Up the Valley: Curbed Enthusiasm

September 12, 2013

Do we all really need more than one car? Today’s column in the Star…

If you are seeking evidence that I never stray from the Napa Valley, look no further than my odometer. My 10-year-old SUV only recently reached the 44,444 mark — and most of those miles were logged during the first two years while commuting from St. Helena to Palo Alto twice a week.

To be honest, suggesting that I traverse the entire Napa Valley is stretching it — I rarely venture past Yountville. It’s as if I’m running up against one of those invisible electric fences, set to keep me well at heel in my Upvalley backyard.

Nonetheless, I retain my road-hugging, gas-guzzling, broken-windowed Mercedes ML320, a vestige of my distant past as a commuter of means. And I curse the Saudi gods — as the rest of you must do daily — on those infrequent occasions when I am required to fill ’er up.

So now that we’ve established that I have no real need for an automobile, may I mention my current obsession with owning a convertible? I regularly fantasize about warm evening commutes from the theater in Yountville to my home in St. Helena — 10 miles at most — with the wind in my hair, the scent of ripening grapes up my nose, and the radio blasting classic jazz from a favorite SF station.

The reality is that I can’t roll down the windows on my SUV due to the noise and fumes from highway construction. The prevailing scent on warm nights is often eau de dead bugs hitting the windshield, and the only blastable radio station would likely be in Spanish. Convertibles carry other complications, too: the hat, the hair, the hat hair, and the risk of the dog diving out to pursue the first passing squirrel.

But reality has nothing whatsoever to do with automotive purchases. How else to explain the multiple, mismatched cars owned by my neighbors, except perhaps some new strain of vehicular schizophrenia?

Everyone needs basic wheels — I get that. For many, it’s a family conveyance: spacious enough to schlep kids to school, dogs to the vet and groceries home from Sunshine Foods. Maybe there’s a second car for the spouse, plus a tricked-out truck — a shiny new big-wheeler that you can hear rumbling around the corner two streets away. Trucks are often white, sometimes red, but never dirty — I wonder whether their owners secretly maintain a second, grubbier truck, the way my grandmother always kept a second set of “nice” towels and tablecloths reserved exclusively for public display.

Other neighbors own clunker trucks — old, low-slung, with balding tires — that you can hear wheezing around the corner two streets away. They arrive laden with tons of gravel and dirt, or piled high Clampett-style with personal possessions; they depart leaving an oil slick behind. Some are rarely used but serve as comforting reminders of a rural wine country lifestyle that no longer exists. I’ve noticed that there are weekend outfits to match these trucks: the scrunched hat, a broken-in pair of boots and something in a torn but clean plaid flannel. Whatever the getup, it seems to be a joyful trip; “Taking the Truck to the Dump” has replaced “Cruising Main Street in a Dragster” as America’s foremost four-wheeled entertainment.

On nearby streets, well-heeled neighbors display the glamorous, high-performance compact convertibles they never drive. Less an automotive purchase than a cry for help, these midlife-crises-on-wheels represent the adventurous unfettered youth the purchaser plans to reclaim 20 years hence — when the kids graduate from college. Of course, by the time those kids actually move out — and take the grandkids with them — the owner will be too old to twist his body behind the wheel, much less operate a stick shift; indeed, the gas-powered engine may be obsolete. But still the roadster sits in the garage, meticulously maintained — a promise for the future, along with Medicare supplements and Roth IRA accounts.

Back on my street, multiple cars are creeping up along the curb — where once there were two or three, there are now 10. The only no-parking zone is the garage or driveway. Sometimes neighbors park in front of my house, leaving their own street front empty — which seemed slightly impolite until I discovered they were just clearing room for the many cars owned by their regularly visiting friends and relatives. By the way, neighboring convertible owners are welcome to park in front of my house any time. Leave the keys — and don’t worry — I’ve probably just taken it for a short spin to Yountville.

A local affordable-housing project recently proposed limiting parking to one car per unit, and for some objectors this was akin to the Chinese capping the number of children at one, or a bartender cutting them off after the second bottle of Cab. But I’m content with my single, sensible car, dreaming of the day when I can look out my front window and see my very own impractical convertible sitting there, ready to carry me and my dog to faraway lands like Healdsburg or Berkeley or even — dare I say it? — Carmel. Oh, the places we’ll go.

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One Response to “Up the Valley: Curbed Enthusiasm”

  1. Andi Says:

    Well, having just listed our MINI Cooper for sale today (a 3rd car, rarely driven but unreasonably loved), I feel as guilty as some of your neighbors, Laura!!


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