By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
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"I honestly don't have to work anymore," says Baker, who accepts cash donations via slots in the van labeled "Piggy Bank" and "Spare Change." "If I take that van where there are going to be cameras--Tombstone, a golf tournament, a 10K--I'll wind up with $40 or $50 inside the van within a view hours. People love to take pictures of the van and touch my clothes."
But there are a few folks--event promoters, primarily--who'd like nothing better than to see Baker, his van and his pennies disappear down the nearest wishing well. Baker claims that celebrities are so jealous of the crowds he invariably draws whenever he shows up with his van and full penny regalia that he's often hassled by security, and was even denied entry to one tennis tournament held in Tucson last year. "It doesn't matter how many movie stars are around, the people pay attention to me," says the self-admitted publicity hound. "I buy a ticket like everyone else, but the place is mine--and the stars just can't take that."
In fact, Baker claims he attracts so much attention in Tucson (as a publicity stunt, he once ran for mayor on the "common cents" platform) that he fears he's been overexposed in that city. That's why he's seriously considering jumping in the Penny Van and taking his act 110 miles to the northwest.
"I want to get connected, and Phoenix is the place where I can do that," says Baker, who thinks he'd be a great mascot or good-will ambassador for some major national company--ideally (what else?) JC Penney. "All I need is one big score and the van and I will put Phoenix and Tucson on the map," he says. Back in Phoenix, Gary Metzler stands on the curb outside his bohemian hideaway and stares at the vehicle he has wrought. A penny for his thoughts.
"It gets great mileage--22 miles to the gallon," says Metzler of his mobile masterpiece. "Low mileage, too. Since I rebuilt the engine six years ago, I've only put about 3,000 miles on it."
Aside from frequent trips to nearby hardware stores and secondhand shops, most of that mileage was spent running back and forth to the neighborhood Denny's, a coffee shop Metzler visits an average of five or six times per day.
"I'll sit there for hours, looking at my car out the window," says Metzler. "I'll see something that doesn't look right, so I'll go back home and change it, maybe put something on, get rid of something else. This car is always changing. Change is good."
Although one might assume his frequent forays to Denny's make him the world's leading authority on Grand Slam breakfasts, Metzler shakes his head. "My son orders off the kids' menu and I just drink coffee," he explains. "See, I'm not into food, I'm into time. That's why I collect watches." Opening a satchel filled with dozens of old timepieces salvaged from thrift stores, Metzler reports that he frequently leaves a used watch as a tip. Reasons Metzler, "People never have enough time."
That's why Metzler plans to put his custom-car creations on hold for a while after he finishes overhauling the motor on the '53 pickup.
While her husband polishes the bust of a conquistador attached to the pickup's grill, Metzler's wife looks at the car and laughs sardonically. "Did Gary tell you that when he first got this truck, he'd restored it so it looked just like it did in 1953?" asks Jill Metzler, a quick-witted woman who resembles Laraine Newman. "Yeah, well, that was the idea, anyway. Gary had already done the station wagon and so the pickup was going to be our 'we don't have to baby-sit this in the parking lot' vehicle. Then some woman plowed into the front end, and when Gary couldn't find a piece to replace it, well, you can see what happened. It's like God doesn't want us to have a regular car."
Surveying the pickup thoughtfully, she adds, "It's a power piece, definitely. It's what I call 'very Gary.' Some people scratch their heads, but most of them are very positive. Then, every once in a while, we'll run into someone that's very threatened by it."
Could it be, perhaps, that they don't understand the car?
Jill Metzler shakes her head. "The problem is, maybe they do.