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Test drive

"Jake," I said, "Whaddya look for in a car?"

"Steering wheel. Tires. Engine. Brakes are important."

"I mean when you collect on the lawsuit. What kind of car will you buy?"

"I don’t have a lawsuit pending," Ferretti said while trying to light a Marlboro. A cough extinguished the match. He wiped his mouth on a flannel sleeve covered with cement dust. Something good had to come out of the additives, I thought. Maybe white lung disease.

I grabbed the matches. On the cover was an advertisement for Ace & Acme Attorneys-at-Law. At the bottom of the menu was Slip ’N’ Fall.

"Lemme light that cancer stick for you. I’ll take two for myself. One for now and one for later when I make the phone call. Deduct them from my pay."

We were seated outside a 19th century brick brownstone in Corktown. It was being restored. Ferretti was in charge of rebuilding the chimney.

"Look at that scaffolding." I said. "It’s built outta used lumber. There’s nails stickin’ out and scraps of brick on the platform. It’s an accident waitin’ to happen. I’m gonna file suit against the contractor," I said.

"I’m the contractor," Ferretti answered. "You’re the laborer. That means only one of us is paid to talk."

But I was already speechless. Something had turned the corner. It was moving like a steel prince. The sun reflected off the chrome trim. Bare branches were mirrored in the gold paint. It was fierce and sleek and civilized.

"It makes ya proud to be from Detroit," Ferretti said, "a car like that."

PUSHING BUTTONS

I sprinted into the street. There was a screech and a wince and a big existential nothing.

"Ist du alright?" the driver said. She had blond hair and sapphire eyes and a foreign accent.

"Yeah," I said. "Unfortunately. The problem with your car is that the brakes are too good." The woman fondled her Mace.

"Don’t worry," I said. "Carjacking was a fad. What has endured is the lawsuit. Why don’t you let me get in the passenger seat while you drive into that ol’ Ford F-150 heap that’s parked illegally?"

But Ferretti had already moved his truck. He drove over the curb and parked behind us on the street. He honked his horn.

"Welcome to America," I said.

"Everyone ist in eine hurry here," she said.

"Instant gratification," I said. "It ain’t like Europe."

The woman stepped out of the car and introduced herself as a marketing executive from Germany.

I stepped into the car and introduced myself as the American Consumer.

I adjusted the eight-way power seat and eyeballed the 4-speed automatic transmission. I felt like an astronaut. My mission was to back into Ferretti’s truck.

"Manifest Destiny," I said. "Americans need space. This is a refined-looking rocket. A Chrysler 300M? D’ya mind if we take it for a test drive?"

Ferretti stumbled into the front seat. He told the German exec that Detroit was the world capital of assisted suicide. The warning went over her head.

The 300M is a four-door sedan designed to take clients to Happy Hour via the Alps. It puts business and sport into one low-down package. The German woman stooped to sit in back.

"Daimler-Benz just bought Chrysler," she said. "It should be ein beautiful wedding of German engineering and American marketing genius. I want to get to know the American market. Please take das car for a drive. Tell me how you think. Don’t be too polite."

"The car’s a lot bigger on the inside," Ferretti said while waving his hands like a tai chi master on speed. He followed the graceful contours of the console and dashboard. He punched the buttons of the radio and CD player and automatic door locks. The German woman gulped.

"How much?" Ferretti asked.

"$30,000 American," she answered. "The car undercuts certain imports by $10,000. Volvo and Acura and Lexus and Saab might rival its performance. But they can’t rival its price on the showroom floor or at the gas pump. It takes midgrade fuel. A pfennig saved is a pfennig earned."

"You’ve been doing homework," I said. "But there’s things about the American mind-set that gotta be learned outta school."

"Guns and lawyers," Ferretti said. "That’s American culture. Along with Kmart and Jerry Springer and downsizing and eternal youth. The drive-in movie is dead. The drive-through hamburger stand now carries the baton of history. And the car wash will endure for a thousand years."

THE AMERICAN PRINCE

I cranked the V-6.

"Just feather the accelerator," Ferretti said. "The essence of glamour is to travel slightly underflexed."

We drove away from the sleepy streets of Corktown. We got to a stop sign. I looked right and left. I floored the beast.

"Zero to 60 in under eight seconds," the German woman said. "The car’s got a mean streak underneath its civilized skin. The designers took its profile from Alfa Romeo and its soul from Machiavelli. The Chrysler 300M is an entry-level luxury car designed for export to Europe. It’s not meant to be a bowlegged American King of the Road. It’s meant to be a nifty American Prince."

"We gotta see what kinda manners it has in the corners," Ferretti said. "Pull into a Burger King. Order a Whopper and a large fry and a extra-large Coke. Put everything on your lap. Accelerate through a long curve and pass an 18-wheeler while stuffing your face. Check your teeth in the mirror. Change the radio station. See if you emerge without wearing your lunch. That’ll tell ya if the car’s fit for the American consumer."

Already I was drooling. I thought the Chrysler 300M was the nicest mix of soulfulness and commercialism to come outta Detroit since Anita Baker.

So I took a detour to the music store. We bought a CD and turned it up loud.

"Nice stereo," the girl at the Burger King drive-through said. "Aren’t you guys a little old to be asking for bibs?"

"Test drive," we answered.

We crept outta the parking lot under cruise control. It worked fine. I steered with my knees while licking my fingers. We took a bump on Jefferson Avenue without spilling a drop.

"Four wheel independent suspension," the German woman said. "Goodyear Eagle LS tires. There’s dual air bags for the larger American chuckholes. Do you know that in France they put ketchup in their milkshakes? It makes them feel American."

The German woman laughed at her own joke. "It’s fun to be international. This car is made in Canada."

I choked. I barely resisted spraying burger-matter on the leather trim.

"It’s OK," Ferretti said. "The car still keeps Detroit on the map."

We lost our appetites while traveling behind an 18-wheeler carrying hogs to the Eastern Market. It gave me an opportunity to test the power windows and air conditioning and 3.5 liter aluminum V-6. The Chrysler 300M rose to the occasion. Naturally, I had to lift the bar.

"To make a high-speed pass while eating a hamburger is one thing. To make a high-speed pass while eating a hamburger and talking on the cellular phone is another. And to make a high-speed pass while eating a hamburger and talking on the cellular phone and getting oral sex would be the greatest test of all."

I glanced in the rearview mirror at the German lady. She reached for her Mace.

"Just kiddin’" I said. "Oral sex? It’s just another fad. What’s endured is the lawsuit."

ZEITGEIST

Ferretti wouldn’t let me get near the Whitney or the opera. "Forget the fake American aristocracy," he said. "Kids are our true snobs. They drive the country’s Zeitgeist.

"There’s one way to tell if a car has gut-mystique," Ferretti continued. "Take it to the car wash. See if kids makin’ minimum wage treat it with class. See if they think you’ve handled your good fortune wisely. Do they run to drive the car off the line? Do they change the radio back to the oldies station? Do they steal nickels off the console? Do they stand back afterward to look at their own reflections in the finish?"

I drove to a car wash outside of Corktown. A kid with a gold tooth and a nose ring took our order for the Deluxe Inside-Out with the Peach Perfume and Buff-O-Matic wax job.

He didn’t even look at the German blonde. He looked at the Chrysler 300M. Then he did a very democratic thing. He offered us all a cigarette.

"Thanks," I said. "Ya know that you can sue cigarette companies for millions. The bad part is ya gotta die first. It strengthens your case."

"That’s okay," he said while admiring the car. "When I die and come back a lil’ older and richer? I’ll get me one of these."

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