Wednesday, July 24, 2013


The panic begins as soon as I read the email with the name and address for dinner:  The Jonathan Club, 850 Palisades Beach Club Road, Santa Monica. “Do you remember how to get there?” she asks.

Of course. When I jogged by it during my midweek beach run, memories came flooding back. I’d forgotten that I’d eaten there a time or two with Ellie and Tom. What stands out are the times I headed down with my short-term roomie, Noreen. We both worked as lawyers and once shared a hole-in-the-wall office at the courthouse in downtown L.A. But our Jonathan Club days came after that, when I’d assumed an ideal position in a boutique law firm, every office having a prime ocean view. (Ideal as long as I wanted to be a lawyer. Which I didn’t.)

Noreen and I would zip over to the Jonathan Club after we both got home from work, often with one of her siblings in tow. (It was easy to round one up. She was one of twelve. Very Catholic. Notre Dame Law School.) Noreen always drove. Her car was an older model, but it was still a Mercedes and I’ve always enjoyed riding with the top down.

On each occasion, Noreen addressed each valet by name and, as though working a reception line, stopped to ask about each one’s daughter/girlfriend/movie audition. Assuming I stayed in L.A. and made the most of my legal start, I could have learned a lot from Noreen, a lifelong socialite who once nonchalantly mentioned how her father employed a chauffeur to drive her to and from private school in her own brand new Mercedes before she got her driver’s license. No big deal. You just have to make travel arrangements when you don’t attend your local public school.

Sadly, I’ve lost touch with Noreen. She always had a (un)healthy dose of paranoia and was prone to constantly changing phone numbers and emails. If the phone rang and no one left a message—she didn’t have call screening at the time—it meant something sinister: a stalker, a famous married actor who broke it off with her two months ago, a spammer who’d bought her unlisted number from, oh, I don’t know, a drunken sibling. According to Google, she still exists but I can’t track her down.

That means I have to drive myself to The Jonathan Club and that brings me back to my (entirely founded) state of panic. You see, since moving from L.A., I haven’t given a flip over what I drive. Given how quickly vehicles depreciate, I take the view that you drive a car until even the tow truck operator refuses to help out.

Currently, I have 240,000 kilometers on my 2004 Honda Civic. That’s somewhere between a thousand and a million miles. I’ve never been good at converting. Now that the radio works again, I can turn it up loud enough to mostly tune out the high-pitched whistling that happens when I press the accelerator and the higher pitched screeching that sounds when I hit the brakes. Truthfully, all that racket is annoying. I keep the braking to a minimum. It’s okay. I’m up to date on car insurance.

Where I live, people don’t notice what you drive. If it’s not an extra large pickup truck with oversized, raised tires, it’s just an ordinary vehicle to get you where you’re going. (The real reason I booked this extended visit to L.A. is I was starting to like souped-up pickup trucks. My, what big tires you have!) Back home, my car doesn’t get good attention or bad attention. And I’m cool with that.

But Los Angeles is the most car conscious place I’ve been. In Texas, there’s a Baptist church on every corner; in L.A., there’s a car wash. The problem isn’t just that I haven’t washed my car in, oh, three years, maybe four. I tell myself the dirt doesn’t show on the silver exterior. But even with a wash, my lowly Civic is an eyesore amidst the glut of Mercedes, Jaguars, BMWs and those other “status” brands that, not surprisingly, I can’t even name. (In the neighborhood where I’m staying, only the gardeners drive pickup trucks. They dot the streets in the daytime, but mercifully clear out by 5 p.m.)

So I’ve got a couple of choices for getting to The Jonathan Club. I can park my car in the first empty space I find along Pacific Coast Highway and then walk the 1.8 miles to the club, trying to casually saunter past the valets giving each other knowing nods. Cheap. Then, I can try to find my way to a restroom and use a dozen paper towels to pat off the sweat. With luck, there will be a hand dryer and I can try to abate the massive armpit stains on my prized new shirt.

And it’s that shirt, tastefully adorned with tiny purple flowers—oh, the pickup drivers will notice this when I get back home—that makes me lean to Option Number Two. Must avoid the sweat-fest. I’ll have to drive right up to the valets and leave my key in the ignition. If that were all, I could walk quickly into the club without catching them surveying my car and exchanging those knowing nods. Cheap. (I think this is the real reason people tip valets. They know too much.)

But before a valet hops into the driver’s seat with the fully ripped upholstery and the foam bits popping out—my previous schnauzer liked to go on digging expeditions—I’ll have to give instructions. “I don’t have a clicker thingy to lock and unlock my car. You have go around to the passenger side. It’s the only keyhole that works. And you have to reach across to the driver’s side to lock/unlock the driver’s door. And don’t worry about any of the squeaking sounds when you drive. I got here all the way from Canada just fine. But try not to brake. Unless you’re carrying earplugs in your pocket.”

And then, and only then, I can walk away and head inside the exclusive beach club. First, of course, I’ll have to find that restroom for the self-patdown/blow-dry routine. I embarrass so easily. No doubt I’ll have to repeat all or part of the instructions. A valet may be a professional, but my rundown Civic is uncharted territory.

It’s my nervous energy that makes be check out my car with hours still to go before dinner. Good thing, too. I collect all the frozen yogurt containers and plastic spoons for disposal. And then I notice the dog kibble scattered all over the back seat. (I’m very considerate. Sometimes my dog gets a craving while I’m shoveling yogurt in my mouth.) I scoop the dog food into a handy frozen yogurt container. This is why I’m never in a rush to throw things away.

As I’m about to re-lock the car (from the passenger side, remember), I mistakenly glance forward and notice one more eyesore. There’s a curly crack that stretches across the entire windshield. It’s been there since before my last car wash, but it suddenly needs urgent attention.

 Alas. No time. I’ve got a flowery purple shirt to iron.

And I should leave early. Just in case.

But there is nothing like a nice dinner with friends. And there is nothing like having a wheezy, screeching, ancient Honda Civic to get around L.A.

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