This column was published Sunday, July 28, 2019, in The Manhattan Mercury.
Got behind a student driver the other day and flashed back to my own drivers ed experience, also in the summer, burning to get legal and buy a car. When you’re 15, that next birthday seems interminable.
My heart said Mustang, or at least Torino, but my back pocket said 1970 Falcon, which was already six years old. No power steering or air conditioning. After my friends and I tricked it out, however, it did feature plush blue and white shag carpeting throughout and speakers on the back dash.
You can put lipstick on a pig and call her Antoinette, but she still exhibits malodorous swine characteristics. The ability to finance my heart’s desire seemed out of reach. At that age, my heart’s desire was all wrapped up in false pride. If I drive a bottom-of-the-line car, what will people think of me?
A year into the shagged Falcon, I was determined to upgrade to wheels more befitting my lofty self-image. By now, I’m out of high school, working full time at a supermarket, living off the wall with a pair of roommates in an east Wichita apartment. Discos and parties were the round holes. Antoinette was the square peg.
Enter the 1971 forest green MGB 2-seater ragtop, purchased from a guy on the west side of town. Learned the clutch and stick shift driving it home on Kellogg, stoplights every block, before it was an expressway. Adored that car, but it was falling apart. My chums and I further deluded ourselves into thinking we had the chops to repair it.
Still supermarket paycheck to paycheck and wound up selling the MG for parts. Now, my heart cries out for a Firebird or at least a GTO. Muscle cars have muscular stickers, so my Pontiac sights were lowered to a ’73 LeMans. Two-door, fastback, louvered rear windows. If it was cloudy and you tilted your head and squinted at it from just the right angle, the uninitiated might have mistaken it for a GTO. Unlike the MGB, it was dependable. At least for a while.
Went through a stage when the damn thing would not start unless I primed the carburetor. So, I’d get out of the car, often in the middle of traffic, pop the hood, mutter a few choice words, remove the air filter housing, a wheel-shaped monstrosity that sat atop the carb, force the choke plate open with a rolled-up piece of paper (or whatever was handy) splash a few ounces of gasoline directly on the carburetor, climb back in, whisper a prayer to ward off immolation, start the car, get back out, remove the paper, replace the air filter housing, dream about the day I could afford a new car, slam the hood, back in and on with my appointed rounds.
(Whew, there's a sentence.)
The young man’s ego would not allow consideration that maybe the LeMans was a LeMon. The reaction never varied from those sliding in the passenger side of the vinyl upholstered bench seat, be they chums, girlfriends or moochers of rides.
“Yo, Matson, why’s your car smell like gasoline..?”
“Well, it’s like this...”
By now I’ve finally had it with used cars. Once again, with visions of Mustangs and Firebirds, once again, settling. An ’81 Toyota Corolla. Even though it was brand new, it was still a Toyota Corolla. It eventually gave way to a fire engine red 1989 Camaro, which was what I was driving when I met my wife. My heart’s desire had some competition. With one look at that car, she saw right through my automotive perception management.
Experience and marriage tend to overcome the sharp edges of ego and get the self-esteem back between the yellow lines. These days, we’re an SUV family. His and hers Ford Escapes. Right down the middle of the mainstream. Now it’s all about practicality, room for two people and two dogs.
The Escapes are nestled side-by-side in our 2-car garage, lower level of our house, built into a Flint Hill on Manhattan’s upper west side. Adjacent to the garage is a concrete pad upon which until this summer, was perched an aging shed, which domiciled all manner of household accoutrements we could live without. (On the upper west side, we pronounce it uh-koo-tray-MAHN). We hired a young man with a chain saw, who worked his magic, leaving an empty concrete pad.
It’s the perfect size for a ’71 MGB.