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A LITTLE OLD-SCHOOL GLAMOUR

“What does he do, this man you seek?…He covets…And how do we begin to covet, Clarice?…We begin by coveting what we see every day.”

— Dr. Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs

Ol’ Doc Fava Beans had it right, I’m afraid. At least twice a week, I drive by Dieter Fischer’s Star Car Service, Inc. (formerly Dieter Fischer’s Mercedes Service, Inc., but then I suppose one can’t afford to specialize in a down economy), which is situated at the corner of Glen Street and La Mesa Boulevard in lovely La Mesa, the Jewel of the Hills. Granted, there are more direct routes to the highway from my home in the renovated bomb shelter behind Mt. Helix’s famed Grindle House, but I prefer the scenic route. (Don’t bother trying to find it with Google maps or any such thing. It’s not that kind of famous. I can tell you this much: It was built in 1964 for its original and current owner, Mavis Grindle, who believes firmly that living on a street with a name other than your own and a number on your house “as if it were part of some God-awful queue” is a sign of surrender to the forces of social degradation. Grindle, of course, fled to her East County mountain aerie from La Jolla Heights after they started allowing Jews to buy houses there. “They’ll never venture east of the 125, dear, of that I’m certain,” the grand old bird has said to me on more than one occasion. “Forty years of wandering in the desert has taught them to stay close to the water.” But that’s another story.)

Getting back to my drive, which, I suppose you must be told, is conducted in a 1997 Cypress Green Pearl Honda Civic LX. The car was a gift from a grateful paparazzo whom I was kind enough not to expose for hiding out in the closet of a certain local booster’s Mission Valley pied-à-terre during a most boisterous assignation over the 1998 Super Bowl weekend, an event involving several members of one team’s cheerleading squad. (He didn’t really need the Honda anyway; the photos he anonymously sold to the booster after the fact bought him a brand-new BMW.)

Anyway, the drive. I wouldn’t have passed that way at all, except that as I turned off of Lemon onto Jackson on that fateful day in June, it suddenly occurred to me that the effects of last night’s explorations into the mysteries of Mrs. Grindle’s Scotch collection (the poor old thing never touches a drop; it’s all sherry and Chartreuse for her these days, and I’m not about to see Macallan 28-year get pinched in a grubby estate sale five years hence) might be mitigated or even erased by the happy combination of a beer and a burger at Johnny B’s. And it was in this hungry, thirsty, and generally shopworn but optimistic condition that I spotted the silver-blue 1982 Mercedes 380SL roadster with the For Sale sign on the windshield in the northwest corner of Dieter Fischer’s service lot. In an instant it became, and remains, what I want for Christmas this year. I had to have it.

A word of explanation: the ’80s were, of course, a brutal decade. Few aesthetic endeavors, from film to music to automotive design, emerged unscathed. Mercedes, alas, was no exception. That august company’s sedans and coupes of today are not quite so hideous as the rectangular-headlight yawners they were producing in, say, 1988, but they are still nothing compared to the distinctive swell and curve of their late-’70s/early-’80s heyday. Here was a car that would mark me as not simply on Mount Helix, but of it — a car that would have been one of Dorothy Rodgers’s favorite things if she had ever stepped outside. And when you make your living reporting on the news you won’t hear anywhere else, that’s the kind of marker that matters. Let me put it another way: it’s one thing to know about the floating-island poker party and skeet shoot off of Coronado that serves as the fortnightly planning session between San Diego’s city and military officials. It’s another thing to be allowed onto the pier from which the island launches. And if I’ve learned anything in my days on this beat, it’s that a little old-school glamour goes a long way toward convincing some of these old-money boys that you’re one of them. It’s the handshake before the handshake, if you will.

Of course, there are a few things that need to happen before I can ease myself behind the oversized wheel and run my fingers over the burled walnut dash in a gesture indicating both pride of ownership and raw visceral pleasure. First, China needs to stop messing around with its currency to keep it weak against the dollar, a practice that plays hell with our trade deficit and, in a series of steps that I’d rather not explain, actually makes it even harder to afford imported German car parts, which I will almost certainly need plenty of after purchasing a nearly 30-year-old vehicle.

Second, I’d feel a lot more comfortable buying the roadster — as opposed to the rather less exciting diesel sedan sitting next to it that could, if absolutely necessary, be made to burn biofuel made from domestically grown corn — if Israel hadn’t up and decided to give the already unstable situation in the Middle East a big fat shove in the back with the plan to build over 2000 homes in contested areas. What’s that got to do with the price of oil, indeed.

And finally, I know it’s selfish to wish that India would ease up on its explosive economic growth and subsequent creation of a middle class, which in turn gives rise to a huge spike in the demand for middle-class amenities like newspapers, which in turn sends the price of newsprint through the roof, which in turn ups production costs on American newspapers like this one right here, which in turn leads to a sudden and prolonged freeze on Christmas bonuses, the kind that might allow one to drop $12K on a vintage automobile without having to move out of Mrs. Grindle’s bomb shelter, but there it is. The heart wants what it wants; Santa’s got his work cut out for him. Merry Christmas!

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