A loveable bargain, on balance

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The other day somebody asked me why I liked New England.Having no direct answer to hand, I burst into anecdote. I'm not sure my interlocutor understood me -- nor, in the end, that I understood myself. Let me try again.

At that impressionable age when romance exceeds rationality -- known among university educators as the sophomore year -- I found myself in want of a car. I had even saved up a few hundred dollars when, on balmy summer day, a newspaper ad caught my eye. On offer was no mere Chevy hardtop, nor even a snappy little Triumph. For sale, at what I now see was a dangerously low price, was a seven-year-old Jaguar two-seater.

I suppose I was lost from the moment I read the description: convertible, varnished wood dashboard, wire wheels with knock-off hubs, newly repainted. Even the color seized my naive and adjectival heart: British Racing Green, conjuring up images of tweedy aristocrats and high speeds. The thought that such a machine might actually be mine rendered all other ads illegible.

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For a while, of course, reason lobbied with sober thoughts about Nash Ramblers and Plymouth Sedans. I think I even imagined, when I set out to see the Jaguar, that I was under no obligation. So it was with a studied aloofness that I ran my hand over the leather seat-back, examined the chrome cam-shaft cover, and grasped the sturdy four-speed shift lever. The owner put down the top and handed me the keys. I slid in and turned it over, watching the tachometer spring up into the idle range, hearing the throb of the twin exhausts. Pretending a skilfulness beyond my years, I put it in gear, revved the engine, and let out the clutch. Whereupon, with a violent jerk and a spurt of pebbles, I was flattened against the seat back and catapaulted up the street. In that swirl of leaves and dust, my aloofness vanished.

So, from that moment, did my peace of mind. For I suppose it's fair to say that I never really did get control of that car. It had its own temperament, it seemed, and set its own priorities. It could be scintillaing, provocative, alluring, and altogether wonderful: hugging the road on corners, darting away from stop-signs, and always delivering more power than you could quite manage. It was, as Shakespeare said in another context, ''such stuff as dreams are made on,'' providing more metaphors for experience than a dozen poets could digest. A two-seater, it had no room for extra baggage. Full of pep, it expressed a constant longing to be somewhere else. Sitting in the parking lot during the week, it seemed almost to cry out its rebuke of the sedentary, scholarly life. Yet it had its own intellectual structure. Its central lesson, I think, was the same as that taught by any serious engagement with the life of the mind: that not only the goal, but the getting there, was exhilerating. Some cars are mere nouns. That one was pure verb.

If it rode in clouds of glory, however, it was also possessed of monumental faults. The least was its lack of insulation: I recall a memorable ride down the New York Thruway one winter night when our only recourse from the freezing gales came from stuffing the contents of my laundry bag into the cracks around the windows. More serious was the state of its electrical system, so corroded that at times the left-turn signal set all the parking lights flashing. Its front suspension could only be remedied by replacing two y-shaped pieces of steel at $ 100 apiece. It ultimately lost most of its oil pressure - a fault not remedied even after I drove it up on planks above the outside cellar stairs and replaced the entire set of main bearings. And for some reason never wholly clear, it ran on the hot side. On long trips the floorboards under the passenger seat would become positively untouchable. Any girl unfortunate enough to ride there on a humid evening came away resembling a poached salmon.

All of these things I strove to remedy. But if it is true (as yachtsman say) that a boat is a hole in the water surrounded by wood into which one pours money , it is equally true that an old sportscar is the fiscal equivalent of a black hole in space. Any amount of money, orbiting too close to it, disappears instantly and without a trace. I kept it for barely a year, selling it for half what I had paid and still owing the garage for some parts.

And was it worth it? That's what I was getting at in answering the question about New England. Dear old New England! I've had a lover's quarrel with it for years. I know it's miserably cold in winter, steamy in summer. I know it's stubborn, wilful, backward-looking, pedantic, aloof -- full of ghastly politics and stunning hypocrisies. And yet, and yet -- what could I say to such a question? I answered by recalling that, when I could have had any of the duller and more responsible cars, I bought an old sportscar. It was full of power. It was loaded with options. It came with all the authority of tradition. And it was beautifully designed. It would leave all the competition in the dust -- if only it could be made to run.

I sold the car. But I don't suppose I'll ever sell New England.

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