Adventures of the RED WRTR

When You Could Drive Behind the HOLLYWOOD Sign

Nothing more than your car is a status symbol in Hollywood. No one asks what you do, or what are you wearing, as much as “What kind of car do you drive?” With this column, I’ll be reminiscing about my life here since 1985, and I hope to reveal some fascinating insights about this magical place called Hollywood.

Only a week after moving to California I knew I’d have to have a convertible — and it’d have to be red. No matter what make or what size, I just couldn’t bear driving the L.A. freeways any longer in a pantyhose colored Chevette.
As soon as I spotted it in the Encino showroom, I knew the fiery Renault Alliance with the beige rag top was mine. “It’s a super car, babe, it’s loaded, stacked, the last one, it’s really cool,” hyped salesman, Curt Young. I still have young Curt’s card pinned to my bulletin board nearby desk and every once in a while I find myself taking it off to throw away, but I always end up sticking it back on the board again, making sure I pierce a new hole in it — like a voodoo doll.
You see, buying that first car set a trend I’ll never be able to break as long as I live here. I kicked off my L.A. life with a red convertible and nifty personalized plates, and now I’m locked to the concept. In five years, I’ve owned four red convertibles. But, I have bad car karma.
Driving off the lot with Red Car #1, I headed straight for my friend Stacy’s one-room sliding-glass-door suite in Marina Del Rey. She lived in a neighborhood of nautically named streets and it’s impossible to find a space near her street, Outrigger, and it would’ve lost the impact to have to walk all the way from Windjammer or Bilge. So, I laid on the horn until she came out to yell at the jerk who was honking. Stacy agreed to go for a spin. She’s the only photographer and the only redhead I knew at that time in California, and I popped my Randy Newman tape into the AM/FM four-speaker adjustable cassette player and blasted “Rolling down Imperial Highway, big nasty red-head at my side . . . .” By the time we both joined in singing our love for L.A., we were heading for the Hollywood sign trying to turn onto as many roads named in Randy’s song as we could. Stacy clicked pictures along the way.
Later, when I picked up the 5-by-7 blow-ups at the one-hour photo store, I flushed when I saw that the negative was flopped and above my car the famous sign very plainly read “DOOWYLLOH.” After chewing out the cashier — who thought the error was “really rad” — I kept the prints. (A few envious friends have since tried to recreate the shot from the impossible angle behind the nine 50-foot sheets of corrugated aluminum.)
I love my car. It replaces all my paternal pangs since reaching that thirtysomething age. My car is something that can make me fit in. It’s not embarrassing to ride in — like my best friend’s Charlie’s Angels van — and it doesn’t get taken to the back of the lot when it’s valet parked. I drive it topless even on heavy sweater nights, flipping down the top, rolling up the windows and cranking on the heater, thinking to myself that the heat from my car will seep out into the cool air and eventually warm up the world.
I usually tell a story of half-truths about how I came up with my genuine California vanity plate: R-E-D (space) W-R-T-R. In the quick-pitch version, I say: “I was late for an interview with Clayton Moore, the actor from the Lone Ranger of course, and I was late because I was just driving my new car off the lot and I had all those financing papers to sign, you know, and I met him out at the Spahn Ranch by the Lone Ranger Rock — the big rock at the beginning of each show where he rears up on his white horse and shouts ‘Hi Yo, Silver,’ and by the way he corrected me that it’s ‘Hi Yo,’ not ‘Hi Ho’ — and he’s the one who suggested ‘Red Writer’ named after his friend Wild Bill Elliott who did the Western hero serial ‘Red Ryder’ when they both had hit radio shows based on their characters.”
It’s true that Clayton Moore is the first celebrity in Los Angeles I’ve ever interviewed, and it’s true that I drove my brand-new car out to where he stood at the famous rock. But I got there late because my red-hot new car had overheated. And then, when I pulled out my notepad to interview him, the papers flew out of my hands and blew into the canyon below.
He said, “You know, you remind me of this clumsy guy who played the Western hero named Red Ryder, you ever hear of him? He was on the radio the same time I was. Good friend. Can’t recall his name — . You know son, you don’t have a license plate on that car. Since it’s red, call it Red Ryder.”
Since I’m a writer, I used the variation of it. Years later, at a Western event at the Autry Museum, I reminded the Lone Ranger of the episode, and he only vaguely recalled it, saying, “I’m not usually in the business of naming license plates for strangers.”
RED WRTER stuck, and for years I’ve been accused of writing for Communist magazines. Also for years, I’ve passed another red convertible with a woman waving at me pointing out her RD WRITR plates. We’ve always been on a freeway or turning opposite directions on Ventura Boulevard, but a few times we’ve left notes on each other’s car. Finally only a few weeks ago, I met her, another writer, and she says she’s also been accused of writing for Communist magazines.
I’ve fallen into the car-status trap too quickly. I once wanted heads to turn along Hollywood Boulevard and tourists to point at me and think I was somebody. Instead, my car stalls a lot. Cops pull me over more, and statistics show that a red colored car gets in accidents more.
Red Car #1 was the same orange red as smoggy sunsets seen from the Griffith Observatory. Eventually, it also blew the same color from its exhaust. I’ve had frat boys help me push it to a garage in Westwood. A woman in a pickup truck nudged me down the hill off Mulholland Drive — it should have been off the edge.
After seven starters, three axles, four water pumps, a timing belt, an idle pulley, two catalytic converters, a speed sensor, five vacuum hoses, two entire transmissions, a broken crankshaft, a leaky gasket, three alternators, two sets of brakes, a new radiator and about $9,000 in covered warranty repairs in less than 40,000 miles, I found another convertible, It has to be red to match my license plate and my great story.
I bought an ’83 Ford Mustang with double the miles for $4,000 from a slick guy named J.J. who told me stories about movie deals he is putting together. When I went to DMV with the car, I was handed a bill of $875 for lapsed registration fees, parking tickets and back fines that I was now responsible for paying if I wanted to get the car registered. I took J.J. to small claims court. A woman from “People’s Court” called to ask if Judge Wapner could preside over the issue and I auditioned for three producers who seemed to like the way I told my story, but J.J. appeared too sleazy. I won $2,500 in real court the same week Zsa Zsa was appearing in Beverly Hills court and J.J. Johnson screamed at me, “You ain’t getting a dime from me.” He was right, he has since disappeared.
I loved Red Car #2. It had a deeper red than the Renault, the kind of red like when your nose bleeds into a tissue. During particularly obnoxious freeway tie-ups, I loved leaning back in my Mustang to look around at others reading the paper, talking on their car phones, shaving with an electric razor, flossing their teeth, painting their nails — finding so many more productive things to do than plucking away at their nostrils. I often found myself jamming to a Beach Boys tune extolling the virtues of California.
When traffic really got bad, I’d pull out a bottle of soap bubbles and blow them into the yellow sky. Little children reached out their windows to try to land one in their hands, a few people put down their newspapers to gaze at the fragile opaque bubbles until they exploded into nothingness. Sometimes, a faint smile flashed across a tight impatient face and I’d feel vindicated for spending $2.89 for a bottle of soapy water.
One morning during an intense backup on the San Diego Freeway, I pulled out my bottle and let some warm Santa Anas whisk bubbles among my fellow delayed drivers. A husky man in a gray suit with slicked back hair in a black Jaguar idling two cars behind me stormed over from the number four lane.
“Your bubble landed on my car,” he snarled.
“Oh, gee, I’m sorry, I don’t have that much control over the wind this morning,” I smiled.
“I just spent $18 bucks on a car wash,” he fumed.
Eighteen dollars! I’m winded at the thought. “Sounds like they overcharged you,” is all I could muster.
“What are you going to do about it?”
“What do you want me to do about it, lick it off your hood?”
“Blowing soap bubbles on the freeway is not only juvenile, but dangerous. Watch it, buddy.”
He walked away, and I stewed. When the traffic got moving again and his lane inched past mine I shouted, “Black Jags are so cliché.” Later I found that blowing bubbles on the freeway is, in fact, against the law.
One day, I parked my Mustang on the fourth level of a parking garage when I visited my friend Andy in the hospital. While we talked, I could hear at least three sets of sirens coming in and Andy remarked there must’ve been a big accident somewhere. When I headed for the parking garage, I could see lots of smoke and two fire engines on the fourth level. I saw them extinguishing my car. The front hood bubbled like melted candlewax, the roof had a big round stain like a gigantic cigarette burn and most of the interior looked like the inside of an ashtray. I laughed hysterically.
A firemen said a leaky gas line caught fire. My insurance company told me to have it towed. I told them I might as well scoop it up and put it in my pocket. But they fixed it, and it drove like new — except it shook when I got above 50. I bought another Mustang, this one, an ’85. It had to be red, and it had to be a convertible.
After only three months in Red Car #3 when my mother, sister and brother-in-law visited me for the first time, I had my first car accident. We had gone whale watching and I overdosed on motion sickness pills. On the way home, my brother-in-law remarked that he’d help me wash the car. I didn’t have the top down, and I didn’t crack a window, and less than a mile from where I live, I nodded off to sleep at a streetlight and plowed into the back of a brand new jeep right in front of the French Marketplace.
Despite all the screaming, smoke and shattered glass, I stayed pretty calm. My sister was bleeding from a cut under her eye and a guy ran from the cafe with a wet towel and warned her not to smear her mascara. The jeep owner wasn’t too pleased, but my car was the one that was crunched up like an accordion. As they towed it away I clicked my tongue as I saw the hood bent in half and sticking straight up in the air. I wondered what my insurance company would say about replacing a red Mustang car hood for the second time so soon. They fixed it again, and I promptly sold it.
The next car had to be a convertible again, but I loved the opaque blue on the all-American Chrysler LeBaron. I lamented for weeks about getting rid of the scratched, burned and bent RED WRTR plates. I decided my stories were too good. I bought a brand-new red convertible, my dream car.
Now, I detour my drives past the mirrored buildings on Wilshire Boulevard just so I can see myself in it. I have a car cover, bought a Club (no imitation) for the steering wheel and use three sets of floor mats at the same time. I’m not sure if I fit in the L.A. scene any more than before, though. The gals turn their noses up at the materialism, the guys want to know how big the engine is.
The first spring I owned the car I took it to L.A.’s annual “Blessing of the cars” and I had a priest sprinkle holy water on it. Perhaps, I thought, it would improve my car karma. It didn’t. Since I’ve moved to my new security-patrolled neighborhood, my car roof was slashed into tatters and my window was smashed. If I keep my car unlocked, it’s not unusual to find a homeless person napping inside. And I cried the first time someone opened their car door into mine in the Ralph’s lot.
My friends give me lectures about driving when I’m tired and I swore I’d never do it again after that eye-opening accident. But, still late at night when I’m in the car, or sometimes during that low bio-rhythm cycle at three in the afternoon, my eyelids get heavy and my head droops forward. No amount of face-slapping or headshaking or radio-blasting snaps me out of it. Slowly plucking the hairs out of my chest one-by-one seems to work for a while.
I don’t mind knowing that I’ll probably die in my car, a lot of people do. But I know when they investigate the accident scene I’ll probably have the windows rolled up and the top turned down and the heater cranked up all the way. I’ll be in my convertible, and it’ll be red, and it’ll have personalized plates. And I’ll look cool.

You can reach Mike at