Vigilant readers may recall an article published in these pages last fall. It was a story about used cars and hubris — deep, seductive, mind-enchanting hubris. I still remember, precisely, making a left off Orange Avenue in National City and glimpsing, for the first time, that elegant Mercedes-Benz. At first glance, the vehicle presented a particularly manly squat, sunning itself on smooth asphalt like a napping Leopold tank.
I thought, "Now here is a brute with some heft to it." It was a '65, so it had that enormous chromed grill, set off by the mark of the beast, the Benz triangle hood ornament perfectly balanced by discreet tail fins. Lord, how it called to me.
And I answered, I fell in love: hopeless, unthinking, devoted, all giving love.
A young, very fat, tall Mexican male takes me for a test drive. Am enveloped by leather bucket seats — wide, deep, ample. I notice that the engine runs loud, not a lot of pep to it, but the feel, the ride! My soul ached. I had to possess the Benz and, after the shallowest thrust and parry, paid his $900 asking price.
I drove off enraptured, feeling the dignity of ownership we discriminating few acquire when we first captain a luxury automobile.
Next morning the Benz began to teach me about life as it's lived. Before my lessons were over, the Benz would require a new oil pump, new shocks, new power brakes, completely rebuilt engine ($1400), new transmission ($1100), new battery, and that, let me stress, was just for openers. To this day I can't make myself review the receipts, can't make myself look at the other 40 items that, in total, added up to more than $4000 U.S.
That miserable harlot died on the highway six separate times, needed a jump-start an additional seven times. On 13 occasions I called the AAA and would have kept calling if it weren't for their veiled threat sent to me by first-class mail: "Gee, we've noticed you've been keeping in touch with us," then listing all my calls and locations, times, and dates. And each and every time that faithless whore Benz went into the shop, to Mel or César or Howard or Jerome, my little fairy-tale child's heart would leap, would hope, that it would be the last time, that this time the Benz would return and truly love me as I loved it.
And each time I got behind the wheel, that soulless bitch would crush me like a bug slapping up against a jet aircraft's windshield. That disloyal, heartless slut never ran more than 72 hours at one stretch.
And as the months passed, I came to despise that money-eating heartbreaker, hated it as I have hated few things in this life.
Finally, nine months after The Evil One first began to suck my life's blood, at I-8 and Tavern Road, at three o'clock on a Wednesday afternoon, the trollop began to spout oil, belch, and die.
I sat, $4000 poorer, gripped the wheel, reared size 13 foot, kicked the dashboard, and determined that this was the end. This was it. We would divorce or I would kill it.
My first thought was shoving it off a cliff. How satisfying to watch that despicable ball of cursed metal go pounding, crashing, careening down an enormous ravine, its metal and glass ripped by the unstoppable force of gravity. Meanwhile, I, standing on bank's edge, watch as sharp boulders — hundreds, hopefully thousands — cut, grind, slash into its body, hood, trunk, puncturing its tires, ripping its chrome, and if it all went right, finishing, at pit's bottom, as a huge fireball, burning leather and metal and rubber until it was a smoldering ash-white heap of of abominable Benz essence. Then, I saw myself working my way down, down, down to the ravine's bottom, there to urinate over what was left of the Benz, chortling, now laughing, now beating my chest, now throwing my arms towards the sky, tearing my clothes off and dancing, buck naked, round and round Benz rubble. Then I thought of simply leaving it in Tijuana, keys in ignition, cardboard sign taped to a passenger widow saying, "Enjoy." But that would be a cruel thing to do to our neighbors, and by now I was certain that The Evil One would see to it that there would be legal complications with anything less than meticulous abandonment. I knew: the beast would find that one way in ten thousand to fuck me again, which, undoubtedly, would mean additional expenses and ongoing encounters with the criminal justice system. And so, in the fullness of time I finally decided, "Well, hell, there must be somebody else as stupid as I am. I'll take a modest 1/8th of a page ad out in the Reader, insert a flattering photo of the Benz grill, sit by the phone, sell it at any price to anyone." After an additional $375 and a week's repairs, the Benz lurched out of another mechanic's shop and made it home. I placed an ad the same day. It read:
A superior 1965 Mercedes Benz is offered to interested persons.
This vehicle presents a solid foundation for those who wish to entirely restore a luxury automobile. Or, it offers preeminent transportation for those who require a dependable motorcar immediately.
This Mercedes comes with a newly installed six-cylinder engine that has less than a thousand miles clocked, plus a new transmission that is still under warranty. It's body is fit and trim, all the glass in place, as well as radio, tape player, power brakes, and so forth. Asking price is $1300.
Call for an appointment.
It's true I did exaggerate. There was, perhaps, a fib here or there, by omission, mind you, but being beaten and whipped by a Nazi machine, particularly over long periods of time, can make a man lose perspective.
Two days later the paper came out. I sit inside slum apartment watching phone. The first respondent calls at 11:30 a.m. Male voice is soothing, intelligent, seems like a nice guy. He exclaims, "I can't believe the size of the ad. I'd better get over there in a hurry because it will probably sell fast."
I agreed that would be a good idea. Yes indeed, a very good idea. I slowly replace the phone to its cradle, feeling like a clever lad indeed.
12:41. Second call, guy tells me it's a good price, he'll think about it and get back.
12:52. Black male voice from Lemon Grove. "Is that price right? It could be $13,000?"
"No, it's thirteen hundred; the Benz is a '65." Man allows he may come out and see it this evening.
I hang up thinking, "Better hurry, big guy."
Soothing voiced guy arrives to view the Benz at 1:20. I get in driver's side, turn key, engine won't start, battery dead. Of course. Buyer has jumpers, moves his car in place, jury-rigs cables. After a dozen tries, Benz engine catches. An enormous dark cloud of pollution explodes from exhaust and more menacingly, from beneath the car body, seeping up both sides of the undercarriage, clinging to car doors, then billowing over the roof. I step out from black smoke, offer, "It runs a little cold," and begin gushing about the solid foundation, the quiet, manly pleasures of restoration, how the clock works.
We lift hood, watch as engine throbs, real loud, like an International Harvester wheat reaper, entire engine bobs up and down on ancient motor mounts. One thinks, "It can't do that one more time." I cluck over Kraut engineering, offer, "Why, that motor's probably good for a quarter million miles." We're talking man to man now. Buyer begins long riff about his wife in Pacific Beach, how he's the oldest guy in the apartment complex, 55, how things certainly have changed over the last 20 years, great climate though. Can see he's too embarrassed to come to the point. He says he'll think about it, walks, with a suddenly exaggerated stoop, back to his car.
I've noticed the Benz has that effect on people. Get within spitting distance of it for a few minutes and one beings to feel a change of mood, sort of a black, all-encompassing, "God-I-feel-a-lot-older, I-will-die, my-back-hurts, I-don't-meet-the-women-I-used-to-never-will-again" feeling.
Return to apartment, guy calls from some attorney's office convinced it's a bait-and-switch ad. How could I possibly be selling a Benz for $1300 with a new engine, new tranny? Where do I live, how long have I been here, how come this is so low? How come I have such a big ad, that ad isn't cheap, how can I run such a big ad?
I explain that he has too much time on his hands. Tell him an infallible sign that one has too much discretionary time is discovering that one is calling strangers during working hours. I urge him to find a real job. Promise that "You'll feel better if you do."
3:08. Young male voice wants to know if it's a 210. I have no idea. Wants to know the body type. I have no idea, tell him that it has four doors and volunteer that the color is black. Said he would call back this weekend, perhaps Friday evening.
3:44. Lakeside resident, sounds like a young white-trash male, used to own a Mercedes, wants to know if I'll trade for his '84 Toyota truck, his wife told him he couldn't get a car. I agree instantly. Male says he's going to talk to wife again.
3:51. White, 20s, female voice. "Calling about the Mercedes. Do you still have it?"
"I still have it."
"Why is it only $1300?"
"I suppose I should charge more. I don't know, it's a '65, there's a break in the muffler so it runs loud, the interior is a bit ratty."
"Oh, is it? I wouldn't be interested."
Male black, adult.
"Hi, calling about the Mercedes Benz. Is that a misprint?"
"No, it's not, it's the asking price. It's a '65."
"Is that the one with the little fins?"
"Where are you located?"
"Sorry to bother you again. Is that an automatic or a stick?"
"It's an automatic."
"Okay, thank you very much, that's good."
"Ah yes, I'm calling in regards to the Mercedes. What's the story here?"
"Well, I don't know; it's a '65 Mercedes, the body is in shape, the glass is in, new motor, new transmission, the muffler has a gap in it so it runs quite loud, interior is a C-. That's the story."
"Where are you located?"
"Hello. I guess I'm a little skeptical. Is the body intact?"
"No gaping holes in the body?"
"No gaping holes in the body, all the glass is in, headlights work, turn indicator works, windshield wipers work, radio works, clock works. It's a fine clock."
"We're talking not licensable though?" "It's got a license on it now." "Hello." "Calling about the Mercedes."
"Interesting ad you have here."
"Uh-huh. What would you like to know about the Mercedes?"
"What color is it?"
"Does it have any rust on it?"
"No rust, body is very good."
"I got this truck I'm trying to sell. A guy's coming over, if he buys it I'm gonna give you a call back. It's a pretty cool car though, huh?"
"I like it." (Liar, liar pants on fire.)
"Thirteen hundred dollars, is that right?"
"Yes, that's the price."
"Really? Have you had many offers?"
"The first one here with $1300 wins."
"Wow, what a trip. Why so cheap? I'm just curious, I don't have $1300."
"It's a long story."
"I just talked to you a minute ago, I'd like to take a look at your car."
"Okay, when would that be?"
"I have tomorrow off."
"Okay, why don't you come by at 10 a.m.?"
"Is there any type of lineage on this?"
"No, it's a clean title, it's in my name.
"Okay, is it good for a test run?"
"Calling about the '65 Mercedes. Can I get a little information on it please?"
"Anything you think I should know?"
"The engine has less than a thousand miles on it, the tranny less than a thousand, it's an automatic.
"Is the car presentable?"
"Oh yeah, the body's fine, the paint's fine."
At sundown an early 30s, tall, skinny, blond-haired male arrives wearing a red I-am-a-Christian-Crusader T-shirt. The Benz doesn't start. Customer maneuvers his black Bronco to the usual place, finds his jumper cables. I attempt to express surprise. We go for one test drive. I know, really know that any moment, any, in fact, second, the Benz is going to explode; too many engine parts gnash metal on metal. Can hear the transmission work-work-work, grinding its way from first to second, then holding onto second until hitting 45, 50 mph, then slamming into third, and then lugging, chugging, wheezing, heaving again. The sounds are ugly, like watching an old man shriveled on a hospital bed drowning in his own spittle and saliva and drool. Christ, will this ride ever end?
We made it! Thank God! I get out, drenched in nervous sweat. The man hands me keys, says he thought about buying it because he buys and sells Mercedes occasionally, knows something about cars, then stops in mid-sentence, reaches out, shakes my hand, tells me he's very sorry. I return to the apartment, shuffling along with a pronounced stoop.
About the Mercedes. My daughter has been looking for a car and she's a Volvo freak and I talked to her last night and said, 'Hey, this looks pretty good for $1300, and it's a '65 Mercedes, and it's going to be as strong as a tank.' Is it already gone?" "There's been a lot of people looking at it..."
"Hi, I'm calling about the Mercedes."
"What kind of condition is it in?"
"Oh yeah, sure."
"How dependable is it?"
"It's a Benz."
Noon. Day 2. Threesome arrive - one male, one Mexican woman, and her young daughter. The Male Anglo, brown rodent mustache, methamphetamine torso, stands next to the Benz. I hand over the keys. He gets behind the wheel. Am astonished that the beast turns over and starts. I hear the roaring muffler. I see black and gray fumes billow from underneath the car frame, followed by a piercing series (there, four, five?) of loud explosions, which are so intimidating that the woman leaps up and away from the vehicle while at the same time croaking two loud honk-squeals, then lands on her feet, hunches over, and begins to tremble and cower.
That evening I leave all the Benz's four doors unlocked, driver's window rolled all the way down, keys in the ignition.
Later, a woman calls, remarks about the ad, wants to know if I emigrated from England. I now lie at first hint of an invitation, immediately claim I'd lived in England. Limeyland's a terrific place, don't you know.
Noon, Saturday. I sit lonely by the phone, the calls have dwindled, nothing this morning, beginning to look like no prom date.
Big, burly man appears. He's an operating engineer, works at the dump, East County, has that pleasant dump look - blue shirt, greased-back hair, oil under his fingernails. Benz doesn't start, he jumps, we drive down to India Street then right and up the considerable hill on Washington. The car is stuck in first gear, engine winds, can feel the oil pressure squeeze-squeeze-squeeze, can feel the pressure on the bearings push-push-push, the hood vibrates viciously from jumping-jack engine. Christ, the bastard is going to explode any second. I can feel it building, this is it, this is the big one. I begin to sweat, now in torrents, look out the window, try and calm down, my heart racing, barely hear the man who says something about wanting a car for his daughter when she comes home from college. He'd just bought an '83 Escort for 300 but ran into mechanical problems so he was able to talk the guy into taking it back.
The vehicle shudders again, this time throughout its whole length. The man says his wife was upset, didn't want him to look at an old car. He rambles on. I can't hear him, am so fear-struck waiting for The Evil One to give it up and hand it over. I pray for a clean, non-injury accident. Man remarks that he once owned a Benz, what a wonderful piece of machinery it is. I gasp, I clunk, I marvel, I appreciate, I share, as one Benz owner to another. He asks me if it's a 12-volt system. I say, "Certainly," having no idea whether it is or not. Third gear doesn't take, I say, "Well, just punch it down to first." He moves shifter to first, doesn't engage, I say, "Ah, no problem, the engine's got to warm up. HA, HA, HA, HA, HA, HA, HA, HA!" Realize I'm laughing inappropriately, realize I sound quite insane. Slink deep into seat.
I can hear ancient muffler work itself loose. This test drive was by far the worst. The death-wagon has now run for 96 hours, a new record, it's all moment-to-moment now. Every time out I hear new rattles and grinds. The Evil One only starts between two o'clock in the afternoon and before 4 p.m., while the sun's healing rays are set to maximum. Don't know how many more three-mile rides I've got left. We arrive at my apartment, man gets out without a word, leaves me and the keys inside the vehicle, walks to his car, gets in, drives off.
It is sundown on Sunday.
They came in a small yellow car, a fastback Toyota, and parked across the street. I was reading Lady Cop and heard two honks of a very mezzo horn. Thinking perhaps it was a buyer for the Mercedes and not wanting them to bother the landlord, who lives downstairs, I rushed to the window to see what it was. Thereupon I saw a young couple emerge from the car. He, from the driver's seat, wearing a dark-colored sports shirt, khaki trousers, and penny loafers; she, in a lovely white blouse with a pilgrim collar and dark pants. She had dark hair, he had dark hair. They got out, walked hand-in-hand, slowly, looks of anticipation shining on their faces, towards the Mercedes. They arrive next to the beast, drop hands, turn heads towards each other, and simultaneously begin to laugh. Then he puts his arm around her shoulder, they nuzzle their foreheads together, smile knowingly, softly, and with a beneficent look on their now-serene faces, they stroll slowly back to their yellow car. She gets in, he gets in, and they leave.
And then silence.
No more calls for the Benz.
A month passes.
Major Robert Bodine
The Salvation Army
San Diego, CA 92101
Dear Mr. Daugherty, We would like to thank you for your very generous donation of the 1965 Merz that you recently donated to the Salvation Army. It is only through the kindness and generosity of concerned and caring people such as you that the Salvation Army is able to assist the less fortunate in our community. Again, we really appreciate your donation. May God richly bless you. Sincerely,
Major Robert Bodine Administrator