MADMEN AND TINKERERS
In Search of the Flux Capacitor
by Joe Tyburczy
Reprinted from LA WEEKLY
"Does this look like a fuse block to you?" The questioner wears a Powerpuff Girls T-shirt and features a full set of ZZ Top whiskers. He holds up a shiny metal case from which a nest of colored wires dangles. I shrug to indicate that I'm not sure what it is.
We're standing in a cramped aisle of Apex Electronics, a hangar-size building stuffed to the rafters with electronic parts, gadgets, and surplus whatnots expelled from the bowels of the military-industrial complex. Hidden among the auto-parts salvage yards, taco stands and freeway ramps of Sun Valley, Apex is a not-so-well-kept secret: a technology graveyard haunted by ham-radio nuts, backyard electricians, tinkerers, studio prop masters, artists, metal sculptors, effects techs and other assorted spooks with an itch for cool junk.
Doc Brown and his ilk would feel right at home here. What looks to be a fresh stock of flux capacitors and enough components to send Marty McFly back to the future are strewn the length of each aisle. Next to a heap of digital-logic integrated circuits I unearth a pair of Art Deco drive-in theater speakers still in the original manufacturer's box. Another nearby shelf yields an assortment of similarly preserved vacuum tubes.
If some of the stuff looks as if it's been gathering dust here for years, that's because it has. Apex took over the building in 1953 as an outlet to sell off postwar surplus from manufacturers like Lockheed. Tons of industrial and electronic scrap still arrive every week, get sorted and sifted through by a small army of Spanish-speaking day workers, and eventually find a place among the acres of debris.
Checkout is equally serendipitous. A customer approaches a tiny counter near the entrance with an armload of goodies. Behind it, the young Russian-émigré clerk eyeballs the odds and ends, deftly judging its value. "Mmm . . . six dollars," he says between drags of Marlboro.
Out back, it's a scene from a post-apocalyptic yard sale: a labyrinth of small paths wind among tall stacks of twisted metal cabinets, rusting electronic test equipment, power transformers, oscilloscopes and other mad-scientist gotta-have-its. Like some indie-movie prop rat's dream, a polished aluminum radar dish sags against a group of sleek ballistic-missile bodies prickling with pointy Flash Gordon tail fins. I crawl through one of the storage trailers and find myself surrounded by control panels from some long-forsaken aerospace project bearing NASA logos and a phalanx of buttons marked "FIRE," "ARMED" and "EMERGENCY ABORT." Later, I pass by a fellow with a camera discreetly framing shots of a fashionably attired young woman against a glittering landscape of steel trusswork piled at crazy angles against the sky. Just then, the man with the ZZ Top whiskers wanders by clutching a blue airport landing light.
"I don't have a clue what I'm gonna use it for," he says, "but I know I need it."