The assignment: Go cover Mankind at the auto show.

What better stream flows right into the essence of mankind than two solid floors of Hot Wheels 2000? We're talking curvaceous chrome parked atop one of those revolving carpeted daises (daiseses? diocese?)--wait, platforms, a hot car demonstrated and stroked by a hottie in tight black pants and a Madonna headset.

Who cannot relate to mankind's lust for motor muscle? Or the new-car aroma of mankind's endless, consumptive dreams of wealth and open roads?

Then the crashing, the smashing, as mankind runs into certain inevitable realities: "Dad, this car doesn't have any back seats," says a 10-year-old to his father, a man who is pushing a stroller with another toddler and has stopped to gaze with longing at the potential rolling orgasm of a wildly blue Acura concept car, which is called the something-X-something. "It has two seats, Dad. We can't all fit in there," the son says, and the father says: "Not everyone would get to ride in this car, Jake. This is Dad's car."

The auto show is where boykind learns yet another thing or two from mankind--we come here to dream, son. Notice the lack of girlkind here: wifekind, yes, very patient, upper nag muscles clenched. Girlfriendkind, some, each obligingly taking her guy's snapshot as he poses with the beastly Chrysler Chronos. Eleven-year-old girls, however, seem to be absent entirely. (Somewhere in another convention center, on another planet, Enrique Iglesias and Harry Potter are dancing the tango.)

Here is mankind's appearance at the auto show: wide-eyed, wide-tushed, seeming to know nothing and everything about cars. Clutching complimentary white plastic bags with the Saturn logo, each packed with brochures and free gimmes. Wary, but willing to be seduced. Full of stories about himself in high school, buying his first car, and what a beautiful piece of crap that was, wrecking it, selling it after he got married or whatever.

Accompanied by his elderly father, who's a little slow now, and having Dad wait right here while he goes and gets two cups of coffee and hot dogs. Or accompanied by his 14-year-old son, who is about to implode from desire, who has not realized that no amount of lawn mowing can buy a 2000 Celica.

Here is how mankind feels at the auto show: overwhelmed, under-rewarded, yet somehow ecstatic and awed. A blonde wearing a leather mini, revolving around the Dodge Charger like an angel, has learned to stare off into the middle distance, so mankind doesn't get the wrong idea.

Here is another kind of mankind--salesmankind: his hair gelled, teeth bleached, ESPN anchor garb (black mock turtleneck, brownish sport coat), willing to answer every question so smoothly. Exhorting you to pound your fist on the side door to demonstrate the "miracle of polymer": "Go ahead," he commands, "it's resistant to grocery carts, baseballs and the fists of an overzealous product specialist." (Har.)

Following a large line of mankind up the escalator . . . what's all the commotion? "Are you here to see mankind?" asks a man I happen to know from work, a business reporter.

"Yes. Mankind."

"I want him to sign my copy of his book."

"His book?"

Uh-oh. (Re-check assignment: Go cover Mankind at the auto show.)

Oh, that Mankind. Right, right, right.

Backspace, backspace, backspace, backspace, backspace, backspace, backspace, backspace, backspace, backspace . . .

Men and cars, I understand.

Men and wrestling, I'm out of things to say.

CAPTION: Men see themselves reflected in the cars they buy and, even more tellingly, in those they can only lust after.