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Mr. Toad’s Mild Ride

It never grew old seeing what Mr. Toad and his mild ride were up to

Arthur St. AntoinewriterTim Marrsillustrator

That year I lived alone. My life was changing in dramatic fashion, and among the many consequences was that I had to find a new place of my own. In need of something to smile about and inspired by the notion that "somebody in this glossy town must have a great guest house for rent," I bought a copy of The Hollywood Reporter, and sure enough, back in the classifieds I found just such a place. It was an extremely agreeable one-bedroom apartment under the main house in one of the choicest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. The actress Mariel Hemingway, I found out soon after, had lived there before me. For months I collected the mail that continued to arrive for her and delivered it to my landlords upstairs for forwarding.

Being alone, suddenly I had an unusual amount of free time on my hands (an amount that, unfortunately, could not be filled entirely by collecting the letters and catalogs addressed to the granddaughter of one of the greatest writers of the 20th century). So … in the evenings I started walking. A lot. And it was on one of those walks past the billiard-table lawns and portes-cochères of my newly rented neighbors that I first spotted the vehicle that would turn out to be the focus of my walks for the better part of the ensuing year.

It was not, as you might've guessed, a red Ferrari or a diamond-encrusted Rolls-Royce. Far from it. The machine that caught my eye was a humble Ford F-100. That might not sound like a rig that would cause a professional car critic to pause for a longer look, but this particular truck was vintage and in exceptional condition for its age (I guessed it to be a '70 model), and it wore a lovely two-tone mint-green-over-white paint job. What's more, this one hadn't been ruined with the typical set of gaudy aftermarket mags; no, this F-100 wore its original steel wheels and understated "dog dish" hubcaps. Whoever owned this Ford had taste.

Mind you, in Beverly Hills pickups are as common as palm trees and "Armed Response" security signs—being the chariots of choice for the scores of pool cleaners, gardeners, contractors, and personal assistants charged with Costco bulk buys who descend upon the community every day. But I sensed that the old F-100 in this driveway belonged to the master of the house. Unlike most of the surrounding yards, where the original, tidy circa-'40s and '50s abodes had long ago been bulldozed in favor of towering stucco Italian palazzos and Windsor-worthy brick Tudors whose walls stretched right to the property lines, behind the Ford sat a single-story ranch on an expansive quadrangle of grass and jacaranda trees. The house mirrored the truck: old and modest, yes, but spruce and clearly kept with love.

Whoever owned the Ford apparently used it for regular short missions, for while I never saw it on the move, on some of my daily walks the pickup would have shifted from one side of the driveway to the other. But it was always there. One evening, I came upon the truck to see the tailgate open and a partially eaten mound of cedar chips filling half the bed. Only a few chips had spilled to the driveway. The owner wasn't in sight—perhaps he or she was working in back—but I had to smile at the realization: Whoever owned this proud little Bev Hills estate tended the garden personally.

Did the Ford owner have connections at a nearby movie studio? he turned to walk into the house; under his left arm he cradled a sizable tiger cat.

Some time later, another load of cargo left me blinking in disbelief. It was late December, and the front yards of many Beverly Hillsiders were appropriately festooned with robotic Santas and twirling menorahs and lighted full-size reindeer teams dressed in colorful horse blankets to ward off the wintery 70-degree air. But then I came upon the F-100, and there, filling the cargo bed, thumbing its figurative nose at the tropical-holiday farce playing out on every surrounding stage, was a small mountain of gleaming, climate-defying, honest-to-goodness snow. I could only marvel at the sheer logistics! Where does one obtain snow in a place where pet huskies and malamutes are, by local statute, allowed only 90 seconds to sprint from their refrigerated doghouses to bedew the facsimile fire hydrant installed under the backyard saguaro? Did the Ford owner have connections at a nearby movie studio and obtain a heaping of man-made special effects? Or did he or she drive all the way out to Mount Wilson—an hour and a half each way on a good day—and scoop up a back-breaking load of the real thing?

Somehow I had always pictured the F-100's owner as being old. Maybe it was grandpa or grandma preparing a super-special—albeit short-lived!—surprise for that night's holiday dinner with the visiting grandkids. The snow wouldn't last. But my memory of seeing it sure has.

I only saw the owner once—and only briefly. One night as I was walking past, I saw the F-100's brake lights flicker and go out. The truck had just returned home! I slowed to a shuffle, and in another heartbeat or two the door opened and a man stepped out. I couldn't see his face, but his arms were wrinkled and his thick hair completely white. He wore a smart, well-fitting polo shirt over slim jeans and a pair of well-worn Converse All-Stars. I didn't notice until he turned to walk into the house, but under his left arm he cradled a sizable tiger cat, its tail flicking this way and that as they made haste for the door. And then the old man and the cat disappeared inside.

I don't know why, exactly—probably because I was still in the thrall of a recent giddy afternoon whirling around the goofy joyrides of Disneyland with a new girlfriend—but I decided right there to dub the elder gentleman "Mr. Toad." And from then on, every time I'd pass the parked Ford, I'd wonder what Mr. Toad was doing—and where he and his cat were planning to go in their mint-green heirloom next.

I'd been away on a business trip, a slog of deadlines and meetings, so that evening I was looking forward to my stroll through the hills. But as I closed in on the one-story ranch amid the glut of cartoonish castles, I realized the F-100 wasn't in the driveway. I almost laughed out loud at the thought of Mr. Toad out having an unprecedented but well-deserved night on the town. "Have a sip for me, good sir! But bring yourself and your trusty truck home safe."

Smiling, I started back on my walk, then turned and saw something in the shadows on the front lawn. I remember the crickets singing, the air sweet with the aroma of night-blooming jasmine. But this time they did me no good. Because now I could see the sign. And the words: "For Sale."