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What makes an Era with a capital E?

On a cool spring evening, the sunset sky west of the San Fernando Valley was the fuzzy tiara of crimson and peach that is air pollution’s attempt to make amends. Into the mini-mall in Chatsworth, drab in its weary neon, rumbled a cavalcade of ordinary wonders, an American circus that finds brotherhood in the defiance of time.

The cruisers were back, looking for a new home.

Hot rods and street rods, customized cars and pampered antiques gleaming with colors that only the 1950s were unashamed of, they rolled into the lot with their passengers, the graying once-upon-a-times and the young gee-it-musta-been-greats.

Say what you will about the survival of Cruise Night and the cruisers, but they’re trashing a national stereotype.

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How can they say, in those mud-brick countries where cousins live by the dozens in the toolshed and mustached great aunts help care for the newborns, that in America there are no extended families, no respect for age? That over here all is acne and ignorance, that young Americans show no reverence for their elders or the past?

How can they say such things, as long as there are rituals like cruise night, when determined bands of time travelers comb the Valley every Friday night, looking for the magic doorway back to 1957? When youths unborn the last time Frankie kissed Annette join gangs of Geritol delinquents who remember every second of the 1950s, every wrinkle in the penny loafer and every moonrise in a back seat on Mulholland Drive?

They stood around in the parking lot on Topanga Canyon Boulevard near Roscoe, watching for old friends and discussing the varieties of ’56 Chevy hardtops with the intensity of wine snobs evaluating a rookie vintage.

As the sun faded, there were about 40 cars on hand, ranging from true hot rods--the poor man’s sports cars that teen-aged tinkerers created from 1920s autos bodies and V-8 engines--to collector cars from the ‘50s to muscle cars of the 1960s.

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“We had to draw a line at 1975, but I still think that’s way too new,” groused Mitch Carter, president last year of Classic Chevys of Southern California, for purists who own Chevrolets built in 1955, 1956 and 1957.

Carter, 46, was a cruiser in 1958, “but I got out of it for a long time until a few years ago, when my wife was going to have our first baby. I always wanted to have one of these cars, and I figured if I don’t buy it before the baby gets here, I’ll never have one.”

The Friday night cruising and hanging out, not the work of any one club but just an amorphous tradition, goes back more than 30 years.

But today there’s confusion over where to go. The Ventura Boulevard restaurant where they gathered for several years went out of business. Other places fell in and out of favor, as did the cruisers with restaurant owners, torn between their business and the daunting spectacle that a parking lot full of cruisers creates for other customers.

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Next Friday, Carter said, they’ll try someplace else.

Drivers sat in idling cars, women in men’s oversized car club jackets. They angled up against the men’s shoulders with an insouciance polished by a lifetime of practice.

The conversations through the window with those standing outside have been repeated so often they have the ritual formality of Kabuki theater.

“You guys gonna stay here? I thought maybe we’d go over to Kevin’s.”

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“You seen Jack and Rita?”

“I heard they were over at the pizza place.”

“You wanna stay here or go over there? Who else is here?”

Some have been doing this for more than 30 years. They have organized clubs, with monthly meetings in restaurants where they plan picnics and discuss the treasury and the minutes of the last meeting.

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To those far younger, the 1950s are as remote as the Paris of Napoleon. They buy the cars, or they just admire them, to drink in the ambiance of what has become a Golden Era.

What makes an Era with a capital E? In the 1950s, so seemingly humdrum at the time, in the shadow of the desperate ‘30s and gallant ‘40s, who knew the times would become an Era? The ‘70s, it seems clear by now, never made the grade. Will the ‘80s ever be an Era? Whatever for?

The ‘50s took a heavy beating from their little sister, the ‘60s, a family fight that still echoes in American culture. The ‘60s accused the ‘50s of being frivolous, wasteful, shallow, racist, selfish, paranoid, insular and obnoxiously over-American.

Not everyone buys that story.

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“I wish it was those days again,” said Theresa Byrne, 31, a gas company administrator from Canoga Park who brought her 1962 Lincoln convertible, which has a radio locked on a station that plays ‘50s tunes.

“People had slicked-back hair and ate cheeseburgers. Your word meant something, a handshake meant something, and everybody wasn’t suing everybody else. People of my generation are yuppies or on drugs or they’re still living at home in their 30s, sucking their parents dry.

“These cars are things of beauty, the kind of thing my generation will never know.”

“I really wish I was around back then,” said Larry Callahan, 22, a Canoga Park aerospace worker. “I love the cars and the music.”

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“I’m living my high school days again, " said Jack Wolfe, 40, of Chatsworth. He brought his 14-year-old son. Loretta Conway, 37, of Canoga Park--she and her husband have matching 1962 Corvettes--brought her 12-year-old daughter.

Shelly Mangianelli of Sepulveda, a knockout brunette ex-model in tight jeans, had one arm and her upper torso in a cast, arm cocked up, elbow bent.

“I wheelied my Harley into a chain-link fence,” she laughed. “I had a plate with 10 pins in it in my arm.” Mangianelli, 31, laughed delightedly at almost everything, toothpaste-ad teeth flashing brighter than the river of headlights flowing through the parking lot.

One of the men mentioned something he’d done back in the ‘50s, “before I got this old.”

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“You guuuuys,” Mangianelli laughed, nudging him with her cast. “You’re not so old.”

Well, maybe not.

But only on Friday nights in the spring.

FO

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