One of the joys - for me at least - of living in New York City is being able not just to exist, but to live very well without owning or driving a car. In fact, unless you live in the outer boroughs or are rich enough to pay for private garage space (which in Manhattan costs as much as or more than an apartment or house in most cities), owning a car has got to be far more trouble than not owning one.
But sooner or later, one feels the need or desire to get out of town for a couple days, and unless you're going to one of the cities or towns served by rail (i.e., much of Eastern New Jersey, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, etc., driving becomes a necessity, as does a visit to those extortionate vampires known as rental car companies.
I know, everything's more expensive in New York, but rent a car hereabouts and your per day price can easily equal what you'd pay for a week in other parts of the country. Nevertheless, they can and do get away with it because, especially at weekends, there's what seems to be an almost limitless demand for their services.
In my case I wanted to go to Eastern Pennyslvania for Bottomfest (about which more later). In principle I could have hitched a ride with someone else who was going or even taken a bus to nearby Scranton, but that would have meant having to camp out at the fest, something I'm sure I would have enjoyed immensely when I was in the Boy Scouts or drunk (or, as was often the case, both), but something I now seem to be thoroughly over.
So I bit the bullet and booked a rental from the Avis location - basically, a parking garage - in downtown Brooklyn. I'd requested the cheapest compact available and assumed I'd be driving one of Detroit's dorkiest little clunkers, something along the lines of the Neon I rented in Seattle a few years ago, only to have to pull off the road at one point because it wasn't capable of maintaining freeway speeds in the face of a stiff wind.
But quite the contrary. "Would you like to upgrade your rental today?" asked the clerk, "A nice convertible, maybe? Only an extra $100 a day." Unsure whether she was just playing with me or seriously thought I looked like enough of a doofus to lay out that kind of money for the privilege of getting defecated on by passing pigeons, I laughed and said, "No, I'm all right with the el cheapo model."
With that, she pointed behind me and said, "Your car's right there waiting for you, then." I turned to discover possibly the most garish automobile I've ever seen at close range: a brand new Ford Mustang in a color which can only be described as a particularly efflorescent and flamboyant variety of New York City taxicab. Not quite yellow, not quite orange, and not exactly, though it was my favorite comparison, the hue of mustard that has sat out in the sun too long. But close.
Somewhere, I supposed, there was an individual prepared to pay $25,000 for a car whose paint job was virtually guaranteed to offend every neighbor on the block, so I could comprehend why the Ford Motor Company might produce such a vehicle. But why on earth would Avis Rent-a-Car, presumably in the business of catering to public preferences, buy one? Before I could ruminate further along these lines, I had eased out into the traffic of Atlantic Avenue, nearly running over a man who had stopped in mid-street to gawk, his obvious desire to deliver a stinging insult stymied only by his jaw having dropped so precipitously as to render speech awkward if not impossible.
"Hey," I said, "at least if I get in an accident the other guy's not going to be able to claim he didn't see me coming."
And perhaps there was something in that, because despite it being the Friday afternoon before Labor Day with the highways being clogged by escaping urbanites, not only were there no accidents, but other drivers seemed to give me a wide berth. I cruised through the suburban wastelands and Mafia burial grounds of Eastern Jersey and then suddenly found myself at what looked like the entrance to the Oregon Trail: who knew that once you get away from the greater New York area, New Jersey suddenly becomes a verdant wilderness? Well, New Jerseyans, maybe, but I'm not even sure many of them travel this far west. I mean, we're talking at least 75 miles from Manhattan.
Things continued in this vein until Pennsylvania, which consisted of even more wilderness, except for the long lines of cars apparently headed for "the lake" or wherever people go on these holiday weekends, and I had to wonder why the pioneers felt it necessary to push westward all the way to California when it seemed like there was still plenty of frontier to explore within a day's wagon train ride of Wall Street. I also had a scare when it seemed as though I might run out of gas, towns and villages having suddenly become exceedingly scarce and those that could be found seemingly having shut down for the night by 6 pm.
But I made it - only just - to my destination in not especially lovely Wilkes-Barre (I asked if it were named for the same Barre in Guillain-Barre Syndrome, but nobody seemed to know), which apparently was a thriving industrial city at some point, but now looks to be suffering the long-term aftereffects of a zombie invasion. Between traffic, getting lost, and general lollygagging, I arrived at 11:30 pm, about three and a half hours later than planned, and got to see about ten minutes of the show I'd come for, before hopping back into the chariot for a half hour ride over the mountains to the slighly more lively town of Clarks Summit.
It was there that I found some people actually appreciated my mustard-colored Mustang. It caused a bit of a stir when I arrived at Bottomfest (of which, again I say, more later), with Stephanie and Michelle Shirelle jumping into the front seat and demanding to be taken for a ride. Who knew pop-punk girls' heads were so easily turned?
Leaving town on Sunday, I stopped to fill the tank once more. "Nice car," pronounced the attendant, with nary a trace of irony, which they didn't appear to speak in these parts. "It's full serve only," he said, stopping me from getting out to pump my own gas.
"Oh, sorry," I told him, "I'll just go to that station across the street then, I don't want to pay extra for full serve."
"Nope, it's not extra, same price here as there," he said, going about his business without waiting for my assent, casting an appraising eye back and forth as he did. "We only ask for a couple bucks tip," he informed me as he screwed the gas cap back on."
In an unguarded moment, I might even have fallen for this one, but hey, I was driving a brand new mustard colored Mustang, so I just laughed out loud at this notion. "Hey, that's the way they did it back in the 1950s," he protested.
"No they didn't, pal. I was there in the 50s, and if this was the 50s, you'd be checking my oil, washing my windows and offering to vacuum out my car, all for a buck an hour and not even a chance of a tip."
"Oh well, doesn't hurt to try, does it?" It was 11 am on a Sunday morning, but it suddenly occurred to me that he'd probably been up all night on crystal meth. Maybe not, though; he was still smiling and friendly as I drove away, something you don't often see in cranked-up small town boys. I drove back to New York City, made the unwise choice of trying to drive across Manhattan instead of going the long way around via Staten Island, and was home in Brooklyn before the afternoon was too far gone. I was completely happy to be out of the driver's seat, out of traffic, and back on the subway, even if it was only the lowly G train, but there have been a couple moments since then that I actually almost kind of miss my mustard colored Mustang. If you see it (and believe me, you'd notice it if you did), wave hi for me.