NITROUS, CARS AND BARS

Posted: October 25, 2006 in The Roper Files

file 23 Magazine special report by Brian Roper

FRIDAY OCTOBER 6th…6AM…”Everyone be ready at 5!” Words to live by. I’m sitting in my living room guzzling coffee. Brandon doesn’t answer the phone; I get our drivers’ answering machine as well. OK. Have another cup of joe. I’m not entirely sure what we’re doing anyway. file 23 Magazine editor/Webmeister Brandon has a friend, Ed Miller in Austin with a vintage nitrous racing car. He and a coalition of gearheads are putting on a 2-day show of vintage pre-1964 exhibition cars.

We have been commissioned to be the film crew to document it when they fire up the noisy nitrous-fueled engines on Congress Avenue outside of the Continental Club on Friday night as a one time event. This will be followed Saturday by a classic custom car rally and drag race at a racetrack in Temple, Texas. I have zero experience working as a film crew member; I don’t even own a camcorder nor know how to operate one. This should be interesting enough.

Brandon and our friend Matt have been up until one in the morning making our “CREW MEMBER” t-shirts unbeknownst to myself, and this is why they are ignoring my phone calls. They have also borrowed a number of camcorders and other various toys. I have my trusty Konica 35mm still camera and two tripods to contribute. Hey, look at us; we’re a film crew!


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7AM-NOON…We’re running behind, but I’m not worried about it. The only thing open in Austin before noon is the coffee shops and cafes anyhow. Nothing happens in Austin before dark; I’m more worried about us having to stand around with our thumbs up our asses all day in Austin. I have a grand total of $118 on me for the whole weekend and I can spend that in five minutes even here in sleepy Fort Worth. Gloomy pictures of my finances being whittled away one over-priced cup of coffee at a time swim in my head. There will be no visits to Austin Books or Cheapo Discs this trip.

After picking up our “security” JR, we cruise onto the eastbound lane of I-30 and then on to the dreaded southbound I-35. Of course our first rest stop is a Starbucks in Waco. We buy the cheapest smallest two-dollar cups of coffee on the menu and go sit outside. There are cute girls everywhere; I don’t regret this stop a bit.

Then it’s back to I-35. JR is from Brooklyn and has never seen this much nothing before; he stares out the window at the wastelands of Central Texas. As we approach Georgetown, we brace for the traffic to halt as it did on my last two visits, but it doesn’t happen. It’s OU weekend and everyone’s in Dallas; what luck! We cruise effortlessly and non-stop like kings of the road into Austin.

file 23 Magazine has arrived ! We play cellphone-tag with Ed Miller and find his house in south Austin. Ed is busy getting the trailer ready for his way-too-cool fifty-year-old nitrous car as well as having to make numerous phone calls. He doesn’t have a lot of spare time to entertain us, but takes a few minutes to show us a nearby Thai restaurant (Hao-Hao) with a five-dollar lunch menu.

2PM-2AM… Stuffed and happy, we then take off in search of Austins’ cheapest motel. After a couple of tries, we settle for one I quickly re-christen The Roach Motel. A candy machine in the lobby sells condoms. A sign on the pool gate declares the pool closed by the Austin Health Department. A homeless guy is squatting outside one room bathing his face and hands in the condensation dripping from the air conditioner. Half the switches in the stinky room don’t work. Even if I had an ultra-violet light with me, I’d be afraid to turn it on in this place. file 23 Magazine quality standards all the way!

No matter; it’s a place for the three S’s of shit, shower and sleep. That having been accomplished, we take off in search of the Continental Club to scout out the place and set up our stuff. We find it and there are a few vintage roadsters already out front. The bouncer working the door has a beard and like all good pseudo-white-trash is covered in tattoos and dressed in 1950’s greaser gear, but he’s no taller than me. He goes out of character when we explain why we’re barging in with cameras and turns out to be quite helpful, showing us where to find electrical outlets etc.

The club owner Steve graciously gives us the run of the place. We stand around out front in our “film crew” t-shirts and watch the vintage cars arrive one by one, some driven and others painstakingly unloaded off of trailers. The gearheads who do these shows tend to be older guys in their 50’s and 60’s with graying hair who like their Hawaiian shirts. The cars’ owners are not hard to spot. They sit in folding chairs and eye us with suspicion as I photograph their beautifully restored cars.

There is a tattoo studio next to the club; the colorful employees file out to inspect the cars as well. A girl with Bozo The Clown red hair, multiple piercings and not much canvass left to tattoo loiters around posing in her black leather pants. Sorry, honey. I’m here to photograph the cars, not your been-around-the-block ass.

I’m amazed at how well our ruse has worked so far. No one questions our credentials as a film crew.

As darkness nears, the parking spaces in front of the Continental Club are all slowly filling with vintage cars. The crowd that gathers is heavily into the entire VonDutch look. Work boots, rolled-up jeans legs, the duck-butt hairdos. Sunglasses after dark. Chunky Betty Page clones. I couldn’t be more out of place, but I’m loving it. Austin still has retained that wonderful late 70’s punk rock ethic where even weirdos like me somehow fit in; the crowd nobody wanted.

Unlike the stuck-up girls in Fort Worth, the women in Austin smile and actually talk to me. Too cool !

Matt gives me a quickie course on how to operate a JVC camcorder as we lose sunlight and my 35mm camera becomes useless. On a side street next to the club Ed Miller has parked his racer and is getting ready to fire it up. I position myself on a fire escape overlooking the crowd.

The engine roars, flames shoot from the pipes and the crowd roars in approval. Through the viewfinder I can’t see shit, so I scurry down the shaky steel fire escape and move to the front bumper of Eds’ car. I stand taping just a few feet away from the flaming pipes and then he kills the engine. The crowd cheers.

It’s all over in a matter of seconds. I have no idea if my footage is any good. Success?

Outside the Continental Club some incredibly obese black guy and his family have set up a barbeque grill and are hawking sandwiches to the drunken crowd. Smoke from the grill drifts in contrast against the streetlight. A blues band wails away inside the club. I look around at the crowd on the street and tell JR it doesn’t get much more Austin than this.

Brandon and Matt have been walking around with their own camcorders. Despite our original plan of using walkie-talkies (overkill, we decided) we have seen only fleeting glimpses of each other. We adjourn across the street to a Mexican restaurant whose Spanish name translates roughly into “the sun and the moon” and the four of us immediately fall in love with a too-cute waitress named Stacie.

She sees our shirts and wants to know if we’re with the car club across the street. Our ruse still works; she seems impressed enough with us.

Regretfully we return to the Roach Motel.

Fortunately the homeless guy has moved on. We hook up the JVC to a monitor and watch my brief footage outside the club. The image is dark, but the flames of Eds’ car can be seen. Whenever someone takes a photo, his Anton LaVey/GG Allin-ish face is visable for a split second inside the car. We find the season premier episode of South Park on the motel cable and turn off the JVC; enough damn cars! We drift off to an uneasy sleep. I’ve been drinking coffee all day long and am still feeling it. I lay in bed hoping nothing crawls on me and attempt to sleep while listening to a symphony of loud farts and even louder snoring.

SATURDAY…OCTOBER 7th…I awake pre-dawn. Everyone else is still snoring like the Three Stooges, but Brandon gets up soon after.

We go outside and sit by the pool while he smokes a cigarette. We stare at an actual still-moving I-35 in amazement. As daylight breaks, the sky is seriously overcast; is it going to rain? Spotting a Shell sign down the road, we walk down the heavily-littered access road for coffee.

Even though we are on the slummy high-crime east side of I-35 it’s still early. All the low-lifes are still asleep. We see no one nor encounter anyone on the way back. We resume our place by the pool and are sitting there drinking coffee and talking when a bleary-eyed Matt appears around the corner.

The three of us attempt to formulate a plan of action. The car rally is in Temple, Texas but none of us have a clue as to where it really is.

Suddenly a Hispanic family comes stomping noisily down the stairs next to the pool carrying their bags. Mamasita is giving Papa an ear-full. “That focking room was focking feelthy and crawling with bugs and it smelled like sheet…etc…” Papa gives the three of us the most forlorn Al Bundy look I’ve ever seen a Mexican give in my life as they trudge to their car. Everyone else we see emerging from their rooms looks equally pissed.

To hell with this cheery crowd; we’ve seen enough.

We return to the room, awaken JR and quickly check out of the Roach Motel. Burning rubber from the parking lot, Matts’ Jetta heads north on I-35 towards Temple. Steve from the Continental Club has given us a cool silkscreen for the show that is sadly minus the directions to the racetrack.

We find Temple easily enough an hour later and stop at a Shell station for gas and directions. All of us are tired and hungry. I’m several cups of coffee behind my minimal daily requirement. And not only did the clouds go away, the sun has broken through the clouds with a vengence. I’m guzzling water and God knows what else from the less-than-sanitary file 23 Magazine Igloo cooler while Matt gets directions from the Shell clerk.

A few minutes later, we’re going down the road the clerk told us to go when we spot a purple vintage roadster with what at first appeared to be a single occupant going down the road. Assuming he’s going to the same place, we follow him for miles.

We indulge in “Guy Talk”, admiring the classic auto, it’s lush purple paint job etc. when a womans’ head suddenly appears in the passenger seat. Hey now… WHAT was going on here?

Just polishing the old stick-shift with someones’ lipstick, perhaps?

Driving over a bridge, we spot a grandstand and the starting line for the dragstrip on our right. Fatigue takes a temporary backseat; we’re here! Incredibly, the woman working the box office seems to have never heard of the world-renown file 23 Magazine, Ed Miller or Steve the clubowner who is also one of the main promoters of this particular event but she lets us in for free anyway.

All right! We’re not just any carful of dweebs; we’re dweebs with a Website.

The power of the Internet just saved us $40!

We park as far away from everyone else as possible under a shady tree and begin unloading equipment. Lugging our equipment across the dusty parking lot, I set up two tripods next to the racetrack. One has the JVC camcorder, the other has my Konica 35mm mounted on it. As the loud noisy racecars zoom past just yards away,

I think about Jimmy Stewart and how he got his broken leg in REAR WINDOW.

I quickly develop a system. As I hear the cars peeling out down the track, I reach over and turn on the JVC and then walk a couple of steps away and attempt to catch the cars in the viewfinder of my still camera. When they pass, I turn them both off to conserve battery strength. After shooting up two rolls of 35mm, I started getting dizzy from the sun and go looking for Matt and Brandon who are at the starting line shooting the cars burning rubber. The grandstands are shaded by several large trees; this makes a lot more sense.

Some guy who looks like a skinhead with the words “REDNECK MECHANIC” on his t-shirt sits next to me. I try to avoid eye contact with him, but he sees our shirts and our cameras and starts asking questions. He seems genuinely impressed that we have driven all the way from Fort Worth to do our shoot here and tells us he’s a local but he’s in the Army and just here temporarily on leave from Iraq.

He informs me that the Temple Academy Dragway has been there since the 50’s.

So he’s not a skinhead, cool! And furthermore, I actually like this guy.

I sincerely hope he makes it back alive and well and in one piece from his tour of duty. As we go through the afternoon, this sort of thing becomes an oft-repeated experience. I get absolutely zero attitude from ANY of these people even though I have little in common with most of them.

But these are some of the most real people I’ve ever met in my 48 years. There is a complete lack of pretense with every single solitary soul here; not even the guys who are driving cars with a minimum of 50 grand tied up in them.

And if anybody would have the right to attitude, it would be them. But there’s none.

I’m getting no sense of superiority complexes from anyone in this crowd. They’re all so incredibly nice to me I can’t help but start wondering what their angle is after a while. Even though we are in the heart of Good Ole Boy County Texas, no one bats an eyelash at my pony-tail.

They’ve cheerfully let me photograph their cars. They answer the stupidest of my questions with the straightest of faces.

These are truly good, red-blooded salt-of-the-earth Americans. God bless ’em!

Eventually the broiling sun begins to burn through this love-feast. We trudge back to the Jetta and are soon back on I-35.

We race past the very familiar-looking landscape of completely identical strip malls, storage building distributors, and the uncountable number of RV Sales and Repair places we drove past the day before. JR has his nose against the glass the entire trip.

Being from Brooklyn the vast barren landscapes of Texas are new to him and old news to the rest of us.

We drive reluctantly back into Fort Worth. We’re all tired, hungry and grouchy. Upon returning, everything appears normal enough at the file 23 Magazine Command Post.

The lightbulb in my refrigerator is out.

There’s two unwanted bills in the mailbox.

My cats are standing around indignantly waiting for food.

I’ve only been gone 36 hours but there are 38 calls on my caller ID; not one person I call back answers the phone. Yeah, I’m back in Fort Worth all right.

BR October 2006

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