It was the summer of 1968. I was 17-years-old and had just graduated, as class valedictorian, from Lincoln High School in San Francisco. I was accepted to Reed College in Portland OR, but there was no financial aid available.
Tuition, along with room and board on campus, was about $3,000 a year — the same price as a new car. I couldn’t afford it, nor could my maternal grandmother, Dorel McDowell, who had raised me.
I decided to stay out of school for a year, so I could earn the money for my tuition.
I had been managing a store — The Animal Factory — that sold stuffed animals and souvenirs, for a few months. At first it had been an after-school gig at location by the San Francisco Zoo. That’s where I learned to spin cotton candy without covering my forearm with sticky pink sugar.
The owner, Tom Braski, liked me and offered me the job as manager of his largest store, located on busy 19th Avenue near Noriega Street. For a recent high-school graduate, this seemed like a pretty big deal.
I was paid on a commission and profit-sharing basis. After the monthly “nut” (all expenses) was covered, I made 50% of the profits.
Braski did not want price tags on any of the stuffed animals that we had for sale. He told me my job was to size up each potential customer and price the animals based on what I thought someone would pay. Flea-market merchants all over the world have used this tactic for thousands of years.
We also had a booth at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. I would drive a company van down, throw netting over the side, and hang animals on the side. This was called “flashing the booth.”
My booth hours were noon to midnight on Friday and Saturday, and noon to 9 pm on Sunday. On a good weekend, I could clear $500 — a lot of money for a 17-year-old kid in 1968.
The job had its exciting moments. I recall one evening around dusk when husky young man grabbed a four-foot long stuffed alligator (asking price $19.95, our cost around $5) and took off running with it.
I left a friend in charge of my booth and took off after him. We started going down deserted back alleys. After a few blocks he tripped and fell. I caught him and told him, “Give me back my alligator.” He socked me in the chin so hard I saw stars.
He ran off, I picked up the alligator and took it back to the booth. I talked to a patrol officer. His advice was, “let them take the alligator and leave. You never know if the perp will have a gun or a knife. It’s not worth it.” I’ve followed his advice since then.
I worked at The Animal Factory through the hectic Christmas season. I made almost $3,000, enough to get me through Reed.
That spring, I reapplied to Reed and was turned down. I called the Office of Admissions to ask why, and they replied, “As we can’t offer you a scholarship, we decided it wouldn’t be fair to offer you admission.”
I told them I had saved enough money to pay for my tuition, and I was then accepted.
Sales were slow at that time of year at The Animal Factory, so I went to work at the Macy’s department store in downtown Portland at Union Square. I remember getting on the L Taraval streetcar at 20th Avenue, where my grandmother’s house was, and hopping off to take the cable car up a few blocks to Macy’s.
The unisex look was popular then, and Macy’s opened an in-store boutique called “Scene Together.” It featured clothes that could be worn by men or women. We lucky salespeople in the department got to wear the clothes we were selling.
Some of the money I was making went into my Alfa Romeo Giulia spider. The head gasket blew, so I decided to install a new one.
At that time, I was also working as an apprentice mechanic for Hilary Luginbuhl’s Rubber Chicken Racing. Our motto was “Faster Than a Speeding Pullet.”
Our ream consisted of an FP Alfa Giulietta Spider, an FP/GP Alfa lightweight Sprint (we would change the carburetion from single Solex to dual Webers between races to run in two different classes), a BP 1960 Corvette and a home-built D/SR powered by a Saab 3-cylinder two-stroker engine. Its owner, Joe Runion, had built it from sheets of aluminum he had pilfered from his employer, the phone company.
The rest of my Rubber Chicken Racing saga will have to wait for another time.
I had the Alfa in Hilary’s basement garage. I pulled the head. After cleaning it and inspecting the valve seats, I proceeded to reinstall it.
Then came a moment I will never forget. I was tightening the acorn-head bolts to 50 foot-pounds each as the last step of the head installation. Catastrophe happened when I got to the two final bolts on the rear passenger side of the engine.
The torque wrench read to about 35 pounds, and suddenly began to read lower and lower. The head stud had started turning in the block, and stripped the threads in the block. I was never able to determine why.
It was midnight, and I was supposed to leave for Reed a couple of days later. I knew at that moment I wasn’t taking the Alfa with me.
I ended up buying a one-way ticket to Portland. I arrived at Reed with pictures of my Alfa — but no car. But I was young and resourceful, and I began to hatch a plan that involved using a 1,300-cc engine that was very tired and needed a total rebuild.
Next week: A marathon engine swap gets my Alfa to Reed.