When my brother and I went to Los Angeles two summers ago, we had our picture taken while driving a rented convertible down Sunset Boulevard. The car was white; the weather was glorious; I saw a flash go off and instinctively waved, like the movie star I like to pretend I am when I'm in a convertible. We must look deliriously happy in that photograph. I wish I had a copy.
Unfortunately, it belongs to the LAPD—the traffic lights have cameras in them. We weren't snapped because we were mysterious and glamorous, but because we were running a red light. The ticket came in the mail a few weeks later. We had to pay, of course. We could hardly claim it wasn't us. It was worth it, though. A convertible, California, the wind—well, when the top is down, the wind doesn't just comb your hair, it rearranges your clothing and flosses your teeth.
My brother is the one who taught me to always rent a convertible in fine weather. Our childhood was filled with various rotten dented cars: a Renault that eventually lost the will to go in reverse; a 1970's pea-green Cadillac as big as a boat; a 1980's Cadillac with a broken driver's seat (my father fixed it with an empty beer case). I didn't drive until I was in my mid twenties and didn't own a car until I was in my early thirties; I wasn't, in other words, taught to love cars.
For years I relied on rentals if I had to go somewhere, mostly the kind of tin boxes the rental companies call subcompacts. It is a humbling experience to drive a Ford Aspire, a car that does in fact make you aspire to all sorts of better, more ego-building things. "It's a rental," I'd explain to toll collectors and gas station attendants, even more pathetic than claiming to own the thing.
But I wasn't fully converted—that is to say, I was too cheap—until one summer day when I'd reserved my usual subcompact to drive to Cape Cod. The rental agent gave me a key and told me where I'd find my car, and I stepped out to the most glorious thing I'd ever seen, a Suzuki sport vehicle with a T-roof. I went back in.
"Hello!" I yelled, a note of greedy hysteria in my voice. "I think you gave me the wrong car!" Turned out it was all they had left. Thank God. I immediately took out the roof panels and hit the road.
That was one of the best days of my life. I've never been so popular with middle-aged men and teenage boys. "What's that?" I was asked at red lights. "How's it handle?I bet it's nimble."
Convertibles make you feel famous. I didn't tell anyone it was a rental. I drove it several times, alone, to look at the ocean. One afternoon, a middle-aged couple pulled up beside me in the parking lot at the beach. The driver rolled down his window. "What a car!" he said. I thanked him. His lady companion said, "You look great." I did look great. I have been hooked on renting convertibles ever since. Give me a choice between a little black dress and a little red ragtop, and I'll take the latter.
But because I live in a Northeastern American city and park on the street, I do not own a convertible. Instead I have a dented and rusted 11-year-old station wagon. I look for my automotive glamour elsewhere. It doesn't even have to be particularly swish: a Le Baron's as good as a Jaguar, as long as the top goes down.
Frankly, driving in a convertible anything is as close to nature as I get. Despite the ugly rumors my friends like to spread, I don't hate nature. I understand that it figures heavily in the production of oxygen. Much of it, when prepared correctly, is delicious. Much of it is pretty. Beautiful, even. And never more beautiful than when seen from a convertible.
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