I AM a fellow with middle-class values and a lower-class, or journalist's, salary, but this year I decided to do my shopping on Rodeo Drive. I figured that, even if I couldn't afford the $22,000 watch at Fred Joailliers or the $280 nylons at Fogal, I could at least enjoy the holiday bonhomie along this three-block stretch that has been called ``the most staggering display of luxury in the Western world.'' I was wrong.
The first thing I found out was that I didn't have the stomach for it. Just about every store I went into, someone wanted to give me spiced eggnog, cappuccino, or some other brew. It was usually accompanied by a spread of sweets that I hadn't seen since the last GOP fund-raiser.
I finally wandered into Ralph Lauren, assuming that it, surely, wouldn't have refreshments. But after climbing the mahogany staircase to the second floor, I noticed a bar where a man in starchy clothes was serving just about any tea or tonic you wanted. Presumably, one can get quite thirsty looking at flannel sheets and twill trousers.
``Belly on up to the bar,'' suggested a clerk, after I asked him about the service. ``If you don't, someone from Iowa will.''
I did not volunteer that I am from Minnesota.
Like other novice shoppers who are attracted to Rodeo Drive, I hoped to see some celebrities while shopping, which is why we novice shoppers come here anyway. I did bump into a few, though they didn't all know it. When I went into Sharper Image just off Rodeo Drive, for instance, I found out that I had just missed Michael Jackson. He had come in to check out the latest gadgets, wearing, as he frequently does, a disguise - in this case a beard and false teeth.
The clerks, familiar with his stealthy antics, knew who he was; the customers were fooled. Mr. Jackson left after a brief sojourn but not before signing, undetected, a seven-foot blowup Santa Claus the store had on display.
``How much is this?'' an unmistakable voice said. I was looking at sunglasses in Theodore Man, a clothing store. Turning around, I saw Jack Lemmon. Thin, silver-thatched, wearing plaid pants, he was examining a coat that looked like one we used to wear partridge hunting in northern Minnesota. This one, though, was of a fine, silklike material and had a fashionable unstructured look.
``Fifteen hundred dollars,'' the clerk said.
``I'll have to bring my wife back in to see it,'' said Mr. Lemmon, and left. I put down the $140 sunglasses and left, saying I, too, would be back, though my tone didn't carry the conviction of Mr. Lemmon's.
Outside, twilight was beginning to settle on Rodeo. The poinsettias lining the middle of the street were fading from view, while the lights in the gumdrop-shaped trees along the sidewalks were twinkling to life.
Not having much time left, I hurried down the street, avoiding the stores you need an appointment to get into and the ones with security guards standing out front. I checked out the $15,000 paintings by Sylvester Stallone at the Hanson Gallery.
I gawked at a $4,400 silk suit at Giorgio Armani, a $3,700 handbag at Gucci, and $16,000 evening wear at Chanel. I dipped into Tiffanys, dawdled at Pierre Duex, and strode past Ted Lapidus.
What I ended up buying was a $39 sweatshirt from BB1 and a salt-and-pepper set in the shape of a toaster from Steve of Beverly Hills around the corner.
Mostly what I picked up, though, were a lot of boxes that said Rodeo Drive, which I later used for gifts bought at malls - a fitting end to shopping in image-minded L.A.