September 13, 2006

Reporter's Notebook

Baby, You Can't Drive My Car

Living in the Hamptons, it's all about cars. Sleepy hamlet streets are studded with status rides in a social swirl of their very own. A-list cars such as Bentleys and Jaguars, Aston Martins and Lamborghinis mingle with Rolls Royces and Ferraris while BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes and Porsches inch along County Road 39 every summer Friday afternoon like so many bridge-and-tunnel clubbers yearning for a glimpse beyond elusive velvet ropes.

But, as someone who grew up on city streets and didn't even get a driver's license until I was 39 years old, I simply could not understand the East End's obsession with cars. Granted, my first car was a classic (translation: old and cheap) BMW, but it sported cracked leather seats and a muffler that would wake the dead. My second car, a battered Jetta, was in such bad shape that, at the end, the driver's side door was belted together with a bungee cord.

The bottom line was, I didn't care. Cars were a means of getting from Point A to Point B, and, when you're balancing a reporter's schedule with a full slate of busy mom activities, all that matters is that the darned thing doesn't break down in a blizzard or leave you and your son stranded in a rainstorm.

Until last week, when I got my new car. Granted, it's not a BMW, or a Mercedes-Benz. It's a humble 2002 VW Cabrio.

But it's a convertible.

Ever since the day when my Barbies jockeyed for position behind the seat of their orange dune buggy convertible, I knew I was a girl born to ride with the top down. In fact, a college suitor once told me he'd bought his red Fiat Spider just so he could see my long hair streaming in the wind. "You're the kind of girl who belongs in a convertible," he said. And, because I was naÔve and didn't realize he probably was just hoping to score points, I believed him.

I never acted on my secret desire to hit the open road topless until recently. But once I took off for the first time from the dealership, instantly, I morphed into One of Them. I'm now a fully certified member of the car fanatics society, proudly joining the rapidly proliferating, over-the-top breed who spend hours buffing, polishing and inspecting for dents. The kind of person who parks on the outskirts of the supermarket parking lot because those animals could actually BACK INTO my car if I leave it exposed on the lot with the rest of the heathens.

My poor son actually suggested eating in the car recently and I told him firmly that those days are over. No more drive-through pit stops during the endless parade of daily activities. No more breakfast in the car during the mad dash to school. No more eating in the car, period.

I've got a message for smokers who might want to light up while sitting on my heated leather seats: Forget it.

And for anyone who's bold enough to suggest driving my car? No way. It's my brand-new toy, and I'm not sharing.

I've tried to figure what fueled my transformation. It's not the car — not really. What's got me revved up is the purely visceral sensation sparked by a convertible. It's the wind in my hair. The sunshine on my face.

Take a ride in a convertible, and suddenly, you're not just a bystander, a passenger cruising aimlessly through your life. You're a part of the picture, a piece of the puzzle. Even Bridgehampton or Water Mill traffic — which, in the past, has caused this mom to hiss less-than-sweet nothings as steam seeped from my overheated engine — is cause for celebration. Traffic, after all, means more time to check out the action on the street. To smile and say hello to perfect strangers. To revel in the sensation of being outside on a sunny day with nothing but smooth sailing ahead.

I guess, more than anything else, the car symbolizes promise. Anything can happen when you're driving a convertible. A shimmering mirage of road trips not yet taken dances in my dreams. Even the mountains of bills and minutiae of daily life dissipate as soon as the key's in the ignition.

When I'm driving my convertible, I'm 16 again. The 16-year-old I never was the first time around. Carefree, confident, uninhibited. Think Thelma and Louise, without the tragic ending.

And isn't that what we're all driving for?

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