Dateline: The Terrain Between Luxury and Decay

As I sit here writing this blog post, not thirty feet from me sit not only one, but two parked Rolls Royces. This is curious for fairly obvious reasons. I’m in a nice neighborhood, but not a super-rich one. In my neighborhood in Boston, a far wealthier place, no one has a Rolls. And I seldom see anyone driving one in Boston, though it’s not uncommon to see Bentley Continental GTs, Ferraris, Maseratis, and other super-expensive cars. But the Rolls Royces, if they exist there (and they surely do) are remarkably shy about showing their Spirts of Ecstasy. And here? I’ve never once seen one on the street anywhere in Mexico.

One of the Rolls Royces here, an ’87 Silver Spirit, belongs to my landlord Rafael, and is parked in the courtyard. I pass by it every day. The other one, an early 70’s Silver Cloud II belongs to his friend, Tony, and is parked on the street, where it has sat unbothered for a couple of weeks now. Rafael borrowed it a while ago, because for a spell he had no working cars, and needed something to get around in.

At the time he borrowed his friend’s Roller, Rafael was in possession of approximately five, non-functioning vehicles: the Rolls; a Pontiac Fiero in the workshop that’s in the process of being converted into a Testarossa lookalike; a late 90’s Range Rover, which is his daily driver and most recent casualty to mechanical failure; a Lamborghini Murcielago parked out front, which lacks an engine among other critical parts; and a large, graffiti-covered van/bread truck, also parked on the street. The bread truck looks abandoned, but it’s not.

Tony's Rolls Royce

Tony’s Rolls Royce

Of the bunch, the Rolls is the most interesting, or at least the most storied. When I first rented the place, I noted the Rolls’ presence. It was covered with dust and apparently not working, a sad testimony to bygone better times. As I got to know Rafael, I came to learn the Roller’s colorful history.

He bought it six years ago in Miami and drove it from there to Mexico City. With an EPA-rated 10 MPG highway mileage, I’m sure it was an expensive trip. Gasoline at the time was fetching around $4 USD/gallon. I marveled at the sheer chutzpah of such a trip and asked him if he wasn’t nervous about crossing the border in a Rolls. At the time, sometime in 2010, the northern states of Mexico were a virtual battleground between various drug gangs and other criminals, the police, and the Mexican military. Ciudad Juarez was more dangerous than Baghdad, and large parts of it had been deserted. The border area didn’t seem like an auspicious place to drive through in a Rolls Royce, even if it wasn’t new. But Rafael was undeterred and sailed through with nary a problem. Hearing this only made me feel a little ridiculous remembering my own fears about such a border crossing. In the spring of 2014, a much calmer time, I also crossed the border, only I was in a rusty 1989 Toyota pickup. Ha!

The Spirit of Ecstasy

The Spirit of Ecstasy

For a few years, life with the Rolls was automotive bliss. Rafael drove it around Mexico City without incident, either mechanical or otherwise, though he did have a few adventures. One day he was out in the Rolls with one of my predecessors, a Swiss guy who had rented one of his units. As they were driving around one late afternoon, Rafael got lost. I’m not quite sure how this happened as Rafael is a Mexico City native and seems to know all the backroads. But they ended up in some iffy neighborhoods, and the Swiss guy began to get nervous. After all, there are plenty of places in the USA where you probably wouldn’t want to take your Rolls. A questionable barrio in Mexico City? Yeah, I’d be nervous too, especially given the danger of being stopped for long periods in the ever-present traffic. But apparently Rafael laughed off any notion of danger, much to the Swiss guy’s chagrin.

One of the more notorious iffy barrios here is Tepito, just North of the Centro Historico. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been warned by people, especially my ex, “F,” not to go anywhere near Tepito. “They’ll rob you down to your underwear there, and you’ll leave nearly naked. That is if you’re still alive.” Those were the kind of anecdotes F loved regaling me with. As a result, I’ve always steered clear of Tepito.

Well, Tepito is exactly where Rafael and the Swiss guy ended up in the Rolls. At this point, according to Rafael, the Swiss guy was in a state of near-panic. But of course he couldn’t abandon ship, because that would only have been falling out of a very plush frying pan and into the fire. And then a very strange thing happened. People started making way for the Rolls, pushing pedestrians out of the street, saluting Rafael and the Swiss guy, and cheering. Apparently they thought he was one of the BIG bosses, come to check up on his network of pirated DVD sellers or some such errand. And soon Rafael found his bearings, and he and the Swiss guy floated to safety without so much as a scuff to the Rolls.

For years Rafael has driven the Rolls all over the city with nary a problem, something that still amazes this Gringo every time he thinks of it. Sadly, this automotively blessed state of affairs ended about two years ago. The Rolls fell under some kind of mysterious mechanical malaise and stopped working. Rafael was forced back into the relative penury of his Range Rover.

Elegant Decay

Elegant Decay

As you might imagine, finding a competent Rolls mechanic in Mexico City is even harder than finding some oddball type of Gringo convenience food. And to put it politely, Rafael tends to bargain hard when he buys things, which ruled out taking it to the Rolls Royce dealership in Polanco. So the Rolls then spent months and months and months shuttling between various incompetent mechanics, losing bits and pieces along the way, but never regaining its ability to elegantly glide over the potholed streets of Mexico City. After several mechanics who could not deliver the goods of functionality, it was finally towed back here where it sat for a maybe another year before I rented my unit.

Sad, dust-covered, and dejected is how I came to know Rafael’s Rolls. But little did I know that I was to become a player in the Rolls Royce Resuscitation Project. But that’s a tale for another post. For now, saludos and thanks for stopping by.