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God in the Machine: The San Francisco International Car Show

God in the Machine: The San Francisco International Car Show

by Binoy Kampmark

A puzzle when one turns up to a San Francisco social or business event. What to wear? Silicon valley types will don the worn jeans, shadowed by stains in the company of a jacket. The girls will glam up, overdoing the make-up like a heavy mask, walking in skyscraper stilettos and wearing dresses tighter than wetsuits. Every social event in this city is a singles event, a permanent maneuvering between the sexes, a highly developed form of guerilla warfare.

Tonight though, the biological pacing will take second place to the God in the machine, out on full show in San Francisco’s 53rd International Auto Show at the Moscone Centre. This is a materialist wonderland, not quite up there with the German auto state (Autostadt) of Wolfsburg, but certainly a chapel dedicated to four-wheeled titans in permanent competition with each other. Well, then, an abbreviated list of the 36 brands on show to wet the appetite of patrons: Aston Martin, Audi, Bentley, BMW, Buick, Cadillac, Jaguar, Kia, Lamborghini, Scio, Subaru, Porsche, Rolls Royce and Volvo.

The God, having come out of the machine, plays with the patrons. The San Francisco Academy of Art University has added some rich sauce to tempt the visitors: an exquisite collection of classic cars. There are 37 on show spanning the 1920s to 1960s, representing, as the show advertisement goes, ‘the Elegance, Style, Craftsmanship, Technology and Innovative spirit of each era.’ Such enthusiasm, such excitement, and so many capitalized words. ‘Fine tax dodge,’ murmurs a businessman, cheeks reddened by drink as he surveys the array, catching sight of a cheeky, red outlined 1931 Cord L29 Cabriolet. Then, the conversation moves to engine power - the lingua franca of small boys in search of very big and very naughty toys.

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Adults spontaneously immature before the assortment of cars, wanting to feel the interiors of various vehicles with hot fingers and eager palms. There are juvenile squeals of delight. There is much squawking. Then, an exchange of various sums of money. The marriage between the seducible customer, the svelte dressed ladies in black advertising the product, and the car sale, is complete and consummated. ‘The last time I came to this show,’ recalled one of the socialites between sips, ‘a “free” event turned out to be very expensive.’ The wife – a perfect scapegoat.

The food is endless – ham buns (‘Light on the mustard hun’); beef buns with bulging, overhanging slices, and various other incongruous buns from the outer reaches of some unspecified planet. Seafood hors d’æuvres follow to pad the stomach from the ravages of rapidly drunk Iron Horse bubbly, a full but not too buttery Chardonnay and a light, somewhat thin Pinot Noir that teases rather than seduces the palette.

Many are not looking at the cars, feeling that the best activity is to be found around the bar area, of which they are several. ‘Give it to me,’ grunts a lady clad in furs from an assortment of dead animals. Her husband is indifferent, wishing to be inside a prize Aston Martin 1965 DB 5, the first time he has probably been inside something erotic in years. (He would settle for the Austin-Healy 1961 Roadster for seconds.) Lady Fur’s eyeballs are swimming, like anchovies in a sea of red sauce. A meaty hand fingers the stem of the glass, and the contents are downed with vengeance. Abandon all hope, all drink that enters this place.

In such an atmosphere, business cards are hard to fish out of breast pockets and wallets because two glasses are always better than one. (One has to economize at vital points of the drinking cycle.) Political representatives are on guard as they mingle. The result is always one grand spectacle, awkward juggling, and the occasional casualty of spilled wine.

In ancient Rome, similar events might have been had over sleek chariots fashioned for the races. And, like Rome, people would have eaten themselves to death in the highest social circles. Why? Because they could. There is a parallel here – Marco Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe, where Marcello Mastroianni and company eat and drink themselves to death in a scatological dreamscape of endless food and carnal congress. Death is unlikely to follow at the end of this show, but a few guests are bound to feel worse for wear at the end of the evening. There are a few anorexic reeds who will escape that fate, preferring to abandon the buns in towered piles and suck the air rich with sleek vehicles. Their addictions lie elsewhere.

There is chatter amongst the guests. The bars are closing. There is an exodus for the doors. ‘There is a party across the road. Hear it’s fun’. Not for this correspondent, who feels that it is time to cross himself and exit this chapel of machines.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently in San Francisco. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com


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