Two weeks ago, Richard Berman looks at a damaged Pontiac that's arrived in his frame and body shop and realizes this car will need major surgery if it is ever again to bask in the glory of a Jones Falls Expressway rush hour.
Thus begins a simple process, repeated many times each week: Call a local General Motors dealer, make sure they've got the right parts, and have them sent to his Oakleaf Avenue repair shop.
And thus also begins a very complex process: complex mechanically, certainly, but also complex geographically and politically.
"Take a look," Berman says.
It's the box in which the parts arrived from GM for the damaged Pontiac. The box is marked: Genuine GM Motor Parts.
And directly beneath that marking is this:
Made In Korea.
"I don't get it," says Berman. "All we hear is, 'Buy American,' but I don't know what it means. I see this all the time, parts for American cars that are actually made in Mexico, in Korea, in Japan. I mean, who's kidding who with that patriotic pitch?' "
This is sensitive stuff these days. Last month, we had this president of ours, George Bush, journeying to Japan in search of votes in New Hampshire.
Traveling with Bush were, among others, the heads of General Motors, Chrysler and Ford, who are having trouble selling their cars not only in Japan, but in the U.S.A.
Thus, we hear the great modern commercial shout of our age: Buy American. Only nobody can be entirely certain what that means, beyond the car companies wrapping themselves in the flag during a difficult season.
Buy American? But many American cars and trucks are built with parts made overseas. Should we only purchase that portion of the car made with American parts? Can we buy foreign cars that have American parts in them? The Swedish vehicle Saab, for example, is half-owned by GM. Toyota Corollas are made by a joint GM-Toyota venture. The Chevy Geo Metro is made in a joint venture with that great American company, Suzuki.
Where do we draw the line these days on accusing people of treason for buying "foreign" cars, when nobody's entirely certain what the word means any more?
"Well, I can tell you this," Kathy Bommarito, media relations manager for GM service parts operations, says yesterday from Detroit. "GM has a higher content of parts that are made in the U.S. and Canada and sold in the U.S. and Canada than any other company."
"Do you know," she is asked, "what the percentages are for each of the car companies?"
"No," she says.
"Then how do you know GM's percentage is the highest?"
"Well," she says later in the day, "we know the percentages, but we're not in a position to comment on other manufacturers' vehicles. Anyway, it's very difficult on any given vehicle to pin down where these parts are coming from."
She's being coy. Actually, she admits, GM does have battery plants in France and Brazil. It gets spark plugs from France, and windshield water pumps there, too, and . . .
Some of this is pretty important, even though it has nothing to do with the quality of American cars. Let's assume the cars are great -- and that it also doesn't matter if portions of these "American" cars are actually made of non-American parts.
That is not the message we're getting from the U.S. car makers, who have been fighting off the invasion of foreign cars for the past few decades by resorting more and more to patriotic pitches which tell us nothing about the contents of their cars but plenty about the car companies' abilities to wave the American flag in the face of trouble.
"We're not doing that," Kathy Bommarito said yesterday.
"You're not?" she is asked.
"No," she says, "that's the media saying that."
Perhaps Bommarito is unaware, for example, of the longtime Chevrolet commercials linking baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet.
"Oh, advertising," she says. "Well, yes, but I can't comment on advertising themes and what people read into them."
"It's our position," says Bommarito, "that people should buy us because of the quality of the vehicle. That's all we're saying. We have quality vehicles."
We're not arguing the point about quality, and Bommarito and others who speak for American cars know this point but find it necessary to dodge it during the current questioning of patriotic pitches.
A year ago, the U.S. auto industry had its worst sales year in nearly a decade, and industry insiders are predicting this year will not be much better.
The response to this has not been pretty. Not only did GM recently announce plans to close 21 plants and cut 74,000 jobs over the next four years, but in the face of 1991's 12.5 percent drop in sales, they paraded GM Chairman Robert Stempel on George Bush's trip to Japan.
Stempel was paid more than $2 million in salary last year. Chrysler's Lee Iacocca, who also made the trip to Japan, made more than twice Stempel's salary, while Chrysler's sales were falling 11.2 percent last year.
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reported recently that Honda paid its top 36 officers last year a total of $10.2 million. It came, after taxes, to about $150,000 per officer.
The people who run American car companies do not wish to discuss these numbers. They wish to talk of "American" cars, while putting non-American parts in these cars and selling American parts to non-American car manufacturers.
Buy American? The closer you look, the more you wonder what the phrase means.