Brave New Year


THE FOLLOWING ITEMS WERE DISCOVERED by restaurant and bar managers the morning after New Year's Eve celebrations:

"We found three sets of false teeth downstairs, while five people from a private party on our roof said they were missing their cell phones. The really funny thing is that every Saturday night during our first year here someone would plant a pair of false teeth in the flower arrangement inside the ladies' restroom." (Globe, Venice)

"A very nice digital camera, some Doc Marten shoes and a wine case — the kind that people bring their own wine in." (Campanile, Mid-Wilshire)

"A pair of broken shoes, a nice lambskin leather coat, one pinstripe shirt, seven credit cards, four driver's licenses and a brand-new MAC lipstick." (Boardner's, Hollywood)

"We found a pair of dentures, an Alcoholics Anonymous book, some Clear Eyes drops and a douche bulb." (Marix, West Hollywood)

"We found one woman's shoe, which didn't make sense. How could anyone get home with one shoe?" (Patagonia, Hollywood)


LAST WEEK MERCEDES-BENZ INVITED ME TO attend its press conference at the 2003 Greater Los Angeles Auto Show, which, besides starring the company's newest C-Class models, was to feature Mexican singer Paulina Rubio, whose crossover English album, Border Girl, had been released last June. I'd never been to a car-show news conference, and didn't know whether to wear a coat and tie or just denim guywear. I decided on casual, although, during my credentialing, as Holst's "Mars" thundered through the Convention Center, I noticed there were lots of suits present — clearly there would be more than media rabble here today.

The mobbed Mercedes-Benz event sported a silverware-and-china Mexican breakfast of egg burritos, enchiladas, caramelized bananas, pan dulce, flan and espresso — but no Paulina Rubio. The Border Girl, we were told, had taken ill the day before, although I heard that Mercedes had had a "rough" time arranging Rubio's appearance and that the company wasn't too surprised by her absence. In any case, her place was taken by another Latino singer, Omar Torres, who, an MC told the assembled, not only "represents the emotion and energy of the Mercedes-Benz line" but also its cars' "traditional and emotional values."

After a few speeches and a brief set by Torres, I drifted away to look at other carmakers' efforts, noticing how their models, like Mercedes', were kept fingerprint-free by individuals armed with chamois and dusters. There was the outlandishly expensive and powerful 12-cylinder Maybach (a Mercedes spinoff line), along with Volvo's new sports-utility vehicle, which, of course, the Swedes advertised as "the safest SUV." There were also the Hollywood tie-in cars — a Batmobile here, an entire room of James Bond cars there, plus drag racer John Force's "King of the Hill" Mustang "funny car" that was plastered with images of Hank Hill and friends.

Before long, though, I wondered: Weren't the car fluffers I'd spotted supposed to be wearing bikinis? Or at least be women? Some were guys and all were dressed in street clothes — wasn't "grilles and girls" part of the whole car-show gestalt? Did no one read Lowrider anymore? But as I looked over the new autos' sleek bodies, with their sensual curves and celestial paint jobs (they all but came with tan lines), I realized that we've finally come to the point where manufacturers no longer need erotic signifiers to excite us — cars are the erotic signifiers. Forget the suits-vs.-guywear dilemma — the best things to bring to a car show like this were satin pajamas and a three-day supply of poppers.

THE COMPLEMENT TO THE DISPLAY CARS' carnal aerodynamics is the rococo splendor of their upholstered interiors. The Maybach's inside looks, as its brochure says, like the first-class section of an airliner, although the guide's amber-hued photograph more closely evokes a classy brothel. I suddenly remembered how, in that long-ago time before puberty, what most excited me about cars was their interiors — the seashell scalloping of the 1963 Thunderbird's banquettelike rear seat, the 1965 Buick Riviera's black-leather buckets jousting with a red exterior. I didn't know it back then, before car seats came with butt warmers and pneumatic lumbar supports, but I was being prepared for a Gilded Age dream of luxury and lechery.

Parked about 100 feet away from the Maybach, even that SUV colossus, the Ford Excursion, affected an air of Victorian rakishness with lamps placed on either end of its running boards, as though it were a lantern-lit hansom cab. The fuel-mileage space on the sticker of the Excursion, which itself has been mocked for requiring two parking slots, discreetly offered a "Free fuel economy guide available at the dealer." Behemoths like the Excursion have become signifiers of something else besides back-seat sex — America's voracious thirst for extravagance, space and other people's oil.

Still, compared to the General Motors­built Hummer, the owners of even the largest SUVs can justifiably feel like environmental activists. The Hummers were located blocks away from the Volvos and Nissans, as though they needed their own hall to bulk up and flex. Sure enough, these examples of steroided machismo inspired a kind of silent awe among those who stood in their shadows. The H1 costs $113,146, making the new H2 seem like a care package at $52,870. As with the Excursion and Maybach, the H2 sticker's mileage line comes with the "TBD" caveat. However, unlike other car companies' stats-crowded brochures, the Hummer's guide was mostly a centerfoldlike folio splashed with wordless pictures of the H2.

If the Maybach exudes Eurotrash decadence, and the Excursion pimp braggadocio, the Hummer's boxy shape and fortresslike appearance — part tank, part hearse — suggest a sexless death trip. Its driver's console has the feel of a Pentagon war room, with a dashboard sporting two power outlets and a cigarette (or is it cigar?) lighter. Perhaps, in its own Jurassic manner, the Hummer represents America's traditional and emotional values. Or, just maybe, their twilight.


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