The $500 Rolls Royce And Other Urban Legends of Orange County

by Marjorie C. Luesebrink

A Similar version, entitled "The Hook Man Revisited" was published in Orange Coast Magazine, October, 1995.

A story told at a Tustin dinner party about a friend of a friend went like this: An Orange County couple had taken mother to Las Vegas. Mid-evening, the couple tired of gambling and decided to go up to their room. Mother, however, was winning and stayed at the slot machines.

She grew luckier yet as the night wore on, and, when she finally quit, she had two buckets of silver dollars. She didn't think to cash them in; she just hurried to the elevator. On the elevator were three black men. What with her buckets, and the fact that the two on the outside were huge, when the door slid shut, she became frightened. She stood trembling, praying for the door to open again.

Suddenly, the man in the middle yelled, "Hit the floor." And mother did just that, splaying both herself and her cash across the floor. The man laughed heartily, helped her gently to her feet, picked up her silver, pushed the button for her floor, and kindly escorted her to her room. Amid apologies, the man slipped twenty thousand dollars and a business card into the bucket. Mother was flustered, but let them go, intending to return the money the next morning.

At the check-out desk, the next morning, the clerk was expecting her. He said that their rooms had been paid in full by Eddie Murphy, who left a message saying that, while he was sorry for the inconvenience, he had been much entertained by his little practical joke.

What we have here is an urban legend, updated to include the most likely celebrity, a nearby town, an amount of money sufficient to elicit a nod of attention in Orange County circles. In fact, all the hallmark features of the urban legend are present. It happened to a friend of a friend (FOAF), it has a rich oral tradition, it appeals to our unconscious hopes and fears, and it shimmers with enough truth around the edges to be almost believable--one more time.

When I ventured to mumble that this was a wonderful urban legend, my dinner companion looked hurt. Perhaps another classic characteristic of urban folklore is that the teller fervently believes it to be true. And perhaps it was. Maybe Eddie Murphy knew the story and enjoyed updating it, because a similar tale has been in circulation for some time, according to urban legend expert, Jan Harold Brunvand, a Professor of English at the University of Utah.

In The Baby Train, one of five books that chart the labyrinthine progress of familiar legends around the country--Brunvand cites a rich history for "The Elevator Incident."

The genesis of the story seems to be this stock version: a black man on the elevator is mistaken for a mugger but turns out to be Reggie Jackson. The man says "Sit" to his dog, but the three women believe he is ordering them to submit to robbery, so they sit on the floor. As the tale evolved, gathering embellishments, some maintained it was Jesse Jackson, others preferred Michael Jackson. Brunvand asserts, "Soon other storytellers were inserting different black personalities' names into the story, including Eddie Murphy and Lionel Richie....even Lionel Hampton, the octogenarian jazzman." In fact, the story is so ubiquitous that it rates its own category in Brunvand's Type-Index of Urban Legends: "Type--Celebrity Rumors and Legends; Sub category, `The Elevator Incident.'"

After listening to the Tustin variation, I set to wondering if Orange County has its own, identifiable versions of urban legends. Like all forms of folk material, over time, urban legends, (or asmuts, dead catters, and monkey sandwiches as they are also known), undergo constant change from region to region.

The classic is the "alligator in the New York sewer system." For the myth to work its magic you need a likely source for the alligator (the child returning with a "pet" from Florida that is then flushed down the toilet) and an accessible sewer. Had the "alligator" story migrated west? Sure enough, it had. Several Irvine residents assured me that a FOAF had discovered an alligator in Woodbridge Lake. It seems that a child that went to Disney World in Florida and brought home a small amphibian that grew too large for the back yard pond.

The best variation, though, indicating that Southern Californians are inventive legend-shapers, was the reputed Caiman in Back Bay.

We can speculate that an ordinary alligator wouldn't please Newport Beach folks, who claimed an exotic, endangered species--from a trendy vacation spot like the Cayman Islands.

Urban legends are a quirky subdivision of folklore. They may not be strictly "urban"--they can take place anywhere--nor are they necessarily American. Broadly speaking, they are contemporary anecdotes or beliefs that are born in a particular era, are repeated, spread, change, and eventually disappear. Very broadly speaking, they may even be true.

If urban legends tell us about human nature in general, the way the story is configured reveals even more. The exemplary incidents we tell ourselves in Orange County bear this out. Some tales have disappeared altogether from Southern California lore. One popular fright of the `fifties concerned a beehive hairdo. We all knew the story of the girl who keeled over in English class. When she was taken to the school nurse, it turned out she had a "nest of black widows" in her ratted hair. Hair styles have changed, and personal hygiene is valued; the "spider in the hairdo" is no longer palatable or credible and so has fallen from circulation.

Other stories survive hereabouts through clever changes of venue and detail. Consider the thirty-year-old classic, the "hook on the door handle." It starts with a guy and his girl parked at "lover's lane." (You can specify the old Back Bay Road in Orange County, Mulholland Drive in L.A., Panoramic in Berkeley, etc.)

The radio is on. The announcer warns of an escaped maniac with a hook. Terrified, the boy starts the car and quickly speeds away. When he gets to the girl's house, he comes around to open the car door and finds--a bloody hook hanging from the door handle.

Some problematic stuff in this version. First, they wouldn't be listening to the radio--CD's are the thing. Second, hooks are rarer these days. Next, new doors don't have open handles--even if a young gentleman should choose to open the door. But we adapt. I heard a FOAF tell of a Dana Hills High School couple on a camping trip to Joshua Tree. They decided to take a moonlight hike. When they returned to the Jeep Cherokee a few hours later, they found the windows smashed, their sleeping bags slashed, and a grimy prison work shirt hanging over the tailgate. The boy's clothes were gone.

This story is updated in predictable ways, but it has a distinct O.C. fingerprint, as well. If you notice, the horror does not attach to the remains of the "maniac" so much as the destruction of valuable property.

A corollary feature of Orange County tales: the price escalates, especially in car stories. Brunvand lists five different legends under "Legends about Automobiles; Sub Category, Cheap Car Fantasies." A favorite is "`The $50 Porsche'--Husband's expensive car sold cheaply by abandoned wife."

In O.C. this story morphs quickly to include a real luxury car and other appropriate details. It goes like this: A couple in Newport Beach was enduring a bitter divorce. The husband was attempting to undervalue his net worth to reduce the settlement. While on a "business" trip to Singapore (with his young paramour), he found he needed to cover some derivatives. He called his wife and asked her to sell the Rolls and wire the money to his broker.

She did. She sold it for $500.00. Not only is the car upgraded, but the narrative is embroidered with telling bits. In other parts of the country, you might hear a callous disregard for the husband's destination, the reason for his request, but our tales set a high standard for tightness, critical details, overall verisimilitude.

Timeliness, too, can be important to the success of the legend. The Northridge earthquake gave rise to this one: A man in Huntington Harbor woke up on the morning of the earthquake to find his BMW missing.

He reported the car stolen. Police returned it a couple of days later, marred only by a bent fender and blood on the leather. It seemed the thief had crashed it on the Santa Monica Freeway when the tremor struck. We know this is an urban legend because it was born in the Oakland quake.

A man watching the World Series at Candlestick Park came out to find his car missing. Days later, the police brought him only a crumpled license plate--the car, with thief, had been crushed on the Bay Bridge when it collapsed.

That one turned up in slightly altered versions in San Francisco, Modesto, and Fresno. Doubtless, the "Car Theft During the Earthquake" is circulating in Japan now. Cars, celebs, terrors, and technology.

It was California that started the world wondering if coating the thin, outer edge of a CD with green marking pen would enhance the sound. And, technology also assists the spread of stories.

One of the hottest spots on the USENET is alt.folklore.urban. Here cow-orkers keep the lines humming with rapid-fire revisions of the old and new.

Lately, the chat has drifted away from the "real story of the O.J. Simpson glove" and the "flesh-eating disease" to surgical mistakes, termite farts destroying the atmosphere, the family who discovered a porno flick at the end of a rented video of "Ace Ventura, Pet Detective", workers buried in the cement of bridge pilings (reminiscent of the Hoover Dam rumors), children whose intestines have been sucked out by pool drains, and the Nordstrom refund story. The strangest netale is about the local French teacher who was knocked senseless when a chunk of "blue ice" fell through the roof of the schoolroom. It seems the airlines freeze their sewage in flight and drop it out....

Well, some of them could be true. Meanwhile, back in the cyberspace that is home, we continue to improve the stories--more money, better brands, believable details.

Reliable FOAF's are telling of the second-tier County employee who left the U.S. for his villa in Antigua in his private Cessna, toting his Cayman Islands bank book (yes!). All these, "gifts" of unsuspecting bankruptcy-pool participants. Supposedly, he had managed to place a small, private endowment with Citron's County Pool. Then, in the confusion of early November, with a few false documents, he withdrew $40 million in cash.

As this unique O.C. legend ripens, we can expect the villa to be furnished, the plane to transform into a Learjet, the millions to multiply, and the financial details to wax more arcane--perhaps they already have.

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