AS an esteemed member of the Fourth Estate (a journalist who has not been fired recently), I felt it was my duty once again to put myself at personal risk for the sake of readers everywhere.
Compelled by the pressman's canon to play surrogate eyes and ears for those with less time or courage, I accepted the task of investigating the welfare of those at the other end of the economic spectrum: really rich people. My mission (impossible?): Pierce the shell of exclusivity surrounding Rodeo Drive, the four-block-long retail stretch at the heart of Beverly Hills.
At stores here, one must often buzz for entry and be greeted by a string of foreign-speaking attaches who lead you by the hand into ever-more-exclusive inner sanctums. In the hushed secrecy of a windowless back room, the simple information you came for is often whispered by a monacled man with French accent: ''Za price on za necklace in za vindow is $2.1 million, monsieur - a very good buy for 27 carats.''
Once a homey, nondescript street with stores like Elizabeth's Teacakes and the Luau Restaurant, Rodeo Drive in the mid-'70s began its ascent toward becoming one of the most upscale shopping districts in the world.
Names like Chanel, Gucci, and Cartier took up shop. Giorgio was born. Top clothiers followed: Gianfranco Ferre, Battaglia, Ferragamo. From 1978 to 1990, the short street became synonymous with opulence, as international jet-setters flew in from Japan, Europe, and the Middle East just to shop. Worldwide, Rodeo Drive was mentioned in the same breath as Bond Street in London, Tokyo's Ginza, and Manhattan's Fifth Avenue.
The untouchable image was reflected in popular culture as well. Julia Roberts shopped here with the aid of snooty attendants in the movie ''Pretty Woman.'' Clothes were paid for by a billionaire businessman played by Richard Gere.
But my tell-it-like-it-is foray into richville has discovered that times have changed. A not-so-funny thing happened on the way to the '90s, culminating in something called ''The Worst California Recession Since the Depression.''
It turns out that Rodeo Drive had become so pricey and so exclusive that many shops failed for lack of customers. Goggle-eyed tourists flocked in, treating the area as a curiosity rather than a viable shopping district. By some estimates, 40 percent of retail space was empty, having moved to more buyer-friendly locales.
In response, various steps to make Rodeo Drive more accessible were taken. Affordable, off-street lots were built to address the chronic parking problem. More stores catering to more kinds of wallets moved in.
''Rodeo Drive was getting lots of negative publicity and needed to come back to the real world,'' says Peggy Goodwin, marketing manager for a new, less upscale shopping area on Rodeo Drive.
In 1993, her firm (Jones, Lang, Wootton) was called in to manage ''2 Rodeo,'' a two-story retail center that had stood 40 percent empty since opening in 1990. The European piazza with columned buildings, stairways, and a quaint street was a clear casualty of the shallower pockets of California's rich and famous.
By redefining the luxury goods market - aimed at $50,000-per-year incomes rather than $500,000-and-up, says Ms. Goodwin - the development has rented 95 percent of its stores.
Perhaps, more important, the rest of the street has followed suit. ''We now have something for every pocketbook,'' said Laura Weisberg, manager of Gianfranco Ferre, which just sold a $13,000 dress to actress Sharon Stone.
Pointing me toward a rack of $250 scarves and $100 ties, she says, ''You can afford these, no?''
Now, more of the familiar names like Ralph Lauren are sprinkled among the superglitz. More restaurants too. And plans are on the table to better unify Rodeo Drive with surrounding streets to compete with other popular pedestrian destinations here such as Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade and Old Town Pasadena.
You can still find the $788,000 diamond necklace at Cartier and several $5,000-and-up watches. But today, you can find some decent jeans too.
So, that's the news from the international retail front, Southern California sector. Shopping's a dangerous business, but somebody's got to cover it.