood) with its fork, opened the pincer claw wide, and lowered it into the engine housing as the fork smashed and flattened the windshield and roof. Then the claw seized the engine block and lifted, shaking and worrying it until with a grinding giving-way it came free, trailing cables and wires. The Aljon then tossed the engine block onto a small mountain of engine blocks nearby, and a smaller forklift took the car's last remains to a crusher across the way.

Through the cracked and blue-tinted window of the Aljon I could see its operator -- sunglasses, baseball cap, straggly blond hair, mouth in a plumb-bob horizontal line. With several control levers at the fingers of each hand he made the Aljon move without lurch or stutter, taking out the engine blocks as casually as if he were shucking peanuts. In a telepathic moment I realized that the Aljon operator was having a wonderful time. I watched him, mesmerized. When you watch like that, often other people will show up to watch with you; soon I noticed that a stocky guy in sunglasses and a baggy blue T-shirt was next to me. He and I got to talking. He told me that his name was Ernesto and that he was looking for a rearview mirror too -- a left-side mirror from an '86 Toyota. On the only '86 Toyota he had found so far, the left-side mirror was already gone, but he had taken a long, narrow piece of curved plastic with holes in it, which he said went to a door molding.

He said, "I came to L.A. from El Salvador in 1989, and when I was first here I bought a '71 Toyota Celica. It was a good car but after three or four years it didn't have enough power to go on the freeway. I was living in East L.A., and I left it on the street until I get money to fix it. I got one ticket, I got another ticket, and my brother-in-law told me if I want to fix it, pay the tickets -- otherwise the city will tow the car away. So I left it and didn't pay the tickets and the city took it. A few months after that I was in this lot with my brother-in-law looking for a part, and my brother-in-law called to me, 'Ernesto! Come here!' There was my car -- I recognized it because it had a hole in the side where we had fixed it and I had put my initials on the patch. I was very sad to see my car here. I had a lot of memories in that car, and now it was so destroyed. When we got home, my brother-in-law was making fun of me, telling everybody how sad I was about my car."

Ernesto stood watching the Aljon for a while in silence. Then he said, "You love your car, you take care of him, you wash him, you wax him. Then you see him in the jaws of a monster like that ... "

PROBABLY everyone here was with his brother-in-law. I said good-bye to Ernesto and went looking for mine, again proceeding randomly, dawdling through the rows of cars. Scattered inside them were the kinds of things people leave in cars -- owner's manuals, parking stubs, expired insurance policies in clear-plastic packets, soda cans and bottles, fast-food containers, books of car-wash coupons. Often when you give someone a ride home, and she opens the passenger-side door to get in, there is a bunch of stuff on the front seat; what you say then, almost always, is "Oh, just throw that stuff in the back." In the backs of these cars was a great miscellany of items about which that had no doubt once been said, and which would now remain in the back forevermore.

A white-plastic dustpan and a pack of Eve cigarettes (Buick Monte Carlo); a water-damaged copy of Macroeconomics, by Robert J. Gordon (another Monte Carlo); a tube of Eucerin moisturizing cream (Chevy Citation); an invitation to a Thanksgiving Free Turkey Lunch at the Victory Outreach Church in El Sereno, California (Datsun 200 SX); a piece of kid's artwork signed "Khadija" (Volkswagen Rabbit); Polaroid snapshots of the same woman in different hairstyles (Toyota Celica GT); a booklet called "Handbook of Rights for Mental Health Patients" (two-tone Chevy Malibu Classic) -- all these the crusher would one day claim. I reached through the Malibu's missing rear window and took out the mental-health handbook and read it awhile. Then, afraid of spirits, I put it back. Mixed in among the relics were cans of oil treatment, gasoline additive, radiator sealant, and other old-age medicines for cars. Some of the back seats were such a jumble of homely intimacy and automotive chaos that I had to look away.

Finally, at the distant end of a wider aisle I saw my brother-in-law. He is a big man, easy to see. He can fix anything, from a computer to a carburetor to a massive outdoor sound system; playing one of the witches in Macbeth, as he did recently, he was funny and deeply scary at the same time. His wife says he gets upset once in a while, but I have never seen him in anything but a sunny mood. He had not found the rearview mirror but didn't seem to mind. He had come across a tire tool that he thought he could use. We got in a line of oily guys at a window by the exit to pay for it. The guy in front of us was wheeling an assortment of parts in a baby stroller. The guy behind us had the sides of his head shaved bare and his top hair in a long ponytail flowing down his back, and studs and rings in different parts of his body. His arms were oil past the elbows, and he cradled a power-steering pump and hose (I asked) in his hands. He and a studded companion were beaming in satisfaction. My brother-in-law and I paid for the tire tool, and then drove on various freeways and other roads to an open-air stand where we got Mexican food so hot it tanned my tongue like boot leather. I considered this an excellent day in L.A.

Ian Frazier is the author of (1994) and (1996). He is at work on a book about the Pine Ridge Indian reservation, in South Dakota.

Illustration by Edel Rodriguez

The Atlantic Monthly; March 1999; Pick Your Part; Volume 283, No. 3; pages 24-26.