More Beautiful People: Wheels of Change Road Trip Comes to Benicia

Some of the world’s most beautiful, intelligent, and well-read people came to Bookshop Benicia in Benicia yesterday to celebrate the publication of my new book, Wheels of Change. What, you think I’m exaggerating? No way. Just scroll down these pictures to see some of the attendees, and I know you will agree.

JaclClaudia Albano, Leyna Bernstein, Jennifer Kaiser, Alison Barnsley

Marti & Joe FuccyMarti and Joe Fuccy

Max and DanMax Lateiner, Dan Crouch

LeongsEric and Colleen Leong with their sons Evan and Riley

Annette & LeynaAnnette Kaiser, Leyna Bernstein

KaseyKasey Kath

Elizabeth JacksElizabeth Jack

Darrell, Devon, HankDarrell Haber, his son Devin Jack-Haber, Hank Nelson

Gabe NelsonGabe Nelson

KatieKatie Lynn

Lance and VickyLance and Vicky Barnett

Brian and ClaudiaBrian Parker and Claudia Albano

Dale & ClaudiaClaudia and Dale Hagen

Sue HutchSue Hutchinson

Tom DalrympleTom Dalrymple

Mike and BeckyMike and Becky Maggart

TrybullsThree of the Trybull family: Jeff, Leslie and daughter Jennifer

Bob BurmanBob Berman

Barnsley-LeeAlison Barnsley, Vernon Lee and their children Aero and Cielo

Christine & JenniferChristine Mayall, the host of this fabulous soiree and the owner of Bookshop Benicia, and the most beautiful person of all, Jennifer Kaiser

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Where the Beautiful People Meet: Wheels of Change Launch Party

Wednesday night in San Francisco the California Historical Society hosted a launch party for Wheels of Change, attended by forty to fifty connoisseurs of cars, history, and fine literature. I gave a talk, and nobody in the audience threw anything at me so I guess I did okay. Afterward I signed books and chatted with people, which is always the best part of these book gatherings.

Below are photographs from the evening, picturing some of the people at the California Historical Society and Heyday Books who have worked behind the scenes to make this book happen. Please, allow me to introduce them to you:

McNeely and KN

That’s Bob McNeely and me. Bob, the executive vice president of Union Bank in San Diego, is a trustee and former president of the board of the California Historical Society. It was Bob’s idea to do a book about cars because he wanted the historical society to tackle a subject that everyone could relate to. Bob changed my life, and yet I had never met him until Wednesday night. As one might expect, he is a connoisseur of fine automobiles, particularly ones that are low, red, and fast.

Chet at CHS party

What, you think only guys in suits came to the party? Chet hails from a Hayward car club, and the ink on his arms depicts two of his deepest passions: cars and women. He’s not affiliated with CHS or Heyday, but he was out there representin’, and I appreciate it.

Malcolm and Kevin

This is Malcolm Margolin, making a point. Malcolm is the publisher and founder of Heyday Books, which has now published two of my books, Wheels of Change and The Golden Game. He is a friend and supporter of mine, as he is for countless other writers, editors, publishers, and booksellers. Every writer should be so lucky as to have Malcolm Margolin as his publisher.

David C. and Stephen B

Two executive directors of the California Historical Society, past and present: Stephen Becker, left, and David Crosson. Stephen was the head of CHS when Bob McNeely approached him with his idea to bring people together through cars. Stephen said, “Let’s do it.” After Stephen left the organization, David took over his spot, a position he currently holds, meanwhile taking over stewardship of Wheels of Change, which was then still a work in progress. Showing patience and faith, David helped steer the book to its completion. I owe them both a great deal.

George and Jeannine

Here are George Young and Jeannine Gendar, both of Heyday Books. George is a consultant and marketing and publishing guru with decades of experience in the business, and a former hot shoe guy to boot. (Vintage car slang: “Hot shoe” equals hot car.) Jeannine Gendar represents a rapidly disappearing species in the book industry: an editor who actually edits. She worked with me on Wheels of Change, helping turn it into a sleek and sassy Corvette of a book. At the risk of repeating myself, the same sentiment applies equally here: Every writer should be so lucky as to have Jeannine Gendar as his editor.

Lillian and Malcolm

Here, Malcolm hugs Lillian Fleer, the talented and hard-working events and outreach coordinator for Heyday. If you’d like to hear a lively and entertaining speaker who knows cars the way Grey Goose knows vodka, call her at 510-549-3564. I talk at bookstores, libraries, garden and house parties, book clubs, and Rotary and other civic groups. I’m also available for bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, christenings, baptisms, and bachelor parties. I’ll be there for you, and I’ll be representin’.

After rocking the house Thursday at the Oakland Rotary Club, I’m off to my next stops on the Wheels of Change Road Trip: Sunday, Nov. 8, 2 to 4 p.m. Signing. Bookshop Benicia, 856 Southampton Road, Benicia. 707-747-5155. And Tuesday, Nov. 10, 7 p.m. Talk and signing. Clayton Books, 5433 D Clayton Road, Clayton. 925-673-3325. Be there or be square!

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James Dean’s Last Drive: Correcting the Record

James Dean 75

“God,” said Mies van der Rohe, “is in the details.” If that’s true, then car people are very godly people because they love, and appreciate, and relish in, the details of automobiles. I experienced this yet again the other day when I received a letter from Steve Conlin, an ex-bartender at the Bar at the Hotel Bel-Air, one of Southern California’s most famous see-and-be-seen cocktail lounges.

As Steve says, he has “shaken cocktails for everyone from President Ronald Reagan to O.J. Simpson, from Clint Eastwood to Britney Spears.” Among his interests are automobiles and James Dean, seen above in a photo from Wheels of Change, probably at a race in Palm Springs in 1955, the year he died. Although the book is not out yet (but soon, very soon!), while perusing the Net Steve came across the excerpt from the book about Dean on my website. Enlivened by brisk detail, here is a piece of what he said:

Hi Kevin, Here’s wishing you great reviews and huge sales for your soon-to-be-released California auto book. I was browsing random Internet files when I came across an excerpt, your story on James Dean’s fatal drive in his 1955 Porsche Spyder 550.

As a California native and UCLA alumni you might be surprised to learn that the gas station fill-up photo you referred to as being taken at Blackwell’s Corner was actually snapped at the corner of Beverly Glen and Ventura Blvd., in Sherman Oaks. This was perhaps two blocks from Dean’s home at the time, and where he probably had a credit account. James Dean at gas station

You are correct that it was the last picture of Dean alive [the picture you see here], but it was snapped as his caravan headed from Hollywood through the San Fernando Valley for the drive north on Highway 99.  Photographer Sanford Roth had taken a few action shots of Dean driving along the Hollywood Freeway and along Ventura Blvd. just prior to arriving at the station.

The old station office still stands, although it has been converted to a funky flower shop. The extended roof over what was once the pump bay is newer, heavier, and the two slender support columns that can be seen in the James Dean picture have been strengthened to hold it aloft. Interestingly, the footprints of the three red 1950s gasoline pumps are still preserved on their original concrete island. The fill-up photo you mention was actually taken by Rolf Wutherich, Dean’s mechanic and passenger, with Dean’s own Leica camera. The sturdy Leica survived the accident and Dean’s family had the film developed shortly afterward.

Kevin, most of this information is based on the research of my friend Warren Beath, author of The Death of James Dean.  I can send along a few of my own photos of the station, if you’re interested. Best regards, Steve Conlin, Los Angeles

I thanked Steve for his letter and his desire to correct the record on some of the details about Dean’s fatal last drive. On his way to a race in Salinas, Dean smashed into another car near San Luis Obispo while speeding in that silver Porsche Spyder and was killed. The star of “East of Eden” and “Rebel Without a Cause” remains a top Hollywood earner despite being dead for more half a century. The Wall Street Journal said in a piece last week that Dean’s estate netted $5 million in licensing fees for his image.

Steve and I have exchanged e-mails, and perhaps we’ll meet at one of my speaking gigs for Wheels in southern California in November and December. Tomorrow I’m off to The Book Seller to talk about the history of cars in historic Grass Valley. My radio interview with Eric Tomb of “Booktown” of KVMR Radio aired on Monday; if you’d like to listen to it you can find it here on his blog. Just click on the link at the bottom that says “to hear this program.”

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Move over, Sarah Palin: Wheels of Change is Coming After You

Vallejo pic

Sarah Palin’s new book, Going Rogue, is coming out Nov. 17, nine days after the official publication date of Wheels of Change: From Zero to 600 M.P.H., The Amazing Story of California and the Automobile. Is the timing of the release of Palin’s instant bestseller a vast conspiracy to draw attention away from my book? How else can you explain the fact that I’ve been sitting patiently, and fruitlessly, by the phone all day waiting for Oprah to call but then I hear that she has booked Palin to be a guest on her show rather than me?

Oh well, Wheels of Change is not yet in bookstores but we’re starting to get a good buzz going, starting with a nice interview with me in the electronic newsletter of Heyday Books. Here is an excerpt from the interview:

Favorite place to eat?
Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank on Friday night hot rod nights. Cool customs and bikes pour in from all over, and the sounds of the engines make your ears hurt. It’s a slice of 1959 in 2009.

Proudest achievement?
Not killing myself when I was a stupid teen driver wheeling around the streets of Hayward and spinning donuts on the lawns of schools.

Scariest moment?
On a trip to Lake Tahoe two winters ago, we drove over Donner Summit on I-80 in the teeth of a howling snowstorm. It was a near-total white-out. We couldn’t see two feet in front of us. Thank God my wife was driving. I was a pathetic, sniveling wretch in the passenger seat.

First car you ever owned?
A British-made Austin America. It was possibly the worst car ever made. If I had to get somewhere fast or on time, it had a built-in electronic sensor that told the engine not to start.

An article about me and the book, entitled “Author Hopes Book Signings Are Standing Vrroom Only,” appeared in today’s Vallejo Times-Herald, promoting my upcoming appearances at Bookshop Benicia (Nov. 8) and the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum (Nov. 14). The photo above accompanied the article, with me sitting in the front seat of a ’57 convertible Cadillac, which is owned by a local car collector who stores it in a warehouse.

Close observers of my interview in Heyday and Rich Freedman’s article in the Times-Herald will notice that I made a similar joke in both forums about that truly awful Austin America. This is what happens to all authors (including Sarah Palin, when she starts hitting the circuit). You find a line, it works for you, and you keep using it. Author talks are sort of performance art, albeit a very, very minor form of it.

I also did an interview Thursday with Eric Tomb, the host of “Booktown” on KVBR-FM in Nevada City, promoting an Oct. 28 appearance at The Book Seller in Grass Valley. The interview was taped at 7:30 a.m., and I believe I did not make the Austin America joke although I’m not really sure because I was half-asleep and unclear about what I was saying most of the time. Eric, who has been the radio host of “Booktown” for ten years, covered for me though, and I was fascinated to hear about the technology he uses.

He called me (he was at his home in Nevada City) on Skype, and recorded the interview into his Mac with Audiohijack software. Using an audio-editing software program called Amadeus, he takes my ramblings and through the miracle of modern technology, turns them into brilliant and insightful analysis of the history of automobiles in California. As of this writing, the program had not yet aired, but when it does, you will be the first to know. Count on it!

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Bob Berndt: Counselor, Teacher, Friend

Bob Berndt

Bob Berndt, who had a generous nature, would not have approved of this piece. A private man, he did not like a fuss to be made about him, even in death. As far as I know, there was no memorial service after his death this past July. There may not have been even an obituary in the paper. These were likely according to his wishes.

Mr. Berndt was my high school counselor, teacher and friend, as he was for the many hundreds of other students he taught over the years. He was a social studies teacher at Hayward High. Throughout his life he loved and believed in education and after he retired, he volunteered as a docent at the Oakland Museum, among other activities. I believe he was in his early eighties when he died. A friend and former colleague of his at Hayward, Jeanne Lycett, sent me this note after I asked her about a service:

Yes, it really is too bad about Bob [she writes]. I had him over on the 4th of July for the past few years and it was great to reconnect with him.  Every Tuesday, Bob would meet for lunch with some of the other “Old Guys” (Dick Schultz, Georger Enderlin – 90 and still driving!, and Bob Giester.)  About twice a year, I was invited to join them and it was great fun. When Bob (Berndt) didn’t show up at last Tuesday’s lunch, Giester called and found that he had passed away that very day. As for an obit or a service of any kind, I haven’t heard anything. Bob was from Southern Illinois, and, I think, may have had a niece still in that area.  He also had absolutely NO religious beliefs, so I’m not sure if there will be anything.

As I recall Mr. Berndt and I never talked religion, but we certainly did talk about lots of other things. In my senior year at Hayward he arranged a special independent study class for me in which I was the sole student and he was the teacher, at least in name. He didn’t do much teaching in that class, and that was the point of it. The purpose of the class was for me to write, on my own, with only occasional guidance from him. The class was third period. When the bell rang and the rest of the students at Hayward gloomily trudged off to their teacher-led classes, I skipped off happily wherever I wished.

Sometimes I went to the library. More often I headed off to the parking lot to find Dave Costa or someone else who didn’t have class that period and who wanted to grab a bite at Quarter Pounder or create some other mischief off campus. Needless to say, I screwed around a lot in my independent study class. This would come as no shock to Mr. Berndt, who surely would have expected it. But I also read a lot during that time. And I wrote. I wrote about a writing hero of mine, George Orwell, and his book, Homage to Catalonia, about the Spanish Civil War. I wrote about my adventures as a pearl diver at Banchero’s Restaurant (memories of which can be found in this post and that one), and I wrote another longer piece about a forty-mile, late winter snowshoe trip I took to Ten Lakes in the Yosemite wilderness with Gordy Kulis, Tom Coopman and Allan Plougher. A few days after I turned in the Yosemite piece Mr. Berndt approached me and said, “I enjoyed my trip to Ten Lakes.”

The class in an inadvertent way-inadvertent to me, though not to Mr. Berndt, I’m sure-taught me a little about managing my time and a little about responsibility, and I’ve never forgotten the trust he placed in me.

Steve Bragonier, a successful Silicon Valley financial executive who has worked at Hewlett-Packard, Silicon Graphics, and other firms, was also a student of Mr. Berndt’s. “He was my teacher and my counselor,” Steve wrote me after hearing about his death. “I felt lucky to be in his class. He guided me to junior college and then on to Stanford rather than going straight to a state college. I’m not sure why he did that (probably my maturity level) but it was good advice in retrospect. I remember he had us keep a journal when we were freshmen. We also kept a journal when we were seniors. Sometime during our senior year he gave us both journals so we could see how much we had changed and matured in four years. I wish I had that journal to read today.”

No doubt many other students of Mr. Berndt’s could tell similar stories of how he had influenced them. That’s the way it is with teachers; they change lives. I am sure that if a service had been held to mark his passing, and all the students he had helped in his years of teaching had shown up, every seat in the place would have been filled and there would have been lines of people stretching for blocks outside. This is probably true of every teacher, the good ones anyhow.

Donations may be made in his memory to the Hayward Public Library, Stanford School of Education, Oakland Museum of California, and the Nature Conservancy, all causes and institutions Mr. Berndt believed in.

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Believe Me, I’m Getting to Mr. Berndt, But First One More Digression (Part 2)

Quarter Pounder

When last you heard from me, I was in the passenger seat of Donnie Schroer’s VW bug with the magnesium alloy wheels, screaming wildly around the back streets of Hayward chasing after the hard-driving would-be paramour of Dorothy, Donnie’s on-again, off-again girlfriend. (I have since learned that her real name was Debbie, but for consistency’s sake I’ll keep calling her Dorothy.) It was one or two in the morning, and the reason for this spirited chase-well, there was no reason, not a logical one anyhow, except that Donnie was crazy in love with Dorothy and crazy-jealous too. On a late-night stakeout we had caught Dorothy on a date with another guy, who had dropped her off at her house and screeched off down the street with us hard on his tailpipe.

I’m not sure what would have happened if we had caught him but fortunately, we never got the chance to find out. He rapidly ditched us, leaving us nowhere else to turn but to the place we always turned after a long night of cruising the empty streets of Hayward: Quarter Pounder on Mission.

Quarter Pounder, as it was known, may have been the original inspiration for the term “greasy spoon.” Located next to the Hayward Plunge, it was popular with bikers, car salesmen, winos, and teenage roamers such as Donnie and me. You could get takeout at Quarter Pounder, or you could go inside and sit at a small counter with stools where you could watch the cook, adorned in an apron stained black from the grease, fry up slabs of ground meat on the grill. Another person made the fries and milkshakes. While you waited for your food you flipped through the selections on a countertop jukebox. The songs were listed on flip cards inside the jukebox. On the bottom were buttons and numbers that corresponded to the songs. It was three songs for a quarter, and you punched in the appropriate number and button for what you wanted to hear.

Considering Donnie’s state of mind that night, he might have chosen “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” by Hank Williams. He looked like he had missed both ends of a Daily Double and just ripped his tickets up. Besides staking out Dorothy’s house, playing the ponies at Bay Meadows was another of Donnie’s favorite pastimes. Somehow he and a couple of his gambling pals had figured out the world’s ballsiest way to sneak into the track, and he took me with him a few times. First we hopped a fence in the parking lot, and this put us into the paddock, the area where the horses were stabled between races. We walked past the horses being fed and groomed in their stalls until we came to a gate that led onto the track itself.horse

The day’s race card was already in progress. Waiting until after one race had finished and before the next one had begun, we stepped onto the dirt track and started walking. We were in full view of the thousands of people in the grandstands, two or three or four of us strolling as casually as possible along the rail on the first turn. We were engaged in a variation of Edgar Allan Poe’s maxim that the best place to hide something is in the most obvious spot. Clearly, the best way to sneak in somewhere is to do it when everyone is looking. I always expected a cop or someone to collar us but no one ever did. We swung open another gate and slipped into the grandstands where we sometimes saw a Hayward High teacher or two enjoying the sporting action as well.

Donnie and I hung out a lot during this time because we both worked at Banchero’s, he as a waiter and me as a dishwasher. Donnie had himself started as a dishwasher but he was now on more of an upward career trajectory, whereas I was stuck in the lowliest job in the place, constantly up to my ears in slop. I was astonished because people would order these colossal steak dinners on these jumbo plates with these giant baked potatoes overflowing with butter and sour cream and barely touch them. No exaggeration. They might take a bite or two of the steak before sending it away.

Then I’d have to deal with it, all that gorgeous family dining excess, soup and salad and steaks and potatoes and green beans and fettucini and lasagna and pies and coffee and milk being practically tossed at me by waiters who were as polite as Miss Manners to their customers but treated me like the stuff on the soles of their shoes. It was at least a thousand degrees in the kitchen. Sweat pouring off me, clad in rubber gloves and rubber boots, I tried in vain to keep up with the wave upon wave of food scraps being hurled at me, spraying the jumbo plates and bowls with a water nozzle that had more power than a fireman’s hose. I was never ahead, always behind. As soon as I cleared off my station and got the dishes in the dishwasher, another barrage came at me.

I ended up writing about pearl diving at Banchero’s-and other teen adventures–in a paper I did for Mr. Berndt, my counselor at Hayward High who died recently. That’s how all of these remembrances got started. I started thinking about that time in my life, and then I got sidetracked on these various subplots mostly involving Donnie Schroer (seen below, looking slick in his high school graduation picture). But I honestly don’t think Mr. Berndt would have minded. Ever have a teacher who was more than just a teacher but who touched your life in meaningful ways that you’ve never forgotten? Well, for me, Mr. Berndt was one of those teachers. Next time I promise to deliver that overdue tribute to him.

Donnie Schroer

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Pearl Diving at Banchero’s, and a Love Story (Part 1)

Kevin Nelson.CroppedI learned several weeks ago that my high school counselor and history teacher, Robert Berndt, had died, and in the way that memory can sometimes take you to strange places, it made me think of Banchero’s Restaurant on Mission Boulevard in Hayward.

Banchero’s is a family-style Italian restaurant that has been owned by the Banchero family since its founding in the years after World War II. I worked there as a dishwasher in my senior year in high school, when Mr. Berndt (I can only call him Mr. Berndt, never Bob or Robert) had me as a student.

I first heard that a dishwashing job had opened up at Banchero’s on a Saturday afternoon at the old Ritz Theater in Hayward where I was watching Jack Nicholson in “Hells Angels on Wheels.” You may not know this, but before his breakout role in “Easy Rider” Big Jack appeared in a score of lousy, dirt-cheap “B” westerns and motorcycle flicks. I must’ve seen all of them, at Saturday matinees at the Ritz, with nary a person in the theater but me.

“Hey Nelson,” said a voice in the darkness. “Nelson.”

I turned to see Donnie Schroer, my friend and basketball teammate whispering to me. Donnie was a genuinely great high school basketball player who had his quirks, as we all do. He drove a Volkswagen Beetle with mags, styled his hair with gel, and loved a girl named Dorothy. Actually, I’m not sure if Dorothy was her real name or not. What I am sure of, though, is how crazy jealous he was of her. Many a night we spent in front of her house, Donnie and me and maybe one or two other guys crammed into his bug, waiting for her to come home from wherever she happened to be. Donnie always suspected Dorothy of going out with other guys and wanted to catch her in the act of being dropped off after a date.

“Schroer?” I said. “Is that you?” “Yeah,” he said.

“What are you doing here?”

“I called your Mom. She told me you were here,” he said, still whispering, although we could have shouted at each other and no one would have cared because we were the only two people in the theater. “You want a job?”

We left Jack Nicholson causing drunken mayhem in his biker gang and went out to the lobby to talk about it.

Schroer, who worked at Banchero’s himself, explained that the former occupant of the dishwashing position had resigned to pursue other career options, leaving a vacancy. “But you gotta come now,” he said. “You start tonight.”

Although this was short notice, and I had to leave the theater before finding out how Jack Nicholson ended up his stint with the Hells Angels, I said yes. That night I started dishwashing (or “pearl diving,” as my mother called it) at Banchero’s, proudly joining the ranks of the many other East Bay boys who got their first job there.

I picked up another pearl-diving shift the next day and worked again the following Friday and Saturday nights, occasionally venturing out to bus tables in the main dining room but mainly staying out of sight in the overheated kitchen. It may have been after one of these nights at Banchero’s that Donnie took me on another late night stakeout of Dorothy’s house.

Most nights nothing ever happened. We sat there for maybe a half hour in the darkness of her street with the lights and radio of his car turned off, Donnie talking to me in that same conspiratorial whisper he had used that day at the Ritz. Donnie and Dorothy had what can be fairly described as a combustible relationship. They’d fight, break up, reunite, fight, break up, reunite, fight, break up, etc. But in one of those strange maladjustments that the male psyche is prone to, even when the two were not technically boyfriend and girlfriend Donnie expected her to be faithful to him, that is, not go out with other guys.

There was no logic to this. Donnie had many sterling qualities; logic, however, was not one of them, at least not when it came to Dorothy. So it came to pass that on this particular night we saw a pair of headlights coming down her street and stopping in front of her house. The lights and engine of the car clicked off. A moment passed. And then who should step out of the car but Dorothy!

I don’t recall the make of the car that dropped her off, but I am sure it was large, powerful and muscular, just like its driver. Donnie ignored Dorothy disappearing inside her front door and took off after her offending suitor. All of a sudden it’s like Steve McQueen in “Bullitt” only without the hills; we’re flying crazily around the flats of Hayward after this guy who’s got far more horsepower than us and probably a nine millimeter pistol in his glove compartment.

“What are you going to do if you catch him?” I’m saying in a panicky voice, but Donnie’s not listening, he’s just hell-bent on getting even with this guy who had the audacity to take out a girl he’s not even dating anymore, treat her to a nice evening and politely return her home, and at this point you may be wondering-

What the heck does this have to do with Mr. Berndt, a fine man who died and who was an early mentor of mine and a wonderful teacher to so many? Well, I’m getting to that, but because I don’t want to tax your patience with an over-long post, you’re going to have to tune in next time to hear about it.

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