OnStar Trek

“Once you have it,” confides the woman in the back seat of the brand-new Cadillac I am driving through seaside hills dotted with stands of pine and expensive homes, “you feel insecure when you don't have it.”

And I have cable and I've had sex, so I know exactly what she's talking about. See, this is precisely why I don't have a cellular phone. I've witnessed what it's done to my dad. Once a frugal, sensible, tethered-to-the-rotary-dial kind of guy, he is at this very moment out there somewhere, chatterboxing my dwindling inheritance into peak-period roving charges. Recently, he heard someone say “Palm Pilot.” Now he's begun saying it, too, without laughing.

Created need: that's what the woman—a saleswoman—in the back seat of the tricked-out Caddy is really talking about as we cruise through the honeyed scenery of a crisp, sunny morning near Monterey Bay. Not that she actually has to use those words. Created need lurks at the core of most modern sales-and-marketing strategies. Its double-edged mentality is as patient and sinister and cruelly effective as a razor blade in a trick-or-treat apple. I know it. The woman in the back seat knows I know it. By now, just about everybody out shopping for such mythical essentials as antibacterial soap, DVD players or gourmet dog food knows it, too. We all bite anyway. Maybe that's why the woman can come right out and unload this ostensible tricks-of-the-marketing-trade secret—”Once you have it, you feel insecure when you don't have it”—to a Cadillac full of journalists with their notebooks open. Maybe this ostentatious act of full disclosure works as its own kind of convoluted sales pitch to jaded publicity machinists from media outlets all over California. Or maybe it's because these reporters are in the midst of an all-expenses-paid trip—airfare, gourmet banquet and bedtime bottle of chilled champagne in their suites—at the rustically opulent Carmel Valley Ranch. Maybe that makes it easier on everybody.

But as I guide the Caddy along the undulating road, this mix of five-star hospitality and straight-from-the-hip talk has me feeling a little dizzy and dirty, undeservedly pampered and kind of pathetic. Then again, it could be the way the woman in the back seat, her lips moving just inches behind my right ear, aspirates her consonants.

“It's time to push the OnStar button,” the woman is telling me now. My hand moves immediately to obey. The button—marked by a blue-and-white, yin-yangish insignia—protrudes from a console attached to the ceiling of the Cadillac. It's just above the rear-view mirror, into which I glance to see the woman who is telling me to push it. She's looking completely confident that I will push it because that's the deal we struck: OnStar would fly me to Carmel to eat and drink and drive a Caddy, and I would push the OnStar button and then write an article about what happened next.

By now, I want to push the OnStar button. This moment is just about all anybody talked about during last night's lavish dinner. It was the focal point of a multimedia presentation at this morning's breakfast buffet. Finally, the command has come. Involuntarily smiling with giddy, nervous anticipation, I place my index finger on the button and give it a good, solid, willing push. And during the couple of seconds before what happens next, I glance into the rear-view mirror again. The woman is smiling, too.

And why not? What happens next is ear-to-ear amazing: I hear an operator's voice come through the radio speaker, and he can hear me. He's sitting in an office cubicle in Troy, Michigan—a suburb of Detroit—and I'm cruising a Cadillac toward Carmel-by-the-Sea. We're just a couple of down-to-earth guys ricocheting our Michigan-to-California conversation off a satellite floating high above the planet. He's an OnStar adviser, and he's at my service.

“I've got you traveling north along Highway 1, just before the downtown Carmel exit,” he says, pinpointing my location and direction on a screen a couple of thousand miles away. “How can I help you?”

Of course, I don't really need any help. But the woman in the back seat has supplied me with a script, which instructs me to ask the OnStar operator for directions to the Carmel Beach City Park. I read that request word for word, and he supplies the information turn by turn, landmark to landmark, in city blocks and highway miles, and offers to “stay in the car” with us—that's the way he describes it, anyway—until we get there. “Uh, thanks,” I say into the radio when we arrive, and it's probably obvious that I'm pretty impressed.

“No, thank you,” the operator asserts, re-emphasizing his humble-servant role in an overstated manner that shows he knows very well he's blown me away. In fact, for the first time in our interaction, he seems a little smug. But I've got to admit, he's earned it. “Is there anything else I can help you with?” he adds, laying it on thickly now. “More directions? Lunch suggestions? Reservations? Messages? Anything?”

“Uh, no,” I reply, suddenly blank, feeling strangely as though I'm blowing my meeting with the genie in the magic lamp. “Not right now, anyway.”

Fortunately, only minutes after taking a perfunctory walk about Carmel Beach City Park, I'm back in the Cadillac, and the woman in the back seat is telling me to push the OnStar button again. Another operator at that office complex in Troy soon finds us on her screen and bounces her voice off the satellite and through the radio speakers. She wants to help me, too. This time, my script says to tell her somebody in the car has broken an ankle. The operator quickly locates the nearest hospital, spews directions, and alerts the emergency room that we're on our way. It all goes so smoothly it almost seems a shame that nobody's ankle is really broken.

And so it goes throughout the day. We drive the Cadillac all over the Carmel area, from Pebble Beach to Point Joe and along the 17-mile drive. Our script contrives a new dilemma at every stop, from keys locked in the car to a fender-bender to reporting the car stolen (we use a phone to dial a toll-free number). In response to every disaster, OnStar operators are there to make it better. At the end of the day, one of them talks us through the twists and turns in the roads that take us to the Pebble Beach Country Club. There we eat another multicourse gourmet meal in the picture-windowed clubhouse, our sated gaze meandering about our surroundings—from plates of seared ahi in ginger to lush putting greens to faintly fey pastel golfing togs to the distant, deep-blue sea.

As I eat food I could never afford in a place that would normally not allow me through the front door, I reflect on the near-magical powers of the OnStar system. I imagine how wonderful it would be to push a button on my car while it is stuck in traffic on the ugly 405 and suddenly be transported to the relaxing flow of the central California coast. Of course, I quickly realize I should have first imagined that OnStar could be installed on a 1987 Volkswagen Fox, instead of only on luxurious late-model GM cars (and now other high-end vehicles) So I go back and do that. Then I go on, imagining driving a car that tells me when I'm being paged—and allows me, just by speaking the request, to instruct my cellular phone to return the call. And enables me to buy and send flowers to my girlfriend. And tracks my favorite stocks through the Internet and announces how they're trading throughout the day. It sounds great. Especially the part about having a girlfriend—I think she'd be really pretty, but not stuck-up at all. But once I start imagining, it's hard to stop. So pretty soon, I'm envisioning a vehicular accessory that can supply the government with my every move, that can supply marketers with my every taste, and that can supply my ex-wife with the name of my new girlfriend. And eventually, I'm cringing at the thought of a vehicle in which the accessories become my incessant personal pollsters. I'm dreading pushing a button that sucks the adventure out of every move I make. And yet when I try to cancel my subscription to the OnStar system, I'm discovering that I'm somehow unable to—simultaneously overpowered and haunted by the words of that woman in the back seat, aspirating her consonants just behind my right ear: “Once you have it, you feel insecure when you don't have it.”

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