Tess Vigeland: We spend a lot of time wringing our hands over consumerism in this country. The constant chase for status symbols, the acquisition of things. On the other hand, if we all just stopped buying things, our economy would come to a standstill.
Good thing we have people like comedian and actor Michael Ian Black to save us from such a destiny.
Michael Ian Black: I am a demographic. My car is a gunmetal gray 2007 BMW 328xi, and it's the fanciest thing I have ever bought myself. Like most other actions I undertake, its purchase was accompanied by a sense of terrible shame.
The first and most obvious reason for my shame was the financial indulgence. How could I possibly justify spending $42,000 on a car when I had not yet saved enough money for my children's college education?
I could not.
Did that stop me? It did not.
The second, deeper level of shame had to do with my own sense of self. I just never envisioned myself being the kind of guy who would drive a car like that. Because there is a type of guy who drives an expensive, finely tuned Bavarian automobile. That type of guy is commonly referred to as a "d-----bag."
Compounding my shame is the fact that I already own two perfectly good cars. Yes, they are getting old, but both remain operable. The first is a hulking Jeep Grand Cherokee that we bought before people cared about the earth. The second is my Volkswagen New Beetle, purchased because my wife, Martha, thought it was cute. Originally the car was hers, but now that we have two kids, it has become mine. I have never felt as defensive about a possession as I do about that Beetle.
"It's not a girl's car," I tell people. They don't even have to suggest otherwise for me to tell them this. I say it reflexively. Sometimes I say it when giving my order at the McDonald's drive-thru.
"Can I take your order?"
"It's not a girl's car."
But it is a girl's car. Moreover, it is a young girl's car. It is the Justin Bieber of automobiles. It's like driving around in a copy of Seventeen magazine. When you honk the horn, it squeals. It's simply not an appropriate vehicle for a fully grown, ruggedly handsome man such as myself.
I need a sexier car, a man's car. I need a BMW.
Deciding to buy the car is like getting into a hot bath after deliberately subjecting myself to the cold for as long as I could stand it. For years, I have identified myself as somebody who lives outside the demands of commerce; I became that perpetually teenage artist dancing on taxicab roofs. But what I never realized until this moment is that, not only am I currently a demographic, I always was one. The iconoclast is as well defined a demographic as the yuppie and the soccer mom and the redneck. We are all demographics. Even guys like me who do everything in our power to self-identify as "different"; in fact, the BMW 328xi is specifically marketed to people who think of themselves in exactly this way.
Marketers have thought of everything. They knew I would want this car before I even knew. Which is to say, they know me better than I know myself. Some people might find that creepy. I find it comforting. Because not only do they know me, they like me. They like anyone who steps into a BMW showroom, all of us craving the aggressive, masculine, deeply meaningful lifestyle embodied by these handsome automobiles with their taut steering. They know us because their only mission in life is to satisfy these deep American cravings that resonate across the vastness of our culture like whale songs.
I call every BMW dealer within a fifty-mile radius to ask for their best deal. I tell them exactly how I want my new Beemer tricked out. Yes, I want heated seats and GPS. No, I don't want the sport package because the online forums tell me it's a rip-off, even for kite-surfers such as my future self.
After a dozen calls, I manage to get the price knocked down a few thousand dollars. I order my car. They tell me two months. To make the long wait for the car more tolerable, BMW has thoughtfully created a website where I can check the progress of my car from its assemblage by wood nymphs in the Bavarian forests, to its transatlantic voyage on the QE2, through its final transport to my dealership borne on the wings of angels.
Two months later, as promised, it arrives.
Martha drives me to the dealership to pick it up.
"I'll meet you at home," she says.
Yes, good. Let us meet at home some time in the future.
Right now, I need some alone time with the car. I spend the first twenty minutes of our time together just admiring how good I look in it. My God, I am handsome in this car. Picture a cowboy riding a bucking great white shark. That's pretty much how I look.
On the drive home, I dawdle at stoplights, waiting for panties to be thrown at me through my open window. I careen through narrow turns on the country roads near my home at speeds marginally higher than the posted speed limit. I am James Dean.
I love my new car. I park it in conspicuous places. I go to the car wash all the time. One time I buy and use an aerosol can of hubcap cleaner.
With time, however, my excitement over the new car diminishes. The kids inject irretrievable food morsels into the rear seat folds, the creamy leather becomes stained from my blue jeans, the fuel consumption is a bit on the greedy side.
Then, several thousand miles later, something wonderful happens. It's a small thing. While I am driving one day, the built-in video monitor on my dashboard informs me the oil needs to be changed. I like the way it tells me this: "The oil needs to be changed," not "You need to change the oil." The distinction is subtle but important. The car knows I am incapable of changing the oil myself and does not judge me for it.
My BMW loves me despite my ignorance. It does not care that I'm a flawed driver, that I often take turns too wide and occasionally stall out on steep hills.
The car likes me for who I am. Just a guy pretty much like millions of other guys. In fact, she tells me how much she likes me each time I push her little start button. Not with words, but with the smooth purr of her engine. You are just like everybody else, she tells me as we glide down the interstate, just like everybody else...
I find the thought oddly comforting. All of us speeding toward the same destinations, singing along to the same old songs on the radio, tumbling the same quiet thoughts over and over in our minds. None of us better than the other. All of us the same. Except that I have a nicer car.
Vigeland: Actor Michael Ian Black, reading from his book "You're Not Doing It Right."
“I think the best compliment I can give is not to say how much your programs have taught me (a ton), but how much Marketplace has motivated me to go out and teach myself.” – Michael in Arlington, VABEFORE YOU GO