Insights: Culture

rom Pontiacs to Jaguars, cars say a lot about the man behind the wheel
| By Gerald Eskenazi | From The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 01

At the age of 62, I became a better person.

Oh, sure, I know some will say, "No you didn't -- you just drove a better car."

But listen to me. I bought a Jaguar, and it's made me different -- better, I daresay. Not only better in my eyes, but in those who view me -- or the trappings of me. What I would call the Eskenazi Exterior.

Perhaps if I'd been to the manor born, the impact would not have been so great, at least on me. But my other car is a Saturn -- the four- cylinder slowpoke, circa 1993. The Saturn? I like to call it my Brooklyn side, remembrance of roots past. But the more I drive the Jaguar, the farther I feel removed from Brooklyn when I drive the Saturn.

So here are my two worlds. And I'm telling you that the Jaguar confers on me a certain image that I actually feel comfortable wearing -- and that I believe others think is me.

My wife claims I'm wrong. And my youngest, the idealist, says I'm imagining things -- but people react differently to someone driving a Jaguar. A sort of bond, of common understanding of each person's position, develops between the observer and the object.

Indeed, I believe it would be true of anyone owning a snappy luxury car, especially one with some cachet. It is true, I think, for someone trying on the Piaget at Tourneau Corner and the salesperson hawking it; for the diner ordering a 1962 Pomerol as well as the sommelier writing down the bin number; for the buyer of a $100,000 municipal bond and the agent at Quick & Reilly.

It made me think that drivers of luxury cars in general are treated, well, nicer. I swear that drivers behind me now allow me into their lanes without a fight. Even a simple wave works every time. I daresay even New York City cabdrivers smile at me as I slip in front of them.

You have to understand that I never in my life had owned something that could be considered luxurious. But in my business -- I have been a sportswriter with The New York Times across six decades, beginning in 1959 -- I have had the opportunity to be among those who have, and sometimes to share in it -- Alfred Vanderbilt, Donald Trump, Leon Hess (who owned those immaculate gas stations as well as the Jets football team), Jack Kent Cooke (whose holdings included the Chrysler Building and the Washington Redskins), Roger Penske, Bob Tisch.

Thus, my stretch-limo moment gave me a shock of recognition during race week at the Indianapolis 500. This was sometime in the 1980s. I was at my motel waiting for a cab to take me to the Brickyard, the affectionate nickname for the track where the 500 would be raced in a few days. But my cab was late and I had to meet Chuck Yeager (yes, the Right Stuff guy), who was going to take me for a spin around the track. He was driving the pace car.

No cab, but outside the motel a white stretch was waiting. The driver, wearing a black suit, white shirt, dark tie, was reading a paper. His client hadn't showed.

"How much to go to the track?" I asked.

"Fifteen dollars," he replied, thinking he was soaking me.

I got in the back seat. I was wearing my outsize identification tag around my neck. You couldn't get close to the place without it. But I didn't have my parking pass. No problem, I only needed to get to the gate and then he could drop me off. I'd walk the rest of the way.

The limo approached the gate where a guy in a state trooper's outfit stood guard. He took one look, and smiled. He never asked the driver who was inside, where we were going. He simply waved us through.

We not only got inside, we were driving around where people traveled only on foot. But this was a white stretch limo, for crying out loud. Whoever was inside -- me! -- must have belonged, right?

Why? Because of presumed wealth? Or power? Probably both. Behind that tinted glass sat someone's imagination -- a fantasy figure of a person who had a right to be there. That wasn't me in my open-necked sports shirt, with my reporter's notepad and 50-cent Paper Mate. This was a Person of Importance.

And you know what? When that guard smiled us through, I felt I belonged. At that moment, I was separated from the fray. I felt above it, above the world outside of that car. That guard had conferred on me a status that was palpable. For I was inside, wasn't I?

I have grown up with something less than a luxury car. My first car was a Dodge given to me by a used-car salesman who happened to be a family friend. I had it for six months; it died when I was 19 and I sold it for $6, after it caught fire at a fuel pump and almost gave a heart attack to the guy pumping the gas.

Two weeks after I was hired as a copy boy at The New York Times, in 1959, and making $38 a week, I borrowed $175 from a Brooklyn credit union (where my Uncle Mac was the controller) and got myself a 1951 Pontiac convertible. The hood ornament -- a plasticene Indian head -- lighted up when you turned on the headlights.

Forty years later, I got the Jag. The hood ornament didn't light -- but it was the famous lithe chrome jaguar, in all its stealth. The first time I brought the car in for gas, the guy pumping said to me, "That's a beautiful car. Enjoy it."

A few days later, I was a few blocks from the Bronx Zoo but couldn't figure out where the entrance was. At a light I stopped a young couple in a car.

She peered out the window and in a rolling Spanish accent said, with a smile, "That car is gorgeous."

When I finally parked, a matronly woman who put her SUV next to the Jag said, "Boy, I hope that car's still here when you get out."

OK, OK, I'm imagining things. That's what my family tells me. But I'm not.

I don't honk at aggressive drivers in front of me. I simply wave them through.

Now, does everyone tooling around in one of these babies become nicer? I suspect some become worse. Once, I'd like someone driving a Corvette to signal when he zigzags in front of me 20 miles over the speed limit.

At my Waldbaum's shopping center, I notice that some people driving expensive cars want to make sure they are separated from the ordinary -- they park diagonally across two spaces. The first time I had seen this gambit was at the New York Jets players' parking lot, where these 25-year-olds had gone from phys-ed major to millionaire. Their first purchase was an RX-7 or a 300-ZX. To preserve the bumpers and sides of their car, they angled it over two spots so no one could touch it.

Before I knew what a Testarossa was, there was testosterone. As teenagers, we are defined by our cars -- in our mind and in the observer's. An editor I know claims that whenever he saw a guy tooling around in a GTO, he knew -- just knew -- that guy got the girl. Or if there was some dude sporting a Testarossa, the passenger seat was occupied by a blonde.

As a leftist-leaning student at City College of New York (the Harvard of the proletariat, we liked to call it), I viewed power cars with a mixture of envy and distaste. They were gaudy, they were gauche, they were show-offy -- and I didn't have one.

Sure a car is fantasy. But mixed with reality. Remember that '51 convertible I had? One day I was going on a blind date not far from where I lived on Sutter Avenue, in the East New York section of Brooklyn. She lived on a real neighborhood street -- a block of attached houses, each with a porch and stoop. I put the top down and headed for my date's house. As expected, the neighbors were sitting outside, since it was a summer evening. In front of her house, the family gathered for a board meeting to rule on me: it looked as if aunts and grandmothers had set up a gauntlet.

I pulled up in front of the house. The top was down and the windows were down. I opened my door -- or tried to. It was stuck. Eyes were on me. I tried again, attempting to conceal my hysteria. No go. In a burst of inspiration, I got it -- I hopped over the door, carefree, cavalier.

Now I got to the house, met the girl, and had to bring her to the car. In my mind I had established myself as being supercool to all the oglers. But I had to be the gentleman, of course, by opening her side of the car to let her in. Then -- how do I get back? I can't slide in to the passenger side first. Do I hop back over the door? This was getting to be a portentious moment.

Who was I? Some blind date with a stuck car door? Or was I something more? I decided I was not a Brooklyn schlepper with a used car. So I opened the door for her, but I got in first. I slid over behind the wheel. She got in, I reached over her, and shut the door with my right hand.

It's been so long I don't remember how I got out of the car after that. But I wonder if that incident somehow affected me over the years -- that I worried about who I was, not only in my eyes, but in the eyes of others.

Maybe that's the comforting thing about driving a Jaguar. You don't have to think. We are programmed to believe nice things, or certain given aspects, about the person behind the wheel.

What's true, what's real -- all these years later I remember the Pontiac. But I've got to admit: I love driving the Jag. Almost as much as that Pontiac.


Gerald Eskenazi is a sportswriter for The New York Times.