A Mercedes, apparently, is not a car. It is a symbol of hatred and oppression, it would seem. It just boasts the added feature of being handy for getting from here to there.
My dad is a car fiend, and from him I learned my love for the metal beast. He has collected some interesting automobiles in his time, including an Excalibur, a Spartan, and a 1944 Buick Roadmaster; and some which were just plain fast and beautiful, like a 1977 Porsche 911S, which he raced in Mexico, and three mid-eighties Corvettes, which he let his wife drive when he wasn't spinning them in doughnuts down the wide streets of his Fresno neighborhood. My dad is lots of fun to drive around with; he really loves cars, and he loves to handle them in such a way that the individual qualities and abilities of the car are fully exploited, and man becomes one with machine.
Most of the cars I've owned came to me through my father, most notably the bronze-colored 1969 Plymouth Valiant workhorse I loved so much during my college years, which finally collapsed and died after being hit while parked outside my house in Pasadena. That car, when parked, was a friggin' magnet for moving automobiles. It was sideswiped twice while parked in two separate locations, before it was finally totalled in the early morning hours sometime in 1995 by a newspaper delivery guy, rolling newspapers in his lap as he sped up my street. In between that car and my present one, which we'll discuss in a moment, was the Ford Taurus, of which we shall never speak again.
The thing is, my dad doesn't collect cars. He has two or three at a time, and they pass over his doorstep, so to speak, like the lovers in that Willie Nelson song. So he's had two of these 1972 Mercedes 280 SE's, both in silver. When he needed to unload one of them recently, I couldn't bear to let it part ways with the family. I knew that he had lovingly restored it, and it was always there in his garage when I came to visit. With its black tinted windows and massive, curved front end with 4-story high grille, it looked like some kind of KGB spy car, or diplomatic car you see the Queen parade around in, with flags on the front of it. It looks like a classic or collectible car, but it's actually pretty common; and valued at around $10K it's cheaper than a Hyundai straight off the showroom floor. With spare parts readily available, It's not an expensive car. I bought it from him to keep it from harm, but harm has indeed been near at hand.
My neighborhood in San Francisco is an interesting and diverse one. Part of its recent history is of a black lower-middle income family neighborhood; and during the last decade its proximity to the Haight-Ashbury district and relatively affordable large Victorian flats made it appealing to funny-color-haired 20- to 30-year-old white kids. The neighborhood today is composed primarily of these two groups. Nary a pale-faced yuppie grownup is to be seen; the mix of multigenerational black and young, liberal, arty white seems fairly harmonious; perhaps the black population prefer not to be infiltrated by the white community, but this is probably the least threatening sector therein. I've always felt at home here, and my black neighbors and I, depending on the circumstances and individuals, have for the last three and a half years either greeted or ignored each other, same as my white neighbors and I: nothing more. Until The Mercedes came.
We don't have a garage, you see. We park the car on the street like most everyone else, and we move it around now and again to avoid streetcleaning tickets (with little success). It's just one of thousands of cars parked on the streets of our neighborhood, and yet it seems to attract more attention than the rest. Several times I've walked past it on my way someplace and found bits broken or damaged; the licence plate stickers sliced off, headlight bashed, a big nick in the paint on the hood. Once, when it was parked out front of our house for four days while we were at Burning Man, someone ripped off the hood ornament. I thought that trend was over? Now if I still had the Valiant, I'd be glad to offer it as a place for all the neighborhood to convene. I'd be honored. But I feel a strong obligation to take care of and protect this car because it was my father's. It has an aura of preciousness to me which is its undoing.
A few months ago I came around a corner to find a young black couple embracing and chatting at the front end of the car, and the guy was actually seated on the hood with his sneakers perched on the front bumper. I stopped and looked at him, trying to think of the most polite was to say, "Get the fuck off my car." There's no way I would just sit myself down on someone else's car. It doesn't matter what kind of car it is, how new it is; it's just a matter of respecting other peoples' things. But there's a big cultural difference here: I see groups of young black men in my neighborhood settled around and upon some parked car all the time. I always thought it must be one of theirs, but I'm realizing it probably seldom is and that doesn't seem to be an issue to them. I've been sitting in the car waiting for Ash to come out of a store and had, in the short period waiting, someone come put a boombox on the trunk and lean against it.
Anyway, I restrained myself and said to the guy quietly, "Could you please not sit on my car?" And his girlfriend said with a frown, "I *told* you not to sit on it!" and he apologized and was just slipping off the hood when two of his friends came driving by in a giant black SUV.
"This your car?", the passenger shouted at me several times.
"Yeah," I answered with uncertainty.
This was getting messy. I started to walk away when I heard the unmistakeable sound of a big, phlegmy hawk-tooey. I looked back to see a big loogey hit the driver window, and with despair for my lack of control over the situation I slunk off.
But for days I mulled over the situation angrily: What did I do wrong? Why did they spit on it, when the guy sitting on it was apparently glad to get off it when asked to? Did they think I was acting superior about the car by asking him not to sit on it? Did they think I should also be free to dance a jig on their forty thousand dollar SUV when it pleased me to do so? All I could figure was that I was being judged by these guys, for having the audacity to be white and act precious about my bigass Mercedes.
But to me, it wasn't *like that*. To me, this is my neighborhood and I love it, and I strive to protect and respect it and the people in it; this kind of exchange seems destructive to the harmony of my community. If they only knew how protective I feel of the black community I live in. I don't want it homogenized and gentrified like other historically diverse neighborhoods in San Francisco. Their behavior towards me was baffling, and it only started when I got this car.
A week or so later, again I came down the street on foot to find a group of 4 or 5 young men of varying race clustered on and around the car. How on earth to breach the subject this time, that this was my car and I didn't want them sitting on it, without causing trouble, without becoming the bad guy? I was starting to feel like I didn't have a right to expect my car to be unmolested when it wasn't actually moving.
So I gathered myself, and said to them kind of jokingly, "You guys tell me where your car is parked so I can go sit on it." The ones sitting on it moved off it respectfully, and one of them said, "You don't have to be so rude about it. Just say, 'that's my car,' and we know that means 'get off'."
Frustrated and discouraged, I said to them, "This happened a week ago. A guy was sitting on it, and I said to him, 'That's my car, would you please not sit on it,' and these other guys came by and spat on it.
"They spat on your car?"
"And you're pissed off?"
"And so you're bringin' that to us?"
Damnit, he had me there. I closed my eyes and scruched my face up in dispair. I whined.
"Why do I have to find just the exact right words to say? To me this is a matter of respect. I just would not ever treat other peoples' property like this and I guess I mistakenly expect the same treatment of mine."
"If it's a matter of respect," he answered, "You're not being very respectful to us, walking up and saying that shit with an attitude like that."
"Look," I answered, "I'm sorry, but I'm just getting really frustrated. I don't see why I have to be the bad guy. I didn't do anything. I just want to walk out to my car and not find it trashed from people sitting on it. I just want to be able to walk away and not be the bad guy."
He seemed to soften when he saw this was really upsetting me. "Okay. You can walk away. It's cool. You're fine."
"It's cool?" I ask, uncertainly.
"It's cool. You're good." He was being very accommodating at this point. But I felt miserable.
Maybe the connection to my dad has made me way too concerned about this car. But a friend of mine told me she believes that a big silver Mercedes Benz sort of sums up all that Nazi Germanic white supremecy shit in the black community, and here I was acting precious about it. If it were an American or Japanese car, it probably wouldn't have elicited such emotional reactions. To me, though, the make of the car is incidental; it's the style of it, and my sentimentality towards it having been my dad's which makes me want to protect it. It is a thing of beauty and connection to my past; not of monetary value.
It has become the bane of my existence at the moment, and perhaps it's bringing out the worst in me... and I'm going to have to learn a different relationship with it, if I want to maintain the increasingly tenuous relationship I have with the neighborhood I love to live in.