Auto Esteem Deficiency

I swear I didn’t plan it this way. I know it fits just a little too well into my recent string of rants about our upside-down values and meaningless priorities, like a too-tidy resolution to a too-scripted reality TV show, but everything I’m about to tell you actually happened to me over the last three weeks, so bear with me just one more time, and I promise I’ll move on from the subject into something even more drastic and depressing next time.

I knew something was wrong when the agent behind the desk — narrow, fashionable suit and gelled, spiked hair with blond highlights — decided that someone else should help me. 

It’s eight o’clock on a Monday morning, and I’m the only customer in a car rental shop in West Hollywood. My own car, a small convertible that I feel I’ve earned because I’ve spent the last 20 years driving 3,000 carpools a week, has recently had an unfortunate encounter with another car, and is currently eating dust in a body shop near downtown. My insurance will cover 30 days of a rental, up to $50 a day. The owner of the body shop has referred me to his cousin, who owns the rental business, and who’s promised to give me a good deal.

“He gives everyone a good deal,” Spike smiles sarcastically when I mention The Cousin. “What are you interested in?”

A car.

“I can put you in a Ferrari for $450 a day,” Spike offers extravagantly. “That’s a real good deal.”

A good deal would be a Ferrari for $50 a day.

“The BMW is cheaper,” Spike says. “I can put you into that one for $250.”

I ask what he can “put me into” for $50 a day.

He laughs, leans back in his chair and throws his pen on the desk between us.

“A bicycle,” he says.

He waits to see if I’m actually serious about the 50 bucks.

“In that case,” he declares, “Dolly will take care of you.”

“Why?” I ask, feeling uppity. He ignores the question.

I sit there for five minutes while Spike plays on his BlackBerry, and when Dolly does not materialize I suggest he put down his toy and resume our transaction.

“She’ll be right with you,” he says, which sounds strange to me, since the only people in the shop so far are he and I, and a portly woman in a tight black skirt and gold high-heeled sandals who’s been sweeping the floor and watering the plants.

Another five minutes pass. I ask about Dolly again.

“I’ll be right with you,” the woman with the broom says from behind me. She sounds annoyed, puts the broom away and picks up an empty carafe and starts making coffee. I tell her I don’t want coffee, I’m waiting for Dolly so I can rent a car and get out of there. She gives me a dirty look.

“I said, I’ll be right with you.” Dolly, aka Dolores, is even more indignant than Spike.  She orders me to produce my driver’s license and a credit card.

“Before we do that,” I suggest, “why don’t you tell me if you have a car that fits my budget?”

She motions with one hand behind her. Her long fingernails are painted in psychedelic colors.

“There is something we can give you.”

All I can see behind her is a file cabinet and some cheap framed posters.

What thing? A car? A camel?

I ask to see The Cousin. I’m told he’s at home, sleeping, and won’t be up till 11 a.m. Even then, Dolly says, he doesn’t deal with compacts. Dolly herself has better things to do than show me to my rental. She calls Gustavo, the guy who’s washing the cars in the back of the lot, and hands him the key.

“Make sure she brings it back with the tank full.”

Now, I’m not car crazy, and I’ve never owned a Ferrari or even driven one. Some years ago when my husband began talking about carbon footprint and penguins and polar bears, I gave up the SUV, but for an equally expensive car. He makes penance for my sins by driving a hybrid that he swears by and thinks everyone should switch to. My kids swear he likes his car more than he likes them; I’m not so sure they’re wrong. Neither one of us, however, had occasion, until these past three weeks, to experience the kind of collective disdain this city confers upon drivers of cheap cars.

Monday evening, I’m driving out of the parking lot at USC, when I see three of my students waiting to cross at the light. They look toward me and I wave, but they don’t wave back. They just stand there while other pedestrians cross, staring at me with half-open mouths and devastated eyes until the light changes and I drive away. It will be a few more days before I understand the cause of their disappointment.

It’ll also be a few more days before I realize that I’m being honked at relentlessly and for no reason except that I’m on the road at all. I don’t get it because the car doesn’t look so bad to me, and it’s almost brand new. It doesn’t exhale toxic fumes and doesn’t take up too much space and, most important of all, isn’t green.

Have you noticed how most rental cars happen to be green? Forest green, leaf green, jade. I once was nearly killed by a crazy truck driver in one of those “Deliverance”-type scenes in Harlan, Ky. It was just he and I, on a one-lane highway, and he kept sideswiping me to drive the car off the paved road and into a valley for no reason that I could see. Later, I was told by some locals that the trucker must have realized I was an outsider and didn’t want me around. I asked how he would have known that I was from somewhere else. “Your car,” they said. “Only rentals are green.”

We’re not in Kentucky, though, and my new rental is white, and it has the magic ability to make me disappear the minute I sit inside it and close the door. At stoplights in Beverly Hills and Brentwood, people to my left and right look toward me, then through me, at whatever else their eye can see. Homeless people with cardboard signs go up to every window but mine. Friends and acquaintances tell me they saw someone who “looked just like you, only older and more pale” in a white car. When I tell them it was me, they gasp, say something about how the recession must have hit me hard, and mentally cross my name off their bar mitzvah guest list.

Saturday night, the valet at a new trendy restaurant refuses to take my car. “We’re all full,” he says, while his colleagues are running to open doors for and hand out tickets to a string of other drivers who have pulled in behind me. “Go park on the street or in a pay lot.” I ask for the manager. “He’ll be with you when he has time,” the valet says, “but we can’t have you in the driveway while you wait.”

The following Monday, my whole class looks concerned when I walk in. For no reason at all, they want to know if I think one can make a good living from writing novels. It dawns on me that this has to do with our street encounter the week before. They’re wondering if this — this car — is what they have to aspire to, if that’s the best they will be able to afford after 20 years and a bunch of books. Maybe they should take someone else’s class; maybe they should go to law school. 

On Tuesday, I call the guy at the body shop and ask how much longer before my real car will be ready. “A couple of weeks,” he says. Then he adds, “I heard about your rental. You should go back and get something decent.”

I stand my ground on moral and financial considerations.

Wednesday morning, I’m yelled at by a scrawny drag queen in the parking lot of Trader Joe’s in West Hollywood. He’s angry because I’ve protested that he came up from behind and took the parking spot I was backing into. He wants to know who I think I am, thinking I can take any spot I want in my “ugly ass” car.

I continue to stand my ground.

Thursday night, I go to a community event hosted at a private residence. Afterward, I wait 20 minutes for the valet to bring my car. When I inquire, I’m told it’ll be some time, the guy who took my car earlier forgot where he parked it and didn’t turn in the key or the ticket stub to the captain. I’m going to have to wait till they deliver all the other guests’ cars before they can ride around the neighborhood and find mine.

I start yelling at the valet boss in my most civil “community event” tone.

“Take it easy, lady,” he frowns, “it’s not like anyone’s going to steal the thing.”

Moral and financial considerations be damned, I decide right there. I’m keeping this “thing” right up to the bitter end, taking notes so I can write about it in The Journal. Maybe Dolores and Spike will see the column and feel stupid. Maybe I’ll become Steve Lopez and write a book about slumming it on the streets of Los Angeles. There will be a movie with someone 20 years younger and — this being L.A. — infinitely better-looking playing me.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007).