OK, so I got a Miata. You all knew I would.
Really, what did you expect? I’m an active retired guy who owned a Triumph Spitfire b.c. (before children). During the ensuing dreary succession of sedans and station wagons, I never forgot the joys of downshifting, of rounding (squaring?) corners at the speed limit, of negotiating curving roads at twice the speed suggested by those wimpy yellow signs below the curvy arrows, of producing that wonderful exhaust snarl, like an adolescent tiger, whenever I accelerated, which was often.
Ten years ago, children long grown up and on a foolish impulse, I replaced what I hoped would be my last sedan with a silver ’99 Mazda Miata. It was everything the Spitfire had been without having to be in the shop one week out of every four. All summer long, I downshifted and squared corners and snarled to my heart’s content and the neighborhood’s alarm.
But there were problems. I could transport only one grandchild at a time. The trunk held no more than a medium-sized suitcase or a single sack of groceries, groceries that were all over the trunk by the time I had squared and snarled my way home from the store. And I was still working, which meant that I didn’t have the time to devote to my toys that I now have. Then came winter, and a drafty, claustrophobic convertible top, and wheels spinning and skidding on the ice. In the spring, reluctantly, I ended the relationship.
But I didn’t forget. When I retired two years ago, I suddenly had time to play with all my toys. I had a backup sedan (a Mazda 3, in fact — great fun to drive, but the top doesn’t go down) and the means to buy a used Miata/Solstice/Ion.
I needed only to subdue a conscience that for some reason would not allow me to spend several thousand dollars on something that had no useful purpose whatsoever. My other toys — the Scamp, the telescope (8-inch Dob, for those in the know), the kayaks, the canoe, the bicycles, the home theater — I share with friends and grandkids, thereby enriching their lives and mine. But a crude, rough, loud little car whose only purpose is to provide fun fun fun?
Then granddaughter Micaela told me how sad she had been when I sold my Miata before she was even old enough to drive, and that settled the matter. Youth must be served. I found a slightly blemished 2001 Miata on CarGurus.com, took delivery in Mankato and drove my new baby back to the Cities along the Minnesota River. By the time I got home — windblown, sunburned, half-deafened — our relationship was solid.
Since that day, I’ve discovered several uses for the perfectly useless, the utterly impractical, that have quieted my conscience, or at least allowed me to ignore its nagging.
First of all, my Miata has helped me to rediscover the human scale. Towered over by the roaring monsters of the freeway, my baby and I are much happier on city streets. I have consequently rediscovered the joys of back-street commuting, which I celebrated in these pages twenty-some years ago but which I mostly gave up when I moved to a suburb close to the suburban college where I taught.
Behind the wheel of my Miata, I’ve re-entered a quiet world (at least until I drive into it) of tree-shaded neighborhoods, of ma-and-pa groceries and restaurants, of parks and playgrounds, churches and cemeteries, of bicycle riders and pedestrians, of mothers and/or fathers pushing strollers, of sidewalk lemonade stands: human-scale communities a world away from the high-speed world of freeways and big-box retail; quiet, peaceful lives far removed from the sensations of the media; the places where most of us live most of our lives. It is perspective-restoring to visit these places, and to show them to the grandkids. Thanks, Miata (with a nod to retirement!).
And second, by what law does everything in our lives have to be useful? What about art? What about the literature that for so many years I attempted to sell to my on-the-make careerist students? Granted, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel kept out the rain just fine before Michelangelo daubed all that paint on it, and my Ford Focus station wagon got me from point A to point B almost as quickly as does Miata mea; yet what a diminished thing life would be without that image of God awakening Adam, or without my memory of drifting through a curve on the DeMontreville Trail.
And the grandkids love the car. Let’s take the Miata is all their song; pick me up in the Miata. Micaela intends to begin her manual-transmission lessons as soon as her social life permits. Zach: “We’re taking the Miata; I call shotgun.” Me: “But where will we put Mario?” Zach: “In the trunk?”
After a vivid Miata ride along Mississippi River Boulevard, a young friend of my grandson said he was glad to see an older guy living life to the fullest. Aside from his suggestion of twilight years and his teenager’s habit of equating fast cars and the abundant life, the kid’s got a point. No matter how old we grow, we’ve all got a kid somewhere inside us, and, if we’re to live fully all of the life we’ve been given, we need to give this kid some toys to play with.
And so, the next time you see a geezer zoom past in a Miata or its equivalent, a baseball cap shielding his bare pate from the ultraviolet, his grey beard blowing in the slipstream, his left turn signal clicking away as he speeds down the straightaway, a delighted grandchild riding shotgun, show some respect. And, if you belong to that demographic, you might do well to start looking for the used-car lot where the Miata/Solstice/Ion/Corvette of your dreams awaits its new owner.
Michael Nesset lives in North St. Paul.