American Graffiti — Robb’s-Eye-View

November 4th, 2011

Teen mating ritual, circa 1960

American Graffiti

So we finished out the year in the manner described a few weeks back and then we graduated, and that’s when my dad did the one thing for which I will never forgive him: he made me come to LA at the beginning of summer rather than the end, which would have definitely been my plan. We had a big fight about it, I remember. I seldom took it to the wall with my dad; Mom was relegated to the screaming, meaningless teenage fights; but this time I argued as hard as I could with Dad but he was adamant. I considered running off into the forest and then sneaking back to the house after he left, but I couldn’t do it.

I guess he figured that I was okay unsupervised in winter, with school taking up most of my time I couldn’t get into too much mischief and as for weekends, well, we didn’t have enough time to build a vexing momentum. Besides, his pattern was; he’d show up every other weekend bearing bags of groceries, looking almost like a zookeeper coming to feed. He’d leave the vittles, check to make sure the house wasn’t burned down, exchange pleasantries, and take off.

But he didn’t want me running loose at the lake all summer figuring probably that I was planning to have massive parties (true, but how did he know?) get somebody pregnant (wellll…) in general with enough time on my hands to get myself in trouble.

So instead of the best summer of my life it was the worst; knowing nobody in LA, too late for any decent job, doing stupid stuff like selling encyclopedias and vacuum parts door to door in the sweltering heat, instead of a final, well planned blast at the lake. I cursed Dad every moment of my wanderings through dismal, hostile, radioactively hot neighborhoods… worst decision of his life.

From bliss to this

But before we depart for LA forever, I want to say a few words about the area’s Big City: Fresno, California.

It is impossible to discuss teen Fresno in the fifties without immediately referring to the film American Graffiti. That movie is the most accurate cultural snapshot I’ve ever seen. I’m probably more affected by it than by other cultural snapshots (like Barry Levinson’s Diner which I understand was as accurate, but it was about the other coast), because this was the one that I lived and, I’m here to tell you, Lucas got it right, he just condensed it a bit.

I was a combination of Kurt, the kid who left town to become a writer (few did leave), and Terry the Geek. Remember the shirt the geek wore in the movie? My mom used to make me variations of that shirt by the dozens. They always made you look like you were wearing a Baltic flag.

The practice celebrated in Graffiti was called ‘dragging the main’. Nobody ever explained it; you just knew how to play, a priori. Evenings and weekends, all the kids would get in their cars and ride up and down Blackstone Blvd. Always crowded and, on weekends, at a snail’s pace. The guys with especially tricked-out cars were the stars of the show. We used to get magazines that would show you endless variations of how to rearrange the chrome on, say a ’58 Impala and dragging the main was where you showed off your work. Bondo was our lifeblood.

At the end of the appointed promenade was a restaurant called Stan’s Drive In. You almost always went in; just turning around and dragging some more was streng verboten and, frankly, not much fun. At Stan’s, on your order menu, was a request sheet that you also filled out. Your request was immediately phoned in by the waitress to the radio station KYNO which was broadcasting a show called ‘Stan’s Private Line’ to which absolutely every car radio was tuned.

.… the next song is Sea of Love, going out to the girls in the cherry metallic purple Oldsmobile from the boys in the white Corvette…’

… and on the next whirl around, you’d see the girls in the metallic purple Olds and the ice would be broken. Instead of an aloof stare, you’d get a Japanese schoolgirl titter and you were off and running.

And there was an amazing sound to it; every car, either a convertible or a sedan with windows open, blasting the same song. You can’t get that sound any other way. It comes from a hundred places at once; it gets closer and farther at the same time. It hangs in the air. Lucas definitely tried to capture it in the movie.

What a system! The radio station made money, Stan’s made a fortune, the kids were meeting each other and everybody played. It worked like a Swiss watch! Why not play? Stan had to be the P T Barnum of the San Joaquin Valley. American Graffiti was set in Modesto, a smaller town a few miles to the north of Fresno, and the restaurant was called Mel’s and, frankly, I didn’t see the radio wrinkle in the movie, but the dragging, the culture, the clothes, the pranks… American Graffiti caught it all.

Stan replicated his cash cow three times: in Fresno, Stockton and Sacramento. He didn’t even bother with Modesto or maybe Mel already had it. Stan’s oft repeated motto was ‘Up and down the line on highway ninety nine’. Lucas was two years younger than I was. The catchphrase for his movie was ‘Where were you in ’62?’

I left in 1960, so apparently it was still going on in ’62. It went on until the Beatles, the war and pot came along and changed everything.

15 Responses to “American Graffiti — Robb’s-Eye-View”

  1. EverettK Says:

    I just remember ‘dragging,’ riding along a couple of times with my older brothers (how uncool was that?) in the nearby “big town.” I’ve always thought American Graffiti seemed pretty accurate to what I remember of the times and what I’ve seen elsewhere. In my mind, Lucas hit his peak VERY early, and has just gone downhill since. Unfortunate, but it happens sometimes.

  2. Tom Logan Says:

    I remember those days. In Washington, D.C., it was cruising the Hot Shoppe restaurants, pulling into the TeleTrays and ordering Mighty Mos, onion rings and milkshakes. A place we can never go back to except in our heads. Thanks for triggering such wonderful recollections, Rob.

  3. Suzanna Says:

    Hi, Robb

    While the whole car culture thing surpassed me completely I can relate to your struggle for independence. My independence came a little sooner. It was the summer before 10th grade, and it’s somewhat debatable whether or not I did the right thing. Somehow I managed to convince my mom that I would be fine living in California with my older sister when they relocated to Texas. I’m not sorry I stayed in California but it must have been a large dose of very good luck that kept me free from experiencing any major personal disasters. There were plenty of close calls.

    Your dad sounds like he had your best interests at heart and was pretty cool for letting you stay by yourself at the lake to finish up your school year. Not only that but he brought you groceries! What a guy!

    Thanks, Robb. Will there be more stories to come. This is pretty fun.

  4. Sharai Says:

    Thanks again Robb, you have a very familiar way of writing that allows all of us to relate through our immortal teen age selves!

    Tim, where were you in ’60-’62? Cruising San Fernando?

  5. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I loved this because it was so fresh and different from what I lived (NYC). We hung out by the candy store, and later we would go into Manhattan and pretend we were so cool. Greenwich Village was very seductive. All those artists, and beatniks (:)). Of course, as I’ve said here before, and I no idea what I had until I got older and moved away. You tell good stories; I hope there are more to come.

  6. Larissa Says:

    Wow. So, I grew up in a very different era than all of that–but I did grow up in a small town and we did cruise up and down the main street in my town just lookin’ to get either in trouble or meet up with other cruisers. We weren’t showing off our cool cars-we were “Socially Networking”, however, the way that it was meant to be done (c: I would much rather have been doing all of that in California instead of at the time podunk Littleton Colorado. All the cool stuff was for all those 21+ kids or downtown…what a great snapshot!

  7. Robb Royer Says:

    John – yeah, but what a peak. I never thought of Lucas as much of a writer but as an astute cultural observer he was pretty good.
    Tom – I don’t know much about East coast cruising. I know it went on some on Van Nuys boulevard – and we’ll leave it to Tim to reveal if he participated when he was a San Fernando valley high schooler – but we San Joaquin Valley kids egotistically felt we had perfected it as an art form and took ‘Graffiti’ as our proof.
    Suz – sorry you missed your cruising phase but we all managed to get through
    our rites of passage one way or another. There’s something about having a theme movie that puts a cherry on it.
    Sharai – I add my voice to yours to have Tim check in. He never struck me as a car guy but you never know.
    Lil – there’ve been so many ‘theme movies’ about NY coming of age I half feel I had that childhood too. You’ll have to enlighten us on how accurate they were.

  8. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    Hi Robb-
    You would be very bored with my coming of age tales. While there was stuff going on, I just went to school, and partied a little with my friends. School was neat because the city was my campus, and we were “encouraged” to use the museums, theaters, and movie house as our sources. I have a claim to one degree of separation. i went to school with Simon and Garfunkel, who would sing in the cafeteria, and partake of interesting substances, it was said. This was 1960, and it was all new to me. Very middle class, very sheltered, mostly.

  9. Robb Royer Says:

    Lil

    Yeaaaah saaaay… can you pitch Paul a song?

  10. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I think your bona fides would be a lot better than mine…

  11. DeAnn Says:

    Were it teen mating riturals of today, all the cars would be in wreck becaus all the teens were texting each other. Other than that, what’s changed?

  12. Robb Royer Says:

    DeAnn

    Well, you wouldn’t need Stan’s Private line any more, that’s for sure.

  13. Mark Groesbeck Says:

    Fantastic post. The info. on Stan’s Private Line is fascinating. I currently live in Clovis, Fresno’s next door neighbor and I run a blog dedicated to George Lucas’ second feature, American Graffiti, (see the website address listed with this reply) I really enjoyed reading your comparisons between the action in the movie and that which is now part of Fresno’s history. You mentioned Stans drive-in. I’m wondering if you or anyone out there remembers the address or at least the street corner the eatery occupied in Fresno? I’ve heard conflicting things. I’ve spoken with a veteran of Fresno, Aggie Rodgers, who was the costume designer for “Graffiti.” She recalls Stans being on the corner of Shields & Blackstone, yet I’ve heard from others it was located on Sacramento & Broadway Ave. I know it was a long time ago but I’m hoping someone can recall the actual location and settle the conflicting information that I have. Thanks! -Mark

  14. robb royer Says:

    Mark

    I don’t remember the exact location, but I’d be willing to bet it was on Blackstone. That’s where all the dragging was and Stan’s was stationed right where the street became too boring or too industrial and you would have wanted to turn around anyway. Made it easy to swing in for a coke (pre sixties coke: the drink) and head back into the action.

  15. Timothy Hallinan - The Blog Cabin Says:

    […] version of  “American Graffiti.”  If you want to refresh your memory, that post is here, and it’s worth re-reading.  And here we are with the next […]

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