I was the picture of calm as the skyline shone in the sunlight. John and I were on the ferry from Weehawken heading into New York City for the Auto Show. The couple next to us on the ferry’s bench was friendly and we shared some conversation and a few laughs. “Enjoy the show,” they said on our way off the platform. Me feet touched New York City asphalt for the first time in a while, and had to remind myself not to get overly excited. Since I don’t get to the city as often as I’d like, I tend to make too big a deal out of these rare outings. Which would be fine, except that if everything about my “big day out” doesn’t live up to my lofty goals, I feel like I have somehow failed or been failed. As my friend Pat wisely said, “It’s all about managing expectations.” Bingo.
“It’s not a big deal, you’ll get here again soon,” I told myself as we joined the crowd crossing the wide street near the ferry terminal and heading toward the Javits Center. I hadn’t been to the NYC Auto Show since 1994. And with that sad fact in mind I had been fired up to make this day happen, looking up information about dates online and arranging for my Mom’s wonderful caregiver Carol Corbett to help us out. Surely if I’d managed to get us t the car show this time, I could do it again — if not next year, then the year after.
I was doing fine with my “zen” attitude until we passed the trucks. A lineup of 18-wheelers was standing along West Side Highway, ready to transport the show vehicles to wherever they were needed next as it was the show’s final day. My heart began to race with the realization that soon I’d be getting a gander at all the spanking new cars that had been delivered by those massive trucks.
A snafu at the ticket gate dampened my enthusiasm and delayed our entrance by ten minutes or so, and I managed to calm down again. I reminded myself of what my friend Carol had said days earlier — “Cars are no big deal, they depreciate in value as soon as you drive them off the lot.” I had heard this before, and it used to annoy me when people pointed it out. My Dad was a car enthusiast and we attended the show together many times, beginning “back in the day” when it was held at the NYC Coliseum and ending with the first year it was held at the Javits Center. “It’s just not the same,” Dad said about the Javits show. And that was that.
So I had started dragging John along, but it just wasn’t his “thing” as much as it was Dad’s. Still, on this day, he seemed even more enthusiastic than I was. “Where do you want to start?” he asked as we entered and faced the escalator. “I don’t really care,” I said, and I was surprised at how effectively I had tamped down my excitement. Or had a dose or reality replaced the “car aficianado” dreamer that I had been years ago?
We headed toward the first exhibit we saw, and I checked out the sticker prices on the Honda models. I drive a leased Accord, and I am thinking about handing it back. I am craving something a bit sportier. Or is it myself I am dissatisfied with and want to change? I was reflecting on this when I hopped into a Honda HR-V that was on display.
“Wow,” I said immediately. I hadn’t sat in the driver’s seat and grabbed the steering wheel of a car at the auto show for years, and yet it felt like I’d just done so yesterday. “Do you love it?” said a woman who had hopped into the passenger seat. “I guess,” I said cautiously. The interior of this particular model seemed a bit “bare bones” to me, and I felt encased in hard black dull plastic. But my partner in crime was beyond excited about the foldaway back seats and cargo room and small size of the car. “Ah, I’ve got her pegged,” I thought. “She’s a New Yorker looking to make the most of her limited parking space.” I assumed that she didn’t drive all that often, perhaps just to grocery shop or visit relatives in the ‘burbs. You don’t need “fancy” to do that. In fact, maybe fancy is a turnoff to native New Yorkers, who have to worry about theft. Was that why Honda decided on this particular model for the NYC auto show? If so, they’d done me no favors. I was beyond disappointed, having had high hopes for the HR-V. “Do you like it honey?” she asked her husband, who peeked into the driver’s side window noncommittally. He probably wanted to get behind the wheel but I wasn’t budging just yet. I was too entertained by his wife and I was waiting for her to find something not to like about the car. Its boring interior? Ho-um color? But her enthusiasm didn’t wane. “Well it figures,” I thought. “She’s living a fulfilling life in the greatest city in the world — she doesn’t need a car to make her happy.” I had to admit to myself that there was a strong possibility that I did.
I exited the car and I was happy to see a “souped up” Honda Civic on display. It was electric blue with “the works” as far as sporty accessories such as spoilers. Could this be “the one?” “Ow,” I said as I strained myself to fold into it. I had John take a photo of me next to the car, and I was dismayed by what I saw. I appeared a bit long in the tooth to be driving that snazzy car. Was my functional L.L. Bean coat causing my proximity to the car to appear almost inappropriate? Or had I “aged out” of having a fun driving experience that I could actually afford?
After that I muddled through the displays, once again checking sticker prices to avoid falling in love anything I couldn’t afford. “Do you want to look at the Audis?” John asked, and I agreed although my heart just wasn’t in it. I was actually getting restless. I was dismayed by the lack of flashy and substantial brochures like the ones I had collected while attending car shows with my dad. I had cut my teeth as an advertising copywriter on the ones I kept for months and cherished — all extolling the virtues of the latest models and technology. The Pontiac GTO. The Cadillac Seville. The Lincoln Town Car. The Chevy Impala. And, lord help us, the Ford Pinto and Chevy Vega.
By devouring the words and photos, I had become somewhat of a car snob. Truth be told, I once broke up with a very nice guy because he owned an AMC Hornet. At the time I was driving a two-door 1970 Pontiac GTO with a 350 V-8 engine. Yes, for once I was out of someone’s league. Surprisingly, I soon found myself dating John and forgiving him for his light-yellow Dodge Dart with the camel-colored vinyl roof. “My Aunt Marion willed it to me,” was his excuse. Little did I suspect that John was dating ME partly so he could drive the GTO.
I pulled a tiny brochure about the Hondas out of my purse, lamenting how much things had changed. I had changed as well. When had I stopped getting excited about the car show? Well, most likely when the prices starting hitting tens of thousand of dollars. I sighed, and then a young man passed by mid-conversation with his friend.
“You know what I love about this show? It makes me believe in potential.”
I had to smile. Something about what he said reminded me of my dad. He’d always dreamed of owning a Cadillac, but never did and settled happily for Fiats most of his life. Not that he didn’t love the finicky little cars. He surely did. “You’re crazy,” people would say every time he traded up for a new model. But Dad apparently believed in potential. His, and the Fiat’s.
After that I was fired up, and to John’s surprise I insisted on revisiting some of the exhibits. I stopped looking at sticker prices so much, and focused on innovative styling and plush interiors — just as in my days at the car show with Dad. I started chatting up strangers excitedly — “Oh, this is SO your car you look great in it,” or “What do you think of this dash because I just LOVE it.” I was behaving like Will Ferrell in Elf when he discovered the World’s Best Cup of Coffee. Sure, some of my “victims” looked a bit frightened. But I was unstoppable. It was as though I was eight years old again and holding Dad’s hand.
“I wonder where the Fiats are?” I asked, but deep down I knew. In the basement, as always. With the monster trucks and heavy duty vans. Being disrespected. “I’ll save you, little ones!” I thought as we headed down the escalator — me excitedly, John reluctantly.
“Oh my goodness!” I said upon seeing a tiny confection of a two-door Fiat convertible. The color — a mint green that managed to be subdued and classy — took my breath away. (Fiat ALWAYS has had it all going on in the way of color, you can’t deny it.) “Sit in it,” John urged, and I did after it was vacated by two little girls who actually looked to be the perfect-sized drivers for that vehicle. I almost cried upon seeing the dashboard with the familiar Fiat logo and the stick shift. My Dad and my Aunt Bernice drove Fiats with manual transmissions long after everyone else had jumped ship in favor of automatic. I haven’t driven a car with a manual transmission in years, and am frankly itching to do so. I long for the familiar sound of gears shifting and the engine slowing and then humming back to life as the clutch is depressed.
“Oh, I could sit here forever,” I said.
“Well, you may be in luck,” John said.
“Really?” I said, my heart racing again. I never thought John would consider buying a Fiat. For better or worse, my Dad and I were blinded by our love for the Fiats and told ourselves that reliability was overrated. I never in my wildest dreams thought that John would hop onto this bandwagon.
“Yes, because I can guarantee that none of the Fiats is going to start tonight,” he said. And I had to laugh.
Because that’s the kind of day it was. For enjoying. For remembering. For laughing. And for once again believing in potential.
I will get myself back to that car show. Even if I have to drive a Fiat to get there.