It took a Mercedes to teach me humility

My brother-in-law had this car. Actually he's my wife's cousin's husband, whatever you call that. In Filipino families it doesn't much matter. Anyway, he had this car, and it was sitting unused outside their home in Daly City, Calif., which is just south of San Francisco.

Me, I was sitting at a desk in the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., near where they found the anthrax, though that was later. A call came. Would I like to move to northern California to start a new institute? It would be in a small town on the coast, exquisite country. A house would be included at reasonable rent. A tough decision, this. The only thing: I'd have to get a car.

I'm not a car guy and never have been. I think "car," and I see money disappearing down a hole. I see one, and I'm glad someone else is paying. That's on top of the environmental concerns. My last car was a used Super Beetle that I bought in 1976 for, I think, $800. (I bought it from a federal bureaucrat who included a file folder with the receipts for every repair job and tune-up, in chronological order.) That figure - $800 - stuck in my mind as the proper baseline for an economy vehicle. Now when I checked the car ads in the paper. I felt as though a sump pump was hooking up to my bank account.

My general approach to life is to take things slow because something usually comes along. And it did, in the form of the car on the street in Daly City. They would loan it to us; we'd have to pay only the insurance and repairs. But there's something I haven't told you yet. My in-law was the driver for a wealthy Filipino couple, and when they bought a new car they gave him the old one. It was a Mercedes, 1976 model, 240D, known in Mercedes circles as not the quickest car on the block. But still, a Mercedes.

It is said we attract our dilemmas and this was mine. If there is anything I like less than a car, it is a car that attracts attention - anything that attracts attention. I wouldn't mind winning a National Book Award or a three-point shooting contest. But generally I tend to slink off into the night. I dress so as not to be noticed. At social gatherings I hang around the edges and exit through the back door. On top of that, I have spent most of my working life on causes generally associated with the "little guy."

So now I was going to drive around in a Mercedes with that telltale medallion sticking up in front - my own personal and peculiar cross?

I anguished over this. Two sides of my nature that usually are allies were suddenly at war - frugality on the one side, an aversion to self-display on the other. If I bought a car, my savings would go down the hole. If I took the Mercedes, I saw George Will in his bow tie appearing at my door to expose "the advocate for the little guy who drives around in a Mercedes." I wondered if I could meet Mr. Will at the diner in town so he wouldn't see the car in the driveway. Or would that just make him suspicious?

I was new in town, a small town, and people would make inferences from the car. They'd expect me to give large amounts to local causes. Then they'd think me wealthy and cheap to boot. But then, wouldn't I offend my in-laws if I didn't take their gift?

I went back and forth for about a month. My wife became exasperated, as she usually does when I work myself into these bouts of indecision. (She doesn't drive, so the ball pretty much was in my court.) In the end, the thought of paying $12,000 or more for an automobile - a cheap automobile - was just too much. I swallowed my pride and now I drive a car that is decomposing inside, moves like a truck, has no radio and a doddering defrost, but which makes me look as though I have a pile of dough.

Not long after I took the car, I gave a lift to a man who lives in the nearby seniors' residence. He used to sell Mercedeses, he said, sold some just like this one. He remembered the color: tobacco brown.

I still wince a little when I say the word Mercedes - or even just type it - in connection with myself. I'm still a bit too quick to assert the third-world immigrant working-class pedigree of this seemingly pricey vehicle. I still want to shout this information out the window when someone in town sees me drive by. But when we make a decision, life takes shape around it. Pretty soon we have a new normal, and my new normal with a tobacco-brown Mercedes hasn't been too bad.

It gets decent mileage. Since I changed the windshield it stays reasonably dry. Environmentally, these old diesels are not great - better than internal combustion engines in some respects, worse in others. But we don't drive much, and I'm thinking of converting to biodiesel anyway. At least it's on my list.

I like to muse on how it took a Mercedes to teach me a little about humility. Virtue is in relation to our temptation and to our pride. Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling's trial would be to live on $35,000 a year. Mine is to appear to be Mercedes class. We can be proud of having little or proud of having much, and pride is the problem, not the little or much.

But best of all, this car is not fun to drive. It is steady as a sow, but slow and boxy and it crawls up hills. To start it you have to pull a throttle and wait for something called the "glow plug" to turn red. It is not what you would call quick out of the blocks - sort of like myself, now that I think about it.

As I chug along, the defroster wheezing, the new models whizzing by, I think, hey, if it takes another 10 minutes to get where I'm going, what's the big deal? I'm in the slow lane, where I've been going all along, in a car that, for all my worry, is starting to feel like a friend.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.