I recently bought a new car. After avoiding a couple of suspect money pits (a Pontiac Grand Prix GTP, and a Mark III Supra, among others) I settled on much shallower money pit that seemingly had nothing wrong with it — a Mercedes CLK-430. Not exactly a childhood dream car, unlike the other two, but one I’d fallen in love with during a fleeting test drive nonetheless. And, shamelessly a collector of fading status symbols, I felt like this new possession might raise a few eyebrows the right way as I try to prove to peoples unknown that I’m carving out my niche in this rapidly warming world.
While raised to espouse rather conflicting ideals of Habitat-for-humanity earthiness vs. dressing in brand names to present the right image for our largely Mediterranean neighbours, I’m strangely more comfortable with the second half, attaining the illusion of status, whether it be in the form of the recently resurrected
fake rolex fauxlex I bought in a pawnshop a decade ago, or that platinum Amex I really want but have nearly no need for. I crave to be the guy in the bland white t-shirt, driving the car that kind of looks expensive if you squint the right way, who presents a wildly overqualified credit card at a diner for a plain cup of coffee. A mystery, but clearly a contender in some quiet way.
Some people are nerds for sports; others hang out at Games Workshops painting toy soldiers and compare fedoras. I’m a fan of gaining social standing, a’la Archibald Leach, the lowly boy of little means who rebranded himself as Cary Grant, hewing out fame and fortune, and one hell of an accent. I don’t mean to say I want to be some forgotten midcentury actor; I mean more something along the lines of a living rags-to-riches underdog story — that’s what I’m trying to accomplish. To my glee, a good friend of mine, an aspiring luminary in the local arts community, once termed me a “modern day James Mason.” Not quite Grant, but more than good enough for me.
Someone whom I can’t remember asked why I care so much to be perceived like this. Because, after all, the local persuasion here in earthy Victoria would have me believe that the greater accomplishment in life would be to not care what others think, see, judge, or perceive. Wouldn’t it be more empowering and gratifying to not care, to be prouder of a second-hand bicycle than a CLK, a backyard garden plot vis-a-vis an American Express? I have a friend who is basically of this ilk and has both the cool bike and homegrown salads to show for it. Despite occupying opposite ends of the persona spectrum, we get along just fine, contrasting flavors in a neopolitan scoop of socioeconomics; I think in my case it’s just a matter of being endowed with nothing and developing a hunger for getting — more so than the ultimate endgame of having.
I should clarify that I have no illusions whatsoever that this getting is at all equal to happiness. No, I’ve learned long ago that achieving self-instituted goals or acquiring things has little impact on the lifelong search for serotonin buoyancy, and conversely, the achieving of them almost has a negative effect of suddenly having less to fight for. It’s more the struggle, the mastery, of elusive social systems that appeals. I’m reminded of a mercurial character in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, an apparent underdog of the then-present class system, who exults in the alien invasion and the sudden lust for life he has in trying to thrive in the apparent apocalypse that has leveled every playing field. I clearly don’t remember this character’s name, and I believe he’s present for a few pages at best. But, giddy with potential, he madly tells the hero of the story (whom I remember nothing of) about how much fun it would be to master the controls of the alien spaceships and turn the tide of battle with the very equipment designed to exterminate his very kind. That ethos of fighting fire with fire has always appealed to me, despite it’s latent toxicity if administered the wrong way.
During a recent job interview, I was asked to distill my personality in a soundbite, a refreshing change from the usual interview questionnaire of selecting spirit animals (“Pigeon from the Mike Tyson Mysteries”) or comparing oneself to household appliances (“An air purifier, because you have no idea how much clearer things are once I’m on your team.” Ugh). In a moment of total honesty, I said I viewed myself as an anti-hero who truly and deeply cares about people. This clearly didn’t torpedo my job prospects, as I later was successful in getting what will be the best paying job in my entire life, working with people who themselves work with people from NASA. Maybe empathetic anti heroes are in short supply?
And care I do. I hurt as I watch my world change, marvel as I realize I’ve been alive just long enough that what seems like the present, ever so slightly cooled off, is actually ten years in the past, that products I once shilled, status symbols of 2008 are now totally meaningless to society. The iPod I sold during my first job as an electronics salesman, the one that some dad had saved up so long to buy his daughter for Christmas? Worthless. The spindle of blank CDs to burn Mp3s on? Who even buys those anymore — the discs or the Mp3s?
Oh wait, I do. My Mercedes, in the gleam of early 2000s tech, has a 6-disc changer in the trunk, but no auxiliary input on the stereo. Unable to burn CDs from Spotify, I found myself dusting off an ancient iTunes account, and buying a spindle of CD-Rs from the local London Drugs. What was supposed to be a $13 purchase came to a couple dollars shy of $22 at the till. I asked the clerk, an elderly grandma to someone, why the price difference. She explained that an anti-piracy tax applies to removable media in Canada; “right, the CPCC levy” I recalled. “Because people still rip mp3s from Napster in 2019,” I good-naturedly joked. I don’t think she understood — having clearly been already old enough when Napster was relevant, she’d probably slept through this entire chapter in pop-culture. She was now on the other side of history having missed nothing that was really that important to the process of existing to begin with.
I burned a copy of Lana Del Rey covering Sublime’s “Doin’ Time” — itself a cover of George Gershwin’s “Summertime.” I was happy to play it in my car, until today, when I was less happy, feeling hollowed out again for some reason. My spirit felt like the abandoned space occupied by Homesense, a big-box store gone bankrupt that I shot a photo of today, for the Big Snippet Instagram account. Bright, with room for potential, but inexplicably empty, lonely.
Doing time. Summertime. Covers of covers, different pieces of music linked together over more years than in a century. Maybe music was what really mattered?
So yeah, I had bought a new car.