Dignity at the Valet?

One of our good friends in L.A., Ian, a television editor, is buying a new car. Ian is from the East Coast, his parents are artists in Maine, and one of the things he is looking for in a new car is simply “dignity at the valet.”

Everywhere you go in this city, you HAVE to valet-park. It is almost impossible to find street parking, and after going round and round the block several times, paying five bucks to have a guy wearing the standard white-shirt/black vest uniform park your car is a huge relief.

Right now Ian drives an old Toyota Corolla. At valet stands, he is not immune to looks of pity, and he confessed that part of him always wants to say to them, “WHAT??? I CAN PAY FOR THE FOOD!”

He just doesn’t buy into the snobby car culture, and he’s determined not to buy a flashy, expensive car just because everyone in L.A. drives one. But he DOES want a car which WON’T engender those looks of pity. Hence, a car with “dignity at the valet.”

Most people in L.A. go for INTIMIDATION at the valet.

I have to admit, for the longest time (ever since we moved) I have aspired to this level of car nirvana. In fact, as anyone who has spent anytime with me knows, I am OBSESSED with buying a Range Rover. I tell everyone that I can’t wait until the lease on my car runs out so I can buy the baddest, coolest, most pimped-out Rover there is on the market. I have become a broken record about this. I have made this car out to be the most awesome car in the world, and that owning it would definitely change my life…

See, the problem is, when we moved to L.A., Mike and I still thought like New Yorkers. And to New Yorkers, ANY car is awesome, because no one OWNS a car in Manhattan, it’s such a bonus luxury. (In fact, our friends back in NY still marvel at the fact that we own TWO cars. They think we live a life of total indulgence.) So, we bought New York-value cars, as in, practical, dependable, not-flashy. Back in NY, the few of our friends who do own wheels are proud owners of Toyota Camrys, (the quintessential Park Slope car I am told), Subaru stationwagons, Kias.

We bought a Honda Element for Mike, who loved the car’s design, and practicality, and it’s a Honda–it’s SO dependable. It’s very “architect” he said. (He also said that some guy at his old firm who drove a Mercedes was roundly scorned.) And we leased a VW Passat for me, since it was “on sale” the week we leased it–it’s so cheap it’s the same amount I pay our cleaning lady every month. I like my Passat, it drives really well, it’s nice-looking, and it’s one of the safest cars out there.

But it has no WOW factor at the valet. It’s a bit of a stodgy family car. And as we got acclamated to L.A., I realized, your car is like your handbag. And you know how I feel about handbags! I felt like I was rocking the Kate Spade of cars. Or maybe even a leather Coach bag. It was nice, it had a bit of style, but it wasn’t terribly expensive or cutting-edge. And I DON’T own any Kate Spade or Coach.

Whereas, you know, the Range Rover, now that’s like a Chanel handbag. Classic. Must-have.

But now that I’ve talked about this to anyone who would listen to me whine, I realize I’ve changed my mind. Status-symbol cars just aren’t going to do it for me anymore. I got grossed out by my rampant materialism, and remembered how when I was in college at Columbia, we were all youthful idealists who all agreed owning a statusy car was the epitome of disgusting bourgeouis values. (And this from a girl who grew up being chauffered in a Mercedes!)

And that’s the word I was looking for–idealism. When did I trade in my tie-dye values for logo aspiration? Now don’t get me wrong, I still love a great car–when Mike and I have the money, we are going to ask our neighbor, who restores vintage cars (he drives a vintage Citroen that I gave to Mitzi Goober in Skinny-Dipping), to restore one for us. (They are really expensive, around 100-200k.) And we call our IRA the “Lamborghini Fund” –we’re going to spend our retirement money on an Italian sportscar!

I think dreaming about cars just runs in the family. My dad, for instance, has for years been talking about buying a Porsche Carrera. He’s visted the dealer so many times, they know him by his first name when he walks in. And yet, even though he can afford it, he’s never bought it. Because although Pop likes to talk about how great the Porsche is, and how wonderful it will be to own it, Pop REALLY loves driving his ten-year old Plymouth Voyager minivan. He can’t seem to part with it, which is why he can’t bring himself to buy the Porsche. It would feel like a betrayal to his down-to-earth values. (The other car is a Mercedes but Mom drives it.)

In fact, when I bought my Passat, Pop always kidded me by saying I should have at least leased a BMW. When I told him how cheap it was, he said, “That’s not the point!” But then Mike and I counter by reminding him he drives a Voyager. Ha.

When I was a kid, my dad always talked about buying things, a bigger TV, a bigger house, a more expensive car… but he also always seemed perfectly happy with what he had. But he REALLY liked to dream and to fantasize about how life would be different “if”… But now I realize that what Pop was subconsciously telling us all along, was that even if you can afford the Porsche, or whatever it is you want, the pleasure really comes from THINKING about it, and not owning it.

Once it’s yours, the dream is gone.. and it just becomes some THING that you have…which is not that exciting.

I think, in the end, I’m really my dad’s daughter. Because as much as I have complained about my car being so “boring” I find I really can’t stomach the thought of being the kind of person who needs an expensive car just to have self-esteem. Mike told me that William Gibson, the awesome sci-fi writer, just drives a Jetta. And Neil Gaiman drives a Mini. Of course, Danielle Steele drives a Bentley…Mmmm….

But hey, a girl can dream, can’t she?