Anyone who’s fortunate enough to stumble into the world of car writing quickly discovers that it’s the greatest grift in human history, a virtually non-stop travel orgy of luxury hotels, business-class airline travel, open bars with premium Scotch, foie gras, steaks, little toasts with crème fraiche and salmon, champagne pours, free leather driving shoes and race-team jackets, unlimited access to the most glamorous and powerful cars in the world, and once, in my case, a testicular exam in Paris.
All the industry asks for in return is our integrity. Most of the people who practice automotive journalism, the world’s oldest profession, are readily willing to give up their professional honor because they make about as much money every year as the average Dunkin’ Donuts shift manager.
Still, for some, mere Platinum status on Delta isn’t enough. A while ago, a thread on the Facebook page of Dan Neil, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning car writer, told of the European car hack who walked out of his luxury hotel, which he didn’t pay for, carrying a flat-screen TV; of the archetypal guy who emptied his mini-bar three nights running; of the dude who stuffed fireplace-stoking equipment into his golf bag and said “charge it to my tab;” of hundreds of dollars worth of unauthorized luxury spa treatments; or, best of all, of the Scottish journalist who produced a 17-page printout of all the porn he’d watched in a Korean hotel room over the course of three days, causing him to be nicknamed “Mince,” because that’s what happens when you wear the skin off a sausage.
Those stories, or versions of them, present again and again. I don’t doubt that they’re true.
The thread inspired me to contemplate my own near-total corruption. It’s hard to resist when you spend half your life on Temptation Island. I’ve taken the plane tickets and the hotel rooms and the free dinners and the $90,000 cars with full tanks of gasoline.
But when it comes to next-level moochery, I generally only remove water out of the mini-bar, “with gas,” as our frequent European hosts say.
Sometimes I’ll order room service if I don’t want to spend another corporate dinner talking about exhaust manifolds. I may have weak ethics, but they aren’t extra weak.
However, there was that one time.
I have no other way to start this story: I suffer from an occasionally recurring medical condition called epididymitis. It’s an inflammation of the coiled tube at the back of the testicle that stores and carries sperm, and it’s the most common cause of acute onset scrotal pain in adults.
I wouldn’t call this a serious problem—as Austin, Texas’s leading performer of vasectomies told me when I paid him an office visit a few months ago during an outbreak, “I see 12 guys with this a week. It’s like a sinus infection in your balls.”—but it can get uncomfortable, not to mention embarrassing. It tends to appear at inconvenient times.
One night a few years ago, I was flying across the Atlantic on Air France, in business class, of course, to the Paris Motor Show. I would be the guest of the Mazda Motor Corporation, which was rolling out its new version of the Mazda 6 sedan.
Somewhere at 30,000 feet, between the main course and the cheese course, I felt the telltale throb, the first onset of my dread epididymal syndrome. Repeated attempts to wish it away, or breathe through it like I would a tight muscle or a stiff neck, proved fruitless. It signaled consistently, a hot red alarm in my left mister, all the way to DeGaulle.
Crap, I thought. I’m screwed.
Auto shows involve a lot of walking around. But my condition, when it flares up, doesn’t enjoy being walked around. It’s also not fun to sit in a chair or lay in bed, but walking is the worst. Someone had to help me.
When I got to my three-star hotel (also generously provided by Mazda) in one of Paris’ most expensive neighborhoods, I went straight to the concierge.
“I need a doctor,” I said.
“Un doctor?” he said.
“Please, yes,” I said. “It is an emergency.”
A half-hour later, when I’d barely had time to unpack my toothbrush and remove some l’eau minerale from the minibar, there was a knock at my hotel room door. I opened it to find a dashing, tan Frenchman with gray hair that cascaded down to his shoulders like a soothing splash from a fountain.
“Vous avez appelé un médecin?” he said.
My French was good enough to understand what he said, but not good enough to hold a full conversation.
“I’m American,” I said.
“Ah yes,” he said, in excellent English. “Of course.”
He came inside and sat down. I told him of my condition, and of my symptoms. He nodded comprehendingly. Then he said, “Naturally, I will have to examine you.”
“Right,” I said.
He reached into his bag and pulled out some rubber gloves. I dropped my drawers. Three hours after I’d arrived in Paris, a handsome Frenchman was fondling my balls.
For some, that would be a winning ticket, a fabulous dream. We’re always hearing legends of 1970s press junkets, where manufacturers would exchange complimentary hookers and blow in exchange for positive reviews, which they always received. “Those days are gone,” the old guys say, wistfully. Instead, I just got another humiliating scrotal exam in a life filled with them.
“What do you think?” I said.
“Well,” he said. “It is very ten-dar.”
My self-diagnosis had been correct. Hello epididymitis, my old friend. After he was done washing his hands in my bathroom, he sat down and wrote me a scrip.
“There is the matter of payment,” he said.
“My fee is 150 Euros,” he added.
As I write this, the Euro and dollar are nearly equal in value. One hundred and fifty bucks seems pretty reasonable for a Sunday morning medical feel-up. Several years ago, though, when the dollar was worth less than half of the Euro, that represented a lot of money, more than I could comfortably do at the time. What was I going to do?
“You could pay me in cash,” he said.
I had 40 Euros in my wallet to last me the week. My panic must have shown on my face, because then he said,
“Or you could charge it to the room.”
Without hesitation, I said: “Let’s do that.”
And thus, Mazda came to pay for my ball exam.
Companies incur doctor fees on press trips all the time, but there’s a difference between a guy passing out from heat stroke at a racetrack and needing fluids, which is a sunk cost before the event even starts, and a guy being too broke to pay for a non-car-related medical emergency. But I knew I’d never get called out. The company was paying for dozens of rooms, charged to a master account.
A 150-Euro room up-fee is a lot, but given the profligate spending habits of my fellow professionals, it might not have even cracked the top ten violations of the week.
For years, I’ve carried this around heavily. It would be one thing if I’d charged my clinical nut-rub to Volkswagen or General Motors, billion-dollar purveyors of great evil in the universe, but Mazda is a modest company run by nice people who make attractively-designed, relatively inexpensive cars that are fun to drive. I continue to feel guilt.
Also, I have a little more money now than I did then. So I’m offering, right here, to send Mazda a check for my testicular exam, though preferably at the current, more favorable exchange rate.
Meanwhile, back in Paris all those years ago, I left my hotel room, my ball still throbbing. French pharmacists sell antibiotics over-the-counter, in little green packages, so I went to the pharmacy and bought some. They cost me $28, most of my budget for the week. I couldn’t charge it to the room.
You have to pay for some things yourself, even when you’re an automotive journalist.
Neal Pollack has written 10 semibestselling books of fiction and nonfiction. His most recent novel, currently being serialized by Amazon’s 47 North Books, is Keep Mars Weird, a sci-fi action comedy about space gentrification. He lives in Austin, TX.
Top graphic credit Jason Torchinsky