It was 1987, and conspicuous consumption was in. That’s how come mother toyed with the idea of getting a Mercedes, and I guess it’s how come dad came to be looking at Lincolns to replace his decade-old Cutlass Supreme. Disco Stu hadn’t bought it, so dad and I drove it out to look at a car in Thornton or Arvada or Lakewood or Wheat Ridge or one of those others that used to be a whole lot more far-flung from Denver than I imagine they must now be.
It was a 1980 Lincoln Continental Town Car with 56,000 miles on it. I’d say the seller was straight out of Central Casting, but that’s wrong; the seller wasn’t straight out of anywhere. Quite awhile after American TV sitcoms cut down on openly using cartoonish stereotypes for cheap laffs at the expense of Black people and Native Americans and women and Jews and Asians, gay people were still considered fair game. There were a few stock caricatures, one of which was a grey-haired man, very animated about the face and arms, frequently giggling to himself, and with an exaggerated Southern accent of one kind or another. Think “Gomer Pyle” but in his 60s and more ridiculous than funny, and you’re roughly in the right Naborhood. That was the owner of this Lincoln.
The idea was raised of a trade, and the three of us piled into the Cutlass: me in the back, dad riding shotgun, and Mr. Seller in the driving seat. First thing he did was tilt the steering wheel down until it was vertical, like the yoke in a vintage airplane. People actually do that? I guess. Dad and I fastened our seatbelts, whereupon Mr. Seller held forth with a monologue about how even babies know to reject seatbelts: “I’ll tell you what, if you have ever heard a little one screaming and crying because it is restrained!“. For those keeping score at home, that’s 2/2 Cutlass-lookers bearing anti-seatbelt screeds. And that’s the end of the storyline for the Cutlass; I don’t recall if a trade deal was made or it was offloaded elsewise.
Dad took the Town Car to a service station and they generated a long dot-matrix printout on pin-feed, fan-fold paper—four pages of it, as I recall—listing everything they found wrong with it. Several oil leaks, several faulty sensors and actuators, “air pump not disabling properly”, and on and on and on. I’ll never know why dad bought the car anyhow. Third bum choice in a row; all I can guess is that he hated car-shopping and wished to do as little of it as possible, even if it meant winding up with a bad car. He was exceedingly bright and intelligent, generally thoughtful and wise, and he completely understood the principle and practice of prudent economics—we buy the store-brand butter because it’s every bit as good but costs less because we’re not paying for advertising; we buy the large size of whatever because it costs less overall even though it costs more upfront; we carefully do our research to figure out what product or service will best match the needs at hand, then shop around to find the best price. All of that, but car-shopping and -picking were in his blind spot, as it seems.
For a brief, shining instant, the car seemed exceptionally fine. Dad pulled up outside the house in this luxurious 2-tone thing, Dark Cordovan Metallic over (faded-to-coral) Bittersweet Metallic Moondust. Lincoln Continental Town Car; even its four-word name sounded ritzy, and sister (14) and I (11) ran out to oogle it. That evening we went for ice cream. In the new car, of course. To Toddy’s, of course. Toddy’s was an upscale supermarket of the kind one found in the yuppie ’80s in a neighbourhood like Greenwood Village, about 10 or 15 minutes away from where we lived. Carpeted floors, tasteful lighting, an ice cream bar where you could sit and listen to ’50s tunes off the Seeburg—three plays for two bits, and a giant 2-scoop cone for 50¢, because ’50s nostalgia was also ascendant in the ’80s—and after you’d paid for your groceries they’d disappear into a fireplace-sized window in the front wall. You’d drive round the side and your order would be loaded into your car for you, then you’d drive off. Very posh.
So we drove over to Toddy’s to get ice cream. Boccherini’s Minuet (I’m not making this up, you know) played on the radio as sister and I smirked at each other from opposite ends of the cushy, pillowy, crushed-velour sofa in the back of that dream car, twenny foot long: this is so choice; can you believe this?!
A few years earlier sister had come home from school, walked into our 3,400-square-foot home, and asked mother if we were poor. Mother told her to go outside, look at the house, then come back in and ask again, which sister did. Mother’s attempt at socratic teaching having failed, she asked what made sister think so: her rich classmates in chichi Cherry Creek schools were telling her we must be poor because she didn’t have designer-brand clothes and we lived in a subdivision built all the way back in icky old 1967.
Me, I was in the first of my two years at a snooty (snooty?), snotty (snotty!) private school up in one of the moneyed neighbourhoods off Colorado Boulevard—a “country day school” where young upper-crusters are taught and encouraged to identify, despise, and deniably torture those beneath them. Daily pickups and dropoffs were see-and-be-seen pageants where castes were determined by the hood ornament on money and daddy’s car. Many Mercedeses, plenty of Porsches and Bimmers. High-spec Suburbans and Wagoneers with prominently-displayed decals from Vail and Aspen. Cadillacs and Lincolns…well, they were probably good enough to let the servants drive, so as long as they were recent enough to be presentable they still held enough prestige to leave room below for the untouchables the school used as proof of bighearted charity: the girl whose father drove her to school each day in his Dodge Diplomat yellow taxicab, the one whose dad had a ’75ish Cutlass with green paint brushed and rollered on. Those kids were the only ones without someone below them to scorn. In that context, the Town Car fooled nobody. If you think kids are cruel in general, you’re right; now try wealthy kids, the rich ones below them, and the desperately-wannabes below that lot.
There’s a word in Canadian English: hosey. It’s an adjective; it means something that thinks it’s classy but is actually tacky. It’s not necessarily a pejorative; there are times hosey Chinese food is exactly what’s wanted: wonton soup, egg rolls with bright red sugar-and-cornstarch sauce, sweet-and-sour pork with pineapple chunks and more of that bright red sauce, broccoli beef, –
Bits Chopped Small Fried– House Special Chow Mein, and fortune cookies at a restaurant with buzzing neon signs and dragon decor all over the place. But outside the gates of the Country Day School (fuh-fuh-fuh-fuh!), that ’80 Town Car was too old, too American, too passé; trying feebly and failing utterly. Hosey in the worst sense.