Look at Me! I’m Driving Cagney’s Car

They were driving across the East Side, deep in conversation

as they inched their way to the 66th Street transverse. The sun roof was open,

but my husband and his partner were talking business, and they weren’t paying

much attention. Then they heard the hoots coming from above.

“Nice car!” “Cool!” “All right!” It was a construction crew

working from scaffolding next to the car, calling down into the sun roof.

By now, my husband was used to it. It had taken me a little

longer. I began to realize what I was part of one Saturday morning near home,

when we’d stopped at a crosswalk to let a large group, a family,  cross the main drag. They moved slowly,

keeping pace with an elegant, white-haired woman who kept lagging behind.

She was in no hurry. As she moved across the road, she kept

looking over at us and smiling-no, she was grinning. Then she gave us a nod and

a wave just before taking those last few steps to the curb.

I remember thinking: That’s one friendly woman.

But then I realized: She wasn’t waving and nodding at us .

She was ogling our car.

We own a PT Cruiser-that

short, round, strange-looking little getaway-like car with the big, shiny grill

that Chrysler introduced last year.

The French call it ” Le

Jimmy Cagney Car .” The New York Times

gave it an A-plus rating. Motor Trend

named it Car of the Year. The car is so hot there’s still a waiting list

for it, more than six months after it first hit the road.

Owning one, of course, makes us extremely trendy.

Dangerously trendy, in my view. I don’t much like standing out in a crowd. And

I certainly don’t want my car to be the center of attention, especially in the

city, where it can call out to car thieves like Ed Koch at a street fair-“It’s

me! It’s me!”-after I squeeze it into a parking space, click the alarm and turn

the corner.

But, of course, that’s just what I’ve gotten: a car that

does its own Robert De Niro imitation-“You talking to me?”-daring anyone it

passes to give it a second look. Those construction workers, that elderly

woman, other drivers at the gas station-they are among the legions who feel

compelled to in some way acknowledge the PT’s presence on the road. Kids, old

people, women and men, Hispanic, black, preppy or Guido-you name a type, and

they’ve thrown us a thumbs-up, given us a honk, shouted out “I love your car!”

or flashed their lights at us. (Those who don’t like it just stare.)

Believe me, I would never have bought the thing. I have

never much cared about cars. I’ve had Toyotas, Hondas, then graduated to your

basic Jeeps and mini-vans as suburban weather and kids came to dictate. I do

like red, but any old color, any old car will do-just so long as it gets me

there.

It was my husband who brought the PT home, a surprise while

I was away at the Democratic National Convention. He thought it was hilarious

to have it waiting for me after a week of Clinton-Gore et al.-a welcome

replacement, he thought, for the red Jeep I’d been driving, which had to go

back because the lease was up.

Of course, I warned him. I told him it would deposit us at

new peaks of Yuppie-dom, make us the subject of teasing and scorn. It didn’t

bother him. He’s the one who started buying fancy coffee before there was a

Starbucks on every block, who collected baseball memorabilia just before it

became one giant rip-off industry, who now goes around wearing a backwards

Kangol cap that some music company he does business with gave him (obviously

because he thinks it adds to his reputation among my kids’ friends as the “cool

parent” in town).

He got the car in a fluke. He had inquired about it and

heard that the waiting list was ridiculous, that ordering a car then-in the

summer-might mean you’d have a car right about now, with no guarantee it’d be

in the color or have the features you wanted. But a few days later, he happened

to be driving by the dealer with our two sons when he saw several PT’s, of

different colors, in the lot. The salesman told him they were all accounted

for, but one was for the dealer’s wife-and she might agree to hold off if he

really wanted it. He’d ask.

Before Hillary Clinton had given her dull

I’m-for-kids-and-there’s-nothing-scary-or-controversial-about-me speech to the

conventioneers, I had a new silver PT Cruiser waiting for me back home.

Unfortunately, it’s not the first time my husband has done

that. Several years ago, he came home with a 1964 red Corvette convertible that

had been completely rebuilt, with original parts, and which he’d picked up for

a steal-or so he told me. I was horrified. Who needed all that attention? I

refused to ride in it, would not even discuss it-until he tricked me one day by

driving to the train station, which meant I had to get in if I wanted to get

home. (During my brief ride, there were no instances of women throwing their

panties through the open roof, something my husband assured me happened every

time he got into the car.)

The Corvette is now coveted by my daughter, who will be 16

and learner’s-permit-eligible in two months and one day-which I know only

because she constantly reminds me. Fat chance. The ‘Vette sits in our garage, a

huge hulk covered in canvas, taking up a lot of room and leaving its cozy nest

a mere half-dozen times a year-after which my husband lovingly re-polishes it

each time and checks under the hood.

The PT, however, attracts almost the same amount of

attention. Driving it, with its fat tires and retro shape, I get waved at,

honked at, talked to, flashed at (though I have yet to collect any panties). I

am trendy. I am visible. I am embarrassed.

But, you know, it’s a nice little car. It’s compact but

comfortable; all five of us fit, and the kids don’t fight or even annoy each

other much more than they do in the mini-van (which we’ve decided to keep, though the lease came due and we

really hate it). I don’t like that the controls for the back windows are on the

floor-which means the kids mistakenly hit them a lot, creating instant wind

tunnels-but the control panel is cool, the seats give great back support and we

are looking forward to finding an excuse to use that little fold-out table in

the trunk.

And Chrysler must have gotten its act together, because

suddenly I’m seeing other PT’s on the road, and I suspect there will soon be

many more (though the base model, which Chrysler lists at $16,500, costs $1,100

more than the Honda Accord DX, and getting a PT often requires an offer of

several thousand dollars above list).

People still wave, honk, flash, call out to us. But maybe

that nostalgia thing-those James Cagney flashbacks that obviously came over the

construction crew and the elderly, white-haired woman that Saturday morning-is

starting to fade.

Maybe the PT trend is over. Maybe it’s old news. Maybe we’re

no longer cutting-edge.

I can only hope.