The Decadent Commute

The author, at the wheel of the Chevelle.Photo: Jessica Vermeer Hawkes

Commuting via automobile in Manhattan is, of course, impractically expensive, time-consuming, and selfish; in three days at the task, I spent $188 on parking, got to work even later than usual, blocked traffic for seven minutes during rush hour by getting stuck in a snow pile, and was unable to thank the Good Samaritan who pushed me out because I couldn’t figure out how to roll down the window on my borrowed Mercedes. And idling my way to the office over the course of two miles and 55 minutes certainly didn’t help address the global-warming problem. But could the benefits of a really top-notch luxury car—the comfort, the speed, the envy of men and the admiration of women—outweigh these significant disadvantages?

Was driven into snowbank.Photo: Courtesy of Classic Car Club Manhattan

Initially, the answer was no. The good people at the Classic Car Club on Hudson Street set me up first in the aforementioned Mercedes-Benz, a 1999 E55 AMG sedan. It was certainly luxurious, but Mercedeses in New York are as common as cabs, and though mine had a 349-horsepower kick, moving point to point along a clogged West Side Highway did not allow for the unleashing of any speed- demon stylings. I traded the E55 for a more weather-appropriate 2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser, which handled beautifully but offered about the same range of visibility as a U-Haul. Maneuvering it through Times Square at rush hour felt like playing a difficult video game during a bad drug experience: The pedestrians ooze unstoppably, like a horde of zombies—but while zombies move with uniform intent toward the nearest, freshest brains, Manhattanites head unpredictably in 360 directions at once. Worse, I was on my way to Brooklyn to pick up a date, and the strain of trying not to kill anyone, combined with general navigational doofusry, got me to Park Slope 26 minutes late and sweating profusely. There wasn’t enough room to stop in front of the lucky lady’s brownstone; while climbing over a mound of snow to try to get in the car—awkwardly double-parked 150 feet from her apartment—she stepped in three inches of dirty, ice-cold water. The ride back to Manhattan was not marked by an overabundance of relaxed, flirtatious banter.

Did not impress date.Photo: Courtesy of Classic Car Club Manhattan

Fortunately, the club let me switch the SUV for a 1967 Chevrolet Chevelle SS. On one level, the Chevelle is an old car that’s hard to start and handles poorly. On a more meaningful level, it’s awesome—striking and tremendously loud, and everyone loves it. On the way to work I received enthusiastic gestures from two homeless men, a nerdy-looking white guy, and a construction worker. A policewoman asked me for a ride. On Park Avenue, a limo stopped short in front of me, and as I was pulling around, the driver opened his door into traffic about five feet from the Chevelle’s front bumper. I yelled, “What the fuck?” He saw the car, broke into a wide grin, and flashed me the thumbs-up.

The crowd pleaser.Photo: Jessica Vermeer Hawkes

The New York–rush-hour façade of aggressiveness had cracked quite suddenly under the Chevelle’s vibe of good times. Anyone with money can get an expensive convertible that looks a lot like other convertibles; finding a gigantic, unwieldy, gas-guzzling 40-year-old car and getting it into good-enough shape to cruise around in cold spring weather is evidence of a serious commitment to leisure. To passersby, the Chevelle indicated that I was a fun-loving dude, but not (necessarily!) an asshole.

It’s an image I would have liked to have projected on my date; as a consolation, though, I was able to roust a friend of mine for a late-night spin around the island. Afterward, I took the car to a garage on Ninth Street. I returned nine hours later to find the same West African parking attendant still working. As soon as I walked in, he spotted me, glanced over at the Chevelle, glanced back, and winked.

The Decadent Commute