DAY 2: Covering The Story
There is something that must be understood about large industry events, independent of what industry you’re in: they do not exist in isolation. They all support a much larger ecosystem of smaller shows, as well as industry and corporate events, like a whale shark cruising through the ocean, with the smaller events coasting in the main event’s wake and feeding off of the remaining disposable income of the wealthy that attend. Most of the actual Big News Debuts, not to mention the lion’s share of the schmoozing and networking, goes on at these corporate side events – everyone’s too busy actually working during the main event. And with the corporate events, the company running things is doing so for precisely two reasons: to convince rich people to buy their products, and to ply for some good press from writers, because we are, as a general rule, very broke and like driving expensive cars, eating expensive food and drinking expensive booze on someone else’s dime.
All of these reasons mean that attendance at any of them is very, very tightly regulated, and generally unavailable if you’re not already on the list of outlets that whatever manufacturer is running the events wants to woo, and I was on precisely zero of those lists. There was nothing that could be done about any of the corporate drives or debuts, but because Mr. Hardigree is a very fine individual, he threw my name on the list of people for press credentials at one of the few public events that’s as difficult to get into as the Concours itself: The Quail. The most prestigious show during Monterey Car Week that isn’t the Concours proper, The Quail focuses more on Post-War era cars than the Pre-War classics of Pebble Beach. It took place on the practice lawn at the resort’s golf course, penned in by manufacturer displays on all sides and overlooked by the very central coastal California white-painted ranch-style clubhouse. Being considerably smaller than Pebble and ostensibly more relaxed, I saw The Quail as an opportunity to start off slow and use what I saw as a relatively low-pressure environment to build up some confidence.
Which, after I managed to get lost trying to find the actual event – twice – wasn’t really off to a running start. The parking lot at the event was practically a show in and of itself; the organizers had specially roped-off parking for drivers of particularly interesting or expensive cars that they didn’t want sat with the hoi polloi, and manufacturer booths lined the road for those who were willing to sell a piece of their digital soul for a test drive. More manufacturers lined the practice lawn’s edges, with the proper entrants covering the grass itself in different categories, ranging from Pre and Post-War sports and racing cars to retrospectives saluting Aston Martin, Lamborghini, and the California Mille rally in memorial of deceased founder Martin Swig.
It was a reasonably relaxed affair in retrospect, not that I felt relaxed in any way. I stalled for time and confidence by taking a few dozen pictures, but I could only procrastinate on the interviews for so long. So, I gathered as much courage as I could muster, approached the first person who looked slightly bored and was hovering around one of the cars on display, and performed the first interview I’d ever done in my life – and promptly made a complete hash of it.
In the interest of complete transparency and to fully paint the picture of what it was like, the interview – and all the interviews – will be presented in raw and unedited audio format so that you may fully digest how gracious and thoughtful my interview subjects were and how much of a rolling catastrophe I was.
Between my constant nervous vocal tics and my phone hooting in the poor man’s face as I used it as an ersatz recorder, it’s a wonder he was able to understand any of my questions, let alone reply intelligently. Next time, I vowed, I would maintain control. This was my piece, and I would manage whatever interview I could get with the California Mille people like a big boy.
By forcing the topic down his throat from the outset. In the moment, yanking on the tiller of the conversation seemed like a reasonable thing to do, but the desperation of the act is pretty clear. And what was worse, it didn’t work. I could hear his answers falling more and more outside the narrative I was trying to construct as we went along. His unabashedly logical preference for a time when cars don’t burst into flame and wrap you in a jagged metal cocoon felt instead like it was trapping my story – but only momentarily. As I wondered if I’d only get a few pictures and an impressive sunburn from my time at the Quail, my last interview subject leveraged his advantage of actually knowing who the people around us were and pointed out my next one, standing behind me, who kindly put down his heavy case of car care products long enough for an interview.
I can take no credit for the quality of the interview here. Having failed to mute my phone, it went off several times during the interview, and I was so focused on keeping to my notes that I actually said, “Mmhmm, that’s good,” like I had checked out of the interview that I was conducting. His responses elevated my mumbling questions into something thoughtful, and gave me a degree of hope. Perhaps the article could turn around the changes in car culture over the years, how we’ve gone from automobiles as wonders of modern technology to wonders of design and passion to victims of mass production. As I pillaged the four different high-end catered “cafes” for free food and beer, that interview – not to mention the beer – helped me feel like I had left the morning’s fuck-ups behind me and was finally starting to get a handle on Covering The Story. My plan might have taken a few direct hits, but it was still running strong and I hadn’t completely lost the plot.
But that better understanding did not extend to what I was supposed to be doing when I wasn’t running around with a notepad in my hand and shoving my smartphone in people’s faces. I had, by that point, studiously avoided saying much of anything at all to the kind folks I was sharing a rental house with. In comparison with me, they were all august professionals in the field by the simple dint of having drawn a paycheck putting words in order, and I was acutely aware that I was more awash in unknown unknowns than Donald Rumsfeld ever was. So, I decided that it was best to avoid removing all doubt as to my stupidity and kept my mouth shut. It didn’t make for a particularly enlivened time off the shows, but since everyone else was busy with manufacturing events and the day-to-day efforts of writing articles, there wasn’t a lot of fraternizing to be had, anyway.
Until dinner rolled along. Privileged members of the automotive press can surf from event to event, never having anything that wasn’t prepared by a high-end catering company and provided for free cross their lips, and while we weren’t quite so enriched, Mr. Travis Okulski still managed to finagle invitations for all of us to that most shameless and shameful of high-end parties, the Playboy Magazine party. I like to consider myself a somewhat-enlightened Third Wave feminist, and so I planned on politely declining the invitation to the Old White Guys Objectifying Women gala – until it was mentioned that it’d be where we’d be getting free food for the night, whereupon any moral objections I might have had were overridden, because, you know, free food. A house had been rented off 17 Mile Drive for the event, so we all dressed in appropriately Party Formal attire and cruised off into the incoming fog.
As I climbed out of the back of the Bentley at the valet and stepped onto the estate’s private drive, I wondered what the people that originally bought the cars shown at the Concours would have made of this. Would the Rockefellers and Roosevelts approved of posing with scantily clad women just for the right to brag that you touched a culturally sanctioned sex symbol? Would the Kennedys and Astors condone this corporate-sponsored exercise of safe excess? Of course they fucking would – flying high on the money from their rail and oil monopolies that fueled our nation’s industrialization, profiteering off of Reconstruction or Prohibition, or simply money from time immemorial, the upper-crust of the Pre-War era would have felt right at home in the conspicuous wealth. Fine booze flowed freely, and chefs prepared tiny portions of flagrantly expensive food. Kobe beef sliders topped with thirty dollars of black truffle each to start, and purple potato gnocchi with fresh crab to finish as the fog closed in the night overlooking a small grove of trees perfect for summertime relaxation or organized hunts of local miscreants.
But that gilded smile of hospitality was very much not aimed in my direction. Having dodged the “Picture with a Playmate” gauntlet, I snaked my way through the crowd of expensive suits straight for the bar. Ignoring the special drink designed for the event, I asked for an simple Old Fashioned, which, lacking bitters, sugar, or bourbon – bourbon – they couldn’t make. Consolation whiskey and fifty buck slider in hand, I took the chance to wander the back deck of the house and ended up at the very back corner of the party. As I sipped my drink, I idly checked in on who was blowing up whom in the Middle East and wondered, for the umpteenth time that weekend, what I was doing there. Wealth, excess, parties, this was an environment I didn’t understand, operating by rules I didn’t know.
I sighed, and finished my drink. Fuck it. If I didn’t get it by this point, I wasn’t going to get it. Trying to blend in was not worth the effort; the only way I was going to see this through was to tackle it on my own terms and enjoy what I could. In celebration of this moment of surrender, I grabbed a cigar and headed down to find the others staying at the Gawker Media house, reasoning that if nothing else, I’d know when we were heading out and wouldn’t have to spend any longer than absolutely necessary.
I found them all bunched up against the balcony next to one of the bars, talking with a few other people I didn’t recognize. Mr. Chris Mascari laughed and remarked that it made sense that I was the first one to show up with a cigar – for what reason I was not and and still am not sure – and as I got another drink from the bar, I realized that everyone from the Gawker house that had come was all hovering in the same area. Somewhere out there celebrities and the wealthy roamed through the mist, the whales that the corporate presences overseeing this event were looking to spear, and then there was the other party off to the side populated by those invited to give a few kind words for their product, and that I was actually welcome there. Once I wandered in from off of the periphery, Hardigree, Okulski and Mascari quickly introduced me to those not staying at the house, and then…there were just conversations, with people. I might not have been at home in the opulence and status, but I saw neither really were they. For the first time that week, I felt that I had found a bit of common ground to stand on with those I was sharing a house with. If nothing else, while the article might have been floundering, I, at least, was starting to right myself in the fog.